Thursday, September 10, 2015

Are Stocks Headed Lower?

This is, of course, the question foremost on investors' minds. After all, it's been several years since we've seen a correction to the major averages that stocks have experienced since mid-July. True to form, market swoons of this sort seem to come out of nowhere. Yet as one market sage was quoted, "no one rings a bell at the top". But did we see the market top on July 20, or are we poised to consolidate and move higher?

Visit any financial news website and there are plenty of commentators quick to provide an expert opinion. But of course, no one really knows where markets are headed. We simply try, as best we can, to make informed judgements (or as some have called them, "bets"). 

If you look closely, though, the data have been quietly sending indications of direction. The plunge in oil prices earlier this year seemed to have caught investors (and oil company executives) completely off guard. Oil prices that had hovered in the range of $80-100 per barrel for five years, began a move in the latter part of 2014 that can only be described as a plunge. Now settling in the low 40s, equity investors are considering the implications of these new levels for global industrial demand and GDP.

But there were warning signs of oil's imminent decline that now appear more clearly in hindsight. A robust and vibrant US oil sector, with highflying fracking stocks like Pioneer Natural Resources, EOG and Oasis began to wobble in 2014, but only after their drilling and exploration counterparts that lead production, like Halliburton and Schlumberger, faltered. Prior to this, warning shots were fired by HiCrush and US Silica that make the key raw materials integral to the fracking process. But the real leading indicators we now see were in specialty energy companies like Geospace Technologies that make seismic data analysis tools and provide critical research for drillers and oil exploration companies. Their stock began crashing in late 2013 and should have signaled the "canary in the coal mine" for anyone interested in the direction of oil demand, supply and price.

Oil aside, however, the abysmal levels of a broad range of commodity prices, from copper to steel, has investors questioning global industrial demand. With prices for many of those commodities now believed to have been artificially inflated by China government investment (i.e., building empty cities and bridges to nowhere) everyone is a bit concerned about the veracity of sustainable global demand. Commodity dependent economies like Brazil, South Africa and Australia are unquestionably suffering ill effects, as a result of the reduced demand. These effects are echoing throughout the emerging markets. They are also being felt in the US high yield bond market, where many small energy companies financed their growth and development and now struggle to meet debt service.

With the US and EU economies piddling along, all eyes for now will remain on China. As government mal-investment there subsides, investors are questioning whether there is really internal demand to support consumption or growing global demand to boost exports? The answer, from the most recent data, appears to be a resounding no.