I was recently quoted in MarketWatch, a Wall Street Journal online publication in the article, "Beware these IRA rollover mistakes" by Robert Powell. You can read the article at http://www.marketwatch.com/story/beware-these-ira-rollover-mistakes-2014-01-28?pagenumber=1.
Stocks have been overbought for some time now and the recent sharp decline in January may be only the beginning of this massive bubble bursting. People, government officials, and economists alike are simply in denial about how bad things are and there will be an end to this craziness eventually. Year to date stocks have not really done much over all except the bounce around record highs. The trend has clearly shifted from an upward market to sideways. Typically after a run up the market will "consolidate" and level out until it either breaks up or down. This recent change in the trend could just be a pause on the way to more record highs or we could be setting up for a downward change in direction.
We've all been to a social gathering where after a while the first person decides to leave which causes other people to feel comfortable to leave and then shortly thereafter everybody clears out except for the usual stragglers. This is basically a description of "The Minsky Moment" named after Hyman Minsky, an economist who suggested that markets are inherently unstable. This is based on the idea that long periods of speculation tend to lead to crises and the longer the speculation the worse the crisis gets. So we can see markets going up until the first start to leave which is usually the "smart money" which causes others to leave and then we get a "Minsky Moment" like 2008. If we look at past bubbles of almost any kind, we see two results: first, bubbles always burst, and second they tend to return to about where they started.
The U.S. Government has been putting in $2 Trillion in stimulus annually; $1 Trillion in deficit spending and another $1 Trillion in monetary stimulus (QE). Stimulus has been a huge tailwind in keeping the economy afloat and causing the financial markets to rise to all time highs. These tailwinds will become headwinds at some point when the stimulus is stopped and the deficit spending becomes unsustainable and our debt burden too high. For now it seems that Quantitative Easing has been working but may be showing signs of fizzling out as the stimulus is tapered.
Interest rates have finally began a meaningful rise from a low of 1.38% to over 3% and recently hovering around 2.6%. As the stimulus continues to be tapered, we are likely to see bond rates rise which is not good for long-term, intermediate term, and high-yield bonds. As the FED continues to taper, this means they will purchase few bonds which will likely mean a decline in demand. As the demand declines prices go down and yields go up.
Increasing rates will hurt the housing recovery, large purchases using debt such as cars, consumer spending on credit, etc. Once this happens, expect to see significant economic slowdown. Increasing rates will also make our ability to pay government debt more difficult. Then what does the FED do? Stimulate again to juice the economy again? The problem is the law of diminishing returns which says that the more you have of something (in this case stimulus), the less value we get from it. Think about that first cup of coffee in the morning; it wakes you up but you eventually get tired so you take another cup, but the second cup doesn't have the same effect as the first. I think we are getting closer to a point where it will be evident that the stimulus didn't work long-term and our ability to stimulate more will be hampered and the deleveraging and deflation will commence.
For bond investors this creates some problems. The stock market is risky so the conventional alternative is bonds however rising rates will hurt bonds. A typical intermediate term bond fund has a duration of about 4-5. Duration is a indicator of sensitivity to interest rates. A duration of 5 means that for a 1% increase in rates, you would expect a decline of about 5% in your bond fund. The conventional way to reduce this risk is to shorten your duration by going to shorter term bonds. Unfortunately the yield on short-term bonds is quite low and are still negatively affected by interest rate increases. The real question continues to be what the markets will do when rates start rising again and we see even lower or negative growth with this stimulus.
Recently housing has shown some positive price gains however it appears that almost half are cash sales which implies that it is speculators, investors, and financial institutions are behind these purchases. These positive gains could explain the recent surge in pending home sales last year. It's clear that sales have been going up and inventory has been going down which is typically a healthy sign for housing.
To understand where housing is going we need to look at demand; who is buying versus who is selling. When a person goes into a nursing home or dies, they become a seller by default. Therefore a great way to get an idea of where demand is headed is by looking at the number of buyers vs. dyers. People tend to buy their trade up home in the US around age 42 on average and die at age 79 on average. The projection clearly shows a greater number of dyers than buyers and thus the net demand for housing should begin to decline again starting next year. The decreased demand and increased supply will push housing prices down. This is not for all housing however and does not apply to all regions. For example, those in the northeast tend to migrate to Florida as they age which could cause a net decline in demand to happen sooner than expected.
People don't buy homes based on prices or interest rates, rather they purchase a home based upon a payment which is determined by both prices and interest rates. With interest rates beginning to rise and if prices stay the same, payments rise thus housing will become less affordable unless median incomes rise substantially which doesn't seem to be likely anytime soon. US real (inflation adjusted) disposable income fell 9% in the past 12 months (as of June 2013). Consumer spending typically drives about 2/3rds of our economy. With disposable income falling, this means less money to spend, especially on discretionary items. Another warning sign. This certainly will not help housing. An increase in supply coupled with increasing interest rates is a recipe for declining prices which we will probably start to see in the not too distant future. In addition, the shadow inventory of homes continues to be the biggest hidden threat to the housing market. If the economy begins weakening again, the institutions that have been holding out for higher prices may finally begin to sell that inventory if prices start declining. Increased borrowing rates should also have negative impacts on car loans as well.
Traditional economists don't seem to understand why we are not seeing inflation despite the massive amount of money being pumped into the economy. The reason is that when an economy is at this stage of the cycle after a credit crisis, people don't borrow as much and banks don't lend as much. This slowdown in the fractional reserve system means less money in the economy which is the offsetting deflationary force to all the money printing.
The average bull market lasts nearly 4 years. If you take out the one extremely long bull market which lasted about 12 years and the shortest from 87. These bull markets are followed by an average 36% decline. The current bull market is over 5 years long. Volatility tends to increase at major long term tops such as 1966 - 1974. The first decline after 1965 saw a 26% decline, the second after 1968 was 37%, and the third after 1972 was about 50%. Take notice of the current secular bear market since 2000 which saw a 51% decline after 2000 and a 58% after 2007. So if the pattern continues and we see a third decline, it could easily be 65% or more.
Warning signs we're near a top:
- Margin Debt at $400 Million: Margin debt is approaching the 2007 peak at $430 Million and higher than the $390 million at the peak of the Tech Bubble in 2000. This suggests we are seeing more speculation and leverage in this bubble.
- Stock Buybacks close to 87%: Companies are aggressively buying back their own shares using super low interest rates. This has the effect of artificially boosting Earnings Per Share (EPS) because the number of shares outstanding has been reduced. Currently 83% of S&P 500 companies are buying back their own stocks which is getting close to the 87% it was in the 2007 peak.
- Corporate Profit as a percentage of GDP is above 11% and is at record levels. Fed stimulus via low interest rates has boosted corporate profits more than any boom in history. At the 2007 peak, corporate profits/GDP were 10%.
- P/E Ratios between 24 and 27: Most major stock peaks happen when P/E (Price to earnings) ratios are between 22 and 27 except for the extreme tech bubble when they reached about 45 and the peak in 1929 at 32 and these periods had the advantage of strong demographic trends and accelerating productivity from new technologies which we do not currently have. At the 2007 peak P/E's were 27. We're currently about 24 and moving higher.
- Market value of non-financial stocks divided by GDP ratio above 1.3: During major market peaks, this ratio tends to be between 1.0 and 1.5.
- 62% Bulls vs. 20% Bears: Many of the people that got scared out of the markets in 2008 have been returning since 2012. When Bulls vs. Bears gets to this level, that tends to suggest peaks although we did reach this level in 2010 before backing off back to about 40% Bulls. As everyday investors continue to pile in, we watch for the "Smart Money" to start exiting and when that happens, watch out!
- As January goes, so goes the year: When January is a negative month often that forebodes a negative year. After 5 years of a stimulus led bull market that is long overdue for a correction, this saying may be true this year.
- The second year of a 4 year presidential cycle tends to be bad for stocks.
Governments keep borrowing at below market rates to run budget deficits by purchasing their own bonds, companies buy back their own stock with super low interest rates to boost earnings per share, banks take QE stimulus money to boost their reserves in anticipation of the massive losses they expect when the economy turns back down and to speculate in financial securities with 30-50 times leverage causing margin debt for stocks to near and all time high; You tell me, are these signs of a bubble? Looking back I suspect all the "experts" will say we should have seen this coming.