Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Closing Bell

The Closing Bell


Statistical Summary

   Current Economic Forecast
            2015 estimates

Real Growth in Gross Domestic Product (revised)      -1.0-+2.0%
                        Inflation (revised)                                                          1.0-2.0%
                        Corporate Profits (revised)                                            -7-+5%

2016 estimates

Real Growth in Gross Domestic Product                     -1.0-+1.0%
                        Inflation (revised)                                                          1.0-2.0%
                        Corporate Profits (revised)                                            -10-0%

   Current Market Forecast
            Dow Jones Industrial Average

                                    Current Trend (revised):  
                                    Short Term Downtrend                            16903-17665
Intermediate Term Trading Range           15842-18295
Long Term Uptrend                                  5471-19343
                        2015    Year End Fair Value                                   12200-12400

                        2016     Year End Fair Value                                   12600-12800

            Standard & Poor’s 500

                                    Current Trend (revised):
                                    Short Term Downtrend                                1938-2028
                                    Intermediate Trading Range                        1867-2134
                                    Long Term Uptrend                                     800-2161
                        2015   Year End Fair Value                                      1515-1535
2016 Year End Fair Value                                      1560-1580          

Percentage Cash in Our Portfolios

Dividend Growth Portfolio                          53%
            High Yield Portfolio                                     54%
            Aggressive Growth Portfolio                        53%

The economy provides no upward bias to equity valuations.   This week’s dataflow was lousy: above estimates: weekly mortgage and purchase applications, the December small business optimism index, January consumer sentiment and the December budget deficit; below estimates: December retail sales, month to date retail chain store sales, December industrial production, the January NY Fed manufacturing index, weekly jobless claims, November business inventories, December PPI, December import and export prices and the Atlanta Fed year over year GDP growth estimate (which it lowered for a second time to 0.6% Friday after the close); in line with estimates: November factory orders.

The primary indicators were also poor: December industrial production (-) and December retail sales (-); and there were a couple of anecdotal stats: the Baltic Dry index is falling off the chart and the latest Fed Beige Book portrayed an improving economy across all geographic areas.  The latter clearly supports the Fed official narrative.  However, I continue to ask what numbers these guys are looking at (see above).  But then in the case of the Beige Book, it summarizes anecdotal evidence, so its interpretation is more questionable than say---the Atlanta Fed GDP projection.

That said, the official Fed narrative may be changing.  Witness the somewhat dovish comments this week from St. Louis Fed head Bullard.  I covered this in detail in Friday’s Morning Call; but the bottom line is (1) the Fed has apparently woken up to the fact that it can no longer pretend the economy is just hunky dory, (2) it is alarmed that the Market [its true measure of monetary policy] is dropping like a rock and (3) the only question is, at what point does the Market cease to pay any attention to these clowns?

In sum, the data this week clearly did not help the thesis that the economy has found a new level of slower growth (four mixed to upbeat weeks and sixteen negative weeks in the last twenty).  Still, we can’t ignore those four weeks of mixed to better numbers; although this week’s numbers, especially industrial production and retail sales, make it a lot easier.  For the moment, I am sticking with our recently revised forecast of slowing growth.  Nevertheless, the risk of recession remains above average and rising.

The international data returned to its disappointing way after a brief respite last week.  Lousy stats came in from across globe: UK, Japan and China. Especially worrisome is the Chinese government’s seemingly loss of control over its economy/markets/yuan (more later). So the poor overseas data continues to be a headwind to any improvement in the US economy.

In summary, the US economic stats this week were awful; and the international numbers weren’t much better. In the meantime with the US Markets are getting hammered, the Fed is on likely its collective knees praying the Market holds. 

Our forecast:

a much below average secular rate of recovery, exacerbated by a declining cyclical pattern of growth with an increasing chance of a recession resulting from too much government spending, too much government debt to service, too much government regulation, a financial system with conflicting profit incentives and a business community hesitant to hire and invest because the aforementioned, the weakening in the global economic outlook, along with the historic inability of the Fed to properly time the reversal of a vastly over expansive monetary policy.
                        Update on big four economic indicators:

       The negatives:

(1)   a vulnerable global banking system.  This week, the news was out of:

[a] Portugal where one bank is already insolvent and others are expected to follow.  Of course, on the surface, Portugal is a wart on a goat’s ass; so why should we care?  The answer is that it is victim of the same economic imbalances as Greece and other southern EU countries.  The risk being that this could develop into more than isolated incident.

[b] the Bank of Oklahoma which told its shareholders that it had incurred a larger than expected loss on a single loan to a company in the oil patch.  You can decide if you think this a one-time occurrence or a sign of things to come; I lean to the latter.

(2)   fiscal/regulatory policy.  The good news is that there has been little news out of congress.  The bad news is that in His state of the union message, Obama, in addition to the monumentally egregious stretching of the facts and the constant self-congratulatory high fives [I recognize full well that all presidents are guilty of this; Obama has taken it to new heights], outlined a series of objectives that He will undoubtedly utilize executive orders to implement if He can’t get congressional approval which He undoubtedly won’t.   

As I said last week: ‘There simply is no telling what this Guy will do in the next twelve months in the name of His legacy.  If only someone had the balls to challenge this usurpation of authority in the courts.’

(3)   the potential negative impact of central bank money printing:  The key point here is that [a] the Fed has inflated bank reserves far beyond any comparable level in history and [b] while this hasn’t been an economic problem to date, {i} it still has to withdraw all those reserves from the system without creating any disruptions---a task that I regularly point out it has proven inept at in the past and {ii} it has created or is creating asset bubbles in the stock market as well as in the auto, student and mortgage loan markets.  

Our Fed just can’t learn its lesson.  This week St. Louis Fed head Bullard observed that low oil prices were negatively affecting the Fed’s inflation forecast [remember 2% inflation is one of the primary objectives of the Fed narrative]---like it didn’t know this a month ago when it raised rates.  As always these comments were probably spawned not by oil [the economy] but by the recent decline in stock prices.  And as always [except QE1] even if the Fed does adopted an easier stance in the name of inflation [plunging oil prices] being too low, it will likely have no impact on inflation [oil prices] ---because its policies have done nothing to lift inflation toward its target for the past seven years.  In fact, what they have done has served to lower inflation [oil prices] by stimulating supply via  keeping borrowing costs low and plenty money available for drilling.  

I still have no confidence in the Fed’s economic narrative and believe that [a] they are largely focused on asset prices, [b] this has led to major distortions in asset pricing and [c] sooner or later there will be hell to pay. 

      Thoughts from a Fed optimist (short):

      Counterpoint: (medium)

You know my bottom line: sooner or later, the price will be paid for asset mispricing and misallocation.  The longer it takes and the greater the magnitude of QE, the more the pain.

(4)   geopolitical risks: the global jihadist war picked up some steam this week with attacks in both Turkey and Indonesia.  Further, it was revealed that there were nonlethal attacks in Germany and Sweden over the New Year holiday; the news apparently was initially suppressed by government officials.

In addition, Iran boarded two US naval vessels, which reportedly drifted into Iranian territorial waters accidentally, and took the sailors hostage.  I think that the conservative press may have gone in bit too far in its reporting of this incident.  After all, what do you think the US would have done if two Iranian boasts ‘drifted’ into US waters?  On the other hand, the Iranians did push their propaganda machine into overdrive and stepped over the line filming the subjected sailors and demanding an apology.  The net of this is that it hurts the US’s already crippled standing in the Middle East and thus negatively impacts whatever remaining leverage the US may have in avoiding a disaster in the region.

(5)   economic difficulties in Europe and around the globe.  This week saw largely negative data: UK industrial production fell, Japanese core machinery orders plunged, Chinese auto sales grew at the slowest rate in three years, Chinese exports and imports fell and Chinese bank loan growth slowed.  In addition, a Bank of Japan official said that more QE would be potentially harmful to the economy.  There was one upbeat number---Japanese consumer confidence was up slightly.

Eurozone half measures (medium):

                  Massive Chinese debt looms over the Market (medium):

In addition, remember that sanctions against Iran will end soon and with it comes even more oil choking the market.  Given that lower oil prices have been a negative for the global economy, then it seems reasonable that more oil will likely be a weight on oil prices and hence an even bigger negative for the global economy.

      In sum, global economic stats continue to deteriorate.

Bottom line:  the US data continues to reflect very sluggish growth in the economy, perhaps in recession; though my hope is that the rate of slowing may have stabilized.  However, global economic trends are still deteriorating.  We are going to need a lot more than two weeks of upbeat Eurozone ‘confidence’ data to question that notion.  Meanwhile, given the recent Market pin action, the Fed is likely paralyzed by fear of the consequences of prior policy mistakes and the probability that it has potentially put itself in an untenable position. 

A deteriorating global economy and a counterproductive central bank monetary policy are the biggest economic risks to our forecast. 

The heavy cost of economic failure (medium):

This week’s data:

(1)                                  housing: weekly mortgage and purchase applications were up,

(2)                                  consumer: month to date retail chain store sales were down versus the prior week; December retail sales and sales ex autos were below consensus; weekly jobless claims rose more than forecast,

(3)                                  industry: December industrial production was below forecast; the December small business optimism index was slightly above projections; the January NY Fed manufacturing index was horrible: November business inventories declined versus an anticipated flattening,

(4)                                  macroeconomic: December PPI was lower than expected; the Atlanta Fed lowered its year over year GDP growth estimate twice; the December Treasury budget deficit declined significantly; December import prices fell less than forecast while export prices declined more than consensus.

The Market-Disciplined Investing

Whew, rough week.  The indices (DJIA 15988, S&P 1880) resumed their waterfall formation on Friday.  The Dow closed [a] below its 100 day moving average, now resistance, [b] below its 200 day moving average, now resistance, [c] below the lower boundary of a short term downtrend {16903-17665}, [c] in an intermediate term trading range {15842-18295}, [d] in a long term uptrend {5471-19343}, [e] below its August 2015 low and [f] and still within a series of lower highs.

The S&P finished [a] below its 100 day moving average, now resistance, [b] below its 200 day moving average, now resistance [c] below the lower boundary of a short term downtrend {1938-2028}, [d] in an intermediate term trading range {1867-2134}, [e] in a long term uptrend {800-2161} [f] below its August 2015 low and [g] still within a series of lower highs. 

Volume soared (option expiration); breadth terrible.  The VIX was up 13%; but did not reach the levels of the August 2015 low, indicating that there is still complacency out there.  It ended [a] above its 100 day moving average, now support and [b] in short term, intermediate term and long term trading ranges. 
The long Treasury had a great week which it topped off with a 1.5% high volume advance on Friday.  It finished above the upper boundary of its very short term trading range; if it remains there through the close on Tuesday, it will reset to an uptrend.  It also ended above its 100 day moving average, now support and within short term and intermediate term trading ranges.

GLD was up 1%; but still closed [a] below its 100 day moving average, now resistance and [b] within short, intermediate and long term downtrends.  I am really surprised that it can get no upward momentum in a really crappy Market.  However, it does support the notion stated above that the level of anxiety is relatively low.

Bottom line: that Thursday bounce ended up being pretty pathetic relative to how oversold the Market was.  In Friday’s pin action, the indices took out the early January lows and then proceeded to test (unsuccessfully) the lower boundaries of their intermediate term trading ranges.  While I think that there will be another bounce because of the Averages’ extreme oversold condition, so much structural damage has been done that it seems highly probable that they will retest the 15842/1867 levels.  

As I noted previously, those levels are very important because (1) they represent the lower boundary of an important timeframe [intermediate term] and (2) the next visible support levels are considerably lower [14256/1576].

Fundamental-A Dividend Growth Investment Strategy

The DJIA (15988) finished this week about 29.6% above Fair Value (12333) while the S&P (1880) closed 23.0% overvalued (1528).  Incorporated in that ‘Fair Value’ judgment is some sort of half assed attempt at getting fiscal policy under control, a botched Fed transition from easy to tight money, a historically low long term secular growth rate of the economy and a ‘muddle through’ scenario in Europe, Japan and China.

This week’s economic data was horrid.  That said, I am not yet giving up on the notion that the recent string of positive data weeks could be a sign that conditions are stabilizing---though clearly four mixed to upbeat weeks in the last twenty is not a lot to hang that hope on.   

Not helping is that the global economy remains a mess, this week’s better ‘confidence’ data from Japan notwithstanding.  However, the primary problem remains China’s slowing economy---which in turn has prompted the government to devalue the yuan in order for its products to stay more price competitive in the global markets.  Despite of a respite of sorts this week in the declining yuan, most experts believe that there is more to come and are particularly fearful of the government inexperience in handling such a move---the net effect of which could be more pressure for competitive devaluations and disruptions in the currency Market.  Both are a bane not only to international growth but also to global markets, including our own---indeed this has been a primary contributor to the recent weakness in stock markets around the world.

Finally, the heightened risk posed by the Saudi/Iranian cat fight, the lifting of sanctions against Iran (its ability to sell oil plus a $150 billion cash bonus) encourages mischief and the stepped up terrorist attacks around the world keep this multifaceted explosive situation primed for any misstep turning into a disaster.

In sum, the US economic picture remains murky at the moment; although, not so much so that we can’t conclude that it is now weaker than it was three months ago.  In the meantime, the global economy is lousy, the escalation of tension in the Middle East raises the risk of some untoward event igniting all-out war, stepped up terrorist attacks and the Chinese aggressive devaluation of the yuan suggest additional problems in the global economy. The risk here is that many Street economic forecasts are too optimistic; and if they are revised down, it will likely be accompanied by lower Valuation estimates.

This week the Fed had to be on its knees praying for better economic numbers (the Beige Book notwithstanding) and a turnaround in the Market.  Concerning the former, it (along with the president) has been pretending that there is economic progress while the data has proven otherwise.  But as I noted above, this week St. Louis Fed head Bullard started whining about low oil price and how they negatively impacting the Fed policy model---the implication being that easier monetary policy could be in the offing.  Of course, oil prices don’t mean diddily to the Fed; but this week’s Market plunge sure did.  So it is clearly worrying about having to manufacture a reason to back off its rate hike strategy---because God forbid it admits that its monetary policy has been, is and will likely continue to be totally f**ked up and that it can no longer pretend that the economy is just great.  Hence, the Fed finds itself in a pickle.  If it responds to the Market decline by reversing itself, it will likely lose investor confidence.  On the other hand, if it continues to raise rates in the face of poor data, it will probably suffer the same consequence. 

Meanwhile, the Bank of China is struggling to get its economy and currency under control---and at the moment that ain’t happenin’.  If the experts are correct and further yuan devaluation is on the way, then its monetary policy will remain accommodative---creating a dichotomy with (current?) US tightening and likely keeping downward pressure on global markets.

The Fed/Bank of China faceoff (medium):

 Whenever and whatever happens, I believe that the cash generated by following our Price Discipline will be welcome when investors wake up to the Fed’s malfeasance because I suspect the results will not be pretty. 

Net, net, my two biggest concerns for the Markets are (1) declining profit and valuation estimates resulting from the economic effects of a slowing global economy and (2) the unwinding of the gross mispricing and misallocation of assets following the Fed’s wildly unsuccessful, experimental QE policy.

Bottom line: the assumptions in our Economic Model are unchanged.  If they are anywhere near correct, they will almost assuredly result in changes in Street models that will have to take their consensus Fair Value down for equities.  Unfortunately, our own assumptions may be too optimistic, making matters worse.

The assumptions in our Valuation Model have not changed either; though at this moment, there appears to be more events (greater than expected decline in Chinese economic activity; turmoil in the emerging markets and commodities; miscalculations by one or more central banks that would upset markets; a potential escalation of violence in the Middle East and around the world) that could lower those assumptions than raise them.  That said, our Model’s current calculated Fair Values under the best assumptions are so far below current valuations that a simple process of mean reversion is all that is necessary to bring Market prices down significantly.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough that I believe that the key investment strategy today is to take advantage of any further bounce in stock prices to sell any stock that has been a disappointment or no longer fits your investment criteria and to trim the holding of any stock that has doubled or more in price.  As a secondary objective, I would reconsider any thoughts of ‘buying the dip’.

Bear in mind, this is not a recommendation to run for the hills.  Our Portfolios are still 55-60% invested; but their cash position is a function of individual stocks either hitting their Sell Half Prices or their underlying company failing to meet the requisite minimum financial criteria needed for inclusion in our Universe.
            Mohamed El Erian on the Market (medium):

                Bull, bear or humble?

DJIA             S&P

Current 2016 Year End Fair Value*              12700             1570
Fair Value as of 1/31/16                                  12333            1528
Close this week                                               15988            1880

Over Valuation vs. 1/31 Close
              5% overvalued                                12949                1604
            10% overvalued                                13566               1680 
            15% overvalued                                14182               1757
            20% overvalued                                14799                1833   
            25% overvalued                                  15416              1910   
            30% overvalued                                  16032              1986
            35% overvalued                                  16649              2062
Under Valuation vs. 1/31 Close
            5% undervalued                             11716                    1451
10%undervalued                            11099                   1375   
15%undervalued                            10483                   1298

* Just a reminder that the Year End Fair Value number is based on the long term secular growth of the earning power of productive capacity of the US economy not the near term   cyclical influences.  The model is now accounting for somewhat below average secular growth for the next 3 to 5 years. 

The Portfolios and Buy Lists are up to date.

Steve Cook received his education in investments from Harvard, where he earned an MBA, New York University, where he did post graduate work in economics and financial analysis and the CFA Institute, where he earned the Chartered Financial Analysts designation in 1973.  His 47 years of investment experience includes institutional portfolio management at Scudder. Stevens and Clark and Bear Stearns, managing a risk arbitrage hedge fund and an investment banking boutique specializing in funding second stage private companies.  Through his involvement with Strategic Stock Investments, Steve hopes that his experience can help other investors build their wealth while avoiding tough lessons that he learned the hard way.

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