Semiconductors on the “Other Side of the Mountain”

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What is a reversal formation? It’s where you see distribution after a trend move.  The “Other Side of the Mountain”, or a 1999 style top, is a rare thing of beauty.  It’s the ultimate expression of “fear and greed”; a large group of people, completely oblivious to the reality coming upon them and the rapid transition from FOMO (fear of missing out) to GMO (get me out). There are many kinds of reversal formations, but a classic is the Island Formation. In the US  technology sector, 1999 and 2019 are looking more alike every day. Let us explore…

Land Ho!

Island Formations are rare and news driven. Typically, for an “Island Formation Top”, you would see gappy (short and intense) price action up to a peak, followed by gappy price action down. This is indicative of traders not having enough time to react to rapid news fire. They buy emotionally and then, with a negative change in the news, have to sell right away. This leaves a hard resistance level to overcome ⁠—  “the memory of pain”.  Ideally, one looks for other confirmatory technical indicators. The minimum target is merely the size of the formation itself, but they can be indicative of a permanent reversal of fortunes (for ill or good).

And, as per the above, if the formation happens without a change in the news, it is immediately suspect. Sometimes an island is nice and neat. Other times, however, it probes around a bit and looks a bit sloppy. The latter is what we’re seeing with the SMH Semiconductor ETF. However, individual members thereof had crisper, neater island formations.

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Here is the SMH chart (with detailed commentary below):

SMH Semiconductor ETF — Lookout Below
Part I: The possibility of an island: In April, the SMH Semiconductor ETF enjoyed a parabolic (and, by implication, unsustainable) rise dotted by a plethora of up gaps, indicating desperation to buy. The April 3rd gap was particularly impressive, as there had been a violent up-move day in late March which was immediately reversed in dramatic fashion in the next one and a half trading sessions. The April 3rd gap happened at the peak of that reversal.

Part II: The Prelude to an island:

There had been an uptrend line off the late December/January bottom that tracked nicely with the 50-day moving average. So all looked good until the second half of April. There was a big up day on April 16th, which was followed by a big gap up the next day. After a few days of trading with a peak that failed to hold the highs of the day, we saw a sharp move down on April 25th, then…

Part III: An island is formed:

The first down-gap occurred at the same level as the April 17th up-gap. In other words, an island was formed. The news was reversing quickly: enthusiasm for a deal with China turned into anxiety that one would fail to materialize.

Part IV: Aftermath of the Island top, a new downtrend:

After a tentative move up came to a halt in early May, SMH gapped down again but closed at recovery highs, albeit still down. However, what followed was a negative down-gap the next day and a failed rally attempt the one after…

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Part V: The uptrend breaks down completely:

At this point, true bear recognition that the end was nigh occurred when the uptrend line (in green on the SMH chart) broke. For two days, a noble effort ensued at the 50-day moving average (which latter was flattening out, not good). But all hope was lost the following day with a gap down to 105 and a close near the lows of the day. There followed a meek rally to the underbelly of the 50-day, which was quickly negated by crushing selling below the 100-day and a dramatic gap down. A valiant rally attempt filled the prior day’s gap only to be met with still more selling and a visually meek optimistic close on the 100-day. Then the next day, a gap down followed by yet another gap down the next day.

Clearly, traders were completely whipsawed by the shifting China tariff narrative.

Colossal Rotation is in the Works
A meaningful rotation is in the works here, near historic proportions in our view.  Slow growth consumer staples have outperformed growth stocks in the semiconductor sector by 2200bps (22%) over the last year.

Part VI: Short term base for a short term rally:

Several days of indecision followed this carnage, indicating that 1) ill-considered long positions had been liquidated and 2) a potential trading reversal was in the offing. Sure enough, in early June, we saw the first true solid up day in weeks with a substantial move back up above $100. A touch of indecision the next day preceded a brisk four-day pop that gapped over the 100-day moving average. However…

Part VII: Resumption of the downtrend:

The relief rally ended with a bearish reversal day at the 50-day moving average. This also coincided with the short term reversal top from late March and was roughly at the 50% retracement level of the previous precipitous decline. The next day, it broke the 100-day, though, on the day after, it tested its underbelly. On the third day, however, it gapped down again forming…

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Part VIII: A second mini-island formation:

As a result of today’s gap down, we have had four days of isolated trading at the gap level just below 105. (I excluded the mini-horizontal line in the chart as it clogged up the visual too much…).

In our view, the path of least resistance is down to the $90 area where it had shown support in the late October/mid-November period last year. Lookout below!

Island Formations don’t always work and you don’t always see them. Nonetheless, if the formation fits a violently shifting news flow, as this example clearly does, then the technical analysis and fundamentals agree and we have quickly reversing trade.

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FAANGS, Inequality and Election 2020

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Last week, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission announced their intention to investigate Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple for “anti-competitive behavior”.  In our view, this move is likely at the behest of President Trump in response to a number of Democratic candidates for President, who have become increasingly populist (strict) on “big tech”.  We expect this regulatory and political scrutiny coming from multiple angles to intensify as the election season progresses, which presents significant downside risk for FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) equities.  It will be a populist political arms race and FAANG equities will be sold as public enemy number one.

The Passive Asset Management Overdose

2019: $7T
2009: $1T

*For every $100B entering passive index funds $16B (SPY) to $48B (QQQ) MUST go into FAANG stocks. The QQQ ETF is 48% Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Netflix – Look Out.

The market concentration in these large-capitalization tech stocks, especially through ETFs, means that when the FAANGs sneeze, the whole market could catch a serious cold.

Combined Wealth of the Top 20 Richest People in the US

2019: $1.05 trillion
2009: $438 billion
1999: $570 billion
1989: $138 billion

Tech billionaires Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Page (Google), and Sergey Brin (Google) make up a quarter of this $1.05 trillion in wealth. Bezos alone comprises 10%,  even after his $36 billion divorce haircut. In addition, US Financial accounts are now worth 5.3x GDP, significantly more than the 4.7x ratio in 2009 or 4.5x in 2000. Meanwhile, retail store closings are at an all-time high, compliments of e-commerce, and Silicon Valley is drooling over the prospect of autonomous vehicles, which threaten the jobs of the nearly 5 million Americans employed as drivers of some sort.

“Big Tech” Is a Populist Lightning Rod

This has made the FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) a lightning rod for populists and they are now under attack from all sides of the political spectrum. Nearly every major Democratic 2020 presidential candidate has promised to investigate potential anti-trust violations by “big tech”. Some like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have made plans to limit mega-mergers, what they see as vertical integration, and potentially break some companies like Facebook up central to their campaigns.

Divergence in Consumer Staples vs. FAANGsOver the last few weeks, we’ve seen a divergence between Consumer Staples (XLP) equities and the FAANGs (FANG). This indicates that money is pouring into defensive stocks as investors sense trouble brewing.

Trump and Democrats in Tug of War on Key Voters 

We see the recent announcements out of the DOJ and FTC last week as a response from the Trump administration to populist pressure from the left. The President can direct the general focus of these agencies, and the bureaucrats within them are sensitive to the political considerations of the White House. As the 2020 election kicks into gear, we expect Trump to continue to attempt to outflank his Democratic rivals on the big tech issue — this is just the first inning so get your popcorn now.

In 2016, Trump was able to win over a populist strain of swing voters dissatisfied with their economic circumstances who Republicans hadn’t been able to sway into their camp since Reagan. Many of these voters lost their jobs or had to take a pay cut as a direct consequence of the rise of e-commerce. We’re now seeing a tug of war between Trump and the Democrats over these voters and the proxy issue is big-tech.

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Democrats and Trump Will “One-up” Each Other throughout Election

Democrats are talking tough while Trump is trying to wrench the spotlight back onto himself with antitrust news coming out of the government. We expect this dynamic to intensify as we move into the Democratic debates, or if Sanders or Warren surge in the polls.

Democratic Debates in 2019 Announced So Far:

June 26-27th
July 30-31st
September 12-13th

AMZN, GOOG, and FB Fell on Anti-Trust Announcement Last WeekFAANG stocks had their ninth-worst intraday loss ever on the back of last Monday’s antitrust news (when aggregating their market capitalizations). Facebook was down 7% on the day, while Amazon and Google were down 4.5 and 6%, respectively.  Google also broke a four-year trend channel to the downside – look out below. As the political tug of war escalates, we will likely see more announcements from regulators and more shocks to the FAANGs

FAANGs Dominate ETFs — Markets Beware!

As we noted last July in our blog The Dark Side of FAANGs,  the move into passive asset management (mostly in the form of ETFs) over the last ten years has opened the door to a cascading effect emanating from big tech and its downside risks. In 2009, FAANG stocks were a top 15 holding in just 14 ETFs. Today, that number is over 630.

FAANGs as a percentage of total S&P 500 Market Capitalization

2019: 13%
2018: 11.4%
2017: 10.5%
2016: 8.2%
2015: 7.6%
2014: 6.1%
2013: 5.2%
Market Concentration Creates Vulnerability
The rush into ETFs has created a massive concentration in a select group of large-cap equities, especially the FAANGs and other big tech stocks. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2019, 85% of total US profits came from the top one hundred largest firms. In 1999, this was only 52% and in 1979, it was a mere 46%.
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Dollars, Elections, and Gold

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For the last five years, the Bloomberg Dollar Spot (BBDXY) hasn’t moved an inch:

June 2019: 1200
June 2018: 1200
June 2017: 1200
June 2016: 1200
June 2015: 1200

The Great Hide-Outs
Today, the crowding in US Dollar assets is the antithesis of the emerging market lovefest circa 2006-7. Prior to the Great Financial Crisis, investors were flooding into emerging markets as US data began to deteriorate, leading EM being perceived as a safe-haven. “They’re building 100 Chicago’s in China don’t you know?” The consensus view was emerging markets had ‘decoupled’ from the US. EM bulls touted that neither Bear Stearns’ collapse nor the struggling and over-levered Lehman Brothers mattered — emerging markets were the ‘safe place’. High kites indeed, last 10 years the S&P is up 267% vs. the iShares China Large-Cap ETF’s paltry 31% for the on a total return basis. However, once the US-born recession washed-over on emerging market shores, the flood of foreign capital rushing back into the US Dollar was colossal. In our view, the opposite dynamic is playing out today. A global trade triggered slowdown is causing investors to hide out in US assets (S&P 500, Treasuries, USD). We believe a capital flood out of the US is on our doorstep.

*Nine Fed rate hikes and $500B balance sheet reduction also had a ton to do with the 2018-19 dollar surge, inflicting pain across a world with over $50T of dollar-denominated debt. Remember, there’s $62T of GDP outside the USA, $18T inside. The Fed essentially blew up the global economy twice in 2016 and 2018 with an aggressive policy path. They’re attrrocious risk managers.

US Economic Risks Catching Up with the Rest of the World? 

We’ve been told time and time again that “late cycle” dollar moves have historically shown strength in the face of adversity — see 2008. Most people forget trillions of US Dollars were hiding out in “decoupled” emerging markets prior to the Great Financial Crisis. A decade ago, thanks to toxic risk assets in the US banking system, investing outside the country in emerging markets was literally considered the “safe haven”.

A decade later, we all know now the decoupling myth didn’t hold. In 2008, capital began flocking back to the USA once the crisis oozed around the world and global economic risks surged. On the other hand, the 2016-19 period has been loaded with global economic risks: currency devaluations, trade worries, and plunging PMIs (purchasing manager indices). As a result, trillions have been hiding out in the USA in technology stocks like the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), passive asset management (over 600 ETFs own FAANG stocks as a top 15% holding), short term US Treasury debt. Downside risks to these assets have surfaced. Today, we’re seeing some major capital outflows from the US — the Dollar is in trouble. Case in point, the yield advantage of short-term US Treasuries (2-year bonds) relative to their German counterparts has moved from 3.55% to 2.55% over the course of the last seven months. From a yield advantage perspective, there are far fewer reasons to hang out in USD.

Elections and the US DollarHeading into the 2020 election, there are few things Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, and of course President Donald Trump want more than a weaker Dollar.  It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that the Dollar’s 2014-2016 surge delivered Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to Trump on the back of undermined manufacturing and exports (see above, DeadZone). The President clearly knows this and it’s part of the reason for his regular tweets and comments lamenting Powell’s interest rate hikes. USD bulls — beware!

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Gold’s Move Lower into Rate Hikes
As rate hikes go, gold has plunged into every single one of them since 2015. Today, the investors are obsessed with rate cuts coming down the pike, we’ve come a long way, baby. The probability of a Federal Reserve interest rate cut this June has moved from just 5% to 30% over the course of the past week. Now that investors are anticipating a total 180-degree turnaround from the Fed, precious metals are surging on the prospects of central bank love and accommodation. Thanks, Jay (Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Fed Board of Governors)…

Stimulus in Europe and a Buoyant Euro

One development we see going forward is a US focus on monetary policy due to gridlock in Washington. At the same time, the rest of the world (RoW) is shifting toward the fiscal side. Today, in Europe, we’re seeing Deputy Premier Salvini — de facto the most popular political force in Italy — pushing a flat tax and massive deficit spending despite EU rules. Meanwhile, Germany is likely heading toward a fiscal stimulus package focused on infrastructure to make up for lagging growth in manufacturing and Southern Europe’s economic woes. Recent elections, especially those to the European Parliament — in which populists increased there vote share from 21% to nearly 30% — have shocked European leaders. As Europe’s economic engine, Germany led by Chancellor Angela Merkel is desperate to keep the economy humming along by any means necessary so as to avoid continued populist success at home and across the continent.

Fed and ECB Policy Will Run Gold Wild vs. StocksGold just loves a good Fed cave-a-thon. Take a look above at its remarkable performance against the S&P 500 during rate cutting and hiking cycles. We see more love coming for the gold bulls versus stocks.

Fast Money Approaching

Fed monetary policy expectations and fiscal stimulus out of Germany and Italy are clearly a Euro positive and thus yet another USD negative. From a technical analysis standpoint, gold has to get above the $1375 per ounce mark convincingly in order to break the back of its near decade-long bear market. After that, silver junkies will join the party and it all goes hyperbolic. To be continued…

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Leading Indicators: Regional Banks, Corporate and Consumer Credit Risk

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1933 Industries

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In our 21 Lehman Systemic Risk Indicator basket, consumer credit is an important component.  In any late cycle economic slowdown, charge-offs at banks, or credit write-downs must be monitored closely.

With this in mind, Capital One COF is an important bellwether to keep an eye on – they have a heavy hand in the consumer credit space. From Q1 2006 to Q1 2008, COF equity was 55% lower, she was screaming, “Houston we have a problem.”

Today, there’s a far different picture (below).  Shares of Capital One surged nearly 5% Friday after the bank reported first-quarter results ahead of Wall Street expectations. The company reported first-quarter adjusted net income of $2.90, topping analysts’ expectations of $2.68 in the period. Adjusted revenue of $7.08 billion was also above Wall Street’s $7.01 billion expectations.  Revenue increased 1% year over year while non-interest expenses decreased 11% to $3.7 billion in the period.

They scored Q1 2019 net income of $1.42B or $2.86 EPS (earnings per share), compared with $1.33B or $2.62 EPS in Q1 of 2018. We have an eye on provisions for credit losses, which rose 3% sequentially, or 1% year-over-year, in Q1 to $1.6B, but charge-offs remained relatively flat.

The company’s management sees “degradation” in customer credit quality. Overall, COF’s 1Q U.S. card charge off rate was 5.05%. While industry charge off rates rose to 3.85%, the highest since 2Q12. There are clearly some red flags pointing toward problems approaching the credit-card industry.  A look at loans thirty days past due, a warning of future write-offs, surged at all seven of the largest U.S. card issuers.

There’s been a “degradation” in credit quality for some customers, per Richard Fairbank, Capital One’s  CEO. The company is the third-largest card issuer in the USA. Fairbank said some customers with negative credit events during the financial crisis are now seeing those problems disappear from their credit-bureau reports.

“In general, we have been contracting credit policy at the margin and tightening,” Discover CEO Roger Hochschild said on a conference call this week.  American Banker noted, some credit card companies are closing inactive accounts and slowing down the number and size of credit-line increases for both new and existing customers. Consumer credit is contracting, slowly shrinking, a tightening of financial conditions relative to recent years in our view.

Capital One, leaving Regional Banks Behind
Capital One COF was a standout this week, we noticed significant divergence to the upside relative to regional bank equities.  A short squeeze was in play in our view, short interest in COF shares rose to nearly 6m shares in Q1, up from 3m shares short in September 2018. Strong earnings results were the driver of the squeeze,  the company also put forth initiatives to boost margins as it lays out a path to become more efficient. It’s important to note, few stocks actually lost too much ground in Financials as the sector was firm this week but trust bank State Street STT was the worst performer. Organic growth at Trust Banks is facing a number of headwinds.

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Winner and Losers
The driving theme for the week across asset classes may have been the increasing emergence of relative value trades even as the S&P 500 Index climbed to a new all-time high. To be sure, being ‘long & strong’ has paid off for US stock investors again in April — the S&P 500 is up over 3.5% for the month. But April has also brought even greater returns from relative trades such as long Tech/short Healthcare or long the dollar vs. the euro over the past week.

Stocks Back on their Highs without Junk Bonds
Stocks are partying like it’s 1999, while junk bonds are showing signs of cracking. We’re looking down the barrel of a high pace of credit rating downgrades. Per S&P Ratings this year, the ratio of downgrades to upgrades is the worst since 2016’s energy price collapse, back then oil was $26 vs. $64 today. We’re seeing a sharp breakdown, a meaningful underperformance of poorer quality credits. Credit deterioration is picking up even with CCC high yield index up +10.1% YTD, Q4 loss was near -10%. If you look at the frequency of bonds in a -20% or more hole (substantial sell-off in price), in 2019 we’re at double the pace of 2017 in terms of blow-ups in the CCC corporate bond space.

Bonds: US CCCs in Q1

Loss of 10% or More: 8.2% of the Universe
Loss of 20% or More: 5.1% of the Universe

Citi data

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An Unsustainable Divergence

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1933 Industries

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“It’s Checkmate Mr.  Powell – There’s far too much leverage globally and domestically, as we stressed in August and September — a 25bps rate hike acts more like 75bps. With $62T of GDP outside the USA, $18T inside, U.S. economic data plays second fiddle to global credit risk, it’s that simple. U.S. economists are smoking in the dynamite shed with expectations of three to four more hikes. They were JUST AS clueless in 2015 and 2016 when they lectured us on eight rate hikes. The Fed ultimately delivered just two in those years. If the Fed plays tough guy now, equities will crash, and then they’ll be forced to cave and CUT rates! It’s checkmate, Mr. Powell. Our major concern centers around the Fed NOT shifting dovish enough. Markets now have high expectations of relief from the Fed, so they MUST deliver. We think equities rally nicely initially but then FADE hard on a Fed leaving the beast inside the market unsatisfied.”

The Bear Traps Report, December 15, 2018

Q2 2019, is it Q3 2018 in Reverse?

The beast inside the market is entering an inverse period of what occurred in the third quarter of 2018, as we look down the road ahead the implications are daunting. In Q3 2018, the global economy was effectively seeing a meaningful slowdown in growth while central bankers around the world continued to insist on “normalization” and tightening monetary policy. Fast forward to Q2 2019, there are numerous ‘green shoots’ coming to visit the global economy (positive signs) with a growth slowdown beginning to bottom, while central bankers have already thrown in the towel. Let’s take a look.

Monetary Policy Divergence to an Extreme
It’s kind of a mind-blower. Since 2014, the European Central Bank has been in accommodation mode to the tune of a $2.7T bond-buying spree (see above) found in their colossal balance sheet expansion. At the same time in the U.S., the Federal Reserve has hiked rates nine times, eight since the 2016 election and REDUCED its balance sheet by $500B. Is the U.S. economy that much stronger than Europe’s? Clearly, there’s $62T of GDP OUTSIDE the U.S. and $18T inside – so Fed rate hikes tend to do a number on the global economy which feeds back to Europe in a negative way, which then comes back to the U.S. and stopped the Fed in its tracks (in Q1 the Fed put forth one of the most significant policy reversals in the history of central banking). A five-year-old can tell you this is a broken model. You can’t have one central bank hiking rates nine times in 3 years, and another buying up nearly $3T of global assets – markets just told us this is a highly unsustainable dynamic in modern central banking. We believe the Fed, ECB, PBOC (China), BOE (UK) now get the joke. Looking forward – we see a “convergence” in global central bank policy, NOT unsustainable divergence. This will have MAJOR implications for the dollar, precious metals and emerging market equities. Pick up our latest report here. 

From the December Lows

Oil WTI: +51%
Semiconductors SOX: + 46%
China Internet $KWEB: + 34%
Nasdaq 100 NDX: + 30%
Greece $GREK: + 27%
S&P 500: + 23%
Eurozone Banks $EUFN: + 21%
MSCI World: + 20%
Retail XRT: + 19%
Copper:  +16%
MSCI Emerging Markets $EEM: + 17%
MSCI World (ex USA): + 14%
Brazil $EWZ: + 12%
Junk $JNK: + 10%
Gold: + 7%

Bloomberg terminal data

A Global Central Bank Cave-athon

Central banks have proactively shifted to a dovish policy stance trying to get ahead of economic data weakened further. Instead of waiting for economic data to truly justify caving on tightening monetary policy, central banks threw in the towel early and are now in ‘wait and see’ mode. This is a dramatic shift, and risk assets such as equities have been pricing this in, NO news here. We have gone from a world where headwinds to growth are becoming tailwinds. The Fed’s cave, China economic growth has stabilized, a weakening US Dollar (Bloomberg dollar index off 1.7% since November), and softer trade headlines on a possible deal – assets prices have been pricing in these positive developments for months. Since Q3, we have been overweight emerging markets. Six months ago, EM was dealing with a tightening Fed, a stronger US Dollar, Brexit risk and a slowing economy in China all at the same time.

Rolling 1 Year Beta to a Weaker U.S. Dollar

Gold: 3.55
Oil: 2.86
MSCI Emerging Markets: 2.45
Copper: 2.15
Swiss Franc: 1.94
MSCI Asia (ex-Japan): 1.85
Euro: 1.45
Yen: 1.20
EM FX: 0.75
MSCI World: 0.45
Topix: -0.12
S&P 500: -0.27

*Bear Traps Report data looking back to 2000. These are your weak dollar winners. In a period of headwinds for the greenback, it’s interesting to note how poorly U.S. equities perform relative to emerging markets, oil and gold.

China Yuan Currency Volatility
Today, economic demand struggles are bottoming globally, and the Yuan (China currency) is beginning to strengthen. One of our favorite global economic indicators is found in 3-month China yuan volatility. As a currency is strengthening volatility plunges, while a weaker currency is often met with a surge in forex volatility. Looking back over the last 5 years you can see – above- the powerful impact on global equities. There’s an inverse relationship between equity prices globally and China forex vol. BUT, but , but; above all, the last time China currency volatility was this low, global equities were a lot higher – see the grey circle above.

EM’s External Drivers

Emerging markets rely on two key external factors. First, the global economic cycle, which China’s $13T economy is the biggest driver. Second, the financial cycle, which the Fed is the biggest driver. In Q3 2018, those two key external variables were headwinds, now they are tailwinds. There’s an opportunity here, indeed.

Autos Show Sunshine
China’s easier economic policies transmission to consumption has not convinced so far. March jump in car sales may be the 1st sign of this happening. Car sales rose more than 10% over the month (strongest since April 2009), reversing the y/y trend growth from 22-year lows. Special thanks to our friend Patrick Zweifel and Pictet Asset Management for this observation.

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Back in the USA: Leadership, Stock Buybacks or Capex?

S&P 500 share repurchases surged 50% to an all-time high of over $800 billion in 2018, generating public debate about the use of corporate cash in Washington, DC and beyond. How US companies use cash, the motivations of executives buying back stock, and the effects of these buybacks on workers, companies, the economy, and political implications are what investors should be focused on.

“When a corporation uses profits for stock buyback it’s deciding that returning capital to shareholders is better for business than investing in their products or workers. Tax code encourages this. No surprise we have work life that is unstable & low paying.”

Senator Marco Rubio

Eye Opener: Goldman’s Look inside Buybacks and Capex

To start, William Lazonick, professor at the University of Massachusetts lays out several concerns about buybacks driving the public debate. At their core is the notion that returning cash to shareholders comes at the expense of investment. This, in turn, harms innovation as well as American workers, who, Lazonick argues, should be getting a much larger share of company profits than shareholders. He also believes that paying executives with stock distorts their incentives, motivating them to boost share prices, no matter the cost to employees, their companies’ future growth, or the economy writ large—especially as the US increasingly loses out to more innovative competitors. What’s the fix, in his view?
Ban buybacks, stop paying executives with stock and give employees their due—all of which will only be truly meaningful in a world in which the “maximizing shareholder value” ideology no longer prevails.

Capex Soaring through all the Stock Buyback Noise
Our Bear Traps Report team developed this thesis in early January – see our chart above. We’re pleased to say, NOW Goldman is backing up our work. It’s very disturbing that the main street media continues to spin a narrative which is completely false. When looking at the numbers, Goldman’s US portfolio strategists David Kostin and Cole Hunter find many of these arguments (Buybacks > Capex) don’t hold up in reality! In particular, they emphasize that even as companies return a large amount of cash to shareholders, there is sizable reinvestment; in fact, growth investment at S&P 500 companies has accounted for a larger share of cash spending than shareholder return every year since at least 1990, with the largest share repurchasers far outpacing market averages in the growth of R&D and capex spending. They also find those executives who stand to gain the most from buybacks— those whose compensation depends directly on EPS—did not allocate a greater proportion of total cash spending to buybacks in 2018 than executives whose pay was not linked to EPS.

Corporate Use of Cash
Aswath Damadoran, professor at New York University Stern School of Business, agrees that buybacks aren’t coming at the expense of investment. Rather, he argues that large, mature companies returning cash to shareholders allow that cash to be put to more productive uses; so it’s not that companies are investing less, it’s those different companies—with better growth opportunities—are investing instead.

The Walking Dead

There are colossal political implications for companies in here, Goldman does a solid job shedding light on a topic draped in fog. As for workers, Damodaran worries that constraining companies’ ability to return cash to shareholders would lead US companies to make bad investments, further damaging their competitiveness and creating more “walking dead companies” similar to what we see in Europe. This, he fears, could backfire on workers, as firms are ultimately forced to pay less, hire less, or reduce their workforce altogether. In the end, he believes banning buybacks would ironically most likely benefit corporate executives (who would now have the luxury of sitting on cash) and bankers (who will reap the gains if executives instead pursue acquisitions), while hurting workers.  Steven Davis, professor at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, then dives into the potential implications of banning buybacks for business formation, job creation and the broader economy. He explains that such a ban will likely lead to an inefficient allocation of resources, which will ultimately shrink the overall size of the economic “pie”. And since he finds that younger and smaller businesses are an important source of jobs in the economy—particularly for workers at the lower end of the earnings distribution—he’s concerned that trapping cash in older, larger companies will reinforce an unequal distribution of the pie, aka: income inequality. In his view, the best bet to increase the size of the pie and even out its distribution is to foster a favorable environment for starting and growing businesses. That would entail simplifying the tax code, reducing labor market restrictions and regulations, and revamping local and federal regulations in other areas that create a complex and costly business environment today.

Political Implications are Profound, Beware

We believe the unintended consequences of stock buyback legislation coming out of Washington will have COLOSSAL U.S. equity market implications – could very well contribute to a crash. In our view, the S&P 500 would have a 2500 address NOT 2900 without buybacks. Per our friend Chris Cole at Artemis Capital, over $5T has been plowed into stock buybacks over the last decade. We add, over $8T of Federal Reserve – easy money – induced corporate bond sales financed this orgy.  Thank you, Bernanke, Yellen and Powell – this mess went down on your watch.

Per Vox, “Florida Senator Marco Rubio is looking at one of the Republican tax bill’s worst optical problems, corporations spending their big tax cut on inflating the price of their stocks instead of hiring workers or building new factories. US companies spent a record $1 trillion on stock buybacks in 2018.” (Media spinning a false narrative again, upselling you buybacks over capital expenditures).

Rubio’s proposal is, in essence, to tax stock buybacks more aggressively while extending a provision in the tax bill that allows companies to immediately and fully deduct the cost of new investments, thereby making it more attractive for companies to make those investments.

Rubio is framing his proposal as a necessary step for the United States to compete with China, in his view the country’s greatest geopolitical threat, but implicit in its design is a recognition the GOP bill didn’t have the desired effect on business behavior.

Experts say Rubio’s heart may be in the right place. “There’s good reason to believe companies underinvest,” said Alan Cole, a former Republican tax policy adviser now at the Wharton School. Special thanks to Vox for the Rubio coverage here.

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Tesla’s Saving Grace? Washington Policy and Electric Vehicle Tax Credits

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“A cab driver will tell you Tesla is barely profitable. Most know it has a market capitalization similar to that of the world’s leading premium car makers; BMW and Daimler, who made $14B and $18B last year, respectively. The company has burned through $13B of capital over the last decade, yet it trades at 3x BMW and 7x Porsche EV/EBITDA multiple. Tesla has thrived, in large part due to ubiquitous subsidies as well as wide open capital markets. Thanks to obnoxiously accommodative central banks, an easy money gravy train has allowed this levered beast to issue more than $11B in high yield and convertible debt in the last few years. Bottom line, in a normally functioning business cycle (capital market formation) without central bank interference, the company would NOT exist in its present form. With over $750B of U.S. high yield and investment grade (leveraged loans) bond maturities in 2019 and a Fed reducing its balance sheet (QT) to the tune of $50B a month – tightening financial conditions will be the noose around Tesla’s neck.”

Bear Traps Report – January 2019

Washington Policy Will be Driving the Tesla Bus in 2019

Tesla’s best friend over the past decade has been the U.S. Government and  Elon’s (Musk) beloved tax credits for manufacturing electric vehicles. In 2009,  President Obama signed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, stipulating that EVs produced after 2010 were eligible for a tax credit up to $7,500. In his 2011 State of the Union address, he pledged $2.4B in federal grants to support the development of next-generation electric vehicles and batteries.

In January, we released a major theme-report on the Electric Vehicle industry and Tesla, find out more here.

The End of Subsidies?

These tax credits were designed to have a time limit – a financial benefit (to Tesla) acting as a melting ice cube. Per the plan, after manufacturers hit the 200,000 Electric Vehicles sold mark, their tax credits would begin to phase out. Tesla was the first manufacturer to enter the phase-out at the beginning of this year, while General Motor’s phase-out began on April 1st.

“The fate of efforts to extend the electric vehicle tax credit are most likely tied to the fate of tax extenders legislation—legislation which is very much in doubt because of divisions among House Democrats, which include, among other disagreements, whether to offset the cost of reauthorizing expired or expiring tax credits (so-called “tax extenders” legislation). The Senate Finance Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is less inclined to offset the costs of the tax legislation.”

ACG Analytics – April 10, 2019

Tesla Equity
Tesla stock price is on the bottom end of a sustained trend channel, as investor’s optimism slowly dwindles. However, “proposed” legislation could be the boost the equity needs to bounce off nearby support – as long as it moves quickly trhough Congress.

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 Proposed Legislation 

This week our associates in Washington have a very insightful update. In an institutional research note, ACG Analytics made the point that new legislation has been introduced with bi-partisan support for extending the tax credit wall an additional 400,000 vehicles with a slightly smaller credit of $7,000. We have an important view on the likelihood of legislation passage here, see our full report here.

Tesla 2019 EPS Estimates
This year’s earnings expectations for Tesla have crashed down from their fantasy levels. At the beginning of the year EPS expectations were over $6.00 for the year, now they have fallen over 40% to near $3.25. Expectations slid due to increased competition in Europe and the company not hitting bullish delivery estimates – the loss of tax credit did not help their bottom line. 

Implications

If the “proposed” legislation were to quickly* pass through Congress and is signed by the President, it could have large benefits for Tesla’s equity as the stock price has reflected the reality that their customers were no longer receiving thousands per vehicle from the U.S. Government.

An additional 400,000 electric vehicles on top of the existing 200,000 cap gives each manufacturer 600,000 to sell with tax credits. However, Tesla has already sold 375,000 vehicles in its history and is expected to do 300,000 more  by YEAR END.

Across the street, estimates were cut after disappointing Quarter 1 deliveries. We believe Tesla should deliver roughly 339,000 vehicles by year-end (~77k thus far). Back in January, some Street estimates were as high as 400,000. However, this would leave them with limited tax-credit-worthy vehicles IF successful legislation is delayed until the end of 2019 or beyond.

Keep in mind – almost all of Tesla’s competitors will be able to reap the benefits of these tax credits for years to come. We wrote about Tesla’s incoming supply problem back in January’s bear case.

“In the mass market, Tesla’s model 3 will face an avalanche of competition from Nissan, VW, GM, the Koreans, and the French. In this table, we only highlighted the most significant launches for the US market, which is 50% of Tesla sales.”

Bear Traps Report – January 2019

Credit LEADS Equities
In October of 2018, Tesla reported another rare profit. After 8 quarters of mounting losses, shorts were once again caught on the wrong foot (as you can see above – red circle). Why the sudden turnaround? Unlike almost any other mass car producer, Tesla delivers from their order book. With Model 3 production (finally) at adequate levels, Tesla first started delivering the top range Model 3s, which often go for ~$55K vs a $35K base price. To exemplify, Tesla makes an estimated $3,500 operating profit on the $45K version while it loses some $3,900 on the base Model 3. This is how Tesla showed a rare profit in Q3. Keep in mind, Tesla didn’t just turn profitable, it also showed positive cash flow – or more pain for shorts. This was mainly due to reversals in working capital and tax credits. All this came as huge surprise to the market and the stock ripped higher, as short sellers once again rushed to cover. We MUST look at the Tesla credit (5.3s due 2025). In late October / early November as the stock soared, Tesla’s junk bonds were NOT buying the price action in the equity and lost 4 points (early November to late December)! Sure enough, a few weeks later the stock caught up with the bonds on the downside. 

Let us know if you are interested in the detail behind the potential legislation – email tatiana@thebeartrapsreport.com .

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China Economic Bounce and Global Bond Yields

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China’s Factory Data Bounce Speaks to a Far More Rosy Global Economic Outlook than Current Expectations

Largest Surge in Seven Years from China’s Manufacturing PMI

As the March economic data starts to come in from China, in the week ahead – that sound you’ll be hearing will be a loud sigh of relief coming out of the global bond market.

China Stimulus Arrives on Stage
In Q4 2018, China threw a substantial amount of fiscal and monetary weaponry at its weakening $13T economy. Heading into the trade negotiating climax with the USA, we believe tax cuts and PBOC RRR (levels of reserves in their banking system) activity – all together – come to over $500B of stimulus. Three months later, those desperate measures are showing up in the data.

Upside Surprise

To us, the meaningful upside surprise in China’s March NBS Manufacturing PMI speaks to near term positive momentum for the industrial activity outlook for all of Asia. A trade deal with the USA will only add to these positive developments. China will extend the 3-month suspension of additional tariffs on US-made vehicles and auto parts, which expires on March 31, 2019, the tariff committee of the State Council said on Sunday.

Brent Oil likes the Data Coming Out of China
We’re seeing a Major trend breakout oil on the heals of the China PMI bounce – bullish wedge.

Negative Yield Bonds and Gold
In Q1 2019, the global economy’s struggles have powered the tally of negative yielding bond on earth to near $10T. Economic data out of China this weekend will likely turn this ship around.

Good News from China for Bond Bears
China March official composite PMI +1.6pts to 54 driven by manufacturing +1.3pts to 50.5 and non-manufacturing +0.5pts to 54.8. Could partly reflect lunar near year holiday distortions but also likely reflects the impact of China stimulus measures. “A Positive sign for Chinese and global”growth,” says AMP Capital. China delivered good news for global investors this weekend. This year, the country’s struggling demand had weighed on sectors such as auto producers and commodity exporters, worldwide – especially Germany. Likewise, with tariffs and uncertainty about whether a deal with the U.S. will be signed weighing on trade and no sign of a rebound in domestic consumption yet, there is still some work to be done in terms of getting more “buy-in” from the global investment community.

New Data is a Colossal Relief
In its largest surge since 2012, China’s manufacturing purchasing managers index rose to 50.5 from 49.2 last month, exceeding all estimates by economists – the consensus was looking for 49.6. In better news, new orders and new export orders – leading indicators which signal future activities, popped up to the highest levels in six months. Keep in mind, Germany’s economy and bond yields have a very high beta to China’s economic fortunes. As you can see above, over the last 5 years lows in German bond yields have been closely tied to periods where China’s Manufacturing PMI struggles.  This speaks to HIGHER global bond yields in the days and weeks to come – a bounce is long overdue.

China Equities Moving North – Bullish Wedge Break

Major markets in Asia surged on Monday following data released over the weekend that showed economic activity in China unexpectedly bouncing back in March. Mainland Chinese shares soared on the day, with the Shanghai composite up 2.58 percent to 3,170.36, while the Shenzhen component surged about 3.64 percent to 10,267.70. The Shenzhen composite jumped 3.571 percent to 1,755.67.Over in Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index was up 1.66 percent in its final hour of trading. – CNBC

 

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