cascades of economic energy and finding a stock-picking focus

finding the focus

One of the most creative (and successful) investors I’ve ever encountered–and, luckily for me, one of my earliest mentors–gave me this example of his investment style:

Suppose, he said, Washington has decided to stimulate the economy and we’re in the early days of a nationwide road building boom.  What stocks do you buy?

–Your first inclination is to look at construction companies.  That’s what most people buy.  But they’re usually conglomerates, with significant non-public works subsidiaries. There are also lots of them.   It’s difficult to predict who will get contracts and how profitable they will be.

–Your next thought is probably construction materials, like cement or asphalt.  Certainly, roadbuilding will require lots of that stuff.  But the same problem arises here, on a smaller scale–determining who, among many possible suppliers, gets the contracts and how important they are for the overall profits.  One extra quirk:  the low value-added nature of construction materials and their high weight (meaning big transportation costs) make individual plant locations crucial.  Figuring that out is especially hard.

My friend’s answer?  …cement trucks.  Buy stock in the one or two companies whose main business is making cement trucks.  No matter who gets the government construction contracts, no matter which suppliers they choose, they’ll need to transport cement to the construction sites.  As orders build, they’ll have to upgrade their truck fleets.  Large-scale contracts also mean large-scale upgrades.  That’s where the economic energy from the government road building program is going to be focused.

cascades of energy…

This is absolutely right, in my opinion.  It’s Levy Strauss selling blue jeans to Gold Rush miners all over again.

To recap, the surest and safest way to play any economic phenomenon is to find, if you can:

–the sole supplier

–of an essential component

–whose price makes up a very small cost in the creation of the ultimate end product made or sold.

This most likely means that buyers of the component will be much more concerned with the quality of the component than the price.  So the component maker should be able to make unusually high profits.

In my experience, I’ve found there’s also another–time-related– aspect to investor behavior in playing any powerful source of economic energy.

Institutional investors typically proceed as follows:

–initially they tend to buy largest-cap and most obvious ways to play whatever the theme is.  In the context of my friend’s road example above, they buy the general construction companies.

–after the prices of these stocks have gone up for a while, the big investors’ attention begins to move to the most obvious derivative plays–the cement companies–and buy them.

–ultimately they “discover” the cement truck companies and add them to their portfolios as well.

If you know the industries involved well enough, you can see a cascade of successive waves of investment that chronicles the travels of the consensus deeper and deeper into the derivative plays.

…forming a timeline

This changing, and ever narrowing, focus of big investors typically forms a timeline that we can use to judge how much energy remains in a given economic phenomenon in stock market terms.  Once the big guys work their way to the metaphorical cement trucks, that signals most of the money from the theme has already been made.

At this point, the market either goes back to the start of all the excitement–the general construction companies–and begins the cascade process all over again.  More commonly, the market moves on to other areas.

where are we now?

Although it’s relatively early in the 1Q12 earnings season, I’m struck by two characteristics of the market reaction to earnings announcements so far.

The first is that positive reaction is highly company-specific and relatively narrowly focused in the sense I’ve been writing about.  To me, this means that before long the market will no longer be following ever more indirect ways to play the fact of economic recovery from the Great Recession.  It will be looking for new areas of interest instead.

I’ve also noticed that my portfolio, which is more of the cement truck type–and which had been in the dumps for the past several months–is beginning to perk up again.  Yes, my stocks have had an extraordinary two years or so before starting to fade away, but that’s the past and not relevant for today.  I’m also reading my recent outperformance as evidence of an ongoing maturing–maybe even an upcoming sea change–in stock market focus.   More about this in my next Current Market Tactics, on Monday.

 

chit funds, crowdfunding and p2p banking (II)

two lessons from history

Thailand

I was just getting acquainted with Thailand when the Ms. Chamoy Thipyaso chit fund scandal broke.  “Mae” (=Mother) Chamoy, the wife of a Thai Air Force officer, appeared to be running a very large chit fund investment operation that was stringing together a sequence of startlingly high investment returns.  She had agents throughout Thailand collecting new money for her.  Money was pouring in.

The fund turned out to be a gigantic Ponzi scheme, however.

The scheme sustained itself for an unusually long time.  It continued to operate even after it had become so large (US$100 million+) it was implausible to think Mae could find enough lucrative “secret” microfinancing opportunities in Thailand.  Several reasons for this:

–people wanted to believe.

–the fund appeared to have the backing of the military, the ultimate source of political and business leadership in Thailand.  This gave an implied assurance that the investment results were real.  Prominent high-ranking Air Force officers invested with Mae, and forcefully urged their subordinates to do so as well.

–investors who thought about withdrawing some of their “profits” were pressured not to do so, with the threat that if they took money out they would be blacklisted and not allowed to invest in the fund thereafter.

Interestingly, large investors in the Chamoy fund continued to urge their friends and work subordinates to plow money into the fund even after they realized it was a Ponzi scheme.  Their rationale?   …it bought them more time.  That extra time allowed them to continue to enjoy a lifestyle they knew was going to end when the fraud was discovered.  And it allowed them to arrange their financial affairs in a way that would minimize the negative impact on them personally.  To followers of the Bernie Madoff case in the US, this must certainly sound familiar.

my thoughts

In my reading about microfinance, it seems that Ponzi schemes have been a constant problem wherever third-party chit funds–not the ones where friends and neighbors lend to one another–operate.  That means virtually everyplace in South Asia and Africa.  There seems to be an especially large amount of study done of the industry in India, which I have no practical experience with (because the stock market isn’t easily open to foreigners–and I think the political environment is particularly unfriendly toward equity investors.)

Personally, I’d worry more about Ponzi schemes in the US springing up among the firms that the JOBS Act will allow to raise equity.  These are the entities that won’t have adequate financial controls or accounting statements for shareholders.

My chief p2p banking concern is a more prosaic one–that the present very low loan loss rates will prove to be more a function of the industry’s newness rather than of the creditworthiness of borrowers.  Time will tell.  And, unlike fraud, this is a risk we can take precautions for.

Taiwan

There was a unique twist to the Taiwanese chit fund industry that I encountered in the mid-1980s.   Chit fund loans were secured by post-dated checks issued to the borrowers by the lenders.  In Taiwan at that time, “bouncing” a check–having insufficient funds in the account to cover payment–was a felony, punishable by the check writer serving time in prison.

The threat of jail time was thought to be sufficient incentive to ensure repayment.  So no one worried too much about the creditworthiness of the borrowers, which–as it turned out–included large publicly-traded companies.  American accountants I met, who’d been sent to Taiwan to break into the auditing business there, told me that they could see the fact of unaccounted-for money sloshing around in potential client companies.  They just couldn’t see how much.  Because of this, they were reluctant to take any engagements.  And they were continually undercut by local accounting firms who charged virtually nothing for “audits.”   American bank lending officers told me the same thing.

The chit fund business received a major shock, during a mild economic downturn, some large companies had made hundreds of millions of dollars in chit fund loans–all unrecorded in the financial accounts–that they couldn’t repay.  Bankruptcies resulted.

my thoughts

This is another potential problem for equity holders in firms crowdfunded under the JOBS Act.  Without audited financials, it’s impossible for an outside investor to determine what the capital structure of a company is.

I also think, à la Taiwan, a legitimate auditor will simply walk away from a suspect company rather than make a public outcry.  Non-disclosure agreements may force it to do no more.  A less fastidious auditor, one nobody ever heard of, might take the business and issue a clean opinion.  After all, Bernie Madoff got one for years, didn’t he?

chit funds, crowdfunding and p2p banking (I)

chit funds in emerging markets

I began to look at smaller Asian markets as an investor in 1985.  It was there that I encountered the informal self-help savings and lending associations that are typical in developing economies.  My introduction came through chit funds in Thailand and Taiwan, but these structures exist throughout the developing world.

what they are

the simplest

In their simplest form, the associations are groups of friends of neighbors who contribute a specified amount of money to a pool on a regular basis.  The funds pooled each time the group meet are lent to a single participant, determined either by the implied interest rate bid or on a rotating basis.

more complex

At a higher level of organization, groups come to a designated place at a specific time–like by having a meal at a certain restaurant on Saturday–and offer to third parties the money they’re willing to lend.  They may signal their intent simply by piling their money in the center of their table.  Prospective borrowers move from table to table to negotiate loan terms.

the pinnacle

For the largest such chit funds, agents for the fund do the collection and forward the money to the fund’s central headquarters.  Lenders don’t have any direct contact with the borrowers.

why chit funds?

There are a number of motivations, normally all based on the idea that the formal banking system doesn’t function well. For instance:

1.  There may not be any local banks.

2.  Banks may offer very low interest rates to depositors.

3.  Banks may decide to lend only to large companies.

4.  Potential depositors may worry about bank solvency–the possibility that they’ll lose their money in a bankruptcy or nationalization.

5.  People may not want to reveal the extent of their wealth, or the extent of their taxable income.

the US equivalent

Interestingly enough, this emerging world form of microfinancing is beginning to make a strong showing in the US.  It’s taking two forms:

–Congress recently passed the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business) Act.  JOBS greatly simplifies the procedures for a small company to make an offering of equity.  For companies with less that $1 billion in annual sales, JOBS does away with the requirement that they present audited financials to potential investors (not a stellar idea, in my opinion).  JOBS also defines the maximum amount that low-income investors can put into a given offering.  By so doing, it legitimizes the efforts at equity crowdfunding (see my post) now underway in the US.

–John Mack, former head of Morgan Stanley, recently joined the Lending Club, a P2P (peer to peer) lender.  P2P lending is chit funds come back to life, but on the internet instead of in your local restaurant.  You can go to the websites of P2P firms like Prosper and Lending Club and select the borrowers you wish to lend to by yourself.  Or you can hire a financial advisor to do this for you.

why now?

To start with the obvious, the technology needed to run P2P or equity crowdfunding is readily available.

Interest rates have been low for a long enough period of time–with little relief in sight–that more conventional means for savers to obtain high returns have been exhausted.  Not only that, but getting a return above 2% in Treasury bonds requires committing money for a very long time, exposing the lender to the risk of loss as/when rates eventually begin to rise.

I see the JOBS ACT as an attack (maybe as the first step in a prolonged attack) by Washington on the current IPO practices of Wall Street investment banks.  Conventional IPO costs in the US are very high by world standards, and a private individual stands about the same chance of getting an IPO allocation as a snowball in northern hemisphere July.

The naming of the JOBS Act suggests that Washington wants to be seen as doing something to create jobs.  What a commentary if this is the best they can do.

My first reaction to P2P is that it may be a true innovation, like money market funds and junk bonds were in their day.  P2P could end up being a very big business–unlike JOBS, which I see, in its present form, as gimmicky and filled with opportunities for fraud.

That’s it for today.  Tomorrow:  historic problems with P2P lending, including a word on Bernie Madoff.

is anything “wrong” with Apple?

APPL’s extraordinary recent performance

I was talking about the stock with my brother-in-law, a big AAPL booster, a month or so ago.  I’d been fooling around with one-year performance charts, an obvious indication that I somehow had too much time on my hands.  But doing so made me realize that, as I pointed out to my brother-in-law (who probably already knew), APPL had had an extraordinary impact on the S&P 500’s near-term performance.  Over the prior 12 months, AAPL was up around 80%.  Over the same time span, the S&P was up a bit less than 4%.   But AAPL alone was responsible for most of the 4%!!

Some rough arithmetic:  AAPL probably represented 3% of the index at the beginning of the period.  3% up 80% is the same as 80% up 3%, which is also the same as 100% up 2.4%.  In other words, AAPL’s gains represented 2.4 percentage points out of the 4 percentage point advance the index made during that year.  The other 97% of the index chipped in only 1.6 percentage points.  Those stocks were basically flat.

Index dominance by one stock never happens in the US.  In emerging markets, where a single issue can be 10%-15% of the overall market, yes.   ..in the US, no.  Nevertheless, that’s what AAPL did over the past year.

Then it fell by 10%.

more numbers

Let’s take a quick look at how AAPL has performed, even after that fall.  And let’s include some of the “AAPL eco-system” stocks as well, to see how they’ve made out.

one year (through yesterday)

AAPL          +77.2%

INTC           +43.8%

QCOM          +24.7%

NASDAQ index          +8.1%

S&P 500          +3.8%

ARMH          -4.8%

 

six months

AAPL          +37.5%

INTC          +20.9%

QCOM          +20.1%

S&P 500          +11.8%

NASDAQ          +8.1%

ARMH          -1.9%

 

year to date

AAPL          +43.1%

QCOM          +21.1%

INTC          +17.1%

NASDAQ          +14.7%

S&P          +8.9%

ARMH          +0.8%

what I make of this

1.   Even after the drop of the past few days, the overall situation of AAPL outperformance hasn’t changed very much.  What has happened over the past six months, though, is that the rest of the market has begun to revive.  So AAPL’s gains aren’t as dominant as they had been when the rest of the market was drooping.

2.  The performance of “eco-system” stocks has been spotty.

Qualcomm, whose chips are in virtually every high-end mobile device, has done well.  But its performance over each of the periods above is a pale imitation of AAPL’s.

ARM Holdings, whose low power chip designs are in just about every mobile device, high-end and low-, has been left behind in the dust.  Of course, it was trading at close to 100x earnings a year ago.

Intel, the “anti-APPL,’ the “dinosaur” that ARMH was going to put out of its misery, has been second on the one-year list.  Or course, it was trading at 9x earnings a year ago and yielding close to 4%.

3.  A counter-trend movement, where AAPL goes down and the rest of the world catches up a bit, wouldn’t be the least bit unusual after a year+ like APPL has had.

the rumors

Over the past few days, perhaps only in response to the AAPL decline, I’ve seen three worries circulating about the company, namely:

–Phone companies in the US want to reduce iPhone subsidies.  (Who wouldn’t.  The carriers pay AAPL $600 or so for phones that they resell for $200.)  There’s talk that ATT and Verizon want to charge $230 instead.  It’s not clear that the carriers will be successful.  But if they are, higher prices might clip a couple of percentage points off the growth of AAPL’s most important business (half the company’s profits).  But if that means 22% growth instead of 25%, that’s not such a big deal.

–Mac sales may be slowing.  One analyst is reportedly suggesting that AAPL computer sales may have been down year on year in the March quarter.  That wouldn’t be good, either.  But, realistically, Macs are too small to matter that much to AAPL’s business.  And although tere are good industry data for slow-growth markets like the US and the EU, I don’t think there’s any good way to gauge Asian sales.

–iPad sales may be slowing.  This would be a more serious issue, since tablets are 20% of AAPL’s sales–and thought of as the company’s next hot product after smartphones.  I’m not sure what evidence there is, however.

my take

I’m reading the downward AAPL price move over the past week or so as a natural reaction by market participants with short time horizons–taking profits in a stock that has performed so well in both relative an absolute terms.  The really noteworthy thing is that the reaction took this long.

It’s possible that the worries I’ve seen surface in the past couple of days are justified, but my initial reaction is that the declines prompted the rumors–not the other way around. We’ll know for sure when AAPL reports earnings in a couple of weeks.

What impresses me most about AAPL is its valuation.  On consensus estimates, the stock is trading at under 14x fiscal 2012 earnings and yielding around 2.5%.  If those are anywhere near correct, there’s nothing “wrong” with AAPL other than that no stock goes up each and every day.

Current weakness may well be the trigger for AAPL holders to give their position sizes a sanity check.  That alone may prompt further selling as long-time holders give more thought to exactly how much AAPL they hold.

 

“Are You a Stock or a Bond?”

That’s the title of a book a friend gave me recently to read.  It’s written by Moshe A. Milevsky, a finance professor at York University in Toronto.   It’s well worth reading.

insurance as a hedge

Mr. Milevsky has had a life-long fascination with insurance.  So the book has comments on the role of insurance as a hedge against loss of a family breadwinner’s income.  There’s also a section on using annuities to stabilize retirement income flows.  There’s even a brief discussion of a precursor of the annuity, the tontine–an arrangement (devised by Lorenzo Tonti) where a number of elderly people invest money jointly and meet after a specified time to split the proceeds among the survivors–as one basis of the annuity’s appeal.

There’s also the usual academic nonsense about efficient securities markets, although that’s not crucial to the book’s message.

human capital

The most important aspect of the book, to my mind, is that it points out the crucial importance of considering one’s human capital when making a personal or family investment plan.  For almost everyone, a lifetime’s earnings from working will be their largest single source of economic wealth.  Yet people tend to take a very narrow approach when planning for diversifying their financial assets and ignore their human capital completely.  As a result, they overlook two important considerations:

1.  Are you, seen as your human capital, a stock or a bond?  That is, does your income have the potential to swing significantly from year to year and is your continuing employment highly contingent on continuing strong performance?   …or are you in a job where your future income is very predictable and where you’re highly unlikely to be forced out of work?

Entertainers, salesmen or money managers are like stocks;  tenured professors are the ultimate bonds.

People with very conservative preferences may be attracted to bond-like professions, and the less risk-averse to stock-like ones.  If each treats his allocation of financial assets as a completely separate topic from his choice of a career, then both will end up with incompletely diversified economic portfolios.  The professor will end up with too much bond exposure, the investment banker too much stock.

2.  How old are you?  Milevsky’s analysis here arrives at the conventional result.  A 22-year old college graduate has an immense economic resource in the present value of his future earning power.  So he can take a lot of risk with his financial assets.  For a retiree, on the other hand, the earnings gas tank is at empty.  So his financial asset allocation must be more conservative–both relative to his own past allocations and in an absolute sense.

(Are You a Stock or a Bond?:  Create Your Own Pension Plan for a Secure Financial Future, Moshe A. Milsvsky, PhD, FT Press, New Jersey, 2009)

 

 

Google’s proposed new class of common stock

the C class announcement

Yesterday, in conjunction with its release of 1Q12 earnings, GOOG published a letter to shareholders on its website.  In it, Larry Page and Sergei Brin outline their plans to create a new class of stock–C shares.

On shareholders’ approval, the new C shares will be distributed as a stock dividend, on a one-for-one basis, to all holders of A and B shares.  C shares will be publicly traded on NASDAQ, using a different ticker symbol from the “GOOG” the A shares use.  As will continue to trade, though.

no voting power

The sole difference among the share classes will be in voting power.  Each A share has one vote; each B share, held by corporate insiders, has 10.   C shares will have no votes.

Since holders of B shares–principally Mssrs. Page, Brin and Eric Schmidt–wield over 70% of Google’s voting power, shareholder approval is a mere formality.

Google intends to file full details of the issue with the SEC next week.

why do this?

…to keep voting control of Google in the hands of the current B shareholders.

How could control be lost?

…through a combination of sales by B holders, issuance of new A shares through stock options or acquisitions for stock.

current shares outstanding

According to the company’s 2011 10-K filing, 67.2 million class B shares, representing 672 million votes, were outstanding on December 31st.  258 million As, representing another 258 million votes, were also out.  Employee stock options on just under 10 million new A shares had been granted and remained to be exercised.  (Notably, I think, the stock option count is growing very slowly.  Google only granted options on 718,000 new shares last year.)

Therefore, assuming all stock options grants are exercised, A shares represent 28.5% of the total vote.  Bs represent 71.5%.

implications of the Cs

control structure frozen

The most obvious is that the new class will provide a way for the company to issue potentially large amounts of new shares without altering the current control structure of the company.  Google has already said future employee stock option grants will be for Cs.  Bs continue to rule.

price of the Cs vs. Bs

It’s not clear that the Cs will trade at the same price as the Bs.  Arguably, voting power should be worth something.  But in this case, as the company is currently constituted, the Bs’ votes basically have no value.  So you’d think the two prices should at least be pretty close.

stock options

Stock options don’t seem to me to be a big deal–or any deal at all.  Here’s what I mean:

If we assume all outstanding stock options are exercised, the company currently has a total of 940 million votes.  Bs have 672 million, with 268 million more for the As.

For the moment, let’s ignore the possibility that insiders sell a significant number of Bs to get walking-around money.  Yes, company rules require that Bs be converted into As before being sold, so no outsiders can end up with the super-vote shares.  Bs, therefore, can–and in the past have–disappeared.  And, yes, Mssrs. Page and Brin are halfway through a modest (for them) sell program that goes into 2015.  But put these thoughts to the side.

As things stand now, A shares can only achieve a voting majority if over 672 million are outstanding.  That’s an extra 404 million shares.  At the 2011 stock option issuance rate, the As take over in the year 2575, or 563 years from now.  At the 2010 issuance rate of 1.7 million, the As grab the reins in a mere 238 years, in 2250.

Suppose B holders sell 10% of their stock–because they need a loose $4.4 billion.  That would imply that the Bs outstanding shrink to roughly 6 million and As expand to 275 million.  In this case, the As still need 325 million more shares to take over.  That would happen, at the earliest, toward the end of the next century.

Even for long-term thinkers like Google, dealing with stock options worries can’t be a pressing issue.

stock-based acquisitions

This is the only reason I can see for the C share move.

True, Google has $44 billion+ in cash; operations generated $14 billion+ last year.  But a seller may well prefer stock to cash.  And, of course, a potential acquisition could be very large.  It could also be very large and very sick, needing a big infusion of cash after the purchase.

Yes, the founders’ letter says  “we don’t have an unusually big acquisition planned, in case you were wondering.”  I’m sure that’s true.  But I’d emphasize the word “planned.”  It seems to me that Google may well have decided it needs to make an acquisition of a certain type over the next couple of years and have developed a list of possible candidates. The next step is figuring out how to pay for it–which is what I think Google is doing now.

Who know what such an acquisition might be?  I wouldn’t care to bet on anything.  But I do have a guess, however   …somebody like Sony.  But that company has been such a train wreck for such a long time that I don’t see any percentage in speculating that Google would rescue them.  There are also severe legal obstacles that Tokyo has erected to deter foreign takeovers of its domestic firms.  On the other hand, Sony is a post-WWII upstart, not part of the establishment.  And the company does have TV technology, cellphones, tablets/PCs and the Playstation in tens of millions of homes around the world.

 

 

 

 

what are bond vigilantes? …are they making a comeback?

vigilantes…

Vigilantes were members of 19th century American “vigilance committees,” composed of citizens who banded together to render immediate, and often rough, justice in circumstances where they felt formal law enforcement actions were insufficient.  Whether this was a good thing or not, I don’t know.  But the idea of vigilantes has become part of American folklore.

…and bond vigilantes

I first saw the term “bond vigilantes” in the 1980s in the work of brokerage house economist Ed Yardeni.  My impression is that he invented it   …but, hey, I’m a stock guy not a bond expert.  The idea was that should the Fed falter, due to political pressure, in its mandate to contain inflation under Paul Volcker (as it had throughout the 1970s, under his predecessors), private bond investors would step into the Treasury market and tighten money policy (by pushing up bond yields) whether the Fed liked it or not.

The concept later morphed into the idea that private bond investors would routinely raise and lower bond prices, and thereby interest rates, in the way sound money policy would dictate.  The market would act in advance of formal Fed moves.  Fed actions wouldn’t normally break new ground, but would serve to validate the direction the market was already taking.  This supposedly took some political heat away from the Fed during the long and difficult road of containing the runaway inflation of the Seventies.

Like most generalizations from current experience, the bond vigilante idea worked for a while.  But it has long since lost its usefulness.  For one thing, China became a huge factor in the US bond market as it recycled its trade surpluses.  And Alan Greenspan gradually developed a penchant for smoothing every little bump in the economic road with another huge dollop of easy money.  Ironically, one of the “problems” he dealt with in this manner was the Y2K scare–popularized almost single-handedly by the same Ed Yardeni.

(If you recall, the thesis was that, due to a programming shortcut, every electronic device that contained a computer chip with a clock in it would stop working at the stroke of midnight on 12/12/1999.  That meant refrigerators, elevators, ATMs, PCs…everything.  Software of all types would go kablooey, as well.  So bank and medical records would likely disappear.  During 1999, survivalists were in their glory.  They stockpiled horse-drawn plows–inconveniencing the Amish considerably–and gold and silver coins.  Regular people stockpiled water and gasoline (because pumps might not work, either.

It’s hard to know–since none of the bad stuff happened–whether Yardeni was a hero for alerting the world in time to avert the worst, or just a little nuts.  But he certainly gave Greenspan an excuse for maintaining an easy money policy.)

why the trip down memory lane?

I think I saw the activity of bond vigilantes in trading during the first quarter of this year.  The 30-year yield moved up from 2.94% in December 2011 to 3.33% last week.  The 10-year yield went from 1.94% to 2.21% over the same span.  This, despite Ben Bernanke’s continual assertion that the Fed intends to keep interest rates low through this year and next.

Of course, yields have reversed themselves sharply in the current mini-panic over the latest Employment Situation report and the uptick in southern EU bond yields.  But I read this more as a ripple caused by short-term traders than anything else.

And why shouldn’t the bond vigilantes re-appear?  After all, Mr. Greenspan no longer has his hand on the money spigot.  And China is much less of a net buying force in Treasuries than in the past.

Significance?  We may be seeing the first steps in the normalization of interest rates–far in advance of when the Fed wishes.  Two implications, assuming the markets are correct:

–the US economy is in better shape than the consensus realizes, and

–a sharp divergence in performance between stocks and bonds–in favor of the former (previously, I’d made a typo here)–may be about to begin.