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Zigs and Zags

January 13, 2016 Leave a comment

“The market,” said J.P. Morgan, when asked for his opinion on what the market would do, “will fluctuate.”

Truer words were never spoken, but the depth of the truism as well is interesting. One implication of this observation – that prices will vary – is that the patient investor should mostly ignore noise in the markets. Ben Graham went further; he proposed thinking about a hypothetical “Mister Market,” who every day would offer to buy your stocks or sell you some more. On some days, Mister Market is fearful and offers to sell you stocks at a terrific discount; on other days, he is ebullient and offers to buy your holdings at far more than they are worth. Graham argued that this can only be a positive for an investor who knows the value of the business he holds. He can sell it if Mister Market is paying too much, or buy it if Mister Market is selling it too cheaply.

Graham did not give enough weight to momentum, as opposed to value – the idea that Mister Market might be paying too much today, but if you sell your holdings to him today, then you might miss the opportunity to sell them to him next year for double the stupid price. And, over the last couple of decades, momentum has become far more important to most investors than has value. (I blame CNBC, but that’s a different story).

In either case, the point is important – if you know what you own, and why you own it, and even better if you have an organized framework for thinking about the investment that is time-independent (that is, it doesn’t depend on how you feel today or tomorrow), then the zigs and zags don’t matter much to you in terms of your existing investments.

(As for future investments, young people should prefer declining asset markets, since they will be investing for long periods and should prefer lower prices to buy rather than higher prices; on the other hand, retirees should prefer rising asset prices, since they will be net sellers and should prefer higher prices to lower prices. In practice, everyone seems to like higher prices even though this is not rational in terms of one’s investing life.)

We have recently been experiencing a fair number of zigs, but mostly zags over the last couple of weeks. The stock market is near the last year’s lows – but, it should be noted, it still holds 84% of its gains since March 2009, so it is hardly disintegrating. The dividend yield of the S&P is 2.32%, the highest in some time and once again above 10-year Treasury yields. On the other hand, according to my calculations the expected 10-year return to equities is only about 1.25% more per annum than TIPS yields (0.65% plus inflation, for 10 years), so they are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The CAPE is still around 24, which about 50% higher than the historical average. But, in keeping with my point so far: none of these numbers has changed very much in the last couple of weeks. The stock market being down 10%, plus or minus, is a fairly small move from a value perspective (from a momentum perspective, though, it can and has tipped a number of measures).

But here is the more important overarching point to me, right now. I don’t worry about zigs and zags but what I do worry about is the fact that we are approaching the next bear market – whether it is this month, or this year, or next year, we will eventually have a bear market – with less liquidity then when we had the last bear market. Dealers and market-makers have been decimated by regulations and constraints on their deployment of capital, in the name of making them more secure and preventing a “systemic event” in the next calamity. All that means, to me, is that the systemic event will be more distributed. Each investor will face his own systemic event, when he finds the market for his shares is not where he wanted it to be, for the size he needed it to be. This is obviously less of a problem for individual investors. But mutual fund managers, pension fund managers – in short, the people with the big portfolios and the big positions – will have trouble changing their investment stances in a reasonable way (yet another reason to prefer smaller funds and managers, but increasing regulation has also made it very difficult to start and sustain a smaller investment management franchise). Another way to say this is that it is very likely that while the average or median market movement is likely to be similar to what it has been in the past, the tails are likely to be longer than in the past. That is, we may not go from a two-standard-deviation event to a four-standard-deviation event. We may go straight to a six-standard-deviation event.

If market “tails” are likely to be longer than in the past because of (il)liquidity, then the incentive for avoiding those tails is higher. This is true in two ways. First, it creates an incentive for an investor to move earlier, and lighten positions earlier, in a potential downward move in the market. And second, in the context of the Kelly Criterion (see my old article on this topic, here), rising volatility combined with decreased liquidity in general means that at every level of the market, investors should hold more cash than they otherwise would.

I don’t know how far the market will go down, and I don’t really care. I am prepared for “down.” What I care about is how fast.

A Good Time to Remember

December 16, 2015 7 comments

Some days make me feel so old. Actually, most days make me feel old, come to think of it; but some days make me feel old and wise. Yes, that’s it.

It is a good time to remember that there are a whole lot of people in the market today, many of them managing many millions or even billions of dollars, who have never seen a tightening cycle from the Federal Reserve. The last one began in 2004.

There are many more, managing many more dollars, who have only seen that one cycle, but not two; the previous tightening cycle began in 1999.

This is more than passing relevant. The people who have seen no tightening cycle at all might be inclined to believe the hooey that tightening is bullish for stocks because it means a return to normalcy. The people who have seen only one tightening cycle saw the one that coincided with stocks’ 35% rally from 2004-2007. That latter group absolutely believes the hooey. The fact that said equity market rally began with stocks 27% below the prior all-time high, rather than 32% above it as the market currently is, may not have entered into their calculations.

On the other hand, the people who dimly recall the 1999 episode might recall that the market was fine for a little while, but it didn’t end well. And you don’t know too many dinosaurs who remember the abortive tightening in 1997 in front of the Asian Contagion and the 1994 tightening cycle that ended shortly after the Tequila crisis.

Moreover, it is a good time to remember that no one in the market today, or ever, can remember the last time the Fed tightened in an “environment of abundant liquidity,” which is what they call it when there are too many reserves to actually restrain reserves to change interest rates. That’s because it has never happened before. So if anyone tells you they know with absolute certainty what is going to happen, to stocks or bonds or the dollar or commodities or the economy or inflation or anything else – they are relying on astrology.

Many of us have opinions, and some more well-informed than others. My own opinion tends to be focused on inflationary dynamics, and I remain very confident that inflation is going to head higher not despite the Fed’s action today, but because of it. I want to keep this article short because I know you have a lot to read today, but I will show you a very important picture (source: Bloomberg) that you should remember.

coreandfedfunds

The white line is the Federal Funds target rate (although that meant less at certain times in the past, when the rate was either not targeted directly, as in the early 1980s, or the target was represented as a range of values). The yellow line is core inflation. Focus on the tightening cycles: in the early 1970s, in the late 1970s, in 1983-84, in the late 1980s, in the early 1990s, in 1999-2000, and the one beginning in 2004. In every one of those episodes, save the one in 1994, core inflation either began to rise or accelerated, after the Fed began to tighten.

The generous interpretation of this fact would be that the Fed peered into the future and divined that inflation was about to rise, and so moved in spectacularly-accurate anticipation of that fact. But we know that the Fed’s forecasting abilities are pretty poor. Even the Fed admits their forecasting abilities are pretty poor. And, as it turns out, this phenomenon has a name. Economists call it the “price puzzle.”

If you have been reading my columns, you know this is no puzzle at all for a monetarist. Inflation rises when the Fed begins to tighten because higher interest rates bring about higher monetary velocity, because velocity is the inverse of the demand for real cash balances. That is, when interest rates rise you are less likely to leave money sitting idle; therefore, investors and savers play a game of monetary ‘hot potato’ which gets more intense the higher interest rates go – and that means higher monetary velocity. This effect happens almost instantly. After a time, if the Fed has raised rates in the traditional fashion by reducing the growth rate of money and reserves, the slower monetary growth rate comes to dominate the velocity effect and inflation ebbs. But this takes time.

And, moreover, as I have pointed out before and will keep pointing out as the Fed tightens: in this case, the Fed is not doing anything to slow the growth rate of money, because to do that they would have to drain reserves and they don’t know how to do that. I expect money growth to remain at its current level, or perhaps even to rise as higher interest rates provoke more bank lending without and offsetting restraint coming from bank reserve scarcity. By moving interest rates by diktat, the Fed is increasing monetary velocity and doing nothing (at least, nothing predictable) with the growth rate of money itself. This is a bad idea.

No one knows how it will turn out, least of all the Fed. But if market multiples have anything to do with certainty and low volatility – then we might expect lower market multiples to come.

 

Walmart Traffic may be Down but Wall Street Traffic is Up

October 14, 2015 Leave a comment

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).

wmt

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).

retsales

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.

volslongtermHere is another way to illustrate the same thing. By year, here is the number of days that less than 1 billion shares traded in NYSE Composite Volume.

Number of sub-billion share days
2005 4
2006 7
2007 7
2008 18
2009 35
2010 113
2011 166
2012 240
2013 246
2014 246

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).

vols201415

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.

Recession Won’t Be Fun…But Better than Last Time

October 6, 2015 4 comments

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).

napmpmi

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).

capU

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.

domlevbus

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).

domlev

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!

Contour Map

September 8, 2015 2 comments

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).

10yreals

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.

Stocks Look Less Scary This Way

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.

probloss

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!

Possibly a Tactical Chance for Bonds

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.

all10s

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.

2s10stoday

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%.

stockmo

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.

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