Three weeks into January things were looking rather grim.
Plunging crude, jitters about the ongoing (and increasingly unpredictable) yuan devaluation, and spillovers to global risk assets stemming from an ill-fated attempt by Chinese regulators to implement a stock market circuit breaker got US equities off to one of their worst Januarys in history.
Compounding the problem, it seemed that the market had all of the sudden woken up to two very important (and very interconnected) facts: 1) central banks are desperate, and 2) sluggish global growth and trade look to have become structural and endemic rather than cyclical and transitory.
All of this weighed heavily on risk appetite and the bears stood by and watched as a kind of slow motion panic spread through markets. Since then, things have stabilized. Sort of. Oil is still a huge question mark and barring a Saudi production cut (which oil minister al-Naimi made clear on Tuesday isn’t going to happen) will likely continue to fuel the global disinflationary impulse. Meanwhile, markets are asking more questions about negative rates and central banker omnipotence every day.
For those wondering whether we’ll be riding the short squeeze euphoria wave higher, Goldman’s answer is definitively “no.” In a note out this morning, the bank says short covering and positioning have fueled the bounce and that a sustained rebound is exceptionally unlikely until either valuations get significantly more attractive or inflation expectations stabilize.
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Over the past couple of weeks, it would appear that many of the worries that beset the markets through January have faded. But we think it is risky to read too much into price action currently. Volatility remains very high and much of the moves may reflect positioning rather than a genuine change of view about fundamentals. Remember that at the heart of the correction there has been a growing concern about growth and, with it, the risks of deflation.
The rally in the equity market has occurred despite further declines in inflation expectations (and bond yields). In Europe 5 year-5 year forward inflation swaps (which Mr. Draghi has emphasized in the past) have recently hit an all-time low.
Even in the US the market is pricing core CPI inflation to turn negative in 1-years’ time, an outcome that did not occur even in 2008-2009; the 5-year/5-year inflation breakeven rate is only at 1.45% - well below the Fed’s target. Ironically the stabilization in oil prices and EM assets that has been at the core of recent short covering and recovery in risk appetite was probably explained initially more by the fear of weaker data than confidence in a genuine economic recovery. Concerns about a broadening out of the manufacturing downturn in January to the broader economy, together with falling inflation expectations and tightening financial conditions, pushed out the expected timing of interest rate rises. This, in turn, has capped the rise in the US dollar thereby alleviating some pressure on commodity prices and EM currencies.
Another critical ingredient of the rebound in risk assets has been the strengthening of the CNY since February and the narrowing gaps between CNY and CNH. Some would also point to a more stable price for oil which likely led to some short covering and resulted in mining and oil moving to the top of the best performing sector list year to date. However, this may be premature. Hopes of an OPEC deal explained some of the stability in oil prices, but our commodity team expects oil prices to remain volatile and oscillate between $20/bbl and $40/bbl in the near term.
But there has been a roughly 8% rally since the trough – does this mark the start of a sustained recovery in the index?
On the valuation front the picture is complicated. Anything that compares equites to bonds makes equities look very cheap. But on the other hand absolute valuations are not yet cheap – prices have fallen but so have earnings expectations.
As a result, most valuation measures have increased in recent years, leaving equities vulnerable to perceived increases in risks. It is for this reason that we think a continued meaningful rise in markets is not likely unless either valuations have fallen further first, or the macro data shows more meaningful signs of improvement and the fears about deflation shift towards fears of missing the leverage to inflation.
For equities to move meaningfully higher from here, we think valuations would need to be cheaper first (around 11x or 12x forward earnings compared with 14x currently). Without this, the market is likely to remain volatile, but tread water until there is a clear shift in inflation expectations.
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In other words, Goldman thinks stocks need to fall some 20% from here before the buyers come out in earnest.
Goldman’s conclusion: there will be no sustained rally until at least one of the following three things occurs: 1) Valuations become cheap; 2) The broad macro data stabilizes enough to shift up inflation expectations and/or; 3) Policy action becomes more supportive.
Put simply, number 2 isn't going to happen. At least not for the foreseeable future. Oil prices would need to rise dramatically, the global deflationary supply glut would need to moderate on the back of a sustained uptick in aggregate demand, and China would need to stop exporting deflation.
As for number 3, monetary policy can't get any more supportive. Literally. Rates are so low that the cash ban calls are rolling in and for a variety of reasons, policy makers across the globe have been reluctant to embark on massive fiscal stimulus programs.
Finally, as for number 1, either earnings would need to rise or else stocks need to fall. Considering the fact that the world looks very likely to careen into recession just as primary market appettite for the bond deals that are fueling bottom line-inflating buybacks dissipates, we know which alternative seems more likely to us.