Tag Archives: retail sales

Shorting Stocks Will Outperform The Market

On December 1st, with a short-sell report I wrote on L Brands (LB) and published by Seeking Alpha (note:  that was the last article I submitted to Seeking Alpha – you can now find my work on Simply Wall St.)that I used to launch the Short Seller’s Journal, I explained why L Brands was a great short idea at $96.  Here was my rationale:

L Brands (NYSE:LB) is a specialty retailer that operates the Victoria Secret and Bath & Body Works chains. It also operates La Senza, a Canada-­based intimate apparel retail concept, and Henri Bendel, a high­end accessory products brand. The stock has run from under $7 in March 2009 to its current (November 27) price of $96.68. In that time period, it has outperformed the S&P 500 by over 350%. But, in the context of rapidly slowing revenue growth, declining operating margins, increasing financial leverage and a likely pullback in consumer spending, LB’s stock is extremely overvalued relative to its underlying fundamentals and relative to its peers. In my view, LB represents a compelling opportunity to short the highly overvalued stock of a company operating in a business sector facing significant economic headwinds.

Here’s how the LB short performed from 12/1/15 to present, after reporting an pre-arranged “beat” of Wall St’s earnings estimates (the big game that has developed over the years is for management to “wink wink” walk Wall Street’s robotic analysts’ quarterly estimates down to a level below the actual numbers the company plans to report) but was forced to warn about the rest of the year:

As you can see, shorting LB on December 1, 2015 has significantly outperformed the XRT retailer ETF. It has also outperformed going long the S&P 500 by a factor of nearly 400%. Nothwithstanding what to me was the onset of a consumer spending recession and an obviously overvalued stock market, LB at the time was overvalued relative to both the stock market and the retail stock sector:

The traits specific to LB, and that is based on information that is freely available to anyone who is motivated to do the research, included:   a stock priced for perfection, aggressive debt issuance to finance huge share repurchases, heavy insider dumping of shares into the share repurchases and a stock valuation far in excess of industry peers.

Despite the inexorable grind higher in the Dow, SPX and Nasdaq indices, hundreds of stocks are either at 52-week lows are getting ready to embark on a “price-seeking” mission to find their 52-week lows.  Just ask the Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS) or Advance Autoparts (AAP) bulls.  LB, DKS and AAP are examples of stocks will get cut in half at least two more times in the next 12-18 months.

The Short Seller Journal was launched with the goal to expose the truth about the stock market and the truth about the manipulated economic and earnings reports fabricated with the intent to support the most over-valued stock valuations in history and, more important, to use those truths to find short-sell ideas that will outperform long strategies. LB is an example of the types of ideas uncovered by the Short Seller’s Journal.

You can learn about this newsletter here:  Short Seller’s Journal information.  There’s very few, if any, newsletters that focus on shorting the market.  The best time to invest in a market theme is when the rest of the market is doing the opposite.  As a testament the quality of the Short Seller’s Journal, the subscriber turnover rate is remarkably low. There’s no minimum required subscription period and subscribers receive a 50% discount to the Mining Stock Journal.

 

The Government’s Retail Sales Report Borders On Fraud

As a quick aside, I got an email today from a colleague, a self-admitted “very small fish,” who told me he was now getting cold calls from Goldman Sachs brokers offering “very interesting structured products.” I told him the last time I heard stories like that was in the spring of 2008. One of my best friends was getting ready to jump ship from Lehman before it collapsed – he was in the private wealth management group. He told me he heard stories about Merrill Lynch high net worth brokers selling high yielding structured products to clients. He said they were slicing up the structured garbage that Merrill was stuck with – mortgage crap – that institutions and hedge funds wouldn’t take and packaging them into smaller parcels to dump into high net worth accounts. Something to think about there…

As conditions worsen in the real world economy and political system, the propaganda fabricated in an attempt to cover up the truth becomes more absurd.  Today’s retail sales report, prepared and released by the Census Bureau which in and of itself makes the numbers extraordinarily unreliable, showed a .6% gain in retail sales in July from June.  As I’ll show below, not including the affects of inflation, in all likelihood retail sales declined in July.

The biggest component of the reported gain was auto sales, for which the Census Bureau attributed a 1.1% gain over June.  While this correlates with the SAAR number reported at the beginning of the month, the number does not come close to matching the actual industry-reported sales, which showed a 7% decline for the month of July.  Note: the SAAR calculation is fictional – it implies that auto sales, which are declining every month, will continue at the same rate as the rate measured in July.  Per the stark contrast between the Census Bureau number and the industry-reported number, the number reported by the Government is nothing short of fictional.

The automobile sales component represents 20% of the total retail sales report on a revenue basis.  If we give the Government the benefit of doubt and hold the dollar value of auto sales constant from June to July (remember, the industry is telling us sales declined sharply) and recalculated the retail sales report, we get a 0.03% gain in retail sales.

Another huge issue is the number recorded for building material and sales.  In the “not seasonally adjusted” column, the report shows a huge decline from June to July (a $1.3 billion drop from June to July.  But through the magic of seasonal adjustments , the unadjusted number is transformed in a $337 million decline.   Given the declining trend in housing starts and existing home sales, it would make sense that building and supply stores sold less in July vs. June.  But the Government does not want us to see it that way.

Yet another interesting number is in the restaurant sales category, which the Census Bureau tells us increased .3% in July from June.   Restaurant sales are also one of the largest components of retail sales, representing 12.1% of what was reported.   This number was diametrically opposed to the Black Box Intelligence private sector report for monthly restaurant sales, which showed a 2.8% drop in restaurant sales in July (a 4.7% drop in traffic).   The Census Bureau survey for total retail sales is based on 4,700 questionnaires mailed to retail businesses.  The Black Box restaurant survey is based on data compiled monthly from 41,000 restaurants.   We don’t know how many restaurants are surveyed and actually respond to the Government surveys.

Here’s the Census Bureau’s dirty little secret (click to enlarge):

The sections highlighted in yellow are marked with an asterisk.  In the footnotes to the report, the Census Bureau discloses that the asterisk means that, “advance estimates are not available for this kind of business” (Retail Sales report).  In other words, a significant percentage of the Government’s retail sales report is based on guesstimates. Lick your index finger and stick it up in the political breeze to see which way you need to make the numbers lean.

I calculated the total amount of sales for which the Census Bureaus claims is not based on guesstimates.  45.3% of the report is a swing and a miss. Not coincidentally, the areas of its report that conflict directly with actual industry-provided numbers and area guestimate categories happen to be auto sales, building materials and restaurant sales.  Get the picture?

Just like every other major monthly economic report – employment, GDP, inflation – the retail sales report is little more than a fraudulent propaganda tool used to distort reality for the dual purpose of supporting the political and monetary system – both of which are collapsing – and attempting to convince the public that the economy is in good shape.

Household Debt At Record Level – Bigger Than China’s GDP

The economy continues to grow weaker despite all of the Fed, Wall St. and media propaganda to the contrary. The economy is growing weaker due to the deteriorating financial condition of the consumer, which is by far the biggest driver of GDP in the United States. The only way the policy-makers can avoid a systemic collapse is “helicopter” money printing, in which printed cash or digital currency credits is, in some manner, distributed to the populace.

The Fed reported that non-revolving consumer debt (not including mortgage debt) hit $2.6 trillion at the end of the first quarter. Student loans outstanding hit a record $1.44 trillion. Recall that at least 40% of this debt is in some form of delinquency, default or “approved” non-pay status. Auto loans hit a record $1.2 trillion. Of this, at the very least  30% is subprime. A meaningful portion of the auto debt is of such poor credit quality when it’s issued that it is not even rated. Credit card debt is now over $1 trillion dollars and at a record level. The average outstanding balance per capita is $9600 per card for those who don’t pay in full at the end of the month.  Just counting the households with credit card debt  balances, the average balance per household is $16,000.  The average household auto loan balance for all households with a car loan is over $29,000.

The data shows a consumer that is buried in debt and will likely begin to default at an accelerating rate this year. In fact, I’d call these statistics an impending economic and financial disaster. Credit card companies are already warning about credit charge-offs. Synchrony (which issues credit cards for Amazon and Walmart) reported that its credit card charge-offs would rise at least 5% in 2017. Capital One (Question: “What’s in your wallet?” – Answer: “Not money”) reported that credit card charge-offs soared 28% year over year for Q1.  Synchrony, Capital One and Discover combined increased their Q1 provision for bad loans by 36% over last year’s provisions taken.

The monthly consumer credit report last week showed a $12.4 billion increase over May. A $16 billion increase was expected by Wall St. Keep in mind that every month of credit expansion is another new all-time high in consumer debt. Credit card debt outstanding increased by $4.1 billion, which is troubling for two reasons. First, it’s likely that financial firms are lending to less than qualified borrowers, as evidenced by the rising credit card delinquency and charge-off rates. Second, given the declining household real disposable income and savings rate, it’s likely that households are using credit card debt to pay for non-discretionary expenses. The smaller than expected increase in credit is being attributed primarily to slower growth in auto loans.

Speaking of the auto industry, Bloomberg reported last week that auto dealers, in a desperate bid to increase sales and reduce inventory, cut prices on new cars and trucks in July by the most since March 2009. It also reported that used car prices dropped 4.1%. This graph from Meridian Macro Research captures the rapid deterioration auto sales (click to enlarge):

The chart shows rate of change in motor vehicle freight carload volume on a year over year basis vs. per capita auto sales. As you can see, the last time these two metrics were showing negative growth (a decline) and heading lower was 2008. The entire “boom” in auto sales since the “cash for clunkers” program, which ran from July 2009 to November 2009, has been artificially created by a massive expansion in Government-enabled credit and Fed money printing. The impending crash in the auto industry is unavoidable unless the Government resorts to outright “helicopter” money printing (i.e. giving cash directly to households rather than to the banks).

One of the best barometers of consumer financial health is restaurant sales, which are entirely dependent on the relative level of household disposable income that can be allocated to non-discretionary expenditures. Black Box Intelligence’s monthly restaurant industry snapshot,  released Thursday,  showed another monthly decline in restaurant sales and traffic – this one steeper than the past couple of months. I believe this is the 17th successive monthly year-over-year decline. Comp sales (year over year for July) were down 2.8% and comp traffic dropped 4.7%. The latter is more significant, as it better represents actual sales volume because dollar sales are boosted by price inflation. In contrast to these Real World numbers, the BLS reported in its employment report for July that the restaurant industry created 57,000 new jobs. This is not just flagrant misrepresentation of reality for propaganda purposes, it’s outright fraud.

In terms of specifics with the July restaurant numbers, sales declined in 183 of the 195 markets covered by the Black Box Intelligence survey. The worst region was the midwest, where sales declined 3.6% and traffic dropped 5.2%. The best region was California, with sales down 0.7% (price inflation) and traffic down 3.6%. Not surprisingly, the fine dining category outperformed the other industry segments, as it reflects the growing disparity in income and wealth between the upper 1% and the rest. The quick service segment turned in the worst performance.

The above analysis was excerpted from the Short Seller’s Journal, which is dedicated to digging truth out from the Government, Fed and  financial media propaganda.  Contrary to the message conveyed by the stock market’s inexorable climb higher, the average U.S. household, along with the Government at all levels (Federal to local municipal), is on the ropes financially and economically.  The Short Seller’s Journal exposes this reality.   Hundreds of stocks are plumbing 52-week and all-time lows. The Short Seller’s Journal helps you find these stocks before they plunge and take advantage of the most overvalued and most inefficiently-priced stock market in history.   You can find out more here:   Short Seller’s Journal information.

Short All Retail, Especially Amazon

“Bubbles require ever more money to sustain them. Currently that’s not happening. A severe market selloff could come at any moment.”

The quote above is from Fred Hickey, who writes the The High-Tech Strategist newsletter. Mario Draghi, Chairman of the ECB, is under pressure to reduce the Central Banks’ asset purchases (it’s buying corporate bonds, including junk-rated bonds). Apparently some Dutcn legislators presented Draghi with a tulip in reference to the Dutch tulip mania in the 1630’s.

The Bank of Japan and the Chinese Government are working to reduce their money printing. The Fed is still buying mortgages but it seems determined to slowly tighten monetary policy. The problem faced by these Central Planners is that they’ve created a massive global Ponzi scheme that requires an increasing amount of liquidity (money printing + credit expansion) in order to sustain valuation levels. Once they slow down the liquidity spigot, all fiat currency- driven assets (except physical precious metals) are at risk of collapsing.

The Dow finished the week closing down 4 days in row to close essentially unchanged for week (up 9 pts). The SPX also was flat for the week (up 6 pts). It managed to squeak out a slight gain on Friday to avoid 4 consecutive down days. Both the Dow and SPX started out Friday with a big rally from Thursday’s close but faded over the last 2 hours of trading on no apparent news triggers. This for me is a possible indicator that the stock market losing energy.

Bed Bath and Beyond (BBBY) was hammered Friday, down over 12%, as it badly missed earnings and revenue estimates. I presented BBBY as a short idea in the December 16th SSJ issue at $47.27. I hope some of you jumped on it then, as 4 days later it had closed at $41.38.

Amusingly, Jim Cramer, et al attributed BBBY’s lousy quarter to competition from AMZN. But nothing could be further from the truth. Its sales were up slightly from Q1 2016 and
its digital channel sales grew 20%. If anything, BBBY’s e-commerce business presents intensified competition for AMZN. Why? Because AMZN’s e-commerce operating margin is 0.3% vs. BBBY’s, which was 5.4% in Q1. BBBY has plenty room to go directly at AMZN on pricing.

BBBY’s net income dropped 39% vs. Q1 2016. The primary culprit was that BBBY lowered its free shipping threshold to $29 from $49. which in turn forced BBBY to absorb shipping costs on more orders. AMZN does not properly accrue the cost of its free shipping to its cost of sales (the SEC looks the other way on this one), burying the expense across the income
statement and balance sheet. But we know it has a reported 0.3% operating margin in e-commerce. The hit to BBBY’s operating margin, which declined 242 basis points (2.42%), gives us some insight about true cost inflicted on AMZN from its free shipping program.

My point here is that the overall retail environment is going to get more competitive and margins are going to decline even more. Companies like Walmart and BBBY have taken the gloves off and can afford to undercut AMZN across the board because they have significantly more room to cut prices and attack AMZN’s pricing and free shipping model without driving their operating margins down to zero. AMZN’s e-commerce profit margin, for all intents and purposes, is zero. The bottom line here is that retail in general remains a great sector to short.

I believe BBBY has a lot more downside and can still be shorted, with patience, for some nice gains:

The more interesting short is AMZN. About a month ago, right before completing the check-out process on AMZN, I received a message in which AMZN was offering a $5 shopping credit to fund a gift card with $100. Why is AMZN paying 5% to raise cash? It effectively is taking a 5% operating profit margin hit on the $100, because its overall e-commerce operating margin is essentially zero. And I discovered yesterday that AMZN was offering a $5 shopping credit to Prime members who opted for the slow shipping option rather than the 2-day shipping.

These cash-raising and cash-saving policies make no sense if AMZN is producing the billions in free cash flow as represented by Bezos (on a non-GAAP basis, of course). Something is very wrong beneath the surface. In fact, AMZN burns cash every quarter. I have demonstrated that in previous research I have produced. It’s a fact.

In the meantime, AMZN continues to be, along with TSLA, the greatest Ponzi scheme in history. Bernie Madoff is green with envy. The irony surrounding all of the analyst – and Jim Cramer – noise about AMZN is that its acquisition of Whole Foods makes it more vulnerable to competition. The idea that AMZN will now be a “grocery killer” is absurd. Just like the idea that it’s a retail killer. BBBY’s e-commerce grew at 20% year over year.

If anything is true, it’s that BBBY, Walmart, Target and Kroger present intensified e-commerce competition for AMZN.  And all four of those companies can cut prices to compete and still turn an operating profit.  AMZN does not have that luxury. That’s probably why AMZN is encouraging Prime customers to take the slow shipment option with a $5 shopping credit.

Most of the above analysis is an excerpt from this week’s Short Seller’s Journal, released Sunday evening. I discussed strategies for shorting BBBY. I also discussed shorting Kinder Morgan (KMI) in the context of declining energy price and usage and included for subscribers a somewhat dated, in-depth research report on KMI which details with proof the Ponzi scheme set-up at KMI. You can get more details about the subscription, including a “handful” of back-issues here:  Short Seller’s Journal info.  (Note: new subscribers also get a copy of the somewhat-dated full AMZN research report I wrote).

The Public Is Getting Pissed – Ignoring Rule Of Law

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”   – George Orwell

There’s a narrative here that the Government, the Fed, the Trump Administration, etc conveniently ignored.  Here’s the headline list this morning:

  • GM Extends Plant Shutdowns
  • 2nd Quarter GDP Hit As Inventories Tumble In April
  • Retail Sales Tumble Most Since January 2016
  • Pension Crisis Escalates
  • House Majority Whip Shot At Congressional Baseball Practice

Real Clear News reported that Representative De Santis stated to police that the shooter asked “whether Republicans or Dems were on the field before shooting.”  Fox News has confirmed  the report.

The public is getting pissed.  It is told daily, on no uncertain terms, by the White House that the economy is rapidly improving.  The Fed confirms that the economy is improving.  Wall Street chimes in confirming that “narrative.”

The public is told that the unemployment rate is under 5% and the labor market is tight.  But 95 million people in the working age population don’t have jobs.  They are not considered part of the “Labor Force” and have been removed from the statistics altogether by some BLS bureaucrat’s pencil eraser. To be sure, maybe 1/3 or even 1/2 of those people don’t want to work or need to work for some reason (wealthy, wealthy and lazy, inherited income, public assistance of some form, etc).  But 1/2 to 2/3’s of those people would like to find a job that doesn’t entail delivering pizza or washing dishes – in other words, jobs that pay to support a family.

A growing portion of the population understands the underlying truth about the economy that exists behind the propaganda and lies. And they are getting pissed. It’s become clear to anyone desperate enough in their fight to get by that the politicians, corporate elitists and Wall Street crooks are no longer beholden to Rule of Law.   The conclusion for the growing legion of desperate is obvious:  “why should we adhere to Rule of Law?”

At least this time the Deep State can’t shove the “it was ISIS” narrative down our collective gullets.

Beat Your Meat With The “Street”

Best Buy reported its earnings this morning for its Q1.  Revenues were up year over year for the quarter (qtr/qtr) by a scorching $85 million, or 1%.  But this came at the expense of price competition, as its gross profit declined 5.7%.  Operating income plunged 19.4%.  Net income dropped 18%.  Earnings per share declined 15% (share buybacks translated into a lower decline in e.p.s. than net income).  Cash provided by operating activities (from the Company’s “statement of cash flows,” not from the Jeff Bezos “free cash flow” comic book) took a 51% cliff dive, dropping $249 million qtr/qtr.

But because Best Buy “beat the Street” estimates, the stock jumped $8 this morning, adding over $2.4 billion in to BBY’s market cap.  To say this is absurd does an injustice to the word absurd.

When a stock gains $2.4 billion on declining economics and profitability because it “beats the Street,” you know it’s end of days for the stock bubble. This is quite similar to the late 1999 – early 2000 timeframe, when a Maria Bartiromo would breath the name of a tech stock and it would jump $10 almost instantaneously.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

Silver Demand Shows A Consumer In Trouble

Global demand for silver declined from 2015 to 2016 by 123 million ozs per numbers from the Silver Institute presented in an article on The Daily Coin yesterday.   In fact, for the demand categories primarily driven by the consumer, demand plummeted 125 million ozs, or 15.3%.   Industrial demand for silver increased slightly but this was because of the global expansion in the solar panel industry, primarily in India and China.

The consumer portion of global silver demand is derived from jewelry, coins and bars (investment), silverware and electronics.  The 15.3% plunge in demand reflects the fact that consumer disposable income is drying up.   After making required monthly expenditures – food, mortgage/rent, debt service, healthcare – consumers, especially in the United States, are out of money.

Disappearing disposable income explains only part of the equation.  The illusion of economic improvement in the U.S. was created by debt issuance.   Between Q3 2012 and now, total household debt expanded by $1.38 trillion dollars.  In fact, total household debt is now at an all-time high, driven by auto, student, credit card and personal loans.  The truth is that “discretionary” consumption was fueled by the Fed enabling the average U.S. household to accumulate a record level of debt.

The economy likely hit a wall in late 2016 and is now contracting.   Today’s retail sales report – to the extent that the numbers have any credibility – showed a .4% gain in retail sales for April vs. March.  But these are nominal numbers.   On an inflation-adjusted basis, retail sales declined.

While demand for silver products reflects the fact that the average consumer is out of money, restaurant sales confirm this.   April restaurant sales declined 1% in April and foot traffic into restaurants dropped 3.3%.  This was the 12th month out of the last 13 that restaurant sales fell.  Restaurant sales have dropped five quarters in a row.  The last time a streak like this occurred was 2009-2010.   Sound familiar?

Regardless of what the Fed says in public, the U.S. economy is in trouble.  The illusion of economic growth post-2009 was a product of debt issuance.  Now the consumer – 70% of the economy – has hit a wall with regard to its ability to take on more debt – look out below. In today’s episode of the Shadow of Truth, we review the silver demand numbers and discuss the implications for U.S. and global economy:

Make America Great Again: Buy Extremely Overvalued Stocks

Key Economic Data Continues To Show A Recession

The stock market assumed a decidedly bearish tone last week, in the face of apparent domestic political instability, increasing geopolitical tensions and, most important, a continued flow of hard economic data reflecting an economy that is in recession (click image to enlarge).

The SPX declined 3 out of the 4 trading days this last week to close down 1.1% from the previous Friday’s close. It’s down nearly 3% from the all-time high it hit on March 1st. Thursday’s big red bar took the SPX below the 50 dma. On all four days the SPX closed well below its intra-day high. This indicates to me that, at least for now, stock market traders are better sellers. Also of interest, for the first time in seventeen years, the stock market declined the day before the Good Friday market holiday.

The growth in loan origination to the key areas of the economy – real estate, general commercial business and the consumer – is plunging. This is due to lack of demand for new loans, not banks tightening credit. If anything, credit is getting “looser,” especially for mortgages. Since the Fed’s quantitative easing and near-zero interest rate policy took hold of yields, bank interest income – the spread on loans earned by banks (net interest margin) – has been historically low. Loan origination fees have been one of the primary drivers of bank cash flow and income generation. Those four graphs above show that the loan origination “punch bowl” is becoming empty.

HOWEVER, the Fed’s tiny interest rate hikes are not the culprit. Loan origination growth is dropping like rock off a cliff because consumers largely are “tapped out” of their capacity to assume more debt and, with corporate debt at all-time highs, business demand for loans is falling off quickly. The latter issue is being driven by a lack of new business expansion opportunities caused by a fall-off in consumer spending. If loan origination continues to fall off like this, and it likely will, bank earnings will plunge.

But it gets worse. As the economy falls further into a recession, banks will get hit with a double-whammy. Their interest and lending fee income will decline and, as businesses and consumers increasingly default on their loans, they will be forced to write-down the loans they hold on their balance sheet. 2008 all over again.  (The commentary above is an excerpt from the latest Short Seller’s Journal).

Despite the propaganda coming from the media, the housing market is in trouble.  37% of all transactions in 2016 were flips.  A flip double-counts a sale because the house trades twice before it ends up with the end-user.  I would bet that in the $300-$600k price-bucket that close to 50% of all transactions YTD in 2017 have been flips.  This is how the mid-2000’s housing bubble ended.

Today the housing starts report for March registered the biggest drop in four months.  Single family starts plunged 32% in the midwest and 16% in the west.   Both multi-family and single-family starts dropped.  Multi-family is going to be a big problem.  Prices in NYC and Miami are dropping like a rock and vacancies are soaring because of oversupply – just like in 2007.  Apartment rental rates are falling quickly and vacancy rates soaring across all the major MSA’s.   Manufacturing  output plunged in March, likely reflecting bulging car inventories at auto dealers, which are at  a post-2009 high.   OEM auto manufacturers are closing plants and laying off workers.  The latter, no doubt, will miraculously fail to register in the Governments next employment report.

Meanwhile, the stock market continues disconnect from underlying economic reality. Auto, retail and restaurant sales are plunging. The explanation for falling retail sales is simple: real average weekly earnings have dropped two months in a row. The consumer, as I’ve been suggesting, is tapped out on two fronts: disposable income and the capacity to take on more debt.

Despite the obvious intervention in the stock market by the Fed and the Government, via the Treasury’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, plenty of stocks are tanking. As an example, I recommended shorting Kate Spade (KATE) to my Short Seller Journal subscribers about a month ago at $23.50. The stock is trading at $18 this morning – 23% gain if you shorted the stock and even more if you used puts. You can get in-depth economic and market analysis plus ideas for taking advantage of the most overvalued stock market in U.S. history via IRD’s Short Seller’s Journal. For more information, click here:  Short Seller’s Journal Subscription Information.

The Market Has Its Head Buried Deep In The Sand

Several “black swans” are looming which could inflict a financial nuclear accident on the U.S. markets and financial system.   I say “black swans” in quotes because a limited audience is aware of these issues – potentially catastrophic problems that are curiously ignored by the mainstream financial media and financial markets.

The most immediate problem is the Treasury debt ceiling.  The Treasury is now projected to run out of cash by mid-summer.  Of course, in the spurious manner in which the markets evaluate the next trade, July may as well be a decade away.  My best guess is that the “market” assumes that, after drawn out staging of DC’s version of Kabuki Theatre, Congress will raise the debt ceiling, probably up to $22 trillion.  Then the Fed will extend its highly secretive “swap” operations to foreign “ally” Central Banks (hint:  Belgium and Switzerland) in order to fund the onslaught of Treasury issuance that will ensue.  Problem solved…or is it?

(Note:  Plan B would be another one of Trump’s bewildering Executive Orders removing the debt ceiling.  Plan B is another form of “fiat” currency issuance)

The second “black swan” seen by some but invisible to most is the ongoing collapse the shopping mall business model, erroneously blamed on the combative growth of online retailing.  But when I look at the actual numbers, that argument smells foul.

Is Online Retailing Actually The Cause Of Brick/Mortar Retail Apocalypse?

More than 3,500 stores are scheduled to be shuttered in the next few months. JC Penny,
Macy’s, Sears, Kmart, Crocs, BCBC, Bebe, Abercrombie & Fitch and Guess are some of the
marquee retailing names that will be closing down mall and strip mall stores. The Limited is going out of business and closing down all 250 of its stores.

The demise of the mall “brick and mortar” retail store is popularly attributed to the growth in online retail sales. To be sure, online retailing is eating into the traditional retail sales
distribution mechanism – but not as much as the spin-meisters would have have you believe. At the beginning of 2015, e-commerice sales were about 7% of total retail sales. By the end of 2016, that metric rose to 8.3%. However, looking at the overall numbers reveals that nominal retail sales have increased for both brick/mortar stores and online. In Q4 2015, total nominal retail sales were $1.186 trillion. Brick/mortar was $1.096 trillion and online was 89.7 billion, which was 7.6% of total retail sales. In Q4 2016, total sales were $1.235 trillion with brick/mortar $1.133 trillion and online $102.6 billion, which was 8.3% of total retail sales.

As you can see, there was nominal growth for both brick/mortar and online retailers. My point here is that the spin-meisters present the narrative that online retailers are eating alive the brick/mortar retailers. That’s simply not true.   Part of the problem that the total retail sales “pie” is shrinking, especially when analyzing the inflation-adjusted numbers.  I created a graph on from the St. Louis Fed’s “FRED” database that surprised even me (click to enlarge):

The graph above shows the year over year percentage change in nominal (not inflation-adjusted) retail sales on a monthly basis from 1993 (as far back as the retail sales data goes) thru February 2017, ex-restaurant sales, vs. outstanding consumer credit. As you can see, since 1994 the growth in nominal retail sales on a year over year basis has been in a downtrend, while the level of consumer credit outstanding as been in a steady uptrend. Since 2014, the rate of growth in debt has exceeded the rate of growth in retail sales. If we were to adjust the retail sales using just the Government-reported CPI measure of “inflation” retail sales would be outright declining.

The problem with the mall business model is debt.  The mall-anchor retailers who are vacating mall space like cockroaches vacate a kitchen when the light is flipped on have been leveraged to the hilt by the financial engineers who control them who in turn have been enabled by the most permissive Federal Reserve in U.S. history.   Too be sure, online retailing is cutting into the margins of Macy’s, JC Pennies, Sears, Dillards, etc.  But these companies would have no problem “fighting back” if they were not over-leveraged to the eyeballs.

Layer on top of that the leverage employed by the mall REITs and the recipe for a financial crisis larger than the 2008 “big short” mortgage/housing crisis has been created.  To compound this problem, mall owners are now starting to mail in the keys to financially troubled malls:   More mall landlords are choosing to walk away from struggling properties, leaving creditors in the lurch and posing a threat to the values of nearby real estate…[as] some of the largest U.S. landlords are calculating it is more advantageous to hand over ownership to lenders than to attempt to restructure debts on properties with darkening outlooks (LINK).

But it gets worse. I referenced the consumer’s ability to borrow in order to spend money. Economic activity in the United States has relied heavily on an increasing amount of debt issuance for several decades. At some point consumer borrowers reach a point at which they can no longer support taking on more debt, whether in the form of mortgages, auto loans/leases or credit cards. The problem for the U.S. financial system is that there will be widespread defaults on the consumer debt that’s already been issued.   The average U.S. household has “hit a wall” on the amount of debt it can absorb.  This is why restaurant and retail sales are dropping and why auto sales have rolled over.  All three will get worse this year.

This Will Crush The Pensions

Finally, the third “invisible” black swam is the looming pension crisis.  A colleague of mine who works at a pension fund did a study last year in which he concluded that, because of the extreme degree of public pension underfunding, a 10% decline in the stock market for a sustained period – i.e. more than 3 or 4 months – would cause every single public pension fund to blow up.  As he has access to better data than most, he also surmised that the degree of underfunding is 2-3x greater than is publicly acknowledged by the mainstream media (see this article for instance:  Bloomberg claims $1.9 trillion underfunding).

Circling back to the mall/REIT ticking time-bomb, while the Fed can keep the stock market propped up as means of preventing an immediate nuclear melt-down in U.S. pensions (all of which are substantially “maxed-out” in their mandated equities allocation), the collapse of commercial mortgage-back securities (CMBS) will have the affect of launching a nuclear sub-missile directly into the side of the U.S. financial system.

The commercial mortgage market is about $3 trillion, of which about $1 trillion has been packaged into asset-backed securities and stuffed into yield-starved pension funds. Without a doubt, the same degree of fraud of has been used to concoct the various tranches in these CMBS trusts that was employed during the mid-2000’s mortgage/housing bubble, with full cooperation of the ratings agencies then and now.   Just like in 2008, with the derivatives that have been layered into the mix, the embedded leverage in the commercial mortgage/CMBS/REIT model is the financial equivalent of the Fukushima nuclear power plant collapse.

It’s a  matter of time before a lit match hits one of the three lethal powder-kegs described above.  This is why the bank stocks were hit particularly hard last week when the Dow was in the middle of its 8-day losing streak.  Of course, all it took to spike the Dow/SPX higher was a couple of immaterial “consumer confidence” reports in order to reflate the stock market with some “hope.”   Don’t forget, the last time consumer confidence high-ticked was in 1999, right before the tech bubble imploded.

Unfortunately, the next financial catastrophe that is going hit the system, and for which the Fed is helpless to prevent, will make everyone yearn for just the tech bubble or “big short” bubble collapses.   Meanwhile, the stock market and its collective universe of “investors” will continue sticking its head deeper into the sand, oblivious to the sling blade that is swings closer to its neck.

Portions of the above analysis were excerpted from the current Short Seller’s Journal. That issue contained more in-depth data and two short ideas, a mall REIT and retailer that has bubbled up beyond comprehension.   You can learn more about the Short Seller Journal here:   SSJ Weekly Subscription.

Retailing Is Bad And About To Get Worse

Americans are filing for bankruptcy at the fastest rate in several years. In January 2017, 55,421 individuals filed bankruptcy. That’s a 5.4% increase over January 2016. In December 2016, 4.5% more individual bankruptcies were filed than in December 2015. It’s the first time in 7 years that personal bankruptcies have risen in successive months on a year over year basis.

Also notable, in 2016 the number of U.S. Corporate bankruptcies jumped by 26% over 2015. U.S. Corporations have issued $9.5 trillion in bonds. That’s 61% more than they borrowed in the eight years leading up to the 2008 de facto financial system collapse (aka “the great financial crisis”).

The Financial Times reported that over 1 million U.S. consumers – prime and subprime – were behind on their car loans and that the overall delinquency rate had reached its highest level since 2009. The FT also stated that “lending to consumers with weak credit scores has been one of the fastest growing parts of the [banking] industry.” It’s starting to smell like early 2008 out there.

This is information and data that you will not hear on any of the “Bubblevision” financial “news” programs or read in the mainstream financial media. It’s also information that is not being factored at all by stock prices.

Americans are bulging from the eyeballs with mortgage, auto, credit card and student loan debt. The amount of outstanding auto debt hits a new record every month. Of the $1.2 trillion in auto loans outstanding, over 30% is considered subprime. In fact, I would bet good money that the number is closer to 40%, as the same type of non-documentation loans that infected the mortgage market in mid-2000’s has invaded the auto loan market. It was recently disclosed that the 61+ day delinquency rate on General Motors’ securitized subprime loans has soared to levels not seen since 2009.

To put the amount of subprime auto debt in context, assume 35% of total auto debt outstanding is now below prime (subprime and “not rated”). This equates to $420 billion of below prime debt. The total amount of below prime mortgage debt during the mid-2000’s housing bubble was about $600 billion. In other words, the subprime auto debt problem could easily precipitate another financial markets catastrophe.

Although the retail sales report for January earlier this month purported to show a 4.9% year/year increase in retail for January, the majority of the “gain” came from the rising price of gasoline during the month (the gasoline sales category showed a 13.9% gain over January 2016, most of which can be explained by higher prices). In fact, the .4% “gain” from December 2016 to January 2017 reported for the overall retail sales number lagged the Government’s measure of inflation. Real, inflation-adjusted sales from December to January declined by 0.20%. (Note also that the retail sales report is derived largely from Census Bureau “guesstimates” due to the supposed unavailability of real-time data. This explains why typically previous reports are revised lower – I detail this in my weekly Short Seller’s Journal).

Debt-squeezed Americans are spending less on discretionary items, especially clothing. This is why Walmart has launched a new price-war agenda aimed at the grocery industry, big-box retailers and Amazon.com.    The retail spending “pie” is shrinking and Walmart intends to do fight hard to maintain the size of its piece.  For all the attention focused on Amazon, Walmart’s annual revenues are nearly 4-times larger than Amazon’s.   And make no mistake, Walmart has plenty of room to fight, as its operating margin is nearly double AMZN’s – and that’s before we adjust AMZN’s highly misleading accounting, which would reduce AMZN’s margins.

Despite the Dow hitting new all-time highs for a record number of days in a row, The S&P retail ETF, XRT, is currently 10.4% below its 52-week high.   It’s 15% below its all-time high, which it hit in mid-July 2015:

Target (TGT) is today’s poster-child for the retail sector, as its Q4 earnings missed expectations badly and it warned for 2017.  Its quarterly revenues dropped 4.3% year over year and its full-year 2016 earnings fell nearly 6% vs. 2015.   Operating earnings were crushed, down 42.2% in Q4 2016 vs. Q4 2015.  The stock is down over 11% right now (mid-morning trading on Tuesday).

I would also suggest that the revised GDP  for Q4, reported to be 1.9%, is derived from Government statisticians’ manipulation because most of the gain is attributed to consumer spending.  Tell that to holders of XRT and RTH.

The economy is sinking further into a recession despite the propaganda coming from Wall Street, financial bubblevision “meat with mouths” and the mainstream media.  Real median household income continues to decline and the Fed/Government intervention in the stock market is helpless to prevent this fact from being reflected in many sub-sectors of the stock market “hiding” beneath the headline-grabbing Dow and S&P 500.

My Short Seller’s Journal presents analysis like this to subscribers every week.  There’s a big difference between what gets reported and what is really going on.  My journal looks “under the hood” of the headline economic reports in order detail what’s really going in in the economy.  Most of the analysis and assertions are backed up with actual data.  I also “de-construct” the game of “beat the earnings” which makes headlines and stocks pop, but also creates short-sell opportunities.  Each issue presents at least two short ideas, along with suggestions for using options and managing positions.  The retail sector has been fertile shorting ground and the housing market is next.  You can subscribe by clicking on this link:  Short Seller’s Journal – plus receive a discount link to my Mining Stock Journal.