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Even the Quants Are Wary of the Stock Market

Robert Burgess
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Even the Quants Are Wary of the Stock Market

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The S&P 500 Index was little changed one day after setting a new record. That makes perfect sense. The market just capped one of its strongest periods of the year, having risen a little more than 5% over the previous three weeks. It’s as good a time as any to reassess the broad landscape. And when they do, traders will find that the primary drivers behind the rally remain firmly in place.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with things like irrational exuberance or animal spirits. Rather, the most attractive aspect of the market is the fact that almost nobody believes in it, leaving a lot of cash on the sidelines to come pouring in when the traditional drivers of equities like rising earnings and a stronger economy come back into play. The latest evidence that there is no conviction in the market came in a report by Credit Suisse Group AG’s prime brokerage, which showed that market-neutral quantitative funds had cut their gross stock allocations to the lowest in almost five years. That dovetails with one of the more comprehensive measures of investor sentiment: State Street Global Markets’ monthly index, which is derived from actual trades and covers 15% of the world’s tradeable assets. It shows that investors this year have been less confident in the outlook for equities than even during the financial crisis. And despite this year’s big gains in equities, investors continue to put money into cash. Money-fund assets stood at $3.49 trillion as of last Wednesday, up from $2.88 trillion a year earlier, according to the Investment Company Institute.

All this negative sentiment is about the only thing the stock market has going for it at the moment. UBS Group AG equity strategists led by Francois Trahan published a research note titled “If History Were a Perfect Guide … Stocks Would Be in a World of Trouble Here.” In that report, the strategists forecast that the expected rate of 12-month earnings growth will turn negative in coming months, reports Bloomberg News’s Vildana Hajric.

A WARNING ON RATE FUTURESWhenever the Federal Reserve concludes a monetary policy meeting and announces its decision, the knee-jerk reaction is to look at the reaction in futures to gain a sense of where the market sees interest rates heading and trading accordingly. Doing so on Wednesday, though, could prove to be a costly mistake. Jim Bianco of Bianco Research pointed out in a note to clients on Tuesday that market-based measures calculating the probability of future Fed actions have become distorted and unusually volatile because of the disruptions in the repo markets. Things are so bad that the Fed has been forced to step in and provide daily liquidity injections. And U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Bloomberg News on Tuesday that he is open to loosening financial crisis-era regulations that have stiffened liquidity rules for big banks to relieve possible cash crunches in short-term funding markets. This all impacts the effective federal funds rate, which is heavily influenced by repo rates. Bianco figures that the number of Fed rate cuts implied by the futures markets has vacillated between 4.08 and 0.68 since mid-September. “The consensus forming in the market is the Fed will cut tomorrow and signal they are done,” Bianco wrote in the note. “While this seems a likely scenario, it is worth noting the market’s true odds of further cuts are likely understated due to the liquidity problems in the repo market.”

DON’T FORGET ABOUT CANADAThere’s also a central bank meeting in Canada on Wednesday. Unlike the Fed, the Bank of Canada isn’t forecast to ease monetary policy, keeping its benchmark rate at 1.75%. If true, then Canada will be home to the highest policy rate among the world’s major economies, according to Bloomberg News’s Theophilos Argitis. (The Fed’s new rate will probably be in a range of 1.50% to 1.75% if it cuts.) One reason policy makers in Canada are unlikely to reduce rates is because core inflation has been stable near the Bank of Canada’s 2% target for more than a year. This helps account for the strength in Canada’s dollar. The so-called loonie has advanced about 7.50% this year to its strongest since early 2015 against a basket of nine developed-market peers. That gain is the strongest of the group. And traders are confident that it could rise further. The three-month risk reversal rate, which is a barometer of investor positioning and long-term sentiment, is the most bullish for the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar since 2009, according to Bloomberg News’ Robert Fullem. Even so, it’s not as if Canada’s economy is going gangbusters. Economists expect growth to slow to 1.5% over the next two years, slightly below potential. The bulls need to aware that the Bank of Canada will provide an update to its outlook on Wednesday, and any downbeat forecasts may hit the loonie especially hard given its recent gains.

THE WON IS WINNINGIt was just a few months ago that many pundits were pointing to South Korea as proof the global economy was in serious trouble. The Asian nation is a bellwether for global trade and technology, with its economy heavily dependent on exports from such global giants as Samsung Electronics Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. And back then, exports were dropping fast, helping to push the won to its weakest level since early 2016. Now, though, the won is looking up in what may a sign that the global economy may not be in as bad a shape as thought. South Korea’s currency has appreciated 5.08% since mid-August, making it the best performer after the U.K. pound among 31 of the most widely traded currencies tracked by Bloomberg. But all these good vibes may be premature. The South Korean government is forecast to say Thursday that exports dropped 13.5% in October, the 11th consecutive monthly decline. So why is the won rising? According to Morgan Stanley, it may have more to do with a rapid jump in the nation’s bond yields, which have attracted foreign investment. Yields on the nation’s 10-year notes have jumped about 0.6 percentage point to 1.79%. Yields on government debt globally have only increased about 0.2 percentage point to 0.88% in the same period, according to the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Treasuries Index. In a world with about $14 trillion of negative yield debt, anything that pays a premium rate is going to attract capital.

WINTER IS COMINGThe market for natural gas just strung together its best two-day period since January, soaring as much as 14.8%. That’s good for those who are long natural gas but not so much for those dreading the arrival of cooler weather in the U.S. The reason is because the rally has a lot to do with forecasts for a frigid start to November, according to Bloomberg News’s Kriti Gupta. This weekend in New York, for example, the temperature is forecast to dip below 40 degrees Farenheit (4.44 Celcius). As Gupta points out, the jump in natural gas prices offers some relief to long-suffering bulls. Even with the latest gains, prices are still down more than 20% from a year ago and have been mired below $3 per million British thermal units as record production refills storage caverns ahead of the winter. As such, the bulls may need a long stretch of below-average cold weather to keep gas prices aloft this winter. Stockpiles are above normal heading into the peak heating season, erasing a deficit that had widened to more than 30% below the five-year average earlier this year, according to Gupta. Production from shale basins is near an all-time high, buoyed by output from West Texas’s Permian Basin, where gas is extracted as a byproduct of crude oil.

TEA LEAVESBefore the Fed announces its decision on interest rates Wednesday, market participants will get their first look at how the economy performed in the third quarter when the Commerce Department releases its estimate of gross domestic product for the three months ending Sept. 30. This will probably be one of those times when the headline numbers matter less than the report’s details. Most everyone is in agreement that growth slowed markedly last quarter, with the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg calling for a slowdown to 1.6% on an annualized basis from 2% in the second quarter. But what’s most likely to get the most attention is what the report says about personal consumption, which rose at an outsized 4.6% rate in the second quarter, underscoring the strength of the consumer as manufacturing began to falter. Economists are looking for an increase of 2.6% for the third quarter, which is more in line with the average of 2.4% since the economy emerged from the last recession. Any number that disappoints to the downside is likely to have investors rethinking their renewed appetite for equities are other risky assets.

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To contact the author of this story: Robert Burgess at bburgess@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert Burgess is an editor for Bloomberg Opinion. He is the former global executive editor in charge of financial markets for Bloomberg News. As managing editor, he led the company’s news coverage of credit markets during the global financial crisis.

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