Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dark Clouds on the Horizon

It's that time of year again when financial markets are dominated by trading for year-end tax purposes, to clean up portfolios and to window dress statements for investors. Volatility is expected. This December certainly hasn't disappointed, with triple digit swings in the DJIA in each of its eight trading days.

But beyond the customary year-end positioning, there's a sense of real trouble brewing in markets for 2016. Here's what concerns us about the economy and financial markets for the New Year:

Plunging Commodity Prices - By mid-year 2015, the Bloomberg Commodities Index fell to a 16 year low, falling to levels below that of the 2009 Great Recession. The Index has since continued its downward spiral through year-end in sectors ranging from oil to natural gas to precious and industrial metals. The plunge in commodities has taken with it resource laden emerging market currencies whose economies and production capabilities had boomed in prior years. The culprit, many suspect is China, having pulled back from its massive infrastructure build of years prior, its financing of still empty cities and its failed attempts to spur internal consumption. Of a scale never quite seen before, in December of 2014 Forbes reported that China had used more concrete in the prior three years than the US used in the entire 20th Century. With the spigot dialing down, demand for raw materials worldwide is plummeting. But our concern is that falling commodities prices bring with them more that just price deflation, but also income, employment and consumption implications, as producers realize substantially less income for the same resources and production expense. A recent New York Times article chronicled the impact of declining commodities here at home upon America's Heartland.

The Collapse of Emerging Markets - Emerging markets currencies have been falling throughout 2015, following devaluations in China and Vietnam and trading weakness in Russia, Turkey, Malaysia and Brazil. The plunge in EM is driven by commodities prices, but also by the high levels of US dollar denominated borrowings in these countries, and borrowers now faced with paying back their loans against a strongly appreciated dollar. But others have questioned whether the ephemeral commodities demand from China is only half the problem. The corollary concern is that ultra-loose monetary policy drove capital to flow into these markets, with that capital now being repatriated as GDP and return prospects for EM countries flounder. Foremost among troubled EM countries is Brazil, once a stalwart of the Emerging Market BRICs, now in a full-scale economic depression. Goldman Sachs believes that a developing crisis in EM is the third wave of the Great Recession; the first being the US housing crisis, the second the European Sovereign Debt Crisis (i.e., Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc.)

Distress in the High Yield Bond Market - Credit spreads in the high yield bond market have been blowing out all year, with CCC rated junk bond prices down 20% from mid-2014.  And bond maven, Jeff Gundlach, head of DoubleLine Capital believes the carnage is about to get a whole lot worse as the markets prepare for liftoff by the Fed.

Weakness in Retail - A slew of third-quarter earnings reports of retail giants Macy's, Nordstrom's and Tiffany's and smaller hot retailers like LuLuLemon, have sent share prices of these companies down 10-20% in a single day following their release of dismal same store sales, top line revenues and earnings. While some of this retail demand may have been made up by online shopping, it's unnerving in what it says about the state of bricks and mortar retail and the US consumer.

Shrinking Corporate Profits - Corporate earnings for 2015 Q4 are estimated to decline -4.3%. If so, it will mark the first three consecutive quarters of year over year earnings declines since 2009 Q3.  A total of 83 companies have issued negative guidance for 2015 Q4. With the S&P 500 currently trading at 17x forward earnings, shares prices could decline amidst falling earnings while still leaving us at historically high valuations. And if both earnings and multiples contract, look out below.

Fed Policy - the 800-pound gorilla of market worries is the Fed, as it prepares to raise interest rates for the first time in ten years. While some believe the impact has been built into the markets, given its long-telegraphed move, concern is growing that implementation may be far more difficult and disruptive to markets that anyone believed.

While there are other concerns looming that bullish investors tend to dismiss, arguing "the market likes to climb a wall of worry", adages aside, investors are wise to take note of what increasingly appears to be a gathering storm.