“Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore'”[i]

January’s capital markets were in upheaval.  It began with the worst first 5 days in history and then fell further.  While the S&P 500 ended the month with a nasty 5% loss, it was down more than twice that amount before a month-end rally provided some relief.  During this stretch, naturally the financial media were franticly trying to determine the causes as well as seek predictions regarding what the future held for the markets.
A common thread from the responders was to quote Ben Graham.  It’s usually a safe move to refer to the late Mr. Graham in any response involving the financial markets.  He is considered the father of value investing and wrote two iconic books on investing – “Security Analysis” and “The Intelligent Investor”.  Further he taught at Columbia University teaching such famous students as Warren Buffett, Irving Kahn, and Walter Schloss.  So, as mentioned, when the markets are especially confounding without logical explanation, quoting Ben Graham is good decision as very few question his wisdom.   That probably explains why he’s not quoted nearly as much when the markets are behaving and trading higher.  After all, a bull market makes everyone look wise!
Here are how the major indexes performed in January.
2016YTD
Dow Jones Industrial Average  -7.0%             
S&P 500                                       -8.0%                               
Nasdaq Composite                      -12.9%
Russell 2000                                 -13.2%                       
Indices are unmanaged, do not incur fees or expenses, and cannot be invested into directly. These returns do not include dividends
“Once Upon a Midnight Dreary, While I Pondered, Weak and Weary”[ii]
After the ugly January, there is widespread debate over whether the U.S. stock markets are in a bear market.  Further the discussion centers on what caused January’s drop and what’s the direction from here.
Looking at what is troubling the markets, falling commodities and a slowing China are the common reasons offered.  While they have influenced the markets, these issues were not new to 2016.  Looking for other causes, some are questioning if sovereign wealth funds (SWF) have turned from buyer to seller.  Countries such as Norway, United Arab Emirates, China, and Saudi Arabia built up massive amounts of funds during the past 10 – 15 years.  SWF’s were estimated to be $3 trillion 10 years ago and have more than doubled to over $7 trillion recently[iii].  These countries invested the funds and, as the SWF’s grew, it helped support global markets.  Things have changed.  With plunging commodities and oil together with a slowing China, perhaps these pools of capital have switched from “buyer” to “seller”.
Monetary policy is obviously a large impact on the markets.  The Bank of Japan surprised everyone a week ago as they adopted a negative interest rate policy.  The BOJ lowered their main interest rate from +0.01% to -0.01%.  It was the first time they’ve adjusted this interest rate in 5 years.  They join Europe in implementing negative interest rates in hopes of stimulating their economy.
Global stock markets rallied on the news and, as expected, the Yen fell hard.  Japan will welcome a lower currency to remain competitive on international trade.  Despite the market’s reaction, there is a possibility that traders question if this is a move of desperation.  This then brings in the risk of a loss of confidence in all policy makers.  A confidence crisis of this type would make January’s markets look like a picnic.
In addition to monetary policy, crude oil’s implosion has many worried.  The concerns involve the fallout over the lower prices.  This is counter to the logical view that lower energy prices are an economic boost. Since the financial crisis, drilling for oil and gas has been a large contributor to economic growth.  Not only has it driven job growth and purchased a lot of equipment and machinery, it provided a boost to other business in the drilling geographies.  In other words, if you’re a car dealer in an area of a lot of exploration activity, you’re in the energy business.  Same for restaurants, hotels, and a lot of other services.  These ancillary businesses are slowing as drilling activity contracts due to the fall in crude.
The damage to the exploration industry has also spilled into the bond market.  Drillers and suppliers of energy infrastructure financed the expansion through debt, much of it by selling bonds.  Because the fixed income markets considered many energy companies higher risk, the bonds were sold at higher interest rates (high-yield).  With oil’s collapse, there are growing worries that these companies will not be able to service this debt and defaults will increase.
These concerns go beyond loans to exploration and production companies. Bank exposure through derivatives are a different problem.  The Bank of International Settlements estimates the notional value of the commodities related derivatives market at around $4 trillion.  The risk is that low crude oil causes bankruptcies in commodity producers with large derivative positions.  A bankrupt entity that would not be able to fulfill its commitments in the futures market could result in a wide reaching problem.  This is likely the reason why the stock market and energy markets have recently been moving together.
The worries caused by these issues have been centered on banking stocks.  They have been battered to the point that the banks within the S&P 500 are selling at their cheapest price-to-book valuation since 2009.[iv]
While stocks and crude are holding hands, bond yields have been moving in one direction – down.  Despite the Fed’s December rate increase on the short end of the yield curve and the upheaval in the high yield market, U.S. Treasury rates have dropped since the beginning of the year.  The 10-year note ended 2015 at 2.27%.  This same bond’s yield closed last week at 1.84% which is lower than the levels reached during last August’s stock market sell off.  In fact, this is the lowest level for the 10-year since last April.  Having closed the year above 3%, the 30-year bond yield was down to 2.68% at the end of last week.
Falling yields could be a signal of investors fleeing risk and seeking safety.  In a clear sign of risk aversion, the S&P 500’s dividend yield is at 2.32%, well above the 10-year’s yield.  Also, it could be a sign of a slowing economy with less loan demand.  Another possibility is that the negative interest rate policies in Europe and Japan are impacting U.S. markets.  Global deflation, a possible result of the central bank policies, could be on the horizon.  Under these conditions, the Fed’s inflation goal of 2% seems to be very challenging.
“Deep into That Darkness Peering, Long I Stood There Wondering, Fearing”[v]
Stock have bounced since January 20th.  This is probably a combination of being oversold as well as the start of earnings reports that were not as bad as had been expected.  A February that follows a greater than 5% January loss usually sees further losses.  Median losses are an additional -2% in the previous 9 times when January lost this much.[vi]
Putting all of these cross currents together, markets are focused more on the economic obstacles rather than the positives.  That may continue for the intermediate future until there is better clarity on the fallout of lower commodity prices, what Japan and Europe’s negative interest rate policies mean, and how the U.S. economy performs.  It’s hard to believe that all of the risks are priced in at current levels, however with the passage of time these issues will be resolved.

[i] The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
[ii] Ibid
[iii] GaveKal Research, January 22, 2016
[iv]  The Bespoke Report, February 5, 2016
[v]  The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
[vi] The Bespoke Report, January 29, 2016
“Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore'”[i]

[i] The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
Mr. Kerr is an Investment Advisor Representative of advisory services offered through Kildare Asset Management, a Registered Investment Advisor.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risks, including the risk of principal loss. The strategies discussed do not ensure success or guarantee against loss. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is a price-weighted index of 30 actively traded blue-chip stocks.  The Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) is an unmanaged group of securities considered to be representative of the stock market in general. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.  Trading of derivative products such as options, futures or exchange traded funds involves significant risks and it is important to fully understand the risks and consequences involved before investing in these products. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. All economic and performance data is historical and not indicative of future results. Market indices discussed are unmanaged. Investors cannot invest in unmanaged indices. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional.
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