technical analysis–November 20th

During the course of trading on Tuesday of last week, the NASDAQ 100 touched the closing (though not the intraday) lows of February, before rebounding sharply.  Simultaneously, the S&P 500 did a similar thing, only its stopping point was the higher lows of April.

 

It looks increasingly likely to me that this action is going to serve as the marker for a selling climax–the point where short-term speculators feel all hope of a rebound is lost and dump out their holdings in a final surge of selling with little regard for price–for the market downturn that began in October.

This positive sign for the market has been reinforced by the statements of influential Fed members that short-term interest rates are presently just below neutral, meaning that that body sees little need to continue to push them upward.

Barring any further damage to the economy from Mr. Trump’s bizarre tariff policies, it looks like we’ll enjoy enough market stability for us to return to the business of picking stocks.

thinking about Walmart (WMT)

On August 16th, WMT reported very strong 2Q18 earnings (Chrome keeps warning me the Walmart investor web pages aren’t safe to access, so I’m not adding details).  Wall Street seems to have taken this result as evidence that the company makeover to become a more effective competitor to Amazon is bearing enough fruit that we should be thinking of a “new,” secular growth WMT.

Maybe that’s right.  But I think there’s a simpler, and likely more correct, interpretation.

WMT’s original aim was to provide affordable one-stop shopping to communities with a population of fewer than 250,000.  It has since expanded into supermarkets, warehouse stores and, most recently, online sales. Its store footprint is very faint in the affluent Northeast and in southern California, however.  And its core audience is not wealthy, standing somewhere below Target and above the dollar stores in terms of customer income.

This demographic has been hurt the worst by the one-two punch of recession and rapid technological change since 2000.   My read of the stellar WMT figures is that they show less WMT’s change in structure than that the company’s customers are just now–nine years after the worst of the financial collapse–feeling secure enough to begin spending less cautiously.

 

This interpretation has three consequences:  although Walmart is an extraordinary company, WMT may not be the growth vehicle that 2Q18 might suggest.  Other formats, like the dollar stores or even TGT, that cater to a similar demographic may be more interesting.  Finally, the idea that recovery is just now reaching the common man both justifies the Fed’s decade-long loose money policy–and suggests that at this point there’s little reason for it not to continue to raise short-term interest rates.

the state of play in US stocks

down by 12% 

From its intra-day high on January 28th, the S&P 500 dropped to an intraday low of 12% below that last Friday before recovering a bit near the close.

What’s going on?

As I see it, at any given time, liquid investments (i.e., stocks, fixed income, cash) are in a rough kind of equilibrium.  If the price of one of the three changes, sooner or later the price of the others will, too.

What I think the stock market is now (belatedly/finally) factoring into prices is the idea that the Fed is firmly committed to raising interest rates away from the intensive-care lows of the past decade.  That is, rates will continue to rise until they’re back to “normal” –in other words, until yields on fixed income not only provide compensation for inflation but a real return as well.  If we take the Fed target of 2% inflation as a guideline and think the 10-year Treasury should have a 2% real return, then the 10-yr yield needs to rise to 4%  — or 115 basis points from where it is this morning.  Cash needs to be yielding 150 basis points more than it does now.

One important result of this process is that as fixed income investments become more attractive (by rising in yield/falling in price), the stock market becomes less capable of sustaining the sky-high price-earnings ratio it achieved when it was the only game in town.  PEs contract.

Stocks are not totally defenseless during a period like this.  Typically, the Fed only raises rates when the economy is very healthy and therefore corporate earnings growth is especially strong.  If there is a typical path for stocks during a cyclical valuation shift for bonds, it’s that there’s an initial equity dip, followed by several months of going sideways, as strong reported earnings more or less neutralize the negative effect on PEs of competition from rising fixed income yields.

living in interesting times

Several factors make the situation more complicated than usual:

–the most similar period to the current one, I think, happened in the first half of the 1990s–more than 20 years ago.  So there are many working investment professionals who have never gone through a period like this before

–layoffs of senior investment staff during the recession, both in brokerage houses and investment managers, has eroded the collective wisdom of Wall Street

–trading algorithms, which seem not to discount future events (today’s situation has been strongly signaled by the Fed for at least a year) but to react after the fact to news releases and current trading patterns, are a much more important factor in daily trading now than in the past

–Washington continues to follow a bizarre economic program.  It refused to enact large-scale fiscal stimulus when it was needed as the economy was crumbling in 2008-9, but is doing so now, when the economy is very strong and we’re at full employment.   It’s hard to imagine the long-term consequences of, in effect, throwing gasoline on a roaring fire as being totally positive.  However, the action frees/forces the Fed to raise rates at a faster clip than it might otherwise have

an oddity

For the past year, the dollar has fallen by about 15%–at a time when by traditional economic measures it should be rising instead.  This represents a staggering loss of national wealth, as well as a reason that US stocks have been significant laggards in world terms over the past 12 months.  I’m assuming this trend doesn’t reverse itself, at least until the end of the summer.  But it’s something to keep an eye on.

my conclusion

A 4% long bond yield is arguably the equivalent of a 25x PE on stocks.  If so, and if foreign worries about Washington continue to be expressed principally through the currency, the fact that the current PE on the S&P 500 is 24.5x suggests that a large part of the realignment in value between stocks and bonds has already taken place.

If I’m right, we should spend the next few months concentrating on finding individual stocks with surprisingly strong earnings growth and on taking advantage of any  individual stock mispricing that algorithms may cause.

the Fed’s next move

The highest economic policy objective of the US is achieving maximum sustainable growth in the economy consistent with annual inflation around 2%.

If growth deviates from this desired path, either through overheating or recession, the government has two tools it can use to nudge the economy back toward trend:

monetary policy, controlled by the Federal Reserve, which can relatively quickly alter the rate of growth of the money supply and thereby either energize or cool down activity

fiscal policy–government taxing and spending–controlled by the administration and Congress, and which may be thought of as more strategic than tactical, since there are typically long lags between need and any legislative action.

As a matter of fact, the Fed has been calling for fiscal stimulus from Congress and the administration for several years–worrying that continuing monetary stimulus is increasingly less effective and even potentially harmful to the economy.  Its pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

The Fed has been using two methods to keep rates low:

–it has kept the Federal Funds rate, the interest rate it sets for overnight bank deposits, at/near zero, and

–it has taken the unconventional step of putting downward pressure on rates of long-maturity instruments by buying a total of $4 trillion+ of government securities in the open market.  This is called quantitative easing.

Donald Trump was the only candidate to address the problem of fiscal policy inaction, by promising giant fiscal stimulus through lower corporate tax rates plus a massive spending program to repair/improve infrastructure.

After Mr. Trump’s surprise win last November, the Fed seems to have breathed a sigh of relief and aanounced a series of interest rate hikes that would begin to return monetary policy closer to a normal amount of stimulus–based on the idea that Washington would also provide serious fiscal policy stimlus in 2017.

We’re now in month nine since the election, without the slightest sign of any action on the fiscal front, despite the fact that the Republicans hold the Oval Office and both houses of Congress.  Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa) remarked last week that this is because no one expected Mr. Trump to win, so Congress made no plans to implement his platform.   It hasn’t helped that, despite his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Trump has shown little grasp of, or interest in, the issue.

This leaves the Fed in an awkward position.

I think its solution will be to shift from raising the Fed funds rate to slowing down or stopping its purchases of securities farther along the yield curve.  Although in a sense the Fed is already no longer buying new government bonds, it is taking the money it receives in interest payments and principal return from its current holdings and reinvesting that in new securities.

Its first step will be to reduce or eliminate such reinvestment–which will presumably nudge longer-term interest rates upward.  Since the process is being so well advertised in advance by the Fed, it’s likely that most of the upward movement in rates will have occurred before the Fed begins to act.  The most likely date for the Fed to more is in September.

 

Employment Situation, March 2017

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly Employment Situation report earlier this morning.

With an addition of +98,000 jobs, the figures were a little more than half the rate of gain or recent months.  Revisions to data from the prior two months clipped another -38,000 positions from the total.

Although the report isn’t great reading for stock market bulls, we’ve seen over the past eight years of economic recovery that bad months occasionally occur, even in the midst of a sharply upsloping trend.  In addition, although the monthly figures are seasonally adjusted, the weather during 1Q17 has been so unusual in the populated regions of the US–unusually mild in January-February, ugly in March–that the first two months probably look better than they should and March worse.

The only really eyebrow-raising aspect of this report, in my view, is that despite the unemployment rate being at a very low 4.5%, there is still no sign of acceleration in wages.  This implies no urgency for the Fed to raise interest rates aggressively.

reversing quantitative easing

US stocks were up by about 1% yesterday when the minutes of the last Fed meeting came out.  As Fed watchers saw the topic of paring down the Fed’s $4 trillion+ holdings of government bonds was mentioned, stocks (but not bonds) began to give back their gains and ultimately finished the day lower.

What’s this about?

  1.  The Fed typically uses the Federal Funds rate for overnight loan to loosen or tighten money policy.  In doing so, it depends on the banking system to broadcast increases or declines in interest rates into the market for longer-term debt.  The problem since 2008 is that the banks had destroyed their own creditworthiness through years of unsavory and unsuccessful speculative financial markets trading.  So they were ineffective in performing this crucial rate-determining role.  Congress and the administration were–and still remain–lost in their inside-the-Beltway alternative universe, so there was no hope of help for the failing economy from that source.  The Fed’s solution was to begin “unconventional” operations, by buying huge amounts of longer-dated government debt in order to push down long-term interest rates itself.  It now holds something like $4.3 trillion worth of Treasury and government agency debt.
  2. The Fed has long since stopped making new net purchases of longer-dated bonds.  But as its existing bonds mature, it has continued to roll over the money it gets from them into new bond purchases.  The next step for the Fed in normalizing the long-term debt market will be to stop this rollover.  The consensus is that this change will happen later this year or early next.
  3. What’s “new” from yesterday is that the Fed put this thought down in writing, without specifying any details.

My take:  while the Fed announcement may have been the trigger for an intra-day selloff in stocks, the Fed minutes are not a big deal.  There is an investment issue as to how the Fed will proceed, but that will ultimately be influenced by how capable Mr. Trump will be to get Washington working again.

The President’s early performance has had two consequences:  US investors are beginning to think about shifting money to Europe.  Despite Brexit, that region is beginning to experience its own economic growth.  As well, it is having deep second thoughts about electing Trump-like figures in their own countries (we’ll learn more in the first round of the French elections on April 23rd), thereby increasing their attractiveness as an investment destination.

the Fed’s inflation target: 2% or 3%?

There seems to me to be increasing questioning recently among professional economists about whether the Fed’s official inflation target of 2% is a good thing or whether the target should be changed to, say, 3%.

The 2% number has been a canon of academic thought in macroeconomics for a long time.  But the practical issue has become whether 2% inflation and zero are meaningfully different.  Critics of 2% point out that governments around the world haven’t been able to stabilize inflation at that level.  Rather, inflation seems to want to dive either to zero or into the minus column once it gets down that low, with all the macro problems that entails.  It’s also proving exceptionally hard to get the needle moving in the upward direction from t sub-2% starting point.  My sense is that the 3% view is gaining significant momentum because of current central bank struggles.

This is not the totally wonkish topic it sounds like at first.  A 2% inflation target or 3% actually makes a lot of difference for us as stock market investors:

–If the target is 3%, Fed interest rate hikes will happen more slowly than Wall Street is now expecting.

–At the same time, the end point for normalization of rates–having cash instruments provide at least protection from inflation–is 100 basis points higher, which would be another minus for bonds (other than inflation-adjusted ones) during the normalization process.

–Over long periods of time, stocks have tended to deliver annual returns of inflation + 6%.  If inflation is 2%, nominal returns are 8% yearly; at 3% inflation, returns are 9%.  In the first case, your money doubles in 9 years, in the second, 8 years.  This doesn’t sound like much, either, although over three decades the higher rate of compounding produces a third more nominal dollars.

Yes, the real returns are the same.

But the point is that the pain of holding fixed income instruments that have negative real yields is greater with even modestly higher inflation than with lower.  So in a 3% inflation world, investors will likely be more prone to favor equities over bonds than in a 2% one.

–Inflation is a rise in prices in general.  In a 3% world, there’s more room for differentiation between winners and losers.  That’s good for you and me as stock pickers.