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

Australia: Good news and bad news

First, the good news from the RBA chart pack.

Exports continue to climb, especially in the Resources sector. Manufacturing is the only flat spot.

Australia: Exports

Business investment remains weak and is likely to impact on long-term growth in both profits and wages.

Australia: Business Investment

The decline is particularly steep in the Manufacturing sector and not just in Mining.

Australia: Business Investment by Sector

But government investment in infrastructure has cushioned the blow.

Australia: Public Sector Investment

Profits in the non-financial sector remain low, apart from mining which has benefited from strong export demand.

Australia: Non-Financial Sector Profits

Job vacancies are rising which should be good news for wage rates. But this also means higher inflation and, down the line, higher interest rates.

Australia: Job Vacancies

The housing and financial sector is our Achilles heel, with household debt climbing a wall of worry.

Australia: Housing Prices and Household Debt

House prices are shrinking despite record low interest rates.

Australia: Housing Prices

Broad money and credit growth are slowing, warning of a contraction.

Australia: Broad Money and Credit Growth

Bank profits remain strong.

Australia: Bank Profits

But capital ratios are low, with the bulk of profits distributed to shareholders as dividends. The ratios below are calculated on risk-weighted assets. Raw leverage ratios are a lot weaker.

Australia: Bank Capital Ratios

One of the primary accelerants of the housing bubble and household debt has been $900 billion of offshore borrowings by domestic banks. The chickens are coming home to roost, with bank funding costs rising as the Fed hikes interest rates. In the last four months the 90-day bank bill swap rate (BBSW) jumped 34.5 basis points.

The banks face a tough choice: pass on higher interest rates to mortgage borrowers or accept narrower margins and a profit squeeze. With an estimated 30 percent of households already suffering from mortgage stress, any interest rate hikes will impact on both housing prices and delinquency rates.

I continue to avoid exposure to banks, particularly hybrids where many investors do not understand the risks.

I also remain cautious on mining because of a potential slow-down in China, with declining growth in investment and in retail sales.

China: Activity

Zombie banks or zombie economies?

The last three decades was the era of zombie banks, with financial crises threatening the very survival of our financial system. Major banks close to the edge of the precipice, first in Japan but followed by the USA and Europe, were only rescued by drastic action by central banks. The flood of easy money kept the zombie banks afloat but every action has unintended consequences, especially when you are the Fed, BOJ or ECB.

Fed Balance Sheet and Funds Rate Target

Now that the Fed is attempting to unwind its swollen $4.4 trillion balance sheet — see The Big Shrink Commences — and normalize interest rates, Stephen Bartholomeusz at The Age highlights some of the unforeseen consequences:

US rate hikes are already sending threatening ripples through other economies as capital flows towards the US and the US dollar strengthens.

Argentina has sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Turkey, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, India and Pakistan have all been forced to raise their rates to defend their currencies.

US monetary policy and its rate structure is setting it apart from most of the rest of the developed world in a fashion that will impose pressure on economies that may be more fragile than they might previously have been regarded in an ultra-low global rates environment.

…..A consequence of the policies pursued by the Fed, the ECB and the Bank of Japan since 2008 has been a significant increase in global debt – at government, corporate and household levels – as ultra-low rates and torrents of liquidity ignited a global borrowing binge.

There was a particular appetite in developing economies for US dollar-denominated debt, which became abundant and cheap as US investors were incentivised and enabled by the Fed to take on more risk in return for higher returns.

The US rate rises, combined with a stronger US dollar, are now putting a squeeze on emerging market economies.

If the ECB were to also start unwinding its stimulus, economies and banking systems within the weaker southern regions of the eurozone would come under intense pressure, along with more debt-laden companies.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that after a decade of unprecedented policy interventions in economies and markets there could be unintended consequences that emerge as those policies are wound back.

The ECB indicated overnight that it will halt bond purchases at the end of 2018 and plans to keep interest rates accommodative “through the summer of 2019 and in any case for as long as necessary…”

ECB unwinding still appears some way off but tighter monetary conditions emanating from the Fed may be sufficient. Developing economies that gorged on low-rate US dollar-denominated debt during the liquidity surge are finding themselves in difficulties as the tide goes out.

Meanwhile in Australia

From Karen Maley at the AFR:

Australian banks are being squeezed by higher borrowing costs as the US Federal Reserve accelerates its interest rate hikes and drains liquidity from global financial markets…..

The woes of the local banks have been exacerbated by an unexpected and savage spike in a key Australian short-term interest rate benchmark – the three-month bank bill swap rate, or BBSW, in the past few weeks.

Analysts estimated that the spreads paid by Australian banks have climbed by close to 40 basis points since the beginning of the year, which has swollen the wholesale borrowing costs of the country’s banks by some $4.4 billion a year.

The ASX 300 Banks Index is headed for a test of primary support at 7000/7200. Breach of 7000 would warn of another decline, with a long-term target of the September 2011 low at 5000.

ASX 300 Banks Index

Aussie banks are being squeezed by higher interest rates on their international borrowing but are unable to pass this on to borrowers for fear of upsetting the local housing market. House prices are already under the pump, especially in the top end of the market.

Zombie banks would be too harsh but Aussie banks are in for a rough time over the next year or two.

12 Charts on the Australian economy

Australian GDP grew at a robust 3.1% for the year ended 31 March 2018 but a look at the broader economy shows little to cheer about.

Wages growth is slowing, with the Wage Price Index falling sharply.

Australia: Wage Price Index Growth

Falling growth in disposable income is holding back consumption (e.g. retail spending) and increasing pressure on savings.

Australia: Consumption and Savings

Housing prices are high despite the recent slow-down, while households remain heavily indebted, with household debt at record levels relative to disposable income.

Australia: Housing Prices and Household Debt

Housing price growth slowed to near zero and we are likely to soon see house prices shrinking.

Australia: Housing Prices

Broad money growth is falling sharply, reflecting tighter financial conditions, while credit growth is also slowing.

Australia: Broad Money and Credit Growth

Mining profits are up, while non-mining corporation profits (excluding banks and the financial sector) have recovered to about 12% of GDP.

Australia: Corporate Profits

But business investment remains weak, which is likely to impact on future growth in both profits and wages.

Australia: Investment

Exports are strong, especially in the Resources sector. Manufacturing is the only flat spot.

Australia: Exports

Iron ore export tonnage continues to grow, while demand for coal has leveled off in recent years.

Australia: Bulk Commodity Exports

Our dependence on China as an export market also continues to grow.

Australia: Exports by Country

Corporate bond spreads — the risk premium over the equivalent Treasury rate charged to non-financial corporate borrowers — remain low, reflecting low financial risk.

Australia: Non-financial Bond Spreads

Bank capital ratios are rising but don’t be fooled by the risk-weighted percentages. Un-weighted Common Equity Tier 1 leverage ratios are closer to 5% for the four major banks. Common Equity excludes bank hybrids which should not be considered as capital. Conversion of hybrids to common equity was avoided in the recent Italian banking crisis, largely because of the threat this action posed to stability of the entire financial system.

Australia: Bank Capital Ratios

Low capital ratios mean that banks are more likely to act as “an accelerant rather than a shock-absorber” in times of crisis (2014 Murray Inquiry). Professor Anat Admati from Stanford University and Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Fed are both campaigning for higher bank capital ratios, at 4 to 5 times existing levels, to ensure stability of the financial system. This is unlikely to succeed, considering the political power of the bank sector, unless the tide goes out again and reveals who is swimming naked.

The housing boom has run its course and consumption is slowing. The banks don’t have much in reserve if the housing market crashes — not yet a major risk but one we should not ignore. Exports are keeping us afloat because we hitched our wagon to China. But that comes at a price as Australians are only just beginning to discover. If Chinese exports fail, Australia will need to spend big on infrastructure. And infrastructure that will generate not just short-term jobs but long-term growth.

Falling bond yields fail to tame Gold bears

10-Year Treasury yields retreated below 3.0 percent after threatening a bond bear market for the past week.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Breakout above 3.0 percent would complete a large double bottom reversal in the secular down-trend.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Rising bond yields would be expected to weaken demand for gold as the opportunity cost of holding precious metals increases.

The other major influence on gold prices, the Dollar, continues to strengthen. A strong Dollar would weaken the Dollar-price of gold.

The Dollar Index is rallying to test resistance at 95. Penetration of the long-term descending trendline in April suggests that a bottom is forming. Bullish divergence on the Trend Index indicates buying pressure.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold retraced to test the new resistance level at $1300/ounce — the former support level. The declining Trend Index indicates selling pressure and respect of the descending trendline would warn of a test of primary support at $1250/ounce.

Spot Gold

Australian gold stocks fared better, with the All Ordinaries Gold Index finding support at 4950 and the rising Trend Index signaling buying pressure. Respect of the long-term trendline would confirm another primary advance.

All Ordinaries Gold Index

The reason is not hard to find. The Australian Dollar is at a watershed, testing primary support at 75 US cents as the greenback rallies. A Trend Index peak below zero would warn of strong selling pressure. And breach of primary support would signal a decline to 69/70 US cents.

AUDUSD

Offering a potential bull market for Aussie gold stocks.

Low inflation risk keeps yield curve safe

The Fed is advancing interest rates at a measured pace, with the objective of restoring balance in financial markets rather than to curbing inflationary pressures. Only if inflation spikes is the Fed likely to adopt a restrictive stance.

Elliot Clarke from Westpac sums up the FOMC (Fed Open Market Committee) view from their latest minutes:

Beginning with inflation, whereas the market has recently been concerned that inflation may be getting away from the FOMC (given annual CPI inflation at 2.5%yr and persistent strength in the oil price), the Committee is unperturbed.

Instead of the CPI, the FOMC’s benchmark remains PCE inflation, which is currently 2.0%yr on a headline basis and 1.9%yr for core…..

To see upside inflation risks build, a stronger wage inflation pulse is necessary. At present the employment cost index is only reporting “a gradual pickup in wage increases”, and the signal from other wage measures is “less clear”. Two other important considerations for the pass through of wages to activity and thus inflation is that real hourly earnings growth is currently flat and the savings rate near historic lows. The capacity of households to boost consumption and thus inflation is therefore very limited.

Hourly wage rates are growing at a gradual pace.

Hourly Wage Rate Growth

Personal savings are low.

Personal Savings

And credit growth is modest.

Credit Growth

So not much sign of inflationary pressure.

….Turning to financial conditions, as yet there is no concern of them becoming an impediment to growth or policy. The 10yr yield has moved back to the highs of 2013, but the US dollar has only partly retraced its 2017 depreciation. Further, asset markets remain near recent highs.

Equally significant however is the reference to being nearer neutral and a clear desire to keep the yield curve’s positive slope…..

We do not believe that the yield curve will invert in this instance, in part because higher deficits should see the term premium rise. However, the curve will remain comparatively flat versus history, restricting both the timing and the scale of further rate hikes. This is a key justification for both the market’s and our own view of only two further hikes in 2018 and two more in 2019 – a stark contrast to the FOMC’s seven hikes to end-2020.

Yield Differential

A negative yield curve — when 10-year minus 3-month Treasury yields falls below zero — would give a strong recession warning. But the yield curve is only likely to invert if the Fed steps up interest rate increases. With little sign of rising inflationary pressure at present, the prospect seems remote.

No Fed Squeeze in Sight

In January I warned that the Fed’s normalization plan, which will shrink its balance sheet at the rate of $100 billion in 2018 and $200 billion a year thereafter, would cause Treasury yields to rise and the Dollar to weaken.

10-Year Treasury yields are now testing resistance at 3.0 percent. Breakout would signal the end of a decades-long bull market in bonds and start of a bear market as yields rise.

10-Year Treasury yields

The Dollar Index is in a primary down-trend but the recent rally above the descending trendline suggests that a bottom may be forming.

Dollar Index

Commodity prices, which I suggested would climb as the Dollar weakened, are strengthening but remain in an ascending triangle, testing resistance at 90 on the Dow Jones – UBS Commodity Index.

Dow Jones - UBS Commodity Index

Crude, however, is surging and commodities are likely to follow.

WTI Light Crude

Rising commodity prices — especially crude — would lift inflation, raising the threat of tighter Fed monetary policy.

Until now, financial markets have absorbed the Fed shrinking its balance sheet. Primarily because there hasn’t been any contractionary effect at all.

The orange line on the chart below shows Fed assets net of excess reserves of commercial banks on deposit at the Fed. If commercial banks withdraw excess reserves at a faster rate than the Fed shrinks its balance sheet then the net effect is expansionary, with a rising orange line as at present. There are still $2 trillion of excess reserves on deposit at the Fed, so this could go on for years.

Fed Assets Net of Excess Reserves

The Fed funds rate is climbing, but at a measured pace. I doubt that the market will be too concerned by the FFR at 2.0 percent. The threat is if the Fed accelerates rate hikes in response to rising inflation, as in 2004 to 2006.

Fed Funds Rate and MZM Money Stock

Inflationary forces remain subdued, with the average hourly wage rate growing at a modest 2.6 percent a year.

Average Hourly Wage Rate Growth

A spike above 3.0 percent would spur the Fed into action but there is no sign, so far, as rising automation and competition from offshore labor markets ease upward pressure despite low unemployment.

Life left in US stocks

According to market pundits, the latest stock sell-off was fueled by concerns over rising bond yields and slowing growth for Caterpillar (CAT).

From CNBC:

….Caterpillar shares reversed lower during the call, when Chief Financial Officer Brad Halverson said first-quarter adjusted profits per share will be the highest for the year because of increased investment later in 2018.

“We expect the targeted investments for future growth to be higher over the remaining three quarters,” Halverson said. “The outlook assumes that first-quarter adjusted profit per share will be the high-water mark for the year.”

Caterpillar (CAT)

The stock fell 6.2% on Wednesday, ignoring the earnings report:

In the earnings report, the Illinois-based machinery manufacturer raised its 2018 profit outlook by $2 a share over the previous quarter, to a range of $10.25 to $11.25 per share. The rosier guidance exceeds a Reuters analyst survey that expected a range of $8.39 to $10.60 a share. The company cited better-than-expected sales volume as the main driver of its improved full-year guidance.

Since when has “better-than-expected sales volume,” upward earnings revision and increased new investment been a bear signal? The market is unusually jittery at present, focusing on any semblance of bad news and ignoring the good.

Even concern over rising bond yields is nothing new.

10-Year Treasury Yields

10-Year Treasury yields are testing resistance at 3.0%. Breakout would complete a double-bottom reversal, warning of a bear market in bonds as yields rise. But rising long-term rates are not bad news for stocks, especially when off a low base as at present. I would go so far as to say that, over the last 20 years, rising 10-year yields have been bullish for stocks. The chart below compares annual percentage change in 10-year Treasury yields and the Russell 3000 Total Market index.

10-Year Treasury Yields and Russell 3000 Index 12-Month Rate of Change

There is plenty more good news that the market seems to be ignoring.

First quarter 2018 corporate earnings have so far impressed. According to S&P Indices, 117 stocks in the S&P 500 had reported results by the morning of April 24th. Of those, 91 (77.8%) beat, 10 (8.5%) met and 16 (13.7%) missed their estimates. Misses are largely concentrated in Materials ( 3 of 5), Industrials (4 of 26) and Consumer Discretionary sectors (5 of 13).

Freight activity remains strong, signaling a reviving economy.

S&P 500

Wages growth remains tame, with average hourly earnings of production and non-supervisory employees increasing at an annual rate of 2.42%. Growth above 3.0% would warn that underlying inflation is rising and the Fed will be forced to tighten monetary policy. But that does not appear imminent.

S&P 500

Muted wages growth allowed corporate profits (the blue line below) to rebound after a threatened down-turn.

S&P 500

Consumption has recovered. Per capita consumption of non-durable goods is recovering after a flat spot in 2017, consumption of durable goods has been rising since 2016, while services remain strong.

S&P 500

In financial markets, risk premiums on corporate bonds (Baa minus Treasuries) have declined to below 2.0%, suggesting a healthy credit outlook.

S&P 500

Bank credit is recovering after faltering in 2017.

S&P 500

The yield curve is flattening as the Fed gradually raises interest rates. A flat yield curve is not a threat. Only if it inverts, when the yield differential (gray line on the chart below) falls below zero, is the economy at risk of falling into a recession. Growth in the money stock (green MZM line on the chart below) has slowed but remains healthy.

S&P 500

The Fed has committed to shrinking its $4 trillion investment in Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) run up by quantitative easing (QE) between 2009 and 2014. So far the decline has had no impact on financial markets as bank excess reserves on deposit at the Fed are declining at a similar rate. The effect is that net assets (Fed Assets minus Excess Reserves) are holding steady at $2.4 trillion.

S&P 500

The Philadelphia Fed’s Leading Index remains healthy at above 1.0 percent.

S&P 500

And our estimate of real GDP is rising (2.14% in March 2018), suggesting that the economy is recovering from its flat spot in 2016/2017.

S&P 500

Valuations are high and investors are jittery but the bull market still appears to have further to run.

“Headwinds have turned into tailwinds”

“While many factors shape the economic outlook, some of the headwinds the U.S. economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds. Fiscal policy has become more stimulative and foreign demand for U.S. exports is on a firmer trajectory.”
~ New Fed Chair Jerome Powell in his first testimony before Congress

Two very important sentences for investors. Expect further rate hikes but at a moderate pace.

Bond yields have climbed in anticipation of higher inflation. Breakout above 3.0 percent would warn of a bond bear market, after the bull market of the last 3 decades, with rising yields.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The five-year breakeven rate (Treasury yield minus the equivalent yield on inflation indexed TIPS) has been climbing since 2016.

Fed Excess Reserves

But core CPI (CPI less Food & Energy) remains subdued.

And average hourly wage rates, reflecting underlying inflationary pressures, continue to grow at a modest 2.5 percent a year.

Private Sector Average Hourly Wage Rate Growth

Real GDP is likely to maintain its similarly modest growth.

Real GDP and Estimates

While the Fed is sitting on a powder keg of more than $2 trillion of commercial bank excess reserves, no one is playing with matches. Yet.

Federal Reserve Bank: Excess Reserves of Depositary Institutions

Those excess reserves on deposit at the Fed have the potential to fuel a massive bubble in stocks or real estate. But investors remain wary after their experience in 2008.

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

~ Samuel Clemens