The stock market is is more overvalued now than at any time in U.S. history. Sure, permabulls can cherry pick certain metrics that might make valuations appear to be reasonable. But these metrics rely on historical comparisons using GAAP accounting numbers that simply are not remotely comparable over time. Because of changes which have liberalized accounting standards over the last several decades, current GAAP EPS is not comparable to GAAP EPS at previous market tops. And valuation metrics based on revenue/earnings forecasts use standard Wall Street analyst “hockey stick” projections. Perma-bullishness in Wall Street forecasts has become institutionalized. The trade war threats may be the proverbial “final straw” that triggers a severe market sell-off, but the stock market could be cut in half and still be considered overvalued.
The market action has been fascinating. I noticed an interesting occurrence that did not receive any attention from market commentators. Every day last week the Dow/SPX popped up at the open but closed well below their respective highs of the day. Each day featured a pre-market ramp-up in the Dow/SPX/Naz futures. However, the Dow closed lower 3 out of the 5 days and the SPX closed lower 4 out of 5 days. All three indices, Dow/SPX/Naz, closed the week below the previous week’s close.
My point here is that the stock market is still in a topping process. The 10% decline that occurred in late January/February was followed by a rebound that seems to have sucked all of of hope and bullishness back into the market. This is reflected in some of the latest sentiment readings like the Investors Intelligence percentage of bears index, which is still at an all-time low. I also believe that some hedge fund algos are being programmed to sell rallies and buy dips. We’ll have a better idea if this theory is valid over the next couple of months if the market continues to trend sideways to lower.
Deteriorating real economic fundamentals – The most important economic report out last week was retail sales for February, which showed at 0.1% decline from January. This was a surprise to Wall Street’s brain trust, which was expecting a 0.4% gain. Keep in mind the 0.1% decline is nominal. After subtracting inflation, the “unit” decline in sales is even worse. This was the third straight month retail sales declined. The decline was led by falling sales of autos and other big-ticket items. In addition, a related report was out that showed wholesale inventories rose more than expected in January as wholesale sales dropped 0.2%, the biggest monthly decline since July 2016.
Retail and wholesale sales are contracting. What happened to the tax cut’s boost to consumer spending? Based on the huge jump in credit card debt to an all-time high and the decline in the savings rate to a record low in Q4 2017, it’s most likely that the average consumer “pre-spent” the anticipated gain from Trump’s tax cut. Now, consumers have to spend the $95/month on average they’ll get from lower paycheck withholdings paying down credit card debt. As such, retail sales have tanked 3 months in a row.
In fact, the consumer credit report for January, released the week before last, showed a sharp slow-down in credit card usage. In December, credit card debt jumped $6.1 billion. But the January report showed an increase of $780 million. Yes, this is seasonal to an extent. But this was 16.4% below the January 2017 increase of $934 million.
Further reinforcing my thesis that the average household has largely reached a point of “saturation” on the amount of debt that it can support, the Federal Reserve reported that credit card delinquencies on credit cards issued by small banks have risen sharply over the last year. The charge-off rate (bad debt written off and sold to a collection company) soared to 7.2% in Q4 2017, up from 4.5% in Q4 2016. “Small banks” are defined as those outside of the 100 largest banks measured by assets. The charge-off rate at small banks is at its highest since Q1 2010.
Any strength in retail and auto sales related to the replacement cycle from the hurricanes last year are largely done. If you strip out “inconsistent seasonal adjustments,” the decline in February retail sales was 0.48% (John Williams, Shadowstats.com). Given the degree to which the Government agencies tend to manipulate economic statistics, it’s difficult for me to say that the three-month drop in retail sales will continue. However, I suspect that spending by the average household, strapped with a record level of debt, will continue to contract – especially spending on discretionary items.
A portion of the commentary above is an excerpt from the latest Short Seller’s Journal, a weekly newsletter that provides insight on the latest economic data and provides short-sell ideas, including strategies for using options. You can learn more about this newsletter here: Short Seller’s Journal information.