Posts tagged Current Market Trends
The Lunar New Year in 2019 falls on February 5, a bit shy of two months from now. According to a New York Times article today, managers in some factories in China – where Lunar New Year is one of the big holiday events of the year – are letting their employees off for the holidays starting this week. Imagine if your boss came into the office one sunny October morning and said “Merry Christmas all, and I’ll see you in January!” Pretty weird. Such, apparently, is the extent to which the cadence of growth in the world’s second largest economy is slowing.
Tales From the Not-Yet-Trade War Front
A rather dour investor sentiment has been traveling across time zones from east to west this morning, cutting a swath of negative figures through the major equity indexes of Asia and Europe before showing up for another down day on Wall Street. The culprit appears to be another set of macro data releases from China coming in way below the already modest expectations of analysts. We show two of them below – retail sales and industrial production – along with the current state of things in China’s equity and currency markets.
Both these figures are notable in that they represent multiyear lows: in the case of retail sales, a 15-year low. Robust double-digit growth in sales has been the norm even through the 2008 financial crisis, but today’s read is just 8.1 percent year-on-year growth. The other point worth making is that these numbers have relatively little to do with the trade war. China’s exports have not turned down notably even after the implementation of successive waves of tariffs by the US. The problem appears to be domestic sentiment – households are turning down the volume on their spending habits and businesses are cutting production shifts accordingly (hence those extended “holiday breaks” noted above).
Old Habits Die Hard
We’ve been writing about the “China rebalancing project” seemingly forever. For literally the entirely of this decade to date, Beijing has loudly proclaimed its intention to move the economy beyond the old formula of massive spending on state-run infrastructure and development projects, towards a more consumer-oriented society closer to Western economies in terms of consumer spending as a percentage of GDP. By some measures it has succeeded – while official published figures from China are not necessarily reliable, consumption has grown as a GDP contributor over the past ten years. But the old fallback growth formula of debt-funded infrastructure has not abated. Indeed, fixed-asset investment, led by housing and infrastructure, hit a five-month high in the most recent data release. With debt levels already sky-high, though, there is a serious question about how many more times policymakers can go back to their old quick fixes for further growth.
Abroad and At Home
China’s slowing domestic economy is a major reason for the weakness in global energy and industrial commodities prices that has persisted over the past several months. That, in turn, seems to be having a positive impact on consumer spending here at home. With gas prices down a couple percent over the past month, US retail sales for the same period jumped by 0.9 percent month-over-month, exceeding analyst expectations (this refers to the so-called “control group” basket of retail goods and services that excludes volatile categories like automobiles, building materials and food services). November was a particularly bright month for big-ticket items like furniture and electronic goods.
US companies will be hoping that trend keeps up domestically. The average S&P 500 company earns around half of its total revenues from markets outside the US, notably China and the EU (which is having its own particular growth problems). Flagging demand in those markets will be a drag on the pace of sales and earnings growth, which in turn will put pressure on stock price valuations, which in turn could feed into prevailing negative sentiment towards risk assets generally, which in turn can spill over into spending plans by households and businesses, which eventually has the potential to lead to recession.
Protectionist and nationalist rhetoric may fill the political airwaves around the world, but it is still a globally interlinked economy, where the fates of consumers and business managers in China, the US, Europe and elsewhere are joined at the hip.
Financial markets move to the metronome of data, but not only data. Optics and perception also factor into the equation. Experience tells us that perception can quite easily become reality. Thousands of trader-bots are primed on any given day to lurch this way and that, often on the basis of no more than the parsed verbiage of a Fed speech or a “presidential” tweet. Sometimes the waves generated by those bots cross each other and cancel out. Other times they all find themselves going in the same direction and create a tsunami.
When “Buy the Dip” Met “Sell the Rally”
Many of the headline data points continue to suggest that there is little reason to worry. The latest batch of jobs data came out this morning and were not way out of line with expectations – net positive payroll gains and a steady, but not overheated, pace for wage growth. In public statements Fed chair Powell projects confidence about growth prospects heading into next year. But other indicators are flashing yellow, if not necessarily red. Oil prices suggest a tempered demand outlook. Fed funds futures contracts are sharply backing away from the presumption of three rate increases next year and perhaps even a shift back to rate cuts in 2020. The picture for global trade remains as opaque as it has been for much of the year, leading to reductions in 2019 global growth estimates by the IMF.
With that in mind, it seems increasingly plausible that the current volatility in risk asset markets is something different from the other occasional pullbacks of the past few years. This one is more grounded in the perception that an economic slowdown is ahead. Not “tomorrow” ahead or “next January” ahead, but quite plausibly sometime before the calendar closes on 2019. What we’re seeing in this pullback (for the time being, anyway) is a roughly balanced approach to buying the dips at support levels and selling into relief rallies at the resistance thresholds. Having made it through a negative October without the bottom falling out, the animal spirits to propel a sustained upside rally are thus far being kept in check. Perception is running ahead of actual data, as it frequently does.
Pick Your Flavor
None of this means that a slowdown (or worse) is absolutely, definitely in store in the coming months. But if it seems like an increasingly probable outcome, how does one prepare? There is never any shortage of blow-dried heads in the media to tell you that “when the economy does X the market does Y” with “Y” being whatever pet theory its proponent is hawking on the day. The problem is that there is no statistical validity to any kind of pattern one might discern between slow or negative growth in the economy and the direction of stock prices. There simply aren’t enough instances for an observation to be meaningful. The US economy has technically been in recession just five times since 1980 (two of which were arguably one event, the “double-dip” recession of 1980-81). There’s no statistical meaning to a sample size of n=5, just like flipping a coin five times does not give you the same insight that flipping a coin 10,000 times does.
The last three recessions occurred, respectively, in 1990, 2001 and 2008. The chart below shows the trend in real GDP growth and share price movements in the S&P 500 over this period.
Here is what jumps out from the above chart: the pullback in the stock market during the relatively mild recession of 2001 was much more severe than the one that accompanied the deeper recession of 1990. Consider: 2001 barely even made it into the history books as a technical recession (the story of how recessions become official makes for an interesting article in and of itself – stay tuned for our 2019 Annual Outlook this coming January!) Yet the bloodbath in stocks was a sustained bear market over nearly three years. By contrast, the market fell just short of, and never technically went into, a bear market during the 1990 recession. 2001 was closer in terms of damage done to the Big One, the Great Recession of 2008.
Here is where we come back to our favorite hobby horse: inferring useful meaning from past instances is misguided, because each instance has its own miserable set of unique variables, like every unhappy family in “Anna Karenina.” Before the 2001 recession happened, you will recall, the high-flying technology sector crashed in a stunning mess of shiny dot-com valuations. A financial crisis – a crisis born of nosebleed asset valuations – precipitated a minor contraction in the real economy. And of course in 2008 it was another financial crisis, this one deeper and holding practically the entire global credit market in its grasp, that begat the near-depression in the economy that followed.
We think of 2001 and 2008 as “recession-plus,” where the “plus” factor arguably contributes more to the severity of the pullback in risk assets than do the macroeconomic numbers relating to jobs, GDP, prices and sales. It was no fun for investors as those numbers turned south in 1990, but the pain was relatively shallow and short-lived. Not so for the multi-year tribulations of 2001 and 2008.
Now, there is no clear path from where we stand today to either a 1990-esque standalone recession, a more severe situation driven by exogenous factors, or just a simple slowdown in growth. Or even (though less likely) a second wind of the growth cycle driven by a yet-unseen burst of productivity. Nor has perception, while currently trending negative, yet become reality. We imagine those bot-generated waves will collide and cancel out a few more times before the trend becomes more sustainably directional. Meanwhile, planning for alternative scenarios is the priority task at hand.
Earlier this fall we coined the phrase “sector spaghetti” to describe a phenomenon we observed in the US equity market, namely the absence of any sector leadership. The small concentration of tech shares that have driven performance for the lion’s share of this bull market started to fall sharply back in July as investors reacted badly to underwhelming earnings announcements from Facebook and others (underwhelming, perhaps, only in the febrile expectations of the analyst community, but still…). Without leadership by the enterprises that dominate the S&P 500’s total market value, the various industry sectors waxed and waned, their combined trajectories looking like a tangled pile of cooked pasta dumped on a kitchen counter. Hence, sector spaghetti.
Oh, and just how impactful was that “small concentration” of tech shares? Consider this: according to the Economist magazine, just six stocks – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Netflix – have accounted for 37 percent of the rise in value of all stocks on the S&P 500 since 2013. Think about those two numbers: 6 and 37. That’s a huge impact for such a tiny cohort.
A Picture Emerges
The spaghetti factor has cleared a bit, thanks to the pullback beginning in October that brought the S&P 500 to flirt with a technical correction on a couple occasions. A general risk-off sentiment has set in, and with it a rotation of sorts into the traditional defensive sectors including consumer staples, healthcare and utilities. The chart below illustrates the recent trend of these three sectors versus the erstwhile growth leaders of information technology, communications services and consumer discretionary.
The problem with this defensive rotation becomes clear when you look at the dotted red line in the above chart. That represents the price trend for the index itself. As you can see, it is much closer in proximity to the lagging growth sectors than to the outperforming defensives. The reason for which, of course, is the outsize influence those market cap-heavy sectors exert on the overall market: the three growth leaders account for more than 40 percent of total index market cap, compared to just over 25 percent for the three defensive sectors (energy, financials, industrials, materials and real estate make up the index’s remaining balance). A rotation out of tech is a rotation with a steep uphill climb.
What Is Tech, Anyway?
The “tech sector” is sort of a misnomer, to the point where the index mavens at Standard & Poor’s undertook a major restructuring of the S&P indexes earlier this year to better segment the various enterprises whose primary business falls somewhere on the value chain of the production, distribution and/or retailing of technology-related goods and services. The restructuring was helpful, to a point. For example, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are all constituents of the information technology sector, but Alphabet (Google) and Netflix both fall under the newly-defined communications services sector.
But it is only helpful up to a point. Take the case of Amazon which, despite being a company entirely built on a technology platform without which it would not be a business at all, has always been and remains a member of the consumer discretionary industry sector. In fact Amazon, Microsoft and Alphabet are all industry leaders in the multi-billion dollar business of cloud computing services, yet all three are in different industry sectors.
More broadly, though, it is actually hard to think of any industry sector where “technology” in one form or another is NOT a core component of the industry’s competitive structure. Financial services companies compete in the fintech arena, while hundred year-old industrial concerns are in a race to grab leadership in the Internet of Things, whatever that winds up being. Even sleepy utilities, traditionally loved almost solely for their high dividend payouts, are scrambling to convince investors they are on top of the evolution to “smart grids” (another catchy name that mostly has yet to demonstrate an actual present-day revenue model).
The point is that technology is all-pervasive. But actual ownership of much of that technology remains highly concentrated – in the hands of those same companies responsible for a large chunk of this bull market’s gains. Any rotation out of those companies into something else is going to need a pretty compelling narrative to deliver commensurate returns. For starters, investors will be hoping next week for a second helping of strong holiday shopping results alongside their turkey and stuffing.
There were lots of think pieces leading into the US midterm elections earlier this week. We didn’t contribute to the genre, mostly because there is nothing statistically meaningful to say about an event with a very small sample size (n = 10, if you want to go all the way back to 1982 for your midterms data set) and lots of variables highly specific to each observance. Not that shoddy statistics ever got in the way of mainstream financial punditry…but we digress. In any case, the day came and went with relatively few real surprises of note. The “known unknowns” of the midterms now join the headline macroeconomic and corporate earnings trends as “known knowns” propelling what might be expected to be a net-positive narrative while the clock runs down on 2018. Always allowing, of course, for the sudden appearance of an “unknown unknown” to spoil the applecart (and thanks to Donald Rumsfeld for his contribution to the lexicon of predictive analytics).
Good Cheer and Relief?
The relief rally that began last week would seem to have some seasonal tailwinds to carry it further. The holiday retail season gets underway in a couple weeks, and it is shaping up to be a decent one. The latest batch of job numbers released at the end of last week suggest that higher wages are finally catching up to the rest of the good cheer in labor market data points. Consumer prices are still in check, despite the gradual encroachment of new tariffs onto consumer goods shelves. A good showing between Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the ensuing week or two could keep investors focused on the growth narrative.
Potential headwinds to that growth narrative are also at play, however. The Fed will meet again in the middle of December and is expected to raise rates for the fourth time this year. That by itself is not new news. In their little-publicized (non-press conference) meeting this week the FOMC reiterated confidence in the economy’s growth trajectory, which sets the stage for next month’s likely increase to the Fed funds target rate. What the Cassandra side of the investor world has in its crosshairs now is the US budget deficit, which is positioned to climb above $1 trillion in the near future.
Again – not a new fact, as this figure was well known when the Republicans implemented their sweeping corporate tax cuts one year ago. What is known with more certainty now, though, is that the higher levels of debt servicing that accompany this swelling budget deficit will happen at the same time as interest rates are heading off the floor towards levels closer to historical norms. Now, the newly known fact of a split Congress may mitigate some of the debt concerns – after all, further fiscal profligacy is unlikely in a Congress that will be hard pressed to get even the simplest pieces of legislation passed. And some optimists still maintain (without much in the way of supporting evidence) that the net effect of the tax cuts will be an unleashing of business productivity. But the debt servicing issue has the potential to be a decisive influence on US credit markets heading into 2019, which could mean trouble for risk assets.
The Big Unknown
Now we come to the part of the discussion where the specific risk factors become harder to pin down, but have the potential to overwhelm conventional wisdom. We’re talking about politics – world politics, to be sure, not just US politics. Assets in developed markets typically ignore, or at least give very short shrift to, socio-political developments. Even singular events that at the time seemed momentous – the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination in the early 1960s come to mind – scarcely had any effect on prevailing stock market trends. The same goes for Watergate – the losses sustained by US stocks in the summer of 1974 were largely in line with the broader forces at play in a secular bear market that lasted from 1969 to 1982.
Markets don’t ignore these events because they are Pollyanna whistling her merry tune – they ignore them on the basis of a well-grounded assumption that the political institutions of modern developed nation-states are robust enough to withstand the impact of any single imaginable happening. The institutions though – and we are speaking here primarily of the US, the EU and the latter’s soon-to-be divorced partner across the English Channel – are being challenged in ways unknown since the post-Second World War Bretton Woods framework came into being.
How could the further dissolution of Western institutions affect investment portfolios? One can speculate, but with little in the way of hard data for modeling alternative scenarios. It may well be that nothing much impedes on investor sentiment in 2019 beyond the usual store of data regarding economic growth and corporate sales & profits. Those numbers may be strong enough to keep the good times rolling for a while longer. But the tension will likely form at least a part of the contextual background. However the numbers end up, we do not expect calm seas along the way.
Be careful what you wish for, because it might come true. A couple weeks ago, bond investors were wishing upon their stars for a retreat in yields from the 3.25 percent the 10-year Treasury had just breached. Well, retreat it did, falling below 3.1 percent in early Friday morning trading. But these falling yields were clearly of the risk-off variety, dragging down everything else with them. The S&P 500 is flirting in and out of correction territory (a peak to trough decline of 10 percent or more) and may well have settled there by the end of the day, while the Nasdaq has already gone full correction.
As we noted in our commentary a couple weeks ago, corrections aren’t particularly rare events. We also noted the Tolstoyan flavor of these events – each one has its own unique story of dysfunction to narrate. “Okay, fine, so what’s the sad story accompanying the current situation?” is thus quite naturally a question that has come up in conversations with our clients this week. The narrative for the glass-half-empty crowd has indeed started to gel, but it is yet by no means clear that this will be the narrative that dominates for the remainder of the quarter (we will remain on record here as believing that it will not).
What we still have is a battle between two narratives, each looking at the same set of facts and drawing different conclusions, as if they were so many Rorschach inkblots. Let’s look first at the case for negativity.
Europe and China and Rates, Oh My
Several strands of thought weave together the bears’ case. In last week’s commentary we had an extensive discussion about the malaise in Europe, first with the Italian budget standoff that has sent yield spreads on sovereign debt soaring, and second with the spread of political unrest from the continent’s periphery to its dead center. Germany will have another round of regional elections this weekend, this time in Hesse (the region that includes financial capital Frankfurt as well as a delightful-sounding tart apple wine called Ebbelwei). The establishment center-left party, the SPD, is expected to fare poorly as they did two weeks ago in Bavaria. A really bad drubbing for the SPD could lead to the party’s exit from being the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s national grand coalition. That in turn could ratchet up the growing uncertainty about Merkel herself at a time when steady leadership from the EU’s strongest member is of critical importance.
China forms the second strand of the pessimist case. The national currency, the renminbi, is at its lowest level in a decade and poised to break through a major technical resistance level at RMB 7 to the dollar. After China’s GDP growth numbers last week came in slightly below expectations (6.5 percent versus the 6.7 percent consensus) Beijing economic officials coordinated a set of emphatic verbal assurances to investors that renewed growth measures were in place. That was enough to give beleaguered Chinese stocks an upward jolt for one day, but the lack of any specificity in the officials’ assurances didn’t hold up for a rally of more extended duration, and shares resumed their downward trend.
With the rest of the world looking particularly unappetizing, attention then turns back to the domestic environment, specifically the prospects for continued monetary tightening by the Fed and concerns that the run of news for corporate financial performance – capped off by earnings growth expected to top 20 percent for 2018 – is about as good as it’s going to get. Higher rates will tamp down the currently rambunctious confidence among consumers and small businesses, while widening spreads will also spell trouble for the corporate debt market at a time when S&P 500 companies have record levels of debt on their books. Margins will be under pressure from upward creep in wages and input costs, and weaker economies around the globe will have a negative effect on overall demand for their products and services. Faltering leadership from high-profile tech and consumer discretionary shares is the canary in the coal mine, portending a more protracted period of market weakness.
It’s not a weak case, to be sure. But there is a strong argument on the other side as well, with opportunists scouring an expensive stock market for bargains made available in a 10 – 15 percent correction environment. This is the “song remains the same” crowd.
The Big Picture Hasn’t Changed
The glass-half-full argument always starts from the same point: the unrelenting sameness of US macroeconomic data month in and month out. The latest of these is fresh off the presses of the Bureau of Economic Analysis as of this morning: a Q3 real GDP growth reading of 3.5 percent, which translates to a 3.0 percent year-on-year trajectory. Same old, same old – healthy labor market with unemployment at decades-low levels, prices modestly but not dangerously above the Fed’s 2 percent target, zippy consumer spending and continued growth in business investment.
On the subject of corporate earnings, the optimists will point out that top-line sales expectations for 2019 are actually increasing. Yes – the tax cut sugar high will lapse once December comes and goes, so bottom-line earnings won’t repeat their 20 percent gains of ’18. But if sales continue to grow at a 6-7 percent clip it underscores the ongoing health in consumer demand, here as well as abroad. And yes – to that point about weakness in China, the adverse effects of the trade war have yet to show up in actual data. China’s exports grew at a 14 percent clip in September, and the $34.1 billion trade surplus it recorded with the US for the same month was an all-time record.
The Fed is likely to continue raising rates. The reason for that, as Fed officials themselves repeat time and again, is because the economy is growing well and (in their view) cans sustain growth while interest rates rise gradually to more normal levels. It’s worth remembering that yields on the 10-year Treasury averaged over 6 percent during the growth market of the mid-late 1990s, and around 4.5 percent during the mid-2000s. There is no particular reason (despite many reports to the contrary) that money managers “have to” rotate out of equities into bonds at some notional 10-year yield threshold (3.7 percent being the number bandied about in a recent Merrill Lynch / Bank of America survey).
To be sure, there are plenty of X-factors out there with the potential to add fuel to the present nervousness in risk asset markets. There are plenty of others that could accelerate a pronounced recovery of nerve heading into the peak retail season that begins next month.
It is also possible that we are seeing the first early hints of the next real downturn – much like those occasional days in August where there’s enough crispness in the air to suggest a seasonal change, even while knowing that autumn is still many weeks away. Just remember that while the timing of seasonal equinoxes is predictable, market transitions do not operate on any fixed calendar.