KEN GRANT: Pearl of the Quarter (July 2)


Pearl of the Quarter

July 1, 2018

On the water down in New Orleans, my baby is the pearl of the quarter,

She's a charmer like you never seen, singing voulez voulez voulez vous,

Where the sailor spends his hard-earned pay, red beans and rice for a quarter,

You can see her almost any day, singing voulez voulez voulez vous,

I walked alone down the Miracle Mile, I met my baby by the Shrine of the Martyr,

She stole my heart with her Cajun smile, singing voulez voulez voulez vous,

She loved the million dollar words I say, she loved the candy and the flowers that I bought her

She said she loved me and was on her way, singing voulez voulez voulez vous

-- Donald Fagen/Walter Becker

A little Steely Dan on this hot, pre-holiday weekend? How ‘bout it kids? Well, anyway, it’s my call, and I say yes.

“Pearl of the Quarter” is merely one of the gem’s on the Dan boys’ 1973 “Countdown to Ecstasy” LP, the second in a string of remarkable albums, recorded over a 5-year period in the early ‘70s. The sequence begins with “Can’t Buy a Thrill”, continues on to “Ecstasy”, then soars through “Pretzel Logic”, “Katy Lied” and “The Royal Scam”. My own view is that the quality of the songwriting dropped from that point on. However, many disagree, feeling that the group’s subsequent release: “Aja”, was their finest work. But you can take that record, along with your Big Black Cow and Crimson Tide, and get out of here. There are a few sublime moments on “Aja’s” follow up: “Gaucho” (1980), but that’s about it. They didn’t hit the studio for the next 20 years, and the produced two forgettable albums around the turn of the century. Then, as I believe was a wise move on their part, they cashed in by touring for about a decade and a half (the only way even the Stones or McCartney make money these days). And now Walter Becker is dead. So it goes.

But oh those first five albums! We could’ve chosen to honor SD by featuring virtually any track contained therein. “Pearl” however, is among my faves, telling the age-old story of a lonely guy falling head over ears for a Cajun prostitute in the French Quarter of the Crescent City. Her allure is irresistible, and yes, she loves him (or at least tells him so). But in her inscrutable way, she knows she must spread her love around. He knows it too.

Voulez, voulez voulez vous?

But of course, we have other reasons to home in on “POTC”. Friday, after all, marked the end of an interesting, but on the whole, frustrating, second quarter of 2018.

Across the three-month cycle, there weren’t many pearls about which to report, at least from an investment perspective. And I certainly have a personal beef with its swansong, which made hash out of a prediction of mine that the equity markets were poised for a rally.

But rally they did not. Yeah, after a horrific start, they threw me a small bone as the week wound down, picking up a skinny half a percent in the last two sessions. But their hearts weren’t in it. Friday morning, and on the back of a slight ratcheting down of the China thing, they gathered themselves for an energetic climb, but, as I suspected at the time, they lost their vitality in the afternoon. The Gallant 500 did manage to gin up a 0.3% gain for the April-June interval, and at least this is better than Q1, which socialized a loss of slightly smaller magnitude. Thus, despite an historic tax cut, an earnings cycle that has shattered records, and various other hope-inspiring catalysts, Mr. Spoo now tips the scales at +1.67%.

Of course, it could’ve been worse, and, in fact is -- across most of the planet. To wit, of the ~20 indices tracked on Bloomberg’s ubiquitous World Equity Index (WEI) page, the SPX is the only one that has earned the right to paint its performance in green:

Sure, we could turn our attentions to happier environs, including those haunted by the indomitable Captain Naz (+8.79%) or Ensign Russell (+7.00% but falling fast). And certainly the news has, on balance, been positive for the holders of 10-year notes (and, lately) the USD, but I’m gonna go the whole route here and suggest to the Market Gods that, with half of the year now in the books, I’m just a tad bit disappointed.

But the Market Gods most certainly operate in mysterious ways, and who are us mere mortals to question these?

We’re entering what is likely to be a sloppy week, and I think I can speak for the market-obsessed masses when I suggest that Wednesday is the least productive day to celebrate American Independence. Most of us would prefer to either get it over with earlier, or postpone it to the end of the week so we can chop some wood before giving our shout-outs to the Stars and Stripes.

But the Julian Calendar was established well before most of you were even twinkles in the collective eyes of your forebears, so I reckon we’ll just have to live with that. Those of us who plan to return to our posts after the last Roman Candle has burned out will no doubt turn collective attention to next Friday’s Jobs Report, where the base rate is expected to hold steady at 3.8% and 195K new private gigs are anticipated. The real action, though, is likely to revolve around Average Hourly Earnings, and the testing of the hypothesis of whether or not wage gain acceleration is, or ever can be, part of the picture.

This may be even more important than usual, because, as has been the case so often in recent years (and proven wrong each time), a big concern for us pointy-headed types is whether the indefatigable American Consumer might, at long last, be running out of steam. About the only interesting macro number that dropped last week was a surprising downward shift in Personal Consumption Expenditures, expected to clock in at +3.7%, but only managing to reach a tepid +2.7%. So alarming (to some at any rate) was this miss that it caused the recently high flying GDPNow Index to undertake an unsettling nosedive:

But what the Atlanta Fed taketh away, the Atlanta Fed can surely giveth back. And one thing that would almost surely invigorate both our domestic shoppers and give a boost to the broader measures of economic performance would be some evidence that pay raises, long promised, are actually manifesting.

There are indications, however, that the market doesn’t believe this to be the case – none more visible than the continued rally in global bonds, which also went against my recent call, and which now have tethered 10 year yields to a rather pedestrian 2.86%.

For those tracking such matters, yes, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead, and 10 Year Swiss Notes are still offered at negative yields.

Once we get through the holiday and the Jobs Report, we can, the following week, turn our attention to highly anticipated Q2 earnings. The early returns have been good, but of course investors have not been overly impressed; otherwise the indices would have done what I ordered and rallied.

But c’mon, people.! Estimates for the quarter are the 2nd best (i.e. after Q1) since the crash, and have actually, been rising across the last three months. This, as indicated in the following chart, is something of an anomaly:

Current P/E’s, at 16.1, are below the 5-year average but above the 10-year mean. But please; the latter takes us back to the period covering the crash and the recovery, and are hardly reflective of what might be expected across today’s strong economic environment, with very favorable financing conditions, and an awful lot of companies putting up astonishing – and still expanding – bottom line performance.

So, though chastened by my misdeeds over the last couple of weeks, I continue to project the near-term balance of the risks in the equity markets to be shaded to the upside.

And, in closing, here’s hoping that Q3 generates more pearls than what was served up to us in Q2. However, this is most certainly out of our hands. After all, sometimes you walk alone down that Miracle Mile; sometimes you do so in the most pleasant of company. And sometimes the pearls we find are artifacts of God’s perfection, while other times they are Cajun women of easy virtue, singing “voulez voulez voulez vous”.

Either way, we take what we can get, because there’s really nothing else for us to do. So we carry our lovingly purchased flowers and candy, and utter our million dollar words, often to no avail. But we return, each day, to the Shrine of the Martyr, hoping for the best.

I reckon I’ll see you there, next week. In the meantime, I bid you a happy holiday, and, as always, a heartfelt…



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