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Rainbows over Canyonlands - Dave Stoker

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday, August 22, 2014 - Be Careful Out There

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe
DOW – 38 = 17,001
SPX – 3 = 1988
NAS + 6 = 4538
10 YR YLD un = 2.40%
OIL - .46 = 93.50
GOLD + 4.30 = 1281.60
SILV un = 19.51

All three major indices posted gains for the week, with the Dow up 2%, the S&P up 1.7% and the Nasdaq up 1.6%. It was the strongest week of gains for both the Dow and the S&P since April, and the third straight week of gains for all three indices.

There is a lot to cover before we can wrap up the week. First we go to Jackson Hole Wyoming, where the Fed has been having a friendly get together of economists. Janet Yellen kicked off the event with a speech this morning. She said what you might expect: "There is no simple recipe for appropriate policy," and she called for a "pragmatic" approach that gives officials room to evaluate data as it arrives without committing to a preset policy path. And she backed up her comments with a new tool, the Labor Market Conditions Index, which measures 19 labor market indicators, and it isn’t new data, just combining it all together, but it showed she is monitoring the data.

Yellen referenced the possibility that labor markets may be a bit tighter than they seem and that the Fed may consider having to raise interest rates sooner than expected. At the last FOMC meeting in July, the Fed was still saying there was “significant” slack in the labor market, and today she confirmed that slack remains, saying: “Five years after the end of the recession, the labor market has yet to fully recover.” Another area of slack is wage deflation. Employers cut some wages during the downturn, or eliminated raises, and they aren’t offering raises now. Yellen said: “wages could begin to rise at a noticeably more rapid pace once pent-up wage deflation has been absorbed.”

So, today Yellen didn’t say anything radically different, just a hint less dovish, or at least not as dovish as Wall Street might have hoped for.  

Just in case you were wondering, there have been some protestors at Jackson Hole; one group could be spotted wearing T-shirts printed with graphs showing wage inequality; apparently, an attorney representing the protestors got to talk with Yellen for a minute or two. Meanwhile, investment bankers were noticeably absent from this year’s symposium; the invitation list is mostly devoid of representatives from big private-sector banks. The Fed finally figured out that rubbing elbows and special access wreaks of cronyism.

The Jackson Hole Symposium featured more than Yellen. There was a variety of papers on multiple subjects. A professor from MIT presented a paper detailing how robots and computers don’t steal as many jobs as you might think. Seems the robots are not good at jobs requiring judgment and common sense. So we aren’t obsolete just yet.

Another bit of research says we are less likely to switch jobs, or there is less labor market fluidity, and the reasons are that the workforce is getting older, and there is a shift to older businesses, which means fewer startups, and more startups tend to fail, and more jobs require occupational licensing or certification.

Yet another research paper concluded that the problem of long term unemployment is not necessarily terminal. The thinking has been that if someone loses a job and is out of work for a long time they have a harder time finding work, and eventually they lose their skills and fall out of the labor pool; the idea is called hysteresis, or the idea that cyclical unemployment becomes structural. The new research says it is only a moderate problem. So, the good news is that we are not obsolete and we are adaptable.  

And then European Central Bank President Mario Draghi delivered a speech following lunch. Draghi said European central bankers and politicians each have a role to play in boosting demand and reducing joblessness. For its part the ECB is willing to take more stimulus measures if needed to keep low rates of inflation from becoming embedded in expectations of future price growth but the ECB can't do it alone and governments must join in efforts to reduce unemployment.

For Draghi, this was a bigger shift in policy; for years the ECB has been preaching that governments needed to shrink deficits and undertake economic reforms even during times of economic weakness. The austerity measures did not work; the result has been stubbornly high unemployment, stagnation, and disinflation or low-flation bordering on deflation, with a dollop of double dip recession.

Draghi admitted as much, saying the GDP data "confirm that the recovery in the euro area remains uniformly weak, with subdued wage growth even in non-stressed countries suggesting lackluster demand." And so Draghi called on combining monetary and fiscal policies to stimulate demand with efforts to make labor markets more flexible. He also proposed a significant boost in public investment.

In June, the ECB approved a stimulus package that includes record low interest rates, new 4-year loans to banks, and a step toward large scale purchases of asset backed securities, although no new QE announcement was forthcoming in today’s speech. Draghi said today: "The risks of 'doing too little'" and allowing temporary unemployment to become more entrenched "outweigh those of 'doing too much’, that is, excessive upward wage and price pressures."

So, while Draghi firmly planted an anti-austerity flag, he also felt the ECB’s June stimulus will be all that they can do, and he recognizes the real risk that monetary policy loses effectiveness, and somebody needs to wake up the government.

There is a long tradition of the Jackson Hole symposium giving a little bump to the markets; not today, and the reason had less to do with the doves and hawks on the Fed and more to do with geopolitics.

Ukraine says Russian artillery is being used against Ukraine's forces, both from across the border and from inside Ukraine. In addition, NATO said it has seen "transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery, to separatists." Moscow sent more than 130 trucks rolling across the border in what it said was a mission to deliver humanitarian aid. Ukraine called it a "direct invasion," and the US and NATO condemned it as well.

The trucks, part of a convoy of 260 vehicles, entered Ukraine without government permission after being held up at the border for a week amid fears the mission was a Kremlin ploy to help the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia claims the trucks are carrying food, water, and other humanitarian supplies. The city of Luhansk has been largely cut off for weeks and is without water and electricity as Ukraine forces fight rebels. Ukraine wanted the international Red Cross to inspect all trucks, fearful of a Trojan horse; but Russia lost patience and accused Ukraine of stalling. The Red Cross, which had planned to escort the convoy to assuage fears that it was a cover for a Russian invasion, said it had not received enough security guarantees to do so, as shelling had continued overnight.

Ukraine said they would not shell the convoy but rebel forces took advantage of that promise to drive on the roads being used by the convoy.
Meanwhile, Hamas-led gunmen in Gaza executed 18 Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel. The executions were held in a public square. I suppose that has a certain deterrent effect. The ceasefire, like others before it, did not last long. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to escalate the fight against Hamas after a four-year-old Israeli boy was killed by a mortar attack from Gaza. Shortly after his remarks, Palestinian officials said Israel had flattened a house in a Gaza City air strike, wounding at least 40 people. More than 80 rockets and mortars shot from Gaza hit Israel. Israeli forces carried out more than 25 air strikes in Gaza. Since the conflict began last month, 2,071 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have now been killed and around 400,000 of the enclave's 1.8 million people displaced. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and four civilians in Israel have been killed.

Meanwhile, the quagmire in Iraq is sucking us in ever deeper. You will recall that just 2 weeks ago, President Obama announced “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.” And it seemed to work, sort of. The Yazidis trapped on the mountain got off the mountain, most of them anyway.

And then there was the problem of ISIS controlling the Mosul Dam, and the threat of using the dam to flood the Tigris River valley, and that includes Baghdad; so there was some extra work to do there. And then there was the horrific beheading of American journalist James Foley, and yesterday Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey conceded that attacks on ISIS could not be limited to Iraq but would also spread into Syria; and Secretary of State John Kerry said ISIS “must be destroyed and will be crushed”.

And now Iraq has a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. The hope was that he could forge a new coalition government. Not exactly. Sunni lawmakers quit talks on forming a new Iraqi government after gunmen killed scores of worshipers at a Sunni mosque in a province neighboring Baghdad. Today’s strike took place after three roadside bombs targeted a Shiite political gathering.

Federal authorities today urged law enforcement across the country to be alert for possible attacks inside the United States in retaliation for US airstrikes against ISIS. In a joint bulletin issued to local, state and federal law enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI said that while they are “unaware of any specific, credible threats against the Homeland” and find most threats to the U.S. homeland by supporters of ISIS “not credible,” they cannot rule out attacks in the United States from sympathizers radicalized by the group’s online propaganda.

Be careful out there.

Retailers have taken a recent hit, with weak earnings reports from the likes of Wal-Mart and Sears. Today Ross Stores posted better than expected second quarter results. The S&P Retail Index gained 0.6%, which doesn’t sound like much but it was the best week since February. The heavy promotional environment has been forcing retailers to offer discounts to stay relevant even as they deal with the growing shift to online sales. The big brick-and-mortar retailers have been trying to adjust to this shifting landscape. The labor market is no doubt improving, but wage growth has been essentially stagnant, restricting households’ buying power. In a nutshell, it has been a tough backdrop for retailers. No doubt the stock-price performance of the retail sector in the S&P 500 has been one of the weakest in the index – up +0.9% vs. a gain of +8.6% for the index as a whole.

Total earnings for the 490 S&P 500 members that have reported already are up +8.1% from the same period last year, with a ‘beat ratio’ of 65.5% and a median surprise of +2.6%. Total revenues are up +4.4%, with a very impressive revenue ‘beat ratio’ of 62.2% and a median surprise of 0.8%. So, this has been a strong earnings season, with the minor exception that guidance has been a little less than satisfying.

Stock prices of small-cap stocks have been underwater this year, with the S&P 600 down -1.2% vs. a gain of +8.6% for the S&P 500 in the year-to-date period. This underwhelming stock price performance is getting confirmed by the group’s mixed results thus far in the Q2 reporting cycle. As of Friday, August 22, we have seen Q2 results from 555 S&P 600 members or 92.5% of the index’s total members. Total earnings for these 555 companies are up +12.1% from the same period last year on +9.5% higher revenues, with 48.6% beating EPS estimates and 38.2% coming ahead of top-line expectations. 

Total earnings in Q2 are on track to reach a new all-time quarterly record, surpassing the last record set in 2013 Q4. That brings a good news/bad news conundrum. Is it just a one-time bounce of the low levels of the first quarter? It’s always difficult to top a record.

The S&P 500 is trading at 18.5x forward earnings, above the historical average of about 16.5x. The Shiller cyclically adjusted P/E ratio is currently about 26x the historical average of 16x. No matter how you manipulate the numbers, stock valuations are closer to the high end than the low end, and then the question is whether those valuations are justified in view of the risks facing stocks.

The biggest risk to stocks is the Fed ending its unprecedented experiment in easy money. Stock market investors have benefitted from ZIRP, zero interest rate policy, far longer than anyone might have imagined, and maybe Draghi was right when he talked today about the risk that monetary policy can lose its effectiveness. Now, maybe the Fed can exit QE and ZIRP and the markets will achieve liftoff; I just don’t know where we’ll find the fuel for liftoff.

The second most significant risk is the geopolitical havoc occurring around the world. And most of that havoc seems to be in or near areas with oil. From the heady days of mid-2008 when it traded at nearly $150 a barrel, crude oil has had quite a rocky ride. After sliding down to the $30s and rallying back around $120, crude has settled in around the $90 to $110 range for the past two years.  Commodity traders have wondered why oil hasn’t gone higher. Geopolitical tensions abound across the world; the Middle East seemingly hasn’t been this unstable in years. There may be reasons why oil prices have moved lower, including the renaissance in oil and gas exploration and development in the US; lower demand brought about by great efficiencies and conservation; also, the big investment banks have exited the oil  trading business and the oil  marketing business, and they have not been replaced by new players. A dip in oil prices could send some smaller exploration companies to the mat. A spike in oil prices could send stock investors to the exits. Geopolitical stability is decidedly bad for stocks, particularly stocks that are trading at very high valuations.

A third risk to stocks is that earnings will not keep pace. Corporations may have squeezed about all of the cost savings they can out of their businesses. While companies continue to "beat" expectations, the truth is that they are more leveraged than they were in 2007 on the cusp of the financial crisis, and they live in fear that interest rates are going to rise and they will not be able to service their debt. Meanwhile, consumers tend to hold onto a dollar until the eagle grins.

And then there is always the possibility of a black swan event, which could pop up almost anywhere, including the financial markets where big banks are bigger than ever, and money markets are now poised to close their vaults rather than risk a run, which is  just the sort of thing that creates a run; or maybe it will be a geopolitical mis-step – a bomb that lands in the wrong place, or a crazy Russian who turns off the nat gas spigot for the Eurozone.

An expensive market is always vulnerable to bad news and sell-offs. And so it is now more important than ever to be diligent, and don’t be afraid to lock in the hard won gains of the past 5 years.

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