Market again overbought on overbullish sentiment

The global economy is clearly on the downswing, with the US likely having entered a recession this summer (watch for revisions in GDP and employment data in the coming months). However, as in Sept-Oct 2007, the equity market has bounced from a brief oversold interlude to a new high.

Here is the NAAIM survey. This is a relatively new dataset, but it has proved high-correlated with proven sentiment indicators like DSI and Rydex fund activity). The survey is updated each Thursday with data from Wednesday.

NAAIM Sentiment Survey, 19 Sept 2012

Sentiment has been elevated for a month, which is sufficient for a significant decline, though the likelihood of a setback and the expected magnitude thereof grows with each week that it remains elevated. This, coupled with sideways price action for few weeks (we don’t have this yet) and a declining trend in daily RSI (possibly developing) would virtually lock in the case for an intermediate-term top.

S&P500 daily chart, Yahoo Finance

EDIT: To clarify, this is not a screaming short-term sell yet, since the market has had a habit of creaping slightly higher over a few weeks from conditions like this. However, things can reverse at any time, and it is highly likely that any further gains will be quickly erased once the turn comes.

The macro picture of deteriorating economic data bolsters the case that a bull market top is near, so if this is an intermediate-term top it could prove to be the final top prior to a bear market. This cyclical bull is now 3.5 years old. This is long in comparison to the cyclical bulls of the 1910s and 1970s secular bear markets (18-36 months was typical), but short in comparison to the last cyclical bull (spring 2003 – fall 2007, 4.5 years).

2011 Dividend tax increase cuts real value of S&P500 by 30%.

The S&P 500 is currently yielding about $25.50 per share annually, about 2.3% at today’s level. Sub-3% yields are a characteristic of the bubble years. Before the 1990s an index yield under 3% was very skimpy, hardly justifying the risk of capital loss. Reduced marginal taxation of 15% (with 0% and 5% rates for low-earners) on qualified dividends (meaning on shares held more than 1 year) helped somewhat to justify lower yields, though in the rapid-turnover casino environment after 1995 dividends have hardly mattered to a stock’s performance.

Presuming that the aftermath of the credit bubble has brought a secular value restoration phase (Jim Grant’s term) and growth is missing or anemic, dividends should take greater precedence in investors’ minds. The aging of the developed world should also play a role as retirees opt for safety and income. In this environment, the denominator in the yield equation, share prices, would be expected to adjust downward regardless of any change in tax policy.

To make matters worse, when dividends are subjected again in 2011 to 39.6% federal taxation, prices would have to fall by roughly 30% to offer the same yield, assuming constant dividends. The S&P’s $25.50 yield nets $21.67 this year for a real yield of 2.0%, but to get the same net yield next year either the payout would have to increase to a record $36 or the index would have to fall to 780 (the after-tax net on $25.50 is $15.40 at 39.6%). Although forgotten lately, the stock market’s fundamental value is derived from expected income, so taxation cuts right to the bottom of any valuation estimate.

Dividend payouts remain at the same depressed levels of late 2008 and early 2009, even as earnings have regained lost ground. If and when sales take another turn downward, perhaps aided by cuts in state and local government wages and further layoffs by small businesses, margins and dividends may again come under pressure. With the 10-year treasury bond yielding over 3.25%, where’s the margin of safety in stocks? The 5-year note even yields as about much as stocks, and unlike stock dividends, treasury yields aren’t subject to state-level taxation in the US.

As of today, there are actually some remarkably good yields available from blue-chip stocks such as utilities, consumer staples and tobacco companies. Here’s a list, updated frequently. I’d keep an eye on a few of these. If stocks fall to a level where the after-tax yield looks attractive, I’d be interested in picking up a basket of these for the long-haul. At that point in the cycle the ones with low debt will be among the safest financial instruments you could ever find, since there are productive assets backing that equity — even better if you spread out the political risk across the world.


Editorial here: Why raise these taxes (or have them at all), when the revenue derived from them is a tiny portion of the federal ledger and their imposition in all liklihood costs the government (let alone the well-being of the nation) multiples more than they generate, due to lost investment. The government blows the money — it goes down the welfare/warfare rat hole, subsidizing the worst elements at home and abroad.

So why do it? Because the people who make such decisions are either ignorant and idealogically driven (a few, such as Ivy-indoctrinated DC functionaries and academics) or just don’t give a damn about the welfare of the country (the majority). They believe that punitive taxation helps them keep office (it just sounds good to tax the “rich”), and as the balance of the western workforce shifts more and more from production to leaching as government and society age, this is ever more the case.

ES update (edited for clarity): stock futures still strong, but watch RSI for signs of weakness

We don’t really have waning strength yet on the hourly scale in SPX futures, but I can see the possibility. If this current rally leg (from Friday afternoon’s low around 1083) fails to break 1107 (Friday’s high) or does so on weaker RSI than the last rally, it will be a hint that the entire move up from 1036 is coming to an end. A fresh wave of selling will be even more probable if hourly RSI makes a lower low after a lower high.

Watch for weakening rallies and strengthening sell-offs to telegraph impending declines, even if prices are holding up (to be clear, we don’t have such weakening yet — I’m just watching for it). Prices often do stay elevated right up until a nasty break, like we saw from mid-April to early May (see chart below, ES 2-hour bar). You can also see the strengthening rallies and weakening declines since the bottom last week (the bottom was less strong than the preceding wave down, which is a classic buy signal).


Here’s the ES hourly. Still showing strength, but it would be bearish if this current wave does not get at least as powerful as the last.


And 15-min bar… this one shows weakness, but it’s too early in the wave to be sure.

All charts from TD Ameritrade

Today is a trading day for most of the world (and US futures are trading, though on a cut schedule), so don’t think that prices will wait for 9:30 EST Tuesday to make any important moves.

Remember, we have a rather neutral set of conditions on the daily chart, but the Elliott Wave crowd is looking for a hard third wave down anytime, and last week’s action could serve as a perfectly functional 2nd wave. If there is a third wave coming, it will be more powerful than the decline from 1220 to 1040, possibily taking us under 900 very quickly. Judging by May 6, the market has signaled that it is capable of such a move, and relentless declines are common following bear market rallies. Also in favor of such a move are the continued dollar and yen strength, anemic rallies of the euro, chf and pound, and the fact that the commodity complex is looking broken.

If you can’t tell, I am ambivalent about stocks now and positioned appropriately flat at the moment. These are not good junctures to trade, since the signals are so mixed.

Not much between here and Dow 8500

Many of the world’s stock markets have already retraced large portions of the entire rally from the 2009 lows, but US equities have a long way to go before they give traders a scare. Judging from the sanguine attitudes expressed by various managers on Bloomberg TV, the majority remains firmly convinced that the lows are in and that any sell-off is just a healthy correction on the way to new all-time highs. This is exactly the same attitude expressed from late 2007 to mid-2008 before the crash got underway in force.

Since we are still in the early phase of the credit deflation and most people remain unconvinced of its magnitude and implications, this next decline in asset prices could be very swift and deep, driven by the panic of recognition. Technical support has already been taken out, and dip buyers will be less eager, since they have seen that stocks can indeed crash. We could see an unrelenting slide like the two years from April 1930 to July 1932.

There won’t be another bounce of the magnitude we’ve just seen until real value is restored by attractive dividend yields. A 7% yield on today’s dividends would put the S&P 500 at 350 or the Dow under 4000, but this assumes dividends won’t be cut and that the recent years of extreme overvaluation won’t be matched by an era of extremely low valuations as the culture of financial speculation dies off.

Analysts and institutions: stocks “extremely cheap” despite 1.7% yields after 80% rally. Hussman & Prechter: another crash likely.

Bloomberg today gives a tour of the bull camp, which believes in a V-shaped recovery and soon-to-be record S&P earnings:

Even after the biggest rally since the 1930s, U.S. stocks remain the cheapest in two decades as the economy improves…

…Income is beating analysts’ estimates by 22 percent in the first quarter, making investors even more bullish that the rally will continue after the index climbed 80 percent since March 2009. While bears say the economy’s recovery is too weak for earnings to keep up the momentum, Fisher Investments and BlackRock Inc. are snapping up companies whose results are most tied to economic expansion.

“The stock market is incredibly inexpensive,” said Kevin Rendino, who manages $11 billion in Plainsboro, New Jersey, for BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. “I don’t know how the bears can argue against how well corporations are doing.”

S&P 500 companies may earn $85.96 a share in the next year, according to data from equity analysts compiled by Bloomberg. That compares with the index’s record combined profits of $89.93 a share from the prior 12 months in September 2007, when the S&P 500 was 19 percent higher than today.

Those figures would be for operating earnings, not the bottom line. In recent years it has been increasingly common to simply call operating earnings “earnings” and to imply that multiples on this figure should be compared to historic multiples on the bottom line. Ken Fisher, readers may recall, was running obnoxious video web ads through 2007-2008 touting a continued rally just before stocks fell off a cliff. His equity management firm makes the most money if people are all-in, all the time, as it collects fees as a percent of assets.

Record Pace

The earnings upgrades come as income beats Wall Street estimates at the fastest rate ever for the third time in four quarters. More than 80 percent of the 173 companies in the S&P 500 that reported results have topped estimates, compared with 79.5 percent in the third quarter and 72.3 percent in the three- month period before that, Bloomberg data show.

It is impressive how companies have protected themselves since the downturn began, but the way they have done this is by simply cutting costs, hence the stubborn 9.5% (headline U-3) or 17% (U-6) unemployment rate.

David Rosenberg, as usual, is the cooler head in the room:

Alternate Valuation

David Rosenberg, chief economist of Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc., says U.S. stocks are poised for losses because they’ve become too expensive. The S&P 500 is valued at 22.1 times annual earnings from the past 10 years, according to inflation-adjusted data since 1871 tracked by Yale University Professor Robert Shiller.

Economic growth will slow and stocks retreat as governments around the world reduce spending after supporting their economies through the worst recession since the 1930s, said Komal Sri-Kumar, who helps manage more than $100 billion as chief global strategist at TCW Group Inc. The U.S. budget shortfall may reach $1.6 trillion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, according to figures from the Washington-based Treasury Department.

“The correction is going to come,” Sri-Kumar said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in New York on April 21. “You now have a debt bubble growing in the sovereign side, and we’re slow to recognize how negative that could be.”

We are still in the thick of the largest credit bubble in history. Consumer and real estate debt has yet to be fully liquidated (and hasn’t even started in China), corporate indebtedness is the highest ever, and now government debt has reached the point of no return where default is inevitable.

Equity is the slice of the pie left over after all debts are serviced, so to say that it is cheap when it only yields 1.7% (in the case of S&P dividends) is insane. It is much safer to be a creditor of a business than an owner, so debt yields should be lower than equity yields. In today’s perverse investment climate, even 10-year treasuries of the US and Germany yield more than twice equities.

This extreme confidence in stocks and dismissal of risk considerations further indicates that this is a toppy environment, highly reminiscent of 2007.

John Hussman explores this theme a bit further in his latest market comment:

As of last week, our most comprehensive measure of market valuation reached a price-to-normalized earnings multiple of 19.1, exceeding the peaks of August 1987 (18.6) and December 1973 (18.3). Outside of the valuations achieved during the late 1990′s bubble and the approach to the 2007 market peak, the only other historical observation exceeding the current level of valuation was the extreme of 20.1 reached just prior to the 1929 crash. The corollary to this level of rich valuation is that our projection for 10-year total returns for the S&P 500 is now just 5.3% annually.

While a number of simple measures of valuation have also been useful over the years, even metrics such as price-to-peak earnings have been skewed by the unusual profit margins we observed at the 2007 peak, which were about 50% above the historical norm – reflecting the combination of booming and highly leveraged financial sector profits as well as wide margins in cyclical and commodity-oriented industries. Accordingly, using price-to-peak requires the additional assumption that the profit margins observed in 2007 will be sustained indefinitely. Our more comprehensive measures do not require such assumptions, and reflect both direct estimates of normalized earnings, and compound estimates derived from revenues, profit margins, book values, and return-on-equity.

That said, valuations have never been useful as an indicator of near-term market fluctuations – a shortcoming that has been amplified since the late 1990′s. The lesson that valuations are important to long-term investment outcomes is underscored by the fact that the S&P 500 has lagged Treasury bills over the past 13 years, including dividends. Yet the fact that these 13 years have included three successive approaches (2000, 2007, and today) to valuation peaks – at the very extremes of historical experience – is evidence that investors don’t appreciate the link between valuation and subsequent returns. So they will predictably experience steep losses and mediocre returns yet again. Ironically, before they do, it also means that investors who take valuations seriously (including us) can expect temporary periods of frustration.

I’ve long noted that the analysis of market action can help to overcome some of this frustration, as stocks have often provided good returns despite rich valuations so long as market internals were strong, and the environment was not yet characterized by a syndrome of overvalued, overbought, overbullish, and rising yield conditions. In hindsight, the stock market has followed this typical post-war pattern, and we clearly could have captured some portion of the market’s gains over the past year had I ignored the risk of a second wave of credit strains (which I remain concerned about, primarily over the coming months).

It is important to recognize, however, that even if we had approached the recent economic environment as a typical, run-of-the-mill postwar downturn, we would now be defensive again, as a result of the current overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising yields syndrome. I do recognize that my credibility in sounding a cautious note would presently be stronger if I had ignored further credit risks and captured some of the past year’s gains. But the awful outcome of this same set of conditions, which we also observed in 2007, should provide enough credibility.

Hussman proceeds to offer a detailed statistical analysis of how valuation and market action impact risks and returns. Curious parties are encouraged to read his essay in its entirety.

Here is how he rather bluntly sums up the current environment:

As of last week, the Market Climate in stocks remained characterized by an overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields syndrome that has historically produced periods of marginal new highs, slight declines, and yet further marginal highs, followed somewhat unpredictably by nearly vertical drops. I’ve often accompanied the description of this syndrome with the word “excruciating,” because the apparent resiliency of the market and the celebration of each fresh high, can make it difficult to maintain a defensive stance. Interestingly, the analysts at Nautilus Capital recently noted that the most closely correlated periods in market history to this one were the advances of 1929 and 2007. While exact replication of those advances would allow for a couple more weeks of further strength, we’ve generally found it dangerous to expect history to do more than rhyme. These hostile syndromes have a tendency to erase weeks of upside progress in a few days.

I have to agree with this assessment as well as that of Robert Prechter that this spring offers perhaps the greatest short-selling opportunity in history.

SPX 1131: Quite a line

SPX has now retraced through it’s breakaway area from January. This is a common stopping point for countertrend rallies — basically the area of fastest decline when the crowd had its moment of recognition.

Of course, hourly RSI is still strong, with higher troughs during successive bottoms.

SPX ready to rebound? (updated after the close)

We nearly have an upward cross on the 30-min RSI:

UPDATE: Of course, the other alternative is that each little bounce gets sold and the oversold condition lasts for another day or so and takes us down another 1-2%, as in the decline from 1100 in early February. The easy answer to this problem is to keep ratcheting down your stops or set a loose trailing stop.

UPDATE 6:20: Well, we got a bit of a bounce in the afternoon, then a sell-off into the close, followed by a rebound in the futures after-hours. If this were like January, we might gap up tomorrow and rally to challenge the highs, but RSI is looking a lot weaker and lots of other markets are acting bearish. Bonds in particular had a very strong day and did not give back any of their rally:



On the 30-day view of SPX, you can see that RSI is deteriorating faster than in January, so perhaps any correction of today’s drop doesn’t challenge the highs:


If indeed this is intermediate wave 3 (of minor 1 of primary 3), as a third wave, we shouldn’t expect much in the way of countertrend action.

Upside momentum waning (update 10:53EST)

SPX has broken sideways out of its channel. If it now chops around up here and fails to move on to new highs (by more than a couple of points), we’ll have a nice set-up for a short position, just like the action in January:

Even if stocks oblige with a nice drop, we can’t be sure that it will be the start of something big unless we see strong downside volume and impulsive waves.


Very nice impulsive decline. Don’t count on it holding though — we might just ramp late this afternoon or early tomorrow if January is any indication. But this is looking good so far – if we do test the highs, it will be a sweet entry for a short with a tight stop (as is, I’m pretty short already, but would get more so at 1110).


There is decent support at this morning’s low at 1095, but if we break it we could head right to 1080-1085, where there is better support. I suspect that break of 1095 would call into question the January analogue and suggest something more immediately bearish. Counting the waves on the 2-min chart, we could use a 5th wave and new low here.