Expect Buybacks to Sustain Markets

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With uncertainty swirling around the financial markets right now, many are warning about a financial storm brewing and how to navigate through it.

Let’s consider the storm elements in the world right now. The ongoing trade war is obviously a major concern, which is nowhere near being resolved. Growth is slowing in many parts of the world and central banks are preparing to begin cutting rates again.

Geopolitical tensions are also rising again, especially in the Persian Gulf. Late last week, Iranian forces seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important chokepoints. Britain has demanded the ship’s release.

On the U.S. domestic front, we are facing government dysfunctional, trade war uncertainty and a looming debt ceiling deadline. A deal will likely be reached, but that is not a guarantee. If a deal isn’t reached, the federal government would run out of money to pay its bills.

That’s why you should consider the tactics of Warren Buffett along with the strategy used by some of the most skilled sailors.

Buffett, one of the most successful investors in history, has made billions by knowing how to steer through storms. One of my favorite Buffettisms has to do with keeping your eye on the horizon, a steady-as-she-goes approach to investing. It also happens to relate to sailing.

As he famously said, “I don’t look to jump over seven-foot bars; I look around for one-foot bars that I can step over.”

What that means is that you should carefully consider what’s ahead and choose your course accordingly. Buffett doesn’t strive to be a hero if the risk of failing, or crashing against the rocks (in sailing lingo), is too great.

In a storm, there are two possible strategies to take. The first one is to ride through it. The second is to avoid it or head for more space in the open ocean. In other words, fold down your sails and wait it out until you have a better opportunity to push ahead.

While there is no perfect maneuver for getting through a storm, staying levelheaded is key.

We are at the beginning of another corporate earnings season, which is the period each quarter when companies report on how well (or poorly) they did in the prior quarter.

The reports can lag the overall environment but still give insight on how a company will be positioned in the new quarter. But to get the most out of them requires the right navigation techniques.

This season’s corporate earnings results have been mostly positive so far. But what you should know is that Wall Street analysts always tend to downplay their expectations of corporate earnings going into reporting periods. That because corporations downplay them to analysts. It’s Wall Street’s way of gaming the system.

When I was a managing director at Goldman Sachs, senior members of the firm would gather together each quarter with the chairman and CEO of the firm, Hank Paulson, who went on to become the Treasury secretary of the United States under President George W. Bush.

He would talk with us about the overall state of the firm, and then the earnings figures would be discussed by the chief financial officer.

This would be just before our results were publicly disclosed to the markets. There was always internal competition amongst the big investment banks as to what language was being provided to external analysts about earnings and how the results ultimately compared with that language.

You couldn’t be too far off between “managing expectations” of the market and results of the earnings statements. However, there was a large gray area in between that was exploited each quarter.

When I was there, it was very important for Goldman to have better results than immediate competitors at the time like Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch or Lehman Bros.

It was crucial to “beat” analysts’ expectations. That provided the greatest chance of the share price rallying after earnings were released.

The bulk of our Wall Street compensation was paid in annual bonuses, not salaries. These bonuses were in turn paid out in options linked to share prices. That’s why having prices rise after fourth-quarter earnings was especially important in shaping the year’s final bonus numbers.

Here’s what that experience taught me: There’s always a game when it comes to earnings.

Investors that don’t know this tend to get earnings season all wrong. However, successful investors that take forecasts with a grain of salt will do better.

Years later, I realized this was also Warren Buffett’s approach to analyzing earnings. As he has told CNBC, “I like to get those quarterly reports. I do not like guidance. I think the guidance leads to a lot of bad things, and I’ve seen it lead to a lot of bad things.”

We’ll have to see how earnings season turns out. But good or bad, markets are finding support from the same phenomenon that powered them to record heights last year: stock buybacks.

Of course, years of quantitative easing (QE) created many of the conditions that made buybacks such powerful market mechanisms. Buybacks work to drive stock prices higher. Companies could borrow money and buy their own stocks on the cheap, increasing the size of corporate debt and the level of the stock market to record highs. Corporations actually account for the greatest demand for stocks..

And a J.P. Morgan study concludes that the stock prices of U.S. and European corporations that engage in high amounts of buybacks have outperformed other stocks by 4% over the past 25 years.

Last year established a record for buybacks. While they will probably not match the same figure this year, buybacks are still a major force driving markets higher.

And amidst escalating trade wars and all the other concerns facing today’s markets, executing buybacks makes the most sense for the companies that have the cash to engage in them. If companies are concerned about growth slow downs in the future, there is good reason to use their excess cash for buybacks.

What this means is that the companies with money for buybacks have good reason to double down.

As a Reuters article has noted, “the escalating trade war between the United States and China may prompt U.S. companies to shift money they had earmarked for capital expenditures into stock buybacks instead, pushing record levels of corporate share repurchases even higher.”

So buybacks could prop up the market through volatile periods ahead and drive the current bull market even further.

Of course, buybacks also represent a problem. They boost a stock in the short term, yes. But that higher stock price in the short may come at the expense of the long run. It’s a short-term strategy.

That’s because companies are not using their cash for expansion, for R&D, or to pay workers more, which would generate more buying power in the overall economy. Buybacks are not connected to organic growth and are detached from the foundation of any economy.

But buybacks could keep the ball rolling a while longer. And I expect they will. One day it’ll come to an end. But not just yet.

Regards,

Nomi Prins
for The Daily Reckoning

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Why Powell Might NOT Cut Rates

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The market’s been bouncing around lately, anxiously waiting to see it the Fed cuts interest rates next week. All indications now suggest that it will. The question is by how much?

Minutes from June’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting that were released earlier this month indicated support for a rate cut. Certain committee officials noted that as long as uncertainty still weighed on its outlook, they would be willing to cut rates.

And during his much-awaited biannual testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell hinted — strongly — that a rate cut was around the corner.

Powell told the committee, “It appears that uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the U.S. economic outlook. Inflation pressures remain muted.”

But the subsequent release of better-than-expected June employment figures complicated the matter of rate cut size and timing.

They raised the possibility that those positive jobs numbers would keep the Fed from cutting rates. After all, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to cut interest rates when the job market is so hot and unemployment is at 50-year lows.

But despite that concern, markets are still placing the odds of a rate cut of 25 basis points at 100%, with lower expectations for a 50 basis point cut.

This means a rate cut is already “baked into the cake.” However, the risk is that if Jerome Powell and the FOMC don’t cut rates next week, it could cause a sharp sell-off.

We’ll have our answer next week. But despite the overwhelming market expectations for a rate cut, I think there’s a chance the Fed won’t cut rates yet. That’s because Powell may still want to signal the Fed’s ability to act independently from White House pressure.

I realize that puts me in the extreme minority. But that’s OK, it certainly isn’t the first time.

But there’s something else going on right now that could trip up markets.

Earnings season is underway. Over the next few weeks, all of the S&P 500 companies will be rolling out their earnings figures. And more than a quarter of them will report earnings this week.

Firms from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to Amazon, McDonald’s and Boeing are among the more than 130 companies that are reporting.

Even with a rate cut, poor corporate earnings could spell trouble for stocks. The trade war would be partly responsible. Certainly, there remains no resolution on the U.S.-China trade war front. And the trade war combined with slowing growth could amplify the effects of weak earnings.

As one article reports, “Stocks could struggle if the earnings message from corporate America focuses on the murky outlook for the economy and negative impacts from the trade wars.”

Earnings so far have been positive, but that can be misleading. That’s because second-quarter earnings expectations were kept low so that corporations could easily beat them.

Their actual earnings may not be underwhelming. But if they beat expectations, that’s all that counts.

And as I learned on Wall Street, corporations often talk down their earnings estimates in order to set a low bar. That way they can easily beat the forecast, which produces a jump in the stock price.

As Ed Keon, chief investment strategist at QMA explains:

No matter what the economic circumstances are, no matter what the backdrop is, there’s this dynamic that companies like to lowball and analysts like to give them headroom. The fact that numbers are coming in better than expected — it’s been the case for decades now.

Of the 114 companies that provided second-quarter guidance as of last week, 77% released negative forecasts, according to FactSet.

But it’s still early and there’s a long way to go.

Most industrial companies haven’t reported earnings yet. And they could reveal extensive damage from the trade war. As CFRA investment strategist Lindsey Bell says:

As we get more industrials in the next couple of weeks, I think that will create more volatility and drive the market lower in the near term… Chemicals and metals are two areas where I expect pressure.

We’ll see. But if markets do stumble, you can expect the Fed will be ready to cut rates at its meeting in September. That means more “dark money” will be coming to support markets, even if the Fed doesn’t cut rates next week.

And that’ll keep the bull market going for a while longer. One day the music will end. The imbalances in the system are just too great.

But we’re not at that point yet, and you can expect markets to rise on additional dark money injections.

Enjoy it while you can.

Below, I show you one major factor that will continue to support stocks this year. It doesn’t have to do with the trade war or earnings. What is it? Read on.

Regards,

Nomi Prins
for The Daily Reckoning

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Get Used to the “Powell Put”

This post Get Used to the “Powell Put” appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

In the land of the Federal Reserve and its market-manipulating mechanisms, there’s now an unofficial market term called the “Powell Put” or the “Powell Pivot.”

It is in direct reference to Fed chairman Jerome Powell. Before he became chairman, Wall Street referred to prior heads’ policies with terms like the “Greenspan Put” the “Bernanke Put” and the “Yellen Put.”

In layman’s terms, what the term means is that if the markets fall by too much, the Fed will swoop in and try to save the day, the month, or the year. A “put” in options terminology is insurance against a drop in prices. Nowadays, the “Powell Put” is the market’s insurance that the Fed will act to stimulate the markets if necessary.

Markets had been waiting for it to materialize. But Powell had previously talked about the need to raise rates to give the Fed “enough ammunition to fight the next crisis.” The size of the Fed’s balance sheet would also have to be reduced enough to provide it enough room to grow if needed.

Markets began to worry the Powell Put might never materialize when he raised interest rates in December, when the market was in the middle of a severe correction (that nearly culminated in a bear market). He also said the balance sheet reductions, or quantitative tightening, would run on “autopilot.”

Markets tanked on his comments. But then on Jan. 4, after stocks fell nearly 20%, the “Powell Put” finally materialized.

In comments addressing the American Economic Association, Powell said he was “prepared to adjust policy quickly and flexibly.”

And about the balance sheet reduction policy that was on autopilot in November, he said

“We wouldn’t hesitate to change it.

Powell has subsequently emphasized the need for “patience.” The Dow has continued to rally behind his newfound dovishness. In fact, this January was the best January in 30 years. If the rally continues, the market could soon be testing its early October highs.

What this means is that the Fed isn’t going to raise rates anytime soon. As my colleague Jim Rickards has explained, “patience” isn’t just a word. It’s a signal to markets that the Fed will not be raising rates anytime soon, and that it will give them notice when it is.

The Fed is also unlikely to reduce the size of its balance sheet in a bold way, as long as economic headwinds from around the world continue. That in turn, means dark money will remain available to boost markets.

There are two main ways the Federal Reserve can unleash dark money into the financial system. One is by keeping interest rates (or the cost of money) low or at zero percent. The other is through quantitative easing (QE) or bond-purchasing, where the Fed creates money electronically and uses it to give to banks to buy Treasury or mortgage bonds from them.

Reducing the cost of money, or interest rates to zero, was done for the first time by the Fed in the wake of the financial crisis. The Fed did this supposedly as an emergency measure to inject money into the system because banks had stopped lending. In addition, QE was enacted because interest rate policy wasn’t effective enough. Again, supposedly, it was supposed to be an emergency measure.

But we saw how the stock market reacted when Powell said QT would run on autopilot. Now the Fed is ready to finalize plans that would leave the balance sheet at a much higher level than it previously envisioned. Again, that means additional support for markets.

In the latest development, as Brian Maher discussed in yesterday’s Daily Reckoning, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President Mary Daly suggests that the Fed could decide to use its balance sheet as a routine part of how it guides the economy, not just as a last-ditch measure to deploy in emergencies.

That means what was once supposed to be an emergency measure could become just another regular policy tool if normal interest rate policy isn’t enough to stimulate a non-responsive economy. We’ll have to wait and see if this idea gains traction within the Fed. Either way, reducing the balance sheet to “normal” levels is no longer a priority for the Fed.

But it’s not just the Fed that is putting additional tightening on hold. Central banks around the globe have been re-calibrating their policies to reflect the weaker economic environment.

As one Wall Street Journal article recently reported, “Central bankers have geared their messages toward pausing on tightening steps rather than imminently launching new stimulus.”

Central banks from South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Canada, who all raised rates last year, are now questioning such plans. The Bank of Japan and European Central Bank also indicated last week that their negative rates are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

The truth is it’s all about the $21 trillion of dark money fabricated by, and dispersed from, the world’s major central banks. The volatility periods, including last year’s nearly 20% correction, are related to the fear that dark money supplies will go away.

These factors will keep sparking intermittent fear and volatility this year — but dark money collusion will not be going anywhere. While there will be some minor rate hikes here and there, and mild tweaking of massive asset books, the overall story will remain the same. You should expect major central banks to end the year, on average, with asset books in total size right where they started.

Once again, that means dark money will continue to be available to markets.

The fact is, dark money is the #1 secret life force of today’s rigged financial markets. It drives whole markets up and down. It’s the reason for today’s financial bubbles.

On Wall Street, knowledge of and access to dark money means trillions of dollars per year flowing in and around global stock, bond and derivatives markets.

I learned this firsthand from my career on Wall Street. My first full year working on Wall Street was in 1987. I wasn’t talking about “dark money” or central bank collusion back then. I was just starting out.

Eventually, I would uncover how the dark money system works, how it has corrupted our financial system and encouraged greed to the point of crisis like in 2008. When I moved abroad to create and run the analytics department at Bear Stearns London as senior managing director, I got my first look at how dark money flows and its effects cross borders.

That dark money goes to the biggest private banks and financial institutions first. From there, it spreads out in seemingly infinite directions affecting different financial assets in different ways.

Yet these dark money flows stretch around the world according to a pattern of power, influence and, of course, wealth for select groups. To be a part of the dark money elite means to have control over many.

These is not built upon conspiracy theories. To the contrary, alliances make perfect sense and operate publicly. Even better, their exclusive dealings and the consequences that follow are foreseeable — but only if you understand how the system works and follow the dark money flows.

Dark money rules the world, and it could keep the bull market running longer than most people expect, even though the eventual turnaround could be ugly.

Regards,

Nomi Prins
for The Daily Reckoning

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Expect the Buyback Wave to Continue This Year

This post Expect the Buyback Wave to Continue This Year appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

A crucial theme from last year is continuing into this year — stock buybacks. Last year was a banner year for companies buying back their own shares. A month into 2019, it appears that Wall Street is set to continue that trend.

Last year, U.S. companies announced a whopping $1.1 trillion worth of buyback plans. Armed with extra cash from favorable corporate tax policy enacted in 2017, they enthusiastically bought back their own shares.

But as of mid-December, only about $800 billion of those buybacks had actually occurred. That means there could be another $300 billion of the total 2018 target still waiting to hit the market.

In fact, Wall Street is already gearing up for another banner buyback year. In a recent report, J.P. Morgan strategist Dubravko Lakos-Bujas wrote, “It’s expected that S&P 500 companies will execute some $800 billion in buybacks… in 2019.”

The Wall Street strategist also explained that the quality of 2018 buybacks were high. He revealed that companies were using their cash, rather than borrowed money, to fund buybacks. Using cash toward buybacks is expensive less than using debt.

But why did the wave of buybacks slow down late last year?

The first reason is that companies involved had already purchased stock at a very rapid rate through last September. That was one major reason we saw the market peak around that time, and in fact, hit new records.

The second was that despite trade war fears and uncertainty, companies felt confident enough to go ahead with their buybacks initially. That’s why we saw market players largely shrug off warning signs through the first three quarters of 2018.

But sentiment shifted dramatically during the last quarter of the year, culminating in essentially a bear market by late December. And more reports around the world began to point to slowing economic growth ahead.

A key factor cited for this slowdown was the impact of prolonged trade wars, which could curb real economic activity and create more uncertainty. In turn, growing volatility would keep businesses from planning expansions, or using the cash originally set aside for buybacks.

A third reason for the drop off in buybacks late last year was a record amount of public corporate and consumer debt that had to be repaid or at least serviced regularly. This overhang of debt was weighing on growth expectations. That debt load would become even more expensive if the Fed kept up with its forecasted rate hike activity in December and throughout 2019.

Some analysts even warned that the Fed might go ahead with another four rate hikes this year. That triggered fears on Wall Street that the central bank stimulus game could truly be over.

The reason for the concern is simple: The higher the interest rates, the more expensive it is to borrow and repay existing debt. For more highly leveraged corporations and emerging market countries, this would be an even greater threat. A higher dollar, resulting from more Fed tightening, could cause other currencies to depreciate against the dollar. That would make it harder to repay debt taken out in dollars.

Finally, there was heightened tension in the financial markets due to political uncertainty. With U.S. election results ensuring added battles between Congress (with Democrats taking the majority in the House of Representatives) and the White House, doubt set in over the functionality of the U.S. government going forward.

Those reservations were justified. The government shutdown that kicked off 2019 had a lot to do with shifts in the political balance in Washington.

Geopolitical tensions also rose at the end of 2018, including Brexit in the United Kingdom, street revolts in France, potential recession fears in Italy and growing unrest in South America.

All these factors combined ensured that markets were extremely volatile during the last quarter of 2018, and why it was the worst one for the markets since the Great Depression. It was not conducive to buybacks. Buybacks are supposed to raise the stock price. But strong market headwinds could have largely canceled their effects.

The prudent approach for companies facing such a negative environment was to wait out the problems until the new year.

But Jerome Powell subsequently gave into Wall Street and took a much more dovish position on both rate hikes and balance sheet reductions. That means the coast is clear again to resume the buybacks.

Back in December, some major players announced plans for 2019 buybacks. These include Boeing, which announced an $18 billion repurchase program. It also includes tech giant Facebook, which plans to buy back $9 billion of its own shares, in addition to an existing $15 billion share repurchase program started in 2017.

Also in on the buyback wave is Johnson & Johnson, which announced a $5 billion stock buyback. Others include Lowe’s and Pfizer, which both announced a $10 billion stock buyback program.

These plans are now much more likely to go forward.

Furthermore, many large corporations like Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Home Depot and Walmart didn’t even announce buybacks in 2018.

They could well announce them for 2019. Companies that did announce big buybacks last year, like Apple, could also engage in more, adding a potential $100 billion share repurchases this year to match 2018.

Another indicator for a sizeable 2019 buyback wave is that stock prices are lower now than they were going into the fourth quarter of 2018. That means companies can buy back their shares at cheaper prices. They could buy at a discount, in other words, or at least what they hope will be a discount.

My old Wall Street firm, Goldman Sachs, has already forecast $940 billion worth of buybacks for 2019. They previously had predicted over a trillion dollars’ worth of buybacks for 2018. The number of buybacks for 2018 even exceeded their predictions.

By mid-January, of the S&P 500 companies that reported their fourth-quarter earnings, nearly 70% of them have exceeded Wall Street’s profit expectations. It’s a favorable environment for buybacks.

Yet, it may still take some time for companies to move forward with this year’s buybacks. That’s because we are still in the “black-out” period that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has created.

The period covers the time just before and after companies post earnings results. The sell-off in October coincided with the third quarter earnings season’s “blackout period.” The combination of negative environmental factors plus fewer buybacks drove markets even lower.

Now, once earnings season and the current blackout period is over, Wall Street will be unleashed to buy large blocks of stock for their major corporate clients.

If the Federal Reserve truly holds back on its former interest rate and quantitative tightening plans, as it seems likely to do, expect central bank stimulus to continue to fuel markets.

Of course, buybacks do not come without negative implications. That’s because companies are not using their cash for expansion or to pay workers more, which would generate more buying power in the overall economy. But in the short run at least, they tend to raise the stock price.

Even if Wall Street comes up against headwinds of volatility, slowing economic growth, political strife and trade wars, they can now expect the Fed and other central banks to have their backs.

Buybacks could become a very powerful force once again this year, and keep the ball rolling a while longer.

Regards,

Nomi Prins

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Three Concerns Hanging Over the Davos Elite

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This week, the global elite descended private jets to their version of winter ski-camp – the lifestyles of the rich and powerful version.  The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) five-day annual networking extravaganza kicked off in the upscale ski resort town of Davos, Switzerland.

Every year, the powers-that-be join the WEF, select a theme, uniting some 3000 participants ranging from public office holders to private company executives to the few organizations that truly do help fix the world that they mess up.  This year’s theme is “Globalization 4.0”, or the digital revolution. The idea being, the potential tech take-over of jobs, and what wealthier countries are doing to lesser developed ones in the process.

While the topic might be focused on the future, the present is just as troubling, if not more so, than the future.   Such is the disconnect between real people and corporations.  That’s what the estimated 600,000 Swiss Franc membership to be a part of the WEF constellation gets you as a CEO at the Davos table.

Government leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro and Chinese Vice President, Wang Qishan are in attendance this week. Business leaders like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and JPMorgan Chase CEO, Jamie Dimon will also take part in the festivities.

Yet, even though the various leaders will likely promote their achievements, what’s lurking behind the pristine snowcapped Alps, is a dark foreboding of a less secure world. Nearly every major forecast from around the world is projecting an economic slowdown. As one Bloomberg article reports, “companies are the most bearish since 2016 as economic data falls short of expectations and political risks mount amid an international trade war, U.S. government shutdown and Brexit.”

The list of non-attendees includes U.S. President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and French President, Emmanuel Macron. They are too busy dealing with complex political problems in their own government institutions and domestic home fronts to make the trek.

Below is a breakdown of the three flashpoints that the Davos crowd should be watching in 2019:

Economic Growth Will Slow

Signs of slowing global economic growth are increasing. We’re seeing that in both smaller emerging market countries and larger, more complex ones. Weaker-than-anticipated data from the U.S., China, Japan and Europe are stoking worries about the worldwide outlook for 2019.

Many mainstream outlets are beginning to understand the turmoil ahead. Goldman Sachs, my old firm, is predicting an economic slowdown in the U.S. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has revised downward its 2019 U.S. growth prediction to 2.5% from 2.7% from 2018. It believes that the U.S. will be negatively impacted by the economic slowdowns of American trade partners and that the 2020 slowdown could be even “sharper” as a result.

The IMF also points to pressure from ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China and growing dysfunction between the U.S. and other major trading partners, such as Europe.

Because the world’s economies have become increasingly interdependent, problems in one economy can have widespread consequences. We learned this once before: the collapse of U.S.-based investment bank, Lehman Brothers, triggered a greater international banking crisis in 2008. That sort of connectivity has only grown. The reality is that we may now face even greater threats than forecast so far, which could lead to another financial or credit crisis.

It is likely that China could be ground zero for a global economic slowdown. Recent data out of China indicates that much global GDP and trade activity that should normally be in the first quarter (Q1) of 2019 was pulled forward into Q4 2018 to “beat” the tariff increase.

It’s likely that the same phenomenon could happen in the U.S. If this trend does snowball, you should expect to see rapidly deteriorating economic numbers arriving in the months ahead.

Debt Burdens Will Worsen

No matter how you slice it, public, corporate and individual debt levels around the world are at historical extremes. Household debt figures from the New York Federal Reserve noted that U.S. household debt (which includes mortgage debt, auto debt and credit card debt) was hovering at around $13.5 trillion. That debt has risen for 17 straight quarters.

What is different this time is that current levels are higher than just before the 2008 financial crisis hit.

In addition, global debt reached $247 trillion in the first quarter of 2018. By mid-year, the global debt-to-GDP ratio had exceeded 318%. That means every dollar of growth cost more than three dollars of debt to produce.

After a decade of low interest rates, courtesy of the Fed and other central banks, the total value of non-financial global debt, both public and private, rose by 60% to hit a record high of $182 trillion.

In addition, the quality of that debt has continued to deteriorate. That sets the scene for a riskier environment. Over on Wall Street they are already disguising debt by stuffing smaller riskier, or “leveraged” loans into more complex securities. It’s the same disastrous formula that was applied in the 2008 subprime crisis.

Now, landmark institutions like Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global are finally sounding the alarm on these leveraged loans and the Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs) that Wall Street is creating from them.

CLO issuance in the U.S. has risen by more than 60% since 2016. Unfortunately, it should come as no surprise that Wall Street is now proposing even looser standards on these risky securities. The idea is that the biggest banks on Wall Street can actively repackage risky leveraged loans into dodgy securities while the music is still playing.

If rates do rise, or economic growth deteriorates, so will these loans and the CLOs that contain them, potentially causing a new credit crisis this year. If the music stops, (or investors no longer want to buy the CLOs that Wall Street is selling) look out below.

Corporate Earnings Will Be Lower

With earnings season now underway, we can expect a lot of gaming of results in contrast to earlier reports and projections. What I learned from my time on Wall Street is that this is a standard dance that happens between financial analysts and corporations.

What you should know is that companies will always want to maximize share prices. There are several ways to do that. One way is for companies to buy their own shares, which we saw happen in record numbers recently. This process was aided by the savings from the Trump corporate tax cuts, as well as the artificial stimulus that was provided by the Fed through its easy money strategy.

Another way is to reduce earnings expectations, or fake out the markets. That way, even if earnings do fall, they look better than forecast, which gives shares a pop in response. However, that pop can be followed by a fall because of the lower earnings.

The third way is to simply do well as a business. In a slowing economic environment, however, that becomes harder to do. Plus, it’s even more difficult in today’s environment of geopolitical uncertainty, as a multitude of key elections take place around the world in the coming months.

These three concerns were central in conversation in Davos. Expect global markets to be alert to the comments coming from the Swiss mountain town. Severe dips and further volatility could be ahead if any gloomy rhetoric streams from the Davos gathering.

How Will the Fed React?

Ready to help, is the answer. This month, yet another top Federal Reserve official noted that economic growth could be slowing down. That would mean the Fed should, as Powell indicated, switch from its prior fixed plan of “gradually” raising interest rates to a more “ad-hoc approach.”

Indeed, Federal Reserve Bank of New York President John Williams, used Chairman Powell’s new buzz phrase, “data dependence,” to indicate that the Fed would be watching the economy more. While he didn’t say it explicitly, it has become largely clear that the markets are determining Fed policy.

Based on my own analysis, along with high-level meetings in DC, I see growing reasons to believe the Fed will back off its hawkish policy stance. As we continue to sound the alarm, there are now a myriad of reasons including trade wars, slowing global economic conditions and market volatility.

Traders are now assigning only a 15% chance of another rate hike by June. Just three months ago, those odds were 45%.

Watch for even more market volatility with upward movements coming from increasingly dovish statements released by the Fed and other central banks. Expect added downward outcomes from state of the global economy along with geo-political pressures.

Regards,

Nomi Prins

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Volatility Holds the Key to Markets in 2019

This post Volatility Holds the Key to Markets in 2019 appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Over the last two weeks, after making good on the four-rate interest hike of 2018, Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, became more dovish to start 2019.

His change in tone is worth considering because of his historical stance on reducing the amount of artificial stimulus coming from the Fed. Last week, after the required five-year holding period for Fed transcripts were up, we got a glimpse into Powell’s thoughts from 2013, before he was Chairman.

Powell tried to persuade then-Chairman, Ben Bernanke, to reduce the Fed’s stimulus, even though it would lead to greater near-term market volatility. That was when the third round of the Fed’s asset-buying program (QE3) was in full swing. The Fed was purchasing an estimated $85 billion per month mix of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities.

To indicate that the Fed wouldn’t buy bonds forever, Bernanke floated the idea of slowing down its program, or “tapering,” at some non-defined future date.

Powell, on the other hand, believed the market needed a specific “road map” of the Fed’s intentions. He said that he wasn’t “concerned about a little bit of volatility” though he was “concerned that there may be more than that here.”

Indeed, once Bernanke publicly announced the possibility of the Fed’s bond-buying program slowing down, the market tanked, in a response that became known as a “taper tantrum.” As a result, Bernanke backed off the tapering idea.

Fear of more taper tantrums kept the Fed in check after that. The Fed ultimately waited until it had raised rates sufficiently, before starting to cut the size of its balance sheet. But now Powell is the Chairman. And it seems that he is much less comfortable with volatility than he was under Bernanke, as his most recent remarks indicate.

But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a Fed chairman has modified his views when he was in control. Alan Greenspan, for example, was a staunch advocate of the gold standard when he was younger (and as presented in Foreign Affairs). But once he was Fed head, suddenly he thought a gold standard wasn’t such a hot idea after all. Go figure.

In the case of Jerome Powell, his new sensitivity to volatility means the Fed will be watching the markets for high volatility that causes sell-offs, even if also espousing their “data driven” mentality. And that he is prepared to act should that happen by backing off the Fed’s current forecast for reducing its balance sheet.

I’ve argued before that the Fed isn’t reducing its balance sheet as aggressively as it would have you believe. And I certainly expect it to dial back even more so in light of the recent volatility.

The reason is obvious.

The main catalyst for the bull market that surfaced over the past 10 years since the financial crisis in 2008 was stimulus that was fueled by the Fed and other leading central banks. This money acted as an artificial stimulant or “drug” to financial asset prices.

The world’s leading central banks have been following the Fed’s lead in withdrawing liquidity. And even though global liquidity really began drying up late last year to a minimal degree relative to its size, it should come as no surprise that markets have threw a tantrum.

Since early October, we’ve seen a lot of price volatility, with several hundred-point daily swings in the markets becoming the norm. Powell calmed the waters with his dovish comments on January 4 and the following week as well. But make no mistake, the waters are still choppy.

Many on Wall Street expect to see more volatility ahead and are forecasting that 2019 will be rocky for the stock market. But others on Wall Street are, in direct contrast, forecasting a continued bull market.

That’s the other driver of volatility — clashing opinions and wildly divergent market forecasts. We haven’t had much volatility in recent years because nearly everyone was on the same side of the bet. That’s all changed now.

To add to the market turmoil, the federal government shutdown has now officially entered its fourth week. It is now the longest shutdown on record. But the shutdown also has real economic ramifications outside of the DC beltway.

First, in a climate where the expansion of business activity is already slowing down, the shutdown is causing economists to further lower first-quarter GDP estimates. That puts a lid on expansion and hiring plans for both psychological and actual risk reasons.

More than 800,000 federal workers have missed paychecks, which means less money to pay bills and purchase goods and services that contribute to the American economy. But that’s not the only problem, although it might seem far more important, especially to those missing paychecks.

From an information standpoint, the state of the economy is tough to predict without data produced by agencies like the Department of Commerce. For instance, farmers, already hurting from trade wars, won’t be able to get key data on figures like monthly international shipments to plan crop schedules.

Then there’s the Federal Reserve itself. Whether you think it should or not be setting interest rates at all, the Fed determines interest rates while considering factors such as market volatility, slowing economic figures and trade wars. The best way to do that is to access real data. Now, business conditions will be hard to gauge accurately if reports aren’t available due to the shutdown.

That means the shutdown will stoke volatility in the markets until an agreement is reached. And when that will be is anybody’s guess right now. No real progress has been made and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.

But this week, the markets will be getting new information to digest. The release of fourth-quarter earnings reports will begin with big banks. These will provide more insight into how companies performed during the year-end volatility in 2018.

The corporate earnings outlook on Wall Street is fairly negative. Companies have been managing expectations downward. Apple, for instance, chopped its forecasted revenue figures last month, citing the slowdown in China’s economic growth as a reason for less iPhone sales. Apple stock lost about 10% on the day of the announcement, taking the overall market down with it.

Analysts are now estimating fourth quarter profit growth of 14.5% for the S&P 500 companies. That’s down from the 20.1% they forecast at the start of the quarter. But that could actually be a good thing for share prices.

The lower the bar, the greater the possibility it can be exceeded. There’s more upside potential in that case, in other words. That means if earnings begin to outperform prior forecasts next week, it could very well lift the markets. This tension of negative and positives factors will foster a see-saw of a quarter in the markets mixed with volatility, so being aware and nimble will be the best strategy.

But the volatility could present a great trading opportunity. Wall Street knows that it doesn’t matter if information is positive or negative — there are still ways to profit from the right information.

Something called the Cboe Volatility Index (VIX) is widely considered a “fear gauge.” That’s because it’s supposed to reflect what swings in the S&P 500 index could be over the next month.

The VIX computes its levels based on outstanding options contracts which are supposed to indicate the price that investors, or speculators, are willing to pay for protection against their positions going bad.

Currently, the VIX should be higher than it is. It recently spiked, but then settled down much lower than what the real volatility of the S&P has been this past month.

Usually, options tend to over-price volatility. That’s because people buy options in order to place bets on the future, or to protect themselves from wild swings in share prices. The less certain they are, the more they are willing to pay for that protection.

Yet, right now, the cost of protection is cheap. That’s like your health insurance premium all of a sudden dropping just when you catch a major illness. It doesn’t quite make sense.

That means that while fourth-quarter earnings season reports are emerging, it’s a good time to take advantage of buying these cheap options. Buying them on certain companies can protect you against adverse swings in share prices due to earnings announcements. It’s a form of portfolio insurance. And again, it’s relatively cheap.

That’s one pivotal key to being a great investor — accessing information. Sure, the more insights and information you have, the more overwhelming it can seem. However, if you can stay focused, your portfolio will thank you.

Regards,

Nomi Prins
for The Daily Reckoning

The post Volatility Holds the Key to Markets in 2019 appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

The Fed Is Panicking

This post The Fed Is Panicking appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

This week I’ve been in Washington, D.C. for high level meetings focused on the economy. While meeting with senior officials and members of the House and Senate, it became clear that a troubling phenomenon is building.

Nomi at the Eccles Building in D.C.

Your correspondent at the Eccles Federal Reserve
Board Building in Washington D.C.

In the wake of recent stock market volatility and uncertainty surrounding monetary policy, it seems that political figures are starting to grow concerned.

There is growing consensus that the makings of a financial crisis of some sort is building — and could drop sooner rather than later. While there is speculation over whether it will be as big as the last one, and whether it will come in waves, the belief is that something is wrong.

With those fears, I turned the Federal Reserve itself. While meeting at the Fed, I was given the impression that bank regulators have been routinely chastised by Wall Street bankers. What I learned is that some of the biggest playmakers in finance don’t want to disclose the true nature of their positions and money-making schemes. This confirmed my own experiences as an former investment banker.

In addition, it became clearer that Fed Chairman, Jay Powell, and Vice Chairman, Randal Quarles, will be closely studying real economic and bank data when rendering decisions about the path of interest rates. Many have speculated about such dealings, and whether they will be swayed by President Trump’s pressure.

The truth is that the leaders at the Fed have a firmer understanding of what’s really going on in the economy than they allude to publicly. Even though the Fed has been able to avoid another financial crisis the last decade, with quantitative easing (QE) policy — or what I call dark money — their “toolkit” might not render us “safe enough.” They need to grapple with this reality.

Jerome Powell

Jerome Powell, left, and Randal Quarles.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen.

You see, the Fed manufacturers dark money that the markets have come to rely on. Through quantitative easing (QE) the central bank has accumulated a balance sheet that hit a high of $4.5 trillion of assets last year.

By having purchased these assets with electronically created money, the Fed was able to keep rates at the middle and longer end of the yield curve low, while they specifically set low rates for the short end of the yield curve, too.

Just to remind you, the yield curve is the difference between short- and long-term interest rates. Long-term rates are normally higher than short-term rates. When the two converge, it often means markets are anticipating low growth ahead. When the yield curve inverts, when long-term rates fall below short-term rates, it’s almost always a sign of looming recession, historically speaking.

Currently the Fed’s book of assets has been reduced by only a bit — to about $4.1 trillion — but it’s still historically large.

If the Fed continues to sell those assets (which consist of treasury and mortgage bonds) there is a risk that their value will drop too much, too quickly. If bond values drop, then rates will rise in the middle and longer end of the yield curve. This would make it more expensive for most companies to repay, or extend, their corporate debts.

The Fed knows it is currently in a catch-22. That’s why over the last two weeks, it has barely sold any of its assets as volatility in the markets picked up.

Here’s something else you might not know: Two weeks ago, it even quietly increased its book of assets. That’s the opposite of the policy of unwinding, or selling its assets through quantitative tightening (QT), which is what Chairman Powell promised he would be doing.

That’s another sign that the Fed is afraid of a possible new financial crisis. For more proof, consider that former Fed Chair, Janet Yellen, just did a 180 on her prior comments related to the possibility of another crisis. Last June, she said that she didn’t think there would be another financial crisis in her lifetime, attributing this to banking reforms made since the 2008 financial crisis.

Now, everything has changed. Earlier this week, she told the New York Times that, “Corporate indebtedness is now quite high and I think it’s a danger that if there’s something else that causes a downturn, that high levels of corporate leverage could prolong the downturn and lead to lots of bankruptcies in the non-financial corporate sector.”

She noted that CLOs could be a real problem, as I’ve been warning for months. CLOs, or collateralized loan obligations, are a Wall Street product stuffed with corporate loans. If that sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason. Wall Street is doing exactly what they did with mortgage loans before the 2008 financial crisis, but with corporate ones.

Her timing was not random. Just because she’s no longer running the Fed doesn’t mean she has no contact with its new leader, who was her number two. The people and connections within central banks and Wall Street are always in play.

The danger in her analysis is that she’s largely mistaken that “current holders of corporate debt do not appear to be levered to excess, mitigating risk of any credit ripple effects.” The data bears this out.

Companies are holding $9.1 trillion of debt now in contrast to the $4.9 trillion in 2007 before the last financial crisis. The financial system, and those who take money from banks, are more highly levered than they were prior to the last financial crisis.

In its inaugural Financial Stability Report, the Fed stressed lurking dangers in corporate debt. Although the Fed also used the opportunity to pat itself on the back for how well capitalized banks were, just as Janet Yellen did, the trouble was still highlighted.

The Fed noted that corporate debt relative to GDP is at record highs, and that credit standards have gotten worse again. The amount of junk bonds and leveraged loans or “risky debt” has risen by 5% in the third quarter of 2018 to over $2 trillion in size.

The central bank pointed to a number of other risks facing the markets. Those include the outcome of Brexit, Italy’s finances and a slowing European economy which could lead to more dollar appreciation. If the dollar were to continue to rise in value, it would make it harder for foreign companies that took out dollar-denominated debt to repay it.

The Fed also used the report to warn that trade wars, geopolitical tensions and slowdowns in China and other emerging market economies could negatively impact the U.S. economy and markets.

All of these factors could not only impact the markets, as we’ve seen over the past several weeks, but also begin to creep in on how companies are able to repay their debts.

Next week is the big Fed meeting. I don’t believe the Fed will raise rates this time, which would give markets a boost heading into the new year. If they do, the announcement will be accompanied with much more dovish language and guidance for 2019. Regardless, the problems aren’t going away and neither is volatility.

Regards,

Nomi Prins
for The Daily Reckoning

The post The Fed Is Panicking appeared first on Daily Reckoning.