In another sign of interesting times returning for markets, we’re seeing notable weakness in small-cap names and mixed performance in the emerging markets, the latter because of growth concerns out of China, the former probably more directly related to the expectations that monetary policy isn’t going to be anywhere near as friendly as it’s been in the past with the Fed ready to (finally) end QE3 in a month or so.
From its most recent high of 1179.47 the Russell 2000 has now lost 4.3 percent in an 11-day period, and if that’s extended further, it’s 6.5 percent since the end of June, so that’s a steady bit of air leaking from the balloon overall here. It’s not to say that this means the top has been achieved and we’re all downhill from here – the small-cap names are a more volatile bunch and there are plenty of examples of its underperformance not necessarily dooming the broader market overall.
The dollar is now running a 10-week streak of strengthening (using the dollar index, which is a basket of currencies but mostly the euro and yen), and while that streak will end at some point, the overall trend does not look likely to abate in the near-term. That presents some interesting opportunities in markets, trends that have already been playing out but are likely too to persist as investors concentrate more on companies less exposed to areas like Europe and more exposed to the United States.
The weakness in the euro eventually is going to undermine sales there from U.S. companies – even though the euro is still on balance stronger than the greenback, it’s threatening to continue to slip against the dollar, with Goldman Sachs strategists believing that it will eventually hit parity as the tendencies of the major central banks pass like ships in the night. For the year so far, Goldman’s basket of S&P stocks that are mostly exposed to the U.S. economy is up 13 percent on the year, with a 3 percent gain in the last month; its basket of companies exposed most to Western Europe is up 6 percent on the year, and flat on the month. What’s concerning is that the domestically-oriented names are sporting overall higher price-to-earnings ratios at 19 compared with 16 for the Europe group, and so these companies – the likes of Intuit, UnitedHealth and a few other major health insurers, a few brokerages, AT&T, and a bunch of others – could be overvalued. It’s also possible that the dominance by the health companies in that growing area is overwhelming any weakness in any of the other sectors.
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.