Saturday, April 2, 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                     -1.25-+0.5%
                        Inflation (revised)                                                          0.5-1.5%
                        Corporate Profits (revised)                                            -15-0%

   Current Market Forecast
            Dow Jones Industrial Average

                                    Current Trend (revised):  
                                    Short Term Trading Range                       15431-17758
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 Trading Range                          1867-2081
                                    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 maybe providing a temporary upward bias to equity valuations.   The stats this week were mixed to slightly positive:  above estimates: month to date retail chain store sales, February personal income, March consumer confidence and sentiment, February pending home sales, weekly purchase applications, March Chicago PMI and the March ISM manufacturing index; below estimates: weekly mortgage applications, the March ADP private payroll report, weekly jobless claims, March light vehicle sales, the March Markit manufacturing PMI, February construction spending and the January trade deficit; in line with estimates: the Case Shiller home price index, February personal spending, the February PCE deflator, the March Dallas Fed manufacturing index, March nonfarm payrolls/unemployment.

Likewise the primary indicators were mixed to positive: February personal income (+), the March ISM manufacturing index (+), February personal spending (0), March nonfarm payrolls (0) and February construction spending (-).  I am counting this as a plus week, so for those keeping a running score, in the last 30 weeks, seven have been positive to upbeat, twenty two negative and one neutral. 

However, weighing on the negative side, the Atlanta Fed revised its first quarter GDP estimate down to 0.6%.  This is the third downgrade in as many weeks.   

One thing that stands out, I mentioned on Thursday; and that is that the stats out of the manufacturing sector have improved markedly over the last two weeks (the regional Fed banks’ manufacturing indices along with the March Chicago PMI and the ISM manufacturing index).  This sector of the economy has been the weakest of late; so any improvement is clearly welcome. 

A couple of points: (1) two weeks in not enough data to warrant a change in outlook, (2) remember the government revised its seasonal adjustment factors for the first quarter---which could, at least partially, explain the improvement, (3) the international economic numbers have been and remain terrible; if US industry manages to overcome this enormous headwind, then it will be impressive, indeed.  I am just not sure how probable that is, and (4) nonetheless, I am impressed with these results and have turned on the flashing yellow light to indicate that I may have jumped the gun on my recession call.

The other big story of the week was Yellen’s trashing of the Fed hawks.  That keeps investors tip toeing through the tulips but (1) continuing this back and forth, on again, off again rate hike dialectic is likely to destroy what little credibility the Fed still has left and (2) her concern about the global economy confirms that it is in worse shape than anyone is willing to admit.

Adding insult to injury, the international economic numbers were abysmal. Hence, there is nothing here to qualify as a positive for our economy.

In summary, the US economic stats were slightly to the upside this week while the international data remains depressing.  Meanwhile, the Fed is doing its utmost to confuse and confound.

Our forecast:

a recession or a zero economic growth rate, caused by 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 economy at stall speed (medium):

            Do we now have to start worrying about stagflation? (medium):

       The negatives:

(1)   a vulnerable global banking system.  This week, there were a couple of articles on the exposure of regional banks to energy loans.  They were not doomsday forecast but they did point out potential problems. E.g.

(2)   fiscal/regulatory policy.  With the election season now in full swing, we are likely to get no new developments by way of fiscal/regulatory policy [except for more empty promises] until at least early 2017. 

The administrative state (short):

(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.  

As I have conveyed in our Morning Calls, Yellen reversed all of last week’s hawkish statements from regional Fed chiefs.  I said in last week’s Closing Bell: ‘I have railed against this ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ crap that we have been fed for far too long.  In my opinion, this is another perfect example that the Fed has painted itself into a box, it knows it and is trying to buy time by blowing smoke our skirts in the hopes that some miracle will bail them.’

One of the central points in Yellen’s speech was the concern about the global economy, pointing to China as the major worry.  I think that this confirms John Mauldin’s thesis that China told the G20 to lay off the competitive devaluation or else.  Yellen’s statement as well as the actions of the other major central banks certainly confirm it.  The important point here is not that China muscled the world’s central bankers but why it was done, i.e. the Chinese economy is in much worse shape than anyone is willing to admit, which confirms my concern about a weakening global economy.

You know my bottom line: QE and negative interest rates have done nothing to improve any economy, anywhere, anytime.  Sooner or later, the price will be paid for the resulting asset mispricing and misallocation.  The longer it takes and the greater the magnitude of QE, the more the pain. 

(4)   geopolitical risks: the terrorists’ bombings just keep on coming with huge casualties in Pakistan at an Easter celebration. Europe is in turmoil over immigration and assimilation policies.  Russia appears to be increasing its forces in Syria instead of withdrawing them.  And Iran has thrown the nuclear agreement with the US in the trash can with little response to date. 

There is a decent chance of an explosive event stemming from one or more of the aforementioned, though I have no idea just how big it could be or which one is more likely to occur.

Meanwhile in Europe (medium):

(5)   economic difficulties in Europe and around the globe.  The international economic stats released this week were quite negative, though several Chinese ‘official’ datapoints were positive:  China reported an increase in industrial profits in February and manufacturing and services PMI’s in March; but remember they lie a lot.  Indicative of that [a] the New York based China Beige Book reported data not consistent at all with these numbers---capex at its lowest level in the history of the survey [five years] and employment at a four year low, [b] the Asian Development Bank lowered its forecast for Chinese GDP growth in 2016 and 2017, and [c] S&P lowered China’s credit rating. 

Japan recorded February retail sales down 2.3% and industrial output down 6.2%, lower March business sentiment and a decline in the manufacturing PMI [how is that QE and NIRP working for you, Mr. Abe?]

South Korean trade data stunk, March EU inflation declined, March EU consumer prices dropped, the March EU flash manufacturing PMI rose slightly while the UK PMI declined and Italian unemployment rose while German unemployment was unchanged.
In other news, Libya, Iraq and Iran have indicated that they won’t attend the April OPEC meeting; and, of course, the US won’t be there.  And adding to this charade, Saudi Arabia said that it will only freeze oil production if Iran joins the effort.  What freeze?

The bottom line: the data we got was not encouraging.  And Ms. Yellen seems to agree that the global economy remains a major headwind.
Bottom line:  the US data in aggregate continues to point toward a recession, though my anxiety has increased that I acted too quickly in making that call.  The global economy did nothing to brighten the outlook. Oil may be about to roll over again.  And the global central banks are doing everything possible to confuse and confound the Markets in hopes that a miracle will allow them to exit QE without much damage.

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: February pending home sales were double estimates; the January Case Shiller home price index rose more than anticipated; weekly mortgage applications declined but purchase application were up,

(2)                                  consumer: February personal income was ahead of consensus while spending and the PCE deflator were in line;  both March consumer confidence and sentiment were higher than projected; month to date retail chain store sales were stronger than the prior week; the March ADP private payroll report came in below expectations as did weekly jobless claims; March nonfarm payrolls were down but slightly better than estimates; unemployment rose; March light vehicle sales came in below projections,

(3)                                  industry: the Dallas Fed March manufacturing index was negative but better than forecast; the March Chicago PMI was much better than anticipated, the March Markit PMI was slightly worse than consensus while the March ISM manufacturing index was better; February construction spending was awful,

(4)                                  macroeconomic: the January US trade deficit was lower than expected; however, both imports and exports declined.

  The Market-Disciplined Investing

The indices (DJIA 17792, S&P 2072) had a great week, helped along by the Yellen dovish, creampuff speech and end of the quarter window dressing.  On Friday, volume rose though it remains at low levels; breadth improved though it remains mixed overall.  The VIX was banged all week, keeping it in a very short term downtrend and below its 100 day moving average.  However, it is now within striking distance of the 10-12 price level which offers good value as portfolio insurance.

The Dow closed [a] above its 100 day moving average, now support, [b] above its 200 day moving average, now support, [c] above the upper boundary of its short term trading range {15431-17758}; if it remains there through the close on Tuesday, it will reset to an uptrend, [c] in an intermediate term trading range {15842-18295} and [d] in a long term uptrend {5471-19343}.

The S&P finished [a] above its 100 day moving average, now support, [b] above its 200 day moving average, now support, [c] within a short term trading range {1867-2081}, [d] in an intermediate term trading range {1867-2134} and [e] in a long term uptrend {800-2161}. 

The long Treasury stabilized this week.  After voiding a very short term downtrend last week, it is developing a very short term uptrend.  It finished well above its 100 day moving average and above a Fibonacci support level.  Hopefully, this may be a sign that the recent decline is over.

GLD continues to digest its recent big run up.  It closed within a very short term downtrend and below a key Fibonacci support level, suggesting more consolidation.

Bottom line:  the indices pushed higher this week. While the momentum has been spectacular and they continue to push through resistance levels, they are nearing an area of even heavier resistance.  That is not to say that the uptrend can’t continue; but it is likely to get a bit more labored.  My assumption remains that they challenge their all-time highs but fail to push above them.

Fundamental-A Dividend Growth Investment Strategy

The DJIA (17792) finished this week about 43.1% above Fair Value (12432) while the S&P (2072) closed 34.7% overvalued (1538).  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.

The US economic data this week turned more upbeat again.  Of particular note was the improving trend in the manufacturing sector.  I don’t think that that necessarily negates my recession call; but it sure enlarges the question mark.  That said, the global economic data is horrible; and if you don’t believe me, ask Janet Yellen.  With the rest of world misfiring, I don’t see how the US can escape the fallout.

Not helping matters, oil prices reversed their recent strong uptrend.  This may be just some consolidation after a big run up.  On the other hand, the April OPEC meeting to freeze production is turning out to be sham, I had expected---which likely puts the lack of financial viability of many oil companies and the banks that serve them back on the table.  And as I have noted several times, there is currently little evidence to support higher oil prices.  However, the linkage between oil prices and stock prices seems to have lost, probably as a result of renewed investor euphoria over Yellen’s dovishness. 

In sum, even if our forecast of recession is wrong, the economy is still growing at a snail’s pace and faces a huge headwind from the rest of the world’s economies---which makes most Street forecasts for the economy, corporate earnings and, hence, stock valuations too high. 

Fed policy remained in the forefront of investors’ mind this week, as Yellen smacked her hawkish colleagues ‘up side the head’, putting future rates hikes on the back burner.  As you know, I think that she is probably correct in her assessment of global economy.  What continues to have me puzzled is that if she is so concerned about it that she is afraid that a puny 25 basis point increase in the Fed Funds rate would have a deleterious impact on the global economy, why is that an investment positive?  Yeah, I know, it keeps money cheap so speculators can chase returns.  But how much return is left when a huge percentage of global fixed income securities are at a negative yield and stock prices are near all-time highs as corporate earnings fall? 

Someday, those two questions will be answered.  As I noted last week ‘Clearly the operative word in that statement is ‘when’.  Based on my record of late, I don’t have a clue ‘when’ is.  I only note that the more the Fed pursues this dovish/hawkish double talk, the more likely the ‘when’ is sooner rather than later.  Unfortunately, as long as investors’ ill-conceived euphoria lasts, mispriced assets will remain in nosebleed territory.’ 

Another must read from Doug Kass (medium):

When it does end, I believe that the cash generated by following our Price Discipline will be welcome as 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. 

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. 

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 4/30/16                                  12432            1538
Close this week                                               17792            2072

Over Valuation vs. 4/30 Close
              5% overvalued                                13053                1614
            10% overvalued                                13675               1691 
            15% overvalued                                14296               1768
            20% overvalued                                14918                1845   
            25% overvalued                                  15540              1922   
            30% overvalued                                  16161              1999
            35% overvalued                                  16783              2076
            40% overvalued                                  17404              2153
            45% overvalued                                  18026              2230

Under Valuation vs. 4/30 Close
            5% undervalued                             11810                    1458
10%undervalued                            11188                   1384   
15%undervalued                            105678                 1307

* 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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