@theMarket: Markets Broken Record
As the Dec. 15 deadline approaches, investors aren't sure whether the next tranche of tariffs on Chinese imports will be raised, lowered, or delayed. Given the importance of this event, markets are once again stuck betwixt and between.
If this sounds like a broken record on the China trade deal, you would be right. We have been here so many times before that just about everyone in the worldwide financial community is sick of it. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal, or so it would seem, because, many investors still have faith that there will be a breakthrough sometime in the next three weeks.
A senior executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Myron Brilliant, who is head of international affairs for the chamber, isn't holding out much hope. The Chinese, he believes, are adamant that all tariffs must be rolled back before a deal can be struck, while the U.S. is just as insistent that won't happen. At this point, President Trump is now threatening to increase tariffs again if the Chinese won't relent.
In addition, it's a bad time for making trade deal decisions. The president is not a happy camper at the moment and everyone in and out of the White House knows by now that emotions play a large part of his decision-making processes. The two-week long televised hearings on the impeachment inquiry, the almost-certainty that the House will vote for impeachment, and the likelihood that this circus will continue into the New Year (before it is defeated by the Republican-controlled Senate) is not, in my opinion, going to lighten his mood.
And yet the war of words continues. Friday, President Xi Jinping of China, while greeting some international visitors, including Henry Kissinger, in Beijing, said he wants to come to a phase one agreement as long as the deal is on the basis of mutual respect and equality. The markets immediately moved higher after three days of losses.
While that cheered markets for a short time, the facts are that Xi has been saying the same thing for weeks. Note the words "respect," which is short for "stop bashing us, our companies, and our handling of the Hong Kong riots, Mr. President." "Equality" to the Chinese means "the U.S. must rollback its tariffs in exchange for a phase one deal." To me, there is nothing new here, just the same old song with a slightly different beat than last week.
As I wrote last in my last column, I have been expecting some congestion in the markets. The China trade charade is simply the excuse. We are overbought and extended, so a little pullback would be a good thing. This week the profit-taking has been minuscule, with the S&P 500 Index down less than 1 percent from the highs. That doesn't mean it won't correct further, but if the majority of market participants are expecting stocks to go one way, the chances are they will go the other way.
Let's give things another week or two to shake out before we start looking for that traditional end-of-year rally. Some might say that Santa Claus has already come to Wall Street, filling our stockings with capital gains from all these double-digit returns this year. With the Fed on hold, the economy still growing (even though the rate of growth is slowing), and most analysts and economists optimistic about next year, you could see further gains in the weeks ahead, unless Trump becomes the Grinch that stole Christmas.
@theMarket: Record Highs Again & Again
It has been one of those weeks where just about every day the stock market opened lower. But by the end of the day, one or more of the three main averages would rebound and close higher, usually close to, or at a minor new high. I expect it should continue.
And as stocks grind higher, more and more equity players are calling for a minor 2-3 percent pullback. Is that something that we should even care about? My answer would be no.
We are in a news-driven market. Most investors only seem to care about the latest news on a China trade deal; that said, being out of the market appears to be riskier than being in it.
Many believe we are only one tweet away from a 5 percent upside move in the markets. Of course, we could also experience a 5 percent downdraft just as quickly, if things fall apart with China at this stage. Remember, too, that Chinese officials have also learned how to play the tweet game.
The president no longer has a monopoly on fake news. For every outlandish claim coming from the White House on a China deal, the Chinese media responds with fake news of their own. As a result, I imagine those algorithmic trading shops and their headline-driven, software computer models are having a hard time keeping up.
Of course, no one seems to care that this Phase One agreement was supposed to be a done deal a month ago. Either our deal-making president, par excellence, has been hood-winked once again by the Chinese in the negotiations, or the president is deliberately manipulating the truth to suite his own purposes. Given the president's long history of self-vaunted integrity, that might be hard to believe, but readers can make up their own mind on that point.
Given that we don't know if or even when this joke of a deal will be signed, all the markets can do is hope for better news in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, investor sentiment is being supported by the central bank Chairman, Jerome Powell.
Powell assured markets this week that the economy seemed to him to be in a good place, neither too hot nor too cold. Once again, he ignored remarks by the the president, who voiced continued disgust at Chairman Powell's refusal to obey his wishes and lower interest rates even further.
There are also some issues that have yet to be addressed. One that has received a reprieve is the budget negotiations. Set to expire on November 21, Congressional leaders have agreed to extend the budget negations for another month, until December 20th. The president, evidently chastened by last year's horrendous holiday government shutdown, has indicated he would sign a spending bill as long as it allowed for construction of his Wall.
The media's main event this week, the impeachment hearings, have been met with a great big yawn on Wall Street. The thinking among investors is that whatever the results, the chances that a vote to impeach would pass the Senate is just too small to calculate.
In a similar vein, the socialist rhetoric of some Democratic candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, is just hot air, since investors are still convinced that (barring something dreadful that happens to the economy) Donald Trump will win in 2020.
Granted, prevailing opinion can change in a heartbeat, but for now, that is how the wind is blowing. The stock market appears to be in good shape. These "tactical" calls for a pullback would suit me just fine, if it were to occur. A minor dip in the markets would be just the excuse I would need to advise adding more equity to portfolios.
@theMarket: Phase One Deal Keeps Markets Bullish
It was all about the trade deal this week. Both sides seem to want a resolution to the crippling tariffs that have sent the world's economies to the brink of recession. The relief that investors feel is reflected in the new highs we are enjoying at the moment.
I say "at the moment" because anything can change with a tweet. However, given the mounting problems of the Trump presidency, I believe he needs something positive (and fairly soon) to divert the nation's attention away from the impeachment hearings next week.
Trump appears willing to drop, or at least roll back, some (or all) of the tariffs he put in place, but he can't be seen as too "soft" in the negotiations. That's why it was no surprise that on Friday Trump tweeted that he still has not agreed to grant tariff relief to the China, a sticking point in the negotiations. That took some wind out of the market's sails, but I see it as just more of the same Trump tactics that have become increasingly obvious and predictable.
And if I see it, so does China. From their point of view, why not sign a deal? They expect to get everything they want and nothing they don't want. China will allow more financial services companies to set up there, but they were already planning on that before the tariff war. They also get to import all the agricultural products they need, but U.S. farmers will only increase exports back to the level they were before the trade war. At the same time, the Chinese remain steadfast in not giving in to anything more despite Trump's demands and threats over the last two years.
What, you may ask, was the purpose of all this bravado, these tariffs, and such? The administration will say that this is "only" Phase One. The real substantive issues will be tackled "later." No one has issued a timetable on Phase 2 or, if there is one, a Phase 3. China is not giving any indication that they are ready to do more than they have already agreed upon.
If it were any other politician but Donald Trump, I would say that further progress on a comprehensive trade deal (that would truly benefit the U.S.) would be tied to the 2020 election results. In the meantime, the president can stump the country, claiming a trade deal victory.
Only the fake news could possibly see this Phase One for what it might be — simply a way to keep the suffering farmers and ranchers within the president's base from flying the coop come next November. But, as we all know, our president is not a politician. Our president is an honest, truthful man that is simply misunderstood by the majority of Americans.
And China is not the only country that may see some relief from American tariff threats. The president has until Nov. 13 (his self-imposed deadline) to decide whether he will levy additional tariffs on European autos. You see, the president believes that EU auto imports to the U.S. pose a serious security threat. But I'm betting that won't happen. I would expect a surprise announcement to coincide with the televised impeachment hearings next week. As for the security threat, well, that was then, and this is now, right?
Where do the markets go from here? I remain bullish, possibly through the end of the year. Saying that, however, I believe we are overdue for a minor pullback of 3-5 percent or so, but it would be a dip to buy, not to sell.
@theMarket: Will Record Highs Beget Record Highs?
As third-quarter earnings wind down, the Fed cut interest rates again this week. Since both events seemingly matched investor expectations, what, then, will investors worry about in the coming months?
As predicted, the S&P 500 Index hit a modest new high this week based on the central bank's one quarter-point cut of the short-term Federal Funds interest rate on Wednesday. Robust earnings from certain favored companies, like Apple and Facebook, also helped sentiment and so the averages ground higher.
"You would think," said one miffed investor, "that after two years trapped in a trading range, we would have had a little more enthusiasm over this break-out."
Instead, traders simply took it in stride and actually took profits. One reason for the lack of enthusiasm could have been that investor sentiment was already bullish. The averages simply confirmed what we all expected would happen. Investor sentiment seems to confirm that.
The U.S. Advisors Sentiment indicators released this week had market bulls pegged at 54.2 percent versus 52.8 percent last week. From a contrarian point of view, any reading above 50 percent should invoke some caution among the trading crowd. At the same time, the number of pros who are expecting a market correction declined to 28 percent from 29.3 percent. Readings under 30 percent also signal a more cautious approach to the markets.
On the plus side for the markets, we are now over the September-October period when stocks usually do their worst. November through January is normally the best of the best months for positive stock market performance. The question is whether historical data matters at all, given markets where politics mean more than fundamentals.
The trade war, in my opinion, will continue to cast a sobering shadow over the stock markets in the months ahead. As readers are aware, I thought this "skinny" deal between China and the U.S. was a joke. It seems that more investors are now realizing the same thing. The president's latest "phase one trade deal" is much more a public relations stunt and less a meaningful breakthrough. The Chinese seem to agree.
The hope of signing even this paltry deal has now been postponed, since Chile canceled the upcoming November conference (due to political unrest) where Xi and Trump were supposed to meet, greet and sign the deal. Investors worry and wonder whether any deal will be signed at all. In my opinion, it is simply more of the same drama we have been putting up with for the last two years.
Thursday, for example, "unnamed officials" in China let it be known that they did not hold out much hope that any substantive deal with Trump would ever be signed. The markets dropped immediately. So, what's next? We should expect either Trump (through tweets or an impromptu Q&A with the fake news) or some administrative official (it is usually former CNBC fake newsman, Larry Kudlow) to run out and to assure us all that everything is just perfect, that the economy is great, that negotiations are going better than expected, yada, yada, yada.
It comes down to this: investors and the nation are ping pong balls in this global trade game. How you deal with that depends on your level of cynicism. Should you believe those "no good Chinese," or in the honesty and sincerity of the self-described "greatest president in the history of the United States?"
Aside from that drama, we have the impeachment inquiry that is heating up and coming to the attention of more and more Americans. I expect that Trump, in an effort to strike back at the Democrats and change the focus of the nation away from impeachment, may create a confrontation with the outcome being a possible government shutdown later this month. I warned readers in my column last week that there is a high probability that the president will use funding for his wall as a pretext to shut down the government once again -- just in time for Thanksgiving.
@theMarket: Earnings Give Mixed Signals
So far, third-quarter earnings results have been all over the place. A mixed bag of beats, in-line numbers, and some big disappointments have kept the stock market treading water.
Companies such as Caterpillar, with large exposure to China, came in with lower than expected results. Boeing, another big Dow stock, also reported a 50 percent slide in earnings thanks to the problems generated by two crashes of their 737 Max aircraft. And yet, both stocks rallied on the news.
Semiconductor company Texas Instruments also issued poor earnings, sales, and guidance, but in this case, investors not only punished the stock but trashed the entire semiconductor sector along with it. McDonalds, UPS, Lockheed, Amazon and Travelers Insurance, all mega-cap companies, also cratered on disappointing earnings.
To be sure, most of the disappointments were company-specific, so there is little one can glean about the health of the overall economy from the results. The majority of companies, however, are meeting or beating earnings expectations, which is what one should expect in a normal earnings season. Readers should know by now that analysts low-ball earnings estimates early, so that companies can beat Wall Street expectations when they report.
This earnings divide, thus far, does give some useful hints to those who are paying attention to the underlying price action. Most industrial stocks, for example, have sat out this year's rally as recession and China trade war fears kept investors away from investing in this area. So why did Caterpillar (CAT) not fall after disappointing earnings this week?
I suspect that some investors are betting that we are at the bottom of the economic cycle. While many analysts believe overall earnings for this third quarter will be down an average of 3 percent, they also think that this might be the trough in earnings. Bulls are expecting fourth quarter, and next year's earnings growth, to rebound.
If so, then cyclical companies like CAT could present real value. Remember that industrial stocks are economically sensitive. If one looks at past cycles, industrials were usually one of the best performing sectors coming out of a trough one year later.
The question to ask is whether this cycle will be similar to the last 11? That, of course, leads us right back to the trade wars and what the Fed may do on the interest rate horizon.
Do you bet on Trump caving in and rolling back all the tariffs he has levied thus far, or do you expect him to double down and implement the threatened tariffs he has scheduled for December? Given that most investors are worried about an economic slow-down brought on by an escalating trade war, those who are buying industrial stocks and other cyclical sectors are making a rather ballsy contrarian bet on the future health of the U.S. and global economies.
From an overall market perspective, some hesitation here (at less than 1 percent from all-time highs) is understandable. It may have been too much to ask that third quarter earnings would be the catalyst we needed to break out and up to new highs. We also still have a week to go before exiting October, a notoriously volatile month for the markets.
But before you despair that stocks will ever breaking out of this two-year trading range, remember the Fed, which meets next week. If they perform in line with investor expectations and cut interest rates yet again, we just might get an excuse for that breakout.