Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Drowning in Oil

OPEC oil producers continue to put a lid on their output in an effort to prop up prices. Yet the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil is back down to $45.89, below its recent high of $57.10 on January 6. That’s comfortably in the $40-$50 price range that I have been expecting for this year. Despite the 76% plunge in the price of oil from June 19, 2014 to January 20, 2016, US crude oil production fell just 12% from the week of June 5, 2015 through the week of July 1, 2016. Since then, it is up 10% to 9.3mbd.

Interestingly, weekly production held up relatively better in Texas and North Dakota than in the rest of the country when total output was declining. However, the rebound in US oil production has been led by the rest of the country, excluding Texas and North Dakota. Could it be that frackers figured out how to lower their costs in the two states where they’ve been most active, and taken their innovations to the other states? Maybe.

Meanwhile, the 52-week average of gasoline usage in the US is down 0.7% y/y. This may or may not be a sign of a slowing economy. It is undoubtedly a bearish development for oil prices.

Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, and other major oil producers, with large reserves of the stuff, should be awfully worried that they are sitting on a commodity that may become much less needed in the future. Elon Musk intends to harvest solar energy on the roofs of our homes, storing the electricity generated in large batteries while also charging up our electric cars. As long as the sun will come out tomorrow (as Little Orphan Annie predicted), solar energy is likely to get increasingly cheaper and fuel a growing fleet of electric passenger cars. Meanwhile, the frackers are using every frick in their book to reduce the cost of pumping more crude oil. Rather than propping up the price, maybe OPEC should sell as much of their oil as they can at lower prices to slow down the pace of technological innovation that may eventually put them out of business.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Tech Now and Then

Is it 1999/2000 all over again for the S&P 500 Information Technology sector? Not so far. Consider the following:

(1) First vs third place. During the bull market from October 11, 1990 through March 24, 2000, the sector soared 1,697.2%, well ahead of the 417.0% gain in the S&P 500 and all the other sectors. During the current bull market, it is in third place with a gain of 379.8% through last Friday.

(2) Market-cap and earnings shares. At the tail end of the bull market of the 1990s, the S&P 500 IT sector’s share of the overall index’s market capitalization rose to a record 32.9% during March 2000. However, its earnings share peaked at only 17.6% during September 2000. This time, during May, the sector’s market-cap share rose to a cyclical high of 22.9%, while its earnings share, at a cyclical high of 22.0%, was much more supportive of the sector’s market-cap share. As a rule of thumb, I get nervous when a sector’s shares of either or both rise close to 33%. I’m not nervous yet about IT, though I am just a little twitchy.

(3) No contest on valuation basis. During the second half of the 1990s through the early 2000s, the forward P/E of the Tech sector soared relative to the broad index. The former peaked at a record 48.3 during March 2000. That same month, the forward P/E of the S&P 500 was 22.6. Both then proceeded to trend lower through 2008, when they finally converged. During the current bull market, the Tech sector’s forward P/E hasn’t diverged much at all from that of the overall index. Last month, the former was 18.1, while the latter was 17.3.

(4) Less irrational exuberance about long-term growth. I regularly monitor LTEG for the S&P 500 and its 11 sectors and 100+ industries. LTEG is analysts’ consensus long-term earnings growth expectations over the next five years at an annual rate. It soared to a record high of 18.7% during August 2000 for the S&P 500, up from 11.5% at the start of 1995. Keep in mind that the historical trend growth in the S&P 500 during economic expansions tends to be around 7%! The ascent in this growth expectation trend for the S&P 500 during the second half of the 1990s was led by an even more wildly irrational rerating of expected LTEG for the Tech sector from 16.6% at the start of 1995 to a record high of 28.7% during October 2000.

Since those peaks, both LTEGs have come back down closer to the Planet Earth. During April, they were 12.3% for the S&P 500 and 12.7% for the IT sector. Those are still more optimistic than what is likely to be delivered, but at least they are back to the rationally exuberant normal bias of analysts.

(5) Less air in this bubble so far. All of the above suggests that the Tech sector is trading much closer to realistic expectations for fundamentals than during the bubble of the 1990s. The S&P 500 IT stock index nearly exceeded its March 27, 2000 high for the first time just last week on June 8. The sector’s forward earnings rose to a record high at the start of June, exceeding the 2000 peak by 168.6%.

(6) Fat margins. The sector has the highest forward profit margins among the S&P 500 sectors. It has been at a record high around 20% since late last year, up from a cyclical low of around 12% at the start of 2009.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hannibal Spirits: S&P 500 Climbing Mountains

Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, was one of the greatest military strategists of all times. The city of Carthage in ancient Roman times was in the spot of modern-day Tunis, in Tunisia. Hannibal was so feared by the Romans that a common Latin expression to express anxiety about an impending calamity was “Hannibal ante portas!,” which means “Hannibal is at the gates!” He studied his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, winning battles by playing to their weaknesses and to his strengths.

One of Hannibal’s most remembered achievements was marching an army that included war elephants over the Pyrenees and the Alps to invade Italy at the outbreak of the Second Punic War. He occupied much of Italy for 15 years but was unable to conquer Rome. A Roman general, Scipio Africanus, counter-attacked in North Africa, forcing Hannibal to return to Carthage, where he was decisively defeated by at the Battle of Zama. Scipio had studied Hannibal’s tactics and devised some of his own to defeat his nemesis.

So far, the current bull market has marched impressively forward despite 56 anxiety attacks, by my count. They were false alarms. I remain bullish. My long-held concern is that the bull market might end with a melt-up that sets the stage for a meltdown. The latest valuation and flow-of-funds data certainly suggest that the melt-up scenario may be imminent, or underway. Consider the following:

(1) Valuation melt-up. The Buffett Ratio is back near its record high of 1.81 during Q1-2000. It is simply the US equity market capitalization excluding foreign issues divided by nominal GDP. It rose to 1.69 during Q4-2016. It is highly correlated with the ratio of the S&P 500 market cap to the aggregate revenues of the composite. This alternative Buffett Ratio rose to 2.00 during Q1 of this year, matching the record high during Q4-1999. It is also highly correlated with the ratios of the S&P 500 to both forward revenues per share and forward earnings per share. All these valuation measures are flashing red.

(2) ETF melt-up. The net fund flows into US equity ETFs certainly confirms that a melt-up might be underway. Over the past 12 months through April, a record $314.8 billion has poured into these funds. That was led by funds that invest only in US equities, with net inflows of $236.4 billion, while US-based ETFs that invest in equities around the world attracted $78.4 billion in net new money over the 12 months through April.

Some of the money that went into equity ETFs came out of equity mutual funds. Over the past 12 months through April, net outflows from all US-based equity mutual funds totaled $155.3 billion, with $163.7 billion coming out of US mutual funds that invest just in the US and $8.4 billion going into those that invest worldwide.

So the net inflows into all US-based equity mutual and indexed funds totaled $159.4 billion over the past 12 months, $72.7 billion going into domestic funds and $86.7 billion into global ones. These totals don’t seem to be big enough to fuel a melt-up. However, the shift of funds from actively managed funds to passive index funds is significant and could be contributing to the melt-up. That’s especially likely since money is pouring into S&P 500 index funds, which are market-cap weighted. This may partly explain why big cap stocks, like the FAANGs, are outperforming assuming that money is coming out of mutual funds that are underweight the outperforming FAANGs.

(3) FAANG-led melt-up. The market cap of the FAANGs is up 41.4% y/y to a record $2.49 trillion, while the market cap of the S&P 500 is up 14.3% to $20.95 trillion over the same period. The FAANGs account for 27.8% of the $2.6 trillion increase in the value of the S&P 500 over the past year. The FAANG stocks now account for 11.9% of the S&P 500’s market capitalization, up from 5.8% on April 26, 2013. Collectively, over this period, they’ve accounted for $1.6 trillion of the $6.9 trillion increase in the S&P 500! Their collective forward P/E is now 27.1 and 42.8 with and without Apple, respectively. The S&P 500’s forward P/E is 17.7 and 16.9 with and without the FAANGs. These elephants continue to sprint up mountains, leading the market’s bulls, even though the air is getting thinner.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Memorable Earnings Season

Q1 revenues, earnings, and margins are now available for the S&P 500. Revenues per share dropped 2.7% q/q during Q1. Earnings per share, based on Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S (TR) data, fell 1.3% q/q. So in what sense was the Q1 reporting season “memorable,” as stated in the title of today’s commentary?

For starters, the S&P 500 rose to a new record high of 2415.82 on May 26. The S&P 400 and S&P 600 stock price indexes continued to mark time at their recent record highs. Industry analysts remained upbeat about earnings for this year and next year, as reflected by the record highs in the S&P 500/400/600 forward earnings.

This all happened despite a growing realization that President Trump’s economic agenda is likely to be slowed by Washington’s swampy ways. I came to that epiphany on May 18 and adjusted my earnings estimates accordingly, pushing the corporate tax cut into 2018 from 2017. Without a tax cut, I estimate that S&P 500 earnings per share will be $130.00 this year and $136.75 next year. With the tax cut in 2018, my estimate for next year gets raised to $150.00. Let’s have a closer look at the results of the latest reporting season:

(1) Good growth. Of course, the apparent weakness in Q1’s revenues and earnings on a q/q basis is mostly seasonal in nature. The first quarter of the year tends to be the weakest one of the year. On a y/y basis, revenues per share rose 6.9%, the fastest since Q4-2011. Earnings per share rose 14.5% y/y, the best growth since Q3-2011.

I argued that the S&P 500 revenues recession during 2015—when y/y growth rates were down each quarter—was mostly attributable to the plunge in the revenues of the energy sector. The revenue growth rates, which turned slightly positive during Q1-2016, have been increasing since then. It was last summer that I declared the end of the earnings recession. The y/y growth rate of earnings turned positive during Q3-2016 at 4.2%, rose to 5.9% during Q4-2016, and chalked up 14.5% at the start of this year.

(2) High & stable margin. The profit margin of the S&P 500, based on TR data, rebounded sharply from a record low of 2.4% during Q4-2008 back to its previous cyclical peak of 9.6% during Q3-2011. There was lots of growling by the perma-bears that it would soon revert to its mean. Instead, it continued to rise to a new record high of 10.7% during Q3-2016. It has remained around there since then, registering 10.5% during Q1.

I argued that following the Trauma of 2008, company managements would do whatever they could to raise and maintain their profit margins by remaining conservative in their spending plans despite record profits. I’m not saying that the profit margin will never revert again. It will do so come the next recession. But that downturn may not come for a while because companies are being conservative.

In the past, the profit margin would often peak before recessions as companies went on hiring and capacity expansion sprees. The resulting boom would create the borrowing and inflationary excesses that set the stage for the inevitable bust. This time, the economy isn’t booming the way it often has at this late stage of an expansion. No boom, no boost … at least not in the foreseeable future.

(3) Correlations. I’m not surprised by the solid rebound in S&P 500 revenues because its y/y growth rate tends to be nearly the same as the comparable growth rate for manufacturing and trade sales, even though this series is limited to goods and does not include services. Aggregate (not per-share) revenues was up 5.2% y/y during Q1, while business sales rose 6.4% through March. Revenues per share on a y/y basis tends to lag the US M-PMI. The latter remains relatively high and consistent with revenue growth around 5%. Not surprisingly, there is a decent correlation between the y/y growth rate in nominal GDP and aggregate S&P 500 revenues.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Valuation: A Less Miserable Measure

Almost all valuation multiples are flashing that stocks are dangerously overvalued. Are there any valuation models suggesting that the danger signals might be false alarms? There is one. It shows the inverse relationship since 1979 between the S&P 500 forward P/E and the Misery Index, which is the sum of the unemployment rate and the CPI inflation rate. Let’s have a look at it and compare it to a few of the other valuation indicators:

(1) Misery Index very bullish. During April, the Misery Index was down to 6.6%, near previous cyclical lows. That’s down 6.3ppts from its most recent cyclical peak of 12.9% during September 2011. Over this same period, the forward P/E has risen from roughly 10 to 17, well above its average of 13.8 since September 1978.

The theory is that less misery should justify a higher P/E. A low unemployment rate should be bullish for stocks unless it is accompanied by rising inflation, which could cause the Fed to tighten to the point of triggering a recession and driving the jobless rate higher. Nirvana should be a low unemployment rate with low inflation, which seems to be the current situation. In this happy state, a recession is nowhere to be seen, which should justify a higher valuation multiple.

I construct a “misery-adjusted” P/E simply by summing the S&P 500 forward P/E and the misery index. It has been trendless and highly cyclical since September 1978, with an average of 23.9. Its low was 18.5 during November 2008, and its high was 33.0 during March 2000. During April, it was 24.3, in line with its average. That’s somewhat comforting.

(2) Rule of 20 no longer a buy signal. Less comforting is the Rule of 20, which tracks the sum of the S&P forward P/E plus the CPI inflation rate. So it is the same as the misery-adjusted P/E less the unemployment rate. I moved to CJ Lawrence in 1991. My mentor there was Jim Moltz, who devised the Rule of 20, which states that the stock market is fairly valued when the sum of the P/E and the inflation rate equal 20. Above that level, stocks are overvalued; below it, they are undervalued.

The rule was bearish just prior to the bear market at the start of the 1980s. It was wildly bullish for stocks in the first half of the 1980s. It turned very bearish in the late 1990s and bullish again a couple of years later in mid-2002. Those were all good calls. However, like most other valuation models, it didn’t signal the bear market that lasted from October 9, 2007 through March 9, 2009. At the end of 2008, the Rule of 20 was as bullish as it was in the early 1980s. That was another very good call. By early 2017, it was signaling that stocks were slightly overvalued for the first time since May 2002.

(3) Buffett ratio sees no bargains. Another valuation gauge I follow is the price-to-sales (P/S). The S&P 500 stock price index can be divided by forward revenues instead of forward earnings. However, the forward P/S ratio is very highly correlated with the forward P/E ratio. So it doesn’t add much to the assessment of valuation.

A variant of the P/S ratio is one that Warren Buffett said he favors. It is the ratio of the value of all stocks traded in the US to nominal GDP. The data for the numerator is included in the Fed’s quarterly Financial Accounts of the United States and lags behind the GDP report, which is available a couple of weeks after the end of a quarter on a preliminary basis. Needless to say, it isn’t exactly timely data.

However, the forward P/S ratio, which is available weekly, has been tracking Buffett’s ratio very closely. In an interview he did with Fortune in December 2001, Buffett said, “For me, the message of that chart is this: If the percentage relationship falls to the 70% or 80% area, buying stocks is likely to work very well for you. If the ratio approaches 200%—as it did in 1999 and a part of 2000—you are playing with fire.” That’s sage advice from the Sage of Omaha. His ratio was at 1.69 during Q4, while the P/S was 1.90 in mid-May, suggesting that we are playing with fire.

On the other hand, a year ago in a 5/2 CNBC interview, Buffett said, “If you had zero interest rates and you knew you were going to have them forever, stocks should sell at, you know, 100 times earnings or 200 times earnings.” He was speaking hypothetically, of course. More recently, this year in a 2/27 CNBC interview, Buffett said that US stock prices are “on the cheap side,” and added, “We are not in a bubble territory.” He also announced at the time that he had more than doubled his stake in Apple since the new year and before the tech giant reported earnings on January 31.

(4) Fed model still bullish. To round out the discussion, I should mention that the Fed’s Stock Valuation Model showed that the S&P 500 was undervalued during April by 61.9% using the US Treasury 10-year bond yield and 24.9% using a corporate bond yield composite. This confirms Buffett’s assessment that stocks are relatively cheap compared to bonds. If more investors conclude that economic growth (with low unemployment) and inflation may remain subdued for a long while, then they should conclude that economic growth and inflation may remain historically low. That’s a Nirvana scenario for stocks, and would be consistent with valuation multiples remaining high.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Death by Amazon

An anchor store is one of the larger stores in a shopping mall, usually a department store or a major retail chain. Shopping malls were first developed in the 1950s. Their developers signed up large department stores to draw retail traffic that would result in visits to the smaller stores in the mall as well. The anchors usually paid heavily discounted rents.

Amazon is a river in South America. It is the largest one in the world by discharge of water and the longest in length. A piranha is a freshwater fish with sharp teeth and a powerful jaw that inhabits South American rivers, including the Amazon. If you happen to fall off a riverboat steaming down the Amazon, the piranhas will pick your bones clean.

Amazon is also a piranha-like corporation that eats up retailers, particularly the anchor stores, and doesn’t even leave the bones. I have been picking apart this story for a while. For example, see our 3/30 Morning Briefing titled “Jeff Bezos, The Terminator.” I was quoted in a 5/12 IBD article on the subject as follows:
"Amazon is killing lots of businesses. In the process, it may also be killing inflation," Ed Yardeni, noted economist and president of Yardeni Research, said in a recent report. Using Chief Executive Jeff Bezos’ playbook, Amazon has pummeled rivals with price cuts enabled by its smart logistics and relentless drive toward efficiency. Labor-displacing warehouse robotics give Amazon a cost advantage, and it aims to one day deploy delivery drones to extend its edge all the way to the customer’s doorstep. Amazon’s casualty list already is formidable. Over the years, Amazon has left consumer-facing retailers such as Borders, Circuit City and Sports Authority in the dust. Department chains have been closing stores, unable to answer the e-commerce challenge.
The IBD article reported that Amazon’s piranhas are about to chew up other businesses. Consider the following:

(1) Big-box retailers & grocers. Amazon is going after big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco by leaning on their consumer staples vendors to sell their products, which are packaged in big boxes, to consumers directly through Amazon’s distribution system. The $1.3 trillion US grocery market could be Amazon’s biggest potential source of revenue upside. IBD noted, “Amazon hopes to eliminate store cashiers at Amazon Go convenience stores now being tested. Amazon Go stores use sensors to track items as shoppers put them into baskets. The shopper’s Amazon account gets automatically charged.”

(2) B2B. Yardeni Research already has received mailings inviting us to set up an Amazon Business account for our office needs. IBD observed: “The online sales channel for business customers is sending prices down for industrial products, pressuring companies like W.W. Grainger.”

(3) Entertainment. Amazon is also going head-to-head with Netflix and all of Hollywood, by producing and distributing movies. The CEO of the entertainment provider Liberty Media, Greg Maffei, called Amazon a “ridiculously scary” rival at a financial conference on May 9. He presciently explained that Amazon’s competitive advantage is that it “has an ability, because of its scale, to invest at incredibly low or negative rates of return—because they can cross-subsidize, and the market is willing to suspend disbelief in future profitability.”

(4) On-demand & logistics. IBD reported: “Amazon recently was granted a patent for automated, ‘on-demand apparel manufacturing.’ The patent highlights plans to go beyond clothing into other fabric-based products, such as footwear, bedding and home goods. … Amazon is also bringing more of its logistics and delivery operations in-house.” This means that it is aiming to compete with, and eventually chew up, the airfreight, trucking, and home delivery industries.

(5) Cloud. In March 2006, Amazon officially launched Amazon Web Services (AWS). We signed up in 2008 for this fantastic cloud service, which has been remarkably reliable and very cost effective for us. IBD reported:
As corporate America outsources more computing work to AWS and other highly automated cloud services, companies buy less hardware and software for internal data centers and cut back on IT staffing. In the March quarter, IBM’s (IBM) hardware business fell nearly 17% to $2.5 billion year-over-year, reflecting the impact of cloud adoption. How do the likes of IBM, Cisco Systems (CSCO) and Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) fight back? By cutting prices. ‘Cloud is deflationary and collapses markets,’ said a Citigroup report in April. "Labor, with 85% deflation in the cloud, has the most significant disruption from cloud economics," says the Citi report. It says 15 IT staffers in a public, shared cloud service can replace 100 in a private data center.
According to Citigroup, AWS will rake in some $37.5 billion in revenue by 2020, up from $17 billion this year. IBD quoted me as follows:
“Perhaps most importantly, AWS’ juicy operating profit margin of more than 25% gives Amazon a way to fund its new ventures and a retail business that has notoriously skinny margins. The cash and financial flexibility AWS provides ensure that Amazon will be a lethal competitor in the retailing industry for many years to come.”
In other words, “Death by Amazon” is a plague that will continue to afflict more and more businesses and industries. We can keep track of the mounting body count with a few economic indicators and by reading the business obituary page.

In March, online shopping rose to a record 29.7% of all online and in-store sales of GAFO, i.e., general merchandise, apparel and accessories, furniture, and other sales. That’s up from just above 5.0% in 1994, when Jeff Bezos founded Amazon on July 5 that year. Over this same period, department stores’ share of GAFO plummeted from 34.3% to 12.5% currently. The box retailers saw their share rise from about 7.0% in 1992 to peak at 27.2% during January 2014, and ease back down to 25.3% currently.

In a 5/4 CNBC interview, Warren Buffett said he sold off about a third of his company’s 81 million shares of IBM since the start of the year. “I would say what they’ve run into is some pretty tough competitors,” Buffett said. “IBM is a big strong company, but they’ve got big strong competitors too.” In a 5/8 CNBC interview, Buffett was asked why he didn’t own any Amazon shares. He had a simple one-word answer: “Stupidity.”

Buffett explained, “I was impressed with Jeff [Bezos] early. I never expected he could pull off what he did ... on the scale that it happened.” He added, “At the same time he’s shaking up the whole retail world, he’s also shaking up the IT world simultaneously.”

In the nominal GDP data, I see that capital spending on software and on information processing equipment both rose to record highs during Q1-2017 of $346.2 billion (saar) and $334.3 billion. Computers and peripheral equipment, which is included in the latter category, has been virtually flat in both current and inflation-adjusted dollars since Q4-2010 at around $82 billion (saar). This flattening out after rapidly increasing since the early 1980s coincides with Amazon leading the expansion of the cloud business since 2006. Companies don’t need to buy computers when they can sign up for the computing power and storage they need on the cloud, which uses the available hardware much more efficiently.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Earnings: Small Is Beautiful

The money keeps pouring into equity ETFs. The latest data from the Investment Company Institute shows that they attracted $38.1 billion during March, $98.6 billion during Q1, and $198.7 billion since November, when Donald Trump was elected president. Over the past 12 months through March, equity ETFs attracted a record $295 billion. No wonder the S&P 500 is up 7.1% ytd through Tuesday’s close and is just 0.1% below Monday’s record high. It is up 12.0% since Election Day.

Just as impressive, the S&P 400 MidCaps and S&P 600 SmallCaps stock price indexes are up 14.2% and 16.7% since Election Day. The stock market rally since then has been attributable to a combination of higher forward P/Es and increases to record highs in the forward earnings of the S&P 500/400/600. The current bull market has been especially good for MidCap and SmallCap investors. Consider the following:

(1) Performance & earnings derby. The S&P 500/400/600 price indexes are up 254.7%, 329.7%, and 368.3% since March 9, 2009. That’s because the forward earnings of the three composites are up 107.2%, 132.8%, and 161.4% over that same period.

(2) Valuation derbies. All three started the bull market with forward P/Es just above 10.0, specifically at 10.3, 10.1, and 11.1, respectively. These valuation multiples for the S&P 500/400/600 are currently 17.5, 18.3, and 19.4.

(3) Earnings in 2017 & 2018. Analysts’ consensus expectations in early May showed earnings growth for the S&P 500/400/600 of 11.4%, 10.5%, and 9.8% this year. Next year, they expect estimate growth rates will be 11.9%, 13.6%, and 19.8%. Interestingly, their expectations for 2018 have been remarkably stable since late last year for the LargeCaps and SmallCaps, while their MidCap consensus forecast has been rising.

(4) Q1 upside hooks. Now that the Q1 earnings season is almost complete, we see upside hooks in the results relative to expectations at the start of the season for all three composites. The S&P 500/400/600 Q1 actual/blended numbers now show y/y gains of 13.9%, 10.5%, and 6.3%. In other words, LargeCap investors have something to brag about for now. (By the way, at the beginning of the current earnings season, the estimates were 9.2%, 6.7%, and 2.1%.)

(5) Alpha & beta. The reason that small companies grow faster than large companies is that if they survive, they tend to grow into bigger companies, while the large ones may have hit their critical mass many years ago. There is more alpha in small companies, and more beta in large companies. “Alpha” refers to company-specific developments, while “beta” refers to economy-wide ones that impact all companies. Of course, this can be a curse during recessions when both alpha and beta fall apart for many small companies, while large companies mostly take a beta hit.

Currently, the big problem for all companies is a shortage of workers. This hits smaller companies harder because they need to increase their payrolls to grow more so than large ones. The NFIB survey of small business owners released yesterday for April showed that 31.7% are not able to fill open positions, using the three-month average to reduce m/m volatility in this series. That’s the highest since February 2001. On the other hand, 17.5% of them are saying that government regulation is their number-one problem, down from a recent peak of 22.2% during May 2015. SmallCaps and MidCaps are likely to benefit more than LargeCaps from President Trump’s economic agenda to reduce regulations and cut corporate taxes.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Seinfeld Market: Nothing Bad Happening

"The Pitch” is the 43rd episode of the TV sitcom Seinfeld. It is the third episode of the fourth season. It aired on September 16, 1992. In it, NBC executives ask Jerry Seinfeld to pitch them an idea for a TV series. His friend George Costanza decides he can be a sitcom writer and comes up with the idea of “a show about nothing.”

The bull market in stocks since March 2009 has had a fairly simple script too. As a result of the Trauma of 2008, investors have been prone to recurring panic attacks. They feared that something bad was about to happen again, so they sold stocks. When their fears weren’t realized, the selloffs were followed by relief rallies to new cyclical highs and to new record highs since March 28, 2013. Their jitters are understandable given that the S&P 500 plunged 56.8% from October 9, 2007 through March 9, 2009.

From 2009 through 2016, there were four major corrections and several significant scares. I kept track of them and the main events that seemed to cause them. By my count, there were 57 panic attacks from 2009 through 2016, with 2012 being especially anxiety-prone with 12 attacks. (See our S&P 500 Panic Attacks Since 2009.)

From 2010 through 2012, there were recurring fears that the Eurozone might disintegrate. There were Greek debt crises and concerns about bad loans in the Italian banking sector. Investors were greatly relieved when ECB President Mario Draghi pledged during the summer of 2012 to do whatever it takes to defend the Eurozone. China also popped up from time to time as concerns mounted about real estate bubbles, slowing growth, and capital outflows over there. At the end of 2012, fear of a “fiscal cliff” in the US evaporated when a budget deal was struck at the start of 2013 between Democrats and Republicans. I expected it, though I certainly had no idea that it would be worked out between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In a November 9, 2013 Barron’s interview titled “Lifting the Odds for a Market Melt-Up,” I observed:
I have met a lot of institutional investors I call "fully invested bears" who all agree this is going to end badly. Now, they are a bit more relaxed, thinking it won’t end badly anytime soon. Investors have anxiety fatigue. I think it’s because we didn’t go over the fiscal cliff. We haven’t had a significant correction since June of last year. We had the fiscal cliff; they raised taxes; then there was the sequester, and then the latest fiscal impasse. And yet the market is at a record high. Investors have learned that any time you get a sell-off, you want to be a buyer. The trick to this bull market has been to avoid getting thrown off.
There was another nasty selloff at the start of 2016 as two Fed officials warned that the FOMC was likely to follow 2015’s one rate hike at the end of that year with four hikes in 2016. I had predicted “one-and-done” for 2015 and again for 2016. Contributing to the selloff in early 2016 was the plunge in the price of oil, which had started on June 20, 2014. That triggered a significant widening in the yield spread between high-yield corporate bonds and the US Treasury 10-year bond yield from 2014’s low of 253 basis points on June 23 to a high of 844 basis points on February 11, 2016. The widening was led by soaring yields of junk bonds issued by oil companies. There were widespread fears that all this could lead to a recession. In addition, the Chinese currency was depreciating amid signs of accelerating capital outflows from China.

I remained bullish. In a February 6, 2016 Barron’s interview titled “Yardeni: No U.S. Recession in Sight,” I reiterated my opinions that the Fed was unlikely to hike the federal funds rate more than once and that the secular bull market remained intact. I argued on Monday, January 25 that “it may be too late to panic” and that the previous “Wednesday’s action might have made capitulation lows in both the stock and oil markets.” Sure enough, the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil did bottom on Wednesday, January 20. The S&P 500 bottomed on February 11, the same day that the high-yield spread peaked. The S&P 500 Energy sector dropped 47.3% from its high on June 23, 2014 to bottom on January 20, 2016. During the summer of 2016, I perceived the end of the energy-led earnings recession and projected that the bull would resume his charge.

Following the surprising Brexit vote that summer, the stock market declined for just two days despite lots of gloomy predictions. Just prior to the presidential election, I argued that the rebound in earnings, following the recession in the energy industry, would likely push stock prices higher no matter who won. After Donald Trump did so, I raised my outlook for the S&P 500, expecting that a combination of deregulation and tax cuts would boost earnings. The latest bull market was still going strong in early 2017.

I was interviewed again in the February 4, 2017 issue of Barron’s saying:
It would be a mistake to bet against what President Trump might accomplish on the policy side. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, hoping good policies get implemented and bad ones forgotten. We could get substantial tax cuts. All his proposals don’t need to be implemented for the Trump rally to be validated. If you get $1 trillion to $2 trillion coming back from overseas because of a lower tax on repatriated corporate earnings, that would be very powerful in terms of keeping the market up.
So far, investors are relieved that the bad outcomes predicted by the naysayers about Trump in the White House haven’t happened. The anticipated bullish outcomes are also still mostly on-the-come. Nothing really terrible or wonderful is happening other than that earnings are rising in record-high territory again.

By the way, in case you missed it, you might be relieved to know that Greece and its international creditors on Tuesday reached a preliminary deal allowing the country to receive yet another round of bailout payments in exchange for promises to raise taxes and to further cut pensions and social spending. Chinese stocks seem to be stabilizing this week, having dropped sharply during the second half of April after officials slammed what they called short-term speculators. This past Sunday evening, congressional leaders reached an agreement on a spending deal that would fund the government through the end of September and avoid a looming shutdown. This weekend, the French are likely to elect a President who is all for the EU and euro. These developments should all be a relief, though no one really worried much about any of them this time. Nothing bad is happening, which is good news for stocks.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Happier Global Economy

Since late last year, I’ve liked what I’ve been seeing abroad, especially in emerging economies. The latest batch of data out of China was certainly surprisingly strong, though that isn’t surprising given that the country’s central planners still command the economy over there as they see fit. The EU’s economy also has impressed me. Like everyone else, I’ve been concerned about the region’s political drift toward anti-EU populism that could lead to the destabilizing disintegration of the EU and/or the Eurozone. However, that risk seems to have dissipated significantly given the recent successes of the establishment parties that remain in power in Spain and the Netherlands. Italy continues to be ungovernable—so what else is new?—but still committed to the EU.

What about France? Following last weekend’s first-round presidential election, I expect that pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron, who was a member of the Socialist Party from 2006-2009, will beat National Front leader Marine Le Pen during the second-round contest scheduled for May 7. As they say in French, “Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les mêmes.”

Let’s take a tour of the latest developments around the world, shall we?

(1) Commodity prices. The CRB raw industrials spot price index dropped last week to the lowest level since January 9. However, it’s down only 2.4% from its recent high on March 17. It is still up 26.2% from its most recent low near the end of 2015. In the big picture, this index remains on a solid uptrend. However, it is a bit odd to see this recent weakness coinciding with all the better-than-expected data coming out of China last week.

(2) PMIs & production. There shouldn’t be much more downside in commodity prices given the strength in April’s flash M-PMIs for Germany and France. The composite PMI (C-PMI) for Germany edged down to 56.3 from 57.1 last month. That’s still a relatively high level, with Germany’s M-PMI remaining very elevated at 58.2 versus 58.3 during March. France’s C-PMI jumped to 57.4 from 56.8, with lots of strength in the M-PMI (55.1) and NM-PMI (57.7). Japan’s M-PMI also remained solid at 52.8 this month.

On the other hand, the flash M-PMI for the US continued to edge down from a recent high of 55.0 during January to 52.8 this month. The NM-PMI has also come down from a recent high of 55.6 during January to 52.5 this month. Nevertheless, these are all solid readings for the US. The average of the business conditions indexes from the NY and Philly Fed district surveys declined to 13.6 this month from a recent high of 31.0 during February, as Debbie discusses below. Looks like some of the “animal spirits” unleashed by Trump’s election may be going back into their cages!

On yet another hand, industrial production indexes remain on uptrends in the US, Canada, the Eurozone, and Japan. Even Brazil’s output seems to have bottomed, while Mexico’s remains stalled at a record high despite Trumps tough talk on US trade with our southern neighbor. Most impressive is that industrial production among the 34 members of the OECD rose 1.2% y/y during January after having stalled during 2015 and the first half of 2016. It is now almost at the previous record high during January 2008.

(3) Retail and auto sales. In the Eurozone, the volume of retail sales (excluding motor vehicles) rose 0.7% m/m and 1.8% y/y during February to a new record high. Both French and German shoppers are doing lots of shopping, with their volume indexes up 2.8% and 1.6% y/y, respectively, at record highs. The Italians and Spaniards are lagging far behind. New passenger car registrations in the EU jumped 1.2% m/m and 6.0% y/y during March, using the 12-month sum.

(4) Inflation. Both actual and expected inflation rates have edged down recently, suggesting that the global economy isn’t overheating. Expected inflation implied by the yield spread between the US Treasury 10-year bond and TIPS fell from a recent high of 2.08% on January 27 to 1.84% at the end of last week.

The headline CPI inflation rates, on a y/y basis, moved down in March in the US (from 2.7% to 2.4%) and the Eurozone (from 2.0% to 1.5%), and was little changed in China (from 0.8% to 0.9%). The core CPI inflation rates also have ticked down in the US (from 2.2% to 2.0%) and the Eurozone (from 0.9% to 0.7%), and edged up in China (from 1.8% to 2.0%).

(5) Forward revenues and earnings growth. Interestingly, there has been a significant increase since early last year in analysts’ consensus expectations for short-term revenues growth over the year ahead, from 2.3% to 6.3% in mid-April. Even more impressive is the rebound in year-ahead short-term earnings growth from the most recent low of 6.2% early last year to 13.7% now. Long-term earnings growth, over the next five years at an annual rate, is up to 12.5%, the highest since September 2011.

(6) Global trade. Global trade indicators are looking more buoyant. The Baltic Dry Index is up 86% y/y through mid-April. Over the past 12 months through March, US West Coast ports’ outbound container traffic is up 6.0% y/y to the highest level of activity since January 2015. Actual exports data coming out of Asia are especially strong. March data are available in dollars for India (up 28.3% y/y), Indonesia (23.2), China (17.4), Singapore (15.8), Taiwan (14.0) South Korea (13.5), and Japan (10.3). Altogether, they are up 16.4% y/y, and 15.4% excluding China.

No wonder that the Emerging Markets Asia MSCI stock price index (in local currency) is up 29.0% from its low early last year. The index’s forward earnings (in local currency) is up 8.6% over this period. Analysts’ consensus expected short-term earnings growth over the year ahead for this index was back up to 16.0% in early April compared to the most recent low of 4.5% early last year. The index remains relatively cheap with a forward P/E of 12.2.

(7) IMF forecast. The IMF’s economists are raising their expectations for global economic growth. Since nearly the start of the latest global economic expansion, they were too optimistic and have had to lower their forecasts. Last week, they nudged up the IMF’s forecast for world growth this year a tenth of a percentage point to 3.5%, which will be the fastest rate in five years if they are right. Next year’s growth rate is expected to be 3.6%, according to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook. Global growth was 3.1% last year.

The so-called advanced economies, which grew 1.7% last year, are expected to expand by 2.0% during both 2017 and 2018. The emerging and developing economies, which grew 4.1% last year, are predicted to grow by 4.5% this year and 4.8% next year. The top concern among the IMF’s economists is trade protectionism, specifically an “inward shift in policies, including toward protectionism, with lower global growth caused by reduced trade and cross-border investment flows.”

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Driving in the Slow Lane

Following the latest reports on housing starts (down 6.8% m/m during March) and manufacturing output (down 0.4% last month), the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model showed an increase of just 0.5% (saar) in Q1’s real GDP. As I noted recently, the auto industry is a major soft patch in the economy. Sure enough, auto output fell 3.6% during March. Auto assemblies are down 7.3% over the past five months to 11.1 million units (saar) from last year’s peak of 12.0mu. The weather can be blamed for the drop in housing starts, but not for the weakness in auto sales and production.

There are other soft patches in the economy. For example, the ATA Truck Tonnage Index dipped 1.0% m/m in March, and is up by only 0.7% y/y. In other words, it has stalled at a record high over the past year. Sales of medium-weight and heavy trucks dropped 8.0% m/m in March and 19.0% y/y.

So it comes as no surprise that the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index (CESI) has plunged from a recent high of 57.9 on March 15 to 6.6 on Tuesday. These developments are likely to put pressure on the Fed to hold off on another rate hike for now, and on the Trump administration to move forward with its fiscal stimulus agenda. Treasury Security Steve Mnuchin said on Monday that tax reform might not happen until after the summer. I think the weakness in the economy will prompt a faster response by Washington.

By the way, there is a reasonably good fit between the CESI and the 13-week change in the US Treasury 10-year bond yield. The actual yield has dropped from a recent peak of 2.62% on March 13 to 2.17% yesterday. It seems to be heading toward the bottom end of my predicted trading range of 2.00%-2.50% for the first half of this year.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Back to Slower, Longer Economic Growth?

In my meetings with some of our accounts recently, many were skeptical that the strength in the soft data in the US will trickle down to the hard data until the Trump administration actually succeeds in cutting taxes and in boosting infrastructure spending. The soft data consist mostly of surveys of consumers, CEOs, purchasing managers, small business owners, industry analysts, and investors. They all turned remarkably upbeat after Election Day, as I have been monitoring in our new Animal Spirits chart publication.

On the other hand, a few hard-data indicators are downright downbeat. Auto sales totaled 16.6 million units (saar) during March, down from a recent high of 18.4 million units at the end of last year. Payrolls in general merchandise stores have dropped 89,300 over the past five months through March as a result of widespread store closings due to competition from Amazon. Then again, employment in construction, manufacturing, and natural resources rose 175,000 during the first three months of this year. The sum of commercial and industrial bank loans and nonfinancial commercial paper has been flat since the start of the year.

A bigger question is whether there has been a structural decline in the potential growth of the economy that may defy both the animal spirits that seem to have been unleashed by Trump’s election as well as his “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) fiscal policies, assuming they get fully implemented. If so, then the long-term trend of growth for both the real economy and corporate earnings may be lower than in the past. The good news in this scenario is that it might mean that a boom is less likely, which obviously would reduce the risk of a bust.

While much has changed since Election Day, some things have not. Demography hasn’t changed. Neither has technology. Globalization might change, but for now the world remains very competitive as a result of relatively free (though not necessarily fair) trade. Productivity growth remains abysmal, and might improve as a result of MAGA policies, or might not. Consider the following:

(1) Potential output. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculates a quarterly series for potential real GDP growth that starts in 1952 and is available through 2027. The outlook for this year and beyond is based on demographic projections used to estimate labor force growth and assumptions about productivity. From 1952 through 2001, potential real GDP grew in a range mostly between 2.5% and 4.0%, averaging 3.5%. Since then, growth has consistently been below 3.0%, and actually below 2.0% since Q1-2007.

(2) Real GDP. I constructed a series for the underlying growth in real GDP simply as the 40-quarter percent change in real GDP annualized. It tells more or less the same story as the CBO’s estimate for potential output. From 1960 through 1975, growth averaged 4.7%. From 1975 through 2007, it averaged 3.7%. It plunged during the Great Recession, and has remained consistently below 2.0% since Q3-2009.

(3) Labor force. Trump may or may not succeed with his MAGA plans. However, he certainly can’t Make America Young Again (MAYA). He can’t bring back the Baby Boom. There has been a dramatic slowing in the growth of the working-age population and the labor force, particularly of the 16- to 64-year-olds. The actual growth rates of this age segment of the working-age population and the labor force are down to only 0.5% and 0.3% over the past 10 years at annual rates.

(4) Productivity. The big unknown is whether Trump’s MAGA policies can revive productivity growth. That’s the only way that real GDP growth might finally exceed 2.0%. Getting it up to Trump’s 4.0% goal seems very unlikely. Nonfarm productivity growth has been below 1.0% since Q4-2014, based on the five-year percent change at an annual rate. Surprisingly, manufacturing has contributed greatly to this weakness, also rising less than 1.0% since Q4-2015.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bull by the Tail

Stock market valuation measures are elevated across the board, for sure. The forward P/E of the S&P 500 is currently 17.7. It is highly correlated with the forward price-to-sales ratio (P/S) of the same stock market index. This valuation metric closely tracks the Buffett Ratio, which is equal to the market capitalization of the entire US equity market (excluding foreign issues) divided by nominal GNP. During Q4-2016, the Buffett Ratio was 1.67, not far below the record high of 1.80 during Q3-2000. The forward P/S rose from 1.58 in early 2016 to a record high of 1.93 in March.

These all are nose-bleed levels. However, they may be justified if Trump proceeds with deregulation and succeeds in implementing tax cuts. His policies may or may not do much to boost GDP growth and S&P 500 sales (a.k.a. revenues). Nevertheless, they could certainly boost earnings.

The risk is that Trump’s victory activated a melt-up mechanism that has nothing to do with sensible assessments of the fundamentals or valuation. Instead, structural market flows may be driving the market’s animal spirits. Consider the following:

(1) Lots of corporate cash is still buying equites. At the end of last week, we updated our chart publications with Q4-2016 data for S&P 500 buybacks. They remained very high at a $541 billion annualized rate. For all of last year, buybacks totaled $536 billion, a slight decline from the previous year’s cyclical high of $572 billion. S&P 500 dividends rose to a record high of $396 billion last year. Since the start of the bull market during Q1-2009 through the end of last year, buybacks totaled $3.4 trillion, while dividends added up to $2.4 trillion. Combined, they pumped $5.7 trillion into the bull market, driving stock prices higher without much, if any, help from households, mutual funds, institutional investors, or foreign investors.

(2) Passive is the new active. On the other hand, equity ETFs have been increasingly consistent net buyers of equities during the current bull market. Their net inflows totaled a record $281 billion over the past 12 months through February. Since the start of the bull market during March 2009, their cumulative net inflows equaled $1,167 billion, well exceeding the $179 billion trickle into equity mutual funds.

So there you have it: The bull may be chasing its own tail. I know that image doesn’t quite jibe with the bull charging ahead, but work with me here. The bull has been on steroids from share buybacks by corporate managers, who have been motivated by somewhat different and more bullish valuation parameters than those that motivate institutional investors, as we have discussed many times before. Most individual investors seemingly swore that they would never return to the stock market after it crashed in 2008 and early 2009. But time heals all wounds, and suddenly some of them may have turned belatedly bullish on stocks after Election Day. Add a buying panic of equity ETFs by individual investors to corporations’ consistent buying of their own shares, and the result may very well be a melt-up.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Many Happy S&P 500 Revenues

The global economy fell into a growth recession from mid-2014 through early 2016. It was caused by a severe recession in the global commodities sector, led by a collapse in oil prices. It was widely expected that the negative consequences of lower oil prices for producers would be more than offset by the positive ones for consumers. That was not the case. The former outweighed the latter because the commodity-related cuts in capital spending overshadowed the boost to consumer spending from lower oil prices. In addition, there was a brief credit crunch in the high-yield market on fears that commodity producers would default on their bonds and trigger a widespread financial contagion.

Now the worst is over for commodity producers, as their prices have rebounded. That’s because they scrambled to reduce output and restructure their operations to be more profitable at lower prices. More importantly, global demand for commodities remained solid. Now with commodity prices, especially oil prices, well below their 2014 highs, consumers are benefitting more than producers are suffering.

Voila! The global economy is showing more signs of improving in recent months. That’s already boosting revenues growth for the S&P 500, and should be increasingly obvious as corporations report their top-line growth rates for the Q1 earnings season during April. Let’s have a closer look:

(1) Commodity prices. The CRB raw industrials spot price index fell 27% from April 24, 2014 through November 23, 2015. The index is up 28% from the low. The price of a barrel of Brent crude oil plunged 76% from its 2014 high of $115.06 on June 19 to its 2016 low of $27.88 on January 20. It is up 84% from its low to $51.28 yesterday.

(2) Business sales. US manufacturers’ shipments of petroleum products plunged 58% from the end of 2013 through February 2016. That drop weighed heavily on US manufacturing and trade sales, which declined on a y/y basis each month from January 2015 through July 2016. Excluding petroleum shipments, this broad measure of business sales of goods barely grew during this energy recession.

(3) S&P 500 revenues. I am not surprised to see S&P 500 revenues tracing out the same pattern as business sales since I have been tracking the close relationship of the two for some time. The y/y growth rates of business sales and S&P 500 revenues (either on an aggregate or per-share basis) continue to be very close. The same goes for the relationship excluding Energy revenues from the S&P 500 aggregate and business sales excluding petroleum shipments.

I continue to monitor analysts’ expectations for the short-term (year-ahead) growth rates of S&P 500 revenues and earnings (STRG and STEG), as well as long-term (five-year-ahead) earnings growth (LTEG) on a weekly basis. STRG has rebounded from close to zero in early 2015 to about 5.5% currently. Since the start of last year, STEG has jumped from about 5% to over 10%. LTEG is around 12.3%, near the best reading of the current economic expansion.

I doubt that any of these improvements have much to do with Trump’s election victory. I have no doubts that the end of the global Energy sector’s recession accounts for much of the improvement.

(4) Business surveys. Another upbeat indicator for S&P 500 revenues is the M-PMI, which has a good correlation with the y/y growth rate in S&P 500 revenues (both in aggregate and per-share). The former jumped from a recent low of 49.4 during August 2016 to 57.7 during February, the best level since August 2014. That too is consistent with a manufacturing recovery following the end of the energy recession, and augurs well for revenues growth.

By the way, there is a similarly good correlation between revenues growth and the composite business indicators from the regional surveys conducted by five Fed districts. All five are available through March, with their average index jumping from last year’s low of -12.8 to 21.6 this month. The energy recession is clearly over.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Age-Old Adages for the Bull Market

There are plenty of age-old adages about the stock market that focus on the Fed’s impact on the market. They tend to be cautionary and are recited by old timers who’ve lived through some wicked bear markets and fearsome corrections. The basic message is that the Fed is your friend until it isn’t. Consider the following:

(1) Zweig. Martin Zweig was a highly respected analyst and investor who passed away in 2013. He famously often said “Don’t fight the Fed.” He started his newsletter in 1971 and his hedge fund in 1984. On Friday, October 16, 1987, in a memorable appearance on Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser, he warned of an imminent stock market crash. It happened the following Monday, and Zweig became an investment rock star. His newsletter, The Zweig Forecast, had a stellar track record, according to Mark Hulbert, who tracks such things.

In his 1986 book Winning on Wall Street, Zweig elaborated on his famous saying: “Monetary conditions exert an enormous influence on stock prices. Indeed, the monetary climate—primarily the trend in interest rates and Federal Reserve policy—is the dominant factor in determining the stock market’s major direction. … Generally, a rising trend in rates is bearish for stocks; a falling trend is bullish.” There are two reasons for this, he wrote: “First, falling interest rates reduce the competition on stocks from other investments, especially short-term instruments such as Treasury bills, certificates of deposit, or money market funds. … Second, when interest rates fall, it costs corporations less to borrow. … As expenses fall, profits rise. … So, as interest rates drop, investors tend to bid prices higher, partly on the expectation of better earnings. The opposite effect occurs when interest rates rise.”

(2) Martin. In 1949, President Harry Truman appointed Scott Paper CEO Thomas McCabe to run the Fed. McCabe pushed to regain the Fed’s power over monetary policy and did so with the Fed-Treasury Accord of 1951. He negotiated the deal with Assistant Treasury Secretary William McChesney Martin. McCabe returned to Scott Paper and Martin took over as chairman of a re-empowered Federal Reserve on April 2, 1951, serving in that position until January 31, 1970 under five presidents. The March 1951 Accord freed the Fed and marked the start of the modern Federal Reserve System. Under Martin, the Fed’s overriding goals became price and macroeconomic stability. He believed that the Fed’s job was to be a party pooper. His famous “punch bowl” metaphor seems to trace back to a speech given on October 19, 1955 in which he said:

“In the field of monetary and credit policy, precautionary action to prevent inflationary excesses is bound to have some onerous effects—if it did not it would be ineffective and futile. Those who have the task of making such policy don’t expect you to applaud. The Federal Reserve, as one writer put it, after the recent increase in the discount rate, is in the position of the chaperone who has ordered the punch bowl removed just when the party was really warming up.”

(3) Gould. According to the Market Technicians Association, the late technical analysis pioneer Edson Gould, who was active from the 1930s through the 1970s, observed that “whenever the Federal Reserve raises either the federal funds target rate, margin requirements, or reserve requirements three times without a decline, the stock market is likely to suffer a substantial, perhaps serious, setback.” This adage is widely known as “three steps and a stumble.” So far, investors are betting against it since stocks actually rose sharply last Wednesday after the Fed hiked the federal funds rate for the third time since the Great Recession.

What do the data show about the relationship between the Fed’s monetary policy cycle and the S&P 500? Monthly data for the index show that it tends to bottom during the beginning of easing phases of monetary policy, when the Fed is lowering the federal funds rate. It tends to continue rising through the end of the easing phases and even when the Fed starts raising interest rates. Three rate hikes may cause occasional stumbles, but it’s hard to see them in the data.

What does stand out is that the tightening phase of monetary policy often ends in tears because it tends to trigger financial crises. Forward P/Es have a tendency to peak before the crises hit as investors begin to fret that higher interest rates may be starting to stress the economy.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

US Flow of Funds: ETFs Driving Stocks Higher

The Fed released its Financial Accounts of the United States with data for Q4-2016 last week. It provides amazingly comprehensive insights into the flow of funds, balance sheets, and integrated macroeconomic accounts of the US financial system. It’s really almost too much information to wrap one’s head around.

To help process it all, we have created a bunch of chart publications over the years that visualize quite a bit of it on our website. The saying that a picture is “worth a thousand words” is attributed to newspaper editor Tess Flanders discussing journalism and publicity in 1911. We have always believed that a chart is worth a thousand data points in a time series. Given our chosen profession, we tend to focus on the data for the equity and debt markets in the Fed’s quarterly statistical extravaganza. Let’s focus on equities:

(1) Supply-side totals. Net issuance of equities last year totaled minus $229.7 billion, with nonfinancial corporate (NFC) issues at -$565.7 billion and financial issues at $269.7 billion. The increase in financials was led by a $283.9 billion increase in equity ETFs, the biggest annual increase on record. The decline in NFC issues reflected the impact of stock buybacks and M&A activity more than offsetting IPOs and secondary issues.

(2) Demand-side total. To get a closer view of the demand for equities, let’s focus now on the quarterly data at an annual rate rather than at the four-quarter sum. This shows that equity mutual funds have been net sellers for the past five quarters, reducing their holdings by $151.3 billion over this period. Over the same period, equity ETFs purchased $266.4 billion, with their Q4-2016 purchases a record $485.4 billion, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate. Other institutional investors have been selling equities for the past 24 consecutive quarters, i.e., during most of the bull market! Foreign investors have also been net sellers over this same period.

The bottom line is that the current bull market has been driven largely by corporations buying back their shares, as I have been observing for many years. More recently, we have been seeing individual investors increasingly moving out of equity mutual funds and into equity ETFs. Both kinds of buyers tend to be much less concerned about historically high valuation multiples than more traditional buyers are.

We may be witnessing the beginning of an ETF-led melt-up, which may simply reflect individual investors pouring money into passive stock index funds. Lots of them seem to be more interested in seeking out low-cost funds rather than cheap stocks. In this case, valuation multiples would lead the melt-up, until something happens to scare investors out of those passive funds, which could trigger either a correction or a nasty meltdown. It is obviously a bit late in the game to start only now to be a long-term investor given that stocks aren’t cheap no matter how valuation is sliced and diced.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Happy Anniversary: Dancing With the Bulls

Anniversaries are usually joyous events. This week marked the eighth anniversary of the bull market. On March 3, 2009, President Barack Obama told us to buy stocks: “What you’re now seeing is profit-and-earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you’ve got a long-term perspective on it.” On March 6, 2009, the S&P 500 fell to an intra-day low of 666, and never looked back. You might recall (because I’ve reminded you a few times since then) that soon after, I declared that this devilish number was THE low. March 9, 2009 marked the closing low of 676.53. Let’s review some of the accomplishments of the charging bull:

(1) Performance, earnings, and valuation. The S&P 500 is up 249% since March 9, 2009 through yesterday’s close. The forward earnings of the S&P 500 is up 103%. The forward P/E is up 75% (from 10.2 to 17.9).

(2) Blue Angels. Putting all these trends together in our Blue Angels charts shows that the market is certainly flying high. Valuations suggest that stock prices are too high. However, forward earnings for the S&P 500 continues to climb in record-high territory. Furthermore, valuation isn’t too high if President Donald Trump delivers the goodies that he promised, including tax cuts, deregulation, and infrastructure spending. The market clearly liked Trump’s speech before Congress last week, along with his kinder and gentler tone. It was his first truly presidential-sounding performance since he first landed on the political stage.

(3) Fundamentals. Last week’s rally was impressive, and certainly provided a vote of confidence in the President’s economic agenda. That vote was also merited by last Wednesday’s M-PMI, which jumped to 57.7 during February, up from 56.0 during January and 52.0 during October, before the presidential election. Yesterday’s ADP report showing a gain of nearly 300,000 in February payrolls is yet another number suggesting that Trump’s victory unleashed the economy’s animal spirits.

(4) Sentiment. The Bull-Bear Ratio compiled by Investors Intelligence rose to 3.82 last week. That’s the highest since April 2015. Of course, if we all start celebrating the stock market melt-up, the contrarian killjoys will say that such events are usually followed by a meltdown. They’ll observe that the hard work is still ahead, i.e., getting the bullish part of the Trump agenda passed by Congress while blocking the bearish parts that have to do with protectionism.

For now, I continue to dance with the bulls. On a note of caution, let’s recall the infamous last words of former Citi CEO Charles (“Chuck”) Prince. In July 2007, Prince told the FT that global liquidity was enormous and only a significant disruptive event could create difficulty in the leveraged buyout market. “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing,” he said. On November 4, 2007, he retired from both his chairman and chief executive positions due to unexpectedly poor Q3 results, mainly attributed to CDO- and MBS-related losses.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Buffett’s Rules & Ratios

In a CNBC interview on Monday, Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, declared that stocks are “on the cheap side.” He has played the Trump rally by putting another $20 billion into the stock market since Election Day. Stocks are cheap, he said, because interest rates remain very low. This suggests that Buffett is betting both on and against Trump. He obviously made a very good decision not to let his personal politics get in the way of joining the animal spirits rally since Election Day. Warren Buffett is a long-time Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton, but he says he agrees with President Donald Trump on some issues—including homeland security as a top priority, boosting economic growth, and increasing the incomes of more Americans who have been hurt by globalization.

Yet, Buffett seems to be betting that interest rates won’t go up much anytime soon. In other words, he isn’t convinced that Trump will succeed in stimulating the economy very much with fiscal policy. He said that Republican leaders will probably have to scale back their tax reform ambitions because their current plan is too complicated to pass Congress, especially if they intend to do something on this by August: “I think complexity will give way to speed.” He expressed skepticism that the Republican tax plan will be revenue-neutral “without the craziest dynamic scoring in the world.” He also said that he doubts that the border adjustment tax (BAT) will see the light of day.

I agree with Buffett on the revenue-neutrality issue. The plan that the administration is outlining suggests a guns-and-butter fiscal approach with more defense spending, no cuts in entitlements, and lower tax rates. It’s hard to see how this won’t lead to higher bond yields, especially if the Fed starts increasing the federal funds rate at a pace closer to normal. (I am still forecasting that the US Treasury 10-year bond yield will range between 2.00%-2.50% during the first half of this year and 2.50%-3.00% during the second half of this year.)

In his interview, Buffett told CNBC on Monday that mixing politics and investment strategies would be a “big mistake.” He added, “Probably half the time [in] my adult life, I’ve had a president other than the one I voted for, but that’s never taken me out of stocks.” That’s been my pitch for a while: Investors should focus on whether the political environment is on balance bullish or bearish, not on whether the policies are right or wrong.

The Oracle of Omaha is credited with having devised the Buffett Ratio to measure stock market valuation. This indicator takes the market capitalization of all stocks traded in the US and divides it by GDP. In an interview he did with Fortune in December 2001, Buffett said, “For me, the message of that chart is this: If the percentage relationship falls to the 70% or 80% area, buying stocks is likely to work very well for you. If the ratio approaches 200%—as it did in 1999 and a part of 2000—you are playing with fire.”

Yet, Buffett thinks that stocks are cheap even though his ratio has risen from a cyclical low of 1.51 during Q3-2015 to 1.59 during Q3-2016. So it is approaching the cyclical high of 1.69 during Q1-2015 and the record high of 1.80 during Q1-2000. That’s using the Fed’s quarterly data on the total market capitalization of US equities excluding foreign issues. Now consider the following related indicators:

(1) S&P 500 Buffett Ratio. A similar ratio using the market cap of the S&P 500 to the revenues of this composite is highly correlated with the Buffett Ratio. It was 1.82 during Q4-2016, nearing the record high of 2.01 during Q4-1999.

(2) Forward ratios. It turns out that the S&P 500 version of the Buffett Ratio is highly correlated with the S&P 500’s price-to-sales (P/S) ratio using forward revenues as the denominator. On a monthly basis, it rose to 1.91 during February, suggesting that the Buffett Ratio is already back to its previous record high, just before the tech bubble burst.

I also monitor the forward P/S ratio on a weekly basis. It rose to a record high of 1.91 during the week of February 16. It is highly correlated with the S&P 500’s forward P/E, which rose to 17.8 during the same week.

There are two alternative economic scenarios that follow from the above discussion. The economy continues to grow in both, though running hotter in one than the other. Of course, there is a third scenario in which the economy falls into a recession. That’s possible if Trump’s protectionist leanings trump his pro-growth agenda. However, I believe that Trump is intent on maintaining free trade, but on a more bilateral basis than a multilateral basis. So here are the two growth scenarios in brief:

Very hot. If Trump delivers a guns-and-butter fiscal program—including most of the tax cuts he has promised along with more defense spending and public/private-financed infrastructure spending—economic growth could accelerate. But so might inflation, given that the economy is at full employment. Government deficits would probably remain large or widen, causing public debt to increase. In this scenario, the Fed would be emboldened to increase interest rates in a more normal fashion rather than gradually. Bond yields would rise. This should be a bullish scenario, on balance, if the boost to earnings from lower corporate tax rates and regulatory costs is as big as promised.

Not so hot. Alternatively, if Buffett is right, and interest rates stay at current low levels, that would imply that Trump’s grand plans for the economy won’t be so grand after all in their implementation. Animal spirits would evaporate. Interest rates would stay low, but valuations would be hard to justify if earnings don’t get the boost that was widely discounted after Election Day.

I am rooting for animal spirits.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Recession Is Over

It’s easy to believe that the strength in the US economy since Election Day has a great deal to do with Trump’s surprising and stunning victory, including Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. His promises to cut taxes and reduce regulations seem to have revived animal spirits across the board among US consumers, small business owners, manufacturers, purchasing managers, and investors. I have been reporting on the incredible vertical ascents since the election in the Consumer Optimism Index, the Small Business Optimism Index, the average of the Fed districts’ composite business indicators, the M-PMI and NM-PMI, and the stock market. Also going vertical have been my Boom-Bust Barometer and my Weekly Leading Index.

It’s harder to imagine that Trump’s victory can explain the recent strength in global economic indicators. It’s possible that he revived animal spirits overseas on expectations that his fiscal policies might boost US economic growth, which should benefit the global economy. But his protectionist “America First” rhetoric, championing bringing jobs and manufacturing capacity back to the US, should squelch any optimism that better growth in the US will be shared with the rest of the world through the US trade deficit. Despite the media’s 24/7 focus on everything Trump, there may be a couple of other reasons why the global economy is showing signs of better growth:

(1) The energy recession is over. For starters, the 76% plunge in the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil from June 19, 2014 through January 20, 2016 triggered a global recession in the oil industry, which depressed other industrial commodity prices as well. The CRB raw industrials spot price index dropped 27% from April 24, 2014 through November 23, 2015. The price of oil and the CRB index have rebounded 102% and nearly 30% from their recent lows.

So the global energy industry’s recession is over, and it is no longer weighing on global economic growth. A good way to see this is to compare the y/y growth rates in S&P 500 revenues—which is a good indicator of global economic activity, since about half of those sales occur overseas—with and without the revenues of the Energy sector. With Energy, the growth rate turned negative from Q1-2015 through Q2-2016. It turned positive during Q3-2016. Excluding Energy, the growth rate remained positive over this same period, though it did weaken to a low of 0.2% during Q4-2015.

(2) China is back to its old tricks. China is also boosting economic growth by continuing to stimulate it with plenty of credit. During January, total “social financing” rose by a record $542.3 billion. That’s not on a y/y basis, but rather on a m/m basis! On a y/y basis, social financing totaled $2.7 trillion over the past 12 months through January. Bank loans, which are included in social financing, rose $335.7 billion during January m/m and $1.8 trillion over the past 12 months.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Running Hotter

There is only one obvious explanation for the remarkable vertical ascent in the Small Business Optimism Index over the past three months through January: Donald J. Trump. The index, which is compiled by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), jumped from 94.9 during October to 105.9 during January, the highest since December 2004. That 11.0-point increase is reminiscent of a comparable leap higher during 1980 when business owners started to anticipate that Ronald Reagan might beat Jimmy Carter in that year’s November presidential election. There was another similar outsized increase during 1982 and 1983 when Fed Chairman Paul Volcker lowered interest rates to revive the economy from a severe recession.

Small businesses add up to a big portion of our economy. They currently employ 49.9 million workers, accounting for 40.5% of private-sector payrolls, according to data compiled by ADP. Since the start of the data during January 2005, small business payrolls have increased by 5.9 million, surpassing the gains by medium-sized (5.0 million) and large (1.2 million) companies over the same period. Here are a few of the key highlights from the latest NFIB survey:

(1) Problem solver? Each month, the NFIB survey includes a question on the most important problem faced by small businesses. Since early 2013, taxes and government regulation have been alternating between first and second places. Trump has pledged to lower both for small businesses. Apparently, small business owners expect that’s what he will do. Now all he has to do is deliver.

(2) A new problem. The NFIB survey also lists “poor sales” as a problem. That was the number-one complaint from October 2008 to July 2012. The survey doesn’t ask about the availability of labor. Nevertheless, that is actually becoming a big concern among small business owners according to another question in the survey. During January, roughly 30% of them said they have job openings that they aren’t able to fill right now. That’s the highest such reading since February 2001 based on a three-month average. It confirms that the economy is at full employment, as also evidenced by the unemployment rate, which is inversely correlated with this series and has been below 5.0% for the past nine months through January.

(3) Wages, prices, and profits. The NFIB’s jobs-hard-to-fill series is also highly correlated with the jobs-plentiful series included in the Conference Board’s survey of consumer confidence. All these labor market indicators suggest that wage inflation should be running hotter.

So far, there isn’t much evidence that wage inflation is picking up in the average hourly earnings data that are released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the monthly employment report. Previously, I have shown that there is more wage pressure showing up in the Atlanta Fed’s Median Wage Tracker.

In any event, so far over the past six months on average, only 3.3% of small business owners said they were actually raising their selling prices. So far, I am not seeing any pressure on the forward earnings of the S&P 600 SmallCap’s stock composite, which is rising in record-high territory. However, the composite’s forward profit margin is currently down to 5.2% from a cyclical peak of 6.1% during October 2013.