@theMarket: Higher Wages Clobber Markets
@theMarket: Higher Wages Clobber Markets
Gains in a worker's paycheck are supposed to be a good thing, right? It means they can spend more, which contributes to growth in the economy, and maybe have a happier life. If all of that is true, why has the stock market swooned in response to Friday's labor report?
It's simple really. The non-farm payrolls report was another upside surprise. The nation gained 200,000 jobs in January, which is better than the 180,000 we expected. While the official unemployment remained at 4.1 percent for the fourth straight month, it was the growth in wages that surprised the market most.
Hourly wages rose 0.3 percent over the prior month. That brings the year-over–year wage gains to 2.9 percent versus last year. That's the best wage gain news since 2009. However, what may be good for workers, may not be good for the stock market and here's why.
The labor market is tight. There are thousands of jobs out there that are unfilled and that number is mounting. Now, what happens when you need a skilled worker and can't find one? You have to raise wages and woo someone else's worker to you. Right now, the construction and food services areas are feeling the pinch. In those areas, wages have spiked by as much as 4 percent.
Since both I and the country's central bank use wage growth as an important gauge of future inflation, a rapid increase in hourly compensation could force the Fed to raise interest rates higher and faster than investors expected (in order to head off a spike in inflation before it happens).
As we entered 2018, investors were not discounting higher inflation. Instead, they have betting on moderate GDP growth, a continuation of modest rate hikes throughout the year by the Fed, and robust earnings growth.
And then Congress and the president passed tax reform.
Ask yourself this question: if President Trump is correct and the tax cut is going to mean American corporations will be spending that $1.5 trillion in tax savings on investment, while hiring new skilled workers at higher wages, what do you think is going to happen to wage growth?
As I have said before, we did not need a tax cut. The jobs market was already tight (as we can see in the numbers today). The economy did not need to grow any faster than it already was. The time to have passed a tax cut of this size was in the Obama years when the Fed was begging Congress to help stimulate the economy. Instead, Congress refused, arguing that it would balloon the deficit, something the GOP was steadfastly against. Instead, Republicans insisted that spending should be cut, which it was. The result: years of slow growth, misery and high unemployment.
Fast forward to today. The tax cut is blowing up the U.S. deficit as a result of the Republicans change of heart towards deficits (go figure). This week's U.S. Treasury bond auction revealed that the Treasury is going to have to sell much more debt in order to fund this tax cut-driven deficit. In the bond market, the more debt the nation sells, the more interest bond buyers are going to demand. This will apply even more pressure to the upward path of interest rates.
It is already happening. Since the tax cut passage, the U.S. benchmark interest rate, the 10-year bond, has spiked past 2.70 percent (today it is trading at 2.85 percent). Many bond players believe if the ten-year cracks 3 percent, the stock market is going to have a big correction. By the way, the thirty-year U.S. Treasury bond has just topped 3 percent, so you see where this is going.
Readers may recall my distinct unhappiness at this tax reform. Over several weeks, I tried to warn readers that this tax cut was going to be a disaster. Those in the Trump camp discounted my columns, sending me hate mail instead. Partisans on the other side simply cried all the way to the bank as the stock market roared higher in January.
Okay, so now what? It is not the end of the world. Instead, these fears of higher rates, spiking inflation, etc. are overblown for now, since we do not have enough data to determine what will unfold as the year progresses. Right now, these events are simply an excuse the markets needed to pull back. Something I have said is long overdue. That is healthy. How far down? I am expecting a 5-6 percent pullback overall before the market resumes its upward trend.
Remember, I have said that if the tax cut is simply a "thank you" from the Republican Party and the president to business and the wealthiest one percent of taxpayers for their 2017 campaign contributions, than it is simply politics as usual and no harm done.
If companies use the tax windfall to buy back shares, pay bigger dividends, and reward their CEOs, that helps the stock market, but not the economy or its workers. Inflation will increase, but at a modest pace, and the Fed will continue its program of gradually tightening, instead of jacking rates up quickly and driving the country into recession. We won't know which way this will play out until the spring. In the meantime, hang in there and hope that the tax cut was simply a payoff and tool to buy votes in November's elections.
@theMarket: Bulls Barrel Through Another Week
Better quarterly earnings trumped concerns of a declining greenback this week sending all the U.S. stock averages to yet more record highs. There appears to be no end in sight for this continued "melt-up" in the markets.
Over in Davos, Switzerland, President Donald Trump addressed the annual World Economic Forum. For the most part, it was a classic display of "Trumpisms"— MAGA, unfair trading partners, historic stock market. His "ain't American grand again, thanks to me" message failed to impress most of his foreign audience although his supporters were ecstatic over his speech. But whether you love him, or hate him, "The Donald" never fails to make headlines.
Steve Mnuchin, the administration's treasury secretary, was also at Davos. He managed to sink the dollar by over 2 percent on Wednesday, simply by failing to toe the line of former U.S. officials. The mantra of past secretaries had always been a strong dollar is good for America. Instead, Munchin, when asked about the weakening dollar, commented that short-term gyrations in the dollar did not concern him.
That's all the media and currency traders needed to hear. The dollar tanked, commodities roared, and news stories were circulating that U.S. currency policy had changed. By Thursday, Trump and his damage-control team went into action, denying all of the above and that the dollar would "become stronger and stronger." Mnuchin later insisted he had been misinterpreted and that a strong dollar was in the best interests of our country.
The greenback played yo-yo for the rest of the week. Down, up, down and by Friday back to the same levels it had been before the controversy. To be fair, Mnuchin was just telling it like it is. The truth is that no country's treasury secretary cares the least bit about the short-term meanderings of their country's currency, as long as those movements are within an acceptable range. To me, it was refreshing to hear someone acknowledge the facts of currency life, but what do I know?
The dollar's recent decline was triggered when Former Fed Chairwoman, Janet Yellen, mentioned that inflation was weak and might continue to be so. That set off some speculation that the Feds' intent to hike rates further might change, which would keep U.S. rates low. In addition, other central banks have recently signaled their intent to re-examine their monetary stimulus programs that could mean higher rates abroad.
Between the possibility of higher interest rates overseas, plus stronger global growth prospects elsewhere, investors are realizing that there are places besides the U.S. to put your money. Selling some green-backs and buying Euros or Yen-denominated stocks might make sense. Stocks worldwide had another great week as a result.
As for the market, overall, we are beginning to see a bit more volatility. By itself, that is not a bad thing, because the stock market is supposed to be volatile, and I suspect that may continue. At the same time, there is an overwhelming feeling out there that the market is living on borrowed time. With investor sentiment registering about 12 percent bears, many strategists are promising it is not "if" but "when" that pullback will occur. They are probably right. But before you begin thinking that you can time this market take note. The odds that you or me can get it right this time, meaning picking the top (and picking the bottom to get back in) is no better than winning the lottery.
@theMarket: Melt-Up Continues
It's been the best two weeks for the U.S. markets in decades. Investors seemingly can't get enough stocks in their portfolios, no matter how high the indexes climb. Ain't it grand?
Over the past few weeks, I have explained in detail that the stock market is in "melt-up" mode. You may think it's crazy, or that the gains are a result of excessive exuberance. You may even be sitting there with your arms crossed, pointing your finger at me and predicting this is all going to end badly for investors. That's fine, provide as many opinions as you like, but stay invested in the meantime.
Some ask me how you can have the U.S. dollar declining, while interest rates and stocks climb at the same time. Then there are the commodities — gold, basic materials, mines and metals — all moving up with stocks. Is there, in fact, anything except bond prices that are down?
Some of the movements can be explained by expectations that inflation will be rising in the future, based on the added stimulus of the Republican tax reform. The rise in interest rates anticipates what the Fed might do as a result of rising inflation (raise rates faster than expected). The lower dollar may also signify that bond investors may be able to get a better return on their money by investing in foreign markets outside the U.S.
Of course, all of the above trends can reverse on a dime next week, since no one really knows what impact the tax cuts will actually have on the economy. The interesting thing I have noticed since the beginning of the year has been how opinions on what is in store for the markets this year seems to have solidified.
In one corner, we have the doomsayers. The tax cut was unnecessary and will screw up the Fed's carefully planned interest rate model of gradually raising rates and reducing bond purchases. They fear that rates will need to rise faster to head off the inflationary impact of tax cuts. The markets will collapse as a result and the second half of the year is not going to be pretty.
No, no, say the Trumpsters and their followers. The tax cuts are going to "Make America Great Again." Jobs will be plentiful, GDP will grow even faster (by 3 percent or more), that earnings will accelerate, both as a result of huge tax savings, as well as by an ever-growing economy. As for inflation, well, it seems to be behaving itself thus far, so why worry about it until we have to?
At our firm, we pride ourselves on a contrarian outlook. We go left when others go right and vice versa. As such, we like to follow investor sentiment as it pertains to the stock market. The recent "Investor Intelligence" numbers (which measure such things) indicate the percentage difference between those who are optimistic about the future direction of the market, and those who are pessimistic, have reached the highest level since 1986. Only 13.5 percent of investors expect the market to decline.
This overly-optimistic view is a sobering statistic. The level of optimism is even greater than it was just before the 2008 crash. It has always indicated an extremely overbought condition in the stock market. For people like me, it provides a contrarian view that is invaluable in times like this. However, investor sentiment is not the only variable that we (or you) should watch.
Things like: how expensive are the markets versus earnings expectations? At the present level of interest rates, could valuations simply be considered fairly-valued? The Trumpsters could have it right. The markets may actually be undervalued if all turns out well on the tax cut front.
That is the reason why I have urged readers to stay invested throughout all of last year and into today. Sure, somewhere down the road (maybe even tomorrow) something will come along to knock the markets down anywhere from 3 percent to 10 percent. So what?
Don't try to time it. It is just too hard to predict what central banks will do next. What a non-politician in the White House will do or not do, or when this bull market will peak. If you have money to invest, start investing it a little at a time. You may be lucky in your timing and actually catch some of the long-awaited down draft, but don't get cute, or you may find yourself on the sidelines while the market gains another 10 percent.
@theMarket: Look! Up in the Sky! It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's the Stock market!
The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained a thousand points in a month. In just the first three days of 2018, all three U.S. averages hit consecutive record highs. Overseas indexes did even better.
Japan, for example, was up more than 3 percent on its first trading day of the year. Emerging markets continue to make new highs, while European bourses continue to climb. Those who expected the markets to tank in the New Year have thus far been wrong. How long can this last?
Short sellers, convinced that stocks just have to come down, bet on a market decline and have had their head handed to them on a daily basis. Undeterred, they point to the "overbought" indicators that have been flashing red for weeks now. Investor sentiment numbers continue to climb to nose-bleed levels as well, which is usually a contrary indicator. Still, the markets climb higher.
There is an old saying among traders that "the markets can remain irrational, longer than you can remain solvent." It is something that all investors should not forget. We are experiencing a melt-up and if one is on the bull train, remain on it. If, on the other hand, you still have that yearly cash bonus, practice a little patience. There will come a time when you can put that new money to work, just not quite yet.
We are in a period of goldilocks-type conditions that one rarely sees in the stock market. We have low, even historically low, interest rates given the growth rate of the global economy. Negative interest rates in a large part of the world are coupled with accelerating growth. At the same time, the U.S. economy, which has been growing moderately, may now get a new burst of energy thanks to the newly-passed tax reform. If our Twitterer-in- Chief is correct, the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts for one and all will create a robust environment for additional consumer spending as well as capital investment.
The U.S. could therefore act as a speeding locomotive pulling the rest of the world's economies along at an ever-increasing rate. It is similar to what happened back in the early 2000s when China's economy exploded. Almost every nation on earth benefited from that economic miracle. Some think this could happen again, only this time to the U.S., under the Trump presidency.
Maybe a simpler answer for today's market gains lies in the fact that we are entering a new stage of the market's emotional cycle. We call it the optimistic stage, where prices rise as new capital is put to work by current market players, as well as by new market participants, who have been on the sidelines.
It is difficult to predict the length of this phase (if it has truly begun) because it is dependent upon the success of that invested capital, as well as the time required to generate a positive rate of return for this risk capital.
One highly-respected, gray-haired sage of stock markets I respect is Jeremy Grantham, founder and chief Investment officer of Boston-based Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo. In his company's latest investment letter, Grantham believes we are currently showing signs of entering the blow-off or melt-up phase of this bull market.
"I recognize on one hand that this is one of the highest-priced markets in U.S. history, he writes. "On the other hand, as a historian of the great equity bubbles, I also recognize that we are currently showing signs of entering the blow-off or melt-up phase of this very long bull market."
He adds that the end of this phase could take anywhere from another six months to two years to complete before all is said and done. Before we do, we should expect the final emotional stage of the market to unfold. That is when euphoria takes over and stock prices reach their zenith. Parabolic price gains become the norm and a false feeling of well-being occupies the investor psyche. But don't worry, I see no signs of this occurring as of yet. So enjoy your gains and expect more in the future.
@theMarket: The Market That Keeps on Giving
You can't say enough about a stock market that continues to climb, day after day, month after month. Best of all, it looks like it will continue to do so through the end of the year. What happens in 2018? Well, that may be a different story.
There is no evidence, however, that things will have to change in the New Year. Thanks to the big fat tax refund check that Corporate America will receive next year, investors will be expecting several quarters of better earnings. At the very least, that should support stock prices for a few months, if not more.
Let's not get into whether the tax cuts are good or bad for the economy. If you have been reading my columns, you know my opinion on that. Instead, let's just focus on the stock market and how things might change within the markets. For example, technology shares, especially the FANG names, have been leading the market all year. So have semiconductor stocks, a major ingredient in so many technology products, as well as large cap growth stocks.
Recently, small cap stocks have started to outperform. This is largely due to the tax reform legislation. The thinking behind these gains is that small businesses who are mostly focused on domestic markets will gain the most from the tax cuts. As such, the sector has seen some outsized gains in the last few months.
The question I am asking is will the leadership change in the new year?
I have noticed that since the beginning of December some lagging sectors are beginning to join the party. Energy stocks are getting some buying interest, as are basic material companies. Even precious metals are participating in the market's move higher. Why then should that be the case?
One explanation could be that "a rising tide lifts all boats," meaning even the laggards get to participate, whether they deserve to or not. Another explanation may have to do with President Trump's recent comments that 2018 might be the time to refocus America's attention on infrastructure spending. All sorts of basic material companies, producing everything from steel to cement, would benefit.
While energy might not be directly impacted by infrastructure spending, it helps support prices, as does the recent production cuts engineered by OPEC. Those factors, combined with continuing global economic growth, have convinced the majority of oil analysis that the worst is behind us in oil price declines. Many are looking for oil to rise into the sixty dollar-plus range next year. At that price, most energy companies will do okay earnings-wise and the stocks are cheap.
Then there is also a growing camp of worry-warts, who fear that the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts, combined with additional infrastructure spending, layered on top of an already-growing global economy may spell rising inflation in the near future. Commodities usually do quite well in an inflationary environment and since these sectors are already selling at a steep discount to the rest of the market, why not take a bet on these groups.
But all of these topics are for next year's columns. It is enough to know that we have all done quite well in the markets this year. The fact that I have urged you to stay invested throughout all of it makes me feel grateful and happy. I am going to carry that feeling with me throughout this holiday season. Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas to all of you and give your loved ones a hug for me.