Asia Archives

January Effect

Traditionally in the US, January is a time for chasing small caps. The NASDAQ has outpaced the S&P 500 almost 7% to 4.6% so far this month. In Asia, some of the larger markets will close or be affected by the closures around the Chinese New Year Holiday. Since the New Year will be a Dragon Year, expect at least a few strong sessions when markets reopen.

What does this mean for riskier assets? A bullish forecast off the back of a January rally is a dangerous one. Right now, the positives and potential negatives suggest another volatile year.

Housing Stocks Come Back to Life

There is no doubt that the US is starting to rouse from the GFC imposed slumber. A Financial Crisis induced recession is harder to bounce back from than the more common inventory cycle recession. One consequence (amongst many) is that one traditional avenue of entrepreneurial capital (residential real estate) has not be readily available to finance new business start-ups because of falling housing prices and general bank reluctance to extend credit to the private sector. That deep freeze appears to be thawing a bit. The bellwethers of the US domestic housing market (ITB and XHB for ETFs, LOW, HD, PHM, and LEN for individual stocks) have turned up strongly. Will this be a “head fake” like the last time XHB surged from July 8th 2009 to April 23rd 2010 (+89%)? Perhaps, but with other positive “green shoots”, this surge (from October 4th 2011, +58%) may not reverse as dramatically as the last one. Given the sharp run-up and some good earnings reports, don’t be surprised if there is a correction in the coming weeks, though.

The housing sector bears watching. If entrepreneurs can unlock capital in residential housing, the Great American Job Creation Machine can crank back into gear (recent job report numbers are rounding errors compared to what they should be for a full blooded recovery).

Summer in Europe?

Unfortunately in our interconnected world, the troubles brewing in Europe still look likely to cause more heartburn in the next few months. There is little doubt that Europe has failed to sort out the sovereign debt crisis of its periphery to the satisfaction of financial markets. Credit agency downgrades only confirm what most market players have been saying for months…the sums do not add up. The next “final deal” will just be one of a series of “deals” that will see a series of painful writedowns for the banks. Bank Capital is being bolstered largely by clever accounting tricks these days. And with hedge funds buying up troubled sovereign debt and relatively cheap Credit Default Swaps, the prospect for an orderly “voluntary” haircut looks somewhat diminished. The rot is spreading from the periphery to the core and until the Germans are forced to make some hard political decisions, the rot will continue to spread inward.

So what is left for Europe? Very likely…devaluation.

In a rambling article for Bloomberg, two professors from MIT make the case that Italy is crucial to the Euro’s survival and that unlike most other European countries, Italy has a significant amount of trade outside the EU (55% of exports according to the authors). Given those two factors, a Euro trading at parity with the US dollar should help Northern Italian exporters boost exports enough to make a difference. And, since Italy boasts a massive and vulnerable bond market, any improvement should help to relieve pressure on the Euro’s long term survival as a common currency (ETF: FXE).

How will this play in the US and other emerging markets?

In the short term, it means that a summer holiday in Europe might be a great bargain. In the medium to longer term, a more competitive Europe could hamper any manufacturing renaissance in the US as a large swing in exchange rates allow German exporters to price more keenly than US Midwestern component makers (and makers of commercial aircraft). For China, the authorities in Beijing probably have enough fiscal and monetary firepower to overcome the negative effects of a Euro devaluation (the Eurozone is both a large customer and competitor of China).

One can only guess whether China will continue to diversify its foreign exchange holdings into Euros. Given the likelihood of a significantly lower exchange rate in the not too distant future, it would not be surprising to see the People’s Bank directing its traders towards other currencies for the time being. Given the massive size of the foreign exchange reserves and China’s desire to hold down domestic inflation, the US dollar is probably the only reasonable home for recycling the trade surplus (ETF: UUP).

Extreme Money Flows

ewj Extreme Money Flows

My buy order for EWJ was ignored on Tuesday morning. It wasn’t a large order. I was just putting it in to see if I could pick up the ETF on the cheap.

Unfortunately, I got a bit too clever on the limit (previous close less 10%) so I did not get filled. By 10am, I was pretty sure that I had missed the boat.

Why is that important?

Because the market meltdown in Japan and subsequent bounce are not being driven by rational calculations of the damage to the economy…it is just guesswork at this point. Nor is it a rational response to the nuclear power plant disaster. Our only comparable nuclear power accident scenarios happened decades ago.

It was the dramatic movement of money.

Smart Money Investors panicked and stabbed the sell button as soon as they saw their competitors doing the same. No one was waiting to see if mutual funds were going to be redeemed on the back of the shocking pictures and videos that blanketed the airwaves and bandwidth.

But, foreign investors only own about 25% of the Japanese equity market. There was only so much they could do. And once the selling pressure eased off…investors jumped in and bid the market up (both in Tokyo on Wednesday and EWJ not long after the opening bell on Tuesday).

The lesson in all this is that the weight of money can have dramatic effects on the value of assets. Japan’s “big picture” has not changed since last week. This week it is still the world’s #3 economy with an aging population, strong export sector, shocking level of government debt and extremely low interest rates. In the short term, it has sustained a mighty blow from Mother Nature but it has the institutions and experience to deal with the disaster. Fundamentally nothing much has changed. Emotionally, there have been several very big shifts.

What does the Fund King System have to say about it?

asia Extreme Money FlowsThe System was not built for “Black Swan” events like this. What it can tell you is that Asia leading up to this event had some pretty crummy numbers behind it. Japan was the strongest of a weak bunch but the whole region is under a dark cloud of uncertainty over China’s short term economic outlook.

The first shocks have hit the market and there will undoubtedly be more aftershocks. One of the longer lasting aftershocks will be in the energy sector. As governments around the world (like Germany) take a close look at their nuclear power programs, the demand for oil is likely to rise. With the popular uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East threatening to disrupt the supply side, oil prices are likely to remain firm for the foreseeable future.

A Shiny Example

SLV has had a nice run since breaking north of $30 in the middle of February. That is not news but a checkable fact. For those investors who noticed that SLV was at the top of their rankings since July 12th of last year (when SLV closed at $17.62), it was a good opportunity to make money in a relatively non-correlated asset class. The only time it got sticky was at the beginning of this year when the price corrected.

The reason that we bring this up is not to brag. While SLV has done well, other investments that have made it into the top rankings have fared less well. The point is that most of those investments were eventually replaced by new market movers while SLV has hung in at the top of the lists despite the 10% correction that we saw in January. While we may have worried in these posts that the rerating between Gold and Silver may have run most of its course, the System kept pointing out that there was strong momentum behind the asset and that there were not that many more promising assets out there at the weekly measurement points.

My only slight regret…not swapping GLD for SLV a few weeks back when I was adjusting my Seeking Alpha ETF Portfolio. I would have looked very clever. But, in calmer moments, I realize that the regret and the emotion behind that regret is precisely why one should use an unemotional system to help execute one’s investment plan.

So, should you buy SLV now? Well, that all depends. Does it make sense as part of your universe? And, if it does, ask why? Make sure that you are not adding at this point because of past performance. Make sure that it is in there because you think other investors are worried about the US dollar or you think there is a chance that the Biomedical uses of silver are poised to go through the roof. In short, remember to separate the Asset Selection process from the Asset Trading process. And what happens when something better comes along in your universe? That’s easy, switch.

A Tarnished Example

Now that PIMCO has finally gotten it through to folks that, yes, they really are not keen on US Government paper (no link…too many choices), let’s look at how two bellwethers fared in the Fund King System.

TLT (which tracks 20 year plus US Treasuries) has been at or near the bottom of the US Sector ETF Universe since the beginning of November 2010. And less long term TLH (tracking 10-20 year Treasuries) has joined the bottom of the pile in another ETF portfolio since the end of November.

So, whether you were in the “Don’t Fight the Fed” or “Hyperinflation Around the Corner” camp, the Fund King System told you to steer clear of the asset class for the last three months. Even the FED could not buy up enough long dated Treasuries to keep TLT from dropping 10% over the period. Mr. Gross, the head of PIMCO noted in his newsletter that the FED has been buying as much as 70% of the newly issued Treasuries of late.

What does it mean?

There is nothing wrong with SLV , TLT or TLH in absolute terms. Each of these ETFs represents claims on perfectly good assets. The deep meaning to take away from these two examples is that it does not pay to fight the trends. If investors (on balance) are shifting money out of US Treasuries and into hard assets like Silver, there is little point in trying to stand in the way. At some point, the tides of money will change directions and other asset classes will get swept up or down. When interest rates rise a couple hundred basis points, Bill Gross and his PIMCO colleagues will be back on the bid side. Why? Because they are in the business to make money; and money is made by buying low and selling high.

An interesting read

Supporters of Ron Paul can sometimes be a prickly bunch. But, they occasionally come up with very thought provoking concepts.

I like a good bash so when I came across an article entitled: “How to End the Federal Reserve System” by Gary North, I was prepared for a rehash of the old arguments about an evil cabal on Jekyll Island in 1910. But the real strength of the article comes about halfway through when Mr. North analyzes the demise of a government agency which had also been granted monopoly powers: the US Postal Service. He draws some interesting parallels about what technology could do to the Federal Reserve System long before Ron Paul and his supporters in Congress are able to rescind the Fed’s legal mandate.

Basically, the ability to move into other currencies with a few well place computer key strokes or even to develop new mediums of exchange means that even an institution as powerful and influential as the Federal Reserve is not immune from obsolescence.

Part of the appeal of ETFs like GLD and SLV is that they are theoretically redeemable into a fixed amount of Gold and Silver respectively. While pitched as a new idea, the concept of convertibility into precious metals was once the cornerstone of the US dollar’s value (and most other currencies before that). In an interconnected world that can work with services like PayPal, it’s probably only a matter of time before someone reinvents a multinational global fractional banking and payment system backed by gold, silver or some other store of value. If it is tied into Visa, Mastercard and American Express, one need not worry about carrying about sacks of heavy metal to the grocery store. Just as email eclipsed the first class letter (something that was unthinkable as recently as 20 years ago), there is a risk of a new currency system taking the premier spot occupied by the US dollar today.

Just because the risk exists, however, does not mean it will come to pass. The biggest difference between the US Post Office and the Federal Reserve is that the latter is a privately owned, profit seeking entity. Long before we are all paid in PayPal credits or Googles, the Federal Reserve (which is owned by and represents the largest US banks) will feel compelled to take steps to shore up the value of the US dollar. That more than anything else will lead to a change in policy that will likely see higher interest rates in the not too distant future.

While you are pondering your long term investment strategy, make sure to include a plan for higher interest rates.

What happens to Japan now?

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on Friday will impact the country and the economy in ways that are hard to foresee at the moment. Despite the shocking video and photos, however, the natural disasters are unlikely to have a significant long term impact on the economy. As long as the authorities can keep the nuclear fallout to a minimum, the biggest issue will be reconstruction and who will buy the fresh batch of JGBs. That points to another force for higher than near zero interest rates in the world’s #3 economy.

From an investors’ point of view, the Nikkei 225 was the best of a weak bunch (Asia has lagged since November of last year) in our universe of 11 Asian indices as of Friday’s rankings. The earthquake and tsunami do not significantly change the long term public finance fundamentals of the country and most of the familiar exporting names have transferred significant portions of their manufacturing base to locations around the world in the last few decades.

Should you buy? If your universe is only Asian Equities: then perhaps. But, if you are looking at a broader range of asset classes, there are quite a few commodity based ones that look more attractive. As Japan is import dependent for almost all of its commodity needs, there are better places to invest your money.

The Rising Dollar

As we pointed out last week, the yield curve in the US dollar is just too attractive for any profit seeking financial institution to ignore. Until the trade becomes less attractive or something better comes along, expect continued US dollar strength. (DXY is the dollar index; UUP is an ETF which closely tracks the DXY).
dxyuup The Rising Dollar
Source: Bloomberg

Why is the yield curve so steep?

Relative Yield Curves The Rising DollarThe short term (or left hand) end of the curve is anchored by government fiat (in the US through the agency of an independent Federal Reserve). Many pundits, experts and others expend tremendous resources to divine the inner thoughts of the men and women in charge of that decision. However, it does not take away from the fact that the Fed Funds rate is set by committee and not the market. The rest of the curve is determined by pure supply and demand. Will this always lead to a steep curve? No. Sometimes the Federal Reserve needs to squeeze inflation out of the system in which case, a higher than otherwise expected Fed Funds rate is decided upon. Under the right circumstances, that can lead to an “inverted curve” of high short rates and lower medium and long term rates.

Supply

On the supply side of the equation, with a US Federal deficit running well over 10% of GDP per annum for the foreseeable future, it is clear that we will not run out of US government debt instruments any time soon. Such a large and growing supply should and does fuel downward price pressure (and upward yield pressure) on the long end of the market. Those investors who fear that ever larger government spending programs will eventually lead to system wide inflation are amongst those who worry about the supply dynamics of the treasury market. When you hear a “Treasury Bear” argument which is framed entirely in terms of future supply, be careful with the recommendation because it is build upon only half the story. Supply is not the only factor.

Demand

Demand is driven by rational economic calculation and emotion.

The rational economic calculation is a long term estimate of growth and inflation rates by which investors weigh the purchase of a medium or long term Treasury against alternative investment options. Those considerations are well discussed in the market and tend to change slowly on a quarter by quarter basis. Has something fundamental changed in the last three or four weeks? Possibly. The Euro’s foundation has been show to be a lot weaker than previously expected. That doesn’t impact US treasuries directly but it does reduce the attractiveness of Euro Government Debt instruments that compete for investor attention. Right now, the biggest source of demand comes from the banks who are able to borrow at the short end rate and “lend” it back to the US Government in the form of 2,3 and 4 year Treasuries.

The emotional side is responsible for the short term moves. Emotional factors are almost always couched in fundamental terms. Sometimes those short term emotional excuses will become longer term rational economic calculations. However two things are for sure. They start out as emotions and investors often don’t realize they are reacting to emotions because they rationalize the decisions as fundamental changes in the economic landscape. Very rarely will a fund manager get on TV to announce that he or she is petrified by the market and plans to hide in two year treasuries for the time being. It is much more likely to hear the fund manager point out two or three recent datapoints as justification for making a mid-course asset allocation adjustment.

What are the emotional buttons today? Europe has certainly provided the bulk of them lately but one shouldn’t forget the employment figures in the US, the retail figures (both can be bundled into general “double dip” recession fears), China’s property bubble and a myriad of other worries lurk in today’s financial markets.

The Giant Sucking Sound

In the 1992 Presidential Campaign, Ross Perot warned that the NAFTA trade agreement would move so many jobs from the US to Mexico that the result would be akin to a Giant Sucking Sound. If Ross Perot were in charge of the European Central Bank, he might be hearing that sound today as European financial institutions fall all over themselves and other global players to participate in the US dollar yield curve trade. The reason we do not hear Mr. Trichet moaning too loudly is because a weaker Euro is precisely what political leaders in Germany, France and Northern Italy want to see. From luxury goods to machine parts to wine, cheese, ham and sports cars, Europe’s exports will receive a nice short term boost. With capacity utilization at 75% and rising however, the fun cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely as Europe’s banks will need to refocus on bread and butter loans. So, while it is fun to attribute some sort of deeper meaning to the Euro heading back to parity with the US Dollar, larger fundamental forces in Europe will likely remove some of the demand for US dollars when European manufacturers try to expand on the back of strong export sales.

So, what does this mean for investors?

A rising dollar means that commodities (mostly priced in dollars) are unlikely to rise soon. Part of that is the dollar price tag but another part is falling demand from the Eurozone. Oil in particular can be quite sensitive on the downside to a strong US dollar.

With petroleum products like gasoline not rising (contrary to what normally happens during the US summer driving season) and European imports on sale, expect the mushy US retail numbers to improve through Labor Day at least. Consumers won’t necessarily spend just because gasoline prices are low but if there is a sale on as well, wallets should open. Therefore, we are not surprised to see VCR and XLY in the top rankings of the system.

Will GLD perform well? Not likely. Short term Treasuries and Gold are competing for the attention of the panic stricken investor. If we toss in near term US dollar strength, the balance tips from non-yielding gold to low yielding treasuries. Of course, all of these conditions are reversible so if one sees gold correct nicely in the coming months ($800-900), a sensible investment opportunity may present itself on the next upcycle.

How about equities by region? Small caps are showing continued resilience in the US but there is not much conviction behind the trade. Large caps, as represented by SPY, are not going anywhere with a very slim preference for Value (slightly ahead) over Growth (slightly behind). Large Cap European stocks (FEZ, for example) are at the bottom of the rankings as the sovereign debt issues play out at large European banks, swamping the positive benefits accruing to the large export manufacturers. Emerging Europe is still promising as it will benefit from export driven outsourcing from Germany as well as M&A opportunities as mature European corporates are compelled to switch focus from expensive US dollar based assets to cheaper Euro linked asset markets.

Asia is a mixed bag. Japan’s equity market looks to be cooling off a bit as the Yen is the only other currency as strong as the US dollar. China is at the bottom of the list for largely internal reasons related to the unwinding of a property bubble while India is close to the top of the rankings. Other Asian markets, which are tied to the US dollar, are in the middle of the pack and can be safely underweighted at this point.

Bear Market Blues

An unpleasant task but it is important to step back and remember where we are in the greater cycle of investing.

Here are the three questions:

  1. Are we in a Secular Bear Market?
  2. What does a Secular Bear Market look like?
  3. Why are we in a Secular Bear Market?

The third question will help us to see the signposts for the next Secular Bull Market. The signposts are both political and interest rate driven.

Are we in a Secular Bear Market?

The answer is Yes. Does that mean the market will go in a straight line down and there are no investment opportunities to be had? No…except, as we shall see, Japan. Just as certain asset classes surged and corrected during the Secular Bull Market of the 80’s and 90’s, certain asset classes will surge and correct during a Bear Market Phase as well.

What does a Secular Bear Market look like?

djialog Bear Market Bluesspxlog Bear Market Bluesnikkeilog Bear Market Blues
Here is the Dow and S&P500 which can be put together in a few minutes using Yahoo Finance and Excel. Charts and statistics can be manipulated to tell a particular story and these charts are no exception. We have used a logarithmic scale (so a 10% rise in the 1950’s looks like a 10% rise in the 1990’s) and have squeezed it to emphasize the long term time periods. On top of that, we have laid lines of our choosing to frame your thinking. Why bother describing this? Because it is important to think about the construction of any chart that might influence your investment process. Don’t be afraid to draw different lines and even conclusions.
Source: Yahoo Finance DJIA, SPX, Nikkei

The most interesting thing to note about the two US market charts is that a Secular Bear Market is not a smooth downward progression that the words imply. A Bear Market is generally defined as a 20% drop from the peak but that definition refers to a cyclical bear market. And, since many of those 20% drops happen quickly in otherwise Secular Bull Markets, one can see how the general perception of a Secular Bear Market is formed. However, the longer term beast that prowls the financial markets these days is a generally sideways affair. Generally, because one always has the example of Japan, which has gone to great efforts to make the last 20 years as dreary as possible.

Why are we in a Bear Market?

This is an important question because it will help us find the signposts for the next phase. Despite many sunny assurances that the Great Recession is behind us, the world does not feel like it is enjoying a strong recovery. A big part of the problem is the structure of the developed world’s economies. After a long period of globalization and attendant wealth creation, the demands for pensions, government programs, subsidies, worker protections and the like have finally taken a toll on the fiscal positions of many European and US states. The government’s share of GDP has grown dramatically, particularly in response to the Global Financial Crisis. Good growth is being crowded out by Government growth.

What should we look for? Dramatic action. The US and Europe did not break out of the malaise of the 70’s until dramatic actions were taken. Governments in the US and Europe will have to make some hard choices over the coming few years in order to set up for the next round of economic growth. What signs should one look for? Political reordering, sneaky pension cuts for public employees, a change in Social Security retirement age in the US and perhaps a government willing to stand up to public employee unions.

On the financial side of the equation, the big problem is that there is plenty of liquidity being created in the banking system but very little is being turned into money that businesses and individuals can use.

sgs m3 Bear Market Blues

Courtesy of ShadowStats.com

Why isn’t money moving from the Federal Reserve to Main Street? Simply because it makes no sense for US banks to even look at making a loan.

Relative Yield Curves Bear Market BluesThis chart is presented in a fashion that one might not be familiar with because we are showing it from the bank’s perspective. To a bank with access to short term Fed Funds, the dramatically steep curve in US dollar rates means that the bank can make a bundle in the US by simply borrowing at next to nothing and lending it to the US Government for a few years. Compared to the complexities of a 30 fixed rate mortgage, this trade is the path of least resistance. Not only do you not need loan officers, you do not need an advanced degree to lay on the trade.
Data Source: Bloomberg

For now, it means that banks and other financial institutions around the world will continue to crawl over each other to get in on the trade. That means continued dollar strength (UUP) and weakness in the British Pound (FXB) and Euro (FXE) for the foreseeable future.

The signpost to look for is the flattening of the yield curve. When the long end comes down (because the FED appears determined to keep the short end anchored near zero) the loan officers will be out in force to recycle the profits that are being racked up today. Once that engine restarts, expect to see a huge surge in asset prices, economic activity and eventually, inflation.

What to do in the meantime?

As we pointed out in the beginning of the post, the next few years will be dominated by the Secular Bear Market. That means a general sideways drift with plenty of smaller bull and bear cycles along the way. To make money in rotational markets one must pay close attention to asset allocation and being ready to shift assets between classes. The old “Buy and Hold” formula which worked so well for almost two decades will only deliver very slim returns with lots of volatility. We continue to refine and test the Fund King System to meet the challenges of these markets.

Right now the System is telling us to stay in the following asset classes: Emerging Europe (TUR is back), High Yield, India, Tech, Reits, US Consumer, US Small Caps and Homebuilders. In our commodities only portfolio, only Gold (GLD) and Silver (SLV) look interesting.

For more information, go to our Portfolios Page. Gold members can see the most recent recommendations.

Disclosures: We eat our own cooking so you can safely assume that we own, have recently owned or are about to own the ETFs discussed here. In this particular post, we do not own GLD or SLV although we have owned both in the recent past.