Our Leading Indicators Still Suggest Lower Asset Prices

In our March 12, 2015 commentary (“The Weakening of the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index Suggests Lower Asset Prices“), we discussed the shortcomings of Goldman Sachs’ Global Leading Indicator (GLI) based on its over-reliance on various components such as the Baltic Dry Index and commodity prices & currencies (specifically, the AU$ and the CA$). To Goldman’s credit, the firm has been highly transparent and vocal over the last several months about the distortions created by an oversupply of dry bulk shipping capacity and an impending wall of additional supply of industrial metals, such as copper and iron ore.

Goldman Sachs thus recognized that the GLI’s downturn in December last year (by that time, the bear market in oil and metals prices were well under way) was providing misleading cyclical signals of the global economy, with the exception of certain economies such as Australia, Canada, Brazil, and Russia. Indeed, our own studies suggest that global economic growth was still on par to hit 3.5% in 2015–with U.S. economic growth hitting 3.0%–while energy-importing countries such as India would actually experience an acceleration to 7%-8% GDP growth.

That being said, Goldman’s GLI remains highly instructive. Since December, other components of the GLI have begun to exhibit weakness that is consistent with a contraction of the global economy. Components exhibiting significant weakness include global industrial survey data (PMI), as well as new orders to inventory data (NOIN). Countries exhibiting significant weakness include the U.S., China, Norway, Japan, Turkey, and surprisingly, India. Meanwhile, Germany, France, and Italy are experiencing industrial production growth–likely due to the declining euro and record-low borrowing rates.

In a nutshell, our latest studies are now finally confirming Goldman’s GLI readings (a high probability of a global economic contraction). In our March 12 commentary, we asserted that global asset prices (especially equity prices) are poised to experience a +10% correction, given the weakness in the readings of the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index (the CBGDI).

The CBGDI is constructed differently in that we aggregate and equal-weight the OECD leading indicators for 30 major countries, including non-OECD (but globally significant) members such as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. The OECD’s Composite Leading Indicators possess a better statistical track record as a leading indicator of global asset prices and economic growth. Instead of relying on the prices of commodities or commodity currencies, the OECD meticulously constructs a Composite Leading Indicator for each country that it monitors by quantifying country-specific components including: 1) housing permits issued, 2) orders & inventory turnover, 3) stock prices, 4) interest rates & interest rate spreads, 5) changes in manufacturing employment, 6) consumer confidence, 7) monetary aggregates, 8) retail sales, 9) industrial & manufacturing production, and 10) passenger car registrations, among others. Each of the OECD’s country-specific leading indicator is fully customized depending on the particular factors driving a country’s economic growth.

The CBGDI has historically led or tracked the MSCI All-Country World Index and WTI crude oil prices since November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Historically, the rate of change (i.e. the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI has led WTI crude oil prices by three months with an R-squared of 30%, while leading the MSCI All-Country World Index slightly, with an R-squared of over 40% (naturally as stock prices is typically one component of the OECD leading indicators). Since we last discussed the CBGDI on March 12, the 2nd derivative of the CBGDI has gotten weaker. It also extended its decline below the 1st derivative, which in the past has led to a slowdown or even a major downturn in the global economy, including a downturn in global asset prices. Figure 1 below is a monthly chart showing the year-over-year % change in the CBGDI, along with the rate of change (2nd derivative) of the CBGDI, versus the year-over-year % change in WTI crude oil prices and the MSCI All-Country World Index from January 1994 to April 2015. All four indicators are smoothed on a three-month moving average basis:

OECDleadingindicators

With the 2nd derivative of the CBGDI declining further from last month’s reading, we believe the global economy is very vulnerable to a major slowdown, especially given the threat of a Fed rate hike later this year. We believe two or more Fed rate hikes this year will be counter-productive, as it will reduce U.S. dollar/global liquidity even as many Emerging Markets economies are struggling with lower commodity prices and declining foreign exchange reserves. We also remain cautious on global asset prices; we will mostly sit on the sidelines (or selectively hedge our long positions with short positions on the market) until one of the following occurs: 1) global liquidity increases, 2) the 2nd derivative of the CBGDI begins to turn up again, or 3) global risk asset or equity prices decline by +10% from current levels.

We will look to selectively purchase energy-based (i.e. oil, natural gas and even coal) assets given the historical divergence of the CBGDI and WTI crude oil/natural gas prices. We continue to believe that U.S. shale oil production is topping out as we speak. Should the WTI crude oil spot price retest or penetrate its recent low of $44-$45 a barrel (or if the U.S. Henry Hub spot price declines below $2.50/MMBtu), there will be significant opportunities on the long side in oil-, gas-, and even coal-based assets.

The Re-leveraging of Corporate America and the U.S. Stock Market

The U.S. stock market as of the end of 1Q 2015 is overvalued, overbought, and overleveraged. As we discussed in our weekly newsletters over the last couple of months, the S&P 500 is trading at its highest NTM (next 12 months) P/E and P/B ratios since early 2001, just prior to the bursting of the bubble in U.S. technology stocks. Note that today’s record P/E ratios are being accompanied by the highest corporate profit margins in modern history, which in turn are supported by ultra-low borrowing rates and a highly accommodative environment for corporate borrowing.

On the demand side for stocks, we also know that global hedge fund managers are now holding the largest amount of long positions in U.S. stocks (56% net long as of year-end 2014) since records have been kept. With the global hedge fund industry now managing $2 trillion in assets, we believe it is a mature industry–as such, we believe the positions of hedge fund managers could be utilized as a contrarian indicator. In addition, note that no major U.S. indices (e.g. Dow Industrials or the S&P 500) have experienced a 10%+ correction since Fall 2011. Coupled these with the immense leverage on U.S. corporate balance sheets–as well as the U.S. stock market–this means that U.S. stocks are now highly vulnerable to a major correction over the next several months.

According to Goldman Sachs, U.S. corporate debt issuance averaged $650 billion a year during the 2012-2014 time frame, or 40% higher than the 2009-2011 period. U.S. corporate debt issuance is on track to hit a record high this year, supported by the ongoing rise in M&A activity, sponsor-backed IPOs (companies tend to be highly leveraged upon a PE exit), and share buybacks and increasing dividends. In fact–at the current pace–U.S. corporate debt issuance will hit $1 trillion this year (see figure 1 below). Over the last 12 months, member companies in the Russell 1000 spent more on share buybacks and paying dividends than they collectively generated in free cash flow. Across Goldman’s coverage, corporate debt is up 80% since 2007, while leverage (net debt / EBITDA)–excluding the period during the financial crisis–is near a decade-high.

Figure 1: U.S. Corporate Debt Issuance at Record Highs ($billions)

uscorporatedebtissuance

We believe the combination of high valuations, extreme investors’ complacency, and near-record high corporate leverage leaves U.S. stocks in a highly vulnerable position. The situation is especially pressing considering: 1) the high likelihood for the Fed to raise rates by 25 basis points by the September 16-17 FOMC meeting, and 2) the increase in financial market volatility over the last six months.

Finally, investors should note that U.S. margin debt outstanding just hit a record high as of the end of February. Our studies and real-time experience indicate significant correlation between U.S. margin debt outstanding and other leverage indicators (including ones that may not be obvious, such as the amount of leverage utilized by hedge funds through the OTC derivatives market), as well as major peaks and troughs in the U.S. stock market. Since the last major correction in Fall 2011, U.S. margin debt outstanding has increased by 69%–from $298 billion to $505 billion–to a record high. In other words, both corporate America and the U.S. stock market have “re-leveraged.” With the Fed no longer in easing mode–coupled with extreme investors’ complacency and increasing financial market volatility–we believe U.S. stocks could easily correct by 10%+ over the next several months.

margindebt0215

The Weakening of the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index Suggests Lower Asset Prices

The Economist just published an article discussing the Baltic Dry Index (“BDI”) and its lack of usefulness as a global leading economic indicator. We know Goldman Sachs constructs its global leading economic indicator with the Baltic Dry Index as one of its components. To its credit, Goldman discloses this and quantifies the impact of the BDI (along with each of its other components) on a monthly basis. Over the last decade, the BDI has become increasingly volatile–first, due to the rapid industrialization of China; then the subsequent over-building of ships just as the 2008-2009 global financial crisis led to a drop in global trade.

Today, the BDI sits at an all-time low; it is down by 65% in the last 13 weeks alone. This is the major reason why we do not include the BDI as one of our leading indicators on the global economy; it is very difficult to strip out the BDI’s volatility due to fluctuations in shipping utilization, as well as idiosyncratic events such as port or iron ore mine disruptions. We prefer to utilize leading indicators that are less dependent on fluctuations in shipping utilization or commodity supply. This is why we like the OECD Composite Leading Indicators, which we incorporate into our CB Capital Global Diffusion Index (“CBGDI”).

The OECD’s Composite Leading Indicators, unlike those compiled by others, are much less dependent on commodity prices or exchanges rates of commodity currencies, i.e. the Australian dollar, the Brazilian real, the Canadian dollar, and the New Zealand dollar. Instead, the OECD meticulously constructs a Composite Leading Indicator for each country that it monitors by quantifying country-specific components including: 1) housing permits issued, 2) orders & inventory turnover, 3) stock prices, 4) interest rates & interest rate spreads, 5) changes in manufacturing employment, 6) consumer confidence, 7) monetary aggregates, 8) retail sales, 9) industrial & manufacturing production, and 10) passenger car registrations, among others. Each country-specific leading indicator is fully customized depending on the particular factors driving the country’s growth.

To recap, the CBGDI is constructed by aggregating and equal-weighting (on a 3-month moving average basis) the OECD leading indicators for 30 major countries, including non-OECD members such as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. The CBGDI has historically led or tracked the MSCI All-Country World Index and WTI crude oil prices since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Historically, the rate of change (i.e. the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI has led WTI crude oil prices by three months with an R-squared of 30%, while tracking or leading the MSCI All-Country World Index sightly, with an R-squared of over 40% (naturally as stock prices is typically one component of the OECD leading indicators).

We first introduced our CB Capital Global Diffusion Index (“CBGDI”) in our March 17, 2013 commentary (“The Message of the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index: A Bottom in WTI Crude Oil Prices“), when WTI crude oil traded at $93 a barrel. Based on the strength in the CBGDI at the time, we asserted that WTI crude oil prices have bottomed, and that WTI crude oil is a “buy” on any further price weakness. Over the next six months, the WTI crude oil spot price would rise to over $106 a barrel.

We last discussed the action of our CBGDI in our November 19, 2014 commentary (“The CB Capital Global Diffusion Index Says Higher Oil Prices in 2015“). At the time, we mentioned that–due to the strength in the CBGDI–WTI crude oil prices will likely rise in 2015. We obviously were early on that call as: 1) OPEC subsequently refused to cut production leading to the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” in global oil prices, and 2) the supply of U.S. shale oil continued to rise despite lower prices (a trend that is now ending).

Even though both the 1st and 2nd derivatives of the CBGDI are still positive, they are beginning to flash ‘caution’ signals. For example, the 2nd derivative of the CBGDI just declined below its 1st derivative–which in the past has led to a slowdown or even a major downturn in the global economy (as well as global asset prices). Note the following monthly chart shows the year-over-year % change in the CBGDI and the rate of change (the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI, versus the year-over-year % change in WTI crude oil prices and the MSCI All-Country World Index from January 1994 to March 2015. All four indicators are smoothed on a three-month moving average basis:

OECDJanuary2015Despite the recent weakness of the CBGDI, however, the historic divergence between the CBGDI and WTI crude oil prices suggest that the latter is bottoming. The case for higher crude oil prices is compounded by the fact that U.S. shale oil production growth is now stagnating (which we discussed in our recent weekly newsletters, and just confirmed by the Energy Information Administration). Should the WTI crude oil spot price retest or penetrate its recent low of $44-$45 a barrel, there will be significant opportunities on the long side of the commodity.

With the CBGDI expected to weaken further this year, we also do not believe the Fed should hike rates anytime soon (even a one-time 25 basis point hike)–especially given the recent strength in the U.S. dollar. A Fed rate hike will be counter-productive as it will simply reduce U.S. dollar/global liquidity at a time of global risk-aversion and reduced economic activity. We thus remain cautious; we will mostly sit on the sidelines until one of the following occurs: 1) global liquidity increases, 2) the CBGDI begins to turn up again, or 3) global asset prices correct by more than 10% from current levels.

U.S. Inflationary Pressures Remain Muted

In our January 25, 2015 weekly newsletter (please email me for a copy), we pushed back our forecast for the first fed funds rate hike (25 basis points) to the September 16-17, 2015 FOMC meeting as long-term (both 5- and 10-year) inflationary expectations in the U.S. continued to decline after the official end of QE3 on October 29, 2014. 80% of all forecasters at the time expected a rate hike by the July 28-29 FOMC meeting. Just a few days later–in the midst of the January 27-28 FOMC meeting–a new CNBC Fed survey suggests that most analysts now expect the first fed funds rate hike to occur at the September 16-17, 2015 FOMC meeting. Our prediction for the first fed funds rate hike is now the consensus.

10yearbreakeveninflation

Surveying both the data and the U.S. economy, there still seems to be no rising inflationary pressures, despite a pick-up in U.S. housing activity (due to the recent decline in mortgage rates) and a noticeable improvement in the U.S. job market. In fact, the U.S. CPI–even outside of energy–has continued to trend down over the last several months. E.g. the 12-month change in the U.S. CPI (less food and energy) declined from 1.9% in July to 1.6% in December, while neither the 16% trimmed-mean CPI nor the Median CPI have shown any signs of rising to a level that would justify a new rate hike cycle.

The $64 trillion question is: When will the Fed impose its first rate hike, and what does this mean for global asset prices (or the U.S. dollar)? The picture becomes even murkier when one takes into account the recent strength in the U.S. dollar (since we penned our Traderplanet.com ‘Euro Parity” article on September 24, 2014, the dollar has rallied from 1.27 to 1.14 in just a little over four months). Any new Fed rate hike cycle will likely reinforce the recent strength in the U.S./euro exchange rate (note: we now expect the euro to stage a bounce against the U.S. dollar as we believe the Euro Zone economy will surprise on the upside), especially given the open-ended nature of the European Central Bank (ECB)’s sovereign QE policy.

I am going out on a limb and predicting either one of the following scenarios: 1) The Fed hikes by 25 basis points at the September 16-17 meeting, but states that future rate hikes will be data-dependent, i.e. a rate hike will not signal the beginning of a new rate hike cycle, or 2) The Fed pushes back its first rate hike to its October 27-28 meeting, if not later.

The Fed must understand that capitalism is inherently deflationary. Ever since the Paul Volcker-led Fed slayed the U.S. inflation dragon in the early 1980s, the U.S. economy has consistently experienced disinflationary pressures. This accelerated with the German re-unification and the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’ 25 years ago, and of course, Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Moreover, with the exception of three short bull markets (World War I, the 1970s and 2001-2008), commodity prices (adjusted for the U.S. CPI) have been on a 150-year downtrend in the United States as U.S productivity growth triumphed over the disciples of Thomas Malthus.

Finally, academic studies have time and again proven that there are no consistent reliable leading indicators for U.S. inflation. Common factors cited by analysts–such as M2, capacity utilization, and the cost of housing–all scored poorly relative to a simple auto-regressive (i.e. momentum model). Others, such as U.S. industrial production activity and the 10-year treasury yield, scored better. Surprisingly, the data shows that the rise in food prices have historically been the best leading indicator of U.S. inflation, which we do not believe will apply going forward.

Our analysis and our recent trip to four different cities in India has convinced us of this: What China did to global manufacturing India will do to the global services industry. I.e. We believe India–over the next 5-10 years–will unleash a wave of deflationary pressures in service wages across the world as the country builds up its 4G infrastructure, and as its smartphone adoption grows from 110 million to over 500 million handsets over the next 5 years. Unlike other countries under the traditional Asian development model (where a country will leverage its low-cost labor to industrialize and export goods to developed countries, such as the U.S.), India has no language barrier and is well-versed with technology, computer programming, and providing global services already. This is a hugely deflationary force to reckon with and I believe the Fed must take this into account as U.S. service wages (finance, legal, and IT) will consequently continue to be compressed over the next 10-20 years (while tens of millions of educated Indians will join the global middle class for the first time since the 1700s).

Why Commodities Will Rally Hard Over the Next 2-3 Weeks

The commodities complex is hugely oversold. US$ bullishness has not been this high since the depths of the financial crisis in early 2009. With the SNB eliminating the synthetic peg to the Euro–Euro bullishness will be revived over the next couple of weeks, as the 41% intraday decline of the Euro against the Swiss franc likely resulted in the short-term capitulation of all remaining Euro bulls. My sense is that the Euro will actually rise if the ECB chooses to adopt QE on January 22nd, as QE would mean the ECB will unconditionally try to keep the European Monetary Union together, which will be bullish for euro-denominated assets, as well as for assets leveraged to the global economy, such as commodities.

We also believe the latest 25 basis point easing by the Reserve Bank of India will be first of many rate cuts this year; China will also follow. With India now the world’s third largest oil importer, any economic acceleration in India will also be felt in the commodities complex.

As such, I believe the commodities space (oil, copper, silver, etc.) will rally hard over the next 2-3 weeks at the very least.

Why Crude Oil Prices Will Recover Faster than You Think

Over the last six months, WTI crude oil prices declined from a peak of $107 to $60 a barrel, or a decline of 44%. Many analysts, including the Energy Information Administration (EIA), are forecasting even lower prices, and more glaringly, for prices to stay at these levels for at least the next 12-24 months. The EIA is forecasting WTI crude oil to average $63 a barrel in 2015 (down from its October forecast of $95 a barrel), while Andy Xie, a Chinese economist, is forecasting oil prices to stay at $60 over the next five years.

The oil market is now in a state of panic. We believe WTI crude oil prices will recover to the $75 to $85 range by the second half of 2015 as: 1) fear in the oil markets subsides, 2) shale production growth plateaus or even declines, and 3) global demand increases as a reaction to lower oil prices. Let’s examine these three reasons in more detail.

1) Oil markets are panicking and prices will bounce back after the fear subsides

At $60 a barrel, WTI is now more than two standard deviations below its 200-day moving average, its most oversold level since March 30, 2009. With the exception of the 6-month declines during: 1) late 1985/early 1986, and 2) summer 2008 to December 2008, the WTI crude oil price is now at a level which has previously marked a multi-year bottom. More importantly–from a technical standpoint–oil prices have always bounced faster than most analysts expected. E.g. After hitting $10.73 a barrel in December 1998, WTI rose by 80% to $19.28 a barrel over the next 6 months; similarly, after hitting $17.48 a barrel in November 2001, WTI rose by 68% to $29.38 over the next six months. Note that in the latter case, the rise in oil prices occurred despite the 9/11 attacks and the fact that the U.S. economy was in recession. Just like today, analysts were expecting oil prices to remain low during December 1998 and November 2001. In its December 2001 forecast, the EIA expected WTI to average $21.79 a barrel in 2002. WTI would average $26.17 in 2002, or 20% higher. We believe the current supply/demand dynamics today are even more conducive for a quick snap-back and a subsequent stabilization at higher crude oil prices.

oiltradingsystem12102014

2) Shale production growth will subside faster than expected

Our recent MarketWatch.com article discusses three reasons why the U.S. shale supply response in reaction to lower oil prices will be faster than expected. Those are: i) shale drilling is inherently capital intensive; many shale E&P firms have relied on GAAP and dubious accounting practices to mask the high, ongoing costs to sustain shale production, ii) unlike the major, multi-year projects undertaken by major, integrated oil companies, shale production growth is highly responsive to prices, and iii) shale depletion rates are much faster than those of conventional oil production.

These arguments for faster-than-expected shale production declines are stronger than ever. Firstly, shale drillers have only sustained the boom as long as there was ample financing, but this game is now about to end. The spread for high-yield energy debt has already jumped from less than 450 basis points in September to 942 basis points today. We expect financing to dry up for marginal drillers and fields; higher financing costs will also increase the costs of shale oil production, creating an overall higher hurdle for shale projects. Secondly, shale fields on average take about 6-9 months to come online, which is much faster than for most conventional projects. With such a quick response time, we expect shale production growth to slow down dramatically by April-May of 2015. Thirdly, higher efficiencies have meant faster depletion rates. Shale producers are looking for quick paybacks, and so are highly incentivized to begin and ramp up production as quickly as possible. As discussed by the EIA, the monthly decline in legacy shale oil production is about 300,000 barrels a day. We expect U.S. shale oil production to begin declining by April-May of 2015 unless prices rise back to the $75-$85 a barrel range.

3) Global oil demand to surprise on the upside

Our recent MarketWatch.com article discusses why U.S. gasoline consumption is already surprising on the upside, with the AAA estimating that Thanksgiving travel by car was up by 4.3% from last year, and the highest in the number of miles driven in seven years (versus EIA’s estimate of a 20,000 barrel decline in U.S. gasoline consumption in 2015). Higher demand is also now materializing in other parts of the world. For example, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers reported a higher-than-expected 10% year-over-year rise in domestic passenger vehicle sales due to lower fuel prices. We expect Indian automobile growth to pick up even more next year as the Reserve Bank India (India’s central bank) will likely cut policy rates by early next year. This will reduce the cost of auto loan financing, thus increasing automobile affordability for the Indian middle class. In addition, Chinese car sales in November still increased by 4.7% year-over-year despite an economic slowdown and a broad government mandate to limit car ownership in major cities. We believe both Chinese and Indian oil demand growth will be resilient as both the country’s central banks have ample room to slash interest rates, thus countering any pressures of a further global economic slowdown.

Now, more than ever, we reiterate our bullish stance on oil prices. We expect WTI crude oil prices to bounce back soon and to stabilize and mostly trade in the $75-$85 range by the second half of 2015.

WTI Crude Oil – Blood in the Streets

Buy when there’s blood in the streets, even if the blood is your own.” – Nathan Mayer Rothschild, 1815

As we are writing this, WTI crude oil is trading at $69 a barrel, a fresh 4-year low, after OPEC refused to cut production as a response to the recent decline in oil prices. Prior to today’s OPEC meeting, Brent option time spreads indicated a 250,000 barrel/day cut by OPEC, while as much as 42% of analysts polled by Bloomberg expected a cut; therefore, today’s 6% decline in the WTI oil price as a response to a no-cut decision is not surprising. The following chart puts into perspective the ferocious decline of oil prices over the last five months (spot WTI traded as high as $107 a barrel in June).

oiltradingsystem11272014

The green line represents the WTI spot price (left axis); while the blue line shows the percentage deviation of the daily WTI spot price from its 200-day moving average (right axis). With today’s decline to $69 a barrel, the WTI spot price is now trading at 29% below its 200-day moving average. A further drop to $65 a barrel would put the WTI spot price at 2 standard deviations below its 200-day moving average. Should it hit that level, crude oil would be trading at its most oversold level since April 2009, and prior to that, November 2001 (when the U.S. entered a recession in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center).

We reiterate our conclusion from our November 19, 2014 commentary (“The CB Capital Global Diffusion Index Says Higher Oil Prices in 2015“). Quoting our conclusion:

With U.S. shale oil drilling activity still near record highs, we believe WTI crude oil prices are still biased towards the downside in the short run. But we believe the recent decline in WTI crude oil prices is overblown. Beginning next year, we expect U.S. shale oil drilling activity to slow down as capex budgets are cut and financing for drilling budgets becomes less readily available. Combined with the strength in our latest CBGDI readings, as well as imminent easing by the ECB, we believe WTI crude oil prices will recover in 2015, averaging around $80 a barrel.

At the time of our November 19, 2014 commentary–while certain E&P companies were already cutting their 2015 capex budgets–we realize panic has not set in yet in the E&P industry. We believe this will now change as WTI crude oil prices definitively decline to below $70 a barrel. Our analysis suggests that around 18% of all global oil production will not be profitable with WTI/Brent below $70 a barrel. Even pricing in a 10% cost deflation (e.g. day rates for rigs have already declined substantially), many shale oil and Canadian heavy oil producers will still not realize a profit with WTI oil at $69 a barrel. While prices would continue to be volatile over the next several months, we believe crude oil prices are now close to a bottom. More importantly, we believe many U.S. E&P firms will not only cut capital spending in 2015 (debt financing costs for new shale oil projects have already risen by 200-300 bps across the board)–but will divest assets in order to stem cash flow issues. Clients who have cash on the sidelines will be presented with an excellent, once-in-a-decade buying opportunity as distressed assets come onto the market over the next 6 months.

Here’s why–with WTI at $69 a barrel–we are now long-term bullish on oil & gas assets:

1) E&P firms will be desperate for cash and will slash production at the same time

This is the primary reason why we are bullish with WTI crude oil at $69 a barrel; and more importantly, why we believe the 1st half of next year will present a once-in-a-decade buying opportunity for distressed assets, even if we factor in a 10% cut in the cost of production of U.S. independent E&P firms. Our analysis of 29 independent E&P firms suggests a funding gap of over $13 billion with WTI crude oil at $69 a barrel based on current capex budgets. Secondly, none of the key U.S. shale oil fields are profitable with WTI crude oil at $69 a barrel and Brent at $72 a barrel, even assuming a 10% across-the-board reduction in costs of production (see below exhibit).

Exhibit: Breakeven Brent Oil Prices at Key U.S. Shale Fields Assuming Base Case Well Costs
and a 10% Reduction in Costs of Production

e&pcostofproductionWith WTI crude oil at $69 a barrel, U.S. oil producers will be cutting capex and putting distressed assets on sale at the same time. Clients will thus be able to: 1) purchase oil & gas assets at distressed prices, 2) purchase oil & gas assets going into a declining production/rising oil price scenario. Clients who are more risk-averse can also purchase equity or debt at existing E&P firms at discounted prices. We would not be surprised if U.S. oil production actually decline next year (right now, U.S. oil production is expected to increase from 9 million barrels/day today to 9.5 million barrels/day by the end of 2015).

2) U.S. oil demand will surprise on the upside

The EIA currently estimates U.S. oil consumption to rise by only 160,000 barrels/day next year, based on a scenario of relatively slow economic growth, higher vehicle fuel efficiencies, and simply less driving as more baby boomers retire. But with WTI crude oil at $69 a barrel–and with U.S. employment growth still recovering–Americans will likely spend more time on the road next year than currently expected. The argument for an upside surprise is even more compelling since Americans are still driving less miles than at the peak in 2007–which is unprecedented in the history of the automobile–as seen in the below chart.

USmilesdriven12MA

3) The ECB’s one-trillion euro quantitative easing policy will buoy demand and support commodity prices

The European Central Bank’s Vice President and second-in-command, Vitor Constancio, is now on record for advocating a one-trillion euro quantitative easing policy to begin as early as the 1st quarter of 2015. The purchase would involve all of the Euro Zone’s sovereign bonds (including those of Greece), with the allocation to be determined by the relative size of each euro member’s economy. If implemented, this will not only lower the cost of sovereign borrowing across the Euro Zone, but would also act as a transmission mechanism for other forms of borrowing by improving the health of banks’ balance sheets, while increasing the region’s inflation outlook. All else equal, this should also provide a boost to commodity, and of course, oil prices as well.

Bottom line: WTI crude oil prices at $69 a barrel will provide once-in-a-decade, distressed buying opportunities for clients over the next 6 months, as well as excellent opportunities to purchase equity or debt of independent E&P companies.

The CB Capital Global Diffusion Index Says Higher Oil Prices in 2015

We first introduced our CB Capital Global Diffusion Index (“CBGDI”) in our March 17, 2013 commentary (“The Message of the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index: A Bottom in WTI Crude Oil Prices“), when WTI crude oil traded at $93 a barrel. Based on the strength in the CBGDI at the time, we asserted that WTI crude oil prices have bottomed, and that WTI crude oil is a “buy” on any further price weakness. Over the next six months, the WTI crude oil spot price would rise to over $106 a barrel.

To recap, we have constructed a “Global Diffusion Index” by aggregating and equal-weighting (on a 3-month moving average basis) the leading indicators data for 30 major countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), along with China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. Termed the CBGDI, this indicator has historically led or tracked the MSCI All-Country World Index and WTI crude oil prices since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Historically, the rate of change (i.e. the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI has led WTI crude oil prices by about three months with an R-squared of 30%, while tracking or leading the MSCI All-Country World Index slightly, with an R-squared of over 40% (naturally, as stock prices actually make up one component of the OECD leading indicators).

Our logic rests on the fact that the vast majority of global economic growth in the 20th century was only possible because of an exponential increase in energy consumption and sources of supply. Since 1980, real global GDP has increased by approximately 180%; with global energy consumption almost doubling from 300 quadrillion Btu to 550 quadrillion Btu today. That is–for all the talk about energy efficiencies–the majority of our economic growth was predicated on the discovery and harnessing of new sources of energy (e.g. oil & gas shale fracking). Until we commercialize alternative, and cheaper sources of energy, global economic growth is still dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels, with crude oil being our main transportation fuel. As such, it is reasonable to conclude that–despite the ongoing increase in U.S. oil production–a rising global economy will lead to higher crude oil prices.

This is what the CBGDI is still showing today, i.e. WTI crude oil prices should rise from the current $74 spot as the CBGDI still suggests significant global economic growth in 2015. The following monthly chart shows the year-over-year % change in the CBGDI and the rate of change (the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI, versus the year-over-year % change in WTI crude oil prices and the MSCI All-Country World Index from March 1990 to November 2014. All four indicators are smoothed on a three-month moving average basis:

CBGDI September 2014As noted, the rate of change (2nd derivative) in the CBGDI (red line) has historically led the YoY% change in WTI crude oil prices by about three months. The major exceptions have been: 1) the relentless rise in WTI crude oil prices earlier last decade (as supply issues and Chinese demand came to the forefront), and 2) the explosion of WTI crude oil prices during the summer of 2008, as commodity index funds became very popular and as balance sheet/funding constraints prevented many producers from hedging their production.

The second derivative of the CBGDI bottomed at the end of 2011, and is still very much in positive territory, implying strong global oil demand growth in 2015. Most recently, of course, the WTI crude oil prices have diverged from the CBGDI, and are now down 20% on a year-over-year basis. While we recognize there are still short-term headwinds (e.g. U.S. domestic oil production is still projected to rise from 9 million barrels/day today to 9.5 million barrels/day next year), we believe the current price decline is overblown. We project WTI crude oil prices to average $80 a barrel next year. In addition to our latest CBGDI readings, we believe the following will also affect WTI crude oil prices in 2015:

  1. An imminent, 1-trillion euro, quantitative easing policy by the ECB: The ECB has no choice. With the euro still arguably overvalued (especially against the US$ and the Japanese yen), many countries in the Euro Zone remain uncompetitive, including France. On a more immediate basis, inflation in the Euro Zone has continued to undershoot the ECB’s target. A quantitative easing policy by the ECB that involves purchasing sovereign and corporate bonds will lower funding costs for 330 million Europeans and generate more end-user demand ranging from heaving machinery to consumer goods. While such a policy will strengthen the value of the U.S. dollar, we believe the resultant increase in oil demand will drive up oil prices on a net basis.
  2. The growth in shale oil drilling by the independent producers are inherently unpredictable. Over the last several years, the U.S. EIA has consistently underestimated the growth in oil production from fracking. With WTI crude oil prices having declined by nearly 30% over the last four months, we would be surprised if there is no significant cutback in shale oil drilling next year. Again, the EIA has consistently underestimated production growth on the upside, so we would not be surprised if the agency overestimates production growth (or lack thereof) on the downside as well.
  3. Consensus suggests that OPEC will refrain from cutting production at the November 27 meeting in Vienna. With U.S. shale oil drilling activity still near record highs (the current oil rig count at 1,578 is only 31 rigs away from the all-time high set last month), any meaningful production cut (500,000 barrels/day or higher) by OPEC will only encourage more U.S. shale oil drilling activity. More importantly, Saudi Arabia has tried this before in the early 1980s (when it cut its production from 10 million barrels/day in 1980 to just 2.5 million barrels/day in 1985 in order to prop up prices), ultimately failing when other OPEC members did not follow suit, while encouraging the growth in North Sea oil production. Moreover, OPEC countries such as Venezuela and Iran cannot cut any production as their budgets are based on oil prices at $120 and $140 a barrel, respectively. As a result, it is highly unlikely that OPEC will implement any meaningful policy change at the November 27 meeting.

With U.S. shale oil drilling activity still near record highs, we believe WTI crude oil prices are still biased towards the downside in the short run. But we believe the recent decline in WTI crude oil prices is overblown. Beginning next year, we expect U.S. shale oil drilling activity to slow down as capex budgets are cut and financing for drilling budgets becomes less readily available. Combined with the strength in our latest CBGDI readings, as well as imminent easing by the ECB, we believe WTI crude oil prices will recover in 2015, averaging around $80 a barrel.

Why CB Capital’s Upcoming Trip to India is so Important

India is experiencing a resurgence as one of the world’s largest economies. According to the late Cambridge professor Angus Maddison, India’s share of the world’s income peaked at over 20% in 1700, about equal to all of Europe’s share at the time. By 1952, however, India’s share of the world’s income has shrunk to just 3.8%, despite its status as the world’s second most populous country. Many economic liberalization policies were implemented beginning in 1991  (most reforms were forced upon India in exchange for an IMF bailout in 1991)–beginning a period of economic growth acceleration. From 2003-2007, Indian real GDP growth averaged 9% a year–hitting double digits immediately after the 2007-2009 global financial crisis. Despite years of high growth, as well as a highly educated and young workforce, the Indian economy slowed down dramatically beginning in 2012, registering just 4.4% growth that year. Today, the size of India’s economy (in nominal terms) is only US$1.9 trillion, equivalent to 2.7% of world GDP.

Since then, Indian economic growth has regained ground. The IMF recently raised its 2015 GDP growth estimate from 6.0% to 6.4%. We expect Indian real GDP growth to hit 7% in the next several years–surpassing that of China–and for the size of the Indian economy to surpass US$5 trillion (in nominal terms) by the end of 2020. As we mentioned in two of our recent articles on MarketWatch (“Why Indian stocks are a buy right now” and “Top three Indian stocks to buy (and hold)“), much of this growth will be driven by business-friendly reforms implemented by the Modi government. These reforms include: 1) removing barriers to greater foreign investments, especially in the defense and insurance sectors, 2) a national policy to provide 150 million Indians a bank account by 2018, 3) a national plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure investments, 4) a more independent central banking policy with a new monetary policy framework of inflation targeting, and 5) a concerted crackdown on cronyism among the highest levels of government.

The recent 30% decline in global crude oil prices (India imports 70% of its energy needs)–as well as the just-announced deregulation in diesel prices–will also provide a significant tailwind to the Indian economy. We expect Brent crude to mostly trade within the US$75-US$95 a barrel range for the next several years, thus assisting India’s growth plans.

We believe U.S.-India cross-border financing activities and investment opportunities will grow significantly as the Indian economy generates unprecedented amounts of entrepreneurial talent and wealth over the next decade. CB Capital Partners is already engaged in U.S.-India cross-border corporate finance transactions. We will be in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, and Ahmedabad to meet clients and research investment opportunities for two weeks during January 4-18, 2015. We believe there are many industries poised for substantial growth and thus represent attractive, long-term investment opportunities. Following are highlights of some industries that we like–and where our clients are actively doing business in.

Digital Media: Nearly 300 million Indians go online to listen to music, watch a film, a TV show, or cricket match through their cell phones, computers, or tablets. Today, Indian digital media garner over $4 billion in digital pay revenues annually, with digital advertisement revenues at nearly $400 million. Both are expected to grow at double digits for the foreseeable future. In February 2012, Disney paid almost $500 million for the remaining stake of UTV that it did not already own—a huge bet on the emerging Indian middle class. Within this industry, CB Capital Partners is heavily involved in providing financing in the Indian animation industry. The Indian animation industry has an 8.2% market share in Asia-Pacific, and is expected to grow by over 20% annually to $2.9 billion by 2015.

eCommerce: India is experiencing the most rapid growth of online buyers in history. Amazon recently announced that its Indian online business is on track to become the fastest country ever to reach $1 billion in sales. On July 29, Flipkart, a homegrown eCommerce company based in Bangalore, announced that it raised $1 billion from Tiger Global Management, Accel Partners, Morgan Stanley Investment Management, and Singapore’s GIC. Forrester estimates the number of Indian eCommerce customers will reach 39 million by the end of this year, and an astonishing 128 million by the end of 2018. By the end of 2020, the Indian middle class population (the target market for apparel, consumer electronics, and personal care products) will rise to over 300 million, or the equivalent to the size of the U.S. population. Amazon already announced on July 30 to invest an additional $2 billion into its Indian business.

Healthcare: CB Capital Partners has substantial financing and investment experience across the healthcare industry (30% of all our transactions have been in the healthcare industry), including pharmaceuticals, generics, biotechnology, stem cells, medical devices, medical IT, and hospitals. Another sub-industry we are tracking is the medical tourism industry in India. There will be many opportunities to invest in hospitals or hospital-related services (such as medical hotels) that specialize in this trend as the global population ages. It is estimated the Indian medical tourism industry is now worth $2 billion, with over 150,000 patients traveling to India each year for medical procedures.

Finance: The Modi government’s initiative to provide 150 million Indians a bank account by 2018 is significant, as only 60% of India’s population have access to financial services today. Financial services are essential to a modern, growing society. While many Indians had traditionally put their savings in physical assets such as gold, this option will no longer be attractive as inflation trends down (the Indian CPI declined to an all-time low of 6.4% in September). Banks in particular will also benefit from the government’s recent increase in the housing loan interest tax deduction from 150,000 to 200,000 rupees (or $2,450 to $3,300) a year as this policy will increase demand for residential mortgage loans.

CB Capital Partners is ready to assist both our U.S. and Indian clients who want to learn more or are already engaged in U.S.-Indian cross-border financing or fund-raising activities. Our strategy in India covers a full suite of traditional investment banking services such as equity & debt raises, M&A services, and fairness opinions.

Revising Our Price Target of Gold to $950-$1,100 an ounce

We first became bearish on gold prices in August 2011, when gold traded at $1,848 an ounce.  Even though we understand systemic risks in the Euro Zone were real, we thought gold was highly overbought at the time. We subsequently became even more bearish on gold prices in late 2012, when it became apparent to us that the year 2013 was shaping up to be an “anti-climatic” year as global and European systemic risks began to dissipate. We articulated our bearish views on gold in our January 25, 2013 global macroeconomic issue–when gold traded at $1,660 an ounce–sticking our neck out with a 12- to 18-month $1,100-$1,300 price target. Our call was made several weeks ahead of similar calls by Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse.

Over the last 18 months, we have reiterated our bearish views on both gold prices and gold miners; in our July 7, 2013 commentary (“A Technological Revolution in the Making – The U.S. Giant Awakens“), we further lowered our price forecast to $1,000-$1,200 an ounce as gold production remained high despite the decline in gold prices. Recent developments suggest that deflation and increasing production efficiencies remain alive and well in the gold mining industry. As such, we are lowering our price target range for gold yet again to $950-$1,100 an ounce. We believe this target will be hit over the next six months. Figure 1 below shows our calls on the price of gold during and post the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

CBcapitalcallsongold

From a classic economic standpoint, gold production should be declining given the decline in gold prices over the last 18 months. But this has not happened in the gold mining industry, for two reasons: 1) almost all gold miners had a bloated cost structure going into the recent price decline; as such, many gold miners were able to cut production costs and stay marginally profitable even as gold prices declined, and 2) some gold miners–post production cost cuts–had to produce and sell more gold to stem cash flow problems.

As the cost of production declines, miners are able to produce more gold at lower prices. According to the World Gold Council, mine production hit 765 tonnes during Q2 2014, a 4% year-over-year increase from Q2 2013, despite an average market price of $1,288 an ounce, or a decline of $125 an ounce from Q2 2013. Figure 2 below shows that global supply of gold has remained steady despite the decline in gold prices in the last 18 months.

QuarterlygoldsupplyQ22014

Interestingly, at the September 15-17, 2014 Denver Gold Forum, some gold miners are indicating a higher allocation of capital for development projects, such as Goldcorp (Cerro Negro, Eleonore, and Cochenour), Newmont (Merian), New Gold (Rainy River), and Eldorado (Skouries). With the exception of the Eldorado project, all of these projects are expected to come online with an all-in-sustaining-costs (AISC) of $1,000 an ounce or below. This means almost of these projects will remain profitable (taking into account regular future capex and maintenance costs) even if gold falls below $1,000 an ounce in the long-run. At the same time, many gold miners indicated that cost-cutting remain their main objective. The combination of more ambitious expansion plans and ongoing cost-cutting initiatives suggest that mine production (i.e. gold supply) will continue to increase even if gold prices continue to fall. We thus do not believe gold miners will curb production significantly until gold falls to below $1,100 an ounce and stays there for at least several months.

Finally, we assert that from a sentiment and psychological standpoint, gold is oversold but still not sufficiently oversold for us to buy. In our July 7, 2013 commentary–when gold traded at $1,220 an ounce–we stated that the two most reliable indicators for at least a tradeable bottom were absent. Quoting our July 7, 2013 commentary:

The two most reliable psychological indicators for a tradeable bottom in any asset class are: 1) Panic, or 2) Indifference. The best time to invest in any asset class is after years of investors’ indifference. That–along with other screaming buy indicators–was the reason why I invested in physical gold and unhedged gold miners at under $275 an ounce in late 2000.

One sentiment indicator that we track is the change in the holdings of the gold ETF, GLD. Holdings in GLD are highly indicative of marginal/short-term demand given its daily liquidity and the types of speculators it attracts. As shown in Figure 3 below, GLD holdings peaked at 45 million ounces (orange line; right axis) in early January 2013, and have since declined to 25 million ounces, a drop of 44% over the last 18 months.

GLD 9-26-14

While a 44% drop in GLD gold holdings is dramatic, keep in mind that all of this drop occurred from January 2013 to December 2013. Since the beginning of 2014, GLD gold holdings has actually remained steady–suggesting that retail investors have neither capitulated nor panicked into selling their GLD just yet. We do not believe that gold prices will bottom until there is another selling panic similar to that in April 2013 (when the price of gold dropped by $200 an ounce in just two weeks).

The combination of steady/higher gold production and the lack of investor panic in GLD suggest that gold prices have more downside to go. Bottom line: We reiterate our bearish stance on gold. New evidence suggests that gold production is more resilient and less sensitive to lower gold prices than we believed as gold miners continue to cut costs to achieve higher efficiencies . This is leading us to revise our target range downwards to $950-$1,100 an ounce over the next six months. Stay short gold.

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