Margin Debt Outstanding Remains High but Suggests an Oversold Market

A client said: “U.S. margin debt outstanding remains at a very high level; as such, I expect U.S. stocks to correct further.”

We last discussed the overbought condition in U.S. stocks as measured by U.S. margin debt outstanding in our January 29, 2014 blog entry (“Record Rise in Margin Debt Outstanding = Single-Digit Stock Returns in 2014“). U.S. margin debt outstanding stood at $478.5 billion at the time (measured as of December 31, 2013), after rising by $123 billion over the previous 12 months. The rapid rate of margin debt growth at the time suggests a highly overbought market. For comparison, the 12-month increase in margin debt outstanding leading to the March 2000 peak was $134 billion; for July 2007, an unprecedented $160 billion. At the time, we stated that this rapid accumulation of margin debt would lead to tepid stock returns going forward. The S&P 500 stood at 1,848.56 as of December 31, 2013; as I am typing this, the S&P 500 is trading at just shy of 1,900. After two years, the S&P 500 has gone nowhere; although your portfolio would’ve performed well if you had an overweight in consumer discretionary and tech; less so if you had an overweight in energy or materials.

As of December 31, 2015, U.S. margin debt outstanding stood at $503.4 billion–a tepid $25 billion increase over a period of two years. With the recent sell-off in U.S. stocks, margin debt would likely have declined by at least $20 billion this month. This means U.S. margin debt outstanding as it stands today is likely to have revert to its December 31, 2013 levels. Figure 1 below shows the 3-, 6-, and 12-month absolute change (in $ billions) in U.S. margin debt outstanding from January 1998 to December 2015.

usmargindebt12312015

A margin debt outstanding of around $480 billion is still high by historical standards; however–based on the 3-, 6-, and 12-month rate of change–U.S. margin debt outstanding is actually at an oversold level–reminiscent of similarly oversold levels in late 1998, early 2008, and the 2nd half of 2011. In two of these instances (late 1998 and the 2nd half of 2011), the S&P 500’s subsequent returns were phenomenal (38% and 27%, respectively, over the next 12 months); in the case of early 2008, however, not so much. With that said, March 2008 still represented a tradeable bottom–as long as one got out of U.S. stocks by summer of 2008.

As I discussed with my clients, I do not believe the current liquidation in energy, materials, and EM assets will morph into a globally systemic event. As such, I believe U.S. stock returns will be decent over the next 6-12 months.

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.

Three Key Policies to a Successful “Make In India” Initiative

Launched by the Narendra Modi-led government last September, the “Make In India” initiative is a long-term, top-down driven policy to transform India into a global manufacturing hub. The 25 economic sectors targeted by the Indian government for export-led development were those determined to possess global trade comparative advantages or significant potential for innovation and job creation. Some of these sectors include: automobiles, aviation, biotechnology, chemicals, defense, electrical machinery, food processing, media & entertainment, pharmaceuticals, railways, renewable energy, and textiles & garments.

In my recent weekly newsletters–and in my March 4, 2015 Forbes column (“Modi’s Budget Boosts Bullish Outlook for Indian Stocks“)–I have chronicled and discussed the recent re-acceleration of India’s economic growth due to a combination of government reform efforts and the decline in oil prices, the latter of which provided an immediate 3%-3.5% boost to India’s annual GDP. Since August last year, I have asserted that India’s economic growth rate would surpass that of China; this year, I expect India’s GDP to grow at about 8%–higher than China’s expected GDP growth rate which I expect to come in at 7% or below.

Recent economic data–such as April’s industrial production year-over-year growth of 4.1% (surpassing consensus by more than 200 bps) and May’s benign CPI reading of 5.0%–suggests that my Indian economic outlook is on track. With the Reserve Bank of India’s policy repo rate still at 7.25%, there remains significant room for the Indian central bank to ease monetary policy in order to maintain the country’s high growth rates, as long as the CPI reading stays below 6.0%.

I maintain that India’s long-term growth trajectory remains intact; I expect the size of India’s economy to double by the end of 2020–to $4 trillion or more–and for the earnings of the MSCI India equity index to more than double in the same time frame. In the past, I have discussed several reform policies and trends that would act as secular tailwinds for the India economy, including: 1) a concerted crackdown of cronyism and corruption and raising foreign direct investment caps from 26% to 49% in the insurance and defense industries–both of which would heavily encourage more FDI inflows into India, 2) a renewed focus on infrastructure investments–including a nationwide 4G network–as well as much-needed land reforms to encourage further industrialization, 3) rising confidence in the leadership of the Reserve Bank of India as Governor Rajan asserted the central bank’s independence with an inflation-targeting framework that was recently codified into law, and 4) India’s uniquely young and educated workforce.

I consider the “Make in India” initiative to be a major policy focus that is essential to India’s long-term economic development. Unlike China’s “growth at all costs” policy from 1978 to 2008–i.e. a 19th century style command-and-control network of various centralized systems of production–while taking advantage of low-cost labor and lax environmental regulations, India is encouraging the production of higher value-added goods through a more decentralized approach of empowering decision-makers at the corporate level. At the same time, India’s labor laws have historically offered a high degree of protection for workers. To a major extent, India’s historical rejection of the 19th century style of command-and-control capitalism has limited the country’s industrialization and consequently, its export sector of manufactured goods. Of course, over the last 25 years, India’s exports have increased both as a share of GDP and world exports–but this was mostly driven by increases in the exports of services and primary products & resources (i.e. rice, cotton, diamonds, iron ore, etc. )–as opposed to the exports of medium- and high-tech manufactured goods.

Figure 1: India – Exports of Goods and Services, 1991-2013 (source: IMF)

Indiaexports

Since 1991, total Indian exports as a share of Indian GDP rose from around 8% to almost 25% in 2013; while Indian exports as a share of world exports tripled from around 0.5% to 1.7% during the same time frame. Of note, however, is the rapid increase in Indian service exports in just the recent decade. From 2000-2013, Indian services exports as a share of world services exports have tripled to over 3.0%.

Growth in Indian services exports has been rapid; indeed, it has surpassed that of other EM countries by a wide margin (see Figure 2 below). Indian services now make up 35% of all of the country’s exports, which is even higher than the average in advanced economies.

Figure 2: Growth in Services Exports – India and EM Countries, 2000-2012 (source: IMF)

EMserviceexports

The vast majority of fast-growing EM economies over the last several decades relied on industrialization and subsequent growth of manufacturing exports (both absolute and relative to total exports) to jump-start their economies. In 2013, for example, China’s manufacturing exports accounted for 90% of total exports, double the share during 1980-85. The share of Indian manufacturing exports as a share of total exports, however, has actually declined over the last 15 years, due to India’s over-reliance on growth driven by the services and primary goods & resources industries. Within the goods sector, the share of manufacturing has declined over the last decade as well (see Figure 3 below).

Figure 3: Composition of Goods Exports for Selected EM Countries, 2000-04 vs. 2007-11

indiangoodsexports

To jump-start the “Make In India” initiative to turn India into a global manufacturing hub, I believe the following three key policies need to be adopted–either at the public- or private-sector level.

  1. Build human capital and liberalize the Indian labor market: Consensus suggests that the Indian manufacturing sector faces an existential problem when it comes to labor: despite a young, educated labor force, there is a shortage of qualified labor for the sector, as those who are qualified do not want to work in manufacturing. One way to entice workers into the industry is to focus on medium-tech or high-tech goods requiring innovation in an effort to boost the technological capacity of India and to raise manufacturing wages. Labor law reforms, along with a policy to integrate manufacturers into the education ecosystem, are also necessary in order to boost the competitiveness of the Indian manufacturing sector in the global markets;
  2. Investing in export- and manufacturing-related infrastructure: IMF studies have shown that bottlenecks among the energy, mining, transportation, and storage sectors have inhibited India from taking advantage of the devaluation of the Indian rupee over the last several years. Land reforms is also part of the economic agenda, as regulations have historically prevented or limited the rise of industries in urban areas, where most skilled labor is located;
  3. Trade reforms to expand trade in the long-run: Historically, the Indian government has utilized trade policy as a tool to address short-term objectives such as limiting inflation or minimizing the volatility in commodity prices. Such incoherent policies included export taxes, minimum export prices, and ad hoc adjustments to import duties. The World Trade Organization noted that in its last review, minimum export prices for onions, sugar, and potato were changed in order to control the domestic supply of vegetables. Such policies increase uncertainty for both exporters and importers – major trade reforms are thus needed to provide a long-term boost to Indian manufacturing exports.

Leading Indicators Suggest Lower U.S. Treasury Rates

In two of our most recent commentaries (April 10, 2015: “Our Leading Indicators Still Suggest Lower Asset Prices” and March 12, 2015: “The Weakening of the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index Suggests Lower Asset Prices“), we discussed why Goldman Sachs’ Global Leading Indicator was giving highly misleading leading signals on the global economy given its over-reliance on components such as the Baltic Dry Index and commodity prices–both of which could be highly impacted by idiosyncratic factors such as supply disruptions or technological substitutions. Indeed, Goldman itself has been highly transparent and critical over the last six 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.

Indeed–because of these distortions–Goldman’s GLI has been highly volatile over the last six months. Last month’s GLI suggested the global economy was “contracting” from January-March 2015–which in retrospect, does not make much sense. Meanwhile, our own studies had suggested that global economic growth was still on par to hit 3.5% in 2015–while our earlier studies suggested U.S. economic growth could hit as much as 3.0%–with energy-importing countries such as India projected to accelerate to as much as 7%-8% GDP growth.

Because again of such idiosyncratic factors, Goldman’s GLI this month suggests the global economy is now moving into “expansion” mode. January data was revised and now suggests the global economy was merely “contracting” that month, with February-March barely in contraction phases. None of these make sense. The latest upbeat data is due to: rising base metals prices, a bounce in the AU$ and the CA$, and a bounce in the highly volatile Baltic Dry Index. Copper’s latest rise was arguably due to Chinese short-covering–Chinese property starts/fixed asset investments remain weak, although we are optimistic that both Chinese commercial and residential inventories are re-balancing.

Our own studies suggest the global economy has been slowing down significantly since the 2nd half of last year; more importantly, the negative momentum has not abated much (despite the re-acceleration of Western European economic growth). Specifically, we utilize a global leading indicator (called the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index, or CBGDI) where we aggregate and equal-weight the OECD leading indicators for 29 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 April 10, 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 May 2015. All four indicators are smoothed on a three-month moving average basis:

OECDleadingindicators

The CBGDI has also led the U.S. 10-year Treasury rate on most occasions over the last 20 years. Whenever the 2nd derivative declines to near the zero line (and continues down), U.S. 10-year Treasury rates have declined 86% of the time over the next 3, 6, and 12 months. Yes, we did enjoy a secular bull market in the U.S. long bond over the last 20 years, but 86% upside frequency is still a very good track record during a secular bull market. The track record is especially attractive considering that: 1) when this indicator was wrong, the worst outcome was a 27 bps rise (over 3 months beginning December 2004); 2) when this indicator was dead on, the best outcome was a highly-profitable, and highly-asymmetric, 168 bps decline in the U.S. long bond (over 12 months beginning December 2007).

10yeartreastudy

As of this writing, the U.S. 10-year rate is trading at 2.18%, which is 14 basis points higher than the average 10-year rate of 2.04% during March 2015, when the 2nd derivative of the CBGDI essentially touched the zero line. As we discussed in past newsletters (and will further elaborate this weekend), we do not believe the ECB has lost control of the Euro Zone’s sovereign bond market. Combined with the ongoing BOJ easing, both central banks are still projected to purchase another $1 trillion of sovereign bonds over the next 12 months. With the U.S. federal budget deficit still near its lowest level over the last six years–and with the People’s Central Bank of China proactively lowering interest rates–I do not believe the U.S. 10-year Treasury rate has any room to move higher from current levels. As such, we are advocating a long position in long-dated U.S. Treasuries; our Absolute Return Liquidity strategy now has a sizable position in the long-dated Treasury ETF, TLT.

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 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.

The Education of the Millennials

Published in 1907, The Education of Henry Adams is a meditation of the immense shifts in the political, economic, social, and technological landscapes of 19th century America during the Second Industrial Revolution. While granted a first-class education, Henry Adams–the great-grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams–would lament throughout the book that his formal education in the classics and history never prepared him for the scientific and technological revolution of the late 19th century. Quoting the book (narrated in third-person):

At any other moment in human history, this education, including its political and literary bias, would have been not only good, but quite the best. Society had always welcomed and flattered men so endowed. Henry Adams had every reason to be well pleased with it, and not ill-pleased with himself … Only on looking back, fifty years later, at his own figure in 1854, and pondering on the needs of the twentieth century, he wondered whether, on the whole the boy of 1854 stood nearer to the thought of 1904, or to that of the year 1 … The calculation was clouded by the undetermined values of twentieth-century thought, but the story will show his reasons for thinking that, in essentials like religion, ethics, philosophy; in history, literature, art; in the concepts of all science, excepts perhaps mathematics, the American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900. The education he had received bore little relation to the education he needed. Speaking as an American of 1900, he had as yet no education. He knew not even where or how to begin. (emphasis mine).

A cursory review of U.S. history suggests that the Millennials (a demographic group typically defined as those born between 1980 and 2000) have already experienced profound political, social, and technological changes in their short lifetimes unmatched by previous generations, with the possible exception of those who: 1) fought the American Revolutionary War, 2) the American Civil War, 3) experienced the Gilded Age, or 4) experienced the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Many historical seismic shifts in the American cultural fabric were bloody; some not (e.g. the influx of more than 25 million European immigrants from 1850 to 1930).

Further review of these societal shifts suggests one common, and very important, attribute: With the exception of the various waves of immigration, none of these were uniquely American. However, all of these have ultimately made America stronger on the global stage, beginning with American independence in 1776.

Fast forward to today, and the Millennials (also known as the Gen-Ys) are struggling. We believe we could distill this into three major causes:

  1. The U.S. labor market is no longer protected: Relative to Europe and Asia, the U.S. has always had a chronic shortage of labor, resulting in relatively high wages and the subsequent creation of a middle class. Post Civil War and Slavery as an institution, the Gilded Age was a glaring exception, as waves of immigrants served to depress wages for manual labor. The creation of a U.S. middle class after WWII was enabled by a significant curb in immigration beginning in the late 1910s, as well as the democratization of higher education and a general shortage of labor after WWII. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent commercialization of broadband internet and cellular networks, has resulted in an unprecedented shift in the old Labor vs. Capital debate. We believe the acceleration of automation in the U.S. economy will shift this debate further as more manual labor (including those who engage in complex, but repetitive tasks, e.g. fast-food workers or coffee baristas)  is replaced by machines over the next 5-10 years;
  2. The rapid pace of change in the U.S. labor market: Most of us fear change; however, we also secretly crave it, but only if implemented gradually. The rapidity of the shift in the labor market caught many Americans by surprise. In 1901, the Wall Street Journal summarized the immense consolidation of U.S. industry with the comment: “God made the world in 4004 B.C. and it was reorganized in 1901 by J.P. Morgan.” Carnegie Steel–which formed the basis of the $1.4 billion IPO of U.S. Steel in 1901–was founded only just 25 years before, while Standard Oil was founded as recent as 1870. With the exception of Google and Microsoft, many of today’s largest companies were founded more than 50 years ago. However, business practices have shifted immensely over the last 25 years. The mass adoption of outsourcing and automation by U.S. companies–along with an influx of college-educated Gen-Ys into the labor market–has depressed wage growth significantly. Defined benefits pension plans are no longer offered (or valued), and unemployment among young, college-educated workers are near record highs. Such experience by the Millennials is encapsulated by a recent NY Times article chronicling “the rise of the serial intern.”  The world has been reorganized and rearranged in a way such that today’s U.S. labor market bears no resemblance to that of 1989, when the Gen-Ys were still being educated on the wisdom of obtaining a college degree at all costs.
  3. The lack of a 21st century education and the rise of a highly educated global workforce: Year after year, the OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) shows that American kids are continuing to fall behind their global counterparts in terms of K-12 education. There are many reasons for this (lack of accountability by schools and teachers, lack of respect for the teaching progression, different cultural emphases for formal education, etc.); but more important, even kids who graduate with a four-year college degree have had little preparation to compete in today’s highly educated global workforce. I believe the main problem is this: The modern university system does not sufficiently prepare college graduates to compete in the 21st century global economy as it was engineered with the 20th century industrial economy in mind. Even the emergence of college entrepreneurship programs is a relatively recent phenomenon. e.g. The Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School only opened in 2003, and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at University of Chicago opened in 1998. Furthermore, only a selected number of universities offer undergraduate courses or experiences in entrepreneurship (neither Harvard nor University of Chicago does). Moreover, most Americans remain U.S.-centric in nature; most U.S. college graduates have never resided or worked overseas. The challenge of working and collaborating with those from foreign cultures will be one of the main challenges for Gen-Y workers over the next 5-10 years.

The ongoing struggles by Millennials are exemplified by the following charts, courtesy of Goldman Sachs.

 Chart 1: A Sign of the Times… Today’s Millennials Are Less Employed

(16-24 Year Olds Labor Force Participation Rate)

 MillennialsLaborParticipation

Chart 2: And Millennials’ Average Income Have Been Declining Relative to that of the U.S. Labor Force

(15-34 Year Olds’ Average Income as a % of U.S. Labor Force Average Income)

 MillennialsAverageIncome

The struggles of the Millennials are real, and will have real implications for U.S. society and the global economy. In our last commentary (“Engaging with China as a Global Economic Superpower“), we addressed the need for U.S. leaders to engage with China as the latter rises to become the world’s biggest economy over the next 6-8 years. This is a job for the Millennials, as most baby boomers and Gen-Xers are too far entrenched in their attitudes and work habits to adapt to a globalizing workforce. Most important, U.S. consumer spending will be driven by Millennial spending growth over the next five years (3.4% annualized), easily crowding out the impact of the Gen-Xs (only 0.6% growth). In fact, total consumer spending by Millennials should surpass that of the Baby Boomers by 2020, making Millennials the largest spending cohort in U.S. history. Just as the Baby Boomers dictated every major societal and economic trend since the end of WWII (from the adoption of disposable diapers to the Civil Rights movement), the Gen-Ys will be driving similar trends for decades to come. The Education of the Millennials continues…

Chart 3: Projected U.S. Annualized Spending Power Growth by Generational Cohort

(2014-2019)

MillennialsSpendingPower

Record Rise in Margin Debt Outstanding = Single-Digit U.S. Stock Returns in 2014

In a May 24, 2007 commentary titled “Leverage, Leverage, and more Leverage” (four months before the peak of the last bull market), I emphatically stated: “Despite what the mainstream media says, there are now signs that liquidity conditions are deteriorating … Make no mistake: This “pillar” of liquidity [subprime lending] of the U.S. housing market has fallen and will have a depressing effect on the U.S. housing market and on U.S. households’ liquidity for many years to come.

By early October 2007, I was discussing why I was short the U.S. stock market and why investors should be trimming their equity long positions.

We believe there are 3 distinct pillars to superior investment performance: 1) Investing in non-correlated strategies (e.g. Japanese stocks in the 1960s and 1970s), 2) the ability to find inefficiencies in selected markets (e.g. private real estate or the ability to influence markets, such as that of PIMCO), and 3) recognizing shifts in investment regimes ahead of the curve, and adjusting one’s asset allocation or investments accordingly.

If an investor or adviser has no ability to engage in 1), 2), or 3), then he or she should leave the industry and do something else. This certainly applies to most advisers and investment managers I have met.

But I digress. Back in May 2007, we recognize that there existed unprecedented leverage in the global financial system–and more important, the availability and ability to pile leverage on leverage was drying up. The desire to speculate using immense leverage was not limited to the subprime or LBO markets. Consider that Japanese households were actively engaged in the Yen carry trade, with margin currency trading increasing by 41% to US$896 billion in the Japanese retail market during 1Q 2007 alone. In fact, Japanese individuals were responsible for as much as 30% of all FOREX trading in the Tokyo time zone by early 2007.

Another leverage indicator was U.S. margin debt outstanding. We like to use this age-old, proven benchmark to measure the amount of speculation in the U.S. stock market. While we recognize that both institutions and high net worth individuals can gain access to leverage through futures or OTC swaps, the amount of U.S. margin debt outstanding is much more transparent and is reported monthly. More important, the rate of change in U.S. margin debt outstanding has had significant correlation to other leverage indicators, as well as major peaks and troughs in the U.S. stock market.

For example, in the same May 24, 2007 commentary, we mentioned that the six-month increase in margin debt ($74 billion) had risen to its highest level since March 2000, while the 12-month increase ($77 billion) rose to its highest level since September 2000. We also mentioned that the 12-month increase in margin debt for month-end May 2007 would rise again. In fact, margin debt outstanding rose by $40.2 billion for the month of May 2007 alone. The 12-month increase in margin debt outstanding would eventually surge to a record high of $160 billion by the end of July 2007. At the time, we believed–at the very least–a significant correction was at hand.

Fast forward to today. Many of our stock market indicators are overbought (see our January 10, 2014 commentary “The Message of the CB Capital Global Overbought-Oversold Model“). In our December 22, 2013 commentary (“CB Capital’s 2014 U.S. Stock Market Outlook: Cautious and Moderately Bullish“), we asserted that U.S. stocks in 2014 will return in the single-digits, i.e. 5% to 10%. Furthermore, the latest margin debt numbers (as of December 31, 2013) also suggest of a highly overbought U.S. stock market, as evident in the below chart. In fact, the 12-month increase in margin debt has risen to $123 billion–the highest level since July 2007, and certainly the highest level since the current bull market began in March 2009. Seen in this context, even a single-digit return outlook in U.S. equities in 2014 could be construed as being too optimistic.

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