As we have discussed numerous times, the dash-for-trash in US equities has been insatiable as any and every consequence of screwing up is slowly removed from capitalism (and capital markets). As Goldman's David Kostin notes, companies with weak balance sheets have outperformed peers with strong balance sheets by 49 percentage points during the past two years (89% vs. 40%) with realized volatility of just 7%.
Although the trend is daunting - to say the least - Goldman believes it will continue for three reasons...
(1) our economic outlook calls for strengthening growth and modest inflation;
(2) corporate leverage remains low; and
(3) the current outperformance is consistent with past episodes of leadership by weak balance sheet companies.
However, all 3 of these reasons are entirely ridiculous...
(1) Goldman itself has been dramatically downgrading its GDP expectations over the past few weeks and consensus for the year is also fading...
(2) Corporate leverage is at record highs and credit spreads are well off cycle tights...
US companies are carrying far more net debt than in 2007
Another curiosity is this notion that US companies have substantially reduced their debt pile and are therefore cash rich. The latter is indeed true. Cash and equivalents are at historically high levels, but rarely do those who mention the mountains of corporate cash also discuss the massive increase in debt seen over the last couple of years.
In fact, debt levels have been growing to such an extent that net debt (i.e. excluding the massive cash pile) is 15% higher than it was prior to the financial crisis.
And Credit spreads are not exactly supportive of equity risk right now...
We have seen this "credit cycle end, equities ramp" before - in 2007 - where leverage (both firm-wise (debt/EBITDA) and instrument-wise (CDOs)) provided the extra oomph to send stocks higher on the back of credit fueled extrapolation of earnings trends.
In the end we know this is unsustainable - the question is when (in 2007 it lasted 10 months or so...).
Of course, just as in 2007, things change very quickly once collateral chains start to shrink.
Perhaps this is why Carl iCahn called the top - because he knows the ability to re-leverage (his bread and butter trade) is over...
The curveball for 2014 – A US recession
One topic no-one is really discussing is a US recession in 2014. We should start to at least consider the risk given the maturity of this cycle. By the end of May 2014 this expansion will be 59 months old which is longer than the average of 39 months (median 30) since data started to be compiled on US business cycles in 1854. The average in the 100 years since the Fed was formed in 1913 is 50 months (median 42). This cycle is now the sixth-longest of the 34 cycles since 1854. Economists will explain that recessions don’t die of old age but because of imbalances that they might argue are not yet present. However consensus never forecasts a recession in advance so one has to find other ways to help us identify the end of the cycle. Across most other regions, business cycles have shortened post the GFC with many economies experiencing a dip into negative territory again sometime between 2011 and 2013 after the recovery in 2009 and 2010. A lack of policy flexibility (fiscal and monetary) post crisis is our main explanation. The US has just about escaped this due to extraordinary monetary and fiscal stimulus. However with both likely on the retreat at the same time in 2014 it’s prudent to acknowledge the already mature length of this cycle.
So the most obvious driver of financial markets in 2014 does seem likely to be how the Fed, the global economy and the market manage to handle the question of the QE taper. Whether the ECB need to implement negative deposit rates or introduce QE will also be a big driver. However experience teaches us that it’s not usually the obvious theme that ends up dominating in the following 12 months.
So apart from all 3 of the reasons for a continued dash-for-trash outperformance being rubbish - we can only imagine Goldman telling its clients to take a dive in the dash-for-trash waterfall is designed to help Goldman build a "strong balance sheet" company position.