December 19, 2018

A Credit Market

In the stock market the beatings have been consistent while we all wait for morale to improve. What’s causing it?

I’m surprised conservatives haven’t blamed midterm elections. Alert reader Pat Davidson in Wisconsin notes CNBC viewers say tariffs, global economic weakness and Fed rate-hikes are behind the stock swoon.

Is it a coincidence that these are what the media talk about most?

I think stocks are down because of market structure. Exchange Traded Funds infect them with characteristics of a credit market.

The big hand pelting backsides of stocks has been uneven. Broad measures have corrected off highs. I tallied the FAANGs (FB, AMZN, AAPL, NFLX, GOOG) and they’re down 20-40% from peaks. Same with small-caps.

We last week launched our Sector Insights reports that compile readings on composite stocks by sector. Surveying them, only one, Communications Services, showed recent Active buying. The rest were uniformly beset by ETFs. As was the broad market. ETFs were favoring Utilities and shedding everything else.

Two sectors had positive Sentiment, Real Estate and Utilities, but both were in retreat. Financials and Industrials were tied for worst Sentiment at 2.2/10.0.

Note that Monday, Real Estate and Utilities were the worst performers, down nearly 4%. Financials and Industrials were best, down less than the rest.

The point is that our measures are quantitative. They are not rational factors like tariffs, global economic weakness, or Fed rate-hikes. Yet they accurately and consistently predict what stocks, sectors and the market will do, short-term.

Therefore, the cause for much of the short-term behavior in stocks cannot be rational.

Sure, we’ve written about our expectation that a strong dollar would be deflationary for commodities and risk assets. Inflation is low interest rates. Excess availability of capital fostered by artificially depressed costs. It’s not rising prices. When excess availability vanishes, prices fall regardless of whether they first rose.

The Federal Reserve has removed nearly $1 trillion from its balance sheet and excess reserves through policies, which translates on a reserve-ratio basis to a reduction in capital of roughly $8-10 trillion. That will deflate prices.

But the problem isn’t deflation. It’s the inflation that preceded it. Fed, are you listening?  How about not creating inflation in response to crises? How about instead letting things that should fail do so by setting rates high and accepting only good collateral? Then human creativity can restore productivity, and economies can soar anew.

A financial instrument that extends reach to an asset class is a form of credit.  Credit creates bubbles that collapse when the extension of credit is curtailed.

Let’s use the Healthcare sector as an example. Year to date, Healthcare before Friday was the top-performing sector (now eclipsed by Utilities, up nearly 8%). From Nov 15-Dec 3, comparative performance for the sector was positive.

Suddenly in December the sector fell apart, with the red tide coming on green and purple bars, signaling ETFs.  It happened before JNJ plunged 14%. The credit bubble burst.

ETFs are a form of credit. Blackrock itself describes ETFs as a tool that equalizes supply with demand. ETFs are collateralized substitutes for buying and selling stocks. They offer artificially low costs. They permit elastic supplies of money to chase finite US shares.

The result on the way up is soaring equities. The consequence on the way down is collapsing stocks.

Here’s an analogy. Suppose you have a line of credit on your house and you buy something with it – say a vacation home.  Your capacity to borrow derives from the rising value of your house, which in turn is driven by demand for homes around you.

What if banks extending credit are out of lending capacity and lift rates?  Suddenly, demand for houses around yours declines. Home prices begin to fall. The value of your house drops.

And the bank that extended credit to you becomes concerned and wants more collateral.

Suppose that’s happening in the wholesale market where ETFs are created and redeemed. It far outstrips any other form of fund-flows — $4 trillion already this year through November (estimated), $400 billion per month.

If the value of the collateral used to create ETF shares – stocks – is of indefinite and unpredictable and falling value, the capacity to extend credit collapses. And prices start falling everywhere.  Those who borrowed must sell assets to cover obligations.

What if that’s the cause, not the economy or tariffs? That should matter to pundits, investors and investor-relations professionals (and CEOs by extension).

We have the data. Use it. We expect markets to jump Dec 19-21 through the final expirations period of 2018. But it’s a credit market subject to credit shocks.

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