S&P 500: Expect slower earnings growth but no sign of recession

Credit growth in the US above 5% shows no signs of tighter credit conditions from an inverted yield curve. Growth in the broad money supply (MZM plus time deposits) has also not slowed, remaining close to 5%.

Credit Growth and Broad Money Supply

Growth in hours worked has slowed to 1.71%, suggesting that real GDP growth will dip below 2% in 2019 but remain positive.

Hours Worked and Real GDP growth

The Fed is unlikely to cut interest rates when average hourly earnings are growing at 3.2% (Total Private for the 12 months ended March 2019).

Average Hourly Wage Rate

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed fell below 1%, giving an early warning that GDP growth will slow.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

A similar dip below 1% occurred ahead of the last three recessions. A second, stronger dip would warn of recession ahead.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

The S&P 500 is advancing to test resistance at 2950/3000, while the Volatility Index crossed below 1%, signaling that risk is no longer elevated.

Treasury Yields

Real GDP is likely to slow this year but remain positive. S&P 500 earnings growth is expected to slow and the index is likely to meet stubborn resistance at 2950/3000. The Fed is still a long way off cutting interest rates (a strong bear signal) and there is no sign of recession on the 2019 horizon. An extended top is the most likely outcome.

Buybacks, interest rates and declining growth

The Fed did a sharp about-turn on interest rates this week: a majority of FOMC members now expect no rate increases this year. Long-term treasury yields are falling, with the 10-Year breaking support at 2.55/2.60 percent. Expect a test of 2.0%.

10-Year Treasury Yields

While the initial reaction of stocks was typically bullish, the S&P 500 Volatility Index (21-day) turned up above 1.0%, indicating risk remains elevated.

S&P 500

The reason for the Fed reversal — anticipated lower growth rates — is also likely to weigh on the market.

Stocks are already over-priced, with an S&P 500 earnings multiple of 21.26, well above the October 1929 and 1987 peaks. With earnings growth expected to soften, there is little to justify current prices.

S&P 500 Price-earnings (PEmax)

The current rally is largely driven by stock buybacks ($286 billion YTD) which dwarf the paltry inflow from ETF investors into US equities ($18 billion YTD). We are also now entering the 4 to 6-week blackout period, prior to earnings releases, when stock repurchases are expected to dip.

Why do corporations continue to repurchase stock at high prices? Warren Buffett recently reminded investors that buybacks at above a stock’s intrinsic (fair) value erode shareholder wealth. If we look at the S&P 500 in the period 2004 to 2008, it is clear that corporations get carried away with stock buybacks during a boom and only cease when the market crashes. They support their stock price in the good times, then abandon it when the market falls.

S&P 500 Buybacks
source: S&P Dow Jones Indices

Shareholders would benefit if corporations did the exact opposite: refrain from buying stock during the boom, when valuations are high, and then pile into the stock when the market crashes and prices are low. Why doesn’t that happen?

The culprit is typically low interest rates. It is hard for management to resist when stock returns are more than double the cost of debt. Buybacks are an easy way of boosting stock performance (and executive bonuses).

Treasury Yields: 3-Month & 5-Year

Corporations are using every available cent to buy back stock. Dividends plus buybacks [purple line below] exceed reported earnings [green] in most quarters over the last five years.

S&P 500 Buybacks & Dividends compared to Earnings

That means that capital expenditure and acquisitions were funded either with new stock issues or, more likely, with debt.

Corporate debt has been growing as a percentage of GDP since the 1980s. The pace of debt growth slowed since 2017 (shown by a down-turn in the debt/GDP ratio) but continues to increase in nominal terms.

Corporate Debt/GDP

Low interest rates mean that stock buybacks are likely to continue — unless there is a fall in earnings. If earnings fall, buybacks shrink. Declining earnings mean there is less available cash flow to buy back stock and corporations become far more circumspect about using debt.

S&P forecasts that earnings will rise through 2019.

S&P 500 Earnings

But forecasts can change. Expected year-on-year earnings growth for the March 2019 quarter has been revised down to 3.5%. Forecasts for June and September remain at 12.0% and 11.4% (YoY growth) respectively.

S&P 500 Year-on-Year Earnings Growth Forecast

If nominal GDP continues to grow at around 5% (5.34% in Q4 2018) and the S&P 500 buyback yield increases to 3.0% (2.93% at Q3 2019 according to Yardeni Research) then earnings growth, by my calculation* should fall to around 8.2%.

*1.05/0.97 -1.

With an expected dividend yield of 2%, investors in the S&P 500 can expect a return of just over 10% p.a. (dividend yield plus growth).

But the Fed now expects growth rates to fall by about 1.1% in 2019 and 1.2% in 2020, which should bring investor returns down to around 9% p.a. Not a lot to get excited about.

I knew something was wrong somewhere, but I couldn’t spot it exactly. But if something was coming and I didn’t know where from, I couldn’t be on my guard against it. That being the case I’d better be out of the market.
~ Jesse Livermore

“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.

ASX 200 gravestone

Australian housing prices are falling.

Australia: Housing Prices

Fueled by declining credit growth.

Australia: Housing Credit growth

With falling contribution to GDP growth from dwelling investment, and mining investment shrinking….

Australia: GDP Contribution

GDP growth is expected to weaken further.

Australia: GDP growth

The gravestone candlestick on the ASX 200 weekly chart warns of selling pressure. The primary trend is down and the index unlikely to break through resistance at 6300. Expect a correction to test support at 5650; breach would warn of another decline.

ASX 200

I remain cautious on Australian stocks and hold more than 40% in cash and fixed interest in the Australian Growth portfolio.

GDP up but ETF flows bearish

Real US GDP grew a healthy 3.1% in Q4 2018. Rising hours worked point to further gains in the new year.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

10-Year Treasury yields rallied slightly but only breakout above 2.80% would hint at a reversal in the down-trend, while breach of 2.60% would warn of further weakness. Inflows into Treasuries normally coincide with outflows from stocks, indicating a bearish outlook.

10-Year Treasury Yield

According to etf.com, US equities have seen $21.2 billion of ETF outflows YTD, while fixed income recorded $16.5 billion of inflows. The market remains risk-averse.

The S&P 500 continues to test resistance at 2800. Bearish divergence on 13-week Momentum (below) often precedes a market top. Another lower peak would reinforce the signal.

S&P 500 & Twiggs Momentum

A correction in March is likely, possibly on conclusion of US trade talks with China. Breach of 2600 would signal another test of primary support at 2350/2400.

“President Donald Trump said on Monday that he may soon sign a deal with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to end the countries’ trade war, if the two sides can bridge remaining differences.

But the lead U.S. negotiator said on Wednesday it was too early to predict the outcome. U.S. issues with China are ‘too serious’ to be resolved with promises from Beijing to purchase more U.S. goods and any agreement must include a way to ensure commitments are met, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said.” (Reuters)

We are in a bear market that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The strength of the next correction will confirm or refute this.

Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

Retail sales fall while trade talks stall

Retail sales

Retail sales growth (USA advance retail sales excluding autos and parts) fell sharply in December, indicating that consumer confidence is fading despite strong employment figures.

Advance Retail Sales

The decline in consumer confidence also shows in lower January 2019 light vehicle sales.

Light Vehicle Sales

Trade talks make little progress

Trivium provide a useful update on US-China trade negotiations:

The latest round of trade talks with the US are finishing up as we go to press. There hasn’t been much progress (Bloomberg): “As of Friday afternoon, there had been no visible progress on efforts to narrow the gap around structural reforms to China’s economy that the U.S. has requested, according to three U.S. and Chinese officials who asked not to be identified because the talks were private……Chinese officials are angry about what they see as US efforts to undermine their state-led economy.”

These are issues that will take generations to resolve. The chance of a quick fix is highly unlikely.

Stocks

The stock market continues to rally on the back of a solid earnings season.

Of the 216 issues (505 in the S&P 500 index) with full operating comparative data 154 (71.3%) beat, 51 (23.6%) missed, and 11 met their estimates; 135 of 215 (62.8%) beat on sales. (S&P Dow Jones Indices)

Index volatility remains high, however, and a 21-day Volatility trough above 1.0% would warn of a bear market. S&P 500 retreat below 2600 would reinforce the signal.

S&P 500

Crude prices continue to warn of a fall in global demand.

Light Crude

As do commodity prices.

DJ-UBS Commodities Index

10-Year Treasury yields are testing support at 2.50% and a Trend Index peak below zero warns of buying pressure from investors seeking safety (yields fall as prices rise).

10-Year Treasury Yield

The Nasdaq 100 shows rising Money Flow but I believe this is secondary in nature. The next correction is likely to provide a clearer picture.

Nasdaq 100

My conclusion is the same as last week. This is a bear market. Recovery hinges on an unlikely resolution of the US-China ‘trade dispute’.

Concessions to adversaries only end in self reproach, and the more strictly they are avoided the greater will be the chance of security.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

Robust US employment but global bear market warning

The US economy remains robust, with hours worked (non-farm) ticking up 2.2% in January, despite the government shutdown. Real GDP growth is expected to follow a similar path.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

Average hourly earnings growth increased to 3.4% p.a. for production and non-supervisory employees (3.2% for all employees). The Fed has limited wiggle room to hold back on further rate hikes if underlying inflationary pressures continue to rise.

Average Wage Rate Growth

History shows that the Fed lifts short-term interest rates more in response to hourly wage rates than core CPI.

Average Wage Rate Growth, Core CPI and 3-Month T-Bills

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed ticked down below 1% (0.98%) for November 2018. While not yet cause for concern, it does warn that the economy is slowing. Further falls, to below 0.5%, would warn of a recession.

Leading Index

Markets are anticipating a slow-down, triggered by falling demand in China more than in the US.

S&P 500 volatility remains high and a large (Twiggs Volatility 21-day) trough above 1.0% (not zero as stated in last week’s newsletter) on the current  rally would signal a bear market. Retreat below 2600 would strengthen the signal.

S&P 500

Crude prices have plummeted, anticipatiing falling global (mainly Chinese) demand. Another test of primary support at $42/barrel is likely.

Light Crude

Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index breached primary support at 79, signaling a primary decline with a target of 70.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

China’s Shanghai Composite Index is in a bear market. Respect of resistance at 2700 would confirm.

Shanghai Composite Index

Bearish divergence on India’s Nifty also warns of selling pressure. Retreat below 10,000 would complete a classic head-and-shoulders top but don’t anticipate the signal.

Nifty Index

DJ Stoxx Euro 600 rallied but is likely to respect resistance at 365/370, confirming a bear market.

DJ Stoxx Euro 600 Index

The UK’s Footsie also rallied but is likely to respect resistance at 7000. Declining Trend Index peaks indicate selling pressure, warning of a bear market.

FTSE 100 Index

My conclusion is the same as last week. This is a bear market. Recovery hinges on an unlikely resolution of the US-China ‘trade dispute’.

Concessions to adversaries only end in self reproach, and the more strictly they are avoided the greater will be the chance of security.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

‘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