Saturday, May 6, 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                                 19625-22623
Intermediate Term Uptrend                     17992-25800
Long Term Uptrend                                  5751-23390
                        2016    Year End Fair Value                                   12600-12800

                        2017     Year End Fair Value                                   13100-13300

            Standard & Poor’s 500

                                    Current Trend (revised):
                                    Short Term Uptrend                                     2292-2625
                                    Intermediate Term Uptrend                         2118-2722
                                    Long Term Uptrend                                     905-2591
                        2016   Year End Fair Value                                      1560-1580
2017 Year End Fair Value                                       1620-1640         

Percentage Cash in Our Portfolios

Dividend Growth Portfolio                          57%
            High Yield Portfolio                                     54%
            Aggressive Growth Portfolio                        55%

The Trump economy is providing an upward bias to equity valuations.   The data flow this week was pretty evenly divided: above estimates: weekly purchase applications, April and month to date retail chain store sales, weekly jobless claims, the April ADP private payroll report, April nonfarm payrolls, the April Markit services PMI and the April ISM nonmanufacturing index, the March trade deficit; below estimates: weekly mortgage applications, March personal income, March personal spending, March PCE price index, April auto sales, March construction spending, March factory orders, the April ISM manufacturing index, first quarter nonfarm productivity and unit labor costs; in line with estimates: April Markit manufacturing PMI.

 However, the primary indicators were overwhelmingly negative: March personal income (-), March personal spending (-), March construction spending (-), first quarter nonfarm productivity (-), March factory orders (-) and April nonfarm payrolls (+).  Based on this tally, I score the week a negative: in the last 83 weeks, twenty-six were positive, forty-six negative and eleven neutral.

I would also note that the recent collapse in commodity prices adds to the negative case.  While individually reasons can be sited as to why the price of each commodity has been down, but it seems like too much of a coincidence that they are all down in unison.  Clearly, declining commodity prices point to an economic slowdown/recession.

I said last week that a couple more weeks of soft numbers and I would likely reverse my recent short term economic growth forecast.  That is getting closer.

Update on big four economic indicators (medium):

On the political side, a spending/debt ceiling bill was enacted.  That is a plus in that it eliminates any potential negative economic fallout that would come from a government shutdown.  In addition, the house passed a repeal and replace Obamacare bill.  I discussed it in Friday’s Morning Call and further pursue the subject below.  But my bottom line is that (1) if this legislation even passes, it will be much different than the current bill and take a long time, but (2) the success of Trump/Ryan producing a coalition on such a divisive issue bodes well for tax reform and infrastructure spending.

My conclusion: I am sticking with my initial position that fiscal reforms will take longer and be less invigorating to the economy than many hope.  But that is the good news because a dramatic increase in the deficit/debt, in my opinion, will be more inhibitive to growth than the policies are stimulative.

The troubles with Syria and North Korea continued in the headlines this week.  However, as frightening as the headlines may be, I can’t imagine either situation leading to anything more serious than threatening headlines.  Still, we have to be open to the chance of either or both of these situations going beyond a war of words. 

Overseas, the numbers keep improving in Europe.  So much so that I am near taking it out of the ‘muddle through’ forecast for global growth---with the caveat that a major financial crisis in Italy could end that progress abruptly.

Bottom line: this week’s US economic stats were again negative side, supporting the notion of a fading momentum from the Trump bliss.  Nevertheless, I have held off revising our forecast back down until I know whether or not any actual progress on the Trump/GOP fiscal program could reignite that enthusiasm.  This week’s house passage of repeal and replace keeps that hope alive. But failing a near term turnaround in the numbers, I will likely return to our original short term economic forecast.

Longer term I continue to believe that ultimately the Trump/GOP fiscal agenda will probably take more time and be of a lesser magnitude than the dreamweavers had originally hoped.  On the other hand, based on Trump’s deregulation efforts and his more reasoned approach to trade, I remain confident in my recent upgrading our long term secular growth rate by 25 to 50 basis points.   Clearly, if Trump/GOP manages to effect all that they have promised, then that forecast will get even better.

Our (new and improved) forecast:

An undetermined but positive pick up in the long term secular economic growth rate based on less government regulation.  This increase in growth could be further augmented by pro-growth fiscal policies including repeal of Obamacare, tax reform and infrastructure spending.  On the other hand, it could prove detrimental if the result is a dramatic increase in the federal budget deficit.  However, it is far too soon to speculate on any outcome.

 Short term, the economy may be losing momentum as the post-election Trump buzz wears off.  If that is the case, then our former recession/stagnation forecast would likely reappear brought on by the current expansion dying of old age and/or the unwinding of the mispricing and misallocation of assets wrought by another instance of failed Fed monetary policy.  Clearly the house’s passage on repeal and replace postpones that revision day until we can determine if any potentially improved sentiment impacts consumer and business spending plans.

It is important to note that this forecast is made with a good deal less confidence than normal; so it carries the caveat that it will almost surely be revised.
       The negatives:

(1)   a vulnerable global banking system.  Canada’s largest nonbank mortgage lender reported serious liquidity problems which led to huge depositor withdrawals.   In sympathy, other nonbank mortgage lenders also experienced the same.  While the banking system has remained relatively unscathed to date, this is a situation that needs to be watched.

Further, Puerto Rico has filed for what basically is bankruptcy.  At the moment, there are more questions than answers as to exactly what this will mean.  The major issue I will be watching is how much of its debt is owned by the banks.  To be clear, the answer could be zero; so I mention this more as an item to pay attention to than to worry about.

(2)   fiscal/regulatory policy.  Several meaningful developments this week.  First is congressional agreement on a spending/debt ceiling bill that would keep the government operational through September.  While there was much useless posturing over which political party cut the best deal, the good news is that it prevents any negative collateral impact on the economy from a government shutdown.

Second, the house passed repeal and replace.  Of course the dems hair is on fired, senate approval is needed and the CBO has not scored it.  But credit where credit is due---Trump/Ryan were able to corral a conflict ridden republican caucus to pass a bill dealing with one of the most controversial programs ever.  I have no expectations that we ever get repeal and replace.  But the concerted efforts by the GOP leadership to achieve consensus surely bodes well for the odds of getting tax reform and infrastructure spending---with the caveat that they don’t shoot the moon and bust the budget.
(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 FOMC met this week and produced another head scratcher narrative.  Specifically, the [data dependent] Fed chose to basically ignore the steady stream of poor economic data, characterizing them as transitory.  When in fact the brief period of upbeat data following the elections was the transitory phenomena.  In any case, the tone of the statement following the meeting indicated that it remains on schedule to raise rates at least once more this year.

‘The risk here is that the Fed continues to tighten just as the economy rolls over in what would be a normal correction after eight years of expansion, albeit subpar.  As you know, I am not particularly concerned that about the economic consequences of the unwinding of a disastrous monetary experiment.  But such a move would likely (1) destroy the blind faith in the Fed by at least a portion of yet another new generation of investors and (2) reaffirm the stupidity of trusting the Fed to all the subsequent generations of investors that have already been f**ked enumerable times---my thesis that triggers the unwind of the massive mispricing and misallocation of assets.’

Overseas, the Chinese central bank has been in the process of tightening in the face of speculation in real estate and commodities that equals our own.  Like our Fed it has plenty of economic/political reasons for not wanting the process to get out of control.  However, the threat here is that it does and begins to impact foreign markets.  That is not a prediction; just a warning that this situation needs to be watched carefully.

(4)   geopolitical risks: the troubles over Syria and North Korea were again in focus this week.  The saber rattling continued in North Korea as threats sailed back and forth between it and the US.  China remains very much in the mixed; but it is obviously not pleased with the anti-missile defense equipment that the US is placing in South Korea.  On the other hand, it continues to try to help defuse the situation which has earned it the ire of the North Koreans.  The danger is that, when you are dealing with at least one nut case, the risk of some untoward event occurring is higher than normal.

In Syria, things may be improving with Trump and Putin speaking this week and agreeing [so says the official narrative] to work to defuse the situation.  Who knows what that really means?  The risk of a faceoff with Russia remains. 

(5)   economic difficulties around the globe.  The European economic stats continue to improve to point that I will remove the continent from the ‘muddle through’ scenario if the French don’t throw us a curve ball this weekend.  Not that there are not risks; specifically from Italy, where the danger of a financial crisis remains.

[a] the April EU manufacturing PMI rose to a six year high; the April UK construction PMI improved while its services PMI hit a four month high; April German unemployment fell,

[b] April Chinese new orders for manufacturing and services declined to a six month low.

The latter is where the biggest international risk exists.  The economy is slowing and the central bank is tightening in order to curb excess speculation {sound familiar?].  This maybe the test case for my US economic thesis, so clearly I will be watching with interest.

One more item to mention is the apparent unraveling of the OPEC oil production cut agreement.   This, of course, is not a problem but a plus for the world’s economies, ex oil producers, of which the US is one.  Remember the impact of the last ‘unmitigated positive’ decline in oil prices.

On the other hand, there could be another explanation for the decline in oil prices (medium):

In sum, the European economy has progressed to the extent that it is a candidate for removal from the ‘muddle through’ thesis.  On the other hand, China’s economic problems appear to be worsening; and while there was no news out of Japan this week, there is little reason to assume that its QEInfinity policy will have any better effect today than it has for the last decade.

            Bottom line:  the post-election sentiment inspired economic improvement seems to be fading.  As a result, a return to our prior short term economic forecast is a definite possibility.  Though, if Trump/GOP were to pull off healthcare reform, tax reform and infrastructure spending on a reasonable timely basis, I would suspect that sentiment driven increases in business and consumer spending would be positively affected; and more importantly, our long term secular economic growth rate assumption would almost certainly rise---with the caveat that it doesn’t result in a big increase in the national debt.

For the long term, the Donald’s drive for deregulation and improved bureaucratic efficiency is a decided plus; and as a result, I inched up my estimate of the long term secular growth rate of the economy.  In addition, a more reasoned approach to trade appears to be emerging which would remove a potential negative. 

On the other hand:

This week’s data:

(1)                                  housing: weekly mortgage applications fell while purchase applications rose,

(2)                                  consumer: March personal income and spending as well as the accompanying PCE price index were short of expectations; April auto sales were disappointing; month to date and April retail chain store sales growth increased from their prior readings; the April ADP private payroll report and April nonfarm payrolls report were better than forecast as was weekly jobless claims,

(3)                                  industry: the April Markit PMI manufacturing index was in line while the services PMI was above consensus; the April ISM manufacturing index was below estimates while the nonmanufacturing index was above; March construction spending and factory orders were below projections,

(4)                                  macroeconomic: the March trade deficit was lower than expected; first quarter nonfarm productivity was lower than forecast while unit labor costs were higher.

The Market-Disciplined Investing

The indices (DJIA 21006, S&P 2399) had a decent day on Friday, though volume was down and breadth mixed.   Both remain above their 100 and 200 day moving averages and the lower boundaries of uptrends across all major time frames---all of which act as support.  Of more immediate importance, they are a short hair away from challenging their former highs (21228/2402).   My assumption is that they will probably make that challenge successful and set their sights on the upper boundaries of their long term uptrend (23500/2620)---which I continue to believe that they will not surpass.

The VIX (10.6) was up, but remained below its 100 and 200 day moving averages.  However, it continues to hold above the lower boundaries of its intermediate and long term trading ranges and will almost surely close the huge gap overhead. 
The pin action of the long Treasury and the dollar continue to defy the seeming equity thesis of an improving economy and rising rates.  On the other hand, gold broke below the lower boundary of its short term uptrend---indicating that either GLD investors are worrying about higher rates or that it is caught up in current decline in commodity prices.  However, its chart since November (the election) belies the former; so I will be watching to see if this is a leading indicator for TLT/UUP or a false flag.

Bottom line: investors were apparently heartened by the jobs report on Friday, as they pushed the Averages to very near their former highs. Still volume shrank and breadth was mixed.  In addition, bonds and dollar gave no sign of being impressed by the jobs number.  While I still believe that the indices will make new highs, they are struggling and may need the Energizer Bunny to reach the upper boundaries of their long term uptrends.
Fundamental-A Dividend Growth Investment Strategy

The DJIA (21006) finished this week about 62.7% above Fair Value (12906) while the S&P (2399) closed 50.4% overvalued (1595).  ‘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 a clear negative.  Given the dataflow of the last 2 months, I am questioning my decision to raise our short term growth forecast based on the thesis that the rise in post-election sentiment would eventually be reflected in the hard data---which it did initially but is now fading.   Meaning a reversal in our outlook is on the table---which would suggest a possible near term disappointment for the dreamweavers.

In the political arena, this week saw a reversal of much of what occurred last week.   Last week, there was no agreement on legislation to keep the government open.  Now there is.  Last week, repeal and replace had failed twice.  Now we have a house version.  True, it has a torturous road ahead and many are skeptical of any passage.  But a thousand mile journey begins with a single step.  Not that I think there will ever be a final repeal and replace.  But the fact the Ryan/Trump were able to cobble together a fractious GOP house caucus suggests that less controversial issues (i.e. tax reform and infrastructure spending) have more visibility. 

Accordingly, I think that the odds of legislation on those issues are more likely and hence, the odds that I will ultimately be able to raise our assumption on the long term secular growth rate of the economy---which in turn will positively impact our Models.  That, of course, is a long term judgment; so for the moment, nothing changes.  .

But I again emphasize that given the magnitude of the federal debt, the GOP has have very little room for a net tax cut---with the caveat that they can do a big net tax cut but it will likely be more of a negative than a plus for the economy.  My point is that while a revenue neutral fiscal reform will be a positive for the long term secular growth rate of the economy, it will not be nearly as big as the optimists are suggesting.

More evidence of the more-debt-equals-slower-growth thesis (medium and a must read):

Short term, I thought that the repeal and replace would have hyped up investors.  It didn’t; but the more important issue is whether it will re-energize consumers and businesses to open their pocketbooks and turn around the current deterioration in the data.
Absent that, current valuations/expectations are not supported by the numbers or the prospect that they will improve sufficiently to justify those valuations/expectations.

On a long term basis, I feel like I am on firmer ground modestly raising the secular economic growth rate in our Models based on Trump’s good work at deregulation and the move toward a more free trade posture.  But I have made it clear that the effect that any new programs, at least as calculated by our Valuation Model, have on the secular growth trends, won’t erase the current overvaluation of equity prices---just make it a bit less so.   

Of course, 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. 

As you also know, my thesis all along has been that since the economy was little helped by QE/ZIRP, then it could do just fine in the face of a reversal of those policies (again, just for clarity’s sake, the economy can slow down due to old age and that would have nothing to do with unwinding QE.  The point being that the ending of QE wouldn’t make the slowdown any worse).  On the other hand, since the Markets were the primary beneficiaries of Fed largesse, it would be they who suffered when the Fed begins to tighten.

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 (1) the changes already made in regulatory policy as well as a more rational approach to trade, that is not enough to alter the gross mispricing of assets and (2) what the house passage of repeal and replace could mean for tax reform and infrastructure spending, these measures need to be basically revenue neutral or else their impact is apt to a detriment to long term growth.   Finally, whatever happens, stocks are at or near historical extremes in valuation, even if the full Trump agenda is enacted; and there is no reason to assume that mean reversion no longer occurs.

Exuberance, expectations and gravity (medium):

A look at first quarter earnings (medium):

Bottom line: the assumptions in our Economic Model are beginning to improve as we learn about the new regulatory policies and their magnitude.  However, as this week’s developments indicate, fiscal policies remain an unknown as well as their timing and magnitude.  I continue to believe that end results will be less than the current Street narrative suggests---which means Street models will ultimately will have to lower their consensus of the Fair Value for equities. 

Our Valuation Model assumptions are also changing as I raise our long term secular growth rate estimate.  This will, in turn, lift the ‘E’ component of Valuations; but there is a decent probability that short term this could be at least partially offset by the reversal of seven years of asset mispricing and misallocation.  In any case, even with the improvement in our growth assumption the math in our Valuation Model still shows that equities are way overpriced.

                As a long term investor, with equity valuations at historical highs, I would use the current price strength to sell a portion of your winners and all of your losers.

                Anatomy of a Market top (medium):

DJIA             S&P

Current 2017 Year End Fair Value*              13200             1630
Fair Value as of 5/31/17                                  12906            1595
Close this week                                               21006            2399

Over Valuation vs. 5/31 Close
              5% overvalued                                13551                1674
            10% overvalued                                14196               1754 
            15% overvalued                                14841               1834
            20% overvalued                                15487                1914   
            25% overvalued                                  16132              1993
            30% overvalued                                  16777              2073
            35% overvalued                                  17423              2153
            40% overvalued                                  18068              2233
            45% overvalued                                  18713              2312
            50% overvalued                                  19359              2392
            55%overvalued                                   20004              2472
            60%overvalued                                   20649              2552
            65%overvalued                                   21294              2631

Under Valuation vs. 5/31 Close
            5% undervalued                             12260                    1515
10%undervalued                            11615                   1435   
15%undervalued                            10970                   1355

* 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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