April 20, 2016

Stuck Throttle

Imagine you were driving and your throttle stuck.

Our market Sentiment gauge, the ModernIR 10-pt Behavioral Index (MIRBI) has manifested like a jammed accelerator, remaining above neutral (signaling gains) since Feb 19. At Apr 15 it was still 5.4, just over the 5.3 reading at Feb 19, which proceeded to top (Positive is overbought, roughly 7.0) four consecutive times without ever reverting to Neutral (5.0) or Negative (below 5.0). That’s unprecedented.

Speaking of stuck throttles, I first drove a John Deere tractor on the cattle ranch of my youth at age seven.  It was a one-cylinder 1930s model B that sounded like it was always about to blow up or stall. My dad let me drive it solo and I was chortling down our long driveway with the throttle set low and the clutch shoved forward.  I was approaching an irrigation ditch. I yanked at the clutch (on these old tractors, it’s a long lever, not a pedal). Nothing.  I shouted to my dad that I couldn’t budge it, looking wildly at the ditch.

“Turn the wheel!” he yelled.

Disaster averted. I felt sheepish for not thinking of it. But it illustrates the dilemma a stuck throttle (or a stiff clutch) presents.  No matter that sense of stolid progress, something with a mind of its own will run out of road.

Another time decades later I had driven myself from Cancun through the jungle of Quintana Roo west of Belize to a resort called the Explorean Kohunlich (awesome place). After two beautiful days, I hopped in the rental car and headed north.  I became gradually aware that the little Chrysler was bogging down. I mashed the throttle and yet the car wheezed and slogged. Then it died.

Took me two hours to hike back to Kohunlich.  “Mi coche expiró en la selva,” I explained in my ill-fitting Spanish. Your car died in the jungle? Yup. It all worked out to another day in paradise. Nothing lost.

Gained: Two contemporary lessons about the stock market.  Stocks should generally describe fundamentals. If they don’t, we’re all lacking “price discovery,” the jargoned term meaning a good understanding of valuations.  It’s as vital to companies as investors, else how do any of us know if shares are fairly valued?

No matter what some say, global economic fundamentals are like a wheezing car with the throttle mashed flat. In the US right now, economic growth projects below 1% for the current quarter, and inflation is over 2%, so consumers are losing purchasing power. And consumption is our engine (purchasing power is the key to growth).

Across the planet, from Europe to Asia to the emerging markets, debt-to-GDP ratios are up and economic growth is down.  So why has the market been a tromped throttle on an unprecedented positive run? Meaning resides in patterns and correlations. It’s the central lesson of data (which we study for a living).

And there is one.  Emerging-market central banks have sold foreign currency reserves at unprecedented rates (matching our Sentiment), and the US Federal Reserve has pushed hundreds of billions of dollars into bank reserves (by buying debt from them) in recent months.  And the dollar has fallen sharply off December highs. When other central banks sell dollars, it weakens our currency, and when our Fed buys assets from banks, it weakens our currency.  And when the dollar falls, stocks, commodities, and oil rise.

On one hand central banks have mashed the monetary accelerator to the floor and still everything is wheezing and coughing and slowing down.  It’s taken unprecedented effort to create this gaseous cloud.

But it’s on the other hand a two-by-four jammed on the equity market throttle, sticking it in Positive and disconnecting it from reality, and sending it screaming up the road out of control.  It’s entertaining, and good for our portfolio values, all of us, and it makes the pundits breathlessly rave about returns to all-time market highs.

But the throttle is stuck.  I’m reminded of a funny bit from a set of paraprosdokian sentences, witty combinations of unexpected or opposing ideas, sent to me by good friend Darwin:  “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”

It’s better to have a market with its own throttle controlled by facts and fundamentals than one flattened by a bail of depreciating currency. Because we don’t want it dying in the jungle.

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