The yield on the 10-year Treasury note plummeted over 50 basis points during November and expectations for a fed funds rate cut shifted from late in 2024 to the first quarter of the new year. This sentiment shift supported a rally in US equities and in gold since gold tends to move inversely to interest rates. In other words, the market has been pricing in a Goldilocks scenario that consists of lower inflation, a soft landing or non-recession, Fed easing early in 2023, and a rebound in corporate earnings in 2024. However, as Mohamed El-Erian noted on CNBC this week, believing this scenario is possible in the current complicated environment is the equivalent of believing a pilot could land a jumbo jet without any passenger feeling any landing at all. The risks are therefore high, that the consensus will be proven wrong.
Perhaps if the US were functioning on its own, a soft landing might be possible. But there are risks on the horizon. The largest of these could be China. We have often written about the problems facing the Chinese economy in terms of its property crisis, but this week Moody’s lowered its rating on China’s A1 debt rating from stable to negative. This was the first rating shift on Chinese debt by Moody’s since 2017 and the company commented that the costs to bail out local governments and state firms while controlling its property crisis would weigh heavily on China’s massive economy. China’s total outstanding off-balance sheet debt is estimated to be somewhere between $7 trillion and $11 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund. This figure would include corporate bonds issued by thousands of local government financing vehicles which borrowed money to build roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. According to a senior economist at UBS, most local government financing vehicles currently depend on capital injections from local governments, government subsidies, and external funding because they do not generate enough cash from their operations to cover the interest payments. The longer-term risk is that this massive debt problem becomes systemic to the Chinese banking system and becomes a global banking problem.
Meanwhile, China’s CSI 300 Index (000300.SS – 3,394.26 CNY) is trading at its lowest level in nearly five years. This backdrop of falling real estate prices, risk of debt defaults, falling stock market prices, and a weakening currency, explains why Chinese consumers are actively buying gold (GC=F $2038.30). According to the latest Chinese retail sales data, gold and silver jewelry have been among the best-performing consumer goods in China this year, with a 12% rise in value year-on-year in January-October and outpaced only by garments. A Chinese consumer survey released in late October found that 70% of consumers between the ages of 18 and 40 intend to purchase pure gold jewelry. Together, China and India, the world’s two biggest gold buyers, account for more than half of total global demand. And according to commodity analysts, China is the world’s top buyer of physical gold has been an increasingly important driver behind this year’s rally in global spot gold prices. Gold has clearly become the safe haven trade for Chinese investors. Perhaps the rally in bitcoin (BTC – $43,886.05) is also a result of Chinese investors looking to protect themselves from a weakening currency and falling stock and property prices.
Pivotal Points in Technical Indicators
As we noted last week, the technical charts of the popular equity indices remain bullish with the first level of resistance encountered at the July highs and the second, and most important resistance, found at the all-time highs. Only the DJIA has exceeded its July high on the recent advance, touted by many to be the start of a new multi-year bull market. The July highs of 4600 in the SPX and 14,500 In the Nasdaq Composite have not been bettered and stock prices retreated as they tested those levels. The Russell 2000 index, which is our personal favorite for defining the broad marketplace, broke above its 100-day and 200-day moving averages last week, but the index remains neutral in its long-standing trading range between 1650 and 2000. In sum, the recent uptrend is unconfirmed. See page 8.
The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at a positive 3.49 reading this week and has been in overbought territory of 3.0 or higher for four consecutive trading days. This is a positive development, but to confirm the recent advance this indicator should remain in overbought territory for a minimum of five consecutive trading sessions. In short, this indicator is close, but has not yet corroborated the recent uptrend as a significant trend. To date, both downtrends and uptrends have failed to sustain oversold or overbought readings for a minimum of five consecutive trading sessions. See page 9. However, this is in line with our long-held view that the stock market is in a broad trading range, which is a substitute for a bear market. We expect this range, best seen in the Russell 2000 index, to remain in force until inflation has been clearly brought under control.
The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) survey showed a 3.5% increase in bullishness (48.8%), and a 4.0% decrease in bearishness (19.6%) last week. Bullish sentiment remains above average for the fourth consecutive week and bearishness is also below average for the fourth consecutive week. But more importantly, bearishness is at its lowest level since the January 3, 2018 reading of 15.6%. This extreme bearish reading in 2018 was followed by a 10% decline in the S&P 500 by February 8, a 13.6% advance by September 20, and a 19.8% decline by December 24. For the full year, the S&P 500 fell 6.2% in 2018. This too supports a view of a volatile trading range marketplace.
An Economic Mix
The headline ISM manufacturing index was unchanged in November, but six of the 10 components fell. The backlog of orders component declined to 39.3, its lowest reading since May 2020. The non-manufacturing index rose from 51.8 to 52.7, but the rise was mostly due to a buildup in inventories to 55.4. Order backlog also fell from 50.9 to 49.1. Readings below 50 indicate a contraction. See page 3.
The 5.2% GDP pace in the third quarter was the fastest rate recorded in nearly two years. Inventory build was a big contributor, consumption rebounded from a weak second quarter, and trade was a drag. However, this was the fourth consecutive quarter of negative real retail sales, which is typically associated with a recession. The key risk factor for the 2024 economy will be the strength of the consumer. See page 4.
Personal income rose 4.5% YOY in October, down from 4.8%. Disposable income rose nearly 7% YOY, down from 7.4%. Real disposable income increased 3.85% YOY, unchanged from September. Personal savings were $768.6 billion, up $19.6 billion, and the savings rate rose from 3.7% to 3.8%. But this remains well below the average long-term savings rate of 5.7%. See page 5.
Personal consumption expenditures rose 5.3% YOY in October and personal disposable income rose nearly 7% YOY. This marked the tenth consecutive month in which income exceeded consumption and it follows 21 consecutive months of consumption exceeding disposable income. Note that wage growth is decelerating for most employee sectors of the economy, except government, where wage growth was 8% YOY in October. See page 6.
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