Monday, June 10, 2013

The bear case for equities

I have been fairly bullish in these pages and I remain cautiously bullish today. However, successful investors and traders look at the other side of the coin to see what could go wrong with their thesis. Today, I write about the bear case, or what's keeping me up at night.

The signal from emerging market bonds
James Carville, former advisor to Bill Clinton, famously said that he wanted to be reincarnated as the bond market so that he could intimidate everyone. The message from the bond market is potentially worrying. In particular, emerging market bonds are selling off big time. The chart below of the emerging market bond ETF (EMB) against the 7-10 year Treasury ETF tells the story. The EMB/IEF ratio broke an important relative support level, with little signs of any further support below the break.

Technical breaks like these are sometime precursors of a catastrophic event, much like how the crisis in Thailand led to the Asian Crisis. For now, the concerns are somewhat "contained". Yes, junk bond yileds have spiked...

On the other hand, the relative performance of high yield, or junk, bonds against 7-10 year Treasuries remain in a relative uptrend, which indicates that the trouble remains isolated in emerging markets.

Here is the relative performance of emerging market bonds against junk bonds. They have been in a multi-year trading range. Should this ratio break to the downside, it would be an indication that something is seriously wrong in EM that smart investors would be well advised to sit up and take notice of.

For now, this is just something to watch.

Are European stocks keeling over?
The second area of concern is Europe. Despite my bullish call on Europe (see Europe healing?) European stocks have been performing poorly in this correction. As the chart below of the STOXX 600 shows, the index has fallen below its 50 day moving average, though the 200 day moving average has been a source of support in the past.

The 200 dma is my line in the sand.

Faltering sales and earnings momentum
In the US, high frequency macro indicators are showing a pattern of more misses than beats, as measured by the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index.

Ultimately, a declining macro outlook will feed into Street sales and earnings expectations for the stock market. Ed Yardeni documented the close correlation between the Purchasing Managers Index against revenue estimates.

Viewed in this context, the PMI "miss" last week is especially worrying. Indeed, Yardeni showed that the Street's forward 52-week revenue estimates are now ticking down. Unless margins were to expand, which is unlikely, earning estimates will follow a downward path and provide a headwind for equity prices.

As Zero Hedge aptly puts it, this is what you would believe if you were buying stocks right now:

My take is that the downturn in high frequency economic releases a concern, but it is something to watch and it's not quite time to hit the panic button yet. I agree with New deal democrat in his weekly review [emphasis added]:
After several weeks of more positive signs, last week we returned to the pattern of gradual deterioration that began in February. This week most indicators remain positive and there were fewer negatives...

Last week I said that for me to be sold that the data is actually rolling over, I would want to see a sustained increase in jobless claims and a sustained deterioration in consumer spending. That wasn't happening as of last week, and it certainly didn't happen this week either. The economy still seems to be moving forward - but in first gear.
In summary, most of these concerns are on the "something to watch" list to see if any of these risks turn out to be more serious. My base case, for now, is that the market is undergoing a typical rolling correction, with leadership shifting from interest sensitive issues to deep cyclicals (see my recent post Commodities poised for revival). Until the late cycle commodity stocks roll over, there is probably more upside to stocks from these levels, but I am still looking over my shoulder and defining my risk parameters carefully.

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.


Anonymous said...

Good article.

About Jobless claims; since the Fed has tied QE to unemployment number, wouldn't it be in their best interest to heavy hand unemployment numbers as they see fit?

Can't help but wonder...


The Dumb Money said...

I think it is likely the market has more short term upset, but also that it will likely see much lower levels than today before it goes higher permanently. In other words, the case for panic does not exist, and traders can remain positive, but long-term investors who did not get in the market in 2009-2011 would be wise to be cautious.

Anonymous said...

I think those still in the markets are playing with fire. I don't think you're gonna get a "heads up" moment to pack your bags and get out. There will be no manning the life boats. The ship will just expload.