The central banks of the world are massively and insouciantly pursuing financial instability. That’s the inherent result of the 68 straight months of zero money market rates that have been forced into the global financial system by the Fed and its confederates at the BOJ, ECB and BOE. ZIRP fuels endless carry trades and the harvesting of every manner of profit spread between negligible “funding” costs and positive yields and returns on a wide spectrum of risk assets. Stated differently, ZIRP systematically dismantles the market’s natural stability mechanisms.
With year-end target after year-end target having been met and raised by the oh-so-ethical sell-side strategists and asset-gatherers, it appears the Fed's grand plan of dragging every bit of cash into the increasingly more risky equity markets is working. After a rally driven more by financial engineering that real sustainable growth, Bloomberg reports, individual investors are plowing money back into the U.S. stock market just as professional strategists say gains for this year are over. As one senior equity manager warned, "if Wall Street, after poring over all known data, comes up with a target and we’re already there, and you still see individual investors buying and they’re typically the ones that are late to the party, it would seem there is limited upside," but that didn't stop about $100 billion being added to equity mutual funds and exchange-traded funds in the past year, 10 times more than the previous 12 months. We have found this cycle's greater fool and once again it is the retail investor.
It’s time to think like a contrarian. Why? Because capital markets seem as bulletproof as one of those up-armored military personnel carriers you see in war zones. So what could really rattle stock, bond and commodity markets over the next 3-6 months? The go-to answer, steeped in history, is geopolitical crisis, where the logical hedges are precious metals, volatility plays, and possibly crude oil. Look deeper, however, and other answers emerge.
European markets were ugly going in: Portugal's largest bank on the ropes and macro data weak. US earnings calls confirmed no Q2 bounce back and macro data piled on (along with various GDP downgrades). Equity markets opened gap down with a big flush of "most shorted" longs and Russell 2000 dipped into the red for 2014. Then the rally-monkey turned up, slamming VIX and lifting USDJPY to squeeze shorts and drag stocks "off the lows." Once shorts reache dunch, stocks limped lower "off the highs." Away from the v-shaped recovery in stocks, Gold broke above $1340 (4-month highs) and silver gained. Oil turned around early losses closing up for 1st time in 9 sessions ($103). The USD rose (on EUR weakness) but remains lower on the week. VIX ened 0.8 vols higher at 12.5 (well off its intraday highs though). The day ended with Carl Icahn warning that "it's time be cautious about US markets." VIX pushed higher into the close as investors remember Europe opens in 8 hours.
The consensus estimate for US GDP growth in 2014 has collapsed. 4 months ago, the world of serial extrapolators and mean-reverters prognosticated that 2014 GDP would reach the lofty heights of 2.9%. Today - on the heels of numerous micro- and macro-fundamental realities, consensus US GDP growth for 2014 has been marked down to 1.7%. Is it any wonder US equity markets are within 1% of their all-time highs?
If the market's are not 'rigged' by HFT teasers front-running any 'real' flow that happens to take its chances on the public stock exchanges, then please - - someone explain this chart.
It appears the US open this morning was accompanied by a significant long-capitulation that slammed "most shorted" stocks down almost 3%. Since then, thanks to a USDJPY liftathon, "most shorted" stocks have levitated back to unchanged and dragged the broad equity markets back up too. The question is - now that the flush has been unwound... what happens to the market?
Broad European stocks are down over 4% in the last few days but that hides the carnage among the most exuberantly excited names on the way up. Portugal, Spain, and Italy have been battered in the last few days (despite everyone explaining how Portugal is so small, contained etc..). Portuguese bond spreads spiked 25bps today as the central-bank-inspired coupling of sovereign-health and banking-system stability drag each other down (Spain and Italy jumped 9bps higher in risk). European bank stocks have cratered and are now negative year-to-date.
Felix Zulauf, James Montier and David Iben: Three legendary investors share their views on financial markets. Everything is pricey ("we will continue to swim in a sea of liquidity; but there might be other events and developments that may not be camouflaged by liquidity which could cause a change of investor expectations.") the European periphery is a bubble ("The Euro crisis is not over...the European economies are not going to change for the better for years to come despite all the cheating and breaking of laws"), Value investors need to venture to Russia ("when you look at today’s opportunity set, you’re left with a set of assets where nothing looks attractive from a valuation point of view") or buy gold mining stocks (" The down cycle could be much bigger than anybody believes if the market realizes that all the actions taken in recent years do not work.") Summing it all up, "there is no question that [sovereigns] lack the fundamental economic base to finally service their debts," trade accordingly.
So far the 21st Century has not been especially kind to equity investors. Yes, markets usually do bounce back, but often in time frames that defy optimistic expectations. Thhe real (inflation-adjusted) purchasing power of that $1,000 is currently, over 14 years later, only $218 above break-even. That equates to a 1.39% annualized real return.
We warned Thursday that there was something wrong with the picture of the equity market's exuberance but it seems the July-4th-week-effect has run its course and equity markets - having read the jobs report over the weekend - have realized it is anything but strong. The Dow just lost 17,000 (however briefly) and equities are catching down to Treasury yield's drop as USDJPY loses 102.00.
Be careful what you wish for. As the Fed imbibes a sense of confidence in its ability to manage any bumps in the road on its perpetual bubble-blowing mission through the use of macro-prudential policies (big words that truly mean nothing) as stock valuations surge and the repo market is experiencing severe problems; it can always point to VIX as an indicator that all is well in the world and no real risk exists. The problem is - the world is beginning to wake up to the 'odd' micro-structure of the US equity markets and how 'dark pools' are beginning to dominate trading volume. As Barclays faces major legal problems over its alleged dark pool lies, lies, and more lies, the Fed must be growing concerned... as the following chart shows JPMorgan indicates there is evidence of an inverse relationship between equity volatility and the share of off-exchange trading.
Risk assets have started the week off on a slightly softer footing but overall volumes are fairly low given the quiet Friday session last week and with the lack of any major weekend headlines. Equity bourses are down between 25-50bp on the day paced by the Nikkei (-0.4%). In China, a number of railway construction stocks are up 3-4% after reports that China Railway Corp will buy around 300 sets of high speed trains and may potentially launch 14 news railway construction projects soon as part of national investment plans.
Day after day, we are bombasted with asset-gatherers, academics, and status-quo-huggers demanding we BTFATH as 'stocks are still cheap..." Some have even deferred modestly to the old standby "stocks are 'fairly valued'" in a last lame effort to save what credibility they have left when they look themselves in the mirror. The fact is - no, stocks are not cheap (as we pointed out here, they are more expensive than at the peak of what Jim Bullard called an obvious bubble). However, still the shrill call of 'stock-picker's market' rings out to encourage the placement of hard-earned savings into easily commissioned AUM. The fact is - as the 3 charts below show - nothing is cheap - Nothing!