Our 2017 Outlook on U.S. Treasuries: 2.25% on the 10-Year

Last year at around this time, we published our 2016 outlook on the 10-year Treasury yield (“Our 2016 Outlook on U.S. Treasuries: 2.5% on the 10-Year“). To recall, we model our 10-year Treasury yield expectations with the following “building blocks” model:

10-year Treasury Yield = expected 10-year U.S. inflation + expected U.S. real GDP growth + global central bank purchases (including U.S. QE) + geopolitical premium

Note that the current “arbitrage” between the German & Japanese 10-year (typically done with a “dirty hedge” by hedge funds) with the U.S. 10-year is being taken into account in the above model, to the extent that ECB and BOJ purchases are driving such hedge fund “arbitrage” activity.

The reasoning behind our 2016 outlook of 2.5% (the 10-year is trading at 2.54% as of this writing) included: 1) higher U.S. inflation driven by the combination of a tightening U.S. job market, rising U.S. housing prices, and higher healthcare costs, and 2) the peaking of certain deflationary effects around the world, e.g. Chinese CPI was no longer declining while fears surrounding a larger-than-expected Chinese yuan devaluation would turn out to be unfounded.

Figure 1 below shows our timing calls on the U.S. 10-year from June 2015 to the present (note the prices of the 10-year Treasury rise as yields decline).

10yeartreasury2016

For 2017, I am targeting a 2.25% rate on the U.S. 10-year yield. The target is slightly out-of-consensus (Goldman, Morgan Stanley, and PIMCO are all expecting the 10-year to rise to 2.75% or above). The outlook, however, is very uncertain and I am again looking for significant (tradeable) volatility on the 10-year in 2017; by and large, however, I believe the factors that will drive the 10-year yield lower slightly outweigh the bearish factors on the 10-year:

  • As of this writing, speculative longs on the U.S 10-year futures are–with the exception of early 2005–at their highest level since the collection of COT records beginning in 1992. From a contrarian standpoint, this should provide some short-term support for the 10-year (in turn resulting in lower yields);
  • Much of the recent up-move in the U.S. 10-year yield occurred after the U.S. presidential election as investors speculated on a combination of higher growth and higher inflation, driven by the promise of: U.S. corporate & personal income tax cuts, a promised $1 trillion infrastructure spending package by President-elect Trump, potential repeal of the ACA and Dodd-Frank along with a myriad other U.S. “regulatory burdens.” As a reminder, however, this is all conjecture at this point. The Republicans are likely to pass their promised corporate & income tax cuts and to repeal the ACA through the reconciliation process (this is needed to avoid a Senate filibuster by the Democrats). However, such tax cuts passed through the reconciliation process needs to be revenue-neutral. Even with the potential to use “dynamic scoring” (where it is assumed lower taxes will result in higher GDP growth in order to offset some of the tax revenue lost), a significant part of the promised tax cuts will likely be scaled back in order to meet fiscal budget targets. E.g. The much discussed 15% or 20% statutory corporate income tax rate will likely be revised to 25%;
  • In the long-run, the U.S. economy is still limited by the combination of slowing population growth (the current 0.77% annual population growth rate is the lowest since the 1930s), older (and less productive) demographics, and a potential stall in immigration–the latter of which has historically benefited the U.S. disproportionately (immigrants are twice as likely to be entrepreneurs than native-born Americans). Another historic tailwind for the U.S. economy actually peaked in 1999: women participation in the labor force has trended down since 2009.

Unless productivity growth jumps over the next several years (not likely; the “fracking revolution” was the last enabler of U.S. productivity growth), the U.S. economy is likely to stall at 2% real GDP growth, especially given the recent 14-year high in the U.S. dollar index–which will serve to encourage import growth and restrict export growth. Note this outlook assumes that the long-term U.S. inflation outlook remains “well-anchored” at 2.0%–should the U.S. Congress adopt a more populist outlook (i.e. higher fiscal spending that is likely to be monetized by the Fed in the next recession), then the 10-year could easily surpass 3.0% sometime in 2017.

The Fed Paves the Way for Running a “High-Pressure Economy” (Along with Higher Inflation)

Since the beginning of last year (see my February 4, 2015 commentary “U.S. Inflationary Pressures Remain Muted” and my March 1, 2016 Forbes commentary “Why Federal Reserve Tightening Is Still A Distant Event“), I have consistently asserted that the Fed’s ultimate tightening schedule would be slower than expected–from both the perspective of the Fed’s original intentions, as well as those of the fed funds futures market. Indeed, the most consistent theme since the beginning of the 2008-09 global financial crisis has been this: The tepid recovery in global financial conditions and global economic growth has consistently forced the Fed to ease more than expected; and since the “tapering” of the Fed’s quantitative easing policy at the end of 2013, to tighten less than expected. E.g. the October 2008 Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of America’s top economists predicted the fed funds rate to rebound to 4.0% by late 2010. Subsequent forecasts were similarly early.

According to the CME Fed Watch, the probability of a 25 bps Fed rate hike on December 14 is now over 70%. I expect the December 14 hike to occur as the Fed has been prepping the market for one 25 bps hike for months; however–similar to what I asserted last year–I do not believe this rate hike will signal the beginning of a new rate hike cycle. Rather, the timing of the Fed’s third rate hike will again be data-dependent (more on that below). Fed funds futures currently peg the Fed’s third rate hike to not occur until more than a year from now, i,e. at the December 13, 2017 FOMC meeting. This is the most likely timing for the third rate hike, for the following reasons:

1. U.S. households remain in “deleveraging” mode. Haunted by the 2008-09 global financial crisis, record amounts of student loans outstanding (currently at $1.3 trillion), and a shorter runway to retirement age and lower income prospects, U.S. consumer spending growth since the bottom of the 2008-09 global financial crisis has been relatively tepid (see Figure 1 below), despite ongoing improvements in the U.S. labor market;

Fig1PCE.png

2. The developed world & China are still mired by deflationary pressures. While the Fed had not been shy about hiking rates ahead of other central banks in previous tightening cycles, the fact that all of the world’s major central banks–with the exception of the Fed–are still in major easing cycles means the Fed has no choice but to halt after its December 14, 2016 hike. Even the Bank of England–which was expected to be the first major central bank to hike rates–was forced to reverse its stance and renew its quantitative easing policy as UK policymakers succumbs to the rise of populism. In a world still mired by deflationary pressures, the U.S. could easily succumb to another deflationary cycle if the Fed prematurely adopts a hawkish stance;

3. The Fed is no longer in denial and finally recognizes the uniqueness of the 2008-09 deleveraging cycle that is still with us today. In a June 3, 2016 speech (titled “Reflections on the Current Monetary Policy Environment“), Chicago Fed President Charles Evans asserted why this isn’t a normal recovery cycle and because of that, argued why the Fed should foster a “high-pressure” economy (characterized by a tight labor market and sustained inflation above 2%) in order to ward off downside risks in both economic growth and inflation. Quoting President Evans: “I view risk-management issues to be of great importance today. As I noted earlier, I still see the risks as weighted to the downside for both my growth and inflation outlooks … So I still judge that risk-management arguments continue to favor providing more accommodation than usual to deliver an extra boost to aggregate demand … One can advance risk-management arguments further and come up with a reasonable case for holding off increasing the funds rate for much longer, namely, until core inflation actually gets to 2 percent on a sustainable basis.

President Evans’ speech was followed by similar dovish sentiment expressed by Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo in a September 9, 2016 CNBC interview, Fed Governor Lael Brainard in a September 12, 2016 speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, as well as the September 2016 FOMC minutes. Finally, Fed Chair Janet Yellen explored the potential benefits of running a “high-pressure economy” after a deep recession in her October 14, 2016 speech at a recent conference sponsored by the Boston Fed. Quoting Chair Yellen:

If we assume that hysteresis is in fact present to some degree after deep recessions, the natural next question is to ask whether it might be possible to reverse these adverse supply-side effects by temporarily running a “high-pressure economy,” with robust aggregate demand and a tight labor market. One can certainly identify plausible ways in which this might occur. Increased business sales would almost certainly raise the productive capacity of the economy by encouraging additional capital spending, especially if accompanied by reduced uncertainty about future prospects. In addition, a tight labor market might draw in potential workers who would otherwise sit on the sidelines and encourage job-to-job transitions that could also lead to more-efficient–and, hence, more-productive–job matches. Finally, albeit more speculatively, strong demand could potentially yield significant productivity gains by, among other things, prompting higher levels of research and development spending and increasing the incentives to start new, innovative businesses.

Bottom line: The Fed continues to back off from committing to an official tightening schedule. After the December 14, 2016 rate hike, probability suggests the next rate hike to not occur until the December 13, 2017 FOMC meeting. Until the year-over-year PCE core rate rises to and maintains a rate of 2.0% or over, the Fed will not recommit to a new rate hike cycle. This also paves the way for higher U.S. inflation; as such, clients should continue to underweight U.S. long-duration Treasuries and overweight gold.

Italy’s NPLs Still the Global Banking System’s Weakest Link

I last discussed the vulnerabilities in the Italian banking system in our April 12, 2016 blog post (“Strengthening the Global Banking System’s Weakest Link“), where I asserted that–given its global inter-connectivity  today–the world’s financial system can only be as strong as its weakest link. Typically, a liquidity or solvency issue can linger on indefinitely, simply due to the absence of external shocks or because the overall global economy is doing well. In the case of the current NPL issues with the Italian banking system, an effort in January to encourage sales of NPLs by providing government-backed guarantees unfortunately attracted investors’ attention to Italian banks’ NPL issues. When we last covered this issue three months ago, Italian banking stocks were “only” down 20% YTD; today, they are collectively down by 55% YTD.

The vulnerability of the Italian banking system–and by extension, that of the Western European banking system–has come under increased scrutiny over the last several months, exacerbated by: 1) the unexpected, ongoing deflationary malaise in much of the developed world; the May 2016 Italian inflation reading was -0.3% year-over-year, worse than market expectations of -0.2%. June 2016 Italian inflation is expected to hit -0.4% year-over-year, resulting in six straight months of deflationary readings, 2) the dramatic flattening and downshift of the Western European yield curve; globally, nearly US$12 trillion of government bonds now have negative yields, and 3) an unexpected vote for “Brexit,” equivalent to a negative growth shock within the EU, as well as heightened political and economic uncertainty.

The Italian banking system in particular is saddled with 360 billion euros of NPLs, equivalent to about one-third of all of the Euro Zone’s NPLs. Moreover–as efforts since January have demonstrated–a concerted sales effort in NPLs in Europe is not a simple task. Firstly, EU rules explicitly ban the use of government-backed guarantees to cushion NPL losses. Secondly, the average restructuring period for Italian bad loans is an abnormally long 8 years; a quarter of cases take 12 years. Finally, the European market for NPLs is small and underdeveloped relative to the overall stock of NPLs in the banking system. In other words, the market for selling Italian NPLs is relatively small, and is almost non-existent without government-backed guarantees (e.g. A proposal by Apollo to purchase 3.5 billion euros of NPLs held by Italian bank Carige back in March made no progress). Italy’s NPL issues are especially concerning given the lack of core profitability of the Italian banking system (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Return on Regulatory Capital of European Banks by Country – June 2015 (source: EBA, Goldman Sachs)

returnoncapitalEBA

It is generally agreed upon that an Italian government-led recapitalization of 40 billion euros into some of Italy’s largest banks (Unicredit, BMPS, and Intesa, for example) would be adequate to resolve the Italian NPL issue, as long as Euro area growth re-accelerates; at the very least, the immediate probability of a Euro-wide banking contagion would be reduced by an order of magnitude. There are two real obstacles to this “happy scenario,” however: 1) the EU, backed by Germany, is resistant to any Italian government-led efforts to recapitalize the banks at no cost to Italian bank debt holders, as this directly goes against EU rules. Any attempt to “bail-in” Italian banks would increase contagion risks among all of EU banks as both depositors and debt holders will likely take their capital and flee to either the U.S. or other safe haven asset classes, such as gold, and 2) Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi has promised to resign if he loses the constitutional referendum to be held in October. Recent opinion polls suggest Renzi’s campaign will fall short; this will likely lead to significant Italian and EU-wide instability given the surge of the populist Five Star Movement in recent opinion polls. Seen in this light, the fragility of the Italian banking system is an ongoing cause for concern.

Strengthening the Global Banking System’s Weakest Link

As I discussed in my most recent newsletter (please email me to request a copy) and in my February 19, 2016 Forbes column (“Shares Of Global Banks Are Too Cheap To Ignore“), I remain constructive on shares of U.S. financial companies, despite (or even because of) their recent underperformance. More specifically, I asserted that much of the current fears (e.g. impact of rising energy-related defaults and ongoing litigation costs & financial penalties related to conduct leading up to the 2008-09 global financial crisis) surrounding U.S. and global financial stocks are overblown.

I also asserted that share prices of global financial companies in 2016 will mostly be driven by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, as a significant portion of U.S. banks’ revenues is driven by “net interest income,” i.e. the traditional role of banks’ borrowing short and lending long. In Wells Fargo’s case, net interest income makes up more than 50% of the firm’s revenue. If the Fed embarks on a renewed hiking campaign and the U.S. yield curve flattens, then U.S. banks’ margins will be hit, which in turn will depress their share prices.

Fortunately, the U.S. yield curve is still very far away from flattening. E.g. As of this writing, the spread between the 10- and the 1-year Treasury rate stands at 1.27%. Just as important, the CME Fed Watch indicator does not suggest a rate hike until the FOMC’s December 21, 2016 meeting at the earliest. Moreover–despite the recent underperformance of U.S./global financial stocks–credit risk for the global financial sector remains relatively and historically low; in fact, as computed by S&P Global Market Intelligence, the implied credit risk within the global financial sector is actually the lowest out of all ten major S&P global sectors.

As financial history and the experience of the 2008-09 global financial crisis have demonstrated, however, the global financial system is only as strong as its weakest links; and it is these “weakest links” that investors have recently focused on. More specifically, the slow pace of general and banking reforms within the Euro Zone, particularly the relatively high level of nonperforming loans in the Italian banking sector, is raising the specter of counter-party risks and resulting in a flight of capital away from Italian/European financial stocks (e.g. UniCredit is down 37% YTD, Intesa down 26%, and Banco Popolare down 38%), and to a lesser extent, U.S. financial stocks.

Figure 1: Italian Banks Have Relatively High NPL Ratios (as of June 2015)

europenpls

The Italian banking system is saddled with about 360 billion euros of NPLs, making up about one-third of the Euro Zone’s total NPLs (although 50% of it has already been provisioned). With Italian banking stocks down nearly 20% YTD (and down 25% over the last 12 months), Italian policymakers are now being forced to act to shore up the country’s bank balance sheets through sales of NPLs, equity raises, and accelerating the write-off of NPLs. An effort in January to encourage sales of NPLs by providing government-backed guarantees gained little traction (and unfortunately attracted investors’ attention to Italian banks’ NPL problem), as Italian policymakers could not agree on how the plan would be implemented, especially in light of European rules that explicitly ban state aid to failing companies.

So far this week, Italian policymakers–working in conjunction with banks, pension funds, and insurers–have drawn up plans for a 5 billion euro bailout fund (dubbed “Atlante”) to purchase NPLs and/or to inject capital into ailing banks. Investors’ initial responses have ranged from skeptical to condescending, given the relatively small size of the fund and the lack of details surrounding its implementation. Bottom line: Italian/European policymakers, in conjunction with the private sector, will need to work harder to create a more comprehensive and workable solution to reduce NPLs in the Italian banking system. Until this happens, the current rally in U.S./global financial stocks from their early February lows will remain precarious.

U.S. Consumer Spending Yet to Overheat: Fed to Pause

According to the CME Fed Watch, the chance of a Fed rate hike this Wednesday is virtually zero. The reasons for the Fed to “stand pat” have been well recited but here they are again: 1) ongoing, elevated global systemic/slowdown risks due to the recent decline in global financial stocks, a Chinese economic slowdown, and chronically low oil prices resulting in fears of higher corporate defaults, 2) despite a recent pick-up in the U.S. core inflation rate (the 12-month change in the January core CPI is at 2.2%), the Fed’s preferred measure of core inflation, i.e. the 12-month change in the core PCE, remains tolerable at 1.7%, and 3) Since the late 1990s, the world’s developed economies have mostly grappled (unsuccessfully) with the specter of deflation; e.g. over the last 3 years, the Bank of Japan expanded its monetary base by 173%, and yet, the country is still struggling to achieve its target inflation rate of 2% (Japan’s January core CPI was flat year-over-year). As such, the Fed should err on the side of caution and back off from its recent rate hike campaign.

As of today, the CME Fed Watch is suggesting 50/50 odds of a 25 basis point rate hike at the Fed’s June 15 meeting. Historically, the Fed has only hiked when the odds rise to more than 60/40, and I believe this is the case here. Many things could change from now to June 15; however, given: 1) lingering fears over a Chinese slowdown and the loss of Chinese FOREX reserves, and 2) the fact that core PCE readings have not yet registered a +2.0% reading (I need the year-over-year change in the core PCE to sustain a level of over +2.0% for many months before I am convinced that inflation is a problem), I remain of the opinion that the next rate hike will mostly likely occur at the FOMC’s September 21 meeting.

Finally–despite an ongoing rise in U.S. employment levels (see Figure 1 below)–both U.S. wage growth (see Figure 2 below) and consumer spending growth (See Figure 3 below) remain anemic. Note that both U.S. wage growth and consumer spending growth do not “turn on a dime”; this means that–until or unless we witness a sustained rise in both U.S. wage and consumer spending growth–the Fed should err on the side of caution and back off on its rate hike campaign. At the earliest, this will mean a 25 basis point hike at the FOMC’s September 21 meeting.

USemployment

Figure 2: Nominal Wage Growth Remains Below Target Despite Year-end 2015 Push

 

nominalwagegrowth

PCEgrowth

The Re-leveraging of Corporate America – Part II

We last discussed the increasing leverage in U.S. corporate balance sheets in our April 1, 2015 commentary (“The Re-leveraging of Corporate America and the U.S. Stock Market“), when we asserted that the combination of historically high U.S. stock market valuations, extremely high participation in the U.S. stock market by hedge fund managers (from a contrarian standpoint), and near-record high corporate leverage makes the U.S. stock market highly vulnerable to a major correction over the next several months.

At the time, we noted that U.S. corporate debt issuance averaged $650 billion a year during the 2012-2014 time frame, or 40% higher than the 2009-2011 period. Moreover, U.S. corporate debt issuance was on track to hit a record high in 2015, buoyed by the ongoing surge in M&A activity, sponsor-backed IPOs (companies tend to be highly leveraged upon a private equity sponsor exit), along with record share buybacks and the pressure to increase dividends. At the time, we noted that U.S. corporate debt issuance was on track to hit $1 trillion this year.

Since April 1, U.S. corporate debt issuance has continued to increase, although the pace has slowed down since concerns about the Greek debt crisis and the Chinese economic slowdown materialized this summer. Moreover–with energy and metals prices still underperforming–high-yield issuance has slowed down dramatically, although investment-grade issuance has continued to plough ahead. Nonetheless, U.S. corporate issuance has already set a record high this year, with nearly $800 billion of debt issued on a YTD basis (as of last Friday). At the current rate, U.S. corporate debt issuance could still hit $900 billion this year given the still-substantial pipeline of debt issuance driven by the recent frenzy of M&A activity.

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

uscorporatedebtissuanceNov2015

Moreover, U.S. net cash levels–that of Apple notwithstanding–have been crumbling under ever-increasing dividend yields, corporate buybacks, and M&A activity. Figure 2 below shows the substantial increase of debt/EBITDA ratios in Goldman’s universe coverage–especially since 2011–while companies with positive net cash levels are down by about one-third in the same time frame.

Figure 2: Rising Corporate Leverage While Cash Levels Continue to Decline

uscorporateleveragevscashDespite the August correction, we believe U.S. stocks remain overvalued. Combined with increasing and near-record high corporate leverage levels, this leaves U.S. stocks in a highly vulnerable position. With the Fed poised to begin a new rate hike cycle at the December 16 FOMC meeting , we believe there is a strong likelihood of a more substantial (15%-20%) correction in the S&P 500 from peak to trough sometime in 2016.

Why China Will Not Cut Rates Any Further This Year

In response to a slowing property market, lower consumer spending growth, and a slowing global economy, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has cut its one-year policy rate five times and its reserve requirement ratio three times over the last 12 months. Last November, the PBOC’s one-year policy rate sat at 6.00%–today, it is at 4.60%. Moreover, the PBOC’s cut in its reserve requirement ratio–from 20.0% to 18.0% since February–has released more than $400 billion in additional liquidity/lending capacity for the Chinese financial system.

I believe Chinese policymakers will maintain an easing bias over the next 6-12 months given the following:

  1. As I discussed a couple of years ago, a confluence of factors–including China’s debt build-up since the 2008-09 global financial crisis, slowing population growth, as well as natural limits to an export- and CAPEX-driven growth model–means China’s real GDP growth will slow to the 5%-8% range over the next several years. Consensus suggests that China’s real GDP growth will be lower than the official target of 7% this year. Given China’s significant debt build-up since the 2008-09 global financial crisis, policymakers will need to do more to lower lending costs and to encourage further lending as global economic growth continues to slow;
  2. Most of the debt build-up in China’s economy over the last 7 years has occurred within the country’s corporate sector–with real estate developers incurring much of the leverage. In other words, both real estate prices and investments are the most systemically important components of the Chinese economy. While real estate prices and sales in Tier 1 cities have been strong this year, those of Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities have not yet stabilized. This means policymakers will maintain an easing bias unless Chinese real estate sales and prices recover on a broader basis;
  3. Chinese credit growth in August met expectations, but demand for new loans did not. Real borrowing rates for the Chinese manufacturing sector is actually rising due to overcapacity issues and deteriorating balance sheets (China’s factory activity just hit its lowest level since March 2009). No doubt Chinese policymakers will strive to lower lending costs to the embattled manufacturing sector as the latter accounts for about one-third of the country’s GDP and employs 15% of all workers. This will be accompanied by a concerted effort to ease China’s manufacturing/industrial overcapacity issues through more infrastructure investments both domestically and in China’s neighboring countries (encouraged by loans through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example).

I contend, however, that the PBOC is done with cutting its one-year policy rate for this year, as Chinese policymakers are dealing with a more pressing issue: stabilizing the Chinese currency, the yuan, against the US$ in the midst of recent capital outflows (Goldman Sachs estimates that China’s August capital outflows totaled $178 billion). Simply put–by definition–a country cannot prop up its currency exchange rate while easing monetary policy and maintaining a relatively open capital account at the same time. With the PBOC putting all its resources into defending the yuan while capital outflows continue, it will be self-defeating if the PBOC cuts its policy rate at the same time. The PBOC’s current lack of monetary policy flexibility is the main reason why Chinese policymakers are trying to find ways to stem capital outflows.

Rather than easing monetary policy, Chinese policymakers are utilizing other means to directly increase economic growth, such as: 1) Cutting minimum down payment requirements for first-time home buyers from 30% to 25%, 2) Approving new subway projects in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shenzhen worth a total of $73 billion over the next six years, and 3) Cutting sales taxes on automobile purchases from 10% to 5%, effective to the end of 2016. I expect the PBOC to regain its monetary policy flexibility by early next year, as the combination of record-high trade surpluses and still-low external debt should allow China to renew its policy of accumulating FOREX reserves yet again.

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.

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.

An Imminent Correction in Risk Assets

In our 2014 U.S. stock market outlook (published on December 22, 2013), we asserted that U.S. stocks will only return in the single-digits in 2014, due to: 1) a tightening Fed, 2) the reluctance of the ECB to adopt quantitative easing policies, 3) higher-than-average valuations, as well as 4) increasingly high levels of investor speculation (e.g. record high levels in margin debt outstanding). We stand by our 2014 S&P 500 year-end target level of 1,900 to 2,000.

Conversations with our clients suggest one overarching investment concern/theme. Investors are concerned with the unprecedented global monetary experiments, while most of Asia is concerned about runaway Chinese credit growth and the country’s shadow banking system. The shift from a unipolar investment environment (one dominated by U.S. policy and institutions) into a multipolar one–beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and accelerating with China’s entry into the WTO in 2001–means an understanding of global macro is essential to understanding the main drivers of future asset prices (hint: it is not classical indicators such as P/B, P/E ratios, etc.). Going forward, monitoring the actions of the People’s Bank of China and Chinese credit growth will be just as important as monitoring the actions of the Federal Reserve.

We believe 2014 represents a transition year as the Federal Reserve definitively halts its QE policies/asset purchases and as Chinese policymakers adopt financial reforms (e.g. allowing companies to go bankrupt to prevent future moral hazard problems) in an attempt to alleviate investors’ long-term concerns. In many ways, these recent moves–including Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s surprisingly hawkish comments at the March 18-19 FOMC meeting–are reminiscent to the events of 1994, when the Greenspan-led Fed unexpectedly began hiking the Fed Funds rate in February 1994. The Fed Funds rate rose from 3.0% to 5.5% by the end of the year, while the two-year Treasury yield surged from 4.0% to more than 7.5%. The S&P 500 experienced significant volatility and finished down the year by 1.5%.

We do not believe the Fed will hike the Fed Funds rate anytime soon; however, we anticipate the Fed to halt its QE/asset purchase policies by the end of this year; and to begin hiking rates in the 1st half of 2015. That is, global liquidity will get tighter as the year progresses–further compounded by overbearing U.S. financial regulations, a hike in the Japanese sales tax this week from 5% to 8%, and the ECB’s reluctance to adopt a similar QE policy. The action in the S&P 500 in the 1st quarter of this year has so far proved out our thesis. The S&P 500 ended 2013 at 1,848.36 and as of last Friday, sits at just 1,857.62 for a meager 0.5% gain. We reiterate our year-end target of 1,900 to 2,000. In the meantime, we believe the S&P 500 is heading into a significant correction, i.e. 10-15% correction over the next 3-6 months–for the following 3 reasons.

1) Hot Money Action is Getting More Risk-Averse

Since the global financial crisis ended in early 2009, EM fund flows from DM countries have been highly positive. Fund flows to EM countries turned negative during the summer of 2013. Many EM countries never implemented much-needed reforms during the last boom (Russia leadership just proved it is still stuck in the 19th century), nor made much-needed infrastructure and educational investments (with the major exception of China). Investors have forgotten that EM growth (actual and potential) rates no longer justify such investment fund flows–and have continued to dial back risk-taking in general. Most recently–the stock prices of two of the hottest industries, i.e. Big Data and Biotech–have taken a significant hit in recent trading. We believe momentum investors are now leaving the stock market; and that there is a good chance this will turn into a market rout (i.e. S&P decline of 10-15%) over the next 3-6 months.

2) The Federal Reserve’s Monetary Policy Tightening

Once the Federal Reserve wrapped up its “QE2” policy of purchasing $600 billion in Treasuries at the end of June 2011, the S&P 500 subsequently corrected by 14% over the next three months. The S&P 500 had already declined by 3% during May/June 2011, as the Fed did not provide a clear indication of further easing (i.e. QE3) until later in 2012. Prior to the end of QE2, the Fed purchased an average of $17.5 billion of Treasuries on a weekly basis. At the peak of QE3 (i.e. before the recent tapering), the Fed was purchasing an average of $20.0 billion of Treasuries and agency-backed mortgage securities on a weekly basis. The current tapering process is already having an effect on global liquidity, as foreign reserves held by global central banks have been declining over the last couple of months. Based on the current tapering schedule, the Fed will halt its QE policies at the October 28-29, 2014 FOMC meeting. The Fed’s balance sheet of $4 trillion of securities will take a decade to unwind (if ever). Unless the ECB chooses to adopt similar QE policies, we believe global central bank tightening (EM central banks are projected to tighten further over the next six months) will act as a significant headwind to equities and other risk assets for the rest of 2014.

Feds Balance Sheet

 3) A Record High in U.S. Margin Debt Outstanding

Our studies and real-time experience indicate significant correlation between U.S. margin debt outstanding and other leverage indicators, as well as major peaks and troughs in the U.S. stock market. We first discussed this indicator in our January 29, 2014 commentary (“Record Rise in Margin Debt Outstanding = Single-Digit U.S. Stock Returns in 2014“). We asserted that the record rise in margin debt outstanding (a 12-month rise not seen since July 2007–during the last major peak in stock prices) is indicative of significant speculation in U.S. equities. Since our January 29 commentary, U.S. margin debt outstanding has risen another $23.6 billion to a record high $502 billion. Meanwhile, the 6-month rise in margin debt outstanding hit $88 billion–again, a high not seen since July 2007 (when it hit $105 billion). More important, it is clear to us–based on the action in Big Data and biotech stocks over the last couple of weeks–that the willingness to speculate is declining. All of these indicators suggest to us that the S&P 500 will experience a major 10-15% correction over the next 3-6 months. We also assert that Emerging Market stocks will experience a significant decline, along with gold prices. We expect gold prices to bottom at the $1,000 to $1,200 an ounce level over the next 3-6 months. We will look for a buying opportunity in both gold and North American gold-mining stocks sometime in the next two quarters.
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