Wage increases haven’t made a dent in profits

Average hourly earnings growth continues to rise, albeit at a leisurely pace. Average hourly earnings for all employees in the private sector grew at 2.92% over the last 12 months, while production and nonsupervisory employee earnings grew at 2.80% over the same period. The Fed is likely to adopt a more restrictive stance if hourly earnings growth, representing underlying inflationary pressures, exceeds 3.0%. So far the message from Fed Chair Jerome Powell has been business as usual, with rate hikes at a measured pace.

Average Hourly Earnings

Rising wage rates to-date have been unable, up to Q2 2018, to make a dent in corporate profits. Corporate profits are near record highs at 13.4%, while employee compensation is historically low at 69.5% of net value added. Past recessions have been heralded by rising employee compensation and falling corporate profits. What we are witnessing this time is unusual, with compensation rising, admittedly from record low levels, while profits rebounded after a low in Q4 2016. There is no indication that this will end anytime soon.

Corporate Profits and Employee Compensation as Percentage of Value Added

Weaker values (1.17%) on the Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed reflect a flatter yield curve. A fall below 1.0% would be cause for concern.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

Our surrogate for real GDP, Total Payrolls x Average Weekly Hours Worked, is lagging behind recent GDP growth (1.9% compared to 2.9%) but both are rising.

Real GDP and Total Payroll*Average Hours Worked

Another good sign is that personal consumption expenditure, one of the key drivers of economic growth, is on the mend. Services turned up in Q2 2018 after a three-year decline. Durable goods remain strong. Nondurables are weaker but this may reflect a reclassification issue. New products such as Apple Music and Netflix are classified as sevices but replace sales of goods such as CDs and videos.

Personal Consumption

There is no cause for concern yet, but we will need to keep a weather-eye on the yield curve.

Markets are constantly in a state of uncertainty and flux, and money is made by discounting the obvious and betting on the unexpected.

~ George Soros

East to West: Bonds & tariffs hurt developing markets and crude prices

10-Year Treasury yields are consolidating in a triangle below long-term resistance at 3.00 percent. Breakout above 3.00 would signal a primary advance, ending the decades-long bull market in bonds. This would have a heavy impact on developing economies, including China, with a stronger Dollar forcing higher interest rates.

10-year Treasury Yields

A Trend Index trough above zero would signal buying pressure and a likely upward breakout.

Crude oil prices, as a consequence of higher interest rates and the threat of trade tariffs, are starting to form a top. Bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of selling pressure. Breach of support at $65/barrel would signal reversal to a primary down-trend.

Nymex Light Crude

Commodity prices are leading, breach of support at 85.50 already having signaled a primary down-trend.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

China’s Shanghai Composite Index is in a primary down-trend. Trend Index peaks below zero warn of selling pressure. Breach of support at 2700 is likely. The long-term target is the 2014 low at 2000.

Shanghai Composite Index

Germany’s DAX is headed for a test of primary support at 11,800. Descending peaks on the Trend Index warn of secondary selling pressure. Breach of primary support is uncertain but would offer a target of 10,500.

DAX

The Footsie also shows secondary selling pressure on the Trend Index, warning of a test of primary support at 6900/7000.

FTSE 100

In stark contrast, North American tech stocks have made huge gains in the last four months, but are now retracing to test support. Breach of the rising trendline and support at 7400 would warn of a correction; a test of the long-term rising trendline at 7000 the likely target.

Nasdaq 100

The S&P 500 has also made new highs. Penetration of the rising trendline would warn of a correction to the LT trendline at 2800.

S&P 500

North America leads the global recovery, developing markets including China are falling, while Europe is sandwiched in the middle, with potential loss of trade from East and West if a trade war erupts.

From the AFR today:

President Donald Trump said he’s ready to impose tariffs on an additional $US267 billion in Chinese goods on short notice, on top of a proposed $US200 billion that his administration is putting the final touches on.

“….I will say this: the world trading system is broken.” Trump is “dead serious” in his determination to push China to reform its trade policies, [White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow] added.

Can’t say he didn’t warn us.

East to West in three charts

The S&P 500 is making new highs while a rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure. Target for the advance is 3000.

S&P 500

China’s Shanghai Composite Index is in a primary down-trend. Trend Index peaks below zero warn of selling pressure. Breach of support at 2700 is likely and would offer a long-term target of the 2014 low at 2000.

Shanghai Composite Index

The Footsie broke support at 7600. Follow-through below 7500 warns of a correction to test primary support at 6900/7000.

FTSE 100

North America leads the global recovery, China is falling, while Europe is sandwiched in the middle, with potential loss of trade from East and West if a trade war erupts.

Gold reacts to Dollar weakness

The Yuan continues to find support at 14.5 US cents.

CNY/USD

The Dollar Index is testing support at 95. Respect of support would confirm another advance, with a long-term target of 103, but declining Trend index peaks warn of selling pressure.

Dollar Index

Gold rallied to $1200/ounce but failed to make further progress. Respect of the descending trendline would warn of another decline with a long-term target of the 2015 low at $1050/ounce.

Spot Gold in USD

The Australian Dollar respected resistance at 73.50 US cents, warning of another decline. Trend Index peaks below zero reflect selling pressure.

Australian Dollar/USD

The All Ordinaries Gold Index (XGD) continues its downward path, tall shadows on the last two candles reflecting selling pressure. Breach of short-term support at 4550 is likely and would offer a long-term target of 4000/4100.

All Ordinaries Gold Index

Does the yield curve warn of a recession?

There has been talk in recent months about the narrowing yield curve and how this warns of a coming recession, normally accompanied by a graph of the 10-year/2-year Treasury spread which fell to 0.22% at the end of August 2018.

Yield Differential 10Year minus 2Year

I have always used the 10-year minus the 3-month Treasury spread to indicate the slope of the yield curve but, although this shows a higher spread of 0.71%, both warn that the yield curve is flattening.

Yield Differential 10Year minus 3Month

Is this cause for alarm?

First of all, what is the yield curve? It is the plot of yields on Treasuries against their maturities. Long maturity bonds normally have higher yields than short-term bills, to compensate for the increased risk (primarily of interest rate changes). If you tie your money up for longer, you expect a higher return. That is a rising yield curve.

A steep yield curve is a major source of profit to banks as their funding is mostly short-term while they charge long-term rates to borrowers, pocketing the interest spread.

The Fed sometimes intervenes in the market, however, restricting the flow of money to the economy, to curb inflation. Short-term rates then rise faster than long-term rates and the yield curve may invert — referred to as a negative yield curve.

At present we are witnessing a flattening yield curve, as short-term rates rise close to long-term rates.

A recent paper from Michael D. Bauer and Thomas M. Mertens at the San Francisco Fed concludes that a narrow yield differential has zero predictive ability of future recessions:

In light of the evidence on its predictive power for recessions, the recent evolution of the yield curve suggests that recession risk might be rising. Still, the flattening yield curve provides no sign of an impending recession. First, the evidence suggests that recession predictions based on the yield curve require an inversion (Bauer and Mertens 2018); no matter which term spread is used to measure its shape, the yield curve is not yet inverted. Second, the most reliable summary measure of the shape of the yield curve, the ten-year–three-month spread, is nearly 1 percentage point away from an inversion.

I was pleased to see that Bauer and Mehrtens find the 10-year/3-month Treasury spread more reliable than other spreads in predicting a recession within 12 months, with 89% predictive accuracy. They also refer to another study that came to a similar conclusion:

Engstrom and Sharpe found that their short-term spread statistically dominated the 10y–2y spread, and our findings are consistent with this result.

But both studies conclude that a negative yield curve (when the yield differential is below zero) is a reliable predictor of recessions. And Bauer and Mehrtens observe that, while the 10 year/2 year spread is less accurate, it is still a reliable predictor.

Are we just 22 basis points away from a recession warning? Let’s weigh up the evidence.

First, a negative yield curve is a reliable predictor of recessions. In the last 60 years, every time the 10-year/3-month spread has crossed below zero, a recession has followed within 12 months. There is one arguable exception. In 1966 the yield differential crossed below zero, the S&P 500 fell 22% and the NBER declared a recession, but they (the NBER) later changed their mind and airbrushed it out of history.

Yield Differential 10Year minus 3Month

Second, while there is strong correlation between the yield curve and recessions, the exact relationship is unclear.

The most convincing explanation is that bank interest margins are squeezed when the yield curve inverts. When it is no longer profitable for banks to borrow short and lend long, they restrict the flow of new credit. Credit is the lifeblood of the economy and activity slows.

That was clearly the case in the lead up to the 2008 crash, but why are net interest margins of major US banks now widening?

Bank Net Interest Margins

The flow of credit also slowed markedly before the 1990/1991 recession but did not ahead of the last two recessions.

Bank Net Interest Margins

And growth in the broad money supply — zero maturity money (MZM) plus time deposits — accelerated ahead of the Dotcom crash and 2008 banking crisis.

Broad Money Supply: MZM plus Time Deposits

Third, consider the Wicksell spread. Swedish economist Knut Wicksell argued in his 1898 work Interest and Prices that the economy expands when return on capital is higher than the cost of capital, with new investment funded by credit, and it contracts when the expected return on capital is below the cost of capital.

I was first introduced to Wicksell by Neils Jensen, who uses the Baa corporate bond yield as a proxy for the cost of capital and nominal GDP growth for the return on capital. Neils argues that the economy is near equilibrium when the Wicksell spread is about 2.0% — when return on capital is 2.0% higher than the cost of capital.

Wicksell Spread: Nominal GDP Growth compared to Baa Corporate Bond Yield

The above graph shows that 1960 to 1980 was clearly expansionary, with nominal GDP growth exceeding the cost of capital (Baa corporate bond yield). But the last almost four decades were the opposite, with the cost of capital mostly higher than the return on capital. Only recently has this reversed, suggesting a new expansionary phase.

One could argue that low-grade investment bond yields are a poor proxy for the cost of capital, with rising access to equity markets in recent decades. Also that nominal GDP growth rate is a poor proxy for return on capital. If we take the S&P 500, the traditional method of calculating cost of equity is the current dividend yield (1.8%) plus the dividend growth rate (8.0%), giving a 9.8% cost of capital. If we take the current S&P 500 earnings yield of 4.0% (the inverse of the P/E ratio) plus the earnings growth rate of 15.1% as the return on capital (19.1%), it far exceeds the cost of capital. You can understand why growth is soaring.

New capital formation is starting to recover.

New Capital Formation

Fourth, Fed actions over the last decade have distorted the yield curve. More than $3.5 trillion of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) were purchased as part of the Fed’s quantitative easing (QE) strategy, to drive down long-term interest rates. In 2011 to 2012, the Fed also implemented Operation Twist — buying longer-term Treasuries while simultaneously selling shorter-dated issues it already held — to further bring down long-term interest rates. Long-term rates are still affected by this.

In addition, Fed efforts to shrink their balance sheet may further distort the yield curve. The Fed has indicated that it will not sell Treasuries that it holds but will not reinvest the full amount received from investments that mature. If we consider that short-term Treasuries are far more likely to mature, the result could be that the maturity profile of the Fed’s Treasury portfolio is getting longer — a further extension of Operation Twist by stealth.

Conclusion

A flat yield curve does not warn of a coming recession. A negative yield curve does. Both the 10-year/2-year and 10-year/3-month Treasury spreads are reliable predictors of a recession within 12 months, but the 10-year/3-month spread is more accurate.

The correlation between the yield curve and recessions is strong but the actual relationship between the two is more obscure. Links between the yield curve, bank net interest margins, bank credit growth and broad money supply growth are more tenuous, with lower correlation.

Also, return on capital is rising while cost of capital remains low, fueling strong capital formation. The economy is starting to grow.

Fed actions, through QE, Operation Twist, and even possibly steps to unwind its balance sheet, have suppressed long-term interest rates and distorted the yield curve. While the yield curve is still an important indicator, we should be careful of taking its signals at face value without corroborating evidence.

Lastly, we also need to consider the psychological impact. If the market believes that a negative yield curve is followed by a recession, it most likely will be. Beliefs lead to actions, and actions influence outcomes.

Treat yield curve signals with a great deal of respect, and be very wary of how the market reacts, but don’t mindlessly follow its signals without corroboration. The economy may well be entering a new growth spurt, with all its inherent dangers — and rewards.

I contend that financial markets never reflect the underlying reality accurately; they always distort it in some way or another and the distortions find expression in market prices. Those distortions can, occasionally, find ways to affect the fundamentals that market prices are supposed to reflect.

~ George Soros

East to West: US rallies, China falls

The S&P 500 is testing its January high at 2870. A rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure. Follow-through is likely to test resistance at 3000.

S&P 500

A monthly chart of the NASDAQ 100 illustrates tech stock strength, with a rally from 4500 to 7500 in just two years. Breakout above medium-term resistance at 7500 is more likely, offering a target of 8000, while a correction would test support at 7000. Breakout from the triangle pattern on the Trend Index would indicate index direction.

Nasdaq 100

Canada’s TSX 60 index is also advancing. A rising Trend Index suggests buying pressure. Retracement that respects support at 960 is likely and would signal another advance, with a target of 1040.

TSX 60

China paints the opposite picture, with the Shanghai Composite Index testing long-term support at 2700. Trend Index peaks below zero warn of selling pressure and breach of support would offer a long-term target of the 2014 low at 2000.

Shanghai Composite Index

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index broke support at 28,000/28,500 offering a long-term target of 25,000.

Hang Seng Index

South Korea’s Seoul Composite Index found support above 2200. Retracement to test new resistance at 2350 is likely. A lot depends on progress in peace negotiations with North Korea.

Seoul Composite Index

Japan’s Nikkei 225 is consolidating between 23,000 and 24,000 suggesting uncertainty over fallout from a threatened US-China trade war.

Nikkei 225

India is more on the periphery of current trade disputes, with the Nifty continuing its advance toward a target of 12,000.

Nifty

In Europe, Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 600 continues to reflect uncertainty, with long-term consolidation below 400. Breakout would signal a fresh advance but don’t hold your breath. It could take a while.

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie is retracing to test support at 7500 but respect is likely and would offer a target of 8000.

FTSE 100

North America clearly leads the global recovery, while Asia lags. Europe is sandwiched in the middle, with potential loss of trade in the East and West if a trade war erupts.

Thucydides once wrote “When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.” In his day it was Athens and Sparta but in the modern era, war between great powers, with mutually assured destruction (MAD), is most unlikely. What we are witnessing is negotiation to define rules for peaceful coexistence in the 21st century. A lack of clear rules increases the risk of miscalculation and rapid escalation to a hard conflict.

Absent the willingness to use military force, the country with the greatest economic power is in the strongest position to set the rules.

War is a matter not so much of arms as of money.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

Support for the Yuan lifts Gold

China’s PBOC stepped in with belated support for the Yuan, holding the line at 14.5 US cents.

CNY/USD

The Dollar retreated, with the Dollar Index testing support at 95. Respect of support would confirm another advance, with a long-term target of 103 — if central banks like the Fed and PBOC don’t intervene.

Dollar Index

Gold rallied as the Dollar weakened, testing resistance at $1200/ounce. Respect of the descending trendline would warn of another decline with a long-term target of the 2015 low at $1050/ounce.

Spot Gold in USD

The Australian Dollar also rallied, reducing the benefit to local gold miners.

Australian Dollar/USD

The All Ordinaries Gold Index (XGD) continues its downward path, with a long-term target of 4000/4100.

All Ordinaries Gold Index

China is conserving its capital account as best it can, after losing $1 trillion in foreign reserves supporting the Yuan in 2015 – 2016.

China: Foreign Reserves excluding Gold

But failure to support its currency is sure to antagonize the Trump administration and elicit further trade tariffs.

….Trade is drying up and China is stuck with debt it can’t repay or rollover easily. This marks the end of China’s Cinderella growth story, and the beginning of a period of economic slowdown and potential social unrest.

~ Jim Rickards at Daily Reckoning

If that’s the case, expect the Dollar to strengthen and further gold weakness.

S&P 500 volatility falls

The Philadelphia Fed Leading Index at 1.42 for June 2018 maintains a healthy margin above the 1% level that would warn of a potential slow-down.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

The picture reinforces a steeply-climbing Freight Transportation Index, indicating strong economic activity.

Freight Transportation Index

Concerns that the economy may over-heat, spiking inflation, are not reflected in strong growth in average hourly earnings. The Fed has done a good job of containing money supply growth, with growth in the broad money supply (MZM plus time deposits) closely tracking nominal GDP.

Nominal GDP and Money Supply Growth

Credit and money supply expansion at faster rates than nominal GDP have in the past flagged an overheating economy and higher inflation, leading to a recession when the Fed attempts to curb inflation.

We are in stage 3 of a bull market but there are few signs that the economy will slow or earnings will fall.

The S&P 500 respected its new support level at 2800, confirming an advance to 3000. Declining Twiggs Volatility (21-day) signals that market risk is low and we can expect business as usual.

S&P 500

The NASDAQ 100 continues to warn of a correction, with bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow. This is secondary in nature, because of the indicator’s position relative to the zero line, but could test support at 7000.

Nasdaq 100

S&P 500 earnings surge

Of companies in the S&P 500 index, 90.2% have reported their results for the quarter. According to S&P Dow Jones Indices:

  • Sales growth at 11.0% year-on-year (Y/Y) is close to a potential record.
  • The earnings beat rate of 78% is also historically high, compared to an average of 67%.
  • Operating margins are at a record 11.58%, compared to an average of 8.08% over the last 20 years.

Forward earnings estimates are climbing, driving the forward Price-Earnings ratio to a more comfortable 17.6 compared to its March 2015 high of 23.9.

S&P 500 Forward Earnings Estimates

Valuations based on historic earnings remain high, but P/E multiples have fallen to 22.02 from 24.16 in the last quarter. The long-term chart below compares the index price to previous highest annual EPS, to eliminate distortions caused by sudden falls in earnings.

S&P 500 Price-earnings based on Maximum Previous Earnngs

The current earnings multiple is still significantly higher than the 18.86 reached prior to the 1929 Wall Street crash and 18.69 in October 1987. But high valuations don’t cause market crashes. Sudden falls in earnings do. And there is little sign of that at present.

The S&P 500 is retracing for another test of its new support level at 2800. Respect would signal an advance to 3000. Declining Money Flow warns of selling pressure but this appears secondary in nature, with the indicator still well above the zero line.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 also warns of a correction, with bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow. Again this appears secondary in nature because of the indicator’s position relative to the zero line. Expect a test of support at 7000.

Nasdaq 100