Perhaps the most interesting thing about China’s "unprecedented" plunge protection efforts - which, as we outlined on Wednesday, have succeeded in making China Securities Finance Corp. a top-10 shareholder in at least eight firms - is that in some ways, they aren’t “unprecedented” at all. That is, while some of what we’ve seen out of Beijing over the past month - notably the sweeping trading halts and the Politburo agitprop campaign aimed at "malicious" foreign short sellers - was more overt than what we might expect to see in more "developed' markets, there’s certainly nothing terribly unusual about a central bank propping up equities.
After all, the BoJ is well on its way to cornering the ETF market in Japan and, as a matter of policy, steps in to support Japanese stocks when sentiment appears weak, while the SNB has amassed a stock portfolio worth nearly $100 billion. As for the US, well, we’ve made no secret of our feelings about the slightly more than arms-length arrangement between the NY Fed and Citadel.
Meanwhile, US corporate management teams are also in the business of propping up stocks as buybacks have served to replace the monthly flow lost to the taper.
Considering the above, one is certainly left to believe that the term "market" may have lost all meaning in the seven years since the crisis. Here with a rather shockingly honest lament on manipulated markets, the disappearance of Benjamin Graham’s "voting machine", and perhaps most importantly, a vindication of the tinfoil hat fringe blogs, is SocGen.
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No longer a voting machine
If in the short run, to paraphrase Benjamin Graham, equities are a voting machine, then it seems many of these votes are being coerced by interventionists. China is not alone in trying to influence equity prices, central bankers the world over have become obsessed with asset prices, to the extent that the notion of central banks making outright purchases of equities is no longer confined to the lunatic fringe. Of course none of these institutions are remotely interested in 'weighing up' the long-term returns. If they were, given the absence of attractive valuations and actual cash flow growth, they might be a little more circumspect in their cheerleading.
Corporate executives, who are rewarded for achieving EPS and share price targets, typically in the form of stock options, are also experts in the art of creating a short-term positive market impression. And to great effect, given the (literally) incredible performance of some tech stocks last week. Positive price momentum is a powerful force and one that few corporates are likely to readily interrupt with bad news. So while 'prudence accounting'may inform GAAP earnings, it seems largely absent from many of the pro-forma figures corporates would like us to focus on.
One of our favourite charts below highlights the extent to which near-term earnings are influenced (manipulated ...?) by the approaching reporting season. Earnings are usually cut immediately prior to reporting only to see them beaten during that season. We call these "just in time" consensus forecasts. The problem with these manufactured surprises is they create a false impression as ultimately there is no follow-through to higher future expectations – the trend in earnings is still down. So perhaps it is best not to be short during the reporting season.
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