The Great Escape

It is a 10 year anniversary for us this week. This week marks 10 years since our move to Georgia. It also marks the 10th anniversary of the dawn of the financial crisis. Not a coincidence I assure you. Having traded through the Internet Bubble and watched Lucent Technologies, which was that bubbles’ “Darling” stock, trade from $79 to 79 cents we knew the real estate market would have also have to get as bad as it was good. And in 2006 -07 it was very good. We foresaw the real estate crisis and sold our house in New Jersey for an exorbitant price which according to Zillow it still has not climbed back to. As a side note, Lucent never got back to $79 either. We say this not to brag but as an investment lesson learned well. Trees do not grow to the sky. Know when to cut back on your risk.

Not much is being made of the 10th Anniversary of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) but there has been a lot of consternation surrounding the Federal Reserve’s most recent decision and path going forward. If we have established that the growth in central bank balance sheets around the world has been responsible for the run up in asset prices it stands to reason that any shrinking of those balance sheets would diminish asset prices. Here is another timeless lesson of investing. Never fight the Fed. While the Fed has spent the last 10 years injecting liquidity into the system to pump up asset prices it is now talking about taking liquidity out – Quantitative Tightening (QT). Ironically, during our time on Wall Street the phrase QT was a questionable trade, an error that needed to be resolved and it usually cost you money. The question facing us now is the Federal Reserve making a questionable trade and will it cost you money?

The economy is growing, albeit slowing. That is due to the immense amount of debt on the United States balance sheet. This slow growth is now being met by a central bank that seeks to raise rates and shrink its own balance sheet. Now instead of a tailwind, the economy and markets are looking at a headwind. As we have written in prior posts, the Federal Reserve could have been acting since December with the impulse that more stimulative fiscal policy was going to come out of Washington, in the post election period. The new administration Trumpeted the advent of a new era with tax reform and deregulation at its forefront. The Fed sought to get ahead of the curve by applying tighter money policy. Well, Washington is at a standstill and has provided none of the above.

Is the Federal Reserve making the ultimate central banker mistake? Are they tightening into a slowdown? The bond market seems to think so. The yield curve is flattening which indicates that bond investors do not see inflation on the horizon and see subpar growth in the economy. Yet the stock market keeps chugging along. Who is right? Generally, we always go with the bond market.  We believe that the Fed is tightening due to financial conditions and not economic conditions. That is what the stock market is missing. As long as the market expects the Fed to stop tightening because of slowing economic conditions then the market will continue to rally and the Fed will continue raising rates. Someone is going to blink first.

We think that the animal spirits playbook is still alive. Markets have not broken down and still seem to be headed higher. Higher markets may force investors to chase it even higher.

The Federal Reserve’s thinking has two main problems. One is that the Fed believes in stock and not flow which means that the Fed believes a big balance sheet helps the market. We believe it is the flow that determines the direction of markets. Flow is the direction in which the Fed and policy are headed. The Fed also believes that the market will discount their talking points as they move towards QT. We believe that the market will change when the flow changes.

Oil continues to get pounded as it is down 20% from March highs even though things in the Middle East heat up. Oil may try to find a bottom here as oil production will slow below $40 a barrel, at least here in the US. Biotech has had a great week as investors rotate there as the pressure from Washington on that sector seems to have ebbed. Equities are still in the middle of what we anticipate to be the new range on the S&P 500. For now we see support at 2400 on the S&P 500 with 2475 providing resistance. Interest rates may have seen their interim low for awhile.

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/ .

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

The Sun Also Rises

How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly. – Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises

We have been pointing towards a looming crisis in the municipal finance area. No, this is not a repeat from last week when we talked about the fiscal problems in the great state of Connecticut. It was Illinois’ turn this week to make headlines. The two big ratings agencies, Moody’s and S&P lowered their rating on Illinois to one step above junk as its budget impasse dragged onward. Illinois will likely reach junk status by July of this year. It is now the lowest rated US state ever.

Big banks are complaining that their profit’s are drying up and this is mostly due to Federal Reserve polices. The yield curve is flattening which is stymieing bank’s ability to make money on loans while volatility in markets has dried up pinching trading profits. JP Morgan, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley all warned on profits this week as trading profits are blamed. We expect the Federal Reserve to heed their calls. The yield curve problem may take longer to solve but we should expect the Fed to allow for more volatility in markets. JP Morgan warned on trading in May of 2014. The market continued to march higher another 9% into December of that year.

The head of one of the largest asset managers on the planet, BlackRock’s’ Larry Fink, warned the equity market is not appreciating the message from the Treasury yield curve and we have to agree. The bond market continues to rally with the US 10 Year yielding a paltry 2.15% at week’s end. It is a caution sign that both the bond and stock markets are rallying while the yield curve flattens. Investors may be chasing the stock market a bit as there seems to be some evidence of FOMO. Fear of Missing Out as the market hits new highs. The laggards from 2017 YTD rallied this week and that tells us that money managers are chasing. This plays right into our animal spirits theory and the 1987 scenario. History doesn’t repeat but human beings are susceptible to making the same mistakes over and over again.

Oil had another rough week as it is still below the critical $50 a barrel on West Texas Crude (WTI). New pension and retirement money entered the market as the calendar flipped to the month of June. Equities have broken out of the range that they had been trapped in for the last 3 months. The range of 2330-2400 on the S&P 500 was broken last week and the market extended its move to just below 2440. We expect this breakout to extend to 2475.  For now, volume is low and the trend is your friend.

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/ .

 

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.

 

Back to the Future – 1987 and Trump

The Trump Rally continues as we expected. Given our thesis in our January Letter the possibility of a policy error by the Federal Reserve and/or the Trump Administration looks to be increasing. We believe that a policy error could set the stage for a substantial rally and then fall ala 1987. 1987 should not be looked at in fear but in anticipation of an opportunity. The table looks like it is getting set. Combine the clamor and excitement over deregulation and tax reform with a slow moving Fed and you have room for the Animal Spirits to run as investor euphoria takes hold. A 30% run from the lows before Election Day would put us squarely in Bubble territory as the S&P 500 would approach the 2750 area. A subsequent 30% retreat would bring us back to the 2000 area. Currently at 2367 on the S&P 500 one can see the potential for misstep by exiting one’s holdings completely and trying to time reentry. One solution is to dial back risk as you see markets rising and adding when the risk premium is more in your favor. Always make sure that you have the ability to buy when discounts come.

United States 10 year yields peaked at 2.6% in mid December and have been steadily falling back to the 2.3% level. We still think that the lows are in for the 10 year but the steady drip lower in yields has us concerned. The bond market is the much wiser brother of the stock market. The actions in the bond market have us thinking that investors see risk on the horizon. 2 year bond yields in Germany have reached new lows of negative (0.90%). NEGATIVE!! You buy the bonds and pay the government!

The Fed is struggling to make the March meeting look Live. The Fed has proposed that they will raise rates three times in 2017 and that just might not be possible if they do not raise rates in March. We believe March is the first key to understanding where equity markets are headed. If the Federal Reserve drags their feet and does not raise rates at the March meeting equity markets could overheat. Fed officials will then be forced to overreact at later policy meetings as they get behind the curve. The time is ripe for a policy error and markets could react swiftly.

From our good friend and mentor Arthur Cashin’s Comments February 23, 2017.

Is The Past Prologue? Maybe We Should Hope Not – The ever vigilant Jason Goepfert at SentimenTrader combed his prodigious files to see how many times the Dow closed at record highs for nine straight days. Here’s what he discovered: The Dow climbed to its 9th straight record. Going back to 1897, the index has accomplished such a feat only 5 other times. The momentum persisted in the months ahead every time, with impressive returns. But when it ended, it led to 2 crashes, 1 bear market and 1 stretch of choppiness. The five instances were 1927; 1929; 1955; 1964 and 1987. Here’s how Jason summed up his review: Like many instances of massive momentum, however, when it stopped, it stopped hard. Two of them led up to the crash in 1929, one to the crash in 1987, one to the extended bear markets of the 1960- 1970s and the other a period of extended choppy price action. So a little something for everyone there.

Momentum is towards higher prices. Stocks are extremely overbought. The S&P 500 has not seen a close of up or down more than 1% in over 50 sessions. Complacency is high. Machines seem to be running the market. Right now we are wary of market structure and overreliance on ETF’s. Know what you own. Keep an eye on bonds both here and in Europe. Europe is bubbling again. What if Germany left the euro? Discuss.

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.

Trump Train or Bulldozer?

All eyes are on Trump and Washington DC as the Trump Train rolls through our capital. Trump has been even more aggressive in using Executive Orders and in speaking to foreign leaders than most suspected and that has the Street on edge. Maybe we need to rename the Trump Train to the Trump Bulldozer. While most eyes are on Trump we are increasingly focused on the Fed. The Fed must attempt to act in concert with the President and his fiscal policy to avoid overheating or stalling the economy but good luck to them anticipating his next move. The Fed has made noise in recent weeks that perhaps it could shrink the size of its portfolio. The Fed has been consistent, in that, there was an inherent belief at the Eccles Building that the Fed did not need to shrink its balance sheet and that doing so would be the last maneuver in its process of normalizing rates. Ben Bernanke, former Fed Chairman, took the time out to explain in his blog why that is simply not a good idea. Could it be that politics are playing a role at the Fed?

…best approach is to allow a passive runoff of maturing assets, without attempting to vary the pace of rundown for policy purposes. However, even with such a cautious approach, the effects of initiating a reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet are uncertain. Accordingly, it would be prudent not to initiate that process until the short-term interest rate is safely away from the effective lower bound. 

…the FOMC may still ultimately agree that the optimal balance sheet need not be radically smaller than its current level. If so, then the process of shrinking the balance sheet need not be rapid or urgently begun.  Ben Bernanke

 Why is the Fed now talking about shrinking its balance sheet and not raising rates? We would like to see more consistency from the Fed. They have insinuated that three rates hikes are due this year. After taking a pass on raising rates this week and not setting the table for one in March the market is now pricing in just two rate hikes. The first rate hike is due in June and the second in December. If you have not read our Quarterly Letter you can take a peak for a further discussion on the topic. The short version is, if the Fed raises rates too slowly Trump’s policies may overheat the stock market which is at already historical valuations.

 If Fed Speak can’t jawbone a March rate hike back onto the table, policymakers will have precious little room for error to make good on their promised three rate increases for the remainder of the year. Danielle DiMartino Booth

February is the worst performing month in the October – May period but investors are heavily loaded up on equities regardless.  By way of Arthur Cashin , here are the widely followed Jason Goepfert’s notes on the market’s latest gyrations or lack thereof.

 After spurting to a new all-time high in late January, the S&P 500 has had a daily change of less than 0.1% for five of the six sessions since then. That’s almost unprecedented, but there have been times when it has contracted into an extremely tight range after a breakout. Several of those have occurred in just the past few years, and all of them preceded a tough slog for stocks over the medium-term. Hedge funds are betting that the rally continues. Exposure to stocks among macro hedge funds is estimated to be the highest since July 2015 and the 4th-highest in the past decade. The three other times it got this high, stocks struggled as the funds reduced exposure and eventually went short.

Stocks have stalled. Investors are heavily exposed to equities. February is not the best month for equities so investors aren’t expecting much. The market has a way of surprising you. Could the market finally be ready to make a move? Investors seem to be heavily tilted to the rally side of the boat.

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.

When Everyone Agrees

Here is a short blog today as we are currently writing our end of the year letter and formulating our investment thesis for 2017. Bob Farrell was an absolute legend during his 5 decades on Wall Street and finished his career on the Street as the Chief Strategist at Merrill Lynch. Farrell encapsulated his 45 years of experience in his widely distributed 10 Rules for Investing.  As our thoughts turn to what is going to happen in 2017 we find ourselves turning to his sage like wisdom. While they are all of equal importance we find ourselves drawn to #9 as 2017 dawns.

  1. Markets tend to return to the mean over time.
  2. Excesses in one direction will lead to an opposite excess in the other direction.
  3. There are no new eras — excesses are never permanent.
  4. Exponential rising and falling markets usually go further than you think.
  5. The public buys the most at the top and the least at the bottom.
  6. Fear and greed are stronger than long-term resolve.
  7. Markets are strongest when they are broad and weakest when they narrow.
  8. Bear markets have three stages.
  9. When all the experts and forecasts agree, something else is going to happen.
  10. Bull markets are more fun than bear markets.

Seemingly, every single investing professional that we read or talk has the same expectations for 2017. Experts see a January dip being bought and Wall Street’s best and brightest see 2017 returning a rather staid 5% on average according to Barron’s. We have a funny feeling that isn’t quite how it’s going to work out. When everyone agrees – something else will happen. We will be back next week with our thoughts on how we feel it is going to work out. Hope you have a healthy, happy and prosperous 2017!!

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 Trump Rally Meets The Swamp

The Trump Rally while rooted in ideology and investment theory is not necessarily rooted in reality. While tax reforms, reduced regulation and fiscal stimulus could make for a powerful combination stoking the economy and inflation it is not certain this combination will actually happen and if it does happen it will not happen for some time. Expectations are running a bit too high and this is still Washington DC after all. The roots of the Trump Rally are bound to get stuck in the mud of the Swamp.

Interest rates and the US dollar are rising which can be a dangerous combination. The market can rally with rising interest rates and we believe that it is healthy for interest rates to rise from here and that low interest rates were actually inhibiting growth in the economy. Some semblance of higher interest rates are good for the economy. But for the stock market the current high level of valuations were predicated on TINA (There Is No Alternative). At some point, bonds, real estate or other asset classes become an alternative. The high levels of asset valuations were predicated on low interest rates as all investments are evaluated versus the risk free rate of the 10 year Treasury. A rising ten year means that models may have priced assets too richly.

As you know we follow certain financial leaders and Jeff Gundlach at DoubleLine is one we find most open with his thoughts. Gundlach is on record saying that the 10 year could go to 6% in the next 4 or 5 years. We are of the same thought although not as drastic. In the near term we believe that yields have gone too far too fast along with equities in the post Trump win world. Gundlach spoke to Reuters this week and caused markets to pause as he said much the same. Gundlach feels that the bond selloff has seen its low for now and stocks will take a breather before Inauguration Day. After he spoke bonds rallied and stocks fell. Evidently we are not the only ones listening intently to Gundlach’s views.

Another one of our favorite investing legends is Stanley Druckenmiller. He spoke this week at the Robin Hood Conference in NYC. Druckenmiller does Gundlach one better. He believes that the yield on the 10 year will rise to over 6% in the next year or two!! Druckenmiller is shorting the Euro and the Yen and he believes that if the 10 year rises above 3% then the stock market could see a 10% correction. Let’s face it. The stock market can face a 10% correction if someone sneezes in the Middle East.  A 10% correction is not something to be feared but anticipated. I think that the real takeaway is that at some point the yield on the 10 year becomes more enticing to investors than being in the stock market. The pendulum will swing and bonds will usually give you the correct signals. Keep an eye on the 10 year for hints as what stocks will do.

This Sunday’s referendum in Italy is the markets next boogeyman. Journalist and pundits are predicting the next great financial calamity if there is a “No” vote in Italy. Where have we heard this before? Italy has had 67 governments formed in the last 70 years. Why should 2017 be any different? We don’t mean to diminish the battle that is going on with bad loans at some of Italy’s biggest banks but somehow after seeing the predictions that Brexit would be bad for markets and Trump would be bad for markets we have a hard time believing the next great financial calamity follows the next populist regime change. The Italian Referendum should be another interesting vote. It might be time to become familiar with the name – Beppe Grillo.

Market is working off its collective over bought and oversold conditions. The 10 year closed Friday at 2.39% and should see resistance at the 2.5% level. Stocks have relieved some of their overbought condition but the Trump Rally is seeing some buyer’s remorse at 2200 on the S&P 500. Keep an eye on Italy this weekend.

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

Squeezing the Lemon – Dalio and Gundlach

Ray Dalio spoke at the Delivering Alpha Conference with CNBC. He made interesting note that interest rates cannot be made materially lower and may in fact “go the other way”. As bond yields go down it has the effect of making stocks more valuable. The bond bull market that has seen interest rates on the US 10 Year sink from 15% in the early 1980’s to 1.5% today may be over and that tailwind that it has given us to invest may becoming a headwind. Interestingly, Jeffrey Gundlach of Double Line Funds presented his latest webcast focused on the same idea. The lemon has been squeezed. It is time to look at bonds a bit differently. Those of you have followed us for the last several years know that we have been bullish on bonds longer than most and that has served us well. It may be time to change that thinking.

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/13/bridgewaters-dalio-theres-a-dangerous-situation-in-the-debt-market-now.html

Deutsche Bank got word that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was looking for $14 billion to settle a probe tied to activity in mortgage backed securities. That is with a B. Why are we concerned about Deutsche Bank? DB is one of the world’s largest derivative dealers. They are a key linchpin in the financial ecosystem. The settlement will be much lower than $14B but any number above $4billion could bring into question Deutsche Bank’s capital position. European banks are already under extreme pressure with negative interest rates severely impairing their ability to make money. DB and Italian banks are on our watch list.

Explosive devices in NYC lend help to Trump. Markets may not react positively to a Trump victory and may be leaning a bit too heavily towards factoring in a Clinton victory. Not making a statement here. The deal is Wall Street doesn’t like uncertainty. Trump has no political track record and the Street has no way of knowing where to place bets on a Trump victory except that he just might shake things up. Clinton is the status quo. The Street doesn’t like uncertainty.

Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan opine this week. Things may be quiet until then. We don’t expect much. The Fed is going to be wary of raising rates in front of an election that is running very close. It is also a great excuse to hold steady as they are terrified that the market might go down on a rate hike. The Fed may never raise rates again until there is a change in leadership at the Fed. Their current policy of waiting until the perfect time will never work. There is always something to be afraid of.

Stocks and bonds have been uncomfortably correlated. That means stocks and bonds have been going in the same direction. An asset allocation between them relies on them going in opposite directions. Risk Parity funds have been taking a hit of late. They could be forced to de-lever and raise cash. Market is sitting right on its 100 day moving average and that has Momentum traders on edge.  Market could swing sharply in either direction. Watch how stocks and bonds relate. Stay on your toes.

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.

The Federal Reserve is Becoming the Problem

 

We have contemplated writing a blog titled “How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fed”. We just cannot get ourselves over that line. The Federal Reserve has created and continues to promulgate a very dangerous position as capital is mal-invested. It also continues to punish a generation of savers, fixed income retirees, insurance companies and pension funds. The zero and even, in the case of Europe and Japan, Negative interest rate environment is hampering all of these groups ability to operate.

In light of this low income environment, we are seeing larger amounts of Ponzi schemes and investment fraud out there. Salesmen are pitching hard on annuities and income oriented schemes. These schemes are being proffered as a way to get 7-8% income on your investments. There is no Golden Ticket. There is no Holy Grail. If you are being promised those levels of income off of your investments it comes with outsized risk. Please do your due diligence. Everyone from insurance companies to pension funds to individual investors are begging for income as central banks have suppressed rates. If someone promises you this run, don’t walk, in the other direction. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Annuities are increasingly being offered as a solution but they come with their own set of problems. You may think that you are offloading risk on the annuity provider but it may blow back at you. These insurance companies are having the same trouble you are generating income and returns. If central banks continue to suppress rates then these companies may find it hard to keep their promises or even stay in business. You will be taking the haircut along with paying their generous fees. There is no silver bullet out there folks. Just good old fashioned hard work, diligence and patience in your investing.

We have been a big proponent and holder of smart beta ETF’s. We have been overweight dividend focused ETF’s and low volatility. They have been generous providers of return so far this year as low volatility, dividend focused ETF’s and utilities have done quite well. When everyone wants in the room – we want out. We are contemplating exchanging those funds as they are now all the rage. They have over the years provided downside protection if markets falter. That may not be the case this time around. We will continue our due diligence. No decision yet. Just an early warning. Chasing yield is a very dangerous proposition. Do your homework and don’t fall for the latest fad.

According to Standard & Poor’s the S&P 500 is now down month and quarter to date while it has maintained a slight gain of 0.13% for 2016. The fourth year of US Presidents second term tends to have below average returns as the market is unsure of who will be the next leader of the free world. Once it becomes evident who the next President is the market will steady. While that outcome is decided it could be a rocky Summer but an opportunity filled Fall.

April is consistently one of the strongest months of the year and that helped returns. However, we are now entering the weakest part of the year from May until November and the election season is not going to help. I think that volatility may be even more pronounced and returns suppressed with Donald Trump in the mix. Not because of his polices or beliefs but because he is bringing a much broader audience to the game and the media is all a buzz. That talk show fodder may convince investors to keep their wallet attached to their hip until things settle down. We have faded the recent rally and continue to cull underperformers and reduce risk. It could be a volatile summer.

Not recommendations 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.

Roller Coaster Markets

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

Well, that was some beginning to 2016! We knew that volatility was coming our way but we did not foresee what happened in Q1. The Dow Jones managed to complete a round trip ticket as we fell 13% and subsequently rose back up 13% in one quarter. That is the biggest intra quarter comeback since the middle of the Great Depression in 1933. Our portfolio strategy coming into 2016 was to tactically manage our asset allocations given that we expected higher volatility and lower returns. Although we didn’t see a round trip in the offing for Q1 of 2016 our strategy worked out quite well. We believe that the rest of 2016 has much the same in store as the market reacts to every nuance emanating from the Eccles Building in Washington DC which is the home of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States.

We believe that risks are rising after our second 12% rally in months. We have elevated valuations and falling earnings estimates for US companies. It is going to be difficult for the stock market to move higher from here but we cannot bet against continued central bank largesse. The stock market, having rallied 13% off of its recent lows in early February reminds us of a blog post from back in October of 2015. This is what we had to say back in October.

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 volatility continued then as well. The S&P 500 closed October of 2015 at 2080. It would be 10% lower by January of 2016.

The key to making money in your portfolio lies in Investor Psychology. Understanding investor psychology and our own personal relationship with money is the key to successful investing.  Having just ridden the roller coaster of emotions that was Q1 we are in a good position to replay how the highs and lows of the market made us feel and how we reacted to it. The two following charts can help you be more successful in understanding how emotions play a role in your investing process.  The first 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 we should revisit how that roller coaster made us feel. Were you despondent at the lows? Did it make you want to sell and get out or buy more? Are you now relieved? Optimistic? Are you aching to buy more as prices rise?

dow chart 2 12pct rallies 2016

 

psy-cycle

 

In order to be on the right side of the market it is important to sell risk when prices are rising and buy risk when prices are falling. Or in emotional terms, when prices are falling and you are scared ask yourself “What should I be buying”? When prices are rising, ask, what are we selling? Understanding and keeping your emotions in check is the key to making money in markets like these. Ride the roller coaster.

 Valuations

For long time readers and clients you know that one of our favorite metrics of stock market valuation is the US Stock Market Capitalization to GDP. It also happens to be Warren Buffett’s favorite metric in case you wonder why we follow it as well. As you can see from the following chart courtesy of Ned Davis Research the last time that the Stock Market Capitalization as a percentage of GDP was in an undervalued position was in July of 1982.

Ned Davis March 2016 Mkt Cap GDP

What changed since the early ’80’s? Central banks gained enormous influence over markets when President Richard Nixon took the United States off of the Gold Standard. This allowed central banks to help manage booms and busts in the economy without being hamstrung by the amount of gold in Fort Knox. Theoretically, they now had an unlimited supply of gold with printed fiat money taking the place of gold. This was the dawn of the Golden Age of Central Banking. The Prime Interest rate from the Federal Reserve reached its high of 21.5% in June of 1982. We have had a steady trend of lower interest rates for the last 30+ years.

Since 1995 (with the exception of February 2009) we have been in the overvalued area of the chart. This chart is evidence of the inexorable influence of central banks on asset prices. Some questions remain. Are we in a permanent state of overvaluation due to the influence of central bankers? If that state of overvaluation is not permanent at what point does central bank influence wane and valuations retreat to historical levels. Also, if central bankers remain in control of markets how low will central bankers allow markets to descend? Given our current inflated valuations we know that based on history we can expect lower returns over the next 10 year time frame.

Another natural question is posed if we feel that returns are to be muted or that prices should retreat. Why not sell out of all our assets and wait things out in cash? I think that the chart also answers that question. We have been in a perpetual state of overvaluation since 1995 – over twenty years!  In order to meet our investing goals we cannot afford to sit out markets until they become more rationally priced. There is also the distinct possibility that markets become even more overpriced. If inflation were to take hold here in the United States investors would want tangible assets that rise in value with inflation. Equity prices could become wildly overpriced.  John Maynard Keynes, the legendary economist once said, “markets can stay irrational longer than one can remain insolvent” betting against them.

We know that it has been a goal of central banks since the dawn of the crisis in 2008 to raise asset prices and therefore raise confidence in the economy but they are now distorting price discovery with monetary policy. This extreme action taken by central banks takes away some of our normal techniques for evaluating markets as markets are warped by policy.

Less Gas in the Tank

Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve has recently discovered with its latest interest rate hike that they are now the WORLD’s central bank and its moves have outsized effects on the rest of the world.  Central banks can pull future returns forward and stall for time so that legislators can enact fiscal policy with which to mend an ailing economy. However, due to reluctance or ineptitude legislators have done nothing and left central banks, and in particular, the US Federal Reserve as the only game in town. If the Federal Reserve raises rates it then weakens other currencies and encourages capital flight. Capital goes where it is treated best. Higher rates of interest in the US and a stronger US Dollar force money to quickly flood out of emerging nations and into the United States. Central banks are stalling for time and currency wars are de rigueur. We have entered a “Twilight Zone” of monetary policy with negative interest rates in Europe and Japan. Central bank officials are also faced with the fact that monetary policy is not immune to the effects of the Law of Diminishing Returns as we enter Year 8 of a bull market in stocks.

Most likely, as risk premiums increase, central banks will increasingly ease via more negative interest rates and more QE, and these moves will have a beneficial effect. However, I also believe that QE will be less and less effective because there is less “gas in the tank.” – Ray Dalio Bridgewater Associates  2/18/16

What’s Next?

And while QE will push asset prices somewhat higher, investors/savers will still want to save, lenders will still be cautious lenders, and cautious borrowers will remain cautious, so we will still have “pushing on a string.” As a result, Monetary Policy 3 will have to be directed at spenders more than at investors/savers. In other words, it will provide money to spenders and incentives for them to spend it.  Ray Dalio Bridgewater Associates

This latest rally saw investors chasing safe haven and dividend paying stocks like consumer staples and utilities. Investors are moving ahead but with caution. Other safe haven assets performed well in Q1 such as US Treasuries, Municipal bonds and Gold. We are also seeing investors maintain cash positions to levels not seen in years. We think that those are good signs. The fact that investors have sought and are seeking shelter will provide some cushion to any market tumble. Investors are preparing for another 2008 style crash. That, in essence, is why 2016 is NOT 2008.

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 in a battle to take flight above its 200 DMA we are inclined to believe that we are still in a bear market and continue to hedge risk. If the bulls can get above and stay above the 200 DMA in the S&P 500 we would be more inclined to changing our mindset.

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. Currently, as we write West Texas Crude is below $40 a barrel. The 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 month. Investors may be catching a falling knife there with more pain to come if oil cannot continue its recent rally.

We will continue to tactically change our asset allocation as the S&P 500 stays range bound between 1800-2100 and volatility continues its resurgence in 2016. We continue to hold bonds as it has been the most unloved of asset classes for the last several years as short sellers have been betting on rising interest rates and falling bond prices. In Q1 of 2016 bond returns have been in excess of 2% which is a very nice quarter for bonds. We see bonds as having value while the US 10 year yield is still north of 1.8% as we write while Japanese 10 year rates are less than zero. We feel that there is still adequate return to entice capital from around the world into US government bonds at 180 basis point spreads.

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.

We still 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 is also an important part of asset allocation because although it returns zero when risk premiums rise its value will be seen in its inherent call optionality and the opportunity set that it provides given lower asset prices.

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