Hedge Funds and the Stock Market
On Tuesday an appearance by hedge fund manager David Tepper on CNBC appeared to trigger a rally in the SPX (at least the market began to rally shortly after he declared himself bullish). He presented a chart on the occasion from a recent NY Fed research paper on the so-called 'equity risk premium'. Reportedly a number of bulls just love this chart (if Business-Insider is to be believed). This rationalization holds however no water – for the simple reason that the basis for calculating the 'risk premium' for equities is simply a variation on the so-called 'Fed model'. In short, the 'risk-free' interest rate is used as the major input in the calculation. Since this interest rate is heavily manipulated by the Fed, this is like saying: “stocks are cheap because the Fed is manipulating interest rates”. This strikes us as a fundamentally wrong way of looking at this.
One should rather say: “stocks are mispriced because the Fed manipulates interest rates, and may or may not become more so; moreover, the so-called equity risk premium indicator is completely meaningless in forecasting future stock market returns”.
How meaningless and potentially dangerous this indicator is when evaluating stock prices was amply demonstrated in Japan for well over 20 years after the 1980s bubble burst. John Hussman has written entire compendiums showing how erroneous the approach of the 'Fed model' is. This is a debate that should be well and truly over by now, but here it gets warmed up again, by people who are presumably not entirely free of bias at this point in time (i.e., they are talking their book). We would also point out that e.g. in terms of 'Tobin's Q ratio' (the replacement cost of corporate assets compared to their market valuation), the market is just as overvalued as it was in 1929, 1968 and 1987. Only in 2000 was an even higher level of overvaluation recorded.
Fund Manager Surveys and Presentations
There has been more interesting information emanating from hedge fund land. The latest Merrill Lynch fund manager survey was released and contained the following interesting data points:
“Money managers are the most bearish on commodities in more than four years as a majority expected a weaker Chinese economy for the first time in 14 months, a Bank of America Corp. survey showed.
A net 29 percent of the fund managers surveyed were underweight the asset class in May as their positions “collapsed” to the lowest level since December 2008. One in four now consider a “hard landing” in China as the biggest risk to their investments. The bank surveyed professional investors who together oversee $517 billion.
Respondents bought Japanese stocks for a seventh-consecutive month, bolstered by the Bank of Japan’s quantitative-easing program. A net 31 percent were overweight the country, the highest proportion in seven years. Even so, that is only half of the peak allocation in December 2005.
Hedge funds’ net exposure to equities climbed in May to plus 45 percent, the highest level in almost seven years. So-called liquidity conditions were the best in more than five years, according to the survey.
Investors’ allocation to banks also rebounded this month, with a net 14 percent overweight the industry, the largest proportion among fund managers since December 2006.
Holdings in U.S. equities remained unchanged at 20 percent overweight, while holdings in euro-area stocks stayed at 8 percent underweight for a second month. The total allocation to equities fell for a second consecutive month to a net 41 percent overweight from 47 percent in April.”
Almost needless to say, when the rally in Japanese stocks began late last year, almost none of these luminaries had a farthing allocated to Japanese stocks. We wrote about Japan representing a contrarian opportunity at the time. The article began with these words:
“Japan's stock market has been in the grip of a secular bear for so long, it appears a true capitulation has by now occurred – and if it hasn't, then it cannot be too far away.”
We only mention this because it may be a hint that the current 'underweight commodities and China' stance by hedge funds may turn out to be misguided as well. That does of course not mean that either of these markets will immediately begin to rise. After all, the good timing (November 13) of our article on Japanese stocks quoted above was sheer luck; we had already mentioned them favorably on an earlier occasion, after which they went sideways for many months.
Patience may therefore be required, but it is interesting to know that so much money is now allocated to equities while it has completely deserted commodities and Chinese stocks.
We would stress again that as long as central banks continue to print all-out, there is no telling what asset class the flood of money will spill into next. We generally prefer considering assets that appear relatively cheap and unloved, while acknowledging that the 'herd' can of course be right for considerable stretches of time. Moreover, whether commodities are more likely to fall or rise in the near term is certainly open to debate – global economic fundamentals do not support a rally at this time, but then again, equities have proved capable of rallying on nothing but monetary fumes as well.
There are a number of fund managers that are very rigorous in their estimation of risk, which often means that they will miss out on some upside in 'bubble phases', but they also won't be caught with their pants down when the party eventually ends (and for the record, we believe that when the current party ends, it will do so rather spectacularly and swiftly).
One of those is Seth Klarman's Baupost, which has recently announced that it will once again return capital to investors because it cannot find anything worth buying (the last time Baupost did that, the financial crisis soon began). Another one is GMO, Jeremy Grantham's shop. GMO has just made it known that it has gone to a 50% cash allocation:
“James Montier said that GMO’s 7 year asset allocation model for US stocks is now predicting negative returns. GMO are now 50% in cash. While they've been known to hold higher levels of cash than most investors, this seems to be taking things a step further. They still hold some investments in Japan but he indicated that they are likely to be selling over the next couple of months.
He said that a year ago the model was indicating good returns in Europe but now it only suggests 2.5% real return per annum. He said that they are a bit frightened to follow the model in Europe because of the leverage at the company level, particularly in the financial sector.”
Incidentally, John Hussman's model of future equity market returns has been giving off alarm signals for some time as well. Obviously, neither Mr. Hussman nor the people at GMO are big believers in the 'Fed model' and rightly so. We think the defensive stance adopted by the handful of outliers – GMO, Baupost and Apollo the most prominent among them – represent a medium term warning sign. These are all fund managers who have correctly identified dangerous junctures before – and they were in the minority on those occasions as well.
What Could End the Party?
In recent months, money printing has obviously overruled a rather sobering fundamental backdrop of falling earnings growth and outright economic contraction in several parts of the world. One may well ask what could therefore possibly disturb the happy consensus. In this context, we believe that investors would do well to keep a very close eye on both the yen and the JGB market. The danger is that these markets will 'get away' from the BoJ and that it will turn out it doesn't have them under 'control' after all. There are already rumors (unconfirmed, but plausible) that the rise in volatility in the JGB market is playing havoc with the derivatives books of Japanese banks. As noted yesterday, the JGB market has broken a first level of lateral support recently. The break is not very big yet, but every big move starts out small.
Apart from Japan, we believe the euro area also continues to deserve attention, even though it appears so far as if Super-Mario's 'OMT' promise has successfully put a lid on the crisis. Nevertheless, economic fundamentals in euro-land remain atrocious and there is evidently a growing rift between the ECB and Germany that could lead to a reassessment of the situation.
The yen's relentless collapse (this time viewed in the 'normal' notation that shows how many yen are required to buy one US dollar) – so far the markets 'like' it, but that could change if it becomes even more extreme – click to enlarge.
Spain's 10 year government bond yield. The recent bounce looks like a routine move, i.e., noise. However, as this chart also shows, the market's perceptions are fickle and can turn on a dime – click to enlarge.
The stock market is very stretched to the upside, but the trend remains up for now. Monetary conditions still favor the bulls, but ample liquidity cannot guarantee that a specific asset class outperforms – one must therefore be careful not to read too much into this. As shown in Part 2, a more than 200% expansion in US money TMS-2 since the year 2000 has resulted in stocks losing ground in real terms and essentially going nowhere in nominal terms.
Apart from being technically 'overbought', the market also suffers from too great a unanimity of opinion and too heavy long-side positioning by funds and speculators. While this does not tell us when and from what level a reversal of the trend can be expected, it does tell us that there will be a great many speculators trying to exit all at once. In addition, numerous potential 'gray swans' are lying in wait – risks that are known, but are widely ignored while they keep growing.
Charts by: NY Fed, Bloomberg, Stockmaster.in
It is that time of the year again – our semi-annual funding drive begins today. Give us a little hand in offsetting the costs of running this blog, as advertising revenue alone is insufficient. You can help us reach our modest funding goal by donating either via paypal or bitcoin. Those of you who have made a ton of money based on some of the things we have said in these pages (we actually made a few good calls lately!), please feel free to up your donations accordingly (we are sorry if you have followed one of our bad calls. This is of course your own fault). Other than that, we can only repeat that donations to this site are apt to secure many benefits. These range from sound sleep, to children including you in their songs, to the potential of obtaining privileges in the afterlife (the latter cannot be guaranteed, but it seems highly likely). As always, we are greatly honored by your readership and hope that our special mixture of entertainment and education is adding a little value to your life!
Bitcoin address: 1DRkVzUmkGaz9xAP81us86zzxh5VMEhNke
Most read in the last 20 days:
- Ganging Up on Gold
So Far a Normal Correction In last week's update on the gold sector, we mentioned that there was a lot of negative sentiment detectable on an anecdotal basis. From a positioning perspective only the commitments of traders still appeared a bit stretched though, while from a technical perspective we felt that a pullback to the 200-day moving average in both gold and gold stocks shouldn't be regarded as anything but a normal - and in this case actually long overdue -...
- Gold Sector Correction – Where Do Things Stand?
Sentiment and Positioning When we last discussed the gold sector correction (which had only just begun at the time), we mentioned we would update sentiment and positioning data on occasion. For a while, not much changed in these indicators, but as one would expect, last week's sharp sell-off did in fact move the needle a bit. Gold - just as nice to look at as it always is, but slightly cheaper since last week. Photo via The Times Of India The commitments of...
- Australian property bubble on a scale like no other
Australian property bubble on a scale like no other Yesterday Citi produced a new index which pinned the Australian property bubble at 16 year highs: Bubble trouble. Whether we label them bubbles, the Australian economy has experienced a series of developments that potentially could have the economy lurching from boom to bust and back. In recent years these have included: the record run up in commodity prices and subsequent correction; the associated...
- Pope Francis: Traitor to Western Civilization
Disqualified There has been no greater advocate of mass Muslim migration into Europe than the purported head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. At a recent conference, he urged that “asylum seekers” be accepted, “through the acts of mercy that promote their integration into the European context and beyond.”* Before we let Antonius continue with his refreshingly politically incorrect disquisition, we want to remind readers of two previous articles that have...
- A Looming Banking Crisis – Is a Perfect Storm About to Hit?
Andy Duncan Interviews Claudio Grass Andy Duncan of FinLingo.com has interviewed our friend Claudio Grass, managing director of Global Gold in Switzerland. Below is a transcript excerpting the main parts of the first section of the interview on the problems in the European banking system and what measures might be taken if push were to come to shove. Andy Duncan of FinLingo.com (left) and Claudio Grass of Global Gold (right) Andy Duncan: How do you see the...
- Bubble Dissection
The Long Term Outlook for the Asset Bubble Due to strong internals, John Hussman has given the stock market rally since the February low the benefit of the doubt for a while. Lately he has returned to issuing warnings about the market's potential to deliver a big negative surprise once it runs out of greater fools. In his weekly market missive published on Monday (entitled “Sizing Up the Bubble” - we highly recommend reading it), he presents inter alia the following eye-popping...
- US Stock Market - a Spanking May be on its Way
Iffy Looking Charts The stock market has held up quite well this year in the face of numerous developments that are usually regarded as negative (from declining earnings, to the Brexit, to a US presidential election that leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly). Of course, the market is never driven by the news – it is exactly the other way around. It is the market that actually writes the news. It may finally be time for a spanking though. Time for some old-fashioned...
- Doomed to Failure
Larded Up and Larded Over We’ve been waiting for the U.S. economy to reach escape velocity for the last six years. What we mean is we’ve been waiting for the economy to finally become self-stimulating and no longer require monetary or fiscal stimulus to keep it from stalling out. Unfortunately, this may not be possible the way things are going. As Milton Jones once revealed: “A month before he died, my grandfather covered his back in lard. After that, he went...
- Meet Your New Stimulus Allocation Czar
March Towards Midnight The march towards midnight is both stirring and foreboding. Like a death row inmate sitting down to savor his last meal, a grim excitement greets the reality of impending doom. Thoughts of imminent mortality haunt each bite. Tic-toc, tic-toc... As far as the economy’s concerned, there’s no stopping its march towards midnight. The witching hour’s rapidly approaching. We intend to savor each moment and make the best of...
- Are the Deep State’s Drones Coming for You?
What’s Aleppo? Look out kid Don’t matter what you did Walk on your tip toes Don’t try "No Doz" Better stay away from those That carry around a fire hose Keep a clean nose Watch the plain clothes You don’t need a weather man To know which way the wind blows – “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Bob Dylan The entrance to Baghdad's “Green Zone”. Photo credit: Karim Kadim / AP DELRAY BEACH, Florida – Biggest foreign policy blunder...
- Interview with Doug Casey
Natalie Vein of BFI speaks with Doug Casey Our friend Natalie Vein recently had the opportunity to conduct an extensive interview with Doug Casey for BFI, the parent company of Global Gold. Based on his decades-long experience in investing and his many travels, he shares his views on the state of the world economy, his outlook on critical political developments in the US and in Europe, as well as his investment insights and his approach to gold, as part of a viable strategy for...
- Evacuate or Die...
Escaping the Hurricane BALTIMORE – Last week, we got a peek at the End of the World. As Hurricane Matthew approached the coast of Florida, a panic set in. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Stores ran out of food. Banks ran out of cash. A satellite image of hurricane Matthew taken on October 4. He didn't look very friendly. Image via twitter.com “Evacuate or die,” we were told. Not wanting to do either, we rented a car and drove to Maryland. “We’ll just...