Observations and Outlook April 2018

First quarter of 2018 turned out much differently than investors had been expecting at the turn of the New Year.  In January’s note, there were many sentiment indicators that had eclipsed their all-time highs. The highest percentage of investors expecting higher prices in twelve months was recorded.  Equity markets peaked on January 26 and fell 12%, followed by a large bounce into mid-March then subsequent decline that left us at quarter end about 4% above intraday lows from February.  We may be seeing the first stages of the end of the 9-year-old bull market.  Looking back at 2007 and 2000, the topping process can be choppy with market gyrations of +/-10%.   This is a complete 180 degree turn from the past two years where volatility was non-existent and equity markets went the longest period ever without a 5% decline.  Expect continued choppiness as the impact of Tax Reform filters through the economy and if corporations can continue the blistering pace of earnings growth going forward.  At the same time for mostly the same reasons, interest rates are likely to be range-bound.  Very recently the price of oil climbed on a news release that the Saudis would like to see $80/bbl oil.  Rising oil prices would be akin to a tax on consumers and hamper US growth.

Sentiment as seen by the AAII % bullish rolling 8-week average has declined from its euphoric high at 49% in January, down to 33%.  At the bottom of the last correction in early 2016 this average was 23%.  The current correction may be over and a lot of selling pressure has been exhausted there is room to the downside still. A reading in the mid 20% has been a good area to mark a low in the markets.  Sentiment is often a lagging indicator.  Investors are most enthusiastic after large price gains.  The opposite is true too in that sentiment numbers go low after a price decline.   It can be helpful to take a contrarian view as sentiment measures move to extremes.

aaii rolling bulls 4 2018

Blame for the downturn in January was due to a slightly hotter than expected print of Average Hourly Earnings (AHE), and the resulting concern over how quickly the Fed will raise interest rates.  The rapid change in AHE has not followed through into February and March, yet stocks remain well off their highs.  Analysts have been looking for wage pressures due to very low unemployment numbers for a long time.  The lack of wage growth is likely to the re-entrance of discouraged workers back into the labor force.  As a discouraged worker, who ‘hasn’t looked for work in the past month’, they are removed from the workforce.  When the number of unemployed decreases (the numerator) along with the total workforce (the denominator), the unemployment percentage rate goes down.  A low unemployment rate at the same time there is little wage pressure is due to the workforce participation rate being very low.  Focusing on the total number of people employed, which is still growing on a year over year basis, may give us a better read on employment situation without looking at the unemployment rate.  Any impact from Tax Reform should show up in an acceleration of year over year Total Employees growth.

total employed 4 2018

A more telling chart, and perhaps the real reason behind President Trump’s fiscal stimulus is the following chart. Using the same raw data that created the above chart, the chart below tracks the monthly, year over year percentage change in total nonfarm employees in the United States.  There are no seasonal adjustments etc.  While we are growing, the rate of increase in the total number of people working, is slowing.

% change in total employed 4 2018

Forward guidance from companies will be critical.  Expectations are still quite high regarding full year earnings and end of year price target for the S&P500, currently about 3000, 15% higher than todays price level.  During the first quarter, when earnings from Q4 2017 were reported, companies beating earnings estimates were rewarded only slightly, while companies missing earnings had their stock prices pushed down.  It seems there is still a ‘priced to perfection’ hurdle that companies must overcome.

 

The largest macroeconomic driver for the remainder of the year is the now global shift from QE (quantitative easing) to QT (quantitative tightening).   This global liquidity spigot the Central Banks have been running on full blast for the past 9 years has begun to end.  The US Federal Reserve stopped buying bonds (adding dollars to markets) and began raising rates.  These are tightening liquidity.  While in 2017 the European and Japanese central banks more than made up for the Federal Reserves actions, both have been broadcasting plans to temper their liquidity injections.  China is tightening as now in preparation for increased stimulus to coincide with the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary in power in 2021.

Over the past 9 years global liquidity additions has been the key driver to global asset prices.  As these additions slow and become subtractions, one must assume it will impact financial markets.  Most importantly global US Dollar-liquidity is the most important as the Dollar is the global reserve currency.  Recently the LIBOR-OIS has been in the news, having risen dramatically over the past few months.  This index is a rate that compares the overnight cost of interbank dollar borrowing in the US vs Europe.  The cost to borrow US Dollars in Europe has gone up dramatically.  A low cost would reflect ample Dollars for those who need them, a higher cost reflects a shortage of dollar-liquidity.  The TED Spread compares the interest rate on 90-day treasury bills and the 90-day LIBOR rate.  The TED spread is 90-day rates and the LIBOR OIS is overnight rates, and they follow each other closely.    The crux of it that they both measure the availability of funds in the money markets.  If these rates go up, it is seen as a decrease in available funds.

ted spread and us dollar 4 2018

The chart above tracks the TED spread and the US dollar.  The relationship is loose but fits well over multiple quarters.  If this relationship is correct, the US dollar should dramatically increase in value in the coming months.  An increase in the US Dollar will push the prices of non-US assets lower, make dollar denominated debt widely used in emerging markets more difficult to pay back and have further repercussions in debt markets.  A weak US Dollar is the underpin of global asset prices, and a stronger dollar, along with Quantitative tightening will be a strong headwind to asset prices in the second half of 2018.  If earnings can continue to growth strongly and more workers can be added at a strong pace, both leading to more credit growth, this headwind may be able to be offset.

In addition to international money market rates, the slowing velocity of money has been a constant impediment to economic growth.  Or, rather, the low velocity of money is indicative of an economy that continues to languish despite massive amounts of new money put into the system.  If the pace of money flowing through the economy slows, GDP can be increased by putting more money into the system.  More money moving slowly can be like a small amount of money moving quickly.   If money is removed from the system via tightening measure from central banks, and we do not see an increase in the velocity of money, GDP will decline.  The slowing of VoM has been a problem since 2000 and is likely directly related to ‘why’ the Fed keeps rates extremely low for very long periods of time.  Of course, if VoM were to return to 1960’s levels, interest rates would be substantially higher, causing a re-pricing of all assets—which is a topic for another day.

fredgraph

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

awaszkowski@namcoa.com    239.410.6555

This commentary is not intended as investment advice or an investment recommendation. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Price and yield are subject to daily change and as of the specified date. Information provided is solely the opinion or our investment managers at the time of writing. Nothing in the commentary should be construed as a solicitation to buy or sell securities. Information provided has been prepared from sources deemed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed by NAMCO and may not be a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision.  Liquid securities, such as those held within managed portfolios, can fall in value. Naples Asset Management Company, LLC is an SEC Registered Investment Adviser. For more information, please contact us at awaszkowski@namcoa.com

Was that the Top or the Bottom?

The Wall Street Journal had a very good article detailing one of the root causes of the February decline.  A classic ‘tail-wagging-the dog’ story about derivatives and how they can impact other markets that are seemingly unrelated.  While the outlook for global equities informs the level of the VIX, we have just seen an incident where forced trades of VIX futures impacted futures prices of equity markets.   Its as though the cost of insuring against market declines went up so much that it caused the event it was insuring against.

Even with that being known, the impact to market sentiment has been dramatic.  Most sentiment indices went from extremely optimistic to extreme fear in a matter of days.  This change in attitude by market participants may have a lasting impact.  A rapid decline like we saw in February will reduce optimism and confidence (which underpin a bull market rise), and increase fear and pessimism, which are the hallmarks of a bear market.   Short term indicators turned very negative and now are more neutral, but longer-term sentiment indicators will take a longer decline to move negative.

Often the end of a bull market is marked by a rise in volatility, with equity prices falling 5-10%, then climbing back up only to get knocked down again, until finally prices cease climbing back up.  This can take several weeks or months.  We can see this in the market tops in 2000 and 2007.  This may be occurring now.  Many of the market commentary I follows the approximate theme of ‘markets likely to test the 200-day moving average’.  This is the level the February decline found support.  This would be about 7% below current prices, and have the makings of a completed correction, finding support once and then retesting.

Since the market highs in late January the major stock indices fell 12%, then gained 6-10% depending on the index.  Since that bottom and top; markets moved down about 4.5%, then again up into yesterday (3/13/2018) gaining 4% to 7%.  Tech shares and small caps have outperformed large cap along the way, rising more, but falling the same during this series.   Recognizing the size of these moves and the time frame can help manage one’s risk and exposure without getting overly concerned with a 2-3% move in prices.  But if one is not aware of how the 3% moves are part of the larger moves, one might wait through a series of small declines and find themselves uncomfortable just as a decline is ending—contemplating selling at lower prices as opposed to looking to buy at lower prices.  Hedging is a process to dampen the markets impact on a portfolio in the short term while looking for larger longer-term trend turning points. The high in January and current decline and bounce are likely a turning point over the longer term and in the near term provide investors with parameters to determine if the bull trend is still intact.

February Correction: VIX and XIV

Markets in February saw the end of a 499-day (almost two years) winning streak, when the S&P 500 had avoided even a 5% pullback.   At the end of that period equity markets were climbing at a parabolic fashion, with gains quickening into January 26th top.   From December 26th to January 26th saw a gain of 7.2%, or an annualized pace of 132%, capping a two-year gain of more than 55% for the S&P500.

The current correction, has given back almost 12%.   The cause has widely been attributed to a climb in interest rates and finally a larger than expected print in Average Hourly Earnings.  While this data point coincided with the turn, rates had been climbing since early September and accelerated along with stocks in January.  There were a few weeks where rapidly climbing rates occurred at the same time as rapidly climbing stock prices, and then when prices fell, the fall was attributed to those same rising rates.

Todays Wall Street Journal finally had a decent article on another cause of the rapid decline in stock prices.   Over the past few years, “selling volatility” via a few inverse-VIX etp’s had been a huge winner. The largest vehicle, ticker XIV, had gone from $20/share in early 2016 to $146/share in January 2018.  This ETP’s price would go up an equal amount, in percentage terms that the VIX (aka ‘fear index’) would decline. As long as volatility stayed low, XIV’s price would climb.

There were two big problems with this product.  As it grew to several billion in assets, it became so large that that it dwarfed the underlying derivatives market in which it participated.  If the VIX moved a little more than it had in recent weeks, it would cause the fund to overwhelm the derivatives market.   In early February the fund owned 42% of all the outstanding March VIX futures contracts.  Any disturbance in the VIX could require the fund to purchase more than half of all the contracts, that it had originally sold in a very short period of time.

The second problem was that its returns were 100% of the opposite of whatever the VIX did in one day.  That means if the VIX moved from 10 to 20, a gain of 100%, then XIV should lose 100% of its value.  The kicker is that this indeed has happened a few times over the past 10 years.

So the set up was a parabolic price advance, and then a concern that maybe rates were going up too fast, which may push central banks to tighten monetary policy more quickly, which caused the VIX to rise from all time lows, forcing XIV to overwhelm the underlying markets, creating a vicious circle of selling that spilled over into equity futures, exacerbating the stock market decline.  XIV stopped trading on February 21st, closing at $6.04.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

“Good” Inflation: Rising rates and falling stocks

Over the past week, the Dow fell by 4%, more than halving its ytd gains through Friday 1/19 (all time high).   Bonds continued the decline started in mid-December, bringing losses during the current ‘bond rout’ to -5.7% year to date.  That is a one week decline in the Dow of 4% and a four-week decline in long-bond prices of 5.7%.  Balanced investors have seen stocks gain and bonds lose, putting most investors (moderately conservative to moderately aggressive) at a mild gain or loss so far this year.  Generally, diversification across asset classes reduces volatility when bonds go up, stocks generally are weaker and vice versa.    When the classes move together differentiation across risk profiles diminishes.  Stocks remain in a strong uptrend and given the substantial gains over the past few months, equity centric investors should be able to take this in stride (or they shouldn’t be equity-centric) as 4% is a small blip in a strong multi-quarter uptrend awash in investor optimism, all-time low cash levels, all-time high exposure to stocks and financial assets and expectations of higher wages, earnings and GDP growth.   In this light, a rebound, or ‘buy the dip’ would not be surprising.  The new feature though is that volatility has returned.

The ‘bond rout spilling into equities’ explaination has to do with relative attractiveness.  If rates keep rising, bond prices are hurt, while becoming more attractive (due to higher yields) to equity investors, putting pressure on equity prices.  At some point, earning safe interest attracts enough investors from stocks to weaken stock prices.  The S&P 500 dividend yield is now 1.8%, similar to what can be found offered on 18 month CD.

Rate have climbed due to rising inflation expectations.  Inflation is expected to, finally, exceed the 2% goal set by the Federal Reserve ‘in the coming months’.  Current thinking is that a tight labor market is pushing AHE (average hourly earnings, +2.9% Jan ’18 vs Jan ’17), combined with more take home pay (via tax reform), will result in more spending from consumers and investment from business.  This will take time but markets have already priced it all in.  Just like the stock market has priced in exceptional earnings growth to match its exceptional valuations.  The chart below shows us that we’ve been in a tightening labor market for years without being able to hold above 2.0% inflation but briefly.

infl vs unemplmnt

Given the new feedback loop between stocks and bonds, perhaps we shouldn’t be so excited about inflation, even if its ‘good’.  On the bright side, the past few years has seen 3.25% as a top in 30yr bond yields and perhaps a decline in rates near term may help both bond holders and stock investors alike.

Observations and Outlook January 2018

Investors have not been as fully invested in the stock market since 2000.  Does this mean anything?

Maybe.  It is a reflection of investor expectations though.  One can infer this by assuming investors own what they think will go up in price and therefore is investors are very long, then they expect prices to rise.  The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) recorded the highest level of optimism in 7 years, since December 2010.  The historical average is 38.5%.   In an article from AAII, dated January 4, 2018 they review how markets performed after unusually high bullish and usually low bearish sentiment readings.

From AAII:    “There have only been 46 weeks with a similar or higher bullish sentiment reading recorded during the more than 30-year history of our survey. The S&P 500 index has a median six-month return of 0.5% following those previous readings, up slightly more times than it has been down.   Historically, the S&P 500 has realized below-average and below-median returns over the six- and 12-month periods following unusually high bullish sentiment readings and unusually low bearish sentiment readings. The magnitude of underperformance has been greater when optimism is unusually high than when pessimism has been unusually low.”

This does not necessarily mean that our current market will decline rapidly.  Actually, AAII finds that while returns are below-median, they are positive.  Positive as in ‘above zero’.   Sentiment drives markets and when sentiment gets too extreme, either in bullish for stocks or bearishness for bonds or any other financial asset, returns going forward are likely to disappoint.  If everyone has bought (or sold) who is left to drive prices up (or down)?   What we need to recognize is that investors become optimistic after  large advances in the stock market, and pessimistic after declines.  UM-Probability-of-Stock-Mkt-Rise-Oct-2017-1024x705_thumb1

Again, this chart above does not mean we are about to enter a bear market.  It only shows the markets progress at points of extreme optimism.  We can see in 2013 into 2015 rising expectations and a rising market as well as from 2003 to 2007.   Now that we can visualize the mood of the market, lets review some other metrics from 2017 and what is in store for 2018.

2017 was interesting in several areas.  It was the first time in history the S&P500 had a ‘perfect year’ where every month showed gains in stock prices.  We are also in record territory for the longest length of time without a 5% pullback, almost 2 years.   Historically, 5% drawdowns have occurred on average 3-4 times each year.  In addition to price records, there are several valuation metrics at or near all-time records.    The ‘Buffet Indicator’ (market capitalization to GDP) just hit 1.4, a level not seen since Q4 1999.  “Highest ever” records are exceeded well into mature bull markets, not the early stages.  Stock markets generally spend most of the time trying to recover to previous highs and far less of the time exceeding them.    Momentum and priced-to-perfection expectations regarding tax policy are driving investors to be all-in this market, as reflected by Investors Intelligence Advisors’ (IIA) and American Assoc. of Individual Investors (AAII) stock allocation and sentiment surveys each at 18 and 40-year extremes.  Combined with the Rydex Assets Bull/Bear Ratio, at its all-time extreme bullish reading, it’s difficult to argue who else there is to come into the market and buy at these levels.

However, bullish extremes and extreme valuations can persist.  Their current levels do likely indicate that we are well into a mature bull market.   The bull was mature in 1998 too and went on to get even more extreme.  This is the case many perma-bulls trot out, that since were not as extreme as 1999, there is plenty of room to run, and ‘dont worry’.

The US Dollar and Quantitative Tightening

The current ‘conundrum’ is why is the US dollar so weak?  We have a Fed that is raising interest rates growth likely to exceed 3% in the fourth quarter.  Usually a rising currency would accompany these conditions.    The dollar declined throughout 2017.  This was a tailwind for assets outside the U.S. whose value in dollar terms increases as the dollar declines vs foreign currencies.   If the dollar begins to move back up this will be a headwind for ex-US assets and for sales/profits to large companies in the S&P 500 who do almost half their business outside the U.S.

In addition, central banks have given notice that, while the Fed ended QE in late 2015, other central banks are beginning to end their programs with the European Central Bank reducing its bond purchases from 60 billion euros per month to the current 30 billion, and down to 0 in September 2018.   The Bank of Japan (and the Japanese Pension Fund) have declared they are reducing their purchase of stocks, bonds, and ETFs.  Only China hasn’t formally announced and end to market interventions.   Most pundits are pointing to the bond market as the area that will be most affected.  Possibly, but to claim that bonds will get hurt and stocks will be fine is ignoring how global equities have performed hand-in-glove with banks’ liquidity injections over the past 10 years.  Both stocks and bonds will likely be affected.

Yield Curve Inversion (or not)

I102YTYS_IEFFRND_I30YTR_chart

The chart above shows in red the persistent decline in 30-year treasury rates.  This week Bill Gross called the bottom (in rates, the top in prices).  This may be premature as one can see dips and climbs over the past few years, all of which have been accompanied by calls of the end of the 35 year bond bull market.

What is more interesting is that in the past 3 recessions, the yield curve as seen through the 10-2 Year Treasury Yield Spread declines, through the zero level (aka inversion, 10yr bonds paying less than 2 year notes) before a recession.   Our current level of .5% is not far from zero.   Most people are waiting to see it invert before saying a recession in on the way, often adding it will be a year beyond that point.    If one looks very closely at the chart we can see said spread actually increase after bottoming out, just prior to a recession starting (which wont be officially recognized until 6-8 months along).   While there are different factors influencing the 2yr and the 10yr rates, a spread widening might be a more important development than continued compression.

Finally, what does all this mean for an investor.   In short, we must all recognize that a 24 month span without a 5% decline is extremely unusual, as there are often 3-4 in a given year.   Also that when investors are most optimistic, returns often lag with the more extreme readings leading to more significant changes.  Mature bull markets eventually end and investors with a longer term horizon need to have a strategy not only for growing their investments, but also protecting the gains one already has.

We all know how to deal with a bull market, but few people have a strategy on how to deal with a bear market.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Money for Nothing: from QE to QT

During the crisis, central banks lowered interest rates dramatically during the stock market crash.  The Fed Funds Rate went from 5.25% July 2007 to 3.0% March 2008 (when Bear Stearns failed, most people remember Lehman, which failed in September).   That summer Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae failed and the FFR was lowered to 2% and then 1% in September and finally 0% was the official rate in December 2008.  All the while financial asset prices kept falling and the economy was hemorrhaging.  Soon after hitting 0% as the cost of money to the banking system, the Federal Reserve started Quantitative Easing, where the Federal Reserve would buy mortgage backed securities (as well as other tax-payer insured instruments) to provide ‘liquidity’ to the markets.   The stated goal was to increase the prices of assets (stocks, real estate, bonds) so that the “wealth effect” would spur people to spend money rather than save it.  Given the anemic pace of economic expansion, the primary effect QE has had has been to push up stock prices well beyond normal valuations.

While the US has ceased QE, raised interest rates off the 0% mark, and laid out a plan to shrink its balance sheet (taking liquidity away from the market); the European and Japanese central banks continue to buy assets. The Europeans buy corporate bonds and the Japanese buy everything including equities.  The ECB has expressed a desire to cease its purchases (stopping new liquidity into the market) starting in 2018, but have not committed to a schedule.  The chart above combines all the central bank’s asset purchases and projections into 2019 overlaid with global equities.  On the chart below, notice how the EM (emerging markets withdrew liquidity late 2015 to 2017—emerging market stock indices (EEM) fell 39% from Sept 2014 through Jan 2016).  Additionally we can observe the effect central bank purchases have had on interest rate spreads, giving investors the most meager additional interest for taking on additional risk.

The chart shows the Fed’s net reductions in liquidity and the Swiss, Japanese and Europeans declining levels of new liquidity to the marketplace.   Given that adding liquidity boosted asset prices, as additional liquidity slows and possibly reverses, it is not unreasonable to assume markets will become much more volatile as we approach that time.  We will likely see the effects of Quantitative Tightening (QT) beginning in, and throughout 2018.  One way to counteract this, would be for private investors to save/invest rather than spend this difference (approx. $1.2 trillion), but a reduction in consumer spending would bring its own problems.

central bank purchases 2019