Client Note April 2021

May 10, 2021

The close of April brings us 1/3 of the way through 2021.  After a very rapid start in January and subsequent pullback, April was a strong month across all asset classes.  For the month, the S&P500 gained 5.8%, gold gained 3.8%, corporate bonds gained 1% and long-term Treasuries gained 2.4%. Stocks in Asia have weakened while European shares have been catching up to the US.  Portfolios gained in April and the average Moderate portfolio is up 6% year to date.

We are still in a “value over growth” market, where traditional industries like materials, industrials, financials, utilities are outpacing the growth areas like technology and biotech.  We had been in a market were large-cap growth” (aka technology, aka FAANG) and small-cap stocks had been dominating, but since mid-February markets have been driven by dividend paying stocks and other cyclical areas.  This will likely continue until evidence that we are not going to grow as rapidly as investors currently believe.   Friday’s massive miss in unemployment (1million new jobs expected; 266,000 actual) may be the first data point that could show a much more moderate pace of growth going forward.

The still high expectations of rapid growth see inflation data as evidence that the economy is about to run red-hot.   If we read below the headlines, we can see that commodity prices like lumber are being driven by more than US housing demand.  A years-ago beetle infestation in Canada has limited US lumber imports; sawmill shutdowns due to Covid, AND housing have been sources of supply disruption.  The combination has pushed prices to extreme levels.  China is the world’s largest consumer of raw materials.  China’s early control of Covid-19 and truly massive stimulus spending (approximately 10% of GDP in 2020) has underpinned demand for such commodities and agricultural products.    This makes much more sense than inflation driven by US aspirations to get back to pre-Covid levels, which saw sub-2% growth for several years.  In addition, supply chain disruption due to a varied array of local shutdown conditions across the US has made year over year comparisons and identifying specific bottlenecks a challenge.   Currently, China’s credit impulse is on the wane, while US stimulus takes the reins in 2021.  US stimulus usually takes longer to impact the economy, however.  In the longer run, the US needs to maintain our reserve currency status—by creating enough US dollars for the rest of the world to use—but that is a topic for another day.

I expect forward-looking estimates of growth in the US to decline to more normal levels and at the same time, interest rates and inflation expectations to decline moderately.  Interest rates have been sideways now for almost 10 weeks. I will be looking for further confirmation of this in economic data into the end of the quarter.

 

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

 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.

Client Note December 2020

January 12, 2021

2020, despite a massive pandemic and a severe global recession, central banks, with some fiscal assistance from governments, have managed to keep financial asset prices elevated.  Significant declines in revenues, profits and employment arguably the worst since the 1930’s alongside surging stock index price levels, have conspired to give us the most overvalued market since 1929 or 2000 (some argue “ever”).    How long can this endure?  Depends on when central banks begin to whisper about ‘normalization’.

For 2020, the SP500 gained 18.4%, the aggregate bond index gained 7.5%, and gold gained 26%.  European shares eked out a positive year while the Asian indexes fared very well.  My conservative portfolios gained mid to upper single digits while the average moderate portfolio gained a bit more than 13% on the year.   The pullback in Moderna and precious metals provided a weak end and lackluster start to the year.    The energy sector was the worst sector in the SP500, losing 28% and the tech sector fared the best gaining 48%.  Healthcare and energy are likely to be strong outperformers in 2021.  The addition of TSLA to the SP500 has increased the risk of market volatility. Past observances of new additions to the index show they generally perform worse than prior to their addition.  TSLAs outrageous market value (valued more than the 9 largest global auto makers combined; selling at 28x sales) and the 7th largest company in the index, put the index and any sector it is in at risk of increased volatility.

Gold and gold miners are at risk of starting another correction.  Recent lows at Thanksgiving are being approached.  The rally from late November to January 6 was the largest run up since gold’s consolidation began in August.  However, IF we can hold the longer-term uptrend, upside potential is significant.   Bonds too, are seeing prices under pressure as metals/lumber/agriculture/oil prices’ surge is generating calls of “Inflation!”.   It’s quite early to claim prices are going up due to renewed growth.

Asia came out of the COVID-19 lockdowns much quicker and effectively than western nations.  This re-opening (as a result of very stringent testing/tracing/ and effective lockdowns) allowed those economies to re-stock and re-open driving up demand and prices for raw commodities.   From 2015 to late 2017 base metal prices and oil were moving up quickly.  Cries of inflation were heard then as well.  Inflation never showed up (unless you count 2.1% as INFLATION).  This is due directly to US consumer spending growth, or lack thereof.

Aggregate consumer spending is significantly below trend.    Dig a little deeper and you can see many economic indicators picked up in 2015 through 2017, then rolled over during summer 2018, after the brief impact of tax reform (most of the benefits went to the top where additional money isn’t spent). Current total annual spending was $14.8trillion and growing at 4.2% for the past few years (income at almost the exact same rate).  MOST recently spending has declined the past few months while aggregate income also is declining.  Today we can see the next few months will likely show a spending gap of $1trillion.  A $1trillion gap is almost 7% of total spending and reflects the concurrent GDP output gap and an outright decline in GDP of around 4% year over year.  Looking ahead, the real problem may lie in the US inability to deal with the virus effectively.  Yesterday, an article stated that in Ohio, 50% of nursing home workers are refusing the vaccine.   Layer in low compliance with mask mandates (>70% compliance in order to be effective), and I truly wonder if an end to the virus is, in fact, in the offing.

As a consumer driven economy, the point is, while one can find prices of products higher (or packaging smaller at the same price), we spent a lot less in 2020 and will continue into 2021.  And unless personal spending increases, we should not see a difference in the economy or inflation going forward.  This may bode well for bonds.  TLT the 20-yr treasury bond elf, gained more than 15% in 2020, but has fallen a similar amount off its highs this summer.  Expectations for higher rates may have gotten ahead of itself and we could be near a low in prices.  Layer in the fact that bets against prices are near extremes may indicate the decline in bond prices is nearing an end.

In addition, or perhaps running parallel to the decline in spending is the truly massive amount of people on unemployment insurance.  In 2006, Continuing Claims for unemployment insurance hit a low of 2.35 million.  This began to increase in early 2007 and hit a high of 6.62million in June 2009, after the Great Financial Crisis. By June 2010, this fell to below 4.5million, and continued to decline into October 2018 to 1.65million. Claims remained flat until February 2020.  May 9, 2020 claims hit 24.91million.  And over the past 8 months has receded to only 5.1million.  It was only in November that our current Continuing Claims for Unemployment Insurance fell below the GFR Peak in 2010.  The number and duration of unemployment today has not been seen in the post WWII era.  Fortunately, today, we have unemployment insurance and a Federal Reserve acting to support financial markets (almost perpetually since 2009).

We should not expect any kind of normalization in the economy or improving numbers at least until employment, and thusly spending, improve rapidly.  This is completely dependent upon containing the spread of covid-19.

Due to the length and depth of the declines in spending and employment, the longer-term collateral damage will not be seen until things begin to normalize. Once all the rent and loan deferments, PPP loans, random stimulus checks, and enhanced unemployment benefits disappear we will be able to see the extent of the long -term damage.   Ironically, that knowledge will come at the same time we declare victory over this virus-recession and may be concurrent with a market decline.

In the meantime, let us hope the Fed does not mention ANYthing about tapering the current $120billion per month they are pumping into the financial markets, hoping that the Wealth Effect is more than theory.  So, while prices continue to climb, we will participate and listen intently for any signs the Fed is “confident” enough to reduce the variety of market interventions currently underway.

 

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

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.

Client Note June 2020

As we close June and the first half of 2020, financial markets continue their rebound from the first quarter’s corona-crash.  In very volatile markets there will be many “best/worst X since Y”.  The close at 3100 on the SP500 reflects the best quarter in the sp500 since 1987, with a gain of 19.9%.  After a 36% decline off the all-time high and subsequent 40% gain, puts the SP500 at -4% year to date and -9% below the all-time highs.  Our average moderate portfolio gained almost 15% for the quarter and is up 4% on the year.  While further upside is possible but in the short term, US equity markets are in a downtrend since June 23.  On a larger time, frame, we have downtrends since June 8 and off the highs on February 19thGetting over 3200 should open the door towards 3400+, but if we lose the 3000 level, my medium-term outlook will change.  Our individual stocks continue to do very well.

International equities continue to sorely lag US equities.  European shares gained 2.5% on the month, and currently sit at -14% year to date.  Japan gained 1% and China ebbed 1.6% on the month and both fall well short of the SP500 at -7% and -9%, respectively, year to date.  Emerging markets were the winner on the month at +6% but also have made far less progress recovering post-crash, coming in at     -11% year to date. We sold the last bits of emerging and international equities towards the end of the month.

In credit markets, treasuries have dominated over all other areas of the bond markets.  The long bond/20-yr treasury ebbed by 2.25% during the month, is flat for the quarter and up a massive 20% for 2020.  Even with equivalent maturities, treasuries are outpacing investment grade and junk bonds by 5% and 17%(!) respectively.  The investment grade corporate bond etf, LQD is up 5.1% ytd, while junk bond etf, JNK is -7.7% ytd.   This disparity is due to the rapid credit deterioration seen during this severe recession.  Given this, and spike in covid19 cases, its unlikely rates will rise appreciably in the near term.  Our long treasury position was reduced late March at slightly higher prices.

Economic data released in June continue to show improvement over the April/May shutdown (naturally).    The pace at which the economy would rebound after reopening is a hot topic.  We are seeing rapid improvement in some areas but the estimates versus data are showing extremely poor forecasting ability by economists in the short term.  I am watching year over year data to see how much rebound we are getting.  If July and August data show similar growth as May and June, we could see 90% of more of the economy back by Labor Day.  The trend of economic recovery is far more important than the level.  Ideally, we will trend higher and higher until full recovery.   At the end of July, we will get the first read on GDP for the second quarter.  The Atlanta Fed current estimate has risen to   -36%. 

Looking forward, the recent spike in virus cases has opened the door to the risk that the re-opening of the economy will be slowed, as we are more likely to see county or regional shutdowns.  Continued support from the Fed and continuation of stimulus programs are critical.  A bit higher in equities may provide some momentum to get to 3400 and Fed intervention can keep rates low.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Client Note April 2020

Equity markets moved up strongly in April.  The S&P500 moved up 12%, and currently off 3% from the April 29th intraday high.  Gold jumped early in the month, then flat for a gain of 7% in April.  Long treasury bonds moved up in price by 1% but have been on the wane since April 21st.   Most asset classes have been rangebound (+/-3%) since early to mid-April, reflecting a decrease in market momentum.  The average moderate portfolio gained approximately 9% vs the SP500 gains of 12% in April.  Year to date, through April 30, SP500 is off 9.9% while most portfolios are very close to 0% year to date. 

Economic data continues to come in at extremely negative levels.  Auto sales fell by 45% April 2020 vs April 2019.  China, in February saw a 90% drop.  Current market sentiment is bearish and consumer confidence declined from 101 in February to 71 in April.  This is similar to the decline from February 2007 to June 2008 (the month Fannie and Freddie’s first attempted bailout, after losing 50% of their value that month), which saw a decline of 35%.  This could be another reflection on how this recession is being ‘front-loaded’.   We have seen already how GDP and employment has fallen as much as the entire 2008 Great Financial Crisis, but now expect robust rebound by year end.

In light of all this, equity markets have remained buoyant, after the March decline.  This may further indicate the front-loaded- ‘ness’ of this economic period.  And at the root of it all is the expectation that the economy will rebound strongly in the second half and especially in the 4th quarter of 2020.  While GDP estimates for Q2, which will come out at the end of July, range from -10% to -30% (annualized basis), some estimates for Q4 are as high as +20%.    I believe that we are again priced for perfection.  The past few years saw valuations (price to earnings, price to sales, etc.) elevated with expectations of an acceleration in earnings and wages to justify the then-current prices.  Today a significant economic rebound is priced into the market.   If the economy in late May and June isn’t picking up quickly enough it could put pressure on equity prices.  It depends on re-opening the economy and that depends on subduing the pandemic.

We have seen momentum decline recently and thus increases the potential for volatility in equity markets.  If the S&P500 cannot breakout above 3000 in the near term, we’re likely to remain rangebound vacillating +/- 6%.  Bonds and gold are at a point where they are testing support and have the potential to move several percent as well.  If we are to remain rangebound, my preference would be to reduce risk until there is more confidence in further upside.

On a side note, I have significantly reduced the amount of cable and national news I watch on TV.  It’s the same sad and fearful story we’ve heard the past 6 weeks.  I have noticed I feel better doing this.  A client went back north recently and was surprised/disheartened at the difference in the local news in Naples vs the local news in the tri-state area.  Avoiding the bad news TV and enjoying the good news of spending time with family/projects/hobbies/exercise can be an important factor in getting through this time and being ready to embrace the other side of this crisis.

Stay safe and thank you,

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

March Client Note

The collapse in prices is the fastest decline of 20%, off the market highs, ever.   Looking into the immediate future, the economic/unemployment/earnings data will be horrible.  GDP for Q1 will come in at -15%, Q2 may see -20%.  These should be expected given we’ve shut 1/3 of the economy down.  In a ‘normal’ recession, this data accumulates over several weeks and months, not all at once.  Most of the bad data were going to see is going to be front-loaded, and we will see this throughout April and into May.   Over the same 8 weeks, sentiment will change much more rapidly as the light at the end of the tunnel becomes more/less apparent.   Prices of financial assets will react even more quickly.  Those 3 elements (econ data, sentiment, market prices)  work together but at different paces, and appear to contradict at times (like the day the Fed announced all the backstop measures, markets fell—not because stimulus is bad but probably due to the increasing alarm over the virus).

As of March 31st, the SP500 is down 20%; the Dow is off 23%; US small cap stocks -31%; Nasdaq -14%; eurozone stocks -25%; long treasury bond (TLT) +21% and gold +4%.    The average moderate portfolio is down about 9% year to date.

During the quarter, we hedged the equity side of portfolios during the early decline (not changing actual positioning, just owning the hedge then removing it).   The idea is always to buy low/sell high and removing the hedge was akin to buying/gaining exposure at lower prices.   Long treasury bonds have done very well, and we have sold some into strength, locking in some gains.  Technology has been one of the stronger areas and have increased this area substantially.    In addition, we’ve added equity exposure via SP500 etf, IVV, at the 2550 SP500 level.  I plan to add more, once the pullback eases and prices are constructive again.

As it stands now, most portfolios have increased equities compared to the beginning of the quarter, with less exposure to bonds.  Gold still has some potential, but as I’ve mentioned before gains will be more gradual and believe $1700+ is attainable.  The near-term market movements will likely be tied to the general expectations of when the US can get back to work.   The past couple of days’ weakness, I believe, is tied to the extension from April 12 to April 30 of guidelines established to slow the spread of covid19.

My expectations (given the truly massive and quick stimulus) are that we are now in the pullback from the initial bounce in stock prices.  I believe it is likely to see another leg up over the next couple of weeks.   Staying over 2400 on the SP500 is very important.  The combination of several trillion dollars of stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, combined with the concept that the covid19 crisis will end, does set the stage for possibly, a very substantial rally in stocks in the coming months.  Very generally, if there is now (or soon will be) $2-5 trillion (new money) in the financial system and we get back 90% of GDP that has been lost,  prices could go much higher even if fundamentals don’t recover–that’s post-2009 in a nutshell.   Before that we need to turn the corner on the virus.

The past couple months has been a lesson in which is more difficult:  to sell high or buy low?   Buying high and selling low are easy choices.   “Everyone” is doing it and it feels better to be a part of the crowd, ‘getting a piece of the action’ when in bull market; and conversely ‘stopping the pain’ in a bear market.   Believe me, it is much more difficult to lean into the market in early stages than to jump on the bandwagon once most of a move has already occurred.   This is weighed against market outlook and risk tolerance.       The other lesson is basic financial planning:  do you have 2-6 months of living expenses on hand in case of financial disruption?  And is your at-risk money truly a multi-year holding period.    It’s no fun to be forced to sell into a weak market to raise cash for living expenses.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

It Doesnt Take a Weatherman….

Volatility Continues

2018 is sizing up to be a very volatile year.  Including today, there have been 11 2% down days this year.  There were 0 in 2017, 0 in 2006, and 11 in 2007.

The major indices are currently holding their lows from late October and Thanksgiving week, approximately 2625 on the SP500.  The interim highs were just over 2800, a 6% swing.

The big question of the quarter is if the highs or lows will break first.  Volume today is extremely heavy, so if the markets can close in the top half of todays range, that should bode well for the next few days.

Looking at the big picture, the 200- and 100- day moving averages are flat, the 50 day is sloping downward.  We see the longer term trend is flat while the short term trend is down.  The 50 day and 200 day are at the same level and the 100 day is near 2815.   The averages are clustered together near current prices while the markets intraday are given to large swings in both directions.

Concurrent news topics are the recent good news item of a 90- day trade war truce, and the bad news topics are the problems with Brexit, and the arrest of the vice-chairperson of Huawei, China’s largest cell phone maker.  She is a Party member, daughter of the founder who is also a Party member and has close ties to China’s military.  Maybe not the best person to arrest if one is trying to negotiate a Trade Truce.

My forecast from late 2017 was for large swings in market prices and we have certainly seen this play out.  When compared to past market tops, 2001 and 2007, one can plainly see plus and minus 10% moves as the market tops out then finally breaks down.  Its my opinion that a bear market has likely started, and we have a few opportunities to sell at “high” prices, and get positioned for 2019.

Fundamentally while employment and earnings are good, these are backwards looking indicators.  These are the results of a good economy, not indicators it will persist.  Housing and autos are slowing; defensive stocks are outperforming growth stocks, and forecasts for 2019 earnings range from 0% to 8%, a far cry from 2018’s +20% earnings growth rate.

So, what to do?  Is it more difficult to ‘sell high’ or ‘buy low’?   One is fraught with fears of missing out, the other fears of further declines.   Selling into market strength and perceived ‘resolutions’ to our economic headwinds might be the best bet.  Especially considering the chart below, where in 2019 the global Central Banks will be withdrawing liquidity until further notice, while the Fed insists on raising rates further.

cb balance sheets QT

Market Volatility–October

I believe we’re seeing a large repricing of growth expectations. The one time tax reform boost will wear off into next year, and higher borrowing costs, fuel costs are reducing discretionary income. 

In addition there is a great deal of leverage in the markets which will exacerbate declines. 

Often, at the end of bull markets/beginning of bear markets we will see relatively large price movements, 6-12%, down and up. I believe this correction has a good chance of bottoming or at least slowing in the immediate term, and  it’s bounce back could be half the decline, maybe more, which will be several percentage points. 

 

Focusing on keeping portfolio declines to the single digits while raising cash to be able to redeploy later can aid longer term returns–one has to have cash in order to buy low!   There is a very large amount of ‘bond shorts’ in the market which could set up a large ‘short squeeze’. Bonds were positive today. This is reminiscent of other recent periods when many bond speculators saw bond prices move very rapidly against them (UP) as they rushed to cover their deteriorating short positions.

 

Inflation scare is not the culprit here as inflation rates are slowing in several areas.  Something recent is that with the Fed raising interest rates, the yield, on 1-year and longer bonds is greater than inflation,  a positive “real rate” which is new to this economic cycle and takes a lot away from the ‘bonds dont pay so buy stocks’ argument.  The Fed further reiterated that it currently plans to continue to raise rates through 2019–even though we have already raised rates MORE than in past rate-raising eras.  I will have a chart of this in my Observations and Outlook this weekend.

Please reach out to me with any comments or questions.

 

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

3rd Quarter Update: Earnings, GDP, U.S. Dollar All Higher

Earnings for companies in the S&P500 grew by more than 20% year over year during the second quarter, repeating first quarter’s Tax Reform-boosted performance.  Companies that beat estimates were rewarded, and companies that missed either on guidance or sales were pushed down, but not to the degree we saw in the first quarter.   The increase in earnings has taken the market (SP 500) trailing P/E ratio down from very expensive 24.3 to modestly expensive  22.6.   Sentiment remains constructive with investors mildly positive, but below average bullishness for stocks’ outlook over the next 6 months.

Economic data is coming in mixed.  While GDP for the second quarter (4.1%) came in at the 5th fastest pace over the past 9 years, a large portion of this can be attributed to increased govt spending and the ‘pull-forward’ effect the Trade War tariffs have had on areas affected by increased taxes.   Adjusting GDP for these areas to average still gives a GDP read in the upper 2% range which indicates growth in the second quarter was strong.    The last previous 4% reads were followed by sequentially lower GDP prints over the following year however.

Real wages have stagnated year over year as inflation has increased its pace.  Wages climbed 2.9% while inflation is running at 2.9% year over year.    Wages had been the feared cause of inflation arising from Tax Reform stimulus.   The 70% climb in oil prices, along with healthcare and housing costs and tariffs/taxes being passed along to consumers are the actual drivers over the past 12 months.

As I referred to in my January Observations and Outlook, the US Dollar was destined to climb in 2018 after an incessant decline throughout 2017 (despite many factors that should have supported the greenback).   In January large traders were certain the US Dollar would continue to fall, and European and Emerging stock markets would do at least as well as US stocks.   Now seven months later, indeed the US Dollar has climbed dramatically while most stock markets outside the US are negative year to date.    The strong dollar has also taken its toll on precious and base metals.  Given the price declines abroad (and attendant airtime and print space) and US Dollar rapid increase, pundits are talking about ‘how bad can it get’, and reasons why the US Dollar will continue to strengthen, it may be time to again take the contrarian side of the dollar argument.

Valuations in emerging markets look much more attractive at lower prices, and no one seems to own gold anymore.  Vanguard recently shuttered one of its metals and mining mutual funds.  The price you pay for an asset has a tremendous impact on the return one sees, and currently prices are low.

April Recap: Narrative Changes

Stocks rose a fraction of a percent, gold fell 1%, and the bond index fell 1% in April, continuing the very choppy sideways price movement we’ve experienced this year.   The month ended just below middle of the price range we’ve seen since the market top on January 26th.

Over the past few weeks, earnings have been spectacular, growing over 20% on an annual basis.  Unfortunately, stock prices have not reacted well to this great news.  Earnings season appears to have a ‘sell the news’ feel to it.  This could support the notion that stocks were priced to perfection going into reporting season.    The decline in prices and increase in earnings has reduced the market P/E (Price to Earnings) multiple, which could allow stocks to rise back to January levels.   Tax Reform has accounted for about 1/2 of the earnings growth.  There are two issues going forward.  One is that continuing

to grow at that pace will be difficult since we cannot cut taxes every year (and the tax changes to individuals are front loaded—the reductions we have seen will fade in the coming years). Secondly, earnings’ growth slowing, even from 20% to maybe 12%, can be seen as a negative: “slowing earnings growth”.   Surprising positive economic data because of tax reform needs to show up immediately, otherwise, the ‘hope’ baked into stock prices may be removed in the coming months.

Through the month of April, the narrative of ‘global synchronized growth’ has changed as European economic data has come in softer than expected and the US economy has pressed on.  So now we see the US as a main driver of global growth.  In the very short term, this narrative change has given the US Dollar a boost up.   Over the past few months, ‘dollar short’ and ‘rates higher’ have been very popular trades and have begun to unravel.   A stronger dollar will do harm to future US corporate earnings, make $-denominated emerging market debt more difficult to pay back, and serve as a headwind to ex-US assets (emerging, Asian and European stocks and bonds).  And slower growth will not support higher rates for longer term bonds.

The change in the growth narrative/data has been substantial enough for the Federal Reserve to remove from its FOMC Statement, “The economic outlook has strengthened in recent months.”   Often the Fed will change a word or two in certain sentences.  They could have change it from ‘strengthened’ to ‘remains strong’ or ‘continues to expand’.  Instead they dropped it altogether.   This is influencing perceptions of how many times more this year the Fed will raise short term rates.  In the WSJ today the front-page headline, “Fed is On Course for Rate Increases”.  Given the boldness of this headline, its odd to see in the article an inference that even if inflation was stronger, the Fed wont raise rates more than already indicated, which is twice more this year.  There is a dichotomy in the Fed’s statement: taking out the growth story but keeping to the idea that rising inflation is OK, or even good.  Last time I checked, slowing growth and rising interest rates weren’t a good combination: stagflation.   The Fed needs to review the difference between ‘cost-push’, and ‘demand-pull’ inflation.

AAII sentiment for the week ending May 2 came out this morning and Bullishness declined, and Bearishness increased.  This is as expected given that stocks were down over those survey days.  Bullishness isn’t quite as low as I’d like to see for a good bottom, but if stocks can undercut February’s lows, we should see Sentiment get negative enough to support a rally in stock prices going into the late Spring.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Observations and Outlook January 2018

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