Trump Stepping on The Gas

As Warren Buffett famously said, “When the tide goes out you find out who has been swimming naked”. That tide may be rising interest rates. The tide has only begun to recede and yet it appears we may have found some to be swimming naked. In recent weeks we have seen unexpected announcements from the likes of Met Life and GE in regards to accounting irregularities and large conglomerates in China and the Netherlands with liquidity issues. HNA Group which owns Hilton Hotels is desperately searching for liquidity. The tide hasn’t even gone out yet. This could be the tip of the iceberg as zombie companies which have been left alive due to central bank zero interest rates may now fight to stay afloat. The rising tide of interest rates should bring us more instances of who has been swimming naked.

Coming off one of the worst weeks in years for equities we now have one of the best weeks in years. Don’t be lulled into complacency. This was to be expected as investors have now reversed half of the sell off after retesting the lows at the key 200 day moving average. We do not think that the all clear can be given yet. The selloff was violent from extremely elevated levels and that should give us caution. The true test, as we have been warning, is the retest of the old highs. The old highs were hit with such fervor that we do not think that the amplitude will be the same when we get there again. The swift and violent move off of the extreme highs has brought doubt into the equation for the first time in awhile. Let’s see if equities can pass this exam.

It appears that the expected outcomes by market participants may have changed the moment the tax bill was passed. Fiscal stimulus this late in the business cycle with a performing economy could force the central bank to tighten quicker than it had planned. That only increases the level of difficulty of the high wire act that the central bank is already attempting. The odds of a central bank policy mistake are rising and that contributed to the selloff along with rising inflation and the prospect of higher interest rates. Another contributing factor of the sell off was that Wall Street can smell weakness. Much had been made about the overzealousness of the volatility selling crowd. Those sellers were ripe for a lesson and Wall Street gave it to them. Wall Street, when sensing weakness, will press the case against the weak. Much like culling the slow and weak from a herd Wall Street feeds on the same. We have no doubt that the case was pressed against vol sellers until they capitulated. That gave rise to further de leveraging which spurred the computers into an all out rout. The key question here is, has the tide turned? We will see soon enough when the highs on the S&P 500 are tested once again.

Point here being that the uber-ambiguous “something has changed in the market” meme that’s been going-around is based-upon the underlying change in perception with regard to a bond market that is waking from its slumber due to a new-found Central Bank willingness to normalize policy on account of actual signs of “growth” and “inflation”—ESPECIALLY after being “put over the top” by US fiscal stimulus.  The above observations are simply the manifestations of this mentality-shift in the market….qualitative observation into quantitative phenomenon.- From Charlie Mcelligott, head of Nomura’s Cross-Asset Strategy

We have been writing that the Trump policies would give the FOMC cover to raise interest rates but those same policies may be too much of a good thing. Fiscal stimulus, tax reform, deregulation and infrastructure spending may force the Fed to raise rates faster than they would like. As the Fed is hitting the brakes Trump is stepping on the gas.

We continue to hold short duration bonds coupled with a slight underweight in equities. However, we did cautiously add to equities during the selloff. We continue to add to new positions that prepare for a further rise in inflation. We believe that we are in the late stage of the business cycle where commodities tend to prosper. Current central bank positioning combined with fiscal stimulus could lead to a quicker than expected rise in inflation. We are positioning for a surprise to the upside.

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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 .

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.

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Warning Shot Across the Bow

Bitcoin’s rise and fall has been fascinating to watch and its technology may, in time, be of great significance but for now but the most important takeaway for us may be the signal that the rise and fall of bitcoin has now seemingly produced. The rise of bitcoin leads us to the inescapable conclusion that its very existence and subsequent popularity is due to excess liquidity in the financial system. After real estate, stocks, bonds, art, rare automobiles have all reached excessive valuations it was time for a new asset to arise for money to flow. We may look back in time to see that the rise of bitcoin was the last gasp of the “Everything Bubble”, a time when every asset on the planet was at extreme valuations due to central bank policy. We believe the fall of bitcoin coincides with the threat to withdraw liquidity from the system by central banks led by the United States. Like air, bubbles require excess liquidity to form. The market is a discounting mechanism and is, at the dawn of 2018, discounting 6 months forward the withdrawal of liquidity. The warning shot has been sent across the bow for investors. Of course, central bankers can always just stop draining liquidity and even add more but the tide seems to be going out for now. Watch for who has been swimming naked.

I think there are two bubbles. We have a stock market bubble and we have a bond market bubble…I think [at] the end of the day the bond market bubble will eventually be the critical issue…In fact I was very much surprised that in the State of the Union message yesterday all those new initiatives were not funded and I think we’re getting to the point now where the breakout is going to be on the inflation upside. The only question is when…We are working our way towards stagflation. – Alan Greenspan former FOMC Chair Bloomberg TV

Jim Paulsen from Leuthold Group joined Jeff Gundlach and Alan Greenspan calling for commodities to outperform in 2018. That’s a pretty elite group. Commodities tend to outperform at the late stage of the cycle. Here is what Paulsen told CNBC’s Squawk Box.

“Challenges are mounting here for stocks,” Paulsen told “Squawk Box.”“And for bonds, I think.”

“The values have been high. They still are. You’re losing the element of surprise. You know, these economic and earnings reports are fabulous, but we know they’re fabulous,” he added. “It just has never felt this bullish.”

At some point, the economic and earnings numbers won’t have the same impact on the market they had previously, Paulsen argued. He sees commodities outperforming stocks and bonds this year.

A 15% selloff from the highs would only bring us back to market levels of August 2017! A 20% selloff brings us back to January 2017! Not the end of civilization. In fact, a healthy retrenchment of recent gains. We felt that the market would struggle for 18-24 months when it hit 2666 on the S&P 500. The market has spent time at each multiple of the 666 low in the S&P. 2664 is 4x the 666 level. You must remember we are dealing with algorithms written by humans. Levels like 666 and 2x, 3x and 4x are just levels in a computer program. Be careful of computers. They only do what they are told. As computer use has created a wondrous cycle of upward movement so we can have the vicious spiral downwards.

We have talked of a 1987 style market for over a year now complete with melt up. Now it seems all the rage to compare our current market to 1987.  In fact the two years are eerily similar. We build scenarios and invest accordingly. Now that everyone is on board with the 1987 style melt down we are getting off the train. Our new scenario calls for a more drawn out selloff. First, we may see a drawdown in the magnitude of 5-15% followed by a retracement back to the old highs. From there we should see a selloff of a larger magnitude leading to a bear market over the next 18-24 months. It’s not voodoo. Valuations show that historically we will see limited upside from these levels. Markets are high. Rates are rising. The yield curve is flattening. Markets tend to struggle in the second year of a Presidency as midterm elections approach. It’s not rocket science. It’s the study of psychology and history. We have seen the warning shot across the bow.  Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Watch the central bank balance sheets. If they stop tightening all bets are off.

If you are not currently receiving our blog by email you can sign up for free at https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/ .

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/ .

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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.

Fear of Missing Out

Courtesy of Cashin’s Comments this week comes an interesting insight about the bond market from a stock market maven who has had a hot hand. Jim Paulsen sent our friend Arthur Cashin an email in which he explains history’s treatment of stocks when bond yields move quickly.

Since 1980, when the 10-year bond yield was more than one standard deviation below its trend, the S&P 500 average annualized gain in the ensuing year was a robust 14.25%! When the 10-year yield was within either one standard deviation above or below trend, the stock market’s average annualized gain in the subsequent year was still a healthy almost 10%. However, when the bond yield was more than one standard deviation above its trend, the stock, market in the following year only provided a paltry 2.71% average annualized gains.

Moreover, whenever yields were higher than one standard deviation above trend, the stock market declined in the ensuing year 43% of the time compared to only about 19% the rest of the time! Within the last month, the 10-year Treasury bond yield has risen beyond one standard deviation above trend (as of Jim’s writing the 10 year was at 2.44%. It ended the week at 2.66%!). Consequently, despite ongoing strength in equity prices, the recent rise in yields may already be starting to pressure the stock market.

Let’s combine that thought about the bond market with current equity valuations. Courtesy of FPA Capital is their note that when the levels in the CAPE Ratio rise above 26, returns from equities decrease. Returns in the past 100 years from current CAPE Ratio levels average NEGATIVE 7% over the next 3 year period.

 

  • When S&P 500 CAPE was below 10x, 3-yr returns of 39%; between 10x and 14x, returns of 34%; between 14x and 18x, returns of 13%; between 18x and 22x, returns of 20%; between 22x and 26x, returns of 22%; between 26-30x, returns of negative 1%; greater than 30x, returns of negative 7% (31x today!!!)

 

From a technical perspective we are awestruck by the current level of Relative Strength in the S&P 500. The RSI is at its highest level ever. Ever! The word Unsustainable comes to mind.

Investors seem to be in panic buy mode in a Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). Money has flowed into mutual fund and stock ETF’s at the highest pace ever over the last four weeks. $58 billion in fresh money hit markets in the last month. Last week was the 7th highest week ever according to Bank of America. That money came into the market after the market was off to one of its fastest yearly starts on record. We are setting a lot of records lately. That has red flags rising left and right. It’s not to say that the market roar won’t continue but at this pace the market will be up 166% for the 2018 if things continue. What cannot continue – won’t. Trees don’t grow to the sky.

We would remind you that in our blog last week we noted Bond King Jeffrey Gundlach’s line in the sand for equities. In his latest conference call Gundlach stated that the 2.63% level on the 10 year is going to be a very important level and at which stocks may begin to suffer. The 10 year closed the week at 2.663%.

The combination of higher rates, the end of QE and tax reform may push the market and economy into overheating. Late stages of bull markets can have very sharp and quick moves to the upside. It is starting to feel more like 1998-99. That’s the key. Are we in 1998 or 1999? It makes a big difference for our returns. Watch for price acceleration.

If you are not currently receiving our blog by email you can sign up for free at https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/ .

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/ .

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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.

BitCoin

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

The most important aspect of investing to master is the psychology of investing. If one is not aware of one’s emotions surrounding money and gains and losses one can never master the art of investing. The parabolic price rise and constant chatter surrounding the rise of bitcoin has all of the hallmarks of a mania. The bitcoin mania has pundits and media types all aflutter. That emotion works its way into mainstream investing.

We are seeing very large money flows into the market as investors see the big returns of bitcoin and want some for themselves. That reminds us of another Warren Buffett quote. “What the wise man does in the beginning the fool does in the end.” According to CNBC, ETF inflows had their second biggest week in history. We believe that the parabolic rise in the price of bitcoin and the mania surrounding it has driven investors to an extreme in bullishness. That has led to the S&P 500 becoming overbought (According to its RSI) to a level not seen since 1995. Investors are plowing money into stocks excited by bitcoin’s parabolic rise. The FOMO Fear of Missing Out has investors, perhaps, getting in a little over their heads.

For months we have mentioned the idea that the market could stall at the 2666 level on the S&P 500. We made mention of the fact that 2666 is just about 4 times the bottom print in March of 2009 of 666 on the S&P 500. Also, our thesis included that this number, and its biblical significance, would play a part in Wall Street traders psychology and in Quantitative Funds computer programs. For those of you who thought we were nuts, by way of Zero Hedge, comes a chart which shows that the market has struggled with multiples of 666 since March of 2009. The S&P 500 when hitting 2x and 3x the low of 666 has spent the next 18-24 months in a consolidation pattern. Signposts like this along the way are good spots for investors to take a respite and reflect on how far we have come and whether the trend should continue. 2018 may be a Year of Reflection.

4x 666 S&P 500

 

If you are not currently receiving our blog by email you can sign up for free at https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/ .

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/ .

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.

Want to Live Longer?

Andrew Scott is a Professor of Economics at the London Business School and is a co- author of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. I came across his work in an interview from the Council of Foreign Relations and I find his work helpful, not only in planning for client’s retirement but also in looking at the emotional side of retirement. We have had massive transformations in how we long we live our lives and in the quality of our lives since the dawn of the 20th century. Scott’s work shows that a 65 year old today is equivalent to being 51 in 1922! Something to accept going forward is that our lives will be longer and lived with a greater vitality and, in accepting that, working longer needs to be part of our retirement plan. Not necessarily in that same job some of you might dread going to everyday but working at something we love doing. Importantly, Scott’s research found that white collar workers that work longer – live longer. Something to consider.

65 is the equivalent to 51 in 1922, and today’s 78-year-old, in terms of mortality risk, is the equivalent of a 65-year-old. And you think about this longer life expectancy—you know, by some counts, children being born today can expect to live to high 90s, early 100s, if not more. It’s not clear that simply saving more will solve the problem, as we’ve been talking about here.

People never save enough anyway. People are fairly unresponsive to interest rates. So I think if we’re looking at how we finance longer lives, it’s going to have to be working longer.

And of course what is very striking with the data, too, is that effectively blue-collar workers, the earlier they retire the longer they live. White collar workers, the longer they work, the longer they live. I mean, it’s—old age has a very varied distribution across individuals, and some of that is strongly linked to income and particularly education. – Andrew Scott

https://www.cfr.org/event/retirement-challenges-individuals-global-comparison

Some pundits that stand out as perpetual bulls on the market are calling for a respite in 2018. We think that they might be right. The market has been on quite a ride this week and we used the rally this week to lighten up for some of our more aggressive clients. We still see the possible tax reform passage as a “sell the news” event especially in light of end of the year regulatory funding issues and a possible government shutdown dead ahead.

The S&P 500 is now up 13 months in a row and seems to have hit a speed bump. As the technology stocks hit their old highs from 2007 the computer algorithms hit the sell button and began to buy value stocks. Changes in investment positioning may be in store as value may begin to outperform growth. Growth has been the winner for perhaps a bit too long as returns try to revert back to the mean.  The yield curve here in the US is the flattest it has been since 2007 and we worry that it is about to invert and signal a recession. We warned two weeks ago that volatility would return and that it was only a matter of when. Well, it seems like this was the week. We expect more volatility to come as funding pressures increase with the turn of the calendar.

We have talked about the animal spirits being in control and now perhaps it is the computers turn. Keep an eye on key levels. We are watching 2666 on the S&P 500 very closely. The market bottomed at 666 in March of 2008. 4 times 666 is 2664. Close enough for government work. Programmers are humans after all and some numbers jump off the page. Call us crazy but we feel that it is an important hurdle and, make no mistake, the computers are in charge. We are still in it to win it but just a little less and a little less in.

If you are not currently receiving our blog by email you can sign up for free at https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/ .

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/ .

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.

Less In

One of our favorite bulls is changing his tone this week as Jim Paulsen of the Leuthold Group seems to be pouring a little cold water on this rally. In his piece titled “No More Juice” Paulsen, a long time bull, says investors should be prepared as central bankers try to wean markets off of the juice (QE). Paulsen has been spot on for years with the market rally since 2008 and when he speaks we listen. We agree with Paulsen and we do not see a market collapse but there is a need to constantly reevaluate and recalibrate where our investment money needs to be in this market.

“As financial markets are weaned off the juice they have been drinking for almost a decade, investors should prepare for a very different bull market in the balance of this recovery,” he said. “Without a chronic injection of financial liquidity, the stock market may struggle more frequently, overall returns are likely to be far lower, and bond yields may customarily rise.”

To be sure, Paulsen is not predicting a market collapse. Instead, he suggests investors will need to shift strategy away from the cyclical U.S.-centric approach that has worked for most of the past 8½ years, due to the likely contraction of money supply compared to nominal GDP growth.

That means value over growth stocks, international over domestic, and inflationary sectors, like energy, materials and industrials, over disinflationary groups like telecom and utilities.

It is our job not to predict but to contingency plan. In order to do that we look to the horizon for what could trip up our investing plans or to find what investments may benefit from changes in the environment. One of biggest worries is China. The yield curve continues to invert in China. For those of you that are new to our blog an inverted yield curve is a sign that a recession may be approaching. A recession in China would have reverberations worldwide. According to FT, Chinese debt has grown from $6T at the beginning of the crisis in 2007 to over $29T today. The government there continues to want reform but needs to proceed with caution to avoid creating a crisis. The Chinese central bank added more reserves to their system this week in one of its biggest injections of 2017 and that helped soothe markets – for now.

In another sign of the imbalances created by central banks and QE it still boggles our minds that European High Yield has less of a yield attached to it than 10 Year US Treasuries. If we have a bubble then it is certainly there. In yet another great piece by John Mauldin, in his Thoughts from the Frontline, he notes the preponderance of negative yielding government bonds. Can you believe that Italy and Spain have short term negative yielding debt? Who would want to own debt from Italy and Spain at negative yields?!  Mauldin also points to Louis Gave and their research suggesting a currency peg could cause a waterfall of problems and they are pointing to Lebanon. It is a very interesting piece. If you don’t get John’s Thoughts From the Frontline, then sign up, it is free.

Market internals continue to deteriorate and that is especially important in light of historically high valuations. The market has entered what seems to be a new pattern of opening lower and rallying back throughout the day. The S&P 500 is up 12 months in a row and has only experienced pullbacks of less than 3% in 2017. The daily range in stocks is the lowest it has been since the 1960’s. The yield curve here in the US is the flattest it has been since 2007 and the curve in China is inverted. Trees cannot grow to the sky and what cannot continue – won’t.  Volatility will return it is only a matter of when. We see the relative strength on the S&P 500 reaching historically overbought levels. When the S&P reaches this level it makes the comparisons very tough. A pullback is warranted in the S&P and when it does the next rally will not be able to surpass these overbought levels. At that time investors will see it as a negative divergence. That is when the market may begin to struggle.

We continue to fret about risk parity and volatility selling. When stocks go down we will look at bond prices. At some point they will both go down in tandem and selling will beget selling. If there is a meltdown, we believe that is where we will see it start.

The Warren Buffet of endowment investing is David Swenson from Yale. We were able to watch an hour long interview with the investing legend and have included a link. The interview of Mr. Swenson is from a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations conducted by former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Here is the money quote.

But when you start out, you were talking about fundamental risks in this world. And when you compare the fundamental risks that we see all around the globe with the lack of volatility in our securities markets, it’s profoundly troubling, and makes me wonder if we’re not setting ourselves up for an ’87 or a ’98, or a 2008-2009. David Swenson Chief Investment Officer Yale University

So much to say and so little space this week. Obviously, we are a bit concerned that the rally is a little long in the tooth and investors may have lost respect for the power of markets amid market’s seeming invincibility. The animal spirits are unpredictable and still in control. Gotta be in it to win it but, maybe just a little less and a little less in. Tax reform passage could be a sell on the news event and we are, warily, watching the turn of the calendar.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!! No blog next week as we will be still filling up on leftovers.

If you are not currently receiving our blog by email you can sign up for free at https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/ .

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/ .

 

 

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.

If you are not currently receiving our blog by email you can sign up for free at https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/ .

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/ .

It’s Never Different This Time

 IT’S NEVER DIFFERENT THIS TIME

“I learned early that there is nothing new in Wall Street. There can’t be because speculation is as old as the hills. Whatever happens in the stock market today has happened before and will happen again. I’ve never forgotten that.” – Jesse Livermore

Jesse Livermore was a legendary Wall Street trader and his biography “Reminiscences of a Stock Market Operator” is a must read for anyone that is in the investing game. As an investor one of the most important things to remember is that it is never different this time. As much as we think that our time or era is unique to history we are all still human. We react psychologically to whatever stimuli are present at any given time just about the same way that our caveman predecessors did. The names change but the game stays the same.

Up-and-down cycles are usually triggered by changes in fundamentals and pushed to their extremes by swings in emotion.  Everyone is exposed to the same fundamental information and emotional influences, and if you respond to them in a typical fashion, your behavior will be typical: pro-cyclical and painfully wrong at the extremes.  To do better – to succeed at being contrarian and anti-cyclical – you have to (a) have an understanding of cycles, which can be gained through either experience or studying history, and (b) be able to control your emotional reaction to external stimuli. – Howard Marks Founder Oaktree Capital

The Federal Reserve and central banks around the world have added and drained liquidity over and over again repeatedly over the last century. What is slightly different this time is that the Federal Reserve and central banks around the world have added more liquidity than they have ever done in history and in concert. That is different but the results are always the same. When central banks add liquidity asset prices will soon follow suit and rise with the new found liquidity. When the Fed subtracts liquidity the market will also soon follow in negative course. You cannot predict when or how far the market will move but there is no point in fighting the Fed. Whatever they do the market will do in time.

I am not saying that the market will crash. I am saying that as the Fed and other central banks remove liquidity then markets at some point will begin to price that into the equation. I can’t tell you how far markets will move because I cannot tell you how far the central banks will move. It was the former NYSE President and Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin who coined the phrase that is was the central banks job to take away the punch bowl when the party was just getting started. Central banks around the world are now hinting that it is time to think about removing accommodation and draining the punch bowl. The Federal Reserve has raised rates twice in 2017 and it looks like they may do it one more time in December of 2017.

Along with these rate hikes committee members have voted to start reducing the Fed’s balance sheet this month. What does that mean exactly? The Federal Reserve will be mopping up some of the liquidity that has been splashing around markets and enabling inflation in asset prices. Eventually, (QT) Quantitative Tightening will have the desired effect from the Federal Reserve. The other major central banks around the world are still adding liquidity but the Bank of England and the European Central Bank (ECB) appear ready to at least stop adding liquidity. The Bank of Japan is charting its own course and continues to add liquidity. The US Federal Reserve has begun draining liquidity as its journey has been mapped out and begins this month. The pace is slow and steady but there will be a tipping point where the reduction in liquidity will impact asset prices. When is that tipping point? That is the $4 trillion question.

While the Federal Reserve is trying to extricate itself from its monetary experiment the first place we will look for clues to the trajectory of asset prices will be the US Dollar. As the quote below from Ambrose Evans Pritchard explains the US Dollar is our barometer and we do expect it to generate a headwind for equity and credit alike.


“The message from a string of BIS [Bank of International Settlements] reports is that the US dollar is both the barometer and agent of global risk appetite and credit leverage.
Episodes of dollar weakness – such as this year – flush the world with liquidity and
nourish asset booms. When the dollar strengthens, it becomes a headwind for stock markets and credit.”

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard International Business Editor of The Telegraph.

In the last several weeks the US Dollar has headed higher and the yield on the 10 Year US Treasury has headed north of 2.35%. If the US dollar continues to rally as the Fed takes away the punch bowl and tightens policy then we may see a reversal of what has transpired so far in 2017. Small and mid cap stocks may outperform while gold and emerging markets under perform. 

THE BEAR CASE

It is getting harder and harder to make the bear case. That alone is troubling. Markets have shrugged off a potential hot war with North Korea, US Presidential investigations, and the complete and utter failure of Republicans to pass any legislation of consequence in Washington DC.  But if we were to point to any one thing that the bears can hang their hat on it is the historically high valuations in asset prices. The most astounding valuation that we have seen is that European High Yield debt now yields less than US Treasuries of the same duration! European junk debt is less risky than US government debt? Incredible. While valuations alone do not a bear market make, historically, valuations in the highest percentiles portend lower than average returns in the future. Here are some of those excessive valuations.

  • The S&P 500 is selling at 25 times trailing-twelve-month earnings, compared to a long-term median of 15.
  • The Shiller Cyclically Adjusted PE Ratio stands at almost 30 versus a historic median of 16.  This multiple was exceeded only in 1929 and 2000.
  • The “Buffett Yardstick” – total U.S. stock market capitalization as a percentage of GDP – new all-time high last month of around 145, as opposed to a 1995-2017 median of about 100.
  • The lowest yields in history on low-rated bonds and loans.
  • All time low yields on emerging market debt.
  • The CNN Money Fear & Greed Index of market-based risk-appetite gauges is at 95 on its 100 scale.
  • S&P 500’s Longest streak without a 5% drop of over 330 days
  • Institute of Supply Management’s manufacturing Index above a reading of 60 and highest reading since 1994.

Equity markets are in the midst of a multiyear run as seen by the rise in values since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008-09. Those valuations have risen to historical levels and are now in the 90th percentile historically. Research shows us that returns in the 90th percentile run below average. Investors are acting as if there is no risk in holding assets. The definition of investing lies in the risk return tradeoff and that is seemingly being ignored.

Another factor in the bear case is the bond market and the possibility of rising yields. In our last quarterly letter we wondered about who was going to be right – the bond market or the stock market. We have always gravitated to the bond market as the older, wiser brother of the stock market.  The bond market is not done giving us clues as we believe that rates, while still mired in the range between 2.1% and 2.7%, may yet break out one way or the other. A rate rise through 2.7% could quickly generate much higher rates and that could douse the enthusiasm of the stock market bulls.

THE BULL CASE

While the shrinking of central banks balance sheets has us cautious we need to remember that, even with the Federal Reserve telegraphing to the market that they intend to shrink their balance sheet, central bank balance sheets worldwide have still grown at 8% year over year. The bulls may keep control of the market if central banks other than the United States continue to expand their balance sheet. It is now the world’s balance sheet that has our attention and not just the US Federal Reserve’s.

As central banks remove the punch bowl they will be telegraphing their moves to the marketplace and moving ever so gently to the sidelines and that may appease markets for now. The conditions for a market crash do not seem to be in place. In contrast, the conditions of a spiraling melt up seem to be more likely as we have said for some months now. Investing is an exercise in mass psychology.  Investors have gotten used to investing gains and see no risk on the horizon. Over inflated valuations have professional investors trimming their sails and cutting equity and bond exposure. We continue to hear the same arguments of distorted valuations and have made those same arguments ourselves but high valuations alone will not stop a raging bull market. While seemingly every investor is expecting a sell off from such high valuations they may find themselves falling behind their client’s expected returns. That may force professional investors to chase returns in the last quarter of 2017.

Jeff deGraaf, chairman and chief technical analyst at Renaissance Macro Research, is telling clients this week the risk of a “melt-up” in stocks is “very real.”

“Given the good economic data, loose credit conditions, benign inflation data and investor’s sentiment, we think the risks of the Fed (and G7 central banks) blowing an asset bubble are above average,” he says. Cyclical indicators such as the ISM purchasing-managers index above 60, with unemployment under 4.5 percent, are arguably “too good,” correlating with poor 12-month returns for stocks. “But until credit conditions deteriorate, we’re holding on to this tiger’s tail,” deGraaf concludes. -CNBC

We will continue to keep a close eye on the bond market. If equity markets were to move drastically lower we believe that the Federal Reserve will act quickly to support the market. It has widely telegraphed its intention to slowly roll down its balance sheet. If that roll off should cause trepidations in the stock market we believe that they will quickly reverse course and, in dire circumstances, perhaps even begin buying equities. The Fed Put is alive and well.

While we have foreseen a 1987 type of market since the election it is impossible to predict the “top”. What makes us most uncomfortable about calling an end to this bull market is that seemingly everyone else is attempting the same. When everyone expects something to happen – something else will. (H/t Bob Farrell)

WHAT TO DO 

It is impossible to know where the top of a market is and no one wants to feel foolish for having left the party too soon. In order to meet our investing goals we cannot afford to leave the party too soon but what we can do is re-calibrate. When historical valuations are in their highest percentile we can move to investments with better risk reward profiles and if that investment is cash, then so be it. Successful investing is accomplished by doing what is unpopular or uncomfortable. 

Even though no one can ascertain when we’re at the exact top or bottom, a key to successful investing lies in selling – or lightening up – when we’re closer to the top, and buying – or, hopefully, loading up – when we’re closer to the bottom. 

“Investing is not black or white, in or out, risky or safe.”  The key word is “calibrate.”  The amount you have invested, your allocation of capital among the various possibilities, and the riskiness of the things you own all should be calibrated along a continuum that runs from aggressive to defensive. Howard Marks

 That is why we have taken steps to reduce duration at Blackthorn to very low levels. Duration is a measure of bond holdings sensitivity to a rise in interest rates. Our lowering of bond duration in client’s portfolios will cushion any blow to our portfolios given higher rates from the Fed. In fact, our duration is so low that higher rates could conceivably help our performance in the longer run as we will be reinvesting at higher rates.

September is historically the weakest month of the year. 2017 has not been kind to seasonal adjustments as shown by the market’s strength this summer (Sell In May and Go Away) and evidenced by its strong showing in September. But when a traditionally weak period is strong it gives more weight to the bull thesis. A strong September has been shown to be good for stocks, historically, as they portend a strong 4th quarter. According to the Leuthold Group, an equity research firm, since 1928 there has been 29 Septembers where the S&P 500 reached a 12 month high. In the 4th quarter following those 29 new highs the S&P 500 was up 80% of the time for an average return of 3.7%.

We, at Blackthorn, attempt to achieve excellent risk adjusted returns over a full market cycle and not to mimic a benchmark in the short term. We strive to give the best service possible while being as transparent as we can in order to give the client confidence in our managing of their assets. It is that confidence that is the basis of sound decision making during market extremes. We continue to be risk averse amid historical valuations that have proceeded less than stellar returns over the last 100 years whenever they presented themselves. Successful management of assets emphasizing risk adjusted returns over time requires patience and a thoughtful investor base which we have been fortunate to attract over the years.

Our risk adjusted returns show that we have chosen the right assets to rotate into while we continue to be on guard and show patience as this bull market evolves. Our experience has been that chasing returns over time does not work and paying strict attention to valuations in the marketplace and expecting some reversion to the mean is the correct approach. We manage risk. Right now investors are not getting paid an appropriate premium for taking risk, and so, we recalibrate. As Jesse Livermore once said, that it was never my trading that made me money, it was the waiting.

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 CEO of Goldman Sachs

 Moreover, the years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks…During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.Warren Buffett

 

Diogenes and The Bond King

Jeffrey Gundlach from DoubleLine Funds gave another one of his webcasts this week. In a world of investing you have to know who is telling you their honest thoughts and who is just talking their book. We believe that Gundlach tells you his honest thoughts and his track record shows that he is well worth watching. The first thing that you need to know is that Gundlach is a bond fund manager who is not that high on the bond market right now. The “Bond King” doesn’t like bonds. How is that for honest? The Greek philosopher, Diogenes, would have never found what he was looking for on Wall Street, but then again, Gundlach is in LA.

Gundlach is constantly on the search for anomalies that may warn of an impending recession. In his “chart of the day” Gundlach presented a chart showing a ratio of the value of commodities to the S&P 500. The median value over the last 50 years stands at 4.1. That ratio is currently less than 1. That tells us that either commodities are very cheap or equities are expensive (or a combination of both). The last two times it got this low was just before the 1970’s Oil Crisis and during the Dot Com Bubble. Gundlach predicts that commodities will gain steam next year when the US 10 Year rate rises. Time to look at commodities.

One chart that Gundlach brought up was what we would term “The Chart of Next Year – 2018”. It shows the growth in the G4 Central Bank balance sheets since the beginning of the GFC until now and it overlays the rise in Global equity value. If you accept that the rise in equities was fueled by the rise in central bank balance sheets understand that the G4 balance sheet is projected to shrink beginning in 2018. Stalled growth in central bank balance sheets will equal stalled growth in equity prices and lower returns. A decline in central bank balance sheets will lead to a decline in equity prices around the globe.

QE has been highly correlated with risk assets (specifically the S&P 500) “levitating,” Gundlach said. That has been true since 2009 and on a global basis, he said. The actions by other central banks have lifted the prices of non-U.S. equity markets.

Gundlach said that when earnings are revised down, equity prices fall and vice versa. Except that wasn’t true when QE was going on. Now that central banks are tapering globally (“quantitative tightening”), it is a bad sign for equities, according to Gundlach.

“Maybe we will start getting into trouble in mid-2018, as QE goes away and the German 10-year yield goes up,” Gundlach said.

West Texas Crude is still below $50 a barrel but is challenging that critical level of resistance. The Saudi Arabian government is rumored to be looking at delaying its very important IPO of Saudi Aramaco.  Saudi Aramco is their state owned oil company and the biggest oil company in the world. It is valued in the Trillions of dollars!! Could it be because they are seeing higher oil prices on the horizon? $60 a barrel in crude would bring in substantially more money in the IPO than $50. It’s a big bet by a big and knowledgeable player.

Just to review. This week we experienced Hurricane IRMA, North Korea test fired a missile across Japan, terrorism in France and England while hard economic data continued to deteriorate in China and the US. So, logically, we should have new all time highs in the stock market and the best week of the year for the Dow Jones Industrials. By the way, if you needed any more evidence that the computers are in charge the S&P 500 closed Friday at exactly 2500. While we are on the subject of crazy Jeffrey Gundlach pointed out in his webcast that European junk bonds have the same yield as a U.S. Treasury basket (the Merrill Lynch U.S. Treasury Index). He said that spread is typically 700 basis points or more.

Gold was able to hold $1300 this week.  The ten year Treasury rocketed off its lows of 2.05% to close the week at 2.20% it what looks to be a failed breakdown. The S&P 500 broke through 2480 to close the week at 2500. That makes the next target on the S&P 500 2540. The caution signs are still there but the market is still firmly in an uptrend. The punch through 2480 on the S&P 500 could instigate the animal spirits and give the bulls room to run. Friday was a Quadruple Witching meaning that 4 sets of options expired on the same day. It happens four times a year. Things can change suddenly after expiration as all hands were more concerned with the options market than the stock market itself. Early next week is going to give us better clues as to if this breakout in the S&P will get legs. Gotta be in it to win it but maybe just a little less in. Keep an eye on the 10 year and commodities.

If you are not currently receiving our blog by email you can sign up for free at https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/ .

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/ .

 

 

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.

Priceless Investing Advice

Being in the investment arena our job is mostly about gathering information. Reading. Lots and lots of reading. Corporate reports, sell side research, blogs, websites, financial journals, and the like. We have our favorite sources and investors.  If you have read our notes for any length of time you know that we read anything that we can get our hands on that Howard Marks has written. Mr. Marks’ latest note is out this week. Marks doesn’t write every week or even on a consistent basis but when he writes he has something to say and he envelopes everything he writes with priceless investing wisdom. If you are a serious investor you must read the whole piece. I am having trouble just boiling it down to a few well turned phrases or sound bites but here goes.

 As I explained on CNBC, there are two things I would never say when referring to the market: “get out” and “it’s time.”  I’m not that smart, and I’m never that sure. 

 “Investing is not black or white, in or out, risky or safe.”  The key word is “calibrate.”  The amount you have invested, your allocation of capital among the various possibilities, and the riskiness of the things you own all should be calibrated along a continuum that runs from aggressive to defensive. 

 If it’s true, as I believe, that (a) the easy money in this cycle has been made, (b) the world is a risky place, and (c) securities are priced high, then people should probably be taking less risk today than they did three, five or seven years ago.  Not “out,” but “less risk” and “more caution.”

Marks mentions that he is not referring to this market as a “bubble”. He is probably right. There are no signs of euphoria (other than bit coin) but investors are begrudgingly going along with higher prices. It is more of a FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) mentality. Valuations are high and rising and “getting out” at the top is a pipe dream. Rather than jump in and jump out of the market we seek to re-calibrate our investment allocation in regards to the risk premium in the market. If prices are high then we wish to take some risk of the table. We can put our money into investments that have less risk or place them with outside managers with a history of performing well in riskier markets. We can also choose to place more of our assets in cash which is essentially a call option on risk. We, like Marks, continue to proceed but with caution. “Calling a top” and “getting out” are a Fool’s Errand but lessening our risk in light of historical valuations is a prudent thing to do.   

In regards to risky behavior we call your attention to something that we have seen for some time, over and over again and it costs investors huge sums of money. This time around it is the sale of “Cat Bonds” to the small investor. Once the province of big money center banks and off shore insurance companies “Cat Bonds” are catastrophe bonds sold by large reinsurance companies. The short story is you can make high yield returns by investing in bonds which insure against wind damage, hurricanes, earthquakes and other catastrophic events. Suffice to say that those investors after several years of decent returns will return to work on Monday with a lot less digits in those accounts. Those investors will be wiped out completely if Irma has her way with Florida this weekend. How do you spot these enemies to your portfolio the next time? It is easy. If someone promises you an above average yield in a product that is unlisted (it does not trade on an exchange) with high management fees – run, do not walk away from this investment advisor. I have seen too many of these investments in investor’s portfolios in my time. The advisor ends up with his management fees and the client ends up with the goose egg.

 When the pressure is on we like to have what we term “adults” in the room. The “adults” are not only the smartest people in the room but they are people who know how and when to make a decision. Stanley Fischer is one of those “adults”. Dr Fischer, former professor at MIT, vice chairman of CitiGroup, and chief economist of the World Bank, and former Governor of the Bank of Israel, resigned his position as vice chair of the Federal Reserve. Fischer played the role of intelligent hawk who we felt comfortable leaving in charge of the store. As this critical time approaches of the Fed removing stimulus his absence alone makes us less confident in the “adults” left in the room. In one of his last public speeches as part of the Federal Reserve Dr Fischer warned about historically high asset valuations.


Let me conclude my assessment of current financial stability conditions with a discussion of asset valuation pressures… In equity markets, price-to-earnings ratios now stand in the top quintiles of their historical distributions, while corporate bond spreads are near their post-crisis lows. …

The general rise in valuation pressures may be partly explained by a generally brighter economic outlook, but there are signs that risk appetite increased as well…So far, the evidently high risk appetite has not lead to increased leverage across the financial system, but close monitoring is warranted.

https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/fischer20170627a.htm

West Texas Crude has had some wild moves post Hurricane Harvey but is still stuck between $45-50 a barrel. The safe havens benefited this week as gold has sufficiently punched through $1300 making that area now support.  The ten year Treasury which had been stuck between 2.15% and 2.40% since April finished the week at 2.05% which could augur a price movement down into the 1.75-1.85% area. The move is on into the safe havens while stocks mystically continue to hold their gains and their range between 2420-2480. While the caution signs are there the market is still firmly in an uptrend. A punch through 2480 on the S&P 500 could give the bulls room to run. The rally off of the lows has been anything but active. A low volume run up doesn’t bring with it much conviction but the animal spirits could take over regardless with a swift punch through 2480. The pressure is building.

 Harvey was the story last week. This week it’s IRMA. Best of luck to all our friends and family in Florida. Hold on tight.

 

If you are not currently receiving our blog by email you can sign up for free at https://terencereilly.wordpress.com/ .

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/ .

 

 

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.