Bullish in a bull market, bearish in a bear market

We are witnessing the transition from a bull to a bear market.

I subscribe to Jesse Livermore’s maxim (emphasis added):

“I began to see more clearly—perhaps I should say more maturely—that since the entire list moves in accordance with the main current…. Obviously the thing to do was to be bullish in a bull market and bearish in a bear market. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But I had to grasp that general principle firmly before I saw that to put it into practice really meant to anticipate probabilities. It took me a long time to learn to trade on those lines.”

The second part of that quote is equally important. You determine whether a market is bullish or bearish by “anticipating probabilities”. Don’t take signals from the charts in isolation. You have to study general conditions.

Livermore gives a classic example in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator of how he anticipated a bear market in 1906 after the Boer War in South Africa had drained Britain’s coffers and the San Francisco earthquake led to massive insurance payouts, forcing insurers to liquidate large swathes of their investment portfolios. But he was wiped out as the market repeatedly rallied. He persisted and eventually was proved right when large rail stocks announced new stock issues. The fact that the issues were structured as instalment issues, with only a down-payment needed to acquire the stock, alerted Livermore that there was not enough liquidity in the market to absorb the stock issues. His broker extended him a line of credit and…

“I profited by my earlier and costly mistakes and sold more intelligently. My reputation and my credit were reestablished in a jiffy. That is the beauty of being right in a broker’s office, whether by accident or not. But this time I was cold-bloodedly right, not because of a hunch or from skillful reading of the tape, but as the result of my analysis of conditions affecting the stock market in general. I wasn’t guessing. I was anticipating the inevitable. It did not call for any courage to sell stocks. I simply could not see anything but lower prices, and I had to act on it….”

General conditions in the US are still strong.

Credit and the broad money supply (MZM plus time deposits) are growing at close to 5%.

S&P 500

Credit risk premiums are rising but are nowhere near alarming. A spread of more than 3.0% between lowest grade investments (Baa) and 10-year Treasuries would flag a warning.

S&P 500

The big shrink, as the Fed unwinds its balance sheet, is still a myth. Banks are drawing down excess reserves at a faster rate, so that liquidity is rising. The rising green line on the chart below shows Fed assets net of excess reserves.

S&P 500

But charts are bearish.

Market volatility is high and a large bearish divergence on S&P 500 Momentum warns of a bear market.

S&P 500

We need to look at global conditions to identify the cause for market concern: Brexit, slowing European growth, but primarily, a potential trade war with China.

It’s time to be cautiously bearish.

There is no training, classroom or otherwise, that can prepare for trading the last third of a move, whether it’s the end of a bull market or the end of a bear market.

~ Paul Tudor Jones

Get ready for economic slowdown | Trivium China

While we cannot rule out the chance of a large Chinese stimulus, senior officials are talking this down. In 2008/2009, China injected a whopping 19% of GDP to revive its flagging economy, compared to roughly 6.5% of GDP by the Obama administration at the height of the GFC. The size and scope of the stimulus achieved the desired result but had several undesirable side effects, including accelerating the property bubble and rapid growth expansion of the informal shadow banking sector as speculative fever grew.

From Trivium China:

At his meeting with businessmen on Tuesday, Li Keqiang [Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China] also laid out his views on the economy.

In a nutshell: Things do not look good (Gov.cn).

  • “Downward economic pressure is increasing.”
  • “[We must] thoroughly prepare to react to difficulties and challenges.”

But Li stressed (again!) that the government’s response to this slowdown will be different than in the past:

  • “[We] will not rely on traditional measures.”

Instead, Li wants to take a more measured, precise approach:

  • “Macro policies should be stable, precise, and effective in order to counter external uncertainties.”

The top priority will continue to be improving the business environment, with a focus on three areas:

  • Eliminating government interference in business operations
  • Reducing taxes and fees
  • Making financing easier and cheaper to get

Get smart: If you haven’t gotten the message yet, you have not been listening. The government is not going to repeat the massive stimulus that it enacted 10 years ago in response to the financial crisis.

The Aussie economy is quietly falling apart | Macrobusiness

You’d have to be as blind as the RBA to miss the signals. GDP is made up of six components and they are not going well on balance:

  • government consumption is strong and likely to stay that way;
  • government investment is peaking as the NBN rolls off and infrastructure starts fade;
  • household consumption is weakening with car sales and international travel down sharply plus retail looking highly questionable;
  • business investment has been good and the outlook for six months is solid but it will track broader demand and housing investment is about to tumble;
  • inventories will ebb and flow;
  • net exports (volumes) are weak owing to China’s thermal coal blockade and the drought despite the LNG ramp up.

In short, the Australian economy is quietly falling apart and if it does not receive any new juice soon it is going to crater as we enter the Hayne Royal Commission recommendations, the federal election stall and Labor’s reform agenda. I have now downgraded my outlook for domestic demand from what was already bearish:

This is an environment in which unemployment will rise at a decent clip threatening much worse outcomes as that feeds back into asset prices.

That markets and economists are still forecasting rate hikes is ridiculous. That cuts remain off the radar of nearly all is bizarre.

By Houses & Holes (David Llewellyn-Smith). Reproduced with kind permission from Macrobusiness.

Comment: Time for the government to go big on infrastructure spending. Not school halls or pink batts insulation but real infrastructure like transport and communications investments (5G for example) that will boost long-term GDP growth.

China’s newest export

“Polish authorities have arrested a Chinese employee of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, and a Polish citizen, and charged them with spying for Beijing, officials said on Friday, amid a push by the United States and its allies to restrict the use of Chinese technology based on espionage fears….
It is not the first time in recent months a Huawei employee has been arrested abroad. Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer, was arrested in Canada last month at the request of the United States, where she had been charged with fraud designed to violate American sanctions on Iran….
A 2012 report from United States lawmakers said that Huawei and another company, ZTE, were effectively arms of the Chinese government whose equipment was used for spying. Security firms have reported finding software installed on Chinese-made phones that sends users’ personal data to China.”
From Joanna Berendt at The New York Times

Lack of independence of private companies in China, their use for espionage purposes including industrial espionage, and failure to open Chinese markets up to foreign competitors are likely to throttle attempts to resolve trade disputes with the US. An impasse seems unavoidable.

It is important that the West confronts China over their trade tactics, espionage and ‘influence’ operations. Whether Donald Trump is the right person to lead this, I will leave for you to judge.

I doubt that China wants to rule the world. Dominate, perhaps. But the overriding goal of their leaders is to ensure the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They want to make the world safe for autocracy. They don’t seem to understand that this is an oxymoron. Autocracies make the world unsafe because they lack the checks and balances, imperfect as they may be, that ensure stable government in democracies whose citizens are protected by rule of law. If you think the world is already unsafe, imagine Donald Trump as president without the constraints of the US Constitution. History provides plenty of evidence of autocrats — Stalin, Hitler and Mao are prime examples — who abused their power with catastrophic results.

China’s newest export may be a global recession if world leaders are not careful. These two charts from the RBA highlight the current state of play.

Declining growth in retail sales is accelerating. Manufacturing PMI is rolling over and industrial production is likely to follow.

China Activity Levels

Output, on the other hand is surging, as the state attempts to spend its way out of a recession. Cement production is the sole laggard.

China Output

Matt O’Brien at The Age describes China’s dilemma:

…in the depths of the Great Recession, Beijing unleashed a stimulus the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since World War II.

It amounted to some 19 per cent of its gross domestic product, according to Columbia University historian Adam Tooze. By point of comparison, US President Barack Obama’s stimulus was only about 5 or 6 per cent of US GDP.

Aside from its size, what made China’s stimulus unique was the way it was administered. The central government didn’t borrow a lot of money itself to use on infrastructure, but it pushed local governments and state-owned companies to do so.

The result was a web of debt that’s been even harder to clean up than it might have been because of all the money that unregulated lenders – “shadow banks” – were frantically handing out above and beyond what Beijing had been hoping for….

What is new, though, is that this isn’t working quite as well as before. As the International Monetary Fund reports, China seems to have reached a point of diminishing returns with this kind of credit stimulus.

So much new debt is either going toward paying off old debt or toward economically questionable projects that it takes a lot more of it than it used to just to achieve the same amount of growth.

Three times as much, in fact. Whereas it had only taken 6.5 trillion yuan of new credit to make China’s economy grow by 5 trillion yuan per year in 2008, it took 20 trillion yuan of new credit by 2016.

I don’t share Matt’s conclusion that Wall Street fears the broad market will follow Apple (AAPL) into a tailspin as Chinese retail sales decline. I covered this in my last newsletter.

Nor do I think that falling Chinese steel production will plunge the global economy into recession. Though it would certainly affect Australia.

China has $3 trillion of foreign reserves and has shown in the past that it is prepared to spend big to buy its way out of a recession. Whether they succeed this time is uncertain, but old-fashioned stimulus spending will soften the impact.

I believe Wall Street has no idea how the trade dispute will play out. And financial markets have gone risk-off because of the uncertainty, despite a booming US economy.

Earnings ratios have fallen dramatically, back to 17.8, from what was clearly bubble territory above 20 times historic earnings. I use the highest preceding four quarters earnings, to smooth out earnings volatility, so my P/E charts (PEmax) will look a little different to anyone else’s.

S&P 500 PEmax

Market volatility remains high, with S&P 500 Volatility (21-day) above 2.0%. A trough above 1% on the next multi-week rally would confirm a bear market — as would an index retracement that respects 2600.

S&P 500

Momentum shows a strong bearish divergence.

S&P500 Momentum

Similar to the Dotcom era below. It would be prudent to wait for a bullish divergence, as in 2003, to signal the start of the next bull market.

S&P500 Momentum

I repeat the same quote as last week as an important reminder of current market volatility.

What beat me was not having brains enough to stick to my own game – that is, to play the market only when I was satisfied that precedents favored my play. There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is also the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time.

~ Jesse Livermore

Significant divergence

Market commentators are sifting through the data, looking for reasons to explain the sharp sell-off in stocks over the last two months. But everything they examine is likely to be shaded by their bear-tinted spectacles after the S&P 500 broke primary support at 2550.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 also broke primary support, confirming the bear market.

Nasdaq 100

Of the big five tech stocks, Apple and Google are both testing primary support, threatening to follow Facebook into a primary down-trend. If the two break primary support, that would further strengthen the bear signal.

Big Five tech stocks

Volatility (21-day) is now close to 2% but the key is how volatility behaves on the next multi-week rally. If volatility forms a trough above 1% that would confirm the elevated risk.

S&P 500

Divergence? What Divergence?

Why do I say there is a significant divergence? Look at the fundamentals.

Fedex has just released stats for its most recent quarter, ended November 30. Package volumes are rising, not falling.

Fedex Stats

Supported by a very bullish Freight Transportation Index.

Freight Transportation Index

Consumption is strong, with Services and Non-durable goods rebounding. No sign of a recession here.

Consumption

Light vehicle sales are at a robust annual rate of 17.5 million.

Light Vehicle Sales

Retail sales growth (ex motor vehicles and parts) weakened in the last month but is still in an up-trend.

Retail

Housing starts and authorizations are still climbing.

Housing

Real construction spending (adjusted by CPI) is strong.

Construction

Manufacturers new orders (ex defense and aircraft) have rebounded after a weak 2015 – 2016.

Manufacturers New Orders

Corporate investment is growing at a faster rate than the economy, with rising new capital formation over GDP.

New Capital Formation

The Fed is shrinking its balance sheet which is expected to impact on liquidity. But commercial banks are running down excess reserves on deposit at the Fed at a faster rate, so that Fed assets net of excess reserves (green line) is actually rising. Hardly a drain on liquidity.

Fed Balance Sheet

Market pundits are watching the yield curve with bated breath, waiting for the 10-year to cross below the 2-year yield.

Yield Differential 10-Year minus 2-Year

In the past this has served as a reliable early warning, normally 12 to 24 months ahead of a recession. But the St Louis Fed Financial Stress Index is well below zero, signaling an accommodative financial environment.

Financial Stress Index

Why the mismatch? Fed actions — QE, Operation Twist, and even steps to shrink its balance sheet — have all suppressed long-term interest rates. We need to be wary of taking signals from a distorted yield curve.

Why have stocks reacted?

This is not a Pollyanna outlook. Never argue with the tape — we are clearly in a bear market. So why are stocks diverging from the economy?

The answer is China.

The impact of a trade war with the US would most likely cause a recession in China. Oil prices are already plunging in anticipation of falling demand.

Nymex Light Crude and Brent Crude

Commodities are likely to follow.

DJ UBS Commodities Index

The impact of a Chinese recession would be felt around the globe. Europe has its own problems and could easily follow.

DJ Europe Financial Index

The US is likely to emerge relatively unscathed but Wall Street is going to be exceedingly cautious until some semblance of normality is restored.

I do not suggest selling all your stocks but make sure that there is enough cash in the portfolio to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

Europe cracks but US steady

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 600 followed through below 350, confirming a bear market in Europe. A Trend Index peak below zero warns of strong selling pressure. Expect a decline to test 305/310.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie broke support at 6900, signaling a primary down-trend, while a Trend Index peak at zero warns of selling pressure. Expect a decline, with a target of 6000.

FTSE 100

US markets are high on volatility but low on direction.

The S&P 500 continues to range between 2600 and 2800. Breach of 2600 would warn of a primary decline but rising volatility does not flag immediate danger. A large trough above 1% extending over at least six to eight weeks, however, would warn of elevated risk.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 shows a W-shaped bottom above primary support at 6500. Declining Money Flow is still above the zero line suggesting that the sell-off is secondary in nature.

Nasdaq 100

Last week I mentioned that bellwether transport stock Fedex had breached primary support but quarterly Fedex Express package shipments were rising in August 2018. Statistics for Q2, to November 30, are due for release on December 18 and I expect will reflect a robust economy.

Fedex

It’s a bull market

The US economy continues to show signs of a robust expansion. Net capital formation is rising (as a percentage of GDP) as it is wont to do during a boom. In layman’s terms net capital formation is the net growth in physical assets used in the production of goods and services, after allowing for depreciation.

Net Capital Formation

The Wicksell spread has turned positive. When return on investment (we use nominal GDP growth as a surrogate) exceeds the cost of capital (reflected by low investment grade Baa bond yields) that encourages new investment and economic expansion as in the 1960 – 1980 period on the chart below.

Wicksell Spread

Real bond yields, reflected below by Baa yields minus core CPI (blue line) on the chart below, are also near record lows. Low real returns on bonds support high stock earnings multiples.

Real Bond Yields

Fed Chairman Powell summed up the situation in a speech on Tuesday this week:

…Many of us have been looking back recently on the decade that has passed since the depths of the financial crisis. In light of that experience, I am glad to be able to stand here and say that the economy is strong, unemployment is near 50-year lows, and inflation is roughly at our 2 percent objective. The baseline outlook of forecasters inside and outside the Fed is for more of the same.

This historically rare pairing of steady, low inflation and very low unemployment is testament to the fact that we remain in extraordinary times. Our ongoing policy of gradual interest rate normalization reflects our efforts to balance the inevitable risks that come with extraordinary times, so as to extend the current expansion, while maintaining maximum employment and low and stable inflation.

The biggest risk is that investors get carried away and drive earnings multiples sky high, but gradual rate increases from the Fed and the threat of tariff wars appear to be keeping animal spirits in check.

Capital spending on the rise

Just released July 2018 manufacturers’ new orders for capital goods, excluding defense and aircraft, show that the recovery is gathering speed.

Manufacturers New Orders: Capital Goods excluding Defense & Aircraft

Any fears that easy money has undermined capital budgeting restraints — and that the economy is entering the final heady stages of a boom before the bust — can be dispelled by adjusting the above graph for inflation.

Manufacturers New Orders: Capital Goods excluding Defense & Aircraft adjusted for Inflation

Adjusting manufacturers orders by the GDP implicit price deflator shows that the recovery in capital spending has barely started and is a long way from the excesses preceding the Dotcom crash and the GFC.

Australian households are spending more than they are earning | ABC

Interesting chart from Stephen Letts at the ABC:

Thomson Reuters: Australian Consumption v. Disposable Income

Household consumption is growing at a faster rate than disposable income, with savings rates (net savings / disposable income) falling. This is clearly unsustainable. Savings rates, which include compulsory super contributions, fell to just 1.0% in Q2, with savings outside of super being rapidly eroded.

That relationship is even more unsustainable now house prices are falling, according to Deutsche bank’s Phil Odonaghoe.

“Strengthening housing wealth accrued by the household sector has been an important factor supporting the decline in saving. With house prices now falling, that support has been removed.”

From Households are now spending more than they are earning — and that’s not sustainable | Stephen Letts | ABC.

Hat tip to Macrobusiness.

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