With Apple apparently building a lower-cost iPoor model and now accepting iLayaway payments, the question of margins is once again front-and-center. However, the market as a whole is in a world of its own in its consensus view of what US companies are capable of producing next year. As Morgan Stanley notes, 58% of firms are expected to raise their margins YoY through 2012, and then consensus sees a stunning (record-breaking) 76% of firms will raise margins in 2013. If that eye-watering buffoonery is not enough to raise some doubts at the market's implied ebullience, then a reminder that we have seen this divergence from GDP growth and margin growth before - as, simply put, the squeezing of costs to improve margins inevitably plays out down the chain (aggregate supply and demand lags) and increases the load on government as safety net living-standard-provider-of-last-resort. The bottom line is simple - margin expectations must fall and given the dour outlook for top-line growth in a stagnating global economy, that will expectations correction will drop straight to the bottom-line. Of course, prices will be nominally defended by a herd of talking heads expecting moar multiple expansion.
As the S&P 500 pulls within a few percentage points of its nominal all-time highs, despite macro-uncertainty and micro-delusion, perhaps (as UBS' Peter Lee notes) a longer-term perspective is warranted. For over 80 years, the S&P 500 (or its proxy) has cyclically reverted to it its logarithmic trend-line growth. The last time the market pulled away from this bullish up-trend was in 1982 (and the previous period of cyclical reversion took 32 years from 1942 to 1974) and suggests the S&P 500 could well revert to around an 850 level within the next year or so. Perhaps Lee (the anti-thesis of JPM's Tom Lee) needs to read some Birinyi to really understand how to extrapolate? Still, an 80-plus year trend-line perhaps offers some color.
While moustachioed managers, contrary to the far better insight of their superiors, and mainstream spivs are trying to talk down Germany's somewhat stunning shift in thinking - i.e. to repatriate its gold - as nothing but political pandering (or cost-saving); it seems, just as we predicted, the rest of the world are seeing this crack-in-the-confidence-armor the same way we have suggested. As we noted here, the first party to defect from the prisoner's dilemma of all the bulk of global gold being held by the Fed, defects best (then the second, or even the third perhaps) and sure enough, via RTL, we see the Dutch CDA party has requested that Holland's gold supply be repatriated. Who next?
In its somewhat typical fashion, the Beige Book was dominated by the four 'M' words 'mixed', 'moderate', 'measured', and 'modest' as any weakness was blamed on fiscal cliff uncertainty (even though macro data and the market itself seems to have shrugged all of that silliness off rather dismissively). Employment conditions were little changed, Real Estate prices rose in 11 districts,and energy sector activity was mixed:
- *FED: TRENDS IN WAGES, PRICES, EMPLOYMENT 'RELATIVELY UNCHANGED'
- *FED REGIONAL BANKS REPORT 'MODEST OR MODERATE' ECONOMIC GROWTH
Unleash the anecdotal spin...
Unsure what the current blistering start for the S&P 500 means in the new year? Here is David Rosenberg putting the last two years in perspective to the last two weeks. Alas, with fat tails now solely emanating from politicians (as the Fed has guaranteed nothing wrong can ever happen again on the monetary side, until everything goes wrong of course), and politicians being inherently irrational and unpredictable, it is not exactly clear how anyone can factor for what in just one month is sure to be the biggest clash in history between two sides of a Congress that has never been more polarized.
There has been a very strong and concerted public-relations effort to spin the recent shale energy plays of the U.S. as complete game-changers for the world energy outlook. These efforts do not square up well with the data and are creating a vast misperception about the current risks and future opportunities among the general populace and energy organizations alike. The world remains quite hopelessly addicted to petroleum, and the future will be shaped by scarcity – not abundance, as some have claimed.
Just because the endless Israel vs Iran foreplay seems to no longer be exciting the world as much as it did all throughout 2010, 2011 and 2012 when military action seemed imminent over and over, it appears the world has a new geopolitical tension point: the recent incursion into Mali by French (and soon many other) forces, to protect "European interests" against "extremists" operating in the North, and as a corollary - the retaliation by the locals against Western Democratic powers. At least such is the simplistic plot line. Sure enough moments ago Reuters reported that islamist militants attacked a gas field in Algeria on Wednesday, claiming to have kidnapped up to 41 foreigners including seven Americans in a dawn raid in retaliation for France's intervention in Mali, according to regional media reports. The raiders were also reported to have killed three people, including a Briton and a French national. Subsequent reports indicate that the Algerian captives have been let go, and that this is purely an escalation against the invaders, an act which the US state department will harshly condemn at a 1pm press conference, and likely use as a catalyst to unleash US forces in the air or on the ground, to support the French campaign which at last check was going horribly.
It would appear, given the equity market reactions, that investors are not expecting a dramatic impact to the gun-makers as Sturm, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, and even Cabela's are all rising ahead of the Biden-Obama Gun-Control Decree. Perhaps, this is front-running of what is likely to be record-breaking gun sales in the next 48 hours if past history is anything to go by. From the NRA's view of Obama as an "elitist hypocrite", Republican calls for his impeachment, and many US citizens against gun control (even though emotions are raw - 51% of men polled want to protect the right to own guns), it would appear that the populist might be struggling, especially as Politico notes that there are strong indications that any comprehensive legislation restricting weapons and/or ammunition won't even see a vote on the House floor.
It will not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent more than a few cursory minutes reading ZeroHedge over the past few years (initially here, and most recently here, and here) but the rolling 'beggar thy neighbor' currency strategies of world central banks are gathering pace. To wit, Bloomberg reports that energy-bound Russia's central bank chief appears to have broken ranks warning that "the world is on the brink of a fresh 'currency war'." With Japan openly (and actively) verbally intervening to depress the JPY and now Juncker's "dangerously high" comments on the EUR yesterday, it appears 2013 will be the year when the G-20 finance ministers (who agreed to 'refrain from competitive devaluation of currencies' in 2009) tear up their promises and get active. Rhetoric is on the rise with the Bank of Korea threatening "an active response", Russia now suggesting reciprocal devaluations will occur (and hurt the global economy) as RBA Governor noted that there is "a degree of disquiet in the global policy-making community." Critically BoE Governor Mervyn King has suggested what only conspiracists have offered before: "we'll see the growth of actively managed exchange rates," and sure enough where FX rates go so stocks will nominally follow (see JPY vs TOPIX and CHF vs SMI recently).
As if the already documented record $220 billion year end equity market injection courtesy of deposits (being used by bank prop arms to invest in risk assets) was not enough to send markets into nosebleed territory to start the new year, which fully explains the institutional (note: not retail) capital flood into equity funds and ETFs as has been trumpeted every day for the past week by CNBC (we will update the retail data from ICI today), here is yet another reason why the 2012 to 2013 transition has everything to do with trading technicals and nothing to do with fundamentals. As the chart below shows, the reported level of NYSE short interest tumbled as of December 31, to 12.9 billion shares, a major 5% decline - the largest incidentally since December 30, 2011 - the lowest level since March, and a trend which has likely persisted as the shorts once again have thrown in the towel (except for Herbalife of course). Of course, this collapse in bearish sentiment, which goes hand in hand with the surge in NYSE margin debt to 5 years highs, is only sustainable if and only if the Fed has now fully eradicated all risk and all volatility in perpetuity. Which for now, judging by the epic ongoing smackdown in the VIX, is succeeding. That will change.
"By 2020, the Bundesbank intends to store half of Germany’s gold reserves in its own vaults in Germany. The other half will remain in storage at its partner central banks in New York and London. With this new storage plan, the Bundesbank is focusing on the two primary functions of the gold reserves: to build trust and confidence domestically, and the ability to exchange gold for foreign currencies at gold trading centres abroad within a short space of time. The withdrawal of the reserves from the storage location in Paris reflects the change in the framework conditions since the introduction of the euro. Given that France, like Germany, also has the euro as its national currency, the Bundesbank is no longer dependent on Paris as a financial centre in which to exchange gold for an international reserve currency should the need arise. As capacity has now become available in the Bundesbank’s own vaults in Germany, the gold stocks can now be relocated from Paris to Frankfurt."
From Goldman Sachs: "Allowing the sequester to hit would, in our view, have greater implications for growth than a short-lived government shutdown, but would not be as severe as a failure to raise the debt limit. Although Republicans in Congress generally support replacing the defense portion of the sequester with cuts in other areas, there is much less Republican support for delaying them without offsetting the increased spending that would result." And in bottom line terms: "Sequestration would reduce the level of spending authority by $85bn in fiscal year (FY) 2013 and $109bn for subsequent fiscal years through 2021. The actual effect on spending in calendar 2013 would be smaller--around $53bn, or 0.3% of GDP--since reductions in spending authority reduce actual spending with a lag. The reduction in spending would occur fairly quickly; the change would be concentrated in Q2 and particularly Q3 and could weigh on growth by 0.5pp to 1.0pp." In other words: payroll tax eliminates some 1.5% of 2013 GDP growth; on the other side the sequester cuts another 1%: that's a total of 2.5%. So: is the US now almost certainly looking at a recession when all the fiscal components to "growth" are eliminated? And what will the Fed do when it is already easing on "full blast" just to keep US growth barely above 0%?
Looking ahead, we can speculate what this new era will mean for all technology sectors. If this trend holds, then profits within the entire space will slide as the premium slips ever-faster toward near-zero, i.e. every device and software become commoditized. This slide in total product-cycle profits may inhibit innovation as the pay-off dwindles. This trend may also spark greater efforts to erect moats around innovations, for example, more lawsuits against global corporate competitors and louder demands for the U.S. and other advanced nations to limit the importation of knock-off products based on pirated/stolen designs and software. Many observers are of the view that intellectual property rights are impediments, and their weakening is a good thing. But that ignores the motive for innovation: will everyone have to be a Linus Torvalds and innovate in the open-source space? Hardware innovations often require substantial investments of capital. Will those with capital invest in innovations if the premium degrades too quickly to earn a high return? Or have we become greedy, and a lower total return on innovation is an outcome that we should welcome as both inevitable and positive? "Faster, better, cheaper" eventually wins-- but that should not be a justification for theft. Competition should be based on innovation, not on piracy and theft. If someone doesn't like the premium being charged for someone else's innovation, then they can create their own innovation that fills the moat with a lower-cost alternative. That is the sustainable path of "faster, better, cheaper."