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01122015 January 12, 2015

Posted by easterntiger in economic history, economy, financial, gold, markets, oil, silver, stocks.
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Current Positions  (Slight Changes)

I(Intl) – exit; S(Small Cap) – exit; C(S&P) –exit

F(bonds) – up to 50%; G (money market) – remainder

Weekly Momentum Indicator (WMI) last 4 weeks, thru 01/08/15

(S&P100 compared to exactly 3 weeks before***)

-9.74, +22, +2.88,1.26 (Today from 3 Fridays ago/2 Fri’s fm 4 Friday’s ago/3 Fri’s fm 5 Friday’s ago/4 Fri’s fm 6 Friday’s ago)

The seemingly-invincible US stock markets powered higher again last year, still directly fueled by the Fed’s epic quantitative-easing money creation.  But 2015 is shaping up to be radically different from the past couple years.  The Fed effectively abandoned the stock markets when it terminated its bond buying late last year.

So this year we will finally see if these lofty stock markets can remain afloat without the Fed.  But, let’s not ignore the fact that the $4 trillion added to the market over the past 5/6 years are still on the Fed balance sheet and are still providing artificial buoyancy that was NOT intended to end up in your pockets.  It’s called the ‘wealth effect’, not ‘wealth’.

Mainstream stock investors and speculators are certainly loving life these days.  The flagship S&P 500 stock index enjoyed an excellent 2014, climbing 11.4%.  And that followed 2013’s massive and amazing 29.6% blast higher!  The last couple years were truly extraordinary and record-breaking on many fronts, with the US stock markets essentially doing nothing but rally to an endless streak of new nominal (not inflation adjusted) ‘record’ highs. But, the Fed’s wildly-unprecedented balance-sheet growth of recent years is over.  2015 will actually be the first year since 2007 without any quantitative easing!    

                                   Funds End of Year Results

Here are the relative positions of the respective funds for last year.

************Equity Funds**********                ******Bond Fund*******

S Fund             I Fund          C Fund                       F Fund

+7.80%           -5.27%          +13.78%                  +6.73%

+/- F fund    +/- F fund      +/- F fund

+1.13%            -12.0%         +7.05%

What these end of year results never reflect are the degree of risk involved in generating these returns.  For example, an end of year return on the S fund of 7.8% ignores the -4.9% YTD returns that occurred in the S in February and, even the -4.05%  YTD returns as of late October.  The C fund had only yielded a 2.46% return YTD in early October.  The F fund yielded no negative returns all year, and, ironically, had yielded approximately half of the final return for the year exactly 6 months into the year.  In a bear market, even a bear market pretending to be a bull market, it’s ‘stairs up/elevator down’.  Knowing your risk is just as much a part of the game as knowing your reward. Only one of three equity funds measurably beat our bond fund for the year.

Here are the total 1 mo, 1 yr, 3 yr and 5 yr returns for a range of investments in world financial markets, including bond, commodity, precious metals markets as of 12/31/14.

ret.dec2014 Selected Market Stats for recent weeks, plus December, 2014 and 2013 MarketStats

So, what’s next?

(The following is repeated from a previous post – only this time, the party takes place in Europe) Imagine that it’s 4AM after a huge party. Many have gradually left (a) . All lights are still  on.  There are a couple of large groups still left, talking loudly and sipping on their final drinks. The bar is closed.  The crowds are so busy drinking and talking that they don’t notice that the band has played it’s last tune and has started packing up, all except the drummer, tapping a simple beat.  The room is being charged by the hour, so, there won’t be an announcer to tell anyone that it’s time to clear out; the meter is running.  Every 15 minutes, some guy named ‘Fed’(US), or, Mario Draghi (Europe) walks across the stage and tells everyone to hang around while he looks for another band. (It’s not coming.)  The groups cheer each time.  Outside, there are storms moving in.  Most attendees have anticipated the storm by leaving early (b). Those still there will either take their risks, driving through the storm (c), or, stay around to ‘ride it out’ (d).  In which group are you?  a, b, c or d?

In the US as well as in Europe, stocks skyrocketed on Thursday, as investors got excited about the letter.  In a January 6 letter to European Parliament member, Luke Ming Flanagan, European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi offered another one of his trademark teasers about the possibility of an ECB-implemented, quantitative easing program.  In this case, the magic word was could: Should it become necessary to further address risks of too prolonged a period of low inflation, the Governing Council is unanimous in its commitment to using additional unconventional instruments within its mandate. This may imply adjusting the size, pace and composition of the ECB’s measures. Such measures may entail the purchase of a variety of assets (?) one of which could be sovereign bonds, as mentioned in your letter.

This tactic never fails to work.  Whenever the European stock market slumps, all Mr. Draghi, or our Fed members, have to do is say that the ECB/the Fed might, or could, or may, or should implement a quantitative easing program – and stock prices skyrocket.  Nevertheless, in the real world, it is highly unlikely that the ECB would ever conduct a quantitative easing program because there are no Eurobonds for it to purchase.  Further, this week the European Court of Justice is scheduled to rule on the legality of quantitative easing on Wednesday, January 14th, which could throw a wrench into the ECB plans.

The president of the ECB and the chief of the Federal Reserve are both reading from the same, flawed playbook.  When the financial markets appear ready to swoon, they just walk across the stage and tell everyone that they’re ‘looking for another band’; so, investors, please leave your money in the market and wait, until you stop believing that the band is coming, or, until you start to suffer losses that you cannot endure.

But, if markets are such great value, why would Warren Buffett now be sitting on a record amount of cash?

At the end of 2007, his firm, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A), was sitting on $44 billion in cash.  Berkshire’s cash balance was down to a more reasonable $25 billion by the end of 2008 after acquiring partial stakes in several blue chips firms such as General Electric and Goldman Sachs. As Bloomberg News noted in October 2013 , Buffett “likes to keep $20 billion on hand should the reinsurance operations need to pay large claims.” If Buffett thought he was sitting on too much cash seven years ago, before his GE and Goldman Sachs purchases, his troubles have grown larger now.  At the end of Q2 2014, Berkshire Hathaway held $55 billion in cash and investments — a company record. If Warren Buffett is not fully invested and holding cash, why should you be fully invested? Could it be that Warren Buffett knows something, among other things, that this chart I’ve kept up all year is telling him? MarginDebtNov

Repeated/updated from the three previous reports, an accurate count of margin debt, or, levels of borrowed money at all brokerage firms for each month is carefully watched by the financial media.  It’s this combination of a) margin debt, b) Fed money loaned to investment banks (finished), and c) stock buybacks by corporations (slight decline over last year) that have provided a vast majority of the power to the markets for much of the past 5/6 years. The result of margin debt figure through November is shown in the chart above, for comparison to all months of the past 3.5 years.  (I’ll have the December figure in 2 weeks.)

Update – Notice that the peak in debt for the year, once again, has STILL not exceeded the February high, after which the primary indexes channeled sideways, with no price appreciation, for 12 weeks. For the past eleven months, the debt level has stalled under $466 million.  This STILL indicates that a primary source of fuel for the market (loans and borrowed money) has stalled and is not likely to resume.  When combined with the now missing portion of Fed stimulation through Quantitative Easing (QE), which ended on October 29th, this removed the bulk of what has sustained the markets back up to the peaks above and below the peaks of 2000 and 2007, depending on the index.

Where do the experts think the market is headed this year?

Here are the current forecasts by major bank analysts for end-of-year S&P 500 levels.

(the S&P 500 closed at 2058.9 on 12/31/14, and is already slightly negative for the year)

-10.75% – 1850 – David Bianco, Deutsche Bank: S&P: EPS: $119.00

-7.72% – 1900 – Brian Belski, BMO: S&P: EPS: $116.00

-7.72%1900 – Barry Knapp, Barclays: S&P: EPS: $119.00

-7.72% – 1900 – David Kostin, Goldman Sachs: S&P: EPS: $116.00

-6.5% – 1925 – Michael Kurtz, Nomura: S&P: EPS: $112.50

-5.29%  – 1950 – Sean Darby, Jefferies: S&P: EPS: $121.00

-5.29% – 1950 – Jonathan Golub, RBC: S&P: EPS: $119.00

-5.29% – 1950 – Julian Emanuel, UBS: S&P: EPS: $116.00

-4.8% – 1960 – Andrew Garthwaite, Credit Suisse: S&P: EPS: $115.90

-4.07% – 1975 – Tobias Levkovich, Citigroup: S&P: EPS: $117.50

-2.86% – 2000 – Savita Subramanian, Bank of America: S&P: EPS: $118.00

-2.18% – 2014 – Adam Parker, Morgan Stanley: S&P: EPS: $116.00

-2.18% – 2014 – John Stoltzfus, Oppenheimer: S&P: EPS: $115.00

+0.78% – 2014 – Tom Lee, JP Morgan: S&P: EPS: $120.00

The average expected return from these major investment banks for 2015 is -5.11%.

And, keep in mind this is measured on what was the strongest of several markets covering US stocks.  Other US exchanges did not perform nearly as well in 2014 as the S&P 500 (refer to ‘Selected Market Stats’ above.)

With all due respect to these recent returns, such anomalously-one-sided stock markets naturally bred the extreme euphoria universally evident today.  Greedy traders have totally forgotten the endlessly-cyclical nature of stock-market history, where bear markets always follow bulls.  They’ve convinced themselves that these stock markets can keep on magically levitating indefinitely, that major sell-offs of any magnitude are no longer a threat worth considering. But extrapolating that incredible upside action of 2013 and 2014 into the future is supremely irrational, because its drivers have vanished. The past couple years’ mammoth stock-market rally was completely artificial, the product of central-bank market manipulation.  The Federal Reserve not only created vast sums of new money out of thin air to monetize bonds, but it aggressively jawboned the stock markets higher.

Virtually every time the Fed made a decision, or its high officials opened their mouths, the implication was being made that it wouldn’t tolerate any material stock-market sell-off.  The Fed kept saying that it was ready to ramp up quantitative easing if necessary.  Stock traders understood this exactly the way the Fed intended, assuming the American central bank was effectively backstopping the US stock markets! But, the bottom line is the Fed has abandoned the stock markets.  The powerful rallies of  2013 and 2014 were driven by extreme Fed money printing to buy up bonds.

But with QE3’s new buying terminated and any QE4 a political impossibility with the new Republican Congress, 2015 is going to look vastly different.  A shrinking Fed balance sheet sparked major corrections even from far lower and cheaper stock levels.

The domestic stock market cannot deliver a sustainable double-digit return without entering a speculative bubble, based on historical data reflecting correlations between the level of the Shiller P/E and subsequent outcomes in the stock market over the past 134 years.  Conditions are ripe for a speculative bubble in the domestic stock market in 2015, and investors should reduce risk in their portfolios in stages during the coming year. Investors should expect below-average returns from the domestic stock market over the next five to 10 years.  Indeed, to expect anything more than mid-single digits requires an assumption that stocks will enter a speculative bubble.  The reason is excessive valuation.

From today’s valuation level the only way to sustain significant upside is to assume a future valuation multiple that would put the stock market into bubble territory. The S&P 500 Index was recently trading at a cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (p/e) ratio, or “CAPE” of 27.3, meaning the stock market is priced at more than 27 times the 10-year average earnings of the underlying companies in the index.  This is highly unusual.  Out of 1,608 monthly observations between January 1881 and December 2014, the CAPE for the U.S. stock market has measured 27 or higher just 88 times. That is a frequency of only 5.5% throughout this 134-year period. CAPERatioBlending several forecasts together we get a 0.89% annual return forecast for the stock market over the coming decade. A straight comparison to 10-year treasuries at 2.2% shows them to be the more attractive of the two asset classes right now. Even 5-year treasuries are paying 1.6%, nearly double our model’s forecast.* All in all, this looks to be the second worst time to own equities in history.

Still, the stock market’s uptrend remains intact as all of the major indexes currently trade above their 200-day moving averages. But as I’ve noted recently, there are plenty of signs that the trend is not as healthy as bulls would hope. The advance/decline line, new highs-new lows and the percentage of stocks trading above their 200-day moving averages are all diverging fairly dramatically from the new highs recently set in the indexes. This is a serious red flag.

And now that our market cap-to-GDP and household equities indicators have possibly peaked, along with high-yield spreads (inverted), margin debt (shown on my chart above) and corporate profit margins, there seems to be a very good possibility that the uptrend could be tested in short order.  In fact, when I go back and look at the times when all of these indicators peaked around the same time over the past 15 years or so, they coincide pretty neatly with the major stock market peaks: StockMarketPeak   MarginDebtPeak So the uptrend may still be intact but I think we have a plethora (yes, a plethora) of evidence that suggests its days may be numbered. Foreign equities have mostly given up their uptrends over the past few months, demonstrated in the negative return of our I fund, and commodities, led by the oil crash, look even uglier.  Precious metals, a refuge, have held up surprisingly on a rising channel going back 10-15 years.  How much longer can the US stock market swim against the tide?


My exit from the F fund in early October was timely, since the price level fell immediately afterward, by about 1%, and only barely exceeded above that exit point by year-end. The weakness in equities after the fake ‘Santa rally’ showed a corresponding strength in bonds, and, another increase in F fund prices.  Current levels are about ¾% higher than that October exit. This trend is expected to continue with the failure of additional strength in equities.  More importantly, any significant breakdown in equities would translate into an immediate transfer from stocks to bonds, and further strengthening in the F fund.



The reason oil prices started sliding in June can be explained by record growth in US production, sputtering demand from Europe and China, and an unwind of the Middle East geopolitical risk premium.

The world oil market, which consumes 92 million barrels a day, currently has one million barrels more than it needs. The US pumped 8.97 million barrels a day by the end of October (the highest since 1985) thanks partly to increases in shale-oil output which accounts for 5 million barrels a day.  Libya’s production has recovered from 200,000 barrels a day in April to 900,000 barrels a day, while war hasn’t stopped production in Iraq and output there has risen to an all-time high level of 3.3 million barrels per day. The IMF, meanwhile, has cut its projection for global growth in 2014 for the third time this year to 3.3%. This year, it still expects growth to pick up again, but only slightly.

Everyone believes that the oil-price decline is temporary. It is assumed that once oil prices plummet, the process is much more likely to be self-stabilizing than destabilizing. As the theory goes, once demand drops, price follows, and leveraged high-cost producers shut production. Eventually, supply falls to match demand and price stabilizes. When demand recovers, so does price, and marginal production returns to meet rising demand. Prices then stabilize at a higher level as supply and demand become more balanced. It has been well-said that: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.

But, in practice, there is.” For the classic model to hold true in oil’s case, the market must correctly anticipate the equalizing role of price in the presence of supply/demand imbalances. By 2020, we see oil demand realistically rising to no more than 95 million barrels a day. North American oil consumption has been in a structural decline, whereas the European economy is expected to remain lackluster. Risks to the Chinese economy are tilted to the downside and we find no reason to anticipate a positive growth surprise. This limits the potential for growth in oil demand and leads us to believe global oil prices will struggle to rebound to their previous levels.

The International Energy Agency says we could soon hit “peak oil demand”, due to cheaper fuel alternatives, environmental concerns, and improving oil efficiency. The oil market will remain well supplied, even at lower prices. We believe incremental oil demand through 2020 can be met with rising output in Libya, Iraq and Iran. We expect production in Libya to return to the level prior to the civil war, adding at least 600,000 barrels a day to world supply. Big investments in Iraq’s oil industry should pay off too with production rising an extra 1.5-2 million barrels a day over the next five years. We also believe the American-Iranian détente is serious, and that sooner or later both parties will agree to terms and reach a definitive agreement. This will eventually lead to more oil supply coming to the market from Iran, further depressing prices in the “new oil normal”. Iranian oil production has fallen from 4 million barrels a day in 2008 to 2.8 million today, which we would expect to fully recover once international relations normalize. In sum, we see the potential for supply to increase by nearly 4 million barrels a day at the lowest marginal cost, which should be enough to offset output cuts from marginal players in a sluggish world economy. OilSome analysis leads us to conclude that the price of oil is unlikely to average $100 again for the remaining decade.

Normally, falling oil prices would be expected to boost global growth. Ed Morse of Citigroup estimates lower oil prices provide a stimulus of as much as $1.1 trillion to global economies by lowering the cost of fuels and other commodities.  And, unfortunately, another downside to falling prices are related to high levels of junk-bond financing to increase the drilling infrastructure.  Therefore, due to falling prices and the resulting closing of drilling rigs with higher operating costs, many of these bonds will fail, putting pressure on other related assets that are dependent on them.  This could very well provide the catalyst to a stock sell-off, without warning.

Per-capita oil consumption in the US is among the highest in the world so the fall in energy prices raises purchasing power compared to most other major economies. The US consumer stands to benefit from cheaper heating oil and materially lower gasoline prices. It is estimated that the average household consumes 1,200 gallons of gasoline a year, which translates to annual savings of $120 for every 10-cent drop in the price of gasoline.

According to Ethan Harris of Bank of America Merrill Lynch: “Consumers will likely respond quickly to the saving in energy costs. Many families live “hand to mouth”, spending whatever income is available. The Survey of Consumer Finances found that 47% of families had no savings in 2013, up from 44% in the more healthy 2004 economy. Over time, energy costs have become a much bigger part of budgets for low income families. In 2012, families with income below $50,000 spent an average of 21.4% of their income on energy. This is almost double the share in 2001, and it is almost triple the share for families with income above $50,000.” The “new oil normal” will see a wealth transfer from Middle East sovereigns (savers) to leveraged US consumers (spenders).

The consumer windfall from lower oil prices is almost matched by the loss to oil producers. Even though the price of oil has plummeted, the cost of finding it has not.  The oil industry has moved into a higher-cost paradigm and continues to spend significantly more money every year without any meaningful growth in total production. Global crude-only output seems to have plateaued in the mid-70 million barrels a day range. The production capacity of 75% of the world’s oilfields is declining by around 6% per year, so the industry requires up to 4 million barrels per day of new capacity just to hold production steady. This has proven to be very difficult.

Analysts at consulting firm EY estimate that out of the 163 upstream mega-projects currently being bankrolled (worth a combined $1.1 trillion), a majority over budget and behind schedule. Large energy companies are sitting on a great deal of cash which cushions the blow from a weak pricing environment in the short-term. It is still important to keep in mind, however, that most big oil projects have been planned around the notion that oil would stay above $100, which no longer seems likely.

The Economist reports that: “The industry is cutting back on some mega-projects, particularly those in the Arctic region, deepwater prospects and others that present technical challenges. Shell recently said it would again delay its Alaska exploration project, thanks to a combination of regulatory hurdles and technological challenges. The $10 billion Rosebank project in Britain’s North Sea, a joint venture between Chevron of the United States and OMV of Austria, is on hold and set to stay that way unless prices recover. And BP says it is “reviewing” its plans for Mad Dog Phase 2, a deepwater exploration project in the Gulf of Mexico. Statoil’s vast Johan Castberg project in the Barents Sea is in limbo as the Norwegian firm and its partners try to rein in spiralling costs; Statoil is expected to cut up to 1,500 jobs this year.

And then there is Kazakhstan’s giant Kashagan project, which thanks to huge cost overruns, lengthy delays and weak oil prices may not be viable for years. Even before the latest fall in oil prices, Shell said its capital spending would be about 20% lower this year than last; Hess will spend about 15% less; and Exxon Mobil and Chevron are making cuts of 5-6%.” Based on analysis by Steven Kopits of Douglas-Westwood: “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programs. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120. The 4th quartile, where most US E&Ps cluster, needs $130 or more.” As energy companies have gotten used to Brent averaging $110 for the last three years, we believe management teams will be very slow to adjust to the “new oil normal”. They will start by cutting capital spending (the quickest and easiest decision to take), then divesting non-core assets (as access to cheap financing becomes more difficult), and eventually, be forced to take write-downs on assets and projects that are no longer feasible.

The whole adjustment process could take two years or longer, and will accelerate only once CEOs stop thinking the price of oil is going to go back up. A similar phenomenon happened in North America’s natural gas market a couple of years ago. This has vast implications for America’s shale industry. The past five years have seen the budding energy renaissance attract billions of dollars in fixed investment and generate tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. The success of shale has been a major tailwind for the US economy, and its output has been a significant contributor to the improvement in the trade deficit. We believe a sustained drop in the price of oil will slow US shale investment and production growth rates. As much as 50% of shale oil is uneconomic at current prices, and the big unknown factor is the amount of debt that has been incurred by cashflow negative companies to develop resources which will soon become unprofitable at much lower prices.

Robert McNally, a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush and president of the Rapidan Group energy consultancy, told Reuters that Saudi Arabia “will accept a price decline necessary to sweat whatever supply cuts are needed to balance the market out of the US shale oil sector.”

Even legendary oil man T. Boone Pickens believes Saudi Arabia is in a stand-off with US drillers and frackers to “see how the shale boys are going to stand up to a cheaper price.” Prices will have to fall much further though to curb new investment and discourage US production of shale oil. The breakeven point for most shale oil plays has been falling as productivity per well is improving and companies have refined their fracking techniques. The median North American shale development needs an oil price of $57-64 to break even today, compared to $70 last year according to research firm IHS.

Type Average Cost Per Barrel
OnShore Middle East $29
OffShore Shelf $43
Deepwater $53
OnShore Russia $54
Onshore Row $55
North American Shale $62
Oil Sands $74

While it’s not universally believed that Saudi Arabia engineered the latest swoon in oil prices, it would be foolish not to expect them to take advantage of the new market reality. If we are entering a “new oil normal” where the oil price range may move structurally lower in the coming years, wouldn’t you want to maximise your profits today, when prices are still elevated? If, at the same time, you can drive out fringe production sources from the market, and tip the balance in MENA geopolitics (by hurting Russia and Iran), wouldn’t it be worth it? The Kingdom has a long history of using oil to meet political and economic ends.



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