Walmart (WMT) didn’t have its best day today. The bellwether retailer forecast a profit decline of 6-12% in its 2017 fiscal year, in some part because of a $1.5bln increase in wage expenses; the stock dropped 10% to its lowest level since 2012 and off about 33% from the highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).
I mention Walmart neither to recommend it nor to pan it, but only because in the absence of news from WMT I would have been inclined to ignore the modest downside surprise in Retail Sales today; September Retail Sales ex-auto-and-gasoline were unchanged versus expectations for a +0.3% rise. But Retail Sales, like Durable Goods, is a wildly volatile number (see chart, source Bloomberg).
This was a bad month, but it wasn’t the worst month in 2015. It wasn’t even the second or third-worst month in 2015. Looking at a monthly figure, it is difficult to reject any null hypothesis; put another way, you really cannot discern whether +0.5% is statistically different from +0.0%. [I didn’t actually do the test…I am just making the general statistical observation.] Today’s data will tweak the Q3 forecasts a bit lower, but isn’t anything to be upset about. Except, that is, for the fact that Walmart is bleeding.
There is something else that is different about this decline, and really about this whole year. I have documented in the past the steady decline in equity volumes that has been occurring for almost a decade now. The chart below shows the cumulative NYSE volume, by trading day of the year, for 2006 through present. Note the steady march lower in volumes year after year after year. 2014 and 2013 were almost mirror images, so you can’t see 2014. But notice the thicker black line: that is 2015.
|Number of sub-billion share days|
In 2015, we are on pace for a mere 228 sub-billion share days.
I guess by now my point is plain, but here is one more chart and that is the rolling 20-day composite volume for 2014 (lower line) and 2015 (upper line).
In general, volumes have been higher this year, but the real divergence began at the end of July, when the lines began to move away from each other more rapidly. The equity breakdown started on August 20th.
What does this all mean? Rising trading volumes while markets are declining suggests we should consider imputing more significance to what many are calling a correction but which may be the beginning of something deeper. There are re-allocations happening, and outright sales – not just fast money slinging positions around. Technically, this is supposed to put more weight on the “damage” done by this correction, and raise a bit of a warning flag about the medium-term set-up.
Incidentally, you can buy warning flags cheaply at Walmart.
Yesterday, I mentioned the likelihood that a recession is coming. The indicators for this are mostly from the manufacturing side of the economic ledger, and they are at this point merely suggestive. For example, the ISM Manufacturing Index is at 50.2, below which level we often see deeper downdrafts (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Capacity Utilization, which never got back to the level over 80% that historically worries the Fed about inflation, has been slipping back again (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Now, we have to be a bit careful of these “classic” indicators because of the increased weight of mining and exploration in GDP compared with the last few cycles. A good part of the downturn in Capacity Utilization, I suspect, could be traced to weakness in the oil patch. But at the same time, we cannot blithely dismiss the manufacturing weakness as being “all about oil” in the same way that Clinton supporters once dismissed Oval Office shenanigans as being “all about sex.” Oil matters, in this economy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while historically a declining oil price was a boon to the nation as a whole (which is why we never suffered much from the Asian Contagion: the plunge in commodity prices tended to support the U.S., which is generally a net consumer of resources), in this cycle low oil prices are probably neutral at best, and may even be contractionary for the country as a whole.
Whether we have a recession in the near term (meaning beginning in the next six months or so) or further in the future, here is one point that is important to make. It will not be a “garden variety” recession, in all likelihood. That is not because we have boomed so much, but because we are levered so much. There are no more “garden variety” recessions.
Financial leverage in an economy, just as in individual businesses, increases economic volatility. So does operational leverage (which means: deploying fixed capital rather than variable inputs such as labor – technology, typically). And our economy has both in spades. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the debt of domestic businesses as a percentage of GDP. Businesses are currently more levered than they were in 2007, both in raw debt figures and as a percentage of GDP.
Investors fearing recession should shift equity allocations (to the extent some equity allocation is retained) to less-levered businesses. But be careful: some investors think of growth companies as being low-leverage but tech companies (for example) in fact have very high operating leverage even if financial leverage is low. Both are bad when earnings decline – and growth firms typically have less of a margin of safety on price. I tried to do a screen on low-debt, low-PE, high-dividend non-tech companies with decent market caps and didn’t find very much. Canon (CAJ), Guess? Inc (GES) to name a couple of examples…and neither of those have low P/E ratios. (I don’t like to invest in individual stocks in any event but I mention these for readers who do – these aren’t recommendations and I neither own them nor plan to, but may be worth some further research if you are looking for names.)
On the plus side, economically-speaking, relatively heavy personal income taxation also acts as an automatic stabilizer. On the minus side, this is less true if the tax system is heavily progressive, since it isn’t the higher-paid employees who tend to be the ones who are laid off (except on Wall Street, where it is currently de rigueur to cut experienced, expensive staff and retain less-experienced, cheaper staff). Back on the plus side, a large welfare system tends to be an automatic stabilizer as well. On the minus side, all of these fiscal stabilizers merely move growth from the future to the present, so the deeper the recession the slower the future growth.
And, of course – there is nothing that central banks can really do about this, unless it is to make policy rates negative to spur additional extension of negative-NPV loans (that is, loans to less-creditworthy borrowers). I am not sure that even our central bank, with its unhealthy fear of the cleansing power of recession, thinks that’s a good idea.
There is some good news, as we brace for this next recession: while overall levels of debt are higher for businesses, financials, and households, the debt burden compared to GDP is lower for households and especially for domestic financial institutions (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Our banks are in relatively good health, compared with their condition headed into the last downturn. So this will not be a calamity, as in 2008. But I don’t expect it to only be a “mild” recession, either – as if any recession ever feels mild to individuals!
Let us begin with this: there is nothing inherently healthy about a series of +2% and -2% days within a range.
Having some grey hair (just a little!) is helpful in times like these because markets go through repetitive phases and it helps to have some historical comparisons to be able to guide an investor. At the same time, experience can be limiting if we try to force everything we are seeing into a particular historical comparison.
So, for example, I never view with anything but amusement the charts of day-by-day comparisons between this year’s market action with, say, that of 1929. Or, as another example I have seen: comparing a market to the Nikkei crash in the early 1990s. These are interesting an amusing market parallels, but there is no road map to markets. There is only a contour map.
The contours of this market are reminiscent to me of the end of the tech-led bull market in 2000. The valuation parallels are obvious, but I am not talking about that. In 2000, as the market crested in March and began to head lower, we started to have very large overnight moves – sometimes higher, sometimes lower – followed often by a sharp open, directionless trading during the day, and often a sharp move at the close. This was the signature of fast money, which tends to get more timid during the daylight but which enjoys monkeying about with buy and sell stops overnight. In general, as the market headed lower, it seemed like Mondays tended to be pretty good, and Fridays tended to be pretty bad as no one wanted the weekend risk. There was a lot of volatility, and some spectacular up days. But month after month, the market was more likely to end the month lower than it began.
I think we are in that mode again, although it is hard to tell if we have anything like that kind of bear market ahead of us. Certainly, we can make that point valuation-wise. Also, interest rates have much more room to move higher from here than to move lower. While I think the economy is slowing, and any Fed action is likely to be small, tentative, and probably delayed, my point is that interest rates are not likely to provide a following wind to valuations.
Indeed, while nominal interest rates are still locked near 2% on the 10-year note, real interest rates are near the highest levels in five years (see chart of 10-year real interest rates, source Bloomberg).
The flip side of stable nominal interest rates and rising real rates, of course, is declining inflation expectations. By our calculations, the market is currently implying core inflation to be below the Fed’s target for at least a decade. And this is despite the fact that, measured by median inflation, it is already at target.
I once believed that the Fed could not really control long-term interest rates, although at least in principle they can control Treasury rates like they did in WWII, by simply buying or selling whatever it takes to keep rates at their target (it was easier then, as the market was a lot smaller!). And I guess that, deep in my gut, I still believe that. But I must admit that the evidence that they can control nominal interest rates, at least in normal times (that is, when the weight of the market doesn’t strenuously disagree), is starting to look pretty strong. There is absolutely no rationale for 10-year nominal interest rates at 2% in an environment where real interest rates are 0.65%, current inflation is 2.3%, and there is a large amount of money in circulation – with no plans in place to drain it.
(For anyone claiming a fear of deflation, I just shake my head in disbelief. Choose: Do you want to be a monetarist, in which case you have to construct a case for deflation from 6+% money growth and money velocity that is already at levels below any previously measured; or do you want to be a Keynesian and explain how you get deflation with unemployment at 5.1%? The third way is hand-waving, claiming that large amounts of debt lead mystically to deflation. But large amounts of public debt have never led to deflation in the past, and there is no obvious mechanism for it to do so.)
My reading of the contour map suggests a market valley ahead. It is a deep valley, but the good news is that there is a mountain on the other side of it. There always is.
I may have the lay of the land wrong, but I have been over this ground before. Watch your step.
Here is a quick follow-up on yesterday’s column, along with an administrative note (at the end). Yesterday, I noted there that momentum investors will begin to lose interest in being long equities as the year-over-year price return goes towards zero. I thought of another way to illustrate the same point, which maybe gets to something more like the average investor thinks.
The average “retail” investor wants big returns, but has a very non-linear response to losses. The reason that individual investors as a whole tend to under-perform institutional investors is that the former tend to exaggerate the effect of losses while underestimating the probability of losses. So, what tends to happen is that individual investors are perennially surprised by negative equity returns (don’t feel bad – financial media is set up to reinforce this bias), and react harshly to mildly negative returns – but not harshly enough to significantly negative returns.
So, the chart below shows a simple calculation of the probability of an equity loss over the next twelve months assuming that the expected return is just the return of the last 12 months, and the standard deviation of the return is the VIX (and assuming distributions are normal…just to complete the list of improbable assumptions). This doesn’t seem unreasonable with respect to assessing a typical investor’s expectations: returns should continue, and volatility is forward-looking.
Maybe it’s just me, but in these terms it seems more amazing. For much of the last few years, the trailing 12 month return was so high that it would take around a one-standard-deviation loss (16% chance) to experience a negative year – if, that is, we use prior returns to forecast future returns. In general, that’s a very bad idea. However, I can’t argue that this naïve approach has failed over the last few years!
What is the trigger that makes investors want to get out? After years of gains are investors going to act like they are “playing with house money” and wait until they get actual losses before they get jittery? Or will a 30-40% subjective chance of loss be enough for them to scale back? I think that this way of looking at the same picture we had yesterday seems much more promising for bulls. But, again, this is only true if valuation doesn’t matter. Stocks look less scary this way…but this is probably not the right way to look at it!
**Administrative Note – I have just agreed to write a book for a terrific publisher. The working title is “What’s Wrong with Money?: The Biggest Bubble of All – and How to Invest with it in Mind.” I am very excited about the project, but it is a lot of work to turn the manuscript out by late August for publication in the fall. My posts here had already been more sporadic than they used to be, but now I actually have an excuse! If you would like to be on the notification list for when the book is published, simply send an email to WWWM@enduringinvestments.com and I will put you on the list!
This week, I am participating in a school-style debate at the Global Fixed Income Institute’s conferences in Madrid where the question before the house is whether or not inflation will resurface in major world economies in the next five years. As you might imagine, I feel that my part of the debate is the easy part, especially as inflation is pointing higher in the US and core inflation just surprised higher in Europe. However, I am sure the other side feels the same way.
The Institute is interested in this discussion partly to illuminate the question of whether the substantial rise in yields over the last three months or so in all developed bond markets (see chart, source Bloomberg, showing 10y yields in US, UK, Germany and Japan) is indicative of a return of fears of inflation.
The ironic part of this is that I do not believe that the rise in yields has much if anything to do with the expectation for higher inflation. Partly, it is due to a subtle sea change in the way investors are thinking about the prospects for central bank policy – to wit, the possibility (which I see as slim) that the Fed chooses to raise rates meaningfully above zero in the next year, starting in September. But to some degree, the market has been discounting higher forward rates for a very long time. It has been consistently wrong on that point, but the steeply sloped yield curve (the 2y/10y spread hasn’t been flatter than 120bps since early 2008 – see chart, source Bloomberg) implies higher forward rates.
The rise in yields, in my view, is partly related to the prospect for changes in central bank policy, but also partly (and more sinisterly) related to the continuing intentional destruction by policymakers of the ability of large banks and dealers to make markets. We see worse liquidity in more and more markets almost by the day (as predicted five years ago in this space, for example here and here, as well as by many other observers). Less liquid markets tend to trade with more volatility, as it gets harder to move institutional size, and at lower prices since holders of assets need to factor in the difficulty of selling a position. Higher yields are going to happen in any event, and when institutional holders of bonds decide to diversify into commodities or into other real assets, interest rates could rise quickly depending how quickly that meme spreads. Of course, the same is true of equities, and commodities. Asset-allocation shifts will get messier.
I actually think this isn’t a bad time tactically to enter long positions in fixed-income. The Fed isn’t going to be as aggressive as people expect; also, bonds will get some support from investors fleeing fading momentum in stocks. The chart below (source: Bloomberg; Enduring Investments calculations) shows the 52-week price change in stocks. This is one measure of momentum, and a very important one as lots of investors look at their returns in annual chunks. Incredibly, since the latter part of 2012 investors have always been able to see double-digit returns from stocks when they looked in the rear-view mirror. Today, that number is 7.5%.
That’s still a terrific real return of more than 5%, but (a) many investors have very screwy return expectations, (b) many investors are well aware that they’ve been living on borrowed time with a liquidity-inspired rally, and (c) certain quantitative investors place significant weight to momentum, over value, in their investment models.
It’s just another red flag for stocks, but it has become passé to point them out. From the standpoint of a bond investor, though, this is good news because all of those equity owners, when they decide to take their chips off the table, will become bond buyers.
And when that happens, the liquidity issues in fixed-income might cut the other way for a while.
I am not one of those people who believe that if the Fed is dramatically easing, you simply must own equities. I must admit, charts like the one below (source: Bloomberg), showing the S&P versus the monetary base, seem awfully persuasive.
But there are plenty of counter-examples. The easiest one is the 1970s, shown below (source: FRED, Bloomberg). Not only did stocks not rise on the geyser of liquidity – M2 growth averaged 9.6% per annum for the entire decade – but the real value of stocks was utterly crushed as the nominal price barely moved and inflation eroded the value of the currency.
If you do believe that the Fed’s loose reins are the main reason for equities’ great run over the last few years, then you might be concerned that the end of the Fed’s QE could spell trouble for stocks. For the monetary base is flattening out, as it has each of the prior times QE has been stopped (or, as it turns out, paused).
But for you bulls, I have happy news. The monetary base is not the right metric to be watching in this case. Indeed, it isn’t the right metric to be watching in virtually any case. The Fed’s balance sheet and the monetary base both consist significantly of sterile reserves. These reserves affect nothing, except (perhaps) the future money supply. But they affect nothing currently. The vast majority of this monetary base is as inert as if it was actually money sitting in an unopened crate in a bank vault.
What does matter liquidity-wise is transactional balances, such as M2. And as I have long pointed out, the end of QE does nothing to slow the growth of M2. There are plenty of reserves to support continued rapid growth of M2, which is still growing at 6% – roughly where it has been for the last 2.5 years. And those haven’t been a particularly bad couple of years for stocks.
So, if liquidity is the only story that matters, then the picture below of M2 versus stocks (source: Bloomberg) is more soothing to bulls.
Again, I think this is too simplistic. If ample liquidity is good today, why wasn’t it good back in the 1970s? You will say “it isn’t that simple.” And that’s exactly my point. It can’t be as easy as buying stocks because the Fed is adding liquidity. I believe one big difference is the presence of financial media transmitted to the mass affluent, and the fact that there is tremendous confidence in the Fed to arrest downward momentum in securities markets.
What central bankers have done to the general economy has not been successful. But, if you are one of the mass affluent, you may have a view of monetary policy as nearly omnipotent in terms of its effect on securities and on certain real assets such as residential real estate. What is different this time? The cult.
I am no equity bull. But if you are, because of the following wind the Fed has been providing, then the good news is: nothing important has changed.
Surprisingly, markets are treading water here. The dollar, interest rates, and stocks are all oscillating in a narrow range. In some ways, this is surprising. It does not shock me that interest rates are fairly boring right now, with the 10-year yield trading almost exclusively within 25bps of 2% since November. Market participants are divided between those who see the Fed’s cessation of QE as indicative that prices should decline to fair market-clearing levels (that is, higher yields) and those who see weakness economically both domestically and abroad. There is room for confusion here.
I am similarly not terribly shocked that the dollar is consolidating after a long run, especially when part of that run was fueled by the popular delusion that the Federal Reserve had suddenly become extremely hawkish and would preemptively hike rates before convincing signs of inflation arose. I am hard-pressed to think of a time when the Fed pre-emptively did anything, but that was the popular belief in any event. Now that it is becoming clear that a hike in rates in June is about as likely as the possibility that the Easter Bunny will deliver eggs at the same time, dollar traders who were relying on widening interest rate differentials are pausing to take stock of the situation. I will say that it certainly seems plausible to me that the dollar’s rally will continue for at least a little while, due to the volatility coming our way as the Greek drama plays out, but the buck is not an automatic buy either. Money growth in the U.S. continues to outpace money growth in most other economies (see chart, source Bloomberg), although it is a much closer thing these days.
An increase in relative supply, if the demand curves are similar, should provoke a decrease in relative price. Unless you believe that the Fed isn’t just going to increase rates but is also going to shrink its balance sheet so that money growth abates eventually, it is hard to envision the dollar launching continuously higher. More likely is that as more and more currencies see their supplies increase, the exchange rates meander but the whole kit-and-kaboodle loses ground to real assets.
One of those real assets is housing. An underpinning to my argument, for several years running now, that core prices were not going to be deflating any time soon was the observation that housing prices (and hence rents, with a lag) have been rising rapidly once again. The deceleration in the year/year growth rates in 2014 was a positive sign, but the increase in prices in 2012 and 2013 is still pressing rents higher now and any sag in rents is yet to be felt. However, today’s release of FHA price index data as well as the Existing Home Sales report suggests that it is premature to expect this second housing bubble to unwind gently. The chart below is the year/year change in the median price of existing homes (source: Bloomberg). The recent dip now seems to have been an aberration, and indeed the slowdown in 2014 may have merely presaged the next acceleration higher.
And that bodes ill for core (median) price pressures, which have been steady around 2.2% for a while but may also be readying for the next leg up. Review my post-CPI summary for some of the fascinating details! (Well, fascinating to me.)
This doesn’t mean that I am sanguine about growth, either domestic or global, looking forward. I thought we would get out of 2014 without a recession, but I am less sure about 2015. Europe is going to do better, thanks to weaker energy and a weaker currency (although the weaker currency counteracts some of the energy weakness), but the structural problems in Europe are profound and the exit of Greece will cause turmoil in the banks. But US growth is in trouble: the benefit from lower energy prices is diffuse, while the pain from lower energy prices is concentrated in a way it hasn’t been in the past. And the dollar strength pressures company earnings, as we have seen, on a broad basis. And that’s where it is a little surprising that we are seeing water-treading. It gets increasingly difficult for me to figure out what equity buyers are seeing. Profits are flattening out and even weakening, and they are already at a very high level of GDP so that any economic weakness is going to be felt in profits directly. Furthermore, I find it very interesting that the last time actual reported profits diverged from “Kalecki Profits” corresponded to the last equity bubble (see chart, source Bloomberg).
“Kalecki Profits” is a line that computes corporate profits as Investment minus Household Savings minus Government Savings minus Foreign Savings plus Dividends. Look up Kalecki Profit Equation on Wikipedia for a further explanation. The “Corp Business Prof After Tax” is from the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds Z.1 report and is measured directly. The implication is that if companies are reporting greater profits than the sum of the whole, then the difference is suspect. For example, leverage: by increasing financial leverage, the same top line creates more of a bottom line (in either direction). The chart below (source: Federal Reserve; Enduring Investments analysis) plots the 1-year percentage change in business debt outstanding (lagged 2 quarters to center it on the year in question) versus the difference between the two lines in the prior chart.
We might call this “pretty cool,” but in econometrics terms this is merely an explanatory relationship. That is, it doesn’t really help us other than to help explain why the two series diverge. It doesn’t, for example, tell us whether Kalecki profits will converge upwards to reported profits, or whether reported profits will decline; it doesn’t tell us whether it is a decline or deceleration in business debt outstanding that prompts that convergence or whether something else causes both things to happen. I think it’s unlikely that the divergence in the two profit measures causes the change in debt, but it’s possible. I will say that this last chart makes me more comfortable that the Kalecki equation isn’t broken, but merely that it isn’t capturing everything. And my argument, for what it is worth, would be that business leverage cannot increase without bound. At some point, business borrowing will decline.
It does not look like that is happening yet. I have been reading recently about how credit officers have been declining credit more frequently recently. That may be true, but it isn’t resulting in slower credit growth. Commercial bank credit growth, according to the Fed’s H.8 report and illustrated below, continues to grow at the fastest y/y pace since well before the crisis.
If credit officers are really declining credit more often than before, it must mean that applications are up, or that the credit is being extended on fewer loans (that is, to bigger borrowers). Otherwise, we can’t square the fact that there’s rapid credit growth with the proffered fact that credit is being declined more often.
There is a lot to sort through here, but the bottom line is this: I have no idea what the dollar is going to do. I am not sure what the bond market will do. I have no idea what stocks will do. But, if I have to invest (and I do!), then in general I am aiming for real assets and avoiding financial assets.