Horror movies begin with a simple, almost innocent hint that something is not quite right. The first sign that we have entered the shadowy dawn of global economic collapse, which I call the "Epocalypse," is Santa Claus's failure to show up on Wall Street at Christmastime. A Santa Claus rally for the New York Stock Exchange is as dependable as December snow in New York's Central Park. Oddly, December snow also didn't happen this year.
The year Santa Claus forgot
"Twas an eerily balmy December in New York when Santa Claus failed to rally the stock market. Heat waves were rising from Central Park as both the Dow and the S&P 500 limped out of a particularly scrappy year, bloody and torn. Thus ended a multi-year winning streak by closing out in the red. The S&P 500 experienced its worst sell-off in four years and its most volatility since the financial crisis known as "the Great Recession."
Both indexes banged their heads against an immovable ceiling throughout 2015. If you've been reading here long you know that I predicted the stock market would crash in 2014. Many would say I was wrong, given that a surprising number of trusted experts continued to call 2015 a bull market. But a look at the graph below tells a simple truth. The market plunged in the fall of 2014 into what some called a 10% correction, but what happened near the end of 2014 was a transformation far worse than a mere correction:
In a correction, the market recovers to rise again. It looks to me like the US stock market had a heart attack in September of 2014, from which it went into fibrillation for all of 2015. Then it had another coronary in late August and September of 2015. Even though the tail-wagging, bobble-head dogs of Wall Street kept baying as if they were chasing a bull uphill, I see no evidence of that through all of 2015. They are all bark and as empty of reason as they can possibly be.
All of that is, in my mind, a crash of sorts. The market never developed a rising trend line again, had its second massive coronary and finally closed lower than it began. As for the Santa Clause rally, the final December column looks like nothing but a down trend to me.
Here is one fact that should catch your attention: The best the stock market did all year was to crawl along its ceiling in spastic jerks, even though it was amped up all year on the Fed's amphetamines (zero interest stimulus). Throughout 2015, investors almost always responded as if bad news were good news because it meant the Fed would continue with that stimulus that was keeping the market minimally alive. Yet, turning all bad news into good was barely enough to hold the market flat, and it even gradually rounded downward, ending on a sour note.
Ask yourself, "If this is how bad the stock market performed all year on Fed stimulus when bad news nearly always was perceived positively as indicating Fed stimulus would continue, what is the market going to do now without that stimulus in a world flooded with bad economic news?
The bulls were hoping a Santa Claus rally would, at least, add some merit to their year of bullish blather by causing the market to close the year up slightly from where it began. Didn't happen, just as I said earlier this month it would not.
Santa's crippled reindeer
The worst part of this news is that there were only ten stocks keeping the US stock market from being a bear market all year. (Ten stocks did so well they kept the market's average flat even as nearly all other stocks fell.) One of those ten was Apple, which many thought was practically invincible. In the final month of 2015, when Santa was supposed to arrive with Christmas cheer, a declining sales outlook took the first bite out the Apple, and it closed with its biggest loss in stock value since the crash of 2008.
What that means is that one of Santa's ten reindeer broke its leg and wasn't able to help pull Santa's sleigh up into the sky this Christmas. From its record high in the spring of 2015, Apple fell, with its shares losing a fifth of their value. A 20% loss is considered a bear market if one is talking about the US stock market overall. Apple dipped 17.5%, so one can say that it is on the cusp now of being in a bear market of its own.
This doesnt mean Apple is doomed; but what it does mean is that one of the ten reindeer that had been pulling this sled of a stock market along enough to, at least, maintain a horizontal but bumpy run, developed a lame leg. And those ten, when all were doing well, barely had enough pull to keep the market horizontal ... with the lure of Fed stimulus still dangling before their noses.
The December when Santa Claws came instead
I bet my blog that Santa's alter ego would arrive this Christmas. Instead of the usual stock rally, the stock market would crash in the final quarter of the year after a brief rally when the Fed ended its stimulus. That brief rally (not the Santa Claus rally) I said would happen because all the market bulls would be euphoric that the much-feared day of Fed terminus had come and nothing bad happened. That rally was even more brief than I thought it would be, lasting all of two hours!
The significance of the end of Fed stimulus was never, in my mind, the quarter-of-a-percent increase in interest. It was the fact that investors would no longer perceive bad news as good news. The ludicrous lift that was created throughout 2015 from bad news has suddenly turned into lead. Not only is there no more free money (though money is still close to being free), but all bad news now reverts from a lofting effect to downward pressure.
That's a double whammy, which most people still have not realized is the new market dynamic; but the last two weeks of December already show us what this looks like. After the Fed finally came off of its zero-interest target, we saw the market decline reflexively every time it got more news about oil prices dropping, which increases the risk of bankruptcies, bond defaults and layoffs in the oil industry and in businesses that serve that industry.
The oil industry was the primary driver of the Fed's jobs recovery. You won't see oil helping the job market again in 2016. With China stating in December that it will decline more in 2016 (and People's Republic hates to admit bad news), all commodities are certain to fall more for some time, though the rate of fall may decrease.
With turmoil in the middle east getting worse every month, with all emerging markets in serious decline (now bailing themselves out by expending their sovereign treasures) and with many stock markets in other countries already in bear territory, there is a lot more bad news to push the US stock market down than there is good news to help it up. Therefore, whatever bumps it may get up along the way, the overall trend is steeply down.
Santa Claws also decided to deliver pink slips for Christmas. We got our first return to bad news in the jobs market with word that jobless claims made their first jump up in many months -- an increase of 20,000. That's not a huge increase, but it is the first turn to moving in the wrong direction after months of having not seen that kind of trouble. The 287,000 new jobless claims was the highest in half a year, and the 20,000 increase that got us there happened all in one week.
The pink slips must have cast a rosy reflection over the glasses of many economists because they found an optimistic explanation for this that makes no sense to the rational mind, but apparently is quite satisfactory for modern economists: "Seasonal layoffs," they said. Really? The rise was already seasonally adjusted, and it was for a work week that ended on Christmas Day.
Since when do holiday jobs terminate before Christmas? Most businesses keep their holiday help on long enough to help with the returns that come in after Christmas and the after-Christmas close-out and end-of-year inventory sales. There seems to be no limit to the nonsense economists spew to keep the dumb masses from getting scared by truth.
Moreover, most businesses are closed on Christmas (Friday this year), and the government is closed on Christmas, So, the layoffs would have had to all happen on or before Christmas Eve Day, and everyone would have had to rush to file their jobless claims after work, before the government closed and before their Christmas Eve celebrations.
Today's economists think you're dumb enough to believe that is a reasonable scenario -- that lots of businesses laid off their extra holiday help before the heaviest day of the holidays. They cannot even convince me they believe that. If they do believe it, they've held their heads under the punchbowl for too long. And if they are bizarrely right, that only tells you how horrible the holiday sales season must have been -- that they'd retire the extra help before it was over.
Santa Claws also brought some bloody-bad news in time for New Year's Eve. The US is solidly in a manufacturing recession. At a rating of 42.9, the Chicago PMI (Purchasing Manger Index) closed the year well below its 50-point median, which is the level at which business is neither up nor down.
Down from 48.7 in November, the final US economic data point of the year sums up perfectly what a disaster Yellen has hiked rates into. (Zero Hedge)
December's numbers mark the seventh month of contraction this year and bring the manufacturing index to a six-and-a-half year low. In other words, US manufacturing hasn't been this bad since the official years of the Great Recession. The quarterly average was the weakest since the third quarter of 2009.
New orders, one component of the index, contracted at a faster pace, which means the future outlook is bleak as well. Manufacturing is not only down; there are fewer orders in line to stimulate future production.
Company purchasing agents overwhelmingly reported that business activity was below seasonal norms. Businesses that normally see an uptick during the holiday season, as well as those that normally see a decline, both reported worse-than-normal activity. So, there is nothing seasonal about this decline.
Similarly, the Dallas Fed's general business activity index plunged from an already declining rate of -4.9 in November to -20.1 in December. Anything below zero in the Dallas Fed's measurements means business is contracting. The gauge has been below zero all year, but now it is plummeting.
Economists blamed some of this decline on warmer-than-average temperatures in the eastern half of the US. Gee, last year, economists were blaming bad economic statistics on colder-than-average temperatures. That would lead me to conclude the only temperature that works for the US economy any more is an exactly average temperature. That's kind of fussy. Humbug.
Santa Claws looked even longer in the tooth outside of the US. European stocks plunged 5% in December, their worst drop during the holidays since 2002. Moreover, they plunged because the European Central Bank promised to continue its economic stimulus. That's weird! The ECB promised more free money for investors, and stocks fell?
The inverse reaction happened because the Christmas revelers were disappointed by the size of the package once they looked under the tree. Gone are the days when the gifts of a central bank automatically brought cheer to the rosy faces of market investors. This year European investors stomped their feet under the Christmas tree because their gift did not have a big enough bow, and the box was smaller.
So much for December. How did 2015 as a whole turn out?
Commodities crashed worldwide, and almost no one avoids calling that a "crash" at this point. So, I have nothing to be concerned about for having also bet my blog that we would enter a global economic collapse by the end of 2015. Oil, coal, gold and that reliable economic barometer, copper -- you name it -- it all came down hard. Oil plummeted almost 35% from an already low position, and copper closed the year 25% lower. The Bloomberg Commodities Index plummeted 25% overall in what was its fifth straight year of decline. Such a massive overall deflation in commodities has to eventually affect the price of everything made from those commodities as well.
Toward the end of 2015, junk bonds began to tear apart because of the commodities crash. More importantly, the junk-bond crash began to spill over in November and December into investment-grade bonds as bond fund managers were forced to start selling their higher-value bonds in order to find liquidity to pay off investors who want out of the funds due to the failing junk bonds.
I've said in the past that, while housing is going to crash again, housing is not going to lead the crash this time. Corporate bonds of commodity-sourcing industries are already leading the crash.
Stock markets took their worst hit in late August and early September when China entered rough waters, and things have been bouncy ever since. Warren Buffet lost a bundle (but not more than he can afford -- just $8 billion.)
Hedge funds started collapsing as bonds went bonkers. The ratio of endangered bonds versus healthy bonds as well as the number of defaults have both hit their highest levels since the official years of the Great Recession.
Nearly 700 hedge funds died in the first three quarters of 2015 -- the last quarter yet to be known.
The [hedge-fund] money managers who charge some of the highest fees on Wall Street had a chance in 2015 to outperform a flat stock market and end years of subpar performance. Instead, hedge funds lost more than 3%, on average.... "Everything went wrong," said Alexander Roepers, founder of $1.5 billion hedge-fund firm Atlantic Investment Management. "There were very few places to hide." (The Wall Street Journal)
I won't go into more detail about all that fell in 2015 because I've covered a good portion of it here: "Epocalypse Soon: The Great Economic Collapse is Happening." Bloomberg called 2015 "The Year Nothing Worked: Stocks, Bonds, Cash Go Nowhere":
It's the worst year for asset allocation funds since 1937.... The idea behind asset allocation is simple: when one market struggles, it's OK because an investor can jump into another that is thriving. Not so in 2015.... Investors found themselves with nowhere to run at a time when the Federal Reserve's campaign of stimulus drew to an end. Normally it isn't like this. Since 1995, practically every year has seen some asset deliver returns exceeding 10 percent.... "This year is a wake-up call to think about lower returns for the next several years."