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US Stocks: Over-Leveraged Markets at Risk of Global Margin Call


The shift to a bear market is just a matter of time. The Fed would have zero control over a global margin call, a real risk that would lead to markets divorcing from QE.

This white paper addresses the extreme opacity of the current macro backdrop caused by monetary and fiscal policy, and how it obscures market sentiment and traditional measures of valuation. It is necessary to look at the real economy beyond monetary policy, and at my firm we propose that the cleanest and simplest of market measures are likely the most effective given the complexity of the underlying macro conditions. Such measures include structural fundamentals of the market, the current inter-market relationship between equity and debt markets, and technicals. By comparing these findings to historical precedents, our conclusion is that there is an impending bear market in US equities.

(Also read If an iPhone Can Be a Cash Register, What Can Google Glass Be?)

Flawed Market Sentiment
The Federal Reserve Bank has been printing one way or another since 2008. The generally accepted Wall Street view is that the United States has turned into Japan through its own Quantitative Easing (QE) programs and therefore equities are "safe" from a bear market as this Fed-controlled game will go on forever (QE Infinity). We believe this corollary is wrong when compared with historical precedents.
  • Japanese stocks NEVER rallied. If we are indeed "just like Japan", then our equities market will act like just like Japan's and mean revert to the reality of the situation by selling off. A much lower stock market would more likely validate the "US has turned into Japan" premise.
  • Another generally accepted view is that the Fed's QE programs cannot "allow" stocks to sell off (Bernanke put). Wall Street seems to have a short memory when it comes to the Flash Crash in May 2010 and the bear market of summer 2011, both of which were examples of aggressive mean reversion in action.
Valuation: Impossible to Properly Measure
While market sentiment and valuation are separate constructs, they are both affected by the Fed's monetary policy. Continuing to use traditional Wall Street axioms on valuation without considering the current environment is inane. It is impossible to see clearly by looking at the S&P (INDEXSP:.INX) through the lens of Price to Earnings without factoring in the Fed buying of $85 billion a month in debt. We are not saying that stocks are expensive or cheap. Rather, we are saying that traditional valuation analysis has been rendered impossible by the Fed.

Furthermore, we believe the ferocious buying back of shares by companies from issuing cheap debt is the true low valuation story. However, it is a story that is anchored on a historically unprecedented and unsustainable catalyst of Fed bond market manipulation.

(Also read The Roller Coaster Continues: What to Watch for in Financial Markets)

The Real Economy: Housing and Payroll Tax
Housing is in the same camp as valuation. If the Fed wasn't buying $85 billion a month in debt, where would rates, and thus the structured credit markets, and thus housing, be? The answer is nobody knows. This opacity is not bullish, contrary to every loud economist and pundit talking on TV.

The payroll tax of 2% will put consumers into a recession this year. The consumer continues to be highly levered while wages have been falling. We feel very confident that the street is working off of a higher base number for consumer discretionary budgets than is truly the case in reality. Therefore, the 2% that comes off the top is a much more impactful amount to the consumer than the street realizes.

Market Structure Fundamentals
In this muddled macro environment, it's important to study the underlying structure of the market to determine vulnerabilities. While volatility has been low, we believe that this is the product of the Fed's policy of intentionally compressing volatility by commandeering interest rates and therefore commandeering control of equity market prices to the upside.
  • Cash levels of domestic equity mutual funds are under 4% and rivaling all-time lows. The US equity market has had four major sell-offs (in 1973, 1976, 2000, and 2007) when cash levels were below 4.5%.
  • NYSE margin debt rose to $364 billion in January, which nearly matches the July 2007 peak of $381 billion. Furthermore, net free credits have plunged to negative $77 million. This shows that the market is extremely leveraged.
  • By all generally accepted measures, short interest in equities is at an all time low. The S&P 1500 short interest is now at 5.9%. This is below the level during the market highs of 2007 and down more than 50% from the market lows in 2009. We view short interest plummeting to an extreme low percentage as a direct effect of the Fed's volatility compression policy, and extremely unhealthy for the market. High short interest embeds natural liquidity in a downturn and acts as insulation to the system, cushioning the market from future shocks. The lack of such insulation is downright scary.
Debt: Connection with Equity Markets and Divergence from Issuance
It is also important to look at the market structure issues within the debt markets. Corporate issuance had its busiest January ever with $412.3 billion vs. the all-time high January issuance of $407.2 billion in January of 2009. The obvious difference is the massive narrowing of spreads from historically wide levels in 2009 to all-time lows today. We believe the Fed's QE programs have turned equity markets into expressions of "bond yield complacency" and therefore the two markets are inextricably linked. This link manifests itself in the capital market phenomenon of Profit and Loss (PnL). For any market participant, whether institutional like a pension or hedge fund, or an individual, it's the loss of principal that causes aggressive net selling.

The real risk here is the global margin call that can occur from simply too much long leverage chasing artificially low yields. The bloat in the system on the long side in bonds is now associated with long bloat on the equity side. Margin calls and selling in junk bonds and down bond funds will bleed over into equity funds and vice versa. The Fed would have zero control over a global PnL margin call on bond principal scenario.

Despite the highest corporate issuance of all time in January of 2013, global bond markets had their first selloff in 14 months. Even in a month with issuance buoyed off the FED's $85 billion a month buying program to artificially suppress rates, the fact that corporate bonds could go lower in price proves that markets can't be controlled by the FED forever.

We believe equities are further away on the risk curve and therefore more susceptible to true market forces over time. Equities and higher yielding debt such as long dated treasuries, high yield and corporate high grades CAN diverge from each other, contrary to current market perception. We believe this dangerous long leverage is not present in certain bond markets such as shorter duration treasuries.
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