We’ve updated our Vegan Growth Portfolio model results with the data through March 31, 2020.
Guessing from the feedback I’ve received, we’re in a very enviable position now just sitting in cash. I don’t expect that to change significantly in the near term. Besides, the last thing you really need right now – aside from a bidet and hand sanitizer – is the extra stress of market fluctuations.
Last year we under performed because, if you were looking in the right places, there was an enormous amount of early warning risk being signaled. I spent most of last year writing about the warning the Yield Curve was signaling and how the Cass Freight Index was in recession – in November. The virus is a huge shove to push the economy over the cliff. Things were already weak to being with and now almost all of 2019’s gains have disappeared. The game plan for crashes is as follows.
1. Don’t give up drinking.
2. At some point we’re going to make what could be a crash low in the market.
3. After the crash low we’ll likely see a multi-week rally. This rally is the Fool’s Gold of rallies. This rally will be used by investors, institutions etc. to get out of positions they were caught in during the crash. Hopefully we’ll begin to have some clarity on the spread of the virus too. During this period expect to see stories of companies that blew up like Worldcom, Enron, Madoff. It happens during every bear market. I’m also looking for the Metlife annuity ads with Snoopy trying to lure burned investors with guaranteed 1% returns. That will safely double your money in 72 years.
4. I would expect the stabilization rally to fail and we’ll likely revisit the crash low. While people remember the 2008 low in November, the retest low happened in March 09. I would expect the retest to happen a lot faster than 4 months this time.
During the retest I’ll be able to measure its volatility and intensity and compare it to the initial crash low. If we’re in the process of making a market bottom, the retest of the low will be milder. Instead of 2000 stocks making their lows for the year it could be 700. In other words, fewer stocks participating in the decline. This signals that the virus and recession are already priced into the market. What is not priced in is the economic rebound and that is where the opportunity is.
5. If the retest is successful, that will be the time to put money back to work. If the retest fails and we plunge to new lows, we start over looking for a new crash low and repeat the process.
Over the weekend, we read how the Fed cut rates to zero. When the time comes this move will fuel stocks much higher than where we are today. However, we’re going to need a massive Fiscal package from the government as well.
It’s very likely that we’re in the midst of an enormous opportunity because we’re in cash. Human nature being what it is only sees fear at this moment because so much is unknown. In time we’ll get some clarity and people we’ll be able to see how we’re going to emerge from this crisis. At that point in time investors will begin buying for the economic rebound and thoughts of the recession will fade.
Patience is key. No need to get invested too early.
I strongly suggest to completely tune out and ignore the financial media. Especially anything coming out of the mouth of Larry Kudlow.
During periods of financial stress it’s very common to see articles telling investors they have to now settle for lower returns. This type of “advice” is completely illogical and inaccurate. Bear markets are huge opportunities for investors to make above average returns once the market weakness is over.
Please be safe.
We’ve updated our Vegan Growth Portfolio model results with the data through March 1, 2020.
We’ve updated our Vegan Growth Portfolio model results with the data through February 3, 2020.
“Markets are never wrong, only opinions are”
January 27, 2020
Jesse Livermore was amongst the first great stock traders of the early 20th Century. One of his basic concepts is that we trade markets and individual holdings. An investor should have little concern for opinions and anything else that can distract from following price. If this current market proves one thing it’s: Markets and economies are two different things and don’t necessarily have to correlate.
If you think this means I’m not going to lay out my thoughts to you of what I think may happen, you’ll be right! All of my best performance years occurred when I kept my blinders on and didn’t listen to anyone. Instead I reacted to market signals and price changes when they occurred rather than trying to anticipate the future.
Last October the stock market proved that I was wrong with my belief that we were in the mire of a long term market topping process. This opinion was backed up by a substantial amount of weak economic data that under normal conditions should have led the US into a recession this year.
Keep in mind the data is still pretty bad but it has been offset by $60 billion per month and almost $400 billion in aggregate in Treasury assets (The Fed buys the Treasury security and pays the seller with cash, who in turn can buy stocks).
In my opinion there is an unholy alliance between the Fed, Mnuchin and the President to keep the stock market rallying into the election as if it were a matter of national security.
Markets and many stocks have gone “Parabolic”. I use the term Parabolic on occasion when necessary. One of my most important rules is: Parabolic moves in stocks, markets or any other asset are unsustainable and burn out quickly but the timing of peak price is unknown.
Assume its impossible to accurately predict when the parabolic bubble bursts – my intent is to play this move for all its worth and be prepared to exit fast. The decline from a parabolic move is usually quite deep. I would be looking for a decline of 15% to 20% sometime this year.
Tactically I’ve taken a middle of the road approach by using tight stop loss orders. So as a stock like Virgin Galactic or Beyond Meat may leap higher, my stop loss prices move accordingly just under the stock price.
Current portfolios have a solid group of core growth stocks that comprise the majority of our holdings. Stocks with multi-year uptrends and reliable earnings growth make this list. Holdings considered “core” include: Fair Isaac, Copart, Mastercard and Visa, Global Payments and Adobe, Cable One, etc. Since I’m not expecting a long term bear market, these stocks can be held and hedged should the market turn down.
Approximately 20% in aggregate of our allocation is devoted to the fast and furious movers like Beyond Meat, Virgin Galactic, Sea Ltd and Audiocodes, etc. These have already made large moves and will be sold quickly should they show signs of declining with the market selloff.
It used to be that market timing via Federal Reserve policies was difficult but still possible. But that’s a thing of the past as we are in the midst of the greatest amount of central bank cash infusion since the Great Recession 10 years ago. World central banks are trying to avoid a recession by swamping credit markets with cash. In doing so, much of the cash goes into the stock market as banks and funds lever up and push the markets higher regardless of the lack of earnings growth and a slowing economy.
January 27th, 2020: Seemingly out of nowhere at least three issues have emerged which are causing the stock market to roll over.
1. The rise of Bernie Sanders is polling. As you’re probably well aware, Bernie has moved ahead of Biden in many states. His popularity creates a stark economic contrast to what presently passes for economic policy. Investment markets are discounting entities – in other words, markets will begin to move one way or another till November depending on which candidate is the perceived winner. DJT’s policies are positive for stocks in the short term while Bernie Sanders presents a severe headwind for the future.
In anticipation of a Democratic winning in November, I would anticipate higher capital gains taxes in the future – this is one of the prime reasons for the core Growth stocks mentioned earlier. It is my hope they can be held in excess of a year to qualify for the long term capital gains rate.
If your account is in a non-taxable IRA or Rollover, these core holdings will still be a benefit long term – unless the Fed pivots from ultra easy policy to inflation-motivated tightening.
2. The Coronavirus: Aside from the obvious potential lethality and its effect on travel, trade and healthcare, the virus represents another hurdle for supply chains. Last year I wrote about how important supply chains are for manufacturing productivity. They have been significantly disrupted by the unending Trade wars. Now, the Coronavirus present another issue compounding the issue. Will this final straw to move US manufacturing out of China to someplace local?
3. The Fed has begun to reduce its capital flows. I’m willing to bet they’re thinking twice about that choice now. The rise in stock prices in the 4th Q of 2019 was not due to any economic rebound. It was due to the Fed adding massive liquidity (cash) to the banking system. Last week they started to ease off.
As I mentioned earlier, this government does now want to see natural price discovery for the stock markets as that would give the Democrats and edge. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Fed go back to their $60 billion goal should stocks get hit hard.
Sell Signal: My proprietary models are beginning to show that it’s time to sell a portion of stocks and use the cash balance for hedges. My goal is to minimize net losses for what may lay ahead. Considering the magnitude of the move higher since October this isn’t surprising but I would like to protect as much of our January gains as possible. At that point we can allow the selloff to evolve with some peace of mind.
January 27, 2020
We’ve updated our Vegan Growth Portfolio model results with the data through January 2, 2020.
Value Stocks Risk/Reward
November 12, 2019
An issue I haven’t mentioned this year has been the profound weakness in Growth stocks since August. Most of the hot running high momentum stocks from earlier this year have been taken to the woodshed.
One of the reasons for money migrating out of high growth stocks is that the valuations became extreme relative to Value stocks. If there is once concept that investors in every asset class must understand is Mean Reversion. Prices always revert back to their long term trends. Think of the Tech Stock bust in 2000. The money from the sale of the overvalued Tech stocks went into Value stocks.
When I refer to “Value” stocks what I’m referring to are stocks that are cheap or have a low value relative to the underlying company. These are companies that are slow growth growing only single digits percentages a year. They can be boring businesses that don’t have a lot of sizzle to their story unless you’re a numbers geek like I am.
Right now the Risk/Reward is heavily skewed to Value stocks. The Value universe of stocks include a hefty percentage of banks and insurance companies. These financial companies saw their valuations compressed due to very low interest rates and the Inverted Yield Curve.
As you can see the Value stock methodology had dominated performance until the Great Recession of 2008. The lack of performance from Value does coincide with an uptick in activity or manipulation by the Federal Reserve.
What can’t be denied is that interest rates have moved higher which can increase profit margins and loan growth for banks and insurance companies.
November 12, 2019
Still Weighing The Evidence
October 7, 2019
During potential client interviews over the past 6 months or so I’ve noticed some questions I don’t normally have to account for. The questions usually boil down to how come our returns are not as strong this year as in the recent past.
Generally speaking, these kind of questions come from investors who (whether they know it or not) have shorter term time horizons than I presently do.
My issue with shorter term investors at the moment is that the longer term business cycle data is turning down. This evolving negative data is a significant reason for caution. Plus, I don’t feel compelled to invest in stocks for what could be a very short time window before a significant decline.
In addition, we have a unique situation where the major market indices are now negative for the past 12 months. This is aside from the fact that equity markets are beholden to unpredictable tweets and lies plus a trade war that isn’t going away any time soon and a Federal Reserve behind the curve.
The chart below is the Value Line Arithmetic Index. This index gives an equal weighting to all stocks which is very diﬀerent from the commonly used S&P 500. The VLE is a more accurate depiction of what the average investors portfolio has returned. There are 4 declining tops and the highs of September ’18 remain the market peak. This is not encouraging at all.
Trying to gauge the direction of the economy and financial markets is hard. Markets are anticipatory entities with a long history of moving before the underlying economy makes its own move. These unanticipated moves can leave investors flat-footed in their decision making. But in my view better to be early than late.
Could we actually be in the midst of a recession now? It’s possible, but the data is not conclusive.
The current investment consensus remains sanguine that we’re in a mid-cycle soft patch like 2016 and that growth will accelerate in the 4th quarter. This is one of the reasons why stocks haven’t caved despite the daily and medium termed data that continues to suggest we are at the end of this business cycle.
3 data points I’m watching:
The ISM Manufacturing and Services Index
Earlier this week the ISM Index for manufacturing went below 50, a level that corresponds to negative manufacturing growth. It hasn’t bottomed yet but note the fairly tight correlation to stocks.
Manufacturing is only 11% of the US economy but its usually one of the first indicators to signal an incoming recession. When manufacturing slows, the Domino eﬀect eventually hits transportation and shipping before it seeps into the rest of the economy. In my last letter I mentioned that the Cass Freight Index had already dipped into recession territory signaling a recession in the 4th quarter of 2019.
Initial Jobless Claims
Initial jobless claims is a refection of the health of the labor markets and moves in advance the oﬃcial unemployment data. So far, the IJC has not moved higher which is a positive but at present it is at such a level that it cannot decline much more.
In addition, the low rate of unemployment and IJC is a serious reason for why it would be very diﬃcult to strengthen the economy, because the employment levels are already so high. During the soft patch in 2016 unemployment peaked at 5%, which allowed some margin for improvement. We are currently at 3.5% which implies any stimulus could only have a marginal eﬀect.
CEO and Consumer Confidence
Stock market peaks and consumer confidence peaks go hand in hand. Consumer confidence peaked in 1988, 2000 and 2007 and in all cases returns were much worse than average.
At present consumer confidence shows some early signs of peaking but it hasn’t rolled over yet. Regardless of where we stand today, confidence peaks at the consumer level are followed by recessions.
Of particular interest is the confidence levels for CEOs who are in contrast to the Consumer. CEO confidence is in the pits. CEOs aka Insider Sales have been very strong in the past months as they are rapidly lightening exposure.
CEOs are likely to begin cutbacks in Capital Expenditures and this may account for the weakness in software stocks and other aggressive Tech stocks.
October 7, 2019
Published for clients on July 23, 2019
If we look back over the last 40 years, there have been relatively long periods in which the stock market behaves in a certain way which we could call positive or bullish behavior. Human nature tends to adapt to this behavior and extrapolates into the future to the point of unsustainable excess. At the peak of this excess, the market behavior shifts into a new paradigm in which the markets operate in the opposite of the previous trend. For example, expansive credit which leads to excessive debt loads gives way to restrictive credit and debt reduction. Companies that thrived on expanding debt can find themselves having diﬃculty paying the interest on their debt.
Identifying and navigating these shifts from expansive credit and debt to restrictive credit and debt reduction is generally the underlying shift from an expanding economy to a recession. Identifying these shifts is not that diﬃcult but the timing of the shift is tricky. Navigating these shifts and restructuring portfolios to avoid the downside of the shift is the prime reason behind my management style. Identifying the future shift in credit and the economy is the foundation of creating an All-Weather investment portfolio.
Managing the shift is also critical to the long term success of the investor. Managing the shift well keeps the investors emotions in check and places them well to take advantage of the eventual shift to expansive credit and a growing economy. A common but untrue belief in the retail investment industry is that to increase return you must increase risk. My view is that shifting portfolio structure to reflect a new economic paradigm can generate a higher than average return since an investor could avoid much of the decline in static 60%/40% (common retail brokerage firm recommendation).
Despite my growing concern for the US and Global economies into 2020 we remain invested but reducing our ownership in stocks. This is because of a cardinal rule when investing: “Don’t fight the Fed” and “Don’t fight the tape.” Markets don’t care what I think and sometimes it’s easier to avoid the headline news and just focus on price and trend. But that would make for awfully short client letters.
When you read most market commentary the commentators are usually making a prediction and validating the prediction with opinions. This type of investment process generally leads to losing a great deal of money and lagging performance.
My perspective has been to wait until a trend change occurs and then act upon an opinion of a likely outcome. So I’ll continue to remain in stocks until I see some sign that price and trend are turning down. While I do believe a recession will occur soon, I have no idea as to the timing.
As economic conditions continue to worsen investors are relying on the power of the Federal Reserve and other Central Banks to drive asset prices higher. There is an ever widening gap between stock prices and economic growth. Treasury bond strength see right through the disparity with their strong price trends.
Despite the high odds of a 2020 recession, it does not mean that stocks should be sold ASAP. There is still time for stocks to rally but the window is likely a matter of months to a year. This means we have to pay extra attention to risk control and follow the incoming data.
On the bright side, the bull market trend is still intact and my suspicion of there being a triple top in stocks is in danger of being wrong. As of 7/11, I’m not seeing any strong signs of selling or distribution. But this is often the case near the end of a bull market as bull markets can end in an upward frenzy. With the Fed to cut rates by .25 this month a “melt up” is a distinct possibility. Perhaps not as severe as 1999-2000, but a wave worth riding.
Regarding the rate cut, I believe it’s also true that the instability created by Trump’s trade wars and its eﬀect on supply chains will be the event that pushes the US into recession. For corporations over the last decade there has been a mass decision to move to China for manufacturing since the cost of labor was below the US “Labor Arbitrage”.
Suddenly companies are faced with a US policy that creates enormous doubt over the future. Can a company move from China to Mexico? I don’t know. Can it move to Canada? Who can say? What about India? This spells the end of Globalization as we knew it and it’s replaced with unrealistic nativism and doubt. It’s not that trade will end but the biggest factor is the rate of change as manufacturing slows or stops while hoping to find some answers.
Around the world corporations ask themselves: “Can we outlast Trump?” “We can go on a buying binge to build inventory? But eventually we’ll deplete ourselves, what then?” Does Trump go? If not, do we have to pull the plug and rebuild in the US?
This process takes time and will likely have the eﬀect of slowing growth and may be the catalyst for a Recession.
So, in eﬀect, Powell is trying to save the economy from the damage created by the Orange Menace.
But the reality is the Fed has only been successful in halting a recession with rate cuts 25% of the time. The business cycle is real and not easily averted, so the perception that Central Banks are all-powerful is sadly mistaken.
Of special note in this cycle is the lack of leverage the Fed currently has. Historically, the Fed has cut rates by an average of 5 full percentage points. On this go-around they only have 2.5% before we reach 0%.
Because of the lack of leverage by the Fed, the next recession could be especially harsh as stocks will likely have to find their own level to the downside with only modest Fed intervention.
The Treasury Bond market is screaming recession.
The chart above highlights that the entire range of US Treasury bond yield is either at or below the Fed Funds rate of 2.5%. This is a phenomena typically seen before a recession takes place. Investors are migrating away from risk assets to safety.
The chart above depict what all the fuss is about. Due to the yield inversion, the New York Federal Reserve recession odds estimate is now at 32.87% and rising. Economically, this means little right now but watch out in 6 to 9 months. Meanwhile, stocks should begin to show weakness soon. With the exception of the Summer of Love, reaching beyond 30% has been the point of no return for a recession and very bad news for stocks.
In addition, the Cass Freight Index Report which measures freight volumes and is a good measure of industrial activity. It’s an early indicator and generally leads US GDP by about six months.
Cass is increasingly concerned that the global slowdown is spreading to the US and that trade disputes are “reaching the point of no return”.
From Cass: “Based on all three months of data for Q2 the Cass Shipments Index is signaling GDP may be negative, or at least come close to being negative in Q2. If it does not, since reported GDP often lags economic activity represented by Freight flows, continued weakness in the Cass Shipments Index at the current magnitude should result in a negative Q3 GDP.”
Unemployment is a lagging indicator and always looks great at cycle peaks. But is also a pretty good timing mechanism for stocks and recessions. All I can say for now is that a potential bottom may be in place but it’s too early to know for sure.
It would be such a cliche to think “this time is diﬀerent” especially for an economic expansion as long as this one. Plus, I have no reason to believe the NY Fed has it wrong. The question that should follow is: What will be ground zero for this recession?
The answer in the past was the S&L Crisis in 1991, Tech stocks in 2001 and subprime home lending in 2008. Generally the most exploited investment sectors have the potential for implosive losses. From the information I have been able to gather, the likely poster child for the next recession is BBB rated Corporate Debt.
BBB is the lowest rating a bond can be rated and still be considered Investment Grade. Over half the corporate debt issued is now BBB and the next level lower is considered “junk”. The reasons for this explosion of debt are many but perhaps the most significant reason is the extremely low interest rates.
But corporate revenues used to pay debt are cyclical. Human nature tends to have a “recency bias”. In other words, people don’t bother anticipating a dip in revenue due to recession because things look great at the moment.
How was the debt used? Mostly for stock share buybacks which in recent years has been the largest net purchaser of stocks. So companies look at the cheap cost of adding debt to buy back their shares of stocks and merge with other companies.
But what happens when the business cycle ends? Revenues decline and the ability to service the debt or lower their leverage becomes more diﬃcult and this is where it gets nasty.
If one of these companies comes close to not being able to service their debt when the economy weakens their debt will be downgraded below BBB.
And, it would mean that presently the largest group of buyers (corporate stock buybacks) of US stocks would disappear. This could get nasty very quickly if the Fed is too slow to act. IMO the Fed needs to cut by more than just .25
Because of how Investment grade bond funds and ETFs are managed, if BBB debt is downgraded, these funds (plus pension funds, insurance companies, banks etc) will be forced to sell their newly downgraded debt. But to whom?
The Junk bond market trades much diﬀerent from the investment grade market and it’s also much smaller. The Junk bond market is valued at $1.2 Trillion and that is less than half the size of the BBB market.
The list above is the list of the most vulnerable BBB rated companies who’s debt could be downgraded in a recession.
If Ford, AT&T, GM and GE were forced below BBB, their combined debt would be just under 50% of the entire Junk bond market. This would likely create a free fall on their bond values as there would likely be “no bids” for many of the bonds — just like the Subprime mortgage collapse.
Despite everything I’ve written there will be asset classes that will work into the next recession and what I believe will be the eventual currency debasement of the US Dollar. The subject of debasing the USD will be for a future letter but in the case of Europe and Japan, when they went to 0% or negative interest rates, the Monetary base exploded. Central banks printed money at such a pace that the underlying value of their currencies suﬀered. In our country we have massive debts in pensions and healthcare. One way to solve these debts is to nationalize them if they’re not already and crank up the money printing machine.
Consider what I mentioned earlier regarding a potential tidal wave into the Junk bond market from the auto and communication companies. Could Ford and GM become nationalized? My guess is the public is sick and tired of bailing out the auto companies and the US government might just take them and their debt private.
So what works going forward?
- US Treasury Bonds – This is an easy but potentially short term solution if rates drop to 0% as in Europe and Japan. The Fed would likely maintain a steady stream of purchases to support bond prices which could mean capital gains for investors. But prices would likely stagnate once 0% is achieved at which point ownership has little value.
- Gold – If the Fed debases the US dollar with a flood of money to pay oﬀ assorted budget and other crises, Gold should return to its traditional role as a currency alternative. The goal is to maintain appreciation in your portfolios when traditional investments are non- productive. I will soon be emailing all of your for your opinion regarding Gold.
- Inverse Exchanged Traded Funds – I would expect to see a precipitous drop in the US stock market and Inverse ETFs, while tricky to trade, oﬀer a sound way to participate in the decline of the various indices. We have used them with success to hedge portfolios in the past but in the case of a Bear market in stocks they can be as a source of gains rather than just a hedge. In the case of a Bear market I would expect to see a consistent trend reversal in the markets, a trend that we could potentially capitalize upon.
- The Wildcard – Crypto Currencies: If a monetary base is devalued, investors will look for currency alternatives. This is where Crypto like Bitcoin comes into play. Yes, its wildly volatile but has potential. This is a wait and see speculation but the potential is there — but only for small fraction allocation of a portfolio. In other words under 3%.
Market and Business Cycles matter. It’s easy to forget they exist when you’re in the 10th year of an expansion but all expansions eventually end. I would expect that sometime near the end of 2020 we’ll begin to see the emergence of a new market and business cycle. But in the meantime risk is very high. It’s my responsibility to steer us through the cycle end with our assets intact ready to take advantage of the dream opportunity to invest in an early stage recovery.
All The Best,
We’ve updated our Vegan Growth Portfolio model results with the data through June 30.