The Dumb Money is Helping the Smart Money Exit the Stock Market

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by David Haggith, The Great Recession Blog:

Bloomberg this week ran a story telling us how the smart money gets out of the stock market when it hits its all-time peak and how the dumb money helps the smart money out. Only they didn’t know that was what they were writing. It typically happens this way:

At the end of a deliriously euphoric market rally when the market is preparing to crash, all the Joe Sixpacks, mom and pop and the family dog open trading accounts and try to chase the tail of market action. Many throw in their entire retirement funds, pawn the dog’s collar and take out loans on credit cards to buy in as much as they can. By buying in late, they help provide a smooth exit for the smart money. At least for some of it. It is the little guys, tough from hard labor, whose muscles are employed to push the money bags of the rich to the top of the mountain from which the little guys are allowed to jump off.

That appears to be happening right now. While retail investment (at the mom-and-pop level) in stocks mushroomed last quarter, household debt also mushroomed, jumping at an annual rate of 5.2%, which is the fastest pace since …. 2007. (There is that comparison we keep finding in data everywhere.) Consumer credit rose at an annualized rate of 7.8%. Consumer credit-card debt just topped out at over a trillion dollars, and savings at the same time bottomed out to one of the lowest rates in history.

It’s hard to say with certainty what all that debt all those savings were used for, but the change in both certainly matches the pace of growth in retail stock investments. (The S&P 500 rose 6.1% last quarter, with much of the new money pouring in from retail investors.) With no hard connection in those numbers at my immediate disposal, it would be a fallacy to claim them as proof that people are taking out credit card debt and depleting their savings to buy stocks, but that correlation certainly matches up with anecdotal accounts that many stock brokers are reporting at the street level.

All Trumped up and nowhere to go

Certainly the roar of mom and pop into retail stock investing is happening now …. big time, big league, in a hyuuuge way with the Donald’s supporters being the ones who are rushing headlong in to provide the gold-bricked exit path for the 1%:

As 2017’s roaring bull market gives way to a markedly choppier 2018, the buzz among Wall Street stock touts is that the best of the Trump Trade has passed…. Don’t try to tell that to the true believers in San Angelo, Texas. Or Covington, Louisiana. Or Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They’re sure this rally has just begun, and they’re sure they know why. “I hear it every day,” said Jimmy Freeman, a financial adviser at Edward Jones … east of the booming Permian Basin shale oil fields. “The market’s going up because of Trump….”

Across middle America, in the towns big and small that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, his most ardent, and financially comfortable, backers are opening stock-market accounts or beefing up existing ones, according to interviews with more than a dozen advisers and brokers. They were spurred on by a stream of presidential tweets crowing about, and taking credit for, the gains throughout 2017 and they remain undaunted now as the rally sputters and the tweeting dissipates. (Bloomberg)

Yes, the Trumpettes — by which I mean the little guys who supported the Donald because they were stomped all over by Bush and Obama — are now flooding into the market to provide the essential other side of the trade needed in every market sell-off — buyers. It’s a market maxim that you cannot have a market sell-off without a lot of buyers willing to leap for falling prices.

…From what financial advisers in conservative areas are seeing, there is a Trump-minted rush. Clients … at Concho Investment Advisors in San Angelo “are now more inclined to invest into riskier assets like the stock market” … and many cite the president. Todd Neff, for one, has put $400,000 into stocks since Trump’s election. Before, he wasn’t much of an investor, basically topping out his out his 401(k) and dabbling in shares here and there. A sheep breeder and small-business owner in San Angelo, he said he would have “dropped back big time” if Hillary Clinton had won. Consumers’ confidence in the stock market soared to a record high in January before fading in February…. Among Trump’s fans, though, trust in the firebrand politician as a stock-market bulwark easily endured the selloff

Share buybacks surging

That’s one side of how the smart money gets out at the last minute and winds up richer than ever: they are helped by the good-meaning people who hope to get a last piece of the action — this time from the champion they elected and believe in. The other side is orchestrated by the executive rats who flee their own sinking, stinking corporate stocks by using the company money to buy back their own shares. That’s the bigger action. And that appears to be happening on steroids right now, too.

As the stock market roars toward its triumphant collapse, you hear the big-name analysts talking about how stocks are not overvalued because “earnings are doing great. They’ve never been better.” What they usually mean is earnings per share, and what is really doing better in that fraction is the denominator. The number of shares is shrinking as corporate boards make decisions to drain the company coffers in order to buy back shares … often from themselves … sometimes even in special deals offered only to themselves off the general market (as I’ve reported in the past).

Buybacks have a double edge of cutting power. First, they cut the number of shares over which earnings are divided, making “earnings” look stronger; but secondly, they create their own market demand. Increasing demand = increasing price:

Over the past decade, there has been no corporate instrument of mistruth more powerful than buybacks, an issue we have dissected in these pages for years. U.S. firms have spent roughly $4 trillion on buybacks since 2009, making corporations the biggest single source of demand for U.S. shares…. Buybacks have “accounted for +40% of the total earnings-per-share growth since 2009, and an astounding +72% of the earnings growth since 2012. (13D Research)

What better plan could there be for the smart money, which owns the major shares, to exit the market without crashing the value of their own shares than by creating demand from within the company that the smart money governs? Just vote to use company money to buy shares in numbers equal to or greater than all those the major investors wish to sell (major investors being the ones who sit on the board or hold executive positions).

Thanks to Trump’s new tax law encouraging repatriation of cash that has been stored overseas, companies are doing exactly what I and many others warned they would do with their one-time tax savings on this mother load. No, they are not using it to invest in their own companies as proponents of the plan promised, and as I predicted they would NOT do. They are using their overseas cash stockpiles to buy back stocks.

Buybacks are already on record pace — $171 billion worth have been announced so far in 2018, more than double the amount disclosed by mid-February 2017. If a tax-bill-fueled buyback bonanza can effectively “buy the dips”, market tranquility can be protected, preventing a large-scale unwinding.

In fact, the first six weeks of announced buybacks this year already were higher than the entirety of 2009. JP Morgan projects that, at this rate, S&P 500 companies will by back a record $800 billion in stocks in 2018. JP noted that large accelerations in buybacks like this tend to happen during market selloffs and for that reason says that buybacks could go higher than $800 billion this year if they rise to the level seen right at the end of the last business cycle where companies returned more than 100% of profits to shareholders.

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