By Mike Whitney
“Not only is the equity market at the second most overvalued point in U.S. history, it is also more leveraged against probable long-term corporate cash flows than at any previous point in history.”
— John P. Hussman, Ph.D. “Debt-Financed Buybacks Have Quietly Placed Investors On Margin“, Hussman Funds
“This year feels like the last days of Pompeii: everyone is wondering when the volcano will erupt.”
— Senior banker commenting to the Financial Times
Last Friday’s stock market bloodbath was the worst one-day crash since 2008. The Dow Jones dropped 531 points, while the S&P 500 fell 64, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq slid 171. The Dow lost more than 1,000 points on the week dipping back into the red for the year. At the same time, commodities continued to get hammered with oil prices briefly dropping below the critical $40 per barrel mark. More tellingly, the market’s so called “fear gauge” (VIX) skyrocketed to a 2015 high indicating more volatility to come. The VIX has remained at unusually low levels for a number of years as investors have grown more complacent figuring the Fed will intervene whenever stocks fall too far. But last week’s massacre cast doubts on the Central Bank’s intentions. Will the Fed ride to the rescue again or not? To the vast majority of institutional investors, who now base their buying decisions on Fed policy rather than market fundamentals, that is the crucial question.
Ostensibly, last week’s selloff was triggered by China’s unexpected decision to devalue its currency, the juan. The announcement confirmed that the world’s second biggest economy is rapidly cooling off increasing the likelihood of a global slowdown. Over the last decade, China has accounted “for a third of the expansion in the global economy,… almost double the contribution of the US and more than triple the impacts of Europe and Japan.” Fears of a slowdown were greatly intensified on Friday when a survey showed that manufacturing in China shrank at the fastest pace since the recession in 2009. That’s all it took to put the global markets into a nosedive. According to the World Socialist Web Site:
“The deceleration of growth in China, reflected in figures on production, exports and imports, business investment and producer prices, is fueling a near-collapse in so-called “emerging market” economies that depend on the Chinese market for exports of raw materials. The past week saw a further plunge in stock prices and currency rates in Russia, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa and other countries. These economies are being hit by a massive outflow of capital, placing in doubt their ability to meet debt obligations.”
(“Panic sell-off on world financial markets”, World Socialist Web Site)
While a correction was not entirely unexpected following a 6-year long bull market, the sudden drop in equities does have analysts rethinking the effectiveness of the Fed’s monetary policies which have had little impact on personal consumption, retail spending, wages, productivity, household income, or economic growth all of which remain weaker than they have been following any recession in the post war era. For all intents and purposes, the plan to inflate asset prices by dropping rates to zero and injecting trillions in liquidity into the financial system has been an abject failure. GDP continues to hover at an abysmal 1.5% while signs of a strong, self sustaining recovery are nowhere to be seen. At the same time, government and corporate debt continue to balloon at a near-record pace draining capital away from productive investments that could lay the groundwork for higher employment and stronger growth.
What’s so odd about last week’s market action is that the bad news on China put shares into a tailspin instead of sending them into the stratosphere which has been the pattern for the last four years. In fact, the reason volatility has stayed so low and investors have grown so complacent is because every announcement of bad economic data has been followed by cheery promises from the Fed to keep the easy-money sluicegates open until the storm passes. That hasn’t been the case this time, in fact, Fed chair Janet Yellen hasn’t even scrapped the idea of jacking up rates some time in September which is almost unthinkable given last week’s market ructions.
Why? What’s changed? Surely, Yellen isn’t going to sit back and let six years of stock market gains be wiped out in a few sessions, is she? Or is there something we’re missing here that is beyond the Fed’s powers to change? Is that it?
My own feeling is that China is not the real issue. Yes, it is the catalyst for the selloff, but the real problem is in the credit markets where the spreads on high yield bonds continue to widen relative to US Treasuries.
What does that mean?
It means the price of capital is going up, and when the price of capital goes up, it costs more for businesses to borrow. And when it costs more for businesses to borrow, they reduce their borrowing, which decreases the demand for credit. And when the demand for credit decreases in a credit-based system, then there’s a corresponding slowdown in business investment which impacts stock prices and growth. And that is particularly significant now, since the bulk of corporate investment is being diverted into stock buybacks. Check out this excerpt from a post at Wall Street on Parade:
“According to data from Bloomberg, corporations have issued a stunning $9.3 trillion in bonds since the beginning of 2009. The major beneficiary of this debt binge has been the stock market rather than investment in modernizing the plant, equipment or new hires to make the company more competitive for the future. Bond proceeds frequently ended up buying back shares or boosting dividends, thus elevating the stock market on the back of heavier debt levels on corporate balance sheets.
Now, with commodity prices resuming their plunge and currency wars spreading, concerns of financial contagion are back in the markets and spreads on corporate bonds versus safer, more liquid instruments like U.S. Treasury notes, are widening in a fashion similar to the warning signs heading into the 2008 crash. The $2.2 trillion junk bond market (high-yield) as well as the investment grade market have seen spreads widen as outflows from Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and bond funds pick up steam.” (“Keep Your Eye on Junk Bonds: They’re Starting to Behave Like ‘08 “, Wall Street on Parade)
As you can see, the nation’s corporations don’t borrow at zero rates from the Fed. They borrow at market rates in the bond market, and those rates are gradually inching up. And while that hasn’t slowed the stock buyback craze so far, the clock is quickly running out. We are fast approaching the point where debt servicing, shrinking revenues, too much leverage, and higher rates will no longer make stock repurchases a sensible option, at which point stocks are going to fall off a cliff. Here’s more from Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times:
“Since 2004, companies have spent nearly $7 trillion purchasing their own stock — often at inflated prices, according to data from Mustafa Erdem Sakinc of the Academic-Industry Research Network. That amounts to about 54 percent of all profits from Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index companies between 2003 and 2012, according to William Lazonick, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.”
You can see the game that’s being played here. Mom and Pop investors are getting fleeced again. They’ve been lending trillions of dollars to corporate CEOs (via bond purchases) who’ve taken the money, split it up among themselves and their wealthy shareholder buddies, (through buybacks and dividends neither of which add a thing to a company’s productive capacity) and made out like bandits. This, in essence, is how stock buybacks work. Ordinary working people stick their life savings into bonds (because they were told “Stocks are risky, but bonds are safe”.) that offer a slightly better return than ultra-safe, low-yield government debt (US Treasuries) and, in doing so, provide lavish rewards for scheming executives who use it to shower themselves and their cutthroat shareholders with windfall profits that will never be repaid. When analysts talk about “liquidity issues” in the bond market, what they really mean is that they’ve already divvied up the money between themselves and you’ll be lucky if you ever see a dime of it back. Sound familiar?
Of course, it does. The same thing happened before the Crash of ’08. Now we are reaching the end of the credit cycle which could produce the same result. According to one analyst:
“There’s been worrying deterioration in the overall global demand picture with the continuation of EM (Emerging Markets) FX (Currency Markets) onslaught, deterioration in credit metrics with rising leverage in the US as well as outflows in credit funds in conjunction with significant widening in credit spreads…..The goldilocks period of “low rates volatility-stable carry trade environment of the last couple of years is likely coming to an end.”
(“Credit: Magical Thinking“, Macronomics)
In other words, the good times are behind us while hard times are just ahead. And while the end of the credit cycle doesn’t always signal a stock market crash, the massive buildup of leverage in unproductive financial assets like buybacks suggest that equities are in line for a serious whooping. Here’s more from Bloomberg:
“Credit traders have an uncanny knack for sounding alarm bells well before stocks realize there’s a problem. This time may be no different. Investors yanked $1.1 billion from U.S. investment-grade bond funds last week, the biggest withdrawal since 2013, according to data compiled by Wells Fargo & Co…..
“Credit is the warning signal that everyone’s been looking for,” said Jim Bianco, founder of Bianco Research LLC in Chicago. “That is something that’s been a very good leading indicator for the past 15 years.”
Bond buyers are less interested in piling into notes that yield a historically low 3.4 percent at a time when companies are increasingly using the proceeds for acquisitions, share buybacks and dividend payments. Also, the Federal Reserve is moving to raise interest rates for the first time since 2006, possibly as soon as next month, ending an era of unprecedented easy-money policies that have suppressed borrowing costs….
“Unlike the credit market, the equity market well into 2008 was very complacent about the subprime crisis that led to a full blown financial crisis,” the analysts wrote…..
So if you’re very excited about buying stocks right now, just beware of the credit traders out there who are sending some pretty big warning signs.” (“U.S. Credit Traders Send Warning Signal to Rest of World Markets”, Bloomberg)
It’s worth noting that the above article was written on August 14, a week before the stock market blew up. But credit was “flashing red” long before stock traders ever took notice.
But that’s beside the point. Whether the troubles started with China or the credit markets, probably doesn’t matter. What matters is that the system about to be put-to-the-test once again because the appropriate safeguards haven’t been put in place, because bubbles are unwinding, and because the policymakers who were supposed to monitor and regulate the system decided that they were more interested in shifting wealth to their voracious colleagues on Wall Street than building a strong foundation for a healthy economy. That’s why a simple correction could turn into something much worse.
NOTE: As of posting time, Sunday night, the Nikkei Index is down 710, Shanghai down 296, HSI down 1,031. US equity futures are all deep in the red