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“The Dominant Risk For Wall Street” May Be Manifesting In Small Caps

A good deal of attention has already been paid to the growing divergence between small cap and large cap stocks so far this year. The former have seen a small decline while the latter have risen about 8%. But I’ve seen very little commentary regarding WHY this might be happening. Of the many divergences the market has seen recently I think this one may be the most significant as the small caps could be the “canary in the coal mine” for the broader market.

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It all comes back to what I have argued amounts to a bubble in corporate profit margins. Jeremy Grantham has used a 2-standard deviation event as one benchmark for a bubble. Using that definition, it’s hard to argue that profit margins are not currently in a bubble.

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Warren Buffett also weighed in on unsustainably high margins back in 1999:

In my opinion, you have to be wildly optimistic to believe that corporate profits as a percent of GDP can, for any sustained period, hold much above 6%. One thing keeping the percentage down will be competition, which is alive and well. In addition, there’s a public-policy point: If corporate investors, in aggregate, are going to eat an ever-growing portion of the American economic pie, some other group will have to settle for a smaller portion. That would justifiably raise political problems—and in my view a major reslicing of the pie just isn’t going to happen.

Note that margins are now nearly twice the 6% level that Buffett considered a long-term upper threshold. Now I haven’t heard him say anything about current levels of profit margins (and I’d love for somebody to ask!) but I think his logic is still valid. At some point, the pendulum will have to swing the other way and profits will revert to some extent.

Like the price divergence between small and large caps, the forces behind the scenes here have also been the subject of much ink. It’s that 99% versus the 1% thing. You see over the past few years as the economy has slowly recovered in the wake of the financial crisis companies have seen their revenues grow but have been reluctant to add to their employee base. The result is that a larger and larger portion of these revenues fall to the bottom line. This goes on for a period of five years and, voila! Record profit margins. The 1% (owners of these companies) celebrate while the 99% stagnate.

Until now…

There are signs recently that this dynamic is shifting. After all, you can only milk your current employee base so much before they become overextended and your product or service suffers or you can’t meet the growing demand, etc. At some point in the recovery or expansion process you have to start adding employees AND paying your current employees a little better in order to retain them.

And it’s beginning to look like this is exactly what’s starting to happen. As the BLS reported a couple of weeks ago, job openings are improving pretty dramatically. July saw a 22% gain year-over-year. And as we learned today, real wage growth spiked in August by the largest amount in years.

This is fantastic news for the 99%. It looks like more jobs and better pay are finally on the way. And it’s exactly the result the FOMC, with their albeit super-blunt tools, have been trying so hard to create. As Pimco’s Paul McCulley writes:

But as Martin Luther King intoned long ago, the arc of the universe does bend toward justice. And as I wrote in July, I think it will do so with the Fed letting the recovery/expansion rip for a long time, fostering real wage gains for Main Street. This implies that the dominant risk for Wall Street is not bursting bubbles, but rather a long slow grind down in profit’s share of GDP/national income.

But do bubbles usually unwind in a “long slow grind down”? Maybe. But sometimes they burst. Either way, this is not so good for the 1% and those record-high profit margins. And we’re seeing this happen already in what area of the market? You guessed it – the small caps and “middle market” companies. Sober Look reports:

While over 50% of [middle market] companies are seeing revenue growth, the fact that over 50% are experiencing EBITDA declines suggests margin compression. For the sixth consecutive quarter, more middle market companies experienced EBITDA declines than gains.

It’s been six consecutive quarters now that these smaller companies have experienced, “margin compression.” UBS recently confirmed this data noting the recent plunge in EBIT margins at small cap companies.

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Chart via Business Insider

Make no mistake, this epic stock market rally has been built on the back of this profits boom. It’s been the source of much of the earnings growth we’ve seen and inspired investors to bid valuations to what has historically been rarified air. Should profits decline it would mean already extended valuations are even more inflated than they currently appear and would remove a major underpinning of the bull market.

What I worry about even more, however, is the amount of risk that has been assumed recently based upon the expectation that profit margins will remain at these record levels indefinitely. As Sober Look recently reported, leveraged buy out valuations are at heights not seen at any other time during the past 14 years. More importantly the amount of debt in relation to targets’ EBITDA is also at a record:

Valuations

Chart via Sober Look

If EBITDA at more than half of these companies is actually declining now these multiples will soon look even more inflated than they already do and the massive amount of debt used in buying them is at risk even greater risk of becoming unsustainable than it originally appears.

Speaking of the “massive amount of debt,” It’s important to note that the volume of leveraged loans has far surpassed it’s highs of 2007…

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Chart via Dallas Fed

…and the risk controls embedded in these loans has fallen dramatically as covenant-lite’s share of overall issuance is now twice what it was prior to the financial crisis.

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Chart via Dallas Fed

So it looks as if we may have more built up risk on the debt side of things than we did prior to the financial crisis. If margins are actually beginning to revert, as the small cap/middle market is suggesting, at 2-standard deviations above their long-term average, they potentially have a very long way to fall. And with so much risk betting against this possibility the fallout could be dramatic.

Perhaps this is why spreads have finally begun to widen just a bit over the past few months in the high-yield market.

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Chart via Charlie Bilello

All in all, this is clearly a very complex system with various intermarket relationships. But we are seeing some signals that point to the fact that the Fed may be close to achieving it’s goals of increasing employment and wages. While this is good news for the labor force, it’s bad news for companies and investors because the resulting margin compression would remove the main driving force of this bull market along with causing potential problems (defaults) in the high-yield bond market. So keep your eyes on the small caps; there are big implications in that divergence everyone’s looking at.

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The Only Guy On The FOMC With Any Experience Actually Managing Risk Is Sounding The Alarm

Below is a compilation I put together using excerpts from Richard Fisher’s speeches this year (emphasis mine):

There is no greater gift to a financial market operator—or anyone, for that matter—than free and abundant money. It reduces the cost of taking risk. But it also burns a hole in the proverbial pocket. It enhances the appeal of things that might not otherwise look so comely. I have likened the effect to that of strapping on what students here at USC and campuses elsewhere call “beer goggles.” This phenomenon occurs when alcohol renders alluring what might otherwise appear less clever or attractive. And this is, indeed, what has happened to stocks and bonds and other financial investments as a result of the free-flowing liquidity we at the Fed have poured down the throat of the economy. Here are some of the developments that signal we have made for an intoxicating brew as we have continued pouring liquidity down the economy’s throat:

  • Share buybacks financed by debt issuance that after tax treatment and inflation incur minimal, and in some cases negative, cost; this has a most pleasant effect on earnings per share apart from top-line revenue growth.
  • Dividend payouts financed by cheap debt that bolster share prices.
  • The “bull/bear spread” for equities now being higher than in October 2007.
  • Stock market metrics such as price-to-sales ratios and market capitalization as a percentage of gross domestic product at eye-popping levels not seen since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.
  • The price-to-earnings (PE) ratio of stocks is among the highest decile of reported values since 1881. Bob Shiller’s inflation-adjusted PE ratio reached 26 this week as the Standard & Poor’s 500 hit yet another record high. For context, the measure hit 30 before Black Tuesday in 1929 and reached an all-time high of 44 before the dot-com implosion at the end of 1999….
  • Margin debt that is pushing into all-time records.
  • In the bond market, investment-grade yield spreads over “risk free” government bonds becoming abnormally tight.
  • “Covenant lite” lending becoming robust – surpassing even the 2007 highs – and the spread between CCC credit and investment-grade credit or the risk-free rate historically narrow. I will note here that I am all for helping businesses get back on their feet so that they can expand employment and America’s prosperity: This is the root desire of the FOMC. But I worry when “junk” companies that should borrow at a premium reflecting their risk of failure are able to borrow (or have their shares priced) at rates that defy the odds of that risk. I may be too close to this given my background. I have been involved with the credit markets since 1975. I have never seen such ebullient credit markets. From 1989 through 1997, I was managing partner of a fund that bought distressed debt, used our positions to bring about changes in the companies we invested in, and made a handsome profit from the dividends, interest payments and stock price appreciation that flowed from the restructured companies. Today, I would have to hire Sherlock Holmes to find a single distressed company priced attractively enough to buy. The big banks are lending money on terms and at prices that any banker with a memory cell knows from experience usually end in tears.

The former funds manager in me sees these as yellow lights. The central banker in me is reminded of the mandate to safeguard financial stability. We must watch these developments carefully lest we become responsible for raising the ghost of irrational exuberance.

Why isn’t anyone listening?

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All Eyes On The Bond Market

The most critical asset class in the world right now might just be the US bond market, as represented by the 10-year treasury note yield. So far this year bonds have performed very well as this rate has declined – foiling the best laid plans of all the bond bears (and there have been loads of them). But the bulls can’t quite plan their victory parade just yet because right now this critical interest rate is sitting at a critical technical level, a crossroads, actually.

The downtrend for this rate is well-established. It might be the longest tenured trend, in fact, of any major asset class out there right now. Here’s a look a the monthly chart:

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Clearly it’s not even close to breaking above that upper downtrend line that dates back to the mid-1980’s. So anyone making the case for higher interest rates is swimming upstream.

But take a look at the weekly chart and it’s a little bit different story:

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After briefly breaching the 2.25% level during the height of the financial crisis and then testing it again in the fall of 2010 this rate finally broke down to new lows during the summer of 2011. It wallowed below that key level for a couple of years before regaining it during mid-2013 – along with breaking the downtrend line on that time frame – in a year that amounted to a walloping for long bond holders.

Much has been made of the weakness in rates/strength in bonds since then but, in actual fact, the action over the past few months has only amounted to a 50% retracement of the surge in rates from last year. And that area between 2.25% and 2.4% serves once again as key technical support. A closer look at a daily time frame shows what might be described as a bull flag (for the price action year-to-date) that has taken the rate right to the 50% retracement of the 2013 rise:

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In any case the action this year has been corrective rather than implusive, as Elliott Wave aficionados would say, suggesting yet higher rates are in order. However, the trend is still pointing lower on all of these time frames so there’s something both bulls and bears can point to right now.

All in all, this 2.3%ish level serves as a technical line in the sand. Until it breaks meaningfully one way or the other bulls and bears are at a stalemate. Once it does break out, though, it could have major implications for both the stock market (in terms of relative valuations) and the economy (in terms of leading indicators).

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Have Analysts Morphed Into ManBearPigs?
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Here’s Why You Can’t Be Too Bullish Or Too Bearish Right Now

If you couldn’t already tell I’ve been thinking about cognitive biases and logical fallacies a lot lately. And while I’ve been fairly bearish for quite some time now I haven’t been, “sell everything and hide your cash in the mattress bearish.” Those who are that bearish are suffering from clear biases or fallacies I’ll get to in a minute. By the same token, those who are rip-snorting bullish right now are also suffering from a similar condition.

By being overly bullish right now, you’re simply in denial over a plethora of evidence that suggests the risk/reward equation is heavily skewed toward the risk side without much potential for reward at all. But what I really think bulls are relying on most heavily right now is a little something called “recency bias” or, as the Fed likes to put it (emphasis mine):

If asset prices start to rise, the success of some investors attracts public attention that fuels the spread of enthusiasm for the market. New (often less sophisticated) investors enter the market and bid up prices. This “irrational exuberance” heightens expectations of further price increases, as investors extrapolate recent price action far into the future. – “Asset Price Bubbles” FRBSF

That’s all “recency bias” is: investors ‘extrapolating recent price action far into the future.’ In other words, Mr. Market has been flipping a coin that just keeps coming up heads (big gains) so investors begin to believe that it’s just going to be heads forever. Tails (corrections or bear markets) are a thing of the past.

Obviously, this is just faulty logic. But when BTFD becomes so ingrained into the broader market psyche it just becomes painfully clear that investors are relying on nothing but the trend. Which is fine, of course, until the trend comes to an end. Just don’t pretend there are any other reasons to be bullish aside from the trend because there just aren’t.

On the flipside, uber-bears are suffering from a similar ailment called “gambler’s fallacy.” They believe that because Mr. Market has flipped heads so many times in a row (how long have we gone without a 10% correction?) that the likelihood of him flipping tails is now much greater which is also bogus logic but something people do all the time. The likelihood of flipping heads or tails is still 50% no matter what sort of streak has come before this flip of the coin.

Despite the fact that the odds haven’t changed at all, bulls believe there’s a near 100% chance the next flip is gonna be heads once again (because it’s just persisted so long) and bears believe there’s a near 100% chance it will be tails (because the ridiculous streak of heads just can’t persist). Both are wrong. So what’s an investor to do?

To me the fundamentals, sentiment and the macro backdrop are clearly bearish right now. But I grant that these are not timing mechanisms. These are just the shade of the lens we should be looking through right now. In 2009, you wanted rose-colored glasses because all three of these indicators were flipped. Today, you want the opposite, whatever that is (brown-colored glasses?).

Still, you probably don’t want to express that view in your investments to any great degree simply because Mr. Market is still, in fact, flipping heads… for now. So don’t get me wrong; I’m bearish. Clearly. But I’d recommend waiting until Mr. Market flips a tails or two to before jumping feet first into your bear costume.

Next week I’ll post the third in my “market timing” series which will make this much more clear.

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Posts

5 Quotes From Financial Wizards To Help You Understand The Current Asset Bubble

Fed policy “makes no sense from a risk/reward perspective” and it will “end badly.” -Stan Druckenmiller

Druckenmiller went on to say, “every ounce of intuition in my body is that the potential costs have crossed the potential benefits in Fed policies.” I think what he is referring to here is that the tools available to the Fed are not precision tools. They are blunt instruments that are not very effective in their mission and their use comes with all sorts of side effects and consequences. I wrote a bit about this yesterday. We’re seeing the majority of the effects ZIRP and QE appear in stock and bond prices rather than in employment and wages. But so what?

“We are taking a greater chance of having another crash at a time when the world is less capable of bearing the cost.” -Raghuram Rajan

When you push up asset prices in an effort to stimulate the economy you also subject the economy and financial markets to the risk of asset bubbles – which, when they eventually pop (as they all do sooner or later), can undo all the work the policies or tools did in the first place. Anyone remember the financial crisis? We were well on our way to the Great Depression, part deux, as the Fed would have us believe. But have we reached “bubble” levels yet?

“Yellen’s comments suggest, and I agree, that we are in an asset bubble.” -Carl Icahn

Carl sure thinks so and evidently believes the Fed is doing it consciously. But how can we determine if we’re in a bubble?

Corporate bonds and junk bonds “have never been more over-valued in history.” -Jeff Gundlach

Oh, that’s how. Junk bonds valuations are sky high (not to mention other asset classes like stocks, farmland or office towers)…

“It is worrisome that covenant-lite lending has continued its meteoric revival and has even surpassed its 2007 highs.” -Richard Fisher

…and the riskiest sort of bonds are being issued at a record pace. Didn’t we learn our lesson after the financial crisis? That this sort of thing is not a fix at all but just exacerbates the problem? Will we ever learn?

Maybe somebody ought to teach the Fed Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

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It’s A Put On

This morning over coffee my wife said to me, “I don’t think Kate Upton is very pretty at all. Are they even looking at her face?” And I thought (though I can’t wholeheartedly agree with her), it’s just like the music business: modern technology lets you take anyone and make them look and sound like a superstar. Hire a world-class photographer and take him to the most beautiful place on earth, let him shoot anyone – really anyone – and then give the shots to a photoshop expert and you’ll have your SI swimsuit cover.

Or have a world-class producer pick his favorite song from one of the top songwriters in the world, put him in a top-of-the-line studio where he can also hire the best musicians on the planet and you can literally take anyone – yes, anyone – put them on the mike and using ProTools or AutoTune you will have a hit record. Guaranteed. (If you don’t believe me listen to this.)

But where is the “real” in that? I miss “real” (with apologies to Bob Lefsetz for stealing his modus operandi.) There are an amazing number of talented and beautiful people out there that don’t get even a smidgeon of the notoriety that Kate Upton and Brittany Spears get. I heard a guy last night playing here in Bend down at the shopping plaza. He sounded awesome. Who cares?

Nobody – because we’ve been trained to eat up the “fake” and ignore the “real.” “Fake” is way more profitable for corporate America because it’s so easy. “Real” takes too much time and effort. 10,000 hours? Who’s got that kind of time?

In the Sixties, “real” was everywhere. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beatles. For Christ’s sake, The BEATLES! They were the ones who really capitalized (forgive the pun) on “real.” And now everyone wants the shortcut to being/finding/capitalizing on the next Beatles. The irony is that they’ll never find it so long as they do it the “fake” way.

And this is all happening in our financial world, too. We long for the days of real growth in the economy, jobs and wages but rather than do what it takes to make it “real” (like allowing institutions to fail and debt cycles to cycle) we insist on “faking” it. We (The Fed) do absolutely everything in our power, lower interest rates to zero, print trillions of new dollars, etc. in an effort to see “real” growth in the economy only to find that we only get “fake” signs of growth like soaring stock and bond markets while the things that really matter in the big picture, jobs and wages, continue to stagnate.

It’s ALL an “Eminence Front” but nobody’s talking about it because we’re much closer to the top of the cycle than we are to the bottom. Maybe at the completion of this cycle Brittany Spears will cover The Who’s classic. Wouldn’t that be an awesome contrary indicator?

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Stoogelogo
Investing, Markets, Weekly Reports

On The Stock/Bond Conundrum

Professional investors typically look at the stock market as playing Curly to the bond market’s Moe. (I don’t know who Larry is… Currencies? Commodities?) Behavioral finance teaches us that neither of them are very rational over the short run and can, at times, get pretty zany. But the bond market is typically a bit wiser than the stock market and at times it likes to slap the stock market around when it gets wise. Maybe it’s because the bond market has things like “vigilantes” (or used to) that keep it a bit more honest. Who really knows?

Right now traders can’t stop talking about the divergence between the two. Bonds are saying the economy looks punk (as the yield curve continues to flatten) and stocks are saying everything looks hunky dory (as they surge to new highs). So who’s right? Is Moe about to do the eye poke on Curly or will Curly get the block in along with the last laugh.

I’ll just say that I don’t know; I’m not an economist and I wouldn’t trust those guys to know either. But I do have at least a clue.

First quarter GDP would suggest that the bond market has it right but, as we all know, markets are forward-looking, discounting mechanisms. So the continued weakness in yields would suggest that bonds see the Q1 contraction as more then just a blip while stocks are saying, “it’s not so bad.

And we’ve recently heard from a couple of market watchers I do trust who have come down on the side of the bond market. Stephanie Pomboy gave a terrific interview to Barron’s over the weekend:

The No. 1 thing is that investors generally have underestimated the impact that QE [quantitative easing] has had on the economy and the degree to which it has supported growth. As a consequence, they have underestimated the cost the tapering [of monthly Treasury bond purchases by the Fed] would have, and that is starting to come into focus. People will realize that the economy really has not achieved any self-sustaining momentum and that it requires continued stimulus. I liken it to a car on a flat road that has no momentum. When you take your foot off the gas, the car just stops moving. That’s essentially what the Fed is doing…. I expect to see Treasury yields trading in a range from 2% to 3%, basically how it’s been for the past several years. You want to sell at 2% and buy at 3%. I wouldn’t be surprised to see rates fall below 2%, as investor perceptions about the economy meet with reality and they realize that the Fed still has a lot of work to do.

Is it just a coincidence that the Fed began to taper in January and the economy began to contract at the very same time? Maybe. But it’s worth making a note of especially due to the fact that each time QE has ended in the past it’s led to problems that have forced the Fed into a new round of QE. Different this time?

Jeff Gundlach, another whose work I greatly admire, seems to agree with Stephanie. A couple of weeks ago he predicted we would see “one of the biggest short covering scrambles of all time” in the bond market that would send the 10-year yield below 2% and perhaps even below the 1.5% level tagged back in 2012. The recent economic slowing would have to at least continue if not accelerate for something like this to occur.

To be sure, this is THE contrarian call right now. A recent poll of 72 economists found none of them see a contraction in our future. To me, this is the sort of consensus that Bob Dylan sang about:

“Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time” [emphasis mine]
I think Abraham Lincoln said that
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
I said that.

And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Curly get slapped upside the head yet again.

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