More evidence of a bull market, except in Australia

One of my favorite indicators of financial market stress is Corporate bond spreads. The premium charged on the lowest level of investment-grade corporate bonds, over the equivalent 10-year Treasury yield, is a great measure of the level of financial market stress.

Moodys 10-year BAA minus Treasury yields

Levels below 2 percent — not seen since 2004 – 2007 and 1994 – 1998 before that — are indicative of a raging bull market. The current level of 2.24 percent is slightly higher, reflecting some caution, but way below elevated levels around 3 percent.

The Financial Stress Index from St Louis Fed measures the degree of stress in financial markets. Constructed from 18 weekly data series: seven interest rate series, six yield spreads and five other indicators. The average value of the index is designed to be zero (representing normal market conditions); values below zero suggest low financial stress, while values above zero suggest high market stress.

St Louis Financial Stress Index

Current levels, below -1, also indicate unusually low levels of financial market stress.

Leading Index

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed has declined slightly in recent years but remains healthy, at above 1 percent.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

Currency in Circulation

Most recessions are preceded by growth in currency in circulation falling below 5 percent, warning that the economy is contracting.

Currency in Circulation

Current levels, above 5 percent, reflect healthy financial markets.

Australia

On the other side of the Pacific, currency growth is shrinking, below 5 percent for the first time in 7 years. A sustained fall would warn that the economy is contracting.

Australia: Money Supply

Further rate cuts, to stimulate the economy, are unlikely. The ratio of Household Debt to Disposable Income is climbing and the RBA would be reluctant to add more fuel to the bonfire.

Australia: Household Debt

There is no immediate pressure on the RBA to raise interest rates, but when the time comes the impact on the housing market could be devastating.

Dow warns of a correction

The commentator’s curse. Three days after I posted that Dow Jones Industrial Average was consolidating in a bullish narrow band below resistance at 21000, the Dow breached support at 20800. Downward breakout warns of a correction with support at 20000. Declining 21-day Twiggs Money Flow indicates medium-term selling pressure. Follow-through below 20600 would strengthen the (medium-term) bear signal but the primary trend remains up.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

The false break above 21000 was a hint that all was not well with the trend. Unfortunately we often only see what we expect and miss the subtle clues.

The Dow is in Stage III of a bull market. This is confirmed by a primary up-trend on the Transportation Average, although the current month shows a correction.

Dow Jones Transportation Average

Small Caps indexes like the Russell 2000 also display a strong up-trend, reinforcing the Stage III conclusion.

Russell 2000 Small Caps

Likewise, the Nasdaq 100.

Nasdaq 100

I have not drawn conventional trendlines, on the above charts, through the lowest points in the up-trend. Instead I have dragged a linear regression line down to “touch” the mid-point lows. I find this offers a better fit in many cases where there is an initial (bounce) spurt at the start of the trend.

S&P 500 Bollinger Band Squeeze

John Bollinger says that a Band Width squeeze has preceded many spectacular moves on the S&P 500. A Bollinger Band squeeze highlights when the bands contract into a narrow “neck” indicating low volatility. The squeeze is normally signaled by a fall in the Band Width indicator to below 2.0%.

S&P 500

Upward breakout from a narrow “squeeze” in late January flagged a strong advance, from 2280 to 2400.

Now we have the opposite, with breakout below 2360 warning of a correction. But Bollinger warns that the market often starts with a fake move, in the wrong direction, before the real move commences. So we need to be cautious.

Dow breaches support

The commentator’s curse. Three days after I posted that Dow Jones Industrial Average was consolidating in a bullish narrow band below resistance at 21000, the Dow breached support at 20800. Downward breakout warns of a correction. Expect support at 20000. The false break above 21000 was a hint that all was not well with the trend. Unfortunately we often only see what we expect to see and miss the subtle clues.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

The Dow is in Stage III of a bull market, with long-term Twiggs Money Flow signaling strong buying pressure. Chances of a (primary trend) reversal seem low.

[Correction: Breach of support was at 20800, not 21800.]

Don’t Believe the Hype: China’s North Korea Policy is All Smoke and Mirrors

Dr. Van Jackson is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and author of the book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations:

Social media is abuzz with news that China’s Ministry of Commerce announced it will suspend coal imports from North Korea as part of U.N. Security Council sanctions enforcement for the North’s most recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests in violation of prior Security Council resolutions. So China is finally standing arm-in-arm with the United States and international community to actually do something about North Korea. That’s great, right? Wrong.

China’s suspension of coal imports is smoke and mirrors; an act of geopolitical misdirection. The United States is being played, as it has in the numerous past instances when China supported sanctions resolutions against North Korea at the United Nations only to fail to implement them….

….China’s “emotions” toward North Korea don’t drive its policy. China has a long tradition of paying lip service toward cooperation with the United States and the international community while largely failing to apply any meaningful pressure on North Korea, and for good reason: It doesn’t want a nuclear-armed neighbor on its border to become a nuclear-armed enemy. We ignore China’s enduring strategic interests in North Korea at our peril.

Source: Don’t Believe the Hype: China’s North Korea Policy is All Smoke and Mirrors

The Catch-22 in U.S.-Chinese Relations | Carnegie-Tsinghua Center

Paul Haenle served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolian Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama prior to joining Carnegie:

When, at the no-necktie summit in California in 2013, Xi [Chinese President Xi Jinping] put forward the [strategic partnership] concept, he mentioned three foundational principles: no conflict and no confrontation; mutual respect, including for both countries’ core interests and major concerns; and win-win cooperation. The United States has long reiterated that the relationship should be based not on slogans but on the quality of the cooperation.

….But China’s call for respect for core interests has been a showstopper in Washington, seen as an indication that what China really seeks is U.S. concessions on areas of long-standing disagreement between the two countries.

Historically China has defined its core interests as including Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang (the Uyghur Autonomous Region) but these have lately expanded to include the South China Sea (9-dash line) and Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands administered by Japan.

Vladimir Lenin advocated: “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”

Any attempt at conciliation would encourage further expansion.

Source: The Catch-22 in U.S.-Chinese Relations – Carnegie-Tsinghua Center – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

A huge hole in Trump’s promise to bring back US manufacturing jobs | Business Insider

By Pedro Nicolaci da Costa:

US manufacturing employment has been declining since a 1970 peak, a drop that accelerated after China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation but, tellingly, not after the US entered the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada in 1994.

….SoftWear’s business, along with so many others across the US, should remind Trump of a factor he has yet to acknowledge: the role of automation in reducing the number of manufacturing jobs available…..

That fits a nationwide pattern of manufacturing output hitting record highs in recent years, even as manufacturing employment continues its steady decline.

….Mark Muro, a senior fellow and the director of policy at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, wrote in MIT’s Technology Review. “No one should be under the illusion that millions of manufacturing jobs are coming back to America.”

Source: There is a huge hole in Trump’s promise to bring back US manufacturing jobs | Business Insider

Dow bullish

Dow Jones Industrial Average is consolidating in a narrow band below resistance at 21000, a bullish sign. Strong buying pressure is also signaled by rising Twiggs Money Flow troughs above zero. Breakout would offer a short-term target of 22000.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Robert Shiller: Is he right that stocks are overpriced?

I frequently come across stocks such as Netflix [NFLX], trading on a forward PE of 137 (Morningstar), or even Coca Cola [KO] and Procter & Gamble [PG] that leave me muttering about unrealistic valuations.

Nobel laureate Robert Shiller this week commented that he was no longer buying stocks as he believed they were overvalued. His justification is the CAPE index which compares current stock prices to the 10-year average of inflation-adjusted earnings.

Shiller CAPE Index

The index is below its Dotcom high but is approaching the same level that it peaked at in 1929. Is the CAPE index flawed or does this portend disaster?

Bear in mind that Shiller is not selling all his existing stocks — he has merely stopped buying — and is the first to point out that the CAPE index is a poor tool for timing market tops and bottoms.

Before we make any rash decisions let us compare Shiller’s index to a few other handy measures of market valuation.

Warren Buffett’s favorite

Warren Buffett’s favorite measure of market value is to compare total stock market capitalization to GDP. The higher the ratio, the more the stock market is overvalued.

US Market Cap to GDP

This looks even worse than the CAPE index, with market cap to GDP well above its 2007 high and well on its way to Dotcom levels.

Adapting the ratio to include offshore earnings of multinational companies makes very little difference to the results. Here I compare market cap to GNP as well as GDP. GNP, or gross national product, includes offshore earnings of domestioc companies rather than just domestic earnings as with GDP. The end result is much the same.

US Market Cap to GNP

Market Cap to Corporate Profits

When we compare market capitalization to current profits after tax, however, valuations are still high but nowhere near the irrational exuberance of the Dotcom era.

US Market Cap to Profits after Tax

The current peak resembles earlier peaks in the 1980s and 1960s.

What this tells us is that corporate profits are rising faster than GDP. And that a 10-year average may be a poor reflection of future sustainable earnings.

Sustainable Earnings

Are current earnings sustainable? There is no clear answer to this. But there are some key criteria if earnings are to remain at current levels of GDP.

First, wage rate growth remains low. The graph below illustrates how profits fall when employee compensation rises (per unit of value added).

Wage Rates

Second, that interest rates stay low. The Fed is doing its best to normalize interest rates but monetary tightening would spoil the party. That is, deliberate tightening by the Fed to subdue rising inflationary pressures.

A third element is corporate taxes but there seems little risk of rising taxes in the current climate.

The key variable for both #1 and #2 is wage rates. At present these are subdued, so no cause for alarm.

Wage Rates

….yet.

Equities Could See a Setback, But This Bull Market Isn’t Over | Bob Doll

Sensible view from Bob Doll at Nuveen:

….Given evidence of stronger economic growth, we could see the Fed become slightly more aggressive about its rate policies, but probably not to the point that it would derail the equity bull market.

On balance, we think the risks are skewed to the upside for stocks. While we could see higher volatility and a near-term correction, we expect equities to move higher over the coming year.

Source: Weekly Investment Commentary from Bob Doll | Nuveen

US Job Growth, Wage Rates & Inflation

Payrolls jumped by a seasonally adjusted 235,000 jobs in February, setting the Fed on track for another rate rise next week.

US Job Growth

GDP growth is projected to lift in line with employment, wage rates and hours worked. At this stage, the Fed is still attempting to normalize interest rates rather than slow the economy to cool inflationary pressures.

Projected GDP

Wage rate growth remains muted, at close to 2.5 percent, so rate hikes are likely to proceed at a gradual pace.

Hourly Wage Rates and Money Supply

The need to tighten monetary policy is only likely to be seriously considered when wage rate growth [light green] exceeds 3.0 percent [dark green line]. Then you are likely to witness a dip in money supply growth [blue], as in 2000 and 2006, with bearish consequences for stocks.

*The dip in 2010 was a mistake by the Fed, taking its foot off the gas pedal too soon after the 2008 crash.

Dow: How long will stage III last?

Dow Jones Industrial Average is testing resistance at 21000. Another narrow consolidation, as in December-January, would confirm strong buying pressure already signaled by rising Twiggs Money Flow troughs above zero.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

We are witnessing stage III of a bull market. While this is the final leg, it could last several weeks or several years. My guess is that it will last until the Fed is forced to hike interest rates in 2018, to cool inflation.

Robust Job Growth, Solid Labor Market | WSJ

From WSJ:

The pace of job creation remained robust in February, with payrolls rising by a seasonally adjusted 235,000 new jobs, the Labor Department said.

Evidence of continued health in the U.S. labor market likely cleared the way for the Federal Reserve to raise short-term interest rates next week. The unemployment rate ticked down to 4.7%, as both workforce participation and employment rose….

Source: Robust Job Growth, Higher Wages Show Solid Labor Market – WSJ

Gold hesitates as Fed hints at rate hike

From WSJ:

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen signaled the central bank is likely to raise short-term interest rates at its March meeting and suggested more increases are likely this year if the economy performs as expected.

“At our meeting later this month, the [Federal Open Market] Committee will evaluate whether employment and inflation are continuing to evolve in line with our expectations, in which case a further adjustment of the federal funds rate would likely be appropriate,” Ms. Yellen said in remarks prepared for delivery at the Executives’ Club of Chicago.

The Dollar Index rally continues to meet resistance, with tall shadows on the last three weekly candles signaling selling pressure. Rising interest rates would strengthen the advance, with bearish consequences for gold.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold hesitated at $1250/ounce. Rising interest rates also increase the opportunity cost of holding precious metals. Reversal below $1200 would warn of another decline but recovery above $1250 remains more likely and would signal an advance to $1300.

Spot Gold

US: Why the enthusiasm?

Retail sales are surging, with Retail & Food (ex-Motor Vehicles) growing above 5% a year for the first time since 2012.

Retail & Food Sales

Light vehicles sales are back at their 2000-2006 norm of 17.5 million units a year, reflecting consumer confidence.

Light Vehicle Sales

Housing remains soft but growth in new starts and building permits continues.

Housing

Durable goods orders are also soft but unlikely to remain so if retail sales growth continues.

Durable Goods Orders

Inflationary pressures are likely to rise. Which is why the Fed expects to increase the pace of interest rate hikes in 2017.

Dow Jones Industrials

Dow Jones Industrial Average closed the week above 21000 for the first time. Twelve months ago the index was at 17000, an increase of 23.5 percent. Shallow retracements since then signal buying pressure, highlighted by Twiggs Money Flow troughs above zero. The latest trough, higher than zero, reflects growing enthusiasm from investors.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Prices are rising faster than earnings in expectation of future growth. Clearly the Dow is in Phase III of a Bull Market. As I pointed out in December, this could last for several years.

The key component driving inflation

Two interesting graphs on inflation from Niels Jensen at Absolute Return Partners:

….similarities between the story unfolding in the UK and the one in the US. Core inflation in both countries is significantly higher than it is in the Eurozone – just above 2% in the US and just below 2% in the UK whereas, in the Eurozone, it is only 0.9%. Furthermore, services are very much the engine that drives core inflation in both the UK and the US (exhibit 6).

Exhibit 6: The drivers of core inflation (US only)Source: The Daily Shot, BEA, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Haver Analytics, February 2017. Data as of December 2016

To a very significant degree that is down to rising medical care costs (exhibit 7). As the populace ages, this can only get worse – at least in the US, where almost all healthcare is provided privately and paid for by insurance companies.

Exhibit 7: US personal consumption expenditures by component (%)
Source: The Daily Shot, BEA, Haver Analytics, February 2017

Source: A Note on Inflation: Is it here or isn’t it? – The Absolute Return Letter

Forward P/E turns back up

Dow Jones Industrials

Dow Jones Industrial Average continues to climb, heading for a target of 21000. Rising troughs on Twiggs Money Flow signal strong buying pressure.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

The S&P 500 follows a similar path.

S&P 500

With the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) close to historic lows around 10 percent.

VIX

However, at least one investment manager, Bob Doll, is growing more cautious:

“…we think the easy gains for equities are in the rearview mirror and we are growing less positive toward the stock market. We do not believe the current bull market has ended, but the pace and magnitude of the gains we have seen over the past year are unlikely to persist.”

Forward P/E Ratio

Bob Doll’s view is reinforced by recent developments with the S&P 500 Forward Price-Earnings Ratio. I remarked at the beginning of February that the Forward P/E had dropped below 20, signaling a time to invest.

Actual earnings results, however, have come in below earlier estimates — shown by the difference between the first of the purple (latest estimate) and orange bars (04Feb2017) on the chart below.

S&P 500 Forward Price-Earnings Ratio

In the mean time the S&P 500 index has continued to climb, driving the Forward P/E up towards 20.

This is not yet cause for alarm. We are only one month away from the end of the quarter, when Forward P/E is again expected to dip as the next quarter’s earnings (Q1 2018) are taken into account.

S&P 500 Forward Price-Earnings Ratio

But there are two events that would be cause for concern:

  1. If the index continues to grow at a faster pace than earnings; and/or
  2. If forward earnings estimates continue to be revised downward, revealing over-optimistic expectations.

Either of the above could cause Forward P/E to rise above 20, reflecting over-priced stocks.

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.

~ Warren Buffett