a US market milestone, of sorts

rising interest rates

Yesterday interest rose in the US to the point where the 10-year Treasury yield cracked decisively above 3.00% (currently 3.09%).  Also, the combination of mild upward drift in six month T-bill yields and a rise in the S&P (which lowers the yield on the index) have conspired to lift the three-month bill yield, now 1.92%, above the 1.84% yield on the S&P.

What does this mean?

For me, the simple-minded reading is the best–this marks the end of the decade-long “no brainer” case for pure income investors to hold stocks instead of bonds.  No less, but also no more.

The reality is, of course, much more nuanced.  Investor risk preferences and beliefs play a huge role in determining the relationship between stocks and bonds.  For example:

–in the 1930s and 1940s, stocks were perceived (probably correctly) as being extremely risky as an asset class.  So listed companies tended to be very mature, PEs were low and the dividend yield on stocks exceeded the yield on Treasuries by a lot.

–when I began to work on Wall Street in 1978 (actually in midtown, where the industry gravitated as computers proliferated and buildings near the stock exchange aged), paying a high dividend was taken as a sign of lack of management imagination.  In those days, listed companies either expanded or bought rivals for cash rather than paid dividends.  So stock yields were low.

three important questions

dividend yield vs. earnings yield

During my investing career, the key relationship between long-dated investments has been the interest yield on bonds vs. the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.  For us as investors, it’s the anticipated cyclical peak in yields that counts more than the current yield.

Let’s say the real yield on bonds should be 2% and that inflation will also be 2% (+/-).  If so, then the nominal yield when the Fed finishes normalizing interest rates will be around 4%.  This would imply that the stock market (next year?) should be trading at 25x earnings.

At the moment, the S&P is trading at 24.8x trailing 12-month earnings, which is maybe 21x  2019 eps.  To my mind, this means that the index has already adjusted to the possibility of a hundred basis point rise in long-term rates over the coming year.  If so, as is usually the case, future earnings, not rates, will be the decisive force in determining whether stocks go up or down.

stocks vs. cash

This is a more subjective issue.  At what point does a money market fund offer competition for stocks?  Let’s say three-month T-bills will be yielding 2.75%-3.00% a year from now.  Is this enough to cause equity holders to reallocate away from stocks?   Even for me, a died-in-the-wool stock person, a 3% yield might cause me to switch, say, 5% away from stocks and into cash.  Maybe I’d also stop reinvesting dividends.

I doubt this kind of thinking is enough to make stocks decline.  But it would tend to slow their advance.

currency

Since the inauguration last year, the dollar has been in a steady, unusually steep, decline.  That’s the reason, despite heady local-currency gains, the US was the second-worst-performing major stock market in the world last year (the UK, clouded by Brexit folly, was last).

The dollar has stabilized over the past few weeks.  The major decision for domestic equity investors so far has been how heavily to weight foreign-currency earners.  Further currency decline could lessen overseas support for Treasury bonds, though, as well as signal higher levels of inflation.  Either could be bad for stocks.

my thoughts:  I don’t think that current developments in fixed income pose a threat to stocks.

My guess is that cash will be a viable alternative to equities sooner than bonds.

Continuing sharp currency declines, signaling the world’s further loss of faith in Washington, could ultimately do the most damage to US financial markets.  At this point, though, I think the odds are for slow further drift downward rather than plunge.

 

 

 

where to from here?

I’m not a big fan of Lawrence Summers, but he had an interesting op-ed article in the Financial Times early this month.  He observes that, unnoticed by most domestic stock market commentators, the foreign- exchange value of the dollar has steadily deteriorated since Mr. Trump’s inauguration.  Currency futures markets are predicting a continuing deterioration in the coming years.  He thinks the two things are connected.  I do, too.

To my mind, what is happening  on Wall Street recently is that currency market worry is now seeping into stock trading as well.  If someone forced me to pick a catalyst for this move (I would prefer not to), I’d say it was the possibility, introduced in the press investigation of Cambridge Analytica, that what we’ve believed to be Mr. Trump’s uncanny insight into human motivation (arguably his principal redeeming feature) may be nothing more than his reading a script CA has prepared for him.  This would echo the contrast between the role of successful businessman he played on reality TV vs. his sub-par real-world record (half the return of his fellow real estate investors while assuming twice the risk).

 

The real economic issue is not Mr. Trump’s flawed self, though.  Rather, it’s the idea that public policy in Washington generally, White House and Congress, seems to have shifted from laissez faire promotion of businesses of the future to the opposite extreme–protecting sunset industries at the former’s expense.   In this scenario, overall growth slows, and the country doubles down on areas of declining economic relevance.

We’ve seen this movie before–in the conduct of Tokyo, protecting the 1980s-era businesses of the descendants of the samurai while discouraging innovation.  The result has been over a quarter-century of economic stagnation + a collapse in the currency.

 

More tomorrow.

Venezuela’s proposed “petro” cryptocurrency

the petro

Yesterday Venezuela began pre-sales of its petrocurrency, called the petro.  The idea is that each token the government creates will be freely exchangeable into Venezuelan bolivars at the previous day’s price of a barrel of a specified Venezuelan crude oil produced by the national oil company.  According to the Washington Post,  $735 million worth of the tokens were sold on the first day.

uses?

For people with money trapped inside Venezuela, the petro may have some utility, since it will be accepted by Caracas for any official payments.  For such potential users, the fact that the government determines the dollar/bolivar exchange rate and that a discount to the crude price will be applied are niggling worries.

perils

The wider issue, which remains unaddressed in this case, is that the spirit behind cryptocurrencies is a deep distrust of government, a strong belief that practically no ruling body will do the right thing to protect the fiscal well-being of users of its currency.

In Venezuela’s case, just look at the bolivar.  The official exchange rate says $US1 = B10.  But the actual rate, as far as I can tell, has fallen from that level over the past year or so to $US1 = B25000.

a little history

The more serious worry is that the history of commodity-backed currencies isn’t pretty.

Mexico

In the 1980s, for example a struggling Mexican government issued petrobonds.  The idea was that at maturity the holder could choose to receive either $1000 or the value of a specified number of barrels of Mexican state-produced crude.  Unfortunately for holders, Mexico reneged on the oil-price link.  My recollection (this happened pre-internet so I can’t find confirmation online) is the Mexico also declined to make the return of principal on time.

the US

The fate of gold-backed securities around the world during the 1930s isn’t so hot, either.  The US, for example, massively devalued (through depreciation of the gold exchange rate) the gold-backed currency it issued.  It also basically banned the private ownership of physical gold and forced holders to turn in the lion’s share of their holdings to Washington in return for paper currency.

 

In short, when the going gets tough, there’s a big risk that the terms of any government-backed financial instrument get drastically rewritten.  This recasting can come silently through inflation.  But, if history holds true, government backing of a commodity link to financial instruments gives more the illusion of protection than the reality–especially so in cases where the reality is needed.

 

 

 

the amazing shrinking dollar

So far this year, the US$ has fallen by about 14% against the €, and around 8% against the ¥ and £.

A substantial portion of this movement is giveback of the sharp dollar appreciation which happened last year after the surprise election of Donald Trump as president.  That was sparked by belief that a non-establishment chief executive would be able to get things done in Washington.  Reform of the income tax system and repair of aging infrastructure were supposed to be high on the agenda, with the resulting fiscal stimulus allowing the Fed to raise interest rates much more aggressively than the consensus had imagined.  Hence, continuing dollar strength on a booming economy and increasing interest rate differentials.

To date, none of that has happened.   So it makes sense that currency traders would begin to reverse their bets on.  However, last year’s move up in the dollar has been more than completely erased and the clear consensus is now on continuing dollar weakness.

 

Dollar weakness has caused stock market investors to shift their portfolios away from domestic-oriented firms toward multinationals and exporters.  This is the standard tactic.  It also makes sense:  a firm with costs in dollars and revenues in euros is in an ideal position at present.

It’s interesting to note, though, that over the weekend China lifted some restrictions imposed last year that limited the ability of its citizens to sell renminbi to buy dollars.

To my mind, this is the first sign that dollar weakness may have gone too far.

It’s too soon, in my view, to react to this possibility.  In particular, the appointment of a new head of the Federal Reserve could play a key role in the currency’s future path, given persistent Republican calls to curtail its independence.  Gary Cohn, the establishment choice, is rumored to have fallen out of favor with Mr. Trump after protesting the latter’s support of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Still, it’s not too early to plot out a potential strategy to benefit from a dollar reversal.

 

 

cryptocurrency (ii)

Yesterday I observeded that a significant issue for any investor in cryptocurrencies is their relative illiquidity.

Well, CBOE (Chicago Board Options Exchange), the world’s largest options exchange, is about to address this shortcoming.  It recently announced that it intends to offer derivative trading in bitcoin before yearend.

 

Several points:

–just by offering a derivative, CBOE will give legitimacy to bitcoin with traditional investors that it didn’t have before, even though CBOE likely has its eye mostly on trading commissions

–it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that the true price setting will occur in the options market rather than in that for the underlying bitcoin

–one of the first arbitrages that will likely occur is between options and the bitcoin etf, GBTC.  The result will presumably be for the still-substantial premium of GBTC to its net asset value to erode

–presumably some form of ether will be the next cryptocurrency derivative on offer.

cryptocurrencies

This is not a subject I know much about, although I’ve gotten a lot of excellent information over the past half year from one of my my sons and from my son-in law.  So I only have three comments:

–the past few months have shown all the characteristics of a speculative mania in the cryptocurrency world.  The rash of recent ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings), done in incredible speed with scanty documentation and in which buyers seem to receive nothing useful for their money, remind me a lot of the final days of the internet mania of late 1999-early 2000

–the secondary market, that is, trading by parties other than the the original creator of the tokens, is very illiquid and woefully inadequate.  I think this is the main reason the bitcoin etf, GBTC, trades at a huge premium to NAV

…but

–some form of cryptocurrency (at this point, the chief contenders seem to be bitcoin and ethereum) may end up being the new gold.  We can already see their flight capital attractiveness in the collapsing economy of Venezuela.

There’s a wider point than just this, though.  Ultimately, national currencies depend for their viability on belief in the integrity and fiscal soundness of the governments that issue them, and the economic prospects of the economies that form their tax bases.

The big issue with governments, however, is their seemingly irresistible urge to wriggle out from under their sovereign debt by inflating away the real value of their borrowings.  Venezuela’s current inflation of 1000%+ means that if you lend Caracas the price of a car today, a year from now the bolivars you get back won’t cover much more than a Big Mac.

Yes, this is a crazy example, but the point remains, I think, that most governments (Germany–and maybe China–being the only exceptions that come to mind) are more than willing to “debase” their currencies, as gold bugs would put it.  Look at Japan.  What about the UK?  Even the US had a go at this in the 1970s.

 

To be clear, I’m not advocating buying bitcoin (I do own a miniscule amount through holding shares in the Ark Invest Web x.0 ETF (ARKW)).  I think it’s something to keep an eye on, however.  I can see that something like bitcoin could ultimately replace gold as an alternative investment.  After all, when you get down to it, gold is just a shiny kind of dirt.

I also think that even in stable economies investors are beginning to look for a way to hedge their dollar holdings, thinking that the post-WWII world order led by the US is nearing the end of its useful life.  No clear replacement is in sight.  And the three national currency contenders, the dollar, the euro and the renminbi, all have rapidly aging populations–meaning, if Japan is any indication, an imminent slowdown in economic growth power.

 

 

 

…finally, internet again

I’ve been travelling in the rural Northwest the past week and have had only intermittent internet access   …until now.

Stepping back from the day-to-day, has its advantages, though.  Having little up-to-the-minute data, I’ve been forced to look at the longer-range stock market picture. 
The first two or three months after the election, the dollar and stocks both rose as investors celebrated the presidential results.  The strongest groups were Energy, Materials and Industrials–the ones that would benefit both from an acceleration in economic growth and implementation of the professed Trump agenda of tax reform and infrastructure spending.

This period ended rght around the inaguration.  It was replaced by a market that embraced secular growth areas of Technology and Healthcare.  The dollar began to drift downward, as well.  This sector/currency shift was partly, I think, a rotation from leaders to laggards that happens in every market that’s not going sideways.  Part was also concern that delivering on the Trump agenda might not be as easy as investors had supposed over the previous months.

During 2Q17, the stock market began to understand how deep the problems are that the Republican party and the adminstration are having in getting anything done.  The main direct consequence of this loss of confidence has been a sharp fall in the dollar, I think, on the idea that failure of the administration and congress to engineer fisal stimulus would translate into a slower pace of interest rate increases by the Fed.  A weaker dollar benefits multinationals, so IT continued to be a winner, along with many members of the Staples group, which also has large foreign exposure.

This last movement has also played itself out in recent weeks, I think.  The market as a whole, and major tech stocks in particular, have begun to move sideways, expressing Wall Street’s belief (mine, too) that they’ve gone up enough for now.  As I see it, action has been based chiefly on relative valuation– rotations deeper into IT via smaller stocks and back into the Trump stock winners of late 2016.  
The kind of movement described in the last paragrah doesn’t typically last long.  At some point, the market will return to the question of whether structural reform in Washington is possible.  As I see it, the underlying notion investors now have is that important change can and will happen, although people may have substantially different pictures of how this will occur.  

It seems to me that as long as investors hold this belief, the US stock market will move sideways to up, driven by earnings gains.