Market risks come in three flavors: recession risk, economic shock risk, and risks within the market itself. So, what do these risks look like for January? Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.
Recessions are strongly associated with market drawdowns. Indeed, 8 of 10 bear markets have occurred during recessions. As I discussed in this month’s Economic Risk Factor Update, right now the conditions that historically have signaled a potential recession are not in place. In fact, while there are signs of weakness, all the major signals are solid. On an absolute basis, conditions remain good—with healthy job growth, high levels of consumer confidence, and expansionary business confidence. As such, economic factors remain at a green light.
Economic shock risk
There are two major systemic factors—the price of oil and the price of money (better known as interest rates)—that drive the economy and the financial markets, and they have a proven ability to derail them. Both have been causal factors in previous bear markets and warrant close attention.
The price of oil. Typically, oil prices cause disruption when they spike. This is a warning sign of both a recession and a bear market.
A quick price spike like we saw in both 2017 and 2018 is not necessarily an indicator of trouble, especially as the subsequent declines took this indicator well out of the trouble zone. With the recent drop in oil prices, they are actually down over the past year, suggesting no risk from this factor. Therefore, the indicator remains at a green light.
Signal: Green light
The price of money. I cover interest rates in the economic update, but they warrant a look here as well.
The yield curve spread narrowed in December, as longer-term rates pulled back for the second month in a row on rising political risk and turbulence in the equity markets. Still, the spread remains well outside the trouble zone. As such, the immediate risk remains low, compounded by the fact that lower long-term rates are actually helpful economically. But this narrowing, combined with more expected Fed rate increases, suggests the indicator remains something to watch. So, I am keeping this measure at a yellow light this month.
Signal: Yellow light
Beyond the economy, we can also learn quite a bit by examining the market itself. For our purposes, two things are important:
- To recognize what factors signal high risk
- To try to determine when those factors signal that risk has become an immediate, rather than theoretical, concern
Risk factor #1: Valuation levels. When it comes to assessing valuations, I find longer-term metrics—particularly the cyclically adjusted Shiller P/E ratio, which looks at average earnings over the past 10 years—to be the most useful in determining overall risk.
The major takeaway from this chart is that valuations remain extremely high. They are still above the levels of the mid-2000s, although down from recent highs. Also worth noting, however, is the very limited effect on valuations of the recent pullback in stock prices. Despite the drop, stocks remain quite expensive based on history. High valuations are associated with higher market risk—and longer-term metrics have more predictive power. So, this is definitely a sign of high risk levels.
Even as the Shiller P/E ratio is a good risk indicator, however, it is a terrible timing indicator. To get a better sense of immediate risk, we can turn to the 10-month change in valuations. Looking at changes, rather than absolute levels, gives a sense of the immediate risk level, as turning points often coincide with changes in market trends.
Here, you can see that when valuations roll over, with the change dropping below zero over a 10-month or 200-day period, the market itself typically drops shortly thereafter. In November, valuation changes dropped into the risk zone, and the December declines have taken us further into negative territory. Given the recent stabilization in equity prices and the fact that we remain above the levels of 2011 and 2015–2016, I am keeping this indicator at yellow, as we have seen similar declines before without further damage. But rising risks mean I am adding a shade of red, and further significant decline would move us firmly into the red zone.
Signal: Yellow light (with a shade of red)
Risk factor #2: Margin debt. Another indicator of potential trouble is margin debt.
Debt levels as a percentage of market capitalization ticked down quite a bit, as investors derisked in the recent turbulence. Although margin debt is at the low end of recent history, it remains high by historical standards. The overall high levels of debt are concerning; however, as noted above, high risk is not immediate risk.
For immediate risk, changes in margin debt over a longer period are a better indicator than the level of that debt. Consistent with this, if we look at the change over time, spikes in debt levels typically precede a drawdown.
As you can see in the chart above, the annual change in debt as a percentage of market capitalization has continued to drop to well below zero over the past couple of months. This indicator is not signaling immediate risk and, in fact, is showing decreasing risk. Still, the overall debt level remains very high. As such, it is worth watching, so we are keeping this indicator at a yellow light, although there are real signs of improvement.
Signal: Yellow light
Risk factor #3: Technical factors. A good way to track overall market trends is to review the current level versus recent performance. Two metrics I follow are the 200- and 400-day moving averages. I start to pay attention when a market breaks through its 200-day average, and a break through the 400-day often signals further trouble ahead.
Last month’s declines took all three major U.S. indices below the 400-day trend lines. This is not necessarily a sign of further trouble, but it is a sign that the risk of the trend turning even more negative has risen materially. The most probable case continues to be that the markets rebound and continue to rise, which has been supported by the recent partial recovery. But given the fact that both the Dow and the S&P remain below their support levels and have done so for an extended period, risks of more volatility have increased. So, I am taking this indicator down to red.
Signal: Red light
Conclusion: Risks rising, conditions continue to weaken
After taking the market risk indicator to a yellow light for the first time nine months ago, markets have taken another downturn and violated some important support levels. The yellow light rating recognized that risks have risen, and the recent declines have exacerbated those risks.
The overall economic environment remains supportive, and neither of the likely shock factors is necessarily indicating immediate risk. But the continued volatility and the fact that several of the market indicators point to an elevated level of risk—combined with the ongoing policy concerns—suggest that volatility may get worse. I am not yet ready to go to a red light, given the supportive fundamentals. But the weakening market data does suggest conditions have gotten more dangerous.
As such, we are keeping the overall market indicator at a yellow light with a shade of red. This is not necessarily a sign of further trouble. Indeed, the likelihood remains that the market will rebound. Rather, it is a recognition that the risk level has increased even further over the past couple of months and that, even as the market recovers, further volatility is quite likely.