An Update on a few Obscure and Not-So Obscure Indicators
We recently discussed the market with our friend T.R. (inventor of the proprietary Au-Ag ratio adjusted VIX indicator) and he sent us a few charts of the things he is watching. While he’s not a long term bear, he does think there is sufficient evidence to warrant caution – i.e., a bigger correction may be about to get underway. This jibes with what we have been seeing lately in terms of sentiment extremes.
Note that these charts are by now three trading days old, but that doesn’t make a big difference – although the stock market has had a few bad hair days last week, it hasn’t really made a big move yet. The annotations on the charts are T.R.’s, and mainly serve as orientation. Regular readers may recall that we showed some of these charts fairly regularly at the time of the euro area debt crisis. Many of them haven’t really been all that interesting up until recently, but that has now changed.
The first chart shows the SPX, the Junk/Investment grade debt ratio and the SPX adjusted by volatility and the gold-silver ratio. The vertical white lines show the historical peaks of the margin debt/GDP ratio
SPX in green, junk-investment grade debt ratio in yellow, VIX/Au-Ag ratio adjusted SPX in orange. The white vertical lines show margin debt/GDP peaks, which tend to lead market peaks (the current lead time has been historically quite extended) – click to enlarge.
Greece has recently been in the headlines again, and you can immediately guess why when looking at its stock and bond markets:
We outlined the basic problem in a post in September entitled “Greece Wants to Escape from Bailout”. As we noted on this occasion, the Greek government remains essentially bankrupt, but is eager to get the bailout (and the associated “troika” prescriptions and monitoring) out of its hair. So when Mr. Samaras started talking about wanting to rely solely on market funding, the markets balked. However, there is a potentially even bigger problem now.
In a nutshell, a presidential election is looming. While the post of president is largely ceremonial, the government needs to push through its candidate – if it fails to do so, a new parliamentary election must be held.
A Brief Update of Rydex Ratios
There is no need to say much to this, except to state that the Rydex ratio indicator has reached fresh heights of absurdity … almost 25 times more assets are now invested in bull & sector funds than in bear funds. This is a full seven times more than at the peak in early 2000, and frankly, at the time we thought we would never see such data points again. As we noted in a previous update already, the recent surge in the bull-bear ratio could only be achieved with sizable inflows – price gains alone cannot possibly explain it. We conclude that everybody was, or rather remains, absolutely certain that the market will rally into year-end and beyond, because that is what it almost always does.
Naturally, no-one has ever seen the market decline sharply in December (although a few major market peaks have indeed occurred in early December, but even that is rare), not least because the last time it happened was exactly a century ago, in 1914. At the time it was decided to simply close the exchange for a few months instead of risking even more carnage. Meanwhile, the “war to end all wars” was raging and laid the foundation for another, even bigger war.
First a look at the leveraged Rydex ratio (comparing assets in leveraged bull vs. leveraged bear funds). This particular ratio has just pulled back a bit from the record high recorded less than two weeks ago:
Positioning Indicators at new Extremes
We are updating our suite of sentiment data again, mainly because it is so fascinating that a historically rarely seen bullish consensus has emerged – after a rally that has taken the SPX up by slightly over 210% from its low. Admittedly, a slew of such records has occurred in the course of the past year or so, and so far has not managed to derail the market in the slightest– in fact, since 2012, only a single correction has occurred that even deserves the designation “correction” (as opposed to “barely noticeable dip”).
While a number of positioning and survey data show a bullish consensus that easily dwarfs anything that has been seen before, this consensus is not reflected in expressions of exuberance by the broader public. “Anecdotal” sentiment seems more cautious and skeptical than the quantitatively measurable kind. Most likely this is because the vast bulk of the middle class has been so thoroughly fleeced in the last two boom-bust sequences that it finds itself in dire straits in spite of the reemergence of major asset bubbles across a wide swathe of assets. This includes by the way an astonishing revival of the bubble in real estate prices – see e.g. this 330 square foot shack in San Francisco, which recently sold for $765,000:
Yes, that tiny dark-brown thingy situated on a steep road sold for $765,000. The real estate bubble is back.
(Photo credit: SFARMLS)
Money Supply Growth Accelerates, Credit to Private Sector Still in Decline
While money supply growth is slowing down in the US, it has recently continued to accelerate somewhat in the euro area. The effects of the ECB’s “QE”-type debt monetization activities in the form of covered bond and ABS purchases have not yet impacted aggregate money supply data much as of yet, but the 12-month growth rate of the narrow money supply aggregate M1 (currency and demand deposits, essentially equivalent to money TMS-1) has nevertheless continued to increase:
Sentiment on Stocks and Ratio Charts
Below is a brief update of a few stock market related data points we frequently discuss in these pages. Sentiment on stocks continues to be a mirror image of the gold market. Investor complacency is quite pronounced, to put it mildly.
The first chart shows Rydex ratios – with bear assets throughout 2014 stuck at historical lows, the bull-bear asset ratio has recently hit a new record high above the 20 level (i.e., 20 times more Rydex assets were invested in bull and sector funds than in bear funds). This is incidentally quite a distance from the (then) record highs set in February-March 2000.
The second chart shows HYG, the HYG-SPX ratio and the TLT-HYG ratio. The most important takeaway from this chart is that the underperformance of high yield bonds relative to big cap stocks has reached a new annual extreme. A history of past occurrences of this phenomenon was recently shown at Zerohedge. Obviously, the lead times are highly variable, so this is not a timing indicator, but it certainly is a warning.
(Photo credit: fmh)
What Can Possibly Go Wrong?
“Wet sand makes for a better sandcastle
Inhale, exhale, just take a breath
I know that things don’t always happen like they should
Gotta learn to roll with the punches
And just say it’s all good”
NE-YO & Cher Lloyd – “It’s All Good”
Apparently, nothing can. At least that is the impression we get from various sentiment and positioning data relating to the stock market and risk assets more generally.
Below we show a number of pertinent charts of both short and long term indicators. Note here that as always, not every sentiment and positioning indicator is locked at an extreme. In fact, there are subtle divergences visible in several of them.
For instance, net long exposure according to the NAAIM survey is “only” 75%, which is down from a the record 104% of late 2013, as well as down from some of the reading we have seen since. Note however that the admittedly short history of this indicator shows that the net exposure of the fund managers surveyed tends to peak well before the market gets into trouble.
Anyway, similar small divergences usually occur in other indicators as well, such as total margin debt, a variety of sentiment surveys, volume put-call ratios and so forth.
We do however have a new weekly record high in the Rydex bull/bear asset ratio – currently 18.6 times as many assets are in bull and sector funds than in bear funds. However, even in this complex of data there is a subtle divergence visible. Bear assets have for instance collapsed again, but remain slightly above the record low recorded earlier this year. The same goes for money market assets, which have recently seen a sharp decline, but have failed to fall back to the 17 year lows seen earlier this year.
The BoJ Goes Even Crazier
It has been clear for a while now that the lunatics are running the asylum in Japan, so perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised by what happened overnight. Bloomberg informs us that “Kuroda Jolts Markets With Assault on Deflation Mindset”.
The policy hasn’t worked so far, in fact, it demonstrably hasn’t worked in Japan in a quarter of a century. Therefore, according to the Keynesian mindset, we need more of it. Mr. Kuroda therefore delivered a surprise spiking of the punchbowl that immediately impoverished Japan’s consumers further by causing a sharp decline in the yen:
“Today’s decision to expand Japan’s monetary stimulus may be regarded as shock treatment in the central bank’s effort to affect confidence levels. Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda’s remedy to reflate the world’s third-largest economy through influencing expectations saw the yen sliding and stocks climbing.
Kuroda led a divided board in Tokyo in a surprise decision to expand unprecedented monetary stimulus. Bank officials hadn’t provided any hints in recent weeks that additional easing was on the cards to help reach the BOJ’s inflation goal. Kuroda, 70, repeatedly indicated confidence this month that Japan was on a path to reaching his 2 percent target in the coming fiscal year. Just three of 32 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News predicted extra easing.
“We have to admit that this is sort of a second shock — after we had the first shock in April last year,” said Masaaki Kanno, chief Japan economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Tokyo, referring to the first round of stimulus rolled out by Kuroda in 2013. Kanno, who used to work at the BOJ, said “this is very effective,” especially because it comes the same day as the government pension fund said it will buy more of the nation’s stocks.
So why is there allegedly a “need to combat the deflation mindset”? Below is a chart of the recent increases in Japan’s CPI.
In actual practice, it matters little how they have come about – the fact that CPI was inter alia boosted by a hike in consumption taxes does not alter the fact that every consumer in Japan is now getting fewer goods and services for his income and savings than before. No consumer is going to a shop and saying to himself “the fact that things are now vastly more expensive than before somehow shows we are still in deflation, because it has happened for transitory reasons”. All he knows is that he is getting less for his hard-earned money. Mr. Kuroda is evidently not moved by such considerations.
A Fount of Originality and Contrarian Thinking …
Just pulling your leg, dear reader. The Barron’s big money poll contains about as much originality and contrarian thinking as you can find on CNBC … slightly less, actually.
So what are the big money’s big ideas this time around? They continue exhibit a huge bearish consensus on bonds, which we have in the past flagged as a big contrary indicator (you will notice that we also pointed out their bearish consensus on the Nikkei in this past article – the Nikkei promptly had an explosive rally right after the survey was published). Otherwise they are still “investing by ruler” – in other words, they are simply extrapolating what has happened in the recent past into the future, which is precisely what most Wall Street strategists and most mainstream economists do as well. Not one of these groups will ever identify a turning point in a timely manner.
The biggest bullish consensus is on US large cap stocks with 84% bulls, the biggest bearish consensus (certain to be wrong for the umpteenth year in a row) is on US treasury bonds with 91% bears (!).
Gold aficionados will be pleased to learn that there is a 76% bearish consensus on gold, which provides a nice contrast to the 69% bullish consensus that pertained in October of 2012, just as gold was getting ready to tank big.
Asia “Not Helped” by Chinese Data, Fed Officials Back-Pedaling
We wanted to see if there were any signs of concern in the mainstream financial press over the recent market decline (which is still small in terms of the major indexes, although this can no longer be claimed of the “average stock”).
We would characterize the mood as one of “mild concern” – generally it seems to be held that the decline is just another of the periodic (and ever smaller) corrections we have seen over the past few years. It is noteworthy though that the recent decline is referred to as a “growth scare”. For instance, Reuters reports on overnight weakness in Asian markets – which actually didn’t entail any overly big moves:
“Asian stocks stumbled to seven-month lows on Monday, while crude oil prices were pinned near a four-year trough as promising trade numbers out of China failed to cheer a market still worried about faltering global growth.
MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan fell 0.8 percent, extending last week’s 1.1 percent drop. Mainland Chinese stocks skidded 1.1 percent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 0.7 percent. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 index and South Korea’s KOSPI both slipped 0.6 percent. Tokyo’s Nikkei was spared the pain for now thanks to a public holiday in Japan. The declines in Asian markets came after U.S. stocks skidded 1.2 percent on Friday and Wall Street’s fear gauge, the CBOE Volatility Index, jumped to a near two-year high.”
Market Reaction to Payrolls Data
Payrolls and unemployment reports should normally be regarded to be among the least useful economic data, as they are lagging indicators of the economy. Insofar the recent improvement in employment data only confirms what has already happened: economic activity has increased (note that this tells us nothing about the quality of said activity). It tells us absolutely nothing about the future.
The reason why the markets tend to react strongly to these data is mainly the Federal Reserve’s nonsensical “dual mandate”. Enacted in the heyday of Keynesianism, the mandate is based on the belief that both prices and employment can be successfully centrally planned by manipulating interest rates.
Cumulative non-farm payrolls, initial unemployment claims and the U3 unemployment rate (which excludes about half of the people who are actually unemployed). If we had asserted a few years ago that the Federal Funds rate would be at zero with the unemployment rate at 5.9%, we’d have been declared insane – click to enlarge.
The Many Errors of His Ways …
An editorial by well-known leftist economist Joseph Stiglitz has recently been published in the Guardian, entitled “Austerity has been an utter disaster for the euro zone”.
Before we are taking a closer look at it, we want to stress that we also believe that the EU’s approach to economic policy is worth criticizing in many respects. Just because we believe that Mr. Stiglitz is essentially an economic crank doesn’t mean that we disagree with every criticism of the so-called “austerity” policy as pursued by the EU. Below are several excerpts from his article with our comments interspersed.
“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the theory,” goes the old adage. But too often it is easier to keep the theory and change the facts – or so German chancellor Angela Merkel and other pro-austerity European leaders appear to believe. Though facts keep staring them in the face, they continue to deny reality.”
The “old adage” is actually a well-known bonmot by J.M. Keynes – curiously, Stiglitz doesn’t mention that. Although it has merit with respect to the natural sciences, it does not apply to economic theory, which is a science of human action and not a study of inanimate objects without volition. Theorems of economics cannot be proved or disproved with “empirical data”. We do e.g. not need empirical data to prove the truth of the theorem of marginal utility, or to create a price or value theory, or to prove the truth of the law of association, etc.,etc..
All of these economic laws have been discovered by inner reflection and the process of logical deduction. They are only “empirical” in a Thomist or Aristotelian sense (for a detailed explanation of this point of view, we refer readers to Rothbard’s monograph In Defense of Extreme Apriorism -pdf).
To put it differently: one can use economic theory to explain the facts of economic history, but one cannot use economic history to argue for or against points of economic theory. If we look at economic statistics, we see that every slice of history is slightly different, as the contingent data, which are always extremely complex and varied, are different in every case. And yet, the same economic laws have time and place-invariantly operated in every instance and will continue to do so for all eternity, or at least as long as there are human beings who can act with purpose. Stiglitz continues:
“Austerity has failed.But its defenders are willing to claim victory on the basis of the weakest possible evidence: the economy is no longer collapsing, so austerity must be working! But if that is the benchmark, we could say that jumping off a cliff is the best way to get down from a mountain; after all, the descent has been stopped.
But every downturn comes to an end. Success should not be measured by the fact that recovery eventually occurs, but by how quickly it takes hold and how extensive the damage caused by the slump.
Viewed in these terms, austerity has been an utter and unmitigated disaster, which has become increasingly apparent as European Union economies once again face stagnation, if not a triple-dip recession, with unemployment persisting at record highs and per capita real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in many countries remaining below pre-recession levels. In even the best-performing economies, such as Germany, growth since the 2008 crisis has been so slow that, in any other circumstance, it would be rated as dismal.
The most afflicted countries are in a depression. There is no other word to describe an economy like that of Spain or Greece, where nearly one in four people – and more than 50% of young people – cannot find work.”