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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Tuesday, July 08, 2014 - Everything Except Productive Purpose

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW – 117 = 16,906
SPX – 13 = 1963
NAS – 60 = 4391
10 YR YLD - .05 = 2.56%
OIL - .13 = 103.40
GOLD - .40 = 1320.60
SILV - .03 = 21.12
Down 2 days and already I’m seeing the financial talking heads asking if this is the start of a correction. Just a reminder that markets go up and down and sometimes sideways. The markets don’t need a big reason to move. Right now, we’re heading into earnings reporting season, and a few things happen; first, some investors might look at a position and determine that prospects for earnings are not so great, or some investors are taking the opportunity to put some cash in their pockets, just in case they see a bargain basement opportunity.

A trend in place is more likely to continue than it is to reverse, and it reverses when we can see clear evidence of a reversal. Yes, the market looks overvalued by many metrics, yes there seems to be irrational exuberance; but the markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent; yes, we’ve seen a couple of down days but we’ve gone 33 months without a correction, but we’ve had a bunch of down days during that same time. Right now, we’re seeing a minor pullback into a trading range as we await earnings season.
 Should you stay or should you go? The markets have hit recent highs, and so you have to wonder if you get out when the getting is good. After hitting record highs, the past 2 days have seen declines; let me be very clear, 2 down days do not constitute a trend; not unless you trade the minute bars. Still, it can be sickening to see profits melt away. Conversely, cutting exposure with the aim of putting cash back to work when valuations drop can be soothing at first, but maddening if stocks continue climbing. There is a fine line between adjusting exposure based on valuations and timing the market; and either way it’s a real trick heading into earnings reporting season.

With interest rates at historic lows and stocks climbing, holding cash in a portfolio has been costly, but on the flip side, cash can serve as a buffer against market pullbacks and corrections, and it provides flexibility to buy again if prices drop; in other words, you keep your powder dry. The real return on cash has to consider the idea that you can use it to make even more money down the road. Of course, for that strategy to work, you have to reinvest the cash; you have to look for bargains or look for other opportunities. If you aren’t willing or able to do that analysis then the risk is that you build up cash and don’t know when to get more invested.

This is where the idea of rebalancing comes in; it doesn’t require sophisticated analysis; you just sell high and buy low. If your risk tolerance points you toward a 60% allocation in stocks, and the stocks go up in price and now you hold 70% in stocks, cash out, to bring the equity allocation back to 60%; turn around and put that cash into a part of the portfolio that has dropped. The idea is that you are buying low; the unfortunate side effect is that you might be dumping your winnings into a losing position. A variation on the theme is sell high and buy something you don’t already hold.

But then the question is where do you go to find value? An article in the New York Times suggests that everything is in bubble territory. The chief investment strategist at BlackRock, one of the world’s biggest asset managers, spends his days searching for potential opportunities for investors to get a better return relative to the risks they are taking on, and he says there are very few cheap assets these days. At the current level of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, every dollar invested in stocks buys you about 5.5 cents of corporate earnings, down from 7.4 cents two years ago, and lower than just before the global financial crisis in 2007-2008.

Bonds offer next to nothing in the way of returns, and if you want to chase yield in the debt markets, you’ll find some of the riskiest issues can’t even breach 5%. Real estate has spiked in many locations, even farmland has rocketed. It’s not that any one area is outrageously overvalued. Most people would agree that stock valuations are lower than 2000, and real estate peaked in 2006, and we haven’t really recovered to those levels. It’s just that everything that could be considered a financial asset has gone up. And of course, as prices go up, the potential future returns drop.

Maybe that’s a reflection of a slowing global economy. Maybe it’s a result of the central bankers printing lots of money, but not directing where the money would go; and so the money was parked on the sidelines, and not put to productive use, not being invested in things like factories or infrastructure. And then the risk is that folks chasing yield take on more and more risk until something pops.

Taking a look at economic data today, the Federal Reserve report on consumer debt for May showed debt increased $19.6 billion, not including mortgage or real estate related lending; that’s down from a $26.1 billion increase in April. Revolving debt, including credit-card balances, rose $1.79 billion in May following an $8.85 billion April advance that was the biggest since November 2007. Non-revolving debt, which includes car and education loans, gained $17.8 billion in May, the biggest increase since February 2013, after climbing $17.3 billion in the previous month. Car sales continue be show strength, reaching a 16.9 million annual rate last month, the fastest pace since July 2006.

The JOLT survey, or Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey shows that as of the end of May, companies increased the number of job openings almost back to pre-recession levels. Despite greater demand for workers, pay scales have not budged much.  Wages for all private-sector employees increased 2% in the year ended in June, according to the Labor Department, exactly where wage growth has trended through all of this recovery.

News from the small-business sector, however, suggests pay growth is ready to break out of the 2% range. According to the June survey of small firm owners by the National Federation of Independent Business, a net 21% of small businesses report lifting compensation in the last few months. That is the highest reading since the end of 2007. So, it looks like we are getting closer to seeing wage growth in the near future, but we’re not quite there yet. And since we aren’t seeing actual proof of wage inflation, it could be argued that the Fed should wait a bit longer before tapping the brakes. And for that matter, even if we start to see signs of wage inflation, that might be a good thing.

Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker said in a speech today that “subdued productivity gains” along with “moderate” increases in consumer spending and “more tempered” growth in housing construction, will lead to economic growth in the range of 2% to 2.5%, well below the Fed consensus of 3% growth. Lacker says “broad-based advances in technology are far less likely than in the past, and that we should prepare for relatively stagnant productivity growth trends going forward.”

Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Narayana Kocherlakota said today that inflation will likely stay quite low for about 4 or 5 years. Kocherlakota says the Fed is “undershooting its price stability goal” of 2% inflation and will likely continue to do so for some time to come; he sees the probability of inflation averaging more than 2% over the next four years as being “considerably lower” than the probability of inflation coming in less than 2% over the same time period. Kocherlakota is skeptical of improvements in the jobs market, saying “much of the decline in the unemployment rate since October 2009 has occurred because the fraction of people who are looking for work has fallen.” That means the Fed is also failing to meet its job creation goal, which is damaging for the economy.

When you look at last week’s jobs numbers something doesn’t seem to add up, at least it gives pause to consider the numbers. GDP growth equals productivity growth plus job growth, or at least growth in hours worked. We’ve been adding jobs at a good pace, but the economy contracted 2.9% in the first quarter. That leaves productivity, and it turns out that there is a long term trend in decelerating productivity growth. And the problem with productivity is not that workers aren’t working hard; the problem is that we haven’t been investing in the right tools for the job.

Earnings season kicked off with a report from Alcoa. It was better than expected. Including all charges, the company earned $138 million or 12 cents a share during the quarter. That reverses the company’s $148 million loss in the same period a year ago. Revenue also came in ahead of expectations. Alcoa reported revenue of $5.8 billion, which is 2.6% higher than expected. Revenue is flat from the year-ago period.

Earlier Samsung issued an earnings warnings, claiming profits could fall as much as 26% from a year earlier. Smartphone and tablet sales took a pretty big beating. Samsung put out a statement that says tablet sales are slow because consumers are slower to upgrade tablets compared to upgrading smart phones. They also blamed the rising Korean won, which is up 9% against the dollar in the past 3 months; they blamed excess inventory in Europe, and competition in the mid and low-end of the market, and a few other excuses as well.

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