U.S. stocks are like a duck, floating on a quiet pond – calm above the surface, but lots of furious churning invisible to the naked eye. The S&P 500 looks like it will end the first quarter within a hair of the 1848 level where it started the year, but that doesn’t mean everything else is all stasis and light. Today we offer up a quick ‘Top 10’ list of surprises from the last 90 days. Gold, for example, is back from the grave, up 7.3%. So is an imperial Russia, with the biggest land grab since the building of the Berlin Wall. Mutual fund flows are ahead of exchange traded funds by a factor of 5:1. And most of those ETF inflows are into bond funds, not the “Great Rotation” we all expected into stocks. The 10-year U.S. Treasury yields all of 2.67%, and bonds have bested U.S. stocks consistently in 2014. First quarter 2014 may not have been a long trip, but it certainly has been strange.
Bear markets are punishment for over-exuberance and greed, notes ConvergEx's Nick Colas, teaching investors to be more careful next time around. That’s a pretty popular narrative in capital markets, and with two tough bear markets over the past 15 years, Colas suggests you’d think that there’s no way investors would be guilty of blowing bubbles again. Right? Well, as Nick explains, if the evidence from actual crime and punishment is any guide, this moral narrative is actually quite wrong.
Yesterday we reported that in an attempt to unclog Europe's broken credit and monetary piping, European regulators are preparing to get their hands dirty by easing rules on, and unleashing, an asset class once labelled toxic sludge, i.e., all the worst of the worst debt that was the reason why Europe is in a 6 year-old depression, and hope and pray it somehow fixes itself. Today, the ECB reported the latest data on European credit creation in the private sector. Or rather lack thereof. Because at -2.2%, this was essentially an all time low private sector loan "growth" (rather, credit destruction). Which means Europe will have to throw all the toxic sludge it can find in its desperation to reignite yet another credit bubble, something Bernanke's cronies appear to have done far more admirably.
Two years ago, on April 2, 2012, long before it became abundantly clear to even the most clueless CNBC hacks, we said that there will be no capex boom as long as corporate management teams abuse ZIRP (and yes, it is all the Fed's fault as we further explained) to allocate capital, most of it courtesy of low-cost debt, by providing quick returns to activist investors through dividends and buybacks, instead of reallocating the funds to grow the company by investing in Capex (the latest proof of the unprecedented lack of capital spending growth increase came earlier today) and SG&A or at least M&A. Two years later after our post, whose conclusion has been proven empirically by what has happened in the US economy where CapEx still refuses to pick up despite endless lies of some recovery that refuses to materialize except in talking head year-end bonuses, none other than the head of the world's largest asset manager, BlackRock's Larry Fink admits we were right all along.
Another morning melt up after a less than impressive session in China which saw the SHCOMP drop again reversing the furious gains in the past few days driven by hopes of more PBOC easing (despite China's repeated warning not to expect much). A flurry of market topping activity overnight once again, with Candy Crush maker King Digital pricing at $22.50 or the projected midpoint of its price range, and with FaceBook using more of its epically overvalued stock as currency to purchase yet another company, this time virtual reality firm Oculus VR for $2 billion. Perhaps an appropriate purchase considering the entire economy is pushed higher on pro-forma, "virtual" output, and the Fed's capital markets are something straight out of the matrix. Despite today's pre-open ramp, which will be the 4th in a row, one wonders if biotechs will finally break the downward tractor beam they have been latched on to as the bubble has shown signs of cracking, or will the mad momo crowd come back with a vengeance - this too will be answered shortly.
In the 16 months since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched his bold plan to reflate Japan’s shrinking economy the yen has depreciated by 22% against the dollar, 28% against the euro and 24% against the renminbi. The hope was to stimulate trade and push the current account decisively into the black. Yet the reverse has occurred. Japan’s external position has worsened due to anemic export growth and a spiraling energy import bill: in January it recorded a record monthly trade deficit of ¥2.8trn ($27.4bn). Having eked out a 0.7% current account surplus in 2013, Japan may this year swing into deficit for the first time since 1980. So why is the medicine not working?
- Australia says nothing spotted in search for plane (AP)
- Putin looks to Asia as West threatens to isolate Russia (Reuters)
- China Billionaire Builds Metals With Dreyfus, Glencore Hires (BBG)
- China Beige Book Says Economy Slowing (BBG)
- Caterpillar Said to Be Focus of Senate Overseas Tax Probe (BBG)
- US Cancels Summit With Divided Group of Gulf Nations (WSJ)
- Cyprus defense minister suffers aneurysm (AP)
- Abe to zero in on economy as tax hike looms (Nikkei)
- Europe strikes deal to complete banking union (Reuters)
It seems the blatant unveiling of the HFT market's Holy Grail trading - Virtu (1 loss in 1238 days) - has raised some attention as Bloomberg reports, NY AG Eric Schneiderman has opened a broad investigation into whether U.S. stock exchanges and alternative venues provide high-frequency traders with improper advantages. As one European lawmaker noted, "the area of high-frequency trading is lacking suitable regulation," and Schneiderman warned "this new breed of predatory behavior gives a small segment of the industry an enormous advantage over all other competitors." We wonder how this will affect Virtu's IPO given regulation is risk factor #1!
It would appear that the widening of the daily trading bands (we discussed last night) are having a directional effect on USDCNY as the devaluation continues on the back of forced carry-trade unwinds. At 6.19, CNY is its weakest in 11 months (2.5% weaker than its lows in January) and the last 2 months have seen by far the biggest weakening in the currency on record. This 'implied' easing is modestly supporting the stock market and copper for now (though we suspect that is more spillover from risk-on squeezes post-Ukraine). While Goldman and BofA are adamant that widening the bands will not mean a change in trend overall, it seems clear that hot money is outflowing and driving a trend change anyway as corporate bond prices are not rising and home-price appreciation is slowing in the major cities.
"All the Trumans – the economists, fund managers, traders, market pundits –know at some level that the environment in which they operate is not what it seems on the surface…. But the zeitgeist is so damn pleasant, the days so resplendent, the mood so euphoric, the returns so irresistible, that no one wants it to end."
Klarman is here referring to the waning days of this third and greatest financial bubble of this century. But David Stockman's take is that the crack-up boom now nearing its dénouement marks not merely the season finale of still another Fed-induced cycle of financial asset inflation, but, in fact, portends the demise of an entire era of bubble finance.
As we explained in great detail recently, the abundance of so-called cash-on-the-sidelines is a fallacy, but even more critically the we showed the belief that these 'IOUs of past economic activity' would immediately translate into efforts to deploy them into future economic activity is also entirely false. Simply put, there is no relationship between corporate cash and subsequent capital expenditure, nor is the level of capital expenditure even well-correlated with the level of real interest rates. At this point, as John Hussman explains, it should be clear that the mere existence of a mountain of IOUs related to past economic activity is not enough to provoke future economic activity. What matters instead is the same thing that always matters: Are the resources of the economy being directed toward productive uses that satisfy the needs of others?
- China premier warns on economic slowdown as data fans stimulus talk (Reuters)
- Li says China defaults ‘unavoidable’ (FT)
- Russia Said to Ready for Iran-Style Sanctions in Worst Case (BBG)
- Rescue the tapes from the Bank of England’s dustbins (FT)
- Obama Warns Putin of Cost to Russia for Annexing Ukraine (BBG)
- The TVIX is back: Credit Suisse VIX Note That Ran Amok in 2012 Back on Top (BBG)
- U.S. Risks National Blackout From Small-Scale Attack (WSJ)
- U.S. Investigators Suspect Missing Airplane Flew On for Hours (WSJ)
- Malaysia says no evidence missing plane flew hours after losing contact (Reuters)
- Missed Alarms and 40 Million Stolen Credit Card Numbers: How Target Blew It (BBG)
- Death Toll in NYC Building Blast Rises to Six; Search Continues (BBG)
- China worries chill markets, copper slumps (Reuters)
- Peak dot com dot two idiocy: Candy Crush Saga maker King seeks $7.56 bln valuation from IPO (BBG)
- Obama Meeting With Yatsenyuk Raises Stakes in Ukraine (BBG)
- Federal prosecutors open criminal probe of GM recall (Reuters)
- Pimco Cuts Government Debt on Outlook for Fed Buying (BBG)
- Missing Malaysian Jetliner Confuses World That’s Online 24/7 (BBG)
- Mortgage Giants Face Endgame (WSJ)
- Russia Calls U.S. Aid to Ukraine Illegal Amid Standoff (BBG)
- U.S. judge freezes assets of Mt. Gox bitcoin exchange boss (Reuters)
- Ousted Libyan PM flees country after tanker escapes rebel-held port (Reuters)
- Senate-CIA Dispute Erupts Into a Public Brawl (WSJ)
In order to determine if there is indeed truth behind the speculation that growth for the HFT space may have topped out, we decided to break down Virtu's 2013 net trading income by product line. We were not surprised to find that of the $45 million in total growth, the largest income category, US stocks growth was a tiny 5% of all, rising by $2.3 million in 2013, half the $4.5 million growth a year earlier. In fact, between EMEA, APAC and US Equities, there was very limited growth in 2013, while commodities posted an outright trading income decline. So indeed, it appears to be the case that growth in conventional products has indeed plateaued, as more and more HFT competitors rush in. And yet, one product stood out. It is highlighted on the chart below...
With 40% of the portfolio in cash and having returned $4 billion to clients at year-end, Seth Klarman's Baupost Group has "drawn the line in the sand" as they reflect on the diminished opportunities in the so-called "Truman Show" market we see today. In the face of mixed economic data and at a critical inflection point in Federal Reserve policy, Klarman notes, the stock market, heading into 2014, resembles a Rorschach test - "what investors see in the inkblots says considerably more about them than it does about the market." From "born bulls" to "worry genes" and from Bitcoin to flash-mob-speculation, "there is a growing gap between the financial markets and the real economy...and the overall picture is one of growing risk and inadequate potential return almost everywhere one looks... as every 'Truman' under Bernanke’s dome knows the environment is phony."