Monday, April 27, 2015

From Ice Patch to Soft Patch (excerpt)

The performance of the US stock market is quite impressive considering that there isn’t much of a spring in the latest batch of economic indicators. The winter’s ice patch is looking more and more like the spring’s soft patch--all the more reason to expect either one-and-done or none-and-done from the Fed. Consider the following:

(1) Business surveys. Three of the six regional business surveys that I track are available through April. The averages of their composite indexes tend to be highly correlated with the national M-PMI. The average for the FRB districts of Kansas City, New York, and Philadelphia fell to -0.2 this month from 2.6 last month and a recent peak of 18.8 during November of last year. It’s the lowest since May 2013.

The average of the three new orders indexes was -5.8 this month, about the same as last month’s -6.2, which was the lowest since October 2012. The employment index fell to 1.0, the lowest since November 2013.

(2) Flash M-PMI. The national flash M-PMI compiled by Markit fell from 55.7 in March to 54.2 this month. The ISM’s M-PMI was much weaker than Markit’s reading in March. The same is likely this month given the weakness of the available regional surveys so far.

(3) Durable goods orders. The weakness in the regional orders indexes was confirmed by Friday’s release of March durable goods orders. While the overall number rose 4.0% m/m, boosted by a surge in aircraft orders, nondefense capital goods orders excluding aircraft fell for the seventh consecutive month through March, by a total of 6.7%. Orders have been especially weak for primary metals, fabricated metal products, machinery, and electrical equipment, appliances, and components. That probably reflects the combined depressing impact of lower oil prices on the energy industry and the higher dollar on exports.

(4) Lumber prices. In recent days, I’ve noted the plunge in lumber prices since the beginning of the year through Wednesday. That’s not a good omen for housing starts or the S&P 500 Homebuilding Index. Neither is the flat trend in railcar loadings of lumber and wood products over the past year. New home sales fell 11.4% m/m during March.

Today's Morning Briefing: Conspiracy Theories. (1) Compelling narratives without any proof. (2) The central bankers are doing it in broad daylight. (3) Bonds and stocks achieve “escape velocity,” while economies don’t. (4) Connecting the dots in Chicago. (5) Fed’s bunker in Chicago. (6) Bernanke’s new job in Chicago. (7) Spoofing the CME in Chicago. (8) Crash Boys: Michael Lewis has some questions for CME & CFTC. (9) Meet Sarao and Aleyniko. (10) Goldman’s sinister algorithm. (11) The stock market is high on life. (12) More soft-patch indicators in the US. (13) Flash-fried PMIs. (14) “House of Clinton” (+ + +). (More for subscribers.)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Industrial Commodities Still Sinking (excerpt)

There’s no party in the commodity pits. While the price of a barrel of crude oil has rebounded smartly from a low of $46.59 on January 13 to $62.84 yesterday, the CRB raw industrials spot price index continues to slip and slide. In the past, the weakness in the CRB index would have been a bearish omen for stock prices. It still might be, but the monetary liquidity that isn’t boosting global economic growth and commodity prices is fueling bull markets in stocks and bonds. Consider the following:

(1) From 2005 through mid-2011, there was a reasonably good correlation between the S&P 500 and the CRB index. The two have diverged since then, with the S&P 500 heading higher to new record highs, while the commodity index has been trending lower and is now at the lowest since February 8, 2010.

(2) Since late 2001, there has been a very good correlation between the Emerging Markets MSCI stock price index (in local currencies) and the CRB index. The two have diverged significantly over the past year, with the former only 2.6% below its 2007 record high. Leading the way since early 2014 has been India in anticipation of a new reform-minded government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party won election last May.

Since mid-November of last year, when the PBOC started to ease monetary policy, the China MSCI stock price index has also joined the global melt-up parade. It had been very highly correlated with the price of copper since 2009. They too have diverged over the past year. This is yet another sign that ultra-easy monetary policy is boosting asset inflation rather than real growth and price inflation.

Today's Morning Briefing: Go Away or Go Global? (1) Nice melt-up overseas. (2) Days of Infamy: May Day to Halloween. (3) Two wicked corrections. (4) Three choices: Stay Home, Go Global, or Go Away. (5) Sunrise in Japan? (6) Can central banks overcome secular stagnation? (7) Not much fun in the commodity pits. (8) Unusual divergence between stock prices and commodity prices. (9) Lumber trading like lead. (10) China’s international reserves depressed by depreciations of euro and yen. (11) China’s capital outflows story still rings true. (More for subscribers.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Churning (excerpt)

So far so good. In the 2/2 Morning Briefing, I wrote: “[T]he stock market may continue to trade in a volatile range during the first half of this year. The main negative for stocks is that valuation multiples are historically high, while earnings growth estimates are declining in the face of a strong dollar, weakening commodity prices, a flattening yield curve, and slowing global economic growth. The big positives are that bond yields are at historical lows and the plunge in oil prices is boosting consumer confidence and spending. Joe and I are still targeting 2150 for the S&P 500 by the end of this year and 2300 by the middle of next year.”

Yesterday, Kristen Scholer posted a story on the WSJ website titled “Why Record Highs May be Harder to Come By This Year.” She observed: “The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 set 188 fresh all-time highs, or the equivalent of roughly one every five trading sessions, during 2013 and 2014. This year, though, the major indexes have booked only nine historic highs as stocks have moved sideways for much of 2015. … It has been 34 sessions since the S&P 500 last finished at a historic high. That’s the index’s longest streak without an all-time high since the first record of the current bull market in 2013, according to Bespoke Investment Group.”

Why has this been happening? According to the article: “Corporate buybacks, deals and low interest rates have kept equities afloat, while stalled earnings growth, high valuations and slowing economic activity have put a lid on gains.” If that sounds like the same story I’ve been telling, then I should disclose that I was interviewed for the WSJ story and mentioned as follows: “He thinks the tug of war between the bulls and the bears will continue through the summer and into the fall. ‘While some institutional investors might be inclined to sell due to overvaluation, the most significant buyers continue to be corporate managers buying back their shares, and they aren’t nearly as sensitive to valuations,’ he said.”

At the beginning of 2013, in the 1/29 Morning Briefing, which was titled “Nothing to Fear but Nothing to Fear.” I noted: “In recent discussions, some of my professional friends told me they are now worrying that there is nothing to worry about. They note that there may be too many bulls for the good of the bull market.” I also noticed that many of them had “anxiety fatigue.” After the widely feared Fiscal Cliff was averted, investors seemed to be less prone to anxiety attacks. In other words, they were less prone to sell on bearish news, and more likely to hold their stocks and add to their positions on any weakness.

Now they seem to have “bull market fatigue” because valuations are stretched. Nevertheless, they are mostly staying fully invested. Consider the following:

(1) Anxiety fatigue. Since the start of the year, the S&P 500 has been trading between a record high of 2117 on March 2 and a low of 1992 on January 15. There have been lots of panic attacks since 2013, but none that turned into significant corrections. Recent worries that the plunge in the oil price might trigger a rout in the junk bond market haven’t panned out. China’s latest batch of weak economic indicators has been mitigated by the PBOC’s easier monetary policy. The winter/spring economic slowdown in the US increases the odds of a “one-and-done” or “none-and-done” rate hike by the Fed this year.

(2) Moving averages. The S&P 500 has remained above its still-rising 200-day moving average after briefly retesting it in early October last year. The S&P 500 Transportation index is currently back to its 200-dma. That’s a bit of a concern from a Dow Theory perspective, especially since the index’s 50-day moving average has turned down since it peaked on January 22.

(3) Melt-up worries. Interestingly, in recent conversations with our accounts, I am finding that more of them are worrying about missing a melt-up in stock prices than about dodging a correction or a meltdown. What might trigger a melt-up? The obvious answer is a significant postponement of monetary normalization by the Fed. A more likely scenario is that the initial lift-off in interest rates might cause corporations to stampede into the bond market to raise funds for more buy backs and M&A.

Today's Morning Briefing: Paths of Least Resistance. (1) Going nowhere fast. (2) Tug of war. (3) From “anxiety fatigue” to “bull market fatigue.” (4) Still too many bulls. (5) Home on the range. (6) Sector-neutral strategy beating many active managers. (7) Melt-up anxiety. (8) Hard to find anything bullish in crude oil’s demand/supply balance. (9) Maybe it’s geopolitical. (10) Saudis playing for keeps. (11) Focus on market-weight-rated S&P 500 Energy. (More for subscribers.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dollar's Turn? (excerpt)

On balance, there still looks to be more stagnation around the world than either a boom or a bust. So how can we explain the remarkable rebound in oil prices in recent weeks? The nearby futures price of a barrel of Brent crude has risen from its recent low of $45.59 on January 13 to $63.45 on Friday.

That’s despite record production by Saudi Arabia, all-time highs in crude oil inventories, gushing US oil production, and the possible end of sanctions against Iran. Could it be that the global economy is improving more than widely recognized? I doubt it. There’s certainly no confirmation of this possibility in the CRB raw industrials spot price index, which continued to edge lower last week, and now is the lowest since February 2010. This index does not include any petroleum or lumber commodities.

The apparent bottoming of oil prices is coinciding with the apparent peaking in the trade-weighted dollar. Previously, I’ve often observed that the two are highly inversely correlated. The dollar may be peaking on expectations that the Fed’s policy stance over the rest of the year is more likely to be “one-and-done” or even “none-and-done” than normalization, notwithstanding the recent upbeat views of two Fed officials (Stanley Fischer and Bill Dudley) about the US economic outlook. I am in the one-and-done camp for now.

The strong correlation may occur because rising (falling) oil prices increase (decrease) the dollar revenues of oil exporting countries. Many of them prefer to diversify their currency holdings so when they get lots of dollars, they tend to convert them to other currencies, which weakens the dollar. The reverse happens when they earn fewer dollars on their oil exports.

The currency markets are turning bullish not only for oil but also for other commodities, suggesting that there may be mounting expectations of better global economic activity. A few of the commodity currencies--i.e., the Canadian dollar, Brazilian real, and Russian ruble (thanks to the oil price rebound)--have been rallying in recent days. However, that’s after significant selloffs over the past year or so. On the other hand, the Australian dollar and the South African rand have simply stopped falling in recent days.

Today's Morning Briefing: Uneven Growth.(1) Ups and downs in IMFs latest forecast. (2) Redistributing the same growth. (3) Draghi’s push. (4) Rising in the EZ: production, exports, and car sales. (5) Fischer and Dudley expect more. (6) Weakening in the US: production, orders, and starts. (7) Stepping on the gas and the brakes in China. (8) Data suggest massive capital outflows from China. (9) India is looking up, while Brazil is looking down. (10) Industrial commodities yet to confirm oil’s rebound. (11) Has the dollar peaked because oil has bottomed, or vice versa? (More for subscribers.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Inflation Warning (excerpt)

Last week, the 4/16 WSJ reported: “U.S. wages may be starting to pick up, a development that could help policy makers at the Federal Reserve feel more confident that sluggish U.S. inflation also will gain traction, Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said Thursday.” He said so on a panel discussion in Washington. That same morning, in a CNBC interview, he said the Fed knows the markets “look ahead somewhat, so I think--I hope--that they are taking into account that the Fed, at some point, is likely to raise the interest rate.” On timing, he said markets “can’t depend on the current situation continuing forever--or even probably--beyond the end of this year.”

He reiterated that “there are more signs every day” of mild wage increases. What is he looking at? Let’s have a look:

(1) Minimum wage. Anecdotally, the minimum wage was raised in 21 states at the start of the year. However, during March, average hourly earnings rose only 2.1% and 1.8% for all workers and for production and nonsupervisory workers.

(2) McDonald’s. On 4/15, fast-food cooks and cashiers demanding a $15 minimum wage walked off the job in 236 cities in what organizers called the largest mobilization of low-wage workers ever. On April 1, McDonald’s announced plans to give employees a 10% pay bump and some extra benefits. The raise will affect about 90,000 workers at a small fraction of McDonald’s stores. Employees at franchises, which make up the majority of the burger chain's locations, won't be affected.

(3) Walmart. At the start of April, Walmart raised its minimum starting wage to $9 an hour, 24% higher than the federal minimum. A 4/10 story on PBS NewsHour noted, “The company says that its wage increases will impact 500,000 workers, but the number who will see their wages rise from the federal minimum of $7.25 to $9 is much smaller. Only 5,000 of its 1.4 million workers actually make the minimum wage. And the minimum in most of the country, 29 states, is already considerably higher than the federal minimum. Seven states and the District of Columbia have minimums of $9 or higher. So the average pay raise for the affected Walmart workers will be far less than the 24% raise for the very small number currently earning the federal minimum.”

(4) Quit rate. The quit rate in retailing tends to be relatively high, especially among low-paid workers. Retailers are raising their wages to reduce their labor turnover costs.

(5) Q1 wages and prices. Average hourly earnings for all workers rose 3.9% (saar) during the first three months of the year, the highest since December 2008. That’s the kind of y/y increase that Fed officials have said would allow them to normalize monetary policy sooner and at a faster clip.

In addition, the core CPI inflation rate edged back up to 1.8% during March, closer to the Fed’s 2% target--which is really for the core PCED, which was 1.4% during February. The three-month annualized change in the core CPI through March was 2.3%, suggesting that the core PCED, which was 0.9% through February, might show a higher increase when March data are released on Thursday, April 30.

Today's Morning Briefing: The Twilight Zone. (1) Valuations on the border of the Irrational Zone. (2) Three fears hit market: Greek exit, China bubble, and inflation uptick. (3) Recapping stretched valuations. (4) Institutional investors remain skeptical. (5) Outperforming SMidCaps less exposed to dollar. (6) Shortage of bargains. (7) Buybacks = Corporate QE. (8) Corporate execs comparing earnings yield to borrowing rate when buying back shares. (9) Warning: Inflation may be warming. (More for subscribers.)