Stock jitters, Gold and JPY still compressed

Gold and the yen each worked still lower this week on highly depressed sentiment readings. Each of these has had a negative relationship with the “risk trade” lately, falling as stocks have rebounded from their oversold and overbearish condition of mid-November. Now, stock sentiment has recovered to neutral territory, and traders are afraid of these sometime “safety trades.”

Trader opinion gold has been very low since late October, a full eight weeks ago. Every similar instance in the past several years has been followed by a substantial multi-week rally. That said, if the bull markets in precious metals and the yen are indeed over, we should expect downtrends to become more protracted, with sentiment remaining low for longer.

Here’s a 1-year daily chart of gold:

1-year daily JPYUSD:

I’m holding to a thesis that the risk trade is topping out here as the US slides into a recession that remains largely unrecognised. Tops are rarely sharp peaks, but consist of several months of choppy sideways action during which sentiment deteriorates from giddy to nervous and the VIX picks up even before prices have fallen substantially. I view the rebound since mid-November with that context, akin to the action of April-July 2011 or pretty much all of 2007.  Last nights mini flash crash in stock futures fits into that context of a increasingly jittery market.

We’re three months from the 4-year birthday of the (presumably) cyclical bull market. It is now older than most cyclical bulls within secular bears, though the last bull phase lasted from March 2003 to October 2007, 4.5 years.

Another cyclical bear and a recession and drop in corporate earnings may finally compress multiples to the investable levels required to build a solid base for another bear market. I don’t expect this to happen quickly, though, since prices have a long way to go before we see anything that can be called historically cheap. I wouldn’t be surprised to see stocks hold at or beneath current levels for the rest of this decade as inflation creeps in towards the end and boosts earnings, as happened during the latter stages of the last three secular bear markets (roughly the 1910s, ’30s, ’70s).

This is why silver margins were hiked

Since the futures opened on Sunday, silver has fallen $13. For a standard 5,000 ounce contract this is $65,000, more than three times the COMEX margin. Today alone silver is off $15,000 per contract. It is just plain silly to claim a conspiracy against silver, and even sillier to claim that margins were hiked for nefarious reasons. Margin had to be hiked to keep up with the price of silver and its volatility, to protect the exchanges and winning traders (and to protect losers from themselves).

Like I said a two weeks ago at $45 when I discussed buying near-term puts on silver in anticipation of the bubble popping, I think the metal’s run is over. I suspect that it may establish a new normal in the $10-20 range for the coming decade or so, until the next secular inflation cycle is upon us.

Max caution alert: exit or hedge all market risk

This is one of those times where markets are stretched to the limit and any further upside will be minimal in relation to the extreme risk entailed. Sentiment has been dollar-bearish and risk-bullish for so long that a violent reversal is all but guaranteed. This is not to say that the absolute top is in, but that at the very least, another episode like last April-June is coming up.

Watch for a sharp sell-off in stocks, commodities and the EUR-CAD-AUD complex. Even gold and silver are vulnerable, especially silver. We could be near a secular top in silver, where the recent superspike has all but gauranteed an unhappy ending to what has been a fantastic technical and fundamental play for the last decade. Gold is much more reasonably valued and should continue to outperform risk assets because the monetary authorities are so reckless, but there is just too much froth in silver to hope for even that.

The rally since early 2009 has been not just another dead cat bounce in the bear market from 2007 (like I thought it would be), but another full-blown reflation and risk binge like the 2003-2007 cyclical bull. The secular bear since 2000 is still here, and valuations and technicals suggest that another cyclical bear phase is imminent. There is no telling how long it will take or how it will play out, but the only prudent move at times like this is to take all market risk off the table. Bears still standing should think about going fully short. Anyone holding stocks should sell or get fully hedged. History shows that the expected 10-year return on stocks from conditions like this is under 3.5%, and such a positive figure is often only acheived after a major drawdown and rebound. See John Hussman’s excellent research on the topic of expected returns from various valuation levels: http://hussmanfunds.com/weeklyMarketComment.html

Want to know what a secular bear looks like? Check out 1966-1982: a series of crashes and rallies that resulted in a 75% inflation-adjusted loss. In the absense of 70s-style inflation, this time the nominal loss should be closer to the real loss. Think Japan 1989-who knows?

The headlines this time around should have less to do with US housing, though that bear is still raging. We’re likely to hear much more about European sovereign debt, where haircuts and defaults need to happen, and Canadian, Australian and Chinese real estate. When the China construction bubble pops it will remove a major fundamental pillar from the commodities market.

There is no safe haven but cash, and cash is all the better since everyone has feared it for so long. If I had to build a bulletproof portfolio that I was not allowed to touch for five years, it would be something like this: 20% gold bullion, 25% US T-bills, 25% US 10-year notes, 25% Swiss Francs (as much as I hate to buy francs at $1.13) and 5% deep out-of-the-money 2013 SPX puts (automatic cash settlement).

There will be a great value opportunity in stocks before long (the tell will be dividend yields over 5% on blue chips). It’s just a matter of having the cash when it comes, so that you aren’t like the guy who said in 1932 that he’d be buying if he hadn’t lost everything in the crash.

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PS – For those of you who think QE3,4,5,6 will save the markets, I’ll counter that it doesn’t matter, not on any time frame that counts. Risk appetite and private credit are what matter the most, and the Fed can’t print that. At 3AM, spiking the punchbowl doesn’t work anymore.

Or I can put it this way: the Fed has increased the monetary base from 850 billion to 2500 billion since 2007. Have your bank balance, salary and monthly bills increased 200%? If not, why should stock and commodity prices? Not even Lloyd Blankfein is 200% richer than four years ago.

Silver superspikes: dollar-bullish, and they don’t last

First, the 25-year monthly chart:

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Here’s a chart that goes back further but only goes up to 2010 (I couldn’t figure out how to get barchart.com to draw me the whole thing, but you can just use your imagination – the line just goes straight up from $30 to $45):

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Gold’s march upwards has been much more orderly, but silver is a thin market and prone to spikes. These things are tough to short, and to attempt to do so you should wait for a pause and use a stop above the highs, but even with a stop a fast market like this could spike dollars in minutes or seconds and close you out at a big loss only to reverse. This chart doesn’t show the action that happened intraday one day in Jan 1980 when silver traded over $50 very briefly.  No reason why it couldn’t spike to $70 next week only to crash and languish at a new normal of $10-20 for the next two decades.

It is safer in a way to buy puts than to short SLV or sell futures, since your risk is defined – you can only lose what you put up. The July 35-strike puts on SLV were going for less than 60 cents on Wednesday, and will get cheaper every day until silver falls. June 35s are under 40 cents and will decay faster but pay off better in a crash. At any rate, I’d take a disciplined approach and figure on losing my premium at least once, buying higher strikes if the spike continues upwards. Losing the first premium or two would be acceptible if a later position pays off 10:1.

Take another look at this long-term dollar chart. We had a major bottom in 1980 just as everyone was panicking into precious metals.  Silver spikes are apparently another symptom of extremely negative dollar sentiment, so should be considered bullish for the currency.

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BTW, though gold’s price and action is much more sensible, the silver spike is very bad for gold as well – it may just have doomed its bull market. The metals have more than adjusted for the inflation of the last 30 years and the money printing of the last 3. It would make sense for their run to end soon and for them to settle into some middle ground. That doesn’t mean gold can’t touch 2500 and silver can’t hit 100 – it’s just that these moves are too fast and too high relative to their historic multiples to other assets, so these prices will not last.

Long-term gold charts (first one is a few weeks old – the second is current but doesn’t go back as far):

Silver

Hard to deny there’s a bearish pattern here:

TD Ameritrade

The precious metals have ambivalent correlations with stocks these days, so I’m not sure what the above means in the scheme of things, other than the commodities echo bubble slowly deflating. Sometimes the metals are high beta, sometimes negative, and sometimes they seem to have no correlation at all.

Week in review and intermediate-term thoughts

Today I’m going to lay out what I’m watching for clues about the intermediate-term prospects. The action of the last 4 weeks has been more suggestive of a reversal than any we’ve had since the March 2009 lows. However, even if a top is in hand and we are finally at our spring 1930 moment, I’m not willing to throw caution to the wind and discount the possibility of another few weeks of rally.

Let’s start with the 5-day average equity:put call ratio, which has nailed so many intermediate-term tops, not least of which this last, which it suggested would be followed by a serious decline:

Indexindicators.com

The put:call ratio could use a bit more of a reset, which could be achieved by just a few more days of calmer or rising markets. Nothing major required here, just a pause.

This break has shaken up a few traders, but judging from interviews this week, the majority remain fairly sanguine about a continued bull phase and consider this a healthy correction, much as they did the first declines off SPX 1550 in late 2007 and early 2008. Also, the past year has established a very clear pattern of modest declines followed by new highs on extreme bullishness. Traders and their machines may be programmed to buy this dip, but with the recent technical damage (we busted the last low for the first time in the whole rally and experienced a mini-crash) I’d expect any rally to be relatively shallow.

There is a pattern of reduced oomph on each subsequent rally phase, which you can see in the diminishing slopes of each rally. You can also see the weakening of the larger trend in the angles between subsequent lows.  (Click to enlarge the image.)

TD Ameritrade

I’ve drawn those ovals on RSI to show a technique I have for picking bottoms. It gets most intermediate term bottoms, and perhaps more importantly, it has a low false-positive rate. A rally becomes likely when you get a double bottom in RSI. This works on any scale you chose, from 1-minute to daily or higher. The likelihood of a rally increases if the second bottom on RSI is higher than the first. This is common because the middle wave of a decline is usually more intense than the final wave.

Now, this current juncture has such a double bottom signal, though the second RSI bottom is not higher than the first. It is also trickier because the first was formed by the latest black Thursday, May 6. I’m not sure how such an event should factor in, but it throws off our analysis somewhat. Perhaps the May 6 event should be discounted (it was really just 1 hour of trading that produced the reading) so that we can’t actually count this RSI bottom as a 2nd.

In terms of time, we’re just over 4 weeks into the decline, which is approaching the average for an intermediate-term decline over the last 3 years (the last one was very short at 3 weeks, and others have lasted up to 8 weeks).

Also of consideration is the extreme complacency that we are correcting. Look again at CPCE in the first chart above. From what I can tell, it set a record for complacency going back to at least the year 1999. This suggests we may have more decline ahead before an extended relief rally. Sentiment has turned negative, but not overwhealmingly so, and it has only been negative for a couple of weeks, so this is not a contraint to a further decline.

One more consideration is the 1930 parallel. Once stocks broke that April after their rally from the crash of ’29, they failed to rally hard for years. The decline was steady all the way down to the bottom in July ’32. In this analalogue, we would have another week or so of choppy and weak rally, followed by the bottom falling out, an outcome that would elegantly resolve our situation. The dip-buyers pile in, but the oomph is gone, momentum weakens and RSI turns down, then BAM, we’re back to SPX 750 this summer.

Prophet charts

I am approaching this situation by being neutral on stocks at the moment. I am holding a core position in December 2011 and 2012 SPY puts and some calls I’m short on IYR and GDX, though I sold a portion of the puts on Tuesday morning and and the rest are hedged with a short in VIX futures (I do this because spreads on options make them costly to trade in and out of). Essentially, I’m flat on equities.

I closed a ton of shorts from last Thursday to Tuesday morning, and went long SPX, ASX and Nikkei futures (and long CHF, EUR, GBP and short JPY and VIX) early this week when I saw divergences in the VIX, currencies and commodities (ie, stock indexes made a new low that was not confirmed with new extremes elsewhere, a buy signal) as well as a glaring RSI divergence on the hourly scale. Those “long risk” positions I closed for profits on Thursday and Friday, since we’ve already corrected the extreme short-term oversold condition and are in neutral territory. Equity-wise, I ended the week where I was on Tuesday morning, since the drop in volitility hurt my puts as much as my various longs made me money. Vol is a bitch that way — sometimes you time prices right, but it’s not enough.

Speaking of the VIX, I think it could settle down for a few weeks, though to a higher level than in April, before the next decline pushes it up again. I think it will remain elevated (as from Oct 2007 onwards) for many more months or a couple of years:

Prophet charts

In the commodity space I’m even more convinced that a major top is at hand, since some trendline breaks have been decisive (platinum, palladium, oil) and the declines have been so violent all around. Commodities tend not to rally as hard as stocks once the trend changes to down, so I entered shorts on oil, silver, gold, palladium and copper near their highs late in the week. The precious metals are looking particularly suspect to me here, and I still think my July 2008 double top analogue is in play.

The euro, Swiss franc and British pound are still looking very weak. Sentiment has been in the dumps for four months now, which is a set-up for a spectacular rally, but judging from their heaviness this week as stocks and commodities and CAD and AUD rallied, I think they may slide to one more low before that rally.

Closed equity & currency longs, short metals & oil

SPX futures are looking wobbly, and gold and silver are looking downright weak. I took profits on my equity, euro, CHF and GBP longs and JPY short and have built a modest short position in crude, copper, silver, gold, palladium and GDX (gold stock etf).

Here’s ES as of the open (1-hour scale). A set-back today may be likely, but I would still probably expect stocks to recover and inch higher a while longer. RSI is weak on a 5-min scale but still strong on the hourly.

Bill Fleckenstein, gold and silver bull, says no manipulation conspiracy

Here’s the interview with Eric King.

Fleckenstein makes excellent points about the “jihad” against the bullion banks, explaining the ridiculousness of the GATA-type theories. He points out that they are often net short futures simply to hedge their long positions in physical, and that lots of people who work on those desks are PM bulls. He knows a few market makers at the big banks, and says they have been bullish all the way up.

Despite the supposed manipulation, gold is up 4-5X since these theories took hold in force. Why haven’t the supposed shorts “blown up”? As for the central banks, they thought gold was worthless and sold tons near the lows, but now they supposedly think “it’s so magical” that they have to keep the price down?

The futures manipulation theories are just a “loser’s lament,” as Jim Grant says. Get this: he says that big-time short seller Jim Chanos is on the PPT! I can’t confirm that, but would be very interesting and put to bed a lot of nonsense if true.

The discussion of manipulation starts about 3/4 of the way through (to jump to it, place the marker over the “t” in Fleckenstein).

Fleckenstein seems to be a huge silver bull, expecting physical demand to soar. He entertains the possibility of silver reaching some “silly” price level. The wealthy have not taken big physical positions in silver, but if they did, the market could go “wacko.”

Also discussed: the US health care bill, inflation, bailouts, Greece, and home foreclosures.

Jim Rogers discusses his euro long and stock shorts

I happen to have similar positions at the moment, though unlike Rogers, I’m a bear on commodities and China, which he seems to be perpetually long.  Here’s today’s Bloomberg interview.

Take-aways:

- Long euro as a contrary position. Too many shorts out there.

- All these countries (Spain, Portugal, UK, US) are spending money they don’t have and it will continue.

- ECB buying government and private debt is wrong.

- EU is ignoring its own rules about bailouts from Maastricht Treaty.

- Governments are still trying to solve a problem of too much debt with more debt.

- Fundamentals are bad for all paper currencies. Good for gold.

- Is “contagion” limited now? Well, for those who get the money…

Here’s a longer interview from a few days ago on the same topics as well as stocks:

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- Rogers has a few stock shorts: emerging market index, NASDAQ stocks, and a large international financial institution.

- Rogers owns both silver and gold, but is not buying any more. He’s not buying anything here, “just watching.”

- Optimistic about Chinese currency. Expected it to rise more and faster, but still bullish.

- Thinking of adding shorts in next week or two if markets rally (my note: they have now).

- “Debts are so staggering, we’re all going to get hit with the problem,” no longer just our children and grandchildren.

Urge to speculate not as rampant as it seems

The recovery of the US stock indexes and big new highs in the Russell 2000 and Nasdaq seem to have convinced a lot of people that we are either entering the next phase of a sustainable bull market, or about to at least crawl up another 10% before finally exhausting. I don’t see it that way. This feels to me like October 2007, when the market had smartly recovered from a hard break on the leadership of the secondaries, but the trend had been broken and stocks were strenuously overbought on extreme complacency.

This rally has mostly been a small-cap, tech stock and speculative affair. Larger stocks are not getting the same kind of bid, nor are commodities.

I have turned very short-term bearish this week on the extreme low in the equity put:call ratio. You can see here that the 10-day moving average is lower than at any point in the last three years, which at 0.51 might actually be the lowest ever (since this includes the Goldilocks spring of 2007):

Indexindicators.com

How could you possibly be long given a reading like this?

Before concluding that we are blasting off here, take a look at oil, which has gone nowhere for five months, with each advancing impulse weaker than the last, and the latest looking particularly anemic:

Stockcharts.com

Even gold and silver, which have dependably found a strong bid whenever stocks have rallied and even when they have not, have stalled out well under their fall highs:

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Silver is weaker than gold, and this measure of risk appetite (silver:gold ratio) peaked all the way back in September:

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Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the risk impulse has been the junk credit market, which by one measure is actually showing the narrowest spreads in history over quality. This is absolutely astounding given the economic conditions, and only explainable by the notion that the investing public, twice burned by stocks in the last decade, has decided that bonds are safe, without making any distinctions among them. You can see this trend here in the ratio of the price of JNK (junk bond ETF) to LQD (investment grade bond ETF), though this chart appears to show waning momentum:

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I’m not calling for an immediate crash, but certainly at least for a smart set-back, which may in retrospect turn out to be the start of a decline to new secular bear market lows. With the credit system still clogged with bad debt at the personal, corporate and state level, the economy simply has no ground from which to launch a new phase of business growth. What we have seen for the last year is simply unsustainable government spending and an overeager investing public that still trusts Keynesian economists and bogus statistics like GDP.

We are not out of the woods. We are entering a long phase of write-downs, defaults, bankruptcies and generaly frugality. We are not going to get away this time without our Schumpeterian event.