Despite ending the month with a whimper, after Fed vice-chairman's hawkish words spooked the market on Friday afternoon, February was the best month for equities in over three years - since October of 2011 - driven by a 7% Nasdaq surge on the back of a gigantic move higher in Apple. And yet, as we have shown time and again, none of this reflects the "decoupling" US underlying economy, which if anything has rapidly recoupled with the rest of the world following 38 data "misses" and only 6 "beats"- the worst "surprise" index in 12 months...
... a world which as Goldman recently showed is now in outright contraction for the first time since 2012.
It also certainly wasn't earnings: February was the first month in which we showed that as a result of plunging revenue and EPS guidance and deteriorating sales and profitability, 2015 will be the first year since Lehman when there will be a full year decline in year-over-year sales.
So if not the economy or fundamentals, and if not the Fed, which as we know is still on sabbatical after its massive QE1-2-Twist-3 $3 trillion liquidity injection, just what has pushed stocks up to jawdropping all time highs?
Here, courtesy of Deutsche Bank, is the answer:
In case it is unclear just what the chart above shows, here is DB's explanation: "buyback announcements have surged with February ($98bn) posting the largest monthly tally on record. The pace of actual buybacks tends to closely follow that of announcements."
And there you have it: the highest number of monthly buyback announcements in history, which for a market that may be broken but can still discount what companies will do (now that they have committed to buybacks) is merely frontrunning the most cost-insensitive buyer in the world: corporate management teams themselves.
It should thus come as no surprise why the S&P500 soared to record highs at a time when US economic data tumbled at the fastest pace in years. It should also explain the relentless buying of AAPL stock (among others), which pushed the Nasdaq to just why of 5000: recall that it was less than 3 weeks ago that AAPL announced it would proceed with merely its latest debt-funded share buyback.
It also explains why, in the absence of the Fed, stocks continue to rise as if QE was still taking place: simply said, bondholders - starved for any yield in an increasingly NIRP world - have taken the place of the Federal Reserve, and are willing to throw any money at companies who promise even the tiniest of returns over Treasuries, oblivious if all the proceeds will be used immediately to buyback stock, thus pushing equity prices even higher, but benefiting not only shareholders but management teams who equity-linked compensation has likewise never been higher.
To be sure, this theater of financial engineering - because stocks are not going up on any resemblance of fundamental reasons but simply due to expanding balance sheet leverage - will continue only until it can no longer continue.
What do we mean by that? Two things:
First, we have previously shown the case studies of Herbalife...
... both of which soared as long as they could lever up, and issue debt which it would promptly be used to repurchase stock which in an already massively illiquid market, meant soaring stock prices. However, once net debt got prohibitively large and creditors would no longer lend, the company had no choice but to halt the buybacks:
We know what has happened to both companies' stock prices since.
The second issue is even more troubling. Recall also from one month ago that according to Goldman's calculations, the biggest source of net inflows, i.e., buyer of stocks, in 2015, will be companies themsleves. Aka: lots and lots of buybacks.... but apparently not enough.
According to Goldman, in 2015 buybacks will amount to a near record $450 billion, making corporations by far the biggest source of equity buying in the US stock market (at least until the Fed returns with QE4). In fact, corporations are now using the generous funds of creditors to offset a little over $400 billion in equity withdrawals (i.e., sales) by both households and pensions, which is also understandable: with Millennials now a lost generations courtesy of an economy that just refuses to recover (aside for the S&P500 of course), the retiring baby boomers who are liquidating ever greater amount of stocks as they retire in droves, are not being offset by a new generation of stock inflows.
For now, corporate buybacks are offsetting this record demand by an ever-older population to cash out of the market and do whatever retirees do in this day and age.
But once the debt levels of corporations, already at record high levels...
... starts becoming a concern to even the most desperate of fixed income managers of "other people's money", and even "Investment Grade" companies rapidly approach Herbalife's leverage levels - now that median EBITDA levels are the lowest relative to total market enterprise value in history - just who will step into a market that has already soaked up every last source of possible stock buying, and become the buyer of last, and only, resort?