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

ASX 200 rallies but LT bearish

The Australian economy is creaking. This is not a time for the Treasurer to concern himself with a balanced budget, laudable as that long-term (LT) goal may be.

Household consumption is slowing, with falling car sales and international travel. Housing investment is about to go over a cliff. This time China is unlikely to rescue the damsel in distress with another record stimulus spend.

It’s time for the government to go big on infrastructure spending. Not school halls or pink batts but real infrastructure like transport and communications investment (5G for example) that will boost long-term GDP growth. We are going to need government (and private) infrastructure to offset the sharp fall in housing investment and prevent a serious contraction.

The ASX 200 rallied off support at 5400 and is headed for a test of resistance at 6000. What could go wrong? This is a bear market and one strong rally is not going to change that. Respect of resistance at 6000 is likely and would warn of another test of primary support at 5400. Breach of support would offer a target of the 2016 low at 4700.

ASX 200

Banks are vulnerable because of the falling housing market. The ASX 200 Financials Index is testing long-term support at 5400. Bullish divergence on the Trend Index indicates buying pressure but I believe this is secondary in nature. The primary trend is down and breach of 5400 would offer a LT target of 4000.

ASX 200 Financials Index

The Resources sector is in far better shape but bearish divergence on the  ASX 200 Materials Trend Index warns of LT selling pressure. Reversal below 10500 would confirm a primary down-trend.

ASX 200 Materials

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

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

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.

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.

ASX awaits bear market confirmation

The ASX 200 is testing the former band of primary support between 5650 and 5750. Respect is likely and would confirm a bear market for Australian stocks. Target for a primary decline is 5000.

ASX 200

ASX 300 Metals & Mining Index is testing primary support at 3400. Declining Trend Index peaks warn of selling pressure. Breach of 3400 would confirm a primary down-trend, strengthening the bear signal.

ASX 300 Metals & Mining

House prices are falling but this has not yet had an impact on the record high ratio of household debt to disposable income. Wages growth is slow and it will take a long time for debt ratios to return to saner levels. Expect the housing bear market to last for a similar length of time unless the RBA is desperate enough to make further rate cuts.

RBA: Credit & Broad Money

Bank performance is closely aligned with the housing market. The ASX 300 Banks Index is testing long-term support at 7000. Declining Trend Index peaks warn of selling pressure. Breach of support at 7000 is likely to lead to another decline, with a long-term target of 5000.

ASX 300 Banks Index

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.

ASX 200 weighed down by banks

The ASX 200 respected the new resistance level at 5650, confirming a primary down-trend. Target for the decline is 5000.

ASX 200

The ASX 300 Banks Index broke long-term support at 7000, warning of another decline. Trend Index peaks below zero indicate selling pressure. Expect retracement to test the new resistance level but respect is likely and would confirm a long-term target of 5000.

ASX 300 Banks Index

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

Risk averse rather than fearful

The S&P 500 is again testing the band of primary support between 2600 and 2550. Follow-through below this level would warn of a bear market. Volatility (21-day) is in the amber zone between 1% and 2%. A real test of market resilience will be the next sizable rally or advance. If declining volatility remains above 1%, that would warn of an imminent market sell-off.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 is in a similar position, with declining Money Flow warning of medium-term selling pressure.

Nasdaq 100

Of the big five tech stocks, only Microsoft looks strong. Facebook is in a primary down-trend but Apple and Google are testing primary support. Apple’s exposure to China is obviously a concern. China accounts for roughly 25% of Apple’s global market but Apple estimates that it is responsible for 4.8 million jobs in China which gives them some negotiating clout.

Big Five tech stocks

If two more of the big five broke primary support, that would in my opinion signal a bear market.

Asia

The Shanghai Composite Index is consolidating in a narrow band below 2700. Downward breakout is likely and would signal another decline, with a target of 2300.

Shanghai Composite Index

India’s Nifty is testing resistance at 11,000. Respect would be bearish, warning of another test of primary support at 10,000. Declining peaks on the Trend Index warn of long-term selling pressure.

NSX Nifty

Europe

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx is in a primary down-trend. Follow-through below 350 confirms a bear market, warn of a decline to test 305/310.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie also broke primary support at 6900. Retracement is testing the new resistance level but respect of 7000 is likely and would confirm a bear market, with a target between 5600 and 6000.

FTSE 100

There is a high level of uncertainty in global markets at present. Europe has Brexit and Italy. The US has investigations into Donald Trump’s election campaign. China has the threat of a trade war with the US. But my sense is that the market has become risk averse rather than fearful. There is no sign of panic selling as yet. But investors are clearly on the defensive and prepared to sell off vulnerable stocks.

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson