While we have yet to do the actual math on the now-concluded second quarter earnings season, to find out if spending on buybacks surpassed the Q1 record, one thing is still quite clear: with the impact of Fed's QE fading, if only for the time being, buybacks remain the marginal driver, and according to some only driver, of stock market upside in 2014. This was shown explicitly in this chart we posted three months ago:
However one person who has decided not to wait in declaring the buyback party over, is SocGen's Albert Edwards, the same person who correctly forecast back in late 2012 the epic scramble by investment grade (and high yield) companies to lever up, incidentally, to record levels crushing all the endless blather that there is some massive corporate deleveraging going on.
This is what Edwards said in his latest note:
Much has happened over the summer, but two landmark firsts have occurred only recently, with the S&P500 breaking above 2,000 and the 10y bund yield breaking below 1%. Our Ice Age thesis has long called for sub-1% bond yields and I see this extending to the US and UK in due course. It is the equity markets where I have been consistently surprised. QE has been an essential driver for the equity market, providing the fuel for the heavy corporate bond issuance being used for share buybacks. Companies themselves have been the only substantive buyers of equity, but the most recent data suggests that this party is over and as profits also stall out, the equity market is now running on fumes
In other words, while QE has been the permissive factor enabling companies to engage in zero cost debt-funded stock repurchases, it was corporate CFOs and Treasurers who, in lieu of traditional retail and institutional buyers, have been the marginal buyers of stocks in the tail end of the most ridiculous, rigged, and as CNBC likes to call it, "unloved" rally of all time.
Here is the bad news:
It is widely accepted the Fed?s QE programme has inflated asset prices way above fundamental values (higher inequality being one unwelcome by-product). Andrew Lapthorne has identified the mechanism whereby QE, by shrinking the available stock of investable government bonds, has encouraged investors to instead gobble up other debt assets all along the risk spectrum. Companies issuing at low yields into this buying frenzy are doing what they always like doing with debt in the final throes of an economic cycle ? they issue cheap debt to buy expensive equity. Decent profit (cashflow growth) may be more than sufficient to cover capital expenditure and dividends, but a gargantuan funding gap emerges as companies also undertake their corporate finance zaitech activities (see chart below, Andrew also calculates that currently almost a third of all buybacks are to cover the expense of maturing management share options ? QE is indeed making the rich richer!).
Of course, none of this is new: this particular cycle always mean reverts, as does the business cycle itself: the same business cycle which the Fed, with its infinite manipulation of all asset classes, and in its infinite stupidity, thinks it can control and delay the onset of the recession, when all it is really doing is making the drawdown that much more severe when it ultimately, and inevitably does hit:
... the elephant in the equity buying ring has been the US corporates themselves (see chart below), who have been hoovering up stock at a prolific pace from the household sector (mainly) financed by debt (see chart below). This is a normal cyclical event but made easier this time around by QE.
In retrospect there can be little doubt that QE has washed through the financial markets and elevated share prices via this route. The problem is that this pro-cyclical event has a habit of stopping suddenly for the usual reasons ? i.e. recession or a closure of the credit markets, etc. Andrew in his 18 Aug note shows that is exactly what seems to have happened in the latest Q2 data where share buybacks have actually declined dramatically on both a QOQ and YOY basis. He believes the end of QE may be directly responsible for this - see Bye-bye buybacks ? the end of QE is already being felt in the equity market.
The good news, if only for those sick of all the endless Fed manipulation of every asset class, something even Steve Liesman finally acknoledges, is that is if finally all ending...
This pro-cyclical process always ends in tears and is regarded in retrospect as typical end-of-cycle madness. For when the funding for corporate bond issuance stops (for whatever reason, i.e. QE ends), share buybacks also stop and one of the biggest drivers for the equity bull market is removed.
The equity bubble has disguised the mountain of net debt piling up on US corporate balance sheets (see charts below). This is hitting home now QE has ended. The end of the buyback bonanza may well prove to be decisive for this bubble. Indeed - is that a hissing I can hear?
... at which point the Fed will have no choice but to step in again, and the central-planning game can restart again from square 1, until finally the Fed's already tenuous credibility is lost, the abuse of the USD's reserve status will no longer be a possibility, and the final repricing of assets to their true levels can begin.