The equity market’s reactions to monetary policy inflection points, when (or if) the Fed takes the first step to normalize monetary policy following easing in response to recession, have been reasonably similar. As Barclays' Barry Knapp notes, irrespective of the pace of policy accommodation removal – the average policy normalization-related correction during the prior six business cycles is 8.9%. While our memories of an extremely volatile September – five years ago – remain fresh, the last four have been exceptionally tame. However, while another period of fiscal uncertainty seems likely, Knapp fears there is a key difference between this September and the surprisingly low volatility Septembers in 2009-12. In those periods, the Fed was either buying assets or had pre-announced a new program; this year, it is preparing to weaken the portfolio balance effect.
Following this period of extraordinary monetary policy accommodation, Barclays Barry Knapp notes it stands to reason that, although there is some room for additional risk premium contraction (the aggregate measure for the S&P 500 remains above the long-term mean), the equity market on a stand-alone basis can hardly be considered cheap. In fact, looking across a broad range of balance sheet and income statement metrics over a period we would characterize as representative (albeit with a somewhat large dispersion of 1973-present), the equity market is above the long-term mean on every measure. But it gets better. There is little doubt that liquidity will prove challenged in coming weeks but market participants appear to be far too relaxed about events as equity market risk measures are close to the low risk point of their post-crisis range. So expensive valuations and risk complacency - BTFATH?
The Big Buyers ... Unmasked
'Nothing can stop us now' appears to be the message we are being fed as Bullard et al. confirm we should rest assured that the Fed will pump as long as there's a sun in the sky. However, there is a little fly in that ointment that just keeps on popping up. As Barclays' Barry Knapp notes, gas prices have risen high enough to hurt stocks if history is any guide. Gas prices, which have risen every day since January 17th are pressuring the critical $3.80 level that has capped valuations for the equity market in the last three years. The last times gas prices have risen this high, consumer spending growth has stalled and just as we have noted previously, it appears the only thing that can tame the enthusiasm of a liquidity-addicted equity market is a cash-strapped consumer pulling back. The double-edged sword is simple, Knapp notes: any slowing of economic growth that stems from higher gas prices may prevent companies from meeting earnings projections; whereas sustained expansion would increase the risk of inflation and put pressure on the Fed to scale back its QE4EVA. Rock meet hard place.
From macro to micro; from momentum to valuation; and from money supply to expectations, the 'new normal' in which investors find themselves is one currently dislocated and 'different' from the past. However, as we have seen all too often in the past, these dislocations do not last forever. And with positioning (here, here, and here) as bullish as its ever been, it seems there is little room for error in economic reality catching up to stocks 'hope'-filled expectations.
A total of 22 companies, 4% of the S&P 500 market cap, have reported 4Q12 results. Of these, 64% have topped revenue estimates and 68% topped earnings estimates (considerably lower than average). Aggregate earnings results have exceeded estimates by 1%, revenues have missed by 0.5%, and blended margins are down 12bps y/y. As Barclays' Barry Knapp notes, the last several quarters, earnings seasons have generally been characterized by revenue misses, earnings beats (but by a shrinking amount), and negative guidance; as a result, there has been a negative skew to stock prices. In other words, in the immediate aftermath of the report, earnings beats are marginally outperforming the market, while misses get hammered, primarily due to weak forward guidance. The sustainability of earnings growth remains key given the weak top-line environment and these three self-explanatory charts should hopefully put some fundamental color around the perspective that earnings season will be a negative for the market overall.
Barclays' Barry Knapp has joined the growing crowd of 'sub-1400 year-end S&P 500 target' realists among sell-side equity strategists. With Morgan Stanley's Adam Parker at 1167 and Goldman's David Kostin at 1250, Knapp just reduced his target to 1325 as he notes "the election scenario that unfolded was the one with the most risk, the status quo outcome." In a brief but densely packed interview on Bloomberg TV (the likes of which we suspect we will not see on CNBC), Knapp summarizes his non-rose-colored-glasses view: "In the longer term, while U.S. growth ... remains constrained by policy uncertainty and balance sheet deleveraging. Financial repression has limited the Fed’s effectiveness... We believe a period of significant equity market valuation improvement can’t begin until the Fed initiates the exit strategy process, which is unlikely to occur until Federal government debt sustainability is addressed." From lame-duck impotence to tax-selling pressures, Knapp nails our new reality and explains, as we have been saying, that the only solution lies in a market-forced move: "We suspect, absent a market correction large enough to force compromise, the two sides will not agree on the starting point for tax rates." Must Watch...
The Summer of hope is over. Analysts return to their desks amid a grand-tour of conferences, industry gatherings, and company meetings, and - as has happened on average for the last twelve years - expectations are notched down from first-half-of-the-year 'hope' that this-time-is-different. Barclays' Barry Knapp notes that while macro risks seem more balanced than last spring, equity investors face a considerably higher risk in that of elevated earnings estimates. Since 2000, the worst month for analyst estimate revision momentum (net revisions) is also October, followed by September and December (tied). It stands to reason (though it’s tough to statistically ‘prove’) that equity investors and analysts return from vacation, attend conferences, and cut their earnings estimates. This, in turn, contributes to increased volatility and negative returns. While many will be focused on broader concerns – the ECB meeting, German Constitutional Court, presidential polls and macro data – equity investors are likely to hear a consistent message from the ~180 conferences: the global and domestic economic outlook is not robust enough to justify 11% y/y earnings growth in 4Q12 or 12% in 2013.
We have discussed at length the need for the equity market to be significantly lower in order for Bernanke to step in with his munificence. Critically, this is less about the absolute level of the S&P 500 (though anyone expecting the Fed chairman to step in with the S&P 500 within a few percent of multi-year highs is dreaming) but, as Barry Knapp from Barclays notes - based on Bernanke's writings - additional monetary stimulus is a function of a significant drop in inflation expectations (as opposed to a shallow drop in the S&P 500). It is the risk of deflation that will trigger a policy reaction. Current conditions are not even close to levels that have warranted additional stimulus in the past - which we estimate to be a 2% 5Y5Y forward inflation breakeven rate. In order for that level to be triggered - based on the post-crisis relationship between equities and inflation expectations - the S&P 500 trailing earnings yield would need to rise over 8.2% implying an S&P 500 level near 1200. Tracking inflation expectations is critical to any NEW QE hope - and for now, there is none on the horizon, no matter how much everyone clamors for it.
Firstly, I prefer the label “realist” as a more apropos label than “gloom and doomer”. Most of us that have remained realists for the past six years or so have a very public track record through public blog posts and public interviews