Posts Tagged economic growth

…And Now, The End Is Near?

“The sun is gone, but I have a light.” – Kurt Cobain

 

For years now, market participants have been arguing on whether or not “the” market top has been seen. So far, those who had suggested “a” market top yes, but not “the” market top have won the argument and prevailed. That being said, “this time”, both economically and market wise, it appears likely that we are in the later stages of a growth and bull cycle.

This conclusion may be easier to reach compared to the timing of a correction that could follow it. I am watching multiple “big money” sources, and all I see is a wide spread agreement on a tiring up trend, but hugely different projected time lines of a reversal.

Well then, what do we do now?

The Sun is Gone

Since 2008 global financial crisis, central bank balance sheets have grown from 3-5 trillion dollars to 15-20 trillion, China included. This 12-15 trillion created out of thin air did pull the global economy out of a deep hole and some but, has also created a dependency on easy money.

In short, FED driven expansion days are over. We all need to tattoo this on our chests backwards so we can read it in the mirror as a reminder every morning…and drop our habits developed in the last 9 years relying on it. Party bowl is gone and it’s time to sober up.

The direct effect of easy money policies has been stretched valuations in most asset classes. You can see this in your stock portfolios, real estate and speculative investments.

The good news is, that the global economy is still growing, valuations came down a bit from highs due to the drop in Feb-March of this year and forward earnings are closer to historical averages. Plus, just because the monetary easing has stopped and tightening has been resumed, it doesn’t mean liquidity has dried up. There is still plenty of cash hovering around globally.

You might ask: How much longer can the economies grow, and what if forward earnings disappoint?

The answers are: Probably not for much longer, and a correction would only be natural.

But I Have a Light

Yes, the FED sun is gone, but there is still plenty of light. The global growth is in tact and a recession isn’t an evident threat in the short term. Pro-growth policies are gaining traction, interest rates are still low, consumer and business confidence are high. On the cons side, populist rhetoric and policies, trade wars and anti-immigrant sentiment raise political risks, which can override the positives rapidly.

Just when the volatility has risen, inflation is looming, currency fluctuations are hurting trade, oil price is up and FED is in a tightening mode, the last thing markets need is irresponsible and short sighted political outbursts.

Had I just focused on newspaper headlines, I would say liquidate all your holdings and start planting tomatoes cause a third world war is looming. Luckily, there are plenty of reliable indicators suggesting that things are not that bad.

Here is a critical question in that regard: which single data point has the highest probability of predicting a recession in the US? Like any other question in finance, you’ll get many different answers to this but I agree with Ray Dalio, the manager of the largest hedge fun in the world, Bridgewater. He argues that the debt service ratio is the most important single data point as we live in a debt driven consumer economy. The end of a growth cycle usually comes with a debt service ratio high enough to hurt consumption. In other words, once the interest payment on the loan starts hurting new purchases, that’s when the party ends. Business cycles and equity markets are driven by this phenomenon. Without further ado, let me share with you that current debt service ratio in the US is at all-time lows, consumer balance sheets are healthy and household net-worth is at all-time highs.

What’s the Game Plan?

It’s a military rule, that strategic mistakes can not be remedied by tactical moves. Meaning, if you have your longer-term objectives, plans and action items lined up ineffectively, short term shifts can not bring ultimate success. So, first lesson from this is to make sure that you, or your financial advisor, wealth manager, financial planner etc…understand your long-term goals and your portfolios are adjusted accordingly.

The key thing here is to focus on asset classes more carefully then securities within in it, because 70% of a portfolio’s returns come from asset allocation decisions.

Once your asset allocation (stock, bonds, cash, alternatives) fits your long term strategic goals, then in the next 12-18 months, each time you see a high in the stock market, consider using that as an opportunity to lower your risk exposure from stocks to bonds, from international to domestic equity, from cyclicals to non-cyclicals.

Most likely, before the bear market hits, selling your long-time winners, triggering capital gains taxes and investing in potentially low performing investments won’t “feel right”, but once the bear market losses start creeping in on your statements, that feeling speedily reverses.

As far as the timing goes, it is close to impossible to know when the bear will attack, but it’s probably fair to say that sometime within the next year or 2020. We may see a seasonal summer weakness ahead, higher volatility approaching the mid term elections, and a recovery during the seasonal Santa Claus rally.

But looking at the correction in 2015, let’s remember that the recovery at year end was reversed during the following January in 2016. This time around, that reversal to the downside has the potential to has a longer duration. To be fair though, the worst year in a 4-year presidential cycle is the current second year and the best year is the third, which will be next year in 2019, so there is still some things to be hopeful about.

The Key Factor

I was working at a bank during the Nasdaq bubble and at a money management firm during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. In both cases what I have observed is, that from trough to peak, a buy and hold equity portfolio recovered its losses 5 and 4 years respectively (based on S&P 500 returns). For a risk adjusted, diversified and rebalanced portfolio, that time span was halved.

More importantly, those who got out at the wrong time, missed the fast run up following the drop. So, in other words, your stocks, bonds, cash and alternatives asset allocation, shouldn’t force you to sell at the worst possible time.

In fact, those are the times, in hindsight, appear to be the best times to start buying. The key is to be able to stay invested for the long term.

 Summary

A peak in the economy and equity markets might be near. Timing the reversal of the uptrend is extremely difficult, if not impossible. So in the next year or so, you might want to consider lowering your risk levels during up swings to a level that will not force you to sell during the correction

Thanks for reading my commentary and as always, you can reach me at bbakan@shieldwm.com for questions and comments.

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy. The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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A Mixed Bag of More of the Same

“Thinking is difficult. That’s why most people judge.” – Carl Jung

Many observers are surprised with the current levels of US Stock Indices. There is so much talk about stretched valuations, Trump Trade being over, the potential damage of rising interest rates, trade/currency wars, political uncertainty, rising inflation and last but not the least, the aging economic growth cycle, that given all this, stock prices seem unjustified.

Looking at this wall of worry, one might conclude that “the winter is coming” and it’s time to run to the hills away from the White Walkers, short sellers and bearish bets.

In the past, I have seen how Republican leaning investors, commentators and strategists have allowed their political views to cloud their judgement, and how this led to misguided conclusions, most of which, have been proven wrong.

Unlike the popular rhetoric, the stock market rallied during Obama years, the dollar got stronger, inflation has been tamed, unemployment dropped like a rock, the economy grew and the US has become the safe house in a shady neighborhood.

The thorns of this rosy picture have been stagnant incomes, and stubbornly elevated public debt.

Learning from this experience, investors need to set aside their political views and think with facts in hand, not allowing their preconceived notions to get in the way.

I will address these concerns, and conclude that the stock market still has room to grow, pullbacks are likely and they should be used as buying opportunities.

Concern 1: Stretched Valuations

No matter how you slice and dice it, stocks are expensive. Questions to follow:

1 – How expensive?

2 – Can they go higher from here?

They are extremely expensive when you just look at absolute, traditional, isolated price to earnings ratios. If this is your only gauge, the answer to the second question is a short “no”, and they can’t get go much higher from here.

But when you look at relative factors, especially when compared to other investment vehicles like bonds, real estate, commodities and currencies, stocks still seem to provide growth potential. Roughly a third of US domestic stocks’ dividend payout rate is higher than the yield on 10 Year US Treasury.

In other words, when compared to especially low bond interest rates, stocks are only moderately expensive and the answer to the second question in hand is a “yes”, they can still go higher.

Also, from a purely investment strategy point of view, all we really care about is the asset price action and when we dive in to it, we get good and bad news.

The bad news is that high valuation is a pretty reliable indicator of investment returns in the following 10 years. The good news is that the same cannot be said about the following 3 years. So, if history is any guide, one can conclude that the investment strategy could be to ride the wave while it lasts, especially in the next 3 years but moot your expectations for the next 10 year returns.

Concern 2: Aging Economic Expansion and Bull Market

We are in the eighth year of a stock bull market and economic growth. On average, economic expansions last about 5-7 years and the longest has been 10 years (1992-2002). The stock market not only hasn’t seen a bear market since 2008, it also hasn’t seen a 10% correction for 287 market days as of 4/1/17. So justifiably, some argue we may be approaching a rest stop with a horrible vista point.

I will counter this argument and hope to offer some consolation with 3 supplemental sets of facts.

1 – First let’s get the 287 market days without a 10% pull back, out of the way. Assuming we are in a long-term bull cycle, this is well within historical averages.

2 – The US stock market hasn’t seen bear claws since 2008, but came pretty close with a 15% correction (Q2 2015 – Q1 2016). During the same period, global stock market did face the bear with many developed economies’ losses of well over 30%.

3 – If we expand the above-mentioned period to Q1 2014 – Q1 2016, we’ll see a stock market that was flat for two years (consolidation). Such periods can and do act like a bear market, especially when they last for two years.

On the topic of economic expansion, the key thing to remember is that in spite of its duration, the growth level is still well below past recoveries, and current indicators do not waive the checkered flag for the stop pit.

Concern 3: Rising Interest Rates

It is true that stocks struggle during rising interest rate environments. The reasons for that are plenty but the usual suspects are: 1 – Increasing cost of money, makes it costlier to do business and invest; 2 – Some fixed income securities’ yields start to look attractive compared to risk adjusted equity returns.

That being said, current levels are low enough to give us some time  before the danger zone. If you’d like me to be more specific, the 10 Year Treasury Yield is at approximately 2.5% and historical tendencies point to a 4% rate as the line in the sand in the tug of war. Based on FED actions, it may take us till the end of 2018 or into 2019 to reach that point. Since I try not to make predictions that far in advance, knowing what I know now is good enough to conclude that the current rising rate environment may not hinder equity returns.

Concern 4: Political Uncertainty

Markets have welcomed Trump’s presidential victory as they saw four arrows in his quiver:

1 – Tax cuts

2 – Lower regulations

3 – Fiscal expansion

4 – Trade wars.

Except for trade wars, the rest are deemed to be business friendly and hence will boost earnings. Well, this is a typical case of confirmation bias at least from the earnings point of view. As of 3/31/17, S&P 500 Operating Earnings Per Share has gone up 22.1% (Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices).

In other words, the earnings environment is the best in years and this is due to the pre-Trump economic environment, finally acknowledged by Republican leaning market participants, who for years have advocated a recession. (Sorry to sound speculative and like a sour cherry here.)

I welcome this development as it not only reflects domestic facts more accurately, but also global positive economic surprises.

For those curious minds, the biggest jump came in materials and technology sectors, 36% and 32% respectively, while the biggest loser was real estate by -32%.

In other words, given that a simpler tax code is better for business and the economy, smart deregulation can translate in to a more robust business environment and fiscal expansion is past due because of the FED’s inability to stimulate, setting politics aside, current stock levels may be justified.

Summary

For those readers who look for the blue or the red pill type of conclusion from all this, here is your takeaway:

  • Yes, the market seems moderately stretched
  • Therefore, a correction may be around the corner
  • “Sell in May, Go Away” strategy may prove prudent this year as we approach seasonally weak summer months
  • That being said, long term economic and market trends are in tact
  • Therefore, dips should be seen as buying opportunities
  • Volatility may increase, so tighten your seatbelts and keep your eyes on your long-term objectives

Thanks for reading my commentary and as always, you can reach me at bbakan@shieldwm.com for questions and comments.

 

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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Oil Falls, Dollar Rises, Stocks Get Confused

“Reality is that financial markets are self-destabilizing; occasionally they tend toward disequilibrium, not equilibrium.”  George Soros.

As we come close to the end of a volatile year in stocks, one sudden an unexpected development (for some surely it was expected) slowed down the pace of a typical Santa Claus rally, it caused a shallow pull back, and raised a lot of questions. Crude oil price’s sharp decline caught many investors off guard and the confusion increased volatility.

Meanwhile, the dollar’s rise is also raising eye brows and questions (this is especially entertaining as I remember reading and listening the experts arguing over a crash in dollar’s value during the years following 2009). These two macro level trends create their winners and losers, and their impact is so huge, I wanted to clear some of the confusion and discuss pros and cons of each of them.

Also in this market update, as promised, I will go back to the list of indicators outlined in the previous market update, to help us objectively monitor the direction of the markets.

I picked the above George Soros quote because more often than not, the stock market makes no sense, at least in the short term. Eventually, things settle down but markets can and do stay irrational longer than investors can remain solvent. The reaction to the oil and the dollar price movements is no different, confirming Soros’ conviction.

Oil

Let’s start with oil. Oil is a commodity, which means its price is determined by the global supply and demand, and once set, it’s the same price everywhere you go. So the crude prices fell because there is a glut of it, exceeding the demand. The US is now the largest oil producer along with the Saudis. Shale oil and fracking technologies opened up global reserves twice the size of crude. This is so significant that it’s worth a pause here: the world’s known crude oil reserves are 1.7 trillion barrels, while shale oil reserves are 3.3 trillion barrels, of which 2.6 trillion is in the US. In other words, the US has more shale oil than the rest of the world has crude! How about that?

On the demand front, the Chinese economic growth rate of 8-9% is starting to look like a thing of the past. The world is adjusting to a growth rate of 6-7% in China, which implies less demand for oil. Europe is also not doing so well, neither is Japan, so there is lower demand for oil. Also, here is something for those who would like me to be a more creative. Over the past couple of years, Putin’s Russia has grown to be a more bold, wealthy and aggressive country, not shying away from threatening Europeans of cutting off their natural gas. The drop in oil prices is an enormously effective economic sanction policy as Russia heavily relies on energy exports. So one can speculate: Is Putin being “put in his place”? Clearly, the Russian elite are shaken, which is the only force that can pose a threat to him.

So how do these developments affect you or your investments? Why is the stock market falling along with oil prices? Stocks are falling, because the market is confused and tending toward disequilibrium. The stock market is pricing the scenario in which the falling oil price is due to a slowing down world economy. Partially this is correct, but it doesn’t factor in the benefits of lower oil prices, such as more money in consumers’ pockets, lower input prices and inflation, lower interest rates and less pressure on the FED to increase rates. So in net, it is good for the US consumer, an economy which relies 70% on consumer expenditures. So it should be a good thing for the stocks, also right? Yes and once this is realized, it will be a tail wind for stocks.

Dollar

The US dollar’s uptrend can also be explained by the supply and demand to it. Everywhere you look whether it is China, Japan or Europe, you’ll find accommodating central banks opening their can of quantitative easing packages. They do this to stimulate economic growth, keep rates low, turn cash into thrash, escape deflation trap etc. Rings a bell? As the whole world is drinking the FED’s cool aid, FED is (finally) saying enough is enough. This divergence in central bank policies will raise interest rates in the US, make its securities more attractive, bring foreign investors and push the dollar up.

Just like falling oil prices, rising dollar is also a net gain event. Yes it makes exports more expensive and less competitive, but import prices go down, helps keep rates lower, taking the pressure off of the FED to increase rates, encourages bringing production back to the US, improving the consumers’ purchasing power. A stronger dollar by definition means relatively cheaper Euro, Yen and Yuan, which gives Europe, Japan and China a competitive advantage over the US in the global markets, hence the “currency wars” being back in the headlines. This advantage may translate into better performance overseas in 2015, which for diversified investors is welcome news as in 2014, international stocks have lagged significantly.

Naturally, these moves create winners and losers; for instance, companies that heavily rely on exports may find their margins squeezed, while energy stocks may  feel the heat but overall, a net gain for the US consumer, is a net gain for the US economy and the investor. As for the losers, my biggest concern is a contagion created by troubled Russian banks and a banking crisis in Europe. For now, this is a low probability event, but almost all financial crises seem to be so, prior to becoming obvious.

Let’s now move on to the market watch indicators, but first refresh our memories, my select list is:

Investor and trader sentiment, technical readings and seasonality, valuations, breadth, cash ratios, volatility, economic indicators and demographics, FED, political risks, interest and inflation rates.

Since we have been discussing currency, interest rates and central banks, let’s follow the theme and take a look at FED’s policy.

The FED

March of 2015 will mark the end of the sixth year of the US equity bull market, which has been driven by FED’s policies. Now that the monthly bond buying program is officially over, can this tip the scale so much that bears get their day under the sun? I don’t think so. The US economy is growing moderately, the inflation rate is below the 2% target, and wage growth is still lagging and exposing the recovery’s Achilles’ heel. The FED doesn’t want to slow down the housing recovery, so while raising short term rates, it will aim keeping long term rates the same (flattening the yield curve), and keep mortgage rates low. In other words, just because FED has stopped the bond purchasing program, doesn’t mean it is out of the accommodating game all together, and if the last six years have thought us anything, it’s this ; DON’T FIGHT THE FED. So long as the FED is not tightening, which will be driven most likely by inflation rate peaking its head above the 2% target, its policies will be a positive for the market.

Economic Indicators and Demographics

To summarize, this can be said: the US economy is growing moderately and demographics are favorable. Today (12.23.14) third quarter 2014 gross domestic product growth rate came in at 5%, which is the fastest growth since the third quarter of 2003. So it is extremely difficult to argue in favor of a recession. As for demographics, the largest age group in the US is millennials, or generation Y; those born (roughly) between 1980 and 2000. The significance of this is that these folks are stepping in to their highest spending years in 2015 (please note that these figures are reported differently by different analysts, so there is some room for subjectivity here). The US economy will have a tailwind as a result of this for the next 15 years. Granted, some of the effects will be offset by the mega baby boomers retiring trend, but in net, this is a positive. So, two out of ten indicators are so far, favorable.

Let’s leave it here for now and pick up where we’ve left off in the next market letter. In it, I will also dust off my crystal ball and include 2015 projections.

I wish you all Happy Holidays and a great New Year.

 

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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Lower Energy Prices, Lower Yields, Macro Factors in Play

Central Bank stimulus programs and dropping oil prices have been the dominant macro factors affecting the capital markets.

As the European Central Bank is launching its quantitative easing program, China is joining the stimulus party with lower interest rates, and Japan is continuing with Abenomics’ easy policies.

Simultaneously, in spite of the falling oil prices, OPEC isn’t lowering production.

In this environment of lower yields and energy prices around the globe, winners and losers emerge.

Countries that rely on exports and production, like Germany and China, are benefiting from low energy prices.

On the other hand, countries that rely on energy exports, like Russia and OPEC countries, see their profits being squeezed.

In the US, the unexpected result is the sustained low yields in bonds. 

As many anticipated a rise in interest rates, stimulus packages around the globe are keeping yields down, and US bond yields are affected by this.

Rates in the US are still expected to rise in 2015, but may be not as much, and not so fast.

Stronger dollar makes it more expensive for US export goods, while keeping inflation in check with lowered import prices.

These trends are likely to continue in 2015, and so their effects…

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Most Hated Bull Still Running

“You know how advice is. You only want it if it agrees with what you wanted to do anyway.”  John Steinback, Author (1902-1968)

Recently, I’ve got invited to a Rotary Club to share my thoughts on current economic and market conditions. I chose instead, a topic more interesting and not as dry for many, and talked about the findings of a relatively new field of study called Behavioral Finance. It is a hybrid of psychology and economics and aims to understand how people make financial and consumption decisions.

The main premise of this field is that we are not rational beings, and in fact quite predictably irrational. A good book on this topic is called “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely. We are wired and conditioned to work really hard on avoiding cognitive dissonance, a mental state of stress when faced with conflicting information and a decision has to be made. So we’d rather look for information that supports our current opinions, pre-existing biases and choices, which behavioral finance calls “confirmation bias”. Having my thoughts around the topic, the opening quote by John Steinback caught my attention. I allowed myself to fall victim to confirmation bias and picked a quote on confirmation bias.

The bull market run in stocks, which started on March 2009 is now 5 years and 8 months old. Many call this the most hated bull market in history, and there is some truth to it. Usually investors love bull markets, this is when you see your investments grow, but why the hate?

The stock market correction and Global Financial Crisis that started in 2007 was so big, so deep and so wide spread, it wiped out many investors hard earned savings and/or cost them their jobs. From peak to trough, the S&P 500 index lost 56%, meaning if you had 100 dollars in Oct 2007, you had 44 left in March 2009. This trauma caused investors, both professional and individual, build such strong negative associations with the market, that they are having hard time adjusting to its 3 fold or 200% growth from the bottom.

From the get go, it was a lonely bull. During its first two months, a 50% knee jerk reaction jump caused many people to question its sustainability. A popular term at the time to describe it was “a sucker’s rally.”

Since then we had a dozen or so pull backs and corrections, and each time there were those who argued that this has been a rally stimulated by FED’s quantitative easing policy and a new bubble has been formed. Since we have just experienced what happens when we have a bubble in our hands, it is/was time to play it safe…and so goes the argument today just like yesterday.

The losses of 2007-2008 caused many to stay out of stocks all together or with less than usual allocation towards. This can be seen with striking numbers among millennials. Those who are between the ages of 14 and 34, are not interested in equity investing, in fact, investing in general. This lack of interest spills over to buying a home or a car and the popular trend among this age group is renting rather than ownership. They saw the consequences of being at the wrong place at the wrong time and they don’t want to fall victim to their parents’ mistakes. This attitude puts them in the spectator seat of a bull market that would have other-wise helped with growing their assets.

To be fair, the $1.2 trillion dollars of student loans hanging over their shoulders isn’t helping the situation, and of course there is always someone out there claiming fame after a pull back with a sign waiving “I told you so”.

At this juncture, approaching its 6th year anniversary, we need to answer whether we are close to the end of a short term bull market, or the beginnings of a long term bull. The difference between the two are the length and breadth (how wide spread) of the trend. The shorter term (cyclical) trends last somewhere around 3 to 5 years. Examples since the tech bubble burst are 2002-2007 bull followed by the 2007-2009 bear and 2009-present bull. The longer term (secular) markets last 10-15-20 years, like the 1982-2000 bull and 1966-1982 bear. Of course, there can and most likely will be cyclical bears and bulls within secular bears and bulls, only to last shorter, if they face against the longer trend.

If the bull market will prove to be a cyclical one, the end, by definition, can’t be too far in the distance. If however, we’re in the beginnings of a longer term trend, then even with 10-15-20 percent pullbacks and corrections, like the 2010 and 2011 16% and 19% corrections respectively, the bull can run for another decade or so.

The unfortunate reality is that we can only accurately know the answer to these types of questions after the fact. But that doesn’t preclude us from taking a calculated guess, and while doing so, we should always keep John Steinback in our minds and avoid confirmation bias.

Without looking for information confirming our hatred and death wish of this current uptrend, or our love and wishes of long and prosperous life, objectively how can we tell where we are right now?

We luckily have historical guidelines on our side to make and attempt to judge our coordinates. Here are some of the 10 indicators to watch:

1) Investor and trader sentiment

2) Valuations

3) Breadth

4) Cash ratios

5) Volatility index

6) Technical readings and seasonality

7) Economic indicators, demographics

8) FED Policy

9) Political risks, domestic and foreign

10) Interest and inflation rates

This list, of course can be broadened until cows come home but believe me, if you can make an objective analysis of these indicators, you will be ahead of many of your competitors.

When I look at these indicators, I see a mixed picture. In my next newsletter, I will get in to a deeper analysis of individual readings, but for now, this much I can say: stretched sentiment, valuations, cash ratios and technical, accompanied by high margin balances, are headwinds for the stock market.

On the other hand, seasonality, mainly post mid-term election period, low interest rates, low volatility, accommodative FED, low inflation rates, relatively calm politics and most importantly a growing economy are tailwinds.

This mixed picture, at least for now, is still in favor of a continuing bull market and a stronger argument for a secular trend. Once again, we can only have definitive answers in hind sight, but a 60/40 chance in favor of a secular trend versus a cyclical term makes more sense to me.

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

In my next newsletter, I will elaborate more on this topic with more details on the above indicators.

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Glass Half Full (or empty?)

“It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.” – Carl Jung (Psychologist, 1875-1961)

When the markets don’t give us a clear direction and has mixed data flowing from many different sources, depending on our bias, one can easily call it half full or half empty. Either way, we would be right. Today, one can conclude that the stock market is due a correction or that it is building momentum for an uptrend. How so?

The glass is half empty because:

  • We are in a seasonally weak period for US stocks. Historically, most of the stock gains occur Nov through April and summer months are typically volatile. Like any other historical data, this doesn’t always hold true. 2008 Nov through 2009 April was one of the worst periods in the stock market, and as recently as last year, May through Oct brought decent returns. Nevertheless, the probability of summer months’ weakness carries statistical significance.

  • This is a midterm election year, also the second year in the presidential cycle. In all four presidential years, second year has the worst record for stock market returns.

  • Valuations are stretched, meaning stock prices are not cheap and in relation to earnings (Price/Earnings ratio) they are close to correction territory. An uptrend in stocks without improved earnings, makes it expensive to invest and less attractive.

  • Falling bond yields signal weak economic activity ahead. If there is one big, in fact huge, surprise for many investors for 2014 (actually, it really started in 2011, but a more widespread consensus was for 2014) was falling bond yields and rising bond prices. By now, many analysts have been speculating a much higher Treasury bond yields. In fact, the opposite has been happening due to global easy money policies by central banks, shrinking US budget deficit and less Treasury auctions, low inflation expectations and slow economic growth.

  • Extreme optimism can be seen in the results of the Investor Intelligence’s bulls versus bears study and mutual funds cash holdings, both of which signal an overly optimistic investor view. Extreme optimism is one of the many conditions of the beginnings of a pull back.

  • Housing, a locomotive sector, has been slowing down and showing signs of topping. There have been talks of Obama administration pushing for looser lending standards through FHA loans, which could help but nevertheless, current conditions signal a market top.

  • European markets were expected to improve much better in 2014 and so far the results are not impressive. China is trying to clean up its property bubble and Japan is working on restructuring to fuel its economy. International markets were expected to play some catch up with the US stock market but except a few isolated incidents, results are sub-par.

Then why is the title of this commentary “Glass Half Full”? Because:

  • Even though the first quarter 2014 Gross Domestic Product, a gauge of US economic activity, has been revised down to -1%, this is hugely attributed to a harsh winter season and cold weather conditions. Bad news is behind us and pent up demand could push second quarter and second half of 2014 economic growth up to 3% – 4%. Growing economy means growing earnings and more attractive valuations.

  • Forward looking economic indicators such as Purchasing Managers Index, Industrial Supply Management index and employment trends have been signaling a stronger growth ahead.

  • Lower bond yields imply a lower cost of capital which is good for stocks.

  • Increasing mergers and acquisitions activity has been very strong and is showing signs of continuing strength.

  • Global markets are mostly above 200 and 50 day moving averages. So the global bull market is still intact.

  • Europe, China and Japan central banks are signaling more monetary easing on the way, which would weaken their currencies, lower cost of capital and stimulate their economies.

  • Technical readings show a bounce back from more cyclical investments such as technology stocks, small cap and energy. The pullback in biotech and pharmaceutical stocks has been contained and didn’t signal a widespread weakness.

  • Major indexes are still above their longer term moving averages indicating upside momentum and FED, even with tapering at hand, is still accommodating.

The executive summary of all this is that the overall trend is still up with a short term pull back a decent possibility. For longer term investors, pullbacks should be viewed as buying opportunities. One of my favorite analysts never gets tired of reminding us, that a successful investor sees opportunities in downtrends, not reasons for panic. We also know that successful investors change their minds when facts change. So stay tuned with facts, don’t fight the trend, which ever direction it is headed.

Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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An Irrational Stock Market?

“Don’t let your ego get too close to your position, so if your position gets shot down, your ego doesn’t go with it.” – Colin Powell.

There are many reasons why managing your own investments is a daunting task. The biggest challenge isn’t the lack of expertise or time…those can be attained. The ultimate challenge is removing your emotions from your money and investments. If you associate success, self-worth, security and future well-being with the balance in your bank account, then you need to be aware of the emotional roller coaster you are on. That’s not even the worst of it all. If you make decisions influenced by these emotions, that’s when you get hurt. Your ego gets in the way and sometimes, what your ego asks you to do in the short term, isn’t necessarily in your best interest in the long run. Your ego should carefully be excluded from your critical thinking. Makes perfect sense and sounds easy to do, but even step one – identifying your ego – is a long process, let alone excluding it from important decision.

So what can we put our trust in? Objective data. To find the right answers, one has to ask the right questions.

What are the most important and main macro drivers of capital markets?

  • Inflation (or deflation)

  • Economic growth or lack of it

  • Demographics (aging population)

  • Policy (FED – monetary and Congress – fiscal)

  • Trend (momentum) and prices

  • Sentiment (consumer and investor)

  • Debt burden (or lack of it)

  • Credit conditions

  • All of the above factors in international markets and geo-political conditions

Now clearly, getting into the details of all the above would be beyond the scope of this newsletter, but we can at least talk about the crème de la crème factors and decide for ourselves, whether or not there is more room for growth in stock values given we are at all-time highs. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce: Inflation, the FED, credit conditions and the economy.

Inflation:

Research shows that, there is indeed a sweet spot for a market friendly inflation rate, which is somewhere between 1.5% and 2.5%.

Below 1.5%, the economy shows the signs of weakness and the risk of deflation becomes a reality. Here, probably the supply-demand balance is supply heavy. Above 2.5%, the economy starts heating up, borrowing rates start to climb, as a result the FED is pressured to raise rates to fight inflation and cool off the economy.

So in case of low inflation, excess supply slows down stock price appreciation. With high inflation, rising costs become the nemesis. A growing but not overly heated economy is where you want to be.

Current year over year inflation rate, (Consumer Price Index issued by the Bureaus of Labor Statistics) is 1.6%. Judging by weather related economic slow-down (more on this later) and its effects on inflation, high inflation is a low probability event for 2014, so you can add this as a plus.

Last note on inflation: low inflation also means low interest rates; low interest rates mean cheap money; cheap money means an investor friendly environment and relatively low fixed income (bonds) returns. When savings accounts and fixed income investors feel they are wasting time with low returns, they are forced to allocate a higher percentage to stocks. Even if these investors chose large dividend paying companies, this pushes valuation of these stocks higher, making growth stocks relatively cheaper and a preferable habitat for growth stocks as well.

The FED:

 In a free market capitalist economy, there are two masters pulling the strings at the macro level: central banks (the FED) and law makers (the Congress). The FED controls monetary policies while Congress oversees fiscal policies. Together, they aim to provide just the right amount of incentives and limits to foster a healthy environment for economic growth and prosperity of all citizens.

The FED has more influence over the market in the short term. Easy monetary policies make it cheaper to borrow and invest, start or grow a business, refinance existing loans and stimulate the economy. Tighter monetary policies would reduce liquidity, raise interest rates and aim to cool off the economy.

Current FED policies are market friendly and accommodating (even with tapering = cutting bond purchases). Yes, the FED cut the amount of sugar but the candy jar is still out there kids. Just because it’s not all you can eat, doesn’t mean you are on a no-chocolate diet, so yes, add this on your list of pluses as well.

Credit/Lending Conditions:

Remember, we are going through the crème de la crème factors, so credit conditions are equally important and surprise: inter-related to the inflation rate and FED policies.

Ever since societies evolved from a barter economy to transacting with the means of an exchange that today we call money, along came banks and credit. In a healthy and well-functioning economic system, banks serve as institutions that funnel savings into investments and support economic growth. Almost no business today can operate without the help of credit. How many people do you know who bought a house with no mortgage? This is all good and dandy but like most things, human greed and lack of regulations to control that, brought us to an abused and over used borrowing conditions, which popped in 2008. When the lending bubble burst, it created a below-the-means response, which meant that we went from extremely loose lending conditions, to an extremely tight lending zone.

Tight lending conditions in a debt driven economy brings compressed economic growth. It is like having one foot on the gas pedal, one foot on the break. If I had more space, I would share with you charts showing the direct relation between lending conditions and market performance.

Today, we are back to less restrictive lending. We are nowhere near pre-2008 levels, but we don’t need to be. As I have noted earlier, we are in a low inflation, low interest rate environment and that’s a great place to start.

Businesses are awash with cash, which eventually would translate in to capital spending and hiring. One side note: one of the strong tailwinds of the stock market performance has been stock buybacks and mergers and acquisitions activity. So there isn’t much demand for business loans compared to previous recoveries, thanks to technological improvements and related efficiencies but that will change and when it does, we will find ourselves in an increasing demand for loans and banks eager to answer that call. If you were wondering, where the next waive for higher earnings will come from; this one will be a big help.

The Economy:

And last but not the least; the economy has to be in growth mode for stocks to appreciate. The only exception is when the economy is coming out of a recession as stocks are a discounting mechanism. In fact, this is when you get your best returns. Since we are almost five years past that point, without the economic growth, there is no tunnel or light.

The most recent real economic growth rate is 2.4% during the last quarter of 2013. This is slow compared to 50 year averages of 3.5%. Add the weather related slow down, this quarter result will probably disappoint. Then why do stocks celebrate? The expectation is a strong recovery in the second half of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised with a 4% growth during the second half of the year, since we have started seeing over 4% growth rates, like 4.1% during third quarter 2013.

Now there is a lot that can go wrong. The market at an all-time high is challenging to maneuver as it is hard for investors to find bargains when there are so many eager sellers to cash in their gains. Secondly, geopolitical threats can throw a serious punch. Russia, luckily alone in the Ukraine crisis, is contained for now but there is no limit to what Putin can and will do once he takes his shirt off and gets on his high horse. Iran is on the back burner right now but Syria is still a boiling pot. Thirdly, European economies can surprise us to the downside. Current expectation for previously troubled economies is to start or speed up with their recovery and this expectation is priced in. What if they don’t deliver? Or conversely, what if the EURO over appreciates and creates headwinds?

 IMF recently has issued a warning/recommendation to the European Central Bank President Draghi, to print more money. If they do, that would be a market positive move; if not, hard to tell at this point.

 Coming off of a very strong year, being a second year in presidential cycle, right at all-time highs, corrections can be fast and furious, case in point the 6-8% waterfall decline that started on Jan 21st. The challenge this year and task at hand is to handle these corrections with your risk appetite and investment objectives in mind.

 Summary:

 In a low interest rate, low inflation, easy FED, loose credit and with growing economy, stock values tend to move towards the right top corner of your charts. Risks are plenty and corrections are expected but for the cool and collected longer term investor, this year may bring positive returns. Summary of summary: Markets are driven by fear and greed. Do you see more fear or greed out there? I see greed.

 Hope you have enjoyed reading my market update. Please feel free to forward it to your friends and family and don’t forget to email your questions or comments to: bbakan@shieldwm.com

 Disclosure

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy.

The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.

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