Someone last week suggested that Trump sees the stock market as the barometer measuring the success of his Presidency. I think his behavior, tweets, press comments, etc with respect to the stock market validates that assertion.
The Dow trended lower all week last after Monday’s close. Whenever the stock market faded from an early run-up or began a rapid sell-off, a Trump tweet or press statement would pop up proclaiming that the trade war negotiations were “progressing.” It seems, though, this manipulation tonic is starting to lose strength. The index of stocks with large buyback programs actually finished the week lower. But the “most shorted” stock index closed higher on the week again. This is why the SPX, Naz and Russell outperformed the Dow this past week.
Market tops are a process – While I’m getting impatient for this market to rollover, market tops are a process. This chart certainly provides something to contemplate:
The chart above overlays the SPX from April 2018 to present on top of a chart of the SPX over a similar period in 1936-1937. The correlation is surprisingly high up to this point. No one can predict if the SPX will follow the same path for the rest of 2019 that it took in 1937, but the two periods of time have many economic, financial and geopolitical similarities. There’s certainly a case to be made that the current stock market might unfold in a manner that “rhymes” with the large decline that occurred in 1937.
Another interesting indicator is the AAII Sentiment Survey. The AAII is the American Association of Individual Investors. The weekly survey measures the relative bullishness and bearishness of individual investors. Retail investor sentiment is considered a fairly reliable contrary indicator. Currently the bullishness is now over the 40% level and the bearish level is 20% (the rest are “neutral”) – a level of bullishness that has signaled a market top in the past. In contrast, a bullish level of 20% and a bearish level of 49% on December 13th was registered nine days before the stock market bottomed.
The highest the bullish sentiment level has reached in the last 5 months was 45% in the first week of October (25% bearish). The stock market entered a big decline on October 3rd. In isolation, this indicator may or may not be reliable. But given the number of other indicators associated with a market top, now would be a good time to take profits on any long positions you might have put on in the last 2 months. Given the deteriorating fundamentals of the economic and financial system, the probability that the market will rise a meaningful amount from here is quite low.
The “US Macro” index measures the difference between consensus expectation vs the actual number reported for a wide array of economic reports. As you can see, the stock market has dislocated from economic reality by a substantial margin. At some point, unless the economic reports begin to improve, the stock market will “catch down” to reality. How long it will take for this to occur is anyone’s guess, but it is likely that the “adjustment” will be abrupt.
Many indicators are reflecting a sharp fall-off in consumer demand. Wholesale inventories are soaring and the inventory to sales ratio is significantly higher than a year ago. The CEO of a logistics warehouse in California remarked in reference to the inventory stored in company warehouses, “in 30 years I’ve never seen anything like this.” This includes inventories of durables and non-durables targeted for domestic distribution.
Confirming the pile-up in manufactured goods relative to demand, the Cass Freight index has declined on a year-over-year basis two months in a row. The index had been rising each on month on an annual comparison basis since Trump took office.
Consumer sentiment is also falling. The latest U of Michigan consumer sentiment survey fell well below the Wall St consensus expectation, with some components falling to their lowest level since the 2016 election (recall that hope soared after the election). Apologists are blaming the trade war and the Government shutdown. However, historically there’s a near-100% correlation between the directional movement of the stock market and consumer sentiment. Any negative effect from the shutdown should have been offset by the sharp rally in the stock market. Contrary to the obligatory positive spin put on the data, the sentiment index likely reflects the fact that the average household has largely tapped out its ability to take on more debt in order to keep spending on anything above non-discretionary items.
Insider selling during February has accelerated. Insiders sold more shares in the first half of February relative to shares purchased than at any time in the last 10 years. The size and volume of insider stock sales the last three days of February – per SEC filings – was described by one analyst as “off the charts.” The Financial Times had an article discussing the fact that America’s CEOs are leaving their posts at the highest rate since 2008. It’s likely the departures reflect a bearish outlook by insiders both for business conditions and the stock market.
Homebuilders, despite the small rise in homebuilder optimism, must be sensing the fall-off in the economy and a decline the pool of potential new homebuyers. Housing starts in December dropped 11.2% from November. The decline would have been worse but November’s number was revised lower. The number reported for December was 14.4% below the consensus estimate. The numbers are SAAR (seasonally adjusted annualized rate) in case you were wondering about seasonality between November and December. But just to confirm, the December 2018 number was 11% below December 2017. Also, the Census Bureau releases the “unadjusted” monthly numbers, which showed a 12% drop in starts year-over-year.
Over the next several weeks there will be a lot of excuses for the deteriorating economic fundamentals: trade war, Government shut-down, cold weather in January and February, low inventory in low-price homes, the dog ate my homework.
But the truth is that the average household in the U.S. is running up against debt limitations – the ability to take on and service additional debt. Just one indicator of this is rising credit card and auto loan delinquencies. The U.S. economy for the last 8 years has been primed and pump with printed money and debt. Debt at every level of the system is at all time higher – both nominally and as a percentage of GDP.
The next round of QE, regardless of the scale, will do nothing to re-stimulate economic activity unless the money is used to re-set (i.e. pay-off) creditors on behalf of the debtors. This was how the last reset was engineered after the financial crisis but this time it will have to be a bailout in size that is multiples of the last one.
The stock market is beginning to rollover again, as the gravity of economic fundamentals begins to exert its “pull.” I’m sure it won’t take long before we start to hear complaints about the hedge fund computer algos again. But the best advice is to take your money off the table and get out of the way.