As we pan across our portfolios, we notice a definite lowering of the numbers that the System is throwing out in the rankings. The last time this happened was in April/May of 2010 and it definitely foreshadowed a weak stretch for assets at the higher range of the risk spectrum. The numbers remained flat through the summer and started to recover in September of 2010, which coincided with a strengthening of sentiment that carried through until recently.

But what about all the reports of bullishness?

There have been a number of recent articles in all the right papers which have pointed to a general bullish sentiment in the market. These reports are couched in caveats but generally reveal that asset allocators are overweighting equities and bonds and underweighting cash. But the market is not all one way; there are still magazines to sell and as we approach the second anniversary of this strange bull market, we get think pieces like this in Barron’s. Unfortunately, the thinking is not terribly original or prescient.

The problem with these approaches is that they either measure what people say (asset allocation intentions, bullish/bearish sentiment polls) or the way they think things should be (articles bemoaning the historically high CAPE, the Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings ratio or why Gold should be trading at $5,000). They are not measuring what people are actually doing with their money.

Let’s think about how this works. If one owns equities (or property, or bonds, or gold bars), one is by definition bullish. But this is a lagging indicator because the actions surrounding the bullishness have been taken in the past and are unlikely to contribute to further upward price action in the short and medium term (unless the market has been cornered). So, after a run up, which by definition must mean a bunch of new investors have been bidding up prices and filling their portfolios with the asset-du-jour, one would hardly expect those avid collectors to “talk down” the price of their newly acquired assets. The trend can continue only with new money being attracted to the asset in question. That money can come from other asset classes, from the real economy via savings or, in the case of QE1 and QE2, from credits which materialize from FED activity on bank balance sheets. Once the new buying abates, the market pauses and often corrects.

While we make no claims that the Fund King System has any “crystal ball” properties, one of the things it will measure is the momentum of money as it flows into and between the various financial asset classes.

In this week’s survey, the assets still attracting investor favor are Energy, the US, Small Caps and Agriculture. Silver appears to have topped out after rushing to catch up to a more traditional valuation against Gold. It still ranks highly in some of the longer term portfolios but it has been dropping down with Gold on the shorter focused portfolios.

Our advice? It is time to watch the numbers a bit more closely than usual. We could be at the start of a larger correction in risk assets or it could just be a pause to see how some of the latest events turn out. The big issues are, in order of importance from an investment point of view, the level and sustainability of growth in the US, the risk of a slowdown in China induced by inflation fears and an ugly resolution to the Egyptian unrest which would upset the balance of power, peace and trade arrangements in the Middle East.

Inflation Sneaking In?

While trolling through the 24 hour news channels, one thing to watch out for is the quiet risk of inflation. The fact that the best looking assets are in the energy, agricultural and materials sectors leads one to conclude that there is more inflation running through the system than government statistics might suggest. There is no way to properly quantify how much inflation because the two most common measurements (Government Statistic and Personal Observation) are both flawed. The former is flawed because Governments collect and report the data which they use as a yardstick of successful governance. There is no question that the BLS has changed the rules over the past few decades to make the data as flattering as possible. The latter is flawed because our personal viewpoint is too narrow and we tend to focus on the things that are causing us the most anxiety. We tend to overlook those prices which are going down (unless it is our salary or house).

But how can we have inflation if growth is only in the 3-4% zone? Most of us have been schooled on the idea that inflation can only come about when the economy gets overheated (too much money chasing too few goods). When the economy is well below potential, there is little risk of inflation creeping in, right? That is the crux of the FED’s stimulative policy argument. But there is more than one way to create a bit of inflation. If we look at Zimbabwe, for example, its bout of hyperinflation did not come about from extremely robust economic growth. It came from printing up too many pieces of paper (too much money chasing too few goods).

One might be tempted to take comfort in the relatively low yields on long dated US Treasuries. But then again, one needs to look carefully at who is buying the paper. The FED is hardly going to demand an inflation premium on the US Treasuries it is buying with newly created money it created when one of its two mandates is to maintain price stability. I am not accusing anyone of “window dressing” but there is little incentive for the FED to haggle for the best price while it fills its shopping cart with long dated Treasuries.

Shadowstats Alternate Inflation MeasureShadowstats has an interesting take on inflation by taking the 1990 methodology and contrasting that with the current BLS methodology. There is no doubt that some spending patterns have changed since 1990 but it is interesting that the adjustments to the methodology have served to consistently show the US inflation picture in a flattering light.


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Filed under: CommodityFixed IncomeHard CommodityInflation/DeflationInterest RatesMarket CommentMarket PsychologyPrecious MetalsSoft Commodity

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