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Tuesday/Thursday Market Commentary

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Key Market Movers Turning Negative
4/24/14 11:00 PM

The factors that have moved the market up for the last five years are eroding.  Contrary to popular conception, the economy shows no sign of entering a new phase of more robust growth.  Quantitative Easing (QE) is being gradually withdrawn, and on its current schedule, will end by November.  Technically, the market has shown significant signs of topping out.  In the absence of stronger economic growth, corporations will have a difficult time increasing earnings.  The market is substantially overvalued by historical standards.

A number of key economic indicators have now been reported for March or April, and is not encouraging for investors expecting a big bounce back from the cold winter.  The housing market was particularly disappointing. New home sales in March were down 14% from February, and down 13% from a year earlier.  Mortgage purchase applications in April are off 16% year-over-year.  Existing home sales were about flat in March, and down 7% from a year earlier.  The pace of sales was about the same as in June 2012.  Housing starts were up 3% in March, but off 6% year-to-year.  The March NAHB Housing Index crept up to 47 from 46, near its lowest level in a year.

Industrial production for March rose 0.7% from the previous month, but only 3.8% from a year ago, well within the prevailing range of the last three years. Although investors cheered a March increase in retail sales of 1.1%, the year-over-year gain was a weak 3.8%, compared to 4% before the extreme cold weather set in, and nowhere near the recovery peak of 8.5% in July 2011.  The March jobs increase of 192,000 was 1.66% above a year earlier, but was up 1.82% on an annual basis in November.  In prior economic recoveries, jobs typically rose from 3%-to-5% annually for months at a time.  New orders for durable goods ex the volatile transportation and defense sectors were up 3.5% year-over-year, down from an annual rate of 8.8% in September.  

If the Fed sticks to its current plan, QE will end in November.  In the last few years QE has been started and stopped a number of times.  A study by Bianco Research found that the S&P 500 rose 117% during periods when QE was in effect and declined 27% when it ended.  Although QE is being ended gradually this time instead of suddenly, we believe that the winding up of the program will be a headwind for the market in the period ahead.

In the last five years corporate earnings have soared despite weak revenues that have mirrored the tepid growth in GDP.  This feat was accomplished largely through keeping a lid on new hiring, holding down spending on new plant and equipment, and buying back stock, mostly with funds raised through new debt issuance. This is not a recipe for sustained earnings growth.  In addition, the S&P 500 is selling at 21 times cyclically-smoothed earnings, a level exceeded in the last 90 years only in 2000 and 2007.   

As we pointed out in recent comments, the market has also taken a turn for the worse on a technical basis.  The momentum stocks that led the market have declined sharply and bounced back weakly.  Many of these stocks have no earnings while those that do are selling at nose-bleed valuations reminiscent of the 2000 and 2007 market peaks.  The S&P 500 has flattened out while Nasdaq has broken a ten-month rising trend line. The partial bounce back has still left it below its 50-day moving average.  Sentiment is still heavily bullish and the number of stocks making new daily highs has been dropping.

In our view, the upside potential for the market is exceedingly limited and the downside risks are high.      

Happy Easter
4/17/14 9:00 PM

We wish all of our readers a happy Easter.  Our next comment will appear on Thursday April 24.

The Collapse Of Momentum Stocks Is An Ominous Change
4/10/14 9:30 PM

Nasdaq’s recent weakness signifies an important change in market leadership that seldom happens without a strong reversal of overall market direction as the market seeks new leaders.  Nasdaq has now declined 7.3% since its peak on March 6th while the S&P 500 is off 3.4% since its high on April 4th.  Moreover, the key momentum stocks responsible for most of the previous strength in Nasdaq are down much more.  Since their respective peaks Three D Systems is down 51%; FireEye 49%; Splunk 45%; Yelp 37%; Tableau software 35%; Pandora 35%; and Workday 35%.  Others such as Tesla, Netflix, Facebook, Biogen and Gilead are also off significantly.  All of these stocks either have no earnings or are selling at extremely high price/earnings multiples.  This is reminiscent of March 2000 when the dot-com bubble started to burst amid widespread investor denial that the bull market could come to an end.

The probable change in leadership is also accompanied by other indications that the long cyclical bull market may have ended.  The number of new daily highs in the market has diminished on each successive rally.  Margin debt is at record highs, both on an absolute basis and relative to GDP.  According to the Investor’s Intelligence Survey, bearish sentiment is at the lowest level since 1987.  Adding to the malaise, this is happening at a time when the Fed has begun to pull back from its Quantitative Easing policy that has boosted stocks in the last few years although the economy is still staggering along at a tepid pace of growth.

Yesterday (Wednesday) the market overreacted on the upside to the release of the Fed minutes of the March meeting on the grounds that the FOMC appeared more dovish than originally thought. The ill-conceived rally failed to hold up and for good reason.  The Fed had already issued an explanatory statement after the meeting followed by a Janet Yellen press conference.  Nothing in the minutes changes the original statement or comments at the press conference.  The statement indicated that interest rates would be kept low for some time after QE ended.  When Yellen was pressed to state how long that might be she offhandedly said that it could be six months, but was subject to the incoming data as are all Fed decisions.

To be sure, there was some question about the so-called “dots” release, based on a survey of the Fed governors that indicated a very slight rise in the fed funds rate one-to-three years out.  The minutes show the FOMC discussing how to explain this and avoid confusion, and that it did not mean a change in the Fed’s policy.  Furthermore, at her press conference Yellen explained that the “dot” projections changed slightly from time to time without necessarily indicating a change.

In sum, we think there has been a distinct change in market leadership at a time when the Fed is tapering its QE program and economic growth is inadequate. In our view this is part of a topping process that is likely to result in a severe market decline.  

The Stock Market's Shaky Foundation
4/03/14 7:00 PM

The current level of the stock market is based on a shaky foundation, dependent on a Fed that cannot get the economy moving and on a business model based on not hiring labor or replacing equipment in order to keep profit margins at an all-time peak.  This is not a sustainable growth model that justifies current market valuations that are far above historical norms.

The economic recovery that is now five years old has never accelerated from its ongoing tepid growth rate. Consumers, burdened by high levels of debt and meager gains in income, are unwilling or unable to go into further debt and have already run their savings down to historically low rates.  Real median household income excluding capital gains and benefits, but including transfer payments, has declined 4.4% since the recession bottomed in March 2009.  With consumer spending accounting for 68% of GDP, the outlook for accelerated economic growth is bleak.

Businesses, too, have been holding a lid on spending.  According to S&P Capital IQ, capital spending by the S&P 1500 has increased only 0.8% annually over the last five years.  Core new orders for equipment in recent months point to continued tepid growth in capital spending in the period ahead.

Corporations have also been reluctant to hire new employees.  In the last three years the monthly year-over-year increase in payroll employment has fluctuated between 1.59% and 1.88% and has shown no signs of a breakout to higher levels.  In prior post-war economic recoveries, it was typical to see increases of 3%-to-5% for months on end.  Now, even a huge weather-related catch-up would not lift us out of the current inadequate zone.

Keeping costs low by maintaining a lid on labor and capital has enabled corporate earnings to soar over the last five years.  In addition, corporations have used their cash to pay more dividends and buy back stock, further helping earnings to rise.  As a result, corporate earnings have soared to an all-time high of 11.1% of GDP, compared to 4.6% in the 3rd quarter of 2008 and an average of about 5.4% in the 1990s.  The long-term average was about 6% in the 45 years from 1955 to 2000.  A reversal to the mean is the most likely outcome. 

In our view, the current trend is a house of cards.  Neither consumers nor corporations are spending enough to generate the amount of income necessary to keep the economy moving forward at a robust pace.  Traditionally, the nation’s economy grew by building new plant, buying more equipment, developing new products and keeping the infrastructure up to date.  It seems to us that little of this is happening now, and that the current level of earnings and profit margins are unsustainable.

In light of these conditions, it’s ironic that investors would cheer Janet Yellin’s recent speech.  What the market saw was continued stimulus by the Fed.  On the contrary, what we saw were the reasons for the stimulus.  Yellin stated “Since late 2008, the Fed has taken EXTRAORIDNARY STEPS (caps are ours) to revive the economy….I think this EXTRAORDINARY COMMITMENT is still needed and will be for some time, and I believe that view is widely shared by my fellow policymakers at the Fed.”  To us, that is hardly a reason for optimism.  We continue to believe that current high stock market valuations are irrational and that the market is as close to a turning point as it was in early 2000 and late 2007.  

Market Facing An Array Of Bearish Indicators
3/27/14 10:00 PM

The stock market is showing signs of topping out after its lengthy 5-year run.  This is our takeaway from examining a wide array of factors such as technical condition, Fed policy, the economy, earnings, valuation and China.

TECHNICAL—The S&P 500 hit an intraday peak of 1883 on March 7th, and has failed to break higher after numerous attempts.  Trading volume has consistently been higher on days when the market was down than when it has been up, indicating a lack of enthusiasm on the buy side and a greater interest in selling.  Recently, stocks have typically rallied early in the day only to give it all back and more by day’s end. Momentum stocks featuring sky-high price/earnings ratios or no earnings at all have been clobbered of late, indicating an increasing aversion to risk. In recent weeks we have witnessed substantial declines in FireEye (35%), Twitter (38%), Tesla (27%), Yelp (23%), Workaday (22%) and Netflix (21%).  Yesterday (Wednesday) the IPO of highly- anticipated King Digital Entertainment headed straight down after opening.

Daily new stock highs have diminished rapidly in the last few months.  New highs were running at about 600 a day in November and only about 200 at the recent market highs.  Since mid-February daily upside volume has trended down at the same time that downside volume has been trending up.  The Investor’s Intelligence survey shows market sentiment at an historical extreme with 55% bullish and only 16% bearish.  The Nasdaq has carved out a head and shoulders top and dropped below the neckline and its 50-day moving average.

THE FED AND THE ECONOMY—The Fed has started to withdraw from Quantitative Easing and, if it stays on the current pace of withdrawal, will be finished by November.  In our view, this is tantamount to tightening, and is happening at a time when economic growth has not yet broken free of the constraints emanating from the aftermath of the credit crisis.  GDP was up only 1.9% in 2013, down from 2.6% a year earlier.  Since the recovery began, GDP growth has averaged a paltry 2% and has not broken out from that range.  Although the last half of the year seemed stronger than the first, most of the growth was attributable to consumer spending and inventory accumulation. Now the inventories have to be worked off, while consumer spending depended heavily on a reduced savings rate rather than income, and is, therefore unsustainable.  Real disposable income increased only 0.8% annualized in the 4th quarter and was about flat with a year earlier.  In the beginning of the New Year, income, a necessary ingredient for sustainable consumer spending, is still not picking up.

Furthermore, new orders for core capital goods, a predictor of future capital spending, have been flat for the last 10 months.  Housing, too, remains on the tepid side, with today’s report showing pending home sales down for the 8th straight month.

EARNINGS AND VALUATION--At current levels the market is substantially overvalued by historical precedent.  With the S&P 500 closing today at 1849, the P/E multiple on our calculation of cyclically-smoothed trailing reported earnings is about 21, far above the long-term historical average of 15, and even further above typical bear market lows of 7-to-10.  We note that our smoothed estimate is relatively conservative compared to Robert Shiller’s highly-regarded CAPE multiple of 25.

CHINA—China is facing a slowdown in growth and a potential credit crisis at the same time.  This puts them in the predicament of possibly having to loosen credit when prudence would ordinarily call for reining it in.  These shorter-term problems also make it more difficult to follow its desired longer-term policy of increasing the proportion of domestic consumer spending in the economy.  In addition the accompanying cutback in imports imperils a number of the world’s emerging economies, thus creating serious headwinds for global growth. (Please see our comment of March 13th for more on this).

All in all, we think that the odds of a major market decline are high, and that the upside potential is limited.      


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