The S&P 500 has made little headway for two years running and as Gluskin Sheff's David Rosenberg points out, it first crossed 1380 on July 1, 1999 and since then has run around like a headless chicken (while other asset classes have not). Meanwhile, Europe's bottomless pit of debt deleveraging (which is as much a problem for the US and China but less ion focus for now) makes the entire discourse of some new and aggressive intervention by the ECB even more ridiculous (and all so deja vu); and the US is facing up to an entirely topless earnings season as revenues are coming in at only 1.2% above last year as it appears Q2 EPS is on track for a 0.2% YoY dip - with guidance falling fast. But apart from all that, Rosie sees the only source of real buying support for the stock market is the stranded short-seller forced to cover in the face of CB-jawboning as there is little sign of long-term believers stepping into the void.
Headless Chicken Markets: BULL OR BEAR?
The cup is half full camp would lay claim that the S&P 500 is not only still up on the year in what has been a challenging 2012 but it is more than twice the lows posted in March 2009.
A discerning bear, however, would point to the fact that the index has made little headway for two years running and keep in mind that it first crossed the 1,380 mark on July 1, 1999 and since then:
- It has crossed 59 times above and below the 1,380 level on a closing daily basis
- Gold is up 515%
- The producer price index is up 45%
- The consumer price index is up 37%
- The 10-year Treasury total return index is up 160%
- The 30-year Treasury total return index is up 215%
So bench-marked against gold prices, producer prices, consumer prices, or bond prices, the secular bear market in equities remains an ongoing phenomenon.
Bottomless Europe: UNRESOLVED DEBT ISSUES
Quote of the day:
What can they do and what would bring about a sustained turnaround in market confidence? There I struggle to find something that would really be convincing.
From Jacques Cailloux, chief European economist for Nomura, in yesterday's NYT (page B3).
Indeed, this entire discourse on some new and aggressive intervention by the ECB is all so ridiculous, and all so déjà vu. The ECB has already done two LTROs and bought bonds outright before. Draghi is still throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. The bottom line is that monetary policy is a blunt tool to deal with structural insolvency issues as they pertain to bank and government balance sheets. The ECB has only a temporary effect and then bond yields go back up in the periphery. Until there is a move to solve the issue of too much debt relative to the economy's capacity to service the debt, the problem will re-emerge.
Meanwhile, the credit crunch in the euro area continues unabated, exacerbating recessionary pressures. Cross-border lending by German banks to the periphery has declined nearly 20% in the past seven months to stand at the lowest level since 2005. Overall bank loan books in Spain. Greece and Portugal have contracted 2% as deposits shift to the northern regions. At the same time, the entire regional banking sector is beset by a trillion euros worth of impaired loans, which have expanded 9% from a year ago (2.5 trillion euros are non-performing) with Spain, Ireland and Italy suffering with the largest increases.
Europe for some reason continues to believe that a debt crisis can be fought with more debt. Maybe because they think this strategy has worked in the United States. But it hasn't and the U.S. is either recession-bound or at best left with a listless economy, and also will likely soon face its own existential moment from a fiscal crisis perspective if it doesn't get its act together. If left unchecked, the day will come when the entire revenue base will be absorbed by interest expense, defense, health care and social security.
TOPLESS EARNINGS SEASON
The numbers vary by the hour and the data source. but it looks like Q2 operating EPS of S&P 500 companies is on track for a 0.5% YoY dip — by far the weakest since the recovery began three years ago (and well below consensus views of +3% a month ago) . The big problem !s revenues which are coming in just 1.2% ahead of year-ago levels and only 43% are beating their sales targets the lowest since the first quarter of 2009 (only the fourth time in the past 10 years that the beat-rate was under 50%).
The other problem is guidance. The WSJ cites research that finds that 40 companies have already warned about Q3 versus only eight who have raised guidance. We have not seen a gap like this since the onset of the tech wreck in the second quarter of 2001. The bottom-up consensus is now looking for just +3.3% for YoY EPS growth for Q3 — last October, the analysts collectively were calling for 14.5% for the quarter. Talk about a mea-culpa.
Summing It All Up
All that said, the key for all of us is to understand that we are still in the throes of a debt deleveraging cycle that first engulfed the housing and consumer sectors and is now attacking the government sector in country after country. It is not only Europe. China and the U.S.A. too. There is still far too much debt at all levels of society relative to the world's capacity to service it. This is a critical reason why government and central bank policies aimed at fighting traditional recessions in the past have so far been ineffective and now we have monetary authorities dipping into the toolbox of unconventional balance sheet expansions and contortions.
We have governments battling a debt deleveraging cycle of epic proportions, and by definition, these phases involve debt paydowns, defaults, and rising savings rates — a highly deflationary brew. And it also means that we now reside in a world of fat-tail distribution risks, where the range of outcomes is unusually wide, as opposed to the comfort zone of a classic post-WWII cycle, where we understood what caused recessions and we knew exactly what it took to get out of them, and where there was a much thinner tail to the probability curve.
May those days rest in peace. But once we can acknowledge that we are in a fat-tail world, it is akin to moving into the acceptance phase of the classic five Kubler-Ross stages of grief. This is no time for denial.