THE NUMBER OF OUTCOMES ARE DIMINISHING
The good thing about time and uncertainty is that as time passes, uncertainty also usually fades away. I have found this to be the case in so many areas of life, especially in dealing with the family situation I've been a part of for the last couple of months. I typically like to have a good plan (guess) of what will happen and then I like to make small adjustments to the plan as reality unfolds. I stress out when the number of variables are so large that I can't truly grasp what will ultimately happen. As you get closer to specific dates or milestones, your choices tend to be reduced and your actions are often dictated by one or two choices rather than ten or eleven. Oddly, that has been the scenario we've all been investing and trading in for the last several years. Will we wake up with a "fat finger" flash crash event, will another big black swan hit the markets destroying what is left, will Europe's experiment with the Euro finally be ended? Each day I've wondered how will these events happen and what will the resulting impact be on us. The trouble with trying to really dig into these uncertainties from afar is you'll have so many unanswerable questions and scenarios that you'll drive yourself crazy attempting to create contingency plans.
Before I delve into the notion that our choices and investing outcomes are now becoming less complex, let's look at the Monthly Update and catch up on a few things going on in the macro-environment.
RAILS - http://railfax.transmatch.com/
Railroad traffic has continued its rebound after a collapse in late 2010 and early 2011. The rate of change of growth has certainly slowed in 2012, but tonnage has been solid. We can expect this kind of trend to continue if fuel prices continue to move higher as shippers will look for any alternative other than land based truck freight to save on transport.
Coal shipments and grains are falling but the fall in these is being offset by higher metal, auto, and construction supplies. If the summer is as hot as last year coal may rebound as utilities require more of the dirty fuel to meet peak demands in the heat.
SCRAP - http://www.scrap.net/cgi-bin/composite_prices.cgi?id=100000&num=5
Nothing new is happening with scrap pricing as it continues to trade at the whim of inflation and the USD. The scrap metal index has fallen some 15% since its peak in February 2011, but is still 13% higher than June of 2010. Expectations of continued inflationary "heating" up are diminishing and therefore we should see scrap decline. Uncle Alan Greenspan tracked this indicator as a measure of the health of an economy, and thus we'd suggest that it is in agreement with the idea that the US economy has cooled and probably will continue to do so.
REAL ESTATE - http://www.realtor.org/topics/existing-home-sales
Housing is fixed! Housing is fixed! Errr.... perhaps it isn't. Below is a nice little graph that seems to indicate that housing just isn't quite fixed yet. In fact, a brief look at this chart might lead us to believe that well see a spike in home prices over the summer, but the price surge will remain lower than the previous lower high, leading to another lower low. I continue to believe that houses (personal homes) are not investments and that is going to be proved out more and more as homeowners come to grips with the reality that their single largest investment isn't a very good one. On the other hand, rental houses bought cheaply with very little debt may be a wonderful investment as more and more individuals discover they just can't afford the American dream anymore as their income is eroded by the cost of living that isn't tracked in the CPI.
FINANCIAL CONDITIONS INDEX - http://www.bloomberg.com/quote/BFCIUS:IND
The Financial Conditions Index still signals a contraction in the economy. Try as the Fed may with all of its liquidity storm and steroid pumped printing presses they still haven't been able to push the Financial Conditions Index into expansionary territory for more than a few weeks. Does this indicate a collapse? No, in fact we just may be sitting in this steady state of blah that reveals that the US economy is just not so good, and not so bad all at the same time.
EMPLOYMENT - MONSTER JOBS INDEX - http://www.about-monster.com/employment-index
Clearly the Monster.com Jobs Index is showing some good news. The Jobs Index tracks the number of online ads the firm has and this gives us an idea of how well the employment situation is at a given time. As the chart expresses, we are near a 3 year high for job placement ads and this is excellent. This indicator highlights that employers are in fact looking for candidates. It is also clear from other statistics that is is an awful time to be poorly educated and underscores the need for specialized training and higher education. Remember, I rag on college education all of the time for being too expensive, but I never suggest that it isn't good, and some type of technical skill isn't required. I simply am saying that people need to weigh and balance their expenditures on higher education with what they plan to actually do in life.
Apparently, the work from home gig is easy big money and awesome as I got 3 emails today suggesting that I can replace my income in just a few months by working at home. Why the heck isn't the 8.1% of the US population out there that is still looking for a job not jumping on this easy money?
BALTIC DRY GOODS INDEX -http://www.bloomberg.com/quote/BDIY:IND
The Baltic Dry Goods Index is still low, but has recovered from its descent into the bowels of nothingness. I think the best way to look at this index is through a much longer term lens than can be seen here on the 1 year chart below. A longer view shows that the index went from 120,000 to less than 1,000 in about 3 year's time. Essentially, the $BDI should hover here in this area until we see a sustained rebound in inflation in the emerging markets including China and also in the USA.
6 MONTH LIBOR - Graphs and Rates
I wanted to highlight two key things in posting the 6 Month USD Libor chart with the 6 Month Euribor rate below it. Note that the 6 month rate for USD Libor is around 75 bps and this is near 1 year highs for this metric of "trust" between banks. This rate climbed steadily after August of 2011 and has plateaued in January of 2012. Essentially, we saw a rise in rates and frankly this was probably seen as healthy as US bond rates were beginning to rise as the US economy was perceived to be improving.
6 MONTH EURIBOR -
While the chart I've used here for 6 Month Euribor highlights a longer term perspective, yet in Euribor terms we see the a contraction in rates that I personally believe can only be attributed to government coordination (ECB, FED, IMF, etc) as the weakness of the PIIGS is getting more pervasive. Extra-governmental organizations are doing everything they can to throw liquidity at a situation we all know is unmanageable in the longer term.
USD INDEX -
Today's closing print of 79.84 for the USD Index brings it that much closer to breaking above the critical 80 level where it hasn't been for almost two years (there were a brief couple of months above, but nothing sustained.) Is it fear that makes the dollar the haven when the other parts of the world seem to be coming unglued? Is it just a lack of alternatives? It is probably both of these as investors are now running away from the Euro and finding anything else that might be a safe haven in this storm. If and when we see the USD Index move substantially over this key level, we'll know that a real firestorm has brewed overseas in Europe.
10 YR TREASURY - Marketwatch and Bloomberg
The charts below show the 10 year Treasury bond rates. As of today's close we settled at 1.845%, which is well below the recent highs of 2.25% of just a few months ago when everything in the world was perfect. Today, post Greek and French elections....not so perfect. The incredible bull market in treasury bonds continues to defy all logic and as the PIIGS continue their slide and their bonds are shunned, US treasuries will be bought and once again we'll see TLT push to even higher highs. It is so fashionable to call a top in treasuries, but until the US is perceived as "just as bad" rather than "less bad" then our easy funding will continue.
WHERE NEXT? - TRADING UPDATE
When markets were roaring it was very hard to find anyone that questioned the ability of US markets to rip higher. Emerging markets also were able to rebound and the last 6 months prior to mid April were simply a dream of positive performance. Jobs data as contrived as it is with BLS manipulation seemed stronger and stronger, consumer spending had no limits, and manufacturing just continued to improve. With the passage of a week or two, suddenly the world seems a bit dimmer and there is risk everywhere. Could it just be a few pieces of slowing Chinese data? Is it really word of another Spanish bank bailout? Do elections in Greece and France really matter at all? The answer of course is yes, and all of these things have come together in one instance to conspire against a run at all time highs in domestic equity markets. Will the negative news prevail? Perhaps.... and perhaps not.
On the horizon in coming weeks, we have the Facebook IPO that should wow us all and excite the trading bots a few hundred million times in the first second or so of trading. We should also hear if the anti-austerity left in Greece is able to actual form a government.
GOLD & SILVER & OTHER METALS
Unless and until we see Chinese inflation, all bets are off on the shiny stuff. Silver and gold could endure some serious technical damage as they continue to slide. One strange thing we are not seeing though is a swarm by European holders of cash to buy gold as an anti-currency move. I can only guess that we are not seeing a "Euro-collapse, buy gold response" because everyone has already hunkered down and has already diversified as much as they can into physical assets.
I personally will pick up another few ounces of gold and more silver if we near $1,400 and $26.00.
OIL, GASOLINE, AND NATURAL GAS
As long as we don't have a Middle East eruption involving Israel and Iran, we should see oil continue to fall. Along with the slide in oil, I've suggested that May 1st was a good time to exit gasoline related trades, and that would have been a very nice exit. Oddly, natural gas may actually be a bullish play here as we are now finally starting to hear about production being shut in. The last couple of weeks have actually seen natural gas go higher, which is frankly very strange indeed! NO, YOU MAY NOT BUY UNG, IT IS A PIECE OF SH$T!!! (Sorry to be profane, but I knew what you were thinking!)
IS THERE A REASON TO NOT COUNT EQUITIES OUT?
If US GDP is leveling off or falling and global investing insecurity is rising, why or how could equities still be a place to invest given that I've said for six months that you should exit in May and stay away? Well, frankly, getting out then would have been a great strategy and if you are disciplined and have been long and in the market, then you have done well and you might consider it. If you are one of those long only guys that hates the idea of sitting in cash even when markets are falling, then I'm talking to you!
Again, I need to emphasize that I write this because I know that some of you will demand to stay long rather than exit or even short the market. As a result, your play here is centered on the "relative performance" aspect of fund managers as we've discussed over time. In the past we've discussed how defensive times require you to consider utilities, healthcare, consumer staples, and defense sectors. Any continued fall in markets and a perceived overall weakness in the domestic economy will cause fund managers to rebalance and overweight these sectors. Of course these are all dividend paying types of firms and this too will entice investors to hide here in a relative yield search. Essentially treasuries and corporate bonds are so overbought and expensive, new money purchasing these bonds earn you less yield than the purchase of the dividend paying company equity. Money managers look at this risk/reward trade off and often will lean to the equity saying that it is cheap relative to the credit. Since investors have piled out of the rigged casino....errrr stock market, they have looked to corporate bonds and have bid them up so high, stocks may be cheap.
Other institutional investors also will suggest that earnings have been great (compared to lowered analyst expectations of course) and also that the US consumer is going wild and is unstoppable, thus the spending data supports that notion that the US economy is not going to derail.
All of those positive items may be reason to support the stock market as we've said, the economy isn't the market and the market isn't the economy, so anything is possible especially when you have the threat of a round of QE loaded in the 3-barrel QE FED shotgun. I think the key risk here is that even if you are picking up a 3% yield in your stock, you have the risk of giving up a tremendous amount of gains you've earned and could risk a part of your initial investment. A good stock to look at to examine this action is CAT. This stock is one I've liked for a long time and yet all of the gains earned in this name could be in danger if you still are holding it. A friend of mine did not sell it when I advocated letting it go near $110, I think we both wish he'd had been willing to just hold cash.
REDUCING POTENTIAL OUTCOMES
I am excited to see what the coming week brings. We are nearing a point in the Euro experiment where countries are at the tipping point and citizens have realized, really realized that "global citizen" bankers, politicians, and billionaires, are men and women without honor, without country, and allegiance to only the elite firms that provide them power. The people of these countries are beginning to embrace nationalism rather than globalism as the deception of a global village and Euro unity has left them poorer and without industry, saddled with unpayable debt. As we get clarity on the direction of new governments in France and Greece we'll see that the number of outcomes reduced and be able to invest accordingly. Until then, I'm sure that we'll see new and more emergency liquidity from every side of the pond
The coming events will serve to essentially make our investment decisions binary in the sense that we can trade according to the assumption that the Euro survives or doesn't. If Greece exits, surely it will lead to an exodus by Spain and Portugal at least. Clearly those economies will suffer for at least a couple of years if the global financial system can survive. While I can imagine many other scenarios about a global financial meltdown and even potentially a stronger Euro after a big fall, the easy trade frankly is that the USD will be much stronger in the short run relative to the Euro. That strong dollar leads to other plays like a continued short on gold, silver, and oil. Further justification is found in the lack of strong Chinese data suggesting that global inflation is down and almost out in this round.