Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Commodity weakness is likely localized

The old Cam would have been freaking out. The first version of my Inflation-Deflation Trend Allocation Model depended solely on commodity prices as the canaries in the coalmine of global growth and inflationary expectations. The chart below of the equal-weighte Continuous Commodity Index is in a well-defined downtrend. The weakness isn't just restricted to gold, but other commodities like oil and copper are all falling.

However, we found with further research that adding global stock prices to commodity prices as indicators gave us a better signal, in addition to giving us a more stable signal.

Equities not confirming weakness
The three axis of global growth are the US, Europe and China. I am finding that signals from all three regions are not really confirming the signals of weakness given by falling commodity prices. Consider, for example, Caterpillar's earnings report yesterday. The company, which is a cyclically sensitive bellwether, reported punk sales, earnings before the opening bell and revised their outlook downwards [emphasis added]:
We have revised our outlook for 2013 to reflect sales and revenues in a range of $57 to $61 billion, with profit per share of about $7.00 at the middle of the sales and revenues outlook range. The previous outlook for 2013 sales and revenues was a range of $60 to $68 billion and profit per share of $7.00 to $9.00.

“What’s happening in our business and in the economy overall is a mixed picture. Conditions in the world economy seem relatively stable, and we continue to expect slow growth in 2013,” said Oberhelman.

“As we began 2013, we were concerned about economic growth in the United States and China and are pleased with the relative stability we have seen so far this year. In the United States, we are encouraged by progress so far and are becoming more optimistic on the housing sector in particular. In China, first quarter economic growth was slightly less than many expected, but in our view, remains consistent with slow growth in the world economy. In fact, our sales in China were higher in the first quarter of 2013 than they were in the first quarter of 2012, and machine inventories in China have declined substantially from a year ago,” said Oberhelman.

“We have three large segments: Construction Industries; Power Systems; and Resource Industries, which is mostly mining. While expectations for Construction Industriesand Power Systems are similar to our previous outlook, our expectations for mining have decreased significantly. Our revised 2013 outlook reflects a sales decline of about 50 percent from 2012 for traditional Cat machines used in mining and a decline of about 15 percent for sales of machines from our Bucyrus acquisition,” said Oberhelman.

In other words, CAT remains upbeat on US housing. China is weak-ish and mining is in the tank. It seems that much of this negative outlook has been discounted by the market. While the stock fell initially, it rallied to finish positively on the day on heavy volume.

For now, the US economy look OK. I agree with New Deal Democrat when he characterized the high frequency economic releases as "lukewarm". We are not seeing gangbusters growth, but there is no indication that the economy is keeling over into recession either. The preliminary scorecard from the current Earnings Season is telling a similar story. The earnings beat rate is roughly in line with the historical average, although the sales beat rate has been somewhat disappointing.

Risk appetite rising in Europe
Across the Atlantic, Europe is mired in recession. However, there is little sign that tail-risk is rising. I have been watching the relative performance of the peripheral markets in the last few days as stocks have weakened. To my surprise, European peripheral markets have been outperforming core Europe, indicating that risk appetite is rising. Here is the relative performance of Greece against the Euro STOXX 50:

Here is Italy:

...and Spain:

Well, you get the idea.

Weakness in China?
What about China? Chinese growth has been a little bit below expectations, such as the March Flash PMI released overnight. Shouldn't weakness in Chinese infrastructure growth would be negative for commodity prices? Isn't that what the commodity price decline is signaling?

Well, sort of. Maybe. We have seen a great deal of financialization of commodities as an asset class. An alternate explanation of commodity weakness is the unwind of the long positions of financial players . Indeed, analysis from Mary Ann Bartels of BoAML shows that large speculators have moved from a net long to a net short position in the components of the CRB Index:

One key gauge I watch of Chinese demand is the Australian/Canadian Dollar cross rate. Both countries are similar in size and both are commodity producers. Australia is more sensitive to Chines growth while Canada is more sensitive to American growth. As the chart below shows, the AUDCAD cross remains in an uptrend in favor of the Aussie Dollar, though it is testing a support region.

In conclusion, the preliminary verdict from the market is that commodity weakness is localized - for now. Barring further weakness in commodity prices and the other indicators that I mentioned, the implication is that US stock market action will be choppy because of the uncertainty caused by commodity weakness and Earnings Season, but any downside will be limited. As the point and figure chart of the SPX below shows, the S+P 500 remains in an uptrend and I am inclined to give the bull case the benefit of the doubt for now.

So relax and chill out.

Cam Hui is a portfolio manager at Qwest Investment Fund Management Ltd. ("Qwest"). This article is prepared by Mr. Hui as an outside business activity. As such, Qwest does not review or approve materials presented herein. The opinions and any recommendations expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or recommendations of Qwest.

None of the information or opinions expressed in this blog constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security or other instrument. Nothing in this article constitutes investment advice and any recommendations that may be contained herein have not been based upon a consideration of the investment objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific recipient. Any purchase or sale activity in any securities or other instrument should be based upon your own analysis and conclusions. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Either Qwest or Mr. Hui may hold or control long or short positions in the securities or instruments mentioned.


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WimpyInvestor said...

Could the global economy be moving to a new investing regime? If so, are the smart money and hedge fund managers tracking the right "risk on / risk off" indicators?

Consider the US Manufacturing Renaissance and Energy Independence Thesis.

If the global economy is moving towards a world of local manufacturing (e.g., 3D printing) and local servicing (e.g., organic food from sustainable local farms), why track crude oil future, iron ore prices, China electric usage, and other exotic indicators?

Labor cost in China is no longer relevant if the last marginal unit of goods are made in the local markets where the goods will be consumed (e.g., Apple new factory in US, Lexus new factory in US, etc).

Oil prices is no longer relevant in the world of Zip Cars, Hybrids, and Teslas. For sure, shipping costs from "Made in China" goods are no longer relevant for the marginal unit of goods produced in US.

Are hedge funds still tracking complex indicators tied to the old model of "Design in US, Manufacture in China, and Ship Back to US/Developed Markets for Final Consumption?

What are the new indicators to track if indeed the world has moved on to a new global economic model?

Rik said...

It all comes down to risk on while the economy is at best going sideways. Weird unnatural combination.