Wednesday, January 21, 2009
The Economy as Predicted by Stocks and Inflation as Predicted by Gold
The following graph was taken from Jesse's Cafe Americain.
What is of special note is not only that CEO Business Confidence, per the Conference Board's Jan. 16 writeup, is at its lowest level ever (it began in 1976), but that a cursory review of the worst bear markets shown, the ones ending in 1982 and 2002/3, show CEO confidence rebounding significantly before the ultimate stock market bottom. In this case, I fully expect to see the equivalent of the perp walks seen at the end of the most recent bear market or the Pecora Commission of FDR's time.
To save you clicking on the report from the Conference Board, it's grim: basically no CEO saw improvement in his industry or general economic conditions. What is most disconcerting to me is that they still predicted price increases, though only 1% for the year ahead. This may be over-optimistic, however.
Next, please review the most stalwart of all Dow Industrials. McDonald's (MCD) has broken down. I take this to be big and bad news. "Mickey D" made a lower high recently below the September high. Its 50 day moving average is below its 200 day ma for the first time in a long time, and both look to be in danger of turning down. In terms of its own long-term valuation metrics, it is neither cheap nor expensive, and it appears to have a secure yield far above competing short-term money rates. Its products are almost necessities in a world where people are trying to work two jobs if they can find them. It is highly international. Despite today's up-move in the markets, all it could do was to rally to what is now chart resistance. What this may portend for the economy scares me. If the market has seen its bottom, it should have been holding up better and then should be poised to break out to new all-time highs. Perhaps it will, but it's acting opposite to that currently.
The best Dow performer of 2008 was Wal-Mart. It is farther along the stock breakdown stage than MCD. Here is its chart. It moved down today. Perhaps Target is sharpening its pricing; I wouldn't know, but something appears amiss here. You would have been better off buying a Treasury security of any duration from 1 to 30 years than Wal-Mart one year ago, despite its nicely positive 2008 return. This, with MCD, is classic big bear market action. Bears wear out the bulls. In fact, one additional point relates to some uber-bears, such as Bill Fleckenstein.
Last year, I read his book on Greenspan's bubbles. Mr. Fleckenstein publicly converted to the more-bull-than-bear camp late last year. I believe that the conversion that he announced and that of some other bears helped fuel the rally off the November lows. He announced that being bearish had simply become wearing on him. This is again, to me, classic big bear action. We generally get interested in markets because we are bullish on this or that. It is tough to be bearish; it's against a healthy emotional state.
But that's why quants use computers. Here at Econblog Review, we find it emotionally easier to basically ignore investing in the stock market when we don't like its looks, while following its twists and turns. Trying to make money on the downside is tough to do and tough on the spirit. We wish Mr. Fleckenstein very, very well, having admired his work and iconoclastic spirit for some time, but worry that his mini-conversion from the short-only camp was premature.
We all know that T-bonds have sold off lately, but the canary in the coal mine of inflation is gold. Gold, in the form of the GLD exchange-traded fund, looks to be in a critical technical position.
The first thing to notice, though the image is a bit obscured, is that GLD has provided a negative total return over the past 12 months. You can't eat relative strength. The second is that there are four (4) price peaks, and each one is below the prior peak. So far, each price peak has been followed by a lower low. The price peaks are out of phase with the stock market price peaks, but interestingly the price lows are in phase.
Most recently, GLD bounced off its upsloping 50 day ma and rebounded near its downsloping 200 day ma. With T-bonds selling off today, if there were true inflation fears, GLD should have been up in follow-through to its recent significant short-term rally. That it was down slightly may mean something.
Every stock and every market of importance over the past year of which I am aware that has had this sort of pattern of lower highs and lower lows has failed to break out to the upside. If Dr. Roubini is correct along with the TIPS market, and the Roubini "stag-deflation" is in the cards, then the fundamentals for gold are poor and those for 2-5 year Treasuries are OK. Most gold is purchased for jewelry use, though much of that is in Asia where people where jewelry that is not highly engineered and therefore sells close to the bullion price and therefore serves as money as well as adornment. Nonetheless, I know NO ONE who is spending on fripperies lately, and I know people both with good jobs such as doctors and people with serious money.
Every stock and bond professional I know who "called" this stock bear and Treasury bull at least one year ago doesn't trust today's stock market bounce. They are divided on the prospects for inflation vs. deflation over the short and medium term, though there is no interest in betting on low inflation over the long term. They all believe that the stock market is headed for new lows.
Also, some long-term wealthy investors I know who have bought and held stocks individually or through non-Madoff truly high-quality managers have been selling stocks over the past year and have now decided to get further out of the market. These people were truly in the market for decades. They are dismayed by what they see happening. They may well have voted for Barack Obama, but nonetheless they are moving definitively away from stocks. It is certain that a short-term bounce in the stock market will not tempt these serious investors back to the stock market any time soon. Unless the collapse of the large financial institutions worldwide is miraculously revealed to have been a big joke, they are getting out and staying out for some time.
The stock market remains too risky for most people. It is OK to miss the bottom of the market should we have seen it last November. If the stock market were a stock, and it were ranked by a standard earnings and price momentum screen such as the one Value Line pioneered and that has been widely imitated, the stock market would scream "sell". Gold would be more of a "Neutral", but we remain both viscerally attracted to it as a concept but skeptical of its price prospects over the short term due both to fundamental and technical factors. Treasury bonds would be more like NASDAQ stocks of the late 1990s, which is to say glamor, but the fundamentals and basic chart patterns are both OK to bullish. Just as the stock bubble, including the large-cap S&P stocks of the late 1990s, sent sensible hugely successful investors into retirement because the were too sensible too early and too long, so might this Treasury bull destroy short-seller after short-seller before rolling over, finally having sucked in the public at large, which may finally come to believe in bonds for the long run just when the dawn of a long-term Treasury bear market is born.
Anyway, it's time to support the local economy and support our favorite local eatery. You can't eat either relative performance or computer pixels.
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