08.21.2017
By John D'Antona

TRADING THE WEEK: Of Valuations and Volatility

The equities market is at an impasse – where high valuations and still-low volatility are both contributing to keep a lid on activity.

Traders who spoke with Traders Magazine have continually told of high stock prices, but at the same time a reluctance to sell given strong fundamentals. Those opinions got more support from one of bulge bracket research departments. In a note to its clients last week, Bank of America Merrill Lynch reported that the stock market is the most expensive it’s been since the “dot com” bubble.

“The S&P 500’s forward price-earnings ratio just hit its highest level in 13½ years,” the report began. “The forward P/E ratio expanded in July to 17.7 times, from 17.4 times.”

And that’s not all, the research team added this development came as the valuation backdrop remained the same, with U.S. equities trading above “nearly all metrics we track, but equities continue to look attractive relative to bonds.” Across sectors, all but two — industrials and consumer staples — saw multiples expand in July.

And if super high prices weren’t enough to discourage fresh buying or selling, market volatility or the lack thereof hasn’t helped goose activity either. According to market consultancy Tabb Group, market volatility as measured by the VIX, has for the second month in a row hit an all-time low. Tabb reported  that in July 2017 the VIX average close was 10.3, decreasing even further from the all-time low in June 2017 of 10.5.

“Without volatility, there’s real desire to not trade the market,” said a floor trader in New York. “And despite all the political machinations and news items, the market really feels a bit tired here. No one wants to do anything until we get something big hitting the tape.”

One thing that won’t be hitting the tape any time soon is an announcement by the Federal Reserve that it will hiking short-term interest rates for the third time this year. The weak inflation numbers coupled with modest employment gains have pushed the chances for one more rate change lower to about 37% from 47% two weeks ago, according to Fed Futures traders.

This flies in the face of comments supporting a third interest rate hike last week when New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley told the Associated Press he supported another rate increase this year if the economy improves further.

“It depends on how the economic forecast evolves,” Dudley told the AP. “If it evolves in line with my expectations … I would be in favor of doing another rate hike later this year.”

It has been almost a given that the FOMC would vote again to raise rates by December. But with inflation running around 1.5%, or below the 2% Fed target, traders and economists said that another hike becomes problematic and could halt the ongoing modest expansion.

Looking back at last week, trading volume was 5.92 billion shares, off slightly from the 6.38 billion shares reported the week prior, according to BATS Global Markets.

In other market news, State Street Global Advisors reported U.S. listed exchange traded funds (ETFs) continued their meteoric rise in July with inflows rising another $27 billion from June’s already lofty levels. July year-to-date inflows are now at $273 billion, a scant $13 billion shy of their all-time annual record level set in 2016, according to the latest U.S. ETF Flash Flows report from State Street Global Advisors.

“There is still a lot of time left on the clock, but 2017 is shaping up to be another banner year,” began Matthew Bartolini, Head of SPDR Americas Research at SSGA. “However, it is worth noting that the pace of inflows slowed in July. Equity funds posted half of what they did back in June, and flows for commodity and specialty funds were negative.

Equity ETFs attracted more than $18.8 billion in July, as investors shrugged off turmoil in DC and subdued inflation, GDP and wage growth. Fixed income ETFs added nearly $12 billion in July with the aggregate and corporate sectors accounting for 71% of flows.

Also, maker-taker pricing, the way exchanges pay to attract order flow is now coming under state regulator review. According to a report on Reuters, Massachusetts’ top securities regulator said last  Tuesday that his office is examining whether brokerages route orders to stock exchanges that pay them additional fees regardless of whether investor clients are getting the best price.

William Galvin, the secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, reportedly has sent inquiry letters to affiliates of several retail and institutional brokers such as Charles Schwab Corp, TD Ameritrade Holdings Corp, Fidelity Investments, E-Trade Financial Corp, Edward Jones and Morgan Stanley, to examine their financial relationships with the exchanges.

“If financial rebates or kickbacks create a conflict that results in less than the best deal for the investors, this practice must stop,” Galvin said in a statement announcing the probe.

Lastly, market consultancy Greenwich Associates reported the U.S. institutional brokerage business is down 40% since the financial crisis of 2009. In addition, the report finds trading commissions continue to migrate away from bulge bracket brokers towards midsize/regional brokers.

The market consultancy reports that while U.S. equities have been on a tear, with the S&P 500 increasing by 3.5 times since 2009, brokerages have not participated in the bull market. For the 12 months through the first quarter of 2017, total U.S. equity commissions dropped 13%, from $9.7 billion to $8.4 billion. This latest drop leaves the total institutional equity wallet down 40% from its peak in 2009.

 

This Week’s U.S. Economic Indicators of Interest:
 
Monday Chicago Fed National Activity Index
 

Tuesday

 

Redbook Retail Sales

Richmond Fed Mfg Index

Wednesday Housing Starts

New Home Sales

 

Thursday Jobless Claims

PMI Flash Report

Existing Home Sales

Janet Yellen Speaks at Jackson Hole Symposium

 

Friday

 

Consumer Sentiment

Existing Home Sales

Janet Yellen Speaks at Jackson Hole Symposium

 

 

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