Saturday, January 30, 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                            16841-17588
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                                1916-2007
                                    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 continued in the negative: above estimates: the November Case Shiller home price index, weekly mortgage and purchase applications, December new home sales, weekly jobless claims, January Chicago PMI, January consumer sentiment; below estimates: December pending home sales, January consumer confidence, the Dallas, Kansas City and Richmond Feds’ January manufacturing indices, December durable goods orders, month to date retail chain store sales, fourth quarter GDP and the November trade deficit; in line with estimates: the January Market flash services PMI.

The primary indicators were also negative: December new home sales (+), December durable goods orders (-) and fourth quarter GDP (-)---so more of the same dismal news.

The Fed provided a small surprise: the narrative in the statement from the latest FOMC meeting being less dovish that anticipated.  I found that somewhat encouraging, i.e. maintaining a focus on exiting QE.  However, if we get another down leg in the Market, I have little doubt that the Fed will chicken out in its effort to normalize monetary policy.

In sum, the stats this week was discouraging  again, keeping an overwhelmingly disappointing series of data intact (four mixed to upbeat weeks and eighteen negative weeks in the last twenty-two).  As I noted last week, a couple more weeks of poor numbers, I will likely revise our forecast even lower with a strong probability of recession.

The international data was mixed; but the central banks were busy little beavers expanding QE.  The Bank of China made three sizable injections into its financial system; and the Bank of Japan, having poo pooed any additional QE steps, announced negative interest rates---apparently once again following the thesis that if an excessive dose of QE doesn’t work, then the best course is to quadruple down.  My guess is this will lead to further competitive devaluations from China and the EU.

In summary, the US economic stats this week were not good, the international data weren’t much better and the central banks’ renewed love affair with QE will only make matters worse.

Thoughts from an economic optimist (medium):

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.

       The negatives:

(1)   a vulnerable global banking system.  This week the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research warned of financial defaults among oil companies and the banks that finance them. 

That noted, I have shifted focus of late away from the US banking system toward the rising risks overseas.  The above clearly reminds us that all is not well at home.  But I stand by the thesis that our financial system is much less at risk than it was seven years, five years or even two years ago.

Meanwhile, the recent warnings from multiple countries about troubles with their banks keeps the risks of potential bank defaults/insolvencies and unstable currencies on the table.

Here is more detail on the solvency problems with Italian banks (medium):

(2)   fiscal/regulatory policy.  Not much news this week. 

(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.  

The central banksters were hard at work this week.  Top officials from China, Japan and the ECB were all on their podiums extolling the virtues of QE.  China and Japan were doing more than talking:

[a] China injected substantial liquidity into its financial system three times  

[b] in an apparent attempt to provide the ultimate test of Einstein’s theory of insanity, Japan instituted negative interest rates.  My assumption is that this action will lead to additional competitive devaluations from China and the EU.  If that occurs, the questions become, where does it end and how badly?  So QE continues apace irrespective of what our own Fed does.  As a side note, it will also test my thesis that the larger the magnitude and the longer QE lasts, the greater the ultimate pain of unwinding it.

Speaking of the Fed [and I wish I weren’t], Yellen et al whined about the economy and seemed to crawfish on the March rate hike at this week’s FOMC meeting.  As you know, I am not all that concerned that the Fed’s suggested slow rate of piddling rate hikes will hamper economic growth for the simple reason that since 2009 their aggressive rate cuts and gargantuan liquidity injections did little to improve economic growth. 

What I do worry about is that any back peddling on monetary normalization by the Fed will put it in the QEInfinity/competitive devaluation race to bottom camp with the rest of the global financial wizards.  

As I said Thursday, the above doesn’t mean that the central bankers’ anxiety over recession is unfounded.  I worry about that endlessly in these pages.  My point has been and remains, if a recession occurs it will be more a function of results of an experimental, ill thought out, overly aggressive QE policy than from a midget sized increase in the Fed Funds rate off a zero bound base.

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: nothing this week save the Iranians touring Europe and spending that $150 billion cash bonus like drunken sailors.  The good news is that they aren’t buying bombs---at least that we know about.

(5)   economic difficulties in Europe and around the globe.  There was few international economic stats released this week: UK fourth quarter GDP grew at the lowest rate in three years; EU economic confidence was the lowest in five months.  On the other hand, both France and Spain posted better than expected 2015 GDP growth.  Clearly a mixed week, which in itself is a positive given the abysmal flow of data from abroad for the last five to six months.    Other global economic news:

[a] the central banks {China, Japan and the ECB} continued their headlong pursuit of QE,

[b] oil prices: which continue negatively impacting the global economy via the slowdown of demand, the capital spending restraint and liquidation of the sovereign wealth funds of the oil producing nations.  This week, {i} IMF and World Bank officials journeyed to Azerbaijan in an attempt to keep it from becoming the first sovereign to default as a result of low oil prices and {ii} OPEC offered to ‘manage’ its production if non-OPEC would also comply.  Then there were rumors, subsequently squashed, that a meeting would occur in February.  At the moment, higher oil prices are just a gleam in investors’ eyes.

      In sum, the global economic outlook has not improved.

Bottom line:  the US data continues to reflect very sluggish growth in the economy, perhaps in recession.  My hope that the rate of slowing may have stabilized is dwindling.  Of course, the global economy is certainly not doing anything to brighten the outlook.    Meanwhile, several of the major global central banks have not backed off the QE policies even though to date those policies have only made matters worse.  Unfortunately, that may not stop the Fed from reversing its policies if the Markets continue to get pummeled. 

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

This week’s data:

(1)                                  housing: weekly mortgage and purchase applications were up; December pending home sales were well below estimates; the November Case Shiller home price index rose more than anticipated,

(2)                                  consumer: month to date retail chain store sales growth was lower than the prior week; January consumer sentiment was better than expected, but consumer confidence was worse,

(3)                                  industry: both the January Dallas and Richmond Fed manufacturing indices fell precipitously, while the Kansas City Fed’s index was flat; the January Markit flash services PMI was flat with December’s reading; the January Chicago PMI was very upbeat,

(4)                                  macroeconomic: fourth quarter GDP was up less than expected; the November US trade deficit was larger than estimated.

The Market-Disciplined Investing

The indices (DJIA 16466, S&P 1940) did a moon shot on Friday, concluding another extremely volatile week.  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 {16872-17620}, [c] in an intermediate term trading range {15842-18295}, [d] in a long term uptrend {5471-19343}, [e] 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] within a short term downtrend {1916-2007}, [d] in an intermediate term trading range {1867-2134}, [e] in a long term uptrend {800-2161}  and [f] still within a series of lower highs. 

Volume spiked on Friday; breadth continued to improve.  The VIX was down 10% but ended [a] above its 100 day moving average, now support; however, the MA is declining, detracting from its strength as support and [b] in short term, intermediate term and long term trading ranges. 
The long Treasury had another good week, closing up on Friday.  It finished above its 100 day moving average, now support and within short term and intermediate term trading ranges.

GLD rose, remaining [a] above its 100 day moving average, now support but [b] within short, intermediate and long term downtrends. 

Must read (medium):

Bottom line: the Averages broke out of their recent high volatility trading range, providing the first sign of follow through since making a low January 10th...  The S&P busted through the 1928 Fibonacci retracement level as well as closing above the lower boundary of its short term downtrend.  Unless the Averages do a dramatic reversal Monday, I think it likely to see additional upside---that could take the S&P to the upper boundary of its short term downtrend which also happens to be very close to its 100 day moving average.

GLD is trying to make a bottom.  It has managed to revert its 100 day moving average from resistance to support and is near the upper boundaries of its short term and intermediate term downtrends.  If those levels are successfully challenged, GLD could again offer some opportunity.

Margin debt in Chinese markets (medium):

Fundamental-A Dividend Growth Investment Strategy

The DJIA (16466) finished this week about 33.5% above Fair Value (12333) while the S&P (1940) closed 26.9% 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 disappointing. So the hope of an economy stabilizing at a lower rate of growth is fading; and the risk of recession is on the increase.  The global economy remains a mess, its banking system increasingly infirm and the tensions in the Middle East raise the risk of some untoward event igniting all-out war.  The risk here is that many Street economic forecasts are too optimistic (and they assume none of the above occurs); and if they are revised down, it will likely be accompanied by lower Valuation estimates.

This week the Fed disappointed the Markets when the statement from the FOMC meeting had a less dovish tone than investors wanted.  I ranted enough about this in Thursday’s Morning Call and above.  And the bottom line hasn’t changed: the termination of QE will likely have little impact on the economy but will affect the Markets negatively.  The longer it lasts and the larger the magnitude of QE, the greater the Market pain when it is finally over or when the Markets finally figure out the shell game.

Meanwhile, most of the other major central banks continue to aggressively pursue easy money policies in the hope that if a lot of extra liquidity didn’t work, maybe a whole lot of extra liquidity will.  And nothing says ‘a whole lot of extra liquidity’ like this week’s aggressive Chinese liquidity injections and the stunning move by Japan to institute negative interest rates.  

Even more discouraging, the linkage between QE and investor euphoria does not seem to have been broken---witness the Markets’ negative response to the less dovish message from the Fed and Friday’s Titan III shot on the Bank of Japan’s move to negative interest rates.

I continue to believe that this latest round of QE will be just as unsuccessful as all the prior ones (QE1 excluded); but it will likely push asset mispricing and misallocation to a new extreme.  Sooner or later, there will be Market pain.

Today’s must read (medium):

 Whenever that happens, I believe that the cash generated by following our Price Discipline will be welcome when investors wake up to the Fed’s (and other central bank) 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.

DJIA             S&P

Current 2016 Year End Fair Value*              12700             1570
Fair Value as of 1/31/16                                  12333            1528
Close this week                                               16466            1940

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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