ASX 200: Don’t ignore the headwinds

The ASX 200 is advancing to test its all-time (2007) high at 6830, having respected its new support level at 6350.

ASX 200

Shane Oliver, AMP economist, argues that an Australian recession is unlikely as the economy has tailwinds as well as headwinds:

  • mining exports have surged on the back of strong iron ore prices, narrowing the current account deficit;
  • a falling Aussie Dollar will act as a shock absorber to stabilize the economy;
  • the Australian government has strong capacity to stimulate the economy, through tax cuts and infrastructure spending;
  • house prices may be falling but there is no panic selling; and
  • the RBA has further capacity to cut rates if necessary.

The tailwinds can be summed up in two words: iron ore. Without high ore prices, our current account deficit and fiscal deficit would be much larger, limiting the ability of government to stimulate the economy.

Australian headwinds, on the other hand, can be summed up by one words: jobs. High ore prices do not create many jobs.

Job growth is falling and unemployment is expected to rise.

Low jobs growth is eroding consumer confidence, flagged by falling spending on durables such as motor vehicles.

ASX 300 Autos & Components

And housing.

House Prices

The critical question is: will the iron ore tailwind last long enough to save the Australian economy from recession?

High iron ore prices are unlikely to last long. From Reuters on Thursday:

Mining giant Rio Tinto on Thursday lowered its guidance on volumes of iron ore it expects to ship from the key Pilbara producing region in Australia for the third time since April, citing operational problems.

The guidance cut came just hours after Brazilian miner Vale, the world’s No. 1 iron ore producer, said late on Wednesday that it will fully resume Brucutu operations within 72 hours, after a favourable ruling from an appeals court…..Brucutu, which has been operating at only a third of its capacity, was shuttered in February as Vale’s mine operations came under close scrutiny after a tailings dam collapsed in Brazilian town of Brumadinho, killing more than 240 people…..The full operation of Brucutu “should help alleviate concerns about tightness in the market,” said ANZ Research analysts in a note. “However, issues at Rio Tinto’s operations suggest the market still has some challenges ahead.”

Rio Tinto said it now expects shipments from Pilbara at between 320 million tonnes and 330 million tonnes, mostly lower-grade and lower-margin product. Its previous target was between 333 million tonnes and 343 million tonnes.

Vale at the same time reaffirmed its 2019 iron ore and pellets sales guidance of 307 million to 332 million tonnes, saying sales should be around the midpoint of that range, instead of the low end of the range as previously expected.

Chinese steel production is strong.

China Output

Housing construction is rising.

China Housing

But rising housing inventories warn that construction is running ahead of demand, which is likely to exert downward pressure on prices.

While Chinese automobile production is faltering. From WSJ:

Auto sales in China declined for an 11th straight month in May, with the slump in demand showing no sign of easing and the country’s automotive industry bracing for losses tied to new emissions standards.

Sales for the latest month fell 16% from a year earlier, to 1.91 million vehicles….

I am not sure how long the iron ore shortfall will last but I wouldn’t bet on high prices by the end of the year. Nor would I bet on the G20 meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping resolving US-China trade differences.

That leaves uncertain tailwinds and far more certain headwinds.

No US-China trade deal

“On Monday, US President Trump told reporters that he would impose tariffs on an additional USD 300 billion of Chinese goods if Xi Jinping doesn’t meet with him in Japan.” ~ Trivium China, June 12, 2019

Trump is doing his best to kill any chance of a trade deal. He is making it impossible for Xi to turn up for a G20 meeting. To do so would be admitting defeat. Kow-towing to Trump would totally undermine Xi’s standing in China.

If earnings undershoot, stocks will fall

Annual employment growth is falling while average hourly earnings growth remains high. This is typical. Ahead of the last two recessions (gray bars below), average hourly earnings growth (green) held steady while employment growth (blue) declined.

Employment Growth & Average Hourly Wage Rate

If annual employment growth (blue line on the above chart) falls below 1.0% then a Fed rate cut is almost guaranteed. Not something to celebrate though, as the gray bars and further job losses illustrate.

Declining growth in hours worked points to lower GDP growth in the second quarter.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

From Bob Doll at Nuveen:

“China is taking a tough stance toward the U.S. on trade. Chinese officials appear open to ongoing negotiations, but a recently released statement denies the country’s role in intellectual property theft, blames the U.S. for negotiation breakdowns and calls out the damage done to the American economy as a result of the dispute. All of this suggests that trade issues will persist for some time.”

The CCP is upset that they are now being called out for bad behavior when this should have been addressed years ago. Conflict can no longer be avoided and is likely to last for a generation or more.

“On Monday, US President Trump told reporters that he would impose tariffs on an additional USD 300 billion of Chinese goods if Xi Jinping doesn’t meet with him in Japan.” ~ Trivium China, June 12, 2019

Trump is doing his best to kill any chance of a trade deal. He is making it impossible for Xi to turn up for a G20 meeting. Kow-towing to Trump would totally undermine Xi’s standing in China.

Xi wants a trade deal that is a handful of empty promises, so the CCP can continue on their present course. The US wants an enforceable undertaking, so that the CPP is forced to change course. Chances of both achieving what they want are negligible.

Both sides need to guard against economic war (time to call it what it is) slipping into a full-scale conflict. All it takes is a spark that sets off tit-for-tat escalation where neither side will back down.

Proxies such as North Korea, Syria and Pakistan are especially dangerous as they are capable of dragging great powers into direct confrontation (think Serbia before WWI, Korea after WWII).

Wannabe great powers like Russia will also do their best to foment conflict between their larger rivals. Stalin achieved this with the Korean War in the 1950s and Vladimir Putin is more than capable of attempting the same. The world is a dangerous place.

Upside potential for stocks is declining while downside risks are growing. Investors are flowing out of equities and into Treasuries despite minimal yield (10-year yield is negative after inflation and tax).

Stocks are being supported by buybacks but that can only continue for as long as cash flows (from earnings) hold up. Buybacks plus dividends for the S&P 500 exceeded reported earnings by more than $100 billion in Q4 2018.

S&P 500 Buybacks, Dividends & Reported Earnings

That is unsustainable. If earnings undershoot, stocks will fall.

Trade war reality sinks in

Realization that we are slipping into a trade war is starting to sink in.

The S&P 500 broke medium-term support at 2800, warning of a correction. The target is primary support at 2400. Volatility is flashing an amber warning, above 1.0%.

S&P 500

Nymex crude is plunging as anticipated global demand falls.

Crude Oil

Long-term Treasury yields are falling, with the 10-Year headed for a test of support at 2.0%. The Yield Differential (purple line) is back below zero, warning of a recession.

Yield Differential: 10-Year and 3-Month Treasuries

As I have mentioned earlier, a negative yield curve is a reliable early indicator of recession but trouble is imminent when it recovers above zero. Normally caused by the Fed cutting interest rates in response to falling employment growth. The critical indicator to watch is non-farm payroll growth. When that falls below 1.0% (right-hand scale), watch out!

Employment Growth and Fed Funds Rate

War is an evil thing; but to submit to the dictation of other states is worse…. Freedom, if we hold fast to it, will ultimately restore our losses, but submission will mean permanent loss of all that we value…. To you who call yourselves men of peace, I say: You are not safe unless you have men of action on your side.

~ Thucydides (circa 400 BC)

Market uncertainty is likely to persist as US-China negotiations stall | Bob Doll

From Bob Doll at Nuveen:

“There have been several risk-off phases this decade, triggered by economic threats due to politically induced setbacks. However, the current sluggish global economy and weak trade, coupled with escalating trade tariffs and non-tariff barriers, is a worrisome combination. This is especially true because once protectionism has gained momentum, it may prove difficult to stop or reverse. While many risk asset prices are only off modestly from April highs, there’s an ominous undercurrent in global financial markets.

We have assumed that the pro-growth bias of both the U.S. and China would lead to a trade truce. That premise looks increasingly questionable, although a deal is always possible. Given that financial markets have not reacted more significantly, investors are still generally expecting the global economic expansion to persist.

Despite the longer-term power struggle, the constructive case for a trade deal between the U. S. and China was predicated on President Trump focusing on the short-term win, while the Chinese look to the longer-term. This difference in political time horizons made a deal possible. Now, the focus for both parties has shifted to long-term strategic objectives, resulting in a stalemate. A financial market downturn may be needed to break the impasse. An extended period of churning could develop if trade talks resume, but without signs of a resolution.

The current market weakness differs from prior periods of economic uncertainty during this decade. There has always been a path to a positive outcome for growth and risk assets, primarily via additional policy stimulus. However, the economic and market outcome this time has become more uncertain, and time will not work towards a positive outcome unless trade negotiations improve. Business sentiment will erode if mounting trade roadblocks and uncertainty do not diminish. Protectionism tops the list of recession catalysts, and a permanent deterioration in U.S./China trade relations could have adverse long-term revenue ramifications for global trade and growth.”

My thoughts:

  • A trade deal was never going to happen. Long-term objectives of the CCP and the US are in direct conflict and headed for a collision.
  • Trump deserves credit for confronting the issues rather than kicking the can down the road as Obama did (Paul Krugman highlighted the problem in 2010).
  • Trump is the least likely President to negotiate a peaceful resolution to this hegemonic struggle. Diplomacy and building trust are not his forte.
  • Trust is low, eroding any chance of a face-saving public accord.
  • An agreement would simply be a band-aid, not a long-term solution (see my first point).
  • The impact on business will not be catastrophic but earnings growth will slow.
  • The market is unsure how to react. Yet. If it does make up it’s mind that this is bad for business, there won’t be enough room in the lifeboats. A down-turn could be sharp and hard.
  • Sell down to the sleeping point.

” I am carrying so much cotton that I can’t sleep thinking about it. It is wearing me out. What can I do?”
“Sell down to the sleeping point,” answered the friend.

~ Edwin Lefevre: Reminiscences of a Stock Operator (1923)

The eye of the storm

“On Wednesday, the US Department of Commerce added Huawei – and 70 other companies – to its “Entity List.” …. Huawei cannot buy parts or components from US companies without the explicit approval of the US government.” (Trivium China)

We are sliding towards a fully-fledged trade war. Following straight after the imposition of tariffs by both the US and China, US action against Huawei will be taken as a direct attack on Chinese industry.

The CCP is already stoking nationalist sentiment to bolster public support.

“Last night and today, CCTV replaced regularly scheduled programming with two films about the Chinese army fighting the US in the Korean War.” (Trivium China)

Market response is so far muted. On the daily chart, the S&P 500 correction is modest. Expect another test of 2800. Breach would offer a target of 2600.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 retreated below its new support level at 7700 but Money Flow remains strong.

Nasdaq 100

China’s Shanghai Composite found support at 2900.

Shanghai Composite Index

Japan’s Nikkei 225 is ranging between 20000 and 24000. Expect another test of primary support at 20000.

Nikkei 225

India’s Nifty is testing support at 11000. Respect would confirm the primary up-trend.

Nifty Index

In Europe, The DJ Euro Stoxx 600 is undergoing a correction that is likely to test support at 365. But Trend Index above zero continues to signal buying support.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie found support at 7200, with Trend Index again signaling buying support.

FTSE 100

10-Year Treasury yields are testing support at 2.40%. One of the few clear signs that markets are growing increasingly risk averse, as demand for bonds drives down yields.

10-Year Treasury Yields

S&P 500: No deal

It looks like there will be no trade deal any time soon.

“Trade talks between China and the United States ended on Friday without a deal as President Trump raised tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports and signaled he was prepared for a prolonged economic fight….. Trump is now moving ahead with plans to impose 25 percent tariffs on all remaining Chinese imports. Those new tariffs could go into effect in a matter of weeks.” (New York Times)

Signature of a document was always going to be more theater than substance. Earlier in Bloomberg:

“U.S. President Donald Trump has good reason to be skeptical about China’s willingness to live up to its commitments in any trade deal. Seasoned foreign business executives on the mainland know that any agreement there represents the start of a bargaining process, not the end….”

Response of stock markets, to signs that negotiations had reached an impasse, were muted. The pull-back on the S&P 500 is modest.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 retreated below its new support level at 7700 but the Trend Index remains strong.

Nasdaq 100

China’s Shanghai Composite is undergoing a correction but this week’s long tail suggests selling pressure is moderate.

Shanghai Composite Index

The yuan fell sharply, acting as a shock-absorber.

Chinese Yuan/US Dollar

Stocks like Boeing and Apple may be re-rated but the broad view of the market seems largely unchanged.

“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.

China slowdown

Consumer durable sales are falling sharply:

And from Trivium China:

Premier Li Keqiang reiterated that big stimulus isn’t coming:

“An indiscriminate approach may work in the short run but may lead to future problems.”
“Thus, it’s not a viable option.”
“Our choice is to energize market players.”

….It’s a decidedly different tack than the credit-fueled stimulus of yesteryear, and the practical outcomes of this new policy response are two-fold:

  • Given that it’s a new strategy, the transmission channels from policy to actual economic growth support are not well understood.
  • The one thing we do know – this approach will take longer to impact the economy than the credit-driven responses of previous cycles.

The bottom line: It will take China’s deceleration longer to bottom out than markets and businesses currently expect.

China’s stated intention is to avoid big stimulus, so a policy reversal, if we see it, would signal that the slowdown is far worse than expected.

S&P 500 optimism fades

10-Year Treasury yields are testing support at 2.60%. Breach of support would warn of a further decline in long-term interest rates. Declining yields reflect the outflow of funds from stocks and into safer fixed-interest investments.

10-Year Treasury Yields

Volatility on the S&P 500 has fallen close to 1% but a correction from here would be likely to form a trough above the 1% level, warning of elevated risk. Breach of 2600 would indicate another test of primary support at 2350/2400.

S&P 500 & Twiggs Volatility

Average hourly wages, total private, grew at 3.4% over the last 12 months, while production & non-supervisory wages grew at 3.48%. This keeps pressure on the Fed to raise interest rates as underlying inflationary pressures grow. The dampening effect of the trade dispute with China may have bought the Fed more time but a spike above 3.5% would be difficult to ignore.

Average Hourly Wages Growth

Impact of the trade dispute is more clearly visible on the chart below, with growth in total hours worked retreating below 1.5%. Slowing growth in hours worked warns that real GDP growth for Q1 2019 is likely to disappoint.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

China Trade Talks

US-China trade talks have made little in the way of real progress.

BEIJING—The U.S. and China have yet to set a date for a summit to resolve their trade dispute, the U.S. ambassador to China said Friday, as neither side feels an agreement is imminent. (Wall St Journal)

There is opposition to concessions on both sides:

China has a secret program to support the microchip and software industries. That’s according to Wang Jiangping, Vice Minister of Industry and Information Technology. Wang was speaking to CPPCC delegates at the Two sessions on Thursday, but the comments leaked to reporters (FX678):

“Last year, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology planned the ‘Zhengxin Zhuhun’ project under the leadership of the Party Central Committee and the State Council.”
“The state will give strong policy and funding support, because industries such as microchips and software need to be iteratively developed.”

Wang said the ministry had kept the policy under wraps. That’s presumably because of the recent international backlash to the Made in China 2025 program…..Wang’s comments have already disappeared from the Chinese internet.

Get smart: Given Xi’s self-reliance push in key technologies, nobody really thought China would give up its industrial policies for these sectors. (Trivium China)

Whoever leaked Wang’s comments was not trying to make trade negotiations any easier. Impact of the trade dispute is starting to emerge in both economies but resolution and enforcement of a trade agreement is a long and tenuous path.

Hope is an expensive commodity. It makes better sense to be prepared.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)