The Reputation of Money

To be respected, authority has got to be respectable. – Tom Robbins

September 9, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Most nations create their own money, a super power of the modern state. The politicians and central bankers of each country have the responsibility to maintain the reputation of its money. Each nation is both the creator and net seller of its money, able to lower but not raise its comparative value. To raise that value, each nation depends on others to be net buyers of its money.

Nations carefully study the behavior of each other’s central banks. Argentina cut interest rates in January 2018 even though the country was experiencing high inflation. This action was the opposite of good central banker behavior, and hurt the reputation of the Argentine peso, which has lost half its value since January. Money traders suspected that the Argentine central bank had become captive to political control. Few trusted a politician with money super powers.

The reputation of a nation’s money rests on the steadiness of its tax revenues. As I have noted before, revenue from the sale of nationalized resources acts as a tax. Those commodity revenues do not build a money’s reputation as much as the tax revenues from the economic production of a nation’s people and businesses.

A nation can print its own money at little cost. A greater supply of anything, given a constant demand, lowers the price of that thing. The real cost of printing money is borne by the nation’s people and businesses who use that money for daily exchange. As a money’s value declines, that loss of value acts as a sales tax on each money unit exchanged. Let’s call that the king’s tax. This undeclared tax revenue does not build a money’s reputation.

A nation supports the reputation of its money by using its super powers with restraint. When a nation receives most of its tax revenues from its own internal production, that is a sign of a healthy economy, with a reasonable monetary and fiscal policy. When the king’s tax (inflation) and commodity resource revenues exceed half of a nation’s revenue, the value of its money becomes like two day old bread.

A nation’s money rises in reputation when it is bought, and there are two reasons for buying a nation’s money: 1) buying goods and services from that nation, and 2) loaning money to the governments and businesses of that nation. In 2017, China, the United States and Germany were the top exporters, putting their currencies in demand (Note #2). Loans to borrowers in emerging markets are often priced in U.S. dollars, the current reserve money of the world. If the money in that nation loses its value against the dollar, the borrowers effectively pay a king’s tax as they make their loan payments (Note #1). Typically, a nation will blame the tax on rapacious money dealers.

A nation’s money reputation relies on several factors that a nation can control: inflation, tax revenue and the source of that revenue. A nation is judged on its current and historical behavior with money and debt. Its political structure and the independence of its central bank are important factors as well. On an international stage, its money must compete with other nations in all these categories. Call it the daily beauty contest – no swimsuits.

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1. EMB is a basket of emerging market debt priced in USD (http://etfdb.com/etf/EMB/). It is off 5% from its high at the beginning of the year and pays a dividend of 4.6%. Its annual return for the past ten years was 6.5%, the same as a long Treasury ETF like TLT. A broad bond index fund like Vanguard’s BND earned 3.8%.

2. Germany uses the Euro, not its own national currency. In 2017, China exported $2.35 trillion, the U.S. $1.55T and Germany $1.45T. Visual Capitalist picture graph. The site is a picture book for curious minds. Here’s one on the biggest employer in each state. For southern states, the answer is Wal-Mart. Universities and health care systems are prominent employers in many states.

Related: The U.S. owes $6.2 trillion to the rest of the world. China’s share of that debt is $1.8 trillion. The U.S. holds $125 billion in foreign reserves, similar to the amount Turkey holds. As the world’s reserve money, the U.S. holds enough foreign reserves to counter any distortions in currency markets.

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Miscellaneous

In a survey of 5000 workers, Gallup found that only 51% had a single full-time job.  36% were gig workers.

Since 1991, real purchase only house prices have gone up 1.7% annually. FRED series HPIPONM226S / PCEPI, index 3/1991 = 100. Real rents and owner equivalent rent (OER) nationally have gone up 8/10ths percent annually. This is about half the rate of home price growth. Urban residents must pay an extra price. In Denver, rental prices have gone up 1.9% annually since 1991. OER has risen 1.7% annually. No doubt, California cities have even higher annual growth rates than national averages. Owner Equivalent Rent is a BLS-calculated rent that a homeowner pays themselves for use of the residence. This includes mortgage, repair and maintenance costs on the home.

Election Volatility

November 13, 2016

Sometimes the hardest thing an investor can do is nothing.  That’s pretty much what a casual investor with a balanced portfolio should do in response to the election results.  With a portfolio of 57% stocks and 43% bonds and cash, my total portfolio has risen 1/2% this week, or much ado about nothing.  Let’s dig into this week’s election results and the market’s reaction.

Donald Trump, the President-elect, has long maintained that his campaign was a movement and was proved right this past Tuesday.  White voters from rural districts around the country rallied in strong numbers to Trump’s promise to straighten up Washington.

Voters generally want a change of direction after one party has occupied the White House for two terms and this election proved to be no different. In the modern era of politics, only H.W. Bush was able to gain a 3rd Presidential term for the Republican party in 1988 after two terms of Ronald Reagan.  Countering the emotion and momentum of the Trump movement on the right were the voters on the left who passionately turned out for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.  Voters and superdelegates chose the establisment candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Some say that the process and the rules favored Clinton over Sanders.  His supporters are convinced that Sanders could have beat Trump.  Movement against movement.

In the past decade, voters have expressed a preference for rallying cries, for mantras of momentum like “Si se puede!” (Obama), “Build the wall!” (Trump) and “Medicare for all!” (Sanders).  Candidates must learn to condense their message into a short slogan that can be easily waved.  McCain, Romney and Clinton never found a verbal cadence that would act as a catalyst for voters to enthusiastically join the parade.  Sarah Palin, McCain’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 2008, understood the need for slogans.

 Note to future Presidential candidates who would like to actually win:  criticize the candidate, not that candidate’s supporters.  Hillary Clinton made the same mistake that Romney made in the 2012 election – disparaging their opponent’s voters.

Election night.  As a Trump victory became increasingly probable, global markets began to sell risk (stocks) and buy safety (bonds).  In the early morning hours after the polls closed, the networks called the state of Wisconsin for Donald Trump and put him over the threshold of 270 votes in the Electoral College.  Several  minutes later, about 2:45 AM on Nov. 9th, we learned that Hillary Clinton  had called Donald Trump to concede and wish him luck.  Dow Futures were down about 4% at that point.  Japan’s stock market was down 5.5%.  The yield on the 10 year Treasury note was down 7.22%, meaning that the price was up about 8% as investors in world markets were seeking the safety of U.S. debt.  Emerging markets fell in anticipation of protectionist trade policies under a Trump administration.

About 3 A.M.  President-elect Trump began to give a sedate and rational acceptance speech that began with a gracious nod to Hillary Clinton’s fight.  He spoke of unity, healing and more importantly, infrastructure spending and tax cuts.  With control of the Congress and Presidency in Republican hands, there was real hope that Washington could end the years of stalemate and finally implement fiscal policy to rescue a economy that had been kept afloat by an exhausted monetary policy for six years.

The overseas markets began to turn around.  By the time U.S. markets opened more than six hours later, stocks and Treasuries had reversed.  Stocks were now off less than 1/2% and Treasury prices were down severely.  TLT, a popular ETF for long term Treasuries, opened about 2% lower, a price swing of 10%.  EEM, a composite of Emerging Market stocks, opened up almost 3% down and lost ground during the trading session.  By week’s end the SP500 had risen 3.8% for the week, and EEM had fallen by that same percentage.

This week’s action in the bond market was a good example of the mechanics of bond pricing so let’s look at the price action and what it says about the future guesses of the direction and extent of interest rates.  First, bond prices move inversely to interest rates.   The extent that these prices move is measured by a bond’s duration.  Here is a link to the iShares page for the TLT ETF on long term Treasuries.  I have captured a section of the page with the duration highlighted.

If you have a bond fund, the mutual fund company will state the bond duration as well.  What does this tell you?  Leverage.  Duration tells you the approximate change in price for a 1% change in interest rates.  In this case, a 1% increase in interest rates will generate about a 17% decrease in price.  Because TLT is a composite of long term Treasuries, its price is more sensitive to changes in interest rates, or the consensus on interest rates six months to a year in the future.  The price of TLT fell 7.4% this week as traders repriced future interest rates.  With some grade school math, we can calculate what traders are guessing interest rates will be a half year to a year from now.

The Fed last raised rates at the end of 2015, putting them at approximately 1/4% – 1/2%.  In July, the price of this ETF was about $142.  It closed this week at $122, a decline of 14% from the summer high. Now we divide the 14% by the bond’s duration of 17.41% to get a ratio of .80.  This is the new guess of how much interest rates are likely to rise – approximately 3/4% – 1%.  By the fall of 2017, traders are betting that the benchmark Fed interest rate will be about 1.25% to 1.5%.

Let’s look at a more balanced composite bond ETF that financial advisors might recommend for casual investors.  Vanguard has a more conservative composite ETF whose ticker symbol is BND, with a duration of 5.8, about a third of the TLT ETF. (Spec Sheet here)  This week BND lost almost 2% and is down almost 4% from its summer high.  When we divide 4% by 5.8% (the duration in percentage terms) we get a guess of about a .7% raise in interest rates.  Because BND contains shorter term bonds, this guess is slightly below that of TLT.

Why are traders betting on more aggressive interest rate increases after Donald Trump was elected?  He has spoken about infrastructure spending and tax cuts, two fiscal stimulus programs that will likely spur inflation upward.  With a Republican party that has control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, these measures are likely to be passed in some form.  Some sectors of the economy will likely benefit from more infrastructure spending so they rose this week.  Shares in technology giants like Apple and Google fell as traders switched money among sectors but are still up by healthy margins since February lows.

Let’s say that next March comes and the Trump White House and the House Budget Committee can not come to terms on either of these programs.  Investors would likely reprice interest rate expectations and lower them, causing the price of bond ETFs or mutual funds to rise.

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Miscellaneous Election Notes

I’ll share a distinction that NPR’s David Folkenflik made this week.  Those on the left took Donald Trump literally, but not seriously.  Those who voted for him took him seriously, but not literally.

During Thursday’s trading the Mexican peso fell to 15.83 per dollar, the lowest since 1993 when Mexico reset their currency. Why the big drop?  Trump has repeatedly said that he would cancel the NAFTA agreement that binds Mexico, Canada and the U.S.  The NAFTA agreeement requires only a 6 month notification before termination.  There is some disagreement whether the White House would need Congressional approval to cancel NAFTA which might delay the action.  Some in the Republican party like free trade agreements and are likely to put up a fight.  Some analysts think that the devaluation of the peso could lead to a recession in Mexico, which was already under economic pressure due to falling oil prices.

131 out of 231 million registered voters cast their vote in this election, slightly below the voter total in the 2008 election. (538)  Trump and Clinton each took 26% of registered voters.

The Trump White House can reverse Obama’s executive action on the Keystone pipeline and re-initiate construction.  It will likely amend or repeal tentative proposals to mitigate climate change.

Why did pre-election polls get it so wrong?  According to Pew Research, more than a third of households would respond to a survey a few decades ago.  Now it is only 9%.  Statisticians must tweak this rather small sample to make it more representative of the population as a whole.  A particular demographic constituent in the sample – say white working class men – might be underrepresented in the survey.  Survey methodology then gives the opinion of relatively few sample respondents more weight than it actually has in the general voter population.

Some statisticians recommend using economic and demographic algorithms to gauge future election results based on actual past voting records.

Of the 700 counties that voted for Obama in 2012, a third of those voted for Trump in 2016.  Polls indicated that Hillary Clinton would capture the majority of the white college-educated vote for the first time in decades but she failed to do so.  More white voters voted for Obama than Hillary.

A third of Democrats in the House come from just three states:  California, New York and Massachusetts.  This concentration may answer to the concerns of those states but indicates that the party has become out of touch with the voters in many states.

Each time a Democratic candidate is elected President, unfounded rumors circulate that the new President will take away people’s guns.  People rush out to buy guns.  Trump’s surprise win caused the stock of gun maker Smith and Wesson to decline 22% in a couple of days.

On the other hand, many women feared that Trump and a Republican Congress would restrict birth control and stocked up in the days after the election. Here is a map of abortion regulations in the states before the 1972 Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.  Abortion was more permitted in the southern states than the northeast states.

Here‘s a state-by-state breakdown of the vote from NPR.

Ugly January

January 17, 2016

The ever-strengthening dollar and growing inventories of crude led to a plunge in the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) which fell below $30.  I remember hearing some analyst on Bloomberg about a year ago saying that oil prices could go as low as the $20 range.  HaHaHaHa!  A popular basket of oil stocks, XLE, is about half of it’s July 2014 price, falling 25% in the past two months and almost 10% in the two weeks. Here’s a tidbit from the latest Fact Set earnings brief: “On September 30, the estimated earnings decline for the Energy sector for Q1 2016 was -17.7%. Today, it stands at -56.1%.”  Ouch!

Volume in energy stocks this week was more than double the three month average.  It smells like capitulation, that point when a lot of investors have left the theater.  Investors who do believe that the theater is on fire, as it was in 2008, should probably stay away.

What the heck is going on?  This Business Insider article from June 2015 (yes, six months ago) explains and forecasts the money outflows from China and emerging markets.  Pay particular attention to #4. This Bloomberg article from this week confirms the capital flight from China as investors anticipate a further devaluing of the yuan.

4th quarter earnings reports will begin in earnest in the following week.  If there are disappointments, that will magnify the already negative sentiment.

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Death Cross

No, it’s not the title of a Fellini movie.  The merits of technical analysis can be more controversial than a Republican Presidential debate, but here goes.   The 50 day average of the SP500 crossed above the 200 day average, a Golden Cross, at Christmas, then crossed back below the longer average this week, a Death Cross.  A Golden Cross is a positive sign of investor sentiment.  The Death Cross is self-explanatory.  A crossing above, then below, happens infrequently – very infrequently.  The last two times were in 1960 and 1969 and the following months were negative.  After January 1960, the market stayed relatively flat for a year.  In June 1969, it marked the beginning of an 18 month downturn.  There was an almost Golden Cross followed by a Death Cross in May 2002.  A similar 18 month downturn followed.

Longer term investors might use a 6 month short term average and an 18 month longer average, selling when the 6 month crosses below the 18 month, buying back in when the one month (or 6 month average in the case of more volatile sector ETFs) crosses back above the longer average. Like any trading system, one takes the risk of losing a small amount sometimes but avoids losing big.

Trading signals are infrequent using monthly average prices.  Note that the sharp downturn of the 1998 Asian financial crisis did not trigger a sell signal.  The six month average of the SP500 as a broad composite of investor sentiment is above the 18 month average but several sectors have been sells for several months: Emerging markets (June and July 2015), Energy stocks (January 2015), and European stocks (August 2015).  Industrials (XLI) have taken a beating this month and will probably give a sell signal at the end of the month.

John Bogle, founder of Vanguard, recommends that long term investors look at their statement once a year and rebalance to meet their target allocation, one that is suitable for their age, needs and tolerance for risk.  In that case, don’t look at your January statement.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, it could look ugly.

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CPI

In 1998, the Boskin Commission estimated that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over-estimates the rate of inflation by an average of 1.1%. In 2000, the NBER (the agency that determines recessions) revised their methodology and their estimate of the over-statement to .65%.  In 2006, Robert Gordon, a member of the original committee, re-examined subsequent CPI data and the methods used by the committee.  His analysis re-asserted that the over-statement was at least 1%.

Although this academic debate might seem arcane, the implications are enormous, particularly in an election year.  Presidential contender Bernie Sanders is gaining momentum on Hillary Clinton (HRC) by repeatedly asserting that the inflation-adjusted incomes of working families have declined since 1973.  Although Mr. Sanders makes no proposals to stimulate economic growth, he has many redistribution plans to achieve economic justice.  If inflation has been overstated for the past few decades, then Mr. Sanders’ argument is logically weak but emotionally strong.  More importantly, neither side of the political aisle can even agree on a common set of facts.  The other side is not evil, or stupid, or disingenuous. The disagreement over methodology is legitimate and ongoing.

Still Worried

November 1, 2015

Today is the day that U.S. readers fall back.  Let’s hope it’s the only thing that falls back!

Eight years ago, in October 2007, the SP500 index reached a pre-recession high of 1550. After this month’s 8% recovery the index stands at 2079, more than a third above that long ago high.  A decade long chart of the SP500 shows the inflection points of sentiment.  We can compare two averages to understand the shifts in investor confidence.  A three month average, one quarter of a year, captures short term concerns and hesitations.  A one year average reflects doubts or optimisms that have strengthened over time.  The crossing of one average above or below the other gives us a signal that a change may be coming.  Concerns may be temporary – or not.

After falling below the 12 month average, the 3 month average strained and groaned to pull its chin above that long average, notching five consecutive weekly gains.  Both China and the EU central banks have announced plans for lower interest rates or QE to spur their economies.  Oil prices continued to bounce around under the $50 mark.  OPEC suppliers announced they could not agree on production cuts.  Fearing a continuing oversupply of crude, oil prices fell 4 – 5%.  Then came the news that the number of oil rigs in the U.S. had fallen.  Prices went back up.

Commodities and mining stocks remain under pressure.  After falling over 18% in September, mining stocks gained back most of those losses in the first two weeks of October, then fell back in the last half of this month, closing the month with a 3% gain.  15 to 20% gains and losses in a sector during a month looks like so much scurrying and confusion.

Emerging market indexes lost ground this past week, slipping more than 4%.  Worries of a global recession continue to haunt various markets.  For large and medium U.S. companies, a slowdown in European and Asian markets is sure to have a negative effect on the bottom line.

The first estimate of 3rd quarter GDP growth was a paltry 1.5%, far below the 3.9% annual rate of the 2nd quarter.  Two-thirds of the SP500 companies have reported earnings for the 3rd quarter and FactSet estimates a decline of 2.2% for the quarter, the second consecutive quarter of earnings declines.

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The Causes of Depression

The economic kind, not the emotional and psychological variety.  Economics history buffs will enjoy David Stockman’s critique of the extraordinary amount of monetary easing under former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.  As President Reagan’s budget director, Stockman was at the forefront of supply side economics, a theory which promised an answer to the stagflation of the 1970s that drove many to question the assumptions and conclusions of Keynesian economics.

At first a champion of this new approach to economic policy making, Stockman grew disillusioned and later coined the term “voodoo economics” to describe the contradictory thinking of his boss and others in the Republican Party who stuck by their beliefs in supply side economics in spite of the evidence that these policies generated large budget deficits and erratic economic cycles.

In 2010, Stockman penned an editorial  that held some in the Republican Party, his party, culpable for the 2008 fiscal crisis.  He understands that politicians and policy makers become welded to their ideological platforms, disregarding any input that might upset their model of the world.

For those who have a bit of time, an Atlantic magazine December 1981 an article acquainted readers with David Stockman in his first year as budget director.  The budget process seems as broken today as it was 35 years ago when Stockman assumed the task of constructing a Federal budget.

 These “internal mysteries” of the budget process were not dwelt upon by either side, for there was no point in confusing the clear lines of political debate with a much deeper and unanswerable question: Does anyone truly understand, much less control, the dynamics of the federal budget intertwined with the mysteries of the national economy?

Stockman understands the political gamesmanship that permeates Washington.  He criticizes Bernanke’s analysis of the 2008 Great Recession as well as the 1930s Great Depression. Faulty analysis produces faulty remedies. Stockman goes still further, finding fault with Milton Friedman’s monetary analysis of the causes of the Great Depression.  In a 1963 study titled A Monetary History of the United States Friedman and co-author Anna Schwartz found that monetary actions by the Federal Reserve deepened and lengthened the 1930s Depression.  Friedman became the leading spokesman of monetarism in the late 20th century, the thinking that governments can more effectively guide a national economy by adjusting the money supply rather than employing an ever changing regime of fiscal policies.

Students of the great debate of the past 100 years – bottom up or top down? – will enjoy Stockman’s take on the matter.

October Surprise

October 11, 2015

A good week for stocks (SPY), up over 3%.  Emerging markets (VWO) were up over 5%, but are still down 18% from spring highs and are on sale, so to speak, at February 2014 prices.

On news that domestic crude oil production had fallen 120,000 barrels per day, about 15%, in September, an oil commodity ETF (USO) rose up 8% this week.  On fears, and confirmations of fears, of an economic slowdown in much of the world, commodities have taken a beating in the past year, falling 50% or more.  A broad basket of commodities (DBC) was up 4% this week but are still at ten year lows.  An August 2010 Market Watch commentary recounted the evils of commodity ETFs as a place where the pros take the suckers’ money.  Not for the casual investor.

The Telegraph carried a brief summary of the latest IMF assessment of credit conditions around the world.  There is an informative graphic of the four stages of the macro credit cycle and which countries are at what stage in the cycle.

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Social welfare

Some people say they dislike redistribution schemes on moral grounds.  The government takes money from some people based on their ability and gives it to other people based on their need, a central tenet of Communism.

In a 2014 paper IMF researchers have found that redistribution is a hallmark of developed economies.  Why?  Because advanced economies have the most income inequality.  Why?  Developed economies have greater income opportunity and opportunity breeds inequality.  A sense of human decency prompts the voters in these developed countries to even the playing field a bit.

In countries with greater equality, living standards and median income are lower.  There is less income to redistribute.  In the real world where the choices are higher income and redistribution vs an equality of poverty, I’ll take the more advanced economies.

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CWPI

Since the beginning of this year the manufacturing component of the Purchasing Managers’ Index has continued to expand.  The strong dollar has made U.S. products more expensive around the world and this has hurt domestic manufacturers.  Growth has slowed from the strong expansion of the last half of 2013 and all of 2014.  September’s survey of manufacturers is right at the edge between expansion and contraction.  The CWPI weights the new orders and employment portions of each index more heavily.  Using this methodology, the manufacturing side of the equation looks stronger than the headline index indicates.

The services sector, most of the economy, is still enjoying robust growth and this strength elevates the combined CWPI.

How much will the substandard growth in the rest of the world affect the U.S. economy?  Industrial production in Germany declined last month.  China’s growth is slowing.  GDP growth in the Eurozone is barely positive.  Emerging markets are struggling with capital outflows.  Developed economies that are dependent on natural resources – Canada and Australia – are struggling.  The GDP growth rate of both countries is very slightly negative. The U.S. is probably the one economic ray of hope.  September’s lackluster labor report and the Fed’s decision to delay a rate increase has attracted capital back into the stock market. This past Monday, volatility in the market (VIX – 17) dropped down below its long term historical average of 20 but is a tiny bit above its 200 day average.  I’d like to see another calm week before I was convinced that the underlying nervousness in the market has abated.  Third quarter earnings season is here and estimates by Fact Set  are for a 5% decline in earnings, the second consecutive quarter of declines since 2009.

The China Syndrome

August 23, 2015

Some of you may have spent the summer vacation on a small island in the Pacific where there was no access to the news.  So a quickie catch up.  The new Mission Impossible movie Rogue Nation is edge of the seat great fun and its still on the big screen.  And, yeh, almost two weeks ago the central bank of China devalued the Yuan a bit over 3%. Yes, that was a bit unusual.  An unexpected 8% drop in July’s exports spooked economists in the Chinese government.

That brought some additional pressure on oil stocks but the larger market eked out a .7% gain at the close of the week on August 14th.  But – cue up the going down the dark stairs into the basement music – the 50 day average of the Dow Jones crossed below the 200 day average during that week.

Yep, the death cross of doom.  Of course, the Dow Jones is only 30 stocks, weighed down by the plunging fortunes of oil giants like Chevron and Exxon.  The 50 day average of the broader SP500 index was still above the 200 day average so there was cause for concern, but not panic.

For the first two days of this past week, the market was essentially flat.  USO, a commodity ETF that tracks West Texas Intermediate crude oil (WTI) rose more than 1% on Tuesday.  Then came the news that crude oil inventories were continuing their relentless advance upwards. On the good side, lower oil prices are leading to higher demand but sometimes investors focus on the bad news.  WTI oil dropped 4.4% on Wednesday.  Whispers of disappointing manufacturing production out of China added fuel to the fire. On Thursday, the broader market fell 2%, joining the continuing downturn in energy stocks and emerging markets.  A PMI (Purchasing Managers Index) survey of Chinese manufacturers confirmed a slight contraction in the Chinese economic machine. That spooked investors, leading to a 3% drop in the broader market on Friday.

By the time the smoke cleared at the end of the week’s battle, the broader index had lost 5.6% for the week.  Energy and emerging market indexes were down 8%.  Weekly volume in the popular SP500 ETF SPY was the highest this year, an indication that this concern may be more than a temporary blip.

The 50 day average of the SP500 is still above the 200 day average.  No feared death cross yet.

After four years without a 10% correction, the SP500 crossed below that mark this week, falling 10% from the recent high in late May.  Time to sell? Did you get out of the market last October when the broader market fell more than 6% in a month?  Remember that one? The market was going to fall by 50%, according to some market gurus.  Friday’s close is 5% above that October low.

Some long term traders use a 50 week average as a guideline.  As long as it is rising, why worry?  Until this week, the 50 week average had been substantially rising since September 2009.  Why do I use the word “substantially?”  There were a few weeks in late 2011 and early 2012 when the average dipped a few cents.  This week’s decline was like those little dips – a mere 5  cents in SPY, the popular ETF that tracks the SP500.

The world’s economy has come to depend on the growth of two stalwarts – the U.S. and China. For the past eight years, the Eurozone has fumbled and floundered through a cobweb of of political and economic problems. When the U.S. economy cratered in 2008 – 2009, the economic burden shifted to China, whose expansionist growth truly saved the world from a Great Depression.  Although the U.S. economy is showing strong growth, can it offset the economic weakness in China?  The stock market is holding an election, a vote of confidence on that very question.

A Bull In A China Shop

August 16, 2015

The big news this week was China’s decision to devalue its currency, the yuan, by 3.5% in two days.  At week’s end, the yuan was about 3% less than what it was at the start of the week.

The decline in value came abruptly in  a market that moves in hundredths of a percent, called basis points, each day.  Since the beginning of the year, the euro has lost more than 8% against the dollar but it has done so in little teeny tiny moves.

What prompted China’s central bank to make this devaluation?  China expected a small drop in exports in July, but 8% was far more than expected. (Bloomberg )  The timing of the devaluation couldn’t be worse.  Emerging markets in southeast Asia have had sluggish growth in the past year and depend on exports.  The devaluation of the Yuan makes Chinese exports more competitive.  Vietnam and Malaysia devalued their currencies this week to maintain a competitive edge with China.

Emerging markets have had a rough ride this year.  A popular Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF is down 18% from its high in April.  However, today’s price level is barely below the price in mid-December.

While the SP500 has gone nowhere for the past nine months, emerging markets went on a tear in the beginning of the year, rising about 20% before falling back.  Talking about the SP500…

Dow Jones Death Cross alert!!! This past week the 50 day moving average of the Dow Jones Index crossed below the 200 day average.  The sky is falling.  Run for the hills.  The rhetoric does get a bit dramatic.  Should an investor disregard this signal as so much hocus-pocus?  Brett Arends at MarketWatch suggests that this “indicator” is hogwash. Yes and no.  The Dow Jones is a narrow index composed of just 30 stocks (CNN Money on component performance YTD).  Although it is meant to capture the essentials of the U.S. market, its narrowness makes it an unreliable indicator in some environments.  The oil giants Chevron and Exxon have dropped 23% and 15% respectively, dragging the index down.  There has still not been a death cross in the broader SP500 index.

To investors now over 60, the equity markets of the past 15 years have told a sobering message.  Investors need to either pay some attention or pay someone to pay some attention.  The SP500 stock market index has only recently recovered the inflation adjusted value that it had in 2000.

In nominal, or current, dollars, recoveries from major price declines can often take seven years.  Past recovery periods were 1968 – 1972, 1973 – 1980, 2000 – 2007, and 2007 to early 2013.

Long term trending indicators may be able to help an investor avoid some – emphasize some – of the pain.  For the casual investor, a death cross is a signal to pay a bit more attention to the market on a weekly basis.  All death crosses are not created equal.  Some death crosses are wonderful buying opportunities.  In July 2010, after a two month drop of almost 20%, the 50 day average of the SP500 dropped below the 200 day average, a death cross.  Good time to buy.  Why?  Because it is a death cross coming after a sharp recent drop in price.  The same type of death cross occurred in August 2011 after a steep drop in stock price in late July after the “budget battle” between Obama and Boehner went unresolved.  Good buying opportunity.

In December 2007, a death cross was not a good buying opportunity?  Why?  Because it came after six months of the market seesawing with indecision and no net change in price.  That indicates that there is a shifting sentiment, a lack of confidence among investors.

Some mid-term to long-term strategists use a weekly chart which measures the price at the end of each week, that price that short term traders feel comfortable with as they head into the weekend.  In a bullish or positive market the 12 week, or 3 month, price average stays above the 50 week, or one year, average.  As indecision creeps in the two averages will get close.  Finally, the 50 week average will top out, either gaining nothing or losing just a tiny bit as the 12 week average crosses below.  We’re not there.  We may get there.  Who knows?

Once that weekly cross happens, a long term investor might look at a daily chart.  What is a good rule(s) of thumb to determine whether a death cross is a good buying opportunity, a negative signal, or a palms up, who knows what the heck is going on, signal?

1) Has there been a decline of 15 – 20% (high price to low price) in the past 2 – 3 months? Is today’s price several percent below the 50 day average? Then it is probably a good buying opportunity as I noted above.  It is not always clear cut.  In September 2000, the SP500 began a 12% slide in price that would mark the beginning of a downturn lasting several years.  In mid-October 2000 a death cross occurred.  Was that a large enough slide in price to present a good buying opportunity?  Not really.  The price that day was almost the same as the 50 day average.  The recent drop in price had contributed to the death cross but a longer term re-evaluation of value was also taking place that would cut the SP500 index by 45% toward the end of 2002.

2) If there has been no substantial decline in the past few months, look at the closing price on the day of the death cross.  How many months can you go back to find the same price level and how many times has that price level been tested?  If just a few months, then this is an indeterminate period of indecision that may resolve itself.  Prices may move either higher or lower depending on the resolution.  But, if you can go back six to nine months of price flipping and flopping, then it is a bit more serious.  There may be a spreading questioning of value, a re-positioning of asset balances.  Does it mean sell tomorrow?  No.  It means pay attention.

After several years of declining prices in the years from 2000 – early 2003, the market had a Golden Cross (50 day average rises above 200 day) in May of 2003.  A death cross occurred more than a year later, in August 2004, at the 1095 price level.  That day’s price was close to the 50 day and 200 day average and so was not a standout buying opportunity. The market had first crossed above that price level in December 2003, then retested that level three times on market declines only to rise again.  Might it have been worth waiting a few weeks to check the market’s short term sentiment and see if that price level would hold again?  Probably. As it turned out, the market continued to rise for three more years.

These are not ironclad rules but act as guidelines to help an investor gauge the underlying mood of the market to make more informed investing decisions.

New Year, No Fear

January 4th, 2015

As the calendar flips from December to January, some favorite activities are predictions for the coming year and reviews of the past year.  Here are a few predictions I’ve heard in the past few weeks:

“We think oil will continue to drift downwards as global demand slackens.”

“We think long term Treasuries will continue to show strong gains in the coming year.”

“Output remains strong, and the labor market continues to strengthen.  We expect further gains in the stock market this year.”

“We expect gold to find a bottom in the $900 to $1000 range and we will be initiating a long position at that time.”

Predictions are foolish, of course.  They are too certain.  An expectation is a bit more sober, a pronouncement of a probability.  Did anyone hear these expectations at the beginning of 2014?

“Oil prices will decline by 40% this year.”

“We expect long term Treasuries to gain 25% in 2014.”

“We expect the euro to fall to a 4-1/2 year low against the dollar.”

I don’t remember any of those predictions at the beginning of 2014.  So here’s my expectation – er, prediction: in 2015, I will be surprised by some of the events that will unfold.

If that doesn’t satisfy your prediction craving, here are several – let’s call them guesstimates – of SP500 earnings and price predictions in 2015.

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Blue Light Specials

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there are a few stock sectors that are “on sale,” selling below their 200 week, or 4 year average.  Falling gas prices in the last half of 2014 have had a negative impact on energy stocks (XLE, VDE).  Selling below their 200 week averages in December, both ETFs are hovering at their 200 week average.  The 50 week average is above the 200 week average, indicating that this is, so far, a relatively short term trend.

Emerging markets have been in the doldrums for a year and a half.  The 50 week average is just about to cross above the 200 week, signalling that the downturn may have exhausted itself.

The mining sector (XME) is down – way down.  The 50 week average is below the 200 week average and current prices of this ETF are below the 50 week average.  The mining sector can be quite cyclical but could be quite profitable in the next six months.

In the summer of 2011, the oil commodity ETF USO lost a third of its value.  In the melt down of 2008, it lost 75% of its value, falling from $115 down to near $30.  This week USO broke below $20, losing half of its value since July.  Since September 2009, shortly after the official end of the recession, the 50 week average has been trading in a range of $34 to $38, and is currently at the low point of that five year range.  While this may not be appropriate for a casual investor, it might be worth a look for those with some play money.

Other sectors – industrials, materials, finance, health, technology, consumer staples, consumer discretionary, retail and utilities – are above both their 50 and 200 week averages.

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Happiness Is An Open Wallet

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence gauge rose still further above 90 in December.  At some time in the distant past, in a year called 1985, all the people were happier than they are today.  That long ago time became the benchmark 100 for this index.  The index number is less important than the trend of confidence – whether it is rising, falling or staying the same.

The Case Shiller 20 City Home Price Index for October showed a 4.5% yearly gain.  The double digit gains of last year and the first six months of 2014 were unsustainable.  However, I would be concerned if this continues to fall toward zero, indicating a serious softening of demand, or a lack of affordability or both.

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The non-SP500 World

The SP500 index, composed of the 500 largest companies in the U.S., was up 11.4% for 2014. An index of mid, small and micro-cap companies was up a more modest 7.1% (Standard Poors) for the year.  An index of REITs was up 25.6% in 2014 after stalling during much of 2011, 2012 and 2013. I was surprised to learn that during the past twenty years, REITs outperformed the SP500.

Conventional wisdom holds that rising interest rates are bad for REIT stocks.  A study of REIT performance shows that the impact is less than most investors think. In addition, the income growth generated by REITs has outpaced inflation in all but one out the past 15 years. VNQ and RWR are two ETFs in this market space.  VNQ has a 10 year return of about 9%, RWR a bit less.

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Social Security

The Social Security program depends on current taxes to pay current beneficiaries.  In per person inflation adjusted dollars, the federal government collects twice the amount of money it did forty years ago.  Per person revenues have almost caught up to the levels of 2006.

The problem is that there are a lot of people starting to retire.  Politicians of both parties have spent the excess social security taxes collected in the past decades.  Last week I asked what you would do if the stock market lost 30% of its value.

This week’s sobering question for those in or near retirement:  what would you do if social security payments were reduced, or means tested?  With the stroke of a pen, Congress could reduce the maximum monthly benefit from $2533 to say $2100.  This would affect a relatively small percentage of voters, those with higher incomes, a favorite target for benefit cuts.  Perhaps you are taking care of an ailing child or parent and need the income.  You might submit a 4 page form listing your pensions, IRAs, the assessed value of your home and any mortgage you had against the house, your mutual funds, stocks and bonds.  Using a complex formula to factor in your age, special circumstances, the cost of living index in your area and the total of your assets, the Social Security Administration would calculate your monthly benefit.  Can’t happen here in the land of the free, home of the brave?

Market Bumps

January 26th, 2014

In a holiday shortened week, the market opened higher than the previous Friday but fell a bit more than 3% by week’s end.  On this same week in 2012, the market lost 2.5% in 3 trading days.  As I mentioned last week, there were few economic reports this past week to detract from the focus on corporate earnings.

IBM opened up the week by beating profit estimates but missed revenue estimates by $1 billion, or about 3%, and were about $1.5 billion less than the final quarter of 2012.  The 4th quarter is usually IBM’s strongest quarter each year; lower revenues from this giant indicate a cautious business investment outlook.  IBM is selling for the same price now that it did in mid 2011, a price earnings ratio of 12.

The following day, China announced that the country’s industrial production has fallen just below the neutral mark.   The reaction to the news was exaggerated by sharp declines in some emerging market currencies, which started a cascade of selling. See SoberLook blog for some charts. Similar weakness out of China last summer prompted a much more subdued reaction.

On Thursday, McDonald’s reported weak sales growth, which added to concerns.  After a run up of 30% last year, many traders were on high alert for any negative news.  The U.S. stock market has enjoyed a tail wind from Federal Reserve stimulus policy, but a global economy is largely outside of the Fed’s influence.

A 14 month support trend line that has been in place since November 2012 sets a mark at about 1760.  Dropping below that would signal a short to mid term shift in market sentiment.  The SP500 index closed at 1790 on Friday, 1.7% above that support trend line.  The 10 month average of the index is 1700.  A drop below that mark would signify a change in mid to long term sentiment. A few weeks ago, I noted that the market was close to 10% over its 10 month average.  This week’s decline puts that percentage at a bit over 5%.

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Existing home sales notched up a bit in December but the yearly percent gains were relatively flat.  The 4 week average of new claims for unemployment declined to 331,000.  Several weeks ago it was close to the psychological 350,000 mark.  Mitigating the decline in new claims, continuing claims have been rising lately and are approaching the 3 million mark.

To put that 3 million people in historical perspective, take a look at the chart below.

The number of long term unemployed is ever a concern.

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In early October I noted the relative sluggish performance of retail stocks vs the larger market index of the SP500 ahead of the Christmas buying season.  Below is an updated chart of a retail index ETF vs the larger market.

Shortly after that post, renewed hopes for a strong Christmas season led to higher prices for the group.  Disappointing sales gains announced as the season ended deflated that balloon.  Since the new year began, a composite of retail stocks has lost 8%.

Typically retailers report their earnings in mid to late February.  Traders have already priced in a rather disappointing earnings season for the retailers.  In the context of a longer time frame, retail stocks are still up 25% year over year.  If an investor had bought this composite on this date seven years ago when the economy was strong and retail stocks were at a high, she would still have doubled her money, easily outpacing the 38% gains in the larger market since then.  The resilience of consumer demand, despite an extremely severe downturn when unemployment and falling house prices put a brake on consumer spending, has helped make this sector a sure footed long term winner.