@theMarket: Market Cyclicals Take the Lead
It was a good week for investors, which is not surprising since Thanksgiving week has been kind to investors in the past. The question is, will December fulfill its role as one of the year's best months for stocks?
The short answer is yes, I don't see why not. My recent target for the S&P 500 Index is 3,800, but it is possible that I may be too conservative. An additional spike up to the 4,000 level might be in the cards sometime early next year, but one week at a time. What is the bull case for those lofty predictions?
I have long argued that a coronavirus vaccine was key to the economy and the market's future performance. We now have at least three vaccines with possibly more in the wings. That is a game changer, in my opinion. While distribution of these medical wonder drugs will take time, markets are discounting their successful distribution now, not when it happens in three to six months.
While I expect the present surge of COVID-19 will ravage the nation throughout the winter (as happened in the 1918 influenza pandemic), there is some hope that the government could come to the rescue in ways it has failed to do leading up to the election. Most observers around the world would give the U.S. failing marks in handling the pandemic. What is worse, there has been a notable vacuum in leadership in Washington since the election, even as deaths and cases skyrocket. That void in leadership is increasingly being filled by the president-elect by default.
Plans to combat the coronavirus and alleviate its worst impact on Americans, a viable and far-reaching program to distribute the vaccines, and the willingness to spend what it takes to accomplish that mission, have given the country and Wall Street new hope. Rather than Armageddon, which was predicted if Joe Biden and the Democrats won the election, the nation has been impressed by Biden's picks for cabinet positions this week. In addition, Janet Yellen's selection as U.S. Treasury secretary (the first woman to fill that post), has met with approval from the business and financial sectors.
It was Biden's election and his subsequent actions which has propelled the stock market to new highs in the past weeks. President-elect Biden's initial moves appear to have reassured Wall Street and many conservatives that his will be a moderate path forward. Until that proves wrong, the financial markets should continue to gain.
As I have been pointing out during the last two months, underneath the overall averages there has been a sea change occurring in the market's leadership. Technology, especially the large-cap leaders that have propped the market up in recent years, are relinquishing their leadership role (at least temporarily). In their place, industrial, transportation, materials, financials, and other cyclical parts of the economy have been given a new life, as reflected in their stock prices.
Basic materials, led by copper, a key ingredient of any worldwide economic recovery, have soared. Energy stocks, the worst performing sector of the markets by far this year, have seen double digit gains. The price of oil has lifted as traders anticipate additional demand by a world in economic recovery. Two casualties of this switch from tech to value and cyclicals has been the "safe haven" plays of the U.S. dollar and gold.
The dollar, as measured by DXY, an index that measures the value of the greenback relative to a basket of foreign currencies, is hovering just above a major support level at 91.75-92. A break below that would likely send the dollar a great deal lower. Gold has also fallen below the $1,800 an ounce level.
Normally, a declining dollar would be good for gold, since it is perceived as an alternative form of currency, but not right now. Investors believe that without the need for a safe haven, and with little to no inflation on the horizon, why hold gold? My own belief is that attitude is extremely short-sighted. I believe gold has a life of its own and fears of inflation next year could spark a resurgence. The precious metal may fall even further over the next two weeks, and if it does, I would be using that decline as a buying opportunity.
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The Retired Investor: Pandemic Has Been Good to Pet Industry
|Bill and Titus.|
Sales are increasing wherever you look in the pet sector. Toys, beds, grooming products, leashes, day care, you name it; the pet industry is experiencing double-digit increases in revenue. Better yet, there are few signs that consumer spending in this area will slow down anytime soon.
As readers are aware, the retail sector has been one of the hardest hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The pet care industry is an exception to that rule. In the past, I have written extensively about how recession-proof the pet industry can be. In both the 2001 and 2008 recessions, pet care sales grew between 5-7 percent. Consumer spending on pets has grown 36 percent in the past 10 years (ending in 2017). Edge by Ascebtial, a market research firm, is expecting the overall industry to reach $281 billion in sales over the next three years.
The pandemic is only accelerating this growth. COVID-19 has made owning a pet that much more important to Americans, in my opinion. In the time of plague, I have found that aside from my wife and family, there is no greater comfort than the emotional attachment a pet offers. As it turns out, I am not alone. The initial stay-at-home, lock-down period in this country triggered many to seek the companionship of some kind of pet, usually a cat or dog.
Adoption and fostering rates soared, in some cases, by more than 100-200 percent nationally, according to Pethealth Inc. In New York City, application rates actually reached an unbelievable 1,000 percent.
What many pet owners discovered was that one of the benefits of working from home was that it allowed them much more time to care for a pet properly (as opposed to locking them up in a cage/crate all day). Plus, let's face it, there is nothing better than to get off a high-pressured, Zoom call with a client, or a domineering boss, only to receive a big lick, an offered toy, or the release of walking one's dog in the woods or park.
Naturally, these new-found members of the family sparked a wave of demand for pet-care products. Online sales of companies such as Amazon or Chewy exploded, while internet-based pet services of all kinds saw an enormous uptick. Sales of dog food lead the charge. The U.S. pet food market is predicted to grow to be a $13.3 billion market by 2023. In a recent example, Nestle, the Swiss-based food conglomerate, just reported nine-month earnings this week. It identified their Purina PetCare business as the number one leader in growth worldwide this year.
The pet industry is also working to identify and adapt to the latest industry trends to maintain their good fortunes. Proactive, healthy ingredients in pet food is a massive trend in the industry. Back in the day, when Titus, our chocolate Lab, was a puppy, I bought 50-pound bags of Purina dog chow on sale for $25 at Tractor Supply. Today, we are on automatic re-order of 26-pound bags of a protein-dense, grain-free, dry food for $63.67 every month from Chewy, plus we throw in a 12-can case of canned food for $48.28 (also nutritional). You do the math. Is it any wonder companies such as Chewy's have seen their stock price go through the roof?
Whether its vet bills, pet insurance, doggy day care, or pet grooming, the cost of owning that pet just continues to go up, but it doesn't stop us. More than half of all Americans own a pet and that was before the pandemic.
There are also trends that are less than healthy. For example, over half of all U.S. pets are obese, due to overeating and inactivity. But that is still lower than two-thirds of their owners, who are either overweight or obese. COVID-19 may have an impact on that trend as well.
More Americans, stir-crazy from sitting at home with little to do, are actually getting off the couch. They are putting on their sneakers, or hiking boots and exercising outdoors. Better yet, they are taking their pets with them.
As a pet owner and outdoor enthusiast, I have long argued that pets, especially dogs, need exercise and stimulation, as do their owners. Letting our pets out to do their business in the backyard does not qualify on either count. So, it warms my heart to see so many pets walking alongside their owners enjoying the great outdoors, despite, or maybe because of, the pandemic.
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@theMarket: Markets Are in a Tug of War
The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths are surging way beyond those cases earlier in the year. That could indicate tough going for the economy over the next two quarters. On the other hand, two highly effective coronavirus vaccines have been announced, but won't be widely distributed until next year. In the middle sits the stock market investors.
We know that financial markets are discounting mechanisms, meaning that investors usually buy or sell stocks based on what may happen in six to nine months from now. At that time, so the story goes, at least two vaccines will be readily available to most of the public. One may be ready for limited distribution before the end of the year if all goes well. That should cause the economy to rebound and unemployment should decline. That is a bullish case for equities, so investors would normally anticipate that and buy now.
However, in the near term, the next three-four months, thanks to this second coronavirus surge, the economy is expected to slow, and unemployment to rise. The expectation that little to no fiscal stimulus is forthcoming from our divided government adds to investor worries. The impact on the economy in the short-term could be severe as a result. It is fairly certain, according to most economists, that the reason the economy bounced back as quickly as it did from the first nationwide shut-down was the quick response by the government to monetary and fiscal stimulus.
As of this week, there are no plans for a countrywide shutdown. Instead, individual states, cities, towns, etc. are closing some things down and leaving others open (schools versus bars and restaurants for example). Most businesses are simply ignoring all of it, while trying to convince workers that everything is all right when it isn't.
As a result, the coronavirus case numbers are increasing exponentially. Worse, there appears to be no way to prevent it. Next week, a large segment of the population is already making plans to visit the family for Thanksgiving week, despite medical advice to the contrary. The way we are headed, I expect that the caseload in hospitals should continue to mount. Friends, families and neighbors will continue to die and, at some point, a partial or total shut-down of the economy could occur out of necessity.
If so, this time around I expect there won't be an immediate stimulus response from the government. That could do lasting damage to the economy and prolong the time required to recover. Despite pleading from the Federal Reserve Bank and just about every economist in the nation, both the president and Congress are not listening. Both parties are far too engrossed in debating who won the election (or who will win the Senate in January) to worry about another couple hundred thousand deaths, let alone jobs and the economy. It is the America we live in.
Normally, the week leading up to a national holiday such as Thanksgiving, is positive for stocks. This year, the averages will likely be tugged in two directions — the bearish, daily rise in COVID-19 cases versus more good news on the vaccine front. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict the bad news should get worse, which leaves the markets dependent on more vaccine news to remain buoyant.
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The Retired Investor: The Rise of RCEP
The Regional Comprehensive Economics Partnership (RCEP) is a trade pact that could change the global trade equation over the next decade. It is an example of multilateralism and free trade that could leave the United States in the dust.
The 15 nations that comprise RCEP represent about one third of the world' s population (2.2 billion people), and 29 percent of global gross domestic product. The partnership is made up of 10 Southeast Asian countries, as well as South Korea, China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The RCEP is officially the world's largest trading bloc.
What makes this trade deal noteworthy, apart from its size, is the inclusion of China. In the past, China, while signing numerous bilateral trade agreements, has refrained from joining a multilateral trade pact — until now. Getting there required eight years of negotiations. The deal could have been even larger, if India, which had been part of the negotiations, had signed.
Since the agreement is expected to eliminate tariffs on a wide range of imports throughout the next 20 years, India was worried that lower tariffs could hurt some of their more inefficient producers. Nonetheless, RCEP members are extending an open invitation to India in the event that it changes its mind.
Most of the member countries already have free-trade agreements with each other. What makes RCEP unique is that it defines new rules of origin on imported products among members. Before this deal, if a product happened to have parts made by a country that was outside of a free-trade agreement between two countries, then those parts would likely be subject to tariffs. Imagine, for example, if a Chinese-made automobile exported to Indonesia had several parts manufactured from countries that were not part of a free-trade agreement between China and Indonesia. Indonesia would be able to levy tariffs on all those non-exempt parts, which can get really complicated. The RCEP eliminates that issue.
If you are an RCEP member, as long as the product parts are made by another RCEP-member nation, the product will receive the same tariff treatment. The hidden benefit here is that now the RCEP trade bloc will be incentivized to look within their trade group for suppliers.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics believes the trade pact could generate as much as $186 billion yearly over the next decade and tack on 0.2 percent in growth to the GDP of each member state. Some economists believe that the North Asian countries — China, Japan, and South Korea — could benefit the most from RCEP. However, it will take some time before all the member states ratify the agreement. In some countries that suffer from anti-free trade or anti-China sentiment, ratification of the pact may take time.
The agreement is bigger than both the U.S. North Atlantic trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, as well as the European Union's trade pact. In contrast, for the last four years the U.S., under the direction of our president, has largely retreated from inking large multinational trade deals. In fact, we have done just the opposite by raising tariffs, while pursuing a policy of isolationism. I am not sure that a new president, regardless of party, could alter this trade trend. I don't know what it would take to convince a divided American populace that there will be far-reaching consequences of our actions.
America's withdrawal from free trade has left a void, which other nations (especially China) are all too happy to fill. We pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, which was an even broader agreement than the RCEP, largely because of what the nation perceived was China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. We continue to isolate when even our trading partners like the European Union understand that, in a world ravaged by the coronavirus, new trade agreements (not less) are vitally important to economic recovery.
But the U.S. seems intent on fighting the pandemic battle alone, while scrambling for ways to rebuild the economy amid a crumbling national infrastructure, without going into more debt. In a nation divided, where more than half the country cannot even agree on the winner of a presidential election (let alone the presence of COVID-19 among us), do we really have the resources necessary to go it alone on the world trade front?
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@theMarket: Vaccine Hopes Send Stocks Higher
The first real hope at ending the global coronavirus pandemic was announced on Monday. Drug company partners, Pfizer and BioNTech, announced their COVID-19 vaccine, which exceeded expectations. The news sent world stock markets screaming higher.
Later in the week, some profit-taking developed, but overall the news was met with relief and cautious excitement. Most investors expected the Pfizer drug would be, at best, 60-70 percent effective, so when the company announced it was more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19, stocks soared.
While this was great news, there are a few drawbacks to the vaccine. For starters, Pfizer can manufacture only a limited quantity of the vaccine next year. Analysts are using a guesstimate of 1.3 billion doses. If that sounds like a lot, it is, but much of that supply (80 percent) is already spoken for by the U.S., Canada, Japan, the E.U. and the U.K. Second, in order to work, you need two doses. The most optimistic assessment is that no more than 12 million vaccine treatments could be available by the first quarter of next year.
The other issue with the vaccine is that it needs to be maintained, stored, and transported at really low temperatures — minus-176 degrees Fahrenheit. To give you an idea of what that means, your typical American freezer runs at about zero degrees Fahrenheit. As such, in order to be effective, the vaccine requires a super-cold freezer, which is unavailable in most hospitals, clinics, and doctor's offices and that's in a developed world country. Low and middle-income nations (think emerging markets) would not be able to take advantage of this vaccine easily, even if it were available to them in 2021.
Some of the market's euphoria wore off as the facts became known, but it was interesting to watch what market sectors did well, and what didn't, as the week progressed. Cyclical areas of the market and value plays did the best on Monday and Tuesday. Small-cap stocks and financials also led the indexes higher. Interest rates on long-term bonds rose, while gold and silver plummeted. Technology shares, long the market leaders, also sat this one out.
This all made some sense. A successfully-administered vaccine would ultimately put an end to the pandemic. In turn, global economies would begin to rise. Those sectors that had been hurt the worst by the coronavirus would benefit the most, while the "defensive plays" — stay-at-home stocks and technology shares — would no longer be the only game in town.
Higher economic growth would also mean greater inflation risk, so bond holders would want a somewhat higher rate of interest to compensate for that possibility. Higher rates are good for financials, so bank stocks gained.
As is usually the case, once investor excitement dissipated a bit, profit-taking set in during the latter part of the week. Traders snapped up some oversold tech shares, while taking profits in some airlines, cruise lines, and the like. The question is what happens next?
As readers are aware, I have been warning for months to expect a pandemic "dark winter" in the U.S. and some other parts of the world. In November so far, more than one million new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed throughout the U.S. It will likely get worse. Should lock-downs nationwide occur, or more likely, selected closings on a state-by-state basis, which is happening as I write this, it could hurt investor sentiment, as well as economic growth and employment. That may keep a lid on the averages in the short term.
As a contrarian, the recent surge in optimism in the AAII Investor sentiment Survey is also somewhat troubling. Bullish sentiment improved by 17.9 percent last week. That brings the number of bulls to 55.8 percent. That is a seven-month high, while the number of bears declined to 24.9 percent. Those numbers make me cautious in the short run.
As for politics, in the face of the worst surge in coronavirus cases and deaths thus far, there is silence from the White House. I won't comment other than to say that the markets have already given their verdict, and nothing that has transpired this week has changed that narrative. Market catalysts that could drive the markets higher would be additional good news on additional vaccines, which is expected, and some progress on a stimulus package to help the nation through the next few months. I expect one or maybe both to happen, although a stimulus breakthrough is a long-shot. Until then, expect some volatility.
I still believe we continue higher through the end of the year. For now, let's pencil in a possible S&P 500 Index target of 3,800.
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