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Monday, January 27, 2014 – Sniffing Out Weakness

Sniffing Out Weakness
by Sinclair Noe
DOW – 41 = 15,837
SPX – 8 = 1781
NAS – 44 = 4083
10 YR YLD + .04 = 2.76%
OIL – .94 = 95.70
GOLD – 12.50 = 1257.50
SILV – .22 = 19.79

Last week was rough for the Dow Industrial, and today started with the blue chips in the red but not by much; it even looked like we might finish in positive territory. Nahh. The markets have been trending downward over the last week due to a mix of concerns. Emerging market strains, anxiety over tapering by the Federal Reserve, and weak manufacturing data from China likely contributed to a pullback. Also, new home sales were weak in December.

The international problems started with a report that Chinese manufacturing may contract for the first time in 6 months. Then Argentina’s central bank limited dollar sales to preserve international reserves that had fallen to a seven-year low. Then there were concerns about a default in the shadow banking system in China. Then there concerns about a corruption scandal for Prime Minister Erdogan’s cabinet in Turkey. Protesters occupied municipal buildings in the Ukraine. Then the South African rand dropped big. Then the whole thing spread. I don’t know what happened in Mexico but the peso took a hit. Bank of America analysts recommended buying the Mexican peso on Nov. 24 as one of their top two Japan-related trades for this year, predicting a rally that would have boosted the currency’s value to 8.4 yen. Instead, the peso slumped 3.5% last week. More than a third of the most-traded emerging-market currencies have already fallen below forecasts.

Neither China, Turkey, Argentina, nor any other country has anything to do with consumer stocks, or most other equities, badly underperforming following an excellent year for the US stock market which was supposed to help consumers through the wealth effect. If you haven’t received your trickle down just yet, don’t hold your breath.

Tech stocks, which by extension are a type of consumer stock, have started to look weak, after being so strong last year. After the close today, Apple whiffed on earnings because they really whiffed on iPhone sales. The company reported that it sold 51 million units, a 6.7% jump in sales, year-over-year, which is lower than sell-side expectations of 54.7 million. The good news is that Apple beat expectations on the top and bottom line, despite weak iPhone sales. Revenue was $57 billion, up 5.6% on a year-over-year basis. EPS was $14.08, up 2% year-over-year. If the market is going to catch a second wind, don’t look for tech, at least not tomorrow.

Has the correction begun? Check back in a few months and we’ll know for sure. If you don’t want to wait that long I understand; waiting for clarity is risky, and we all know you can’t go broke taking a profit. So, some folks are looking at this as a chance to get out while the getting is good. At the very least, make sure you have a prevent defense in your portfolio playbook. And then there’s the whole January Barometer, which posits that as January goes, so goes the rest of the year. We know that January has been ugly, and if you need further confirmation, the financial press has been clinging to thin straws in their never-flinching belief that any decline is a buying opportunity.

A core principle of both fundamental and technical analysis is “a rising tide lifts all boats.” If the economy is strong and growing, the vast majority of companies should benefit. We should expect to see this show up in both quarterly earnings reports and higher stock prices. And when prices don’t move higher, that might be an indicator that the financial markets are sniffing out economic weakness in advance. When it comes to the possible end of a bull market though, we need to remember the real driver behind the move in the first place – the Fed. And the Fed is meeting this week to determine policy.

There’s growing evidence that things aren’t as good as the Fed anticipated, but I don’t think we’re at the point where the Fed is going to pull back and stop their tapering, and they certainly won’t reverse the taper. The Fed will probably cut its purchases in $10 billion increments over the next six gatherings before announcing an end to the program no later than December. Treasuries fell today, pushing the 10-year yield up from almost a two-month low.

The state of emerging markets has very little impact on the Fed’s decision to continue taper. Charles Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed, said in a January 14 speech: “When we started QE … there were many economies and emerging markets and other places that were very critical of our policy. Now that we’re trying to stop it, they’ve been very critical of our policy.”

Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota, a voting Federal Open Market Committee told the New York Times there are other ways to offer accommodative monetary policy, other than buying bonds. He talked about the Fed providing forward guidance, which is a far cry from cranking up the printing press. And just for the record, Kocherlakota is one of the Fed guys who thinks the Fed needs to do more to expand its efforts to reduce unemployment.

Now that the tapering has begun, the idea of less Federal Reserve stimulus combined with slower Chinese growth and specific concerns in some countries led last week to a full-scale flight from emerging-market assets that could continue this week. Emerging markets have been inflated in recent years by huge amounts of cheap cash created by the Federal Reserve, much of which found its way into developing economies in the hunt for better returns. If it all seems vaguely familiar, it’s because it looks a lot like the wildfire that spread through the developing world and resulted in currency runs that hit the Asian Tiger economies, or Russia,  or Latin America.

There are a few reasons for concern about this latest conflagration. The scale of money that has moved to developing markets over the past decade and now dwarfs the sums which fled in panic 15 years ago. Lending into emerging markets has increasingly been through bond markets, rather than in the direct bank loans that dominated previously and which involved longer-term relationships between banks and the firms and countries. And the growth of index tracking exchange traded funds over the past decade has increased the liquidity and also the volatility, meaning money that flowed in can flow out very, very, fast. Emerging markets have attracted about $7 trillion since 2005 through a mix of direct investment in manufacturing and services, mergers and acquisitions, and investment in stocks and bonds. That was considered hot money, stoked by the Fed’s QE.

The State of the Union is…tomorrow. The State of the Union speech will likely be light on legislative agenda and long on optimism. We have a budget, there probably won’t be another government shutdown, at least until October; there is a chance for immigration reform, maybe. And that’s about it. Don’t look for big legislative vision because it won’t happen. There is an election later in the year and so lawmakers will be yelling at each other for most of the year and trying to highlight their differences rather than creating consensus. That means tomorrow’s speech will likely be long on optimism and framing the national conversation.

These annual updates have become more and more predictable, and less and less inspiring. There will be a new piece of technology; the President’s communications team is urging us to watch what they call the “Enhanced State of the Union” online with a live stream of the address and a split screen format with graphics and charts to highlight key points and statistics. Well, that should be fun. The site is whitehouse.gov/sotu

One chart you won’t see comes today from the Green Party in the European Parliament; it estimates the cost of the implicit guarantee that governments will back large financial institutions, known as “too big to fail”; the price tag in 2012 was 234 billion euros. That is the corporate welfare dished out to big banks in the form of free benefits. The estimates were based on eight academic and institutional studies focused on implicit subsidies. Most of the studies arrive at a figure by quantifying the lower lending costs that large financial institutions enjoy from the market because of governments’ willingness to prop up failing national financial institutions, called the funding advantage approach. Others use a more complex option-pricing theory model.

There may actually be more costs than the studies have calculated. Government backing also creates moral hazard, or the willingness of banks to take outsize risk, knowing there is a lender of last resort. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, said he did not know whether any banks would need to be closed as a result of the central bank’s examination but that the system was prepared to deal with the consequences if any significant problems materialized. Draghi said, “The banks that should go, should go.”

Yea, you won’t hear that in the State of the Union speech, or in the response.

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