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

Winter Solstice

They say its always darkest before the dawn, which seems appropriate as we meet the Winter Solstice today, at the lows of 2018.

There is a lot of commentary out there right now about hos investors are ‘worried’ about certain things like Brexit, slowing economies in China and Europe and if that slowing will seep into the U.S.  All these areas of concern have been with us for most of the year.  I have pointed out the Chinese credit impulse (slowing) more than a few times.  Housing and auto sales have been slowing for months.  The only difference is now there is a market decline and all these issues are being discussed.   If the market had not been declining these issues would still be with us, only accompanied by the tag line: “Investors shrug at concerns in Europe”.

In past posts I have described the coming year over year comparisons, 2018 v 2019, regarding earnings and GDP growth.  Every time I have mentioned that 2019 will look much worse than the stellar numbers put up in 2018, thanks largely in part to the one time cut in taxes.   That gave markets a boost and it was hoped that business investment, and wages would go up as a result.  Well it’s the end of 2018 and were still waiting.

The Federal Reserve gave a modest tip of the hat towards global economic concerns by reducing its estimate of rate increases in 2019 from 3 to 2.   There were even rumors that the Fed would skip raising its rate on December 19th and guide to 0 rate increases in 2019.   The Fed NEVER overtly bows to market or political pressures outside of an official recession or panic.   The Fed is in the process (as usual) of raising rates into the beginning of a recession.   Besides the yield curve, there are several other indicators that make recession in 2019 likely.  These indicators have been leaning this way for several months, and finally have tipped far enough that the markets are now concerned and discounting this likelihood.

As this is likely the beginning of a bear market (average -33% post WW2 era), we should expect large rapid moves, both down AND up in the markets.  During the bull market, a 2-4% pullback was common and quickly bought.  Today we see 2-4% intraday moves that continue to fall to hold support.  I expect several more percentage points south before a significant rally in stocks in the first few months of the year.   This will be an opportune time to reassess one’s risk tolerance and goals over the next 1-3 years, as well as make sure that one’s portfolio is properly diversified across asset classes. When stocks go down there are often other asset classes that are performing better, the core idea behind diversification.

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

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

“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

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

Oberservations and Outlook July 2017

Selected Index Returns 2nd Quarter/ Year to Date
Dow Jones Industrials    3.95%/ 9.35%          S&P 500   3.09%/9.34%         MSCI Europe   7.37%/15.36%

Small Cap (Russell 2000)   2.46%/4.99%     Emerging Mkts  6.27%/18.43%     High Yld Bonds   1.37%/15.3%

US Aggregate Bond 1.45%/2.27%   US Treasury 20+Yr   4.18%/5.66%    DJ/UBS Commodity -3%/-5.26%

2017 and its second quarter continue to be kind to financial assets, with both stocks, bonds and gold all climbing year to date.    European and Emerging Market equities have been the strongest this year, rising smartly after falling by 10% during the second half of 2016.  Emerging Market equity funds are back to a price area that stretches back to 2009!

Bonds continue to vacillate in an upward trend since mid-December. The commodity index is down primarily due to oil, as agriculture and base metals are essentially flat on the year after a recent climb.

Correlations between stocks and bonds have increased recently, with equities being flat over the past 6 weeks as bond prices have declined over the last two weeks.   While this phenomenon is negative for investors, equities appear to remain well inside their uptrend while bonds (and gold) appear to be near medium-term support levels.  We may see both stocks, bonds, and gold again climb concurrently reflecting a continuation of the year to date behavior.

What has been driving stock prices?  Growing earnings, low interest rates, lack of inflation, and ‘moderate’ GDP growth are the most common reasons to explain how prices have gotten to these levels.  Earnings have been on the rise since the end of the ‘earnings recession’ that lasted from June 2014 through March 2016.   After a decline of some 14% we’re now growing again, even robustly, given the low base from the previous year.  Earnings are still one or two quarters away from hitting new all-time highs, yet the S&P500 is roughly 20% higher than in early 2015.  The chart below gives us a visual of what prices rising faster than earnings looks like. Anytime the ratio is moving up indicates prices climbing faster than earnings.

shiller cape 6 30 2017Source: www.multpl.com

By this metric (and there are many others) stocks are valued at a level only exceeded by the roaring ‘20s and the dot-com era.  Can earnings continue to grow to support valuations?  The continued lack of wage growth and continued generationally low labor participation rate are headwinds to growth in consumer spending.  Consumer credit growth has slowed dramatically over the past six months and without wage or credit growth it’s difficult to see how the consumer will spend more to support ‘moderate’ GDP growth.  Low interest rates, or the comparison of low rates to dividend and earnings yield have provided much support over the past several years to the reasoning behind bidding up stocks faster than their earnings growth.

Interest rates bottomed one year ago at 1.3% (10-year treasury) and then ran up to 2.6%, mid-range since 2010 and the upper range of rates since late 2013.  The jury is out still on whether this marks the end of the bond bull market that has lasted since 1981.  The problem is that if consumers and businesses must increase their interest expense, there is that much less left to expand their consumption and investment.   Low rates had been a key enabler of more borrowing, leading to more consumption, and higher profits.  Now, in some areas, analysts are saying that higher rates are ALSO good for stocks because it represents growth expectations.  Frankly we’ve been ‘expecting’ growth now for several years, and the only positive representation of growth (GDP) we have seen is due to a willful under-reporting of inflation.   Gains in expenses in housing, healthcare, and education have far outstripped the general inflation rate.  At the same time, official statisticians tell us our TVs, cell phones, and other tech devices are far cheaper, because we ‘get more’ for our money.  This is called hedonic adjustments.  Look this up and you will understand why one’s personal experience with the cost of living doesn’t mesh with the official inflation statistics.

It seems the main reasons we are given for buoyant stock prices appear tapped out or stretched.  The thing is, it’s been like this for a few years now.  So then, what really is driving prices?  Some of it has to do with FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out.  No one wants to get left behind as prices rise, even if said prices already appear expensive.   As fundamentals have deteriorated over the past few years what is causing or who could be that marginal buyer who always seems to have more money to put towards financial assets? Perhaps this chart has something to do with it.

Central-Bank-Balance-Sheets-Versus-MSCI-World-Index

As central banks have purchased outstanding bonds (and equities in the cases of Japan, Switzerland and Israel among others) the cash or liquidity provided has found its way back into the equity markets.  Additional effects have been to put a bid under bonds, increasing prices and lowering rates.  What many investors in the U.S. don’t realize is that the European and Japanese central banks continue to this day putting approximately $400 billion per month into the financial markets.  If this is the true reason behind stock and bond price levels today, any cessation, slowing or even anticipation of slowing will likely have negative effects on asset prices.  The chart below shows where the U.S. Fed ended its QE efforts while Japan and Europe picked up all the slack and then some.  The astute observer can see where the Fed tapered, while the ECB was not adding liquidity, from 2014 to 2015.  From mid-2014 to early 2016, the Vanguard FTSE Europe ETF dropped by 29%.

central bank buying 4 2017

Beyond central bank liquidity creation there is also the concept of growth in the private sector.  Here too we see that a phenomenal amount of debt must be created to sustain growth.   New debt creation in China dwarfs the rest of the world.  China has put up high growth numbers the past several years, more than 7% annually.

private sector debt creation qe

Going forward it will be crucial to watch for central banks’ behavior as to ending current ‘QE’ policies.  Japan is still committed to a 0% 10yr bond rate, yet the ECB has begun to state that its bond buying won’t last forever, and is likely to slow by mid-2018.  The U.S. Fed has indicated continued tightening via rate hikes (likely one more this year) and to begin to let ‘roll off’ maturing bonds.  The roll-off will take liquidity from the markets.  It will start small and gradually increase in 2019 and thereafter.  These cessation tactics are done under the current understanding that financial conditions are ‘easy’.  Put another way, the banks will start to slow new liquidity and then drain liquidity as long as financial conditions, which include stock market levels, don’t get to difficult.   What exactly is the Fed’s downside tolerance is unknown.  What is knowable, is that the decision-making process takes months to be put into effect and by that time, markets could move down and growth could halt.

Near Term vs Long Term

The concepts of credit creation and central bank balance sheets and their respective monetary policies are will have impacts on asset prices over the longer term.   Year over year earnings growth forecasts, specific companies’ ‘beats’ or ‘misses’ and monthly data on inflation, job growth, and wages all have short term impacts on the stock market.  Currently, earnings are expected to grow robustly, official inflation is subdued and official unemployment are all in the “very good” range.  Combine that with the Fear Of Missing Out concept and that should help keep the markets up and even higher for a while longer.  The problem is that simply because we want markets to move higher doesn’t mean they will.  At some point paying 30x earnings will seem too expensive and the markets will lose some marginal buyers and some will become sellers, for whatever reason.   Based on current valuation metrics and the business cycle, we know that equity returns over the next several years will be very low.  If rates go up, and/or credit (the ability to pay) worsens for individuals and businesses bond funds will likely suffer as well.  Over the long term, avoiding large losses or drawdowns, even while lagging the market on the upside, can have a dramatic positive impact over a full market cycle.

What Can Be Done

If one suspects returns will be lackluster, and prices volatile, should one endure it?  The solution is at once simple and difficult at the same time given our cultural of equity ownership and the media’s constant focus on one asset class: equities.

Diversifying amongst the other 6 asset classes is a start.  Most advice revolves around two classes, stocks and bonds.  If one truly wants to buy low and sell high, one must identify the other areas that are “low”, increase exposure there, and reduce exposure to “high” asset classes.  Not only does this smooth out volatility but can increase long term returns.   Given the outlook for more volatility in stock and bond prices; very low prices (historically and relative to other assets) in precious metals, agriculture and oil; there should be many opportunities to take advantage of short term swings to benefit and move some ‘eggs’ from the equity side into other, non- and lower-correlated asset classes that are currently much lower in price.

Easier said than done, yes.  This is exactly why investors should seek out Investment Advisors willing to do this difficult work and that have a strategy to deal with changing markets.  For more information on how I am doing this for my clients, please contact me.

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.

Observations and Outlook April 2017

Equity prices peaked on March 1 and have been sideways to down since.  Interest rates (10-yr treasury) peaked on December 16 and were nearly matched on March 10, but since then have declined, going slightly below the range we have seen since November 22.  Gold bottomed in mid-December (along with bond prices), climbed to a high in late February and as of today, is pushing through that high mark.    On balance, risk assets have ebbed lower while bonds and gold have increased in price since the end of February.  Bond and gold prices have climbed back to their mid and early November (post-election) levels.  This price action speaks directly to the “Trump/Reflation Trade” we hear about in the news.

Trump Trade Withers

trump trade

Source: heisenbergreport.com
The “Trump Trade” is seen to manifest itself in a rising US Dollar (green), higher stock prices (purple) and higher interest rates (blue).  The Trade has gone nowhere since mid-December, and was decidedly weaker as ACA reform failed to pass in Congress

The past five months’ gains in the stock markets have been widely attributed to the policies the new administration hopes to implement.   At the same time, U.S. corporate earnings ended an Earnings Recession, that had pulled down earnings to 2012 levels.   In the fourth quarter of 2016 the earnings recession ended and had been forecast to do so since early in 2016.   Most of the gain in earnings was due to the base-effect seen in the energy sector.  Energy sector earnings plummeted in 2015 and provided a low bar for earnings to cease its ‘negative growth’.     The two concurrent topics that coincided with the latest rapid climb in stock prices were the cessation of declining earnings, and anticipated policy changes along with their presumed financial impacts.

For the remainder of the year, the focus will remain on these two areas:  earnings and implementation of Trump’s promised policy changes.  The repeal and replacement of the ACA (Obamacare) did not occur and its unknown when it may.  Recently this was seen as the gateway to then reforming the tax code followed by a fiscal spending plan focused around a decrease in social programs, a large increase in defense spending and a $1T to $2T ‘infrastructure’ plan.   With the defeat of the first attempt to repeal and replace ACA, the collective Trump Trade was dealt a blow and the remaining policies passage and implementation are less certain.

Tax policy and regulatory reform are next up and as the conversation around these begins, it’s likely that hope of tax law change will increase. The expectation that these changes will have a meaningful impact on earnings and disposable income will buoy stock prices in the short term.  Passage, implementation, and resulting impacts of policy changes are literally a multi-quarter process.  During that time, as I indicated in January, markets are likely to swing up and down several percentage points as hope of passage and fear of failure compete for investors’ attention.

The low bar for the energy sector remains low, and analysts’ expectations for earnings to grow remains intact, supported by the lower-than-usual reduction in earnings forecast.  Often a full year’s earnings forecast can drop by 1/4 through the course of the year, and when we see earnings estimates decline less rapidly the end of year reduction is often more like only a 1/8 reduction from beginning of year estimates to end of year final numbers.   Current 2017 earnings estimates are $119.80, which is about 5% lower than forecast a year ago and 1% lower than forecast at the end of 2016.   Continuing this pace of reduction, an estimate for 2017 earnings is $112.50.    IF that number is accurate it puts the forward Price to Earnings ratio at 20.9, which is higher than 90% of all other time periods since 1900.   Longer term forward returns from this level are often in the low single digits.

Over short periods of time (less than 3 years) investors often bid up prices well above longer term averages, which we have seen since 2014 and the start of the earnings recession.  Stock prices have risen far faster than earnings have over the past 4 years and its likely with growth resuming we could see even more extended valuations.

Other Considerations

The 30-year bond bull market is not dead.   Over the past few years, the idea that low interest rates were the ‘reason’ one should be accepting of high stock valuations (high p/e ratio, low earnings and dividend yields).  More recently we are hearing that increasing rates are also good for stock prices.   For rising rates and rising stock prices to occur together, there is a fine line to be tread.  Not too much inflation, not too much of an increase in rates while companies grow sales and earnings.   Essentially, we need the rate of change in the growth rate to be bigger than the change in interest rates.   Given the Atlanta Fed’s GDP Now Forecast shows only .6% rate of growth estimated for the first quarter.   This rate is lower than the past few quarters while the yield on the 10-yr Treasury has gone from 1.33% to 2.37%.    It’s more likely that along with stock prices, bond prices will vacillate within a range as policy expectations evolve and we await economic growth.

10yr tsy yld

Additionally, we have seen this, and higher increases in nominal rates without the bond bull dying out.  Some may say that as our national debt and aging demographics continue, our interest rate outlook may be similar to Japan’s experience over the past 20+ years.

While the US Fed has ended, its bond buying (“QE”) the eurozone and Japan continue to add liquidity by buying government and corporate debt of approximately $300 billion per quarter.

central bank buying 4 2017

This is referred to as “Policy Divergence”.  While the ECB and Japan ‘liquidate’ their bond markets, the US has ceased and expectations are that the Fed will tighten/raise rates while Japan holds their 10yr at 0%.  This expected interest rate differential leads to changes in exchange rates.  The changes we have seen since mid-2014 is a much stronger US dollar.   There is nothing on the horizon that indicates this Policy Divergence will end, which should indicate a continued strengthening of the US Dollar.

usd eur bund rate differentialSource: SocGen

This chart shows how the relationship between interest rates corresponds (currently very tightly) with the exchange rate, EUR/USD.  The future path of the US dollar will be determined by US economic and Federal Reserve policy vs.  ECB and eurozone policy and rate of growth.  Since the US has the early lead, ceasing QE and beginning to tighten, along with a new pro-growth President, it’s hard to see how the US Dollar will weaken without dramatic shifts in US and ECB policies.

In Summary

The outlook for stocks and bonds remains:  choppy with large swells.   Since November, markets have priced in passage of, and perfectly positive impacts from, Trumps tax and reform policies.   While at the same time, earnings have begun to grow anew, but are only at 2015 levels.   This combination has made today’s equity prices among the most expensive in history.   The Hope and Expectations born from Trump’s election are still with us, despite the recent healthcare setback.  As such, stock prices may very likely become even more stretched (higher) as debate regarding taxes begins and evolves into the summer months.

Bonds were sold off very dramatically post-election and will likely continue to gain in price as uninspiring economic data comes in while we continue in our multi-year vision of “growth in the second half of the year”.

While earnings may be increasing, the age-old question of how much are investors willing pay for $1 of earnings persists.   Their ‘willingness’ is often derived from feelings and expectations of the future.  If the future appears bright, prices can appreciate.  Sometimes this appreciation begets its own feelings and can lead to further appreciation without commensurate changes in earnings.  The risk there is that of an ‘air-pocket’ where future expectations are cut to match a duller present and prices move accordingly.

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.