Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Closing Bell

The Closing Bell


Statistical Summary

   Current Economic Forecast
2016 estimates

Real Growth in Gross Domestic Product                     -1.25-+0.5%
                        Inflation (revised)                                                          0.5-1.5%
                        Corporate Profits (revised)                                            -15-0%

2017 estimates

Real Growth in Gross Domestic Product                      +1.0-2.5%
                        Inflation                                                                         +1.0-2.0%
                        Corporate Profits                                                            +5-10%

   Current Market Forecast
            Dow Jones Industrial Average

                                    Current Trend (revised):  
                                    Short Term Uptrend                                 18560-20600
Intermediate Term Uptrend                     11708-24558
Long Term Uptrend                                  5730-20736
                        2016    Year End Fair Value                                   12600-12800

                        2017     Year End Fair Value                                   13100-13300

            Standard & Poor’s 500

                                    Current Trend (revised):
                                    Short Term Uptrend                                     2174-2517
                                    Intermediate Term Uptrend                         2032-2633
                                    Long Term Uptrend                                     881-2500
                        2016   Year End Fair Value                                      1560-1580
2017 Year End Fair Value                                       1620-1640         

Percentage Cash in Our Portfolios

Dividend Growth Portfolio                          55%
            High Yield Portfolio                                     54%
            Aggressive Growth Portfolio                        55%

The Trump economy will likely provide an upward bias to equity valuations.   However, this week’s data was negative, again:  above estimates: weekly mortgage and purchase applications, January consumer sentiment, the January Markit flash manufacturing and services PMI’s, the January Richmond Fed manufacturing index and the Chicago national activity index; below estimates: December new and existing home sales, weekly jobless claims, December durable goods orders, the January Markit flash composite PMI and fourth quarter GDP; in line with estimates: month to date retail chain store sales, the Kansas City Fed manufacturing index, December leading economic indicators and the December trade deficit.

The primary indicators were also negative: December leading economic indicators (0), December new home sales (-), December existing home sales (-), December durable goods orders (-) and fourth quarter GDP (-).  In short, a rough week for the dataflow.  The score: in the last 69 weeks, twenty-two were positive, forty-two negative and five neutral.

I noted previously that we should start seeing a pick up in the numbers if the improved post-election Market sentiment was going to be translated into an increase in consumer spending and capital expenditures.  That is not occurring.

However, give him credit, Trump hit the ground running, issuing executive orders limiting agencies awarding contracts, building the Keystone pipeline, building the wall, cutting federal funds to sanctuary cities and enhancing the vetting of immigrants.  While all were on his ‘to do’ list, none, save perhaps limiting agency contracts, will have a major impact on the economy.  Unfortunately, the policies that he is following that will have a significant effect are not positives: corporate renditions, talking down the dollar and tariffs/border taxes.  

In addition, the 800 pound gorilla in the economic policy room is his promises on taxes and infrastructure spending.  And on this score, the math makes the numbers hard to work, meaning that I seriously doubt that he will be able to deliver to the implied extent of his pledges.  In short, the Donald is delivering on his social policy agenda but I am disappointed about the economic policies to date.  That may change; but for the moment, the economy continues to struggle and nothing has occurred that would alter that.

Overseas, the data, especially out of the EU, continued to recover.  Another couple of weeks of this kind of performance and the ‘muddle through’ scenario gets replaced by an improving economy.  That said, there are still problems out there: the Monte Paschi bailout, the Brexit, currency turmoil in China, Mexico and Turkey, the potential impact of a Trump anti- free trade agenda and Greece’s bailout difficulties.  Along those lines, this week, China strengthen its currency controls and the Greeks and their creditors could not reach an agreement on the next step in that country’s bailout. Net, net I am not altering our ‘muddling through’ forecast, but I am getting closer.

In summary, this week’s US economic stats were really bad which doesn’t support the notions that either the economy is improving or is about to improve based on increasing investor sentiment.  However, with the Donald issuing executive orders left and right that maybe about to change; and the better global dataflow could help.

I am sticking with my revised tentative short term forecast but will wait until we see any concrete changes in the Trump/GOP fiscal agenda before altering the long term secular economic growth rate in our Models.   

Our (new and improved) forecast:

‘a possible pick up in the long term secular economic growth rate based on lower taxes, less government regulation and an increase in capital investment resulting from a more confident business community.  However, there are still a number of potential negative unknowns including a more restrictive trade policy, a possible dramatic increase in the federal budget deficit, a Fed with a proven record of failure and even whether or not the aforementioned tax and regulatory reforms can be enacted.   

It is important to note that this change in our forecast is all ‘on the come’ and hence made with a good deal less confidence than normal.  Nonetheless, I have made an initial attempt to quantify this amended outlook with the caveat that it will almost surely be revised.’

Bottom line: the data trend turned negative a month ago, raising (once again) the question of whether the prior period of more positive stats was only temporary.  In addition, the post Trump Market euphoria is not showing up in the numbers, at least not yet.  In the meantime, investor optimism notwithstanding, we are in an economy (1) that isn’t making much headway, (2) in which the known Trump policy changes are not that encouraging [‘border’ tax; currency valuation], (3) the unknown [tax cuts and infrastructure spending] policies are not being discussed, but (4) all of which may be about to change.  In short, a very fluid environment.
       The negatives:

(1)   a vulnerable global banking system.  Nothing this week.

(2)   fiscal/regulatory policy.  I continue to be hopeful that this potential negative goes away, given the Donald’s campaign promises.  However, to date, it has been a bit of a mixed bag.  On the plus side, Trump has issued executive orders barring the EPA from awarding any new contracts, advancing the construction of the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, authorizing the building of the wall on our southern border, cutting funds to sanctuary cities and the enhanced vetting of immigrants [potential terrorists].

A regulatory game changer.  Let’s see how far congress is willing to go (medium and a must read):

However, there are also negatives which include another attempt at muscling the auto industry to build American, the Secretary of the Treasury talking the dollar down, Trump and Mexico getting into a pissing contest over ‘the wall’ and the continuing failure to address taxes and infrastructure spending.

The numbers on US Mexican trade (medium):

With regard to the latter, given the level of both the federal debt and the budget deficit, Trump is going to have a tough time making the math work on any tax cut/infrastructure spending.  Certainly, he can cut federal employment as an offset.  But the spending elephant in the room is entitlements, particularly social security and Medicare.  McConnell has already said that additional deficit spending is a nonstarter.  So I am not sure of the extent to which Trump can deliver on what were, economically speaking, his most important campaign promises.

(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 bankers remained relatively quiet this week.  However, global monetary policy could be moving rather rapidly toward a showdown with fiscal policy.  If Trump does get his way on tax and infrastructure spending, that is going to put upward pressure on inflation.  Which should in turn elicit a more aggressive monetary tightening from the Fed, meaning sharply higher interest rates.  Of course, the Fed could follow its traditional timid approach and allow inflation to get out of hand before responding.  Whichever occurs, the economy could be facing higher interest rates, higher inflation or both.

But that is just speculation at this point.  For the moment we are in a struggling economy and I have serious doubts that we will get the kind of massive tax and spending programs promised by Trump.  In which case, the central banks can continue their dovish approach to monetary policy, i.e. do nothing to correct to residual problems [i.e. asset mispricing and misallocation] created by QE, ZIRP and NIRP---and they are not going away.

(4)   geopolitical risks: the Donald seems intent on scaring the s**t out of or pissing off almost every global leader save Putin.  I am not sure where this is going; but I don’t think it an understatement to say that geopolitical risks are increasing.

The Trump/May news conference (medium):

(5)   economic difficulties in Europe and around the globe.  This week:

[a] January German investor confidence soared; UK inflation rose, retail sales fell and fourth quarter GDP was flat with the third quarter; EU auto sales hit a nine year high,

[b] fourth quarter Chinese GDP, industrial production and retail sales were mixed; home prices rose less than anticipated,

[c] the January Japanese Markit flash manufacturing PMI was up; December CPI declined.

So this week’s data turned back to a modestly upbeat tone.  The stats continue to improve sufficiently to suggest that the global economy may be stabilizing---enough so that another couple of weeks of better numbers will warrant a change in our forecast. Holding me back are the potential economic/financial problems in Italy, Greece, China, Mexico, Turkey and the UK.

            Bottom line:  the US economic stats were lousy---meaning that the data is not supporting the notion that the economy is currently improving.  And of course, that doesn’t help my short term forecast that economic conditions will get better as the result of rising optimism.  In the meantime, we have precious little on any fiscal/regulatory policies that could have a material impact on the economy.

Foreign economic data also improved.  I just need a bit more of the same before considering any revisions to our ‘muddle through’ scenario.

This week’s data:

(1)                                  housing: December existing home sales fell short of projections; December new home declined versus consensus of being flat; weekly mortgage and purchase applications were up,

(2)                                  consumer: weekly jobless claims rose twice what was expected; growth in month to date retail chain store sales was unchanged from the prior week; January consumer sentiment was slightly better than anticipated,

(3)                                  industry: December durable goods orders fell off a cliff, but that was mostly due to a decline in transportation orders; the January Market flash composite PMI was slightly below forecast, while the manufacturing services PMI’s were better than expected; the January Richmond Fed manufacturing index was above estimates while the Kansas City index was flat as was the December Chicago national activity index,

(4)                                  macroeconomic: the December leading economic indicators were flat, in line; the initial fourth quarter GDP growth estimate was short of consensus; the December trade deficit was fractionally less than anticipated.

The Market-Disciplined Investing

The indices (DJIA 20093, S&P 2294) continued to flat line following the Dow’s break of 20000.  The S&P remains unable to meet the challenge of its 2300 level.   Volume declined, but remains at elevated levels; breadth was mixed.   The VIX (10.6) fell slightly, closing below the upper boundary of a very short term downtrend, below its 100 and 200 day moving averages (now resistance), in a short term downtrend and is drawing ever nearer the lower boundary of its intermediate term trading range (10.3).
The Dow ended [a] above its 100 day moving average, now support, [b] above its 200 day moving average, now support, [c] in a short term uptrend {18560-20600}, [c] in an intermediate term uptrend {11708-24558} and [d] in a long term uptrend {5730-20736}.

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 uptrend {2174-2517}, [d] in an intermediate uptrend {2032-2633} and [e] in a long term uptrend {881-2500}.

The long Treasury was up slightly, closing in a very short term downtrend, in a short term trading range and below the 100 day moving average (now resistance), falling further below its 200 day moving average (now resistance).   

GLD rebounded but ended in a short term downtrend and below its 100 day moving average (now resistance) which continues to push further below its 200 day moving average (now resistance).  It was unable to regain the lower boundary of its former very short term uptrend.

The dollar rose, finishing above its 100 or 200 day moving averages (now support) and in a short term uptrend.   However, it continues to develop a very short term downtrend and is near its 100 day moving average.

Bottom line: the Averages’ performance remain divergent---the Dow having successfully challenged 20000 but the S&P again falling short of 2300.  However, it is close enough that one solid up day could push it through that level.  But until it does, in my opinion, it lessens the significance of the Dow’s achievement.  The big question is, does the Dow pull the S&P up or vice versa.  The answer should provide meaningful directional information.
Fundamental-A Dividend Growth Investment Strategy

The DJIA (20093) finished this week about 57.7% above Fair Value (12741) while the S&P (2294) closed 45.6% overvalued (1575).  ‘Fair Value’ will likely be changing based on a new set of fiscal/regulatory policies which may lead to an as yet undetermined improvement in the historically low long term secular growth rate of the economy but it still reflects the elements of a botched Fed transition from easy to tight money and a ‘muddle through’ scenario in Europe, Japan and China.

This week’s US economic data was very bad and continued to show little evidence that post Trump election Market euphoria was translating into higher consumer spending or business investment.

That said, Trump has started off with a bang, signing multiple executive orders that fulfill some of his campaign promises.  Generally though, they tended to have a greater impact on social versus economic policy.  That in itself is not that bad.  But regrettably his economic actions to date have been less than positive: muscling corporations, talking down the dollar and threats of tariff.  In addition, all we have now is talk with respect to the major economic pillars of his campaign pledges: tax cuts and infrastructure spending.  And as I have opined throughout this narrative, he may have real problems implementing any such policies that would significantly enhance economic expansion.

So while the regulatory landscape is likely to change dramatically this year, there are many unknowns on the economic side.  The extent to which they may alter the numbers and expectations is still a question. 

This week’s international stats were upbeat, increasing the odds that I will upgrade our ‘muddle through’ forecast.  However, I am still worried about a number major problems (Brexit, currency problems, free trade issues) looming out there.

Net, net, in general, my expectations for some improvement in the economic outlook remain high (‘some’ being the operative word).  However, I am not sure how much it will impact the assumptions in our Models.  Remember, those assumptions are calculated more on long term trend basis and less on what is likely to happen the coming 12 months.  Currently, they show a higher economic growth rate than now exists; so a modest pickup in growth will not alter the assumptions.  Trump/GOP will need to up their game to have any impact on the Models.  The point being, current euphoria notwithstanding, nothing has happened yet to change our Fair Value estimates.  I would love to see policies that would.

All that being said, you know that my negative outlook for stocks has little to do with the progress or lack thereof for the economy/corporate profits and is directly related to the irresponsibly aggressive global central bank monetary policy which has led to the gross misallocation and mispricing of assets.  The Fed has $4 trillion on its balance sheet which it has no clue how to get rid of.  And Draghi just said that EU QE isn’t going away anytime soon. 

To be sure, a big pickup in economic/profit growth could have a positive impact on Fair Value in our Model.  But current equity valuations are so distorted to the upside that this will likely prove small comfort when the mean reversion process begins. 

Nonetheless, there is still the problem of quantifying the elements of the new fiscal/regulatory changes---which are clearly a determinant of Fair Value.  To be sure many of the promised shifts in policy would likely have a positive impact; though as I have noted, Trump/GOP may have a lot tougher time implementing those changes than seems popular consensus at the moment.  In addition, right now, everything is not coming up roses (talking dollar down, threatening tariffs).  So while I wait for clarity in order to attempt to quantify these changes, I have to settle for a qualitative statement that I believe that the net effect will be positive for both our economic forecast and possibly, on the margin, stock Fair Value. 

That said, at current levels valuation continues to be a major problem because:

(1)   at this point, the Market is seemingly only  focused on the positive results,

(2)    while I think it reasonable to assume that the rate of corporate profit growth could pick up, that is not a forgone conclusion because earnings expansion will likely be hampered by the negative elements, among which are rising interest rates, rising labor costs, adverse currency translation costs, rising trade barriers and a slowdown in corporate buybacks,

(3)   the P/E at which those earnings are valued will be adversely impacted by higher interest rates,

(4)   the current assumptions in our Valuation Model are for a better secular economic and corporate profit growth rate than has actually occurred. So any pickup in the ‘E’ of P/E is at least partially reflected already in our Year End Fair Values,

(5)   finally, the Market’s problem right now is the absence of real price discovery, i.e. asset mispricing and misallocation, brought on by a totally irresponsible monetary policy. One of the major things a stronger fiscal policy will do is allow the Fed to normalize monetary policy, i.e. raise rates and sell the trillions of dollars of bonds on its balance sheet. In other words, start unwinding asset mispricing and misallocation.’

Net, net, my biggest concern for the Market is the unwinding of the gross mispricing and misallocation of assets caused by the Fed’s (and the rest of the world’s central banks) wildly unsuccessful, experimental QE policy.  In addition, while I am encouraged about the potential changes coming in fiscal/regulatory policy, I caution investors not to get too jiggy about any accompanying acceleration in economic growth and corporate profitability until we have a better idea of what, when and how new policies will be implemented.

Everyone’s a genius (medium and a must read):

Bottom line: the assumptions in our Economic Model may very well improve as we learn about the new fiscal policies and their magnitude.  However, unless they lead to explosive growth they will change little.  That suggests that Street models will undoubtedly remain more optimistic than our own which means that ultimately they will have to take their consensus Fair Value down for equities. 

Our Valuation Model could also change if I raise our long term secular growth rate assumption.  This would, in turn, lift the ‘E’ component of Valuations; but there is an equally good probability that this could be at least partially offset by a lower discount factor brought on by higher interest rates/inflation and/or the reversal of seven years of asset mispricing and misallocation.

                As a long term investor, I would use the current price strength to sell a portion of your winners and all of your losers.  If I were a trader, I would consider buying a Market ETF (VIG, VYM), using a very tight stop.
DJIA             S&P

Current 2017 Year End Fair Value*              13200             1630
Fair Value as of 1/31/17                                  12741            1575
Close this week                                               20093            2294

Over Valuation vs. 1/31 Close
              5% overvalued                                13378                1653
            10% overvalued                                14015               1732 
            15% overvalued                                14652               1811
            20% overvalued                                15289                1890   
            25% overvalued                                  15926              1968
            30% overvalued                                  16563              2047
            35% overvalued                                  17200              2126
            40% overvalued                                  17837              2205
            45% overvalued                                  18474              2283
            50% overvalued                                  19111              2362
            55%overvalued                                   19748              2441
            60%overvalued                                   20385              2520

Under Valuation vs. 1/31 Close
            5% undervalued                             12103                    1496
10%undervalued                            11466                   1417   
15%undervalued                            10829                   1338

* 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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