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Thoughts On The Market Series #1 - The New Normal?
Market Outlook: What to Make of This “New Normal”
By ****\* March 16, 2020 After an incredibly volatile week – which finished with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rallying over 9% on Friday – I suppose my readers might expect me to be quite upbeat about the markets. Unfortunately, I persist in my overall pessimistic outlook for stocks, and for the economy in general. Friday’s rally essentially negated Thursday’s sell-off, but I don’t expect it to be the start of a sustained turnaround. We’re getting a taste of that this morning, with the Dow opening down around 7%. This selloff is coming on the back of an emergency interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve of 100 basis points (to 0%-0.25%) on Sunday… along with the announcement of a new quantitative easing program of $700 billion. (I will write about this further over the next several days.) As I have been writing for many weeks, the financial bubble – which the Fed created by pumping trillions of dollars into the financial system – has popped. It will take some time for the bubble to deflate to sustainable levels. Today I’ll walk you through what’s going on in the markets and the economy… what I expect going forward and why… and what it means for us as traders. (You’ll see it’s not all bad news.)
Coronavirus’ Strain on the Global Economy
To start, let’s put things in perspective: This asset deflation was coming one way or another. Covid19 (or coronavirus) has simply accelerated the process. Major retailers are closing, tourism is getting crushed, universities and schools are sending students home, conventions, sporting events, concerts, and other public gatherings have been cancelled, banks and other financial service firms are going largely virtual, and there has been a massive loss of wealth. Restaurant data suggests that consumer demand is dropping sharply, and the global travel bans will only worsen the situation. Commercial real estate is another sector that looks particularly vulnerable. We are almost certain to see a very sharp and pronounced economic slowdown here in the United States, and elsewhere. In fact, I expect a drop of at least 5% of GDP over the next two quarters, which is quite severe by any standard. Sure, when this cycle is complete, there will be tremendous amounts of pent-up demand by consumers, but for the time being, the consumer is largely on the sidelines. Of course, the problems aren’t just in the U.S. China’s numbers look awful. In fact, the government there may have to “massage” their numbers a bit to show a positive GDP in the first quarter. Europe’s numbers will also look dreadful, and South Korea’s economy has been hit badly. All around the world, borders are being shut, all non-essential businesses are being closed, and people in multiple countries are facing a lockdown of historic proportions. The coronavirus is certainly having a powerful impact, and it looks certain that its impact will persist for a while. Consider global tourism. It added almost $9 trillion to the global economy in 2018, and roughly 320 million jobs. This market is in serious trouble. Fracking in the U.S. is another business sector that is in a desperate situation. Millions of jobs and tens of billions of loans are now in jeopardy. The derivative businesses that this sector supports will be likewise devastated as companies are forced to reduce their workforces or shut down due to the collapse in oil prices. This sector’s suffering will probably force banks to book some big losses despite attempts by the government to support this industry. In a similar way, the derivative businesses that are supported by the universities and colleges across America are going to really suffer. There are nearly 20 million students in colleges across the U.S. When they go home for spring vacation and do not return, the effect on the local businesses that colleges and university populations support will be devastating. What does this “new normal” mean going forward? Let’s take a look…
The new normal may become increasingly unpleasant for us. We need to be ready to hunker down for quite some time. Beyond that, the government needs to handle this crisis far better in the future. The level of stupidity associated with the massive throngs of people trapped in major airports yesterday, for example, was almost unimaginable. Instead of facilitating the reduction of social contact and halting the further spread of the coronavirus, the management of the crowds at the airports produced a perfect breeding ground for the spread of the virus. My guess is that more draconian travel restrictions will be implemented soon, matching to some extent the measures taken across Europe. This will in turn have a further dampening effect on economic activity in the U.S., putting more and more pressure on the Fed and the government to artificially support a rapidly weakening economy. Where does this end up? It is too early to say, but a very safe bet is that we will have some months of sharply negative growth. Too many sectors of the economy are going to take a hit to expect anything else. The Fed has already driven interest rates to zero. Will that help? Unlikely. In fact, as I mentioned at the beginning of this update, the markets are voting with a resounding NO. The businesses that are most affected by the current economic situation will still suffer. Quantitative easing is hardly a cure-all. In fact, it has been one of the reasons that we have such a mess in our markets today. The markets have become addicted to the easy money, so more of the same will have little or no impact. We will need real economic demand, not an easier monetary policy. It won’t help support tourism, for example, or the other sectors getting smashed right now. The government will need to spend at least 5% of GDP, or roughly $1 trillion, to offset the weakness I see coming. Is it surprising that the Fed and the government take emergency steps to try to stabilize economic growth? Not at all. This is essentially what they have been doing for a long time, so it is completely consistent with their playbook. Next, I would anticipate the government implementing some massive public-works and infrastructure programs over the coming months. That would be very helpful, and almost certainly quite necessary. But there’s a problem with this kind of intervention from the government…
What Happens When You Eliminate the Business Cycle
The Fed’s foolish attempt to eliminate business cycles is a significant contributing factor to the volatility we are currently experiencing. Quantitative easing is nothing more than printing lots and lots of money to support a weak economy and give the appearance of growth and prosperity. In fact, it is a devaluation of the currency’s true buying power. That in turn artificially drives up the prices of other assets, such as stocks, real estate and gold – but it does not create true wealth. That only comes with non-inflationary growth of goods and services and associated increases in economic output. Inflation is the government’s way to keep people thinking they are doing better. To that point: We have seen some traditional safe-haven assets getting destroyed during this time of risk aversion. That has certainly compounded the problems of many investors. Gold is a great example. As the stock market got violently slammed, people were forced to come up with cash to support their losing positions. Gold became a short-term source of liquidity as people sold their gold holdings in somewhat dramatic fashion. It was one of the few holdings of many people that was not dramatically under water, so people sold it. The move may have seemed perverse, particularly to people who bought gold as a safe-haven asset, but in times of crisis, all assets tend to become highly correlated, at least short term. We saw a similar thing happen with long yen exposures and long Bitcoin exposures recently. The dollar had its strongest one-day rally against the yen since November 2016 as people were forced to sell huge amounts of yen to generate liquidity. Many speculators had made some nice profits recently as the dollar dropped sharply from 112 to 101.30, but they have been forced to book whatever profits they had in this position. Again, this was due to massive losses elsewhere in their portfolios. Is the yen’s sell-off complete? If it is not complete, it is probably at least close to an attractive level for Japanese investors to start buying yen against a basket of currencies. The major supplies of yen have largely been taken off the table for now. For example, the yen had been a popular funding currency for “carry” plays. People were selling yen and buying higher-yielding currencies to earn the interest rate difference between the liability currency (yen) and the funding currency (for example, the U.S. dollar). Carry plays are very unpopular in times of great uncertainty and volatility, however, so that supply of yen will be largely gone for quite some time. Plus, the yield advantage of currencies such as the U.S. dollar, Canadian dollar, and Australian dollar versus the yen is nearly gone. In addition, at the end of the Japanese fiscal year , there is usually heavy demand for yen as Japanese corporations need to bring home a portion of their overseas holdings for balance sheet window dressing. I don’t expect that pressure to be different this year. Just as the safe-haven assets of yen and gold got aggressively sold, Bitcoin also got hammered. It was driven by a similar theme – people had big losses and they needed to produce liquidity quickly. Selling Bitcoin became one of the sources of that liquidity.
Heavy Price Deflation Ahead
Overall, there is a chance that this scenario turns into something truly ugly, with sustained price deflation across many parts of the economy. We will certainly have price deflation in many sectors, at least on a temporary basis. Why does that matter over the long term? Price deflation is the most debilitating economic development in a society that is debt-laden – like the U.S. today. Prices of assets come down… and the debt becomes progressively bigger and bigger. The balance sheet of oil company Chesapeake Energy is a classic example. It’s carrying almost $10 billion worth of debt… versus a market cap of only about $600 million. Talk about leverage! When the company had a market cap of $10 billion, that debt level didn’t appear so terrifying. Although this is an extreme example for illustrative purposes, the massive debt loads of China would seem more and more frightening if we were to sink into flat or negative growth cycles for a while. The government’s resources are already being strained, and it can artificially support only so many failing companies. The U.S. has gigantic levels of debt as well, but it has the advantage of being the world’s true hegemon, and the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. This creates a tremendous amount of leverage and power in financing its debt. The U.S. has been able to impose its will on its trading partners to trade major commodities in dollars. This has created a constant demand for the dollar that offsets, to a large extent, the massive trade deficit that the U.S. runs. For example, if a German company wants to buy oil, then it needs to hold dollars. This creates a constant demand for dollar assets. In short, the dollar’s status as the true global reserve currency is far more important than most people realize. China does not hold this advantage.
What to Do Now
In terms of how to position ourselves going forward, I strongly recommend that people continue with a defensive attitude regarding stocks. There could be a lot more downside to come. Likewise, we could see some panic selling in other asset classes. The best thing right now is to be liquid and patient, ready to pounce on special opportunities when they present themselves. For sure, there will be some exceptional opportunities, but it is too early to commit ourselves to just one industry. These opportunities could come in diverse sectors such as commercial real estate, hospitality, travel and leisure, and others. As for the forex markets, the volatility in the currencies is extreme, so we are a bit cautious. I still like the yen as a safe-haven asset. I likewise still want to sell the Australian dollar, the New Zealand dollar, and the Canadian dollar as liability currencies. Why? The Bank of Canada, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand have all taken aggressive steps recently, slashing interest rates. These currencies are all weak, and they will get weaker. Finding an ideal entry for a trade, however, is tricky. Therefore, we are being extra careful with our trading. We always prioritize the preservation of capital over generating profits, and we will continue with this premise. At the same time, volatility in the markets is fantastic for traders. We expect many excellent opportunities to present themselves over the coming days and weeks as prices get driven to extreme levels and mispricings appear. So stay tuned.
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