US Equity-Credit Divergence: A Warning

By | November 19, 2014

“One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning.” – James Russell Lowell, American poet.

Major equity / Credit divergences should always be taken very seriously.

They were among the best forward looking indicators at almost every major turning point for equities over the last 20 years.

To recap:
In 1998, equities were rallying hard, but US HY spreads failed to print new lows. Instead, they started widening in late 1997. Credit was telling us back then that Asia and Russia were severely slowing down while corporate balance sheet health was deteriorating. It preceded the 1998 crash.
In 1999/2000, the divergence was even more pronounced. The S&P500 not only recovered from the Asian crisis but rallied strongly during the Tech bubble. US HY spreads had bottomed 3 years earlier! Corporate balance sheet were at the time very stretched. As a result, banks were tightening lending standards. The equity market eventually crashed, tracking the signal sent by widening credit spreads.
During 2007/2008, credit spreads bottomed in May 2007 and started widening immediately after, while equities kept moving higher for another 5 months (October 2007). Spreads were telling us just like in 2000 that private sector leverage had reach such an elevated level that banks were starting to close the credit flows. Again, the divergence timed the bear market that followed.
In 2008/2009, spreads topped out in December while equities made new lows that were not confirmed by a new high on HY spreads. At that time, corporate balance sheet had started to adjust violently to the crisis. Capex had been cut to zero, the corporate sector was issuing equity (net positive liquidity impact) and cash flows had already bottomed and were starting to rise. Balance sheet health was improving, as evidenced by tightening credit spreads. The bullish divergence timed the end of the bear market.
In 2011, spreads bottomed in February while equities made a new high in April, as spreads widened further due to the European sovereign crisis. Equities reversed shortly after.
Today, the divergence is visible again. US High Yield spreads bottomed in June and have widened substantially since then. Equities are still printing new highs. Are US HY spreads telling us that global growth is weaker than expected, a message also sent by flattening yield curves, depressed bond yields, defensive massive outperformance relative to cyclicals. Is it Europe? Russia? Emerging Markets?
The fact that all this is happening while bullish sentiment in the US is at record highs is of particular worry. Everyone is expecting higher equities due to lower yields and depressed food and energy prices. But when everyone is thinking alike, no one is really thinking….
The expanding wedge pattern, has a target for US equities below the October low.
Investors should at least start hedging risk. The most aggressive can simply trade the downside. Volatility has crashed, especially on the very short expiries, as no one is expecting any hiccups before early 2015. This makes short dated puts quite attractive.
“History is a vast early warning system.” – Norman Cousins, American author

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