David Rosenberg On A Modern Day Depression Vs Dow 20,000

From David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff

The challenge ahead is one of expectations. I think we win be fortunate to see any GDP growth at all for Q3, and yet the consensus is at +2.2%. The consensus is at +97k on July non-farm payrolls whereas the claims data point to sub-80k. Among the analysts, hope springs eternal that expected revenue growth of +2.6% in Q4 will be enough to generate a +12.1% expansion in bottom-line performance.

To meet that profit forecast, even more cost-cutting will have to come our way (no sooner do we say that than we see this article on page 61 of the WSJ: Steelmaker Presses for 26% Pay Cut). This may be encouraging for profits, but will also come at the expense of labour income, and with that, a sluggish consumer. Concerns over the fiscal cliff have already led to a renewed uptrend in the personal savings rate. The worst drought in the U.S. in a half-century are sending food costs sharply higher, which will severely pinch discretionary outlays, and whatever respite there had been of late from relief at the gas pumps has come to an end (have a look at Price Check: Drought May Hit Grocery Tabs, also on page 61 of the weekend WSJ). Survey after survey shows a sharp turndown in hiring plans as well.

This is looking more and more like a modem-day depression. After all, last month alone, 85,000 Americans signed on for Social Security disability cheques, which exceeded the 80,000 net new jobs that were created: and a record 46 million Americans or 14.8% of the population (also a record) are in the Food Stamp program (participation averaged 7.9% from 1970 to 2000, by way of contrast) — enrollment has risen an average of over 400,000 per month over the past four years. A record share of 41% pay zero national incomes tax as well (58 million), a share that has doubled over the past two decades. Increasingly, the U.S. is following in the footsteps of Europe of becoming a nation of dependants.

Meanwhile, policy stimulus, whether traditional or non-conventional, are still falling well short of generating self-sustaining economic growth. Some investors see this deflationary trendline because it is they that have helped drive the S&P Dividend Aristocrats index (contains large-caps that have consistently raised their payouts over the past 25 years) up 10.5% in the past month and actually touched a new all-time high last week. The likes of Kraft, Wal-Mart, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Merck all managed to reach 52-week highs as well. So even in this tough macro and market environment, there are ways to put money to work — in areas of the market that generate a reliable dividend stream for investors and produce a product that people need, not what they want.

Investors must not only screen for earnings visibility, non-cyclicality, dividend payout potential, strong management and high quality balance sheets with a manageable debt maturity calendar, but also for fully-funded pension plans. The S&P 500 space, right now, contains 338 defined-benefit plans, with aggregate obligations of $1.68 trillion but assets of just $1.32 billion, for an unprecedented underfunded liability of $355 billion. So you know the record cash-stash on corporate balance sheets that are often cited as a prime reason to be bullish on Corporate America the real issue is the extent to which shoring up depleted pension funds will compete with stock buybacks and dividend growth in the future. One thing is for sure — a reversion back to the old defined-contribution pensions is clearly coming back into focus as company after company seek out ways to reduce their contribution rates.

DOW 20,000?

Well, this is perfect.

It is amazing how many pundits still believe in stocks for the long run. See The Long-Term Argument for Dow 20,000 on page 6 of the Sunday NYT Money & Business section. Shades of Jeremy Siegel.

So what are we left to conclude?

Last week, we saw the VIX index touch 15. The Investors' Intelligence survey showed there to still be two bulls for every bear in the realm of market newsletters. The put-call ratio had fallen through 1:1 after a 20% decline since early June. The bottom-up consensus of equity analysts see global profit growth of 13.5% for 2013, which is more than a double from the 6.3% projection for this year. The S&P 500 is currently trading much closer to the top end of its year-long 1.100-1,400 band than the low end. And now we see headlines of Dow 20,000 (whatever happened to the other 15,000 points Dr. Siegel promised 13 years ago)? Where exactly is there any sign of capitulation beyond, say, the mutual fund flows data which are illustrating even to the most casual observer that what we are witnessing on this front is little more than a demographic-driven rebalancing of the baby boomer asset mix as the investment lifecycle continues along a secular shift towards capital and cash-flow preservation themes.

The bottom line is that from the spring of 2009 to the spring of 2011, the stock mark doubled, and it doubled principally because of a wild short-covering rally in the financials which were priced for insolvency at the lows. It was a classic 1933-1936 bounce that never saw a new high and never foreshadowed better times ahead. The Great Depression ended nearly a decade later and the next secular bull market did not begin until 1954. And from what history teaches us, secular bear phases do not typically end with headlines about Dow 20,000 but rather with contrarian news like The Death of Equities on the front cover of BusinessWeek back in 1979 (or Awash in Oil on the front cover of the Economist back in 1999, when crude prices were turning in their secular lows).


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Of course, for the laugh track, here again is James Altucher from June of 2011, predicting Dow 20,000 as recently as a month ago.