Tag Archives: market volatility

Goldilocks Lives

With the S&P500 off its September high and US 10 year yields well over 3% back in October, its crazy to think that just 6 months later the 10-year yield is currently around 2.6% and the S&P500 has just hit new highs. What was all the fuss about! A return to a steady US GDP non-inflationary growth as per the Q1 figures and with Q1 earnings coming in ahead of reduced expectations (with approx. half of the S&P500 reported), one could be tempted to think we have returned to the good old Goldilocks days. My predictions (here) of a rebound off the December lows followed by more volatility in Q1 were well wide of the mark with volatility across major asset classes eerily low as the market hits new highs. My record of been wide of the mark has at least been consistent with this post from January last year calling a premature ending to Goldilocks!

Some commentators are bullish on more upside for the market on the improved economic and earnings figures and cite comparisons to similar 20% drops and recoveries in 1998 and 2011. The graph below shows the comparisons, with 2 other 20% drops (although 1957 and 1990 were during recessions).

click to enlarge

As to what happens next, I have no idea. Some say at 17 times forward earnings; the market is not too expensive, and a wall of money will fuel this FOMO (fear of missing out) rally. Although the positive narrative from Q1 earnings will likely dictate short term trends, the market just feels like it has gotten ahead of itself to me and I feel comfortable taking some money off the table. As the graph below of monthly moves greater than +/- 3% shows, volatility is never that far away.

click to enlarge

A return to economic and earnings growth also raises the question of how long the Fed can remain ultra-accommodative. The arguments on raising rates and debts levels are all very déjà vu! For the moment however, unless the China trade talks fall apart, all looks surprisingly rosy.

There are always concerns. Bank of America recently highlighted that over the past five years, US firms have paid out $3.3 trillion in dividends and bought back $2.7 trillion of their own shares ($800 billion in 2018 alone) whilst taking on $2.5 trillion of new debt. The buybacks are responsible for 30% of earnings growth according to Bank of America (20% in 2018). The need to pay down this debt was a focus for many firms in the stock market rout. Bank of America predict further upside in equities to the summer before a pullback in Q3. The ever-excellent John Authers (ex-FT columnist now with Bloomberg) had an insightful article on corporate debt in March.

According to a recent report from Euler Hermes, the non-bank leveraged loan market is flattering the overall US corporate debt profile and corporate spreads are likely under estimating risk. This report from Moodys suggests that high leverage is offset by ample coverage of net interest expense. In this report, S&P estimate that “the proportion of companies having aggressive or highly leveraged financial risk has risen slightly to 61% (compared to 2009)”. Regulators also remain concerned about debt levels, particularly leveraged loans as per this recent report. The size of the leveraged loan market globally is estimated around $1.5 trillion, with the Bank of England estimates shown below.

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According to Ron Temple of Lazard Asset Management the “deterioration in underwriting standards for leveraged loans is increasingly worrisome” and the graph below shows the increased leverage in the market which combined with lax terms (approx. 80% are covenant lite loans) are a red flag in the event of any downturn.

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The buoyant private equity market is a testament to the joys of leverage, with recent PE raisings hitting records and an estimated $1.3 trillion of undeployed capital as of March. In this recent FT article, Jonathan Lavine of Bain Capital warned that private equity groups are taking on too much debt in the competition to win deals (the Bain 2019 market report is well worth a read).

Still, these are all things to worry about in times of stress. As of now, let’s enjoy Goldilocks return and keep dancing. Carefully mind you, it is late and we don’t want to wake those bears.

The bowels of the system and helicopters

The market volatility in 2016 did seem odd in certain respects. Valuations were too high and a correction was needed. No doubt. It’s more the way the selling seemed to be indiscriminate at certain points with oil and equity prices locked in step. Some argue that China selling reserves to support their currency or oil producing countries selling assets to make up for short falls in oil revenue may be behind some of the erratic behaviour. Buttonwood had an interesting piece over the past weeks on how consequences from new bank regulations are impacting market liquidity with unusual activity in derivative pricing such as negative swap rates and relative CDS rates.

Gilian Tett, in a FT article in January, pointed to the example of capital outflows from China. Whether repaying US debt (or as Tett succinctly calls it, a quasi carry trade in reverse) in face of likely further yuan weakness or withdrawals from overzealous M&A (about a quarter of China outbound deals are said to be in trouble) or other reasons behind the veil of the Chinese economy, the outflows are having impacts. Tett said:

“Capital flows, fuelled by politics and policy change, are where the important action is taking place. Deep in the bowels of the system all manner of financial flows are switching course, creating unexpected knock-on effects for many asset prices. Capital flight from China is one example. The energy sector is another.”

The strangle lockstep between oil and the S&P500 can be seen below.

click to enlargeoil and sp500

Energy has only a small impact on the S&P500 makeup, as can be seen below, and on the operating profit profile.

click to enlargeS&P Sector Weightings 1980 to 2015

The OECD interim economic outlook by Catherine Mann on 18th February recommended “maintaining accommodative monetary policy, supportive fiscal policies on investment led spending and more ambition on structural policies which raise global growth and reduce financial risks”. Ah, yes the old structural reform answer to all of our ills. The OECD gave some graphic reminders of where we are, as below.

click to enlargeUS & Euro Household & Nonfinancial Corporate Debt 2015

click to enlargeCentral Bank Balance Sheets 2015

Central Bank policies remain stuck to QE and increasingly exotic forms of monetary policy despite the obvious failure so far for QE to kick-start either inflation or growth. The latest experiment is on negative interest rate which has had funny impacts on banks and the lending rates they need to charge. Japan in particular has shown how their brand of negative rates was countered by a currency whiplash. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, offered the view that “for monetary easing to work at a global level if cannot rely on simply moving scarce demand from one country to another.

A recent BIS article on negative interest rates in Switzerland, Europe and Japan stated that “there is great uncertainty about the behaviour of individuals and institutions if rates were to decline further into negative territory or remain negative for a prolonged period. It is unknown whether the transmission mechanisms will continue to operate as in the past and not be subject to tipping points“.

This week Mario Draghi came up with a new twist on negative interest rates, relying on targeted long-term refinancing operations (TLTROs) to give banks effectively free money. The currency impact will be interesting, particularly to see if the Japanese whiplash will repeat. One of the results of all this QE is that central banks are a much larger player in the system and have basically taken over the government bond markets in Europe, Japan, and America. The ECB even buys low-rated bonds, not just the AA and AAA positions taken by the Fed, and makes billions of euros in low-interest-rate loans to banks.

No less that Adair Turner, Martin Wolf and Ray Dalio have all made favourable comments about another evolution in QE, so called helicopter money (named after Milton Friedman).  Wolf argues that central banks should enter the arena of public investment in the face of inaction by fiscal authorities (by which I assume he means elected politicians). He passionately says “policymakers must prepare for a new “new normal” in which policy becomes more uncomfortable, more unconventional, or both.” Turner believes that targeted stimulus of nominal demand poses “less risk to future financial stability than the unconventional monetary policies currently being deployed“.

The recent anxiety by electorates across the developed world in expressing a desire for the certainty of the past, whether it be the popularity of Donald Trump, anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe or the arguments in the UK to leave the EC, show that ordinary people are worried about the future and no end of short term monetary stimulus is likely to change that. Helicopter money sounds like a medicated solution to the symptoms of low growth rather than any real answer to the problem of slowing growth, Chinese and Japanese unsustainable debt loads and global productivity challenges due to aging populations.

Maybe it’s just me, and I do respect the views of Wolf, Turner and Dalio, but it looks to me a measure that is open to so much moral hazard as bordering on the surreal. It gives Central Banks more power in the markets and that could be dangerous without more thought on the unintended consequences. If we are moving piecemeal towards a Chicago Plan or some other alternate economic model, then somebody should get the public on board. I think they are desperately looking for new answers to the way we run our economies.

Sell in May and go away…

This week has been a volatile one on the markets with much of the week’s losses being regained after a “goldilocks” jobs number on Friday. Janet Yellen chipped in with the statement that “equity market values at this point generally are quite high” which resulted in the debates about market valuation been rehashed on the airwaves through the week.

My thoughts on the arguments were last aired in this post. I believe there is merit to the arguments that historical data needs to be normalized to take into account changes in business models within the S&P500 and the impact of changes in profit margins. Yield hungry investors and the lack of alternatives remain strong supports to the market, particularly given the current thinking on when US interest rate rises will begin. Adjustments on historical data such as those proposed by Philosophical Economics in this post make sense to me (although it’s noteworthy he concludes that the market is overvalued despite such adjustments).

Shiller’s latest PE10 metric (adjusted for inflation by the CPI) is currently over 27, about 38% above the average since 1960, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeCAPE PE10 1960 to May2015

I tend to put a lot of stock in the forward PE ratio due to the importance of projected EPS over the next 12 months in this market’s sentiment. Yardeni have some interesting statistics on forward PE metrics by sector in their recent report. Factset also have an interesting report and the graph below from it shows the S&P500 trading just below a 17 multiple.

click to enlargeForward 12 month PE S&P500 May2015

Recently I have become more cautious and the past week’s volatility has caused me to again review my portfolio with a ruthless eye on cutting those positions where my conviction against current valuation is weakest. Making investment decisions based upon what month it is can be justifiably called asinine and the graph below shows that the adage about going away in May hasn’t been a profitable move in recent years.

click to enlarge5 year S&P500 go away in May

However my bearishness is not based upon the calendar month; it’s about valuation and the nervousness I see in the market. To paraphrase a far wiser man than me, all I bring to the table is over 20 years of mistakes. Right now, I would far rather make the mistake of over-caution than passivity.