Posts tagged Stock Market Volatility
From the beginning of January to the beginning of March, the S&P 500 set a total of 13 new record highs. Twelve of them happened after January 20, which no doubt made for an unhappy crowd of “sell the Inauguration” traders. Since March 1, though, it’s been all crickets. The benchmark index is a bit more than two percent down from that March 1 high, with the erstwhile down and out defensive sectors of consumer staples and utilities outperforming yesterday’s financial, industrial and materials darlings.
More interesting than the raw price numbers, though, is the risk-adjusted trend of late. To us, the remarkable thing about the reflation trade – other than investors’ boundless faith in the pony-out-back siren song of “soft” data – was the total absence of volatility that accompanied it. The reflation trade reflected a complacency that struck us as somewhat out of alignment with what was actually going on in the world. In the past several days, though, the CBOE VIX index – the market’s so-called “fear gauge” – has ticked above 15 for the first time since last November’s election. Half a (pre-holiday) week doth not a trend make – and the VIX is still nowhere near the threshold of 20 that signifies an elevated risk environment – but there may be reason to suspect that the complacency trade has run its course.
Equity markets have been expensive for some time, with traditional valuation metrics like price-earnings (P/E) and price-sales (P/S) higher than they have been since the early years of the last decade. But they remain below the nosebleed levels of the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s…unless you add in a risk adjustment factor. Consider the chart below, showing Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted P/E ratio (CAPE) divided by the VIX. The data run from January 1990 (when the VIX was incepted) to the end of March 2017.
When adjusted for risk this way, the market recently has been more expensive than it was at the peak of both earlier bubbles – the dot-com fiesta and then the real estate-fueled frenzy of 2006-07. The late 1990s may have been devil-may-care as far as unrealistic P/E ratios go, but there was an appropriate underpinning of volatility; the average VIX level for 1998 was a whopping 25.6, and for 1999 it was 24.4. Quite a difference from the fear gauge’s tepid 12.6 average between November 2016 and March of this year.
Killing Me Softly
In our era of “alternative facts” it is perhaps unsurprising that the term “soft data” took firm root in the lexicon of financial markets over the past months. The normal go-to data points we analyze from month to month – real GDP growth, inflation, employment, corporate earnings and the like – have not given us any reason to believe some paradigm shift is underway. Meanwhile the soft platitudes of massive infrastructure build-out and historical changes to the tax code have ceded way to the hard realities of crafting legislature in the highly divisive political environment of Washington. Survey-based indicators like consumer or business owner sentiment, which have been behind some of the market’s recent era of good feelings, are not entirely useless, but they don’t always translate into hard numbers like retail sales or business investment.
The good news is that the hard data continue to tell a reasonably upbeat story: moderate growth in output here and abroad, a relatively tight labor market and inflation very close to that Goldilocks zone of two percent. This should continue to put limits on downside risk and make any sudden pullback a healthy buying opportunity. But we believe that further overall upside will be limited by today’s valuation realities, with an attendant likelihood that investors will return their attention to quality stocks and away from effervescent themes. And, yes, with a bit more sobriety and a bit less complacency.
Spring has come early to the US East Coast this year, with the good citizens of Atlantic seaboard cities ditching their North Faces and donning shorts and flip-flops for outdoor activities normally kept on ice until April. Grilling, anyone? Equity investors, meanwhile, have been enjoying an even longer springtime, full of balmy breezes of hope and animal spirits. But just as a February spring can fall prey to a sudden blast of March coldness, this week has brought a few hints of discontent to the placid realm of the capital markets. Whether these are harbingers of choppy times ahead or simply random head fakes remains to be seen, but we think they are worthy of mention.
Ach, Meine Schatzie!
Fun fact: German two year Bunds go by the nickname Schatz, which is also the German word for “treasure” as well as being a cozy term of endearment for loved ones. Well, these little Teutonic treasures have been exhibiting some odd behavior in the past several days. This includes record low yields, a post-euro record negative spread against the two year US Treasury, and a sudden spike in the gap between French and German benchmark yields. The chart below shows the divergent trends for these three benchmarks in the past couple weeks.
The sudden widening of the German and French yields offers up an easy explanation: a poll released earlier in the week showed National Front candidate (and would-be Eurozone sortienne) Marine Le Pen with a lead over presumed front runner Emmanuel Macron. That was Tuesday’s news; by Wednesday François Bayrou, another independent candidate, had withdrawn and thrown his support to Macron, easing Frexit fears. Yields fell back. Got that?
The Schatz yield also kept falling, though, as the dust settled on the latest French kerfuffle. Since German government debt is one of the more popular go-to markets for risk-off trades, we need to keep an eye on those historically low yields. This would be a good time to note that other European asset classes haven’t shown much fretting. The euro sits around $1.06, off its late-December lows, and equity markets have been fairly placid of late (though major European bourses are trading sharply lower today). But currency option markets suggest a growing number of investors positioning for a sharp reversal in the euro come May.
Gold Bugs and Trump Traders Unite
Bunds are not the only risk-off haven currently in favor; a somewhat odd tango has been going on for most of this year between typically risk-averse gold bugs and the caution-to-the-wind types populating the Trump trade. The chart below shows how closely these two asset classes have correlated since the end of last year.
Now, an astute reader is likely to point out that – sure, if the Trump trade is about reflation and gold is the classic anti-inflation hedge, then why would you not expect them to trend in the same direction? Good question! Which we would answer thus: whatever substantial belief there ever was in the whole idea of a massive dose of infrastructure spending with new money, pushing up inflation, is probably captured in the phase of the rally that started immediately after the election and topped out in December. During that phase, as the chart shows, the price of gold plummeted. That would be odd if gold investors were reacting to (higher) inflationary expectations.
Much more likely is the notion that gold’s post-November pullback was simply the other side of the animal spirits; investors dumped risk-off assets in bulk while loading up on stocks, industrial metals and the like. In that light, we would see the precious metal’s gains in early 2017 more as a signal that, even as Johnny-come-lately investors continue piling into stocks to grab whatever is left of the rally, some of the earlier money is starting to hedge its gains with a sprinkling of risk-off moves, including gold.
None of this should be interpreted as any kind of hard and fast evidence that the risk asset reversal looms large in the immediate future. Market timing, as we never hesitate to point out, is a fool’s errand that only ever looks “obvious” in hindsight. An article in the Financial Times noted today that the recent succession of 10 straight “up” days in the Dow Jones Industrial Average was a feat last achieved in 1987, with the author taking pains to point to the whopping market crash that happened the same year. He waited until the end of the article to deliver the punch line: anyone who took that 10 day streak as a sign to get out at the “top” of the market forfeited the 30 percent of additional gains the Dow made after that before its 20 percent crash in October (do the math). Ours is not a call to action; rather, it is an observation that dormant risk factors may be percolating up ahead of choppier times.
Over the past couple weeks we have been snooping around some of the contrarian corners of the world, to see what those folks not completely enamored of the “Trump trade” have been up to (Eurozone, Brexit, what have you). While we were away, all manner of things has gone down in Washington, often in a most colorful (or concerning, take your pick) fashion. But virtually all the chief planks of that Trump trade – the infrastructure, the corporate tax reform – remain stuck in the sketchbooks and doodlings of Paul Ryan and his band of policymakers, waiting to see the light of day. By this point in his first term, Barack Obama had already passed a $1 trillion stimulus bill, among other legislative accomplishments. Is there a point at which the band of inverse-Murphy’s Law acolytes begin to question their faith that if something can go right, it will? To put it another way, does political risk still matter for asset valuation?
“Vol Val” Alive and Well
If there is a political risk factor stalking the market, it appears to have paid a call on J.K. Rowling and come away with a Hogwarts-style cloak of invisibility. For evidence, we turn to our favorite snapshot of trepidation and animal spirits – those undulating valleys of low volatility occasionally punctuated by brief soaring peaks of fear that make up the CBOE VIX “fear gauge,” shown in relation to the price performance of the S&P 500.
Since the election last November, market volatility as measured by the VIX has subsided to its lowest level since the incredibly somnambulant dog days of summer in 2014. In fact, as the chart shows, the lowest vol readings have actually occurred on and after Inauguration Day (so much for that “sell the Inauguration” meme making the rounds among CNBC chatterboxes a few weeks back). Meanwhile, of course, the S&P 500 has set record high after record high. How many? Sixteen and counting, to date, since November 9, or about one new record for every four days of trading on average.
That by itself is not unheard of though: the index set a new record 25 times (measured over the same time period) following Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. But 1996 was a different age, one with arguably less of the “this is unprecedented” type of political headlines to which we have fast become accustomed in the past two months. To a reader of the daily doings of Washington, it would seem that political risk should be clear and present. One of this week’s stories that caught our attention was the good times being had by London bookmakers setting betting markets for the odds of Trump failing to complete his first term (the odds apparently now sit around 2:1). So what gives with this week’s string of record highs and submerged volatility?
The Ryan Run-up
The “Trump bump”, of course, was never about the personality of the 45th president, or anything else that he brings to the table other than a way to facilitate the longstanding economic policy dreams of the Ayn Randian right, represented more fulsomely by House Speaker Paul Ryan than by Donald Trump. Looking at the rally from this standpoint perhaps explains at least in part the absence of visible political risk. So what, goes this line of thinking, if Trump were either to be impeached or somehow removed under the provisions of the 25th Amendment? Vice President Pence ascends to the Oval Office, the Twitter tornadoes subside and America gets on with the business of tax cuts and deregulation in a more orderly fashion (though not much infrastructure spending, as that was never really a Ryan thing). Move along, nothing to see here.
While we understand the logic behind that thinking, we think it is misguided, not least of all because – London oddsmakers notwithstanding – we think that either impeachment or a 25th Amendment removal from office are far out on the tail of any putative distribution of outcomes. We would ascribe a higher likelihood to a different outcome; namely, that political uncertainty will continue to permeate every sphere of activity from foreign policy to global trade to domestic unrest in a bitterly divided, partisan nation. So far we are muddling through – headlines aside, many American institutions are showing their resilience in the face of challenge. That’s good news. But not good enough, in our view, to keep political risk behind its Invisibility Cloak for much longer. We’re not prophesying any kind of imminent market cataclysm, but we do expect to see our old friend volatility make an appearance one of these days in the not too distant future.
It’s enough to make one sort of miss those crazy Octobers when goblins and other malevolent spirits wreak havoc on asset markets. Remember 2014? A weird flash crash in U.S. Treasury yields spooked investors already jittery about the Ebola virus making sensational front page headlines. The S&P 500 fell to just short of a technical correction in intraday trading before rebounding sharply as it became clear that there was no “there” there. A vigorous Santa rally carried the U.S. bellwether index up to a then-all time high right before the end of the year.
Mario Wins the Toss, Elects to Defer
At least that gave us something to write about. October 2016 thus far is a fine month for those who value calm and serenity, but for market scribes it is notably bereft of attention-grabbing headline events. Share trading volume this month on the New York Stock Exchange is somewhat below its average daily levels back in August. August, for heaven’s sake! It would appear that stock markets are catching the soporific vibes of the central banks they so assiduously follow, most recently the European Central Bank. On Thursday, ECB Chairman Mario Draghi summed up deliberations of the body’s governing council thus: We’ll talk again in six weeks. Ciao!
The ECB has a raft of unsolved problems, but this week was apparently not the time to provide any guidance as to their progress. Markets widely expect the bank will extend the current program of monthly €80 billion purchases beyond the current termination date of March 2017. However, the ECB’s rules on asset eligibility are at odds with the actual supply of viable paper in the market. Those rules probably will have to change in order to facilitate a meaningful extension of the program. Such change in turn will require agreement from the council’s German and other northern European hawks. Draghi’s deference to the December meeting likely stems from a lack of consensus today as to how to remedy asset eligibility rules to facilitate an extension of QE beyond March.
Earnings: Low Bar Well Cleared
Meanwhile, the third quarter earnings season is, rather predictably, serving up a nice dollop of upside surprises. With a bit more than 20 percent of S&P 500 companies reporting to date, both top-line revenues and mid-bottom line profits are mostly outperforming analysts’ expectations heading into the season. We expect that, when all is said and done, the average EPS growth number will be slightly positive as compared to the minus 2.6 percent consensus number projected a couple weeks back.
Yet, while upbeat earnings reports have helped a handful of individual names thus far, those low share volume figures and lackluster price drift for the S&P 500 overall indicate that, for the moment anyway, earnings season is not serving as much of a catalyst for a broad-based rally. Shares remain expensive by traditional valuation metrics, as we have frequently pointed out in these pages. Investors still have a more skeptical take on companies’ forward guidance projections, and headwinds including the dollar and weak foreign demand haven’t gone away. Until guidance announcements provide more evidence of a near-term future of double-digit EPS growth, a couple of quarters clearing a very low bar probably won’t do much to shake off the lethargy.
When Nothing Becomes Something
We still have six weeks to go before that next ECB conference, and even longer to wait for the white smoke to appear from the Eccles Building in Washington D.C. signifying the Fed’s next move. Six weeks is a long time for “nothing” – as reflected by sideways prices, low volatility and vanishingly thin trading – to continue. Some technical indicators including shorter term moving averages and 52-week highs vs. lows suggest some top-heaviness. While we don’t see any obvious lurking threats that could move from potential to kinetic (yes, including the U.S. election which, as we have pointed out before, is largely baked into current price levels), the current quiet does strike us as too quiet.
Often it is not one thing, but rather a random confluence of several things, which gives rise to sharp price reversals. The example we provided above of the October ’14 correction illustrates this well: a sudden data point anomaly (the Treasury yield flash crash), amidst a raft of vaguely disquieting, uncorrelated event headlines and a new wave of commodity price drawdowns, converged to trigger sell signals from trading program algorithms. More often than not, these turn out to be short-lived tempests. It’s been awhile since we had one, though.
A deadly terrorist attack in Nice last Thursday was followed by a failed coup over the weekend in Turkey. China’s contentious “Nine-Dash Line” in the South China Sea is on a potential collision course with the U.S. military. A dismal post-Brexit PMI reading in Britain offers the first piece of data suggesting a possible autumn recession. Establishment institutions around the world reel from public distrust, and in politics it seems conventional rules no longer apply.
Yet stock markets appear blissfully dismissive of the planet’s woes. The S&P 500 has resumed its record-setting ways after a hiatus of more than one year. Meanwhile the CBOE VIX, the so-called “fear gauge” of market sentiment, fell to a two year low earlier this week, a stunning 54 percent plunge from the June 24 high in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. Do these signals – a placid VIX and a stock market upside breakout – signal the beginning of another extended run for the seven year old bull? Or are we in a brief calm before the next storm?
The VIX is subject to abrupt and dramatic mood shifts, as the above chart clearly shows. Those Alpine spikes tend to occur when something unexpected shocks investors out of complacency. Three notable examples in this chart, which goes back two years, were the Ebola freak-out in October 2014, the Chinese yuan devaluation in August 2015 and of course the Brexit shock last month. The Ebola and Brexit events appear similar in their brevity – less than a week of fear – and in the fact that in both cases stocks went right back to setting record highs. In both cases the market’s snap judgment appeared to be “nothing here, carry on”.
By contrast, risk and uncertainty lingered longer after the yuan devaluation last August, with the VIX staying at an elevated level for about five months until peaking again this past February. This is perhaps not surprising. The importance of China to the world economy makes it harder for investors to simply shrug off a negative surprise like the devaluation. Questions about China’s growth sustainability, debt overhang and impact on world commodity markets remain, even if they have mostly been out of the headlines of late.
A Tale of Two PMIs
Is Brexit really just an Ebola-like flash in the pan, an event unlikely to have much impact outside Great Britain’s borders? Since the vote one month ago (a month already, really?) there has been plenty of opinionating about what it all means, but not much in the way of data. Today we finally got a little quantitative morsel on which to chew. The July monthly purchasing managers surveys (PMI) came out for both Britain and the Eurozone, and they painted a distinctly diverging picture. In the Eurozone, both the manufacturing and the services PMI came in right about where they were a month ago, at 51.9 and 52.7 respectively. A PMI greater than 50 signifies an expansion while a number below 50 indicates a contraction.
In the UK, by contrast, the manufacturing PMI fell from 52.1 last month to 49.1 in July, while the services PMI fell from 52.3 to 47.4. Analysts have been quick to point out that the data are consistent with a scenario for a UK recession as early as this fall. We should note that PMI is only one measure of economic activity, so due caution is advisable before rushing to judgment. In our opinion, though, if there is anything substantive to take away from today’s PMI it is the Eurozone number. A British recession spilling over into a Eurozone recession would be cause for concern, but evidence in support of that scenario has not shown up yet. Indeed, while leaving Eurozone interest rates untouched this week, ECB Chair Mario Draghi expressed confidence in the current economic state of the union.
Not Worried, or Not Present?
Perhaps the market is right that, even with all the mayhem going on in the world, there is no compelling case to make for the bull to change course and reverse. It’s also possible that the lack of worry indicates that nobody is paying much attention. As we noted in our piece last week, we are in that time of the year when trading volume subsides and gives way to beach reads. Volume on the New York Stock Exchange has been well below average during the recent post-Brexit rally. Maybe investors are more concerned about leveling up in Pokémon than they are about world events. For now, in any event, this quiet spell appears fairly impervious to disruption.