There is an oft told, though not particularly amusing story about an old bull and his son who stood atop a hill glancing down at a herd of attractive heifers. Exercising his fatherly duties, the newly divorced elder bull cautioned the youngster about charging down the steep slope to, let’s politely say, curry favor with the cows that grazed below.
“Com’on, Dad. Let’s go get ‘em.”
“Easy there, boy,” the father cautioned, “it’s not always good to move too far too fast. Just ask the hare that lives in that hole next door to the barn.”
“I guess you’re right,” the son responded. “Slow seems to win an awful lot.”
“Slow is not the same thing as deliberate. Deliberate is what I’m after.” “But what about the Roadrunner, Pops?” the young stud inquired, “That darn bird seems to win every time and he looks like he’s havin’ an awful lot of fun racing around.”
“You may have a point there, kid,” came the response as the father looked below, a smile forming on his lip, a twinkle brightening his dark brown eyes. “Let’s deliberately run down there and have a good old time. Don’t know what I was worried about.”
Setting aside his discipline and years of experience, the old bull was drawn in by visions of what could be if all went right. He galloped down the hill, pausing ever so briefly to enjoy himself along the way. But all good things eventually come to an end and often the easier it seems in the beginning morphs into greater difficulties at the end. Well, it didn’t end well that day for the elder bull who would eventually keel over, ending up as a set of loafers and matching billfold. In the interim, though, he sure had fun.
As with the bovines portrayed above, it’s been a quick and happy romp for the Wall Street bulls, of which I have been one. However, I have no intention of keeling over while hanging on for one more conquest. To some, the bull market is showing signs of tiring while to others, the indices will continue to move higher. Me – well, I have ratcheted down my exposure to a slight positive bias to the market – short global growth, long defensive. I am positioned this way because I see the cows at the bottom of the hill looking decidedly less attractive in the second half of the year when the slowdown in Europe and China become much more evident. That will be when the austerity measures come full measure and the realization hits that Germany alone can’t drive the EU economy but, rather, is itself dependent upon an increasingly inward looking and slowing China as well as its EU brethren who were the direct beneficiaries of Deutschland’s indirect largess via the troika. It is also when we will revisit Greece, if not sooner, and possibly Portugal. So without EU governments being able to stimulate their own economies through major public works projects; without their banks, despite the LTRO, having enough balance sheet to lend (or choosing instead to make easier money through the risk-less carry trade); without the ECB actually being able to print money; and with China’s property bubble gushing air instead of hissing, the headwinds will likely cause a downdraft in the averages.
China lowering their GDP target doesn’t bother me that much for a few reasons. First of all, it wasn’t a surprise – in fact, I mentioned it last week. No great vision on my part since it was the consensus estimate. Even more supportive of my fortune telling acumen, the government had leaked major portions of the statement. The bears fear not though for China has always outperformed their targets and is perhaps setting the bar low for the new comrades coming into office. And doesn’t it matter that 7.5% growth, which may in fact turn out to be 8% if history is a guide, will equate to just slightly less than the same amount of growth as in 2011 owing to a larger base from which to measure the change? (I actually find it somewhat amusing that much of what I read from the Street believes that China will continue to grow at 9-10% despite a clear trend lower.) But the action will turn inward as China grows the domestic economy through consumption rather than exports. This, to me, means less fueling of the global economy. And, of course, slower growth is, at the end of the day, slower growth. I am still not convinced China will have a soft landing – far from it. The property bubble is continuing to deflate and the central government still has little interest, it appears, in bailing out the Rolex wearing, Ferrari driving, developers. This has been made extremely clear in the beating back of measures enacted by local governments, including Wuhu and Shanghai, to foster a recovery in property prices through employing mechanisms such as relaxing credit or allowing the purchase of a second home. Not least of all, let’s not forget that some important economic indicators in China are showing contraction or multi-year weakness. There is the school of thought, of which I am not a student, that believes we shouldn’t worry about China and Europe since U.S. GDP is not overly reliant upon either Europe, 2% of total U.S. GDP, or China, 0.6% of GDP, but given that our economic revival is not particularly robust, any potential hit to growth has to be regarded seriously. And it is the strengthening domestic economy, abetted by perhaps misplaced optimism on the global economy that overshadows the current weakness abroad.
Not a lot has changed in my favorite longs and shorts with the exception of initiating a short position in U.S. bonds but I will leave that story for another note. I still prefer domestic focused companies that provide downside protection through yield or have branded franchises with a strong IP advantage or value proposition: VZ, QCOM, WLP, HK and CSC, a very interesting value name with a new CEO, low valuation and strong prospects for a turnaround. JPM is very attractive, as is WFC. They will pick up significant share from the moribund European banks, a taste of which was in WFC’s recent moves including announcing an expansion in Europe and buying BNP Paribas energy business. Strong foreign banks such as UBS will also benefit. This is an incredible opportunity for domestic banks to replace the earnings they lost from Dodd-Frank. Coal remains a core short, despite the decline in the price of the shares. Aside from WLT, which derives almost its entire earnings from met coal, virtually every other coal company generates 70-80% of revenues and earnings from steam coal. This is true of even two of the world’s largest met coal producers, ACI and BTU. Reportedly, ACI’s acquisition of Massey is not going well, an asset they clearly overpaid for, and Moody’s put them on negative watch. Additionally, as part of China’s 5 year plan, they intend to increase coal production by only 3.7%. This is despite the fact that reportedly, 40% of power generators in China that use coal lost money in 2010. Imbedded in the 4% inflation target in the 2012 plan are higher utility prices which is intended to provide relief while lowering usage. Domestically, the warm weather has resulted in stockpiles that utilities will take a long time to work off and the conversion to natural gas from coal at these plants is continuing, arguably picking up momentum. This is occasioned not just by price, but more so by environmental mandates. As to bituminous or met coal, my view on steel remains that as Europe falls into broad recession, China cools and construction continues to weaken, steel prices will continue to weaken. This will lead to more exports from Europe into the U.S. and, of course, China keeps adding to steel mill capacity. I am also short JCP, purely an issue of timing on the turnaround and what is already reflected in the stock price, and KSS. Both troll for customers in a very tough space. On the other side, I am long M.
To bottom line it, the market is in a consolidation phase and faces the likelihood of a minor correction near term while remaining highly dependent upon data in the U.S. and continued optimism about the European and Chinese economies. This Friday’s jobs number could untrack the indices either way but watch out for the second half when the can hits the wall.