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.

Gold rallies as Dollar falls

The Dollar Index rally is falling despite rising interest rates. Chinese sell-off of foreign reserves to support the Yuan may be a factor.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold rallied off support at $1200/ounce. Recovery above $1250 would confirm an up-trend, with the next target at $1300.

Spot Gold

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

Gold bears grow as Fed hints at rate hike

The Fed is expected to hike interest rates next week. 10-year Treasury yields broke resistance at 2.5 percent, signaling an advance to the 2013/2014 high of 3.0 percent. Breakout above 3.0 percent is still a way off but would complete a large double bottom signaling the end of the 30-year secular bull market in bonds. Rising interest rates are bearish for gold.

10-year Treasury Yields

The Dollar Index rally continues to meet resistance, with tall shadows on the last four weekly candles signaling selling pressure. Rising interest rates could strengthen the advance, with bearish consequences for gold, but Chinese sell-off of foreign reserves (to support the Yuan) is working against this.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold is testing support at $1200/ounce. Recovery above $1250 would indicate that the recent down-trend has ended. But breach of support is more likely and would warn of another test of long-term support at $1050/ounce.

Spot Gold

Australia’s economic growth is slowing.

Employment and Participation rates are falling.

Australia Employment & Participation Rates

Wage rate growth is slowing.

Australia Wage Rates

Slowing wage rate growth and inflation confirm that the economy is faltering.

Australia Underlying Inflation

The RBA, with one eye on the housing bubble, has indicated its reluctance to cut rates further. Increased infrastructure spending by Federal and State governments seems the only viable alternative.

With the motor industry winding down and apartment construction headed for a cliff, this is becoming increasingly urgent.

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.

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

Bond spreads bullish for US, less so Australia

Yield Curve

The yield curve is one of the best predictors of US economic recessions. Every time the yield curve has turned negative in the last fifty years, a recession has followed.

First of all, what is a yield curve? It is the plot of yields on bonds, normally Treasuries, against their maturities. Long maturity bonds are expected to have higher yields than short-term bills, to compensate for the increased risk (primarily of interest rate changes). If you tie your money up for longer, you would expect a higher return. Hence a rising yield curve.

A rising yield curve is a major source of profit to the banks as their funding is mostly short-term while they charge long-term rates to borrowers, pocketing a healthy interest margin.

When the Fed steps into the market, however, restricting the flow of money into the economy, then short-term rates rise faster than long-term rates and the yield curve can invert (referred to as a negative yield curve).

Bank interest margins are squeezed — it is no longer profitable to borrow short and lend long — and they restrict the flow of new credit.

Credit is the lifeblood of the economy and activity slows.

The chart below compares US recessions to the yield differential: the difference between 10-year Treasury yields and the yield on 3-month T-bills. The yield differential falls below zero when 3-month T-bills yield more than 10-year T-notes.

Yield Differential: 10-year Treasury yields minus 3-month T-bills

You can see that every time the yield differential dips below zero it is followed by a gray bar indicating a recession. There is one exception: the phantom recession of 1966 when the S&P 500 fell 22%. This was originally certified as a recession by the NBER but they later changed their mind and airbrushed it out of history.

You can also see that the yield differential is declining at present but, at 2.0%, it is a long way from a flat or negative yield curve. This supports my argument last week that current Fed rate hikes are more about normalizing interest rates than about monetary tightening.

That could change in the future but at present the bull market still appears to have plenty in the tank.

Corporate Bond Spreads

Corporate bond spreads — the yield difference between high-grade corporate bonds and the risk-free Treasury rate — are another useful indicator of the state of the economy.

Wide bond spreads indicate increased risk of corporate default. Investors are concerned about the state of the economy and demand a higher premium for taking credit risk.

Narrow spreads suggest that credit premiums are low and confidence in the economy is good.

If we examine the chart below, bond spreads are declining, indicating confidence in the US economy, with even the lowest investment grade BBB dipping below 150 basis points (or 1.50%). This is synonymous with a bull market.

US Bond Spreads

Australian corporate bond spreads are higher than the US, with BBB still at 200 bps. They have also declined over the last year but seem to be trending upward from their 2013 low. This is not conclusive as the current trough is not yet complete, but a higher low would warn that credit risk is rising.

Australian Bond Spreads

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.

~ Warren Buffett

A bump for Donald Trump next year

From Tim Wallace at The Age:

Nine years on from the start of the financial crisis, the US recovery may be overheating, Legal & General Investment Management economist James Carrick has warned.

He has predicted a series of interest rate hikes will tip the US into a 2018 recession.”Every recession in the US has been caused by a tightening of credit conditions,” he said, noting inflation is on the rise and the US Federal Reserve is discussing plans for higher interest rates.

Officials at the Fed have only raised interest rates cautiously, because inflation has not taken off, so they do not believe the Fed needs to take the heat out of the economy.

But economists fear the strong dollar and low global commodity prices have restricted inflation and disguised domestic price rises. Underneath this, they fear the economy is already overheating.

As a result, they expect inflation to pick up sharply this year, forcing more rapid interest rate hikes.

That could cause a recession next year, they say. In their models, the signals are that this could take place in mid-2018.

I agree that most recessions are caused by tighter monetary policy from the Fed but the mid-2018 timing will depend on hourly earnings rates.

Hourly earnings are a good indicator of underlying inflationary pressure and a sharp rise is likely to attract a response from the Fed. The chart below shows how the Fed slams on the brakes whenever average hourly earning rates grow above 3.0 percent. Each surge in hourly earnings is matched by a dip in the currency growth rate as the Fed tightens the supply of money to slow the economy and reduce inflationary pressure.

Hourly Earnings Growth compared to Currency in Circulation

Two anomalies on the above chart warrant explanation. First, is the sharp upward spike in currency growth in 1999/2000 when the Fed reacted to the LTCM crisis with monetary stimulus despite high inflationary pressures. Second, is the sharp dip in 2010 when the Fed took its foot off the gas pedal too soon after the financial crisis of 2008/2009, mistaking it for a regular recession.

Hourly earnings growth has risen to 2.5 percent but the Fed is only likely to react with tighter monetary policy when earnings growth reaches 3.0 percent. Recent rate rises are more about normalizing interest rates and are no cause for alarm.

I am more concerned about the impact that rising employment costs will have on corporate earnings.

The chart below is one of my favorites and shows the relationship between employee compensation and corporate profits (after tax) as a percentage of net value added. Profit margins rise when employment costs fall, and fall when employment costs rise.

Profits After Tax v. Employment Costs as a Percentage of Value Added

Employee compensation is clearly rising and corporate profits falling as a percentage of net value added. If this trend continues in 2017 (last available data is Q3 2016) then corporate earnings are likely to come under pressure and stock prices fall.

Source: Warning of bump for Donald Trump next year with slide into recession

Australia at risk as USD rises

NAB are predicting that the RBA will cut rates twice in 2017.

This ties in with the Credit Suisse view: if Donald Trump succeeds in reducing the US trade deficit, it will cause a USD shortage in international markets. And, in Australia, “a USD shortage tends to exert downward pressure on rates, bond yields, the currency and even house prices.”

Macrobusiness joins the dots for us: “a rising USD this year is very bad for commodity prices and national income while being bearish for interest rates and the AUD.”

Source: CS: Australia at risk as USD rises – MacroBusiness

Best time to short commodities since 2012

From Vesna Poljak:

….China’s stimulus is finite and demand for raw materials will collapse without it.

Australian Atul Lele, the Bahamas-based chief investment officer of private wealth manager Deltec, says all monetary and fiscal stimulus has a natural conclusion – “it just ends” – and traditional indicators of commodity prices such as global growth and liquidity conditions have been outrun by prices already.

“Right now, commodity prices are consistent with 8 per cent global industrial production. If we saw that, ex of the financial crisis recovery, it would be the strongest rate of global industrial production growth since 1981, at least. Now I’m bullish global growth and more bullish than most people, but it’s not going to happen and even if it does happen, all you’ve done is justify current commodity prices. So why would you buy a resource stock now?”

China continues to inject stimulus to revive its economy but that is making its financial system increasingly unstable. Credit growth in excess of 30% of annual GDP warns of a banking crisis according to the BIS. And shrinking foreign reserves flag that the currency is under pressure.

China faces the impossible trinity. According to David Llewellyn-Smith at Macrobusiness, a country pegged to the Dollar can only achieve two out of the following three:

  • a stable exchange rate
  • independent monetary policy
  • free and open international capital flows

At present all three are under pressure.

Source: Best time to short commodities since 2012 says Deltec’s Atul Lele

Gold falls as the Fed hikes rates

10-Year Treasury yields jumped above resistance at 2.5 percent after the latest Fed rate hike. Penetration of the long-term descending trendline warns that the secular down-trend is ending. Expect a test of the 2013/2014 high at 3.0 percent. Breakout would confirm the long-term down-trend has ended.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Dollar Index respected its new support level at 100, signaling an advance to 107*.

US Dollar Index

* Target medium-term: 100 + ( 100 – 93 ) = 107

Gold continued its descent in response to rising interest rates and a stronger Dollar. Steps by the Chinese government to limit private gold purchases, in an attempt to support the Yuan, will also impact on demand. Target for the decline is unchanged at the December 2015 low of $1050/ounce. Retracement that respects the resistance level at $1200 would further strengthen the bear signal.

Spot Gold

China hits turbulence

Shanghai Composite Index is retracing from its recent high at 3300. A test of support at 3100 is likely. Rising Twiggs Money Flow indicates long-term buying pressure but this may be distorted by state intervention in the stock market earlier this year.

Shanghai Composite Index

* Target medium-term: 3100 + ( 3100 – 2800 ) = 3400

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index found support at 22000 but falling Money Flow warns of strong selling pressure. Breach of 22000 would signal a primary down-trend with an initial target of 20000.

Hang Seng Index

The best summary I have seen of China’s dilemma is from David Llewellyn-Smith at Macrobusiness:

…China’s choices are limited here by the “impossible trinity”, that a country [pegged to the Dollar] can only choose two out of the following three:

  • control of a fixed and stable exchange rate
  • independent monetary policy
  • free and open international capital flows

China has been trying to run this gauntlet by sustaining an overly high growth rate via loose monetary policy and recently liberalised capital markets plus exchange rate. But it can’t have stability in all three and so is in full reverse on the last two to prevent a currency rout and/or monetary tightening.

Rising interest rates in the US are likely to bedevil China’s monetary policy. A falling Yuan would encourage capital flight. Capital flight would damage the Yuan, encouraging further outflows. Support of the Yuan would deplete foreign reserves and cause monetary tightening. Loose monetary policy would encourage speculative bubbles which could damage the banking system. A falling Yuan and loose monetary policy would fuel inflation. Inflation would further weaken the Yuan and encourage capital flight. Restriction of capital outflows would end capital inflows.

I am sure that there are some very smart people working on the problem. But they are probably the same smart people who created the problem in the first place.

Gold declines as interest rates rise

The Fed is expected to hike interest rates in December. Long-term interest rates are rising in anticipation of further rate hikes in 2017. 10-Year Treasury yields have penetrated their 10-year descending trendline, warning that the secular down-trend is ending. Breakout above 2.50 percent would strengthen the signal, while follow-through above the 2013/2014 high of 3.0 percent would confirm.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Dollar Index successfully tested its new support level at 100. Target for the advance is 107*.

US Dollar Index

* Target medium-term: 100 + ( 100 – 93 ) = 107

With interest rates rising and the Dollar strengthening, demand for Gold is shrinking. Steps by the Chinese government to limit private gold purchases, part of their program to support the Yuan by slowing capital flight, will also impact on demand. Target for the decline is unchanged at the December 2015 low of $1050/ounce. Retracement that respects the resistance level at $1200 would strengthen the bear signal.

Spot Gold

Gold falls as Dollar climbs

Interest rates are surging as the market anticipates rising inflation under a Trump presidency. 10-Year Treasury yields are testing resistance at 2.50. Breakout is likely and would signal a test of resistance at 3.0 percent. Penetration of 3.0 percent would warn that the 30-year secular down-trend in Treasury and bond yields is coming to an end.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Dollar strengthened in response to rising interest rates, with the Dollar Index breaking resistance at 100 to signal a primary advance with a target of 107*.

US Dollar Index

* Target medium-term: 100 + ( 100 – 93 ) = 107

Gold breached primary support at $1200 in response, signaling a primary decline with a target of the December 2015 low of $1050/ounce.

Spot Gold

In the long-term, higher inflation and a weakening Yuan could both fuel demand for gold as a store of value. But the medium-term outlook is bearish.

Neel Kashkari: How to fix the banks | The Economist

[Neel Kashkari, head of Minneapolis Fed] is an experienced financial firefighter. An alumnus of Goldman Sachs, best-connected of investment banks, he spent much of 2008 and 2009 in the Treasury department overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Programme, under which the American government bought more than $400bn of toxic assets to prop up teetering financial institutions. In 2014 he ran to become governor of California as a Republican. He now says that, despite the efforts of regulators since the crisis, much more needs to be done to avoid future bail-outs of banks that are “too big to fail”.

Using an IMF database, the Minneapolis Fed logged the levels of bank capital that would have been needed to avert 28 financial crises in rich countries between 1970 and 2011. Based on the historical relationship between capital levels and crises, Mr Kashkari says there is a 67% chance of a bank bail-out at some point in the next century. This is despite significant new capital requirements imposed since the financial crisis which have, he says, brought down the chance of a failure from 84%.

His solution is to force banks to finance themselves with capital totalling 23.5% of their risk-weighted assets, or 15% of their balance-sheets without adjusting for risk (the “leverage ratio”). This, says Mr Kashkari, would be enough to guard the financial system against a shock striking many reasonably-sized banks at once. Any bank deemed too big to fail would need a still bigger buffer, eventually reaching an eye-watering 38% of risk-weighted assets. Such a high requirement would, in effect, force big banks to break themselves up.

This is radical stuff. Under “Dodd-Frank”, the law that overhauled financial regulation after the crisis, the minimum leverage ratio for big banks is only 6%. But Mr Kashkari’s numbers should be treated with caution. For a start, he counts only common equity, the strictest possible definition of capital, and ignores everything else, such as debt that converts into equity in times of crisis. Recent new regulations aim to ensure that the “total loss-absorbing capacity” of the largest banks, which includes such instruments, reaches at least 18%. Mr Kashkari’s main complaint is that he does not think complex safety buffers will actually work in a crisis.

Much higher capital requirements could put some banks, a few of which are already worth less than the book value of their assets, out of business. Not my problem, says Mr Kashkari, who argues that it is banks’ responsibility to find profitable and safe business models.

Source: Kash call | The Economist

Wait for the push-back from big banks. But their tactics will mainly be scare-mongering to protect profits (and bonuses) by dissuading politicians from acting on an eminently sensible proposal.

Banks need to be bullet-proof and not rely on the taxpayer’s dollar to bail them out in times of crisis. Australian banks, with leverage ratios as low as 3%, are entirely dependent on taxpayer rescue in times of crisis.

Fractional-reserve banking is not a fundamental building block of capitalism (some would call it an aberration). Countries like Germany funded their industrialization without it, their early banks being entirely equity-funded. Fractional-reserve systems are characterized by frequent boom-bust cycles, while banking systems with higher equity funding are far more secure and less likely to spread contagion through the entire economy if they default.

Gold weakens as interest rates rise

Interest rates are climbing steeply as the market anticipates more inflationary policies under a Trump presidency. 10-Year Treasury yields broke through 2.0 percent and are testing resistance at 2.50. Penetration of the descending trendline would warn that the long-term primary down-trend is weakening, signaling a test of 3.0 percent. Breakout above 3.0 is still some way off but would signal the end of the almost 30-year secular down-trend in Treasury and bond yields.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Chinese Yuan has fallen sharply in response to rising interest rates, with the Dollar headed for a test of resistance at 7.0 Yuan (USDCNY).

USDCNY

Gold responded to rising interest rate expectations with a test of primary support at $1200. Narrow consolidation is a bearish sign, as is reversal of 13-week Momentum below zero. Breach of primary support would signal a primary down-trend with an immediate target of $1050/ounce.

Spot Gold

In the long-term, higher inflation and a weakening Yuan could both fuel demand for gold as a store of value. But the medium-term outlook is bearish.