Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Worry About Indexing is Overblown

Summary:  Investors are clearly shifting away from actively managed funds to those based on index strategies. Only time will tell, but this has the look of a durable, secular change in investment management. But much of the perceived threat to market stability of indexing is overblown. Overall, the stock market is still dominated by active management. And while the number of index products has clearly exploded, 96% of these are of insignificant size.

* * *

Bloomberg recently reported that the number of indexes has exploded and now exceeds the number of stocks in the US.  Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fund Managers' Current Asset Allocation - May

Summary: A tailwind for the rally since February 2016 has been the bearish positioning of investors, with fund managers persistently shunning equities in exchange for holding cash.

Fund managers have become more bullish, but not excessively so. Profit expectations are near a 7-year high and global economic growth expectations are near a 2-year high.  However, cash balances at funds also remains high, suggesting lingering doubts and fears.

Of note is that allocations to US equities dropped to their lowest level in 9 years in April and remain equally low in May: this is when US equities typically start to outperform. In contrast, weighting towards Europe and emerging markets have jumped to levels that strongly suggest these regions are likely to underperform.

Fund managers remain stubbornly underweight global bonds due to heightened growth and inflation expectations. Current allocations have often marked a point of capitulation where yields reverse lower and bonds outperform equities.

For the sixth month in a row, the dollar is considered the most overvalued in the past 11 years. Under similar conditions, the dollar has fallen in value in the month(s) ahead.

* * *

Among the various ways of measuring investor sentiment, the BAML survey of global fund managers is one of the better as the results reflect how managers are allocated in various asset classes. These managers oversee a combined $600b in assets.

The data should be viewed mostly from a contrarian perspective; that is, when equities fall in price, allocations to cash go higher and allocations to equities go lower as investors become bearish, setting up a buy signal. When prices rise, the opposite occurs, setting up a sell signal. We did a recap of this pattern in December 2014 (post).

Let's review the highlights from the past month.

Overall: Relative to history, managers are overweight equities and very underweight bonds. Cash weightings are neutral. Within equities, the US is significantly underweight while Europe and emerging markets are significantly overweight. A pure contrarian would overweight US equities relative to Europe and emerging markets, and overweight global bonds relative to a 60-30-10 basket. Enlarge any image by clicking on it.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: US equities rose for a third week in a row, to new all-time highs. Trend persistence like this normally leads to higher highs in the weeks ahead. It's true that volatility has dropped to significant lows and that volatility risk is to the upside. But timing this "mean reversion" is tricky: SPX could rise several percent before VIX pops higher. It's not a stretch to say that US equities have been focused on this weekend's French election the past several weeks; there is, therefore, a "sell the news" event risk to be on the watch out for.

* * *

Trend
  1. NDX and COMPQ made new all-time highs (ATH) again this week. SPX made a new ATH on a closing basis, eclipsing the prior high from March 1. The primary trend is higher. 
  2. SPX ended the week overbought (as measured by the daily RSI(5)).  Upwardly trending markets are partially defined by their ability to become and stay overbought. This is a positive sign so long as it persists.
  3. After becoming overbought, the rising 13-ema is normally the approximate first level of support on weakness. This moving average has not been touched in the past two weeks, a positive sign of trend persistence. That level is approximately 2380 (a chart on this is here). 
  4. SPX has now risen 3 weeks in a row. This is a positive sign of momentum. SPX has a strong tendency to make a higher high after rising 3 weeks in a row (blue lines in the chart below).
  5. All of the above said, markets undulate higher. Even the most persistent trends suffer setbacks, however temporary. The current uptrend is now one of the three longest since the low in 2009; if past is prologue, a 5% correction is odds-on by the end of June. That should be the expectation of swing traders heading into summer. Read last week's post on this here. Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.



Friday, May 5, 2017

May Macro Update: Two Watch Outs Are Retail Sales And Employment Growth

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.

One concern in recent months had been housing, but revised data shows housing starts breaking above the flattening level that has existed over the past two years. A resumption in growth appears to be starting.

That leaves two watch outs. The first is employment growth, which has been decelerating from over 2% last year to 1.6% now. It's not alarming but it is noteworthy that expansions weaken before they end, and slowing employment growth is a sign of some weakening that bears monitoring.

The second watch out is demand growth. Real retail sales excluding gas is in a decelerating trend. In March, growth was just 2.0% after having grown at more than 4% in 2015. Personal consumption accounts for about 70% of GDP so weakening retail sales bears watching closely.

Overall, the main positives from the recent data are in employment, consumption growth and housing:
  • Monthly employment gains have averaged 187,000 during the past year, with annual growth of 1.6% yoy.  Full-time employment is leading.
  • Recent compensation growth is among the highest in the past 8 years: 2.6% yoy in 1Q17. 
  • Most measures of demand show 2-3% real growth. Real personal consumption growth in 1Q17 was 2.8%.  Real retail sales (including gas) grew 2.7% yoy in March.
  • Housing sales grew 16% yoy in March. Starts grew 9% over the past year.
  • The core inflation rate is ticking higher but remains near the Fed's 2% target.
The main negatives have been concentrated in the manufacturing sector (which accounts for less than 10% of employment). Note, however, that recent data shows an improvement in manufacturing:
  • Core durable goods growth rose 6.4% yoy in March. It was weak during the winter of 2015-16 but has slowly rebounded in recent months. 
  • Industrial production rose 1.5% in March, helped by the rebound in mining (oil/gas extraction). The manufacturing component grew 1.0% yoy in March.
Prior macro posts are here.

* * *

Our key message over the past 5 years has been that (a) growth is positive but slow, in the range of ~2-3% (real), and; (b) current growth is lower than in prior periods of economic expansion and a return to 1980s or 1990s style growth does not appear likely.

Modest growth should not be a surprise. This is the typical pattern in the years following a financial crisis like the one experienced in 2008-09.

This is germane to equity markets in that macro growth drives corporate revenue, profit expansion and valuation levels. The saying that "the stock market is not the economy" is true on a day to day or even month to month basis, but over time these two move together. When they diverge, it is normally a function of emotion, whether measured in valuation premiums/discounts or sentiment extremes. Enlarge any image by clicking on it.



A valuable post on using macro data to improve trend following investment strategies can be found here.

Let's review each of these points in turn. We'll focus on four macro categories: labor market, inflation, end-demand and housing.


Employment and Wages

The April non-farm payroll was 211,000 new employees minus 6,000 in revisions.  In the past 12 months, the average monthly gain in employment was 187,000. Employment growth is decelerating.

Monthly NFP prints are normally volatile. Since the 1990s, NFP prints near 300,000 have been followed by ones near or under 100,000. That has been a pattern during every bull market; NFP was negative in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. The low print of 79,000 last month, 84,000 in March 2015 and 24,000 in May 2016 fit the historical pattern. This is normal, not unusual or unexpected.


Better Sales And Profit Growth Are Behind Good 1Q17 Results, Not Financial Engineering

Summary: S&P profits are up 22% yoy. Sales are 7.2% higher. By some measures, profit margins are at new highs. This is in stark contrast from a year ago, when profits had declined by 15% and most investors expected a recession and a new bear market to be underway.

Bearish pundits continue to repeat claims that are more than 20 years old: that "operating earnings" are deviating more than usual from GAAP measurements, and that share reductions (buybacks) are behind most EPS growth. These are both wrong. Continued growth in employment, wages and consumption tell us that corporate financial results should be improving, as they have in fact done.

Where critics have a valid point is valuation: even excluding energy, the S&P is now more highly valued than anytime outside of the 1998-2000 dot com bubble. With economic growth of 4-5% (nominal), it will likely take excessive bullishness among investors to propel S&P price appreciation at a significantly faster rate.

* * *

A little over 60% of the companies in the S&P 500 have released their 1Q17 financial reports. The headline numbers are good. Overall sales are 7.2% higher than a year ago, the best annual rate of growth in more than 6 years. Earnings (GAAP-basis) are 22% higher than a year ago. Profit margins are back to their highs of nearly 10% first reached in 2014.

Before looking at the details of the current reports, it's worth addressing some common misconceptions regularly cited by bearish pundits.

First, are earnings reports meaningfully manipulated? This concern has been echoed by none other than the chief accountant of the SEC, who has complained about non-GAAP earnings numbers being "EBS", or "everything but bad stuff." Enlarge any image by clicking on it.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: US equities ended the month of April above or near new all-time highs. There are no significant extremes that suggest the trend higher will suddenly end. But the upcoming "summer months" are normally marked by lower price appreciation and larger drawdowns. Into this period, it is notable that SPX's streak without a correction of 5% or more is nearing the longest of the 8 year old bull market.

* * *

US indices closed above or near new all-time highs (ATH) last week. In the past two weeks, SPX has gained 2.4% while NDX and RUT have each gained more than 4%. The set up for these gains was detailed here.

Overall, the trend in equities remains higher, supported by breadth, sentiment, volatility, macro and seasonality. All of that said, the first correction of at least 5% is increasingly likely to take place in the next two months.

Let's recap where markets currently stand as the month of May begins.

Trend: NDX and COMPQ made new ATHs this past week, as did RUT. On a total return basis, SPX is also at a new ATH. The primary trend is higher. After becoming overbought (top panel), the rising 13-ema is normally the approximate first level of support on weakness (green line and arrows). Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Fund Managers' Current Asset Allocation - April

Summary: A tailwind for the rally since February 2016 has been the bearish positioning of investors, with fund managers persistently shunning equities in exchange for holding cash.

Fund managers have become more bullish, but not excessively so. Profit expectations are near a 7-year high and global economic growth expectations are near a 2-year high.  However, cash balances at funds remains high, suggesting lingering doubts and fears.

Of note is that allocations to US equities dropped to their lowest level in 9 years in April: this is when US equities typically start to outperform. In contrast, weighting towards Europe and emerging markets have jumped to levels that strongly suggest these regions are likely to underperform.

Fund managers remain stubbornly underweight global bonds due to heightened growth and inflation expectations. Current allocations have often marked a point of capitulation where yields reverse lower and bonds outperform equities.

For the fifth month in a row, the dollar is considered the most overvalued in the past 11 years. Under similar conditions, the dollar has fallen in value in the month(s) ahead.

* * *

Among the various ways of measuring investor sentiment, the BAML survey of global fund managers is one of the better as the results reflect how managers are allocated in various asset classes. These managers oversee a combined $600b in assets.

The data should be viewed mostly from a contrarian perspective; that is, when equities fall in price, allocations to cash go higher and allocations to equities go lower as investors become bearish, setting up a buy signal. When prices rise, the opposite occurs, setting up a sell signal. We did a recap of this pattern in December 2014 (post).

Let's review the highlights from the past month.

Cash: Fund managers' cash levels dropped from 5.8% in October 2016 to 4.9% in April. Recall that 5.8% was the highest cash level since November 2001. Cash remained above 5% for almost all of 2016, the longest stretch of elevated cash in the survey's history. Some of the tailwind behind the rally is now gone but cash is still supportive of further gains in equities. A significant further drop in cash in the month ahead, however, would be bearish. Enlarge any image by clicking on it.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: A week ago, a number of notable short-term extremes in sentiment, breadth and volatility had been reached, suggesting a rebound in equities was ahead. In the event, US equities gained 1% and both NDX and COMPQ made new ATHs.

But new uptrends are marked by indices impulsing higher as investors quickly reposition and chase price. Momentum quickly becomes overbought. Neither of these has happened, at least not yet. Some clarity from the French elections this weekend could free equities to move higher. Should SPX instead rollover, breaking the recent low on April 13 and head to the 2300 area, it's a good guess that a stronger rebound will follow: there are several indications that short-term investor sentiment has already become too bearish.

* * *

Since reaching an all-time high (ATH) on March 1, SPX has traded sideways in a 3% range. The ATH came on the day of the new president's State of the Union address and also corresponded with bullish sentiment extremes in, for example, the equity-only put/call ratio and the Investors Intelligence survey. Our recent posts have emphasized that these extremes, together with the subsequent loss in price momentum, are most often associated with a mild correction of 3-5%. A return to the 2300 area for SPX appeared to be odds-on. Read more on these points here and here.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: US indices closed lower this week, but not by much. SPX lost just 1% and is just 3% from its all-time high. A number of notable short-term extremes in sentiment, breadth and volatility were reached on Thursday that suggest equities are at or near a point of reversal higher. The best approach is to continue to monitor the market and adjust with new data. That said, it's a good guess that SPX still has further downside in the days/weeks ahead.

* * *

Our last several posts have emphasized several points:
Strong uptrends (like this one) weaken before they reverse, meaning the current sell off is unlikely to lead directly into a major correction. 
Even years with powerful returns (like 2013) experience multiple drawdowns of 3-8% along the way, meaning the current sell off was due and is perfectly normal. 
There are a number of compelling studies suggesting that 2017 will continue to be a good year for US equities, meaning equities will likely end the year higher. 
Read more on these points here and here.

SPX ended the week at 2328, 3% off it's all-time high (ATH) made on March 1. That is a very mild drawdown. Our post last week argued that a sell off to at least the 2300 area (4% off the ATH) was likely. From that respect, a lower low is likely to still lie ahead. That post is here.

There were a number of notable short-term extremes in sentiment, breadth and volatility reached on Thursday that suggest a rebound in equities is ahead. Let's review these.

First, the equity-only put/call ratio reached a rare extreme on Thursday, with nearly as many puts as calls being traded on the day. That has happened only about a dozen times in the past 8 years. All of these have been at or near a short-term low in SPX (green lines). A rebound is likely ahead. That rebound might not last long, however: note that in several instances, the low was retested or exceeded in the days/weeks ahead (red arrows). Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: US indices made their all-time high in early March; aside from the Nasdaq, which made new highs this week, these indices have since moved sideways. SPX has alternated up and down 5 weeks in a row, producing little net gain. Seasonality is particularly strong in April, so a fuller retest of the March highs might still be ahead this month. And indications that 2017 will be a good year for equities continue to add up. But there is a notable set up in place for the first correction since November to trigger. This week is likely to be pivotal.

* * *

Our last weekly summary post two weeks ago emphasized two points. First, that strong uptrends weaken before they strongly reverse. Second, that even years with powerful returns (think 2013's 30% gain) experience multiple drawdowns of 3-8% along the way, meaning the smooth uptrend that had been in place from November to March has likely ended. That post is here.

In the event, SPX reversed and gained 2% at its highest point in the following week. That high was less than 1% from the index's all-time high (ATH). The broader NYSE was similar. Both NDX and COMPQ made new ATHs this week.

Still, it's accurate to say the reversal in equities has been weak so far. Uptrends (green arrows) are partially defined by their ability to become and then stay overbought (top panel). Since the State of the Union on March 1, SPX has failed in this regard. Short term moving averages are either declining or flat. Until this changes, SPX is likely to chop sideways or, more likely, test lower levels (yellow shading). Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.


Friday, April 7, 2017

April Macro Update: Employment Growth Continues to Decelerate

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.

One concern in recent months had been housing, but revised data shows housing starts breaking above the flattening level that has existed over the past two years. A resumption in growth appears to be starting.

That leaves employment growth as the main watch out: employment growth is decelerating, from over 2% last year to 1.5% now. It's not alarming but it is noteworthy that expansions weaken before they end, and slowing employment growth is a sign of some weakening that bears monitoring.

A second watch out is demand growth. Real retail sales excluding gas is in a decelerating trend. In February, growth was just 1.8%. Personal consumption accounts for about 70% of GDP so weakening retail sales bears watching closely.

Overall, the main positives from the recent data are in employment, consumption growth and housing:
  • Monthly employment gains have averaged 178,000 during the past year, with annual growth of 1.5% yoy.  Full-time employment is leading.
  • Recent compensation growth is among the highest in the past 8 years: 2.7% yoy in March. 
  • Most measures of demand show 2-3% real growth. Real personal consumption growth in February was 2.6%.  Real retail sales (including gas) grew 2.8% yoy in February.
  • Housing sales grew 13% yoy in February. Starts grew 6% over the past year.
  • The core inflation rate is ticking higher but remains near the Fed's 2% target.
The main negatives are concentrated in the manufacturing sector (which accounts for less than 10% of employment):
  • Core durable goods growth rose 3.4% yoy in February. It was weak during the winter of 2015-16 and is slowly rebounding in recent months. 
  • Industrial production has also been weak; it's flat yoy due to weakness in mining (oil and coal). The manufacturing component grew 1.4% yoy in February.
Prior macro posts are here.

* * *

Our key message over the past 4 years has been that (a) growth is positive but slow, in the range of ~2-3% (real), and; (b) current growth is lower than in prior periods of economic expansion and a return to 1980s or 1990s style growth does not appear likely.

Modest growth should not be a surprise. This is the typical pattern in the years following a financial crisis like the one experienced in 2008-09.

This is germane to equity markets in that macro growth drives corporate revenue, profit expansion and valuation levels. The saying that "the stock market is not the economy" is true on a day to day or even month to month basis, but over time these two move together. When they diverge, it is normally a function of emotion, whether measured in valuation premiums/discounts or sentiment extremes (enlarge any image by clicking on it).



A valuable post on using macro data to improve trend following investment strategies can be found here.

Let's review each of these points in turn. We'll focus on four macro categories: labor market, inflation, end-demand and housing.


Employment and Wages

The March non-farm payroll was 98,000 new employees minus 38,000 in revisions.  In the past 12 months, the average monthly gain in employment was 178,000. Employment growth is decelerating.

Monthly NFP prints are normally volatile. Since 2004, NFP prints near 300,000 have been followed by ones near or under 100,000. That has been a pattern during every bull market; NFP was negative in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. The low print of 98,000 this month, 84,000 in March 2015 and 24,000 in May 2016 fit the historical pattern. This is normal, not unusual or unexpected.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Interview With Financial Sense on Identifying an Equity Market Top

We were interviewed by Cris Sheridan of Financial Sense on March 28. During the interview, we discuss current market technicals, the macro-economic environment, the investor sentiment backdrop and the prospect for future equity returns. The theme of our discussion is what to look for at an equity market top.

Our thanks to Cris for the opportunity to speak with him and to his editor for making these disparate thoughts seem cogent.

Listen here.



If you find this post to be valuable, consider visiting a few of our sponsors who have offers that might be relevant to you.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: US indices have fallen nearly every day since the FOMC raised the federal funds rate on March 15th. This week, the SPX also experienced its first 1% daily loss in 109 days, bringing one of the longest such streaks in history to an end. There are a number of reasons to expect equities to be at or near a point of reversal higher. A retest of the recent high is likely.

That said, it's a good guess that the market's period of smooth, persistent strength over the past 4-5 months has come to an end. Higher volatility and more days with 1% losses (and 1% gains) lie ahead.

* * *

After a strong start to the year, the US indices have turned weak. Since the FOMC raised the federal funds rate on March 15, SPX has closed lower 6 days and higher only once. The 13-ema is now declining, indicating that the intermediate trend is down. There has been no reversal in price, yet, but there are several reasons to believe that a reversal may be near.

On Tuesday, after 109 days, the S&P finally fell more than 1% during one trading day. This was the third longest streak without a 1% loss in the past 36 years.

The charts below look at the 5 prior times since 1980 that SPX went more than 95 days without a 1% fall. It's a small sample but there is a consistent pattern: the index rallies at least 2-5% in the ensuing weeks. Within 2 weeks, SPX was back at its prior high 4 times. The one exception was 1993, which was also the only time that SPX was below its 50-dma; even then, it returned to its high within 2 months. In the other 4 instances, SPX was above its 50-dma, like now. Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fund Managers' Current Asset Allocation - March

Summary: A tailwind for the rally over the past year has been the bearish positioning of investors, with fund managers persistently shunning equities in exchange for holding cash.

Sentiment has turned bullish.  Optimism towards the economy has surged to a 2-year high and profit expectations are near a 7-year high.  As a result, global allocations to equities rose to a 2-year high in March and "risk appetite" is also at a 2-year high. All of this suggests the big tailwind for equities has now dissipated. The one remaining positive is the high cash balance at funds.

Europe and Japan are now the most overweighted equity markets on a relative basis. Allocations to the US have dropped as the region has underperformed so far in 2017; this is where US equities typically start to outperform again. The weighting towards emerging markets has jumped in the past two months; this is now back to where the last two rallies in that region have started to fade.

Findings in the bond market are still of greatest interest. Inflation expectations are at 13-year highs, a level at which yields have reversed lower in the past.  Fund managers' allocations to global bonds fell to a more than 3-year low in March, a level which has often marked a point of capitulation.

For the fourth month in a row, the dollar is considered the most overvalued in the past 11 years. Under similar conditions, the dollar has fallen in value in the month(s) ahead.

* * *

Among the various ways of measuring investor sentiment, the BAML survey of global fund managers is one of the better as the results reflect how managers are allocated in various asset classes. These managers oversee a combined $600b in assets.

The data should be viewed mostly from a contrarian perspective; that is, when equities fall in price, allocations to cash go higher and allocations to equities go lower as investors become bearish, setting up a buy signal. When prices rise, the opposite occurs, setting up a sell signal. We did a recap of this pattern in December 2014 (post).

Let's review the highlights from the past month.

Cash: Fund managers' cash levels dropped from 5.8% in October 2016 to 4.8% in March. Recall that 5.8% was the highest cash level since November 2001. Cash remained above 5% for almost all of 2016, the longest stretch of elevated cash in the survey's history. Some of the tailwind behind the rally is now gone but cash is still supportive of further gains in equities. A significant further drop in cash in the month ahead, however, would be bearish. Enlarge any image by clicking on it.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Households' Equity Ownership Reaches 30%. It's Statistical Noise

Summary: Households have 30% of their financial assets in equities, the same proportion as they held at bull market peaks in the 1960s and in 2007. Does this mean another bear market is imminent? No. Two of the last three times the purportedly significant 30% level has been reached, stocks gained another 40-60%. The level is statistical noise.

Households' equity ownership proportion mostly reflects the appreciation in the stock market: their equity proportion fell almost in half in the last bear market yet during this time, investors actually added new money to equity funds. The level of households' assets in equities seems to closely predict high and lows in the stock market because they both measure the exact same thing: the level of the stock market.

There are better ways to measure investor sentiment and valuations, both of which, like the equity proportion, rise during bull markets and fall during bear markets.

* * *

Chances are you have seen a chart like the one below. It shows US households' equity ownership as a proportion of total household financial assets (blue line) versus the stock market (red line).  The message is usually this: US households now own more equity than at the stock market peak in 2007. It's a sign that another bear market is imminent. Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Set Up As The FOMC Get Ready For A Third Rate Hike

Summary: The FOMC is likely to enact a third hike in the federal funds rate this week. With economic data continuing to be good, the risk to equities of a rate hike is small. Higher rates indicate continued economic growth, so equities, commodities, the dollar and yields generally respond positively. However, the recent picture is more mixed: in particular, the dollar and yields have sold off after rates have been hiked. This was not the consensus' expectation, nor is it this time. Is another surprise likely now?

* * *

On Wednesday March 15, the FOMC is likely to raise the federal funds rate (FFR) for the third time during the current economic expansion. We wrote about what to expect ahead of the first rate hike here and the second rate hike here.

The Fed chair and its governors have very clearly signaled their intentions in advance of this meeting. The market places the probability of rate hike at over 90%. In just over a week, 10 year treasury yields have jumped 30 basis points (bp) to their highest level since December 15.

Why has the Fed telegraphed their intentions to the market so clearly? Doesn't this tie the FOMC's hands should interim data make a FFR hike unnecessary?

The FOMC has learned that surprising the market with a FFR hike is a very bad idea. With the SPX rising 15% since the election, a surprise would likely catalyze a big drop. Here are two examples of how this has happened in the past.

The 1966 bear market is one of only two bear markets since the 1940s that occurred outside of a recession. The approximate cause: the FFR was rapidly and unexpectedly raised from 4% to 6% (read more here).

More recently, the FOMC surprised the market with just a 25 bp FFR hike in February 1994. Going into the meeting, the market put only a 20% probability of a hike. What happened next? The SPX fell 10% in the next two months. So keeping the market constantly prepared for a possible change in the FFR has been the FOMC's modus operandi for a long time.


Friday, March 10, 2017

March Macro Update: Housing Sales and Starts Rebound

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.

One concern in recent months has been housing, but revised data shows housing starts breaking above the flattening level that has existed over the past two years. A resumption in growth may be beginning.

That leaves employment growth has the main watch out: employment growth is decelerating, from over 2% last year to 1.6% now. It's not alarming but it is noteworthy that expansions weaken before they end, and slowing employment growth is a sign of some weakening that bears monitoring.

Overall, the main positives from the recent data are in employment, consumption growth and housing:
  • Monthly employment gains have averaged 196,000 during the past year, with annual growth of 1.6% yoy.  Full-time employment is leading.
  • Recent compensation growth is the highest in nearly 8 years: 2.8% yoy in February. 
  • Most measures of demand show 3-4% nominal growth. Real personal consumption growth in January was 2.8%.  Real retail sales grew 2.9% yoy in January.
  • Housing sales grew 6% yoy in January. Starts grew 10% over the past year.
  • The core inflation rate is ticking higher but remains near the Fed's 2% target.
The main negatives are concentrated in the manufacturing sector (which accounts for less than 10% of employment):
  • Core durable goods growth rose 2.2% yoy in January. It was weak during the winter of 2015 and is slowly rebounding in recent months. 
  • Industrial production has also been weak; it's flat yoy due to weakness in mining (oil and coal). The manufacturing component grew 0.5% yoy in January.
Prior macro posts are here.

* * *

Our key message over the past 4 years has been that (a) growth is positive but slow, in the range of ~3-4% (nominal), and; (b) current growth is lower than in prior periods of economic expansion and a return to 1980s or 1990s style growth does not appear likely.

Modest growth should not be a surprise. This is the typical pattern in the years following a financial crisis like the one experienced in 2008-09.

This is germane to equity markets in that macro growth drives corporate revenue, profit expansion and valuation levels. The saying that "the stock market is not the economy" is true on a day to day or even month to month basis, but over time these two move together. When they diverge, it is normally a function of emotion, whether measured in valuation premiums/discounts or sentiment extremes (enlarge any image by clicking on it).



A valuable post on using macro data to improve trend following investment strategies can be found here.

Let's review each of these points in turn. We'll focus on four macro categories: labor market, inflation, end-demand and housing.


Employment and Wages

The February non-farm payroll was 235,000 new employees plus 9,000 in revisions.  In the past 12 months, the average monthly gain in employment was 196,000. Employment remains solid.

Monthly NFP prints are normally volatile. Since 2004, NFP prints near 300,000 have been followed by ones near or under 100,000. That has been a pattern during every bull market; NFP was negative in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. The low prints of 84,000 in March 2015 and 24,000 in May 2016 fit the historical pattern. This is normal, not unusual or unexpected.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Nominated: Best Financial Blog of 2016

We are truly honored to have been nominated as one of the best financial blogs of 2016. The award will be given out in New York City on March 30th as part of Stocktoberfest East. The ceremony will be hosted by Josh Brown and Howard Lindzon. More information can be found here.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Similarities (and Key Differences) Between 2017 and 2013 So Far

Summary: 2017 is off to a remarkably similar start to 2013. No two years are ever exactly the same, so there's no reason to suggest that 2017 will repeat the 30% gains achieved in 2013. But many of the technical and fundamental similarities between these years suggest that 2017 may continue to be a good year.

There are two watch outs, however, that make 2017 much higher risk than 2013. It's also worth recalling that equities fell 3-8% at six different points in 2013. Expecting 2017 to continue to ride smoothly higher will probably prove to be a mistake.

* * *

2017 is off to a remarkably similar start to 2013. Is it set to be a repeat of that year? It's an important question as stocks gained about 30% in 2013.

Consider some of the following:

2017, like 2013, is the first year in a new Presidential term.

Both years got off to a fast start. By March, SPX had gained 8% in both 2013 and 2017.

Both years started by making a string of new all-time highs (ATHs). By the end of February, the Dow Industrials had closed at a new ATH 12 days in a row. A similarly rare streak of 10 days took place by March 2013.

SPX is often weak in February. But the index gained in both January and February in 2013 and 2017. In the other instances that this has happened since 1945, SPX closed up for the full year every time by an average of 24% (more on this here).

Both 2013 and 2017 came on the heels of long, volatile periods. SPX dropped 20% in 2011 and started 2013 only  2% higher than 18 months earlier. Similarly, SPX dropped 16% in 2016 and started 2017 only 5% higher than 18 months earlier. In both years, a dip at the election in November caused the market to be oversold; in both years, the market was significantly overbought by March (top panel).


Friday, February 24, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: All of the US equity indices made new all-time highs again this week. Treasuries were the biggest winner. A drawdown of at least 5-8% in SPX is odds-on before year year end, but there are a number of compelling studies suggesting that 2017 will probably continue to be a good year for US equities.

* * *

On Friday, SPX and DJIA made new all-time highs (ATH). During the week, COMPQ, NDX, RUT and NYSE also made new ATHs. All the indices moving to new highs together suggests that this is a broadly based rally. The trend remains up.

For the week, SPX and DJIA gained 1%. NDX notched a 0.4% gain and RUT closed lower. The biggest gain came from treasuries, with TLT gaining 1.4%. We continue to like the set up in treasuries, as explained in detail last week (here).

Little has changed from last week's summary. Instead of repeating those the same messages, we'll highlight four new studies that show a favorable longer term outlook for US equities.

First, SPX has now gone 76 days since the last 3% drawdown ended on November 4, right before the US election. That is the longest streak since July 2006 to February 2007, when the SPX went 150 days without a 3% drawdown. The chart below shows the duration and magnitude of the current rally relative to other long streaks in the past 14 years (yellow highlighting equals the current rally). Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: US equities continue to make new all-time highs each week, supported by strong equity fund inflows and macro data that has exceeded expectations. Surprisingly, equities outside the US are actually outperforming the S&P. The current trend is very extended and there are four notable headwinds that may impact equities in the weeks ahead. There is, conversely, a favorable set up in the bond market.

* * *

On Friday, SPX, DJIA, COMPQ and NDX all made new all-time highs (ATH). During the week, RUT and NYSE also made new ATHs. All indices moving to new high together suggests that this is a broadly based rally.

The equity rally is broad in another sense as well. In the past 3 months, markets outside the US have outperformed the SPX. Europe and emerging markets have led, and the World ex-US index has gained 9%. In the US, the NDX is leading. Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Fund Managers' Current Asset Allocation - February

Summary: Global equities are more than 25% higher than in February 2016. A tailwind for this rally has been the bearish positioning of investors, with fund managers persistently shunning equities in exchange for holding cash.

That's no longer the case.  Fund managers became bullish again in December, and remain so now. Optimism towards the economy has surged to a 2-year high. Cash remains in favor (a positive) but global equity allocations are back above neutral for the first time since late 2015. Another push higher and excessive bullish sentiment will become a headwind.

The US is the most overweighted equity market on a relative basis. Emerging markets are the most underweighted.

Findings in the bond market are of greatest interest. Fund managers' allocations to global bonds are now at prior capitulation lows. Moreover, inflation and growth expectations have jumped to the highest level since early 2011, after which US 10-year yields fell in half over the next several months.

The dollar is considered the most overvalued in the past 10 years. Under similar conditions, the dollar has fallen in value in the month(s) ahead.

* * *

Among the various ways of measuring investor sentiment, the BAML survey of global fund managers is one of the better as the results reflect how managers are allocated in various asset classes. These managers oversee a combined $550b in assets.

The data should be viewed mostly from a contrarian perspective; that is, when equities fall in price, allocations to cash go higher and allocations to equities go lower as investors become bearish, setting up a buy signal. When prices rise, the opposite occurs, setting up a sell signal. We did a recap of this pattern in December 2014 (post).

Let's review the highlights from the past month.

Cash: Fund managers' cash levels dropped from 5.8% in October 2016 to 4.9% in February. Recall that 5.8% was the highest cash level since November 2001. Cash remained above 5% for almost all of 2016, the longest stretch of elevated cash in the survey's history. Some of the tailwind behind the rally is now gone but cash is still supportive of further gains in equities. A significant further drop in cash in the month ahead, however, would be bearish. Enlarge any image by clicking on it.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sales and Earnings Back At Highs, But So Are Valuations

Summary: In the past year, S&P profits have grown 46% yoy. Sales are 4.5% higher. By some measures, profit margins are back at their prior highs. This is a remarkable turnaround from a year ago, when profits had declined by 15% and most investors interpreted this as a sure sign that a recession and a new bear market were underway.

The critics were wrong because they confused a collapse in one sector - energy, where sales dropped by 60% - with a general decline in all sectors. But in the past two years, sales in the other sectors have continued to grow and margins have mostly remained strong. A rebound in oil prices (and only modest appreciation of the dollar, another headwind in the past two years) bodes well for forward sales and earnings growth.

Where critics have a valid point is valuation: even excluding energy, the S&P is now more highly valued than anytime outside of the 1998-2002 dot com bubble. Valuations rise with investor sentiment; that sentiment is now very bullish. With economic growth of 4-5% (nominal), it will likely take outright exuberance among investors to propel S&P price appreciation at a significantly faster rate.

* * *

A year ago, profits for companies in the S&P had declined 15% year over year (yoy). Sales were 3% lower. Margins had fallen more than 100 basis points. The consensus believed all of this signaled the start of a recession in the US.

These dire prognoses for the US have not worked out. Jobless claims are at more than a 40 year low (first chart below) and retail sales are at an all-time high. US demand growth, measured a number of different ways, has been about 4-5% nominal yoy during the past two years (second chart below). There has been no marked deterioration in domestic consumption or employment.




Friday, February 3, 2017

February Macro Update: Strong Start to 2017

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.

That said, there are some signs of weakness creeping into the data. Employment growth is decelerating, from over 2% last year to 1.6% now. Housing starts and permits have flattened over the past 1-2 years. There is nothing alarming in any of this but it is noteworthy that expansions weaken before they end, and these are signs of some weakening that bear monitoring closely.

Overall, the main positives from the recent data are in employment, consumption growth and housing:
  • Monthly employment gains have averaged 195,000 during the past year, with annual growth of 1.6% yoy.  Full-time employment is leading.
  • Recent compensation growth is the highest in 7-1/2 years: 2.8% yoy in December, falling to 2.5% in January. 
  • Most measures of demand show 3-4% nominal growth. Real personal consumption growth in 4Q16 was 2.8%.  Retail sales reached a new all-time high in December, growing 2.0% yoy.
  • Housing sales grew 12% yoy in 2016. Starts made a new 9-year high in October.
  • The core inflation rate has remained near 2% since November 2015.
The main negatives are concentrated in the manufacturing sector (which accounts for less than 10% of employment):
  • Core durable goods growth rose 3.4% yoy in December, it's best growth since April 2015. It was weak during the winter of 2015 and is slowly rebounding in recent months. 
  • Industrial production has also been weak, rising by just 0.5% yoy due to weakness in mining (oil and coal). The manufacturing component grew 0.4% yoy.
Prior macro posts are here.

* * *

Our key message over the past 4 years has been that (a) growth is positive but slow, in the range of ~3-4% (nominal), and; (b) current growth is lower than in prior periods of economic expansion and a return to 1980s or 1990s style growth does not appear likely.

Modest growth should not be a surprise. This is the typical pattern in the years following a financial crisis like the one experienced in 2008-09.

This is germane to equity markets in that macro growth drives corporate revenue, profit expansion and valuation levels. The saying that "the stock market is not the economy" is true on a day to day or even month to month basis, but over time these two move together. When they diverge, it is normally a function of emotion, whether measured in valuation premiums/discounts or sentiment extremes (enlarge any image by clicking on it).



A valuable post on using macro data to improve trend following investment strategies can be found here.

Let's review each of these points in turn. We'll focus on four macro categories: labor market, inflation, end-demand and housing.


Employment and Wages

The January non-farm payroll was 227,000 new employees minus 39,000 in revisions.

In the past 12 months, the average monthly gain in employment was 195,000.

Monthly NFP prints are normally volatile. Since 2004, NFP prints near 300,000 have been followed by ones near or under 100,000. That has been a pattern during every bull market; NFP was negative in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. The low prints of 84,000 in March 2015 and 24,000 in May 2016 fit the historical pattern. This is normal, not unusual or unexpected.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fund Managers' Current Asset Allocation - January

Summary: Global equities are nearly 25% higher than in February 2016. A tailwind for this rally has been the bearish positioning of investors, with fund managers persistently shunning equities in exchange for holding cash.

That's no longer the case.  Fund managers became bullish again in December, and remain so now. Optimism towards the economy has surged to a 2-year high. Cash remains in favor (a positive) but global equity allocations are now back above neutral for the first time in a year. Another push higher and excessive bullish sentiment will become a headwind. The main exception to this is emerging markets, which are now out of favor and a contrarian long.

Findings in the bond market are of greatest interest. Fund managers' allocations to global bonds are now at prior capitulation lows. Moreover, inflation and growth expectations have jumped to the highest level since early 2011, after which US 10-year yields fell in half over the next several months.

The dollar is now considered the most overvalued in the past 10 years. Under similar conditions, the dollar has fallen in value in the month(s) ahead.

* * *

Among the various ways of measuring investor sentiment, the BAML survey of global fund managers is one of the better as the results reflect how managers are allocated in various asset classes. These managers oversee a combined $500b in assets.

The data should be viewed mostly from a contrarian perspective; that is, when equities fall in price, allocations to cash go higher and allocations to equities go lower as investors become bearish, setting up a buy signal. When prices rise, the opposite occurs, setting up a sell signal. We did a recap of this pattern in December 2014 (post).

Let's review the highlights from the past month.

Cash: Fund managers' cash levels dropped from 5.8% in October to 5.1% in January; cash is up slightly from December. Recall that 5.8% was the highest cash level since November 2001. Cash remained above 5% for almost all of 2016, the longest stretch of elevated cash in the survey's history. Some of the tailwind behind the rally is now gone but cash is still supportive of further gains in equities. A significant further drop in cash in the month ahead, however, would be bearish. Enlarge any image by clicking on it.


Friday, January 6, 2017

Weekly Market Summary

Summary: US equities are starting the year at new all-time highs. The rally is supported by healthy breadth and a relatively solid economic foundation. The biggest watchout is volatility, which has fallen to an extreme. A mean reversion in volatility is odds-on and that is normally unfavorable, short term, for equities.

* * *

Today, SPX, DJIA, COMPQ and NDX have all made new all-time highs (ATH). All of the moving averages, from 5-d to 200-d, are rising for each of the respective indices. This is the definition of an uptrending equity market. Enlarge any chart by clicking on it.


January Macro Update: Wage Growth At New High

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.

That said, there are some signs of weakness creeping into the data. Employment growth is decelerating, from over 2% last year to 1.5% now. Housing starts and permits have flattened over the past year. There is nothing alarming in any of this but it is noteworthy that expansions weaken before they end, and these are signs of some weakening that bear monitoring closely.

Overall, the main positives from the recent data are in employment, consumption growth and housing:
  • Monthly employment gains have averaged 180,000 during the past year, with annual growth of 1.5% yoy.  Full-time employment is leading.
  • Recent compensation growth is the highest in 7-1/2 years: 2.9% yoy in December. 
  • Most measures of demand show 3-4% nominal growth. Real personal consumption growth in November was 2.8%.  Retail sales reached a new all-time high in November, growing 2.0% yoy.
  • Housing sales are near a 9 year high. Starts made a new 9 year high in October.
  • The core inflation rate has remained near 2% since November 2015.
The main negatives are concentrated in the manufacturing sector (which accounts for less than 10% of employment):
  • Core durable goods growth rose 1.8% yoy in November, it's best growth since April 2015. It was weak during the winter of 2015 and it has not rebounded since. 
  • Industrial production has also been weak, falling -0.6% yoy due to weakness in mining (oil and coal). The manufacturing component grew +0.4% yoy.
Prior macro posts are here.

* * *

Our key message over the past 4 years has been that (a) growth is positive but slow, in the range of ~3-4% (nominal), and; (b) current growth is lower than in prior periods of economic expansion and a return to 1980s or 1990s style growth does not appear likely.

Modest growth should not be a surprise. This is the typical pattern in the years following a financial crisis like the one experienced in 2008-09.

This is germane to equity markets in that macro growth drives corporate revenue, profit expansion and valuation levels. The saying that "the stock market is not the economy" is true on a day to day or even month to month basis, but over time these two move together. When they diverge, it is normally a function of emotion, whether measured in valuation premiums/discounts or sentiment extremes (enlarge any image by clicking on it).



A valuable post on using macro data to improve trend following investment strategies can be found here.

Let's review each of these points in turn. We'll focus on four macro categories: labor market, inflation, end-demand and housing.


Employment and Wages

The December non-farm payroll was 156,000 new employees plus 19,000 in revisions.

In the past 12 months, the average monthly gain in employment was 180,000.

Monthly NFP prints are normally volatile. Since 2004, NFP prints near 300,000 have been followed by ones near or under 100,000. That has been a pattern during every bull market; NFP was negative in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. The low prints of 84,000 in March 2015 and 24,000 in May 2016 fit the historical pattern. This is normal, not unusual or unexpected.