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.
The Zagat-style summary, the market is "extremely overvalued", but it will rise on an "increase in the level of profits" and "we expect an 8% rise in the level of earnings this year", even though "we expect many firms will issue negative earnings guidance ahead of 1Q 2014 reporting season that takes place from mid-April to mid-May."
For the second night in a row, China, and specifically its currency rate which saw the Yuan weaken once more, preoccupied investors - and certainly those who had bet on endless strenghtening of the Chinese currency - however this time it appeared more "priced in, and after trading as low as 2000, the SHCOMP managed to close modestly green, which however is more than can be said about the Nikkei which ended the session down 0.5%. Still, the USDJPY was firmly supported by the 102.00 "fundamental" fair value barrier and as a result equity futures, which had to reallign from tracking the AUDUSD to the old faithful Yen carry, have been propped up once more and are set to open at all time highs. If equities fail to breach the record barrier for the third time in a row and a selloff ensues after the open in deja vu trading, it will be time to watch out below if only purely for technical reasons.
Crowdfunding is set to disrupt the finance industry. Its about time!
Last week it was the largest equity outflow in over two years. This week, following the Monday drubbing which had the temerity to push the S&P to an "unprecedented" 5% from its all time highs, the timid retail investor said enough, and ran for the hills resulting in the largest equity outflow. Ever.
There is one major problem when the entire market is a rigged casino (by both the Fed and HFTs), favoring degenerate gamblers over traditional investors: at the first whiff of trouble everyone bails. Or as BofA politely puts it, "Typically flows follow returns and this week was no exception." In the past week, trouble whiffed, and the degenerate gamblers, loaded up to the gills with record margin debt hightailed it out of the casino, leading to the largest weekly equity fund outflow in over two years! Add some record leverage to the equity withdrawal, continued EM turbulence, ongoing Japanese deflation exports, oh and of course the ongoing Fed taper which has been solely responsible for all S&P gains since 666, and suddenly you have all the ingredients for a broad market crash.
Yes, financial markets are built and intended to fail at times, once they are no longer allowed to fail, they become state tools for policy outcome.
To put this into perspective, this means investors put more money into stocks this year than they did in 2000: at the very peak of the TECH BUBBLE!
With just a tad more than three weeks left in the year it is time to start focusing on what 2014 will likely bring. Of course, what really happens over the next twelve months is likely to be far different than what is currently expected but issuing prognostications, making conjectures and telling fortunes has always kept business brisk on Wall Street.
The correlation between stock prices and margin debt continues to rise (to new records of exuberant "Fed's got our backs" hope) as NYSE member margin balances surge to new record highs. Relative to the NYSE Composite, this is the most "leveraged' investors have been since the absolute peak in Feb 2000. What is more worrisome, or perhaps not, is the ongoing collapse in investor net worth - defined as total free credit in margin accounts less total margin debt - which has hit what appears to be all-time lows (i.e. there's less left than ever before) which as we noted previously raised a "red flag" with Deutsche Bank. Relative to the 'economy' margin debt has only been higher at the very peak in 2000 and 2007 and was never sustained at this level for more than 2 months. Sounds like a perfect time to BTFATH...
There comes a time in every bubble's life when participants who have a stake in its continuation have to employ ever more tortured logic to justify sticking with it. We have come across an especially amusing example of this recently. “Good news!” blares a headline at CNBC “Bubble concern is at a 5-year high”. Ironically, since at least 1999 if not earlier, the source of this headline has been referred to as 'bubble-vision' by cynical observers (or alternatively as 'hee-haw'). It definitely cannot hurt to be aware of market psychology and sentiment. However, the argument that a surge in searches for the term 'bubble' on Google can be interpreted as an 'all clear' for a bubble's continuation seems to have things exactly the wrong way around. The misguided behavior of financial market participants that can be observed during bubbles is merely mirroring the clusters of entrepreneurial error monetary pumping brings about.
This is the single largest allocation of investor capital to stock based mutual funds since 2000: at the height of the Tech bubble. That year, investors put $324 billion into stocks. We might actually match that inflow this year as we still have two months left in 2013.
Last week, Citi's Tobias Levkovich raised numerous concerns about the state of exuberance and "disconcerting disconnects" that is our new normal market currently. In the week since, Citi's proprietary Panic/Euphoria model is sending a clear warning of substantial complacency - its most "euphoric" since 2008. This is worrisome, he notes, since there is an 80% probability of a market decline in the next 12 months based on the current reading.
Last week, Bank of America warned that "it's getting frothy, man" based on the sheer surge of fund flows into equities. Here is the same firm with some other observations on what can simply be described as a "frothy", "overbought", "overmargined" market with "not enough bears."
Normally Treasury Bills are not something discussed around the dinner table or hotly debated on the business news channels. As UBS notes, the fact that the Tbill market has become the focus of attention is an ominous sign, and indicates that the stalemate over the debt ceiling could have profound effects. While TED-Spreads, and financial CDS were the key indicators in 2008, now we must watch money fund flows, and Tbill forwards. In a sense, the Tbill market is the proverbial canary in a coal mine for the US financial system. The canary is not yet back in good health.