Markets Are Clinging To Support

Authored by Lance Roberts via RealInvestmentAdvice.com,

Clinging To Support

Over the last couple of weeks, as interest rates surged above 3%, we explored the question of whether something had “just broken” in the market.

This is an important question given the current stance by the Fed appears to be considerably hawkish as noted by the recent minutes:

 A Number of Officials Saw Need to Hike Above Long-Run Level

A few participants expected that policy would need to become modestly restrictive for a time and a number judged that it would be necessary to temporarily raise the federal funds rate above their assessments of its longer-run level.”

The Fed is worried about asset bubbles…

“Some participants commented about the continued growth in leveraged loans, the loosening of terms and standards on these loans, or the growth of this activity in the nonbank sector as reasons to remain mindful of vulnerabilities and possible risks to financial stability.”

In other words, the Fed is “gonna hike until something breaks” and it will likely break in a credit related area like junk bonds, covenant-light, and leveraged loans.

Important note: It won’t be one, or another, but all of them at once when “something breaks.” 

As noted by Bloomberg:

“The total of outstanding U.S. dollar leveraged loans has hit $1.27 trillion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, overtaking high-yield bonds in the past week to cement their status as the go-to financing source for speculative-grade companies. October is on course for the highest issuance since June, while junk bond sales are the slowest since 2009.”

“For regulators at the BIS — sometimes called the central bank for central banks — a boom in leveraged loans often presages a bust in the wider economy. The market is ‘particularly procyclical,’ according to the report, and it rose faster than high-yield bonds in the run-up to the global financial crisis.”

With substantially weaker loan documentation, accelerating demand for CLO’s (collateralized loan obligations), and a proliferation of covenant-lite loans, the risk to the next “financial crisis” has risen markedly given the massive surge in debt due to an extended period of ultra-low interest rates.

Of course, with the Fed hiking interest rates, which is pushing debt servicing costs higher, it is only a function of time until the rate of change in interest rates causes a financial decoupling in heavily levered companies with marginal balance sheets and debt servicing capacity.

Pay attention to the warnings the credit market is sending.

*  *  *

The market may already be sniffing out an impending problem. I noted last week that if interest “rates remain above 3%, stocks are going to continue to struggle.” 

This past week has been a decidedly tough struggle for stocks to pick themselves up after last week’s drubbing. While we saw a sharp reflexive bounce earlier this week, that bounce quickly faded as stocks returned to retest support at critically important levels.

The chart below is the updated “pathway” chart from last week. I have only updated the price on the chart again this week but did NOT change any of the previously detailed paths set out last week.

Chart updated through Friday – pathways remain unchanged

As I wrote, no matter how many different paths I trace out, the possibilities of the market rallying back to new all-time highs this year have been greatly reduced. Therefore, all four possibilities continue to suggest a broader topping pattern in place through the end of this year.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is the market DID hold the 200-dma for the week. With the market deeply oversold currently, we still expect a bounce going into next week. This bounce could well be supported by the end of the “blackout” period for companies to buy back their own shares.

Also, note that back in early February we saw a similar short-term bottoming process where the initial bounce failed then bounced in mid-March before failing again to retest the February lows.

My suspicion is that we will likely see much of the same action over the next month or so. Currently, pathway #2a and #2b are still the most likely outcomes currently and should be used to “sell into” to raise capital, deploy portfolio hedges, raise stop levels, and reduce risk.

Pathway #2a: The market rallies from current levels to the January high. Again, this would likely be fueled by a stronger than expected earnings season and a pickup in economic activity. However, the run to the January highs is capped by that resistance but the market finds support at the 62% Fibonacci retracement level just below. (30%) 

Pathway #2b: The most feasible rally from current oversold levels is back to the 50% Fibonacci retracement of the recent decline. The market gets back to very overbought conditions and the market begins to trade between the 200-dma and/or the 32% Fibonacci retracement level. (30%)

However, the risk of Pathway #3 becoming a reality has also risen markedly during this past week. But given the deep short-term oversold condition, we are due for a fairly strong bounce first.

With the understanding the economic and fundamental background may not be supportive for higher asset prices heading into 2019, it is important to note the market is sending a very different technical signal this time. As discussed last week, this is the FIRST time the market has broken the bullish trend line that began in 2016.

Importantly, the market surge last week tested, and failed, at the previous rising bullish trend line. While the market is still holding important support this past week, the deterioration in momentum is warning of a potentially larger correction process in the making.

With an early “sell signal” intact, the warnings to reduce portfolio risk could not be more prevalent.

Importantly, we should not react emotionally to these issues but be opportunistic about making changes. With the “blackout” period ending, earnings season in full swing, and a deeply oversold market – the likelihood of a substantial rally is a very real possibility. However, just because the market rallies, does NOT mean the problems are solved and the “bull market” is back in full swing. Only new “all time” highs would signal the return of the “bull market” and given the current technical, fundamental, and economic backdrop such is only a faint possibility.

Actions To Take Next Week

With the market still 3-standard deviations below the 50-dma and very oversold technically, we still suspect a fairly strong bounce to sell into next week. Portfolio management processes should be switched from “buying dips” to “selling rallies” until the technical backdrop changes.

The actions remain the same as this past week and the actions we will specifically be taking on a rally.

  1. Re-evaluating overall portfolio exposures. It is highly likely that equity allocations have gotten out of tolerance from the original allocation models. We will also look to reduce overall allocation models from 60/40 to 50/50 or less.

  2. Look to add bond exposure to mitigate volatility risk. (Read:  The Upcoming Bond Bull Market)

  3. Use rallies to raise cash as needed. (Cash is a risk-free portfolio hedge)

  4. Review all positions (Sell losers/trim winners)

  5. Look for opportunities in other markets (Gold may finally shine)

  6. Add hedges to portfolios (If the market begins to show a negative trend we will add short positions)

  7. Trade opportunistically (There are always rotations that can be taken advantage of)

  8. Drastically tighten up stop losses. (We  had previously given stop losses a bit of leeway as long as the bull market trend was intact. Such is no longer the case.)

If I am right, the conservative stance and hedges in portfolios will protect capital in the short-term. The reduced volatility allows for a logical approach to further adjustments as the correction becomes more apparent. (The goal is not to be forced into a “panic selling” situation.)

If I am wrong, and the bull market resumes, we simply remove hedges, and reallocate equity exposure.

As investors, we have to prepare for the storm BEFORE it hits, and there are definitely storm clouds on the horizon. This was a point J.C. Parets noted last week:

“In my opinion, we are in a stock market environment where a crash is entirely possible. Now, just because it is possible doesn’t mean it will come. I think of it like the city of Miami, where I grew up, during hurricane season. Just because it’s the season doesn’t guarantee that a storm will come, but it is absolutely the time to be aware that one can show up and destroy your home or even kill you if you’re not prepared.

Hurricanes don’t hit Miami in February and stock market crashes aren’t sparked from all-time highs. It’s more of a process. The thing is, the ingredients for a market crash are absolutely starting to appear”

Tops are a process and my friend Doug Kass had an excellent piece on this issue last week.

Tops Are Processes – A Review

by Doug Kass

“Tops are a process, bottoms are an event.” –Wall Street adage

Tops are a process and bottoms are an event, at least most of the time in the stock market. If you looked at an ice cream cone’s profile, the top is generally rounded and the bottom V-shaped. That is how tops and bottoms often look in the stock market, and I believe that the market is forming such a top now.

The catalysts for a market top are multiple, some of which I detailed in last Monday’s two-part series, “Investors Are No Longer Being Compensated for Taking Risk.” Consider the following:

Downside Risk Dwarfs Upside Reward. I base my expected market view on the probabilities associated with five separate (from pessimistic to optimistic) projected outcomes that seize on a forecast of economic and corporate profit growth, inflation, interest rates and valuation.

Global Growth Is Less Synchronized . The trajectory of worldwide growth is becoming more ambiguous. I have chronicled extensively the erosion in soft and hard high-frequency data in the U.S., Europe, China and elsewhere, so I won’t clutter this missive with too many charts. But needless to say (and as shown by these charts here and here), with economic surprises moderating from a year ago and in the case of Europe falling to two-year lows, we are likely at “Peak Global Growth” now. (The data are even worse in South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Thailand.)

* FAANG’s Dominance Represents an Ever-Present Risk. Last Monday I warned that earnings disappointments in the FANG stocks represents an immediate risk to this league-leading sector, and to the markets FANG has become GA!

* Market Structure Is One-Sided and Worrisome. Machines and algos rule the day; they, too, are momentum-based on the same side of the boat. The reality that “buyers live higher and sellers live lower” represents the potentially dangerous condition that investors face in a market dominated by passive investors.

* Higher Interest Rates Not Only Produce a More Attractive Risk-Free Rate of Return, They Also Make It Hard for the Private and Public Sectors to Service Debt

* Trade Tensions With China Are Intensifying and Mr. Market Is Improperly Looking Past Marginal Risks. From Goldman Sachs’ David Kostin (h/t Zero Hedge). Remember, as discussed within this column, the dispute has buoyed second-quarter U.S. GDP. The “benefit” soon will be over and a second-quarter economic cliff is possible.

* Any Semblance of Fiscal Responsibility Has Been Thrown Out the Window by Both Political Parties. This has very adverse ramifications (which shortly may be discounted in lower stock prices), especially as it relates to the servicing of debt — a subject I have written about often. Not only are our legislators acting irresponsibly and recklessly, but the Republican Party is now considering more permanent tax cuts. Should economic growth moderate, tax receipts diminish and undisciplined spending continue, stock valuations will likely continue to contract.

* Peak Buybacks. Buybacks continue apace, but look who’s selling. As Grandma Koufax used to say, “Dougie, that’s quite a racket!” If I am correct about the peaking in corporate profits, higher interest rates and slowing economic growth, we shortly will have another rate of change — negative in buybacks.

* China, Europe and the Emerging Market Economic Data All Signal a Slowdown. It’s in the early innings of such a slowdown based on any real-time analysis of the economic data. The rate-of-change slowdown on a trending basis is as clear as day. A rising U.S. dollar and weakening emerging-market economic growth sow the seeds of a possible U.S. dollar funding crisis.

* We Are Moving Closer to the November Elections, With Their Uncertainty of Outcome and the Potential For a “Blue Wave.” The current 40% approval rating for the president is historically a losing proposition for the incumbents. We also may be moving toward some conclusion of the Mueller investigation — is the Summer of 2018 the Summer of 1974?

Bottom Line

“Confronted with a challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, Margin of Safety.”  —Benjamin Graham

The search for value and comparing it to risk taken is, at its core, the marriage of a contrarian streak and a calculator.

While it is important to gauge the possibility that the market may be making an important top, it is even more important to distill, based on reasonable fundamental input, what the market’s reward vs. risk is. This calculus trumps everything else that I do in determining market value.

On that front, I continue to believe that downside risk dwarfs upside reward.

Moreover, there is a growing fundamental and technical list of signposts that may suggest that the market is starting to look like it is in the process of making a possible (and important) top.

As Joel Greenblatt wrote:

“There’s a virtuous cycle when people have to defend challenges to their ideas. Any gaps in thinking or analysis become clear pretty quickly when smart people ask good, logical questions. You can’t be a good value investor without being an independent thinker – you’re seeing valuations that the market is not appreciating. But it’s critical that you understand why the market isn’t seeing the value you do. The back and forth that goes on in the investment process helps you get at that.”