Category Archives: Stock Market

“How Wrong I Was, My Reputation For Calling Stocks Is In Tatters”

SocGen’s permabear skeptic Albert Edwards is best known for one thing: predicting that the financial world will end in a deflationary singularity, one which will send yields in the US deep in the negative, and which he first dubbed two decades ago as the “Ice Age.” He is also known for casually and periodically forecasting – as he did a few weeks ago in an interview with Barrons – that the S&P will suffer a historic crash, one which will send it back under the March 2009 low of 666.

In this context, a couple of recent events caught Edwards’ attention.

First, speaking of the above mentioned Barron’s interview, Edwards was taken aback by one commentator who took the SocGen strategist to task for his relentless bearishness. Indirectly responding to the reader, in his latest letter to clients Edwards writes that “it’s good to have a little humility in this business because it’s so darn humiliating when forecasts are proved wrong. And the bolder the forecast, the more humiliating it is!” He continues:

That is one reason why most commentators on the sell-side never stray too far from consensus. When I was an avid consumer of sell-side research some 30 years ago, there was one  thing about the macro sell-side that I truly marvelled at – namely the analysts’ ability to totally reverse a view and pretend that had been their view all along! In the days before the internet and email, I had to rifle through our storage cupboards to find the evidence of what were often 180 degree handbrake turns. In the internet age, there is no hiding any more. 

One of the most leveling experiences at the end of an article or interview about my thoughts is to scroll down and read some of the readers’ comments. In my case, they often marvel that I am still in any sort of employment at all! Some are witty and make me smile -– like the one below in response to a recent interview I did with Barron’s.

Edwards refers to the comment titled “‘Prescient as a Broken Clock?” authored by one Gordon Gould from Boulder, Colorado who writes:

“Barron’s notes that Société Générale’s Albert Edwards is a permabear (“S&P 500 Could Still Test 2009 Lows,” Interview, April 7). However, your readers would surely like to know how some of his previous calls have turned out. A quick Google search revealed that nearly five years ago, Edwards called for the Standard & Poor’s 500 index to hit 450 and gold to exceed $10,000. While even a broken clock is correct twice a day, perhaps in Edwards’ case, we’re talking about a broken calendar on Saturn, which takes about 29 years to orbit the sun.”

Albert summarizes his response to this comment eloquently, using just one word: “ouch.” Hit to his pride aside, Albert asks rhetorically “Where did it all go so wrong?” and explains that in the Barron’s interview, “I explain why in my Ice Age thesis I still expect US equity prices to fall to new lows in the next recession.” To be sure, this is familiar to ZH readers, as we highlight every incremental piece from Edwards, because no matter if one agrees or disagrees, he always provides the factual backing to justify his outlook, gloomy as it may be. 

He explains as much:

I always expected the equity market’s day of reckoning to come in a recession with equity valuations falling to lower lows than in the two previous cyclical bear market bottoms in 2001 and 2009. If I am right, the next recession will see a lower level than the forward PE of 10.5x in March 2009. A forward PE of 7x and a 30% decline in forward earnings would take the market to new lows as part of a long-term secular valuation bear market (which began in 2001). Then the stratospheric rise in the market over the past few years will be seen as just a temporary aberration fuelled by QE.

The moment of truth for my strategic Ice Age view will come when we know how far the equity bear market will fall in the next recession, or conversely whether the bond bull market will continue with 10y US yields, for example, falling into negative territory.

And yet, here we are a decade into central planning, and global stocks are just shy of all time highs. How come?

If I were to identify the major error that led me to be too bearish on equities, it would not be the inflationary impact of QE on asset prices. What I got wrong is that after the end of the Great Moderation, which saw an extended period of economic expansion from Dec 2001 to Dec 2007 – as well as low financial volatility, triggering rampant credit growth – I expected economic volatility to return to normal. The lesson from Japan I told clients was that once their Great Moderation died in 1990, the economic cycle returned to normal amplitude as private credit growth could no longer be induced to keep it going. Thus I expected that after the 2008 economic debacle the US economic cycle would return to normality and for recessions to become much more frequent events – as they were in Japan after 1990. And as in Japan, I expected each rapidly arriving recession would take equity valuations down to new lower lows. After 2008, I expected the US economic recovery to quickly fall back into recession and the cyclical bull run in equities to be surprisingly short-lived. How wrong I was!

Indeed, because as Bank of America observed recently, every time the stock market threatened to tumble, central banks would step in: that, if anything, is what Edwards failed to anticipate. The rest is merely noise:

Despite the economy flirting with outright recession on a couple of occasions, this current recovery has endured to the point where we now have enjoyed the second longest economic cycle in US history. We have not returned to ‘normal’ economic cycles as I had expected. QE has helped this, one of the most feeble economic recoveries in history, to also hobble into the record books for its length!

To be sure, Edwards will eventually get the last laugh as the constant, artificial interventions assure that the (final) crash will be unlike anything ever experienced: “a recession delayed is ultimately a recession deepened as more and more credit excesses have built up, Minsky-like, in the system.”

Then again, will it be worth having a final laugh if the S&P is hovering near zero, the fiat system has been crushed, modern economics discredited, and life as we know it overturned? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, for now however, Edwards has to bear the cross of his own forecasting indignities:

… having stepped away from the crazed run-up in equity prices, my reputation for calling the equity market correctly has been severely dented, if it is not actually in tatters. I know that.

Still, it’s not just Edwards. As the strategist notes, increasingly wiser heads than I, who did not leave the equity party early, are suggesting a top might be close. He then goes on to quote Mark Mobious who we first referenced earlier this week:

The renowned investor Mark Mobius is also getting nervous. The Financial Express reports that “After Jim Rogers recently warned of the ‘biggest crash in our lifetimes,’ veteran investor and emerging markets champion Mark Mobius warns of a severe stock market correction. “I can see a 30% drop. The market looks to me to be waiting for a trigger to tumble.” He then goes on in the article to cite some possible triggers.

To be fair, there are plenty of others who have recently and not so recently joined Edwards in the increasingly bearish camp (among them not only billionaire traders but economists and pundits like David Rosenberg and John Authers), although one thing missing so far has been the catalyst that will push the world out of its centrally-planned hypnosis and into outright chaos. Now, Edwards believes that this all important trigger has finally emerged:

Perhaps the greatest near-term threat to the stability of the equity markets is seen as the recent surge in bond yields, which are now testing the critical 3% technical level.

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/edwards%20breach%203.jpg?itok=zXmjbaG5

As this is so important, I want to repeat verbatim what our own Stephanie Aymes says on this point. She says, referring to the front page chart, the “10Y UST is marching towards the major support (price) of 3.00%/3.05% consisting of the multi-decade channel, 2013-2014 lows, and the 61.8% retracement of the 2009-2016 uptrend. Moreover, this is also the confirmation level of the multi-year Double Top, which if confirmed, would act as a  catapult towards the 2-year channel limit at 3.33%/3.43%, and perhaps even towards 2009-2011 levels of 3.77%/4.00%, also the 50% retracement of the 2007-2016 up-cycle. The Monthly Stochastic indicator continues to withstand a pivotal decadal floor (blue line in chart) which emphasizes the relevance of the  3.00%/3.05% support.”

So with everyone chiming in on the significance of the 3% breach in the 10Y, here is Edwards:

Let me translate: 3% resistance is very strong but if broken, there is big trouble afoot!

The irony, of course, is that yields blowing out is precisely the opposite of an Ice Age, although to Edwards the implication is simple: once stocks tumble, it will force the Fed to return to active management of markets and risk, and launch the next Fed debt monetization program which will culminate with the end of the current economic paradigm, and Edwards’ long anticipated collapse in risk assets coupled with the long-overdue arrival of the Ice Age.

Or maybe not, as Edwards’ parting words suggest:

I think, like Mark Mobius, that equities are looking for an excuse to sell off and the current rally may abruptly end for any number of reasons. Although I personally do not think it likely that US bonds can break much above 3%, if at all, I discount nothing given the clear ‘end of cycle’ cyclical pressures that have built up. But if I am wrong on bonds and we have seen the end of the bond bull market, after having been wrong on equities, maybe it is time to think hard on what the Barron’s correspondent said and take a sabbatical – maybe on Saturn.

And while we commiserate with Albert’s lament, it could certainly be worse: have you heard of Dennis Gartman?

Source: ZeroHedge

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LIBOR Has Been Surging, These Companies Are Most Vulnerable (video)

Over the weekend, ZH looked at the notional amount of non-financial Libor-linked debt (so excluding the roughly $200 trillion in floating-rate derivatives which have little practical impact on the real world until there is a Lehman-like collateral chain break, of course at which point everyone is on the hook), to see what the real-world impact of the recent blow out in 3M USD Libor is on the business and household sector.

To this end, JPM calculated that based on Fed data, there is a little under $8 trillion in pure Libor-related debt…

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/libor%20table%20jpm.jpg

and that a 35bps widening in the LIBOR-OIS spread could raise the business sector interest burden by $21 billion. As we wondered previously, “whether or not that modest amount in monetary tightening is enough to “break” the market remains to be seen.”

In other words, unless the Fed – and JPMorgan – have massively miscalculated how much floating-rate debt is outstanding, and how much more interest expense the rising LIBOR will prompt, the ongoing surge in Libor and Libor-OIS, should not have a systemic impact on the financial system, or economy.

What about at the corporate borrower level?

In an analysis released on Monday afternoon, Goldman’s Ben Snider writes that while for equities in aggregate, rising borrowing costs pose only a modest headwind, “stocks with high variable rate debt have recently lagged in response to the move in borrowing costs.”

Goldman cautions that these stocks should struggle if borrowing costs continue to climb – which they will unless the Fed completely reverses course on its tightening strategy – amid a backdrop of elevated corporate leverage and tightening financial conditions.

Indeed, while various macro Polyannas have said to ignore the blowout in both Libor and Libor-OIS because, drum roll, they are based on “technicals” and thus not a system risk to the banking sector (former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan once called the Libor-OIS “a barometer of fears of bank insolvency”), what they forget, and what Goldman demonstrates is what many traders already know well: the share prices of companies with high floating rate debt has mirrored the sharp fluctuation in short-term borrowing costs. This is shown below in the chart of 50 S&P 500 companies with floating rate bond debt (i.e. linked to Libor) amounting to more than 5% of total.

Here are some details on how Goldman constructed the screen:

We exclude Financials and Real Estate, and the screen captures stocks from every remaining sector except for Telecommunication Services. So far in 2018, as short-term rates have climbed, these stocks have lagged the S&P 500 by 320 bp (-4% vs. -1%). The group now trades at a 10% P/E multiple discount to the median S&P 500 stock (16.0x vs. 17.6x). These stocks should struggle if borrowing costs continue to climb, but may present a tactical value opportunity for investors who expect a reversion in spreads. The tightening in late March of the forward-looking FRA/OIS spread has been accompanied by a rebound of floating rate debt stocks and suggests investors expect some mean-reversion in borrowing costs.

Goldman also notes that small-caps generally carry a larger share of floating rate debt than do large-caps, which may lead to a higher beta for the data set due to size considerations.

In any event, the inverse correlation between tighter funding conditions (higher Libor spreads) and the stock under performance of floating debt-heavy companies is unmistakable.

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/GS%20libor%20vs%20corporations.jpg?itok=7X2aJ5oc

Finally, traders who wish to hedge rising Libor by shorting those companies whose interest expense will keep rising alongside 3M USD Libor, in the process impairing their equity value, here is a list of the most vulnerable names.

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/companies%20exposed%20to%20libor.jpg?itok=sTtXSX13(click for larger image)

***

“They’re burning the furniture to heat the house”

Money manager Michael Pento says the biggest unreported story is the skyrocketing interest rate of LIBOR. What’s that? Pento explains, “LIBOR, and people don’t understand or talk about it, is the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate. This rate has gone from 0.3% at the end of 2015 to 2.3% today. The London Inter-Bank Offered Rate is the rate that is applied to $370 trillion of loans and derivatives and loans, from credit cards, to student loans, to auto loans are priced off of LIBOR. . .  That is the biggest reason why the stock market is rolling over because the cost of borrowing money. . . is going up very, very sharply. . .  All of this is going to hit a crescendo in October of 2018.” Pento Says gold prices are going way up because the Fed will no be able to raise interest rates.

Source: ZeroHedge

What The Crypto Crash & Stock Market Plunge Have In Common

Only one thing matters in bubble markets: sentiment

Yesterday saw Jerome Powell sworn into office as the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve, replacing Janet Yellen. Looking at the sea of red across Monday’s financial markets, Mr. Powell is very likely *not* having the sort of first day on the job he was hoping for…

https://i1.wp.com/www.latimes.com/resizer/qCxJte7pTUcLqXys1yA8lC7FL0Y=/1400x0/arc-anglerfish-arc2-prod-tronc.s3.amazonaws.com/public/TUTLQJWSEZH7LAFR3GWLGUYFSA.jpgJerome H. Powell, new Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Also having a rough start to the week is anyone with a long stock position or a cryptocurrency portfolio.

The Dow Jones closed down over 1,200 points today, building off of Friday’s plunge of 666 points. The relentless ascension of stock prices has suddenly jolted into reverse, delivering the biggest 2-day drop stocks have seen in years.

But that’s nothing compared to the bloodletting we’re seeing in the cryptocurrency space. The price of Bitcoin just broke below $7,000 moments ago, now nearly two-thirds lower from its $19,500 high reached in mid-December. Other coins, like Ripple, are seeing losses of closer to 80% over the same time period. That’s a tremendous amount of carnage in such a short window of time.

And while stocks and cryptos are very different asset classes, the underlying force driving their price corrections is the same — a change in sentiment.

Both markets had entered bubble territory (stocks much longer ago than the cryptos), and once they did, their continued price action became dependent on sentiment much more so than any underlying fundamentals.

The Anatomy Of A Price Bubble

History is quite clear on how bubble markets behave.

On the way up, a virtuous cycle is created where quick, out sized gains become the rationale that attracts more capital into the market, driving prices up further and even faster. A mania ensues where everyone who missed out on the earlier gains jumps in to buy regardless of the price, desperate not to be left behind (this is called fear of missing out, or “FOMO”).

This mania produces a last, magnificent spike in price — called a “blow-off” top — which is then immediately followed by an equally sharp reversal. The reversal occurs because there are simply no remaining new desperate investors left to sell to. The marginal buyer has suddenly switched from the “greater fool” to the increasingly cautious investor.

Those sitting on early gains and looking to cash out near the top start selling. They don’t mind dropping the price a bit to get out. So the price continues downwards, spooking more and more folks to start selling what they have. Suddenly, the virtuous cycle that drove prices to their zenith has now metastasized into a vicious cycle of selling, driving prices lower and lower as panicking investors give up on their dreams of easy riches and increasingly scramble to limit their mounting losses.

In the end, the market price retraces nearly all of the gains made, leaving a small cadre of now-rich early investors who managed to get out near the top, and a large despondent pool of ‘everyone else’.

We’ve seen this same compressed bell-curve shape in every major asset bubble in financial history:

And we’re seeing it play out in real-time now in both stocks and cryptos.

The Bursting Crypto Bubble

It’s amazing how fast asset price bubbles can pop.

Just a month ago, the Internet was replete with articles proclaiming the new age of cryptocurrencies. Every day, fresh stories were circulated of individuals and companies making overnight fortunes on their crypto bets, shaking their heads at all the rubes who simply “didn’t get” why It’s different this time.

Here at PeakProsperity.com the demand for educational content on cryptocurrencies from our audience rose to a loud crescendo.

We did our best to provide answers as factually as we could through articles and webinars, though we tried very hard not to be seen as encouraging folks to pile in wantonly. A big reason for this is we’re more experienced than most in identifying what asset bubbles look like.

After all, we *are* the ones who produced Chapter 17 of the The Crash Course: Understanding Asset Bubbles:

To us, the run-up in the cryptocurrencies seen over 2017 had all the classic hallmarks of an asset price bubble — irrespective of the blockchain’s potential to unlock tremendous long-term economic value. Prices had simply risen way too far way too fast. Which is why we issued a cautionary warning in early December that concluded:

So, if you’ve been feeling like the loser who missed the Bitcoin party bus, you’ve likely done yourself a favor by not buying in over the past few weeks. It is highly, highly likely for the reasons mentioned above that a painful downwards price correction is imminent. One that will end in tears for all the recent FOMO-driven panic buyers.

And now that time has shown this warning to have been prescient in both its accuracy and timeliness, we can clearly see that Bitcoin is following the classic price trajectory of the asset price bubble curve. The chart below compares Bitcoin’s current price to that of several of history’s most notorious bubbles:

https://assets.bwbx.io/images/users/iqjWHBFdfxIU/iUlFmb9.20Kw/v4/1600x-1.png

This chart (which is from Feb 2, so it doesn’t capture Bitcoin’s further decline below $7k) shows that Bitcoin is now about 2/3 of its way through the bubble life-cycle, and about half-way through its fall from its apex.

Projecting from the paths of previous bubbles, we shouldn’t be surprised if Bitcoin’s price ends up somewhere in the vicinity of $2,500-$3,000 by the time the dust settles.

Did The Stock Market Bubble Just “Pop”?

Despite the extreme drop in the stock market over the past two days, any sort of material bubble retracement has yet to begin — which should give you an appreciation of how overstretched its current valuation is.

Look at this chart of the S&P 500 index. Today’s height dwarfs those of the previous two bubbles the index has experienced this century.

The period from 2017 on sure looks like the acceleration seen during a blow-off top. If indeed so, does the 6% drop we’ve just seen over the past two trading days signify the turning point has now arrived?

https://s3.amazonaws.com/cm-us-standard/images/S%26P-chart-2-5-2018.png

Crazily, the carnage we’ve seen in the stock market over the past two days is just barely visible in this chart. If indeed the top is in and we begin retracing the classic bubble curve, the absolute value of the losses that will ensue will be gargantuan.

If the S&P only retraces down to the HIGHS of its previous two bubbles (around 1,500), it would need to fall over 43% from where it just closed today. And history suggests a full retracement would put the index closer to 750-1,000 — at least two-thirds lower than its current valuation.

How Spooked Is The Herd?

As a reminder, bubbles are psychological phenomena. They are created when perception clouds judgment to the point where it concludes “Fundamentals don’t matter”. 

And they don’t. At least, not while the mania phase is playing out.

But once the last manic buyer (the “greatest” fool) has joined the party, there’s no one left to dupe. And as the meteoric price increase stops and then reverses, the herd becomes increasingly skittish until a full-blown stampede occurs.

We’ve been watching that stampede happen in the crypto space over the past 4 weeks. We may have just seen it start in the stock markets.

How much farther may prices fall from here? And how quickly?

History gives us a good guide for estimating, as we’ve done above. But the actual trajectory will be determined by how spooked the herd is.

For a market that has known no fear for nearly eight years now, a little panic can quickly escalate to an out-of-control selling frenzy.

Want proof? We saw it late today in the complete collapse in XIV, the inverse-VIX (i.e. short volatility) ETN that has been one of Wall Street’s most crowded trades of late. It lost over 90% of its value at the market close:

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/styles/inline_image_desktop/public/inline-images/XIV%20chart.jpg?itok=rpD-OGGw

The repercussions of this are going to send seismic shock waves through the markets as a tsunami of margin calls erupts. A cascading wave of sell-orders that pushes the market further into the red at an accelerating pace from here is a real possibility that can not be dismissed at this point.

Those concerned about what may happen next should read our premium report Is This It? issued over the past weekend.

In it, we examine the congregating perfect storm of crash triggers — rising interest rates, a fast-weakening dollar, a sudden return of volatility to the markets after a decade of absence, rising oil prices — and calculate whether the S&P’s sudden 6% rout is the start of a 2008-style market melt-down (or worse).

Make no mistake: these are sick, distorted, deformed and liquidity-addicted bubble markets. They’ve gotten entirely too dependent on continued largess from the central banks.

That is now ending.

After so many years of such extreme market manipulation finally gives way, the coming losses will be staggeringly enormous. 

The chief concern of any prudent investor right now should be: How do I avoid being collateral damage in the coming reckoning?

Click here to read ‘Is This It?’, Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)

Source: Peak Prosperity

Bonds Finally Noticed What Is Going On… Are Stocks Next?

It is safe to say that one of the most popular, and important, charts of 2017, was the one showing the ongoing and projected decline across central bank assets, which from a record expansion of over $2 trillion in early 2017 is expected to turn negative by mid 2019. This is shown on both a 3- and 12-month rolling basis courtesy of these recent charts from Citi.

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/central%20bank%20rolling.jpg

The reason the above charts are key, is because as Citi’s Matt King, DB’s Jim Reid, BofA’s Barnaby Martin and countless other Wall Street commentators have pointed out, historically asset performance has correlated strongly with the change in central bank balance sheets, especially on the way up.

As a result, the big question in 2017 (and 2018) is whether risk assets would exhibit the same correlation on the way down as well, i.e. drop.

We can now say that for credit the answer appears to be yes, because as the following chart shows, the ongoing decline in CB assets is starting to have an adverse impact on investment grade spreads which have been pushing wider in recent days, in large part due to the sharp moves in government bonds underline the credit spread.

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/credit%20react%20CB.jpg

And, what is more important, is that investors appear to have noticed the repricing across credit. This is visible in two places: on one hand while inflows into broader credit have remained generally strong, there has been a surprisingly sharp and persistent outflow from US high yield funds in recent weeks. These outflows from junk bond funds have occurred against a backdrop of rising UST yields, which recently hit 2.67%, the highest since 2014, another key risk factor to credit investors.

But while similar acute outflows have yet to be observed across the rest of the credit space, and especially among investment grade bonds, JPM points out that the continued outflows from HY and some early signs of waning interest in HG bonds in the ETF space in the US has also been accompanied by sharp increases in short interest ratios in LQD (Figure 13), the largest US investment grade bond ETF…

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/IG%20short%20interest.jpg

… as well as HYG, the largest US high yield ETF by total assets,

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/junk%20short%20interest.jpg

This, together with the chart showing the correlation of spreads to CB assets, suggests that positioning among institutional investors has turned markedly more bearish recently.

Putting the above together, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a big credit-quake is imminent, and Wall Street is already positioning to take advantage of it when it hits.

So what about stocks?

Well, as Citi noted two weeks ago, one of the reasons why there has been a dramatic surge in stocks in the new years is that while the impulse – i.e., rate of change – of central bank assets has been sharply declining on its way to going negative in ~18 months, the recent boost of purchases from EM FX reserve managers, i.e. mostly China, has been a huge tailwind to stocks.

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/CB%20rolling%203%20month%20FX%20adjusted_0.jpg

This “intervention”, as well as the recent retail capitulation which has seen retail investors unleashed across stock markets, buying at a pace not seen since just before both the 1987 and 2008 crash, helps explain why stocks have – for now – de-correlated from central bank balance sheets. This is shown in the final chart below, also from Citi.

https://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/CB%20equities%20change.jpg

And while the blue line and the black line above have decoupled, it is only a matter of time before stocks notice the same things that are spooking bonds, and credit in general, and get reacquainted with gravity.

What happens next? Well, if the Citi correlation extrapolation is accurate, and historically it has been, it would imply that by mid-2019, equities are facing a nearly 50% drop to keep up with central bank asset shrinkage. Which is why it is safe to say that this is one time when the bulls will be praying that correlation is as far from causation as statistically possible.

… age makes absolutely no difference

Source: ZeroHedge

 

 

The ‘Dilemma From Hell’ Facing Central Banks

We present some somber reading on this holiday season from Macquarie Capital’s Viktor Shvets, who in this exclusive to ZH readers excerpt from his year-ahead preview, explains why central banks can no longer exit the “doomsday highway” as a result of a “dilemma from hell” which no longer has a practical, real-world resolution, entirely as a result of previous actions by the same central bankers who are now left with no way out from a trap they themselves have created.

* * *

It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world” – Chaos Theory.

There is a good chance that 2018 might fully deserve shrill voices and predictions of dislocations that have filled almost every annual preview since the Great Financial Crisis.

Whether it was fears of a deflationary bust, expectation of an inflationary break-outs, disinflationary waves, central bank policy errors, US$ surges or liquidity crunches, we pretty much had it all. However, for most investors, the last decade actually turned out to be one of the most profitable and the most placid on record. Why then have most investors underperformed and why are passive investment styles now at least one-third (or more likely closer to two-third) of the market and why have value investors been consistently crushed while traditional sector and style rotations failed to work? Our answer remains unchanged. There was nothing conventional or normal over the last decade, and we believe that neither would there be anything conventional over the next decade. We do not view current synchronized global recovery as indicative of a return to traditional business and capital market cycles that investors can ‘read’ and hence make rational judgements on asset allocations and sector rotations, based on conventional mean reversion strategies. It remains an article of faith for us that neither reintroduction of price discovery nor asset price volatility is any longer possible or even desirable.

However, would 2018, provide a break with the last decade? The answer to this question depends on one key variable. Are we witnessing a broad-based private sector recovery, with productivity and animal spirits coming back after a decade of hibernation, or is the latest reflationary wave due to similar reasons as in other recent episodes, namely (a) excess liquidity pumped by central banks (CBs); (b) improved co-ordination of global monetary policies, aimed at containing exchange rate volatility; and (c) China’s stimulus that reflated commodity complex and trade?

https://i1.wp.com/www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user5/imageroot/2017/11/07/macquarie%20central%20banks.jpg

The answer to this question would determine how 2018 and 2019 are likely to play out. If the current reflation has strong private sector underpinnings, then not only would it be appropriate for CBs to withdraw liquidity and raise cost of capital, but indeed these would bolster confidence, and erode pricing anomalies without jeopardizing growth or causing excessive asset price displacements. Essentially, the strength of private sector would determine the extent to which incremental financialization and public sector supports would be required. If on the other hand, one were to conclude that most of the improvement has thus far been driven by CBs nailing cost of capital at zero (or below), liquidity injections and China’s debt-fuelled growth, then any meaningful withdrawal of liquidity and attempts to raise cost of capital would be met by potentially violent dislocations of asset prices and rising volatility, in turn, causing contraction of aggregate demand and resurfacing of disinflationary pressures. We remain very much in the latter camp. As the discussion below illustrates, we do not see evidence to support private sector-led recovery concept. Rather, we see support for excess liquidity, distorted rates and China spending driving most of the improvement.

We have in the past extensively written on the core drivers of current anomalies. In a ‘nutshell’, we maintain that over the last three decades, investors have gradually moved from a world of scarcity and scale limitations, to a world of relative abundance and an almost unlimited scalability. The revolution started in early 1970s, but accelerated since mid-1990s. If history is any guide, the crescendo would occur over the next decade. In the meantime, returns on conventional human inputs and conventional capital will continue eroding while return on social and digital capital will continue rising. This promises to further increase disinflationary pressures (as marginal cost of almost everything declines to zero), while keeping productivity rates constrained, and further raising inequalities.

The new world is one of disintegrating pricing signals and where economists would struggle even more than usual, in defining economic rules. As Paul Romer argued in his recent shot at his own profession, a significant chunk of macro-economic theories that were developed since 1930s need to be discarded. Included are concepts such as ‘macro economy as a system in equilibrium’, ‘efficient market hypothesis’, ‘great moderation’ ‘irrelevance of monetary policies’, ‘there are no secular or structural factors, it is all about aggregate demand’, ‘home ownership is good for the economy’, ‘individuals are profit-maximizing rational economic agents’, ‘compensation determines how hard people work’, ‘there are stable preferences for consumption vs saving’ etc. Indeed, the list of challenges is growing ever longer, as technology and Information Age alters importance of relative inputs, and includes questions how to measure ‘commons’ and proliferating non-monetary and non-pricing spheres, such as ‘gig or sharing’ economies and whether the Philips curve has not just flattened by disappeared completely. The same implies to several exogenous concepts beloved by economists (such as demographics).

The above deep secular drivers that were developing for more than three decades, but which have become pronounced in the last 10-15 years, are made worse by the activism of the public sector. It is ironic that CBs are working hard to erode the real value of global and national debt mountains by encouraging higher inflation, when it was the public sector and CBs themselves which since 1980s encouraged accelerated financialization. As we asked in our recent review, how can CBs exit this ‘doomsday highway’?

Investors and CBs are facing a convergence of two hurricane systems (technology and over-financialization), that are largely unstoppable. Unless there is a miracle of robust private sector productivity recovery or unless public sector policies were to undergo a drastic change (such as merger and fiscal and monetary arms, introduction of minimum income guarantees, massive Marshall Plan-style investments in the least developed regions etc), we can’t see how liquidity can be withdrawn; nor can we see how cost of capital can ever increase. This means that CBs remain slaves of the system that they have built (though it must be emphasized on our behalf and for our benefit).

If the above is the right answer, then investors and CBs have to be incredibly careful as we enter 2018. There is no doubt that having rescued the world from a potentially devastating deflationary bust, CBs would love to return to some form of normality, build up ammunition for next dislocations and play a far less visible role in the local and global economies. Although there are now a number of dissenting voices (such as Larry Summers or Adair Turner) who are questioning the need for CB independence, it remains an article of faith for an overwhelming majority of economists. However, the longer CBs stay in the game, the less likely it is that the independence would survive. Indeed, it would become far more likely that the world gravitates towards China and Japan, where CB independence is largely notional.

Hence, the dilemma from hell facing CBs: If they pull away and remove liquidity and try to raise cost of capital, neither demand for nor supply of capital would be able to endure lower liquidity and flattening yield curves. On the other hand, the longer CBs persist with current policies, the more disinflationary pressures are likely to strengthen and the less likely is private sector to regain its primacy.

We maintain that there are only two ‘tickets’ out of this jail. First (and the best) is a sudden and sustainable surge in private sector productivity and second, a significant shift in public sector policies. Given that neither answer is likely (at least not for a while), a coordinated, more hawkish CB stance is akin to mixing highly volatile and combustible chemicals, with unpredictable outcomes.

Most economists do not pay much attention to liquidity or cost of capital, focusing almost entirely on aggregate demand and inflation. Hence, the conventional arguments that the overall stock of accommodation is more important than the flow, and thus so long as CBs are very careful in managing liquidity withdrawals and cost of capital raised very slowly, then CBs could achieve the desired objective of reducing more extreme asset anomalies, while buying insurance against future dislocation and getting ahead of the curve. In our view, this is where chaos theory comes in. Given that the global economy is leveraged at least three times GDP and value of financial instruments equals 4x-5x GDP (and potentially as much as ten times), even the smallest withdrawal of liquidity or misalignment of monetary policies could become an equivalent of flapping butterfly wings. Indeed, in our view, this is what flattening of the yield curves tells us; investors correctly interpret any contraction of liquidity or rise in rates, as raising a possibility of more disinflationary outcomes further down the road.

Hence, we maintain that the key risks that investors are currently running are ones to do with policy errors. Given that we believe that recent reflation was mostly caused by central bank liquidity, compressed interest rates and China stimulus, clearly any policy errors by central banks and China could easily cause a similar dislocation to what occurred in 2013 or late 2015/early 2016. When investors argue that both CBs and public authorities have become far more experienced in managing liquidity and markets, and hence, chances of policy errors have declined, we believe that it is the most dangerous form of hubris. One could ask, what prompted China to attempt a proper de-leveraging from late 2014 to early 2016, which was the key contributor to both collapse of commodity prices and global volatility? Similarly, one could ask what prompted the Fed to tighten into China’s deleveraging drive in Dec ’15. There is a serious question over China’s priorities, following completion of the 19th Congress, and whether China fully understands how much of the global reflation was due to its policy reversal to end deleveraging.

What does it mean for investors? We believe that it implies a higher than average risk, as some of the key underpinnings of the investment landscape could shift significantly, and even if macroeconomic outcomes were to be less stressful than feared, it could cause significant relative and absolute price re-adjustments. As highlighted in discussion below, financial markets are completely unprepared for higher volatility. For example, value has for a number of years systematically under performed both quality and growth. If indeed, CBs managed to withdraw liquidity without dislocating economies and potentially strengthening perception of growth momentum, investors might witness a very strong rotation into value. Although we do not believe that it would be sustainable, expectations could run ahead of themselves. Similarly, any spike in inflation gauges could lift the entire curve up, with massive losses for bondholders, and flowing into some of the more expensive and marginal growth stories.

https://i1.wp.com/www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user5/imageroot/2017/11/07/macquarie%20rollling%20bubbles_0.jpg

While it is hard to predict some of these shorter-term moves, if volatilities jump, CBs would need to reset the ‘background picture’. The challenge is that even with the best of intentions, the process is far from automatic, and hence there could be months of extended volatility (a la Dec’15-Feb’16). If one ignores shorter-term aberrations, we maintain that there is no alternative to policies that have been pursued since 1980s of deliberately suppressing and managing business and capital market cycles. As discussed in our recent note, this implies that a relatively pleasant ‘Kondratieff autumn’ (characterized by inability to raise cost of capital against a background of constrained but positive growth and inflation rates) is likely to endure. Indeed, two generations of investors grew up knowing nothing else. They have never experienced either scorching summers or freezing winters, as public sector refused to allow debt repudiation, deleveraging or clearance of excesses. Although this cannot last forever, there is no reason to believe that the end of the road would necessarily occur in 2018 or 2019. It is true that policy risks are more heightened but so is policy recognition of dangers.

We therefore remain constructive on financial assets (as we have been for quite some time), not because we believe in a sustainable and private sector-led recovery but rather because we do not believe in one, and thus we do not see any viable alternatives to an ongoing financialization, which needs to be facilitated through excess liquidity, and avoiding proper price and risk discovery, and thus avoiding asset price volatility.

Source: ZeroHedge

Stagnation Nation: American Middle Class Wealth Is Locked Up in Housing and Retirement Funds

The majority of middle class wealth is locked up in unproductive assets or assets that only become available upon retirement or death.

One of Charles Hugh Smith’s points in Why Governments Will Not Ban Bitcoin was to highlight how few families had the financial wherewithal to invest in bitcoin or an alternative hedge such as precious metals.

The limitation on middle class wealth isn’t just the total net worth of each family; it’s also how their wealth is allocated: the vast majority of most middle class family wealth is locked up in the family home or retirement funds.

This chart provides key insights into the differences between middle class and upper-class wealth. The majority of the wealth held by the bottom 90% of households is in the family home, i.e. the principal residence. Other major assets held include life insurance policies, pension accounts and deposits (savings).

What characterizes the family home, insurance policies and pension/retirement accounts? The wealth is largely locked up in these asset classes.

Yes, the family can borrow against these assets, but then interest accrues and the wealth is siphoned off by the loans. Early withdrawals from retirement funds trigger punishing penalties.

In effect, this wealth is in a lock box and unavailable for deployment in other assets.

IRAs and 401K retirement accounts can be invested, but company plans come with limitations on where and how the funds can be invested, and the gains (if any) can’t be accessed until retirement.

Compare these lock boxes and limitations with the top 1%, which owns the bulk of business equity assets. Business equity means ownership of businesses; ownership of shares in corporations (stocks) is classified as ownership of financial securities.

https://i1.wp.com/www.oftwominds.com/photos2016/ownership-assets2-16.jpg
These two charts add context to the ownership of business equity. Note that despite the recent bounce off a trough, the percentage of families with business equity has declined for the past 25 years. The chart is one of lower highs and lower lows, the classic definition of a downtrend.
https://i2.wp.com/www.oftwominds.com/photos2017/biz-equity10-17a.png
The mean value of business equity is concentrated in the top 10% of families.While the value of the top 10%’s biz-equity dropped sharply in the global financial crisis of 2008-09, it has since recovered and reached new heights, while the value of the biz equity held by the bottom 90% has flat lined.
https://i0.wp.com/www.oftwominds.com/photos2017/biz-equity10-17b.png

Assets either produce income (i.e. they are productive assets) or they don’t (i.e. they are unproductive assets). Businesses either produce net income or they become insolvent and close down. Family homes typically don’t produce any income (unless the owners rent out rooms), and whatever income life insurance and retirement funds produce is unavailable.

This is the key difference between financial-elite wealth and middle class wealth: the majority of middle class wealth is locked up in unproductive assets or assets that only become available upon retirement or death.

The income flowing to family-owned businesses can be spent, of course, but it can also be reinvested, piling up additional income streams that then generate even more income to reinvest.

No wonder wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top 5%: those who own productive assets have the means to acquire more productive assets because they own income streams they can direct and use in the here and now without all the limitations imposed on the primary assets held by the middle class.

By Charles Hugh Smith | Of Two Minds

Morgan Stanley: “Client Cash Is At Its Lowest Level” As Institutions Dump Stocks To Retail

The “cash on the sidelines” myth is officially dead.

Recall that at the end of July, we reported that in its Q2 earnings results, Schwab announced that after years of avoiding equities, clients of the retail brokerage opened the highest number of brokerage accounts in the first half of 2017 since 2000. This is what Schwab said on its Q2 conference call:

New accounts are at levels we have not seen since the Internet boom of the late 1990s, up 34% over the first half of last year. But maybe more important for the long-term growth of the organization is not so much new accounts, but new-to-firm households, and our new-to-firm retail households were up 50% over that same period from 2016.

In total, Schwab clients opened over 350,000 new brokerage accounts during the quarter, with the year-to-date total reaching 719,000, marking the biggest first-half increase in 17 years. Total client assets rose 16% to $3.04 trillion. Perhaps more ominously to the sustainability of the market’s melt up, Schwab also adds that the net cash level among its clients has only been lower once since the depths of the financial crisis in Q1 2009:

Now, it’s clear that clients are highly engaged in the markets, we have cash being aggressively invested into the equity market, as the market has climbed. By the end of the second quarter, cash levels for our clients had fallen to about 11.5% of assets overall, now, that’s a level that we’ve only seen one time since the market began its recovery in the spring of 2009.

While some of this newfound euphoria may have been due to Schwab’s recent aggressive cost-cutting strategy, it is safe to say that the wholesale influx of new clients, coupled with the euphoria-like allocation of cash into stocks, means that between ETFs and other passive forms of investing, as well as on a discretionary basis, US retail investors are now the most excited to own stocks since the financial crisis.  In a confirmation that retail investors had thrown in the towel on prudence, according to a quarterly investment survey from E*Trade, nearly a third of millennial investors were planning to move out of cash and into new positions in the second half of 2017. By comparison, only 19% of Generation X investors (aged 35-54) were planning such a change to their portfolio, while 9% of investors above the age of 55 had plans to buy in.

Furthermore, according to a June survey from Legg Mason, nearly 80% of millennial investors plan to take on more risk this year, with 66% of them expressing an interest in equities. About 45% plan to take on “much more risk” in their portfolios.

In short, retail investors – certainly those on the low end which relies on commodity brokerages to invest – are going “all in.”

This was also confirmed by the recent UMichigan Consumer Survey, according to which surveyed households said there has – quite literally – never been a better time to buy stocks.

https://i1.wp.com/www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user5/imageroot/2017/10/14/mich%20stock%20prices.jpg

What about the higher net worth segment? For the answer we go to this morning’s Morgan Stanley earnings call, where this exchange was particularly notable:

Question: Hey good morning. Maybe just on the Wealth Management side, you guys had very good growth, sequential growth in deposits. There’s been some discussion in the industry about kind of a pricing pressure. Can you discuss where you saw the positive rates in Wealth Management business and how you’re able to track, I think, about $10 billion sequentially on deposit franchise?

Answer:  Sure. I think, as you recall, we’ve been talking about our deposit deployment strategy for quite sometime, and we’ve been investing excess liquidity into our loan product over the last several years. In the beginning of the year, we told you that, that trend would come to an end. We did see that this year. It happened a bit sooner than we anticipated as we saw more cash go into the markets, particularly the equity markets, as those markets rose around the world. And we’ve seen cash in our clients’ accounts at its lowest level.

In other words, when it comes to retail investors – either on the low, or high net worth side – everyone is now either all in stocks or aggressively trying to get there.

Which reminds us of an article we wrote early this year, in which JPM noted that “both institutions and hedge funds are using the rally to sell to retail.Incidentally, the latest BofA client report confirmed that while retail investors scramble into stocks, institutions continue to sell. To wit:

Equity euphoria continues to remain absent based on BofAML client flows. Last week, during which the S&P 500 climbed 0.2% to yet another new high, BofAML clients were net sellers of US equities for the fourth consecutive week. Large net sales of single stocks offset small net buys of ETFs, leading to overall net sales of $1.7bn. Net sales were led by institutional clients, who have sold US equities for the last eight weeks; hedge funds were also (small) net sellers for the sixth straight week. Private clients were net buyers, which has been the case in four of the last five weeks, but with buying almost entirely via ETFs. Clients sold stocks across all three size segments last week.”

https://i2.wp.com/www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user5/imageroot/2017/10/14/bofa%20client%20flow%20oct%202017.jpg

The best way to visualize what BofA clients, and especially institutions, have been doing in 2017 is the following chart:

https://i1.wp.com/www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user5/imageroot/2017/10/14/inst%20flows.jpg

Meanwhile, a familiar buyer has returned: “buybacks by corporate clients picked up as US earnings season kicked off, with Financials buybacks continuing to dominate this flow.”

And just like during the peak of the last bubble, retail is once again becoming the last bagholder; now it is only a question of how long before the rug is pulled out. For now, however, enjoy the Dow 23,000.

Source: ZeroHedge