Equities look heavy. Commodities beaten to a pulp. High yield rolling over. This is the beginning of a bigger mess if something doesn’t change.
Oil prices haven’t been this low since 2009. Energy stocks are collapsing, credit markets are rattled and the commodities complex is capitulating.
What does it all mean?
Commodities, and especially energy, are a barometer of global economic health. The current reading indicates we are heading in to a serious storm.
China’s exports have been dropping, which shows curbed demand from Europe and the United States. Thus, demonstrating that the consumption-driven global economy is struggling.
Where do we go from here?
It’s quite possible that a global recession is the next leg down. We’re already seeing signs in the economies of the Euro zone, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Russia and others that a soft landing may not be in the cards.
How does one protect their capital?
Conventional financial investments tend to get bludgeoned during recessions. This is because risk adversity grows and investors convert stocks in to bonds, cash and other assets that are perceived to be ‘safe havens.’
My inclination is that gold, silver, the Japanese Yen and Treasury bills will see a supportive bid in 2016. The US dollar and equity markets will likely see a corrective pullback, if not a larger decline.
Prices of commodities tend to reflect underlying global economic health. With the recent crash below 2002 lows (as priced by the Bloomberg Commodity Index), concerns are mounting that the world is headed toward recession.
Dwindling demand deepens downside
China’s days of double digit GDP growth appear to be on pause, if not over. The lower demand from China and other countries, combined with the ramp up on commodity production during the global growth boom that China led has created elasticity.
The greater slack has then lent itself to lower prices due to the combination of greater supply and lower demand. A problem which seems to have no short term resolution on the horizon.
As we approach extremes in bearish sentiment, the number of gold ounces promised per contract (on the Comex at least), relative strength and the dollar rallies on the promise of a tightening cycle — I think it’s important to take a moment and reflect.
Interest rates make a bad situation worse for debtors
The US government currently spends over 6% (about $250 billion per year) of its budget on interest alone. If interest rates were to normalize this figure would swell significantly. So the idea of a tightening cycle being a possibility without a significant (and deflationary) reduction in government spending is unlikely. Even if spending were to be decreased, it would not be in time to reduce the deficit or debt burden.
Further, liabilities in the private sector are exploding. Student loans, car loans, credit card debt, mortgages and debt-driven share buybacks are all at unprecedented levels. This is further evidence that the system at large is far too debt-dependent to move to a higher rate structure without a significant rise in insolvencies.
Leverage and volatility don’t mix well
Lest we forget the interest rate complex at large. The biggest swath of derivatives in the world, hundreds of trillions of dollars of leveraged OTC instruments, are tied directly to it. To give you an idea of its scale, the amount of interest derivative products alone dwarf the global GDP by nearly 7 fold.
Large moves in short periods of time render leveraged trades insolvent due to the trade turning against them. If one is borrowing $9 for every $1 they put in to a trade, then if the trade goes against them by 10% they are wiped out. More than 10% and they owe more than the $1 they put down.
This is precisely the risk present in the world of derivatives. The only difference is the leverage is much, much higher than 10 to 1.
Another problem is that in a tightening environment that’s unilaterally led by the US central bank (when other central banks do not follow), deflationary shock waves may proliferate throughout the global financial system and wreak havoc on interest rate derivatives markets, emerging equity and bond markets, US corporate debt and ultimately global financial markets as a whole.
Sensitive markets showing stress
Given the level of medicine applied, one would expect the patient (the global economy) to have either rebounded or died of an overdose. Neither has happened, but markets are essentially in the eye of the storm. The troubles past are gathering speed again at a remarkable pace behind the scenes.
Consequences are continuing to climb
This time around it is not just the financial system at risk, it is many governments of the world and many of their respective central banks that risk insolvency. We are witnessing the biggest bubble that has ever been blown in history.
No wonder there is so much effort in preserving such a bubble. The result of its end is a mind blowing problem. And that’s precisely why the rate normalization cannot happen. We may see a push higher by 25-50 basis points.
Policy road fork ahead
Such a hike, however, will in all likelihood pale in comparison to how the Fed manages its maturing balance sheet of bonds. A new round of QE-like activity will likely emerge as those funds that mature are put to use to purchase longer dated bonds to re-stimulate debt markets in a variant of operation twist.
As equity markets finalize what appears to be their ultimate topping formation, I assume that we will witness another sharp move downward. The Federal Reserve appears to be more sensitive to the gyrations of financial markets than the economy at large. As a result it will likely pause and possibly even reverse in to this new variant of operation twist.
Ultimately this is bullish for gold
I believe we will have already formed the bottom in precious metals and begin to see a resurgence in prices once the stock market has topped and the Federal Reserve is no longer willing to tighten. Whether the gold price tests the $1,000 level is still on the table, but I don’t see much further downside from here based on these assumptions.
An unusually strong jobs report, which saw seniors take the lion’s share of the new jobs, caused an enormous continuation of the recent US dollar rally. The move knocked commodities down, causing the entire complex to shudder.
This strength is predicated on a forthcoming Federal Reserve rate hike in December. The same rate hike that has been put off for almost a year by policy makers that talk a lot, but do very little.
If the past is any indication of how this current trend will play out, most of the strength in US dollar rallies (and conversely, commodity weakness) happen before the first rate hike.
If that’s true, we may be through the worst of the US dollar rally — assuming the Fed actually hikes in December. If not, or if the dollar continues its ferocious path higher, there will be significant headwinds for US corporate multinational earnings as well as the entire commodity complex.
We’re not out of the woods. If anything the latest rally’s staying power is about to be tested. Given how heavy the chart looks, I am inclined to think the path of least resistance remains lower.
Only if the S&P 500 can make a new high and close above it on a weekly basis would I be convinced that a meaningful low has been put in.
Alternatively, if the market breaks below 1,800 on the S&P 500, look out below. That will confirm a massive head and shoulders topping pattern which could lead the market as low as 1,000 in the intermediate term.
Stay on your toes. There’s a lot of momentum chasers looking for the next major break. They will push prices around (up or down) in an exaggerated manner.
A lot of hot air, but no substance. That’s what’s been emanating out of the mouths of Federal Reserve officials over the two years about the direction of interest rates — with no follow through of taking rates higher.
As a result the Fed has no more credibility left. When Fed officials talked about moving rates in the past markets would move with their chatter.
Not so much recently. Market participants are squelching out the talk and waiting for the Fed to walk the walk.
Deflation is in the air. It’s gutting the prices of raw materials, emerging markets, junk bonds and starting to catch up to equities.
It’s going to get ugly
The journey up was fast and fortuitous, without the structural economic improvements that should accompany such a prolific bull market. And more importantly, with enormous leverage and speculation driving prices.
The mini-panic on August 24, 2015 showed us that the market is capable of wild swings, and likely enormous drops. In 2008 we saw the stock market lose more than a quarter of its value in days. This sort of action is not only likely, but I expect it.
This level puts the index back to major area of psychological support and also seems to complete what may be a head and shoulders pattern forming on the S&P 500 back to the base of the left shoulder.
1,000 is a level where the market was before the latter incarnations of QE wildly distorted prices higher. I believe that the beneficial effects of QE were overestimated and that the detrimental effects underestimated.
The gross distortion of prices has destroyed many price signal indicators.Adding to that the lack of interest bearing savings account has forced savers to speculate, hoping for a gain.
The stock market’s valuation has largely benefited from corporate buybacks. Now corporations possess an enormous amount of debt.
Additionally, corporations tend to get cold feet as the market is volatile or when prices decline quarter over quarter. That means less buybacks should occur as fear overtakes greed.
Have some cash set aside
Right now my own inclination is to make a wish list of stocks to own and an idea of what prices make sense to buy them. Then wait for prices to come to me.
Rather than chasing prices or settling for buying something that may be overvalued I think it makes sense to set cash aside and buy in at lower prices. In all likelihood they are coming soon.
The prevailing belief that helped to spark the last housing crisis was that homes are an investment. That price will keep going higher. We’re now 8 years out of the peak of the last housing bubble. But have we formed a brand new one with reckless monetary policy?
US home prices rose 35% in the last four years
The S&P Case Shiller housing index (above) shows an ominous chart of home values. The first take away is that even 8 years after the previous housing crisis, prices have not returned to their previous highs, despite a large increase. And this is with the backdrop of the most accommodative monetary policy in US history — with specific support for mortgage backed securities to help lower interest rates on borrowing.
Adjusted for inflation that gain is muted
Prices, when adjusted for purchasing power, are not responding to stimulus as policy makers may have hoped. This means that while housing prices have gained in notional value, the purchasing power of the dollar has weakened during that period enough to offset much of that gain. So much for being a promising investment.
Cheap debt is the key to this bubble
The largest support mechanism in place for the current housing market’s uptrend has been very, very low interest rates. Some would say this presents a fantastic opportunity to buy a home with a lower monthly mortgage rate. But what’s not factored in to that logic is everyone else has the same idea — and thus there is an extremely high amount of artificial demand pushing prices up from borrowers who otherwise could not afford to take out a mortgage on a property that is overpriced.
The normalization of interest rates would turn this support mechanism on its head and begin to drain excess demand from the housing market. Whether that happens because the Federal Reserve begins a tightening cycle or because mortgage backed security holders become nervous and begin to sell their assets remains to be seen.
Knowing that the primary support mechanism for the current housing price boom is entirely artificial, and has been for the better part of the last decade, is an important foot note at the very least. It may even prove to be the signal that tells us when this latest housing bubble may pop.
Once more, the housing market is entirely dependent on the stability of and confidence in global financial markets. Any market meltdown will have a profound effect on the housing market. And every financial market is interconnected to such an extent that a problem in Shanghai can become a problem on Wall Street very quickly.
Prices are artificially high because of monetary stimulus, not a booming economy. Affordability is near all-time lows for similar reasons.
These gross distortions have created an unsustainable paradox: Houses priced beyond the reach of most Americans — while wages stagnate, labor force participation is at multi-decade lows and the next generation of consumers has an enormous student debt load preventing them from buying a home.
If you are selling a home, this is probably the best time in recent history to exit the real estate market to reduce risk.
If you are buying a home, be extremely careful. And be prepared to lose a good chunk of that home’s value (or wait until prices normalize and buy in at what will likely be a much lower price).
It’s not uncommon for bull market opportunities to be exploited by buying dips in prices. This is not one of them.
The bull market in equities is at least on pause, but in all likelihood over. The latest series of down days is further confirmation of a lack of conviction.
There simply aren’t buyers.
Prices will go down farther if buyers don’t step up and buy dips. This has already been evidenced on a day-to-day basis. Whether it happens in the weekly charts remains to be seen — but price action seems to be confirming that as of late.
Weakness in the prices of energy, metals and other products continues to be a persistent theme. And equities have finally noticed.
Stocks used to shrug off the losses in commodities as some sort of disinflationary tailwind. No longer is that the case. Now investors in stocks have become jittery on days when commodities are plunging.
The next leg down
Ultimately, the equity market is at much greater risk of a price decline than a rally. The run up over the last 6 and a half years has been overextended. Price to earning ratios, when share buybacks are discounted, are at higher than normal levels.
Corporations have amassed enormous amounts of debt and traders are speculating with more margin than in 2007 (the last stock market peak). China has seen its managed economy unravel, while Japan’s attempt to start managing its economy is falling apart.
The Euro zone is in serious trouble. There’s no amount of new debt that can cure the budget problems within many of its countries.
And the United States, which is starting to feel the pain of the rest of the world, is preparing for its own economic slowdown. The Fed, panicked with uncertainty as its credibility fades away, decided once again to abstain from raising interest rates.
What does it all mean?
We’re closing in on the peak of this business cycle, if it isn’t already behind us. This means that opportunities will be few and far between to find equities that are worth buying at these values. Cheaper prices are quite likely in the future.
If I were still long a traditional portfolio of US equities I would take every rally as an opportunity to reduce exposure and raise cash.