Category Archives: Global Investing

Oil, Markets, Volatility

Guest post by Contributing Editor, David R. Kotok, Cumberland Advisors.

Oil, Markets, VolatilitySharply lower oil prices have occasioned a huge discussion about their impact. We see it play out daily in newspapers, on TV and radio, at websites, on blogs, and in market letters. The range of forecasts runs from one extreme to another.

On one side, pundits predict a recession resulting from a US energy sector meltdown that leads to credit defaults in energy-related high-yield debt. They predict trouble in those states which have had high growth from the US energy renaissance. These bearish views also note the failures of Russian businesses to pay foreign-denominated debt held by European banks. And they point to sovereign debt risks like Venezuela.  These experts then envision the geopolitical risk to extend to cross-border wars and other ugly outcomes.

Geopolitical high-oil-price risk has morphed to geopolitical low-oil-price risk. That’s the negative extreme case.

The positive forecasts regarding oil are also abundant. American’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) drops robustly due to energy-price ripple effects of $50 oil. We are still in the early stages of seeing these results in US inflation indicators. There is a lot more to come as the lower energy price impacts a broad array of products and service-sector costs.

A big change in the US trade balance reflects the reduced imported oil price. We are also seeing that appear in the current account deficit plunge. In fact, both of those formerly strongly negative indicators are reaching new lows. They are the smallest deficits we have seen in 15 years. Action Economics expects that the current account deficit in the first quarter of 2015 will be below $80 billion. That is an incredible number when we think about gross flows history.

Remember that the current account deficit is an accounting identity with the capital account surplus.  Net $80 billion goes out of the US and turns around and comes back.  These are very small numbers in an economy of $18 trillion in size.

Think about what it means to have a capital account surplus of $80 billion, driven by a current account deficit of $80 billion. That means that the neutral balancing flows into the United States because of transactional and investment activity are now small. Therefore the momentum of US financial markets is driven by the foreign choices that are directing additional money flows into the US.

In the end the equations must balance. When there is an imbalance, it affects asset prices. In the present case, those asset prices are denominated in US dollars. They are desired by the rest of the world.  They are real estate, bonds, stocks, or any other asset that is priced in dollars and that the world wants to accumulate. In the US, where the size of our economy is approaching $18 trillion, the once-feared current account deficit has become a rounding error.

How bad can the energy-price hit be to the United States? There are all kinds of estimates. Capital Economics says that the decline in the oil price (they used a $40 price change, from $110 to $70 per barrel) will “reduce overall spending on petroleum-related liquids by non-oil-producing businesses and households by a total of $280 billion per year (from $770 billion to $490 billion).” Note that the present oil price is $20 a barrel lower than their estimated run rate.

That is a massive change and very stimulative to the US non-energy sector. The amount involved is more than double the 2% payroll-tax-cut amount of recent years. In fact it adds up to about 3/4 of the revised US federal budget deficit estimate in the fiscal year ending in 2015.

Let me repeat. That estimate from Capital Economics is based on an average price of $70 a barrel in the US for all of 2015. The current price of oil is lower. Some forecasts estimate that the oil price is going much lower. We doubt that but the level of the oil price is no longer the key issue.  It is the duration of the lower price level that matters.  We do not know how long the price will fall, but there is some thought developing that it will hover around $55 to $60 for a while (average for 2015).

There is certainly a negative impact to the oil sector. Capital spending slows when the oil price falls. We already see that process unfolding. It is apparent in the anecdotes as a drilling rig gets canceled or postponed, a project gets delayed, or something else goes on hold.

How big is the negative number? Capital Economics says, “The impact on the wider economy will be modest. Investment in mining structures is $146 billion, with investment in mining equipment an additional $26 billion. Altogether investment in mining accounts for 7.7% of total business investment, but only 1% of GDP.”

At Cumberland we agree. The projections are obvious: energy capital expenditures will decline; the US renaissance in oil will slow, and development and exploration will be curtailed. But the scale of the negative is far outweighed by the scale of the positive.

Let’s go farther. Fundstrat Global Advisors, a global advisory source with good data, suggests that lower oil will add about $350 billion in developing-nation purchasing power. That estimate was based on a 28% oil price decline starting with a $110 base. The final number is unknown. But today’s numbers reveal declines of almost 50%.  Think about a $350 billion to $500 billion boost to the developing countries in North America, Europe, and Asia. Note these are not emerging-market estimates but developing-country estimates.

It seems to us that another focal point is what is happening to the oil-producing countries. In this case Wells Fargo Securities has developed some fiscal breakeven oil prices for countries that are prominent oil producers. Essentially, Kuwait is the only one with a positive fiscal breakeven if the oil price is under $60 per barrel. Let’s take a look at Wells Fargo’s list. The most damaged country in fiscal breakeven is Iran. They need a price well over $100 in order to get to some budgetary stability. Next is Nigeria. Venezuela is next. Under $100 but over $60 are Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Let’s think about this oil battle in a geopolitical context. BCA Research defines it as a “regional proxy war.” They identify the antagonists as Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is that simple when it comes to oil. Saudis use oil as a weapon, and they intend to weaken their most significant enemy on the other side of the water in their neighborhood. But the outcome also pressures a bunch of other bad guys, including Russia, to achieve some resolution of the situation in Ukraine.

There are victims in the oil patch: energy stocks, exploration and production, and related energy construction and engineering. Anything that is tied to oil price in the energy patch is subject to economic weakness because of the downward price pressure. On the other hand, volumes are enhanced and remain intact. If anything, one can expect consumption to rise because the prices have fallen. Favoring volume-oriented energy consumption investment rather than price-sensitive energy investment is a transition that investing agents need to consider. At Cumberland, we are underweight energy stock ETFs. We sold last autumn and have not bought back.  We favor volume oriented exposures, including certain MLPs.

We believe that the US economic growth rate is going to improve. In 2015, it will record GDP rate of change levels above 3.5%. Evidence suggests that the US economy will finally resume classic longer term trend rates above 3%. It will do so in the context of very low interest and inflation rates, a gradual but ongoing improvement in labor markets, and the powerful influences of a strengthening US dollar and a tightening US budget deficit. The American fiscal condition is good and improving rapidly. The American monetary condition is stabilizing. The American banking system has already been through a crisis and now seems to be adequately protected and reserved.

Our view is bullish for the US economy and stock market. We have held to that position through volatility, and we expect more volatility. When interest rates, growth rates, and trends are normalized, volatilities are normalized. They are now more normal than those that were distorted and dampened by the ongoing zero interest rate policy of the last six years.

Volatility restoration is not a negative market item. It is a normalizing item. We may wind up seeing the VIX and the stock market rise at the same time. Volatility is bidirectional.

We remain nearly fully invested in our US ETF portfolios. We expect more volatility in conjunction with an upward trend in the US stock market.

High volatility means adjustments must be made, and sometimes they require fast action. This positive outlook could change at any time. So Cumberland clients can expect to see changes in their accounts when information and analysis suggest that we move quickly.

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Cumberland Advisors is not affiliated with FOLIOfn or The Portfolioist.

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Parsing the Drop in the Japanese Stock Market

One of the most interesting market stories in the last week is the big drop in the Japanese stock market.  Japan is the third-largest economy in the world, ranked by GDP.  The values of the Japanese stock market, as measured by the Nikkei 225 index, dropped by 7.3% on May 23rd, and then suffered another fairly dramatic one-day decline of 3.2% on May 27th.

Over the last five sessions, the iShares MSCI Index ETF, EWJ, has dropped by almost 10% (see chart below). Continue reading

A Thoughtful Outlook for 2013

In general, I ignore the spate of market predictions that experts issue at the start of each year.  There are exceptions, and after reading Jason Hsu’s outlook for this year, I am pleased to recommend it to readers.  Dr. Hsu is the Chief Investment Officer at global money management firm, Research Affiliates.  I found his article both insightful and appropriately skeptical of all forecasts.  How can you not appreciate a money manager who starts his prediction for the year ahead with John Galbraith’s quip that “the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”?

I am going to mention a few of the elements of Hsu’s outlooks and add some thoughts.  Hsu first examines the drivers for bonds and then equities.  I will follow this structure. Continue reading

Sector Watch: Spotlight Telecommunications Stocks

The telecommunications industry is evolving quickly.  Recent data suggests, for example, that half of all adults in the United States have a tablet or smartphone.  There are many countries that have an average of more than one cell phone line per person.  In the developing economies, cell phones have allowed much broader access to voice and data services than would have been possible if the traditional fixed-line infrastructure needed to be built.  Ten years ago, Nigeria had only 100,000 phone lines.  Today, Nigeria has 100 Million cell phone accounts.  The ways that people use telecommunications are also expanding.  For people with little or no access to banking, mobile money services can provide the essential roles of banking.  The continued convergence of banking with telecommunications has substantial implications for both. Continue reading

Emerging Market Indexing

Guest post by Matthew Amster-Burton, Mint.com. We thought this was an interesting article and thought our readers would too. Enjoy.

Let’s say you want to build your own stock market index fund based on the S&P 500. Easy: download a list of all the companies in the index–from 3M (MMM) to Zions Bancorp (ZION) and their market cap, and start investing. Every stock in the index will be easy to buy in whatever quantity you want.

Now, after the success of your first index fund, you decide to create an emerging market fund, concentrating on the world’s up-and-coming economies. Again, no problem. We have the internet, after all, and we can just print off a list of all the stocks in China, India, Chile, Hungary, and so on, pull out a pile of Benjamins, and go to town.

That won’t work, says Raman Subramanian, Executive Director of Index Research at MSCI. Continue reading

Why Bond Yields Scare Me More Than Friday the 13th

Stock investors generally don’t have much to fear on Friday the 13th. Historically, Friday the 13th is a relatively calm day for stocks. Jason Zweig, who writes The Wall Street Journal’s Intelligent Investor column, says it’s usually a good day for investors and says superstition about trading on this supposedly unlucky day is one of the market’s “dumbest myths.”

Bond yields, however, are seriously worrying to Geoff Considine.  Here’s why. Continue reading

Stocks and Shocks: What to Do?

Guest Post by Contributing Editor, David Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer, Cumberland Advisors.

How do we avoid walking into a “left hook” in the markets? That was the discussion this week during a client review.

“Can’t you see them coming and avoid them?” he asked. Well maybe some folks can, but the issue of investing with possible shocks as an outcome is a very difficult one.

“Do you position for the worst outcome?” If yes, you would never invest in anything.

“Is there a middle road?” We think so and that is why we use a combination of ETFs and bonds and recommend diversifying risk among several asset classes.

Below this introduction is a partial list of upcoming potential shocks. As readers will note, we can see the potential shock relatively clearly. Scott MacDonald of MC Asset Management calls them “dangerous seas ahead.” His maritime metaphors sequence the Titanic and Lusitania. Lehman-AIG and the meltdown were the Titanic. “This leaves us to wonder if the U.S. economy is not like the Lusitania, operating in a high risk environment, but felt to be safe from prowling German U-boats in the North Atlantic.” ponders Scott.

Of course, we cannot know the result of a potential risk before it happens. We cannot know the outcome and the policy shift. Therefore, the anticipatory period preceding the risk and the aftermath (if as and when the risk is realized) are not symmetrical. In other words, you are investing in asymmetry. Knowing this in advance allows for an asset-allocation rebalancing as the circumstances and probabilities change. In other words: reassess, reassess, reassess risks and rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Some of the discussion in our new book addresses these types of asymmetries. See Amazon.com, From Bear to Bull with ETFs or visit Cumberland’s website. In the book, we actually show the comparison with the ten sectors of the S&P 500 index and the relative performance of each sector in the bear and in the subsequent bull market.

Now let’s get to some potential shocks and comment about them:

  • Possible Shock Number 1: The Fed will cease “Operation Twist” on June 30. They confirmed the policy shift as recently as this last meeting and Bernanke’s statement. What will a twist cessation bring to bond yields? Will it change home mortgage interest rates? Delay a housing market recovery? Alter the steepness of the yield curve? Or the flatness of the yield curve? What happens to bond credit spreads? Pricing of repo collateral? Maybe the whole thing will pass as a non-event. Nobody knows.
  • Possible Shock Number 2:The so-called “fiscal cliff” is approaching at year-end. Strategas’ Dan Clifton and Jason Trennert have hammered this theme. Their summary identifies three elements:“… roughly one-third of the entire tax code expiring at the end of the year, the spending sequester beginning on January 2, a debt ceiling increase needed in the six weeks after the election and before the end of the year.”How much will markets anticipate these outcomes? How deep is fiscal drag? Is there a fiscal drag? Is Ricardian equivalence dead? How large is the policy shift danger to our country from the Congress? From this President? From next year’s President (re-elected or new)? All of these tax-spend-borrow outcomes are probable in the present-day realm of American politics. That puts our American destiny in the hands of a class of people who are very unpopular and despised by the majority of American citizens. Our politicians have become the scurrilous, scatological scoundrels that we elect and send to Washington. (We include both political parties in this opprobrium). Jack Bittner asks if we should limit all pols to a single term.
  • Possible Shock Number 3: The Bank of Japan has leaped to the top of the G4 central banks when it comes to balance-sheet expansion. BOJ announced an increase in the rate of asset purchases and an extension of the duration of the Japanese sovereign debt it will buy. Initial market reaction was that this plan is “not enough.” BOJ is trying to get Japan’s inflation rate UP! They have not succeeded in the past. Is this time different? What will be the impact on the foreign exchange markets? Will the yen weaken? If so, which currency will strengthen? We have written in the past that FX market adjustments are quite distorted when the G4 central banks are all maintaining their policy interest rates near zero.
  • Possible Shock Number 4:The FDIC limit on non-interest-bearing demand deposit insurance is scheduled to revert back to the pre-crisis level at the end of this year. We quote from the FDIC website:“From December 31, 2010 through December 31, 2012, at all FDIC-insured institutions, deposits held in non-interest-bearing transaction accounts will be fully insured regardless of the amount in the account. For more information, see the FDIC’s comprehensive guide, Your Insured Deposits.”What will be the impact in the money-market end of the yield curve? Will there be an extension of the termination date if markets begin to tighten? What will happen to repo rates? Repo collateral pricing? How closely is the Fed watching this development, since the Fed has been providing the market with more repo collateral (T-bills) through its Operation Twist? Is there a relationship, or will there be one? Can the banking system withstand larger withdrawals of zero-interest deposits if corporate agents deem deposits to be insecure without FDIC insurance coverage? (Note that the FDIC just closed five more banks this week. In the case of the Bank of Eastern Shore, Cambridge, Maryland, the FDIC has not found a buyer or merger partner, and the uninsured depositors are at risk of loss. Readers who are still worried about the safety of their bank deposits may check the FDIC website for the current rules).
  • Possible Shock Number 5: Watch the price and futures prices of Brent crude. Many are sanguine about oil and energy pricing and the gasoline price. We are not. Libyan production is not coming back in a hurry (hat tip to Barclays for superb research on the risk of Libyan civil war). Geopolitical risk is high in the Persian Gulf (Iran) and in Nigeria (see the developing news story of turmoil in this important oil-producing country). Worldwide demand for oil inexorably rises. U.S. energy policy still fails to accelerate our move to energy independence. Despite Energy Secretary Salazar’s protestations, the fact is that the Obama Administration has a failed energy policy and continues to pursue it. We do not drill, we do not encourage the use of natural gas in an accelerated and proactive way, and we do stymie new production and exploration. We do have pipelines running in the wrong directions, and we do have distorted domestic oil pricing because of excess inventories in Cushing, Oklahoma. At Cumberland, we remain attentive to this sector even as the market has become sanguine about it. We continue to hold our oil-energy-exploration and oil-service positions. The range of forecasts of the oil price is a mile wide. We have seen a low of $40 a barrel within two years and a high of $175. We lean to the higher price, not the lower one.

Reassess and Rebalance

I will stop now with the list of possible shocks and leave it to the reader’s imagination to complete this compendium with thoughts about Europe or China slowing or future inflation risk. Here is how we see the portfolio management decision. Remember this is today. It could change tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. The operative structure is reassess, reassess, reassess, rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Cumberland continues its fully invested approach using ETFs. We have been in that mode since the bear-market bottom of October 3. We think the bull market that started on October 3 is only half over as to price change and only one-third to one-fourth over as to time. Of course, any shock could derail this forecast. Our bond portfolios are slowly repositioning to a hedged or defensive mode. We have time. The process of moving from the present very low interest rates will require years and be volatile but gradual. Interest rates cannot go below zero. To get them above zero and into a more normal relationship, the G4 central banks must neutralize over four trillion dollars equivalent of excess reserves. Collectively they are still enlarging this position and are a long way from extraction from it.

Two items are recommended:

  • Read “Death of a Theory,” by St. Louis Fed president James Bullard, in the March-April/2012 monthly bulletin of that bank.
  • For analysis of last year’s bear market and the ensuing bull market, readers may wish to consult our new book, From Bear to Bull with ETFs. We thank readers for their responses so far. For the first time in our life, we have had a three-week-running best-selling book. All links to book distribution will be constantly updated on Cumberland’s website.

(Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Portfolioist. Cumberland Advisors is unaffiliated with FOLIOfn Investments.)

About David R. Kotok:

David R. Kotok co-founded Cumberland Advisors in 1973 and has been its Chief Investment Officer since inception. Mr. Kotok’s articles and financial commentary have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and other publications. He is a frequent guest on financial television including Bloomberg Television, CNBC and Fox. He also contributes to radio networks such as NPR and media organizations like Bloomberg Radio, among others.

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