Category Archives: Investing

Stock Market Warning Siren is Blaring, by Wolf Richter

Stop us if you’ve heard this one: the stock market is massively overvalued. Well, it is overvalued, and Wolf Richter got the stats and charts to prove it. From Richter at wolfstreet.com:

Are we blinded yet by the brilliance of corporate earnings?

“Adjusted” earnings growth is 10.2% year-over-year in the second quarter, according to FactSet, based on the 91% of the companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results. The energy sector was a key driver, with 332% “adjusted” earnings growth from the oil-bust levels of a year ago.

The sectors with double-digit earnings growth: information technology (14.7%), utilities (10.8%), and financials (10.3%). The rest were single digit. Earnings in the consumer discretionary sector declined.

Revenues grew 5.1%, also led by the energy sector. At the beginning of Q2 last year, the WTI grade of crude oil traded at $35 a barrel. In Q2 this year, WTI ranged from $42 to $53 a barrel.

So the Wall-Street hype machine is cranking at maximum RPM to propagate the great news that earnings are soaring, and that this is the reason why stocks should also be soaring, and forget everything else. The hype machine carefully avoids showing the bigger picture which is dismal for earnings and ludicrous for stock valuations.

Aggregate earnings per share (EPS) for the S&P 500 companies on a trailing 12-months basis rose for the second quarter in a row. That’s the foundation of the Wall Street hype. But here’s the thing with these EPS: they’re now back where they had been in… May 2014.

Yep. More than three years of earnings stagnation. No growth whatsoever, even for “adjusted” earnings. In fact, on a trailing 12-month basis, aggregate EPS of the S&P 500 companies are down about 5% from their peak in Q4 2014. And yet, over the same three-plus years of total earnings stagnation, the S&P 500 index has soared 34%.

This chart shows those “adjusted” earnings per share for the S&P 500 companies (black line) and the S&P 500 index (blue line). Chart via FactSet (click to enlarge). I marked August 2012 as the point five years ago, and May 2014:

And these are not earnings under the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). FactSet uses “adjusted” earnings for its analyses. These are the earnings with the bad stuff “adjusted” out of them by management to manipulate earnings into the most favorable light. Not all companies report “adjusted” earnings. Some only report GAAP earnings and live with the consequences. But others put adjusted earnings into the foreground, and that’s what Wall Street dishes up.

To continue reading: Stock Market Warning Siren is Blaring

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If This is 1929… by Michael Batnick

The market is richly valued, only in 2000 and 1929 has it been more expensive, and we know how those years turned out. From Michael Batnick at theirrelevantinvestor.com:

Eight days before the market bottomed in July 1932, Ben Graham wrote an article in Forbes, Should Rich But Losing Corporations Be Liquidated? In it he wrote, “More than one industrial company in three selling for less than its net current assets, with a large number quoted at less than their unencumbered cash.” At a time when the CAPE ratio was just above 5, many businesses were worth more dead than alive.

In the ten-years leading up to the crash in 1929, the CAPE ratio went from a low of 5.02 up to 32.56. Today, it’s as close to the 1929 peak as it’s ever been, with the exception of the late 1990s. “The CAPE ratio in the United States has never gotten above 30 without a subsequent market crash” would be a true statement. Perhaps misleading, with a sample size of two, but true nonetheless. So is it possible that today is 1929 redux?

What would have to happen for companies to be selling for less than their net current assets? I don’t have the slightest idea. An asset bubble built on the back of artificially low rates seems like the obvious answer, so that can’t be right, but if it is, I warned ya. But honestly, for the market to fall 90%, I’m thinking aliens, an asteroid, or another world war seem the most likely culprits.

hoover-2

The aftermath of the depression was a gold mine for value investors. Well, really for any investors, but for those that measured intrinsic value, it was nearly impossible to miss. From The White Sharks of Wall Street:

Here was a company being offered for sale for less than the cash in its pocket! All a fellow had to do was borrow the purchase price, buy the company, and use the company’s own cash to pay off the loan- it was like getting the company for free. Why wasn’t everyone lining up to bid against him? The answer lies partly in the psychological baggage that American industry carried out of the Depression. Despite the almost unprecedented prosperity brought by government wartime contracts, many American business leaders believed that the nation would slide promptly back into a depression the moment the war was over. A gamble on the scale that Evans was prepared to take was simply unthinkable for most of them. The engine for the deal, after all, was debt. And going into debt to finance a speculative venture- well, wasn’t that what the 1920s had been about? And didn’t it end very badly?

To continue reading: If This is 1929…

This Hits the Wheezing Commercial Real Estate Bubble at Worst Possible Time, by Wolf Richter

Are the Chinese withdrawing from the US commercial real estate market. If so, that’s not bullish for real estate prices. From Wolf Richter at wolfstreet.com:

The last big enthusiastic buyer, China, is leaving the party.

Commercial real estate, such as office and apartment towers, in trophy cities in the US and Europe has been among the favorite items on the long and eclectic shopping lists of Chinese companies. At the forefront are the vast, immensely indebted, opaquely structured conglomerates HNA, Dalian Wanda, Anbang Insurance, and Fosun International. In terms of commercial real estate, the party kicked off seriously in 2013. Over the two years in the US alone, according to Morgan Stanley, cited by Bloomberg, Chinese firms have acquired $17 billion worth of commercial properties.

In the second quarter in Manhattan, Chinese entities accounted for half of the commercial real estate purchases. This includes the $2.2 billion purchase in May of the 45-story office tower at 245 Park Avenue, the sixth largest transaction ever in Manhattan. At $1,282 per square foot, the price was also among the highest ever paid for this type of property.

Most of HNA’s funding for this deal — one of its 30 major acquisitions since the beginning of 2016 — was borrowed from China’s state-owned banks. But HNA also borrowed $508 million from JPMorgan Chase, Natixis, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, and Societe Generale. This has been the hallmark for all Chinese acquirers: a lot of borrowing from China and some funding from offshore sources.

Similarly, Chinese acquirers accounted for about one-quarter of commercial property transactions in central London in 2016, according to the Morgan Stanley report. In Australia, over the past few years, Chinese firms accounted for 12% to 25% of all office transactions by value.

But now these conglomerates and other Chinese firms engaging in outbound acquisitions have run into a veritable buzz saw of regulatory efforts by Chinese authorities designed to accomplish two things: slow down these capital outflows; and keep the Chinese banks from getting perforated by their exposure to the overleveraged conglomerates.

The authorities put the banks under intense pressure to deleverage. And the banks put the conglomerates under pressure to deleverage. A number of deals have already gotten scuttled.

To continue reading: This Hits the Wheezing Commercial Real Estate Bubble at Worst Possible Time

 

What’s the Safest Investment in Troubled Times? by Charles Hugh Smith

Charles Hugh Smith makes a strong case for going long bat guano. From Smith at oftwominds.com:

An investment that can be gutted by financial rules changing overnight is not safe.

What’s the safest investment as the global economy enters increasingly risky, troubled times? I’ve reviewed hundreds of academic papers, investment reports and newsletters and researched long-term strategies and backtests and reached one conclusion.
I won’t keep you in suspense: it’s bat guano (or seabird guano if you can’t get the bat stuff). Yes, bat doo-doo is the safest single investment on the planet.
OK, so I didn’t do a lot of fancy research because that would have been a waste of time.If the era we’re entering is fundamentally unlike the previous eras, then studying past investment results and strategies will generate dangerously misleading conclusions.
Here’s the thinking that leads to bat guano being the number one Safest Investment.
1. The safest investment must have permanent, substantial demand supporting the bid. People need to eat, and nowadays that means having access to high-quality, organic fertilizers like bat and seabird guano.
No matter what happens in the global economy, people will still need to eat and they will need fertilizer to grow enough food to avoid mass starvation. People will trade oil, gold, whatever they have of value for food, and while everybody knows about fresh water, good soil and oil to run the tractors and delivery vehicles, the essential role of wide-spectrum fertilizers is often unappreciated.
2. There can’t be super-cheap substitutes that are extracted/manufactured everywhere. You can get the various components of fertilizer from other sources, but bat/seabird guano is an excellent source of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potash (Potassium), the essential N-P-K of fertilizers.
The sources for P and K are not all that abundant. In my view, there are no readily available dirt-cheap substitutes for bat guano.
3. An investment that can be gutted by financial rules changing overnight is not safe. If there’s one thing we know about real financial crises, it’s that the rules will change overnight, and keep on changing.

Bob Rodriguez – We are Witnessing the Development of a “Perfect Storm” by Robert Huebscher

Before he retired, Bob Rodriguez was one of the best portfolio managers in the business, and he often went public with his iconoclastic, and often spot on, views. An interview with Rodriguez by Robert Huebscher at advisorperspectives.com:

Robert L. Rodriguez was the former portfolio manager of the small/mid-cap absolute-value strategy (including FPA Capital Fund, Inc.) and the absolute-fixed-income strategy (including FPA New Income, Inc.) and a former managing partner at FPA, a Los Angeles-based asset manager. He retired at the end of 2016, following more than 33 years of service.

He won many awards during his tenure. He was the only fund manager in the United States to win the Morningstar Manager of the Year award for both an equity and a fixed income fund and is tied with one other portfolio manager as having won the most awards. In 1994 Bob won for both FPA Capital and FPA New Income, and in 2001 and 2008 for FPA New Income.

The opinions expressed reflect Mr. Rodriguez’ personal views only and not those of FPA.

I spoke with Bob on June 22.

In a recent quarterly market commentary Jeremy Grantham posited that reversion to the mean may not be working as it has in the past. What are your thoughts on mean reversion?

There will be a reversion to the mean. We are in a very difficult and challenging time for active managers, and in particular, value style managers. Many of these managers are fighting for their economic lives.

Given that I am no longer involved professionally in managing money, I believe the standards in the industry are being compromised; monetary policy has so totally distorted the capital markets. You are now into the eighth year of a period that is unprecedented in the likes of human history.

The closest policy period to what we have now would have been between 1942 and 1951, when the Fed and Treasury had an accord to keep interest rates low. Interest rates were artificially held lower to help finance the World War II effort. With the renewal of inflation after the war, a policy war developed between the Treasury and the Fed on the continuation of a low interest rate policy. The Treasury-Fed of 1951 brought this period to a close. But that is the only time we’ve had a period of nine years of manipulated, price-controlled interest rates.

This was a historical policy I discussed with my colleagues upon my return from sabbatical in 2011: what could unfold were controlled, manipulated and distorted pricing that could disrupt the normal functioning of the capital markets. The historical cycles that Jeremy would be referring to that entailed a reversion to the mean could be distorted, for a period of time, by this type of monetary policy action.

But I do not believe the economic laws of gravity have been permanently changed.

To continue reading: Bob Rodriguez – We are Witnessing the Development of a “Perfect Storm”

Harry Markopolos – Who Exposed Madoff – Has Uncovered a New Fraud, by Robert Huebscher

The fraud is in the Boston Transit Authority’s pension fund. Pursuing fraud in municipal pension funds would be a full time job for 100 accountants. From Robert Huebscher at advisorperspectives.com:

Harry Markopolos, the investigator who exposed the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, has uncovered a new fraud. The unfunded status of the pension fund of the Boston Transit Authority (the “MBTA”) is $500 million bigger than previously thought, according to Markopolos. This will have a significant impact on the municipal bond market, especially if it turns out that the MBTA’s problems are endemic among similar pension funds.

The unfunded status of a pension fund is the market value of the assets minus the present value of the liabilities, discounted at an actuarially determined interest rate. For most public pension plans, this number is negative; the liabilities exceed the assets and it is underfunded.

Although the full details are not yet known, Markopolos said the $500 gap is due to bad investments, fraudulent accounting and unrealistic actuarial assumptions.

Markopolos spoke on June 9 at Northfield Information Service’s 22nd annual summer seminar, held in Newport, RI. Northfield is a provider of advanced analytics to institutional investment managers and wealth managers. Its CEO, Dan diBartolomeo, worked with Markopolos in the Madoff investigation and is helping with the MBTA case.

Markopolos called what is left of the MBTA’s pension a “Tender Vittles retirement plan,” meaning (sarcastically) that its participants would be eating cat food.

The underlying cause of the MBTA’s problems was poor management and oversight. “No good outcomes result when you mix politics and money,” Markopolos said.

The problems began with failed investments in two hedge funds and culminated in the more widespread problems that Markopolos uncovered.

To continue reading: Harry Markopolos – Who Exposed Madoff – Has Uncovered a New Fraud

It’s Really Crazy What This ECB Has Wrought, by Wolf Richter

Europe is a borrower’s paradise and a saver’s hell. From Wolf Richter at wolfstreet.com:

In the land of NIRP refugees and “Reverse Yankees,” who will get crushed?

At the end of the week, something special happened, something totally absurd but part of the new normal: the average yield of euro-denominated junk bonds – the riskiest, non-investment-grade corporate bonds – dropped to the lowest level ever: 2.77%.

April 26 had marked another propitious date in the annals of the ECB’s negative yield absurdity: the average euro-denominated junk bond yield had dropped below 3% for the first time ever.

By comparison, what is considered the most liquid and save debt, the 10-year US Treasury, carries a yield of 2.33%; the 30-year Treasury yield hovers at 3%.

This chart of the BofA Merrill Lynch Euro High Yield Index (data via FRED, St. Louis Fed), shows just how crazy this has gotten in the Eurozone:

It’s not like there’s deflation in the Eurozone, despite rampant scaremongering about it. The official inflation rate in April was 1.9% for the 12-month period. As this chart shows, it’s not likely to go away any time soon (via Trading Economics):

In other words, the average “real” junk bond yield (after inflation) according to the above two indices is now 0.87%. That’s the return bond-buyers get as compensation for handing their money for years to come to non-investment grade corporations – as per an average of the ratings by Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch – with an appreciable risks of default looming on the horizon.

Issuing junk bonds in euros is not just the prerogative of European companies. It includes issuance of junk-rated US companies that seek out this cheap money. “Reverse Yankees,” as these bonds are called, have become a large factor in euro-bond issuance.

And investors that accept a “real” compensation of only 0.87% per year to deal with these risks – have they gone nuts? You bet.

To continue reading: It’s Really Crazy What This ECB Has Wrought