Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Connecting the Dots - 5/24/17

Despite holding both the experience and capacity to understand the complexities of the forest, in a post global financial crisis world, when markets head south and loose traction the Fed’s focus narrows to effectively the trees and any brush directly in view. In this respect, they have feared the forest for the trees – for quite some time.

This mentality has supported the longevity of the current economic expansion (3rd longest since 1850), as the Fed has taken a very active and accommodative approach since the financial crisis exhausted with enabling a benevolent market environment for businesses to rebuild and expand within. Consequently, they have more frequently than not erred on the side of extreme caution – predominantly from a reaction perspective to possible outbreaks of brushfire in the markets, while pushing back more hawkish expectations that to-date has avoided “pricking” the business cycle (see perhaps June).

Greatly contributing to the Fed’s fear of destabilizing the economy has been the relative tepid pace of the expansion, which historically would have seen real GDP growth north of 3 percent – a condition completely absent from the data this cycle, despite the unemployment rate in April matching the lows from the previous expansion in the mid-2000s. And although these conditions are likely more normal than not (i.e. within the context of our collective disposition within the trough of the long-term yield and growth super cycle), the sensitivity displayed on the part of the Fed over the past several years may see the current economic expansion die primarily from old age and exhaustion – rather than the characteristic and eventually toxic exuberance more typical of the two previous cycles.

We’ve noted over the past year that Treasuries were the first market to peak in July and breakdown in November, which from a leading intermarket perspective pointed towards a potential breakdown for the US dollar index this spring. 

Over an intermediate-term timeframe the dollar index has followed the structural pivots in long-term Treasuries by several weeks over the past several years, with the relative performance of US equities closely tracking the respective trend in the dollar. Right on schedule and true to form, the US dollar index broke down last month similar to the throw-over top reversal in long-term Treasuries last year.  
Should the dollar breakdown continue, the uptrend in short-term yields that began in November 2014 – subsequent to the dollar breakout in July and the end of the Fed's taper in October of that year – is likely near the top of the cycle. Moreover, despite the support extended by the current uptrend in the fed funds rate; future rate hike expectations in June (78.5% CME FedWatch) or the growing pressure to further normalize the Fed's balance sheet, a leading intermarket relationship is firmly in retracement.    
One could make the analogy that similar to how an elderly patient’s circulatory system weakens before exhaustion, markets have been going through a sequenced transition since last summer. As such, over the long-term we continue to favor counter-cyclical assets like gold that should outperform as the dollar and equities retreat from a cyclical high.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Crowded House

“The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone, is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been.”         – Albert Einstein

When it comes to the financial markets there’s as much madness in crowds as there is wisdom. Granted, most times the trend is your friend and easiest passage, that is – until it’s not. Successfully navigating the shoals of this dynamic shift is forever the challenge for professional money managers. Tact to early and spill the wind and you run the risk of aimlessly drifting out to sea. Stay the course through the inevitable storm and you danger the lives of the passengers and perhaps sink the ship. 

Writing for Bloomberg View this past February, Noah Smith aptly described the subtleties of crowd psychology when applied to finance.

Why are crowds sometimes wise and sometimes mad? Social scientists already have a rough idea of the general answer to that question. Crowd wisdom works because people’s mistakes are haphazard and uncorrelated. Everyone’s guess is a combination of signal and noise -- we have some idea of the real weight of a cow, or the real value of a stock, but we also have our own wrong ideas and preconceptions and irrationalities. But because my errors aren’t the same as yours, when you and I combine our guesses, the true knowledge shines through while the random errors tend to cancel out.

But when the people in a crowd communicate, their mistakes are no longer uncorrelated. When one person’s misjudgments influence another person’s thinking, the errors can snowball and wreck the whole forecast. Any number of studies confirms the general principle -- once people start talking and arguing and persuading each other, crowds turn into herds, and the magic disappears. – The Wisdom and Madness of Crowds

These societal tensions are also neatly distilled by Soros’s theory of reflexivity, where a distinction is made between the objective and subjective aspects of reality and the feedback loops that materially influences and affects both sides. The subjective refers to what takes place in our minds, the objective represents what takes place in external reality. Soros suggests that when it comes to the financial markets, the fundamental value of an asset is always being weighed by our collective and subjective reasoning. In essence, our perception of an asset literally shapes its worth, which in turn can further influence our expectations – often times reinforcing a feedback cycle. At the crux of the theory is the belief that inevitably a distortion and divergence from realistic valuation manifests, which Soros looks to exploit at different points along the behavioral continuum.

Where we’re going with this – if you haven’t already guessed… is that we have a strong suspicion that the wisdom of crowds today in stocks has created enough distortion from reality that it makes sense to walk away from it. Whether it’s the belief that US equities are under a more secular persuasion higher – which from our perspective is strongly rebuked by our historical understanding of the long-term yield/valuation cycle; or that parts of the world, namely Europe, represents great opportunity relative to US markets  the fallacies of our collective assumptions have been reflexively interacting, resulting with arguably the second highest valuation for US stocks in history and a gathering of investors now in Europe that appear to have quickly forgotten the real structural challenges still within the EU and that perennial asset unwinds have very long tails across very long timeframes.

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Last June, we took a look at Spain’s IBEX, which appeared to point towards an interim low with the possibility that its cyclical decline had run its course. With a little less than a year from that observation and with a more than 45 percent rally in the IBEX from the post Brexit lows of late June, the window to buy into the reflexive rally appears to be closed. In fact, when contrasted with the historic perennial unwind of the Nikkei that we’ve followed and utilized for guidance in Europe over the past 4 years, the IBEX’s swift retracement rally has already met the comparative highs of the Nikkei in late March 2000. The retracement level represents both a long-term technical and sentiment hinge, as a potential higher high of the IBEX’s broad inverse head and shoulders would be a bullish long-term development, reinforcing the markets reflexive tendencies already in play. 
That said – and why we incorporate historic comparative trends as guideposts in the road, we’re more inclined to view the rally as advanced with a greater possibility that the more bullish assumptions made of Europe have been predicated on false hopes. Considering the recent collapse of the gap between "soft" and "hard" data here in the US, hope certainly wasn't in short supply. Is it enough to keep the cycle going? We wouldn't bet on it.