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The US Ponzi Economy

Excerpted from John Hussman's Weekly Market Comment,

When the most persistent, most aggressive, and most sizeable actions of policymakers are those that discourage saving, promote debt-financed consumption, and encourage the diversion of scarce savings to yield-seeking financial speculation rather than productive investment, the backbone that supports a rising standard of living is broken.

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Meanwhile, financial repression by the Federal Reserve has held interest rates at zero, discouraging savings while encouraging and enabling households to go more deeply into debt. Various forms of deficit-financed government assistance and unemployment compensation have also been used to make up the shortfall, allowing consumption, and by extension, corporate revenues and profits, to be sustained. As long-term economic prospects have deteriorated, the illusion of prosperity has been maintained through soaring indebtedness, coupled with yield-seeking speculation in risky assets that has repeatedly (albeit not always immediately) been followed by crashes throughout history

The U.S. Ponzi Economy is one where domestic workers are underemployed and consume beyond their means, household and government debt make up the shortfall, corporate profits expand to a record share of GDP as competitive pressures are reduced and cheap goods and labor are outsourced, corporations both accumulate the debt of other companies and issue new debt of their own, primarily to repurchase their own shares at escalating valuations, our trading partners (particularly China and Japan) become our largest creditors and accumulate trillions of dollars of claims that can effectively be traded for U.S. property and future output, Fed policy encourages the yield-seeking diversion of scarce savings toward speculation in risky securities, and as with every Ponzi scheme, everyone is happy as long as nobody seeks to be repaid.

Buybacks are not a return of capital to shareholders – they are partly a leveraged speculation on shareholder’s behalf, partly a strategy to enhance per-share earnings by reducing share count, and partly a way to reduce the dilution from stock-based compensation to corporate insiders. Moreover, repurchases move in tandem with corporate debt issuance, which is another way of saying that the history of stock buybacks is one of companies using debt to buy their stock at overvalued prices.

Keep in mind also that corporate share repurchases have no tendency to concentrate at points of depressed valuation, and but have instead been most aggressive at points that have historically represented severe overvaluation.

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An important note on the equity markets

We’re observing a continued deterioration in market internals at extremely elevated valuations, much as we observed in July 2007 (see Market Internals Go Negative). Credit spreads have widened in recent weeks, breadth has deteriorated (resulting in weakness among the average stock despite marginal new highs in several major indices), and downside leadership is also increasing. As a small example that illustrates the larger point, despite the marginal new high in the S&P 500 last week, the NYSE showed more declines than advances, and nearly as many new 52-week lows as new 52-week highs. About half of all equities traded on the Nasdaq are already down 20% from their 52-week highs and below their 200-day averages. Small cap stocks have also weakened considerably relative to the S&P 500.

Indeed, though it’s not a signal that factors into our own measures of market internals (and we also wouldn’t put much weight on it in the absence of deterioration in our own measures), it’s interesting that Friday also produced a “Hindenburg” signal as a result of that lack of internal uniformity: both new highs and new lows exceeded 2.5% of issues traded, the S&P 500 was above its 10-week average, and breadth as measured by advance-decline line is deteriorating.

 

One can certainly wait for greater internal deterioration before raising concerns, but my impression is that this confirmation is likely to emerge in the form of a steep, abrupt initial decline (which we call an “air pocket”). That isn’t a forecast, but an observation based on prior instances of deteriorating uniformity following extended overvalued, overbought, overbullish periods. This time may be different. Needless to say, we aren’t counting on that.

The chart below shows the cumulative NYSE advance-decline line (red) versus the S&P 500.

 

While the divergence is not profound, similar and broader divergences are appearing across a wide range of asset classes and security types, and it’s the uniformity of those divergences – not simply the extent – that contains information that suggests that investor risk preferences are subtly shifting toward risk aversion.

 

h/t A.N.