John Rubino: Eventually, every finance geek learns that calling market tops — at least publicly — is so hard that it’s not worth the reputation risk. This is especially true in an era of pervasive government manipulation, where price distortions can persist for far longer than any kind of rational analysis can justify.
And yet. For US stocks — and by implication most other equity markets — the danger signals are piling up to the point where a case can be made that the end is, at last, near. To take just a few examples of indicators that should scare the hell out of anyone with a big stock portfolio:
Margin debt has peaked
In good times, optimistic investors tend to borrow money against their stocks to buy more stocks. This “buying on margin” generally goes hand in hand with rising share prices, and tends to peak and then decline just before the markets turn down. As the following chart illustrates, margin debt hit a record in January, turned down in February, and is now falling hard.
Interest rates are plunging
Rising interest rates are generally seen as a sign of a growing economy in which the demand for money is strong. Falling rates point to the opposite. Since equities are valued on future cash flows which in turn depend on future growth, falling interest rates are generally associated with weak equity markets. From Wall Street On Parade:
The U.S. Treasury market, which is experiencing a flight to safety (that suggests a slowing economy, lower corporate earnings and thus a lower stock market in the future) is essentially saying that the current composite wisdom of the stock market is either nuts or the market is, indeed, rigged.
Stocks have been setting new highs of late while the yields on the benchmark 10-year and 30-year Treasurys decline. The 10-year Treasury began the year at a yield of approximately 3 percent and closed on Friday at a yield of 2.49. The 30-year Treasury started the year at a yield of approximately 4 percent and closed last week with a yield of 3.33 percent.
Market breadth is contracting
In a healthy bull market most stocks move up. This indicator — the percentage of stocks that rise along with the overall market — is known as market breadth, and lately it has turned highly negative.