Never waste a good crisis

The Russian Federation has amassed a large army on the border of Ukraine and threatens to invade unless the US and NATO make concessions including the withdrawal of forces from Eastern Europe, securing Moscow a broad sphere of influence. There has been much hand-wringing in Western media: will Putin invade or is this just a ruse designed to extract concessions?

If we look past the uncertainty, it is clear that an increasingly over-confident Putin has entered a trap of his own making.

The West is faced with an ultimatum: either concede or Russian forces will invade Ukraine.

But every problem presents an opportunity.

The more aggressive Russia becomes, the stronger NATO gets.

Russian actions have united Western alliances, with even long-term neutrals Finland and Sweden, moving closer to NATO.  Both Finnish and Swedish presidents reiterated their right to join NATO in response to the Russian ultimatum.

Germany has long obstructed a stiffening of NATO defenses, increasing its vulnerability to Russian energy blackmail by shuttering nuclear power plants and supporting the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea. But opposition is growing. A recent poll shows that the percentage of Germans who trust Russia has fallen by 11% over the past two years:

German Poll: Which Countries Do You Trust?

Concessions are unlikely, simply because there is nothing to gain from them. Concessions by the US would weaken NATO and encourage the Kremlin to make even more outlandish demands in the future. Concessions by NATO without the US would produce a similar outcome.

Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a strategic mistake.

First, invasion would be a flagrant act of war, removing the cloak of deniability that has covered Russian operations in the Donbas region. A formal state of war would increase the flow of Western technology and weapons into Ukraine as Western leaders are required to openly acknowledge Russian aggression.

Land invasions are costly in terms of both blood and treasure. The Russian army may eventually overrun the Ukrainians through the weight of forces and technological advantages. But Ukrainian armed forces have been in a protracted war in the East and are well-trained and equipped with modern anti-tank weapons, artillery and unmanned drones. The costs would be high.

Turkey’s Bayraktar unmanned combat drone

Turkey’s Bayraktar Unmanned Armed Combat Drone – Source: Ukrinform

Where the Ukrainians are at a disadvantage is in air defenses and vulnerability to long-range missile attacks. But that window is closing.

To stiffen Ukraine’s ability to resist, the United States and NATO have dispatched teams in recent weeks to survey air defenses, logistics, communications and other essentials. The United States likely has also bolstered Ukraine’s defenses against Russian cyberattacks and electronic warfare. (David Ignatius, Washington Post)

An air campaign would also achieve little without a follow-up land invasion.

Even if the Ukrainian forces are defeated, that is where the real problem starts. Occupation is a costly and morale-sapping exercise as the Soviets discovered in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the US discovered in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan (they’re slow learners). An insurgency negates the occupiers’ advantages in air power and technology, leading to a drawn-out campaign with no outcome.

“You have the watches. We have the time.” ~ Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

A Russian occupation force would require 20 combatants for every 1,000 Ukrainians, according to a formula devised by Rand Corp. analyst James Quinlivan in 1995. That would translate into an a required Russian force of almost 900,000, illustrating the impracticality.

We could expect a Russian occupation to be exceedingly brutal, along the lines of Syria, creating a humanitarian crisis and flooding the West with refugees. But that is only likely to harden resolve, marginalizing appeasers in the West, and increase support for the insurgents.

The cost of an extended Russian campaign would deplete the Russian Treasury, even without increased sanctions. It would also escalate opposition within Russia, spurred by the high cost in lives and deteriorating living conditions. The result would threaten collapse of the Russian state in much the same way as the campaign in Afghanistan led to the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Conclusion

The threat of armed invasion of Ukraine is a mistake. It is likely to strengthen resolve in the West and, if the threat is carried out, result in a long, protracted war in Ukraine. The cost in both blood and treasure would threaten to topple the Russian state.

Russian overconfidence has led them into a trap. Thinly spread across a number of conflict zones, they are vulnerable to an escalation in insurgencies wherever they have “peace-keeping” occupation forces: Syria, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and now Kazakhstan. The cost to the West would be low but would exact a huge toll on the Kremlin, depleting their military and already-vulnerable financial resources.

“Moderation in the pursuit of liberty is no virtue.”
George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed History

S&P 500: Small caps diverge

The S&P 500 ($INX) remains bullish, with Trend Index holding above zero for over a year indicating tremendous buying pressure.

S&P 500

Narrow breadth is our main concern, with the Russell 2000 small caps ETF (IWM) diverging from the S&P 500 ($INX).

S&P 500 & Russell 2000 Small Caps

Conclusion

The market is growing risk-averse as the Fed starts to taper. But financial markets are still awash with cash.

M2/GDP

Buying is likely to be concentrated in the heavyweights.

Apple (AAPL), Alphabet (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN), Meta Platforms (FB), and Microsoft (MSFT)

Small caps could possibly accelerate into a down-trend but reversal of large cap indices is unlikely with so much liquidity.

Services inflation

A friend asked a question: “Our advanced economies are 70 – 80 % Services based these days; so will this make CPI inflation difficult to sustain if wages growth is not sustained.”

The answer is YES. Inflation is unlikely to be sustained if wages growth declines.

BUT wages growth is accelerating, not declining, both in the services sector and in the broader economy.

Average Hourly Wages Growth: Total Private & Services Sector

Wages growth is also not likely to decline while we have record job openings; 5.4 million in the services sector alone.

Job Openings: Services Sector

Employers are having to offer higher wages and sign-on bonuses to attract workers — the result of record high savings levels fueled by government stimulus.

M2/GDP

New COVID variant upsets markets

JOHANNESBURG — A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people, Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced Thursday.

South Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press briefing.

“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases. (NBC)

Concern is focused on the rapid spread of new cases and the variant’s high number of mutations which could make the virus resistant to current vaccines.

The new COVID-19 variant, called B.1.1.529, has a very unusual constellation of mutations, which are worrying because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists have said. South African scientists have detected more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells…..In comparison, the Beta and Delta variant respectively have three and two mutations. (Al Jazeera)

The UK suspended flights from 6 African countries on Thursday. (Yahoo.com)

The S&P 500 fell 2.3% on Friday, while declining peaks on the daily Trend Index warn of a correction.

S&P 500

Conclusion

There is a high level of uncertainty as scientists do not yet know how lethal — and how resistant to vaccines — the new strain is. Investors are being cautious and reducing risk. Expect a correction to test primary support but no bear market unless worst fears are realized.

Retail sales, missing workers and the inflation threat

The October labor report shows hours worked were roughly unchanged from September and still 100K below the pre-pandemic high (5.25m). But GDP of 19.5 trillion is up slightly when compared to 19.2T in Q3 2019, indicating that productivity has improved.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Monthly retail sales for September, on the other hand, were way above trend.

Retail Sales

People are spending Dollars they didn’t earn, courtesy of record government stimulus.

That is one of the primary causes of rising consumer prices (red below): when demand outstrips supply.

Average Hourly Earnings & CPI

A rising CPI in turn causes second run inflation through higher wage demands (green and gray above) if central banks fail to act quickly. They become embedded and difficult to dislodge.

The combined effect of the pandemic and government stimulus has had a profound impact on the US labor market. The economy added 5.8 million jobs in the 10 months to October, at an average of 580K per month. That rate is likely to slow as the economy reopens and enhanced unemployment benefits end.

We are missing 4.2 million employees, compared to the pre-pandemic peak of 152.5m jobs, and seem unlikely to find them, judging by the 10.4 million job openings in September. High levels of job openings are likely to exert continuing upward pressure on wages.

Non-farm Payroll & Job Openings

The missing workers — aided by government handouts — have either retired, quit their jobs to day-trade Tesla and crypto-currencies, or have re-assessed their work-life priorities. No doubt there will be a trickle back to the workforce — as day-traders encounter reversion to the mean and/or savings run low — but the Fed needs to reassess its full employment target. Failure to do so would leave interest rates too low for too long and allow second run inflation to become entrenched. The only way to then dislodge it is with the kind of drastic measures that Paul Volcker used in the early eighties, with the fed funds rate peaking at 20%.

Fed Funds Rate under Paul Volcker

David Woo: Prelude to volatility

The bond market had a heart attack last week. Rising inflation caused a massive back up in bond yields in the short end of the market. The market is now pricing in two rate hikes in 2022. The Fed will have to raise real interest rates in order to tame inflation.

Real interest rates are falling. The stock market is taking its cue from the bond market and is rising. Stock prices represent discounted future cash flows, so negative real interest rates make a big difference to earnings multiples.

The Democrats are determined to spend their way to a mid-term election victory, with a $1T infrastructure bill and $1.75T social spending, both light on tax revenue. The GOP will try to stop them when the debt ceiling issue returns in December but they don’t have much leverage.

Financial conditions will have to tighten a lot more in 2022. The Fed is way behind the curve and is going to have to play catch-up.

Conclusion

Inflationary pressures in the US economy are growing, while the Democrats plan a further $2.75T in fiscal stimulus which is light on tax revenues.

Long-term yields lag far behind inflation, with real interest rates growing increasingly negative. The assumption is that the Fed will tighten sharply in 2022 to curb inflation. We expect that the Fed will taper but is not going to rush to hike interest rates for three reasons:

  1. The Fed would be tightening into a slowing economy, with growth fading as stimulus winds down;
  2. High energy prices will also help to cool demand; and
  3. US federal debt levels — already > 120% of GDP and likely to grow further with proposed new stimulus measures — are a greater long-term threat than inflation. The Fed and Treasury are expected to work together to boost GDP and tax revenues through inflation, keeping real interest rates negative to alleviate the cost to Treasury of servicing the excessive debt burden.

Job openings flag upward pressure on wages

Job openings fell by 660k in August, from 11.10 million to 10.44 million. Unemployment fell by less, from 8.70 million to 8.38 million (-320k), as absentees return to the workforce. Unemployment declined steeply (-710k) to 7.67 million in September and we expect an even larger decline in job openings as more return to the workforce.

Job Openings & Average Hourly Wage Rates

Job openings in August exceed unemployment by 2.06 million. While this is expected to reduce over the next few months, as stragglers return to the workforce, the persistent gap is likely to add upward pressure to wages. Average hourly earnings growth, currently at 4.6% YoY, is expected to rise in the months ahead.

Small Business - Difficulty in Finding Workers

The number of people who quit jobs voluntarily – to work for another company that offered higher wages and benefits and a signing bonus; to change careers entirely; to stay home and take care of the kids; to spend more time with their money; or whatever – spiked by another 242,000 people to a record of 4.27 million in August, up 19% from August 2019…….This enormous number of quits is the hallmark of a tight and competitive labor market that encourages workers to switch jobs to seek the greener grass on the other side of the fence. (Wolf Richter)

Job Quits

Conclusion

The economy is recovering but the persistent gap between job openings and unemployment suggests that upward pressure on wages is likely to continue into next year. Rising wage rates add pressure on prices of consumer goods and services, adding to the inflationary spiral.

Recent breakouts

Our recent breakout scan returned a number of promising stocks for review.

Australia

Orica (ORI) – rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure. Follow-through above 14.50 would complete a double bottom reversal.

Orica (ORI)

Canada

Precision Drilling (PD) – Trend Index trough above zero indicates strong buying pressure.

Precision Drilling (PD)

UK

Metro Bank (MTRO) – not a conventional breakout but rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure.

Metro Bank (MTRO)

USA

Marathon Petroleum (MPC) – Trend Index troughs above zero indicate strong buying pressure.

Marathon Petroleum (MPC)

More Breakouts

Spirit of Texas Bancshares (STXB) – shallow trough is a bullish sign. Trend Index holding above zero indicates strong buying pressure. Breakout above 25.00 would signal a fresh advance.

Spirit of Texas Bancshares (STXB)

CURO Group Holdings (CURO) – Trend Index trough above zero indicates strong buying pressure.

CURO Group Holdings (CURO)

Curtiss-Wright (CW) – Trend Index trough above zero indicates strong buying pressure.

Curtiss-Wright (CW)

Acuity Brands (AYI) – Trend Index troughs above zero indicate strong buying pressure. Follow-through above 200 is bullish.

Acuity Brands (AYI)

Apollo Gloabl Management (APO) – Trend Index trough above zero indicates strong buying pressure.

Apollo Global Management (APO)

Williams Companies (WMB) – Trend Index trough above zero indicates strong buying pressure.

Williams Companies (WMB)

Home Bancorp (HBCP) – shallow trough is a bullish sign. Trend Index trough above zero indicates strong buying pressure.

Home Bancorp (HBCP)

APA Corp (APA) – Breakout above 24.00.

APA Corp (APA)

Occidental Petroleum (OXY) – Breakout above 33.00.

Occidental Petroleum (OXY)

Shallow corrections and Trend Index troughs above zero indicate healthy buying pressure.

A word of caution: the above stocks are selected on the basis of technical analysis and do not consider fundamentals like sales, earnings, debt, etc.
Please do your own research. They are not a recommendation to buy or sell.