Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Global Demography: Birth Dearth & Urbanization

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) was founded in 1991 by Les U. Knight, a high-school substitute teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon. He and his followers believe that human extinction is the best solution to the problems facing the Earth’s biosphere and humanity. The VHEMT website shows that the group’s motto is “May we live long and die out.” Their Facebook page sells tee-shirts declaring: “When You Breed, the Planet Bleeds.” Another declares: “Thank You for Not Breeding.” Sure enough, the pace of human breeding has slowed, but for reasons that have nothing to do with VHEMT.

All around the world, humans are not having enough babies to replace themselves. There are a few significant exceptions, such as India and the continent of Africa. Working-age populations are projected to decline along with populations in coming years in most of Asia (excluding India), Europe, and Latin America. The US has a brighter future, though the pace of population growth is projected to slow significantly in coming years.

There are many explanations for the decline in fertility rates around the world to below the replacement rate, which is estimated to be 2.1 children born per woman in developed countries. It is higher in some developing countries that have higher mortality rates.

I believe that the most logical explanation is urbanization. The United Nations estimates that the percentage of the world population that has been urbanized rose from 29.6% in 1950 to just over 50.0% during 2008. This percentage is projected to rise to 66.4% by 2050. The world fertility rate was around 5.0 births per woman in the mid-1950s. It fell to 2.5 in 2015. The UN projects it will fall to 2.0 by the end of this century.

Families are likely to have more children in rural communities than urban ones. Housing is cheaper in the former than in the latter. In addition, rural populations are much more dependent on agricultural employment. They are likely to view every child as contributing to a family’s economic well-being once he or she is old enough to work in the field or tend the livestock. Adult children also are expected to support and to care for their extended families by housing and feeding their aging parents in their own huts and yurts.

In urban environments, children tend to be expensive to house, feed, and educate. When they become urban-dwelling adults, they are less likely to welcome an extended-family living arrangement, with their aging parents living with them in a cramped city apartment. A UN report titled “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision,” noted, “The process of urbanization historically has been associated with other important economic and social transformations, which have brought greater geographic mobility, lower fertility, longer life expectancy and population ageing.”

In my opinion, the urbanization trend since the end of World War II was attributable in large part to the “Green Revolution,” the term coined by William Gaud, the former director of the US Agency for International Development, a.k.a. USAID, to give a name to the spread of new agricultural technologies: “These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.”

In 1970, Norman Borlaug—often called “the Father of the Green Revolution”—won the Nobel Peace Prize. A January 1997 article about him written by Gregg Easterbrook in The Atlantic was titled “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity.” Easterbrook wrote that the agronomist’s techniques for high-yield agriculture were “responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted.” Borlaug may have prevented a billion deaths as a result.

The resulting productivity boom in agriculture eliminated lots of jobs and forced small farmers to sell their plots to large agricultural enterprises that could use the latest technologies to feed many more people in the cities with fewer workers in the fields. Ironically, then, the Green Revolution provided enough food to feed a population explosion. Instead of working the land on family farms, much of the population moved to the cities and had fewer kids! Good old Tommy Malthus, the dismal scientist of economics and demographics, never anticipated ag tech and urbanization.

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.