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Yield Curve Update (Reflation vs. Stagflation)

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Tom Essaye Interviewed with TD Ameritrade Network on November 20, 2019

Tom Essaye interviewed with Oliver Renick from TD Ameritrade, discussing Bonds vs Equities, trade war, yield curve, reflation and more…Click here to watch the full interview.

Tom Essaye with TD Ameritrade

Weekly Market Preview, October 16, 2017

Last Week in Review

The major takeaway from last week was that inflation remained stubbornly low in September and that took some of the momentum out of the recent reflation rebound. A decent retail sales number helped salvage the week’s economic data in aggregate, so the fallout for stocks was contained.

From a longer-term view, the fact that inflation remains stubbornly low does undermine the economic reflation that is needed to carry stocks materially higher, given valuations and the economic outlook.

Bottom line, last week wasn’t a particularly good one for the macro bulls, but given retail sales, it didn’t warrant a reversal of the September rally, either.

Looking at the important economic data from last week, there are really only two numbers of consequence: CPI and Retail Sales. The former was a disappointment, as the headline rose 0.5% vs. (E) 0.6% thanks to a hurricane-related surge in energy prices. Core CPI rose just 0.1% vs. (E) 0.2%, and the year-over-year Core CPI declined to 1.7% from 1.8%.

That’s well below the Fed’s 2% stated goal (and given how CPI is constructed, the real CPI goal for the Fed is probably more than 2.5%). So, the Fed still is not creating the type of statistical inflation it wants to.

While the inflation data was disappointing, the growth data on Friday was good. September retail sales were light on the headline at 1.6% vs. (E) 1.8%, but that was because of a dip in auto sales. The more important “control” group, which is retail sales less autos, gas and building supplies (it gives us the best
look at truly discretionary consumer spending), rose 0.4% vs. (E) 0.2%. Importantly, the August core Retail Sales reading was revised to 0.2% from flat.

Looking elsewhere economically last week, there were other reports (NFIB, Chinese Trade Balance, European IP), but none provided any big surprises and none will influence the next direction for stocks or bonds. Bottom line, taken in aggregate (and thanks to retail sales) the economic data last week was close enough to “Goldilocks” to prevent a reversal of the September rally.

From a Fed standpoint, the data this week coupled with some dovish Fed comments turned a December rate hike from a “sure thing” to a “probably,” unless we get more soft inflation or growth readings. That helped push stocks slightly higher on Friday initially, but a Fed that can’t hike rates to 1.5% from 1.25% for fear of low inflation or economic growth isn’t the prescription to materially higher stock prices.

This Week’s Preview

There are a lot of anecdotal economic reports this week that, when taken in aggregate, should give us decent insight into the current state of the US economy, and whether we’re seeing growth accelerate.

The most important numbers this week are the Empire Manufacturing and Philly Fed Indices, which offer the first look at October economic activity. Since the creation of the national flash PMIs, Empire and Philly have lost some of their significance, but this week they are the only October data points, so they’ll be watched to see if economic momentum in September carried over into October.

Away from Empire and Philly, the next more important releases come from China. On Thursday, we get Chinese Fixed Asset Investment, Retail Sales, Industrial Production and GDP. None of these should offer any surprises, but if they are weaker than expected that could cause a mild headwind on stocks.

Finally, this week we get September Industrial Production. Remember, “hard” economic data has, until very recently, badly lagged “soft” survey-based data. In September, retail sales helped close that gap some, but industrial production has remained well below levels you would think given the PMIs. If industrial production can accelerate in September (and remember the key is the manufacturing sub-component), then that will be a good signal that actual economic activity is finally accelerating to meet survey data (a positive for stocks).

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Reflation Pause- Part 2, October 11, 2017

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Reflation Update Part 2—Why This Reflation Is Different

In Wednesday’s Report, we covered why the reflation trade that started again in early September has taken a pause, and the reasons are twofold.

First, the market is unclear about who the next Fed chair will be. If it’s Kevin Warsh, that will be a “hawkish” surprise and rates could rise too quickly to keep this reflation “virtuous.”

Second, it’s unclear if upcoming central bank meetings, which means primarily the ECB but secondarily the Bank of England, will be Goldilocks. If either bank is more hawkish than the market expects it could send global rates sharply higher, causing a
pullback in the broad market.

Conversely, if either bank expresses doubts about growth or inflation, it could undercut the whole reflation idea that’s propelled stocks higher.

Point being, there are some key events that need to be resolved before the reflation trade can move higher. And, frankly, that makes this 2017 version of the reflation trade unique compared to previous economic reflations, most recently from ‘03-’06.

For simplicity, the easiest analogy to describe a normal reflation trade is a beach ball. When a recession occurs, the beach ball (the economy) deflates. But, low interest rates and government stimulus act as an air pump, and eventually the beach ball (economy) reflates.

Accelerating economic growth and rising inflation (due to easy money) are the “air” that inflates our economic beach ball. From a market standpoint, economic reflations are usually wonderful things. Markets go up in concert, and the way to outperform is to add beta and be exposed to cyclical, growth-oriented sectors. During a normal reflation (the last one was in ’03-’06) everything goes up regardless of what else is going on in the world.

However, this reflation is different.

Eight years after the end of the financial crisis, our economic beach ball is only half full. That’s because we’ve pumped in the “air” of accelerating economic growth (GDP going from negative to 2.5%ish) but we haven’t pumped any “air” of inflation in, yet.

Despite that, stocks are at all-time highs. Valuations are as stretched as any of us have seen them in decades. And, now we’re very late in the typical economic cycle.

Given that, barring some big surprise on tax cuts or infrastructure spending, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see a material acceleration of economic growth. In reality, 3.5% – 4% GDP growth is quasi impossible given demographics in this country—specifically the large demographic of baby boomers entering retirement, and them being replaced by a smaller workforce.

Getting back to our beach ball analogy, if inflation finally accelerates there will be a shorter time of euphoria—as the other half of our beach ball inflates. We got a hint of that in September.

But given valuations, stock prices and economic growth all are at or nearing reasonable ceilings, the risk is that after a short bit, the “air” from rising inflation over inflates our economic beach ball, and a bubble (or multiple bubbles) develop and we burst the ball. Practically, what I’m talking about is the Fed hiking rates and inverting the yield curve, which would be our signal that the beginning of the end of this eight-year expansion is now upon us.

From an advisor or investor standpoint, this creates a difficult set up. For now, we must continue to be invested and, potentially, allocate to the reflation sectors. Yet we also must do so knowing that unlike most revelations, we’re not going to enjoy an easy rally that lasts years.

So, the now years-long game of market musical chairs continues, albeit with a potentially reflation accelerating the pace of the music. For shorter or more tactical investors, holding “Reflation Basket” allocations makes sense as we approach and navigate these upcoming events.

For longer-term investors, we continue to await confirmation from the 10-year yield that this reflation truly is upon us. A few closes above the 2.40% level will be the signal, in our opinion, to rotate out of defensive names and into part or all of our Reflation Basket—Banks (KRE/KBE/EUFN), industrials (XLI), small caps (IWM) and inverse bond funds (TBT/TBF).

Bottom line, at this point in the economic cycle, for stocks to move materially higher we need inflation to accelerate and cause that reflation trade, but weneed to realize that brings us one step closer to the ultimate “bursting” of the recovery. This market remains more dangerous over the medium/longer term than the low VIX would imply.

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Reflation Pause, October 20, 2017

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Why Is the Reflation Rebound Pausing? Because It Should. Here’s Why…

After surging basically from Sept. 11 through Friday’s jobs report, the reflation rebound has taken a pause for the last few days, and I wanted to provide a comprehensive update of:

1) Where we are in the reflation process and specifically the key catalysts that are looming in the near future and that are causing this pause, and

2) Explain why this reflation trade is different from others, and requires A) A more tactical allocation to get the outperformance we all want, and B) Greater patience on the part of longer-term investors before abandoning what’s worked so well in 2017 and allocating to more reflation-oriented sectors.

Due to space constraints, I’m going to break this up into two parts covered today and tomorrow.

Reflation Update Part 1: Where Are We, and What Will Decide Whether It’s Going to Continue?

We’ve been saying since the July Fed meeting that inflation was now the most important economic statistic, and that markets needed inflation to start to rise to help fuel a “reflation rebound.”

Well, during the week between Sept. 11 and Sept. 15, Chinese, British and US CPIs beat expectations, and combined with an uptick in global economic activity, caused tactical investors to rotate into tactical sectors (banks, energy, industrials, small caps, inverse bond funds).

And, we were early on identifying that switch, and our “Reflation Basket” has outperformed the markets since we re-iterated it for short- and medium-term investors in the Sept. 21 Report.

However, also in that Report we cautioned longer-term and less-agile investors to wait for clear confirmation that the reflation rebound had started, and we identified two keys. The first was the KBW Bank Index closing above 100. This occurred both Monday and Tuesday. The second was the 10-year yield breaking above 2.40%.This has yet to happened.

So, while much of the mainstream financial press is now pumping the reflation trade (a month after it started) we’re acknowledging that it’s paused. Practically, that means we’re holding (not adding to) our “Reflation Basket” of KRE/KBE/IWM/EUFN/XLI/TBT/TBF, and think shorter-term/tactical investors should too.

I say that because I believe the first stage of this reflation trade is now complete, and in the next three weeks we will see two key events that will decide whether this reflation extends into November, pauses longer or potentially back tracks.

Near-Term Reflation Catalyst #1: ECB Meeting. Thursday, Oct. 26. Why it’s Important: As we’ve covered, markets have enjoyed a “virtuous” reflation recently because 1) Economic data has been good, but 2) Not so good that it’s causing global central banks to hike rates faster than expected.

Markets have a general expectation of what ECB tapering of QE will look like (somewhere around 20B per month) but we’ll get the details at this October ECB meeting.

If the ECB is more hawkish than expected, that could potentially send yields too high, too fast, and kill the
“virtuous” reflation. If that happened, banks and inverse bond ETFs would rally, but everything else would fall.

Conversely, if the ECB is too dovish, then markets might lose confidence in the reflation itself, and that would become a headwind.

Bottom line, the ECB needs to release a taper schedule that implies confidence in the economy and inflation, but that also isn’t so aggressive it kills the “virtuous” reflation rally.

Near-Term Reflation Catalyst #2: Fed Chair Decision.
The fact that President Trump will name a potentially new Fed chair in the next two weeks has been somewhat lost amidst the never-ending (and seemingly everescalating) Washington drama.

Right now, it’s widely believed there are three front runners: Kevin Warsh, Jerome Powell and Janet Yellen.

If Yellen is reappointed (and that’s seeming increasingly unlikely) then clearly that won’t cause any ripples in the reflation trade, and we can go back to watching inflation and yields. However, if one of the other two are appointed, things get interesting.

Warsh is considered the biggest “hawk” of the group,and if he becomes Fed chair we may see yields rise sharply, potentially endangering the “virtuous” reflation.

Powell is viewed as in the middle of the other two—not as dovish as Yellen, but not as hawkish as Warsh. But, it’s reasonable to assume that a Powell appointment would put at least some mild upward pressure on Treasury yields. It likely wouldn’t be enough to spur a killing of the “virtuous” reflation, but it would be cause for a pause in the move.

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ECB Minutes Analysis, October 6, 2017

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There were no real surprises in the minutes of the September ECB meeting, but nonetheless the minutes caused a modestly decline in the euro, which fell 0.4% following their release.

The reason for the decline was the discussion of euro strength, and the risk it poses to the EU economy. Remember, one of the reasons the euro accelerated so much in August was because ECB President Draghi refused to take multiple opportunities to comment on euro strength, and the market took those omissions as tacit endorsements of the stronger euro.

But, yesterday’s minutes told us the ECB has indeed noticed the 12% rise in the euro vs. the dollar, and if the euro stays strong it may impact its upcoming tapering decision, due on Oct. 26.

To be clear, the stronger euro won’t delay that tapering decision, but it could make the reduction in QE more gradual. And that matters, because with the euro at 1.17 vs. the dollar, a very gradual tapering is not priced in, and that represents downside risk in the euro—perhaps into the low 1.10- 1.15 range depending on taper details.

That also matters for US stocks, because if the euro falls, the dollar will rise, and a stronger dollar will, at some point, become a headwind on stocks if we don’t see continued acceleration in inflation or economic data.

Bottom line, the ECB meeting is a real risk to our “Virtuous Reflation,” because if they are dovish and cause a dollar rally, that may indeed hit stocks. That’s not necessarily a problem until later in the month, but I do want everyone to be aware of it.

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Reflation On? Why the Durable Goods Number Was Important, September 28, 2017

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Durable Goods
• August Durable Goods rose 1.7% vs. (E) 1.5%.

Takeaway
Wednesday’s Durable Goods report was a surprisingly strong number, and if it’s the start of a trend in the data, then we could finally be seeing an economic reflation.

The reason the Durable Goods number was so strong wasn’t because of the headline (it was a mild beat, but revisions largely offset it), but instead because of the key New Orders for Non-Defense Capital Goods ex-Aircraft (NDCGXA). NDCGXA surged 0.9% vs. (E) 0.3%, and the July number was revised sharply higher to 1.1% from 0.4%, signaling that business spending and investment accelerated during the summer.

That’s a legitimately positive surprise, as business spending and investment have been lackluster so far in 2017.

But if we see that activity pick up (and importantly close the gap between actual data and survey data), then that will help push broad economic growth higher. And if inflation keeps accelerating, then we’ve got a legitimate reflation.

Stocks reacted accordingly to this surprisingly good data, as the market rallied (growth is good) and was led higher by our “reflation basket” of banks (KRE), industrials, smalls caps, and inverse bond ETFs. That carried through to other assets, as bond yields surged on the news to new multi-week highs while the dollar also broke above 93.00.

Bottom line, this was a legitimately positive surprise for markets, and stocks and the dollar/bonds reacted accordingly. However, one number does not make a trend, so we’ll need to see continued acceleration in other data (industrial production) before we can confidently say the gap between very strong, “soft” survey data and actual, hard economic numbers is closing in a bullish way. Still, yesterday’s number was definitely a good start.

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Is It Time to Buy Our Reflation Basket, September 21, 2017

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Trading Color and Bottom Line: Is It Time To Allocate to Our “Reflation Basket”?

There’s a simple question that we need to address following the Fed’s hawkishly interpreted announcement: “Is it now time to rotate out of defensives (super-cap internet, healthcare, utilities, staples) and into cyclicals/reflationary sectors?”

I bring this up for two reasons.

First, getting this rotation right was the key to outperforming in 2016, and I don’t think it will be different this year. Second, there are growing signs that it may be time to make this tactical rotation.

Looking at the sector trading yesterday, it was a classic “reflation rotation.” Tech, utilities and consumer staples (sectors that have outperformed YTD) all lagged the market while cyclical sectors (which have badly underperformed) rose. Meanwhile, banks surged 1.1%, energy rose 0.35% and industrials gained 0.73%, while consumer discretionary rallied 0.34%. Additionally, small caps (which have been laggards YTD but are playing catch up in a hurry), rose 0.35% and the Russell 2000 was again the best-performing major index.

So, to answer the question of whether we need to begin to rotate into these cyclical sectors, I believe the answer depends on your time frame.

For medium- and longer-term investors, I continue to believe the answer is “no,” or at least “not yet.”
However, for short term oriented, tactical traders/investors, legging into some reflation/cyclical sectors at
these levels could make sense.

For medium and longer term investors/advisors, I’m looking for two key indicators to tell me when to rotate
into cyclicals.

First, I want to see the bank index ($BKX) hit a new high for the year. That means trading above $99.77, and closing above $99.33 (so call it 100 to make it easy).

Second, I want to see 10-year yields close above 2.40% (currently 2.28%).

If those two signals are elected, then for medium- and longer-term advisors/investors, I would advocate booking (large) profits in healthcare (XLV/IHF/IBB), super-cap internet (FDN), consumer staples (XLP) and utilities (XLU).

And, I would advocate allocating those dollars to our “Reflation Basket” we introduced earlier this summer: KRE/KBE (bank exposure), XLI (global industrials), IWM (small caps), TBT/TBF (short bonds). Additionally, I view yesterday’s price action as position for European financials and EUFN specifically.

Again, for those investors who are nimble and can stand some pain, establishing positions now does make some sense. But, for the remainder (again medium– and longer-term investors) I’d wait until those two indicators (BKX and 10-year yield) have been elected.

Regardless, we are witnessing a potential sea change in the outlook for central bank policy, and that’s going to require more vigilance on the part of advisors and investors.

If the global rate-hike cycle is now underway, then the proverbial hour glass just got flipped and the sand is now running out on the eight-year bull market (more on that in tomorrow’s issue).

Cut through the noise and understand what’s truly driving markets, as this new political and economic reality evolves. The Sevens Report is the daily market cheat sheet our subscribers use to keep up on markets, seize opportunities, avoid risks and get more assets. Sign up for your free two-week trial today and see the difference 7 minutes can make. 

Weekly Market Preview, September 18, 2017

Last Week in Review

Up until Friday, last week’s data looked like it was going to show “green shoots” of an economic reflation. But disappointing economic growth numbers on Friday off-set better inflation readings from earlier in the week, and while Hurricane Harvey likely impacted the growth data, the bottom line is the data just isn’t good enough to spur a rising tide for stocks.

From a Fed standpoint, the higher inflation data did increase the likelihood that we will get a December rate hike, although the market expectation of that remains below 50%. As such, increased expectations of a rate hike in the coming weeks could be a headwind on stocks, especially if economic data doesn’t improve.

Looking at last week’s data, the most important takeaway was that inflation appears to be bottoming. Chinese, (1.8% yoy vs. (E) 1.7% yoy), British (2.7% vs. (E) 2.5%), and US CPI (0.4% m/m vs. (E) 0.3%) all firmed up and beat expectations, and while it’s just one month’s data, it’s still a break of a pretty consistent downtrend.

That turn in inflation potentially matters, a lot, because it’s making central banks become more hawkish. The ECB is going to taper QE, the Bank of England is going to raise rates sooner rather than later (more on that in Currencies), the Fed may hike again in December and the Bank of Canada was the first major central bank to give us a surprise rate hike in nearly a decade. I’m going to be covering the implications of this a lot more this week, but the times, so it seems, they are a changin’.

That makes an acceleration in economic growth now even more important. Unfortunately, the growth data from last week was disappointing. July retail sales missed on the headline (-0.2% vs. (E) 0.1%) as did the
more important “Control” group (retail sales minus autos, gas and building materials). The “control” group fell to -0.2% vs. (E) 0.3%.

Additionally, Industrial Production also was a miss. Headline IP fell to -0.9% vs. (E) 0.1% while the manufacturing subcomponent declined to -0.3% vs. (E) 0.1%. Now, to be fair, Hurricane Harvey, which hit Southeast Texas, likely skewed the numbers negatively. But, the impact of that is unclear, and we can’t just dismiss these numbers because of the hurricane.

Bottom line, the unknown impact of Hurricane Harvey keeps this week’s data from eliciting a “stagflation” scare, given firm inflation and soft growth. But if this is the start of a trend, and it can’t be blamed on Harvey or Irma, then that’s a problem for stocks down the road. We need both inflation and growth to accelerate (and at the same time) to lift stocks to material new highs.

This Week’s Preview

The two key events for markets this week will be the Fed meeting on Wednesday, and the global flash PMIs on Friday.

Starting with the Fed, normally I’d assume this meeting will be anti-climactic, but it’s one of the meetings with the “dots” and economic projections, so there is the chance we get either a hawkish or dovish surprise. I’ll do my full FOMC Preview in tomorrow’s report, but the point here is don’t be fooled into a false sense of security if people you read say this meeting is going to be a non-event. It very well could be, but there’s a betterthan-expected chance for a surprise, too (and if I had to guess which way, I’d say it’d be a hawkish surprise… and that could hit stocks).

Turning then to the upcoming data, given the new-found incremental hawkishness of global central banks, strong growth data is more important than ever to avoid stagflation. We’ll want to see firm global manufacturing PMIs to keep stagflation concerns at bay. Looking more specifically at the US, Philly Fed comes Thursday and that will give us anecdotal insight into manufacturing activity, although the national flash PMI out the next day will effectively steal the thunder from the Philly report.

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Is an Economic Reflation Finally Starting, September 15, 2017

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Assuming that North Korea is another temporary headwind on stocks (and again it will be temporary as long as they don’t shoot a missile at Guam), then the bigger story of the week is the outperformance of the cyclical sectors and the underperformance of YTD sector outperformers (super-cap internet, utilities, etc.).

I continue to believe that if we are going to see the stock market extend this 2017 rally, it will have to be driven by the expectation of an economic reflation. And, after months of lack luster inflation data, this week provided some hope for that cause. Now, today’s growth data needs to be better than expected to complete the week.

But, even then, one month does not make a trend—so I’m not saying abandon utilities, healthcare and super cap internet for banks and small caps. All I’m saying is that we need to be prepared to make a switch, if we get the compelling signals in the near future.

Regardless, the upcoming economic data (especially the Core PCE Price Index at the end of the month) just got a lot more important.

Cut through the noise and understand what’s truly driving markets, as this new political and economic reality evolves. The Sevens Report is the daily market cheat sheet our subscribers use to keep up on markets, seize opportunities, avoid risks and get more assets. Sign up for your free two-week trial today and see the difference 7 minutes can make.