Stretched to the Limit

There are good reasons to suspect that the bull market in US equities has been stretched to the limit. These include inter alia: high fundamental valuation levels, as e.g. illustrated by the Shiller P/E ratio (a.k.a. “CAPE”/ cyclically adjusted P/E); rising interest rates; and the maturity of the advance.

 

The end of an era – a little review of the mother of modern crash patterns, the 1929 debacle. In hindsight it is both a bit scary and sad, in light of the important caesura it represented. In many ways the roaring 20s were the last hurrah of a world in its death throes, a world that never managed to make a comeback. The massive expansion of the State that had begun in the years just before WW1 resumed in full force as soon as the post-war party on Wall Street ended. The worried crowd that formed in the streets around the NYSE in the week of the crash may well have suspected that the starting gun to profound change had just been fired. [PT]

 

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Demanding More Debt

Consumer debt, corporate debt, and government debt are all going up.  But that’s not all.  Margin debt – debt that investors borrow against their portfolio to buy more stocks – has hit a record of $642.8 billion.  What in the world are people thinking?

 

A blow-off in margin debt mirroring the blow-off in stock prices. Since February of 2016 alone it has soared by ~$170 billion – this is an entirely new level insanity. The current total of 643 billion is more than double the level of margin debt at the tech mania peak and 15.4 times the amount of margin debt just before the crash of 1987. [PT]

 

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Serenely Grows the Debtberg

We mentioned in a recent post that we would soon return to the topic of credit spreads and exotic structured products. One reason for doing so are the many surprises investors faced in the 2008 crisis. Readers may e.g. remember auction rate securities. These bonds were often listed as “cash equivalents” on the balance sheets of assorted companies investing in them, but it turned out they were anything but. Shareholders of many small and mid-sized companies learned to their chagrin that quite a bit of this “cash” had for all practical purposes evaporated when the markets for these bonds suddenly froze.

 

Surprise and shock at the sudden emergence of exotic securities in unexpected places at an inconvenient moment.

 

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Object of Speculation

The prices of the metals fell last week, $22 and $0.24 respectively. It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Each group of traders knows how gold “should” react to a particular type of news. But they all want the same thing — they want gold to go up. And when it doesn’t, many hesitate to buy. Or even sell. This is why speculation cannot set a stable price (I’m talking to you, bitcoiners).

 

Everybody wants gold to grow wings. Unfortunately it’s rather heavy, especially lately. [PT]

 

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Extracting Meaning from PPP

 

“An alternative exchange rate – the purchasing power parity (PPP) conversion factor – is preferred because it reflects differences in price levels for both tradable and non-tradable goods and services and therefore provides a more meaningful comparison of real output.” – the World Bank

 

Headquarters of the World Bank in Washington. We have it on good authority that the business of ending poverty is quite lucrative for its practitioners (not least because employees of multilateral organizations such as the IMF and the World bank have to pay no taxes whatsoever on their income – and the perks certainly don’t end there). A number of long-serving employees of the institution we have met over time have struck us as quite cynical and not particularly convinced that their efforts in developing countries were achieving much (and it was not for lack of trying). That is of course not the official line and merely represents anecdotal evidence based on a limited sample size. Experience tells us though that we should not dismiss such evidence out of hand – especially not if it rings true. The agency’s views on PPP are a sign that its economists probably don’t get out much. [PT]

Photo credit: Simone D. McCourte

 

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A Finite Life Span

We have been promising to get back to the topic of capital destruction, which we put on hiatus for the last several weeks to make our case that the interest rate remains in a falling trend. Today, we have a different way of looking at capital destruction.

 

A Soviet propaganda poster extolling the virtues of the plan… a succession of such plans ultimately ended in economic collapse – eventually, not even basic staples could be supplied to the population anymore. It was easily the biggest bankruptcy in history.  [PT]

 

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Ridiculous Minutia

Jerome Powell, the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve, just completed his third week on the job.  He’s hardly had enough time to learn how to operate the office coffee maker, let alone the all-in-one printer.  He still doesn’t know what roach coach menu items induce a heinous gut bomb.

 


The perpetually slightly worried looking new Fed chairman Jerome Powell, here seen warily inspecting the Rose Garden at the White House. Everybody wants to know if he has a “better plan” – but there is no better plan, thus no-one has one. [PT]

Photo credit: A. Brandon / AP

 

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Peculiar Behavior

As I have shown in previous issues of Seasonal Insights, various financial instruments are demonstrating peculiar behavior in the course of the week: the S&P 500 Index is typically strong on Tuesdays, Gold on Fridays and Bitcoin on Tuesdays (similar to the S&P 500 Index).

 

The quest for profitable foresight…[PT]

 

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Whipsawed

Frank Roellinger has updated us with respect to the signals given by his Modified Ned Davis Method (MDM) in the course of the recent market correction. The MDM is a purely technical trading system designed for position-trading the Russell 2000 index, both long and short (for details and additional color see The Modified Davis Method and Reader Question on the Modified Ned Davis Method).

 

The Nasdaq pillar…

 

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Economic Activity Seems Brisk, But…

Contrary to the situation in 2014-2015, economic indicators are currently far from signaling an imminent recession. We frequently discussed growing weakness in the manufacturing sector in 2015 (which is the largest sector of the economy in terms of gross output) – but even then, we always stressed that no clear recession signal was in sight yet.

 

US gross output (GO) growth year-on-year, and industrial production (IP) – note that GO continues to be published with a lag of two quarters. As the upper half of the illustration shows, growth in manufacturing output turned negative in 2014 – 2015, while y/y growth in “all industries” GO fell to zero by Q3 2015. The lower half shows the culprit: the mining sector, which includes upstream oil and gas production. While the sector is small, it is very volatile and accounted for an uncommonly large share of capex due to the shale oil/fracking boom. This was confirmed by the action in credit spreads during this time period as well, as junk bond spreads exploded mainly due to a relentless sell-off in energy company debt in the wake of plunging oil prices. Although happy times are here again following the oil price recovery, GO has begun to weaken slightly again in Q1 and Q2 2017 (note: the surge in IP since then does not tell us much, as GO leads IP).

 

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Fibonacci Retracements  

Following the recent market swoon, we were interested to see how far the rebound would go. Fibonacci retracement levels are a tried and true technical tool for estimating likely targets – and they can actually provide information beyond that as well. Here is the S&P 500 Index with the most important Fibonacci retracement levels of the recent decline shown:

 

So far, the SPX has made it back to the 61.8% retracement level intraday, and has weakened a tad again since then. This is not yet conclusive evidence that this level will contain the rebound, but it is worth noting that the RSI made it back to just below 50 as well (the 40-50 area in the RSI is often an important demarcation in both bullish and bearish market phases). On the other hand, the decline has injected somewhat greater caution than was detectable previously (e.g. the VIX remains around the 20 level). That may help support a larger rebound; note also that the 200-dma serves as support, so an argument could be made that the decline was merely one of the periodic tests of this moving average. One should watch what happens if lower Fibo retracement levels, i.e., the 50% and 38% retracement are approached from above. According to Canadian technical analyst Ross Clark, statistics suggest that the 38% level must hold to maintain a positive bias. If it breaks, a retest of the lows becomes the minimum expectation.

 

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Mnuchin Gets It

United States Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin has a sweet gig.  He writes rubber checks to pay the nation’s bills.  Yet, somehow, the rubber checks don’t bounce.  Instead, like magic, they clear. How this all works, considering the nation’s technically insolvent, we don’t quite understand.  But Mnuchin gets it.  He knows exactly how full faith and credit works – and he knows plenty more.

 

Master of the Mint and economy wizard Steven Mnuchin and his wife at the annual ritual greenback burning festival. [PT]

 

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