MORNING BID – Pitfalls and switchbacks

Mar 31, 2014 13:36 UTC

This week profiles as one that contains a bunch of potential minefields that could challenge the market’s prevailing view on what’s to happen with major market-moving events.

The ECB meeting is one of the more obvious ones, what with investors expecting for some time that the euro would push higher and higher on the expectation of an improved outlook in the economic situation there.

That changed somewhat abruptly last week when Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann came out with some rather dovish comments that threw people for a loop. This looks like there could be some kind of situation where people are positioned against a rebound in the euro, only to be disappointed by the lack of action from the ECB should it go down that way.

The same can be said when it comes to events like Friday’s jobs report. The market still has to try to suss out the likely reaction to this and weekly positioning figures that show the market’s short position in five-year Treasury notes getting bigger than a week ago, as for other parts of the yield curve. A modest long position in two-year futures turned into a short position last week; long positions in the 30-year contract were trimmed, and investors extended short positions in the five- and 10-year area as well.

That seems to set up nicely for a jobs-report-weather-payback kind of deal this Friday, but it’s entirely possible that this won’t happen, and we’ll have another weak result on the jobs front. The latter would certainly reverse a lot of these bets and make for some volatile action as investors try to figure out what’s going on.

Either way, Jason Goepfert of Sundial Research points out that the positioning in the five-year hasn’t been this short since 2005, and even then, that short position was eventually overrun by unexpected consequences that resulted in a multi-month rally – so let’s be extra careful out there.

Ukraine’s situation remains fraught with concerns about Russian designs on part of the Ukrainian mainland following the annexation of Crimea.
And herein we have a third possibility of surprise, where tensions worsen, the price of oil spikes, and the European economy, much more dependent on Russian engineering than the US or the Far East, feels the pain, again, hitting the euro.

And then there’s China. The Financial Times reported bad loans written off by China’s biggest five banks increased by 127 percent in 2013. This is an ugly situation that will stoke concerns about a potential debt crisis, one made worse by the strange nature of many Chinese loans, whereupon deals made to borrow in dollars were backed by copper – which has been sinking as investors sell the metal for collateral.

MORNING BID – Janet Yellen’s rain (snow) check

Feb 27, 2014 14:16 UTC

This is the thing about delaying the new Fed chair’s follow-up testimony by two weeks due to bad weather, you actually make the second hearing something that’s potentially interesting. (It will depend, of course, on whether members of the Senate Committee ask provocative questions, and while you can lead a horse to water, well, you know.)

In the interim two weeks since Janet Yellen last appeared before Congress, the U.S. economic picture has gotten much more muddled. That’s mostly because of poor retail sales and employment figures, and the out-of-control situation in Ukraine which has led to a regional flight of some assets. There’s also been some interesting comments from the likes of Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo, who suggested the Fed should be paying more attention to the formation of asset bubbles and the use of monetary policy to curb them. That anyone is surprised at this shows how pervasive the “Fed put” option has become in the discussion of Fed activities, so we’ve really lowered expectations here.

Meanwhile, Boston Fed head Eric Rosengren said the Fed is looking very closely at activities in emerging markets, which is sort of obvious in a sense but contradicts, if only modestly, Yellen’s thoughts two weeks ago. And really, the Fed’s ability to influence economic activities overseas in some of the world’s developing markets or troubled spots is even weaker than what it can exert over U.S. demand. So maybe it’s just one to grow on.
Either way, Yellen would probably want to comment on the situation, if, again, a smart senator would think to … well, never mind.

Overnight, the situation in the Ukraine has worsened, with armed gunmen taking control of regional government headquarters in Crimea, vowing to be ruled from Russia. The Ukrainian hryvnia continues to sink while the Russian ruble plumbs new five-year lows, surpassing the previous day’s losses, and a bit of risk-off action can be seen in the zloty and a bit of better buying in Treasuries, where the 10-year yield was lately at 2.66 percent. Fund flow figures will be key to watch here to see if overseas flows increase to the U.S. or at least to the developed areas of Western Europe and Japan.

MORNING BID – Emerging Markets, Apple, Ma Bell, and whatever else one can think of

Jan 28, 2014 13:56 UTC

In the words of Inigo Montoya, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The market’s most immediate issues remain tied specifically to what’s going on overseas, particularly in Turkey. There, monetary authorities are meeting on a potential interest rate hike as a way of getting on top of the inflation problem (inflation’s at 7.5 percent, and the central bank’s lending rate is, uh, 7.75 percent).

So that’s a problem: Inflation is running real hot, the lira is in free-fall, and as Reuters’ Mike Peacock in London points out, the consensus view for a rate hike puts it at about 10 percent for when the bank announces its decision at midnight Istanbul time, 5:00 p.m. Eastern time (1000 GMT). Will that be enough to put a floor under the lira? Perhaps.

Now, U.S. companies don’t exactly have a lot of exposure to Turkey, and in this emerging markets rout we’re in the midst of right now, there’s a real question as to whether we’ve reached that “contagion” level. Sure, everything is selling off, but that’s not quite the definition, and it will take a little bit more time and effort – that is, more wholesale selling, liquidation of positions across various countries – to really call this a contagious effort. There are worrisome signs on that front, though. An analysis by Reuters’ Sujata Rao-Coverley, Dan Bases and Vidya Ranganathan points out that the increased funding through publicly traded fixed-income markets rather than bank lending means these markets are more intertwined, leading to the possibility of more selloffs that feed on each other.

Emerging markets with big current account deficits.

Back in 1998, bank loans were the funding mechanism for lots of emerging countries. Furthermore, the sheer dollar volume now dwarfs what was out there in the 1998 Asian contagion that later saw the collapse of the ruble. EM bonds are now in the range of $10 trillion, versus $422 billion in 1993, per JP Morgan; funds benchmarked to EM have assets of $603 billion, more than double what existed in 1997. EM ETFs? About $300 billion now – compared with nothing in 2004. And let’s remember the main ETF for emerging markets – EEM is the symbol – which is routinely the second-most active ETF in the United States. Long-term investing this ain’t, and the flight exacerbates the worries.

After three days of selling, emerging markets have stabilized a bit on Tuesday, so that’s something. Again, these selloffs often combine magnitude and time, with the swiftness only one part of it – the sheer ongoing nature of it is the other part. But that doesn’t mean preparations aren’t in order: David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors said his firm is raising cash levels, noting volatility tends to spike in forex markets when central banks have held interest rates near zero for a long time (which they have).

The real watcher is likely China’s shadow banking system and the possibility of problems there. Banks have been selling massive amounts of exposure to investment trusts to individuals for some time with promises of big returns and using that money invested for lots of lending; one of those trusts distributed by ICBC had to be bailed out this week. If there’s more of that to come, it’s a real question of what’s going on with the banking system’s health there – and that again leads to some uncomfortable conclusions about growth in China, which is far worse a problem than any crisis in Turkey, given its sheer size and influence.

OPEN-APPLE-RESET
Meanwhile, on a domestic front, Apple’s earnings weren’t what was expected. Sure, the company exceeded revenue forecasts and earnings forecasts, but it fell short of expectations on iPhone sales by a lot, and nobody’s happy about this. The stock was hit hard in after-hours action, and was, of late, down about 6 percent. Of course, selling 51 million phones over a three-month period isn’t exactly shabby, and the company is still making money hand-over-fist.

The disappointment comes, in part, from the realization that Apple’s growth rates just aren’t what they used to be, and that Samsung is widening its global lead in the smartphone market, with one report putting its sales at 86 million phones in the quarter. Samsung, of course, is selling more low-end phones, so it’s not like Apple is getting its head handed to it here, but its market share is down to about 17.6 percent from 22 percent, according to Strategy Analytics.

Carl Icahn’s recent calls for the company to get more aggressive in giving money back to shareholders through a big buyback are going to probably only get louder. This raises the chances that the company doubles down on the financial engineering strategy of growing earnings that admittedly has helped the shareholders of names like IBM, AT&T and Exxon Mobil, but doesn’t speak well from the innovation front for a lot of these names.

The company – the most valuable in the United States – had been banking on a big deal in China to sell even more phones, but the market is starting to look saturated on that front, Pacific Crest analyst Andy Hargreaves told Reuters’ Bill Rigby. And Apple doesn’t have a game-changing product on the horizon either right now, so that means the investment thesis comes down to volume. It’ll keep making scores of money, but reduced market share and pretty new colors and bells and whistles won’t be enough when “hardware can only go in one direction, and that’s flat or down,” said Alex Gauna of JMP.

If Apple is headed in the direction of AT&T, it’s going to eventually turn into one of those companies where investors get excited about special factors pumping up earnings results, and AT&T’s going to have that today when it reports results. What’s going on here? Pension related stuff – the market’s gains mean companies with lots of pension assets can mark those positions to market (read: make them bigger). And where previous years of losses can hurt those positions for the likes of Verizon, Ma Bell and UPS, this year it’s a help.

Verizon’s adjustment boosted S&P 500 earnings per share by 42 cents this quarter, and AT&T could make just as big a splash this time around. So AT&T is expected to record a gain of about $7.6 billion in the fourth quarter as a result of this, which is massive. Now, David Randall wrote a story a few days ago noting that few fund managers buy a stock based on this sort of thing – AT&T’s primary business is, uh, selling telephones, no, wait, ah yes, telecommunications – so if the business stinks, never mind the pension stuff.

But it’s nice that the pension funds are fully funded or better now, just in time for a big market correction.

Morning Bid: Dollar Bills and Dollar Bulls

Jan 9, 2014 13:58 UTC

The dollar’s performance hasn’t been anything to write home about in the last few years. It has weakened against major currencies like the euro and the Swiss franc, and been held back by lower interest rates thanks to the Federal Reserve’s triple-dose of quantitative easing, but there’s been a turn of late, though it’s too early to say whether it will have lasting power.

In 2013, the dollar was at least better than the yen, amassing a 35 percent move against the Japanese currency, which countered the Fed’s QE with Abenomics and a massive monetary dose of its own.

Now in 2014, the U.S. dollar index – measuring the dollar against six currencies, including the euro, yen, and pound – has reached a six-week high, and those expecting a steady move higher in interest rates wouldn’t be out of line to expect the dollar to appreciate, along with bond yields. It didn’t happen in 2013, which is sort of counterintuitive – higher rates would seem to be a boon for the buck, but the volatility exhibited in the Treasury market was too much for the dollar types.

That’s probably not going to be the case this year, according to Jens Nordvig, strategist at Nomura. He notes that if volatility is relatively low as rates go up, that’ll support dollar appreciation against the big currencies, other than yen. His firm is also going short the euro against the Mexican peso, with the latter benefiting from U.S. growth and the former still struggling.

Flows into the U.S. from overseas have been strengthening, which helps the dollar story, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see additional strength in the greenback if jobs figures are better than anticipated, as suggested by the ADP figures (even though they come with their own problems).

The dollar’s gains come at a time when long dollar bets have fallen to their lowest levels since November, perhaps out of concern the recent run has been fueled by too much optimism.
Speculators are net short in the yen, Aussie, and Canadian dollar, but they’re still long the euro, pound, Swiss franc, peso and the New Zealand dollar (known as the kiwi, or the “Peter Jackson,” if you’re into Tolkien).

The jobs data could force more of those positions in the direction of the U.S. currency. Oddly, the steady rise in U.S. rates wasn’t much of a catalyst for the dollar in the mid-1990s, and it was only later that the dollar picked up, Morgan Stanley researchers noted in a recent report.

While various emerging markets aren’t the disasters they were in the 1990s, the private sector depends a lot on dollar funding. And if borrowing costs are rising and growth isn’t quite what it was, those flows aren’t going to be robust as in the past – particularly with the Fed cutting its massive stimulus. Taken in total, it bodes well for the buck, but only if there’s an ongoing sense of improvement, which will be something to watch for on Friday.

RETAILERS, DISCOUNTS AND DEMAND
The last of the same-store sales figures, meanwhile, are coming out, including the likes of Costco, The Gap and L Brands, and all of the good cheer reported at this higher level (better consumer spending and hiring trends, more positive sentiment) seems to have eluded the retailers. Indeed, they mostly say things stink, either because of surprises in the calendar, cold weather (and it’s been damned cold, so we’ll let that one go), and lots of promotions that promise almost everything just to lure people into the store.

Consumer discretionary shares were among the best performers in the S&P 500 last year, but repeating that trick won’t be easy. L Brand cut its earnings forecast for the holiday quarter after its lousy numbers, and Family Dollar and Zumiez also cut estimates in response to their weak showing.  One thing we’re sure of – few are going the JC Penney route, in tersely saying that the company is “pleased with its performance for the holiday period, showing continued progress in its turnaround efforts,” without offering, y’know, any numbers or anything.

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