The Rationale Behind My Downbeat Surprises for 2015
There are numerous reasons for my downbeat theme this year. In no order of importance: corporate profit margins remain elevated, the rate of domestic economic growth is decelerating (despite five years of QE and ZIRP), a quarter of the world is experiencing minimum growth in GDP, optimism and complacency are elevated, signs of malinvestment are appearing, valuations (P/E ratios) rose again after a 25% expansion in 2013 (compared to only +2% annual growth since the late-1980s. As well, so many gauges of valuations are stretched (market cap/GDP, the Shiller P/E ratio and many others).
Above all, I expect the theme of the U.S. as an oasis of prosperity will be tested in 2015-16 as contagion might be a bi**h.
Moreover, given the large array of potentially adverse economic, geopolitical and other outcomes, the markets have grown complacent after a trebling in prices over the last five years.
Finally, my downbeat surprises this year recognize, that as we enter 2015, we should not lose sight of the notion that if pessimism is the friend of the rational buyer, optimism is the enemy of the rational buyer.
My 15 Surprises for 2015
At last, here are my 15 surprises for 2015 (with a strategy that might be employed in order for an investor to profit from the occurrence of these possible improbables).
Surprise No.1 – Faith in central bankers is tested (stocks sink and gold soars).
"Investment bubbles and high animal spirits do not materialize out of thin air. They need extremely favorable economic fundamentals together with free and easy, cheap credit and they need it for at least two or three years. Importantly, they also need serial pleasant surprises in such critical variables as global GNP growth." – Jeremy Grantham
"The highly abnormal is becoming uncomfortably normal. Central banks and markets have been pushing benchmark sovereign yields to extraordinary lows – unimaginable just a few years back. Three-year government bond yields are well below zero in Germany, around zero in Japan and below 1 per cent in the United States. Moreover, estimates of term premia are pointing south again, with some evolving firmly in negative territory. And as all this is happening, global growth – in inflation-adjusted terms – is close to historical averages. There is something vaguely troubling when the unthinkable becomes routine." – Claudio Borio
European QE Backfires: The ECB initiates a sovereign QE in January 2015, but it is modest in scale (relative to expectations) as Germany won't permit a more aggressive strategy. Markets are disappointed with the small size of the ECB's initiative and European banks choose to hold their bonds instead of selling. ECB balance sheet still can't get to 3 trillion euros and the euro actually rallies sharply. Bottom line, QE fails to work (economic growth doesn't accelerate and inflationary expectations don't lift).
Draghi Is Exposed: Mario Draghi is exposed for what he really is: the big kid of which everyone is scared. For some time, no one wanted to fight him (or fade sovereign debt bonds, which would be contra to his policy). But, after the meek January QE, the response changes. He is now seen as the bully who never throws a punch and who always has gotten his way. But at the time of the January QE a medium-sized kid (and a market participant) teases him and Draghi warns him again to stop it. The kid keeps teasing. Draghi the bully takes a swing, it turns out he can't fight and the medium-sized kid whips his butt. From then on, the big kid is feared no more. For some time Draghi has said he will do "whatever it takes," but he never really had to do anything. When he finally gets going and has to act rather than talk, he will expose himself as only a bully and as a weak big kid. Mario Draghi gets fed up with the Germans and returns to Italy (where he was governor of the Bank of Italy between 2006-2011) and becomes the country's president.
Shinzo Abe and Haruhiko Kuroda Resign: Kuroda, an advocate of looser monetary policy, stays on at the Bank of Japan (for most of the year), but the yen enters freefall to 140 vs. the dollar and wage growth lags badly. Japanese people have had enough and, by year end, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Haruhiko Kuroda are forced to resign.
The Fed Is Trapped: The Federal Reserve surprises the markets and hikes the federal funds rate in April 2015. A modest 25-basis-point rise in rates causes such global market turmoil that it is the only hike made all year. The Federal Reserve is now viewed by market participants as completely trapped, as an ah-ha-moment arrives in which there is limited policy flexibility to cope with a steepening downturn in the business cycle in late 2015/early 2016. Stated simply, the bull market in confidence in the Federal Reserve comes to an abrupt halt.
Malinvestment Becomes the It-Word in 2015: Steeped in denial of past mistakes and bathing in the buoyancy of liquidity and the elevation of stock prices in 2014, market participants come to the realization that the world's central bankers in general, and the Fed in particular, once again has taken us down an all-too-familiar and dangerous path that previously set the stage for The Great Decession of 2007-09. It becomes clear that the consequences of unprecedented monetary easing and the repression of interest rates has only invited unproductive investment and speculative carry trades. The impact of a lengthy period of depressed interest rates uncork malinvestment that has percolated and detonates among differing asset classes as the year progresses. Already seen in the deterioration and heightened volatility in commodities (the price of crude, copper, etc.), in widening spreads in the energy high yield (with yields up to 10% today, compared with only 5% a few months ago) and with the average yield on the SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond ETF (JNK) up to 7% (from a low of 5% earlier in 2014), the consequences of financial engineering (zero-interest-rate policy and quantitative easing) and lack of attention to burgeoning country debt loads and central bankers' balance sheets, in addition to inertia on the fiscal front result in rising volatility in the currency markets. Malinvestment in countries like Brazil (where consumer debt has risen by 8x and export accounts have quintupled over the last eight years on the strength of a peaking export boom, in oil and iron ore, so dependent on the China infrastructure story that has now ended) translate in to a deepening economic crisis in Latin America and in other emerging markets.
Then, EU sovereign debt yields, suppressed so long by Draghi's jawboning, begin to rise. Slowly at first and then more rapidly, EU bond prices fall, putting intense pressure on the entire European banking system. (In his greatest score, George Soros makes $2.5 billion shorting German Bunds). The contagion spreads to other region's financial institutions. Shortly after, social media and high valuation stocks get routed and, ultimately, so does the world's stock markets.
As a result of the influences above, the VIX rises above 30. The price of gold soars to $1,800-$2000 and the precious metal is the best-performing asset class for all of 2015.
Strategy: Buy GLD and VIX, Short SPY/QQQ and German Bunds
Surprise No. 2 – The U.S. stock market falters in 2015.
"In a theater, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again and they became more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed – amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke." – Soren Kierkegaard.
Market High Seen in January, Low Seen in December (at Year End): The U.S. stock market experiences a 10%+ loss for the full year. (Note: Not one single strategist in Barron's Survey is calling for a lower stock market in 2015. Projected gains by the sell side are between +6-16%, with a median market gain forecast at +11%). The S&P Index makes its yearly high in the first quarter and closes 2015 at its yearly low as signs of a deepening global economic slowdown intensify in the June-December period.
While earnings expectations disappoint, the real source of the market decline in 2015 is a contraction in valuations (price-earnings multiples) after several years of robust gains. Investors begin to recognize that low interest rates, massive corporate buybacks, the suppression of wages, phony stock option accounting and other factors artificially goosed reported earnings and that earnings power and organic earnings are less than previously thought. So, 2015 is a year in which the relevant ways of measuring overvaluation (market cap/GDP currently at 1.25 vs. 0.70 mean) and the Shiller CAPE ratio (currently at 27x vs. 17x mean) become, well, relevant.
With few having the intestinal fortitude to maintain skepticism and short positions into the unrelenting bull market of 2013-14, there is none of the customary support of short sellers to cover positions and soften the market decline, when it occurs.
Stocks begin to drop in the first half, well before the real economy tapers, underscoring the notion (often forgotten) that the stock market is not the economy.
But by mid-year it becomes clear that U.S. economic growth is unable to thrive without the Fed's support.
Year-over-year profits for the S&P decline modestly in the second half of 2015. Domestic Real GDP growth falls to under +1.5% in the third and fourth quarters.
By year end the market begins to focus on The Recession of 2016-17, which looms ahead in the not so distant future.
Strategy: Short SPY
Surprise No. 3 – The drop in oil prices fails to help the economy.
"In its November 14, 2014 Daily Observations ("The Implications of $75 Oil for the US Economy"), the highly respected hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, LP confirmed that lower oil prices will have a negative impact on the economy. After an initial transitory positive impact on GDP, Bridgewater explains that lower oil investment and production will lead to a drag on real growth of 0.5% of GDP. The firm noted that over the past few years, oil production and investment have been adding about 0.5% to nominal GDP growth but that if oil levels out at $75 per barrel, this would shift to something like -0.7% over the next year, creating a material hit to income growth of 1-1.5%." – Mike Lewitt, The Credit Strategist
Despite the near-universal view that lower oil prices will benefit the economy, the reverse turns out to be the case in 2015 as the economy as a whole may not have more money – it might have less money.
Continued higher costs for food, rent, insurance, education, etc. eat up the benefit of lower oil prices. Some of the savings from lower oil is saved by the consumer who is frightened by slowing domestic growth, a slowdown in job creation and a deceleration in the rate of growth in wages and salaries.
And the unfavorable drain on oil-related capital spending and lower-employment levels serve to further drain the benefits of lower gasoline and heating oil prices.
In The Financial Times, recently, Martin Wolf wrote: "(A) $40 fall in the price of oil represents a shift of roughly $1.3 trillion (close to 2 per cent of world gross output) from producers to consumers annually. This is significant. Since, on balance, consumers are also more likely to spend quickly than producers, this should generate a modest boost to world demand."
But Wolf, and the many other observers, as Mike Lewitt again reminds us, "fail to explain how the $1.3 trillion that has been deducted from the global economy is able to shift from one group to another. "
Surprise No. 4: The mother of all flash crashes.
"America is the 'arch criminal' and 'unchangeable principal enemy' of North Korea." (Dec. 22, 2014)
"America is a 'toothless wolf' and 'the empire of devils."" (March 27, 2010)
"North Korean missiles will reduce Washington, D.C. to 'ashes.'" (August 19, 2014)
"America is a 'group of Satan' bent on destroying Korean religion." (April 22, 2013)
"American 'ideological and cultural poisoning' is undermining socialism around the world." (July 16, 2014)
– Selected quotes from North Korea's state-controlled media
Hackers attack the NYSE and Nasdaq computer apparatus and systems by introducing a flood of fictitious sell orders that result in a flash crash that dwarfs anything ever seen in history.
In the space of one hour the S&P Index falls by more than 5%.
The identity of the attacker goes unknown for several days and it turns out to be North Korea.
Strategy: Buy VIX, Short SPY/QQQ
Surprise No. 5: The great three-decade bull market in bonds is over in 2015.
"Take then thy bond thou thy pound of flesh..." – Portia, The Merchant of Venice
Last year not one strategist saw lower interest rates (though that was my No. 1 Surprise last year). This year, not one strategist expects a spike in interest rates.
In the first half of 2015, European yields and U.S. yields start to converge, in that European yields begin to jump to where the U.S. 10-year yield resides. The failure of Draghi's policy (see Surprise No. 1) will result in an acceleration in the European debt yields rising and in a decay in debt prices. That will mark the end of the great three-decade bond bull market in the U.S. and it will occur as global growth eases.
Surprise No.6 – China devalues its currency by more than 3% vs. the U.S. dollar.
"It's not like I'm anti-China. I just think it's ridiculous that we allow them to do what they're doing to this country, with the manipulation of the currency, that you write about and understand, and all of the other things that they do." – Donald Trump
For years, China has essentially pegged it's currency to the U.S. dollar. (liberalization meant that a narrow trading range is permitted). With the huge run in the U.S. Dollar, China's currency has appreciated compared with other Asian currencies. As a result, China has lost its manufacturing edge and its trade surplus has all but disappeared. Whether it's a permitted day-to-day weakening, changing the peg from the dollar to a basket of currencies or whether there is an overnight surprise devaluation, China's currency will weaken materially in 2015.
Surprise No. 7 – Apple (AAPL) becomes the first $1 trillion company.
"There's an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.' And we've always tried to do that at Apple. Since the very, very beginning. And we always will." – Steve Jobs
Apple's next generation iPhone is seen to likely outsell its latest phone iteration as Re/Code uncovers (and reveals) some amazing and unique new features/applications that are planned for the next generation phone.
I don't know what features it will have or how it will improve design or performance. But I think there is now a near-consensus that it won't and that the next product upgrade cycle is a while away.
So, I predict Apple 2016 estimates rise significantly (to $10/share) and, despite a weak market backdrop, Apple becomes the first $1 trillion dollar market-cap company and the best-performing large-cap in 2015.
Apple becomes the only one-decision stock during the stock market swoon during the last half of 2015. It is a must own.
Strategy: Buy APPL
Surprise No. 8 – Legislation is introduced that allows for repatriation for foreign cash.
"The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets." – Will Rogers
As signs of domestic economic growth fade in the second half of 2015, Congress and the Administration agree on a broad program to repatriate foreign cash at a low tax rate.
The deal briefly rallies the U.S. stock market, but equities soon succumb to a slowing domestic economy and diminishing corporate profit growth.
Surprise No. 9 – Energy goes from the worst-performing group in 2014 to the best-performing group in the first half of 2015 and then falls back later in the year.
"Oil vey!" – Kass Daily Diary term
Energy stocks are on a roller coaster in 2015.
As the price of crude oil rises steadily (towards $65 a barrel) in early 2015, the energy sector (which was among the worst in 2014) becomes the best market group in the first half of the year. Slowing global economic growth during the last half of the year leads to profit-taking in the energy sector as the price of crude oil closes the year at under $50 and at its lowest price in 2015.
In a surprise move, the president signs approval for the Keystone Pipeline in the second half of the year.
Strategy: Buy oil stocks in first six months of the year, sell/short mid-year.
Surprise No. 10 – More chaos in the Democratic Party.
"Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president, but they don't want them to become politicians in the process." – John F. Kennedy
Sen. Elizabeth Warren pushes Secretary Hillary Clinton so far to the left that she loses independent voters, though she easily gains the Democratic nomination for president.
Former President George H.W. Bush passes away during the first half of the year and Governor Jeb Bush immediately declares his candidacy.
By the end of 2015, Jeb Bush is well ahead in the polls and is a big favorite to win the presidency in 2016.
Surprise No. 11 – Food inflation accelerates after Russia halts wheat exports.
"As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex. Except for salami and eggs. Now that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced." – Alan King
Russian turmoil continues and Putin decides to halt exports of wheat again to keep as much homeland as possible, resulting in a price spike in wheat, but also corn and soybeans. This price rise, on top of U.S. food inflation that is already running higher, offsets the consumer benefit of still-relatively-low gasoline and heating oil prices.
Surprise No. 12 – Home prices fall in the second half of 2015.
"I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house and she said, 'Get the hell off my property.'" – Joan Rivers
Under the weight of reduced home affordability, still-low household formation gains and continued pressure on real incomes, home prices fall in 2015.
Builders lose pricing power.
Strategy: Short homebuilders.
Surprise No. 13 – Individual and sector market surprises.
"Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often." – Mae West
Bank Stocks Fall – Though bank stocks have been recent market leaders, the weight of a flattening yield curve, still-tepid loan demand and an implosion in the European banking system make the sector among the worst market performers. Moreover, a major cyber attack against Bank of America (BAC) that actually destroys a percentage of customer records further diminishes enthusiasm for the group.
Twitter Feeding – Carl Icahn, calling it his "new Netflix," discloses a 9.9% position in Twitter. This stimulates a bidding war between Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) to acquire the company. Google wins the battle and pays $60 a share for Twitter.
Volatility Rising – The VIX rises to over 30 in the second half of the year.
Google Institutes a Share Buyback and Shaves Capital Spending – After a lackluster performance in 2014, Google's management reverses course on its previously outsized capital spending program on non-core businesses and becomes more shareholder friendly. The company dials back spending and institutes a stock buyback program.
Corporate Inefficiency in Large-Cap Technology Targets Activist Investors –- Two hedge funds establish a filing position in Cisco (CSCO) and force Chairman John Chambers out. The new CEO announces a large special dividend and a massive stock buyback and a cutback to the employees' too-generous stock option plan. More than 10% of the workforce is laid off and Cisco's shares soar. Several other tech companies are targeted.
Strategy: Long AAPL TWTR, CSCO, VIX, GOOGL and short banks
Surprise No. 14 – Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) makes its largest acquisition in history.
"When I was 15 years old, I read an articls about Ivan Boesky, the well-known takeover trader – turned out years later it was all on inside information! But before that came to light, he was very successful, very flamboyant. And I thought, 'This is what I want to do.' So I'm 15 years old, I decide I'm going to Wall Street." – Karen Finerman
During the depths of the market's swoon in the later part of the year, Warren Buffett scoops up his largest acquisition ever. The $55+ billion acquisition is not in his customary comfort zone (a consumer goods company), but rather the deal is for a company in the energy, retail or construction/equipment areas.
Surprise No. 15 – A derivative blowup precipitates an abrupt market drop.
"I view derivatives as time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system." – Warren Buffett
The $300 trillion holdings of derivatives by the U.S. banking industry has been all but forgotten.
The four-largest U.S. banks account for $240 trillion of that total, dwarfing their combined $750 billion in statutory capital! This sort of exposure in which notional derivatives are more than 300x the banks' net worth, is, as my friend The Credit Strategist's Mike Lewitt has written, "would be laughable if the consequences of a financial accident were not so potentially catastrophic."
To make matters worse, the passage of the $1.1 trillion spending bill passed this month (written by lobbyists and voted on by bought-and-paid-for legislators who probably neither read nor understood the complex spending bill) has kept taxpayers on the hook –through the FDIC – for those derivatives (what Warren Buffett previously called "financial weapons of mass destruction.")
On any measure, the sheer size of these derivative portfolios pose potential risk to the world's financial stability. What we have learned from the past cycle is how opaque the exposure really is and how stupid and avaricious our bankers really are when allowed to venture into territories of leverage.
Whether it is energy derivatives or some other asset class, a derivative blowup in 2015 will serve to preserve the wise words of Benjamin Disraeli (who served twice as Great Britain's Prime Minister) that "what we have learned from history is that we haven't learned from history."
It will also harm our markets, once again.
Strategy: Short SPY