In November 2007, six months after the inverted yield curve (3M-10Y) recovered to a positive slope, bellwether transport stock Fedex broke primary support at 100 to warn of an economic slow-down.
Today, two months after rate cuts restored an inverted yield curve to positive, Fedex again broke primary support, this time at 150. Their CEO observed that the stock market might be booming but the “industrial economy does not reflect any growth at all.”
Real GDP growth is slowing, with our latest estimate, based on weekly hours worked, projecting GDP growth of 1.5% for the calendar year.
While real corporate profits are declining.
What is keeping stocks afloat?
First, a flood of new money from the Fed. They expanded their balance sheet by $375 billion since September 2019 and are expected to double that to $750 billion — bringing total Fed holdings to $4.5 trillion by mid-January — to head off an expected liquidity crisis in repo and FX swap markets. The red line below shows expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, the blue is the S&P 500 index.
Second, ultra-low bond yields have starved investment markets of yield, boosting earnings multiples. P/E of historic earnings rose to 22.01 at the end of the September quarter and is projected to reach 22.82 in the December quarter (based on current S&P earnings estimates).
That is significantly higher than the peak earnings multiples achieved before previous crashes — 18.86 of October 1929 and 18.69 in October 1987 — and is only surpassed by the massive spike of the Dotcom bubble.
How could this end?
First, if the Fed withdraws (or makes any move to withdraw) the $750 billion temporary liquidity injection, intended to tide financial markets over the calendar year-end, I expect that the market would crash within minutes. They are unlikely to be that stupid but we should recognize that the funding is permanent, not temporary.
Second, if bond yields rise, P/E multiples are likely to fall. 10-Year breakout above 2.0% would signal an extended rise in yields.
China has slowed its accumulation of US Dollar reserves, allowing the Yuan to strengthen against the Dollar (or at least weaken at a slower rate). Reduced Treasury purchases are causing yields to rise. The chart below shows in recent months how Treasury yields have tracked the Yuan/US Dollar (CNYUSD) exchange rate.
Accumulation of USD foreign exchange reserves (by China) is likely to be a central tenet of US trade deal negotiations — as they were with Japan in the 1985 Plaza Accord. Expect upward pressure on Treasury yields as growth in Chinese holdings slows and possibly even declines.
Third, and most importantly, are actual earnings. With 98.6% of S&P 500 companies having reported, earnings for the September quarter are 6.5% below the same quarter last year. Poor Fedex results and low economic growth warn of further poor earnings ahead.
We maintain our view that stocks are over-priced and that investors need to exercise caution. We are over-weight cash and under-weight equities and will hold this position until normal P/E multiples are restored.