“Stocks rebound but sentiment soft”

From Bob Doll at Nuveen Investments. His weekly top themes:

1. We think the odds of a U.S. recession are low, but we also believe growth will remain soft for a couple of quarters. U.S. growth may bottom in the first half of 2019 following a relatively disappointing fourth quarter and the recent government shutdown. We expect growth will improve in the second half of the year.

Agreed, though growth is likely to remain soft for an extended period. The Philadelphia Fed Leading Index is easing but remains healthy at above 1.0% (December 2018).

Leading Index

2. Inflation remains low, but upward pressure is mounting. With unemployment under 4% and average hourly earnings rising to an annual 3.6% level, we may start to see prices rise. So far, better productivity growth has kept the lid on prices, but this trend bears watching.

Agreed. Average hourly earnings are rising and inflation may follow.

Hourly Earnings Growth

3. Trade issues remain a wildcard. The U.S./China trade dispute appears to be making progress, but the timeline is slipping and significant disagreement remains over tariff levels and intellectual property protections.

This is the dominant issue facing global markets. Call me skeptical but I don’t see a happy resolution. There is too much at stake for both parties. Expect a drawn out conflict over the next two decades.

4. We do not expect Brexit to cause widespread market issues. We think the risk of a hard Brexit is low, since no one wants to see that outcome. Some sort of soft separation or even a Brexit vote redo appears more likely.

Agreed. Hard Brexit is unlikely. Soft separation is likely, while no Brexit is most unlikely.

5. The health care sector may remain under pressure due to political rhetoric. Health care stocks in general, and managed care companies in particular, have struggled in light of talk about ending private health care coverage. We think Congress lacks the votes to enact such legislation. But this issue, as well as drug pricing policies, are likely to remain at the center of the political dialogue through the 2020 elections.

Health care is a political football and may take longer to resolve than the trade war with China.

6. Downward earnings revisions may present the largest risk for stocks. As recently as September 30, expectations for first quarter earnings growth were +7%. That slipped to +4% by January 1 and has since fallen to -3%.

A sharp fall in earnings would most likely spring from a steep rise in interest rates if the Fed had to combat rising inflation. That doesn’t seem imminent despite rising average hourly earnings. The Fed is maintaining money supply growth at close to 5.0%, around the same level as nominal GDP, keeping a lid on inflationary pressures.

Money Supply & Nominal GDP growth

7. Equity returns may be modest over the next decade compared to the last. Since the bull market began 10 years ago, U.S. stocks have appreciated over 400%. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that pace will be met again, but we feel confident that stocks will outperform Treasuries and cash over the next 10 years.

Expect modest returns on stocks, low interest rates, and low returns on bonds and cash.

Aussie banks get a wake up call from across the Tasman

I have long called for Australian banks to increase their equity capital in order to withstand a potential banking crisis in Australia. The Murray Commission found that banks, in a crisis, would act as “an accelerant rather than a shockabsorber”.

Now the RBNZ has announced plans to force the big four banks to hold more capital in their New Zealand banking operations. From Clancy Yeates at the Sydney Morning Herald:

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has mounted a firm defence of its plan to force Australia’s major banks to hold $NZ12.5 billion ($A12.12 billion) more in capital in their banking operations across the Tasman, saying the “highly profitable” businesses would have to accept lower returns.

In an interview on Wednesday, RBNZ deputy governor Geoff Bascand also justified the plan to bolster bank balance sheets by emphasising the social costs of banking crises and arguing New Zealand could not rely on Australian parent companies for a bail-out in severe shock.

……The big four Australian banks made $4.4 billion in cash profits from their New Zealand operations in 2018 representing about 15 per cent of their total combined profit with ANZ tipped to experience the most significant hit.

Mr Bascand said the central bank had estimated the big four’s NZ return on equity, until recently 14 to 15 per cent, would decline by between and 1 and 3 percentage points as a result of the change.

Earlier, Bascand said:

“At one time, the owners of a bank had plenty of skin in the game; in fact, there was a time when banks got most, or all, of their money from their owners. However, over the last century, banks have started to use less of their own money and more of other people’s, and the balance has almost entirely reversed. While we are not attempting to turn back the clock …..We believe that more ‘skin in the game’ for banks will result in:

  • Banks being better able to absorb large, unexpected losses
  • Society being less at risk from banking crises
  • Reduced fiscal risk…..As the global financial crisis illustrated, when banks fail there can be a severe domino effect that puts pressure on governments to step in with financial support
  • Bank shareholders and management being less inclined to take excessive risks”

(Gareth Vaughan, Interest.co.nz)

The RBNZ proposal calls for systemically important banks to hold a minimum of 16% Tier 1 capital against risk-weighted assets, of which 6% would be a regulatory minimum and 10% would act as a counter-cyclical buffer to absorb losses without triggering “resolution or failure options”. Bear in mind that risk-weighting significantly understates total assets and that leverage ratios, reflecting un-weighted assets, are about 55% of the above (i.e. 8.8%).

The banks have protested, warning that increasing capital will raise interest rates to borrowers.

…..The RBNZ has acknowledged interest rates charged by banks will probably rise as a result of the change, but Mr Bascand said it estimated the impact would be about half a standard 0.25 percentage point move in official interest rates.

If banks’ borrowing rates did rise more sharply than expected, he said the RBNZ could offset this through monetary policy…..

What the banks failed to consider (or mention) is that investors are prepared to accept lower returns on equity if there is lower associated risk. Also banks with strong balance sheets have historically experienced stronger growth. Both lower risk and stronger growth would help mitigate the costs of additional capital.

Question is, why are RBNZ raising concerns about bank capital and not APRA? Another case of regulatory capture?

Why the RBA shouldn’t cut interest rates

There are growing cries in local media for the RBA to cut interest rates in order to avoid a recession. House prices are falling and shrinking finance commitments point to further price falls. Declining housing values are likely to lead to a negative wealth effect, with falling consumption as household savings increase. Employment is also expected to weaken as household construction falls. Respected economist Gerard Minack thinks “a recession in Australia is becoming more likely”.

The threat should not be taken lightly, but is cutting interest rates the correct response?

Let’s examine the origins of our predicament.

A sharp rise in commodity prices in 2004 to 2008.

Commodity Prices

Led to a massive spike in the Trade-weighted Index.

Australia Trade Weighted Index

And a serious case of Dutch Disease: the destructive effect that offshore investment in large primary sector projects (such as the 1959 Groningen natural gas fields in the Netherands) can have on the manufacturing sector.

Business investment in Australian has fallen precipitously since 2013.

Australia Business Investment

With wages growth in tow.

Wages Index

Instead of addressing the underlying cause (Dutch Disease), Australia tried to alleviate the pain by stimulating the housing market. Housing construction boosted employment and the banks were only to happy to accommodate the accelerating demand for credit.

Leading Index

But house prices have to keep growing and banks have to keep lending else the giant Ponzi scheme unwinds. When house prices and construction slows, the economy is susceptible to a severe backlash as Gerard Minack pointed out.

How to fix this?

The worst response IMO would be to pour more gasoline on the fire: cut interest rates and reignite the housing bubble. Low interest rates have done little to stimulate business investment over the last five years, so further cuts are unlikely to help.

The only long-term solution is to lift business investment which creates secure long-term employment. To me there are three pillars necessary to achieve this:

  1. Accelerated tax write-offs for new business investment;
  2. Infrastructure investment in transport and communications projects that deliver long-term productivity gains; and
  3. A weaker Australian Dollar.

Corporate tax write-offs

Accelerated corporate tax write-offs were a critical element of the US economic recovery under Barack Obama. They encourage business to bring forward planned investment spending, stimulating job creation.

Infrastructure

Government and private infrastructure spending is important to fill the hole left by falling consumption. But this must be productive investment that generates a market-related return on investment. Else you create further debt with no income streams to service the interest and capital repayments.

A weaker Australian Dollar

Norway is probably the best example of how an economy can combat Dutch Disease. They successfully weathered an oil-driven boom in the 1990s, protecting local industry while establishing a sovereign wealth fund that is the envy of its peers. Their fiscal discipline set an example to be followed by any resource-rich country looking to navigate a sustainable path through a commodities boom.

In Australia’s case that would be closing the gate after the horse has bolted. The benefits of the boom have long since been squandered. But we can still protect what is left of our manufacturing sector, and stimulate new investment, with a weaker exchange rate.

I doubt that the three steps are sufficient to avert a recession. But the same is true of further interest rate cuts. And at least we would be addressing the root cause of the problem, rather than encouraging further malinvestment in an unsustainable housing bubble.

‘It could be on the scale of 2008’ | SMH

Harvard professor Ken Rogoff said the key policy instruments of the Communist Party are losing traction and the country has exhausted its credit-driven growth model. This is rapidly becoming the greatest single threat to the global financial system.

“People have this stupefying belief that China is different from everywhere else and can grow to the moon,” said Professor Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.

“China can’t just keep creating credit. They are in a serious growth recession and the trade war is kicking them on the way down,” he told UK’s The Daily Telegraph, speaking before the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“There will have to be a de facto nationalisation of large parts of the economy. I fear this really could be ‘it’ at last and they are going to have their own kind of Minsky moment,” he said.

Read the full article from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at smh.com.au: ‘It could be on the scale of 2008’: Expert sends warning on China downturn

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

Big four banks protest against higher capital

“The big four banks are trying to convince the prudential regulator to reconsider its proposal to force them to raise an additional $75 billion of so-called Tier II bonds to meet “too big to fail” capital requirements.” ~ Jonathan Shapiro, Australian Financial Review

What is APRA thinking? They are deluding themselves if they think that Tier II bonds will shore up capital.

Imagine the panic in financial markets if bond-holders take a haircut. It could lead to a Lehman-style meltdown.

The same applies to Tier I hybrids which banks are happily flogging to retiree investors. Convert their investments into near worthless bank scrip after a financial meltdown and nan and pops will turn up in Melbourne Docklands and Darling Harbour, demanding their money back. I suspect regulators would rather face Ned Kelly.

The only true capital is Common Equity (CET1). Anything else is simply putting lipstick on the pig.

Aussie taxpayers are being duped if they believe that they are covered if there is a financial meltdown and that banks carry enough capital to absorb potential losses.

I would rather see legislation that calls it like it is and provides for government to backstop the banks in the event of a crisis. But at a price that makes their eyes water, as the Swedes did in 1992. It’s the best way to keep the banks honest.

ASX 200 bear rally

Credit growth in Australia is falling (with help from the Royal Commission) and broad money growth is anemic, below the lows of the GFC, warning that the economy is close to a contraction.

RBA: Credit & Broad Money

Banks are particularly vulnerable because of the falling housing market. The bubble threatens to burst after a long expansion and the RBA is low on ammunition. How many rate cuts do you think they have left in reserve?

The ASX 200 Financials Index is testing long-term support at 5400. Declining Momentum peaks warn of a bear market. Breach of support is likely to lead to another decline, with a long-term target of 4000.

ASX 200 Financials Index

The Resources sector is in far better shape but the ASX 200 Materials Index is also slowing, with a strong bearish divergence on 13-week Momentum. Reversal below primary support at 11000 would confirm a primary down-trend.

ASX 200 Materials

The ASX 200 is testing resistance at the former band of primary support between 5650 and 5800 (revised up from 5750). The rally could go further, possibly as high as 6150, but this is a bear market and the probability that this rally will change that is low. Respect of resistance is likely and reversal below 5650 would confirm the bear market for Australian stocks. Initial target for a primary decline is 5000.

ASX 200

Our hope is that China rescues us with another massive stimulus spend,  as in the GFC, lifting the resources sector. But hope isn’t a strategy.

I have been cautious on Australian stocks, especially banks, for a while, and hold 40% cash in the Australian Growth portfolio.

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.