a new government in Italy

Italy has long been the weakest link among the three major continental European economies in the euro.  Its economy has deep structural flaws.  Pre-euro it had long been papering them over through heavy government borrowing.  That allowed it to live beyond its means, protecting industries of the past and giving short shrift to future possibilities.  Periodic devaluations of the lira let it continue this strategy by paying lenders back in debased coin.

Despite this checkered history, Italy became a founding member of the euro in 1999.  It got in by the skin of its teeth–and that only after enacting a violence-wracked series of important reforms just in advance of the deadline.  The hope back then was that once in the common currency Italy would continue down the reform path. Instead, however, it has used the privilege of issuing euro-denominated debt to resume a less aggressive version of its bad old ways.  The result has been a domestic economy laden with debt, that has shown almost no real economic growth over the past decade.

 

The leaders of a nativist political coalition formed after recent elections have been speaking about their economic plans.  Their idea is apparently to “solve” Italy’s problems by repudiating a portion of the national debt and withdrawing from the euro, presumably in order to substantially devalue a new currency.

…sounds a little like Greece, only ten times the size.

This development is, I think, the main reason the euro has been falling against the US$ since early April.

 

my thoughts

–although the new government hasn’t announced official policy, I think that what it ultimately says will be at best a watered-down version of what leaders have already been saying unofficially to their supporters.  If so, we’re in early days of a looming crisis

–to the degree that professional investors hold Italian stocks, I think their reaction will be to seek safety elsewhere

–it wouldn’t be surprising to see official policy end up being something resembling Abenomics in Japan in its broad outlines.  This implies the folliwing end result:  a substantial loss of national wealth, a higher cost of living for ordinary citizens and protection of traditional industry/established elites from negative effects.  There’s no reason to think Italy would end up any different

–it’s probably also worth noting that “protect sunset industries/stunt the future/lower living standards” summarizes the Trump economic playbook for the US, to the extent there is one.  This means we can already see in Japan/Italy the trailer of a future disaster movie for the US

–What to do in the stock market?  I think Italy has restored the safe haven character of the dollar for the moment.  Given the distinct policy negatives in the US, EU and Japan, China is looking a lot better.  Secular growth (i.e., IT) anywhere is probably safer than economic sensitivity

 

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.

 

 

 

oil right now–the Iran situation

For almost a year I’ve owned domestic shale-related oil stocks, for several reasons:

–the dire condition of the oil market, oversupplied and with inventories overflowing, had pushed prices down to what I thought were unsustainable lows

–other than crude from large parts of the Middle East, shale oil is the cheapest to bring to the surface.  The big integrateds, in contrast, continue to face the consequences of their huge mistaken bet on the continuance of $100+ per barrel oil

–there was some chance that despite the sorry history of economic cartels (someone always sells more than his allotted quota) the major oil-producing countries, ex the US, would be able to hold output below the level of demand.  This would allow excess inventories to be worked off, creating the possibility of rising price

–the outperformance of the IT sector had raised its S&P 500 weighting to 25%, historically a high point for a single sector.  This suggested professional investors would be casting about for other places to invest new money.  Oil looked like a plausible alternative.

 

I’d been thinking that HES and WPX, the names I chose, wouldn’t necessarily be permanent fixtures in my portfolio.  But I thought I’d be safe at least until July because valuations are reasonable, news would generally be good and I was guessing that the possibility of a warm winter (bad for sales of home heating oil) would be too far in the future to become a market concern before Labor Day.

 

Iranian sanctions

Now comes the reimposition of Iranian sanctions by the US.

Here’s the problem I see:

the US imposed unilateral sanctions like this after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  As far as oil production was concerned, they were totally ineffective.  Why?  Oil companies with access to Iranian crude simply redirected elsewhere supplies they had earmarked for US customers and replaced those barrels with non-Iranian output.  Since neither Europe nor Asia had agreed to the embargo, and were indifferent to where the oil came from, the embargo had no effect on the oil price.

I don’t see how the current situation is different.  This suggests to me that the seasonal peak for the oil price–and therefore for oil producers–could occur in the next week or so if trading algorithms get carried away, assuming it hasn’t already.

 

 

discounting in the age of algorithms

what discounting is

In traditional Wall Street parlance, discounting is factoring into today’s prices the anticipated effect of expected future events.  Put another way, in the best possible case, it’s buying a stock for, say $.25 extra today, thinking that in a week, or a month or a year, news will come out that makes the stock worth $1, or $10, or $100 more than it is today.

two components

They are:

—having/developing superior information, and

–correctly gauging what effect dissemination of the news will have on the stock.

In my experience, the first of these is the easier task.  Also, the answer to the second problem will likely be imprecise.  In most cases, “The stock will go up a lot when people understand x” is good enough.

examples

In the early days of the Apple turnaround, the company launched the iPod, which ended up doubling the company’s size.  So the key to earnings growth for AAPL was the rate of increase in iPod sales.  The heart of the iPod back then was a small form factor hard disk drive.  There were only two suppliers of this component, Hitachi and Seagate (?), so publicly available information on production of the small HDDs had some use.  Much more important, however, was that there was only one supplier of the tiny spindles the disks rotated around.  And, unknown to most on Wall Street, that small Japanese firm published monthly spindle production figures, which basically revealed AAPL’s anticipated sales.

Same thing in the early 1980s.  Intel chips ran so hot that they had to be encased in ceramic packaging–for which there was only one, again Japanese, source, Kyocera.  Again, monthly production figures, in Japanese, were publicly available.

In both cases, the production figures were accurate predictors of AAPL (INTC) unit sales a few months down the road.  Production ramp-up/cutback information, again public–though not easily accessible–data, was especially useful.

Third:  Back in the days before credit card data were widely available, retail analysts used to look at cash in circulation figures that the Federal Reserve published to gauge the temper of yearend holiday spending intentions.  The fourth-quarter rally in retail stocks sometimes ended in early December if the cash figures ticked down.

In all three cases, clever analysts found leading indicators of future earnings.  As the indicators became more widely known, Wall Street would begin to trade more on the course of the indicators rather than on the actual company results.

today’s world

Withdrawal of brokerage firms from the equity research business + downward pressure on fees + investor reallocation toward index investing have made traditional active management considerably less lucrative than it was during my working career.

A common response by investment firms has been to substitute one or two economists and/or data scientists for a room full of 10k-reading securities analysts who developed especially deep knowledge of a small number of market sectors.  As far as I can see, the approach of the algorithms the economists/programmers employ isn’t much more than to react quickly to news as it’s being disseminated.  (They may also be looking for leading indicators, but, if so, I don’t see any notable success.  Having seen several failed attempts–and having worked at the one big 1950s -1970s  success in this field, Value Line–I’m not that surprised at this failure.)

My thoughts: 

–there’s never been a better time to be a contrarian.  Know a few things well and use bouts of algorithmic craziness to trade around a core position

–For anyone who is willing to spend the time watching trading during days like Wednesday there’s also lots of information to be had from how individual stocks move.  In particular, which stocks fall the most but barely rebound?   which fall a little but rise a lot when the market turns?  which are just crazy volatile?

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.