Searching Google for “Retail Apocalypse” returns 8.8 million results (in .45 seconds!). For the better part of a decade the sector has been beaten up in the press. The headlines are not unfounded. Former staples of American consumerism such as Toys-R-Us, Radio Shack, and Payless ShoeSource are no longer, while many others struggle to find stable ground. The negative hype surrounding the Retail Apocalypse has created a fog around the whole sector and retail stocks have not been a popular pick amongst active money managers in recent memory.
Behind the retail apocalypse headlines are companies who have adapted to new market conditions, have strong balance sheets, and forward-thinking management. Looking into the fog, we see a shunned sector, overly beaten down valuations, and good potential to seek out value. Our Mount Lucas Focused Large Cap Value currently holds 4 retail names amongst its 36 total holdings. Some may view this as a high concentration of an unpopular sector for a focused strategy which holds no more than 40 stocks. However, our quantitative stock picking algorithms have no such opinions, they are programmed to seek value.
Below are the 4 retail names currently being held in the strategy, each picked for the portfolio on Sept. 22, 2017. Presented are price charts with selection date indicated and resulting price move, as well as headlines from the time preceding selection. Even positive news is tinged with negatively worded headlines. We believe this illustrates the headline fear and peer pressures that all human stock pickers face, as well as the benefit of a non-biased quantitative approach to value investing.
Mount Lucas Focused Large Cap Value Strategy Information
In light of recent market performance, and the corresponding effect on changes in volatility on CTA returns we thought it important to give our views on the topic. Late last year, we were asked by a prospective client to see how one of our trend following models performed over several different stress environments. We highlight one particular stress that was given- a 20% stock market drop over 3 months, with 40% of move in month 1, 35% in month 2, and the last 25% of the move in month 3. A relatively straightforward exercise, but to really understand the nuances of different CTAs relative to our approach, you must look past just the change in level, but consider the potential price paths and volatility over that stress period. The difference boils down to whether one is viewing CTAs as a standalone investment, or as a piece of a larger portfolio, and the role of volatility targeting in position sizing.
US yields have clearly shifted over the past 6 months or so. The move is justified – stronger global growth, a large fiscal package and a pickup in inflation. At this juncture, where do things stand? Interest rate futures are still pricing a hiking cycle a ways under the Fed projections. There’s about 100bps priced between here and December 2019. Not a high bar – we could reasonably have that this year, hiking once per quarter. To our eye, the measured and linear pace priced by markets is going to have to contend with economic activity that may be decidedly nonlinear. We just don’t know what happens when you slash corporate and personal taxes at very low levels of unemployment, pour on an infrastructure package at the same time, and see a pickup in global growth. Are retail sales linear when every paycheck in the country gets a big boost? Are capex plans linear when corporate taxes get markedly reduced and regulatory burdens reverse? Are wages linear at 4.1% unemployment? Is the impact of a reduced Fed balance sheet – particularly in mortgages – and an ECB that’s edging toward the door linear on term premium? How about corporate holdings of bonds under a new and drastically different tax regime? Or are these things convex? We may find out soon. It didn’t make sense that interest rate volatility was so low – it is all about the convex tails.
FOMC member interest rate projections and market pricing implied interest rate path. SOURCE: Bloomberg
The chart below shows the 3 prices series – the US 5 year yield, the US Dollar-Japanese Yen exchange rate and the price of gold – inverted here. Each of these markets have their own fundamental drivers, but for periods of time they can share the same set of dominant factors that determine price action. A story gets built around them that sounds compelling, and correlations become self-fulfilling…for a while. In previous years, these markets have been a popular way to trade interest rate views, but the recent divergence is fascinating. It’s a good example on the importance of focusing on the areas closest to home when taking macro bets, rather than being lulled into related markets that may be correlated at the time. If those correlations change, you can be right on the view, but wrong in the implementation. That’s no fun for anyone.
The narrative around each is decently intuitive – if you thought yields would go up, positioning in the currency markets where interest rate differentials are often dominant drivers makes sense. Nowhere is this more true than in Yen, which has arguably the most extreme form of easing in yield curve control, pegging the 10 year JGB around zero. Further, Japan appears to be the furthest major economy from tightening. This made sense for a while – as you can see in the run up to the US election and the reactions afterwards, perfectly fine way to play it. The gold view was also fairly compelling – low rates would lead to inflation, which gold is a great hedge against (not that we agree, but that was the view). So higher rates, particularly real rates, would push gold down. Again, in the run up to, and coming out of the election, this was an OK way to position. Spreading risk between the three expressions was a defensible thing to do. The second chart drums it home a different way – it shows just USDJPY and the US 5 year yield, and the 30 day correlation. That’s likely too short a window, and correlations are odd things, but it gets the point across – they correlated at 0.8 during these periods.
The recent move higher though…not so much. Gold has not fallen, and the Japanese Yen has gone the opposite way. Only the rates view worked. That 0.8 correlation went to zero on a dime. New narratives are popping up to rationalize it away and sound smart ex post – but ex ante it wasn’t clear at all. No one knows if it will continue or will revert either. Markets change and stories shift – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For those keeping score…new low print in initial jobless claims, 220K. This is the lowest level seen in approximately 45 years.
Fed Chair, Janet Yellen said yesterday that economists were not good at stock valuation, but that she saw no red or even orange signals. Here’s one … The S&P 500 Relative Strength Index, a measure of “overboughtedness” is the highest it’s been in 20 some years – by a lot.
If nothing else, points out the contrast between the tech bubble and today’s market.
Two things have become clear, thanks to the slightly spicy English of Mario Draghi. To set the stage, it’s October 26th, 2017, and we wait for the latest announcement from the ECB. US 10s are near recent high yields, breaching the tough resistance of 2.40%. The Euro has come off the boil, and stocks everywhere are near the highs. Out comes the text, and Mario does not disappoint, hitting all his lines right on cue. Rates will remain low; however, the ECB will slow down asset purchases, in a measured way, starting next year. Then comes the press conference, and he confidently walks it back. Yes, the economy is doing well, but if we don’t see some inflation, we are fully prepared to hit the gas again. Boom. Bonds and Bunds rally, rates fall, Euro gets creamed, stocks take off. And the two things are….
Two years ago, Dudley was spooked by tightening financial conditions. Now, they can’t figure out why they are so loose.
I think there is a simple explanation. Two years ago rates were so low that credit could not go any lower, as they would go below the default rate. So it looked like financial conditions tightened. Now, as the fed raises rates, credit has stayed at the same price, so it looks like financial conditions are getting looser. Here is a chart of auto loans. Rate has not changed. Unless the central banks buys credit (as they have done in Europe, forcing HY below UST), the nominal rate cannot go any lower, but won’t go up right away either. If you are at the default bond in credit, do measures of financial conditions fail to make sense?
Despite three Fed hikes over the past year, the rates on new-vehicle loans remain near multi-decade lows.
In the great series of historical novels about the British Navy in the Napoleonic era by Patrick O’Brian, and the associated movie Master and Commander, there is a poignant scene where the ship is stuck in the Pacific doldrums, sails limp at the mast for days. The crew looks for a scapegoat, a Jonas, to blame for their misery, and they find one in a hapless midshipman. For the good of the ship he grabs a cannonball and jumps over the side. A prayer is said, the wind returns, and off they go. Complacency is the buzzword of the day, but the winds will return as they always do, and the catalyst will be as much a surprise to the market as to the midshipman who found himself carrying a cannonball.
I am habitually early for meetings. The other day I had some time to sit outside the offices of a major investment bank at the start of the business day. It’s an evergreen notion for me … a scene repeated at all the banks and funds all around the world, hundreds of well educated, motivated, energetic young people all chasing the same pool of alpha. And I wonder, is there enough to feed all these hungry strivers? Risk premium is durable, varied and growing, alpha is zero sum and rare. At Mount Lucas, our approach is to own that risk premium in many flavors through our quantitative trading. Just this month we added a new flavor, a momentum based multi asset credit basket. It fits nicely with the other risks in our capital markets allocation. We continue to search for alpha in the realm of long term behavioral biases. I have to admit it’s tough going, particularly in the doldrums, but the opportunities are there, and we await a stiff breeze to see them realized.
“Mount Lucas employs a number of different strategies each with their own investment objectives and risk profiles. Any reference to a strategy or strategies mentioned above may or may not be indicative of all of Mount Lucas’ products.”