@theMarket: Spring Has Sprung in the Markets
New highs on the S&P 500 Index this week gave the bulls more ammunition to forge ahead. Leading the charge were clean energy, infrastructure, and technology stocks. Is this the start of another leg up for the equity averages?
Credit for the advance, in my opinion, was the increase in the rate of U.S. vaccinations (despite the uptick in coronavirus cases over the last week). Second were the actions of the Biden administration in moving rapidly to tackle the needs of the U.S. economy. Possibly even more important, at least in the long term, were their proposed efforts to address the dangerous widening of the income inequality gap in this country.
As readers are aware, the gap in income inequality has been growing in this country for three decades. The ongoing pandemic has only accelerated this problem. After years of politicians and economists arguing that "trickle down" economics would narrow this gap, the opposite has occurred.
President Biden has decided to try another approach. He is committing the largest spending program since Roosevelt's New Deal to narrow the income inequality gap between the haves and have-nots. His latest $2.25 trillion proposal, announced this week in Pittsburgh, was focused on dealing with the deteriorating state of the nation's infrastructure. But it also included a $400 billion program to care for elderly and disabled Americans, and $300 billion that would be directed into building and retrofitting affordable housing. These are areas where the income gap has caused enormous pain and suffering in many Americans.
Those who still insist on the bankrupt theory of private sector solutions to all our economic issues argue that there is little return on investment in programs like that. It is the kind of thinking that has divided this nation and alienated at least half our population. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, a Trump hater, or lover, income inequality affects all of us. Income inequality is color blind as well. My belief is that it is time to try something different, and the markets seem to agree with my assessment.
Despite Biden's plan to raise taxes on corporations and those earning $400,000 in income, the markets continue to rally. This has surprised the bears as well as many politicians. They trot out the same old tired arguments, warning that raising taxes in a weak economy will crater the economy. Historically, the threat of higher taxes usually resulted in a short-term decline in equity markets, but not this time. Why?
My explanation for this week's leap higher in the markets is simple. Most of Corporate America (and Wall Street} recognize the long-term jeopardy of the continued widening of the income gap on their own businesses. Remember, consumer spending comprises almost 70 percent of the economy overall. The less money consumers have, the less they spend. The less spending, the lower the economic growth rate.
This week, the market's gains were fueled by a come-back in technology stocks, led by the semiconductor and clean energy sectors. It was a welcome development for the bulls. Friday's labor report also held good news. U.S. job growth in March showed 916,000 jobs were added in the economy, while the unemployment rate dropped to 6 percent.
Now that March's volatility is winding down, and the end of quarter rebalancing is over, I am hoping for a better April into May for investors. Those who had raised some cash in February had some great opportunities to buy back stocks last month. I expect markets to continue higher but rotation between various sectors will also keep markets somewhat volatile.
A word of warning, however. Investors should not expect that President Biden's infrastructure proposal will pass in its present form. Its passage will require a great deal of negotiations and time. I'm thinking legislation won't be passed until October, with the price tag reduced to something below $2 trillion over 10 years. Remember, too, that in the past, infrastructures bills have failed to pass more times than not. Hopefully, in the end, something meaningful will actually get done, so keep your fingers crossed.
@theMarket: Cross Currents Confuse Investors
You would think that with a $1.9 trillion spending package, an increasing rate of coronavirus vaccinations, and a potential $3 trillion infrastructure package waiting in the wings, the market would be at record highs. That it is not should tell you something about the indecision plaguing investors.
When good news fails to impress, it usually means stocks (or at least some stocks) are headed lower. That should come as little surprise to readers. I advised investors to raise cash last month in preparation for what I see as a buying opportunity this month. The challenge — when do you put that cash back to work?
No one can call a bottom in stocks, so last week, I did advise readers to begin investing that cash "on down days." We have had a number of those this week. We have also seen stocks spike higher with little warning, so timing demands attention and patience. It is why I advise a simply buy-and-hold strategy for most readers, most of the time.
If you simply look at the S&P 500 Index, there appears to be little damage thus far to the averages. We are simply in a 100-point trading range. However, Nasdaq and the small-cap Russell 2000 Indexes are a different story.
Right now, we are in the worst technology selloff in six months. The NASDAQ 100 fell over 10 percent this month while small caps just fell to their 200-day moving average (before bouncing yesterday and today}. That makes sense, since what goes up must come down, or so the saying goes.
Both of those averages have outperformed considerably in the past. The Russell 2000 Index, for example, gained more than 40 percent over the last half year. NASDAQ, as you probably know, has been outperforming everything for years now.
Things changed the moment interest rates began to rise in February. It is one reason I advised caution back then, especially in those high-flying stocks that the Robin Hood traders and others had bid up to insane prices. Many of those companies were what investors considered "new age" stocks (think electric vehicles, solar, or 5G}, or "stay-at-home" stocks like the FANG names and other companies in the same space.
Rising interest rates, as I have explained, have a tendency to hurt earnings in these companies, which were already priced to perfection. At first, investors simply sold those winners and rolled the money into what is now called the reopening trades — airlines, hotels, restaurants, cruise lines, industrials, materials, etc. At the beginning of this quarter, valuations were reasonable, since the timetable for a resumption in economic activity was uncertain at best.
However, since then, here in the U.S., the accelerated pace of vaccinations, plus $1.9 trillion in government spending (thanks to the Biden Administration}, gave investors the confidence to pile into these "value" areas. Afterall, it is thought that they would benefit the most from the imminent explosion of economic growth, something which was suddenly thought to be just around the corner.
Inflation worries, and a potential third wave of virus cases, however, has recently put a damper on these expectations. Inflation is rising and no one knows just how high it will go. Higher inflation could damage earnings across the board, but more harm in some sectors than others. If you then throw in the possibility of a third wave of virus cases, the market suddenly has doubts of how sustainable the reopening trade might be. But the problem is that investors have already bid up many of these value stocks to prices that are higher than they were before the pandemic began.
Europe, which has proven to be a 2–3-week leading indicator for virus cases in our own country, is now shutting down again. The difference this time, in my opinion, could be that our efforts to provide vaccinations for our population are in full swing, while Europe struggles to establish an effective program. Just yesterday, President Biden has doubled his forecast (to 200 from 100 million} for vaccinations available by the end of May.
All of the above uncertainty is what I believe is behind the radical behavior we are witnessing this month in the stock market. This too shall pass. I am hoping by the second week in April we will have put all this indecision behind us. In the meantime, take advantage of any pullbacks to move into areas I have already recommended in the beginning of the year such as industrials, materials, financials, and energy among other commodities as well as small caps.
@theMarket: Rising Rates Create Headwinds for Stocks
The saga of rising interest rates in the long end of the U.S. Treasury market continued this week. Investors, fearing runaway inflation, sold both bonds and stocks. Will the selling continue, or Is this a buying opportunity?
It depends upon which asset class we are talking about. Yields on the 10, 20, and 30-year U.S. Treasury Bonds, I believe, will continue to rise. How far? It is possible that the benchmark "Tens" could finish the year at 2 percent. In the short-term, however, I expect yields to fall a bit on profit-taking.
Last week, I warned readers that the rise in rates was not over. I expected yields on the U.S. Ten Year Treasury Bond to hit the 1.70 percent level or higher. Currently, they are yielding 1.75 percent, which is a fairly steep move in less than a week. It is the speed of the ascent in yields that is most spooking equity investors.
But where is the Fed in all of this? The simple answer is that the Federal Reserve Bank controls short-term interest rates, while long term rates are determined by the buying and selling of you and me. But it goes further than that.
Investors have been conditioned over many years to expect the Fed to be pre-emptive in guiding monetary policy. If, for example, the FOMC board members believe inflation might be getting out of hand in the future, they will nudge rates higher now to head off that danger.
Not this time. The Fed, and its Chairman Jerome Powell, want inflation to rise and plan to wait until that happens before reacting. This is a new concept for market participants.
For the first time in a long time, the Fed is making employment its priority and not Wall Street. The real unemployment rate in this country is thought to be about 9 percent, depending on what data you look at. The Fed wants to let the economy grow until that number drops dramatically. If that means the economy grows "hot" and inflation rises for a quarter or two to achieve that goal, so be it.
The Fed believes that any sustained, long term rise in the inflation rate will only become a problem if wages start to rise and rise substantially. Consider that back in 2019, when the unemployment rate was as low as 3.5 percent (the lowest since 1969), the inflation rate was only 1.81 percent, despite wage growth of 4.6 percent. Given the still high rate of unemployment, it is hard to imagine that wage growth and any potential inflation it might cause will occur any time soon.
But what about the record rise in commodity prices, like food and energy? Isn't that inflationary? The Fed considers these price movements short-term aberrations. Consider the oil price, which can fluctuate by as much as 4-5 percent in a day. On Thursday, for example, crude fell 7 percent. The Fed is concerned with the long-term trends, while you, me, and Wall Street are focused on today, tomorrow, and at the latest, next week.
But who is to say that if the Fed waits to react to a 2.5 percent-3.5 percent uptick in the inflation rate, they will be able to put the genie back in the bottle? Can we trust the Fed to let the economy grow hot enough to employ America's workers without unleashing a new and damaging multi-year trend of inflation? The market seems to doubt that.
I advised investors to raise some cash in highflyers, mostly in the new tech area, in February because I believed this month would be volatile at best. That is proving to be the case. Over the next few weeks, readers should start putting that cash back to work on the market's down days.
@theMarket: Tech Stocks Rise From the Dead
The large cap technology sector bounced back this week as bond yields fell. It is a see-saw market filled with several cross-currents. But if you want to know where stocks are going, keep your eyes focused on the U.S. Ten-Year Bond yield.
In my last column, I explained how rising bond yields are like kryptonite to the continued performance of what I call "super tech stocks." Over the last two weeks, the NASDAQ 100, for example, experienced a 10 percent-plus down draft, as bond yields rose to 1.60 percent from 1.25 percent. Investors sold FANG stocks, and technology shares in new-era sectors, like solar and electric vehicles, and bought old economy stocks, like in energy, financials, and cyclicals.
This week, that trade reversed somewhat as bond yields stopped rising, drifted lower, and seem to be stabilizing around 1.50 percent -- until Friday. While the S&P and Dow Indexes pulled back a little in response, NASDAQ dropped 1.5 percent. The question is whether the rate rise in yields is coming to an end, or will we see yet another backup in yields as investors become even more concerned over future inflation.
There is no reason why the yield on the "Ten Year" couldn't rise further, in my opinion, maybe as high as 1.80 percent to even 2 percent later in the year. After all, that was where yields were on the Ten Year just before the pandemic. What could drive yields higher? Inflation concerns.
I believe the Federal Reserve Bank Committee is expecting the inflation rate to hit their long-term target of 2 percent in the next few months. Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, has already said they would be willing (and happy) to see that happen. That would be a textbook and natural occurrence in any recovering economy. But what the Fed expects, and what the markets are prepared for, may be two different things.
"As long as yields rise gradually, and not all at once," say the experts, then investors can and will adjust accordingly. That remains to be seen. In this world of instant price reactions and compressed time periods, I am not so sure "gradual" is in the dictionary of today's traders. To them, a 25-30 basis point rise in yields could mean the end of the world. I fear a mad exit for the door could occur all at once at some point. It is a possibility, so be on guard.
The good news is that the $1.9 trillion American Relief Bill passed in what amounted to a one-party rescue of the American people. Not one Republican voted for the rescue plan, despite the fact that between 65-80 percent of Americans approved of the plan. The ink was barely dry on President Biden's signature, however, before investor attention turned to the passing of a future infrastructure package.
Unlike the relief package, which was passed through the budget reconciliation process, an infrastructure bill of real substance would require bi-partisan support. If that turns out to be a non-starter, President Biden could still provide some money ($300 billion or so), but nothing like the $2 trillion that would be needed to really address the nation's decrepit highways, bridges, seaports, and airports.
An infrastructure bill would actually provide a needed stimulus to grow the economy, while providing a real need that is long overdue. But it would also take longer to thread its way throughout the economy and would require a year or two before we would really see the impact in the data.
In any case, the prospect of such a bill will be enough to occupy investors' attention over the next few months. I suspect "infrastructure plays" will be bid up in anticipation of this potential government spending program. This happened four years ago, you may recall, when the Trump Administration announced their intentions to pass similar legislation. We all know that effort hit a brick wall, despite a Republican-held Congress and White House.
Today, with countries like China breathing down our necks, the U.S. is falling further and further behind in so many areas. We fiddle in bitter partisan politics, while the rest of the world plows ahead. A substantial infrastructure program would be a first step in stemming our economic slide.
In any case, we have two weeks left of volatility, so use the time to employ any excess cash you may have on down days. I expect stocks to regain their luster in April, so hang in there.
@theMarket: The Ides of March and the Market
It was a rough week in the markets. Investors were whipsawed throughout the week and finished down once again. I expect more of the same for investors this month.
However, I don't expect stocks to go straight down, find a bottom and then rebound. This downdraft is occurring at about the same time that markets sold off last year, but I do not expect the kind of severe correction we suffered through then. Overall, I am anticipating a 10-15 percent decline as I mentioned last week. Actually, as of Friday (March 5, 2021) morning we have suffered a 6.3 percent decline from the top on the S&P 500 Index futures contract. The pullback, by the way, is long overdue. I am hoping it will flush out some of the speculation and froth that were rising to dangerous levels among certain stocks.
The small backup in interest rates we have been experiencing in the last three weeks has been an excuse for a sell-off, in my opinion, but not a reason to fear the future. My evidence: we are on the cusp of an additional $1.9 trillion in fiscal stimulus, which may be passed by the Senate as early as this weekend. An even larger government spending program in infrastructure may also be in the offing in the coming months.
Of course, as I have been saying for a year, the key element to the future health and well-being of the economy, and the stock market, will be the country's battle to vanquish the coronavirus. Right now, thanks to the vaccination, and rapid distribution of the drugs by the present administration, that battle looks winnable in the months ahead.
But investors have not been waiting around for that to occur. A re-opening trade has been ongoing since the beginning of the year. Airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and casino stocks, among others, have all been gaining. That is an area where I would add some money in this pull back.
All my recommended natural resource plays have also been booming, led by energy. The bull market in commodities has a number of tailwinds that I believe will propel that sector even higher this year, but runaway inflation is not one of them. The present belief by a growing group of Wall Street analysts, namely that "inflation is here to stay so buy commodities" is too simple.
There is a big difference between expecting reflation (my opinion) and inflation, (or worse, hyperinflation). As global economies re-open, the demand for materials and other commodities should rise. If you throw in some supply chain issues and other pandemic-related conditions, sure, prices are going to rise, some substantially, but that is simply textbook economics. That doesn't automatically translate into an inflationary problem as so many are predicting.
It has been so long since we have had any real inflation, that there are investors out there that have never seen inflation in their professional careers. If you throw in the two-thirds of professional investors and traders who have also never experienced a rising interest rate environment, you have the makings of a perfect storm of inexperience, ineptitude, and chaos. I believe that is what we are witnessing in today's financial markets.
The Ides of March is actually on the 15th of this month and I expect to see a continuation of this chop fest at least until then, if not longer. The best declines are those that are sharp, short, straight down, and over before you know it. Unfortunately, I expect this correction to be different. There will be relief rallies like the pre-market 1 percent gains in the markets on Friday mornings followed by sharper down days. This kind of action should keep us all biting our nails, and if you attempt to trade it, emotionally exhausted and stressed out. The time to take profits is in the past. Hopefully, you followed my advice last month and did just that, but it is still too early to employ those funds.
The good news is that once this month comes to a close, I expect stocks and the economy to explode in the third and fourth quarters. All we need do is get through this month.