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.

Observations and Outlook July 2018

July 5, 2018

Selected Index Returns Year to Date/ 2nd Quarter Returns

Dow Jones Industrials    -.73%/1.26%        S&P 500   2.65%/3.43% 

MSCI Europe   -3.23%/-1.27%         Small Cap (Russell 2000)   7.66%/7.75% 

Emerging Mkts -7.68%/-8.66%     High Yld Bonds  .08%/1.0%

US Aggregate Bond -1.7%/-.17%       US Treasury 20+Yr -2.66%/.07%  

Commodity (S&P GSCI) 5.47%/4.09%  

The second quarter ended with a sharp decline from the mid-June highs, with US stock indexes retreating about 4.5% and ex-U. S markets losing upwards of 6%.  This pulled year-to-date returns back close to zero in the broad stock market indexes.  The only areas doing well on a year to date basis are US small cap and the technology sector.  Equity markets outside the US are in the red year to date languishing under the burden of a strengthening US Dollar and the constant threat of a tit-for-tat Trade War.  Areas of the market with exposure to global trade (US large cap, emerging markets, eurozone stocks) have had marginal performances while areas perceived to be somewhat immune to concerns about a Trade War have fared better.

Additionally, the bond market has only recently seen a slight reprieve as interest rates have eased as economic data has consistently come in below expectations—still expanding, but not expanding more rapidly.   Job creation, wage growth, and GDP growth all continue to expand but only at a similar pace that we have seen over the past several years.  The stronger US Dollar has wreaked havoc on emerging market bond indexes have fallen by more than 12% year to date.  And in the U.S., investment grade bond prices have fallen by more than 5% year to date, hit by a double whammy of higher interest rates and a widening credit spread (risk of default vs. US treasuries) has edged up.

On the bright side, per share earnings continue to grow more than 20%, with second quarter earnings expected to climb more than 20%, thanks in large part to the Tax Reform passed late in 2017.    As earnings have climbed and prices remain subdued, the market Price to Earnings ratio (P/E) has fallen making the market appear relatively less expensive and sentiment as measured by the AAII (American Assoc. of Individual Investors) has fallen from near 60% bullish on January 4th to 28% on June 28th, a level equal to the May 3 reading when the February-April correction ended. The Dow is approximately 800 points higher than the May 3 intraday low.

With reduced bullishness, increasing earnings, and expanding (albeit slow) GDP growth, there is room for equities to move up.  Bonds too have a chance for gains.  The meme of Global Synchronized Growth which justified the November-January run in stock prices and interest rates has all but died, given Europe’s frequent economic data misses and Japan’s negative GDP print in the first quarter.   This has taken pressure off interest rates and allowed the US 10-year Treasury yield to fall from a high of 3.11% on May 15 to 2.85% at quarter end.  I would not be surprised to see the 10-year yield fall further in the coming weeks.  Muted economic data with solid earnings growth would be beneficial to bonds and stocks respectively.

In my January Outlook I mentioned how the rise in ex-US stock markets followed closely the decline in the US Dollar.   The Dollar bottomed in late February and has gained dramatically since April.  This has been a weight around European and emerging market share prices and has been at the core of the emerging market debt problems mentioned above.  Fortunately, the Dollar’s climb has lost momentum and appears ready to pull back, likely offering a reprieve to shares priced in currencies other than the US Dollar.  It may also aid in US company earnings. So, while global economic and market conditions have changed since January, hindering prices of most assets, I believe we will see an echo of the 2016-2018 conditions that supported financial asset prices globally.   A declining dollar, muted investor bullishness, slowing global growth all should conspire to allow stock, bond and even precious metal prices to rise over the coming weeks, at least until investor bullishness gets well above average and the expectation of new lows for the US Dollar become entrenched again.

Looking Ahead

As second quarter earnings begin in earnest in mid-July, expectations are for approximately 20% climb in earnings.  A large portion is estimated to be due to tax reform passed late in 2017.  With market prices subdued and earnings climbing, the market’s valuation (Price to Earnings ratio) is looking more attractive.  While not cheap by any metric, this should give investors a reason to put money to work.  In the first quarter, analysts underestimated profits and had raised estimates all the way into the start of earnings season.  This is very rare.  The chart below shows us that generally analysts’ estimates decline going into earnings season.  Estimates start off high and then get lowered multiple times usually.   Second quarter of 2018 is setting up to be another rare event where we see again earnings estimates being raised into reporting season.
factset earnings 7 2018

The downside to the effect tax reform is having on earnings will be seen in 2019.   When comparisons to 2018 and 2019 quarterly earnings start to come out (in late 2018) the impact of lower taxes on the change in earnings will be gone.  In 2019 we will only see the change in earnings without the impact of tax reform.   Earnings growth will likely come down to the upper single digits.   How investors feel about this dramatic slowing in 2019 will dictate the path of stock prices.

Quantitative Tightening (QT) will dominate the headlines towards the end of the year.  Over the past 9 years central banks have pumped more than $12 trillion in liquidity into financial markets.  The US Fed stopped adding liquidity and has begun to let its balance sheet shrink, removing liquidity from financial markets.    During 2017 and 2018 the European Central bank and Bank of Japan more than made up for the US absence.   Europe and Japan are scheduled to reduce and eventually cease all new liquidity injections during 2019.  Combined with the Fed’s liquidity reductions, global financial markets will see a net reduction in liquidity.   This will have an impact on markets.  It is argued whether this will cause bond prices to fall (rates to rise) or it will have an impact on equity markets.   I believe it is likely this will impact both areas and the likelihood of falling bond and stock prices at the same time is significant.

US Dollar liquidity is another topic just starting to show up in the press.   The rise in 2018 of the US Dollar after a long decline has taken many market participants by surprise.  The “short US Dollar” and “short Treasury” trades were the most popular at the beginning of the year and have been upended.  It is often that once ‘everyone’ knows something, like that the US Dollar will continue to weaken, its about the time that area reverses and goes against how most are positioned.   The mystery really was given rising interest rates in the US and a stronger economy, why was the US Dollar weak to begin with?  Now the causes of a stronger Dollar are the weakness in Eurozone and Emerging market growth.    But which came first, the stronger Dollar or the weaker economies?

Below we can see the relationship of the US Dollar (UUP) and the TED Spread which is the difference in short term rates in the US and Europe.  The recent spike in funding costs (rates) parallels the rise in the Dollar index.  The rapid Dollar rise in 2014 was partly responsible for the Earnings Recession we saw in 2015.  There’s about 6 months to a year lag from when the Dollar strengthens to its impact on earnings.

ted spread july 2018

Ironically, part of the Tax Reform passed is a cause of poor Dollar liquidity (higher short-term rates result) and the strengthening Dollar.  The ability for US firms to repatriate earnings from abroad at a lower tax rate is causing Dollars to move from Eurozone back to the US.  Additionally, the $1 trillion plus budget deficit the US will run in 2018 and on into the future is also soaking up liquidity.  Repatriation, US deficits, and Fed tightening are all pushing the US Dollar up, and will likely see the Dollar stronger in 2019, which may impact US earnings in 2019.

Finally, there is China.   China is the largest consumer of raw materials.  Besides US PMI, the China Credit Impulse impacts base metals and other raw materials that other emerging market economies export.  When China is creating more, new credit we can see a rise in prices and in the growth of raw material exporting countries and a rise in US PMI with about a 12-month lag.  The chart below indicates that beyond the first half of 2018 the impact from the past China impulse will be fading.   This fade is happening at the same time global Central banks will be withdrawing liquidity and the US Dollar likely strengthening.   This scenario doesn’t bode well for risk assets in 2019.

china credit impulse pmi

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

Was that the Top or the Bottom?

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

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

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

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

“Good” Inflation: Rising rates and falling stocks

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

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

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

infl vs unemplmnt

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

Observations and Outlook January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US Dollar and Quantitative Tightening

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

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

Yield Curve Inversion (or not)

I102YTYS_IEFFRND_I30YTR_chart

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

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

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

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

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

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.