Tuesday/Thursday Market Commentary

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The Fed Continues to Project Weak Growth
Happy Fourth of July
7/02/15 8:30 AM

To say the least, the Fed’s own projections of GDP growth continue anemic at best.  For 2015 the Fed now projects 1.9% growth in GDP followed by 2.55% in 2016 and 2.3% in 2017.  We have stated many times that the recovery since the bursting of the “Housing Bubble” is the most tepid recovery since the great depression and as you can see, the Fed is forecasting more of the same.  We have also stated that the primary reason for this is that debt, i.e., government, corporate, household and student loans, are eating us alive.  At the same time, the Fed is predicting relatively “full employment” with an unemployment rate of 5% starting in 2016.  It turns out that the only way to get to a 5% unemployment rate is to eliminate those people that were not able to find work and have given up from the equation.  Our analogy here is to say the Fed is like the golfer that gives himself every putt over 20 feet and then tells everyone he’s “scratch”.  It is not reality!


From time to time, however, there are bright spots that seemingly appear.  One such spot is automobile and truck sales that were very strong in June.  It turns out that those sales were achieved through a record percentage of leases and/or record length car loans.  Said another way, debt is the reason that auto sales were good.  We therefore do not believe this is a “turn for the better”.


If we are wrong, the Fed will have to raise interest rates sooner and faster than the market expects.  If we are right, the economy will continue to grow at somewhere between anemic or even negative rates.  Either way, stocks by almost any valuation measure are expensive and when that is the case the forward rate of return suffers; it always has throughout history and we expect it will now.  This is why we remain so bearish on U.S. equities! 


We would like to wish all of our viewers a happy and safe 4th of July!

The Federal Reserve has Painted Itself into a Corner
And There is not Much Room for the Stock Market
6/02/15 3:00 PM

The Federal Reserve has Painted Itself into a Corner


The Federal Reserve seems to have solved the problem of extricating the U.S. from the terrible “great recession” by employing three major monetary policies.  They started with a “zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) for the past 6 years, and then used three Quantitative Easing’s to build-up the Fed’s balance sheet from $800 billion (bn) to almost $4.5 trillion (tn).  We however, believe that the Fed’s actions will result in an even greater set of economic problems in the near future. 


To support our view we will examine various economic data.  We will attempt to go through the various economic data that have just recently been released and show that the U.S. economy is decelerating, even after the loose monetary conditions over the past 6 years.  However, we believe that even if the economic data improves, that will only allow the Fed to raise rates at the same time as other major economies (Japan, Euro Zone, and China) across the globe are in the process of copying the same policies we have used for the past 6 years as they reduce rates and lower the value of their currencies.  Finally, we will conclude with a view of our familiar Cycle of Deflation chart to demonstrate where we currently are positioned in the cycle: “competitive devaluations” which is essentially the same as “currency wars” (see attachment). 


GDP growth in the U.S. after 6 years of “off the charts” Fed monetary easing is the slowest recovery on record since World War II.  And just recently the deceleration in economic data has increased.  There is deceleration in corporate earnings, capital expenditures, economic growth, consumer confidence, and Federal Reserve monetary easing.  The reason for the slow recovery is the exact same problem that got us into the mess during the “great depression”.   It all boils down to too much debt and until the excessive debt is worked down the U.S. economy will struggle with the recovery (see attached chart). 


Some of this can be explained by the severe winter weather, the west coast port closings, and the U.S. dollar increasing.  Due to these transitory problems, most investors and economists believe that there will be a rebound from the first quarter’s negative GDP report.  In fact, they are especially optimistic since the decline in energy prices should be expected to increase consumer spending.


However, American consumers are not spending their gasoline savings, but instead are spending and saving at recession levels.  April consumption was unchanged, March was up 1.1%, February was up 0.6%, January up 0.85%, and December up 0.9%.  These are extremely low consumption levels and consumers have continually increased their savings rate from 4.7% in early 2013 to 5.6% presently. Clearly, the U.S. consumer is acting the same way they did after the “Great Depression” as they were afraid to consume and attempted to save as much as possible.  We believe that this will continue because economists cannot anticipate “consumer behavior”, and when the consumer is concerned about another financial crisis like they just experienced in 2007 (and even in 2000) there is nothing that will stoke their spending except time and debt reduction. Despite common lore, economists as a whole do not have a great record when it comes to predictions.  Recall that in early 2015, polls taken of economists showed unanimous opinion that interest rates in the U.S. would rise.  Of course they fell!! So we take no solace that economists currently predict an acceleration of growth. 


To make things worse the U.S. dollar has reversed the latest 5 year decline from 2009 to 2014.  This will not just hurt the U.S. multinational companies from exporting goods and services to our trading partners, but will also accelerate the “Cycle of Deflation” deflationary conditions compared to Japan, Europe, and China. 


We believe that the economic conditions are bad and will only get worse.  If this is correct, we believe investors in this country will conclude that the Fed’s policies were not as constructive as the world believed, and will act the same way as the U.S. consumer by seeking safety in their investments (said another way –would sell stocks) and act more like the consumer who is not spending but instead saving.


However, if we are incorrect and the first quarter is really a fluke due to transitory conditions, then the Fed will start increasing the Fed Funds rate at the same time our trading partners are lowering their rates.  In our opinion, this will be even more detrimental than the poor economic environment we described above.  So either way it looks to us like the stock market may not perform well this year and probably not for the next few years.     

The Debt, ZIRP, and Valuation

As we write the US stock market, as measured by the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite Index, hovers at or near new highs.  We will take this as an opportunity to reiterate that this is a bubble that is the direct creation of the Federal Reserve.  We continue to refer to this phenomenon as the “Central Bank Bubble”.

Just under one year ago, analysts were estimating S&P 500 operating earnings to increase for the first quarter of 2015 by over 10%.  That number is now substantially lower and has gone negative for the entire index.  According to “FactSet Earnings Insight”, both Q1 and Q2 2015 earnings are now expected to be lower.  Through May 1, the blended result of companies that have reported and have yet to report  for Q1 2015 stood at -.4%.  Analysts are in fact expecting year over year declines through Q3 2015 but are then expecting a strong rebound in Q4 2015.  We agree with the former and strongly disagree with the latter. But whether attributed to weather, the west coast port strike, or dollar strength, the fact remains that for whatever the reason, two declining quarters constitutes an “earnings recession”.    We have had 13 “earnings recessions” since 1945, and all but three of those have led to an economic recession.  We continue to believe corporate earnings will not grow as a whole at a meaningfully different rate than US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as corporate earnings are a proxy for economic growth.   Growth in the economy, in turn, is heavily influenced by “Total Credit Market Debt”, which is the sum of government, corporate and household debt.

Only at the time of the great depression of the 1930’s has “Total Credit Market Debt” been greater than 200% of GDP in the United States (see attached chart from Ned Davis Research)).  That is, of course, until the middle 1980’s when this metric again penetrated that barrier.  After that time it went on an inexorable march to a whopping 367% of GDP just prior to the bursting of the “Housing Bubble” and stood at just under 332% as of the end of 2014.  The level of debt continues to be a headwind to economic growth that will persist until the debt is paid down. 

What has acted to somewhat mask this headwind is, what we believe, is the most reckless policy ever adopted by the Fed.  The Fed was wrong on the “Dot Com Bubble”; was wrong on the “Housing Bubble”; and we believe will be wrong in the creation of the current “Central Bank Bubble”.  This Fed is in a major experimentation mode which is very dangerous.  The policy of which we speak is, of course, Zero Interest Rate policy, or (ZIRP).  This policy has driven the Fed’s Balance Sheet from $800 billion in 2008 to $4.4 trillion currently.

It is because of ZIRP that stocks do not appear, to some, to be expensive.  After all, if the alternative is a 2% ten year treasury or 2.6% thirty year treasury, maybe a 2% dividend yield isn’t so bad; or so the thinking goes.  But as stated above, the growth in corporate profits in the long run is a proxy for the growth in the economy, or GDP.  And right now stocks, measured by market capitalization, are near the highest they have ever been relative to GDP.    Every major market bottom and top has been coincident with very low or very high ratios of “Stock Market Capitalization to GDP”(see attached chart from Ned Davis Research).  It is likely the reason is that this metric has purported to be a favorite of Warren Buffet.    In fact, the only time this metric has been higher was just before the” Dot Com Bubble” burst.   It comes at a time when deflation is playing out all over the world.  The dollar is strengthening, which hinders multinational companies from exporting goods abroad.   In addition, it appears that companies do not have enough pricing power to increase margins.

We at Comstock have been telling our viewers that we have been in a deflationary environment for years.  It seems the markets now are agreeing with us as there are currently few countries that are expecting any material inflation over the next ten years.  This is evident by the yields in ten year sovereign paper.  The following are yields as of the date of this writing: United States 2.19%; United Kingdom 1.97%; Italy 1.81%; Spain 1.78%; France .82%; Japan .36%, and Germany .52%.

What all of these countries have in common, in addition to being democracies, is that their respective central banks are in a “Liquidity Trap” situation, where low and even negative interest rates do not encourage consumer spending but rather consumer savings.  Businesses in turn do not have the confidence to invest in new plant and equipment.  This is particularly true in the United States, where the average age of private fixed assets is the oldest in the past fifty years. 

So, to our viewers we say, we have been early on this, as we were with the Dot Com and Housing Bubbles, but we are confident this will end the same way as those bubbles. The US stock market is historically expensive and financial assets have been inflated by an experimental central bank policy.  It is an error that is now being repeated by central banks in Europe, Japan and just recently, China.  These markets are being influenced in similar ways as ours, rather than fiscal and tax policies that would stimulate sustainable growth.   We will hold our view that stocks are expensive until they become priced more reasonably relative to the growth prospects of the economy. We have maintained consistently that high levels of debt are the main problem affecting growth and those debt levels will not be going away any time soon.


Central Bank Bubble is Similar to the Dot Com and Housing Bubbles
The Debt Built Up Over the Past 34 Years Still Haunts Us
3/04/15 3:00 PM

Comstock was criticized during the late 1990s as we continued to warn our loyal readers that the dot com bubble would eventually burst and would be written about for years to come.  In fact, we stated that Harvard would have case studies about the fundamentals of how many eyeballs were looking at the internet stocks rather than P/E ratios or even EBITDA ratios.  We were charging a substantial amount of money from our viewers throughout the 1980s and 1990s until we got so frustrated by saying the same thing over and over, we decided to stop charging for our research reports in 1999. 

The research report entitled “Analyze This” in the mid-1990s was the last report we charged for and you will be able to understand our frustration by quoting the first paragraph of it now.  “When stock market history is written the current period will be looked upon as a textbook example of the conditions that exist at a major market top, and future investors will wonder how so many did not see it at the time.  This should not be surprising since one of the hallmarks of a market top is that the majority are not aware of it, since a market top coincides with the point of maximum optimism, just as a bottom occurs at the point of maximum pessimism.”  We went on to describe just how outrageous the valuations were at the time as we pointed out the extremes of earnings, cash flow, sales, book value and dividends.

The period of time during the housing bubble in 2005, 2006, and 2007 was just about as frustrating to us as the dot com bubble.  In fact if you scroll down at the end of any of our comments you will find a box showing “archives”.  If you click on it and type in “housing”, you will see that in each and every report we warned about the housing bubble.  And now the “Central Bank Bubble” is becoming just as frustrating to us as the other two bubbles. 

We have tried to point out to our current viewers that the Federal Reserve has not raised interest rates for the past 9 years.  Instead, they lowered Fed Funds rates to zero, and increased their balance sheet from $800 bn. to $4.5 tn. mostly thru 3 QE programs and one “Operation Twist” where they bought long term securities while they sold short maturities.  The result of all of this was raising financial assets to almost record levels.  The stock market has tripled over the past 6 years while art, houses, and collectibles rose substantially during the same period. 

Presently, the Fed is just about ready to reverse all of the extremely loose monetary policies they used to push these assets up to hopefully create a wealth effect for the consumers (especially the wealthy consumers).  Now that the Fed will be taking the punch bowl away while many of our trading partners are filling up their punch bowls, what do you think will happen to the assets that were driven up by the reverse of the present Fed monetary policy? 

Now that the U.S. is in the process of reversing the loose monetary conditions, many of our trading partners are copying similar U.S. QE procedures as well as lower interest rate strategies.  This will drive their currencies down while the U.S. dollar will continue climbing.  These “Currency Wars” will help the stock markets and economies of our trading partners.  While this should drive up the stock markets of our trading partners, the U.S. stock market could reverse.  Japan and Europe are in the midst of QE programs, while China and India both just lowered rates twice over the past two months.  Although the Fed is acting like they have bailed us out of the “great recession” we still have plenty to worry about in our opinion.  Our stock market could easily reverse the current break out to new highs and begin trending lower since we still have not solved the enormous debt problem built up over the past 34 years, when the total credit market debt vs. GDP grew from 155% to 367% in 2007, but has only declined to 330% presently!   


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