Leading Indicators Suggest Further Upside in Global Risk Asset Prices

Note: I know many of you reading this are either overweight cash or net short U.S. equities. Please don’t shoot the messenger: I am not personally biased to the upside – I am merely channeling what my models are telling me, and they are telling me to stay bullish.

In my January 31, 2016 newsletter, I switched from a generally neutral to a bullish position on global risk assets. Specifically:

  • For U.S. equities, I switched from a “slightly bullish” to a “bullish” position (after switching from a “neutral” to a “slightly bullish” stance on the evening of January 7th);
  • For international developed equities, a shift from “neutral” to “bullish”;
  • For emerging market equities, a shift from “neutral” to “slightly bullish”; and
  • For global REITs, a shift from “neutral” to “bullish.”

My bullish tilt on global risk assets at the time was primarily based on the following reasons:

  1. A severely oversold condition in U.S. equities, with several of my technical indicators hitting oversold levels similar to where they were during the September 1981, October 1987, October 1990, and September 1998 bottoms;
  2. Significant support coming from both my primary and secondary domestic liquidity indicators, such as the relative steepness of the U.S. yield curve, the Fed’s renewed easing bias in the aftermath of the December 16, 2015 rate hike, and a sustained +7.5% to +8.0% growth in U.S. commercial bank lending;
  3. Tremendous bearish sentiment among second-tier and retail investors (which is bullish from a contrarian standpoint), including a spike in NYSE short interest, a spike in the AUM of Rydex’s bear funds, and several (second-tier) bank analysts making absurd price level predictions on oil and global risk assets (e.g. Standard Chartered’s call for $10 oil and RBS’ “advice” to clients to “sell everything”).

In a subsequent blog post on February 10, 2016 (“Leading Indicators Suggest a Stabilization in Global Risk Asset Prices“), I followed up on my bullish January 31st prognostications with one more bullish indicator; i.e. the strengthening readings of our proprietary CBGDI (“CB Capital Global Diffusion Index”) indicator which “suggests–at the very least–a stabilization, if not an immediate rally, in both global equity and oil prices.

I have previously discussed the construction and implication of the CBGDI’s readings in many of our weekly newsletters and blog entries. The last two times I discussed the CBGDI in this blog was on May 15, 2015 (“Leading Indicators Suggest Lower U.S. Treasury Rates“) and on February 10, 2016 (“Leading Indicators Suggest a Stabilization in Global Risk Asset Prices“).

To recap, the CBGDI is a global leading indicator which we construct by aggregating and equal-weighting the OECD-constructed leading indicators for 29 major countries, including non-OECD members such as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. Moreover, the CBGDI has historically led 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%; and has led or correlated with the MSCI All-Country World Index, with an R-squared of over 40% (which is expected as local stock prices is typically a component of the OECD leading indicators).

The latest reading of the CBGDI has continued to improve upon the readings which we discussed several months ago (see Figure 1 below)–just 10 days after we turned bullish on global risk assets. Both the 1st and the 2nd derivatives of the CBGDI have continued to climb and are still in (slight) uptrends, suggesting a stabilization and in some cases, a re-acceleration (e.g. the economies of South Korea, New Zealand, Spain, and India) in global economic activity. So don’t shoot the messenger–but it appears that the rally in global risk assets coming out of the late-January-to-early-February bottom still has more room to run.

CBGDIMay2016

Leading Indicators Suggest a Stabilization in Global Risk Asset Prices

Even as the vast majority of analysts stayed bullish on the global economy and global risk assets early last year, I began to turn bearish for a variety of reasons, including: 1) global liquidity, as measured by the amount of US$ circulating freely in the global financial system, continued to weaken, 2) valuations in U.S. equities were at the 95th percentile of all readings dating back to the late 1970s, as measured on a P/B and P/E basis, 3) U.S. corporate profit margins were already at 50-year highs, while U.S. corporate profits as a percentage of U.S. GDP was at a high not seen since 1929, 4) U.S. corporate earnings growth, ex. energy, were beginning to decelerate, and 5) our proprietary leading indicator, the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index (“CBGDI”) was indicating a global economic slowdown, as well as a pullback in global equity and oil prices.

I have previously discussed the construction and implication of the CBGDI’s latest readings in many of our weekly newsletters, and last discussed it in this blog on May 15, 2015 (“Leading Indicators Suggest Lower U.S. Treasury Rates“). Specifically, the CBGDI is a global leading indicator which we construct by aggregating and equal-weighting the OECD leading indicators for 29 major countries, including non-OECD members such as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. The CBGDI has also historically led 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).

In my May 15, 2015 blog entry, I also stated:

Our own studies suggest the global economy has been slowing down significantly since the 2nd half of last year [i.e. 2014]; more importantly, the negative momentum has not abated much … 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.”

The rest is history, as they say.

Recent readings of the CBGDI, however, paint a much brighter picture. Firstly, both the 1st and 2nd derivatives of the CBGDI have stabilized and are now increasing. Secondly, both global equity prices (i.e. the MSCI All-Country World Index) and oil prices have declined to levels that are indicative of a more severe slowdown than the CBGDI readings imply (see Figure 1 below). To me, the latest readings of the CBGDI suggests–at the very least–a stabilization, if not an immediate rally, in both global equity and oil prices.

CBGDIDecember2015

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Crude Oil Prices Will Recover Faster than You Think

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

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

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

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

oiltradingsystem12102014

2) Shale production growth will subside faster than expected

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

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

3) Global oil demand to surprise on the upside

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

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

WTI Crude Oil – Blood in the Streets

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

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

oiltradingsystem11272014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USmilesdriven12MA

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

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

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