Reading the tea leaves on what’s likely to happen with the debut of Alibaba Group Holdings isn’t an easy task given a few of the weird quirks of this IPO that come into play. Shares will start trading in an hour or so after the open of trading on the New York Stock Exchange, and while it’s tempting to think the various wrinkles that come with the stock will prevent it from being as volatile as first-day activity is in hot deals, it’s hard to see how it doesn’t turn out any other way than the usual crazy way.
The company has made a show of saying it wants most of the shares to end up allocated to the fewest of large shareholders possible – the big active managers (since index funds can’t get in there just yet) and sovereign wealth funds that see this as a long-term play to appreciate over a period of time. Fund managers are in the midst of finding out how well they did (and with about 40 institutions requesting $1 billion allocations on a $22 billion deal, a lot of people are going to walk away from the table hungry), and the dynamic it creates after the open is sure to create a lot of activity.
The Kremlinologists turned out to be right, and the Federal Reserve left its “considerable time” language in its statement to assure the markets that it would be around for a while longer with rock bottom rates. It’s the divergent (to a point) reaction out of the markets themselves that is interesting to parse, and will be key to watch in coming weeks and months. The action in the stock market was to suggest the entire exercise was a snooze-fest, with stocks ending marginally higher (yes, the Dow at a new record) but not too far from where the major averages were trading just before the news. Which is to say the equity market, always the most optimistic of U.S. markets, has it in mind that low rates stay for now, and until “now” is “then,” it’s time to party.
Bond markets, inflation-protected securities and the currency markets saw things differently, and it’s those markets that may be more instructive to watch as the days and months go on and on. The five-year TIPS note saw its yield break above zero for the first time in ages, a sign that investors are starting to worry more about inflation, or higher Fed rates, which is interesting as consumer price data showed year-over-year inflation fall to a 1.7 percent rate earlier in the day. The dollar put together another strong rally, meanwhile, with the dollar index hitting highs not seen in 14 months and big rises against its main companions, the euro and the yen. And this is where the dot matrix comes in.
It’s all over but the dissection of the Fed statement, due later today, which will follow with a Janet Yellen press conference after the U.S. markets get word of whether the Fed did or did not eliminate the “considerable time” bit from its statement that saw markets go into a tizzy all of Tuesday. At this point the market believes that phrase now may *not* be eliminated, which marks the second reversal in about a week on this point. No matter what, somebody is going to be caught leaning in the wrong direction, but if the latest intelligence is that the Fed’s statement won’t change materially until the October meeting, then the freshest bets are probably in the direction of those betting on that much. So if the statement does cut out that language or modifies it in any way, you could see a selloff in equities, the dollar and bonds.
The meeting also brings with it the update on the Fed’s “central tendencies,” that is, its sure-to-be-incorrect projections on where the economy is going. Given the rebound in the second quarter that seems to have at least been somewhat sustained in the third quarter, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Fed outlook for GDP bumped up for 2014 (currently 2.1 to 2.3 pct) and 2015 (at 3.0 to 3.2 pct – the Fed will predict 3 percent growth for the year-out period until we’re all Morlocks), and the unemployment rate expectations are projected to drop to maybe 5.7 to 5.8 percent from the current 6 to 6.1 percent expected at year-end. Which is all well and good, but it doesn’t give us a good sense, really, of what’s to happen going past the meeting.
The stock market has, over time, gotten somewhat more used to the idea that U.S. federal government activities add to market consternation and volatility, not reduce it. In the 1990s, there used to be a catchphrase that “gridlock was good for equities,” but that came during a long period of economic growth and on the back of policies that Wall Street generally supported – financial services reform, welfare reform, and not much else. That’s no longer the case. We’ve already seen the detrimental effects on the markets of the U.S. debt ceiling fiasco that led to the first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating in 2010 and subsequent fights about the debt ceiling (though that has abated somewhat).
The talk about “uncertainty” coming out of Washington is a somewhat overstated game – be it tax policy and the like, there’s always uncertainty in life – but the latest cause for volatility has been specifically related to the renewal of the Export-Import Bank, currently being batted around in Washington with the idea that Congress will end up renewing its charter for a few months (right now mid-2015 looks like the best bet) before invariably taking up the issue again.
Something has changed in the bond market in some ways – but it’s a bit difficult to tease out when you’re talking about yields still near very low levels. But there’s a sense that the San Francisco Fed’s paper on the way in which economists are underestimating the Fed’s own view of interest rates is a game-changer, or maybe it’s just that people are waking up to the idea that the Fed really does have to raise rates eventually, or even more so, that it’s an overreaction to a previous overreaction: backlash to the idea that the August jobs report was so lousy that the Fed was still firmly in “not doing anything ever” mode.
The dynamics of the long-dated market haven’t been altered all that much just yet – or rather, it’s a bit early to declare that. The 10-year is still hovering around 2.50 percent, and the spread between that and 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities stands at about 2.11 percent, and it’s remained in a steady range for the last year-plus as well, actually trending lower in the last few months.
Global ructions are dominating asset flows right now, and we’re not even talking about violent events such as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the Israel-Palestine situation. Right now smaller events – yet uncertain ones – seem to be affecting the larger markets a bit more, contributing to a decided shift in factors that U.S. assets are reacting to.
The bond market is no longer just about a steady belief in lower-for-forever activity from the Federal Reserve, but about the expectation for more flows from overseas as U.S. assets look more attractive and the U.S. dollar continues to strengthen. The dollar had a banner session against the pound with the threat of Scottish independence growing more and more possible (cue everyone yelling “Freedom!” while being drawn and quartered), as the messy considerations surrounding what happens to oil revenue and the diminution of the U.K. economy is considered. It also threatens to drive more flows toward the dollar as the Bank of England might be expected to hold off on raising interest rates when they had been expected to be the first central bank to act.
The unemployment report occupies a unique position as a bit of a lagging indicator (especially when it comes to wage growth) and yet the most important economic figure that markets look at on a monthly basis. Various indicators point to the likelihood of another strong report come Friday that should accelerate recent trends in markets – more gains in the stock market (with a helping of the “this means the Fed is going to cut us off from the punch bowl blah-blah” stuff) and more strength in the dollar, regardless of whatever incipient gains the euro can muster after the European Central Bank meeting.
Underlying indicators to watch suggest that the U.S. economy has started to move more dramatically higher, whether it’s from the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book or Goldman Sachs’ analyst indicator, a composite of analyst commentary that functions as sort of a “corporate Beige Book.”
A frequent refrain among commentators is that this ongoing growth in the stock market has to ‘come to an end’ at some point because of, well, mostly because it’s been going for a while and that it’s gone entirely too far in the last few years.
Given the market’s penchant for 50 percent corrections since the turn of the century, the latter point can’t be discounted entirely, but the former – that essentially, the bull market is endangered because it’s long in the tooth – feels a bit reductive. The day’s figures on car sales due out from the major automakers are likely to support the worries people have about a slowdown that’s just a short drive away from the economy going into a ditch, or something like that (it’s not as if the economy is awesome right now), but the belief in a mid-cycle slowing in some key consumer metrics is probably more the ticket.
Never say the Europeans aren’t cautious. The dollar has been on a roll of late, in part because of the market’s growing expectation for more stimulus from the European Central Bank before long that would include some kind of larger-scale quantitative easing program after a speech last week from Mario Draghi that European markets seem to still be reacting to several days later. Reuters, however, reported that the ECB isn’t quite likely to do move quite so fast (heard this one before) and that took some of the wind out of the dollar’s sails and boosted the euro a bit.
Some of the move in the euro will depend on the trend in European yields, where everything is going down – German Bunds continue to make their way rapidly toward zero, and Bund futures remain in an overwhelming bullish trend, per data from Bank of America-Merrill Lynch. Analysts there also anticipate the dollar is going to experience some kind of medium-term correction – but remains in rally mode otherwise. There’s a headwind there for equities from that – rising greenback makes U.S. goods more expensive, but the gains are still only in earlier stages, and haven’t pushed into territory that would otherwise indicate surprising strength that we haven’t seen in some time.
The move by Roche to buy biotech company Intermune for $8.3 billion at a 38 percent premium isn’t going to make Janet Yellen happy, given her thoughts on the valuation of certain biotechnology and Internet retailing names. Still, with the Fed chair on board for low rates for some time given the slack situation in the labor market that the Fedsters keep talking about (basically, the unemployment rate, like the old grey mare, ain’t what she used to be), the long march to 2,000 on the S&P looks like it’s probably going to be over before long (it’s been done on an intraday basis, and now we’re just waiting on a close above that level), representing a tripling in that average in a bit more than five years and raising again all those questions about whether this all makes sense and if anyone cares anyway.
On the first point, well, nobody knows anything – earnings were generally strong in this most recent quarter, particularly when one expands the universe to the Russell 1000, where Credit Suisse points out more companies that are beating analyst expectations are growing sales, a sign of improved demand.