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At the Edge of Chaos: Are Job Cuts Gathering Steam? The Next Step in Fed-Induced MELA Meltdown

I am watching the action in both the stock and bond markets, as both are signaling that a potential change in trend may be in the offering.The Federal…

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I am watching the action in both the stock and bond markets, as both are signaling that a potential change in trend may be in the offering.

The Federal Reserve, the U.S. government, and the general public are expecting the current events in the markets and politics to unfold at a traditional pace. That's a mistake because, as I describe below, traditional forces which govern the pace at which situations unfold are no longer in charge. In fact, I am expecting a further acceleration in the market's volatility, as the MELA system responds to the Fed's interest rate increases and its corresponding downstream effects.

And, although that sounds bearish, there may be a silver lining, which is that it could all end quickly. Therefore, investors should remain vigilant for both an acceleration of the downdraft in stocks, as well as a potential reversal when the Fed signals that it will once again lower rates and restart its QE exercise.

Something Interesting is Happening on the Fringes of the MELA System

Job cuts–remember them? Well, it looks as if they are starting to come back. CNBC reported that tech companies, including Uber (UBER) and Meta (FB) are starting to cut back on their hiring. Moreover, online used car dealers are presently laying off significant number of workers. For example, online car dealers Vroom (NSDQ: VRM) and Carvana (CVNA), with the latter laying off 10% of its workforce while management has announced it won't be getting paid for the rest of the year.  

Now, I'm not about to rush out and buy the shares of either company, even as they both seem to be on an eternal dip. But someone did, as the market, at least initially, applauded VRM's job cuts. And what that says is that we may be on the verge of a wave of similar announcements, as companies start tightening their belts in response to the Fed's interest rate hikes. In fact, as the chart below shows, this trend may only be gathering steam, as the monthly Challenger Job Cuts number is starting to rise.

Remember, the MELA system is comprised of the stock market (M), the economy (E), people's life decisions (L) and artificial intelligence (A). When the stock market is rising, people are more confident about their future as their 401 (k) plans, their IRAs, and the crypto and currency accounts are flying high. In other words, as long as households are in positive cash flow–whatever is left after paying expenses and debt–they can spend freely, knowing their future is in good shape.

So, if job cuts start to gather steam there will be two hits to the cashflow-fueled MELA system. First, the future pillar (retirement and trading accounts), fueled by the stock market, will suffer, as stocks fall and the monthly/quarterly contributions from work will stop. And second, the current anchor, job income, will disappear, thus creating a double whammy to the pocketbook.

Of course, the bottom line will be decreased spending, which then leads to lower corporate earnings, which in turn will fuel further falls in the stock market as companies miss estimates. Indeed, according to recent data, doubt is already creeping into the MELA system.

Events Will Unfold Swiftly Because the Algos are in Charge 

Perhaps the most underappreciated component of MELA is the two-fold role of artificial intelligence (AI). First, there is the side we don't see, the corporate decision-making algorithms. These are based on sets of commands fueled by the simple phrase: "If this happens, do this." So, the machines that count the money and keep the books for huge corporations are programmed to (at least) make recommendations to management as to, among other things, when to make adjustments to payrolls based on revenues and a host of other variables.

The visible side of AI is that of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. Here, we see that any news travels rapidly and is dispersed to larger audiences everywhere. In turn, people respond to news rapidly. Remember how quickly the toilet paper shortages developed during the heights of the COVID pandemic? Thank the news and social media.

Yes, what used to take weeks to months now can happen in hours to days. What that means is that, when the job cuts hit, the MELA system will respond rapidly. Just ask anyone at any of the following high-profile companies listed here, among others:

  • Twitter (TWTR)
  • Netflix (NFLX)
  • Meta (FB)
  • Cameo 
  • Canopy Growth (CGC)

As a result, investors should:

  • Prepare for persistent volatility 
  • Stay vigilant–A move above 35 on the VIX index and new lows on NYAD will likely signal that even more aggressive selling is likely
  • Keep a close eye on your sell stops–if a stock you own is not stopped out, keep it
  • Stay hedged as long as required by market conditions
  • Prepare to be at 100% cash at some point in the future if the bear trend goes on long enough.

And above all: MAKE A SHOPPING LIST.

Welcome to the Edge of Chaos:

"The edge of chaos is a transition space between order and disorder that is hypothesized to exist within a wide variety of systems. This transition zone is a region of bounded instability that engenders a constant dynamic interplay between order and disorder." – Complexity Labs

Bond Market Smells Recession 

Bond traders have the best noses in the world when it comes to sniffing out recessions. That's because recessions kill inflation, which, in turn, means that the income produced from bond interest payments will go further. Remember, inflation steals purchasing power from bonds, which leads bond traders to sell during inflationary periods.

That selling, of course, raises bond yields, as we've seen in the U.S. Ten Year note (TNX) over the last few months. Now, this may be a coincidence, and it may not be something that lasts. But on the day that VRM announced the job cuts, bond yields reversed their recent climb and TNX fell below 3%.

In fact, TNX closed below 3% on 5/13/22, although it bounced back at week's end. That suggests that the uptrend in yields is now in question. Much will depend on how big the job cuts are, if indeed they gather steam, how they affect the monthly payroll numbers, and what the Fed says or does in response.

Here is the bottom line. If TNX breaks below 2.75%, expect significant repercussions throughout all markets.

For more on how to develop a trading plan and how to approach this market, watch one of my recent appearances on StockCharts TV's Your Daily Five.

For more on a risk-averse approach to trading stocks, consider a FREE trial to my service. Click here.

NYAD and VIX Back in Sync

The market's bounce on 5/13/22 featured a return to VIX and the New York Stock Exchange Advance Decline line's (NYAD) inverse relationship, which had been absent for the past few weeks. A rise in VIX means heavy put volume, which is negative for stocks, while a rising NYAD signals a healthy market. This is a one-day event so far, but it may be bullish for stocks if it continues.

The S&P 500 (SPX) found support just below 4000 and now has resistance at 4100-4200. SPX is very oversold, so this bounce could last a few days. But, right now, it's just an oversold bounce until proven otherwise.

The Nasdaq 100 index (NDX) blew through support at 13,000 before bouncing back on 5/13/22. Now, 13,000 is key overhead resistance. But the VBP bar is not that large at 13,000, which means that the bounce could move past 13,000 and make a go at 14,000.

To get the latest up-to-date information on options trading, check out Options Trading for Dummies, now in its 4th Edition – Get Your Copy Now! Now also available in Audible audiobook format!

#1 New Release on Options Trading

Good news! I've made my NYAD-Complexity - Chaos chart (featured on my YD5 videos) and a few other favorites public. You can find them here.


Joe Duarte

In The Money Options


Joe Duarte is a former money manager, an active trader and a widely recognized independent stock market analyst since 1987. He is author of eight investment books, including the best selling Trading Options for Dummies, rated a TOP Options Book for 2018 by Benzinga.com and now in its third edition, plus The Everything Investing in Your 20s and 30s Book and six other trading books.

The Everything Investing in Your 20s and 30s Book is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It has also been recommended as a Washington Post Color of Money Book of the Month.

To receive Joe's exclusive stock, option and ETF recommendations, in your mailbox every week visit https://joeduarteinthemoneyoptions.com/secure/order_email.asp.

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Off Campus Texas A&M Housing With “Resort Style” Rooftop Pool Defaults On Debt Payment

Off Campus Texas A&M Housing With "Resort Style" Rooftop Pool Defaults On Debt Payment

Who could have possibly thought, amidst all this…

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Off Campus Texas A&M Housing With "Resort Style" Rooftop Pool Defaults On Debt Payment

Who could have possibly thought, amidst all this euphoria, that luxury college housing complexes for students might not be the best idea in the world?

It's looking like for one complex - with, of course, a "resort style" rooftop pool (which everybody knows is integral to ones studies) - near the Texas A&M University campus is starting to find out this harsh reality. 

The 3,400-bed student housing complex, called Park West, is going to default on its July debt payment according to Moody’s Investors Service, who downgraded the company's bonds deeper into junk territory this week.

The property, which provides off-campus housing for students, is located in College Station, Texas, Bloomberg reported in a mid-week wrap up. It has reportedly been struggling since even before the pandemic, thanks to the building's higher rents.

Moody's commented: “The project’s financial distress is directly linked to prolonged weakness within its College Station, Texas student housing submarket which has been an ongoing problem since Park West opened for fall 2017.”

$15.3 million is due in principal and interest, but the complex will only pay $8.5 million. The company that sold the bonds, NCCD-College Station Properties LLC, still has about $342 million in bonds outstanding, Bloomberg reported. 

The vice president and director of operations for the company confirmed that the company would default but offered up no other color. 

For a look at the complex's posh amenities, you can review its website here. 

Tyler Durden Fri, 07/01/2022 - 21:55

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“Worst Start Since 1788”: A Closer Look At The Catastrophic First Half Performance

"Worst Start Since 1788": A Closer Look At The Catastrophic First Half Performance

As discussed yesterday…

Worst first half for stocks…

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"Worst Start Since 1788": A Closer Look At The Catastrophic First Half Performance

As discussed yesterday...

... and again this morning, when Rabobank's Michael Every said that "if you bought stocks in H1, you lost; if bonds, you lost; if commodities, you were doing great until recently; if crypto you lost; if the US dollar, you were fine" but lost purchasing power to inflation, the first six months of the year were terrible.

Just how terrible? To quantify the destruction, we go to the latest chart of the day from DB's Jim Reid who writes that "the good news is that H1 is now over. The bad news is that the outlook for H2 is not looking good."

To demonstrate just how bad H1 was, Reid shares three charts.  They show that:

1) Deutsche Bank's US 10yr Treasury proxy index did indeed see the worst H1 since 1788 in spite of a sizeable late June rally, and...

2) the S&P 500 saw the worst H1 total return since 1962 after a rally last week just pulled it back from being the worst since 1932.

Here, BofA has outdone DB, and notes that in real timers, the S&P500's performance was the worst since 1872!

As Reid further notes, "I’ve found through my career that these type of charts are always the most demanded as investors want to put their performance in context." Which is why he also added a the third chart which is an abridged version of one published by DB's Henry Allen in a report fully reviewing H1, June and Q2 (more below, and also available to professional subs in the usual place).

As Reid concludes, "if you like horror stories its an alternative to Stranger Things which returns to our global screens today. Obviously if you run a commodity fund you may think differently!"

Stepping back from this narrow take, we look at the full performance review for June and Q2 conducted by Reid's colleague, Henry Allen, which finds that "it's hard to overstate just how bad markets have performed over recent months, with the returns in Q2 very much following in Q1’s footsteps... a range of asset classes saw significant losses, including equities, credit and sovereign bonds, whilst the US dollar and some commodities like oil were among the few exceptions. In fact, in total return terms we’ve just seen the biggest H1 decline for the S&P 500 in 60 years, and in June alone just 2 of the 38 non-currency assets in our sample were in positive territory, which is the same as what we saw during the initial market chaos from the pandemic in March 2020."

On a YTD basis as well, just 4 of 38 tracked assets are in positive territory, which as it stands is even lower than the 7 assets that managed to score a positive return in 2008.

The main reason for these broad-based declines is the fact that recession and stagflation risks have ramped up significantly over Q2. This has been for several reasons, but first among them is the fact that inflation has proven far more persistent than the consensus expected once again, requiring a more aggressive pace of rate hikes from central banks than investors were expecting at the start of the quarter. For instance, the rate priced in by Fed funds futures for the December 2022 meeting has risen from 2.40% at the end of Q1 to 3.38% at the end of Q2. A similar pattern has been seen from other central banks, and the effects are beginning to show up in the real economy too, with US mortgage rates reaching a post-2008 high. The good news is that as of today, the market is now pricing in not just rate hikes to peak in Q4, but about 14bps of rate cuts in Q1.

in any case, the big worry from investors’ point of view is that the cumulative effect of these rate hikes will be enough to knock the economy into recession, and on that front we’ve seen multiple signs pointing to slower growth recently in both the US and Europe. For instance, the flash Euro Area composite PMI for June came in at a 16-month low of 51.9, whilst its US counterpart fell to a 5-month low of 51.2. Other recessionary indicators like the yield curve are also showing concerning signs, with the 2s10s Treasury curve still hovering just outside inversion territory at the end of the quarter, at just +5.1bps. The energy shock is adding to these growth concerns, and that’s persisted over Q2 as the war in Ukraine has continued. Brent crude oil prices built on their sizeable gains from Q1, with a further +6.4% rise in Q2 that left them at $115/bbl. Meanwhile, European natural gas is up by +14.8% to €145 per megawatt-hour. However, fears of a global recession have knocked industrial metals prices significantly, and the London Metal Exchange Index has just seen its first quarterly fall since the initial wave of the pandemic in Q1 2020, and its -25.0% decline is the largest since the turmoil of the GFC in Q4 2008.

That decline in risk appetite has knocked a range of other assets too:

  • The S&P 500 slumped -16.1% over Q2, meaning its quarterly performance was the second worst since the GFC turmoil of Q4 2008.
  • Sovereign bonds built on their losses from Q1,
  • Euro sovereigns (-7.4%) saw their worst quarterly performance of the 21st century so far as the ECB announced their plan to start hiking rates from July to deal with high inflation.
  • Cryptocurrencies shared in the losses too, with Bitcoin’s (59.0%) decline over Q2 marking its worst quarterly performance in over a decade

Which assets saw the biggest gains in Q2?

  • Energy Commodities: The continued war in Ukraine put further upward pressure on energy prices, with Brent crude (+6.4%) and WTI (+5.5%) oil both advancing over the quarter. The rise was particularly noticeable for European natural gas, with futures up by +14.8% as the continent faces up to the risk of a potential gas cut-off from Russia.
  • US Dollar: The dollar was the best-performing of the G10 currencies in Q2 as it dawned on investors that the Fed would hike more aggressively than they expected, and the YTD gains for the dollar index now stand at +9.4%.

Which assets saw the biggest losses in Q2?

  • Equities: Growing fears about a recession led to significant equity losses in Q2, with the S&P 500 (-16.1%) seeing its second-worst quarterly performance since the GFC turmoil of Q4 2008. That pattern was seen across the world, with Europe’s STOXX 600 down -9.1%, Japan’s Nikkei down -5.0%, and the MSCI EM index down -11.4%.
  • Credit: For a second consecutive quarter, every credit index we follow across USD, EUR and GBP moved lower. EUR and USD HY saw some of the worst losses, with declines of -10.7% and -9.9% respectively.
  • Sovereign Bonds: As with credit, sovereign bonds lost ground on both sides of the Atlantic, and the decline in European sovereigns (-7.4%) was the worst so far in the 21st century. Treasuries also lost further ground, and their -4.1% decline over Q2 brings their YTD losses to -9.4%.
  • Non-energy commodities: Whilst energy saw further gains over Q2, other commodities saw some major declines. Industrial metals were a significant underperformer, with the London Metal Exchange Index (-25.0%) seeing its largest quarterly decline since the GFC turmoil of 2008. Precious metals lost ground too, with declines for both gold (-6.7%) and silver (-18.2%). And a number of agricultural commodities also fell back, including wheat (-13.6%).
  • Japanese Yen: The Japanese Yen weakened against the US Dollar by -10.3% over Q2, which also marked its 6th consecutive quarterly decline against the dollar. By the close at the end of the quarter, that left the Yen trading at 136 per dollar, which is around its weakest level since 1998. That came as the Bank of Japan has become the outlier among the major advanced economy central banks in not hiking rates with even the Swiss National Bank hiking in June for the first time in 15 years.
  • Cryptocurrencies: The broader risk-off tone has been bad news for cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin’s -59.0% decline over Q2 is its worst quarterly performance in over a decade. Other cryptocurrencies have lost significant ground as well, including Litecoin (-59.2%) and XRP (-61.2%).

June Review

Looking specifically at June rather than Q2 as a whole, the picture looks even worse in some ways since just 2 of the 38 non-currency assets are in positive territory for the month, which is the same number as in March 2020 when global markets reacted to the initial wave of the pandemic. The two positive assets are the Shanghai Comp (+7.5%) and the Hang Seng (+3.0%), which have been supported by improving economic data as Covid restrictions have been eased. Otherwise however, it’s been negative across the board, and even commodities have struggled after their strong start to the year, with Brent crude (-6.5%) and WTI (7.8%) posting their first monthly declines so far this year as concerns about a recession have mounted. The main catalyst for this was the much stronger-than-expected US CPI print for June, which triggered another selloff as it dawned on investors that the Fed would be forced to hike rates even more aggressively to rein in inflation, which they followed through on at their meeting when they hiked by 75bps for the first time since 1994.

Finally, without further ado, here are the charts showing total returns for the month of June...

... for Q2...

... and for YTD.

Tyler Durden Fri, 07/01/2022 - 15:00

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Risk Capital and Markets: A Temporary Retreat or Long Term Pull Back?

As inflation has taken center stage, markets have gone into retreat globally, and across asset classes. In 2022, as bond rates have risen, stock prices…

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As inflation has taken center stage, markets have gone into retreat globally, and across asset classes. In 2022, as bond rates have risen, stock prices have fallen, and crypto has imploded, even true believers are questioning what the bottom for markets might be, and when we will get there. While it is easy to call the market movement in 2022 a correction and to argue that it is overdue, it is facile, and it fails to address the question of why it is happening now, and whether the correction is overdone or has more to go. In this post, I will argue that almost everything that we are observing in markets, across asset classes, can be explained by a pull back on risk capital, and that understanding the magnitude of the pull back, and putting in historical perspective, is key to gauging what is coming next.

Risk Capital: What is it?

To put risk capital in perspective, it is best to start with a definition of risk that is comprehensive and all-inclusive, and that is to think of risk as a combination of danger (downside) and opportunity (upside) and to consider how investments vary in terms of exposure to both. In every asset class, there is a range of investment choices, with some being safer (or even guaranteed) and others being riskier.

Risk capital is the portion of capital that is invested in the riskiest segments of each market and safety capital is that portion that finds its way to the safest segments in each market

While risk and safety capital approach the market from opposite ends in the risk spectrum, one (safety capital) being driven by fear and the other (risk capital), by greed, they need to not only co-exist, but be in balance, for the market to be healthy. When to two are not in balance, these imbalances can have profound and often unhealthy effects not just of markets, but also on the overall economy. At the extremes, when risk capital is absent and everyone seeks safety, the economy and markets will atrophy, as businesses and investors will stay away from risky ventures, and when risk capital is too easy and accessible, risky asset prices will soar, and the economy will see too much growth in its riskiest segments, often at the expense of more stable (and still necessary) businesses.

Risk Capital's Ebbs and Flows

It is a common misconception that the risk-takers supply risk capital (risk takers) and that the investors who invest for safety draw from different investor pools, and that these pools remain unchanged over time. While investor risk aversion clearly does play a role in whether investors are drawn to invest in risk or safety capital, it obscures two realities:

  1. Variation within an investor's portfolio: Many investors, including even the most risk averse, may and often do  set aside a portion of their portfolios for riskier investments, drawn by the higher expected returns on those investments. For some investors, this set aside will be the portion that they can afford to lose, without affecting their life styles in any material way. For others, it can be the portion of their capital with the longest time horizon (pension fund savings or 401Ks, if you are a young investor, for example), where they believe that any losses on risk capital can be made up over time. For still others, it is that segment of their portfolios that they treat las long shot gambles, hoping for a disproportionately large payoff, if they are lucky. The amount that is put into the risk capital portion will vary with investor risk aversion, with more risk averse investors putting less or even nothing into the riskiest assets, and less risk averse investors putting in more.
  2. Variation across time: The amount that investors are willing to put into risk capital, or conversely redirect to safety capital, will change over time, with several factors playing a role in determining whether risk capital will be plentiful or scarce. The first is market momentum, since more money will be put into the riskiest asset classes, when markets are rising, because investors who benefit from these rising markets will have more capital that they are willing to risk. The second is the the health and stability of the economy, since investors with secure jobs and rising paychecks are more willing to take risks. 

There are two macro factors that will come into play, and both are in play in markets today. The first is the return that can be earned on guaranteed investments, i.e., US treasury bills and bonds, for instance, if you are a investor in US dollar, since it is a measure of what someone who takes no or very low risk can expect to earn. When treasury rates are low or close to zero, refusing to take risk will result in returns that are very low or close to zero as well, thus inducing investors to expose themselves to more risk than they would have taken in higher interest rate regimes. The second is inflation, which reduces the nominal return you make on all your investments, and the effects of rising inflation on risk capital are complex. As expected inflation rises, you are likely to see higher interest rates, and as we noted above, that may induce investors to cut back on risk taking and focus on earning enough to cover the ravages of inflation. As uncertainty about inflation rises, you will see reallocation of investment across asset classes, with real assets gaining when unexpected inflation is positive (actual inflation is higher than expected), and financial assets benefiting when unexpected inflation is negative (actual inflation is less than expected).

And Consequences

    If you are wondering why you should care about risk capital's ebbs and flows, it is because you will feel its effects in almost everything you do in investing and business. 

  1. Risk Premiums: The risk premiums that you observe in every risky asset market are a function of how much risk capital there is in play, with risk premiums going up when risk capital becomes scarcer and down, when risk capital is more plentiful. In the bond and loan market, access to risk capital will determine default spreads on bonds, with lower rated bonds feeling the pain more intensely when risk capital is withdrawn or moves to the side lines. Not only will default spreads widen more for lower-rated bonds, but there will be less bond issuances by riskier companies. In the equity market, the equity risk premium is the price of risk, and its movements will track shifts in risk capital, increasing as risk capital becomes scarcer. 
  2. Price and Value Gaps: As those of you who read this blog know well, I draw a contrast between value and price, with the former driven by fundamentals (cash flows, growth and risk) and the latter by mood, momentum and liquidity. The value and price processes can yield different numbers for the same company, and the two numbers can diverge for long periods, with convergence not guaranteed but likely over long periods.

    I argue that investors play the value game, buying investments when the price is less than the value and hoping for convergence, and that traders play the pricing game, buying and selling on market momentum, rather than fundamentals. At the risk of generalizing, safety capital, with its focus on earnings and cash flows now, is more likely to focus on fundamentals, and play the investor game, whereas risk capital, drawn by the need to make high returns quickly, is more likely to play the trading game. Thus, when risk capital is plentiful, you are more likely to see the pricing game overwhelm the value game, with prices often rising well above value, and more so for the riskiest segments of every asset class. A pull back in risk capital is often the catalyst for corrections, where price not only converges back on value, but often overshoots in the other direction (creating under valuations). It behooves both investors and traders to therefore track movements in risk capital, since it is will determine when long term bets on value will pay off for the former, and the timing of entry into and exit from markets for the latter.
  3. Corporate Life Cycle: The ebbs and flows of risk capital have consequences for all businesses, but the effects will vary widely across companies, depending on where they are in the life cycle. Using another one of my favorite structures, the corporate life cycle, you can see the consequences of expanding and shrinking risk capital, through the lens of free cash flows (and how they vary across the life cycle).

    Early in the corporate life cycle, young companies have negative free cash flows, driven by losses on operations and investments for future growth, making them dependent on risk capital for survival and growth. As companies mature, their cash flows first become self sustaining first, as operating cash flows cover investments, and then turn large and positive, making them not only less dependent on risk capital for survival but also more valued in an environment where safety capital is dominant. Put simply, as risk capital becomes scarcer, young companies, especially those that are money-losing and with negative cash flows, will see bigger pricing markdowns and more failures than more mature companies.

Risk Capital: Historical Perspective

How do you track the availability and access to risk capital over time? There are three proxies that I will  use, and while each has its limitations, read together, they can provide a fuller measure of the ebbs and flows of risk capital. The first is funds invested by venture capitalists, with a breakdown further into types, from pre-seed and seed financing to very young companies to capital provided to more young companies with more established business models, as a prelude to exit (acquisition or IPO). The second is the trend line in initial public offerings (number and value raised), since companies are more likely to go public and be able to raise more capital in issue proceeds, when risk capital is plentiful. The third is original bond issuances by the riskiest companies (below investment grade and high yield), since these issuances are more likely to have a friendly reception when risk capital is easily available than when it is not.

Let’s start with venture capital, the typical source of capital for start ups and young companies for decades in the United States, and more recently, in the rest of the world. In the graph below, I trace out total venture capital raised, by year, between 1995 and 2021, in the US: 

Source: NVCA Yearbooks
The dot-com boom in the 1990s created a surge in venture capital raised and invested, with venture capital raised peaking at more than $100 billion in 2000, before collapsing as the that bubble burst. The 2008 banking and market crisis caused a drop of almost 50% in 2009, and it took the market almost five years to return to pre-crisis levels.   In the just-concluded decade, from 2011 to 2020,  the amount raised and invested by venture capitalists has soared, and almost doubled again in 2021, from 2020 levels, with venture capital raised in 2021 reaching an all-time high of $131 billion, surpassing the 2000 dot-com boom levels, albeit in nominal terms. Along the way, exits from past venture capital investments, either in IPOs or in M&A, have become more lucrative for the most successful companies, with 43 exits that exceeded a billion (the unicorn status) in 2021. 

If success in venture capital comes from exiting investments at a higher pricing, initial public offerings represent the most lucrative route, and tracking the number of initial public offerings over time provides a window on the ebbs and flows of risk capital, over long periods. Using data made public by Jay Ritter on IPOs, I track the number of IPO and dollar proceeds from offerings in the graph below from 1980 to 2021:
Source: Jay Ritter
As you can see, IPOs go through hot periods (when issuances surge) and cold ones (when there are relatively few listed), with much of the last decade representing hot periods and 2000/01 and 2008/09 representing periods when there were hardly any offerings. While the number of IPOs in 2021 is still below the peak dot-com years, the proceeds from IPOs has surged to an all-time high during the year.

    In the final graph, I look at corporate bond offerings, broken down into investment grade and high yield, by year, from 1996 to 2021:

Source: SIFMA

Here again, you see a familiar pattern, with the percentage of high-yield bond issuances tracking the availability of risk capital. As with IPOs, you see big dips in 2000-01and 2008-09, reflecting market corrections and crises, and a period of easy access to risk capital in the last decade. Again, the percentage of corporate bond issuances hit an all-time high in 2021, representing more than a quarter of all bond issuances. In sum, all three proxies for risk capital show the same patterns over time, pulling back and surging during the same time periods, and with all three proxies, it is clear that 2021 was a boom year.

An Update

The last two and a half years may not represent much time on a historical scale, but the period has packed in enough surprises to make it feel like we have aged a decade. We started 2020 with a pandemic that altered our personal, work and financial lives, and in 2022, at least in North America and Europe, we have seen inflation reach levels that we have not seen for decades. Looking at the 30 months through the lens of risk capital can help us understand not only the journey that markets have gone through to get where they are today, but also perhaps decipher where they may go next. In the graph below, I look at venture capital, IPOs and high yield bond issuances over the last two and a half years:


The first thing to note is that there was a pullback on all three measures in the first quarter of 2020, as COVID put economies into deep freeze and rolled markets. The big story, related to COVID, is that risk capital not only did not stay on the side lines for long but came surging back to levels that exceeded pre-COVID numbers, with all three measures hitting all-time highs in 2021. In a post in late 2020, I argued that it was the resilience of risk capital that explained why markets recovered so quickly that year, even as the global economy struggled, that year, and pointed to three explanatory factors. The first was the perception that the COVID shut-down was temporary, and that economies would come back quickly, once the immediate threat from the virus passed. The second was the decline in interest rates across the globe, with rates in developed market currencies (US $, Euro, Japanese Yen etc.) moving towards zero, increasing the costs of staying on the sidelines.  The third was a change in investor composition, with a shift from institutional to individual investor market leadership, and increased globalization.

    The first half of 2022 has been a trying period for markets, and as inflation has risen, it is having an effect on the availability of and access to risk capital. There has been a pullback in all three proxies for risk capital, albeit smaller in venture capital, than in IPOs and in high-yield bond issuances in the first few months of 2022. That pullback has had its consequences, with equity risk premiums rising around the world. In the graph below, I have updated the equity risk premium for the S&P 500 through the start of July 2022:

Spreadsheet for implied ERP

The chart reveals how unsettling this year has been for equity investors, in the United States. Not only has the implied ERP surged to 6.43% on June 23, 2022, from 4.24% on January 1, 2022, but stocks are now being priced to earn 9.45% annually, up from the 5.75% at the start of the year. (The jump in ERP may be over stated, since the forward earnings estimates for the index, from analysts, does not seem to be showing any upcoming pain from an expected recession. )

As inflation and recession fears have mounted, equity markets are down significantly around the world, but the drop in pricing has been greatest in the riskiest segments of the market. In the table below, I look at the price change in the first six months of 2022 for global stocks, broken down by quintiles, into net profit margin and revenue growth classes:
Source for raw data: S&P Cap IQ

Note that high growth, negative earnings companies have fared much worse, in general, during the 2022 downturn, than more mature, money-making companies.  The fear factor that is tilting the balance back to safety capital from risk capital has also had clear consequences in the speculative collectibles space, with cryptos bearing the brunt of the punishment. Finally, there are markdowns coming to private company holdings, both in the hands of venture capitalists, and public market investors (including mutual funds that have been drawn into this space and public companies like Softbank).

    The big question that we all face, as we look towards the second half of the year, is whether the pullback in risk capital is temporary, as it was in 2020, or whether it is more long term, as it was after the dot-com bust in 2000 and the market crisis in 2008. If it is the former, there is hope of not just a recovery, but a strong rebound in risky asset prices, and if it is the latter, stocks may stabilize, but the riskiest assets will see depressed prices for much longer. I don't have a crystal ball or any special macro forecasting abilities, but if I had to guess, it would be that it is the latter. Unlike a virus, where a vaccine may provide at least the semblance of a quick cure (real or imagined), inflation, once unleashed, has no quick fix. Moreover, now that inflation has reared its head, neither central banks nor governments can provide the boosts that they were able to in 2020 and may even have to take actions that make things worse, rather than better, for risk capital. Finally, at the risk of sounding callous, I do think that a return of fear and a longer term pullback in risk capital is healthy for markets and the economy, since risk capital providers, spoiled by a decade or more of easy returns, have become lazy and sloppy in their pricing and trading decisions, and have, in the process, skewed capital allocation in the economy. If a long-term slowdown is in the cards, it is almost certain that the investment strategies that delivered high returns in the last decade will no longer work in this new environment, and that old lessons, dismissed as outdated just a few years go, may need to be relearned. 

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