Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mirror Mirror on the Wall - Does Margin Debt Predict Them All?

Recently, I was reading an article that was began discussing the record levels of margin debt on brokerage accounts. It made a deft point that record levels of margin debt “is a red flag that the market is over-inflated by speculation”. This is a bold statement; however, it is on the right path. Let’s take a deeper look into what they might have meant by that statement and what it may mean for today’s markets.

Since 1970, on a monthly basis the NYSE has been reporting the aggregate debits in securities margin accounts in which they kindly organized into tables and excel sheets. The chart below shows this data since 1996 plotted with the S&P 500 cash index.

As you can see in this chart, the margin debt (in $ mils) and the S&P 500 have a very closely related relationship. The record margin debt in February 2007 was $295,870; whereas the previous record was $278,530 in March of 2000. Is it a coincidence that the previous record was also at the peak of the dot-com bubble just before the markets began to crash? Maybe so, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

The most logical reasoning/theory behind the close relationship (if you look at it, their activity almost mirrors each other) is that when the market is racing higher, market participants want in on the action and therefore leverage their brokerage accounts to take advantage of the rally. A high amount of margin debt also means there is a high level of bullishness. On the flipside, margin debts decrease as the market retreats due to a plethora of margin calls and participants having to get out of the way of an incoming steamroller.

Margin debt can be healthy during bull markets as it provides fuel for further market gains. The problem comes in when excessive speculation comes during a “false” bull market, which is where I believe we might be right now (the latest retest of the highs since Feb. 27th is a false rally in my opinion). The pitfall is when a steep decline in stock prices exposes investors to margin calls, requiring them to post additional collateral or sell securities resulting in even steeper declines such as February 27th, 2007. With so many questions in the marketplace; housing, inflation, interest rates, credit tightening, a weakening U.S. economy, trade deficits, budget deficits, weakening dollar, higher energy and commodity prices and equity markets at or near all-time highs, one has to wonder if a decrease in margin debt is necessary to bring the market to less prone levels.

At these levels, a doomsday may not necessarily be in the works, but it does make me wonder how long or how much higher both margin debt and equities can go. Since they mirror each other so closely, both of them are important to watch. At the same time there is a second voice in my head that tells me to be weary of false rallies in the market and to look for opportunities to hedge positions. As always, I hope you enjoyed the read and let’s see where the next few weeks take us. Tomorrow is the release of more inflation data (Produce Price Index) and it will be a market moving event. Which direction the market will go next is anyone’s guess. To paraphrase the JP Morgan, the only thing I know is that the market will oscillate with incoming data and news.

Sources: NYSE, eSignal

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Market Analysis

The early part of this week seems to be void of any major economic data releases. However, it is the beginning of earnings season (led by Alcoa’s $0.79/share gain, $0.03 ahead of analysts expectations) and a key inflation report is due on Friday morning. Last Friday’s job report reported an unexpected 180k increase in nonfarm payrolls and a 4.4% unemployment rate, which is low enough to raise concerns about insufficient labor supply and rising labor costs. Since inflation has been a key headache for fed officials, I thought it would be prudent to talk about inflation today.

The continually strong commodity prices we are seeing across the board from heating oil to wheat will certainly have an affect on inflation concerns. The trickle down effect of higher commodity prices may lead to higher inflation, a worried Federal Reserve and a multitude of other problems for the weakening U.S. economy. Before diving into the discussion, let’s take a look at some of the commodity price charts. There are quite a few, but just take a look at each of the price trends. I have taken monthly charts from a basket of commodities from the agricultural, metals and energy sectors.

Heating Oil
Live Cattle

As you can see, each of these charts points have the same trend over the pas 5-8 years; significantly higher. This basket of agricultural commodities, energy products, and base metals has increased substantially. Take a look at the price increases in percentage terms since 2000:
· Aluminum: +88.22%
· Copper: +357.41%
· Corn: +86.5%
· Gold: +135.52%
· Heating Oil: +210.50%
· Live Cattle: +43.37%
· Crude Oil: +132.32%
· KC Wheat: +65.86%

Those numbers make me wish I would have been invested in a basket of commodities from 2000-2007 during the time the S&P 500 has been flat. Either way, I believe these trends could continue in the near future because of strong demand, weather storms disrupting supplies and a general need for commodities. As commodities guru and world traveler Jim Rogers might say, “We are in the greatest commodity bull cycle our generation has seen”

The question is whether or not commodity prices and inflation can be linked. When considering the relationship between commodity prices and inflation, commodity prices have a positive correlation with inflation. Prices can be argued to be a leading indicator as they are quick to reflect economic changes in supply and demand. The resulting higher prices we see today compared with even 2-3 years ago is tremendous and will eventually be reflected in the final product purchased by consumers; and therefore, higher inflation.

Arguably, crude oil prices (and therefore energy prices) have a robust history of influencing inflation measures the most. As all of the commodities I looked at are currently priced within the top quartile of their six year highs, it makes me wonder how much further prices can reach before negatively affecting the economy (that is, more than it has already). Crude oil will be the most influential as prices seem to be supported be a continuation of global tensions with oil exporters and world demand increases.

The Produce Price Index (PPI) will be released on Friday morning. The consensus estimate is for a 0.8% increase in the headline number and a 0.2% increase in the Core PPI. With that said, I would not be surprised to see the core PPI come in slightly hotter than expected given the deluge of higher commodity prices across the board. As the Federal Reserve seemingly reiterates its hawkish tone on inflation, this number could signal a short-term direction for the market.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Capital Spending Whoas

Lately, I have been writing about the market’s latest push toward the highs as a false rally. Maybe it’s just my nature to scrounge around looking for evidence to support my contrarian views, but I am adamant about backing up my opinions. Most recently I said the reaction to the FOMC policy statement was overblown as traders and investors misread the policy to the effect they saw a rate-cut in the near future. To the contrary, the statement had obviously stated that it plans to maintain the current fed funds rate at 5.25%. The markets react and anticipate, yet sometimes they anticipate incorrectly. This is why we are so fascinated with financial markets and this is why things can become ugly in a hurry.

I don’t believe things will get ugly, but I do think the markets have been overlooking certain aspects of the economy that are suggesting weakness, yet are captivated by other aspects in order to keep the “Goldilocks Scenario” alive. Eventually, according to efficient market theory, all information will be accounted for and the market will price accordingly. That said, the markets should currently be pricing in a modest economic growth of 2-2.5%, slower corporate earnings, higher energy prices, a slowing housing economy (which by the way pushed economic growth for the past several years) and a federal funds rate of 5.25%. However, I don’t think we have seen this. The market is sitting within 1-2% of their 6 year highs and nothing is being discounted. An extremely optimistic market will sooner or later catch up with the real information being released leading to less optimistic markets with a sense of risk.

One of the aspects of the economy the market has simply overlooked is the slowdown in capital spending. Capital spending is the capital spent to acquire or upgrade assets. Think buildings, computers, planes, trucks, equipment and other machinery. Before providing the numbers, let me explain why capital spending is important. When businesses are growing (and the economy expanding), they need equipment and machinery to let their business flourish. Orders are placed with vendors to provide the products and then the businesses begin producing their goods for consumers. If they decide to not invest in their infrastructure then they are not producing more goods; therefore, the economy has fewer goods on the market and it slows the overall business cycle. This is an elementary crude explanation, but it should do for now. On to the numbers.

This morning, the numbers for February factory orders were released. They did nothing to make me believe that the downtrend will be interrupted by a sudden surge of new orders being placed. The first quarterly decline in capital spending in nearly four years was posted in the fourth quarter of 2006, but it passed with hardly a mention. Although Feb. orders were up 1.0%, this was well below the consensus estimate of a 1.9% gain following a -5.7% drop in January orders.

This doesn’t bode well for the overall expansion of businesses growth. Take a look at the chart below. You can see that the drop has the look of the drop in orders from the last recession in 2000.

Factory orders consist of durable and non-durable goods. Non-durable goods
include items like food, clothing, and tobacco products. Durable goods are
products that maintain non-durable goods such as washers and dryers, computers
and machinery.

The drop in capital spending is happening at a time of near-record corporate profits. It has been known for some time that CEOs remained cautious in their spending plans, yet they have spending all those profits on share buybacks. That creates some shareholder value, but how does that help an economy that is beginning to show more signs of weakness?
Ben Bernanke has taken notice of the lack of spending by businesses hoarding cash as he gave his testimony to the congress last week adding that there was “an additional downside risk” to the economy if the weakness in business investment continued. I know we have ignored some weaker data points along the way to these multi year highs, but this is not something that we want to ignore.

The lack of spending may have similar effects on the economy as a weaker housing market. It will take some time to see, but as early as next month more capital spending data will be released. Another quarterly decline would mean two consecutive quarterly declines in capital spending at the same time the economy is modestly expanding. Take note that the market has yet to account for this and it again overlooks a vital piece of forward-looking information reflecting the state of the economy. I have not forgotten the 6.5% drop near the beginning of March; however, it took the market no more than ten trading days to recover almost all that was lost during that “correction”. That is not convincing enough for me and the wall of worries is continuing to grow. Maybe I am overly cautious, but I doubt it.