From David Rosenberg at www.gluskinsheff.com:
What a quarter! The Dow up 8% and enjoying a record quarter in terms of points — 994 of them to be exact and in percent terms, now just 7% off attaining a new all-time high. The S&P 500 surged 12% (and 3.1% for March; 28% from the October 2011 lows), which was the best performance since 1998. It seems so strange to draw comparisons to 1998, which was the infancy of the Internet revolution; a period of fiscal stability, 5% risk-free rates, sustained 4% real growth in the economy, strong housing markets, political stability, sub-5% unemployment, a stable and predictable central bank.
And look at the composition of the rally. Apple soared 48% and accounted for nearly 20% of the appreciation in the S&P 500 (it now makes up 3% of the 200 largest hedge fund portfolios — three times as much as any other name; 4% of the S&P 500 market cap; and 11% of the Nasdaq). Not since Microsoft in 1999 was one stock this dominant, though the valuations are not comparable (MSFT then was trading with a 70x P/E multiple).
But outside of Apple, what led the rally were the low-quality names that got so beat up last year, such as Bank of America bouncing 72% (it was the Dow's worst performer in 2011; financials in aggregate rose 22%). Sears Holdings have skyrocketed 108% this year even though the company doesn't expect to make money this year or next.
What does that tell you? What it says is that this bull run was really more about pricing out a possible financial disaster coming out of Europe than anything that could really be described as positive on the global macroeconomic front. Low- quality stocks in the S&P 500 outperformed high-quality stocks in Q1 by 500 basis points and high-beta stocks within the Russell 1000 outperformed low- beta by 900bps. On a global scale, what has been a poorer place to put capital to work than Japan? And yet the Nikkei posted a ripping 19% advance in Q1, the best start to any year since the pre-bubble-burst times of 1988. Emerging markets are up 13% year-to-date. Greece rallied 7% in Q1 — that also tells you something about this rally. It's called a dead-cat bounce. Meanwhile, the stodgy sectors that worked so well last year are biding their time — utilities so far in 2012 are down 3%, telecom is flat, and staples are up a mere 5%.
Most investors can dig back to 2000 if they really try. It was not uncommon for typically risk-averse investors such as retirees to be insistent that at least half of their portfolios consisted of Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and Dell. Each of these stocks had gone parabolic and none of them paid dividends, which was a good thing because that left them with all those earnings to plow back into the business. If you needed to buy groceries, you could just sell a few shares for cash flow.
My how things have changed. Today, "dividend paying stocks" are all the focus of attention — not to mention fund flows. Indeed, what is still so fascinating is how the private client sector simply refuses to drink from the Fed liquidity spiked punch bowl, having been burnt by two central bank-induced bubbles separated less than a decade apart. Investors continue to use stock price appreciation as an opportunity to rebalance and diversify rather than chase performance — pulling $15.6 billion from U.S. equity mutual funds so far this year while taxable bond funds have seen net inflows amounting to $59 billion.
The lack of any real significant back-up in bond yields suggests that the asset allocators have been idle as well.
It would then seem as though this is a market being driven by traders. Then again, it has been a very tradable rally, just as the post-QE1 and post-QE2 jumps were. Ditto for the current post-LTRO rally. But liquidity is not an antidote for fundamentals. And a market that lacks breadth, participation and volume is not generally one you can rely on for sustained strength, notwithstanding the terrific first quarter that risky assets delivered. We lived through this exactly a year ago.
Meanwhile, we have real estate deflation rearing its ugly head in China, a spreading European recession (for all the talk of German resilience, retail sales volumes sank 1.1% in February and have contracted now in four of the past five months), acute debt problems in Portugal and Spain (there is already talk in Greece about the need for a third bailout), and the U.S. data have been coming out rather mixed (it should have enjoyed a much bigger bounce than it did in recent months from the extremely warm weather — it was the fourth warmest winter since 1896; 15% warmer than usual.
In Chicago, it was the warmest March ever and second balmiest March on record in New York City. For the latter, it was 9 degrees above normal and would have lined up in the top 10 for any April!). That the employment, housing and spending data weren't even stronger than what they showed — likely little better than a 2% pace for Q1 real GDP — is the real story beneath the story. The fact that the 10-year note yield stopped at 2.4% and has since rallied 20 basis points instead of making the expected technical challenge of 2.65% suggests that the bond market crowd may be figuring out what this means for the Q2 landscape as the weather skew to the data subsides.
U.S. DATA ON SHAKY GROUND
Yes, yes, U.S. personal spending jumped an above-expected 0.8% in February, above the 0.6% increase that was generally expected and the largest monthly gain since August 2009 when the shoots were green. But if truth be told, this as we would say in market parlance, was a "low multiple" increase. The reason? Personal incomes were soft and that is what counts most — income fundamentals remain dismal. Not only did income come in soft at +0.2% (half what was expected) but not even enough to cover the cost of living, but January and February were both revised lower. Real disposable income also declined 0.1% — the third decrease in the past four months and on a per capita basis is down 0.4% YoY, a far cry from the +2% trend of a year ago. The economy is building momentum. Right.
Let's just say that had the savings rate stayed the same in February, nominal consumer spending growth would have come in at a puny +0.2% and guess what? Real PCE would have been -0.1%. Thanks for coming out. As we said, a "low quality" spending performance, absent the income fundamentals, there is no sustainability.
Then we got yet another spotty regional manufacturing index in the form of the Chicago PMI (the national figure comes out today). It came in below expectations at 62.2 for March (consensus was 63.0) — a 1.8 point drop from the previous month, and the third decline in the past four months. New orders slid from 69.2 to 63.3 — the largest one month drop since last May and the lowest level since October (this is now the fifth manufacturing survey to show a drop in new orders). If not for the inventories, which jumped from 49.6 to 57.4 — the sharpest run-up since December 2010 and the highest levels since last September — the headline decline would have been much worse. And in a signpost of how corporate executives (or the Human Resource departments in any event) are responding to negative productivity growth, the employment index dropped from 64.2 to 56.3— largest drop since April 2008 and it has fallen in two of the past three months.
Then we got the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index which was revised higher for March to 76.2 from 74.3 in the preliminary reading — this the highest level since February 2011. What was interesting were the details beneath the surface, such as auto buying plans being revised down from 123 to 122 — first decline in three months; and buying conditions for large household items being revised lower from 127 to 125— a four-month low.
Finally, the best Canada could muster up was a 0.1% gain in real GDP for January. At least it was positive — but barely. It reveals an economy that right now is uneven and sputtering. It's a good thing there was a solid handoff from the tail-end of Q4, as that is what is keeping Q1 GDP estimates close to a 2% annual rate. If there is a piece of information that Canadian dollar bulls can put in their back pocket it is that manufacturing output, even with the loonie at par, managed to post a solid 0.7% advance — factory output up now for five months running. Now that is impressive.