Monday, June 11, 2018

Time To Not Freak Out About Debt Again

SummaryDebt is a perennial worry.  It's a natural human tendency is to think of debt as bad, that by incurring debt we are living beyond our means. But much of what you hear about debt in the US is hyperbole. Here are the facts:

Household debt has fallen in the aftermath of the Great Recession: on a per capita basis, it's back to the same level as 14 years ago. Households' debt relative to their net worth is as low now as in 1985. For all the consternation about the threat posed by student loans, their default rates are actually falling.

Corporate leverage today is not materially different than it was in 1993 or 2003, i.e., early in two expansion cycles. The delinquency rate on corporate loans is lower than at any time during the prior three expansion cycles. High yield spreads are falling and default rates are well below average.

The "tax reform" bill signed in 2017 is forecast to further expand the federal debt.  But examples from around the world do not show a strong correlation between federal debt and economic growth over the next 5-10 years. For all the hand wringing about high federal debt, the interest cost of that debt is just 1.3% of GDP, as low as during the halcyon days of Eisenhower and Elvis.

* * *

Like most people, you're probably worried about the amount of debt in the US.  We seem to be going broke. Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Weekly Market Summary

Summary:  US equities are up two months in a row and positive for the year. They are outperforming the rest of the world, despite ongoing Quantitative Tightening here and QE abroad. In the past few days, the Nasdaq has joined the small cap indices at new all-time highs. With expanding breadth momentum and a solid macro backdrop, the outlook for (still rangebound) large caps is positive.

The upcoming weeks could test investors' resolve. Options expiration, an FOMC rate decision, the DPRK Summit and weak mid-June seasonality are all on deck for next week. The early June gap ups in SPX are very likely to fill.

* * *

US equities rose for a second month in a row in May. SPX gained 2.5%, NDX gained 5.7% and small caps gained 6.1%.

Increased volatility has given 2018 has the feel of disappointment, but YTD, SPX is up 2.5% and NDX is up over 11%. Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.

Friday, June 1, 2018

June Macro Update: Unemployment Claims at a 49 Year Low

SummaryThe macro data from the past month continues to mostly point to positive growth. On balance, the evidence suggests the imminent onset of a recession is unlikely.

The bond market agrees with the macro data. The yield curve has 'inverted' (10 year yields less than 2-year yields) ahead of every recession in the past 40 years (arrows). The lag between inversion and the start of the next recession has been long: at least 10 months and in several instances as long as 2-3 years. On this basis, the current expansion will likely last through 2018 at a minimum. Enlarge any image by clicking on it.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Separating an Innocuous Correction From the Start of a Sinister Bear Market

Summary: It's true that equities fall before the start of most recessions. So why bother following the economy; why not just follow the price of equities?

"Market corrections" occur every 20 months, but less than a third of these actually becomes a bear market. Recessions almost always lead to bear markets, and bear markets outside of recessions are uncommon.  For that reason, discerning whether a recession is imminent can help determine when an innocuous correction is probably the start of a sinister bear market. Volatile equity prices alone are not sufficient.

The future is inherently unknowable. We can never say with certainty what will happen in the month's ahead. But the odds suggest an imminent recession in the US is unlikely at present and, barring a rogue event like 1987, a bear market is not currently underway. That means equities are most likely on their way to new highs in the coming months.

* * *

Why bother following the economy? Why not just follow the price of equities?

It's true that equities fall before the start of most recessions. Take the last 50 years as an example. There have been 7 recessions and the S&P has peaked and started to fall ahead of all except one (the S&P peaked with the start of the recession in 1990). On average, the S&P has provided a 7 month "heads up" that a recession is on the way. That's enough for even the slowest investor to get out of the way. Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

New Highs In The A-D Line and the Small Cap Index Are Not Necessarily Bullish

Summary:  The conventional wisdom is that "healthy breadth" is necessarily bullish. This sounds  intuitively correct: a broader foundation - where more stocks are ticking higher - should equal a more solid market, but it is empirically false. Equities can continue to move higher when breadth is healthy, but new highs in the advance-decline line or in the small cap index have also preceded drops of 10, 20 or even 50% in the equity market.

* * *

The conventional wisdom is that "healthy breadth" leads to higher equity prices. This sounds intuitively correct: a broader foundation - where more stocks are ticking higher - should equal a more solid market. Conversely, a narrowing market should be a warning of a likely market top.

But it is empirically false. Consider some recent research into this issue.

The Russell small cap index (RUT) has been making new highs even as the large cap indices have not. Because there are four times as many stocks in RUT as in SPX, many infer that breadth is broadening and that this must be bullish for all equities. "When the troops lead, the generals will follow."

Yet, as Mark Hulbert points out, small caps have peaked after the major stock indices in more than half of the 29 bull markets since 1926. If the conventional wisdom was correct, small caps should lead by peaking before the major indices, but this happened only a third of the time (Mark's article is here).