a bear market in time? sort of…

In the middle of a garden-variety bear market–i.e., one orchestrated by the Fed to stop the economy from running too hot–I remember a prominent strategist saying she thought the market had fallen far enough to be already discounting the slowdown in profits but that the signs of recovery were yet to be seen.  So, she said, we were in a bear market in time.

We’re in a different situation today, though:

–most importantly, we don’t know for sure how much damage the coronavirus will do, only that it’s bad and we unfortunately have someone of frightening incompetence at the helm  (think:  the Knicks on steroids) who continues to make the situation worse (while claiming we’re in the playoffs)

–with most of the seasoned investment professionals fired in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and replaced by AI and talking heads, it’s hard to gauge what’s driving day-to-day market moves

–if we assume that the US economy is 70% consumption and that this drops by 20% in the June quarter, then COVID-19 will reduce GDP by 14% for those three months.  This is a far steeper and deeper drop than most of us have ever seen before

–on the other hand, I think it’s reasonable to guess that the worst of the pandemic will be behind us by mid-year and that people released from quarantine will go back to living the same lives they did before they locked themselves up.

 

It seems to me, the key question for  us as investors is how to navigate the next three months.  In a pre-2008 market what would happen would be that in, say, six or eight weeks, companies would be seeing the first signs that the worst was past.  That might come with more foot traffic in stores or the hectic pace of online orders for basic necessities beginning to slow.

Astute analysts would detect these little signs, write reports and savvy portfolio managers reading them would begin to become more aggressive in their portfolio composition and in the prices they were willing to pay for stocks.

 

How the market will play out in today’s world is an open question.  AI seem to act much more dramatically and erratically than humans, but to wait for newsfeeds for stop/go signals.  (My guess is that the bottom for the market ends up lower than history would predict and comes closer to June.  At the same time as the market starts to rise again, it will rotate toward the sectors that have been hurt the worst.  Am I willing to act on this?   –on the first part, no; on the second part, looking at hotels, restaurants…when the time comes, yes)

A wild card:  Mr. Trump now seems to be indicating he will end quarantine earlier than medical experts say is safe.  At the very least, this will likely bring him into conflict with the governors of states, like NY, NJ and CA, who have been leading efforts to fight the pandemic.  At the worst, it will prolong and intensify the virus effects in areas that follow his direction.  Scary.

 

 

 

feeling for a bottom

feeling for the bottom

panic in the air

During bad markets like the present, company fundamentals tend to go out the window as predictors of short-term stock market performance.  What takes their place is varying shades of fear and reading charts.

As for fear, I’ve found in watching my own usually-optimistic behavior, that no matter how far down the market has fallen it isn’t approaching a bottom until I start to get scared–that maybe my innate cheeriness has finally ruined my career and the family finances.  For what it’s worth, I started getting these (irrational) feelings for the first time on Wednesday.  It could be that my last-minute rush to get my thesis project finished and submitted to SVA contributed a feeling of panic.  If not, my Wednesday experience is good news.

charts

My version of William Pitt is to say that charts (not patriotism) are the last refuge of scoundrels.  Nevertheless, when rationality flies out the door, charts are what’s left.

In the US, despite the chatter of TV actors, the important index is not the Dow but the S&P 500.  The important things to look for, in my view, are past bottoms and places where the index has been flattish for an extended period of time.  That’s not a lot to go on but that’s most of what there is.

In this case, the relevant figures I see are 2400, which was the bottom for the mysterious market drop at the end of 2018 and 2100, where the S&P spent much of 2015-16.

Two idiosyncracies of the US market:

–the index often breaks below a big support level–scaring the wits out of traders who see themselves sliding into a yawning abyss, in my view–before reversing itself.  The break below signals the bottom

–almost always the index recovers for several weeks before returning to, and bouncing up from, the initial bottom.  This didn’t happen in 2018, though.

the economy

My guess is that the worst of the coronavirus will be behind the US by June.  If that’s correct, then at some time in May (?) the stock market will begin to discount better times.

The biggest economic negative has come from the White House, where the incompetence of Mr. Trump was on full display, raising echoes of the disaster he created in Puerto Rico earlier in his term.  Not far behind is the recent revelation that Republican senators dumped their stock portfolios after coronavirus briefings, while still toeing the party line that there was nothing to worry about.  (My view is that Trump has done an enormous amount of long-term economic damage to the US in his presidency so far–hurting most deeply those who have trusted and supported him–but that we have yet to see the negative consequences.)  Somehow, Washington appears to have started to function again, however.

On the other hand, state and local officials have negated some of Trump’s “hoax” campaign by acting quickly and decisively.

From a purely stock market view, it seems to me that investors have switched out of panic mode and are beginning to sift through the rubble to sort winners from losers.  If I’m correct, it’s important for us as investors to pay attention to what the market is saying now–and ask ourselves how well this matches with our sense of what is happening.

 

 

 

 

coronavirus: fooling around with numbers

Let’s assume that the negative effect of COVID-19 is that publicly-traded companies have not profits for full-year 2020.  I don’t mean no profit growth, I mean no profits at all.  Maybe the situation is worse than that but let’s look at this case first.

Assume company A is growing profits at 8% per year, and will continue to do so for the next decade.  Not a great performance.  Average-y  …but not nothing, either.   The present value of those future earnings is 12.5x what the market assumed this year’s earnings would be.  Excel out this year’s earnings and the PV becomes 11.5x.  That’s a drop of 8%.

Assume company B grows at 20%, a rate that only the elite can sustain over a ten year span.  The PV in this case is 22x.  The loss of this year’s earnings reduces the PV by 4.5%.

 

A second factor to consider–a crucial one for small business but not so much for firms large enough to be publicly owned–is getting to next year.  The main obstacle is leverage, either financial (generating enough cash to service debt) or operating (needing to run at close to full capacity to pay for expensive infrastructure (think: airlines, cruise ships, frackers, semiconductor fabs)).  The riskiest cases have both.

Let’s pluck numbers out of the air and say the “survival risk” group makes up 5% of the S&P 500 (too high!) and that their value goes to zero (too pessimistic; losing 50% is probably closer to worst case).  That’s a loss of 5% to the index value.

 

Adding the two together, we get -9.5% – -13%.

In other words, the coronavirus alone doesn’t justify anything near the extent of the stock market plunge.

 

Two other factors:

–maybe the S&P was toppy before the decline began;  after all, the index gained 30%+ last year, mostly on PE expansion, not earnings growth

–the chilling specter of the administration thwarting medical efforts to contain COVID-19 while spouting insane conspiracy theories.   To some degree the Trump effect (the market dropped by 10% after his bizarre speech the other night) is being countered by state and local authorities and private business taking matters into their own hands.

My conclusion?  Trump + trading bots gone wild will likely continue to cause ups and downs–probably more of the latter–for a while.  For us as individual investors, our main advantage in the stock market is taking a longer view than most.  This is especially true today, I think.  The thing I’m hanging my hat on is that the coronavirus will most likely play itself out as an investment issue with time.

 

2009 vs today

back then

As a result of what I can only describe as massive industry-wide bank fraud, the world woke up one day to realize that major American and European banks were, in effect, bankrupt.  They were stuffed to the gills with virtually worthless securities that the American financial firms had manufactured and sold among themselves and to the rest of the globe.

The really bad news came not exactly from that but from the essential role banks play in world commerce.  Buyers’ banks routinely issue letters of credit to sellers’ banks, guaranteeing prompt payment for stuff when it’s delivered–including a provision that the issuing bank will cover any amount the buyer is unable to pay.  What good does that do the seller, though, if one or both of the banks go belly up while goods are in transit?  So suppliers stopped shipping.

Large companies, armed with supply chain management systems flashing red signals about inventory buildup–and regretting they’d ignored these signs in 2000–determined not to make the same mistake again.  They shut operations down and laid off tons of workers.

The world economy came to a screeching halt.

Many of the I-say-fraudulent-but-no-bankers-went-to-jail securities were based on highly dubious home mortgage loans the issuing banks had made to collect up-front fees and immediately fobbed off to others (the ultimate “dumb money” was, as usual, EU banks).  Those mortgages promptly blew up when economies shifted into neutral, causing a deep housing/construction crisis.

All in all, this was the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression of the 1930s–worse than 1973-74, when the World Bank had to be called in to rescue the UK; worse than the oil shock of 1978; worse than 24% short-term interest rates of 1982; worse than the internet meltdown of 2000.

COVID-19

COVID-19 is certainly a less calamitous situation economically (meaning, writing as a PM, not as a human being) than any of those listed in the previous paragraph.   In many ways, it’s much more clear-cut, too.  But it has its own complications.

–compared with a cyclical business downturn, it’s probably harder to say how much stocks will fall due to COVID-19 but easier to figure how long a time, my guess: about six months, before economic activity will be on the upswing again

–many veteran equity portfolio managers and securities analysts (particularly on the sell side) have been fired over the past decade.  What we’re left with is bots trading on newsfeeds generated by: writers who have lost their industry sources and presenters on financial shows playing acting roles as financial professionals.  Because of this, other than when trading generated by company financial announcements, it looks to me like daily price moves are not as fact-informed as they used to be.  Resulting large moves and swift reversals driven by machines operating on faulty information make short-term trading more perilous (even) than in the past.  They also make it more difficult to “read” the traditional signs of a market bottom.

–the final complicating factor is the potentially dangerous head-in-the-sand approach of the executive branch to COVID-19.  It’s a scary vibe of incompetence.  Although I have no idea how to quantify this, it must be a factor in the intensity of the current selloff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the morning after

As I’m writing this, US futures are indicating about a 4% rise in the domestic stock market   …after about a 7 1/2% fall yesterday.

I was particularly struck by the weak performance of energy stocks on Monday.  Despite yielding 6%+, Exxon (XOM) was down by 12.2% and ended the day yielding 10x the 10-year Treasury.  Shale oil-related issues like Occidental (OXY)  at -52%, with a 9.6% yield, or WPX Energy (WPX) at -45% were hit very hard.  The sector as a whole dropped by 20%.

In the premarket, XOM is +8%, OXY +23%, WPX +14%.

I mention this not because I’m a fan of oil–it’s the new tobacco, in my view, which is not a good thing (this is much more evident in Europe than here).  It’s because daily moves like this are real headscratchers.  It’s either total panic by humans or AI run amok.  I don’t know which.  But the company fundamentals certainly haven’t yo-yoed like this in two days.  If I were convinced real people were either panicking or being caught out by margin calls I’d be much more comfortable buying.

 

Buying or not, from a tactical viewpoint I do think it’s important for investors to look carefully at the price action from yesterday as well as what today brings, assuming there’s follow through to the upside.  Prices during times like this are chock full of information.  The ideal combination would be outperformance yesterday and outperformance today.   The reverse, underperformance both days, is to me a clear danger signal.

As to the market overall, I think time is the main issue we’re facing.  It will likely be hard for stocks to go up until the domestic incidence of new COVID-19 cases begins to decline.  Midyear?  A narrower question, but still important, is when the “stay at home” stocks will run out of steam.  My guess is sooner than later.  Another hunch–I haven’t done any work) is that highly operationally leverages transport stock (meaning all of them?) are riskier than they appear.  After all, we’ve already seen one small EU airline go under.  And the shine may be off cruise lines for a long time.  I continue to find the administration’s efforts to prevent testing and otherwise obstruct treatment of COVID-19 hard to fathom and very scary.  With my portfolio manager hat on, however, the real impending disaster is the Trump fiscal and trade policy.

 

A point of basic arithmetic:  a stock starts at 100.  It falls by 50% on day one and rises by 50% on day two.  It’s now at 75.  That’s nowhere close to breakeven.  Apply that to OXY.

 

 

an ugly day: coronavirus + oil

oil

In normal times, the world produces about 100 million barrels of oil daily and consumes about the same amount.  Small changes in either supply or demand can cause huge changes in price.  That’s because demand–autos, jet fuel, heating oil…is relatively inflexible (if seasonal).  Supply is also inflexible, because a cartel of suppliers, led by Saudi Arabia has been able to control output levels.  Their goal:  highest price possible without encouraging substitution.

A problem has surfaced, however.  A mild winter + reduced demand from airlines have combined to cause a potential supply overhang.  Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Russia about production cuts to offset this and keep prices high broke down.  Not only that, but the Saudis have apparently decided to punish Russia (and themselves) by starting to sell large amounts of oil at about $30 a barrel, or $10 a barrel below Friday’s price.

Implications:

–the consensus view is that Saudi Arabia, radically dependent on oil exports, needs a price of $80+ to balance its budget; Russia, smaller and economically much weaker, needs $40+.  So both are it trouble.  Riyadh’s calculation must be that Moscow will soon feel the pain more quickly and will agree to production cuts

–a $30 price has two bad consequences for oil production companies in the US and elsewhere.  The lower price reduces revenues and profits.  This is an acute problem for some US shale companies, which have borrowed heavily in the junk bond market.  In addition, a standard way of evaluating natural resource companies is to compare the stock price with the per share value of the reserves they hold.  The price fall not only reduces the value of those reserves but also shrinks the amount, since some oil that’s viable at $40 becomes economically unfeasible to drill for at $30.

–if oil companies make up 4% of the S&P 500 and we say that they have lost a third of their value over the weekend, then the S&P should open 1.2% lower because of that.  Add in banks that will be in trouble and maybe that figure drops to down 2%.  Conceptually offsetting that would be the benefit to oil consumers of lower prices.  But that’s a diffuse group that is typically overlooked in a market downdraft   …and in this case prime beneficiaries like transport companies are being hit by coronavirus fears.

–as I’m writing, the S&P 500 is trading down about 5% in the premarket.  So the other 3% must be due to other factors–presumably coronavirus fears.  Those, in turn, break out, I think, into two factors:  the virus itself and the efforts of the Trump administration to prevent disease preparedness, information exchange and treatment.  To my mind, the last is the scariest part.

–if we were to posit no AI involvement in the premarket decline, this would look to me like the start of an old-fashioned selling panic.  In an AI-driven world, however, it’s not clear that that the idea of a cathartic release of pent-up fear setting the emotional stage for the next upswing still holds water.

All in all, for almost everyone a day to turn off the screen and go out in the sunshine.

dealing with market volatility

Beginning rant:  finance academics equate volatility with risk.  This has some intuitive plausibility.  Volatility is also easy to measure and you don’t have to know much about actual financial markets.  Using volatility as the principal measure of risk leads to odd conclusions, however.

For example: Portfolio A is either +/- 1% each week but is up by 8% each year; Portfolio B almost never changes and is up by 3% every twelve months.

Portfolio A will double in nine years; Portfolio B takes 24 years to double–by which time Portfolio A will be almost 4x the value of B.

People untrained in academic finance would opt for A.  Academics argue (with straight faces) that the results of A should be discounted because that portfolio fluctuates in value so much more than B.  Some of them might say that A is worse than B because of greater volatility, even though that would be cold comfort to an investor aiming to send a child to college or to retire (the two principal reasons for long-term savings).

more interesting stuff

–on the most basic level, if I’m saving to buy a car this year or for a vacation, that money should be in a bank account or money market fund, not in the stock market.  Same thing with next year’s tuition money

–the stock market is the intersection of the objective financial characteristics of publicly-traded companies with the hopes and fears of investors.  Most often, prices change because of human emotion rather than altered profit prospects.   What’s happening in markets now is unusual in two ways:  an external event, COVID-19, is causing unexpected and hard-to-predict declines in profit prospects for many publicly-traded companies; and the bizarrely incompetent response of the administration to the public health threat–little action + suppression of information (btw, vintage Trump, as we witnessed in Atlantic City)–is raising deep fears about the guy driving the bus we’re all on

–most professionals I’ve known try to avoid trading during down markets, realizing that what’s emotionally satisfying today will likely appear to be incredibly stupid in a few months.  For almost everyone, sticking with the plan is the right thing to do

–personally, I’ve found down markets to be excellent times for upgrading a portfolio.  That’s because clunkers that have badly lagged during an up phase tend to outperform when the market’s going down–this is a variation on “you can’t fall off the floor.”  Strong previous performers, on the other hand, tend to do relatively poorly (see my next point).  So it makes sense to switch.  Note:  this is much harder to do in practice than it seems.

–when all else fails, i.e., after the market has been going down for a while, even professionals revert to the charts–something no one wants to admit to.  Two things I look for:

support and resistance:  meaning prices at which lots of people have previously bought and sold.  Disney (DIS), for example, went sideways for a number of years at around $110 before spiking on news of its new streaming service.  Arguably people who sold DIS over that time would be willing to buy it back at around that level.  Strong previous performers have farther to fall to reach these levels

selling climax:  meaning a point where investors succumb to fear and dump out stocks without regard to price just to stop losing money.  Sometimes the same kind of thing happens when speculators on margin are unable to meet margin calls and are sold out.  In either case, the sign is a sharp drop on high volume.  I see a little bit of that going on today

 

more on Monday