It’s a funny kind of bear market

The US economy continues to show signs of robust good health.

Total hours worked are rising, signaling healthy real GDP growth.

Real GDP and Total Hours Worked

Growth in average hourly wage rates is rising, reflecting a tighter labor market. Underlying inflationary pressures may be rising but the Fed seems comfortable that this is containable.

Average Hourly Wage Rates

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed maintains a healthy margin above 1.0% (below 1% is normally a signal that the economy is slowing).

Leading Index

But 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

The Nasdaq 100 is undergoing a similar retracement with resistance at 6500.

Nasdaq 100

The primary disturbance is the trade confrontation between the US and China. There is plenty of positive spin from both sides but I expect trade negotiations to drag out over several years — if they are successful. If not, even longer.

I keep a close watch on the big five tech stocks as a barometer of how the broader market will be affected. So far the results are mixed.

Apple is most vulnerable, with roughly 25% of projected sales to China. Recent downward revision of their sales outlook warns that Chinese retail sales are falling. AAPL is testing its primary support level at 150.

ASX 200

Facebook and Alphabet are largely unaffected by a Chinese slowdown, but have separate issues with user privacy. Facebook (FB) is in a primary down-trend.

ASX 200

While Alphabet (GOOGL) is testing primary support at 1000.

ASX 200

Amazon (AMZN) is similarly isolated from a Chinese slow-down although there may be a secondary impact on suppliers. Primary support at 1300 is likely to hold.

ASX 200

Microsoft (MSFT) is the strongest performer of the five. Their segment reporting does not provide details of exposure to China but it appears to be a small percentage of total sales.

ASX 200

The outlook for stocks is therefore mixed. Be cautious but try to avoid a bearish mindset, where you only see problems and not the opportunities. Even if China does suffer a serious slowdown we can expect massive stimulus similar to 2008 – 2009, so the impact on developing markets and resources markets may be cushioned.

Best wishes for the New Year.

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.

Buckley’s chance that rate hikes will slow

Average hourly wage rates are rising, with Production & Non-Supervisory Employees growing at an annual rate of 3.20% and All Employees at 3.14%.

Average Hourly Wage Rate

This is a clear warning to the Fed that underlying inflationary pressures are rising. There is Buckley’s chance* that they will ease off on rate hikes.

The Fed adopts a restrictive stance whenever hourly wage rate growth exceeds 3%, illustrated below by a high or rising Fed Funds Rate.

Average Hourly Wage Rate

The market is adopting a wait-and-see attitude ahead of Tuesday’s mid-term elections. Stocks like Apple (AAPL) have been sold down on strong volume despite good earnings results: earnings per share of $2.91 and revenue of $62.9 billion for Q4-18, compared to consensus estimates of $2.79 and $61.5 billion.

Apple

Optimism over a possible trade deal with China may not last the week.

A harami-like candle on the S&P 500 reflects indecision, while bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of long-term selling pressure. Breach of 2550 is still unlikely but would warn of a primary down-trend.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 tells a similar story, with primary support at 6300.

Nasdaq 100

* William Buckley was an English convict transported to Australia. He escaped when the ships laid anchor in Port Phillip Bay in 1803. The nearest permanent settlement, Sydney, was more than 1000 km away and, considered to have no chance of survival, he was given up for dead. Thirty-two years later, having lived among the Wathaurung Aboriginal people, he emerged from the bush when a settlement was established at Port Phillip in 1835. “Buckley’s chance” is an Australian colloquialism meaning having no chance at all.

President Trump should look in the mirror

President Trump has repeatedly attacked the Fed and his recent appointee Jerome Powell for raising interest rates. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the President made clear his displeasure, stating that he sees the FOMC as the biggest risk to the US economy “because I think interest rates are being raised too quickly”.

What the President fails to grasp is that his actions, increasing the budget deficit when the economy is thriving, are the real threat. Alan Kohler recently displayed a chart that sums up the Fed’s predicament.

Unemployment and the Budget Deficit

The budget deficit is normally raised when unemployment is high (the scale of the deficit  is inverted on the above chart to make it easier to compare) in order to stimulate the economy. When unemployment falls then the deficit is lowered to prevent the economy from over-heating and to curb inflation.

At present unemployment is at record lows but Trump’s tax cuts have increased the deficit. The Fed is left with no choice but to steadily increase interest rates in order to prevent inflation from getting out of hand.

Real GDP growth came in at a robust 3.0% for the third quarter, while weekly hours worked are rising.

Real GDP and estimated Weekly Hours Worked

It’s the Fed’s job to remove the punch-bowl before the party gets out of hand.

Extraordinary times of low unemployment and low inflation

Unemployment fell to 3.7% for September, well below the long-term natural rate of unemployment. This normally signifies a tightening labor market, a precursor to higher inflation.

Unemployment and the Natural Rate

But growth in average hourly earnings dipped slightly, to 2.75% for the past 12 months. Underlying inflationary forces remain subdued.

Average Wage Rates

As Fed Chairman Powell suggested, the Fed may be overestimating the natural rate. In his speech on Tuesday Powell summed up the current situation:

…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.

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.

Treasury yields confirm bond bear market

10-Year Treasury yields respected their new support level at 3.00%, confirming a primary advance.

10-year Treasury Yield

Breakout above 3.00% also completes a double-bottom reversal, signaling the end of a three-decade-long secular bull market in bonds.

LT 10-year Treasury Yield

The yield differential between 10-year and 3-month Treasuries is declining but a flat yield curve does not warn of a recession. Only if the yield differential crosses below zero, with short-term yields rising faster than long-term, will there be a recession warning.

Real returns on long-term bonds — the gap between the green and blue lines below — remain near record lows.

1981 to 2018: 10-Year Treasury Yields and GDP Implicit Price Deflator

Only if the gap widens (real returns rise significantly) are we likely to see downward pressure on stock valuations, with falling price-earnings multiples.

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

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

CPI rises but US stocks rally

June consumer price index (CPI) jumped to 2.8% but forward estimates of inflation, represented by the 5-Year breakeven rate (5-year Treasury yield minus TIPS) remain subdued at 2.06%.

CPI and 5-Year Breakeven

Core CPI (excluding food and energy) is at 2.2% while average hourly earnings (total private: production and non-supervisory employees) annual growth, representing underlying inflationary pressure, is higher at 2.7%.

Core CPI and Average Hourly Earnings: Production and Nonsupervisory

Credit and broad money supply (MZM plus time deposits) growth remain steady, tracking nominal GDP growth at around 5.0%. A spike in credit growth often precedes a similar spike in broad money supply by several quarters.

Credit and Broad Money Supply Growth

And a surge in broad money supply growth, ahead of nominal GDP, flagged rising inflationary pressures ahead of the last two recessions, prompting the Fed to step on the brakes.

Nominal GDP and Broad Money Supply Growth

Overall, the inflation outlook appears subdued, with little urgency to hike interest rates at present.

The market is also getting more comfortable with the idea of trade tariffs. The S&P 500 is testing resistance at 2800. Breakout is likely and would suggest a primary advance to 3000.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 followed through above 7300, confirming the primary advance, with a target of 7700.

Nasdaq 100

This is the final stage of a bull market but there is no sign of it ending. I am wary of the impact of a trade war on individual stocks and have reduced exposure to multinationals that make a sizable percentage of their sales in China.

Financial markets are supposed to swing like a pendulum: They may fluctuate wildly in response to exogenous shocks, but eventually they are supposed to come to rest at an equilibrium point…. Instead, as I told Congress, financial markets behaved more like a wrecking ball, swinging from country to country and knocking over the weaker ones. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the international financial system itself constituted the main ingredient in the meltdown process.

~ George Soros on the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the need for greater regulation of global financial markets