Christmas has come early for US traders – Christmas trading levels, that is. Volumes in the benchmark S&P 500 index are down to levels only seen in the last five years in Christmas week. Perhaps investors are just determined to enjoy their time at the beach after having to deal with a crisis every summer for the past three years.
Whatever the cause, the volumes are miserable. The thick line here shows the five-day moving average, smoothing out the daily swings in the thin line. The five-day average has just dropped below the low point of last August and is now the lowest apart from Christmases since Bloomberg’s data series started in 2008. Read more
Cyclically-adjusted price/earnings multiples (CAPEs), as made famous by Yale’s Professor Robert Shiller, are growing inconvenient for the brokerage community.
Last week, BofA Merrill Lynch’s Savita Subramanian pointed out that of 15 popular measures of equity valuation, CAPE (which compares share prices to a 10-year moving average of real earnings) was the only one that made stocks look expensive. The list of valuations suggesting US stocks are either cheap or at fair value includes:
- trailing p/e
- forward consensus p/e
- trailing normalised p/e
- enterprise value/ebitda
- forward PEG (p/e ratio divided by growth)
- trailing PEG
- price/operating cash flow
- price/free cash flow
- enterprise value/sales
- market-based equity risk premium
- normalised equity risk premium
- S&P 500 in WTI oil terms
- and S&P 500 in gold terms
CAPE is thus beginning to stick out like a sore thumb. As it has been showing that stocks are expensive throughout most of the current rally, there is now a widening attempt to discredit or ignore it. Merrill’s own complaint is typical:
The Shiller P/E, which is based on inflation-adjusted earnings over the past 10 years, currently suggests that stocks are overvalued. However, this metric
assumes that the normalized (cyclically-adjusted) EPS for the S&P 500 is today less than $70—well below even our recessionary scenario for EPS. The
methodology assumes that the last 10 years is a representative sample, but the most recent profits recession was the worst we have seen and was exacerbated by a high leverage ratio which has since been dramatically reduced. Assuming that this scenario is going to repeat itself is, we think, overly pessimistic
But is it? Earnings volatility has certainly been extreme over the last decade, and arguably unprecedented. But if anything that suggests that the measure – which grew famous from efforts to predict the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000 and to show that the 2003-07 bull market was a “fools rally” – is more, not less, useful. That is the contention of Prof Shiller himself, and it is a reasonable one. More on this, with charts, and some comments from Prof Shiller, after the break. Read more
Let’s try to drill into the global picture for earnings, following on from Monday’s column. The picture is undeniably unexciting, but we need to take two divisions into account. First, financials have followed a different logic from the rest of the corporate sector over the last five years or so, for obvious reasons. Second, US companies have profited far more than companies elsewhere in the world, for reasons that are far less clear.
Let’s start by looking at the global picture, with and without the financials. Earnings per share for the MSCI indices (with thanks to Andrew Lapthorne of SocGen for providing this data) look like this: Read more
One of the biggest arguments for emerging markets during their bull market, which started in 2003, was about “decoupling”. The idea was that the emerging markets had now managed to decouple from the developed world, and would be impervious to a recession there. It never worked as it was supposed to, with the arguable exception of a few hectic months at the end of 2008 when China’s stimulus appeared to end. Now, I’d argue, the decoupling has ended, but not in a good way.
I discussed emerging markets with Barclays’ Larry Kantor in a Note video. That included the following chart, which shows that emerging markets have now underperformed the developed world over the last five years, a period that starts roughly with the crisis over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the hot summer of 2008:
Significant EM underperformance when developed markets were performing well is a new experience for many currently operating in the markets. More detail (and charts) after the break. Read more
Just a brief post to pass on a thing of beauty. Critics of market-capitalisation weighting for indices always complain that you are in effect always buying the companies that are most overvalued. There is a lot of truth in this.
In the chart, Ned Davis Research create an index with just one stock in it: the biggest by market value at the time. As soon as a company is overtaken it is replaced in the index of one by the new leader. Trivia devotees may like to know that there have only been nine such stocks in the last four decades: Apple; AT&T (though not in its present incarnation); Altria (once known as Philip Morris); Cisco Systems (beneficiary or victim of the most absurd episode of equity overvaluation in history); ExxonMobil; General Electric; IBM; Microsoft; and Wal-Mart. All are undeniably great companies that at some point since 1972 the market thought to be worth more than any other. Here is how these companies performed compared to the S&P 500, starting in 1972: Read more
Okay, if you have a spare second after liquidating your portfolio, here’s a quick dive into ancient history (pre-taper, or the week up to last Wednesday).
It turns out all that selling in the build-up to last week’s Federal Reserve meeting was flooding not just back into the US, but mostly back into US equities. Here’s a lovely chart of mutual fund flows courtesy of Orrin Sharp-Pierson at BNP Paribas: Read more
Amid the post-Bernanke rubble, there are probably a few people sparing time from hedging their interest rate risk to look for bargains.
Look no further: the gold miners are cheap! I mean, really cheap. Gold has tumbled a long way from its peak, but miners have fallen much further – and are now trading at an extraordinarily low multiple of the gold price. This chart shows the ratio of the Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners index of small miners, and of the Arca Gold Bugs index of larger miners, to the gold price.
Larger miners are now the cheapest relative to gold they’ve been since the aftermath of the dotcom bubble, when they proved a serious bargain. The index of junior miners only started in 2004, but their prices are testing the low relative to gold reached after Lehman Brothers collapsed – after which they offered some of the best returns of any stocks anywhere. Read more
The US Federal Reserve’s support for the markets can be measured lots of ways, from the impact on bond yields through to comparisons of equity prices and the central bank’s balance sheet. Here’s one I rather like, with a hat tip over to BNP Paribas’s William De Vijlder.
The third round of the Fed’s quantitative easing, or QE∞, is now 41 weeks old, and during that time there hasn’t been a single really bad week, which I defined as a loss of 2.5 per cent or more. The last time there was such a long period without a big down week was during QE2. Before that it hadn’t happened since early 1997.
The total loss of all the down weeks since QE∞ began, including weeks with only a small loss (a somewhat odd measure, obviously offset by plenty of up weeks) has been just under 18 per cent, close to the lowest reached over rolling 41-week periods during the “great moderation” of 2003-2007, and to that reached under QE2. Read more
As the month draws to a close, the old “sell in May” strategy failed miserably for equity investors – except in Japan and emerging markets.
There are a couple of lessons from this May, but first here’s what the major assets did during May, first in local currency then in dollar terms:
Since the US is still open, both charts are up to the close of the 30th, for consistency, so not quite the full month; European markets today were down about 1 per cent, and Japan up just over 1 per cent, but the broad patterns remain the same. Read more
Here are the two Japan charts that matter after Japanese shares plunged more than 5 per cent today.
First, the Nikkei 225 Average is poised at the 50 day moving average, an important technical support level. If it recovers from here, this will be nothing more than a correction, if a big one, of the excessive optimism which had taken hold. From their peak last Thursday to today’s low Japanese shares were down almost 15 per cent – but are only back to where they stood a month ago. The rally can continue, as the futures market suggests, with futures prices and bond yields both rising sharply after the cash equities market closed. But once the current volatility settles down, a continued rally is likely to come at a far more moderate pace. Read more
While you consider the sell-off in Japan, here are a few charts, as of Thursday night prices:
Total returns (including dividends) on various asset classes for the year to date, in local currencies: Read more
The Nikkei 225 is down more than 7 per cent today, its 11th biggest daily fall since it was created in 1950. Explanations abound: the hawkish interpretation of Ben Bernanke’s testimony to Congress (although it can be read either way), the hawkish interpretation of the Fed minutes (ditto) and the surprisingly weak purchasing managers’ index from China, showing manufacturing shrinking slightly.
All these no doubt matter. But the real question is why markets chose to care today. China has been slowing for months, and while Fed-ology always moves prices, it was particularly hard to read anything much new into Wednesday’s comments. Read more
There’s been quite a bit of excitement about the Dax hitting a record high this week, with the Wall Street Journal even splashing its European edition on it. The chart looks impressive:
Markets aren’t known for their patriotic fervour. Populated by cynics and motivated by money, there is little reason to expect local markets to support their national governments – particularly in the eurozone, where the response by the wealthy in crisis-hit countries has been to ship their cash to Germany or the UK.
But hang on! Perhaps brokers are more patriotic than popularly thought: it turns out that analysts tend to recommend shares in companies from their countries.
A nice piece of work by Charles de Boissezon at Société Générale‘s global equity engineering and advisory unit looked at broker recommendations on German and Spanish blue-chips, the two markets tending to be reasonably domestically-exposed.
Not surprisingly there are more buy recommendations on German than Spanish shares, and more sells on Spanish.
But the breakdown is revealing: analysts at German brokers are much more positive about German companies than analysts working for Spanish brokers, and vice-versa:
Cue great excitement. All those pre-written articles and commentaries on the S&P 500 passing its previous closing highs can be rolled out, and there is something for the 24-hour TV to talk about other than the rather small queues at banks in Cyprus.
Just a couple of small flaws: Read more
Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers warned of the dangers in the eurozone in his latest op-ed for the FT, and it is hard to disagree. But part of what he said bothered me:
A worrisome indicator in much of Europe is the tendency of stock and bond prices to move together. In healthy countries, when sentiment improves stock prices rise and bond prices fall, as risk premiums decline and interest rates rise. In unhealthy economies, as in much of Europe today, bonds are seen as risk assets, so they move just like stocks in response to changes in sentiment.
To answer the question of who owns corporate America, we turn naturally enough to Goldman Sachs. In spite of all the “vampire squid” hype, the answer isn’t GS: but it does have an excellent summary of how ownership has changed (click on the chart for a bigger version).
Reasons to worry: the S&P 500 is back above its dotcom bubble high today and just 1.4 per cent below its 2007 credit bubble high of 1,576.
This makes investors feel happy, and when they are happy they tend to buy more shares. In this sense equities are a Giffen good like a Rolls-Royce: the higher the price, the more people want them. Until, suddenly, they don’t.
For those who believe the market is truly efficient, rising shares merely reflect a changed reality, and the potential gains from here are just as good as at any other time. But the market is not truly efficient. Investors are growing complacent, which adds to the risk of a correction.
The market may well carry on up (one driver would be the combination of good news on the economy and further signs from the Fed that it will not tighten monetary policy), but the fact of its having risen should play no part in a decision to invest, momentum trading strategies aside. Watch yourself. The time to buy is when shares are cheap, not when they are expensive. Shares, particularly in the US, clearly offer less upside than they did a few months ago.
We now face a giant triple top in the markets, as this chart of the S&P 500 shows:
Yet again, it is time to rain on the parade of the many people who are excited by the new high set on Tuesday by the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The rally in US stocks is impressive, however you measure it. But the Dow remains a fatally flawed index, and there is no reason why anyone should pay any attention to it. I said this as the Dow hit landmarks back in 2006 and 2007. Here goes again.
As an index of only 30 stocks, the Dow is not broadly diversified and is not representative of the US stock market as a whole (the S&P 500, by far the world’s most widely followed index, is more important for that purpose). Its stocks are not uniformly large enough to qualify as a “mega-cap” index (try the Russell Top 50 instead). Neither are they sufficiently dominated by industrials (despite the name) to qualify as an industrial index (the S&P 500 industrials sub-index might work better for that). Read more
Has the Great Rotation already started? A couple of startling data points from the last month, covering treasury yields and flows into equity funds, certainly suggest so. But the picture is maddeningly unclear under closer examination.
First, there is the treasury bond market, as discussed in last week’s video with Mike Mackenzie, before 10-year yields had risen above 2 per cent (they’re back below today). Significant rises in yields would be an obvious sign of a rotation. You can see that video, and Mike’s emphatic argument that if the equity rally makes any sense at all then the rotation out of bonds must be coming, here:
Note that even with the brief move above 2 per cent, there is still a way to go before the inexorable downward trend in yields that has now lasted more than a quarter of a century is breached.
The other obvious data to look at concerns flows into equity mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. Until very recently, the trend to pull money from equities and transfer it to stocks has continued unabated. Stephane Deo of UBS discussed this with Ralph Atkins in the Note video available here:
Again there are signs of change, but not enough to make the call that the “Great Rotation” has already begun. Most startlingly, TrimTabs, which can publish flow data quickly because it uses algorithms to derive estimated flows from funds’ performance, found that inflows to all equity mutual funds and ETFs this month have already topped $55bn. That beats the previous monthly record, set ominously in February 2000 on the eve of the dotcom crash. Read more