Choices – The NEW Retirement

It is tax time and that is traditionally the time of year when we talk to clients the most. The calendar has just turned and thoughts turn to taxes and retirement. We have had a recurring conversation with several clients these last few weeks. The overriding question is when do I retire? That, inevitably, leads to the question of what does retirement mean? I have several clients who have been on the cusp of retirement the last few years and have decided to keep working. It has dawned on them that once they were in a position to retire – they no longer wanted to retire. Why would you want to quit? You are now at your most valuable. You have incredible work/life experience and the responsibilities of being at home are mostly gone. I can work more efficiently now and even mentor the next generation at work.  Studies tell us that those that are happiest and healthiest in retirement are those that have purpose, a strong community of friends and stay active. Let’s face it. Most of us are not digging ditches for a living. We are using our brains. Why not work longer? What saving our pennies does for us in the new retirement is it gives us choices. If we decide on a Tuesday we just cannot work in a negative environment or for a certain someone any longer we can get up and leave and usually find another opportunity. The new retirement is really about having choices.

We thought that the March OPEX would live up to its billing – volatile and bullish. What a week! Historically, the week following the March OPEX is negative. Leading the propulsion to the upside in 2019 has been corporate buy backs. Those buybacks have been running 40% above Q1 2018! They will now go into a black out period where they cannot buy while their earnings are released. That will give help to any bears left standing. We made our decision to take risk off the table in late January/early February and set the levels (our stops) at which we are forced to change our minds. We are at those stops. Bonds and stocks have completely diverged. Usually, bonds are right (The battle doesn’t always go the bonds but that’s the way to bet. -Grantland Rice) If bonds are right then stocks will head south. Could they both be right? Yes. That would mean the market is betting on QE4 and a continued rise in all asset prices. That means that bad news is good news and Buy The Dip is back.

lighthouse

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

 

 

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

 

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

My Name is Mario and…

We have talked about the rise in central bank balance sheets and how those balance sheets may be THE most important metric when investing in this era. The European Central Bank (ECB) made an announcement this week and it seems that central bankers while promising to cut back and reduce balance sheets are already hedging their bets. The ECB, while slated to end their form of QE in December, announced that they will continue to use until September of 2018. But they are promising to cut back their monthly usage in half. Like an addict that says that they will quit just not right now. This form of monetary heroin is responsible for the rise in asset prices and it is causing distortions like European High Yield yielding less than the US 10 year. This is the height of lunacy. We are not happy being right. It is our job to make money so while central bankers print and buy assets we stay at the party. The bigger question is will central bankers ever stop printing?  While we see that the G-4 central bank balance sheets are slated to stop growing in 2018 we question the will of central banks to stop the monetary heroin.

We are stuck in our thesis on the concept of the “Fed Put” and how that is going to evolve and effect asset prices. One of the drivers of this relentless march higher is the idea to BTFD. Buy the Dip. Every dip in stock prices is bought because you don’t’ have to worry because if there is a real crisis the central banks will come in and back stop the market. So you find yourself asking, will prices ever go down? That alone has us nervous. If something cannot continue forever it won’t. The market will go down at some point. It always does and it is never different this time.

Tech stocks had a phenomenal week as we saw Amazon up 13% and Intel up 7% on Friday alone. It is starting to feel like a mania as the animal spirits have taken over. The broader market did show some technical signs of weakness. A warning shot across the bow perhaps? We still think that a tax plan passage is a sell the news event.

This is a one way market and investors need to recognize this and take steps to manage risk. Recalibrate. Market structure is responsible. The market is flawed in its design as its automated structure puts the momentum players, the market makers and algorithms in control. While it is pleasurable to see it go up every day it will be much quicker and painful when the market goes down in a one way fashion. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The ten year Treasury broke through 2.4% and closed the week at 2.416%. We are looking for a new range between 2.4% and 2.6%. Above 2.6% and the warning lights will come on. The bulls are still firmly in control. 2600 on the S&P 500 is the next logical stop. Much as 666 loomed large in early 2009 the number 2666 now looms large for the S&P 500 and is less than 4% away from current levels. Wall Street and investors are a superstitious lot. The animal spirits are unpredictable and in control. Gotta be in it to win it but, maybe just a little less in.

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I  think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com  or check out our LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/terencereilly/ .

The13th Beer

Welcome back! So completes THE most boring summer in investing history. Well maybe not quite but pretty damn close. It is astounding that markets have been so complacent in front of the fall investing season with a litany of worries globally including our own US Presidential election less than 90 days away. I myself am much less anxious about that result since I swore off watching the nightly news shows. I highly recommend it.  What was once entertaining turned dark and depressing very quickly. All of my friends that I have un-followed for posting political fodder I apologize. I will be back after the election when things return to normal.

Speaking of returning to normal, the Federal Reserve is contemplating a rate rise at their September meeting. It seems that Fed officials may be worrying about the negative consequences of 0% interest rates. Why is this important? Savers have been punished for far too long. Pension funds and insurance companies are the biggest savers in the world and have a very important role in planning for our later years. They have been paralyzed by the 0% and negative interest rate game. The unintended consequences of the zero bound are mounting. Zombie companies stumble in the dark here in the US as they are able to float debt in the current 0% interest rate environment. Much as we criticized Japan for harboring zombies companies in the 1990’s we continue to harbor them as well.

One wonders how long they can continue to distort policy and have the system survive. The Federal Reserve continues to give the patient more monetary heroin in the thought that it will make the patient better. One of my favorite professors in college was a gentleman from the London School of Economics. He taught us the Law of Diminishing Returns. Not much economic theory works in the real world, but this law is absolute. In short, if I have one beer on a hot summer day it tastes great. The second tastes pretty good as well. The thirteenth? Not so much. Central bankers are ordering their 13th beer.

The problem is that you cannot get away from this crisis without feeling the pain of lower asset prices. The Piper must be paid. The Federal Reserve stepped in front of this crisis and has been left there alone by our fiscal policy friends in Congress. Politicians worldwide have left central banks to do the heavy lifting. Here is the problem. Monetary policy alone was never expected to rescue and stimulate the system. It was just to buy politicians time to deregulate, simplify tax codes and stimulate the economy fiscally. With no help coming from the fiscal side central banks around the world kept supplying more monetary support to the patient. The Federal Reserve wishes to get the patient off of monetary policy support. Here is the problem. The patient is not ready to stand on their own and Congress does not wish to step in and help care (fiscally) for the patient. Complicating matters is that if the patient falters Congress will blame the Federal Reserve. Don’t forget that Congress is the Federal Reserve’s boss. Since the crisis began we have all known that eventually monetary support would have to be withdrawn. Problem is, now everyone is afraid to do it. The negative unintended consequences rage on.  Central banks at some point will have to withdraw support and financial markets will shudder, shake and cry out for more medicine. Eventually they will be fine. It is time to bring the patient around. Problem is – they won’t. The Federal Reserve has too much to lose as Congress will blame them.

Until you have fiscal responsibility you are not going to have effective monetary policy.

 It (current fiscal policy) drives monetary policy to be increasingly irresponsible. – Richard Fisher former Dallas Federal Reserve President CNBC 9/8/016

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/08/private-equity-giant-kkr-says-the-fed-to-keep-funds-rate-below-1-percent-through-at-least-2020.html

This Friday, markets shuddered as they contemplated a rate hike in September. The data doesn’t currently support a rate hike. Could the Federal Reserve be putting subtle pressure on Congress for their support? It may not last long. If markets stumble we would expect the Fed to announce that the market has reacted so negatively that they must continue policy as is. Around and around we go.

We are a bit unnerved as the market seems to be experiencing a seemingly irrational exuberance when it comes to valuations especially when it comes to dividend paying stocks.  As long as central banks continue to expand liquidity and investors keep the faith asset prices will head higher.

Precious metals are insurance against investors losing their faith in central banks.  While investors have been pulling money from the market two buyers have been out there keeping the home fires burning. Two buyers who are not price sensitive. Corporations in the form of buybacks and central bankers. Markets could roar higher as professionals are underinvested and markets could sink lower due to a change in central bank policy. Either way, after such a quiet summer, markets are ready to move. Be prepared for anything. Welcome back.

Ride the Wave

So much has happened and so much to talk about. We could talk about the seemingly globally coordinated easing from central banks around the globe. Central banks easing policy in the last two weeks have included Norway, Sweden, the Bank Of Japan (BOJ), the European Central Bank (ECB), the Chinese central bank and of course our own recent dovish statement from the US Federal Reserve,. We could talk about how that has led to a weaker US Dollar which in turn has helped oil, precious metal and emerging markets stage a turnaround in fortunes. Or perhaps we should discuss how Central bank maneuvers have helped US markets regain all of the ground they had lost so far in 2016.

We could talk about all this but here is what we think would be most useful right now. The key to making money in these markets lies in Investor Psychology. How we understand it and our own emotions when it comes to investing our money is the key to success.  Here are two charts that can help you be more successful in understanding how emotions play a role in your investing process.  Courtesy of CNBC, the first chart shows two 12% rallies in the last 7 months. The second is a chart of investor psychology. After our second 12% rally in 7 months you should ask yourself, Where are you on this chart? Are you relieved? Optimistic? Thrilled? Sell risk when prices are rising and buy risk when prices are falling. Understanding and keeping your emotions in check is the key to making money in markets like these. Ride the wave.

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful. – Warren Buffett

 

 

 

If the Dow Jones holds its gains for the next two weeks we will have seen the biggest quarterly comeback in stock markets since 1933. We don’t have to remind you that the 1933 rally took place smack in the middle of the Great Depression. Risks are rising after our second 12% rally in months. It is going to be hard to move higher from here but don’t bet against continued central bank largess. The stock market is up 12% in 26 trading days. Not bad. But it does remind us of a blog post from back in October of 2015.

October 2015 will go down as the best performing month for the S&P 500 in four years.  I think that we all enjoyed the ride back up in October. The S&P 500 rallied 8.3% and followed through with more gains today to get the S&P 500 into the plus column for 2015. Those gains would be nice gains for an entire year – never mind a month! Whenever we get to thinking how much we have gained we cannot help but to contemplate the downside. We must always be on guard to temper our greed/ego just as much as we would concentrate on opportunity when fear strikes.

As a reminder the S&P 500 closed October of 2015 at 2080. It would be 10% lower by January of 2016.

Central bank policy in Europe and the US is having the same effect. Earnings estimates are heading lower while stocks ride higher. Not a great recipe for success. Risk is rising.

We cannot predict with 100% accuracy every move in the market but what we can do is try and profit by tactically allocating and hedging our portfolio in times of market stress to take advantage of market volatility. Investing is not a game of perfection but of managing the risk inside one’s portfolio. We do not jump in and jump out of the market wholesale. By divesting ourselves of overpriced assets and availing ourselves of opportunities when prices are low allows us to take advantage of the long term benefits that the math of compounding brings.

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

Warren Buffett’s Favorite Metric

Warren Buffett’s favorite metric for the market over the years has been the Ratio of US Market Capitalization to United States GDP. Here is a copy of it below from Ned Davis Research. Ned Davis Research is one of the best independent research outfits in the business and I have followed their insights for over 25 years.

What I find fascinating about this chart is the high levels of valuation since the mid 1990’s. I believe that this time period should be considered the Golden Age of Central banking. This was the Era of Greenspan and the Greenspan Put. Alan Greenspan was the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank from 1987-2006. It was Greenspan that realized the power of central banking. Central bankers in previous eras did not have the tools at their disposal to manage monetary policy as effectively as Greenspan. It was the removal of the Gold Standard by Richard Nixon which allowed central bankers in the US to pull forward growth in order to manage downturns more effectively. Note however that since 1995, valuations in the market have exceeded the average levels consistently with the exception of the 2008 crash. That leaves us with some very big questions. How long can central bankers keep pulling forward returns? How long will markets continue to give higher than normal valuations to markets based on central bank policy? Ned Davis Research

Ned Davis March 2016 Mkt Cap GDP

The one era most like our current one is that the late 1936 – early 1937 period. Current high levels of Price Earnings ratios, and, historically low 10 Year yields combine in a disturbing stew now as they did in 1937. Coming out of the Great Depression Federal Reserve officials saw prices in the stock market build to uncomfortable levels and with inflation on the horizon began to raise interest rates. The first tightening in August 1936 did not hurt stock prices or the economy, as is typical.

The tightening of interest rates was made worse by currency wars as European nations chose to move in the opposite direction of US monetary policy. The world began to demand US Dollars and gold. As inflation picked up to 5% the Federal Reserve raised rates further in March of 1937 and again in May 1937. This tighter monetary policy reduced liquidity and sent bond and stock prices much tumbling. Stocks would bottom a year later down 50% from prior levels.

Given the high level of valuations in the Golden Age of Central Banking how will assets perform if the Federal Reserve wants to exit the policies that brought forth those valuations? Central bankers may find that The Golden Age of Central Banking may give way to the Roach Motel of Central Banking. They can get in but they cannot get out.  It’s all about how markets react to the second and third rate hikes.

In our last blog post we mentioned the key levels for the market and now we are there. The bulls did not have much trouble surmounting the 1940 level but 2000 may prove more difficult.

The next level for the bulls is the 2000 number on the S&P 500 and then 2020. We have a confluence of moving averages and resistance zones to overcome here but the bulls have the bears on the run and shorts are covering as they feel the pain.  The risk at the moment is skewed to the downside as we have come very far very fast since the lows of 1812 in mid February. The market is extremely overbought and needs to rest. Let’s see if the bears can push back the bulls. Markets are looking for central bank intervention and if not from China this weekend then perhaps the ECB next week. Shorts are feeling the pain and the bulls may have their hearts set on 2100 on the S&P

Clients have been asking what metrics we are looking at as far as taking more equity risk. The 200 Day Moving Average (DMA) is the Maginot Line when it comes to seeing markets as bull markets or bear markets. Obviously, we would take more equity risk if we felt that we are in a bull market. Currently with the S&P 500 below its 200 DMA we are inclined to believe that we are in a bear market and continue to hedge risk. Let’s see if the bulls can get above and stay above the 200 DMA.

Oil’s bounce is alleviating pressure on borrowers and drillers but prices need to get back above $50 a barrel to really stop the pain. Forced selling of oil and oil related debt may be easing for now but the pain may only be delayed. High yield debt has seen money pour into that sector in the last week. Investors may be catching a falling knife there with more pain to come.

In our last blog post we asked you to keep an eye on gold. We feel that foreign investors could find solace here as the games of currency wars and negative interest rates heat up. That continues to be the case. Gold has been the star of 2016 and this week was no different. The yellow metal may be due for a rest but it might a short one. Negative interest rates in Europe are helping as are the concurrent currency wars between Japan, China, the US and Europe. Hold on tight and keep an eye on gold. Ray Dalio was at the University of Texas this week telling retail investors that they should consider holding 5% of their assets in gold. Look at Sprott Physical Gold Trust (PHYS) ETF and SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) ETF if you are determined to hold gold in your portfolio. PHYS has had better performance this year than GLD.

Not recommendation just information. Investing is not a game of perfect.  It is a game of probabilities.

 

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

The End of the World

The end of the world is a terribly bad bet but yet television pundits were out in force last week proclaiming the beginning of a bear market and perhaps the end of the world as we know it. The definition of a bear market is a market that is down 20% from its highs. At the S&P 500’s lows last week the market was already down 15%. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that the market has a 50/50 chance of going down another 5%.

The reason that the pundits are out and about screaming like Chicken Little is that they were not prepared for a move lower in asset prices. We, on the other hand, had lowered our equity allocations and raised our cash position. That way we were prepared to outperform given a sharp move lower while having excess cash to deploy given better valuations and cheaper assets. Being an asset manager is a lot like being in charge of buying the groceries. If one is in charge of buying the groceries you haven’t done your job appropriately if when going to the grocery store and finding New York Strip marked down 15% you don’t have any cash in your pocket.

We have been underweight equities and overweight cash for some time now seeing an overvaluation in asset prices. This overvaluation in asset prices coupled with the unintended negative consequences of the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy led us to surmise that a re-pricing of assets was in order. While underweight equities at that time we did not feel as though we would miss any truly outstanding returns. Given stretched equity valuations it seemed far better for us to have some insurance in case markets headed lower. Markets go down far faster than they go up and any underperformance is quickly made up with an outsized cash position. Suffice to say 2016 has been a boon to relative performance if one was prepared for this correction in the markets.

Howard Marks latest missive came across my desk this week and as my long time readers know I read everything from Mr. Marks that I can find. He is one of the great investing minds of our time and is kind enough to share his thoughts on investing. Mr. Marks has warned for some time that valuations were a bit rich by telling us to “move forward, but with caution”. It is now that he sees better values. While not saying that now is THE time to buy he does mention that now may be A time to buy.

As I mentioned above, since the middle of 2011 – by which time the quest for return had resulted in rather full prices for debt, over-generous capital markets and pro-risk investor behavior – Oaktree’s mantra has been “move forward, but with caution.”  We’ve felt it was right to invest in our markets, but also that our investments had to reflect a healthy dose of prudence.

Now, as discussed above, investors’ optimism has deflated a bit, some negativity has come into the equation, and prices have moved lower.  Depending importantly on which market we’re talking about and how it has fared in recent months, we consider it appropriate to move forward with a little less caution. – Howard Marks

 

We have fielded a larger number of calls this week from concerned clients and we take our role as counselor seriously.  Being in tune with one’s emotions is probably the most important criteria for investing success. As a former specialist on the NYSE it was our job to be a provider of contra liquidity. That is to say it was our job to be buying when others were selling and selling when others were buying. It was a great training ground to understand one’s own emotions and of the potential madness in crowds. It trained me to have a contrarian viewpoint. When confronted with excessive buying or selling by market participants it naturally became an instinct to question the extreme nature of the emotions driving that buying or selling.  It is not to say that the crowd was always wrong or that we do not feel the emotions of fear and greed. It is that we are keenly aware in that moment to be objective in our approach and to recognize when there is fear or panic in the sellers mind and act appropriately. By being aware of one’s emotions one can more easily use others fear or greed to profit.

That’s one of the crazy things: in the real world, things generally fluctuate between “pretty good” and “not so hot.”  But in the world of investing, perception often swings from “flawless” to “hopeless.”  The pendulum careens from one extreme to the other, spending almost no time at “the happy medium” and rather little in the range of reasonableness.  First there’s denial, and then there’s capitulation. Howard Marks – Oaktree

The same concern seemed to be repeated one every client call this week. “Is this 2008 all over again?” Quite frankly, I don’t believe so. I think that this situation is different. I think that most investors are suffering from recency bias. Recency bias is the tendency to think that trends and patterns that have happened in the recent past will occur again. Investors burned by the 50% downturn in the Internet Bubble of 2000 and the 50% downturn in the Housing Bubble of 2008 are afraid that we are at that same precipice again. I do not have a crystal ball but I do not see the same excesses in current markets as I saw in 2000 and 2008 but I do see investors preparing for a coming storm. If investors are prepared then the storm effects will not be as bad as when they were not prepared in 2000 and 2008. Furthermore, it is our perception that there are overvaluations that need to be corrected but not bubble type excesses. Even in the oil sector there were not bubble like valuations but just simply a misallocation of resources due to Federal Reserve zero interest rate policy. The negative implications of which have obviously come to pass. It also seems that while the bursting of the Housing Bubble in 2008 did bring us to the brink of a global meltdown that was mostly due to the weak balance sheets of US banks. That is no longer the issue that it was in 2008 as the Federal Reserve has made sure that bank balance sheets, at least here in the US, are much less vulnerable than they were in 2008.

So let’s all back away from the ledge. It is not the end of the world as we know it. If we can understand our fear and use it to our advantage we will be better off for it in the long run. We are positioned appropriately and looking for that New York Strip to go on sale.  We will continue to maintain albeit somewhat higher levels of cash as equity valuations continue to become more reasonable and put those dry powder funds to work. We think it will be prudent to avoid exposure to momentum stocks and continue to rotate into more reasonably valued shares.

 

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

What’s Next in 2016?

Summary 1/11/2016

Arthur Cashin – Volatility is Back!

Echoes of 1937

Former Fed Governor Richard Fisher’s thoughts on stock market direction in 2016.

Dalio – One or two rate hikes in 2016? and then QE4??

I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

– J . Wellington Wimpy

Volatility

We have been talking about the return of volatility since June of last year. In our June 2015 blog post titled Tick Tock we noted that the first half of 2015 had been one of the dullest in history. Sensing the end of the Federal Reserve’s zero interest policy we knew that volatility was sure to make a big comeback. In fact, Federal Reserve officials had been warning of just such an occurrence.

We should expect volatility from time to time. We are in a period of some uncertainty. -Esther George Kansas City Fed President Jackson Hole Economic Symposium

It was as if volatility had been banished to the waste bin of history by Central Banks. Well, we know things are never different and that volatility had to return with the advent of a change in central bank policy. That new central bank policy came courtesy of the United States central bank – the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve made the decision on December 16 of last year to begin the process of trying to normalize interest rates and hiked rates for the first time in over seven years.

Our good friend Arthur Cashin, a 50 year veteran of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is a wealth of market knowledge and has an amazing array of friends to call on for their market research and insight. Arthur has probably forgotten more than most will ever know about market history. Last month Arthur pointed to Sam Stovall’s research on volatility during rate hikes. Sam Stovall is the Chair of S&P Capital IQ’s investment committee and has a tremendous track record of insightful research. I read everything that passes across my desk with Sam’s name on it.

In the past 50 years, it has been fairly common to see volatility rise, especially after the start of rate-tightening cycles. Indeed single-day closing price volatility saw an average 77% jump during the three months after the first in a series of rate hikes since 1967. In the three months prior to the December 16 rate increase, the S&P 500 experienced 21 days of closing price volatility in excess of 1%. History therefore implies that things could get even choppier in the months to come.

Yet this increase in daily volatility has occurred within a very narrow 52-week high-low price range. At 14%, this differential is 8th lowest since WWII. History shows that those years with narrow high-low ranges recorded the worst next-year price performances and frequencies of advance. In other words, 2016 will likely endure increased volatility, but without much in the way of price appreciation to show for it.

1937

Over the course of the last seven years it has been our contention (and the contention of those far smarter than I) that Federal Reserve monetary policy was responsible for the rapid rise in asset prices here in the United States. Federal Reserve policy is directly correlated to that rise and is in fact a stated goal of the central bank. Federal Reserve governors felt that a rise in asset prices would engender confidence in the economy thereby inspiring spending on new projects and help reflate the economic engine of growth. Former Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher was on CNBC last week and explained just how and why the Fed enacted that policy

The purpose of zero interest rates engineered by the FOMC, together with the massive asset purchases of Treasurys and agency securities known as quantitative easing, was to create a wealth effect for the real economy by jump-starting the bond and equity markets.

QE3 and its predecessor rounds front-loaded the equity market. Stated differently, I believe we engineered a version of the “Wimpy philosophy”: We gave stock-market investors two hamburgers today in exchange for one or none tomorrow. We pulled forward the price-reaction function of markets.

If that is a correct assessment, then there may well be a payback period of lesser movement in stock prices to follow.

 Former Dallas Fed Pres Richard Fisher 1/5/2016 CNBC

Whether that policy worked is a point of contention but having realized the gain in asset prices with the expansion of the Federal Reserve balance sheet what is to happen when the Federal Reserve changes course? We would expect that asset prices would also begin to change course. This is what we had to say in our Quarterly Letter back in April 2015 about the last time Federal Reserve officials were faced with this dilemma.

It has been our contention since the dawn of the crisis that central bankers would be faced with the same dreaded decision that was faced in 1937. 1937 was, of course, 8 years after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and seen as THE seminal moment when officials made the Depression – Great.

 In 1937 officials began to pursue tighter monetary policies as the stock market had seen significant gains from its lows in 1931 and they feared another bubble forming. Our contention is not that policy was too tight in 1937 but rather that it was tightened at all. Monetary policy has its limits and we are seeing those limits now much as officials saw them in 1937.

The similarities are staggering.

 As a reminder, so you don’t have to go look it up, 1937 was one of the worst years ever for the stock market. The Dow Jones was down over 32% in 1937.

After seven years central bankers have gotten absolutely no help from politicians and now the Federal Reserve is worried that if the next crisis appeared with interest rates at zero they would have no policy response.

“The Fed is a giant weapon that has no ammunition left.”

Former Dallas Fed Pres Fisher 1/5/2016 CNBC

 What Next?

The Federal Reserve is on record as stating that they plan on raising interest rates four times in 2016. The market is currently pricing in two interest rate hikes. Who is correct? Seasonally, this is one of the stronger periods for the market and yet we have seen a 6% selloff in the S&P 500 in just the first six trading days of the year. That is the worst start to a market year in history. The Federal Reserve may have to change course rapidly if there is a break down in asset prices or a credit contagion that begins to form around the world.

Could Fed policy cause a recession in 2016? The Fed cannot abort the business cycle. If it does not come in 2106 it should not be long after. Recessions are a natural course of the business and market cycles. We accept them and invest accordingly. In recessions the US market has averaged a 38% decline over the last 100 years. We are late in the cycle.

However, while asset prices are high any move lower in asset prices will most likely be met with support from governments. Deflation is a government’s worst nightmare and they will do anything to prevent this. Russia, Japan and Brazil are already in recession and Canada and Korea are very close. The next weapon and possibly the last weapon in the Fed’s arsenal is direct debt monetization. Directly financed government spending known as “Helicopter money”.

We believe as much as Ray Dalio does, the billionaire founder of Bridgewater Associates, when he said in August that he believes that the Fed will reach back into its back on monetary tricks given a disruption in markets much as happened in 1936.

“We don’t consider a 25-50 basis point tightening to be a big tightening,” Dalio wrote in a LinkedIn post. “While we might see a tiny tightening akin to what was experienced in 1936, we doubt that we will see anything much larger before we see a major easing via QE.”

Defaults in the high yield market are starting to spread as may counterparty risk. This will be exacerbated if Saudi Arabia continues its oil supply policies. Capital has been poorly allocated in the oil patch due to Federal Reserve o% interest rate policies. Now Saudi Arabia is putting the squeeze on shale oil producers here in the US but maintaining higher than necessary supply levels. How long can the Saudi’s afford to pressure US shale producers? We don’t know but when their polices change it will be with less producers around producing less oil which in turn will produce higher oil prices.

A struggle may be coming as the US changes course on interest rates and emerging economies and governments struggle with paying US denominated debt. That may spill over to developed markets and banks. We believe that we here in the US have less to fear as authorities and banks have spent the last 7 years rebuilding the balance sheets of US banks. Europeans however, have not. They may have more to fear of an emerging market debt crisis.

We need to adjust our investing to the current winds. We foresee 2016 as being a tactically driven year. We feel that changing our positions tactically with the ebb and flow of the market, decreasing the volatility of our portfolios by increasing positions in bonds and bond like instruments while also paying attention to companies that have pricing power like technology and health care will be the key to performance. Cash also becomes an important part of asset allocation because it is the only way you can mitigate the correlation breakdowns we are going to go through, at least until the Fed enacts the next Quantitative Easing when cash will become a burden.

Santa’s Sleigh Bells

The media and blogosphere have lit up with their prognostications as to whether Santa Claus will make his appearance on Wall Street this year. One point of order is to note that the traditional Santa Claus Rally is not the entire month of December. It is only the last 5 trading days of the year and the first two of the New Year. But the gain is only on the order of 1.5%. The market was up 2% yesterday! What we really need to be on the watch for is if Santa does not come. The old saying goes, “If Santa Claus Should Fail To Call, Bears May come To Broad and Wall”. If Santa does not come as ordered the market may be telling you that it is headed for trouble.

But even if it does get into trouble won’t the Fed just bail us out of it? In an interview yesterday Mario Draghi, Head of the ECB, stated as much. When asked by Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England, whether his speech on Friday in NY was meant to counteract Thursday’s market disappointment he responded “of course”.

Federal Reserve officials may follow Draghi’s lead in 2016 as they begin to try and get off of zero interest rates. According to our good friend Arthur Cashin, the last time that the Fed raised interest rates with the ISM below a reading of 50 was in 1981. (A reading of below 50 on that report indicates that we have an economy that is contracting rather than expanding.) In 1981 inflation was running at over 10%. The market fell 23% over the next year.

Here is what we are watching in relation to the Federal Reserve hiking interest rates. The first hike generally does not hurt stock prices. It is the second and the third. In late 1936 we were still experiencing the effects of the Great Depression. Inflation began to tick higher and the stock market was also headed higher. Officials began to think that raising rates was appropriate. Unfortunately, they were tightening monetary policy while other countries we still busy trying to devalue their currencies. Demand for dollars increased sharply.  Sound familiar? Stocks bottomed out in 1938 down almost 50% from their highs. Not saying it is going to happen again but history does have a tendency to rhyme.

Bill Gross, known as the Bond King, had this to say this week on risk and asset prices.

Timing is the key because as gamblers know there isn’t an endless stream of Martingale chips – even for central bankers acting in unison. One day the negative feedback loop on the real economy will halt the ascent of stock and bond prices and investors will look around like Wile E. Coyote wondering how far is down. But when? When does Martingale meet its inevitable fate? I really don’t know; I’m just certain it will. Doesn’t help you much, does it. Except to argue that much like time is relative to the speed of light, the faster and faster central bankers press the monetary button, the greater and greater the relative risk of owning financial assets. I would gradually de-risk portfolios as we move into 2016. Less credit risk, reduced equity exposure, placing more emphasis on the return of your money than a double digit return on your money. Even Martingale casinos eventually fail. They may not run out of chips but like Atlantic City, the gamblers eventually go home, and their doors close.

We have seen an upswing in volatility here in the 4th Quarter of 2015. We believe that portends a higher range of volatility across asset classes in 2016. While we believe it is going to be a positive year it will not be without its bumps and bruises. Tactical allocation decisions may be the key to increasing your gains or even perhaps having gains at all.

While we are cognizant of low returns in this environment we still think it prudent to have some cash on the sidelines. A policy error could have severe consequences for asset prices. The United States may have worked their way out of this crisis and repaired its balance sheet but what about the rest of the world? A policy act by the Federal Reserve could send the tide out and we may find that some countries have been swimming naked. In the event of large market swings in 2016 the FOMC may be forced to bring more easy money in the form of QE. We think that, for investors, 2016 is going to be anything but easy money.

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

Elevator or the Stairs??

Small caps have been our roadmap as we continue to assess the risk/reward conundrum that investing in a central bank dominated world presents. Small caps led us to see the shortcomings in the market before its brief fall in mid October which allowed us to use some dry powder and positively influence our returns this quarter. While the selloff was brief and somewhat violent the aftermath has been anything but. A long slow grind higher has all those who missed the selloff regretting their reticence. This bull market has been built on low volatility interspersed with infrequent violent selloffs. The market has a way of taking the stairs up and the elevator down. Our vigilance to any signs of volatility is of paramount importance and will continue to portend downside moves.

Our antenna is raised to any talk of increased bands of volatility in markets, of letting markets run. In the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) October minutes there is one paragraph that stands out for us and that is its mention of volatility. When markets began to rally in mid October its rally can traced to a Federal Reserve official commenting that it would be possible to delay the end of its Quantitative Easing (QE) program. It is evident in the committee minutes that it does not want markets to get used to officials jawboning markets when they become volatile. The emphasis is ours in the following statement but it does appear that the committee is willing to expand the bands of volatility. Stairs up and elevator down.

…members considered the advantages and disadvantages of adding language to the statement to acknowledge recent developments in financial markets. On the one hand, including a reference would show that the Committee was monitoring financial developments while also providing an opportunity to note that financial conditions remained highly supportive of growth. On the other hand, including a reference risked the possibility of suggesting greater concern on the part of the Committee than was actually the case, perhaps leading to the misimpression that monetary policy was likely to respond to increases in volatility. In the end, the Committee decided not to include such a reference. 

Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee October 28-29, 2014

http://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/fomcminutes20141029.htm

Bill Gross of Janus is out with his latest missive and in it he complains of Central Banks trying to cure this debt crisis with more debt and the consequences of such. He is one of several high profile investors calling for low future investing returns and the need for investors to have cash on hand.

Markets are reaching the point of low return and diminishing liquidity. Investors may want to begin to take some chips off the table: raise asset quality, reduce duration, and prepare for at least a halt of asset appreciation engineered upon a false central bank premise of artificial yields, QE and the trickling down of faux wealth to the working class. If the nursery rhyme theme is apropos to the future, as well as the past, investors should remember that while “Jack and Jill went up the hill,” that “Jack fell down, broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.

Bill Gross Janus 12/04/2014

https://www.janus.com/bill-gross-investment-outlook

One of our favorite investment letters to read is Jeremy Grantham as he takes a quantitative approach to value investing. His study of bubbles in markets has led him and his team to conclude that bubble territory is 2250 on the S&P 500. Here are his comments from his latest letter.

Nevertheless, despite my nervousness I am still a believer that the Fed will engineer a fully-fledged bubble (S&P 500 over 2250) before a very serious decline.

My personal fond hope and expectation is still for a market that runs deep into bubble territory (which starts, as mentioned earlier, at 2250 on the S&P 500 on our data) before crashing as it always does. Hopefully by then, but depending on what the rest of the world’s equities do, our holdings of global equities will be down to 20% or less. Usually the bubble excitement – which seems inevitably to be led by U.S. markets – starts about now, entering the sweet spot of the Presidential Cycle’s year three, but occasionally, as you have probably discovered the hard way already, history can be a snare and not a help.

http://www.gmo.com/websitecontent/GMO_QtlyLetter_3Q14_full.pdf

Investors have reason to be excited. From a seasonal perspective this period of time from November 2014 to March of 2015 would represent, historically, the best period of returns. Market players may have a hard time resisting a rise in stock prices as the stars are aligned for further gains in this cycle if history and seasonality is any guide. It could however lead to a buying panic as equity valuations become further stretched and investor’s party like its 1999.

For the last few years the time to take profits has been when volatility shows up. When volatility calms down it is time to ride markets slow grind higher. Keep both hands on the wheel. When volatility rises take cover. When the storm passes you can advance. Volatility is the key. Higher volatility equals lower stocks.

Watch the Russell 2000 for clues to equity prices. Lower oil. Is it a supply issue or a demand issue? We think it both. It could lead to more geopolitical issues.

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.

Broken Clocks and Sandcastles

Many of you have been anxious to hear how we feel things are unfolding. While we are busy this week writing our quarterly letter we thought that given the volatility and pain of this week we would write you a small note. Like a broken clock that is right twice a day we have been in tune with the market of late. We felt that the wind down of QE in October would bring volatility to the markets that the Fed, while not welcoming it, would ALLOW volatility to proceed. This bull market has been built on the back of dullness. Most of the returns garnered since the lows in 2009 have been when volatility was low. High volatility has been seen only during pullbacks in the market. A lack of volatility breeds complacency and risk taking. Stability can breed instability. Like a child’s pile of sand at the beach that grows ever higher it only takes one additional grain of sand to knock down an entire side and you don’t know which grain of sand that will be. The Federal Reserve knows this and, I feel, senses the need to bring back volatility and a respect for risk. Not to mention the fact that they may be out of bullets.

As a reminder we had this to say in our blog post back titled Riding the Waves back in July.

The central theme here is that investors should be expecting an increase in volatility as the Federal Reserve tries to exit its loose monetary policy. We expect trading bands to widen over the coming months as Fed officials warn of approaching volatility. The bankers are asking for it and the Fed is ready to let it happen. We intend to be prepared. https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/riding-the-waves/

The bearish thesis that we laid out certainly showed itself this week as the S&P 500 had its worst week in two years. Our key level on the Russell 2000 ETF (IWM) had been a break of 108 which would lead the bears to make a push down to 96. We closed Friday at 104.74. (Remember these are not predictions just food for thought. Broken clocks you know.) The market is oversold at this point and due for a bounce. October’s Ghosts are out and about as fear is rising. Tough Thursday’s in October which are followed by dull Fridays have led to historic Monday’s. Tuesday could be a chance for the bulls to push back as Turnaround Tuesday comes back into vogue.  We will move our stop loss a little higher as a move above 114 on IWM would mean that the bulls are back in charge.

We are still very concerned about the Fed’s exit from QE while seemingly the rest of the world’s central banks are ramping up their money printing efforts. Currency wars are all the rage as it is a race to the bottom. If your currency is lower than your neighbors you will sell more stuff. Japan, China and Europe are seemingly in economic decline while Russia may be in the midst of a currency crisis. Not a great feeling when profit margins in the US are at all time highs with overpriced markets and highly margined accounts.

Keep an eye on the Russian Ruble. Small caps are the road map. Monday morning may be very interesting if history is our guide.

I think we aspire less to foresee the future and more to be a great contingency planner… you can respond very fast to what’s happening because you thought through all the possibilities, – Lloyd  Blankfein

To learn more about us and Blackthorn Asset Management LLC visit our website at www.BlackthornAsset.com .

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. – Winston Churchill

Disclosure: This blog is informational and is not a recommendation to buy or sell anything. If you are thinking about investing consider the risk. Everyone’s financial situation is different. Consult your financial advisor.