The famous soothsayer warning of “beware the Ides of March” to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, could be fitting advice for today. In Roman times, March 15 was a day of religious observances and a deadline for settling debts, but it will always be famous as the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination. Wall Street has adopted this phrase because equity performance in the first half of March often begins in a promising way but ends on a weak note. This year a mid-March alert is interesting because it comes at the intersection of February employment statistics, the consumer and producer inflation reports, three bank failures and an important FOMC meeting, among other things.
However, it is the bank failures that have captured all of the media’s attention. It began with the cryptocurrency-focused Silvergate Bank (holding company Silvergate Capital Corporation SI – $2.21) which announced early in March that it would be forced to liquidate due to large losses in its loan portfolio. On March 10, Silicon Valley Bank (holding company SVB Financial Group SIVB – $106.04), which concentrated its business on technology startup companies and venture capitalists, was seized by regulators to abort a run on the bank. Both of these banks were California-based banks. Signature Bank (SBNY – $70.00*), a New York-based bank with sizeable business with cryptocurrency firms, was closed by regulators on March 12. None of these were small issues; in fact, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank marked the second- and third-largest bank failures in the history of the United States. However, all of these, and Silicon Valley Bank in particular, appear to be examples of poor risk management on many levels, and not similar to the 2008 banking crisis, in our view. Still, the risk of contagion still exists, and it could take weeks to understand all the fallout.
Nevertheless, we would like to point out that there were many important announcements taking place this week aside from Silicon Valley Bank. Credit Suisse Group AG (CS – $2.51) was forced to delay its annual report due to questions from the Securities and Exchange Commission. The report, eventually filed on March 14, confirmed there were financial control weaknesses in 2021 and 2022, and the company reported a loss of $8 billion for 2022. This was Credit Suisse’s largest loss since the 2008 financial crisis. Not surprisingly, customers continue to withdraw money from the bank. This is Switzerland’s second largest bank and one of nine global bulge bracket banks providing services in investment banking, private banking, and asset management.
And in an unexpected turnaround, the Biden administration approved the ConocoPhillips (COP – $101.36) oil drilling project in Alaska’s North Slope on March 14. This $8 billion Willow project is expected to produce over 600 million barrels of petroleum over a 30-year period.
*March 10, 2023
The Rise of China
But the most important event of mid-March may have been that Chinese President Xi Jinping brokered a diplomatic truce between Saudi Arabia — a long-standing American ally — and Iran — a long-standing American antagonist. This deal will end seven years of estrangement between these two oil-producing countries, but more importantly, it signals a major increase in China’s influence in a region of the world where the US had been the main power broker. For Iran it eases the international isolation that the country has experienced for years and for Saudi Arabia, it creates more leverage in terms of negotiating with the Biden administration. In the longer run, this deal may prove to have a lasting impact on global politics or become a significant turning point. And it comes as Russia continues to bomb Ukraine and Russian fighter jets clip the propeller of an American spy drone flying over international air space in the Black Sea. The economic significance of all this is unknown at the moment, but we are watching the performance of the dollar. Dollar weakness could persist if the US is perceived to be weakening politically and economically. And a weak dollar makes imports more expensive, i.e., it is inflationary.
Three bank failures will make next week’s FOMC meeting more interesting than anyone had anticipated. However, the announcement of the Federal Reserve’s lending program might give the Fed the flexibility it needs to raise rates 25 basis points next week. Under the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP), the Fed will provide banks with one-year loans at the rate of a one-year overnight index swap (OIS) plus 10 basis points. Banks can use eligible government securities like Treasuries and agency mortgage-backed debt to guarantee the loans. And most importantly, the program values these at par rather than at mark-to-market. Selling Treasury bonds as rates were rising is what put pressure on Silicon Valley Bank. We do not expect the Fed to surprise the equity market, but to the extent that traders have already priced in a 25 basis points increase, the Fed is apt to take that opportunity and raise rates.
History shows that tightening cycles rarely end without the fed funds rate reaching at least 400 basis points above inflation. By these two standards, even if inflation falls to 3% YOY, which is optimistic, we should expect interest rates to move higher and stay high longer than expected. This is most likely to end in a recession. As we have often noted, whenever inflation reaches one standard deviation above the norm, or higher, a series of recessions have followed. One standard deviation above the norm is currently 6.5%. See page 6. In short, we believe investors should focus on defensive and recession-resistant stocks.
Our focus index is the Russell 2000 index this week due to its sizeable exposure to regional bank stocks. Currently, the index is rebounding from a very sharp decline; nonetheless, the overall pattern reveals the index is in a broad trading range. This is much in line with our long-term view. See page 9.
The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is negative 3.36 this week and has been in oversold territory for four consecutive trading days. This follows an eleven-day overbought reading that ended February 8. The February overbought reading was an indication of a shift from a bearish to a positive trend, or at least from bearish to neutral. However, this week’s return to oversold territory clearly defines the current market trend as neutral. See page 10. The 10-day average of daily new highs is 69 and new lows are 131 this week. This combination is now negative since new highs are less than 100 and new lows are above 100. The advance/decline line fell below the June low on September 22 and is currently 40,117 net advancing issues from its November 8, 2021 high. This collection of indicators has shifted from neutral to negative this week.
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