Seeking Alpha

Inflation Before Recession - Buy Energy Shares

by: Steven Jon Kaplan
Steven Jon Kaplan
Contrarian, Registered Investment Advisor, ETF investing, portfolio strategy

The media believes that the U.S. economy is heading for an imminent recession.

A primary flaw in this reasoning is that U.S. equity bear markets for more than two centuries have followed a reliable pattern in which events occur in a certain sequence.

This order of operations has a resurgence of inflation occurring well before the U.S. economy experiences negative GDP growth which defines a recession.

Rallies for commodity producers beginning with precious metals and usually ending with energy are also consistent and repeatedly misinterpreted by investors each time we are in a new U.S. equity bear market.

"The hardest thing over the years has been having the courage to go against the dominant wisdom of the time, to have a view that is at variance with the present consensus and bet that view." --Michael Steinhardt

The media have become obsessed with the belief that the U.S. economy is heading for an imminent recession. A primary flaw in this reasoning is that U.S. equity bear markets for more than two centuries have followed a reliable pattern in which events occur in a certain sequence. This order of operations has a resurgence of inflation occurring well before the U.S. economy experiences negative GDP growth which defines a recession. There are other elements in this sequence which are also consistent and which are repeatedly misinterpreted by investors each time we are in a new U.S. equity bear market, including rallies for commodity producers beginning with precious metals and usually ending with energy. Investors foolishly conclude that "it's different this time" and then the same patterns repeat yet again.

The first, second, and now the third primary stages of a U.S. equity bear market are proceeding precisely on schedule.

On August 31, 2018 the Russell 2000 completed its all-time intraday zenith at 1742.0889. When this index of two thousand out of 3600 U.S. companies began to persistently form lower highs in September 2018 while the S&P 500 continued to set higher highs, it was beginning a pattern which has characterized all major U.S. equity bear markets throughout history. While the Russell 2000 did not exist in 1929, most small- and mid-cap U.S. stocks persistently underperformed their large-cap counterparts from roughly Labor Day 1928 through Labor Day 1929. This was followed by the worst bear market in U.S. history with losses averaging seven out of eight dollars by the ultimate nadir in July 1932. The same pattern repeated several decades later when large U.S. companies including the S&P 500 Index continued to climb into January 1973 while most baskets of small- and mid-cap companies had peaked in 1971-1972. This was followed by the worst bear market since the Great Depression. A dozen years ago the Russell 2000 completed a double top on June 1 and July 9, 2007, while the S&P 500 didn't top out until October 9, 2007 and the Nasdaq reached its cycle high on October 31, 2007. Overall the Russell 2000 during 2007-2009 dropped 60.0% while the S&P 500 slid 57.7% from top to bottom.

Small- and mid-cap U.S. companies have been far underperforming their large-cap counterparts for nearly one year.

The situation during the past year has been eerily similar to the severe past bear markets listed above. From their summer 2018 highs to their Christmas 2018 lows, the Russell 2000 dropped by (1742.0889-1266.9249)/1742.0889 or 27.3%, while the S&P 500 only lost (2940.91-2346.58)/2940.91 = 20.2%. The first pullback in a bear market is almost always followed by a strong rebound, and both of these indices recovered--but by very different margins. The S&P 500 repeatedly set new highs in 2019 until it achieved a new all-time top of 3027.98 on July 26, 2019. The Russell 2000 never got anywhere near its prior-year high, only reaching 1618.37 and doing so on May 6, 2019 to continue its pattern of peaking ahead of the S&P 500 and at significantly lower highs. My essays regarding this topic on drew derision from some who were either ignorant of history or who refused to believe that this kind of underperformance was a reliable signal of a severe bear market.

The recent sudden slide has finally gotten some people to realize that, alas, we could be in some kind of downtrend after all. The media have created the illusion that the latest U.S. stock-market pullback was caused by Trump, tariffs, earnings, employment data, and other allegedly unpredictable events. However, the Russell 2000 has been screaming loudly and clearly that a major loss would have to happen relatively soon. Because valuations were so much higher in 2018-2019 than they had been in 2007, the overall percentage losses will be proportionately greater, probably exceeding two thirds from top to bottom for nearly all U.S. equity indices. However, most of these losses will occur during the final months of the bear market, and not before several other key developments occur which I will list below.

The U.S. dollar just began to retreat from its highest level since May 2017. As the greenback grinds lower, this will be inflationary rather than recessionary. A U.S. recession won't occur until the U.S. dollar begins to sharply rebound from multi-year lows versus most global currencies.

The U.S. dollar has generally acted strongly, reaching 98.932 on Tuesday, August 1, 2019 which marked its most elevated point in over 26 months. The strong U.S. dollar has encouraged investment into all U.S. assets including stocks, corporate bonds, Treasuries, and real estate, while discouraging investment into commodity-related assets and non-U.S. stocks and bonds which tend to correlate inversely with the greenback. Just as bear markets reliably feature small- and mid-cap U.S. stocks underperforming large-cap shares, they also tend to experience substantial losses for the U.S. currency versus most other global currencies during the middle of the bear market.

During the 2007-2009 bear market which began with the Russell 2000's first peak on June 1, 2007, the U.S. dollar index slumped to its all-time bottom of 70.698 in March 2008, and after briefly rebounding, retreated again to complete a double bottom at a slightly higher low in July 2008. Thus, the greenback moved dramatically lower for roughly one year. During this time all of the following occurred: commodity producers were among the world's strongest equity sectors; many emerging markets rose while U.S. stocks mostly moved lower; and inflation--which was widely considered in the middle of 2007 to be subdued and irrelevant--became unexpectedly widespread.

The major inflationary bout of 2008 has already been forgotten by most investors, and almost no one recalls similar surges in years including 1973, 1948, and 1937. The same phenomenon is about to occur again as precious metals are warning us.

By the final months of 2007 gold, silver, and related assets had been climbing strongly since June 2006 but their message was generally ignored. In early 2008 agricultural prices rose so suddenly, and by hundreds of percent apiece. My local bakery posted futures charts for the only time in their history on their front window to show customers that they weren't profiting from their sharply higher prices. In India they actually banned the export of rice until they discovered that tons of rice were rotting in warehouses. By July 2008 almost everything else had been soaring in price including a new all-time peak for gasoline and most energy products.

In the current cycle, after having fallen to a 2-1/2-year bottom on September 11, 2018, precious metals and their shares have been among the top-performing sectors. This has significant inflationary implications which so far have been muted largely because of the strong U.S. dollar.

As the greenback retreats, inflationary pressures will become increasingly evident and will eventually crowd out the current obsession with an imminent recession. Before we have anything resembling negative U.S. GDP growth we will have consumers complaining about high prices for gasoline, food, and many other essential goods and wondering if the inflationary spiral will get much worse.

During the current phase of the U.S. equity bear market the biggest percentage gains often occur in whichever commodity-related and emerging-market assets have become the most depressed and oversold.

Energy shares have become among the least popular areas for current investment. Exchange-traded and closed-end funds in this sector including XES (oil/gas equipment/services), FCG (natural gas producers), OIH (oil services), and PSCE (small-cap energy) are enormously below their respective January 2018 highs with many of them losing over half their value. Several of these are commission-free with some brokers including RYE (equal-weight energy) having zero commissions with E*TRADE and Schwab while IEZ (oil equipment/services) and FENY (energy index) are commission-free energy funds at Fidelity. Only alternative energy funds including TAN (solar) and FAN (wind) have been relatively strong, almost certainly due to the increased popularity of "green" investing strategies.

As the prices of energy shares have experienced extended pullbacks, many investors have been selling primarily because they see others selling and as their persistently sliding valuations make them emotionally seem to be inherently inferior. This has encouraged huge net outflows from most energy funds. At the same time, top corporate energy executives recognize the irrationally low prices and have been making the most intense insider buying in this sector since their previous deep bottoms of late 2015-early 2016 and late 2008-early 2009. No matter how many times in the past energy shares have doubled or more during their periodic bull markets, investors inevitably conclude that "it's different this time" and only participate after most of the gains have already been achieved.

The traders' commitments for natural gas show an unusually rare commercial net long position--observe the dramatic shift indicated by the maroon bars in the following chart:

Commercials are those who actually use an asset in their line of business, versus speculators and other investors who only use it for trading.

Numerous other non-precious commodity producers have also been trading not far above multi-year lows.

Other exchange-traded funds of commodity producers including COPX (copper), REMX (rare earth), LIT (lithium/battery), and WOOD (timber/forestry) have become simultaneously depressed, and I have been gradually accumulating these for the first time since around Christmas 2018. Insiders have been buying at these producers including executives with proven long-term track records of making money on these trades including FCX insiders. The traders' commitments for copper highlights a sharp shift toward the commercial net long side in recent months:

Numerous other sectors also tend to rally at this point during a U.S. equity bear market, usually for somewhat less than one year overall.

Other exchange-traded funds which tend to rally strongly when the U.S. dollar is retreating and when the Russell 2000 is mired in a lengthy bear market include SEA (sea shipping) and SLX (steel manufacturing) along with many emerging-market stock and bond funds. Country funds including NORW (Norway) and GXG (Colombia) correlate positively with energy prices due partly to their above-average concentration in the energy industry.

No worthwhile investment lasts forever, but rising inflationary pressures are likely to continue into somewhere around the middle of 2020.

When top corporate insiders aggressively buy into any sector, as energy executives have been doing, they do not expect a rapid recovery and a quick profit. They must hold their shares for more than six months in order to qualify for favorable treatment. Timing is always unknowable, but it is likely that energy shares and other inflation-loving assets will rally--with several sharp pullbacks whenever momentum players have recently chased after any of these--until the late winter, the spring, or possibly the early summer of 2020.

Watch the U.S. dollar's behavior, insider activity, and net fund flows as valuable clues as to when to sell. Eventually the U.S. dollar will begin to rebound unexpectedly from multi-year lows versus most currencies, while top executives become heavy sellers of their shares and several funds enjoy huge net inflows. This will signal that the most knowledgeable participants are getting out just as the public--as always--eagerly piles in during a major topping pattern. Just as you will be buying energy shares now when everyone you know is bailing out of them, you will be closing out your positions when your friends are asking you which ones you own because they don't want to miss out.

U.S. stocks, bonds including corporates and Treasuries, and real estate will all mostly move lower during the upcoming year and then except for U.S. Treasuries will plummet dramatically lower during the following year.

During most of the upcoming year, nearly all U.S. assets including stocks, corporate bonds, Treasuries, and real estate will choppily decline significantly more than most investors are currently anticipating. This won't have anything to do with recession, but due to these assets having become irrationally popular and very overvalued relative to historic norms.

The only time in history that U.S. real estate was more overpriced in some regions was in 2005-2006 and prices have already been falling--in some cases for more than a year--in an increasing number of U.S. neighborhoods. U.S. stocks overall were only higher in relative terms at the very end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, while U.S. high-yield corporate bonds have never been more overpriced than they had been in July 2019. One defining feature of the upcoming year is how U.S. assets of all kinds will be moving lower except during swift rebounds from intermediate-term bottoms, while they are gaining in most other parts of the world and in commodity-related sectors.

Long-dated U.S. Treasuries will likely decline sharply for roughly one year as the current recessionary obsession is replaced by fears of continued inflationary increases.

The yields on the 10-, 20-, and 30-year U.S. Treasuries have plunged to absurdly low levels due to misplaced concerns about an imminent U.S. recession. As investors progressively realize that inflation is a more serious presence and that the anticipation of recession had been premature, the Treasury curve will steepen while long-dated U.S. Treasury yields will likely climb to multi-year highs at some point during 2020. This means that we will have substantially higher U.S. 30-year fixed mortgage rates which will put additional downward pressure on current overvalued and mostly unaffordable U.S. real estate.

Starting sometime in 2020 we will experience the worst part of the current bear market, probably continuing into some part of 2021.

Beginning sometime around the middle of 2020 and continuing probably into the first several months of 2021, assets worldwide will mostly plummet except for a tiny number of safe havens including the U.S. dollar and U.S. Treasuries.

Summary: eventually we will suffer a severe recession, but first inflation has to run its course.

Between now and roughly the spring of 2020, global equities and commodity producers will mostly climb--some quite sharply--while U.S. stocks fluctuate in both directions while mostly losing value. The current correction for U.S. equity indices will likely result in overall losses which are greater in percentage terms than their declines during the final months of 2018. These will probably be followed by strong rebounds into some part of 2020, not that different from what we experienced after Christmas 2018 but following a somewhat different timetable.

Just as had been the case earlier in 2019, investors at some point during the first several months of 2020 will mostly conclude that we just had another correction but that U.S. stocks remain in a strong bull market. Once again the persistent pattern of lower highs and underperformance of the Russell 2000 and other baskets of small- and mid-cap U.S. shares won't be taken seriously. The U.S. dollar will keep dropping until around the middle of 2020. At that point we will suddenly experience a sharp rebound for the U.S. dollar, renewed losses for U.S. stocks and corporate bonds, and accelerated declines for U.S. real estate. Only at that point will we finally enter a deep recession.

The bottom line: inflation will precede recession. Especially now that everyone is obsessed with an allegedly slowing economy, it will likely become overheated sometime during 2020.

U.S. recessions are almost always preceded by powerful inflationary surges. This was just as true in 1937, 1948, 1973, 1980, 1990, 2001, and 2008 as it is today. With the Russell 2000 having dropped over 13% in nearly one year from its August 31, 2018 intraday peak (as of its August 6, 2019 close) and the S&P 500 outperforming, this is a typical severe bear market. As the vast majority of investors are expecting a higher U.S. dollar, lower interest rates, lower commodity prices, and lower inflation, we are likely to get the exact opposite just as we have experienced during past U.S. equity bear markets. It always seems different this time but it never is.

Disclosure of current holdings:

From my largest to my smallest position I currently am long GDXJ, 4-week U.S. Treasuries, the TIAA-CREF Traditional Annuity Fund, SIL, XES (many new), ELD, ASHR, FCG (some new), SEA (many new), SCIF (some new), OIH, ASHS, VNM, GDX, bank CDs, money-market funds, GXG, I-Bonds, URA, PAK (some new), SLX (many new), EPOL, EZA, EPHE, LIT, TUR, ARGT, FM, HDGE, ECH, EGPT, MTDR, EWG, EWU, EWI, REMX, EWW, FXF, COPX (many new), JOF, AFK, RSXJ, EWD, EWQ, EWK, GREK, FXB, EWM, CHK, EWN, GOEX, BGEIX, NGE, WOOD (all new), IDX, RGLD, WPM, SAND, and SILJ. I am short a moderate quantity of XLI.

Editor’s Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.