Friday, August 21st, 2020

Two Red Flags from China

It has been a long time since our Chinese equity sector model had anything interesting to say. All models go through periods when they are not important to our world view, and we need to be careful in China because the stock market has always been affected by direct official intervention. However, we believe the messages are more important than the caveats, so here they are:

  1. The recommended weight of the Technology sector has clearly peaked and is now on a downwards trajectory. In recent years, this has been a good lead indicator of how the weight of the US Technology sector would behave, though the time lags have been variable.
  2. The recommended weight of Financials is approaching a multi-year low, which is also the low since the Chinese first allowed the managed float of the CNY in 2004.

The chart of the relationship between Chinese and US Technology needs a bit of interpretation. There are two significant anomalies, the first in 2016, when the US sold off, but China didn’t, and the second in 2019 when the US rallied, but China didn’t. The first anomaly was due to the de-rating of Apple, when investors feared that the i-phone had reached peak sales and Apple’s offering of services was still underdeveloped. The second was due to the breakdown of US China trade talks in May 2019 and the tweet-driven chaos surrounding this subject, which lasted until Q4 2019.

Apart from these anomalies, we have three clear instances of a downturn in Chinese Tech coinciding with or leading a downturn in US Tech. The first is April 2014, which was followed by the US in September – a gap of five months. The second is October 2016, when both peaked at the same time, and the third is March 2018, when the US followed with a four-month gap in July. In our last note (Party Like It’s 1999, 8th August 2020) we argued that it was time to take profits on US Technology. We believe this signal from China provides important support for this idea. We are not interested in specifying the time lag between the two countries. The message is that you should be taking profits in both and that you should start now.

The second flag relates to the health of the Chinese Financial sector. The long-term chart of Financials relative to the rest of the index is starting to get ugly. The current recommended underweight is -47%, against a recent low of -54% in March 2014. This is the lowest the sector has ever been since the free-float of the renminbi in 2004. The short-term charts reveal a sector which recently broke down through a critical support level and which has a high-conviction, deteriorating lead-indicator. None of this is good news.

China is not the only country with a troubled banking system, but it has experienced the fastest growth in total debt to GDP of any major economy over the last 10 years. We don’t think that the government will allow a banking crisis to develop, but that means that the banking system may have to be recapitalised – part of which would have to come from the country’s foreign exchange reserves. There is also the nightmare scenario, where the Hong Kong dollar is repegged to the renminbi rather than the US dollar, effectively allowing China to expropriate Hong Kong’s FX reserves. Banking crises always have FX implications, even when they are contained – and that’s why the rest of the world needs to pay attention.

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Friday, August 7th, 2020

Party Like It’s 1999

This is not an original thought, but there is an odd symmetry between the circumstances surrounding this Tech boom and the previous one in 1999/2000. They were the both facilitated by a period of exceptional monetary stimulus in response to a bug – the Millennium Bug in 1999 and Covid-19 today. For those who don’t remember, the Millennium Bug was a theory that the operating systems of old computers would not be able to cope with the change of the century because their calendars were only set up with two digits for a year rather than four. It sounds ridiculous now, but the Fed was sufficiently nervous that it ran a very accommodative monetary policy into the turn of the century, despite that fact that GDP growth was over 4%.

At the time, there was the same rather fruitless debate about high valuations and paradigm shifts that we have now. We say “fruitless”, because it’s impossible to give a number ex-ante for the PE ratio or any other metric, which all investors would agree was too expensive. There are too many variables and too many unknowns. What we can do is observe the balance of risk and return and see whether the extra risk of investing in Tech is justified by the extra returns it generates. This allows to do two things: (1) identify a recommended weight relative to benchmark which precisely balances the probabilities of higher or lower returns; (2) track how this number changes from week to week.

The good news is that our model recommends a weighting in the US Tech sector which is 87% above benchmark. The bad news is that this figure peaked at 99% in early February and was above 90% for almost all of the period between December and mid-July. It is not impossible for Tech regain these levels, but the risk that it won’t is increasing. Last week, the recommended weighting for Tech sector broke down through its 52-week moving average, which itself is the highest it has ever been in the 25-year history of this model. There is no magic in this relationship, but by definition it doesn’t happen very often and it is worth paying attention to previous outcomes.

There have only been seven occasions, where the recommended weight has fallen below its 52-week MAV, while the sector was rated overweight and the MAV was peaking, (which it is now). Six out of seven times, the recommended weight did not bottom until it reached underweight territory. The exception is the most recent episode, in May 2018, where the sector just avoided a downgrade to underweight in January 2019. We see no reason to disregard these results. The best-case scenario is that Tech performs in line with the index for the rest of the year. The worst is that there is a period of extended underperformance, possibly prompted by a return to more normal monetary conditions as the Covid-19 pandemic recedes.

The Covid-economy theme is not just confined to Tech. The Communications sector (Facebook and Google) is currently rated at 38% overweight, just below its recent peak in May 2020. If the current retracement continues, it will break down through its 52-week MAV by the end of August – if not sooner. If these two sectors generate the same signal within a month of each other, the impact is likely to be cumulative. Tech would underperform because Communications was underperforming and vice versa. It wouldn’t be the end of the world – certainly not in comparison with the pandemic – but it would cause a lot of pain to a lot of portfolios.

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Friday, July 24th, 2020

Signs of Life in the Eurozone

The new story in global markets is the rehabilitation of the Eurozone. For the last 12 months – and arguably for the last four years – it has been outshone by the US almost all the time, and when US investors did look elsewhere, it was either to Japan or Emerging Markets, rarely Europe and almost never specifically at the Eurozone. This may be changing.

Exhibit 1 comprises the standard charts we include in every asset allocation report. The one on the left shows the recommended weight of the Eurozone relative to its global equity benchmark and the one on the right shows the lead indicator, which is our estimate of how the left-hand chart will move over the next four weeks. Both charts have suddenly gone vertical, with the improvement dating from the last week in June, when the left-hand chart broke up through its moving average. The lead indicator shows that the bullish signal gets progressively stronger as we shorten the time period under consideration – in other words the pace of change is accelerating.

When we make calls like this, we are often asked whether they are justified by the underlying data. In this instance, we could reply by mentioning the new EU budget deal, the creation of a new risk-free asset for the Eurozone, Europe’s better recovery from Covid when compared with the US and the valuation gap with the US. But that’s not really the point. The point is that sentiment towards the Eurozone has improved significantly and our numbers suggest that this is likely to continue. Positive sentiment is a good thing, in and of itself, and should not be wilfully ignored.

It also helps if the macro and micro stories are aligned. When the Eurozone rally first started, we noted that there was not much evidence of a shift away from defensive sectors towards cyclical sectors like Industrials or Materials, or deep value sectors like Financials. This is beginning to change. We have just upgraded Materials to overweight, having had it as an underweight or neutral for the last two years. We could not get excited about it in June, because its lead indicator was not attractive, but this is now improving. We upgraded Industrials to neutral two weeks ago and it now has a set of charts, compared to the rest of the Eurozone, which look very like the Eurozone compared to the rest of the world.

But the key sector for the rehabilitation theme is Financials, which has always been the Achilles heel of previous rallies. We still have it as an underweight, but the lead indicator is now as good as that of Industrials and of the Eurozone itself. At the current rate of progress, the left-hand chart will break up through its moving average in early August, at about the same level as it did in October 2019. That rally ended with the onset of Covid in Europe, so there is a sense in which this rally is just the resumption of a pre-existing trend.

Clearly the world has changed since then, but if the Eurozone/EU really has embraced fiscal activism and abandoned austerity, the outlook for Eurozone banks may be better than the loan loss projections imply. We would argue that they are already included in the price as a result of the massive underperformance between March and May. A Eurozone rally without the participation of Financials will be anaemic at best. But if the region and the sector rally together, the result could be quite powerful.

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Friday, July 10th, 2020

Rotation in the US

The period before the start of the Q2 results season in the US is often uneventful. Trading volumes have been higher than normal this year, but there have been no changes to our US sector ranking for two weeks and very few for the last two months. So, it may seem odd to argue that we are on the verge of a significant sector rotation, but that’s what we think.

There are three main reasons for this, all of which rely on data generated by our US equity sector model. First, the average weekly change in each sector’s weighting has fallen to a two-year low. The current rate of change is about half of what it was in June 2018 and 2019. This is unusually slow, even for a seasonally slow period. Second, the composite lead indicator for the whole index, is close to a 12-month high, having been well below its normal level from September 2019 to June 2020. This measures the amount by which the recommended weighting for each sector is expected to change (up or down) over the next four weeks. Thirdly, the level of conviction attached to this lead indicator has risen to a two-year high. This is measured by the goodness of fit (R-squared) between the trend-line (the lead indicator) and the underlying data.

In summary, the level of activity recommended by our model has been unusually low; the lead indicators predict significant change in the recommended sector weights and attach a high level of probability / conviction to this view.

For each sector there are two relevant pieces of information, the gradient of the trendline and the level of conviction. All sectors meet our definition of high conviction. The sectors with the most conviction are Materials, Consumer Discretionary and Communications, and those with the least are Healthcare, Financials and Industrials. However, all the conviction in the world counts for nothing, if the lead indicator is pointing sideways, rather than up or down. The sectors with the most powerful lead indicators are Energy and Materials (both positive) followed by Utilities and Consumer Staples (both negative). The sectors with the most sideways lead indicators are Technology and Consumer Discretionary.

The strongest combination of lead indicator and conviction level belongs to Energy. We have a very large underweight in the sector, but we expect to reduce this significantly. The next best combination belongs to Materials, where we expect the neutral position to be upgraded to overweight. The third and fourth positions belong to Utilities and Staples, where we expect to reduce our exposure. Utilities has already been downgraded to underweight and we expect Staples to follow soon. On the basis of these numbers, we do not expect much change to Financials or Industrials (both underweight) or to Technology and Consumer Discretionary (both overweight). The outlook for Healthcare and Communications is unclear, but Healthcare’s lead indicator has deteriorated badly in recent weeks.

Some may argue that it is premature to talk about sector rotation if we are not forecasting a change of leadership. We agree, but with two reservations. First, a change in laggards provides the same opportunity for generating alpha as a change in leaders. Second, these are just the signals we can identify now. Others may develop as we move into the results season. Rotations often start small and then get bigger as investors realise that their current positions are growing stale and that there is money to be made elsewhere.

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