Watch Out for Quicksand

What did you always see in movies with a quicksand scene?  Hero and fellow adventurer plodding along through the forest.  Hopeful and intent on making it to the lost temple of treasure, but cautious for danger.  Then all of a sudden…up to their ribs in quicksand and a rapid descent into panic.

Well that’s how the stock markets kind of feel right now, except there’s an unusual amount of calm.  I get the sense that an air pocket can develop to rip 8% to 10% of value from equities.  It would be fast and temporary.  I firmly believe the stock markets will keep moving upward and I actually think we’re going to have a strong Fall and Winter.

I don’t have any charts or article links to share; just a gut feel backed by anecdotal evidence.  Let’s briefly review the negative factors that one would have surmised to have a higher impact on the broad stock market:

– Repo rates flash-spike up to 10%

– Momentum Factor crashes with Value Factor spiking

– Saudi oil processing plant attacked affecting 5% of total world output

– The 10yr. Treasury took a hard spike downwards

– Fed and ECB are cutting rates

I mean all of that just happened in the last 2 weeks and the closing range on a weekly chart in the S&P 500 is right around just 1%.  It doesn’t feel right.  I suspect we could see a delayed reaction to these negatives, which will be exacerbated by the algos.  That’s how we could see a 2-week down-spike.

All the Bears will claim they were right within that first week and the next GFC is surely here.  Then the second week traps the Bears as the Bulls take over by the end of that second week.  I think if we see action like that then it sets the stage for a V-bounce and the start of the next leg in this Bull market to new highs over the holidays.

Those negative events were enough to halt the down-move in treasuries and stave off a correction in gold, but I think that’s also temporary.  Instead of a flight to safety placing a bid underneath longer Treasuries and gold, we could see a flight to cash.

Again, this is only a gut feeling but it keeps nagging me right now.  If this gut feeling becomes a reality, it could look something like this.

SPX Possibile Air Pocket (Sept. 2019)

Plenty of ways to play that action alone in equities but when you toss in Treasuries and precious metals, it could be a trader’s delight.

Oh, and one last thing on the repo rate spike.  It’s not just a little plumbing issue. That spike up to 10% mattered.  It’s a tell.  If it didn’t matter why exactly would PIMCO say,

In our view, the repurchase (repo) market, where banks and broker-dealers can obtain overnight collateralized loans from intermediaries, is a critical barometer of the health of the financial markets.

Tread lightly…at least temporarily.

Sa-wing Batta!

If you played, coached, or spectated little league baseball or watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, then you’re familiar with the age-old, friendly taunt of “Hey batta batta batta batta, sa-wing battaaaa.” During early morning Halloween hours, the Bank of Japan(BOJ) provided the treat of all Halloween-day treats for speculators around the world. They announced additional quantitative easing that set the stock markets around the world on FIYA! BOJ Governor Kuroda went and grabbed the 50oz special big-boy bat and took a monster swing at deflationary forces.

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What a miraculously well timed announcement on the heels of the Federal Reserve reiterating the completion of its own QE program. Of course, the Fed’s not really wrapping up just yet as it will continue to roll as opposed to liquidate the assets it has purchased over the last 5 years. The Nikkei’s intraday move was over 4%. Most of the major indexes around the world gained over a percent today thanks to the “good” news.

Japan’s central bank will be upping its bond asset purchases to $60B(all numbers in this post are in USD) a month or $730B annually. The US dollar amount will fluctuate as the Yen weakens against it, however the BOJ will keep steady at about $6.7 trillion yen a month. They claim that the move is temporary until inflation targets have been sufficiently met. Yeah, about that temporary thing? Along with the bond purchase announcement, the BOJ also stated that they’ll be buying up Japanese ETFs and REITs to the tune of almost $7 billion and $1 billion a year, respectively. That’s a lot of dough to be tossing around and my guess is that it’ll drive enough positive sentiment that from a political standpoint, nobody’s going to want to sign off on terminating the purchases. Imagine the negative perception along with a move down in animal spirits. As they say in Jersey, dey don’t want nuttin ta’doo wit dat.

Additionally, the BOJ coordinated the announcement with the Government Pension and Investment Fund of Japan (GPIF), the largest pension entity in the world, which 1 day earlier stated they would be upping their own stock purchase program. Specifically, the GPIF announced it was paring back its Japanese debt holdings from 60% of its portfolio to only 35%. An unheard of allocation choice for a pension entity considering the lack of conservatism. They might as well have said “we’re all in on stocks.” They’ll be doubling their equity exposure to 50% of the portfolio.

Rational economic thought behind these massive moves is how will the unintended consequences manifest themselves down the road? Kuroda, like all central bankers, assures the public that they can control the inflationary forces that they so desperately desire. Maybe for a little bit. Maybe forever. Recall Kyle Bass’s thesis as the BOJ is walking a fine line. At this point in the game, it’s hard not to believe that central bankers really do have everything under control. This is despite the fact that monetary and economic policies in the advanced economies have no parallels in history, and in the short-term, things seem to be working out brilliantly on a statistical basis. It is difficult not to observe all the activity while thinking that the unintended, and most probably, uncontrollable consequences will be the ultimate arbiters of the societal value behind these unprecedented steps taken by the central banks of the westernized nations.

In the meantime, enjoy the ride and the implacable rise in financial asset prices. Actually, in a November 2013 report, McKinsey stated the impact of ZIRP on asset prices is inconclusive. Specifically, they state, “…we find little evidence that ultra-low interest rate policies have boosted equity prices in the long term. In the United States, the evidence on whether action by the Federal Reserve has lifted the housing market is also unclear, because it is difficult to disaggregate the impact of these measures from other forces at work in the market.” That’s curious.

One would think logically that there would be a direct correlation between record low mortgage rates and new home purchases. Combine that with a ridiculously low WACC for the biggest financial players and Americans said hello to their new landlords, yield-starved institutional investors and astute corporate vultures. It would also be logical to assume that when an entity can borrow at 1% and buy back its own stock yielding 2.5%, that there would be positive arbitrage opportunities. The fact that those opportunities lead to reduced share counts, increase earnings, and thus drive up stock prices has no correlation to ultra-low interest rates.

D-short presents a perfect illustration of the “low-correlation” effects of ZIRP and QE on the stock market.

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As I was saying, enjoy the ride. Buy every damn dip. Just buy and hold. Buy, buy, buy! In reality, I continue to think that raising cash levels due to a true lack of value across multiple sectors is prudent portfolio management. That doesn’t mean liquidate your portfolio. It just means that raising cash levels for potential bargains that avail themselves may prove more profitable than simply sitting in holdings that have already accumulated a very nice gain over the last few years. Look at the E&P’s off of oil’s slide. Myself, I don’t think we’re going to see an avalanche down to $30’s like we saw after the fall from the $150’s. Toe-dipping into the really well managed opportunities that possess prime shale or offshore acreage appears to be presenting quality value. Observe the P&C insurance players as well. They held up remarkably well in the most recent sell-off and continue to report tremendous profitability, however, in the face of a softening price cycle.

Just be careful. If you think momentum ignition and government intervention(jawbone or real) are fictional notions that don’t affect volatility, then have a look at this ZH chart.

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Coming back to our little baseball reference, America was the 3rd and most valuable batter in this game of QE. Japan is hitting clean-up and protecting America’s own aggressive batting strategy. At some point, the 5th man in the lineup needs to show his power capabilities as well and drive in some runs. That 5th batter is Europe and Draghi is wielding the bat. If the game of central banks is to continue unimpeded, then he needs to put down the 36oz timber and go get his own corked 50oz bat to stave off deflationary forces in Europe. That damn German 3rd base coach keeps getting in the way though and giving the signal to sacrifice bunt.

Lastly, if you have kids, then take them to the wealthy neighborhoods to fill their bags full of candy. If you’re at home and not trick or treating, then give out the giant sized candy bars. You’ll be loved by the neighborhood children. If you’re in your 20’s and single, then go party it up with all the Halloween hotties(female or male) dressed to impress tonight…and be safe. Happy Halloween readers!

Economic Distortions

Here at MarginRich.com, I mention Jeremy Grantham and his firm GMO quite a bit. That is for two very big reasons. Number 1, he and his firm manage in excess of $100 billion for the biggest institutional investors across the land. And number 2, he’s publicly nailed multiple bubble calls. Does he nail them to the day? Well no, but he’s been close enough and has effectively ensured his clients were positioned accordingly to mitigate the damage of the last two major stock market bubbles.

GMO came out with its most recent 7-year forecast for various asset classes and equities. It ain’t a pretty picture. These guys have consistently nailed their forecasts, especially for equities. They’re predicting negative returns essentially across the board of various sectors with pockets of relative strength in Int’l value, US high quality, and emerging markets. Observe the drilldown:

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Why do you think this forecast is so negative? It may be valuations, but I think it’s because they see a major dislocation occurring within the next 7 years. This dislocation will cause most sectors to lose money over the specified time period. And of course depending how one is positioned, losses can and will be a lot worse than what is depicted in the chart. GMO will never reveal the secret sauce, so to speak, behind their methodology in determining their 7-year forecast. It’s probably safe to assume they use an amalgamation of various data inputs involving valuation, macroeconomic outlooks, interest rates, monetary trends, geopolitical trends, and so forth.

You don’t need to be able to reproduce the forecast in order to trust it. Knowing that this is how GMO perceives equity market returns going forward, one really needs to be conscious with their long-money portfolios. This is a message I have been consistently sharing over the past few articles, so let’s visit a few severe distortions that may have a major effect on equity markets within the next 7 years.

The first distortion is excess reserves maintained at the Federal Reserve. This first chart is to show how ridiculously large this number has grown to, which is now in excess of $2.4 trillion. That’s the cumulative and collected excess reserves of the banks who collude conduct business with the Federal Reserve.

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Notice how before 2007, the amount was virtually zero. I realize this chart only goes back to the early 1980’s, so here’s a “Discontinued Series” chart that the Fed previously utilized to report the excess reserves. It goes back to the 1950’s and shows the same virtual zero in excess reserves as the normal course of business. That’s right, up until the Great Recession the amount of excess reserves held at the Fed was in the single digit billions. That’s basically zero. Since 2007, it has been a different story entirely.

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For the uninitiated regarding excess reserves, I want to provide a relatively brief explanation. For the reader with an already good grasp, I apologize for any redundancy. The excess reserves were at virtually zero for all those decades because the Fed never paid any interest on them. Then in response to the entire financial world sitting on the precipice of obliteration, a multi-part plan was instituted in order to maintain the status quo and keep the entire system intact. The federal funds rate was dropped to zero where it has stayed, interest began to be paid by the Fed on excess reserves, and the process of quantitative easing(“QE”) was illustriously birthed.

The federal funds rate was dropped to zero so as to stimulate the economy in the face of certain deflationary doom. The book is still out on whether the US has seen true economic improvement due to ZIRP. What we do know is that savers are being heavily penalized by this policy and investors of all ilk are being forced up the risk ladder in increasingly desperate attempts for yield. The paying of interest by the Fed for excess reserves is one of the Fed’s tools for maintaining interest rates where they want them. It also just so happens to be able to provide a colossal liquidity buffer for the so called balance sheets of the participating banks i.e. Wall St.

Between the erroneously valued derivative books across the entire industry and jumbled collateral chains, the participating banks and the Fed think they’ve built an adequate buffer to potentially withstand additional impairment to balance sheets. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve got everything under control because now they can taper QE. Quantitative Easing was established to fight both fronts of the policy as a tool to reduce long-term interest rates while also stimulating the economy. Do you feel like the economy is stimulated? I know one thing for sure that has been stimulated and that’s asset prices. Take a moment to yourself and remember how this story has played out for the Weimar republic of Germany, recently in Zimbabwe, and even more recently in Venezuela.

Wondering why it matters so much that the banks keep their excess reserves at the Fed instead of productively using them within the economy? It’s because the money is essentially free. When the Fed monetizes its debt and buys assets such as MBS, it creates an asset on its own balance sheet and a corresponding liability. That liability is the excess reserves that belong to the TBTF banks who are the Fed’s main partners in facilitating QE. The banks keep those excess reserves with the Fed because why would you give away your gravy train and expose it to more unnecessary risk? The Fed pays 0.25% on excess reserves. May not seem like much, but 0.25% on $2.4 trillion equals $6 billion for the biggest banks to collect risk free in interest income.

If you were a bank CEO and knew you had derivative exposure that could single-handedly dismantle the system, would you kill the golden goose provided by the Fed? The proof is already in the pudding as the velocity of money is cratering but has had no material effect on our economy thus far. There’s no velocity of the money supply because banks aren’t lending out to businesses and households. Sure large corporations have been able to finance buy-backs and special dividends but capital expenditures have yet to reach a point of acceleration where we know some good economic tidings are bound to follow.

In the chart below, I’ve overlaid the rise of the excess reserves vs. the velocity of the M2 money supply.

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If that’s not a chart yelling out for some mean-reversion, then I don’t know what is. So what are some triggers to increase velocity and why does it matter? An increase in velocity matters because that price inflation that everyone was so scared of during the beginning phases of TARP and QE, could finally begin to materialize. And this could hamstring any efforts to get the economy breathing on its own without the use of a respirator. As far as a trigger to generate velocity, it would take the Fed no longer paying interest(like they’ve almost always done) or even charging to hold excess reserves. The participating banks would immediately withdraw that $2.4 trillion in cash and put it to work. Where? Businesses and households. If those dollars hit the economy in a flood over the course of a year or two, we could see some scary jumps in asset prices that matter and not just fine art and collectible cars. Not to mention, there’s still all that cash that the mega-corporations keep parked internationally. If the US were to shift tax policy for this money and it were to be repatriated and spread around the economy, we could be talking about a doubly increase in money velocity.

The Fed knows this and you would think they wouldn’t be dumb enough to cut off their nose to spite their face but the Fed is backed into a corner. Additionally, the Fed has to answer to its political masters all while managing the world’s perception of America’s currency and economy. This is a dangerous game being played right now, as after 2008, Fed policy entered the realm of pure experimentation.

Would the Fed have maintained these policies this long, which are causing massive economic distortions, if the economy had really reached escape velocity or at least was well on its way? Let’s revisit interest rates, the second massive distortion. Gary Tanashian, with his Notes From the Rabbit Hole newsletter, provided an elegantly simple chart putting on full display the lack of efficacy of the Fed’s ZIRP policy to have any material effect on the economy. Below you’ll see the 3-month T-bill yield($IRX) overlaid against the S&P 500 index($SPX). You can see in the past 20 years that as the economy and markets picked up, the Fed would subsequently raise interest rates. That is completely normal policy and has been consistently used for decades.

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But as you can see in the chart, where’s the rise in rates? The correlation of the two are generally fairly strong. Oh, so our economy is not genuinely approaching a growth level that warrants a raise in interest rates? These are the results of the great financial experiment, of which we are all a part of the double-blinded no placebo study that’s about to have a phase 3 letdown in the next year or two.

The Fed has been able to subvert a normal business cycle by reflating on demand through interest rate policy and monetary policy. That last doozie back in 2008 should have seen the destruction of several industry giants and the Fed wasn’t ready to allow that to happen in America. I get it. The pain and suffering would probably have been unspeakable and potentially worse than the Great Depression. When you combine the fact that the developed countries are so interconnected, the US didn’t want to single-handedly bring down the entire world’s economies. All that being said, the tricks to perpetrate the subversion of normal business cycle forces have been used up. You can’t drive interest rates any lower. You can’t print even more dollars and expect sufficient potency. Hence, the notion that the Fed is backed into a corner.

As far as impact to the market, I read a simple statement over at Economicnoise.com, that sums up the good fortune the Fed has had in driving up market prices in an attempt to drive the wealth effect while building animal spirits. Economicnoise.com stated, “Within the last fourteen years, there have been two major market corrections, both of which saw drops of 55% from their highs. That, or more, is the potential for what lies ahead…but next time the government is unlikely to be able to re-inflate the stock market bubble. To put into perspective how lucky (investors have been), it took 25 years for the Dow Jones to recover to its pre-crash highs after the Great Depression. Likewise, the Dow hit an intraday high of 1,000 in 1962 but never closed above 1,000 until about twenty years later.”

These distortions are what the doomsday types, Austrian economics practitioners, goldbugs, and similar minded types have been seeing and simply can’t seem to shake off. The team at GMO has never been labeled as any of those types; only true professionals’ professionals in the game of capital allocation. Below is the other chart in their 7-year forecast and it covers multiple asset classes as opposed to just equities.

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The granddaddy winner for the next 7 years is timber, according to them. So forget about investing. Go cut some trees down. Chop’em up and store them in your house. Over the next 7 years that wood will have outperformed your 401k. Lame jokes aside, there are a few ways to easily make a play on timber. There are of course the biggest North American players such as Plum Creek (PCL), Weyerhaeuser (WY), Rayonier (RYN), and Potlatch (PCH). If you prefer ETF’s, there is iShares Global Timber & Forestry (WOOD) which focuses on North America and thus has significant positions in the largest players here. For more of an international flare to your timber exposure, Guggenheim offers its own Timber ETF (CUT). A cursory glance of CUT’s holdings will show that it focuses its holdings around the planet as opposed to N. America.

Since the average joe can’t simply invest in huge plots of timber like a hedge fund, endowment, or pension fund, then these are decent options to play the sector. PCL is the biggest of the N. American group and thus has a well established reputation on the street. However, friends and old colleagues will already be familiar with what is probably my favorite way to garner some timber exposure, and that is through Brookfield Asset Management. BAM! Remember though, at the end of the day these are still equities and have the potential to be pulled down with every other sector in the event of a sell-off or major dislocation.

Comparing Plum Creek to Brookfield Asset Management is not exactly an apples to apples comparison, as Brookfield is a massive asset manager focusing on real or hard assets with a portfolio approaching $200 billion. Plum Creek possesses the largest portfolio of timber acreage in N. America, so their market capitalization is justified. PCL carries a timber portfolio worth approximately $5 billion. Brookfield’s portfolio of timber acreage is significant in real terms but small compared to their entire portfolio. BAM carries approximately $4 billion worth of timber assets, and that is after selling approximately $2.5 billion worth of timber assets last year to Weyerhaeuser. BAM will monetize assets when appropriate. They don’t hold just to hold, however they’re considered some of the finest value investors in the world when it comes to real assets.

Let’s take a side by side look at long-term performance of each company since 1990. We’re using 1990 as PCL was founded in 1989, so I wanted to give it a year of operations under its belt for comparison purposes. The following chart compares the split adjusted values of each stock starting with an initial $5,000 and includes dividends but excludes the two spin-offs(BIP & BPY) from BAM.

clip_image014*Dividend data garnered from Dividata.com

You can see that BAM’s long-term performance speaks for itself. If you account for BIP & BPY, then to me it appears to be a no-brainer between the two for long-term exposure to timber. PCL’s dividend is vastly bigger, so if an investor needed that higher yield for whatever reason then it would make the decision of choosing between the two a little tougher. Overall though, if you want some timber exposure in combination with other world-class real assets then BAM is a heckuva way to play it.

Valuations matter. Momentum can be ridden, but in the end a stock’s price will revert to an appropriate valuation after momentum has made investors lose their collective minds. GMO’s forecast is not to be taken lightly. It’s just another recent indicator that should really make investors pause and think before allocating capital. I tend to concur with old Uncle Warren in that it’s not usually a safe bet to bet against America, so I promise that I’m not a total gloom & doomer here at MarginRich.com. These economic distortions, just a few of so many, are communicating a signal that America and really the world’s developed markets could find themselves in some pretty rough seas in the not too distant future. Invest accordingly.