Volatility and Price Action

On March 13th, I made a call that I thought it was time for the markets to begin consolidating. Now some may label that call incorrect as the markets have moved a couple of percent higher, even surpassing 2,100 at one point, but I stand by the call. I think late-comers to the rally pushed the S&P 500 that 2% higher.

Specifically, I guessed we’d “see about 7 weeks of sideways consolidation.” Well in order to get a sideways move, the market will need to see a little correction soon. I suspect we’ll get one starting this week. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a move downward of about 5% in the S&P 500 to the 2,000 – 1,975 area over the course of this week and possibly the next. That stem created last week on a weekly chart is the tell.

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But here’s the thing. I think market participants will completely overreact to the 5% or any move downward. I think the bears will start beating on their keyboards and cranking out articles and blog posts saying things like, “See! I told you! Here comes the real start of a 50% correction!” Pay these cranks no mind.

Instead, utilize the negative sentiment to leverage a potential move in volatility. I could see the VIX spiking to 20 in an over-reaction by hedgers. Those same late-comers to the rally in February will overdue it with VIX options potentially causing a spike.

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So how do you leverage the potential? As usual, if you’re a futures player then just structure your option strategy to take advantage of the fear. For the ETF traders and retail guy trying to swing trade some profits off his work salary, there’s the ProShares Ultra VIX ETF, UVXY. Now this ETF is a trading tool only and it’s not for the faint of heart. If you’re going to trade it then you have to be nimble and ready to take profits. The moves are sudden and quick, but profits can be spectacular if you accurately time an upward thrust.

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You can see in the last two moves of late summer last year and the start of this year, that perfectly timed trades have huge potential. In a 3 week run last August, UVXY moved up almost 300%. From late December to February, it moved up 150% in just 6 weeks. Again, not for the undisciplined. If this puppy isn’t played right, it’s easy to get shell-shocked and lose any profit potential.

Are these calls bold? Maybe, in that I don’t have any quantitative analysis to back my assessment. It’s just the gut feel I’m getting from price action and general sentiment. It can be dangerous to trust someone else’s instincts, let alone your own. A trade like this requires precision and a hawk-like watch over the action. Trading volatility can very often turn into a sucker’s bet. Let price action as opposed to greed guide your moves.

Should the Investing Public Be Worried if Some of the Biggest Banks are Genuinely Scared?

Questions of investing and speculating always require context within time-frame. Players in all asset classes, professional or not, approach the game from their own perspective.

Traders surfing the waves of volatility may be looking only days or weeks out. Investment managers overseeing a growth-oriented portfolio may be looking ahead months or quarters while a value-oriented portfolio manager may be looking years out. The 401k-watching worker bee may be wringing their hands at every market move and every ignorant headline despite the fact that they have 30 more income-earning years left before retirement.

The game is tougher than ever even for the professionals and it’s difficult to decide a course of action with the information overload coming at market players. Determining what’s noise and what is actually valuable information is critical in making the right moves within your portfolio.

I have long been pounding the table on building cash reserves while staying invested in the markets. I’ve also stated that I thought the downturn of late 2015 was the start of the next major bear market. I think that dip and recovery in 2015 was the bear waking up and the poor start in 2016 is investor realization of that bear. However, because everybody now sees it, the markets aren’t going to execute a full-frontal stage-dive. That’s not how these things work, right?

I think we get a recovery into new highs followed by another much smaller correction and consolidation potentially followed by another new high. After that, I suspect all the bull energy will be fully used up and the bear will begin in earnest. Remember, these are simply my suspicions based on behavioral observation of the markets; nothing more than forecasts of potential outcomes.

It’s been a long time since I’ve hit readers with some good old chartporn, but I’m in the mood to throw a bunch of squiggly pics out there to possibly help the reader better assess the market situation in 2016. Observe a 20-year, monthly chart of the S&P 500 along with some relevant indicators.

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Observe the long-term breakdowns in the indicators matching the actions of 2008 and 2000. Does that mean crisis is imminent? Nope, but I do think it reinforces my call that a new bear has started. Notice also in 2001 and 2008, we saw strong support and a bounce off of the 50-month moving average. Too many technicians are looking for that and thus too many algorithmic shops will be front running ahead of that signal, blowing out orders to drive the market higher.

I suspect this bounce we are currently in the midst of may be a bit stronger than people realize. Market players have been so used to the V-recoveries and yet they’ve already forgotten what they can be like. It appears that players are numb to the potential of a multi-week to multi-month V-bounce from the January 2016 lows. Despite what I surmise about a stronger than expected bounce, nobody can blame investors for either running for the hills or shoving their heads into the sand.

We’ve already seen the peak in net profit margins for this business cycle in the largest US corporates at the same time that markets continue to be overvalued, despite the corrective moves in December and January. Observe the following chart courtesy of ZH via Thomsen Reuters via Barclays. It depicts how the recession fuse has likely been lit.

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And with recession generally comes a bear market correction. Or is it the other way around?

Regarding overvaluation, have a look at this comparison chart from AQR depicting market returns based on various starting points of the Shiller P/E. AQR is the shop that Cliff Assnes, billionaire hedge fund manager, founded and runs.

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This coincides with GMO valuation models for future returns based on current valuations. There are plenty of Shiller P/E naysayers who believe that the indicator is bunk. The fact of the matter is that evaluating a normalized 10-year look at P/E ratios is a simple and intelligent way of quickly gauging valuation levels compared to prior periods. Of course every period in history possesses its own specific circumstances as the backstory of the valuation levels, but the raw Shiller P/E paints a clear picture for equity performance going forward.

Besides I don’t see or hear anybody calling Bob Shiller a dumb man. Despite what you may think of his ratio, Shiller is a respected academic even within the professional financial community.

Let’s take a look at a chart from one of every perma-bull’s favorite bear-shaped piñata, Dr. John Hussman. Unfortunately, Hussman catches a lot of flak. Less so after admitting to his analytical mistakes coming out of 2011 but I think he catches a bad rap for simply calling it how he sees it. Hussman’s analysis is based on a quantitative and thorough study of the markets. Can the same be said of a vast majority of the financial blogosphere? No it cannot, including myself. Observe the Hussman Hindenburgs. They nailed the current action coming into Q4 of 2015.

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The criterion of the Hussman Hindenburg is detailed in the upper left corner of the chart. Dr. Hussman’s Hindenburg indicators proved to be quite prophetic in 1999 while essentially nailing the top in 2007. For your own long-term holdings, ignore these signals at your own risk. Dr. Hussman, like Dr. Shiller, is respected amongst fellow financial professionals. Have a look at Research Affiliates’ (“RA”) own analysis on current valuation levels.

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In a research piece they published in July of 2015, RA evaluates the differences in relative valuation metrics (CAPE, Hussman, Tobin) and absolute valuation metrics. They came to the following conclusion.

Our answer to the question “Are stocks overvalued?” in the U.S. market is a resounding “Yes!” Our forecast for core U.S. equities is a 0.8% annualized real return over the next decade. The 10-year expected real return for emerging markets equity, however, is much higher at 5.9% a year. The return potential of the nondeveloped markets is so high, in fact, that the valuation models, warts and all, paint a very clear picture.

May want to rethink that lack of EM exposure going forward, depending on your time-frame.

Shall we move on to a couple of less orthodox indicators of potential trouble in the markets? Observe the two following charts which pertain to income as opposed to valuation or price action. In the first one, created by McClellan, we get an interesting correlation to total tax receipts for the US government as compared to US GDP.

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Notice that in 2000, the US crossed the 18% threshold and stayed there awhile before rising even higher at the beginning of the market selloff. For the GFC of 2007, America almost got to 18% but not quite and we still literally almost vaporized the entire financial system. Currently, we’ve reached 18% but that may or may not mean anything. In each previous occurrence, tax receipts stayed at the level for months or even years so this is an indicator worth watching but only in conjunction with many others.

Interestingly, federal tax receipts as a percentage of GDP currently reached 18% right before the markets began selling off last year. Repeat after me. Correlation is not causation, but the timing is still interesting.

The other chart that doesn’t get a lot of coverage but is very well known is net worth of US households and non-profit organizations as a percentage of disposable personal income. You can find it courtesy of our friendly Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and their FRED tool. The grey vertical bars in the FRED charts denote recessions.

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It’s been a clear indicator in 5 of the last 6 recessions and we also had that annoying fakeout in 1987. Much like the prior graph, this particular chart should be coincident with additional economic indicators if one is attempting to forecast potential economic as well as investment outcomes.

I want to move on to a particular area that everyone should be concerned about and that is nonperforming loans (“NPL”) at major banks. Not just at US banks but around the world. China’s commercial banks have raised fear levels in even the most seasoned professional investors due to their NPL levels increasing so drastically in 2015. I’ve long stated how debt levels in Italy have the potential to dismantle a good portion of the financial system because the Mediterranean Boot is such a key economic cog in the European Union. Some of the biggest commercial banks in Italy are on the verge of toppling during a period where now the ECB is less amenable to the previously used “bad bank” options. The pressure is beginning to mount for Italy’s leadership to formulate a strategy around potential bank failures.

You might be inclined to observe the following chart and think all is at least well for the US.

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But take a look at the following chart in commercial-only loan performance and begin to understand why the total situation looks toppy from the economy to the markets.

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For the record, commercial loans comprise approximately $2 trillion of the outstanding debt within the banking system. It is clear to see that a bottoming and an upturn occurred before the last 3 recessions and market dislocations. Now we are currently in the early innings of an upturn in NPL. If commercial loan performance behaviorally adheres to what we saw in the prior two recessions, we will see at least an additional 2% of total commercial loans become impaired assets. That’s potentially between an additional $40 billion to $50 billion at minimum that banks will have to provision for. No easy task in light of current leverage levels and collateral utilization across the repo and derivative space.

This is especially concerning because of the systemic importance of each bank to the entire financial system. Just look at the consolidation that has occurred since 1990.

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Couple this concentration with a lack of regulation allowed by Gramm-Leach-Bliley and you can see that debt impairment at the banks is not going to have a happy ending. And if you think Dodd-Frank was the answer to all of our problems, I might stop laughing sometime in March.

What would work to alleviate a lot of the financial pressures around the world in the short term is a weaker dollar. I don’t say that as a proponent of a weaker dollar. Rather, I am stating that currency exchange due to a weaker USD could help sugarcoat revenue reporting across international corporates. It would relieve pressure in the management of reserves for countries with an excess of US treasuries. The oil price could stabilize temporarily but it is well-documented that abundant supply and less-than-expected demand is still the story. Commodities could lift and thus commodity producing countries who are already fighting with their reserves issue could see a double-positive impact. All these effects would be temporary as world debt levels are at unsustainable levels and a bear market for all assets has potentially already arrived. It just has yet to completely sink its claws and fangs entirely into the world’s financial system.

Coming back to the initial question behind this post. Should the investing public be scared? Maybe not scared. Let’s call it aware. They should be aware of all the happenings that are occurring right now. Cash levels should be raised. Certain assets should be paired down depending on losses, gains, and risk exposure. More importantly it’s time to take stock in your own investing psyche. If you are building cash levels, will you have the courage to act at the appropriate time? That’s what raising cash boils down to. Do you have an understanding of the intrinsic valuation levels of specific asset classes that will motivate you to put cash to work?

Aside from brushing up on your ability to properly assess valuations, take a look inside yourself and evaluate your ability to deploy cash when fear is running rampant and the nadir of multiple markets appears to be nowhere in sight.

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American Assets Discounting European Politics

Last summer, I shared some thoughts on the stock markets’ abilities as a discounting mechanism for future events. The gist was that stocks may provide a murky read some times when it comes to prophesying.

Reading the current macro signals is a tough endeavor for any speculator, and with today’s volatility, all the more dangerous when making bets based on those signals.

That being said, I get the feeling that last week’s action in some of the rate-sensitive sectors in combination with general stock market consolidation is portending a positive outcome in the Greece/Europe situation. Bear in mind these thoughts are pure suppositions based on nothing more than a hunch. I’ve been wrong before. I’ll be wrong again. As the old Soros saw goes, “It’s not whether you’re right or wrong that’s important, but how much money you make when you’re right and how much you lose when you’re wrong.”

Kimble recently provided a long-term view of two key sectors.

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We’ll revisit the impact of the breakdowns in those sectors, but the whole world of finance is focused on the potential resolution of Greece’s debt-financing problems. We have Goliath, the Troika(ECB, IMF, and European Commission “EC”), attempting to dictate the how, what, and when to David aka Greece. Right now a political game of poker is being played with the potential for worldwide ramifications. Greece’s new management is playing the hand it’s been dealt in what appears to be a very transparent fashion. Basically, they’re happy to stay in the euro as long as fair terms are met in a reworking of current debts to the Troika.

The Troika, god I hate saying that word but it does beat out typing the three entities, is really trying to play hardball with Greece but they have no leverage. None. Ok, maybe the smallest amount; just to play chicken. In my estimation, 98% of the leveraging power belongs to Greece. Dijsselbloem, EC head finmin, and Schauble, German Minister of Finance, have both been bellowing the fiery rhetoric from the tops of their lungs, “Greece better pay or else!” Or else what? They’re going to let Greece depart the euro? Ok. Yeah, sure.

Greece isn’t going back to the drachma in an exit from the euro, at least not this year, because the markets would be roiled. There are simply too many things that could go wrong to upend the European status quo for a Grexit to happen. Let’s just logically play out a generic sequence of events. Europe can’t let Greece totally default. For the owners of Greek debt and of course credit default swaps on the debt, credit events would be triggered across a multitude of financial institutions which could in turn then trigger counterparty liquidity risks which would instantly panic the financial universe. This instant panic would hit all the developed stock markets but with a focus on the European stock markets, which would negate the positive effects of the trillion-euro QE plan before it even had a chance. Too me, that’s enough to know that even if the deadline for a Greek debt resolution is pushed out, it’s still going to end with Europe caving but in a manner which saves as much face as possible.

Germany’s account surplus is so ridiculously large that I don’t really think they are going to tell Greece to go souvlaki itself. German total employment is high and exports continue to be robust. Pushing Greece to exit the euro would create an environment of fear where recession could rear its ugly head at a time when German companies are rolling. While Greece has all the appearances of being the linchpin holding the euro together, they’re really just a very, very important lugnut. Italy is the real linchpin. Their debt has the potential to topple the world. Which is why Europe doesn’t want to easily concede to Greece and open the door for Italy to dictate revised terms of its sovereign debts. Aside from Italy, there is obviously still Spain, Portugal, and Ireland; but Italy is the megaton nuke that can change everything.

Aside from the financial obstacles for Europe, there are the more important political complexities that must be addressed in pushing Greece too far, too hard. Russia has already extended an olive branch for Greek funding and Greece officials are reporting that China has now offered a helping hand. The world knows that China possesses the funds to help provide a financial backstop for Greece. I suspect the world may doubt how much funding Russia can lend in light of its own domestic problems concerning the ruble’s decline alongside oil’s rout. I contend that doubt would be misplaced. Does anyone really believe that Europe would simply push Greece into Russia’s waiting and open arms, where after, Greece will be free to negotiate any number of fear-inducing considerations like the usage of Greek ports for the Russian navy. Or how about land or sea allowances for petroleum energy pipelines. Maybe missile battery emplacements “for protection” on the northern Greek borders.

These are extreme examples as Greece is still a NATO participant, but it is unknowable with which the speed of certain actions could be taken should political alliances be shifted over this money. Consider how fast Russia appropriated the Crimean peninsula. All the angles have to be considered and with Merkel’s established relationship with Putin, I don’t see the Troika being allowed to precipitate negative financial and geopolitical outcomes.

What is difficult to reason, for me at least, is how the US will come to bear its influence in this whole game of thrones. America will have its say on bailing out Greece, but how and where and with what level of impact is a challenging thought experiment.

Coming back to American assets and their ability to discount the European outcomes, I think the speed with which the rate-sensitive sectors dropped last week are the tell-tell signs. Examine the two following weekly charts of TLT and XLU.

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After a stellar run in 2014, that was a precipitous drop last week. The overall trend remains up, but the situation is very fluid as we have to consider the interrelationships between markets, especially the dollar and implied volatility across Treasury yields.

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A familiar market adage is that Utilities tends to be a precursor for the greater stock markets. Any correlation is possible at any given time in the markets, however, we live in an age with remarkable volatility across asset classes. Thus, old interrelationships that once used to prove semi-reliable, may just not be so consistent. I think the Utilities, Treasuries, and yields are telling us that the general market environment is about to go risk-on with another leg-up in the greater stock markets.

There has been no shortage of writing on the significant perils in the market. I have read many a sound analysis that a major dislocation is “near.” But that’s the problem with using a word like “near” or any of its synonyms. Near is a relative term. It’s a word that gets used in a sentence and can mean anything from 1 day to 3 months to 2 years or whatever. Most analysts, bloggers, and general market commentators aren’t willing to stick their necks out and provide a more precise timeframe based on their opinions. They just point to a lot of evidence that says it’s “near.”

I agree that the next major leg down in the markets that began with the Great Recession in 2008 is near. I’ve long-stated that I thought 2015 – 2016 were going to be the years that major catalysts presented themselves for an epic sell-off, but I don’t think that time is upon us. I’m convinced that the markets will draw in a lot more participants first. I want to get that 1999 and 2007 feeling first. You know the feeling I’m talking about; that feeling that the markets will never go down and speculating in the stock market is a can’t lose venture.

The danger of deflationary forces is reasonably priced into the markets. Japan is still easing while the Fed is continuing to roll assets and now we have the ECB embarking on a trillion dollar extravaganza. I have read analysis that the efficacy of the ECB’s easing is highly questionable due to negative rates around the continent. I say nonsense. Animal spirits only care about a liquidity buffer to fill voids. Besides in a risk-on environment, yields will rise as higher levels of capital will flow into equities in a sector-rotational chase for alpha.

Risk-on is not mutually exclusive of risk management, no matter what. Countless interviews with billionaires around the world back up the fact that risk management is the number one key to successful speculation and investing. That being said, look for the general stock markets to pick up a little speed in advance of a potential workout between Europe and Greece. In just the last few days we’ve had two US hedge fund billionaires share their opinions on a Grexit. Dan Loeb, of Third Point, thinks there’s a lot of risk associated with these markets and has lowered net exposures across his funds so far this year. David Tepper, of Appaloosa, thinks there is nothing to worry about if Greece exits the euro. He basically stated that there’s a handful of percentage points of loss to worry about, but that the markets are strong enough to overcome a negative outcome. Loeb is prudent. Tepper believes in his analysis. I think the GermansEuropeans will reach an accord with Greece sometime soon(another relative term) and the stock markets will eat it up.

There is still that little matter of the dollar, euro, and their extreme levels in sentiment. Carry trades continue to be wonky in light of the dollar strength. Maintain a close eye on these currencies as they will enhance a risk-on move. Whether you believe the markets are discounting future events or not, there is a persistence of extreme movements. A European resolution with Greece and a shift in dollar sentiment may just provide a profitable environment for stock market participants.

Again With the Discounting Mechanism

One of the biggest ism’s on the Street that has been pounded to death by any and all financial sites is the fact that the stock market is the greatest discounting mechanism in finance and is always looking out 6 to 12 months. This may seem rational to all you EMH’ers out there and there is of course evidence that can be pointed out supporting the markets’ abilities to discount for future events. Feel free to scour the web for all data pertaining to this notion.

I’m not going to get into the facts and fiction of the mechanism. I just want to provide a little reminder that the forward looking ability of the markets gets a bit fuzzy at the extremes. Whether it’s is an epic crash, a normal correction, or a bottom-ticking nadir; at the extremes the markets don’t exactly send the clearest message. Have a look at the S&P 500 since 2009.

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You can see that the Flash Crash came out of left field for a lot of speculators in 2010. That strong uptrend wasn’t giving anybody any kind of forward guidance regarding what was about to happen in May 2010. How about the end of QE 2 in 2011? The last “real” correction this market has seen. It too had a nice positive uptrend going before pulling the rug out in the summer. Sure the normal seasonal platitudes could have been rested on, but nobody saw the blowout in August coming. And finally, look at the choppy action in 2012. It was difficult to get a bead on how to allocate, because everyone was busy worrying if the Fed would keep the punch bowl spiked and the dj dropping the base.

Did that choppy action of 2012 tell you that 2013 was going to be a mega-homerun year for people who simply invested long? Hardly. Even though the Fed announced to the world that it would provide unparalleled levels of liquidity to market players, many a professional was caught off guard at the strength of the move.

The S&P 500 is setting new highs here and the NASDAQ is fast approaching its highs off the 2009 lows. One can paint any picture they see fit with any sets of data they choose. In the end, it’s about your experience and gut in combination with robust data. Not going into a bearish spiel, again I’m just reminding that at extremes the markets can be less than reliable discounters. Consider all the world events simply being shrugged off by investors:

1. Ukraine civil war – label it anyway you want but that sure looks like civil war to me
2. ISIS taking over a fair chunk of Iraq with US deployments to the Persian Gulf
3. Chinese Commodity Financing Deals (“CCFD”) and the budding re-hypothecation scandal
4. The approach of no quantitative easing – seriously think about that for a second – NO QE if the Fed follows through on their word; a full taper is most definitely not being discounted.
5. Potential liquidation fees imposed by The Fed at bond funds to “prevent” bond runs

We’ll just leave it at that. For good measure though I’ll present you with a snapshot of the Financial Times cover from Tuesday June 10th, 2014.

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This has been bandied about all over the web as the “Contrarian Indicator of the Year”, with the FT extolling the virtues of Central Bankers’ abilities to remove volatility from the investment picture. I’m not here to debate the efficacy of the Magazine/Newspaper Cover Indicator. If, however, this cover proves to indicate a bottom in volatility in 2014, did the markets discount that?