S&P 500: Betting on QE

The S&P 500 continued its cautious advance in a shortened week due to Thanksgiving. Expect retracement to test the new support level at 3000.

S&P 500

I believe that the latest surge has little do with an improved earnings outlook and is simply a straight bet that Fed balance sheet expansion (QE) will goose stock prices in the short- to medium-term. The chart below highlights the timing of the increase in Fed assets and its effect on the S&P 500 index.

S&P 500 and Fed Total Assets

There is plenty of research on the web pointing to a strong correlation between QE and equity prices. Here are two of the better ones:

Economic Activity

If we look at fundamentals, many of them are headed in the opposite direction.

Bellwether transport stock Fedex (FDX) is testing primary support at 150. Breach would warn of a slow-down in economic activity.


Monthly container traffic at the Port of Los Angeles shows a marked year-on-year fall in imports and, to a lesser extent, exports.

Port of Los Angeles: Container Imports & Exports

Rather than boosting local manufacturers, industrial production is falling.

Industrial Production

Production of durable consumer goods is falling even faster, though the October figure may be distorted by the GM strike.

Industrial Production: Durable Consumer Goods

What is clear is that slowing growth in the global economy is unlikely to reverse any time soon.

Market Cap v. Corporate Profits

Yet market capitalization for non-financial stocks is at a precarious 24.7 times profits before tax, second only to the Dotcom bubble. The surge since 2010 coincides with Fed injection of a net $2.0 trillion into financial markets ($4.5T – $2.5T in excess reserves).

Nonfinancial corporations: Market Capitalisation/Profits before tax

The problem, as the Fed unwind showed, is that once central banks embark on this path, it is difficult for them to stop. The Bank of Japan started in the late 1980s — and is still at it.

Bank of Japan: Total Assets

Margin Debt

This chart from Advisor Perspectives compares the S&P 500 to margin debt. The decline since late 2018 appears ominous but November margin debt levels may reflect an up-turn. We will have to keep a weather eye on this.

FINRA Margin Debt & S&P 500 Index


Patience is required. First, wait for S&P 500 retracement to confirm the breakout. Second, look for an up-turn in November economic indicators, especially employment, to support the bull signal. Failure of economic indicators to confirm the breakout will flag that market risk is elevated and investors should exercise caution.

“If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.”
~ Carl Von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (On War) (1780-1831)

Priming the Pump

US stocks are buoyant on hopes that a Donald Trump presidency will benefit business, with major indexes flagging a bull market. But promises come first, the costs come later. While I support a broad infrastructure program and the creation of a level playing field in global markets, the actual execution of these ideas is critical and should not be allowed to be hijacked by the establishment for their own ends.

Erection of trade barriers is a useful negotiating position but is unlikely to be achieved without enormous damage to the global economy. As long as your trading partners think you are crazy enough to do it, they may be more amenable to establishing fair ground rules for international trade. If they don’t believe the threat, they will be happy to continue on their present path. So Trump walks a fine line between reassuring his allies and the domestic market, while keeping others guessing about his intentions.

Before we get carried away with hopes and expectations, however, we need to evaluate the current state of the economy in order to assess the current potential for growth.

The Cons

Let’s start with the negatives.

Construction spending is slow, at about three-quarters of pre-GFC (and sub-prime) levels. It will take more than an infrastructure program to restore this (though it is a step in the right direction). What is needed is higher growth expectations for the economy.

Construction Spending to GDP

Industrial production is close to its pre-GFC peak but has been declining since 2014.

Industrial Production Index

Job growth is slowing. Decline below 1.0 percent would be cause for concern.

Employment Growth

Rail and freight activity also reflects a slow-down since 2015.

Rail & Freight Index

The Philadelphia Fed’s broad-based Leading Index has also softened since 2014. Decline below 1.0 percent would be cause for concern.

Leading Index

One of my favorite indicators, this graph compares profit margins (per unit of gross value added) to employee costs. There is a clear cycle: employee costs (per unit) fall after a recession while profits rise. As the economy recovers and approaches full capacity, employee costs start to rise and profits fall — which leads to the next recession. At present we can clearly see employee costs are rising and profit margins are falling.

Profits and Employee Costs per unit of Value Added

It will be difficult for corporations to continue to grow earnings in this environment. Business investment is falling.

Gross Private Nonresidential Fixed Investment

Plowing money into stock buybacks rather than into new investment may shore up corporate performance for a while but hurts construction and industrial production. Turning this around is a major challenge facing the new administration.

The Pros

Retail sales are rising as increased employee compensation costs lift consumer confidence. Solid November sales with strong Black Friday numbers would help lift confidence even further.

Retail Sales

Light vehicle sales are also recovering, a key indicator of consumers’ long-term outlook.

Light Vehicle Sales

Rising sales and infrastructure investment are only part of the solution. What Donald Trump needs to do is prime the pump: introduce a fairer tax system, minimize red tape and reduce political interference in the economy, while enforcing strong regulation of the financial sector. Not an easy task, but achieving these goals would help restore business confidence, revive investment, and set the economy on a sound growth path.

In the short run, the market is a voting machine
but in the long run it is a weighing machine.

~ Benjamin Graham: Security Analysis (1934)

Europe’s Economy Shows Weakness – WSJ.com

Italy was forced to pay its highest interest rate since the euro’s creation to sell five-year bonds—a sign of skepticism that new governments in Italy and Greece will be able to simultaneously boost economic growth and reduce high public-debt levels……Industrial production in the euro zone plunged 2% in September from August, the steepest slide since February 2009, according to the European Union’s statistics agency. The decline stretched from the weak periphery of Spain, Italy and Portugal to powerhouses such as Germany, France and the Netherlands. Compared with a year ago, output rose just 2.2%—the weakest gain in nearly two years. The data suggest “the euro-zone will soon fall back into another fairly deep recession,” said Ben May, economist at consultancy Capital Economics.

via Europe’s Economy Shows Weakness – WSJ.com.

Euro-Zone Industrial Production Rises – WSJ.com

Industrial production across the 17 countries that share the euro increased at an unexpectedly strong pace in August and for the second straight month.The increase is partly a result of big output increases in Ireland and Portugal, two countries that received bailouts from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.The European Union’s official statistics agency Eurostat said Wednesday industrial production rose by 1.2% from a month earlier and was up 5.3% from a year earlier.

via Euro-Zone Industrial Production Rises – WSJ.com.