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04222017 April 22, 2017

Posted by easterntiger in economic history, economy, financial, markets, stocks.
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Current Positions  (No Changes)

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

F(bonds) – up to 100%; G (money market) – remainder

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Weekly Momentum Indicator (WMI) last 4 weeks, thru 04/21/17

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

-11.3, -3.43, -6.54, -1.94

Partial recap of my interim report of 4/19 – Stocks have given up much of their gains built on the ‘hopes’ of health care reform, tax reform, relief in regulations, or, any of the political promises that fueled one more fluff-filled rally.  Optimism was enough to create this last opportunity.  It is not enough to sustain, or, incur any reasonable risk.

Four days later, from CNBC – Stocks surged as talk out of Washington pointed to the potential for some action on health care, which is viewed as a precursor to any move forward on tax reform. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also said Thursday that progress is being made on tax reform. President Donald Trump said he was hopeful there would be a vote on health care next week and also to fund the government.

With virtually no gains for over 2 months, rhetoric such as the above keeps markets stuck in a perpetual, dream-filled loop to nowhere.

The chart below shows the wasted motion currently underway.

That MSCI World Index is a broad global equity benchmark that represents large and mid-cap equity performance across 23 developed markets countries. It covers approximately 85% of the free float-adjusted market capitalization in each country and MSCI World benchmark does not offer exposure to emerging markets.

Otherwise, and with all due respect to the advances from Election Day into February, it’s worthy to note that pre-Election Day price levels were flat to down for most of the previous 18 months; from March ‘15 to November ‘16, C Fund 44 to 45, F Fund 51 to 49, I Fund 61 to 56. Early in February, several days of the bulk of February gains resulted from comments from administration officials giving hints of a tax cut.

Any news on (1) health care reform, or (2) tax reform, or (3) tax cut, or (4) infrastructure = automatic stock rally; a rally that might or might not remain several weeks later. (‘tax cut’ in the news on 4/21 – index prices moved slightly upward immediately, though, it reversed within minutes. There were two such occasions in early February that created the same ‘sugar high’ for the markets.)

Billionaire investor Paul Tudor Jones has a message for Janet Yellen and investors: Be very afraid.
The legendary macro trader says that years of low interest rates have bloated stock valuations to a level not seen since 2000, right before the Nasdaq tumbled 75 percent over two-plus years. That measure — the value of the stock market relative to the size of the economy — should be “terrifying” to a central banker, Jones said earlier this month at a closed-door Goldman Sachs Asset Management conference, according to people who heard him.

This chart shows the S&P 500 with respect to the size of total economic activity, GDP.

The market is expensive!  A week ago, I mentioned the 28.8 price-to-earnings ratio, which is 73% higher than the 100 year average. This expense projects a future return in the very low single digits over the next ten years.

The 500 companies in the S&P500 can be divided into 11 sectors.

Each sector contains different number of companies.

Within this current 29.1 P/E, as of 4/21, the individual S&P sectors are shown as follows:

Sector                            Number of Stocks        Shiller P/E        Regular P/E

Energy                                35                                 17.40           -41.80**

Consumer Defensive          41                                  23.30            19.20

Financial Services               70                                 23.70            16.00

Industrials                          70                                 23.90             21.50

Utilities                              28                                  25.00            34.20

Healthcare                         59                                  27.40            20.60

Basic Materials                   23                                  27.70            35.60

Consumer Cyclical             85                                   28.20            21.90

Technology                       60                                   30.80            24.10

Communication Services   9                                     31.20            20.80

Real Estate                        24                                   47.80            22.70

S&P 500                           500                                  29.10            26.40

** – negative price-to-earnings in the energy sector are due to significant losses in coal, oil & gas exploration, integrated oil & gas, gas & oil storage, as a result of oil prices remaining below the break-even points for many companies in the sector.  This is also evidence of the flaws in ‘regular’ p/e ratios, versus the Shiller p/e’s.

Meanwhile….a short-term underlying technical picture is absolutely unchanged through this week, and is decidedly negative. For eight days in a row, many major averages have hovered UNDER a line of resistance, a ceiling, at the 50 day moving average.

Friday’s S&P500 level is actually 15 points lower than the February 21st level of 2366!

Last September, the C fund lost 4% within 7 weeks after breaking below the 50 day moving average.

Similar patterns show up in the F and I funds.

S fund’s 50 day moving average is 57.08.

I fund’s 20 day moving average is 62.03, as it nears the 50 day average at 61.36.

The more consecutive closes below these key averages, the more negative the near-term technical picture.

F fund performance relative to C fund

F fund performance relative to S fund

F fund performance relative to I fund

The F fund is poised to outperform C, S and I funds, with (1) the topping of the equity markets in early March, corresponding to (2) the topping in interest rates early in the year, a perfect, normally correlated occurrence.

On the liquidity front, this month the Fed added $23.4 billion in cash to Primary Dealer Trading Accounts in the period April 12-20. This is slightly more than the March addition of $21.9 billion, the smallest add since January 2016. It was a sharp decline from February’s $41.6 billion.  These levels are far below the QE levels of a few years ago.  What’s different this time? That QE support, that ended in 2014, was NOT withdrawn the next month, as is the support from mortgage backed securities!!!!

In the past 18 months, there have been several periods that tied or exceeded 20-30 year records in the number of days where major stock averages did not exceed 1% up or down for a number of days in a row.  This shows a lack of conviction on the part of both buyers, AND sellers.  Potential buyers are waiting on lower prices.  Potential sellers are waiting on higher prices.  In either case, no one wants to be first, to get in OR out. The latest report on borrowing to buy stocks (margin debt) has just hit another high.  Those borrowers might believe that it’s a good idea.  They won’t believe so later, if their gains don’t meet their expectations, forcing them to sell sooner than expected, and, possibly, under pressure to do so.  If this happens, you’ll know!!

So, as you thought that the Fed ended QE in late 2014, and it did, the Fed has continued to add cash to the financial markets every month. It does so via the purchases of mortgage backed securities (MBS). It calls them “replacement purchases.” The Fed is the bank for the banks, i.e. the central bank. It has resolved since 2009 to force trillions in excess cash into the banking system and making sure that that, somehow, some additional money flows through the system. It has also resolved to make sure that the amount of the cash in the system does not shrink. It does that each month via its program of MBS replacement purchases. The Primary Dealers* are selected by the Fed for the privilege of trading directly with the Fed in the execution of monetary policy. This is essentially the only means by which monetary policy is transmitted directly to the securities markets, and then indirectly into the US and world economies. The only means which the Fed uses in the transmission and execution of monetary policy is via securities trades with the Primary Dealers.  Yes! The Fed is still providing some degree of artificial support to the markets.  It’s just not to the same degree as before the expiration of quantitative easing (QE).

  • List of current primary dealersBank of Nova Scotia, New York Agency, BMO Capital Markets Corp., BNP Paribas Securities Corp., Barclays Capital Inc., Cantor Fitzgerald & Co., Citigroup Global Markets Inc.,Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC , Daiwa Capital Markets America Inc., Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., Goldman, Sachs & Co., HSBC Securities (USA) Inc., Jefferies LLC, J.P. Morgan Securities LLC, Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated, Mizuho Securities USA LLC, Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC, Nomura Securities International, Inc., RBC Capital Markets, LLC, RBS Securities Inc., Societe Generale, New York Branch, TD Securities (USA) LLC, UBS Securities LLC., Wells Fargo Securities, LLC

When the Fed buys MBS to replace those paid down from its balance sheet, it does so via trades with Primary Dealers. It buys MBS via forward purchase contracts which are typically settled in the next month or the following month. The Fed is only keeping the amount of its assets level. But it pumps billions in cash into the accounts of Primary Dealers each month as part of that process.

The dealers are in the business making markets in a broad spectrum of securities, including MBS. Their biggest customer is the Fed. When the Fed cashes out the dealers by purchasing MBS from them, the dealers can both leverage and redeploy that cash to not only buy more MBS, but to purchase whatever other securities it wants to. Stocks are a favored vehicle. The Fed cashes out the dealers when it settles the MBS purchases around the third week of the month each month. Even though the amount of cash in the system is roughly static, the Fed is still pumping cash into Primary Dealer accounts each month. That has an impact on the stock market. It’s obviously not the only impact, but it’s still part of the central bank game of rigging the market.

This chart of the combination of all of the Fed feeding since 2009, and even beyond the quantitative easing (QE), although it ended in 2014, continues, in reduced effect, through monthly purchasing of mortgage backed securities, providing trading revenues to participating banks.

Notice that from the end of QE, in late 2014, and on to late 2016, market levels were insignificantly higher overall. This ‘juicing’, only within the past 5 months (post-election) was on the ‘hopes’ I mentioned in the interim report, based upon prospects for health care reform, tax reform, etc., that, realistically, won’t have the market impact that is was already anticipated. Almost none of these elements are going to address the ‘greed’ factor that’s already been cranked into markets over the past few years, to get them to current levels.

With mortgage rates coming off the highs, there could be a slight increase in refi activity. That causes an increase in MBS paydowns, which the Fed will replace in the next month. Then it takes another month or two for those purchases to settle. There is a lag of 5-6 months between the drop in mortgage rates and the increase in the settlement of the Fed’s replacement purchases. By then the Fed may have begun to implement its proposed policy of “normalizing” the balance sheet. That’s a nice way of saying “shrinking” the balance sheet. To do that the Fed is proposing to allow its Treasury holdings to mature and not be rolled over. It’s also proposing not replacing MBS as they are paid down. So instead of a small addition to the Fed’s MBS purchases from the Primary Dealers a few months down the road, the Fed will indirectly withdraw money from the banking system and the markets. By doing it slowly over several years, the Fed may be able to avoid crashing the market. I use the word “may” purposely. Any shrinkage of the Fed’s assets will increase the odds of an accident. Slow and steady tightening will act like the drip, drip, of the old Chinese water torture. It will promulgate a bear market in stocks. Accidents do tend to happen in bear markets. The drip, drip, drip eventually turns into a cascade.

Most interesting, the Fed minutes last week also showed that Fed officials were discussing what to do with the central bank’s massive $4.5-trillion balance sheet, which was quadrupled during the financial crisis and its aftermath as the Fed engaged in three rounds of bond purchases as a way to depress long-term interest rates and give the stock market a boost. The minutes said that Fed officials agreed “a change in the committee’s reinvestment policy would likely be appropriate later this year.” Currently, the Fed has been keeping the level of the balance sheet steady at $4.5 trillion, by re-investing 100% of maturing debt.

It has been held for years that we’ll know the Fed is serious about tightening when it starts shrinking the balance sheet. Right now they are in the signaling stage. They’re talking about it. When the Fed talks about an idea, it eventually gets around to doing it. The Street is already telling you it will be no big deal. Don’t believe it. It’s time to ‘sell’ the stock rallies.  Not everyone will get the message in time.

Will the Fed Burst the Bubble in 2017?

The Fed has engineered the second longest Bull market in Wall Street’s history. It’s been dubbed the “Least Loved” Bull, because the US-economy’s recovery from the Great Recession has been the weakest since the 1930’s averaging only +2% growth per year. Still, the rising market for US-stocks, turned eight years old on March 9th, and might have finally silenced the critics in the “Doom and Gloom” business, who doubted its staying power. From a statistical perspective, this market’s no slouch. It has posted big enough returns to rank #4 all-time in terms of performance, with the mega-Bull run from the 1990’s taking top honors with a gain of +417%, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. The current market can’t be faulted for a lack of endurance, either, as only one Bull has lasted longer. It has also generated more than $21-trillion in new stock market wealth.  ALWAYS keep in mind that these ‘returns’, always measured from the March ‘09 bottom, are measured from a point of a 12-year low, where all of the gains from 1997 to 2009 were wiped out.  Any triple-digit gains for the past 8 years also apply from 1997 to today.  That places averages for this 20-year period right back in the range of long-term norms.  There are no free lunches.  You only get returns with time, or, with higher than average risk, in the absence of sufficient time.

The best-performing group for the past eight years was the consumer discretionary sector, which includes home improvement retailer Home Depot, coffee shop Starbucks and athletic apparel and sneaker giant Nike, has benefited from an improving economy and people’s willingness to buy things not deemed necessities. The S&P-500 index has rallied +250% since hitting a closing low of 676.53 on March 9th, 2009. The gains since, uninterrupted by a decline of -20% or more, rank this bull market as the second longest ever. The S&P continued to rally through a five quarter long recession in corporate earnings through most of 2016, supported in part by historically low interest rates which made stocks comparatively cheaper and more rewarding than high grade bond yields. The “Least Loved” Bull market is nearly three years older than the average Bull, and is more than a year shorter than the longest one: the rally from October 11th, 1990 to March 24th, 2000.

However, this Bull market isn’t only the second oldest, it’s also the second-most expensive. On a trailing 12-month basis, using Q’4 2016 GAAP earnings per share, the S&P 500’s price-to-earnings ratio stands at 25x, -second only to the 30-times earnings multiple recorded at the end of the tech bubble in 2000. (The range was also into the high 20’s surrounding the Great Crash of 1929.  We’ve left that out, since it predates everyone reading this.) Investors, however, are encouraged by a projected +11% rise in 2017 operating-earnings per share and think the growth could be even stronger if the Trump administration successfully delivers on promised tax cuts and increased infrastructure spending. Others see the potential for a final “melt-up” that could mark the top. Share prices could shoot up sharply if retail investors get jazzed about stocks again and start “pouring” money into the market. The melt-up may have already started, or finished on March 1st (the current high), on expectations that Trump’s tax reform will significantly cut taxes for both corporations and individuals. The stock index hasn’t suffered a drop of -20% since the Great Recession Bear, which ended on March 9, 2009. But the broad market gauge is up more than +250% since. There is no doubt that when the SPX is up +250%, with mid-single-digit sales growth, that it is a liquidity driven market. Then again, liquidity is one of the five cornerstones of the investing process, along with valuations, fundamentals, technicals and fund flows. This is clearly not going to last indefinitely, but the conditions for a Bear market – a decline of -20%, are only in place WHEN the Fed drains liquidity to the extent that it causes an economic recession (more on that below). Whether we like the interventions or not, for markets, the Fed matters. It has always mattered.

Indeed, if one left it at that, the answer would not be exactly wrong. However, there is one more factor which is rarely discussed, and which – according to Deutsche Bank – virtually the entire equity rally of the past four years is the result of plunging bond yields, which as a reminder, is the direct pathway by which central banks operate. As Deutsche Bank’s analysts warn, “various Fed officials have raised the issue of financial stability in the context of the reach for yield and riskier products to make up for low rates. This is part of financial repression. The logic might be that once the Fed has normalized, elements of that reach for yield and risk would be unwound and this could lead to disruptive financial market volatility.” Put in the simplest possible word, this means the Fed is worried that once rates go up as a result of renormalization and the lack of a central bank to front-run, stocks will crash. As it turns out the Fed has ample reason to be worried. Because QE and the Fed’s Zero Interest Rate Policy or financial repression is responsible for 92% of the S&P-500 rally since it launched QE-2 in Nov 2012, or just over +800-points, that would suggest that the Fed super-easy money policies are directly responsible for approximately 25% of the “value” in the market, and any moves to undo this support could result in crash. In retrospect, it becomes obvious why the Fed is petrified about even the smallest, +25-bps rate hike. The problem is an irredeemably flawed monetary doctrine that tracks every tick in the S&P-500 index, and uses financial repression, or artificially low interest rates and bond yields were the principal mechanism whereby wealth is transferred from savers to the US-government and shareholders in the US-stock markets.

Stock traders have been under the spell of monetary easing” to the point where negative news such as downbeat US jobs data in March did not stop stock prices from going up. Traders shrugged off uncertainty because they expect any bad news to be followed by continued low interest rates or bond purchases that increase the supply of money in the economy. Yet again, massive credit-fueled capital misallocation simply papers over short-term cracks and extends the life of the economy’s expansion cycle, but leaves a bigger more damaging hangover of credit defaults in its wake, unless just a little more credit fueled zombification will help. Many traders don’t expect the Fed to normalize its interest rates or reduce the size of its bond portfolio in any meaningful way, and the feeling is that we’re OK for a while, and everyone thinks they’re smart enough to know when the music is going to stop.

Many investors are bullish on stocks in the ninth year of a rally. Earnings will improve with future tax cuts and the liquidity spigot is still wide open, so it’s like a giant game of musical chairs. The attitude on the part of most investors is that they have to play while the Fed got the music going.

The Fed’s bombshell announcement; “a change in reinvestment policy would likely be appropriate later this year,” from the minutes of the Fed’s discussion at their March Meeting released Wednesday, showed near-unanimous support for the +25-bps rate hike to 0.875%, the second rate hike in three months. The group decided to keep signaling that future rate hikes would be gradual, and futures traders are giving 60% odds of a +25-bps rate hike to 1.125% at the June meeting. Traders are split on the likelihood of a rate hike to 1.375% by year’s end, with the Dec ’17 contract priced at an implied yield of 1.25%, or a 50% chance. The Fed has a major credibility flaw and traders are skeptical of their hawkish rhetoric.

Not so coincidentally, as the Fed Fund rate has been increasing, mortgage rates are falling. Why is that?  While increasing the Fed Funds rate makes it more expensive for the banks to borrow from the Fed, mortgage rates are based on the 10-year Treasury Note, which has been weakening since it’s peak in December and March. The 10-year Treasury Note is more responsive to changes in the dollar, and to global rate concerns.

Final Note

There’s always a possibility of unexpected, but, related, outside negative influence that can always act to disrupt even the most carefully positioned scenarios.

The Shanghai index has been locked in a tight range, also pretending to project a stable financial environment.  This has been accomplished with some degree of force, using involuntary means to prevent selling. It has even been illegal to sell stocks under some conditions.

In the event that the support range currently in play doesn’t hold, it could result in a wave of forced selling that could destabilize our markets as well.  I’ll be watching for any echoes that come in our direction.

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