Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Closing Bell


The Closing Bell

1/12/19


Statistical Summary

   Current Economic Forecast
                       
2018 estimates (revised)

Real Growth in Gross Domestic Product                          1.5-2.5%
                        Inflation                                                                          +1.5-2%
                        Corporate Profits                                                                10-15%

            2019

Real Growth in Gross Domestic Product                          1.5-2.5%
                        Inflation                                                                          +1.5-2.5%
                        Corporate Profits                                                                5-6%


   Current Market Forecast
           
            Dow Jones Industrial Average

                                    Current Trend (revised):  
                                    Short Term Trading Range                      21691-26646
Intermediate Term Uptrend                     13994-30206
Long Term Uptrend                                  6585-29947
                                               
2018     Year End Fair Value                                   13800-14000

                        2019     Year End Fair Value                                   14500-14700

            Standard & Poor’s 500

                                    Current Trend (revised):
                                    Short Term Downtrend                                2387-2621
                                    Intermediate Term Uptrend                         1338-3148                                                          Long Term Uptrend                                     913-3073
                                                           
2018 Year End Fair Value                                       1700-1720         
                        2019 Year End Fair Value                                     1790-1810

Percentage Cash in Our Portfolios

Dividend Growth Portfolio                           56%
            High Yield Portfolio                                     55%
            Aggressive Growth Portfolio                        56%

Economics/Politics
           
The Trump economy is a neutral for equity valuations.   The data flow this week was almost nonexistent and what there was, was mixed: above estimates: weekly mortgage and purchase applications, weekly jobless claims, the December small business optimism index; below estimates: month to date retail chain store sales, November consumer credit, the December ISM nonmanufacturing index; in line with estimates: December CPI.
           
There was only one primary indicator: November factory orders and it wasn’t released due to the government shutdown. I am again going to give a tentative rating; this time neutral.   Score: in the last 170 weeks, fifty-five were positive, seventy-five negative and forty neutral.

The data from overseas remains weak.  China is suffering from the effects of the US/China trade dispute.  EU growth is being inhibited by economic/political turmoil in the UK, France and Italy.

There were two big developments this week---one fiscal, one monetary.  First, the US and China completed three days of negotiations attempting to resolve trade issues.  So far, all we have gotten was happy talk out of the US (what’s new?) and vagueness from the Chinese.  Hopefully, some meat will be put on these bones and it will be positive.

Second, the latest FOMC minutes confirmed chairman Powell’s (more dovish) policy reversal delivered at a forum last Friday.  The initial consensus conclusion was that the Fed ‘put’ had been reinstated.  Then two days later, Powell said the Fed would continue to unwind its balance sheet while remaining ‘flexible’. 

I am not sure how to interpret this series of flip flops.  The most obvious explanation is that, as a newcomer to the job, Powell simply hasn’t learned how to convey Fed policy with any consistency.  Which clearly raises the question, what is Fed policy?  I think that there several alternative interpretations: (1) the Fed has finally realized that the economy is weaker than it has been and is saying and needs to stop tightening without admitting it has been wrong on the economy, (2) it still believes that the economy is strong and [a] is simply waiting for an improvement in Market psychology to resume tightening {the Fed call} or [b] will halt rate increases near term but will continue unwinding its balance sheet.  I have no clue what the answer is.  Though, as you know, I have never believed the economy was as healthy as the Fed has portrayed it.

My forecast:

Less government regulation, Trump mandated spending cuts, (hopefully) getting out of the Middle East quagmire and possible help from a fairer trade regime are pluses for the long-term US secular economic growth rate.

However, the explosion in deficit spending, especially at a time when the government should be running a surplus, is a secular negative.  My thesis on this issue is that at the current high level of national debt, the cost of servicing the debt more than offsets (1) any stimulative benefit of tax cuts and (2) the secular positives of less government regulation and fairer trade [at least on the agreements that have been renegotiated].

On a cyclical basis, the economic growth rate is slowing as the effects of the tax cut wear off, the global economy decelerates and the unwind (?) of the Fed’s balance sheet limits credit expansion.  There appears to be an increasing risk that the economy may not be as strong as even my weak forecast has portrayed it.

       The negatives:

(1)   a vulnerable global banking [financial] system.  

Two developments both of which I covered in out Morning Calls: [a] the ECB administrative takeover of an Italian bank has generated pushback from Italy and [b] the collapse of PG&E debt in the wake of major credit downgrades and the impact that will have of its other credit obligations.

(2)   fiscal/regulatory policy. 

Trade remains the most important near-term issue.  As I noted above, the US and China wrapped up their latest effort at resolving their trade issues.  While the meeting all by itself is a plus, the facts that [a] the leading Chinese trade official made an appearance at the talks and [b] the negotiations were extended an additional day, gives me hope that some substantive changes in China industrial policy [IP theft] will occur.  That said, subsequent comments from both parties were woefully short of specifics.  So, I think that this is a time to hope but not get jiggy.


The other issue is the government shutdown over funding of the border.  This week, our ruling class got nowhere near a resolution.  Both sides are firmly entrenched; both sides seem to believe that they have the high moral ground.  So, the shutdown may go on for a while.  Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency and appropriate the funds to build ‘the wall’.  But even traditionally conservative legal experts question the constitutionality of such an action.  Meaning that if Trump does take that route, the impeachment sh*t storm in the house is likely to go from a Category 1 to a Category 3 or 4. 

All that said, so far there has been little economic impact from the shutdown and what there is, is falling on the public employees not receiving their [already bloated and economically unjustifiable] paychecks [cry me a river].  I am sure that if this goes on for an extended period of time, more serious consequences will develop.  But as I noted last week, our political class watches the polls devotedly; so, my guess is that when it becomes clear who the masses are blaming for the shutdown, a compromise will be sought.

I will spare you my usual rant about the weakening effects of an outsized federal debt/deficit on the economy, except to say that those effects may be becoming more pronounced [and visible].

(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  asset bubbles in the stock market as well as in the auto, student and mortgage loan markets.  

The main development this was the release of the latest FOMC minutes which echoed Powell’s dovish statements from the earlier week.  That notion was reinforced in subsequent speeches by several hawkish FOMC members which sounded the ‘flexible’ policy theme of Powell’s.  However, two days later, Powell again reversed himself on the unwind of the Fed’s balance sheet---which in my opinion, is the single most important aspect of current policy.

You know my bottom line on this issue: as long as the Fed continues a QT policy, liquidity shrinks creating credit funding problems and putting downward pressure on asset prices.  But if Fed policy has returned to being a hostage of the Market, then the December plunge in stock prices is probably the worst asset price adjustment over the intermediate term.  I continue to believe that whether the Fed is blowing bubbles or not, QT will not be impactful on the economy.

Another must read from Jeffery Snider.

(4)   geopolitical risks: 

Europe is a mess with Brexit, riots in France and fiscal policy discord in Italy; and it is beginning to show up in a negative way in the economic stats.

Italy.

France.

Trump is now backtracking on his promise to get out of the Middle East which will likely push the threat meter higher as the rest of the players just try to figure out what US policy is.

Who’s on first.

(5)   economic difficulties around the globe.  The stats this week were again negative, continuing to point to a global economic slowdown:  

[a] November EU retail sales were better than anticipated as was its unemployment rate, November German factor orders and industrial production declined substantially,

[b] November Chinese PPI was well under forecasts,

[c] the December Japanese services and composite PMI’s were below estimates.

[d] World Bank sees global growth slowing in 2019.

            Bottom line:  on a secular basis, the US economy is growing at an historically below average rate.  Although some recent policy changes are plus for secular growth, they are being offset by a totally irresponsible fiscal policy.  Until evidence proves otherwise, my thesis is that cost of servicing the current level of the national debt and budget deficit is simply too high to allow any meaningful pick up in the US’s long-term secular economic growth even with improvement from deregulation or the current trade regime (a caveat being if China does change its industrial policy).
           
Cyclically, the US economy is once again slowing.   Though (1) removing the uncertainty of no NAFTA treaty will help return economic conditions within the three countries to what they were before, (2) increase in Chinese purchases of soybeans and oil and the lower tariffs on autos and (3) a slowdown in the rise of short-term interest rates will help keep the slowdown under control.

As a result of these factors, my guess is that my initial US 2019 economic growth rate assumption will likely change---with the risk now being that my estimates may be too optimistic.

          Finally, any move to a more dovish stance by the Fed is not likely to have an impact, cyclical or secular, on the economy.  QE II, III, and Operation Twist didn’t, and QE IV probably won’t either.   Meaning that if the Fed thinks backing off QT will help support economic growth, in my opinion, it will be disappointed.

The Market-Disciplined Investing
           
  Technical

Averages (DJIA 23995, S&P 2596) sold off fractionally on Friday after another volatile day.  Both indices finished below both moving averages (the 100 DMA’s are close to crossing below the 200 DMA’s---an historically negative technical signal).   The Dow finished in a very short-term downtrend and a short-term trading range. The S&P is in a short-term downtrend but is building a very short-term uptrend (the only bright spot in this otherwise dismal picture).  In addition, they have been struggling to challenge several overhead resistance levels. So, there remains a lot of work to be done to re-establish an uptrend.  For instance, the S&P would have to successfully challenge the upper boundary of its short-term downtrend (~2621) before it makes any sense to start thinking that the worst is over.

Volume declined; breadth was flat. 

The VIX fell another 6 ¾ %, this time starting to do some technical damage to its chart.  It closed below the lower boundary of its very short-term uptrend (if it, remains there through the close on Monday, it will void the trend) and its 100 DMA (now support; if it remains there through the close on Tuesday, it will revert to resistance).  It was certainly a much greater fall than would be normal for a slightly down day; but recall that it has not dropped as much as would be expected on several big down days.  Perhaps, this is just catch up.  On the other hand, it still ended above its 200 DMA and in a short-term uptrend.  Nevertheless, cracks are clearly appearing in this chart which would suggest the potential for higher stock prices.

The long bond was up 3/8%, finishing above both MA’s, in short and intermediate-term trading ranges and in a very short-term uptrend. Friday’s bounce was also off of a low that was higher than the previous higher low (in other words another higher low), reflecting continue price strength (lower interest rates).

The dollar rose two cents.  It ended above both MA’s and in a short-term uptrend; though it has not regained the lower boundary of that mid-November to present consolidation phase.  With gold and the long bond both in firm uptrends, normally that would suggest a weaker dollar---unless, of course, it is being bought as a safety trade.

GLD was up, but closed above both MA’s, within a very short-term uptrend and within a short-term trading range.  It remains a healthy chart.

 Bottom line: the ‘buy the dip’ crowd has held in there despite some unfavorable economic news and has fought off several big intraday declines.  That said, breadth is fading and the S&P is struggling near a couple of overhead resistance levels.  I remain a bit confused by the pin action.  So, I am just watching the technical levels for a sign about what the Market is thinking.  On the upside, that is the upper boundary of the S&P short term downtrend (~2621) and on the downside, the December 26th low (2349) or, at least, the last higher low (2446).

 TLT, UUP and GLD all act like the global economy is weakening and the US may be the least dirty shirt in the laundry.

Friday in the charts.
          

Fundamental-A Dividend Growth Investment Strategy

The DJIA and the S&P are still well above ‘Fair Value’ (as calculated by our Valuation Model), the improved regulatory environment and the potential pluses from trade and spending cuts notwithstanding.  At the moment, the important factors bearing on Fair Value (corporate profitability and the rate at which it is discounted) are:

(1)   the extent to which the economy is growing.  US economic activity is slowing, the Fed’s Alice in Wonderland interpretation notwithstanding.  The evidence is all around that there are disruptions occurring; I don’t know how they can be ignored.  Further, the rest of the globe is slowing even faster than I, and most others, expected.

It is certainly possible, even probable, that the US can continue to grow as the rest of the world slows.  But declining global growth will still act as a drag on any improvement in earnings. 

My thesis is that, a trade war aside, the financing burden now posed by the massive [and growing] US deficit and debt is offsetting the positive effects of deregulation and fairer trade and will continue to constrain economic as well as profitability growth---and that is showing up in the numbers.

In short, the economy is not a negative [yet] but it is not a positive at current valuation levels.
           
(2)   the success of current trade negotiations.  If Trump is able to create a fairer political/trade regime, it would almost surely be a plus for secular earnings growth.  The current trade talks with China clearly hold promise.  Unfortunately, thus far, we have gotten little more than platitudes regarding what has been discussed.  Though the fact that another round of negotiations involving higher level trade officials must be looked at as a plus.

(3)   the rate at which the global central banks unwind QE.  The most significant aspect of that currently is the unwind of the Fed’s balance sheet.  Unfortunately, the recent reversal of policy and then the seeming reversal of the reversal leaves the outcome very much in question.  The key will be the Fed’s action.  So, I will be watching the monthly status on its balance sheet.

If the Fed delays QT, then some liquidity pressures will be relieved.  That likely means an upward bias to equity prices [remember, I think the balance sheet unwind will have little impact on the economy].  If it doesn’t delay QT, then I expect a continuation of the liquidity problems that we have witnessed over the last month and that will not likely be good for the Markets.

(4)   current valuations. The recent sell off begun to rationalize valuations in some Market sectors, offering buying opportunities.  However, the 10% Market advance in the last two weeks has eliminated some of those bargains.  That leaves equity prices as defined by the major Averages overvalued.

Bottom line: a new regulatory regime plus an improvement in our trade policies along with proposed spending cuts should have a positive impact on secular growth and, hence, equity valuations.  Plus, if the Fed ‘put’ has returned that is also likely to be a plus for stock prices.  On the other hand, I believe that overall fiscal policy (growing deficits/debt) will hamper economic and profit growth, restraining the E in P/E.

The recent 10-11% rally brought most stocks off their lows and out of their Buy Range (at least as determined by our Valuation Model).   Hence, I am back sitting on my hands.  If equites are in a rally in a longer-term downtrend, then buying opportunities will almost surely offer themselves again.  If the worst is over, then I will be back watching for stocks that trade in the Sell Half Range and will act accordingly.

            As a reminder, my Portfolio’s cash position didn’t reach its current level as a result of the Valuation Models estimate of Fair Value for the Averages.  Rather I apply it to each stock in my Portfolio and when a stock reaches its Sell Half Range (overvalued), I reduce the size of that holding.  That forces me to recognize a portion of the profit of a successful investment and, just as important, build a reserve to buy stocks cheaply when the inevitable decline occurs.

DJIA             S&P

Current 2019 Year End Fair Value*              14600             1800
Fair Value as of 1/31/19                                 13958            1717
Close this week                                               23995            2596

* 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.