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.
The markets ease into a traditionally slow period with not much to look forward to other than the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole conference due next week, where the highlight, naturally, will be anything Janet Yellen says regarding the state of the labor markets. The chances of the Fed signaling a new shift when it comes to policy are slim – Yellen has proved to be a cautious speaker thus far, interested in furthering Ben Bernanke’s way of telegraphing as much as possible when it comes to policy alterations, and Yellen is more so, her “six months” comment from a few months ago notwithstanding. As Jonathan Spicer and Howard Schneider reported a few days ago, Yellen is much more interested in fighting an inflation war than dealing with a persistent deflationary/lousy economic environment to dominate the headlines, so the expectation should be for lower rates for longer, and not to expect a lot of surprises out of Wyoming next week.
Goldman Sachs economists not that Yellen had sounded a bit more positive on the labor market in July, but even still their belief when it comes to the slack that exists in the jobs market is still too great to bear much more than the end of quantitative easing/bond buying and perhaps a move to a couple of small rate increases around the middle of next year that, well, won’t hurt too much given the Fed’s policy rate still sits between 0 and 25 basis points. The forecasts from Reuters most recently put the first rate hike somewhere in the April to June range, which fluctuates depending on the strength of the economic figures.
All that’s left for investors now when it comes to earnings season is the shouting, but if the rest of the retailers post results anything like Kate Spade did on Tuesday, the shouts will be screams of terror rather than anything that assuages investors over the state of the overall economy. Kate Spade’s executives went into some detail on its conference call as to the nature of its margins shortfall – which Belus Capital chief equity strategist and longtime retail analyst Brian Sozzi said are not likely to improve until the middle of 2015 – and the company then did itself no favors by declaring that it wouldn’t be discussing the margin issues any further on the call. (Craig Leavitt, the CEO, violated that rule to some degree, but basically, investors don’t like it when you tell them flat-out that you’re not going to talk about your problems, and when you’re a company with a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 77.5 and a price-to-book value of 119, that’s going to be particularly true.)
Other luxury retailers have noted their own problems with attracting customers at this time, including Michael Kors Holdings, which saw its own shares stumble of late after also warning of margin pressures due to expansion in Europe, but at least Kors has a forward P/E ratio around 19, which puts it in line with peers like Coach and Ralph Lauren.
We’re deep into a period where the earnings calendar has basically dried up and the news flow overall is pretty slim, so the market will hang whatever gains it can on thin reeds – deals involving master-limited partnerships here, results from the likes of Sysco (the food services company there), and maybe Priceline.com in the mix too. The broader economic signals remain the more important ones for markets right now, and while they’re not uniformly outstanding, there are some hopeful signs for those finally looking for an acceleration in activity.
The earnings situation has been better than anticipated – Goldman Sachs notes that margins broke out of an 8.4-to-8.9 percent rate in the second quarter, ticking up to 9.1 percent, and the firm’s corporate “Beige Book” – a compendium of company comments – shows that the concerns the C suite has looks more like the concerns of those seeing accelerating demand and rising prices, and not slack demand and weak pricing power. They cited a strengthening corporate outlook, margin forecasts coming under pressure as a result of inflation expectations, and a combined focus on spending money on both buybacks and capital investment. Furthermore, companies have been less negative than in the recent past when it comes to revisions, and guidance for the fourth quarter of this year and first quarter 2015 was revised higher.