Tag Archives: bubbles

Technically Speaking: The 4-Phases Of A Full-Market Cycle

In a recent post, I discussed the “3-stages of a bear market.”  To wit:

“Yes, the market will rally, and likely substantially so.  But, let me remind you of Bob Farrell’s Rule #8 from our recent newsletter:

Bear markets have three stages – sharp down, reflexive rebound and a drawn-out fundamental downtrend

  1. Bear markets often START with a sharp and swift decline.
  2. After this decline, there is an oversold bounce that retraces a portion of that decline.
  3. The longer-term decline then continues, at a slower and more grinding pace, as the fundamentals deteriorate.

Dow Theory also suggests that bear markets consist of three down legs with reflexive rebounds in between.

However, the “bear market” is only one-half of a vastly more important concept – the “Full Market Cycle.”

The Full Market Cycle

Over the last decade, the media has focused on the bull market, making an assumption that the current trend would last indefinitely. However, throughout history, bull market cycles make up on one-half of the “full market” cycle. During every “bull market” cycle, the market and economy build up excesses, which must ultimately be reversed through a market reversion and economic recession. In the other words, as Sir Issac Newton discovered:

“What goes up, must come down.” 

The chart below shows the full market cycles over time. Since the current “full market” cycle is yet to be completed, I have drawn a long-term trend line with the most logical completion point of the current cycle.

[Note: I am not stating the markets are about to crash to the 1600 level on the S&P 500. I am simply showing where the current uptrend line intersects with the price. The longer that it takes for the markets to mean revert, the higher the intersection point will be. Furthermore, the 1600 level is not out of the question either. Famed investor Jack Bogle stated that over the next decade we are likely to see two more 50% declines.  A 50% decline from the all-time highs would put the market at 1600.]

As I have often stated, I am not bullish or bearish. My job as a portfolio manager is simple; invest money in a manner that creates returns on a short-term basis, but reduces the possibility of catastrophic losses, which wipe out years of growth.

Nobody tends to believe that philosophy until the markets wipe about 30% of portfolio values in a month.

The 4-Phases

AlphaTrends previously put together an excellent diagram laying out the 4-phases of the full-market cycle. To wit:

“Is it possible to time the market cycle to capture big gains? Like many controversial topics in investing, there is no real professional consensus on market timing. Academics claim that it’s not possible, while traders and chartists swear by the idea.

The following infographic explains the four important phases of market trends, based on the methodology of the famous stock market authority Richard Wyckoff. The theory is that the better an investor can identify these phases of the market cycle, the more profits can be made on the ride upwards of a buying opportunity.”

So, the question to answer, obviously, is:

“Where are we now?”

Let’s take a look at the past two full-market cycles, using Wyckoff’s methodology, as compared to the current post-financial-crisis half-cycle. While actual market cycles will not exactly replicate the chart above, you can clearly see Wyckoff’s theory in action.

1992-2003

The accumulation phase, following the 1991 recessionary environment, was evident as it preceded the “internet trading boom” and the rise of the “dot.com” bubble from 1995-1999. As I noted previously:

“Following the recession of 1991, the Federal Reserve drastically lowered interest rates to spur economic growth. However, the two events which laid the foundation for the ‘dot.com’ crisis was the rule-change which allowed the nation’s pension funds to own equities and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which unleashed Wall Street upon a nation of unsuspecting investors.

The major banks could now use their massive balance sheet to engage in investment-banking, market-making, and proprietary trading. The markets exploded as money flooded the financial markets. Of course, since there were not enough ‘legitimate’ deals to fill demand and Wall Street bankers are paid to produce deals, Wall Street floated any offering it could despite the risk to investors.”

The distribution phase became evident in early-2000 as stocks began to struggle.

Names like Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Lucent Technologies, Nortel, Sun Micro, and a host of others, are “ghosts of the past.” Importantly, they are the relics of an era the majority of investors in the market today are unaware of, but were the poster children for the “greed and excess” of the preceding bull market frenzy.

As the distribution phase gained traction, it is worth remembering the media and Wall Street were touting the continuation of the bull market indefinitely into the future. 

Then, came the decline.

2003-2009

Following the “dot.com” crash, investors had all learned their lessons about the value of managing risk in portfolios, not chasing returns, and focusing on capital preservation as the core for long-term investing.

Okay. Not really.

It took about 27-minutes for investors to completely forget about the previous pain of the bear market and jump headlong back into the creation of the next bubble leading to the “financial crisis.” 

During the mark-up phase, investors once again piled into leverage. This time not just into stocks, but real estate, as well as Wall Street, found a new way to extract capital from Main Street through the creation of exotic loan structures. Of course, everything was fine as long as interest rates remained low, but as with all things, the “party eventually ends.”

Once again, during the distribution phase of the market, the analysts, media, Wall Street, and rise of bloggers, all touted “this time was different.” There were “green shoots,” it was a “Goldilocks economy,” and there was “no recession in sight.” 

They were disastrously wrong.

Sound familiar?

2009-Present

So, here we are, a decade into the current economic recovery and a market that has risen steadily on the back of excessively accommodative monetary policy and massive liquidity injections by Central Banks globally.

Once again, due to the length of the “mark up” phase, most investors today have once again forgotten the “ghosts of bear markets past.”

Despite a year-long distribution in the market, the same messages seen at previous market peaks were steadily hitting the headlines: “there is no recession in sight,” “the bull market is cheap” and “this time is different because of Central Banking.”

Well, as we warned more than once, all that was required was an “exogenous” event, which would spark a credit-event in an overly leveraged, overly extended, and overly bullish market. The “virus” was that exogenous event.

Lost And Found

There is a sizable contingent of investors, and advisors, today who have never been through a real bear market. After a decade long bull-market cycle, fueled by Central Bank liquidity, it is understandable why mainstream analysis believed the markets could only go higher. What was always a concern to us was the rather cavalier attitude they took about the risk.

“Sure, a correction will eventually come, but that is just part of the deal.”

As we repeatedly warned, what gets lost during bull cycles, and is always found in the most brutal of fashions, is the devastation caused to financial wealth during the inevitable decline. It isn’t just the loss of financial wealth, but also the loss of employment, defaults, and bankruptcies caused by the coincident recession.

This is the story told by the S&P 500 inflation-adjusted total return index. The chart shows all of the measurement lines for all the previous bull and bear markets, along with the number of years required to get back to even.

What you should notice is that in many cases bear markets wiped out essentially all or a very substantial portion of the previous bull market advance.

There are many signs suggesting the current Wyckoff cycle has entered into its fourth, and final stage. Whether, or not, the current decline phase is complete, is the question we are all working on answering now.

Bear market cycles are rarely ended in a month. While there is a lot of “hope” the Fed’s flood of liquidity can arrest the market decline, there is still a tremendous amount of economic damage to contend with over the months to come.

In the end, it does not matter IF you are “bullish” or “bearish.” What matters, in terms of achieving long-term investment success, is not necessarily being “right” during the first half of the cycle, but by not being “wrong” during the second half.

Previous Employment Concerns Becoming An Ugly Reality

Last week, we saw the first glimpse of the employment fallout caused by the shutdown of the economy due to the virus. To wit:

“On Thursday, initial jobless claims jumped by 3.3 million. This was the single largest jump in claims ever on record. The chart below shows the 4-week average to give a better scale.”

This number will be MUCH worse when claims are reported later this morning, as many individuals were slow to file claims, didn’t know how, and states were slow to report them.

The importance is that unemployment rates in the U.S. are about to spike to levels not seen since the “Great Depression.” Based on the number of claims being filed, we can estimate that unemployment will jump to 15-20% over the next quarter as economic growth slides 8%, or more. (I am probably overly optimistic.)

The erosion in employment will lead to a sharp deceleration in economic and consumer confidence, as was seen Tuesday in the release of the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index, which plunged from 132.6 to 120 in March.

This is a critical point. Consumer confidence is the primary factor of consumptive behaviors, which is why the Federal Reserve acted so quickly to inject liquidity into the financial markets. While the Fed’s actions may prop up financial markets in the short-term, it does little to affect the most significant factor weighing on consumers – their jobs.

The chart below is our “composite” confidence index, which combines several confidence surveys into one measure. Notice that during each of the previous two bear market cycles, confidence dropped by an average of 58 points.

With consumer confidence just starting its reversion from high levels, it suggests that as job losses rise, confidence will slide further, putting further pressure on asset prices. Another way to analyze confidence data is to look at the composite consumer expectations index minus the current situation index in the reports.

Similarly, given we have only started the reversion process, bear markets end when deviations reverse. The differential between expectations and the current situation, as you can see below, is worse than the last cycle, and only slightly higher than before the “dot.com” crash.

If you are betting on a fast economic recovery, I wouldn’t.

There is a fairly predictable cycle, starting with CEO’s moving to protect profitability, which gets worked through until exhaustion is reached.

As unemployment rises, we are going to begin to see the faults in the previous employment numbers that I have repeatedly warned about over the last 18-months. To wit:

“There is little argument the streak of employment growth is quite phenomenal and comes amid hopes the economy is beginning to shift into high gear. But while most economists focus at employment data from one month to the next for clues as to the strength of the economy, it is the ‘trend’ of the data, which is far more important to understand.”

That “trend” of employment data has been turning negative since President Trump was elected, which warned the economy was actually substantially weaker than headlines suggested. More than once, we warned that an “unexpected exogenous event” would exposure the soft-underbelly of the economy.

The virus was just such an event.

While many economists and media personalities are expecting a “V”-shaped recovery as soon as the virus passes, the employment data suggests an entirely different outcome.

The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment prior to the onset of a recession. The current cycle peaked at 2.2% in 2015, and has been on a steady decline ever since. At 1.3%, which predated the virus, it was the lowest level ever preceding a recessionary event. All that was needed was an “event” to start the dominoes falling. When we see the first round of unemployment data, we are likely to test the lows seen during the financial crisis confirming a recession has started. 

No Recession In 2020?

It is worth noting that NO mainstream economists, or mainstream media, were predicting a recession in 2020. However, as we noted in 2019, the inversion of the “yield curve,” predicted exactly that outcome.

“To CNBC’s point, based on this lagging, and currently unrevised, economic data, there is ‘NO recession in sight,’ so you should be long equities, right?

Which indicator should you follow? The yield curve is an easy answer.

While everybody is ‘freaking out’ over the ‘inversion,’it is when the yield-curve ‘un-inverts’ that is the most important.

The chart below shows that when the Fed is aggressively cutting rates, the yield curve un-inverts as the short-end of the curve falls faster than the long-end. (This is because money is leaving ‘risk’ to seek the absolute ‘safety’ of money markets, i.e. ‘market crash.’)”

I have dated a few of the key points of the “inversion of the curve.” As of today, the yield-curve is now fully un-inverted, denoting a recession has started.

While recent employment reports were slightly above expectations, the annual rate of growth has been slowing. The 3-month average of the seasonally-adjusted employment report, also confirms that employment was already in a precarious position and too weak to absorb a significant shock. (The 3-month average smooths out some of the volatility.)

What we will see in the next several employment reports are vastly negative numbers as the economy unwinds.

Lastly, while the BLS continually adjusts and fiddles with the data to mathematically adjust for seasonal variations, the purpose of the entire process is to smooth volatile monthly data into a more normalized trend. The problem, of course, with manipulating data through mathematical adjustments, revisions, and tweaks, is the risk of contamination of bias.

We previously proposed a much simpler method to use for smoothing volatile monthly data using a 12-month moving average of the raw data as shown below.

Notice that near peaks of employment cycles the BLS employment data deviates from the 12-month average, or rather “overstates” the reality. However, as we will now see to be the case, the BLS data will rapidly reconnect with 12-month average as reality emerges.

Sometimes, “simpler” gives us a better understanding of the data.

Importantly, there is one aspect to all the charts above which remains constant. No matter how you choose to look at the data, peaks in employment growth occur prior to economic contractions, rather than an acceleration of growth. 

“Okay Boomer”

Just as “baby boomers” were finally getting back to the position of being able to retire following the 2008 crash, the “bear market” has once again put those dreams on hold. Of course, there were already more individuals over the age of 55, as a percentage of that age group, in the workforce than at anytime in the last 50-years. However, we are likely going to see a very sharp drop in those numbers as “forced retirement” will surge.

The group that will to be hit the hardest are those between 25-54 years of age. With more than 15-million restaurant workers being terminated, along with retail, clerical, leisure, and hospitality workers, the damage to this demographic will be the heaviest.

There is a decent correlation between surges in the unemployment rate and the decline in the labor-force participation rate of the 25-54 age group. Given the expectation of a 15%, or greater, unemployment rate, the damage to this particular age group is going to be significant.

Unfortunately, the prime working-age group of labor force participants had only just returned to pre-2008 levels, and the same levels seen previously in 1988. Unfortunately, it may be another decade before we see those employment levels again.

Why This Matters

The employment impact is going to felt for far longer, and will be far deeper, than the majority of the mainstream media and economists expect. This is because they are still viewing this as a “singular” problem of a transitory virus.

It isn’t.

The virus was simply the catalyst which started the unwind of a decade-long period of debt accumulation and speculative excesses. Businesses, both small and large, will now go through a period of “culling the herd,” to lower operating costs and maintain profitability.

There are many businesses that will close, and never reopen. Most others will cut employment down to the bone and will be very slow to rehire as the economy begins to recover. Most importantly, wage growth was already on the decline, and will be cut deeply in the months to come.

Lower wage growth, unemployment, and a collapse in consumer confidence is going to increase the depth and duration of the recession over the months to come. The contraction in consumption will further reduce revenues and earnings for businesses which will require a deeper revaluation of asset prices. 

I just want to leave you with a statement I made previously:

“Every financial crisis, market upheaval, major correction, recession, etc. all came from one thing – an exogenous event that was not forecast or expected.

This is why bear markets are always vicious, brutal, devastating, and fast. It is the exogenous event, usually credit-related, which sucks the liquidity out of the market, causing prices to plunge. As prices fall, investors begin to panic-sell driving prices lower which forces more selling in the market until, ultimately, sellers are exhausted.

It is the same every time.”

Over the last several years, investors have insisted the markets were NOT in a bubble. We reminded them that everyone thought the same in 1999 and 2007.

Throughout history, financial bubbles have only been recognized in hindsight when their existence becomes “apparently obvious” to everyone. Of course, by that point is was far too late to be of any use to investors and the subsequent destruction of invested capital.

It turned out, “this time indeed was not different.” Only the catalyst, magnitude, and duration was.

Pay attention to employment and wages. The data suggests the current “bear market” cycle has only just begun.

Technically Speaking: 5-Questions Bulls Need To Answer Now.

In last Tuesday’s Technically Speaking post, I stated:

From a purely technical basis, the extreme downside extension, and potential selling exhaustion, has set the markets up for a fairly strong reflexive bounce. This is where fun with math comes in.

As shown in the chart below, after a 35% decline in the markets from the previous highs, a rally to the 38.2% Fibonacci retracement would encompass a 20% advance.

Such an advance will ‘lure’ investors back into the market, thinking the ‘bear market’ is over.”

Chart Updated Through Monday

Not surprisingly, as we noted in this weekend’s newsletter, the headlines from the mainstream media aligned with our expectations:

So, is the bear market over? 

Are the bulls now back in charge?

Honestly, no one knows for certain. However, there are 5-questions that “Market Bulls” need to answer if the current rally is to be sustained.

These questions are not entirely technical, but since “technical analysis” is simply the visualization of market psychology, how you answer the questions will ultimately be reflected by the price dynamics of the market.

Let’s get to work.

Employment

Employment is the lifeblood of the economy.  Individuals cannot consume goods and services if they do not have a job from which they can derive income. From that consumption comes corporate profits and earnings.

Therefore, for individuals to consume at a rate to provide for sustainable, organic (non-Fed supported), economic growth they must work at a level that provides a sustainable living wage above the poverty level. This means full-time employment that provides benefits, and a livable wage. The chart below shows the number of full-time employees relative to the population. I have also overlaid jobless claims (inverted scale), which shows that when claims fall to current levels, it has generally marked the end of the employment cycle and preceded the onset of a recession.

This erosion in jobless claims has only just begun. As jobless claims and continuing claims rise, it will lead to a sharp deceleration in economic confidence. Confidence is the primary factor of consumptive behaviors, which is why the Federal Reserve acted so quickly to inject liquidity into the financial markets. While the Fed’s actions may prop up financial markets in the short-term, it does little to affect the most significant factor weighing on consumers – their job. 


Question:  Given that employment is just starting to decline, does such support the assumption of a continued bull market?


Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE)

Following through from employment, once individuals receive their paycheck, they then consume goods and services in order to live.

This is a crucial economic concept to understand, which is the order in which the economy functions. Consumers must “produce” first, so they receive a paycheck, before they can “consume.”  This is also the primary problem of Stephanie Kelton’s “Modern Monetary Theory,” which disincentivizes the productive capacity of the population.

Given that Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) is a measure of that consumption, and comprises roughly 70% of the GDP calculation, its relative strength has great bearing on the outcome of economic growth.

More importantly, PCE is the direct contributor to the sales of corporations, which generates their gross revenue. So goes personal consumption – so goes revenue. The lower the revenue that flows into company coffers, the more inclined businesses are to cut costs, including employment and stock buybacks, to maintain profit margins.

The chart below is a comparison of the annualized change in PCE to corporate fixed investment and employment. I have made some estimates for the first quarter based on recent data points.


Question: Does the current weakness in PCE and Fixed Investment support the expectations for a continued bull market from current price levels? 


Junk Bonds & Margin Debt

While global Central Banks have lulled investors into an expanded sense of complacency through years of monetary support, it has led to willful blindness of underlying risk. As we discussed in “Investor’s Dilemma:”

Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) refers to a learning procedure in which a potent stimulus (e.g. food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell). What Pavlov discovered is that when the neutral stimulus was introduced, the dogs would begin to salivate in anticipation of the potent stimulus, even though it was not currently present. This learning process results from the psychological “pairing” of the stimuli.”

That “stimuli” over the last decade has been Central Bank interventions. During that period, the complete lack of “fear” in markets, combined with a “chase for yield,” drove “risk” assets to record levels along with leverage. The chart below shows the relationship between margin debt (leverage), stocks, and junk bond yields (which have been inverted for better relevance.)

While asset prices declined sharply in March, it has done little to significantly revert either junk bond yields or margin debt to levels normally consistent with the beginning of a new “bull market.”

With oil prices falling below $20/bbl, a tremendous amount of debt tied to the energy space, and the impact the energy sector has on the broader economy, it is likely too soon to suggest the markets have fully “priced in” the damage being done.


Question:  What happens to asset prices if more bankruptcies and forced deleveraging occurs?


Corporate Profits/Earnings

As noted above, if the “bull market” is back, then stocks should be pricing in stronger earnings going forward. However, given the potential shakeout in employment, which will lower consumption, stronger earnings, and corporate profits, are not likely in the near term.

The risk to earnings is even higher than many suspect, given that over the last several years, companies have manufactured profitability through a variety of accounting gimmicks, but primarily through share buybacks from increased leverage. That cycle has now come to an end, but before it did it created a massive deviation of the stock market from corporate profitability.

“If the economy is slowing down, revenue and corporate profit growth will decline also. However, it is this point which the ‘bulls’ should be paying attention to. Many are dismissing currently high valuations under the guise of ‘low interest rates,’ however, the one thing you should not dismiss, and cannot make an excuse for, is the massive deviation between the market and corporate profits after tax. The only other time in history the difference was this great was in 1999.”

It isn’t just the deviation of asset prices from corporate profitability, which is skewed, but also reported earnings per share.

The impending recession, and consumption freeze, is going to start the mean-reversion process in both corporate profits, and earnings. I have projected the potential reversion in the chart below. The reversion in GAAP earnings is pretty calculable as swings from peaks to troughs have run on a fairly consistent trend.

Using that historical context, we can project a recession will reduce earnings to roughly $100/share. (Goldman Sachs currently estimates $110.) The resulting decline asset prices to revert valuations to a level of 18x (still high) trailing earnings would suggest a level of 1800 for the S&P 500 index. (Yesterday’s close of 2626 is still way to elevated.)

The decline in economic growth epitomizes the problem that corporations face today in trying to maintain profitability. The chart below shows corporate profits as a percentage of GDP relative to the annual change in GDP. The last time that corporate profits diverged from GDP, it was unable to sustain that divergence for long. As the economy declines, so will corporate profits and earnings.


Question: How long can asset prices remain divorced from falling corporate profits and weaker economic growth?


Technical Pressure

Given all of the issues discussed above, which must ultimately be reflected in market prices, the technical picture of the market also suggests the recent “bear market” rally will likely fade sooner than later. As noted above”

Such an advance will ‘lure’ investors back into the market, thinking the ‘bear market’ is over.”

Importantly, despite the sizable rally, participation has remained extraordinarily weak. If the market was seeing strong buying, as suggested by the media, then we should see sizable upticks in the percent measures of advancing issues, issues at new highs, and a rising number of stocks above their 200-dma.

However, on a longer-term basis, since this is the end of the month, and quarter, we can look at our quarterly buy/sell indication which has triggered a “sell” signal for the first time since 2015. While such a signal does not demand a major reversion, it does suggest there is likely more risk to the markets currently than many expect.


Question:  Does the technical backdrop currently support the resumption of a bull market?


There are reasons to be optimistic on the markets in the very short-term. However, we are continuing to extend the amount of time the economy will be “shut down,” which will exacerbate the decline in the unemployment and personal consumption data. The feedback loop from that data into corporate profits and earnings is going to make valuations more problematic even with low interest rates currently. 

While Central Banks have rushed into a “burning building with a fire hose” of liquidity, there is the risk that after a decade of excess debt, leverage, and misallocation of assets, the “fire” may be too hot for them to put out.

Assuming that the “bear market” is over already may be a bit premature, and chasing what seems like a “raging bull market” is likely going to disappoint you.

Bear markets have a way of “suckering” investors back into the market to inflict the most pain possible. This is why “bear markets” never end with optimism, but in despair.

Technically Speaking: Risk Limits Hit, When Too Little Is Too Much

For the last several months, we have been issuing repeated warnings about the market. While such comments are often mistaken for “being bearish,” we have often stated it is our process of managing “risk” which is most important.

Beginning in mid-January, we began taking profits out of our portfolios and reducing risk. To wit:

“On Friday, we began the orderly process of reducing exposure in our portfolios to take in profits, reduce portfolio risk, and raise cash levels.”

Importantly, we did not “sell everything” and go to cash.

Since then, we took profits and rebalanced risk again in late January and early February as well.

Our clients, their families, their financial and emotional “well being,” rest in our hands. We take that responsibility very seriously, and work closely with our clients to ensure that not only are they financially successful, but they are emotionally stable in the process.

This is, and has been, our biggest argument against “buy and hold,” and “passive investing.” While there are plenty of case studies showing why individuals will eventually get back to even, the vast majority of individuals have a “pain point,” where they will sell.

So, we approach portfolio management from a perspective of “risk management,” but not just in terms of “portfolio risk,” but “emotional risk” as well. By reducing our holdings to raise cash to protect capital, we can reduce the risk of our clients hitting that “threashold” where they potentially make very poor decisions.

In investing, the worst decisions are always made at the moment of the most pain. Either at the bottom of the market or near the peaks. 

Investing is not always easy. Our portfolios are designed to have longer-term holding periods, but we also understand that things do not always go as planned.

This is why we have limits, and when things go wrong, we sell.

So, why do I tell you this?

On Friday/Monday, our “limits” were breached, which required us to sell more.

Two Things

Two things have now happened, which signaled us to reduce risk further in portfolios.

On Sunday, the Federal Reserve dropped a monetary “nuclear bomb,” on the markets. My colleague Caroline Baum noted the details:

“After an emergency 50-basis-point rate cut on March 3, the Federal Reserve doubled down Sunday evening, lowering its benchmark rate by an additional 100 basis points to a range of 0%-0.25% following another emergency meeting.

After ramping up its $60 billion of monthly Treasury bill purchases to include Treasuries of all maturities and offering $1.5 trillion of liquidity to the market via repurchase agreements on March 3, the Fed doubled down Sunday evening with announced purchases of at least $500 billion of Treasuries and at least $200 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities.

In addition, the Fed reduced reserve requirements to zero, encouraged banks to borrow from its discount window at a rate of 0.25%, and, in coordination with five other central banks, lowered the price of U.S. dollar swap arrangements to facilitate dollar liquidity abroad”

We had been anticipating the Federal Reserve to try and rescue the markets, which is why we didn’t sell even more aggressively previously. The lesson investors have been taught repeatedly over the last decade was “Don’t Fight The Fed.”

One of the reasons we reduced our exposure in the prior days was out of concern the Fed’s actions wouldn’t be successful. 

On Monday, we found out the answer. The Fed may be fighting a battle it can’t win as markets not only failed to respond to the Fed’s monetary interventions but also broke the “bullish trend line” from the 2009 lows.  (While the markets are oversold short-term, the long-term “sell signals” in the bottom panels are just being triggered from fairly high levels. This suggests more difficulty near-term for stocks. 

This was the “Red Line” we laid out in our Special Report for our RIAPro Subscribers (Risk-Free 30-Day Trial) last week:

“As you can see in the chart below, this is a massive surge of liquidity, hitting the market at a time the market is testing important long-term trend support.”

It is now, or never, for the markets.

With our portfolios already at very reduced equity levels, the break of this trendline will take our portfolios to our lowest levels of exposure.

What happened today was an event we have been worried about, but didn’t expect to see until after a break of the trendline – “margin calls.” This is why we saw outsized selling in “safe assets” such as REITs, utilities, bonds, and gold.

Cash was the only safe place to hide.

We aren’t anxious to “fight the Fed,” but the markets may have a different view this time.

Use rallies to raise cash, and rebalance portfolio risk accordingly.

We are looking to be heavy buyers of equities when the market forms a bottom, we just aren’t there as of yet.”

On Monday morning, with that important trendline broken, we took some action.

  • Did we sell everything? No. We still own 10% equity, bonds, and a short S&P 500 hedge. 
  • Did we sell the bottom? Maybe.

We will only know in hindsight for certain, and we are not willing to risk more of our client’s capital currently. 

There are too many non-quantifiable risks with a global recession looming, as noted by David Rosenberg:

“The pandemic is a clear ‘black swan’ event. There will be a whole range of knock-on effects. Fully 40 million American workers, or one-third of the private-sector labor force, are directly affected ─ retail, entertainment, events, sports, theme parks, conferences, travel, tourism, restaurants and, of course, energy.

This doesn’t include all the multiplier effects on other industries. It would not surprise me at all if real GDP in Q2 contracts at something close to an 8% annual rate (matching what happened in the fourth quarter of 2008, which was a financial event alone).

The hit to GDP can be expected to be anywhere from $400 billion to $600 billion for the year. But the market was in trouble even before COVID-19 began to spread, with valuations and complacency at cycle highs and equity portfolio managers sitting with record-low cash buffers. Hence the forced selling in other asset classes.

If you haven’t made recession a base-case scenario, you probably should. All four pandemics of the past century coincided with recession. This won’t be any different. It’s tough to generate growth when we’re busy “social distancing.” I am amazed that the latest WSJ poll of economists conducted between March 6-10th showed only 49% seeing a recession coming”.

The importance of his commentary is that from an “investment standpoint,” we can not quantify whether this “economic shock” has been priced into equities as of yet. However, we can do some math based on currently available data:

The chart below is the annual change in nominal GDP, and S&P 500 GAAP earnings.

I am sure you will not be shocked to learn that during “recessions,” corporate “earnings’ tend to fall. Historically, the average drawdown of earnings is about 20%; however, since the 1990’s, those drawdowns have risen to about 30%.

As of March 13th, Standard & Poors has earnings estimates for the first quarter of 2020 at $139.20 / share. This is down just $0.20 from the fourth quarter of 2019 estimates of $139.53.

In other words, Wall Street estimates are still in “fantasy land.” 

If our, and Mr. Rosenberg’s, estimates are correct of a 5-8% recessionary drag in the second quarter of 2020, then an average reduction in earnings of 30% is most likely overly optimistic. 

However, here is the math:

  • Current Earnings = 132.90
  • 30% Reduction = $100 (rounding down for easier math)

At various P/E multiples, we can predict where “fair value” for the market is based on historical assumptions:

  • 20x earnings:  Historically high but markets have traded at high valuations for the last decade. 
  • 18x earnings: Still historically high.
  • 15x earnings: Long-Term Average
  • 13x earnings: Undervalued 
  • 10x earnings: Extremely undervalued but aligned with secular bear market bottoms.

You can pick your own level where you think P/E’s will account for the global recession but the chart below prices it into the market.

With the S&P 500 closing yesterday at 2386, this equates to downside risk of:

  • 20x Earnings = -16% (Total decline from peak = – 40%)
  • 18x Earnings = 24.5% (Total decline from peak = – 46%)
  • 15x Earnings = -37.1% (Total decline from peak = – 55%)
  • 13x Earnings = 45.5% (Total decline from peak = – 61%)
  • 10x Earnings = 58.0% (Total decline from peak = – 70%)

NOTE: I am not suggesting the market is about to decline 60-70% from the recent peak. I am simply laying out various multiples based on assumed risk to earnings. However, 15-18x earnings is extremely reasonable and possible. 

When Too Little Is Too Much

With our risk limits hit, and in order to protect our clients from both financial and emotional duress, we made the decision that even the reduced risk we were carrying was still too much.

One concern, which weighed heavily into our decision process, was the rising talk of the “closing the markets” entirely for a week or two to allow the panic to pass. We have clients that depend on liquidity from their accounts to sustain their retirement lifestyle. In our view, a closure of the markets would lead to two outcomes which pose a real risk to our clients:

  1. They need access to liquidity, and with markets closed are unable to “sell” and raise cash; and,
  2. When you trap investors in markets, when they do open again, there is a potential “rush” of sellers to get of the market to protect themselves. 

That risk, combined with the issue that major moves in markets are happening outside of transaction hours, are outside of our ability to hedge, or control.

This is what we consider to be an unacceptable risk for the time being.

We will likely miss the ultimate “bottom” of the market.

Probably.

But that’s okay, we have done our job of protecting our client’s second most precious asset behind their family, the capital they have to support them.

The good news is that a great “buying” opportunity is coming. Just don’t be in a “rush” to try and buy the bottom.

I can assure you, when we see ultimately see a clear “risk/reward” set up to start taking on equity risk again, we will do so “with both hands.” 

And we are sitting on a lot of cash just for that reason.Save

RIA PRO: Risk Limits Hit

For the last several months we have been issuing repeated warnings about the market. While such comments are often mistaken for “being bearish,” we have often stated it is our process of managing “risk” which is most important.

Beginning in mid-January, we began taking profits out of our portfolios and reducing risk. To wit:

“On Friday, we began the orderly process of reducing exposure in our portfolios to take in profits, reduce portfolio risk, and raise cash levels.”

Since then, as you know, we have taken profits, and rebalanced risk several times within the portfolios.

Importantly, we approach portfolio management from a perspective of “risk management,” but not just in terms of “portfolio risk,” but “emotional risk” as well. By reducing our holdings to raise cash to protect capital, we can reduce the risk of our clients hitting that “threshold” where they potentially make very poor decisions.

In investing, the worst decisions are always made at the moment of the most pain. Either at the bottom of the market or near the peaks. 

Investing is not always easy. Our portfolios are designed to have longer-term holding periods, but we also understand that things do not always go as planned.

This is why we have limits, and when things go wrong, we sell.

So, why do I tell you this?

On Friday/Monday, our “limits” were breached, which required us to sell more.

Two Things

Two things have now happened which signaled us to reduce risk further in portfolios.

On Sunday, the Federal Reserve dropped a monetary “nuclear bomb,” on the markets. My colleague Caroline Baum noted the details:

“After an emergency 50-basis-point rate cut on March 3, the Federal Reserve doubled down Sunday evening, lowering its benchmark rate by an additional 100 basis points to a range of 0%-0.25% following another emergency meeting.

After ramping up its $60 billion of monthly Treasury bill purchases to include Treasuries of all maturities and offering $1.5 trillion of liquidity to the market via repurchase agreements on March 3, the Fed doubled down Sunday evening with announced purchases of at least $500 billion of Treasuries and at least $200 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities.

In addition, the Fed reduced reserve requirements to zero, encouraged banks to borrow from its discount window at a rate of 0.25%, and, in coordination with five other central banks, lowered the price of U.S. dollar swap arrangements to facilitate dollar liquidity abroad”

We had been anticipating the Federal Reserve to try and rescue the markets, which is why we didn’t sell even more aggressively previously. The lesson investors have been taught repeatedly over the last decade was “Don’t Fight The Fed.”

One of the reasons we reduced our exposure in the prior days was out of concern we didn’t know if the Fed’s actions would be successful. 

On Monday, we found out the answer. The Fed may be fighting a battle it can’t win as markets not only failed to respond to the Fed’s monetary interventions, but also broke the “bullish trend line” from the 2009 lows.  (While the markets are oversold short-term, the long-term “sell signals” in the bottom panels are just being triggered from fairly high levels. This suggests more difficulty near-term for stocks. 

This was the “Red Line” we laid out in our last week, in the Special Report Red Line In The Sand:

“As you can see in the chart below, this is a massive surge of liquidity hitting the market at a time the market is hitting important long-term trend support.”

It is now, or never, for the markets.

With our portfolios already at very reduced equity levels, the break of this trendline will take our portfolios to our lowest levels of exposure. However, given the extreme oversold condition, noted above, it is likely we are going to see a bounce, which we will use to reduce risk into.

What happened today was an event we have been worried about, but didn’t expect to see until after a break of the trendline – “margin calls.”

This is why we saw outsized selling in “safe assets” such as REITs, utilities, bonds, and gold.

Cash was the only safe place to hide.

This also explains why the market “failed to rally” when the Fed announced $500 billion today. There is another $500 billion coming tomorrow. We will see what happens.

We aren’t anxious to “fight the Fed,” but the markets may have a different view this time.

Use rallies to raise cash, and rebalance portfolio risk accordingly.

We are looking to be heavy buyers of equities when the market forms a bottom, we just aren’t there as of yet.”

On Monday morning, we took some action.

  • Did we sell everything? No. We still own 10% equity, bonds, and a short S&P 500 hedge. 
  • Did we sell the bottom? Maybe.

We will only know in hindsight for certain, and we are not willing to risk more of our client’s capital currently. 

There are too many non-quantifiable risks with a global recession looming, as noted by David Rosenberg:

“The pandemic is a clear ‘black swan’ event. There will be a whole range of knock-on effects. Fully 40 million American workers, or one-third of the private sector labor force, are directly affected ─ retail, entertainment, events, sports, theme parks, conferences, travel, tourism, restaurants and, of course, energy.

This doesn’t include all the multiplier effects on other industries. It would not surprise me at all if real GDP in Q2 contracts at something close to an 8% annual rate (matching what happened in the fourth quarter of 2008 which was a financial event alone).

The hit to GDP can be expected to be anywhere from $400 billion to $600 billion for the year. But the market was in trouble even before COVID-19 began to spread, with valuations and complacency at cycle highs and equity portfolio managers sitting with record-low cash buffers. Hence the forced selling in other asset classes.

If you haven’t made recession a base-case scenario, you probably should. All four pandemics of the past century coincided with recession. This won’t be any different. It’s tough to generate growth when we’re busy “social distancing.” I am amazed that the latest WSJ poll of economists conducted between March 6-10th showed only 49% seeing a recession coming”.

The importance of his commentary is that from an “investment standpoint,” we can not quantify whether this “economic shock” has been priced into equities as of yet. However, we can do some math based on currently available data:

The chart below is annual nominal GDP, and S&P 500 GAAP earnings.

I am sure you will not be shocked to learn that during “recessions,” corporate “earnings’ tend to fall. Historically, the average drawdown of earnings is about 20%, however, since the 1990’s, those drawdowns have risen to about 30%.

As of March 13th, Standard & Poors has earnings estimates for the first quarter of 2020 at $139.20/share. This is down just $0.20 from the fourth quarter of 2019 estimates of $139.53.

If our, and Mr. Rosenberg’s, estimates are correct of a 5-8% recessionary drag in the second quarter of 2020, then an average reduction in earnings of 30% is most likely overly optimistic. 

However, here is the math:

  • Current Earnings = 132.90
  • 30% Reduction = $100 (rounding down for easier math)

At various P/E multiples we can predict where “fair value” for the market is based on historical assumptions:

  • 20x earnings:  Historically high but markets have traded at high valuations for the last decade. 
  • 18x earnings: Still historically high.
  • 15x earnings: Long-Term Average
  • 13x earnings: Undervalued 
  • 10x earnings: Extremely undervalued but aligned with secular bear market bottoms.

You can pick your own level where you think P/E’s will account for the global recession but the chart below prices it into the market.

With the S&P 500 closing yesterday at 2386, this equates to downside risk of:

  • 20x Earnings = -16% (Total decline from peak = – 40%)
  • 18x Earnings = 24.5% (Total decline from peak = – 46%)
  • 15x Earnings = -37.1% (Total decline from peak = – 55%)
  • 13x Earnings = 45.5% (Total decline from peak = – 61%)
  • 10x Earnings = 58.0% (Total decline from peak = – 70%)

NOTE: I am not suggesting the market is about to decline 60-70% from the recent peak. I am simply laying out various multiples based on assumed risk to earnings. However, 15-18x earnings is extremely reasonable and possible. 

When Too Little Is Too Much

With our risk limits hit, and in order to protect our clients from both financial and emotional duress, we made the decision that even the reduced risk we were carrying was still too much.

One concern, which weighed heavily into our decision process, was the rising talk of the “closing the markets” entirely for a week or two to allow the panic to pass. We have clients that depend on liquidity from their accounts to sustain their retirement lifestyle. In our view, a closure of the markets would lead to two outcomes which pose a real risk to our clients:

  1. They need access to liquidity, and with markets closed are unable to “sell” and raise cash; and,
  2. When you trap investors in markets, when they do open again there is a potential “rush” of sellers to get of the market to protect themselves. 

That risk, combined with the issue that major moves in markets are happening outside of transaction hours, are outside of our ability to hedge, or control.

This is what we consider to be unacceptable risk for the time being.

We will likely miss the ultimate “bottom” of the market?

Probably.

But that’s okay, we have done our job of protecting our client’s second most precious asset behind their family, the capital they have to support them.

The good news is that a great “buying” opportunity is coming. Just don’t be in a “rush” to try and buy the bottom.

I can assure you that when we see ultimately see a clear “risk/reward” set up to start taking on equity risk again, we will do so “with both hands.” 

And we are sitting on a lot of cash just for that reason.Save

Technically Speaking: On The Cusp Of A Bear Market

“Tops are a process, and bottoms are an event”

Over the last couple of years, we have discussed the ongoing litany of issues that plagued the underbelly of the financial markets.

  1. The “corporate credit” markets are at risk of a wave of defaults.
  2. Earnings estimates for 2019 fell sharply, and 2020 estimates are now on the decline.
  3. Stock market targets for 2020 are still too high, along with 2021.
  4. Rising geopolitical tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, etc. 
  5. The effect of the tax cut legislation has disappeared as year-over-year comparisons are reverting back to normalized growth rates.
  6. Economic growth is slowing.
  7. Chinese economic data has weakened further.
  8. The impact of the “coronavirus,” and the shutdown of the global supply chain, will impact exports (which make up 40-50% of corporate profits) and economic growth.
  9. The collapse in oil prices is deflationary and can spark a wave of credit defaults in the energy complex.
  10. European growth, already weak, continues to weaken, and most of the EU will likely be in recession in the next 2-quarters.
  11. Valuations remain at expensive levels.
  12. Long-term technical signals have become negative. 
  13. The collapse in equity prices, and coronavirus fears, will weigh on consumer confidence.
  14. Rising loan delinquency rates.
  15. Auto sales are signaling economic stress.
  16. The yield curve is sending a clear message that something is wrong with the economy.
  17. Rising stress on the consumption side of the equation from retail sales and personal consumption.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

In that time, these issues have gone unaddressed, and worse dismissed, because of the ongoing interventions of Central Banks.

However, as we have stated many times in the past, there would eventually be an unexpected, exogenous event, or rather a “Black Swan,” which would “light the fuse” of a bear market reversion.

Over the last few weeks, the market was hit with not one, but two, “black swans” as the “coronavirus” shutdown the global supply chain, and Saudi Arabia pulled the plug on oil price support. Amazingly, we went from “no recession in sight”, to full-blown “recession fears,” in less than month.

“Given that U.S. exporters have already been under pressure from the impact of the “trade war,” the current outbreak could lead to further deterioration of exports to and from China, South Korea, and Japan. This is not inconsequential as exports make up about 40% of corporate profits in the U.S. With economic growth already struggling to maintain 2% growth currently, the virus could shave between 1-1.5% off that number. 

With our Economic Output Composite Indicator (EOCI) already at levels which has previously denoted recessions, the “timing” of the virus could have more serious consequences than currently expected by overzealous market investors.”

On The Cusp Of A Bear Market

Let me start by making a point.

“Bull and bear markets are NOT defined by a 20% move. They are defined by a change of direction in the trend of prices.” 

There was a point in history where a 20% move was significant enough to achieve that change in overall price trends. However, today that is no longer the case.

Bull and bear markets today are better defined as:

“During a bull market, prices trade above the long-term moving average. However, when the trend changes to a bear market prices trade below that moving average.”

This is shown in the chart below, which compares the market to the 75-week moving average. During “bullish trends,” the market tends to trade above the long-term moving average and below it during “bearish trends.”

In the last decade, there have been three previous occasions where the long-term moving average was violated but did not lead to a longer-term change in the trend.

  • The first was in 2011, as the U.S. was dealing with a potential debt-ceiling and threat of a downgrade of the U.S. debt rating. Then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke came to the rescue with the second round of quantitative easing (QE), which flooded the financial markets with liquidity.
  • The second came in late-2015 and early-2016 as the market dealt with a Federal Reserve, which had started lifting interest rates combined with the threat of the economic fallout from Britain leaving the European Union (Brexit). Given the U.S. Federal Reserve had already committed to hiking interest rates, and a process to begin unwinding their $4-Trillion balance sheet, the ECB stepped in with their own version of QE to pick up the slack.
  • The latest event was in December 2018 as the markets fell due to the Fed’s hiking of interest rates and reduction of their balance sheet. Of course, the decline was cut short by the Fed reversal of policy and subsequently, a reduction in interest rates and a re-expansion of their balance sheet.

Had it not been for these artificial influences, it is highly likely the markets would have experienced deeper corrections than what occurred.

On Monday, we have once again violated that long-term moving average. However, Central Banks globally have been mostly quiet. Yes, there have been promises of support, but as of yet, there have not been any substantive actions.

However, the good news is that the bullish trend support of the 3-Year moving average (orange line) remains intact for now. That line is the “last line of defense” of the bull market. The only two periods where that moving average was breached was during the “Dot.com Crash” and the “Financial Crisis.”

(One important note is that the “monthly sell trigger,” (lower panel) was initiated at the end of February which suggested there was more downside risk at the time.)

None of this should have been surprising, as I have written previously, prices can only move so far in one direction before the laws of physics take over. To wit”

Like a rubber band that has been stretched too far – it must be relaxed before it can be stretched again. This is exactly the same for stock prices that are anchored to their moving averages. Trends that get overextended in one direction, or another, always return to their long-term average. Even during a strong uptrend or strong downtrend, prices often move back (revert) to a long-term moving average.”

With the markets previously more than 20% of their long-term mean, the correction was inevitable, it just lacked the right catalyst.

The difference between a “bull market” and a “bear market” is when the deviations begin to occur BELOW the long-term moving average on a consistent basis. With the market already trading below the 75-week moving average, a failure to recover in a fairly short period, will most likely facilitate a break below the 3-year average.

If that occurs, the “bear market” will be official and will require substantially lower levels of equity risk exposure in portfolios until a reversal occurs.

Currently, it is still too early to know for sure whether this is just a “correction” or a “change in the trend” of the market. As I noted previously, there are substantial differences, which suggest a more cautious outlook. To wit:

  • Downside Risk Dwarfs Upside Reward. 
  • Global Growth Is Less Synchronized
  • Market Structure Is One-Sided and Worrisome. 
  • COVID-19 Impacts To The Global Supply Chain Are Intensifying
  • Any Semblance of Fiscal Responsibility Has Been Thrown Out the Window
  • Peak Buybacks
  • China, Europe, and the Emerging Market Economic Data All Signal a Slowdown
  • The Democrats Control The House Which Effectively Nullifies Fiscal Policy Agenda.
  • The Leadership Of The Market (FAANG) Has Faltered.

Most importantly, the collapse in interest rates, as well as the annual rate of change in rates, is screaming that something “has broken,” economically speaking.

Here is the important point.

Understanding that a change is occurring, and reacting to it, is what is important. The reason so many investors “get trapped” in bear markets is that by the time they realize what is happening, it has been far too late to do anything about it.

Let me leave you with some important points from the legendary Marty Zweig: (h/t Doug Kass.)

  • Patience is one of the most valuable attributes in investing.
  • Big money is made in the stock market by being on the right side of the major moves. The idea is to get in harmony with the market. It’s suicidal to fight trends. They have a higher probability of continuing than not.
  • Success means making profits and avoiding losses.
  • Monetary conditions exert an enormous influence on stock prices. Indeed, the monetary climate – primarily the trend in interest rates and Federal Reserve policy – is the dominant factor in determining the stock market’s major decision.
  • The trend is your friend.
  • The problem with most people who play the market is that they are not flexible.
  • Near the top of the market, investors are extraordinarily optimistic because they’ve seen mostly higher prices for a year or two. The sell-offs witnessed during that span were usually brief. Even when they were severe, the market bounced back quickly and always rose to loftier levels. At the top, optimism is king; speculation is running wild, stocks carry high price/earnings ratios, and liquidity has evaporated. 
  • I measure what’s going on, and I adapt to it. I try to get my ego out of the way. The market is smarter than I am, so I bend.
  • To me, the “tape” is the final arbiter of any investment decision. I have a cardinal rule: Never fight the tape!
  • The idea is to buy when the probability is greatest that the market is going to advance.

Most importantly, and something that is most applicable to the current market:

“It’s okay to be wrong; it’s just unforgivable to stay wrong.” – Marty Zweig

There action this year is very reminiscent of previous market topping processes. Tops are hard to identify during the process as “change happens slowly.” The mainstream media, economists, and Wall Street will dismiss pickup in volatility as simply a corrective process. But when the topping process completes, it will seem as if the change occurred “all at once.”

The same media which told you “not to worry,” will now tell you, “no one could have seen it coming.”

The market may be telling you something important, if you will only listen.

Save

Technically Speaking: Sellable Rally, Or The Return Of The Bull?

Normally, “Technically Speaking,” is analysis based on Monday’s market action. However, this week, we are UPDATING the analysis posted in this past weekend’s newsletter, “Market Crash & Navigating What Happens Next.”

Specifically, we broke down the market into three specific time frames looking at the short, intermediate, and long-term technical backdrop of the markets. In that analysis, we laid out the premise for a “reflexive bounce” in the markets, and what to do during the process of that move. To wit:

“On a daily basis, the market is back to a level of oversold (top panel) rarely seen from a historical perspective. Furthermore, the rapid decline this week took the markets 5-standard deviations below the 50-dma.”

Chart updated through Monday

“To put this into some perspective, prices tend to exist within a 2-standard deviation range above and below the 50-dma. The top or bottom of that range constitutes 95.45% of ALL POSSIBLE price movements within a given period.

A 5-standard deviation event equates to 99.9999% of all potential price movement in a given direction. 

This is the equivalent of taking a rubber band and stretching it to its absolute maximum.”

Importantly, like a rubber band, this suggests the market “snap back” could be fairly substantial, and should be used to reduce equity risk, raise cash, and add hedges.”

Importantly, read that last sentence again.

The current belief is that the “virus” is limited in scope and once the spread is contained, the markets will immediately bounce back in a “V-shaped” recovery.  Much of this analysis is based on assumptions that “COVID-19” is like “SARS” in 2003 which had a very limited impact on the markets.

However, this is likely a mistake as there is one very important difference between COVID-19 and SARS, as I noted previously:

“Currently, the more prominent comparison is how the market performed following the ‘SARS’ outbreak in 2003, as it also was a member of the ‘corona virus’ family. Clearly, if you just remained invested, there was a quick recovery from the market impact, and the bull market resumed. At least it seems that way.”

“While the chart is not intentionally deceiving, it hides a very important fact about the market decline and the potential impact of the SARS virus. Let’s expand the time frame of the chart to get a better understanding.”

“Following a nearly 50% decline in asset prices, a mean-reversion in valuations, and an economic recession ending, the impact of the SARS virus was negligible given the bulk of the ‘risk’ was already removed from asset prices and economic growth. Today’s economic environment could not be more opposed.”

This was also a point noted by the WSJ on Monday:

Unlike today, the S&P 500 ETF (SPY) spent about a year below its 200-day moving average (dot-com crash) prior to the SARS 2003 outbreak. Price action is much different now. SPY was well above its 200-day moving average before the coronavirus outbreak, leaving plenty of room for profit-taking.”

Importantly, the concern we have in the intermediate-term is not “people getting sick.” We currently have the “flu” in the U.S. which, according to the CDC, has affected 32-45 MILLION people which has already resulted in 18-46,000 deaths.

Clearly, the “flu” is a much bigger problem than COVID-19 in terms of the number of people getting sick. The difference, however, is that during “flu season,” we don’t shut down airports, shipping, manufacturing, schools, etc. The negative impact to exports and imports, business investment, and potentially consumer spending, which are all direct inputs into the GDP calculation, is going to be reflected in corporate earnings and profits. 

The recent slide, not withstanding the “reflexive bounce” on Monday, was beginning the process of pricing in negative earnings growth through the end of 2020.

More importantly, the earnings estimates have not be ratcheted down yet to account for the impact of the “shutdown” to the global supply chain. Once we adjust (dotted blue line) for the a negative earnings environment in 2020, with a recovery in 2021, you can see just how far estimates will slide over the coming months. This will put downward pressure on stocks over the course of this year.

Given this backdrop of weaker earnings, which will be derived from weaker economic growth, in the months to come is why we suspect we could well see this year play out much like 2015-2016. In 2015, the Fed was beginning to discuss tapering their balance sheet which initially led to a decline. Given there was still plenty of liquidity, the market rallied back before “Brexit” risk entered the picture. The market plunged on expectations for a negative economic impact, but sprung back after Janet Yellen coordinated with the BOE, and ECB, to launch QE in the Eurozone.

Using that model for a reflexive rally, we will likely see a failed rally, and a retest of last weeks lows, or potentially even set new lows, as economic and earnings risks are factored in. 

Rally To Sell

As expected, the market rallied hard on Monday on hopes the Federal Reserve, and Central Banks globally, will intervene with a “shot of liquidity” to cure the market’s “COVID-19” infection.

The good news is the rally yesterday did clear initial resistance at the 200-dma which keeps that important break of support from being confirmed. This clears the way for the market to rally back into the initial “sell zone” we laid out this past weekend.

Importantly, while the volume of the rally on Monday was not as large as Friday’s sell-off, it was a very strong day nonetheless and confirmed the conviction of buyers. With the markets clearing the 200-dma, and still oversold on multiple levels, there is a high probability the market will rally into our “sell zone” before failing.

For now look for rallies to be “sold.”

The End Of The Bull

I want to reprint the last part of this weekend’s newsletter as the any rally that occurs over the next couple of weeks will NOT reverse the current market dynamics.

“The most important WARNING is the negative divergence in relative strength (top panel).  This negative divergence was seen at every important market correction event over the last 25-years.”

“As shown in the bottom two panels, both of the monthly ‘buy’ signals are very close to reversing. It will take a breakout to ‘all-time highs’ at this point to keep those signals from triggering.

For longer-term investors, people close to, or in, retirement, or for individuals who don’t pay close attention to the markets or their investments, this is NOT a buying opportunity.

Let me be clear.

There is currently EVERY indication given the speed and magnitude of the decline, that any short-term reflexive bounce will likely fail. Such a failure will lead to a retest of the recent lows, or worse, the beginning of a bear market brought on by a recession.

Please read that last sentence again. 

Bulls Still In Charge

The purpose of the analysis above is to provide you with the information to make educated guesses about the “probabilities” versus the “possibilities” of what could occur in the markets over the weeks, and months, ahead.

It is absolutely “possible” the markets could find a reason to rally back to all-time highs and continue the bullish trend. (For us, such would be the easiest and best outcome.) Currently, the good news for the bulls, is the bullish trend line from the 2015 lows held. However, weekly “sell signals” are close to triggering, which does increase short-term risks.

With the seasonally strong period of the market coming to its inevitable conclusion, economic and earnings data under pressure, and the virus yet to be contained, it is likely a good idea to use the current rally to rebalance portfolio risk and adjust allocations accordingly.

As I stated in mid-January, and again in early February, we reduced exposure in portfolios by raising cash and rebalancing portfolios back to target weightings. We had also added interest rate sensitive hedges to portfolios, and removed all of our international and emerging market exposures.

We will be using this rally to remove basic materials and industrials, which are susceptible to supply shocks, and financials which will be impacted by an economic slowdown/recession which will likely trigger rising defaults in the credit market.

Here are the guidelines we recommend for adjusting your portfolio risk:

Step 1) Clean Up Your Portfolio

  1. Tighten up stop-loss levels to current support levels for each position.
  2. Take profits in positions that have been big winners
  3. Sell laggards and losers
  4. Raise cash and rebalance portfolios to target weightings.

Step 2) Compare Your Portfolio Allocation To Your Model Allocation.

  1. Determine areas requiring new or increased exposure.
  2. Determine how many shares need to be purchased to fill allocation requirements.
  3. Determine cash requirements to make purchases.
  4. Re-examine portfolio to rebalance and raise sufficient cash for requirements.
  5. Determine entry price levels for each new position.
  6. Determine “stop loss” levels for each position.
  7. Determine “sell/profit taking” levels for each position.

(Note: the primary rule of investing that should NEVER be broken is: “Never invest money without knowing where you are going to sell if you are wrong, and if you are right.”)

Step 3) Have positions ready to execute accordingly given the proper market set up. In this case, we are adjusting exposure to areas we like now, and using the rally to reduce/remove the sectors we do not want exposure too.

Stay alert, things are finally getting interesting.

Save

Retired Or Retiring Soon? Yes, Worry About A Correction

When I was growing up, my father used to tell me I should “never take advice from anyone who hasn’t succeeded at what they are advising.” 

The most truth of that statement is found in the financial press, which consists mostly of people writing articles and giving advice on topics where they have little experience, and in general, have achieved no success.

The best example came last week in an email quoting:

“You recently suggested that you took profits from your portfolios; however, I read an article saying retirees shouldn’t change their strategies. ‘If you’ve got a thoughtful financial plan and a diversified investment portfolio, the general rule is to leave everything alone.'” 

This seems to be an entirely different approach to what you are suggesting. Also, since corrections can’t be predicted, it seems to make sense.” 

One of the biggest reasons why investors consistently underperform over the long-term is due to flawed investment advice.

Let me explain.

Corrections & Bear Markets Matter

It certainly seems logical, by looking the 120-year chart of the market, that one should just stay invested regardless of what happens. Eventually, as the financial media often suggests, the markets always get back to even. One such chart is the percentage gain/loss chart over the long-term, as shown below.

This is one of the most deceptive charts an advisor can show a client, particularly one that is close to, or worse in, retirement.

The reality is that you DIED long before ever achieving that 8% annualized long-term return you were promised. Secondly, math is a cruel teacher.

Visually, percentage drawdowns seem to be inconsequential relative to the massive percentage gains that preceded them. That is, until you convert percentages into points and reveal an uglier truth.

It is important to remember that a 100% gain on a $1000 investment, followed by a 50% loss, does not leave you with $1500. A 50% loss wipes out the previous 100% gain, leaving you with a 0% net return.

For retirees, this is a critically important point.

In 2000, the average “baby boomer” was around 45-years of age. The “dot.com” crash was painful, but with 20-years to go before retirement, there was time to recover. In 2010, following the financial crisis, the time to retirement for the oldest boomers was depleted, and the average boomer only had 10-years to recover. During both of these previous periods, portfolios were still in accumulation mode. However, today, only the youngest tranche of “boomers,” have the luxury of “time” to work through the next major market reversion. (This also explains why the share of workers over the age of 65 is at historical highs.) 

With the majority of “boomers” now faced with the implications of a transition into the distribution phase of the investment cycle, such has important ramifications during market declines. The following example shows a $1 million portfolio with, and without, an annualized 4% withdrawal rate. (We are going into much deeper analysis on this in a moment.)

While a 10% decline in the market will reduce a portfolio from $1 million to $900,000, when combined with an assumed monthly withdrawal rate, the portfolio value is reduced by almost 14%. This is the result of taking distributions during a period of declining market values. Importantly, while it ONLY requires a non-withdrawal portfolio an 11.1% return to break even, it requires nearly a 20% return for a portfolio in the distribution phase to attain the same level.

Impairments to capital are the biggest challenges facing pre- and post-retirees currently. 

This is an important distinction. Most articles written about retirees, or those ready to retire, is an unrealized assumption of an indefinite timeline.

While the market may not be different than it has been in the past. YOU ARE!

Starting Valuations Matter

As I have discussed previously, without understanding the importance of starting valuations on your investment returns, you can’t understand the impact the market will have on psychology, and investor behavior.

Over any 30-year period, beginning valuation levels have a tremendous impact on future returns.

As valuations rise, future rates of annualized returns fall. This should not be a surprise as simple logic states that if you overpay for an asset today, the future returns must, and will, be lower.

This is far less than the 8-10% rates of return currently promised by the Wall Street community. It is also why starting valuations are critical for individuals to understand when planning for both the accumulation and distribution, phases of the investment life-cycle.

Let’s elaborate on our example above.

We know that markets go up and down over time, therefore when advisors use “average” or “annualized” rates of return, results often deviate far from reality. However, we do know from historical analysis that valuations drive forward returns, so using historical data, we calculated the 4-periods where starting valuations were either above 20x earnings, or below 10x earnings. We then ran a $1000 investment going forward for 30-years on a total-return, inflation-adjusted, basis. 

The results were not surprising.

At 10x earnings, the worst performing period started in 1918 and only saw $1000 grow to a bit more than $6000. The best performing period was actually not the screaming bull market that started in 1980 because the last 10-years of that particular cycle caught the “dot.com” crash. It was the post-WWII bull market that ran from 1942 through 1972 that was the winner. Of course, the crash of 1974, just two years later, extracted a good bit of those returns.

Conversely, at 20x earnings, the best performing period started in 1900, which caught the rise of the market to its peak in 1929. Unfortunately, the next 4-years wiped out roughly 85% of those gains. However, outside of that one period, all of the other periods fared worse than investing at lower valuations. (Note: 1993 is still currently running as its 30-year period will end in 2023.)

The point to be made here is simple and was precisely summed up by Warren Buffett:

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” 

To create our variable return assumption model, we averaged each of the 4-periods above into a single total return, inflation-adjusted, index. We could then see the impact of $1000 invested in the markets at both valuations BELOW 10x trailing earnings, and ABOVE 20x. Investing at 10x earnings yields substantially better results.

Starting Valuations Are Critical To Withdrawal Rates

With a more realistic return model, the impact of investing during periods of high valuations becomes more evident, particularly during the withdrawal phase of retirement.

Let’s start with our $1 million retirement portfolio. The chart below shows various “spend down” assumptions of a $1 million retirement portfolio adjusted for an 8% annualized return, the impact of inflation at 3%, and the effect of taxation on withdrawals.

By adjusting the annualized rate of return for the impact of inflation and taxes, the life expectancy of a portfolio grows considerably shorter. Unfortunately, this is what “really happens” to investors over time, but is never discussed in mainstream analysis.

To understand “real outcomes,” we must adjust for variable rates of returns. There is a significant difference between 8% annualized rates of return and 8% real rates of return. 

When we adjust the spend down structure for elevated starting valuation levels, and include inflation and taxes, a far different, and less favorable, outcome emerges. Retirees will run out of money not in year 30, but in year 18.

With this understanding, let’s revisit what happens to “buy and hold” investors over time. The chart below shows $3000 invested annually into the S&P 500 inflation-adjusted, total return index at 10% compounded annually, and both 10x and 20x valuation starting levels. I have also shown $3000 saved annually and “stuffed in a mattress.”

The red line is 10% compounded annually. While you don’t get compounded returns, it is there for comparative purposes to the real returns received over the 30-year investment horizon starting at 10x and 20x valuation levels. The shortfall between the promised 10% annual rates of return and actual returns are shown in the two shaded areas. In other words, if you are banking on some advisor’s promise of 10% annual returns for retirement, you aren’t going to make it.

Questions Retirees Need To Ask About Plans

What this analysis reveals is that “retirees” SHOULD be worried about bear markets. 

Taking the correct view of your portfolio, and the risks being undertaken is critical when entering the retirement and distribution phase of the portfolio life cycle.

Most importantly, when building and/or reviewing your financial plan, these are the questions you must ask and have concrete answers for:

  • What are the expectations for future returns going forward given current valuation levels? 
  • Should the withdrawal rates be downwardly adjusted to account for potentially lower future returns? 
  • Given a decade long bull market, have adjustments been made for potentially front-loaded negative returns? 
  • Has the impact of taxation been carefully considered in the planned withdrawal rate?
  • Have future inflation expectations been carefully considered?
  • Have drawdowns from portfolios during declining market environments, which accelerates principal bleed, been considered?
  • Have plans been made to harbor capital during up years to allow for reduced portfolio withdrawals during adverse market conditions?
  • Has the yield chase over the last decade, and low interest rate environment, which has created an extremely risky environment for retirement income planning, been carefully considered?
  • What steps should be considered to reduce potential credit and duration risk in bond portfolios?
  • Have expectations for compounded annual rates of returns been dismissed in lieu of a plan for variable rates of future returns?

 If the answer is “no” to the majority of these questions. then feel free to contact one of the CFP’s in our office who take all of these issues into account. 

Yes, not only should you worry about bear markets, you should worry about them a lot.

7-Difficult Trading Rules To Follow In Bull Markets

As we wrap up the last two-trading days of the decade, I am wrapping up the recent series on “investing rules” (see here and here). The purpose of this series is to remind investors of the importance of having an investment discipline to protect investment capital when market volatility eventually comes.

I know…I know…volatility seems to be a thing of the past, particularly given the amount of exuberance currently embedded in the markets. This was a point I made in the most recent newsletter:

I have written many articles previously on investing, portfolio and risk management, and the fallacy of long-term “average” rates of returns. Unfortunately, few heed these warnings until it is generally far too late.

The biggest problems facing investors over the long-term are falling prey to the various psychological behaviors which impede our investing success. From herding to recency bias, to the “gambler’s fallacy,” these behaviors create critical errors in our portfolio management process, which ultimately leads to the destruction of our investment capital.

As I have addressed many times previously, the major problem is the loss of “time” to achieve your investment goals. When a major correction occurs in the financial markets, which occur quite frequently, getting back to even is NOT the real problem. While capital can be recovered following a destructive event, the time to reach your investment goals is permanently lost. 

The problem is that most mainstream commentators continue to suggest that “you can not manage” your money. If you sell, then you are going to “miss out” on some level of the bull market advance. The problem is they fail to tell you what happens when you lose a large chunk of your capital by chasing the bull market to its inevitable conclusion. (See “Math Of Loss”)

While investing money is easy, it is the management of the inherent “risks” that are critical to your long-term success. This is why every great investor in history is defined by the methods which dictate both the “buy”, but most importantly, “the sell” process.

The difference between a successful long term investor, and an unsuccessful one, comes down to following very simple rules. Yes, I said simple rules, and they are; but they are incredibly difficult to follow in the midst of a bull market. Why? Because of the simple fact that they require you to do the exact OPPOSITE of what your basic human emotions tell you to do:

  • Buy stuff when it is being liquidated by everyone else, and;
  • Sell stuff when it is going to the moon.


The 7 Impossible Trading Rules To Follow:

Here are the rules – they are not unique or new. They are time tested, and successful investor, approved. If you follow them you succeed – if you don’t, you won’t.

1) Sell Losers Short: Let Winners Run:

It seems like a simple thing to do, but when it comes down to it the average investor sells their winners and keeps their losers hoping they will come back to even.

2) Buy Cheap And Sell Expensive: 

You haggle, negotiate, and shop extensively for the best deals on cars and flat-screen televisions. However, you will pay any price for a stock because someone on TV told you too. Insist on making investments when you are getting a “good deal” on it. If it isn’t – it isn’t, don’t try and come up with an excuse to justify overpaying for an investment. In the long run, overpaying will end in misery.

3) This Time Is Never Different:

As much as our emotions, and psychological makeup, want to always hope for the best; this time is never different than the past. History may not repeat exactly, but it often rhymes extremely well.

4) Be Patient:

As with item number 2; there is never a rush to make an investment, and there is NOTHING WRONG with sitting on cash until a good deal, a real bargain, comes along. Being patient is not only a virtue, it is a good way to keep yourself out of trouble.

5) Turn Off The Television: 

Any good investment is NEVER dictated by day to day movements of the market, which are nothing more than noise. If you have done your homework, made a good investment at a good price, and have confirmed your analysis to be correct; then the day to day market actions will have little, if any, bearing on the longer-term success of your investment. The only thing you achieve by watching the television is increasing your blood pressure.

6) Risk Is Not Equal To Your Return: 

Taking RISK in an investment, or strategy, is not equivalent to how much money you will make. It only equates to the permanent loss of capital which will be incurred when you are wrong. Invest conservatively, and grow your money over time with the LEAST amount of risk possible.

7) Go Against The Herd: 

The populous is generally “right” in the middle of a move up in the markets, but they are seldom correct at major turning points. When everyone agrees on the direction of the market due to any given set of reasons, generally something else happens. However, this also cedes to points 2) and 4); in order to buy something cheap or sell something at the best price, you are generally buying when everyone is selling, and selling when everyone else is buying.

These are the rules. They are simple and impossible to follow for most. However, if you can incorporate them you will succeed in your investment goals over the long run. You most likely WILL NOT outperform the markets on the way up, but you will not lose as much on the way down. This is important because it is much easier to replace a lost opportunity in investing. It is impossible to replace lost “time.”

As an investor, it is simply your job to step away from your “emotions” for a moment, and look objectively at the market around you. Is it currently dominated by “greed” or “fear?” Your long-term returns will depend greatly not only on how you answer that question, but how you manage the inherent risk.

“The investor’s chief problem – and even his worst enemy – is likely to be himself.” – Benjamin Graham

Democrats Stop Worrying & Learn To Love Deficits

I was stunned by a recent article from Marshall Auerback via The Nation entitled “Why Democrats Need To Stop Worrying And Love The Deficit.”

“Delivering on big progressive ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal will never happen until Democrats get over their fear of red ink.”

While the article is long, winding, and a convoluted mess of ideas, the following is the all you really need to read:

The perceived problem:

“In an environment increasingly characterized by slowing global economic growth, businesses are understandably hesitant to invest in a way that creates high-quality, high-paying jobs for the bulk of the domestic workforce. The much-vaunted Trump corporate “tax reform” may have been sold to the American public on that basis, but corporations have largely used their tax cut bonanza to engage in share buybacks, which fatten executive compensation but have done nothing for the rest of us. At the same time, private households still face constraints on their consumption because of stagnant wages, rising health care costs, declining job security, poorer employment benefits, and rising debt levels.

Instead of solving these problems, the reliance on extraordinary monetary policy from the Federal Reserve via programs such as quantitative easing has exacerbated them. In contrast to properly targeted fiscal spending, the Federal Reserve’s misguided monetary policies have fueled additional financial speculation and asset inflation in stock markets and real estate, which has made housing even less affordable for the average American.”

The Non-Solution

According to Mr.  Auerback is the solution is simple:

“Democrats should embrace the ‘extremist’ spirit of Goldwater and eschew fiscal timidity (which, in any case, is based on faulty economics). After all, Republicans do it when it suits their legislative agenda. Likewise, Democrats should go big with deficits—as long as they are used for the transformative programs that progressives have long talked about and now have the chance to deliver.”

This is essentially the adoption of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which, as discussed previously, is the assumption debt and deficits “don’t matter,” as long as there is no inflation.

“Modern Monetary Theory is a macroeconomic theory that contends that a country that operates with a sovereign currency has a degree of freedom in their fiscal and monetary policy, which means government spending is never revenue constrained, but rather only limited by inflation.” – Kevin Muir

However, the solution isn’t really a solution.

Mr. Auerback suggests the Democrats should go big with deficits to fund the “transformative programs” they have long talked about. These programs are, as we know, socialistic from government-run healthcare to more social welfare, to free college.

The problem is that these progressive programs lack an essential component of what is required for “deficit” spending to be beneficial – a “return on investment.” 

This was a point addressed by Dr. Woody Brock previously in “American Gridlock;”

Country A spends $4 Trillion with receipts of $3 Trillion. This leaves Country A with a $1 Trillion deficit. In order to make up the difference between the spending and the income, the Treasury must issue $1 Trillion in new debt. That new debt is used to cover the excess expenditures but generates no income leaving a future hole that must be filled.

Country B spends $4 Trillion and receives $3 Trillion income. However, the $1 Trillion of excess, which was financed by debt, was invested into projects, infrastructure, that produced a positive rate of return. There is no deficit as the rate of return on the investment funds the “deficit” over time.

There is no disagreement about the need for government spending. The disagreement is with the abuse and waste of it.

John Maynard Keynes’ was correct in his theory that in order for government “deficit” spending to be effective, the “payback” from investments being made through debt must yield a higher rate of return than the debt used to fund it.

Currently, the U.S. is “Country A.” 

The programs that Mr. Auerback suggests the Democrats pursue with deficit spending, only exacerbate the current problem. According to the Center On Budget & Policy Priorities, roughly 75% of every current tax dollar goes to non-productive spending. (The same programs the Democrats are proposing.)

To make this clearer, in 2018, the Federal Government spent $4.48 Trillion, which was equivalent to 22% of the nation’s entire nominal GDP. Of that total spending, ONLY $3.5 Trillion was financed by Federal revenues, and $986 billion was financed through debt.

In other words, if 75% of all expenditures go to social welfare and interest on the debt, those payments required $3.36 Trillion of the $3.5 Trillion (or 96%) of the total revenue coming in. 

Currently, because of corporate tax cuts, a slowing economic environment, and weak wage growth, tax revenues have declined as federal expenditures have surged.

The result of unbridled fiscal largesse is a surging deficit that must be met by growing debt issuance.

Debt Begets Debt

There used to be an actual debate between “Austerity” and “Spending.” Conservatives in Government used to at least talk a “good game” about cutting spending, budgeting, and debt reduction. Now, that is no longer the case as during the past several Administrations, both “conservative” and “liberal” have opted for more “fiscal largesse.”

The irony is that increases in debt only lead to further increases in debt as economic growth must be funded with further debt. As this money is used for servicing debt, entitlements, and welfare, instead of productive endeavors, there is no question that high debt-to-GDP ratios reduce economic prosperity over time. In turn, the Government tries to fix the “economic problem” by adding on more “debt.” The Lowest Common Denominator provides more information on the accumulation of debt and its consequences.

Another way to view the impact of debt on the economy is to look at what “debt-free” economic growth would be. In other words, without debt, there has been no organic economic growth.

For the 30-year period, from 1952 to 1982, the economic surplus fostered a rising economic growth rate which averaged roughly 8% during that period. Today, with the economy expected to grow at just 2% over the long-term, the economic deficit has never been greater. If you subtract the debt, there has not been any organic economic growth since 1990. 

What is indisputable is that running ongoing budget deficits that fund unproductive growth is not economically sustainable long-term.

Whistling Past The Graveyard

Let me be clear.

As Dr. Brock notes, deficit spending can be beneficial when the debt is used in a productive manner. The U.S. has the labor, resources, and capital for a resurgence of a “Marshall Plan” which could foster the development of infrastructure with high rates of return on each dollar spent.

However, that isn’t what Mr. Auerback, the Democrats, are suggesting or offering. The Government has already delved into the MMT pool over the last 40-years spending trillions bailing out banks, boosting welfare support, supporting Wall Street, and reducing corporate tax rates, which all have a negative rate of return.

The results have been disappointing, and suggesting that more of the same will produce a different result is the precise definition of “insanity.” 

In the meantime, the aging of the population continues to exacerbate the underfunded problems of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which is roughly $70 trillion and growing. It is simply a function of demographics and math.

As Dr. Brock noted:

“Mathematics and Sex create performance anxiety in men – because you can’t fake the outcome of either.”

Two recent studies show the problem clearly.

Demographics is an easy problem to see and mathematically calculate. The ratio of workers per retiree, as retirees are living longer (increasing the relative number of retirees), and lower birth rates (decreasing the relative number of workers), present a massive headwind to economic solvency. 

The Institute for Family Studies, published a report showing the decline in the fertility ratio to the lowest levels since 1970,

With fertility rates low, the future “support-ratio” will continue to be a problem.

The second, and more immediate, problem is the vastly underfunded savings of the “baby boomer” generation heading into retirement. To wit:

” Anxiety over retirement and how to support oneself after calling it a career is impacting many Americans. A recent poll found that one in three adults has less than $5,000 in retirement savings.”

This is simple math.

Currently, 75.4 million Baby Boomers in America—about 26% of the U.S. population—have reached or will reach retirement age between 2011 and 2030. A vast majority of them are “under saved” and primarily unhealthy.

This combination ensures the demand on the health care system, along with Medicaid and Medicare, will increase at a rate faster than it can supply. Bankruptcy, without substantive changes, is inevitable.

Of course, it isn’t just the social welfare and healthcare system that is effectively “broken,” but the economic model itself.

The current path we are on is unsustainable. The remedies being applied today is akin to using aspirin to treat cancer. Sure, it may make you feel better for the moment, but it isn’t curing the problem.

Unfortunately, the actions being taken have been repeated throughout history as those elected into office are more concerned about satiating the mob with bread and games” rather than suffering the short-term pain for the long-term survivability of the empire.

In the end, every empire throughout history fell to its knees under the weight of debt and the debasement of their currency.

As Dr. Brock suggests – it is truly “American Gridlock” as the real crisis lies between the choices of “austerity” and continued government “largesse.”

One choice leads to long-term economic prosperity for all, the other doesn’t.

“Today we are borrowing our children’s future with debt. We are witnessing the ‘hosing’ of the young.”

“The Art Of The Deal” & How To Lose A “Trade War.”

This past Monday, on the #RealInvestmentShow, I discussed that it was exceedingly likely that Trump would delay, or remove, the tariffs which were slated to go into effect this Sunday, On Thursday, that is exactly what happened.

Not only did the tariffs get delayed, but on Friday, it was reported that China and the U.S. reached “Phase One” of the trade deal, which included “some” tariff relief and agricultural purchases. To wit:

“The U.S. plans to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods in phases, a priority for Beijing, Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen said. However, Wang did not detail when exactly the U.S. would roll back duties.

President Donald Trump later said his administration would cancel its next round of tariffs on Chinese goods set to take effect Sunday. In tweets, he added that the White House would leave 25% tariffs on $250 billion in imports in place, while cutting existing duties on another $120 billion in products to 7.5%.

China will also consider canceling retaliatory tariffs set for Dec. 15, according to Vice Finance Minister Liao Min. 

Beijing will increase agricultural purchases significantly, Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Han Jun said, though he did not specify by how much. Trump has insisted that China buy more American crops as part of a deal, and cheered the commitment in his tweets.”

Then from the USTR:

The United States will be maintaining 25 percent tariffs on approximately $250 billion of Chinese imports, along with 7.5 percent tariffs on approximately $120 billion of Chinese imports.”

Not surprisingly, the market initially rallied on the news, but then reality begin to set in.

Art Of The Deal Versus The Art Of War

Over the past 18-months we have written numerous articles about the ongoing “trade war,” which was started by Trump against China. As I wrote previously:

“This is all assuming Trump can actually succeed in a trade war with China. Let’s step back to the G-20 meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping. As I wrote then:

‘There is a tremendous amount of ‘hope’ currently built into the market for a ‘trade war truce’ this weekend. However, as we suggested previously, the most likely outcome was a truce…but no deal.  That is exactly what happened.

While the markets will likely react positively next week to the news that ‘talks will continue,’ the impact of existing tariffs from both the U.S. and China continue to weigh on domestic firms and consumers.

More importantly, while the continued ‘jawboning’ may keep ‘hope alive’ for investors temporarily, these two countries have been ‘talking’ for over a year with little real progress to show for it outside of superficial agreements.

Importantly, we have noted that Trump would eventually ‘cave’ into the pressure from the impact of the ‘trade war’ he started.

The reasons, which have been entirely overlooked by the media, is that China’s goals are very different from the U.S. To wit:

  1. China is playing a very long game. Short-term economic pain can be met with ever-increasing levels of government stimulus. The U.S. has no such mechanism currently, but explains why both Trump and Vice-President Pence have been suggesting the Fed restarts QE and cuts rates by 1%.
  2. The pressure is on the Trump Administration to conclude a “deal,” not on China. Trump needs a deal done before the 2020 election cycle AND he needs the markets and economy to be strong. If the markets and economy weaken because of tariffs, which are a tax on domestic consumers and corporate profits, as they did in 2018, the risk-off electoral losses rise. China knows this and are willing to “wait it out” to get a better deal.
  3. China is not going to jeopardize its 50 to 100-year economic growth plan on a current President who will be out of office within the next 4-years at most. It is unlikely as the next President will take the same hard-line approach on China that President Trump has, so agreeing to something that won’t be supported in the future is doubtful.”

As noted in the second point above, on Friday, Trump caved to get the “Trade Deal” off the table before the election. As noted in September, China had already maneuvered Trump into a losing position.

“China knows that Trump needs a way out of the “trade war” he started, but that he needs something he can “boast” as a victory to a largely economically ignorant voter base. Here is how a “trade deal” could get done.

Understanding that China has already agreed to 80% of demands for a trade deal, such as buying U.S. goods, opening markets to U.S. investors, and making policy improvements in certain areas, Trump could conclude that ‘deal’ at the October meeting.”

Read the highlighted text above and compare it to the statement from  the WSJ: on Thursday:

“The U.S. side has demanded Beijing make firm commitments to purchase large quantities of U.S. agricultural and other products, better protect U.S. intellectual-property rights and widen access to China’s financial-services sector.”

What is missing from the agreement was the most critical 20%:

  • Cutting the share of the state in the overall economy from 38% to 20%,
  • Implementing an enforcement check mechanism; and,
  • Technology transfer protections

These are the “big ticket” items that were the bulk of the reason Trump launched the “trade war” to begin with. Unfortunately, for China, these items are seen as an infringement on its sovereignty, and requires a complete abandonment the “Made in China 2025” industrial policy program.

The USTR did note that the Phase One deal:

“Requires structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, agriculture, financial services, and currency and foreign exchange.”

However, since there is no actual enforcement mechanism besides merely pushing tariffs back to where they were, none of this will be implemented.

All of this aligns with our previous suggestion the only viable pathway to a “trade deal” would be a full surrender.

“However, Trump can set aside the last 20%, drop tariffs, and keep market access open, in exchange for China signing off on the 80% of the deal they already agreed to.”

Which is precisely what Trump agreed to.

This Is The Only Deal

This is NOT a “Phase One” trade-deal.

This is a “Let’s get a deal on the easy stuff, call it a win, and go home,” deal.

It is the strategy we suggested was most likely:

“For Trump, he can spin a limited deal as a ‘win’ saying ‘China is caving to his tariffs’ and that he ‘will continue working to get the rest of the deal done.’ He will then quietly move on to another fight, which is the upcoming election, and never mention China again. His base will quickly forget the ‘trade war’ ever existed.

Kind of like that ‘Denuclearization deal’ with North Korea.”

Speaking of the “fantastic deal with N. Korea,” here is the latest on that failed negotiation:

“Reuters reported Thursday via Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that, even if denuclearization talks resumed between both countries, the Trump administration has nothing to offer.

North Korea’s foreign ministry criticized the Trump administration for meeting with officials at the UN Security Council and suggested that it would be ready to respond to any corresponding measures that Washington imposes. ‘The United States said about corresponding measure at the meeting, as we have said we have nothing to lose and we are ready to respond to any corresponding measure that the US chooses,’ said KCNA citing a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson.”

While Trump has announced he will begin to “immediately” work on “Phase Two,” any real agreement is highly unlikely. However, what Trump understands, is that he gets another several months of “tweeting” a “trade deal is coming” to keep asset markets buoyed to support his re-election campaign.

Not Really All That Amazing

While Trump claimed this was an “amazing deal” with China, and that America’s farmers need to get ready for a $50 billion surge in agricultural exports, neither is actually the case.

China did not agree to buy any specific amount of goods from the U.S. What they said was, according to Bloomberg, was:

  • CHINA PLANS TO IMPORT U.S. WHEAT, RICE, CORN WITHIN QUOTAS

Furthermore, there is speculation the agreement is primarily verbal in terms of purchases, and the actual agreement of the entire trade deal will never be made public.

But let’s put some hard numbers to this.

Currently, China is buying about $10 billion of farm produce in 2018. That is down from a peak of $25 billion in 2012, which was long before the trade war broke out.

Since the trade war was started, China has sourced deals from Brazil and Argentina for pork and soybeans to offset the shortfall in imports from the U.S. These agreements, and subsequent imports, won’t be cancelled to shift to the U.S. since at any moment Trump could reinstate tariffs.

More importantly, as noted by Zerohedge on Friday, if this “deal” was as amazing as claimed, the agricultural commodity index should be screaming higher.

Importantly, even if China agrees to double their exports in the coming year, which would be a realistic goal, it would only reset the trade table to where it was before the tariffs started.

While China may have “agreed” to buy more, it is extremely unlikely China will meet such levels. Given they have already sourced products from other countries, they will import what they require.

Since most don’t pay attention to the long-game, while there will be excitement over a short-term uptick in agricultural purchases, those purchases will fade. However, with time having passed, and the focus of the media now elsewhere, Trump will NOT go back to the table and restart the “trade war” again. As I wrote on May 24, 2018:

China has a long history of repeatedly reneging on promises it has made to past administrations. What the current administration fails to realize is that China is not operating from short-term political-cycle driven game plan.

As we stated in Art Of The Deal vs. The Art Of War:”

“While Trump is operating from a view that was a ghost-written, former best-seller, in the U.S. popular press, XI is operating from a centuries-old blueprint for victory in battle.”

Trump lost the “trade war,” he just doesn’t realize it, yet.

No More “Trade Tweets?”

Since early 2018, and more importantly since the December lows of last year, the market has risen on the back of continued “hopes” of Federal Reserve easing, and the conclusion of a “trade deal.”

With the Fed now signaling that they are effectively done lowering rates through next year, and President Trump concluding a “trade deal,” what will be the next driver of the markets. While will the “algo’s” do without daily “trade tweets” to push stock markets higher?

While I am a bit sarcastic, there is also a lot of truth to the statement.

However, what is important is that while the Trump administration are rolling back 50% of the tariffs, they are not “removing” all of them. This means there is still some drag being imposed by tariffs, just at a reduced level.

More importantly, the rollback of tariffs do not immediately undo the damage which has already occurred.

  • Economic growth has weakened globally
  • Corporate profit growth has turned negative.
  • Tax cuts are fully absorbed into the economy
  • The “repo” market is suggesting that something is “broken.”
  • All of which is leading to rising recession risk.

In other words, while investors have hung their portfolios hopes of a “trade deal,” it may well be too little, too late.

Over the next couple of months, we will be able to refine our views further as we head into 2020. However, the important point is that since roughly 40% of corporate profits are a function of exports, the damage caused already won’t easily be reversed.

Furthermore, the Fed’s massive infusions of liquidity into the overnight lending market signal that something has “broken,” but few are paying attention.

Our suspicion is that the conclusion of the “trade deal” could well be a “buy the rumor, sell the news” type event as details are likely to be disappointing. Such would shift our focus from “risk taking” to “risk control.” Also, remember “cash” is a valuable asset for managing uncertainty.

With the market pushing overbought, extended, and bullish extremes, a correction to resolve this condition is quite likely. The only question is the cause, depth, and duration of that corrective process. 

I am not suggesting you do anything, but just something to consider when the media tells you to ignore history and suggests “this time may be different.” 

That is usually just about the time when it isn’t.

Which Secular Bull Market Is It – 1950’s or 1920’s?

The following comment was recently making its way around the “twittersphere” suggesting a “new secular bull market” has started.

This isn’t the first time such a call has been made. 

“Despite concerns in the third quarter, bears never had a strong argument for why stocks were overvalued and the major indexes simply traded sideways for much of the last six months, wrote Robert Sluymer, technical strategist at Fundstrat Global Advisors.

We ‘continue to view the market cycle as being a normal pause in an ongoing secular bull market similar to what developed in 2016, 2011 and the ‘cycle’ pullbacks that developed during the secular bull markets in the 50s-60s and 80s-90s.”

It is an interesting point. The current bull market certainly seems unstoppable, but the question that must be answered, fundamentally, is if this is indeed a “secular bull market,” and if so, “where are we” within that cycle.

What is a “secular market?”

“A secular market trend is a long-term trend which lasts 5 to 25 years and consists of a series of primary trends. A secular bear market consists of smaller bull markets and larger bear markets; a secular bull market consists of larger bull markets and smaller bear markets.”

In a “secular bull’ market, the prevailing trend is “bullish” or upward-moving. In a “secular bear” the market tends to trend sideways with severe drawdowns and sharp rallies.

However, what truly defines long-term secular markets are valuations, and whether those valuations are contracting or expanding.

The chart above shows the history of secular bull market periods going back to 1871 using data from Dr. Robert Shiller. One thing you will notice is that secular bull markets tend to begin with CAPE 10 valuations around 10x earnings or even less. They tend to end around 23-25x earnings or greater. (Over the long-term valuations do matter.)

As noted above, what drives long-term secular “bull” markets is “valuation expansion.” In order to have the magnitude of “valuation expansion” needed to support a secular “bull” market, you must both start at “under-valued” levels and have the economic factors and investor enthusiasm to support a return to “over-valued” levels.

The problem with the idea that we are currently in a secular bull market akin to the 1950’s or 1980’s has everything to do with economic growth. Over the long-term, stocks CAN NOT outgrow the economy, as the stock market is a reflection of the companies engaging in the economy. This is why “valuations” are so important. Investors, in their “exuberance” can pay more than a company can generate over the long-term. When this exuberance is realized, valuations “contract” to reflect reality.

For several reasons, as we will discuss, the current “secular bull market,” if you can call it that, is likely more akin to the very brief cycle of the 1920’s.

Interest Rates & Debt

The argument that the U.S. has entered into another “secular bull market” is because interest rates are low. While the chart clearly shows that interest rates have hit the same levels as last seen in 1946, the view rates will rise strongly from current levels assumes that the same economic drivers exist today.

Rising interest rates are a function of strong, organic, economic growth that leads to a rising demand for capital over time. If we refer to the GDP chart above, there have been two previous periods in history that have had the necessary ingredients to support rising interest rates. The first was during the turn of the previous century as the country became more accessible via railroads and automobiles, production ramped up for World War I, and America began the shift from an agricultural to industrial economy.

The second period occurred post-World War II as America became the “last man standing” as France, England, Russia, Germany, Poland, Japan, and others were left devastated. It was here that America found its strongest run of economic growth in its history as the “boys of war” returned home to not only start rebuilding the countries that they had just destroyed, but

But that was just the start of it.

Beginning in the late 50’s, America embarked upon its greatest quest in history as man took his first steps into space. The space race that lasted nearly twenty years led to leaps in innovation and technology that paved the wave for the future of America. Combined with the industrial and manufacturing backdrop, America experienced high levels of economic growth and increased savings rates which fostered the required backdrop for higher interest rates.

Currently, the U.S. is no longer the manufacturing powerhouse it once was and globalization has sent jobs to the cheapest sources of labor. Technological advances continue to reduce the need for human labor and suppress wages as productivity increases. Today, the number of workers between the ages of 16 and 54 is at the lowest level relative to that age group since the late 1970’s. This is a structural and demographic problem that continues to drag on economic growth as nearly 1/4th of the American population is now dependent on some form of governmental assistance.

This structural employment problem remains the primary driver as to why “everybody” is still wrong in expecting rates to rise.

However, this is also why whenever there is a discussion of valuations, it is invariably stated that “low rates justify higher valuations.”  The argument is based on an assumption that rates are low BECAUSE the economy is healthy and operating near full capacity.

The reality is quite different. The main contributors to the illusion of permanent prosperity have been a combination of artificial and cyclical factors. Low interest rates, when growth is low, suggests that NO valuation premium is “justified.

Currently, investors are taking on excessive risk, and thereby virtually guaranteeing future losses, by paying the highest S&P 500 price/revenue ratio in history and the highest median price/revenue ratio in history across S&P 500 component stocks.

Importantly, when talking about “Secular Bull Markets,” the amount of debt in the system plays an important factor. The last time that debt-to-GDP ratios hit such a peak was going into the “Great Depression.” Since debt retards economic growth by diverting savings into debt payments rather than productive investments, it is hard to suggest a “secular bull market” can gain traction given excessive debt levels.

Earnings Reversions

One of the more significant reasons the markets have likely not entered into the next great “Secular Bull Market” is due to the artificial inflation of earnings from massive share repurchases, corporate tax cuts, and excessive liquidity from Central Bank interventions.

Given the current deviation of both earnings from their long-term growth trend, and the deviation from reported profits, as shown below, the eventual mean reversion will likely be brutal.

The Great 9-Year Secular Bull Market

While the idea of a new “secular bull market” is certainly optimistic, it is also a dangerous concept for investors to “buy” into.

As stated above the stock market, over the long-term, is a reflection of the underlying economic activity. Personal consumption makes up roughly 70% of that activity. Given the consumer is more heavily leveraged than at any other point in history, it is highly unlikely they will be able to become a significantly larger chunk of the economy. With savings low, income growth weak, and debt back at record levels, the fundamental capacity to re-leverage to similar extremes is no longer available.

Let’s also not forget the singular most important fact.

The breakout of the markets in 2013, following the two previous bear markets, was NOT one based on organic economic fundamentals. Rather it was from massive monetary interventions by Central Banks globally. The previous secular bull markets in our history were ones which were derived from extreme under-valuations, washed out financial markets, and extreme negative sentiment.

Such is clearly not the case today.

The “secular bull market” of the 1920’s is probably the best example of the cycle we are in currently. Then banks were lending money to individuals to invest in the IPO’s the banks were bringing to market. Interest rates were falling, economic growth was rising, and valuations were rising faster than underlying earnings and profits.

There was no perceived danger in the markets, and little concern of financial risk as “stocks had reached a permanently high plateau.” 

It all ended rather abruptly.

Currently, it is clear that stock prices can be lofted higher by further monetary tinkering. However, the larger problem remains the inability for the economic variables to “replay the tape” of the ’50s or the ’80s. At some point, the markets and the economy will have to process a “reset” to rebalance the financial equation.

In all likelihood, it is precisely that reversion which will create the “set up” necessary to actually begin the “next great secular bull market.” Unfortunately, as was seen at the bottom of the market in 1974, there will be few individual investors left to enjoy the beginning of that ride.

The Bandwagon Effect: A World Series Lesson For Investors

Opening day is a glorious time for baseball fans. Warmer temperatures and blooming shrubbery are on their way, and more importantly, their favorite teams will begin a stretch of 162 games that culminates with a best-of-seven battle between the American and National League champions.

With leaves falling and colder temperatures upon us, most baseball fans are left out in the cold. However, here in Washington D.C., and no doubt in Houston, everyone is a diehard fan cheering their team on to a World Series crown.

Curly W’s, the logo of the Washington Nationals (Nats) baseball team, litter the streets, schools, and even office buildings of D.C. Everyone is on board the Nationals train, yet in August you could have spent a paltry $20 for a decent seat and shown up to a half-empty stadium to see the same Nationals play. Today, standing room only tickets for the World Series are said to be fetching $1000.

As the Nationals and Astros begin the World Series, the baseball gods are teaching us a valuable lesson that applies to investing as much as it does sports.

Bandwagon Bias

Within the last month or so, the Nationals and Astros have attracted a huge following of “bandwagon” fans. People who were casual fans or not even fans at all are gripped by a desire and the camaraderie of being with a winner. 

Trina Ulrich, a friend of ours and sports psychology professor at American University, was recently interviewed by radio station WAMU to talk about the psychology behind bandwagon fans. The interview and article can be found HERE. Stay tuned as The Lance Roberts Podcast will be interviewing Trina in November.

Trina Ulrich defines the bandwagon effect as follows: “[It’s] essentially a psychological phenomenon that happens when people are doing something because others are doing it already.” Sound familiar?

We have written many articles describing and warning about the dangers of market bandwagons, in particular, investor conformity and the so-called herding effect. These biases are widespread in today’s market place and are extremely important to grasp.  

In no uncertain terms, a FOMO (fear of missing out) is leading equity markets to valuations that are at or above those of 1929 and only bettered by those in the late 1990s. Other risk assets such as corporate debt, private equity, and high-end real estate trade at similarly rich valuations. The burgeoning bandwagons in these markets have been growing for years, unlike the short term nature of those simmering in Washington, D.C. and Houston.

Trina Ulrich says our attraction to bandwagons is defined by a psychological term called dispositional hope. Dispositional hope is the belief that one can achieve their goals. The high dispositional hopes that some baseball fans and investors carry is attractive to others with less dispositional hope. Those with less hope are enticed as the goal of winning is seen as attainable and beneficial.  

As the Nationals and Astros advanced through the regular season and the playoffs, diehard fans with hope that their team will win attracted others looking for dispositional hope. Similarly, investors over the last few years with high hopes for generous future returns are drawing in a wide swath of investors. In both cases, hope is selling off the shelves.   

Trina Ulrich goes on to explain that human minds are built to buy hope. Per Ulrich, “So if you have a bunch of die-hard Nats fans with high dispositional hope, they will draw in other fans that may have a low dispositional hope. It has to do with the feel-good hormones in the brain like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine.

“When [the hormones] rise because of motivation and excitement and success, the brain gets bathed in this and there is a pleasure effect.” “So why not feel this way too when you see someone else feeling this way?”

In The Money Game & The Human Brain Lance Roberts put it similarly:

As individuals, we are “addicted” to the “dopamine effect.” It is why social media has become so ingrained in society today as individuals constantly look to see how many likes, shares, retweets, or comments they have received. That instant gratification and acknowledgment keep us glued to our screens and less involved in the world around us.”

We are addicted to winning, be it on the baseball field or in our investment accounts, because it delivers a gratification that we crave. Consistently winning is remarkably satisfying, ask any New England Patriots fan. Yet, even Patriot quarterback Tom Brady will eventually retire (or die of old age on the field), and the game for Patriots fans will likely change dramatically. Similarly, in spite of a dynastic run of success, there is the cold hard reality that markets do not, indeed cannot, always go up.

Markets have a strong tendency to oscillate between high and low valuations. Rarely, if ever, does a market follow a straight line that mimics the true fundamentals.  When markets are overvalued, they tend to get even more overvalued due in large part to the bandwagon effect. At some point, however, markets must face the reality of the limitations of valuations. When prices can no longer be justified by marginal investors, reality sets in.

In Bubbles and Elevators we stated:

From time to time, financial markets produce a similar behavioral herding effect as those described above. In fact, the main ingredient fueling financial bubbles has always been a strong desire to do what other investors are doing. As asset bubbles grow and valuation metrics get further stretched, the FOMO siren song becomes louder, drowning out logic. Investors struggle watching from the sidelines as neighbors and friends make “easy” money. One by one, reluctant investors are forced into the market despite their troubling concerns.”

“Justification for chasing the market higher is further reinforced by leading investors, Wall Street analysts, and the media which use faulty logic and narratives to rationalize prices trading at steep premiums to historical norms. Such narratives help investors convince themselves that, “this time is different,” despite facts evidencing the contrary.”

Summary

In baseball and other sports, the bandwagon effect is a good thing as winning unites people that would otherwise have little in common. Today, a city as politically divided as Washington can greatly benefit when its people of such diverse political mindsets are united, even if only for a few weeks. The downside of joining the wrong bandwagon is an emotional hangover and maybe a lost bet or two.

In markets, the bandwagon effect can also be a good thing as rising markets fuel optimism and help investors meet their financial objectives. Unfortunately, jumping on a market bandwagon at the wrong time can come with steep costs. Bandwagons, after all, are always a speculative venture. Currently, a normalization of equity valuations can result in investors losing half of their wealth or possibly more. Not only will those on the bandwagon have a lasting emotional hangover but they will also have a tremendous loss that could take years to recoup.

Choose your bandwagons wisely and GO NATS!!

The Fed & The Stability/Instability Paradox

“Only those that risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Eliot

Well, this certainly seems to be the path that the Federal Reserve, and global Central Banks, have decided take.

Yesterday, the Fed lowered interest rates by a quarter-point and maintained their “dovish” stance but suggested they are open to “allowing the balance sheet to grow.” While this isn’t anything more than just stopping Q.T. entirely, the markets took this as a sign that Q.E. is just around the corner.

That expectation is likely misguided as the Fed seems completely unconcerned of any recessionary impact in the near-term. However, such has always been the case, historically speaking, just before the onset of a recession. This is because the Fed, and economists in general, make predictions based on lagging data which is subject to large future revisions. Regardless, the outcome of the Fed’s monetary policies has always been, without exception, either poor, or disastrous.

“In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has been the catalyst behind every preceding financial event since they became ‘active,’ monetarily policy-wise, in the late 70’s. As shown in the chart below, when the Fed has lifted the short-term lending rates to a level higher than the 2-year rate, bad ‘stuff’ has historically followed.”

The idea of pushing limits to extremes also applies to stock market investors. As we pointed out on Tuesday, the risks of a liquidity-driven event have increased markedly in recent months. Yet, despite the apparent risk, investors have virtually “no fear.” (Bullish advances are supported by extremely low levels of volatility below the long-term average of 19.)

First, “record levels” of anything are records for a reason. It is where the point where previous limits were reached. Therefore, when a ‘record level’ is reached, it is NOT THE BEGINNING, but rather an indication of the MATURITY of a cycle. While the media has focused on employment, record stock market levels, etc. as a sign of an ongoing economic recovery, history suggests caution.”

In the “rush to be bullish” this a point often missed. When markets are hitting “record levels,” it is when investors get “the most bullish.” That is the case currently with retail investors “all in.”

Conversely, they are the most “bearish” at the lows.

It is just human nature.

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” – T.S. Eliot

The point here is that “all things do come to an end.” The further from the “mean” something has gotten, the greater the reversion is going to be. The two charts below illustrate this point clearly.

Bull markets, with regularity, are almost entirely wiped out by the subsequent bear market.

Despite the best of intentions, market participants never act rationally.

Neither do consumers.

The Instability Of Stability

This is the problem facing the Fed.

Currently, investors have been led to believe that no matter what happens, the Fed can bail out the markets and keep the bull market going for a while longer. Or rather, as Dr. Irving Fisher once uttered:

“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”

Interestingly, the Fed is dependent on both market participants, and consumers, believing in this idea. As we have noted previously, with the entirety of the financial ecosystem now more heavily levered than ever, due to the Fed’s profligate measures of suppressing interest rates and flooding the system with excessive levels of liquidity, the “instability of stability” is now the most significant risk.

The “stability/instability paradox” assumes that all players are rational and such rationality implies an avoidance of complete destruction. In other words, all players will act rationally, and no one will push “the big red button.”

The Fed is highly dependent on this assumption as it provides the “room” needed, after more than 10-years of the most unprecedented monetary policy program in U.S. history, to try and navigate the risks that have built up in the system.

Simply, the Fed is dependent on “everyone acting rationally.”

Unfortunately, that has never been the case.

The behavioral biases of individuals is one of the most serious risks facing the Fed. Throughout history, as noted above, the Fed’s actions have repeatedly led to negative outcomes despite the best of intentions.

  • In the early 70’s it was the “Nifty Fifty” stocks,
  • Then Mexican and Argentine bonds a few years after that
  • “Portfolio Insurance” was the “thing” in the mid -80’s
  • Dot.com anything was a great investment in 1999
  • Real estate has been a boom/bust cycle roughly every other decade, but 2006 was a doozy
  • Today, it’s ETF’s and “Passive Investing,” and levered credit.

As noted Tuesday, the risk to this entire house of cards is a credit-related event.

Anyone wonder what might happen should passive funds become large net sellers of credit risk? In that event, these indiscriminate sellers will have to find highly discriminating buyers who–you guessed it–will be asking lots of questions. Liquidity for the passive universe–and thus the credit markets generally–may become very problematic indeed.

The recent actions by Central Banks certainly suggest risk has risen. Whether this was just an anomalous event, or an early warning, it is too soon to know for sure. However, if there is a liquidity issue, the risk to ‘uniformed investors’ is substantially higher than most realize. 

Risk concentration always seems rational at the beginning, and the initial successes of the trends it creates can be self-reinforcing. That is, until suddenly, and often without warning, it all goes “pear\-shaped.”

In November and December of last year, it was the uniformity of the price moves which revealed the fallacy “passive investing” as investors headed for the door all at the same time. While, that rout was quickly forgotten as markets stormed back to all-time highs, on “hopes” of Central Bank liquidity and “trade deals.”

The difference today, versus then, are the warning signs of deterioration in areas which pose a direct threat to everyone “acting rationally.” 

“While yields going to zero] certainly sounds implausible at the moment, just remember that all yields globally are relative. If global sovereign rates are zero or less, it is only a function of time until the U.S. follows suit. This is particularly the case if there is a liquidity crisis at some point.

It is worth noting that whenever Eurodollar positioning has become this extended previously, the equity markets have declined along with yields. Given the exceedingly rapid rise in the Eurodollar positioning, it certainly suggests that ‘something has broken in the system.’” 

Risk is clearly elevated as the Fed is cutting rates despite the “economic data” not supporting it. This is clearly meant to keep everyone acting rationally for now.

The problem comes when they don’t.

The Single Biggest Risk To Your Money

All of this underscores the single biggest risk to your investment portfolio.

In extremely long bull market cycles, investors become “willfully blind,” to the underlying inherent risks. Or rather, it is the “hubris” of investors they are now “smarter than the market.”

Yet, the list of concerns remains despite being completely ignored by investors and the mainstream media.

  • Growing economic ambiguities in the U.S. and abroad: peak autos, peak housing, peak GDP.
  • Political instability and a crucial election.
  • The failure of fiscal policy to ‘trickle down.’
  • An important pivot towards easing in global monetary policy.
  • Geopolitical risks from Trade Wars to Iran 
  • Inversions of yield curves
  • Deteriorating earnings and corporate profit margins.
  • Record levels of private and public debt.
  •  More than $3 trillion of covenant light and/or sub-prime corporate debt. (now larger and more pervasive than the size of the subprime mortgages outstanding in 2007)

For now, none of that matters as the Fed seems to have everything under control.

The more the market rises, the more reinforced the belief “this time is different” becomes.

Yes, our investment portfolios remain invested on the long-side for now. (Although we continue to carry slightly higher levels of cash and hedges.)

However, that will change, and rapidly so, at the first sign of the “instability of stability.” 

Unfortunately, by the time the Fed realizes what they have done, it has always been too late.

The August Jobs Report Confirms The Economy Is Slowing

After the monthly jobs report was released last week, I saw numerous people jumping on the unemployment rate as a measure of success, and in this particular case, Trump’s success as President.

  • Unemployment November 2016: 4.7%
  • Unemployment August 2019: 3.7%

Argument solved.

President Trump has been “Yuugely” successful at putting people to work as represented by a 1% decline in the unemployment rate since his election.

But what about President Obama?

  • Unemployment November 2008: 12.6%
  • Unemployment November 2016: 4.7%

Surely, a 7.9% drop in unemployment should be considered at least as successful as Trump’s 1%.

Right?

Here’s a secret, neither one is important.

First, Presidents don’t put people to work. Corporations do. The reality is that President Obama and Trump had very little to do with the actual economic recovery.

Secondly, as shown below, the recovery in employment began before either President took office as the economic recovery would have happened regardless of monetary interventions. Importantly, note the drop in employment has occurred with the lowest level of annual economic growth on record. (I wouldn’t necessarily be touting this as #winning.)

Lastly, both measures of “employment success” are erroneous due to the multitude of problems with how the entire series is “guessed at.” As noted previously by Morningside Hill:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been systemically overstating the number of jobs created, especially in the current economic cycle.
  • The BLS has failed to account for the rise in part-time and contractual work arrangements, while all evidence points to a significant and rapid increase in the so-called contingent workforce.
  • Full-time jobs are being replaced by part-time positions, resulting in double and triple counting of jobs via the Establishment Survey.  (Examples: Uber, Lyft, GrubHub, FedEx, Amazon)
  • A full 93% of the new jobs reported since 2008 were added through the business birth and death model – a highly controversial model which is not supported by the data. On the contrary, all data on establishment births and deaths point to an ongoing decrease in entrepreneurship.
  • Jobless claims have recently reached their lowest level on record which purportedly signals job market strength. Since hiring patterns have changed significantly and increasingly more people are joining the contingent workforce, jobless claims are no longer a good leading economic indicator. Part-time and contract-based workers are most often ineligible for unemployment insurance. In the next downturn, corporations will be able to cut through their contingent workforce before jobless claims show any meaningful uptick.

Nonetheless, despite a very weak payroll number, the general “view” by the mainstream media, and the Federal Reserve, is the economy is still going strong.

In reality, one-month of employment numbers tell us very little about what is happening in the actual economy. While most economists obsess over the data from one month to the next, it is the “trend” of the data which is far more important to understand.

The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment prior to the onset of a recession. The current annual rate of employment growth is 1.4% which is lower than any previous employment level in history prior to the onset of a recession.

But while this is a long-term view of the trend of employment in the U.S., what about right now? The chart below shows the civilian employment level from 1999 to present.

While the recent employment report was slightly below expectations, the annual rate of growth is slowing at a faster pace. Moreover, there are many who do not like the household survey due to the monthly volatility in the data. Therefore, by applying a 3-month average of the seasonally-adjusted employment report, we see the slowdown more clearly.

But here is something else to consider.

While the BLS continually fiddles with the data to mathematically adjust for seasonal variations, the purpose of the entire process is to smooth volatile monthly data into a more normalized trend. The problem, of course, with manipulating data through mathematical adjustments, revisions, and tweaks, is the risk of contamination of bias. A simpler method to use for smoothing volatile monthly data is using a 12-month moving average of the raw data as shown below.

Near peaks of employment cycles, the employment data deviates from the 12-month average, but then reconnects as reality emerges.

Sometimes, “simpler” gives us a better understanding of the data.

Importantly, there is one aspect to all the charts above which remains constant. No matter how you choose to look at the data, peaks in employment growth occur prior to economic contractions, rather than an acceleration of growth. 

But there is more to this story.

A Function Of Population

One thing which is not discussed when reporting on employment is the “growth” of the working-age population. Each month, new entrants into the population create “demand” through their additional consumption. Employment should increase to accommodate for the increased demand from more participants in the economy. Either that or companies resort to automation, off-shoring, etc. to increase rates of production without increases in labor costs. The chart below shows the total increase in employment versus the growth of the working-age population.

The missing “millions” shown in the chart above is one of the “great mysteries” about the longest economic booms in U.S. history. This is particularly a conundrum when the Federal Reserve talks about the economy nearing “full employment.” The disparity shows up in both the Labor Force Participation Rate and those “Not In Labor Force.”

Note that since 2009, the number of those “no longer counted” has dominated the employment trends of the economy. In other words, those “not in labor force” as a percent of the working-age population has skyrocketed.

Of course, as we are all very aware, there are many who work part-time, are going to school, etc. But even when we consider just those working “full-time” jobs, particularly when compared to jobless claims, the percentage of full-time employees is still well below levels of the last 35 years.

It’s All The Baby Boomers Retiring

One of the arguments often given for the low labor force participation rate is that millions of “baby boomers” are leaving the workforce for retirement.

This argument doesn’t carry much weight given that the “Millennial” generation, which is significantly larger, is simultaneously entering the workforce. The other problem is shown below, there are more individuals over the age of 55, as a percentage of that age group, in the workforce today than in the last 50-years.

Of course, the reason they aren’t retiring is that they can’t. After two massive bear markets, weak economic growth, questionable spending habits,and poor financial planning, more individuals over the age of 55 are still working because they simply can’t “afford” to retire.

However, for argument sake, let’s assume that every worker over the age of 55 retires. If the “retiring” argument is valid, then employment participation rates should soar once that group is removed. The chart below is full-time employment relative to the working-age population of 16-54.

Nope.

The other argument is that Millennials are going to school longer than before so they aren’t working either. (We have an excuse for everything these days.)

The chart below strips out those of college-age (16-24) and those over the age of 55.

With the prime working-age group of labor force participants still at levels seen previously in 1988, it does raise the question o2f just how robust the labor market actually is?

Michael Lebowitz touched on this issue previously:

“Why are so many people struggling to find a job and terminating their search if, as we are repeatedly told, the labor market is so healthy? To explain the juxtaposition of the low jobless claims number and unemployment rate with the low participation rate and weak wage growth, a calculation of the participation rate adjusted unemployment rate is revealing.”

‘When people stop looking for a job, they are still unemployed, but they are not included in the U-3 unemployment calculation. If we include those who quit looking for work in the data, the employment situation is quite different. The graph below compares the U-3 unemployment rate to one that assumes a constant participation rate from 2008 to today. Contrary to the U-3 unemployment rate of 3.90%, this metric implies an adjusted unemployment rate of 8.69%.

Importantly, this number is much more consistent with the data we have laid out above, supports the reasoning behind lower wage growth, and is further confirmed by the Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Employment Index.”

(The Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Non-Employment Index including People Working Part-Time for Economic Reasons (NEI+PTER) is a weighted average of all non-employed people and people working part-time for economic reasons expressed as the share of the civilian non-institutionalized population 16 years and older. The weights take into account persistent differences in each group’s likelihood of transitioning back into employment. Because the NEI is more comprehensive and includes tailored weights of non-employed individuals, it arguably provides a more accurate reading of labor market conditions than the standard unemployment rate.)

One of the main factors which was driving the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, and reduce its balance sheet, was the perceived low level of unemployment. However, now, they are trying to lower rates despite an even lower level of unemployment than previous.

The problem for the Federal Reserve is they are caught between a “stagflationary economy” and a “recession.” 

“With record low jobless claims, there is no recession on the horizon.” -says mainstream media.

Be careful with that assumption.

In November of 1969 jobless claims stood at 211,000, having risen slightly from the lows recorded earlier that year. Despite the low number of claims, a recession started a month later, and jobless claims would nearly double within six months.

This episode serves as a reminder that every recession followed interim lows in jobless claims and the unemployment rate. We are confident that the dynamics leading to the next recession will not be any different.

But then again, maybe the yield-curve is already giving us the answer.

Strongest Economy Ever? I Warned You About Negative Revisions

Over the last 18-months, there has been a continual drone of political punditry touting the success of “Trumponomics” as measured by various economic data points. Even the President himself has several times taken the opportunity to tweet about the “strongest economy ever.”

But if it is the “strongest economy ever,” then why the need for aggressive rate cuts which are “emergency measures” to be utilized to offset recessionary conditions?

First, it is hard to have an “aggressive rate-cutting cycle” when you only have 2.4% to work with.

Secondly, I am not sure we want to be like China or Europe economically speaking, and running a $1.5 Trillion deficit during an expansion, suspending the debt ceiling, and expanding spending isn’t that much different.

Nonetheless, I have repeatedly cautioned about the risk of taking credit for the economic bump, or the stock market, as a measure of fiscal policy success. Such is particularly the case when you are a decade into the current economic cycle.

Economic growth is more than just a reported number. The economy has been “in motion” following the last recession due to massive liquidity injections, zero interest rates, and a contraction in the labor force. Much like a “snowball rolling downhill,” the continuation of economic momentum should have been of little surprise.

As an example, we can look at full-time employment (as a percentage of 16-54  which removes the “retiring baby boomer” argument) by President. The rise in full-time employment has been on a steady trend higher following the financial crisis as the economic and financial systems repaired themselves.

As discussed previously, economic data is little more than a “wild @$$ guess” when it is initially reported. However, one-year and three-years later, the data is revised to reveal a more accurate measure of the “real” economy.

Unfortunately, we pay little attention to the revisions.

While there are many in the media touting “the strongest economy ever” since Trump took office, a quick look at a chart should quickly put that claim to rest.

Yes, there was a spurt in economic growth during 2018, which did seem to support the claims that Trump’s policies were working. As I warned then, there were factors at play which were obfuscating the data.

“Lastly, government spending has been very supportive to the markets in particular over the last few quarters as economic growth has picked up. However, that “sugar-high” was created by 3-massive Hurricanes in 2017 which has required billions in monetary stimulus which created jobs in manufacturing and construction and led to a temporary economic lift. We saw the same following the Hurricanes in 2012 as well.”

“These “sugar highs” are temporary in nature. The problem is the massive surge in unbridled deficit spending only provides a temporary illusion of economic growth.”

The importance is that economic “estimates” become skewed by these exogenous factors, and I have warned these over-estimations would be reversed when annual revisions are made.

Last week, the annual revisions to the economic data were indeed negative. The chart below shows “real GDP” pre- and post-revisions.

This outcome was something I discussed previously:

With the Fed Funds rate running at near 2%, if the Fed now believes such is close to a ‘neutral rate,’ it would suggest that expectations of economic growth will slow in the quarters ahead from nearly 6.0% in Q2 of 2018 to roughly 2.5% in 2019.”

However, there is further evidence that actual, organic, economic growth is weaker than the current negative revisions suggest. More importantly, the revisions to the 2019 data, in 2020, will very likely be as negative as well.

This is also the case with the employment data which I discussed previously:

“Months from now, the Establishment Survey will undergo its annual retrospective benchmark revision, based almost entirely on the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages conducted by the Labor Department. That’s because the QCEW is not just a sample-based survey, but a census that counts jobs at every establishment, meaning that the data are definitive but take time to collect.”

“The Establishment Survey’s nonfarm jobs figures will clearly be revised down as the QCEW data show job growth averaging only 177,000 a month in 2018. That means the Establishment Survey may be overstating the real numbers by more than 25%.”

There is nothing nefarious going on here.

It is the problem with collecting data from limited samples, applying various seasonal adjustment factors to it, and “guesstimating” what isn’t known. During expansions, the data is always overstated and during recessions it is understated. This is why using lagging economic data as a measure of certainty is always erroneous.

Debt-Driven Growth

I recently discussed the “death of fiscal conservatism” as Washington passed another spending bill.

“In 2018, the Federal Government spent $4.48 Trillion, which was equivalent to 22% of the nation’s entire nominal GDP. Of that total spending, ONLY $3.5 Trillion was financed by Federal revenues, and $986 billion was financed through debt.

In other words, if 75% of all expenditures is social welfare and interest on the debt, those payments required $3.36 Trillion of the $3.5 Trillion (or 96%) of revenue coming in.”

The “good news” is, if you want to call it that, is that Government spending does show up in economic growth. The “bad news” is that government spending has a negative “multiplier” effect since the bulk of all spending goes to non-productive investments. (Read this)

Nonetheless, the President suggests we are “winning.”

The problem is that economic growth less government spending is actually “recessionary.” 

As shown in the chart below, since 2010 it has taken continually increases in Federal expenditures just to maintain economic growth at the same level it was nearly a decade ago. Such a “fiscal feat” is hardly indicative of “winning.”

As Mike Shedlock noted, part of the issue with current economic estimates is simply in how it is calculated.

In GDP accounting, consumption is the largest component. Naturally, it is not possible to consume oneself to prosperity. The ability to consume more is the result of growing prosperity, not its cause. But this is the kind of deranged economic reasoning that is par for the course for today.

In addition to what Tenebrarum states, please note that government transfer payments including Medicaid, Medicare, disability payments, and SNAP (previously called food stamps), all contribute to GDP.

Nothing is “produced” by those transfer payments. They are not even funded. As a result, national debt rises every year. And that debt adds to GDP.”

This is critically important to understand.

While government spending, a function of continually increasing debt, does appear to have an economic benefit, corporate profits tell a very different story.

The Real Economy

I have been noting for a while the divergence between “operating earnings” (or rather “earnings fantasy”) versus corporate profits which are what companies actually report for tax purposes. From “Earnings Growth Much Weaker Than Advertised:”

“The benefit of a reduction in tax rates is extremely short-lived since we compare earnings and profit growth on a year-over-year basis.

In the U.S., the story remains much the same as near-term economic growth has been driven by artificial stimulus, government spending, and fiscal policy which provides an illusion of prosperity.”

Since consumption makes up roughly 70% of the economy, then corporate profits pre-tax profits should be growing if the economy was indeed growing substantially above 2%.”

We now know the economy wasn’t growing well above 2% and, as a consequence, corporate profits have been revised sharply lower on a pre-tax basis.

The reason we are looking at PRE-tax, rather than post-tax, profits is because we can see more clearly what is actually happening at the corporate level.

Since corporate revenues come for the sale of goods and services, if the economy was growing strongly then corporate profits should be reflective of that. However, since 2014, profits have actually been declining. If we take the first chart above and adjust it for the 2019-revisions we find that corporate profits (both pre- and post-tax) are the same level as in 2012 and have been declining for the last three-years in particular.

Again, this hardly indicates the “strongest economy in history.”

These negative revisions to corporate profits also highlight the over-valuation investors are currently paying for asset prices.  Historically, such premiums have had rather horrific “paybacks” as markets eventually “reprice” for reality.

Trump’s Political Risk

While the media is quick to attribute the current economic strength, or weakness, to the person who occupies the White House, the reality is quite different.

Most fiscal, and monetary, policy changes can take up to a year before the impact shows in the economic data. While changes to “tax rates” can have a more immediate impact, “interest rate” changes take longer to filter through.

The political risk for President Trump is taking too much credit for an economic cycle which was already well into recovery before he took office. Rather than touting the economic numbers and taking credit for liquidity-driven financial markets, he should be using that strength to begin the process of returning the country to a path of fiscal discipline rather than a “drunken binge” of spending.

With the economy, and the financial markets, sporting the longest-duration in history, simple logic should suggest time is running out.

This isn’t doom and gloom, it is just a fact.

Politicians, over the last decade, failed to use $33 trillion in liquidity injections, near zero interest rates, and surging asset prices to refinance the welfare system, balance the budget, and build surpluses for the next downturn.

Instead, they only made the deficits worse and the U.S. economy will enter the next recession pushing a $2 Trillion deficit, $24 Trillion in debt, and a $6 Trillion pension gap which will devastate many in their retirement years.

While Donald Trump talked about “Yellen’s big fat ugly bubble” before he took office, he has now pegged the success of his entire Presidency on the stock market.

It will likely be something he eventually regrets.

“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” – Matthew 26, 26:52

The 5-Mental Traps Investors Are Falling Into Right Now

I recently wrote about the “F.I.R.E.” movement and how it is a byproduct of late-stage bull market cycle. It isn’t just the “can’t lose” ideas which are symptomatic of bullish cycles, but also the actual activities of investors as well. Not surprisingly, the deviation of growth over value has become one of the largest in history.

This divergence of the “performance chase” should be a reminder of Benjamin Graham’s immortal warning:

“The investor’s chief problem, and even his worst enemy, is likely to be himself.” 

With valuations elevated, prices at record highs, and the current bull market the longest in U.S. history, it seems like a good time to review the 5-most dangerous psychological biases of investing.

The 5-Most Dangerous Biases

Every year Dalbar releases their annual “Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior” study which continues to show just how poorly investors perform relative to market benchmarks over time. More importantly, they discuss many of the reasons for that underperformance which are all directly attributable to your brain. 

From Dalbar’s 2018 study:

“In 2018 the average investor underperformed the S&P 500 in both good times and bad, lagging behind the S&P by more than 100 basis points in two different months.”

Cognitive biases are a curse to portfolio management as they impair our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money. As history all too clearly shows, investors always do the “opposite” of what they should when it comes to investing their own money.

Here are the top-5 of the most insidious biases investors are falling into RIGHT NOW!

1) Confirmation Bias

As individuals, we tend to seek out information that conforms to our current beliefs. If one believes that the stock market is going to rise, they tend only to seek out news and information that supports that position. This confirmation bias is a primary driver of the psychological investing cycle of individuals as shown below. I discussed this just recently in why “Media Headlines Will Lead You To Ruin.”

As individuals, we want “affirmation” our current thought processes are correct. As human beings, we hate to be told we are wrong, so we tend to seek out sources which tell us we are “right.”

Currently, individual investors are “fully” back in the market despite a fairly decent bruising in 2018. Historically, this has not turned out well for individuals, but given that “optimism sells,” it is not surprising to see the majority of the mainstream meeting touting a continuation of the bull market.

This is why it is always important to consider both sides of every debate equally and analyze the data accordingly. Being right and making money are not mutually exclusive.

2) Gambler’s Fallacy

The “Gambler’s Fallacy” is one of the bigger issues faced by individuals when investing. As emotionally driven human beings, we tend to put a tremendous amount of weight on previous events believing that future outcomes will somehow be the same.

The bias is clearly addressed at the bottom of every piece of financial literature.

“Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

However, despite that statement being plastered everywhere in the financial universe, individuals consistently dismiss the warning and focus on past returns expecting similar results in the future.

This is one of the key issues that affect an investor’s long-term returns. Performance chasing has a high propensity to fail, continually causing investors to jump from one late cycle strategy to the next. This is shown in the periodic table of returns below. “Hot hands” only tend to last on average 2-3 years before going “cold.” 

I traced out the returns of large capitalization stocks (S&P 500) and U.S. Fixed Income (Barclay’s Aggregate Bond Index) for illustrative purposes. Importantly, you should notice that whatever is at the top of the list in some years tends to fall to the bottom in subsequent years. “Performance chasing” is a major detraction from investor’s long-term investment returns.

So, what’s hot in 2019, we detail this each week for our RIAPRO subscribers (30-day FREE TRIAL)

Currently, money is chasing Technology, Discretionary, and Communications, with Energy, Healthcare, and Bonds lagging. From a contrarian viewpoint, with “Value” dramatically underperforming “Growth” at this juncture of the investment cycle, there may be a generational opportunity soon approaching.

3) Probability Neglect

When it comes to “risk-taking” there are two ways to assess the potential outcome. There are “possibilities” and “probabilities.” As individuals, we tend to lean toward what is possible such as playing the “lottery.” 

The statistical probabilities of winning the lottery are astronomical. In fact, you are more likely to die on the way to purchase the ticket than actually winning the lottery. However, it is the “possibility” of instant wealth that makes the lottery such a successful “tax on poor people.”

As humans, we tend to neglect the “probabilities,” or rather the statistical measures of “risk,” undertaken with any given investment, in exchange for the “possibility” of gaining wealth. Our bias is to “chase” stocks, or markets, which already have large gains as it is “possible” they could move higher. However, the “probability” is that a corrective action will likely occur first.

With markets currently well deviated above long-term historical means, and valuations elevated, the possibility is greatly outweighed by the probability of a mean-reverting event first.  The following chart is derived from Dr. Robert Shiller’s inflation-adjusted price data and is plotted on a QUARTERLY basis. From that quarterly data is calculated:

  • The 12-period (3-year) Relative Strength Index (RSI),
  • Bollinger Bands (2 and 3 standard deviations of the 3-year average),
  • CAPE Ratio, and;
  • The percentage deviation above and below the 3-year moving average. 
  • The vertical RED lines denote points where all measures have aligned

Over the next several weeks, or even months, the markets could certainly extend the current deviations from long-term mean even further drive by the psychology of the “herd.” But such is the nature of every bull market peak, and bubble, throughout history as the seeming impervious advance lures the last of the stock market “holdouts” back into the markets.

Probability neglect is another major component to why investors consistently “buy high and sell low.”

4) Herd Bias

Though we are often unconscious of the action, humans tend to “go with the crowd.” Much of this behavior relates back to “confirmation” of our decisions, but also the need for acceptance. The thought process is rooted in the belief that if “everyone else” is doing something, then if I want to be accepted, I need to do it too.

“If all your friends jump off a cliff, are you going to do it too?” – said by every Mother in history.

In life, “conforming” to the norm is socially accepted and in many ways expected. However, in the financial markets the “herding” behavior is what drives market excesses during advances and declines.

As noted above, the “momentum chase” currently is good example of “herding” behavior. As Michael Lebowitz noted recently:

“The graph below charts ten year annualized total returns (dividends included) for value stocks versus growth stocks. The most recent data indicates value stocks have underperformed growth stocks by 2.86% on average in each of the last ten years.”

“There have only been eight ten-year periods over the last 90 years (total of 90 ten-year periods) when value stocks underperformed growth stocks. Two of these occurred during the Great Depression and one spanned the 1990s leading into the Tech bust of 2001. The other five are recent, representing the years 2014 through 2018.

When the cycle turns, we have little doubt the value-growth relationship will revert. In such a case value would outperform growth by nearly 30% in just two years. Anything beyond the average would increase the outperformance even more.”

Moving against the “herd” is where investors have generated the most profits over the long term. The difficulty for most individuals, unfortunately, is knowing when to “bet” against the stampede.

5) Recency Bias

Recency bias occurs when people more prominently recall, and extrapolate, recent events and believe that the same will continue indefinitely into the future. This phenomenon frequently occurs in with investing. Humans have short memories in general, but memories are especially short when it comes to investing cycles.

As Morningstar once penned:

“During a bull market, people tend to forget about bear markets. As far as human recent memory is concerned, the market should keep going up since it has been going up recently. Investors therefore keep buying stocks, feeling good about their prospects. Investors thereby increase risk taking and may not think about diversification or portfolio management prudence. Then a bear market hits, and rather than be prepared for it with shock absorbers in their portfolios, investors instead suffer a massive drop in their net worths and may sell out of stocks when the market is low. Selling low is, of course, not a good long-term investing strategy.”

This bias in action looks a lot like the chart below.

During bull markets, investors believe that markets can only go up – so “buy the dip” becomes a “can’t lose” investment strategy.  This bias also works in reverse during bear markets. Investors become convinced the market will only go lower which eventually leads them to “panic selling” the lows.

Recency bias is the primary driver behind the “Buy High/Sell Low” syndrome.

Everyone’s A Genius

The last point brings me to something Michael Sincere once penned:

“At market tops, it is common to see what I call the ‘high-five effect’ — that is, investors giving high-fives to each other because they are making so much paper money. It is happening now. I am also suspicious when amateurs come out of the woodwork to insult other investors.”

Michael’s point is very apropos, particularly today, it’s currently “high-fives and pats on the back.” 

The market’s ability to seemingly recover from every setback, and to ignore fundamental issues, has led investors to feel “bulletproof” as investment success breeds overconfidence.

The reality is that strongly rising asset prices, particularly when driven by emotional exuberance, “hides” investment mistakes in the short term. Poor, or deteriorating, fundamentals, excessive valuations, and/or rising credit risk is often ignored as prices increase. Unfortunately, it is only after the damage is done the realization of those “risks” occurs.

For investors, it is crucially important to understand that markets run in full cycles (up and down). While the bullish “up” cycle lasts twice as long as the bearish “down” cycle, the majority of the previous gains are repeatedly destroyed.

The damage to investors is not a result of lagging markets as they rise, but in capturing the inevitable reversion. This is something I discussed in “Bulls And Bears Are Both Broken Clocks:”

“In the end, it does not matter IF you are ‘bullish’ or ‘bearish.’  The reality is that both ‘bulls’ and ‘bears’ are owned by the ‘broken clock’ syndrome during the full-market cycle. However, what is grossly important in achieving long-term investment success is not necessarily being ‘right’ during the first half of the cycle, but by not being ‘wrong’ during the second half.

We are only human, and despite the best of our intentions, it is nearly impossible for an individual to be devoid of the emotional biases which inevitably leads to poor decision making over time. This is why all great investors have strict investment disciplines they follow to reduce the impact of their emotions.

At market peaks – everyone’s a “Genius.”Save

Save

Save

Save

F.I.R.E. – Ignited By The Bull, Extinguished By The Bear

Do you remember this commercial?

The Etrade commercial aired during Super Bowl XLI in 2007. The following year, the financial crisis set in, markets plunged, and investors lost 50%, or more, of their wealth.

However, this wasn’t the first time it happened.

The same thing happened in late 1999. This commercial was aired 2-months shy of the beginning of the “Dot.com” bust as investors once again believed “investing was as easy as 1-2-3.”

Why this trip down memory lane? (Other than the fact the commercials are hilarious to watch.)

Because this is typical of the mindset seen at the end of extremely long “cyclical” bull market cycles. 

Investing is simple. Just throw you money in the market and it goes up. Its so easy a “baby can do it.”

Here is something else you see at the end of bull market cycles:

 “This couple retired at 31 with $1 Million: Want to retire early? How “going against the grain” allowed this FIRE couple to ditch their jobs and travel the world.

How did they make this happen? Shen and Leung, who was also a computer engineer, are part of the FIRE movement — which stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early — where the goal is to save a lot so you can retire early. The couple retired at 31 with roughly $1 million in the bank. They’re currently withdrawing 3.5% a year from that nest egg, and say they can easily travel the world on that money — as they’ve got lots of practice being frugal.”

First, I want to give the couple a “fanatical thumbs up” for saving $1 million by their 30’s. That is an amazing feat which deserves respect and acknowledgment. 

Secondly, they are very budget conscious and willing to sacrifice the luxuries most people long for to live their dream.

Another “thumbs up.”

However, the rise of the “F.I.R.E.” movement is symptomatic of a late stage bull market advance. More importantly, we can also predict how things will turn out for Shen and Leung.

For this discussion I want to use the data provided by Shen and Leung to build our examples.

  • Invested asset value:  $1 million
  • Annualized withdrawal rate: 3.5%
  • Annualized return rate: 6% (Not specified but a reasonable estimate)
  • Living needs: $35,000 annually.
  • Life expectency: 85-years of age.

With these assumptions in place we can begin to do some forecasting about how things eventually turn out. However, we also have to assume:

  • The couple never has children
  • Never requires serious medical care (hopefully)
  • Never considers buying a house
  • Has no major life events, etc.

First, we need to start with the cost of living. As I showed recently in Part 1 of “Everything You’ve Been Told About Savings & Investing Is Wrong” is that the cost of living rises over time due to inflation. However, for most the increase in living costs rises dramatically more as needs for housing, children, education, travel, insurance, and health care occur through stages of life.

For this exercise, we will assume our example couple never changes their lifestyle so only inflation is a factor. We will use the historical average of 2.1% and project it out for 50-years.

Understanding this, we can now take their $1 million, compound it at 6% annually (the preferred mainstream method), and deduct 3.5% annually adjusted for inflation over their 50-year time horizon.

We need to assume that since our couple is in their 30’s, the investable assets are in taxable accounts. Also, if this is the case, and they are not touching the principal, then we need to adjust the annual withdrawals for capital gains tax. The bottom two area charts adjust for 2.1% annual inflation and inflation plus a 15% tax on withdrawals. (Tax is paid on the gains taken to fund the withdrawal and the dividends paid in on an annual basis)

Not surprisingly, if our couple can indeed live on $35,000 a year, even when adjusting for inflation and taxation, a $1 million portfolio growing at 6% annually can indeed support them for their entire lifespan.

Reality Is Different

In Part 3 of our recent series on “saving and investing,” we laid out the issue, and importance, of variable rates of return. To wit:

“When imputing volatility into returns, the differential between what investors were promised (and this is a huge flaw in financial planning) and what happened to their money is substantial over long-term time frames.”

The chart below is exactly the same as above, however, this time we have used the average annual 50-year returns from previous periods in history where starting valuations were greater than 20x earnings as they are today. (High starting valuations beget lower future returns historically speaking.) 

Over a 50-years, our couple will get the benefit of complete valuation and market cycles. In this case, since they are starting with high valuations at the outset, the first 30-years contains a long-period of lower returns, but that last 20-years receives the benefit of higher returns due to valuation reversion.

Due to market volatility and periods of negative growth, the original $1 million portfolio only grows to $3 million when including nominal spending. However, when accounting for volatility, inflation, and taxes, the survival rate of the portfolio diminishes sharply due to two reasons:

  1. Down years reduce the growth rate of the portfolio over the given time frame.
  2. Withdrawals in down years exacerbate the decline in the portfolio. (i.e. Portfolio declines by $65,000 plus the $35,000 annual withdrawal increases the 6.5% decline to 10%.)

Obviously, not accounting for volatility when planning to retire early can have severe future consequences. In this case they will run out of money in year 47.

The Big Bad Bear

As I said at the beginning of this missive, the “F.I.R.E.” movement is the result of a decade-long bull market cycle.

Most likely, our young couple will be met with a “bear market” sooner, rather than later, in their early retirement. If we use the return model from our recent article on “investors and pension funds,” we see a rather dramatic shift in life-expectancy of the portfolio.

“The chart below is the S&P 500 TOTAL REAL return from 1995 to present. I have projected an average return of every period in history where the market peaked following P/E’s exceeding 20x earnings. This provides for variable rates of market returns with cycling bull and bear markets out to 2060. I have also projected ‘average’ returns from 3% to 8% from 1995 to 2060. (The average real total return for the entire period is 6.56% which is likely higher than what current valuation and demographic trends suggest it should be.)”

The benefit of this model is that it shows the impact to portfolio returns when bear markets are “front-loaded,” as will likely be the case for most the “F.I.R.E.” followers. (Note, in the return model above the “bear market” is 5-years into the future)

The reason for the dramatic short-fall is that a major, “rip your face off,” bear market will cut asset values by 50% very early on. All of a sudden, the annual withdrawal rate of 3.5% becomes 7%, which outpaces the ability of the portfolio to grow fast enough to catch up with the withdrawal rate and the loss of principal. In this more realistic example, our couple will run out of money in 30 years.

This is the exact problem “pension funds” face currently.

The Other Problems From “Playing With F.I.R.E.”

While we have mainly addressed the issues surrounding assumptions being used by the ‘F.I.R.E.” movement in having enough assets to retire, there are some other important issues which should be considered.

  1. Loss of your skill set. In retirement it is probable your skill set erodes and becomes outdated over time. New technologies, trends, innovations, etc. are running at a faster pace than ever.
  2. Becoming unemployable. One of the things seen following the financial crisis was employers preferring to hire individuals who were already employed rather than hiring those out of work. The reasoning was that if you were good enough to keep your job during the recession, you obviously have a valuable skill set. Once you are out of the “labor force” for a while, it becomes more difficult to regain employment as employers tend to prefer those with a very steady work history, a growing career, and relevant skill sets.
  3. Life. Besides simply running out of money sooner than you planned because of a bear market, a rising cost of living more than you counted on, or higher taxes (all of which are very likely in the near future) there is also just “life.”  It doesn’t matter how carefully you plan; “S*** Happens!” More importantly, it always happens when you least expect it and at the worst possible time. These things cost money and impact our best laid spending and saving plans. The problem with “retiring early,” is that it leaves plenty of time for things to go wrong. 
  4. Unplanned Accident/Medical Problem. Young people suffer from an “invincibility syndrome.” They tend to not carry insurance, due to the cost, because they “never get sick.” While we certainly hope it never happens, a major accident or health issue can extract tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of capital critically impairing retirement plans.
  5. Too Old To Do Anything About It. The biggest problem for “F.I.R.E.” practitioners is that running out of money late in life leaves VERY few options for the rest of your retirement years. If our math above is even close to correct, which history suggests it is, then our young couple will be faced with going back to work in the 70’s. That is not exactly the retirement most are hoping for. 

As I stated in our previous series, retiring early is far more expensive than most realize. Furthermore, not accounting for variable rates of returns, lower forward returns due to high valuations, and not adjusting for inflation and taxes will leave most far short of their goals. 

While it sounds like I am bashing the “F.I.R.E. Movement,” I am not. I am for ANY program or system that gets young people to save more, stay out of debt, and invest cautiously. The movement is a good thing and it should be embraced.

But, it is also a symptom of a decade-long period of making “easy money” in the financial markets.

These periods ALWAYS end badly and the next “bear market” will quickly “extinguish the F.I.R.E.” as losses mount and dreams have to be put on hold.

It will happen. It always appears easiest at the top.

And, given one of E*Trade’s latest commercials, the next bear market may be coming sooner than we expect.

The One Lesson Investors Should Have Learned From Pension Funds

Just recently I ran a 3-part series on the variety of things individuals believe about saving and investment which is either erroneous or misunderstood. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

The feedback I get when challenging some of the more commonly held beliefs is always interesting. In almost every single case, the arguments against “mathematical realities” comes down to either:

  1. An inability, or unwillingness, to sacrifice today to save more for the future, or;
  2. A “hope” that markets will continue to create returns which will offset the lack of savings.

Okay, it is just a reality that most people don’t want to sacrifice today, for the future tomorrow.

“Live like no one else today, so that you can live like no one else tomorrow.” – Dave Ramsey

Unfortunately, that is the same problem that plagues pension funds all across America today.

As I discussed in “Pension Crisis Is Worse Than You Think,”  it has been unrealistic return assumptions used by pension managers over the last 30-years, which has become problematic.

“Pension computations are performed by actuaries using assumptions regarding current and future demographics, life expectancy, investment returns, levels of contributions or taxation, and payouts to beneficiaries, among other variables. The biggest problem, following two major bear markets, and sub-par annualized returns since the turn of the century, is the expected investment return rate.

Using faulty assumptions is the linchpin to the inability to meet future obligations. By over-estimating returns, it has artificially inflated future pension values and reduced the required contribution amounts by individuals and governments paying into the pension system

Pensions STILL have annual investment return assumptions ranging between 7–8% even after years of underperformance.”

However, why do pension funds continue to have high investment return assumptions despite years of underperformance? It is only for one reason:

To reduce the contribution (savings) requirement by their members.

As I explained previously:

“However, the reason assumptions remain high is simple. If these rates were lowered 1–2 percentage points, the required pension contributions from salaries, or via taxation, would increase dramatically. For each point of reduction in the assumed rate of return, it would require roughly a 10% increase in contributions.

For example, if a pension program reduced its investment return rate assumption from 8% to 7%, a person contributing $100 per month to their pension would be required to contribute $110. Since, for many plan participants, particularly unionized workers, increases in contributions are a hard thing to obtain. Therefore, pension managers are pushed to sustain better-than-market return assumptions, which requires them to take on more risk.

The chart below is the S&P 500 TOTAL REAL return from 1995 to present. I have projected an average return of every period in history where the market peaked following P/E’s exceeding 20x earnings. This provides for variable rates of market returns with cycling bull and bear markets out to 2060. I have also projected “average” returns from 3% to 8% from 1995 to 2060. (The average real total return for the entire period is 6.56% which is likely higher than what current valuation and demographic trends suggest it should be.)

This is also the same problem for the average American faces when planning for 6-8% annual returns on their investment strategy.

Clearly, there is no reason you should save money if the market can do the work for you? Right?

This is a common theme in much of the mainstream advice. To wit:

“Suze Orman explained that if a 25-year-old puts $100 into a Roth IRA each month, they could have $1 million by retirement.” 

Ms. Orman’s statement, while very optimistic, requires the 25-year old to achieve an 11.25% annual rate of return (adjusting for inflation) every single year for the next 40-years.

That certainly isn’t very realistic.

More importantly, as I explained previously, $1 million today, and $1 million in 30-years, are two very different issues due to a rising cost of living over time (a.k.a. inflation.) 

Pick a current income level on the left chart, the number on the right is the current income inflated at 2.1% (average inflation rate) over 30-years. Then pick that level of income on the right chart to see how much is needed to fund that amount annually in retirement at 4% (projected withdrawal rate.) Click to enlarge

What pension funds have now discovered, and unfortunately it is far too late, is that using faulty assumptions, and not requiring higher contributions, has led to an inability to meet future obligations.

“Pensions across the U.S. are falling deeper into a crisis, as the gap between their assets and liabilities widens at the same time that investment returns are falling, according to Bloomberg

The average U.S. plan has only 72.5% of its future obligations in 2018, compared to more than 100% in 2001. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College attributes the deficit to recessions, insufficient government contributions, and generous benefit guarantees. Importantly, the underfunded status is still based on 7% annual return assumptions. 

Unfortunately, the problem will only get worse between now and 2050, according to Visual Capitalist:

“According to an analysis by the World Economic Forum (WEF), there was a combined retirement savings gap in excess of $70 trillion in 2015, spread between eight major economies…The WEF says the deficit is growing by $28 billion every 24 hours – and if nothing is done to slow the growth rate, the deficit will reach $400 trillion by 2050, or about five times the size of the global economy today.”

It isn’t just Pension Funds

Importantly, this is the same trap that individual investors have fallen into as well. By over-estimating future returns, future retirement values are artificially inflated, which reduces the required savings rates. Such also explains why 8-out-of-10 American’s are woefully underfunded for retirement currently.

Using the long-term, total return, inflation-adjusted chart of the S&P 500 above, the chart below compares $1000 compounded at 7% annually to the variable-rate of return model above. The bottom part of the chart shows the difference between actual and compounded rates of return.

This is the “pension problem” the majority of individuals have gotten themselves into currently.

As I wrote previously:

“When imputing volatility into returns, the differential between what individuals are promised (and this is a huge flaw in financial planning) and what actually happens to their money is substantial over the accumulation phase of individuals. Furthermore, most of the average return calculations are based on more than 100-years of data. So, it is quite likely YOU DIED long before you realizing the long-term average rate of return.”

Excuses Will Leave You Short

I get it.

I am an average American too.

Here are the most common excuses I hear:

  1. I “need” to be able to enjoy my life today. 
  2. I have “plenty of time” to save up for retirement.
  3. “Budget,” what ‘s that?
  4. I have social security (or a a pension plan), so I don’t really need to save much.

Let’s talk about that last point.

If you have a public pension plan, congratulations, you are in the 15% of workers that do. Future generations won’t be as fortunate. Moreover, with the underfunded status of pensions funds running between $4-5 Trillion, this may not be a “safety net” to bet your entire retirement on.

Social security is also underfunded and payout cuts are expected by 2025 if actions are taken to resolve its issue. The same demographic trends which are plaguing pension funds also weigh heavily on the social security system.

As stated above, the biggest problem for Social Security is that it has already begun to pay out more in benefits than it receives in taxes. As the cash surplus is depleted, which is primarily government I.O.U.’s, Social Security will not be able to pay full benefits from its tax revenues alone. It will then need to consume ever-growing amounts of general revenue dollars to meet its obligations–money that now pays for everything from environmental programs to highway construction to defense. Eventually, either benefits will have to be slashed or the rest of the government will have to shrink to accommodate the “welfare state.” 

It is highly unlikely the latter will happen.

Demographic trends are fairly easy to forecast and predict. Each year from now until 2025, we will see successive rounds of boomers reach the 62-year-old threshold.

Excuses aside, continuing to under-save, and counting on social security and a pension fund to make up the difference, may have very different outcomes than many are currently planning on.

Simple Is Not Always Better

“All you have to do is buy an index fund, dollar cost average into it, and in 30-years you will be set.”

See, it’s simple.

It is why our world has been reduced to sound bytes and 280-character compositions. Financial, retirement, and investment planning, while complicated issues in reality, have become “click bait.”

But a “simple and optimistic” answer belies the hard-truths of investing and market dynamics.

It’s what Pension Funds banked on.

Simple isn’t always better.

Currently, 75.4 million Baby Boomers in America—about 26% of the U.S. population—have reached, or will reach, retirement age by 2030. Unfortunately, the majority of these individuals are woefully under saved for retirement and are “hoping” for compounded annual rates of return to bail them out.

It hasn’t happened, it isn’t going to happen, and the next “bear market” will wipe most of them out permanently.

The analysis above reveals the important lessons individuals should have learned from the failure of pension funds:

  • Lower expectations for future returns and withdrawal rates due to current valuations, interest rates, and long-run economic growth forecasts.
  • With higher rates of returns going forward unlikely, increase savings rates.
  • The impact of taxation must be considered in the planned withdrawal rate.
  • Future inflation expectations must be carefully considered; it’s better to overestimate.
  • Drawdowns from portfolios during declining market environments accelerates the principal bleed. Plans should be made during up years to harbor capital for reduced portfolio withdrawals during adverse market conditions.
  • Future income planning must be done carefully with default risk carefully considered.
  • Most importantly, drop compounded, or average, annual rates of return for plans using variable rates of future returns.

The myriad of advice suggesting one can undersave and invest their way into retirement has a long and brutal history of leaving individuals short of their goals.

If even half of the mainstream commentary on investing were true, wouldn’t there be a large majority of individuals well saved for retirement? Instead, there are mountains of statistical data which show the majority of American’s don’t even have one-year’s salary saved for retirement, much less $1 million.

Yes, please be optimistic about your future and “hope for the best.”

However, if you plan for the “worst,” the odds of success become much higher.

It’s a lesson we can all learn from Pension Funds.

Questions About The “Stellar” June Jobs Report (Which Also Confirm The Fed’s Concerns)

On Wednesday, Jerome Powell testified before Congress the U.S. economy is “suffering” from a bout of uncertainty caused by trade tensions and slow global growth. To wit:

“Since [the Fed meeting in mid-June], based on incoming data and other developments, it appears that uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the U.S. economic outlook.”

That outlook, however, would seem to be askew of the recent employment report for June from the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week. That report showed an increase in employment of 224,000 jobs. It was also the 105th consecutive positive jobs report, which is one of the longest in U.S. history.

However, if employment is as “strong” as is currently believed, which should be a reflection of the underlying economy, then precisely what is the Fed seeing?

Well, I have a few questions for you to ponder concerning to the latest employment report which may actually support the Fed’s case for rate cuts. These questions are also important to your investment outlook as there is a high correlation between employment, economic growth, and not surprisingly, corporate profitability.

Let’s get started.

Prelude: The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment prior to the onset of a recession. The current annual rate of employment growth is 1.5%, which is lower than any previous employment level prior to a recession in history.

More importantly, as noted by Lakshman Achuthan and Anirvan Banerji via Bloomberg:

“A key part of the answer lies with jobs ‘growth,’ which has been slowing much more than most probably realize. Despite the better-than-forecast jobs report for June, the fact is the labor force has contracted by more than 600,000 workers this year. And we’re not just talking about the disappointing non-farm payroll jobs numbers for April and May.

Certainly, that caused year-over-year payroll growth, based on the Labor Department’s Establishment Survey – a broad survey of businesses and government agencies – to decline to a 13-month low. But year-over-year job growth, as measured by the separate Household Survey – based on a Labor Department survey of actual households – that is used to calculate the unemployment rate is only a hair’s breadth from a five-and-a-half-year low.”


Question: Given the issues noted above, does it seem as if the entirety of the economy is as robust as stated by the mainstream media? More importantly, how does 1.5% annualized growth in employment create sustained rates of higher economic growth going forward?


Prelude: One thing which is never discussed when reporting on employment is the “growth” of the working age population. Each month, new entrants into the population create “demand” through their additional consumption. Employment should increase to accommodate for the increased demand from more participants in the economy. Either that or companies resort to automation, off-shoring, etc. to increase rates of production without increases in labor costs. The next chart shows the total increase in employment versus the growth of the working age population.


Question: Just how “strong” is employment growth? Does it seem that 96%+ of the working-age population is gainfully employed?


Prelude: The missing “millions” shown in the chart above is one of the “great mysteries” about one of the longest economic booms in U.S. history. This is particularly a conundrum when the Federal Reserve talks about the economy nearing “full employment.”

The next several charts focus on the idea of “full employment” in the U.S. While Jobless Claims are reaching record lows, the percentage of full time versus part-time employees is still well below levels of the last 35 years. It is also possible that people with multiple part-time jobs are being double counted in the employment data.


Question: With jobless claims at historic lows, and the unemployment rate below 4%, then why is full-time employment relative to the working-age population at just 50.10% (Only slightly above the 1980 peak)?


Prelude: One of the arguments often given for the low labor force participation rates is that millions of “baby boomers” are leaving the workforce for retirement. This argument doesn’t carry much weight given the significantly larger “Millennial” generation that is simultaneously entering the workforce.

However, for argument sake, let’s assume that every worker over the age of 55 retires. If the “retiring” argument is valid, then employment participation rates should soar once that group is removed. The chart below is full-time employment relative to the working-age population of 16-54.


Question: At 50.38%, and the lowest rate since 1981, just how big of an impact are “retiring baby boomers” having on the employment numbers?


Prelude: One of the reasons the retiring “baby boomer” theory is flawed is, well, they aren’t actually retiring. Following two massive bear markets, weak economic growth, questionable spending habits, and poor financial planning, more individuals over the age of 55 are still working than at any other time since 1960.

The other argument is that Millennials are going to school longer than before so they aren’t working either. The chart below strips out those of college age (16-24) and those over the age of 55. Those between the ages of 25-54 should be working.


Question: With the prime working age group of labor force participants still at levels seen previously in 1988, just how robust is the labor market actually?


Prelude: Of course, there are some serious considerations which need to be taken into account about the way the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures employment. The first is the calculation of those no longer counted as part of the labor force. Beginning in 2000, those no longer counted as part of the labor force detached from its longer-term trend. The immediate assumption is all these individuals retired, but as shown above, we know this is not exactly the case.


Question: Where are the roughly 95-million Americans missing from the labor force? This is an important question as it relates to the labor force participation rate. Secondly, these people presumably are alive and participating in the economy so exactly how valid is the employment calculation when 1/3rd of the working-age population is simply not counted?


Prelude: The second questionable calculation is the birth/death adjustment. I addressed this in more detail previously, but here is the general premise.

Following the financial crisis, the number of “Births & Deaths” of businesses unsurprisingly declined. Yet, each month, while the market is glued to the headline number, they additions from the “birth/death” adjustment go both overlooked and unquestioned.

Every month, the BLS adds numerous jobs to the non-seasonally adjusted payroll count to “adjust” for the number of “small businesses” being created each month, which in turns “creates a job.”  (The total number is then seasonally adjusted.)

Here is my problem with the adjustment.

The BLS counts ALL business formations as creating employment. However, in reality, only about 1/5th of businesses created each year actually have an employee. The rest are created for legal purposes like trusts, holding companies, etc. which have no employees whatsoever. This is shown in the chart below which compares the number of businesses started WITH employees from those reported by the BLS. (Notice that beginning in 2014, there is a perfect slope in the advance which is consistent with results from a mathematical projection rather than use of actual data.)

These rather “fictitious” additions to the employee ranks reported each year are not small, but the BLS tends even to overestimate the total number of businesses created each year (employer AND non-employer) by a large amount.

How big of a difference are we talking about?

Well, in the decade between 2006 and 2016 (the latest update from the Census Bureau) the BLS added roughly 7.6 million more employees than were created in new business formations.

This data goes a long way in explaining why, despite record low unemployment, there is a record number of workers outside the labor force, 25% of households are on some form of government benefit, wages remain suppressedand the explosion of the “wealth gap.” 


Question: If 1/3rd of the working-age population simply isn’t counted, and the birth-death adjustment inflates the employment roles, just how accurate is the employment data?


Prelude: If the job market was as “tight” as is suggested by an extremely low unemployment rate, the wage growth should be sharply rising across all income spectrums. The chart below is the annual change in real national compensation (less rental income) as compared to the annual change in real GDP. Since the economy is 70% driven by personal consumption, it should be of no surprise the two measures are highly correlated.

Side Question: Has “renter nation” gone too far?


Question: Again, if employment was as strong as stated by the mainstream media, would not compensation, and subsequently economic growth, be running at substantially stronger levels rather than at rates which have been more normally associated with past recessions?


I have my own assumptions and ideas relating to each of these questions. However, the point of this missive is simply to provide you the data for your own analysis. The conclusion you come to has wide-ranging considerations for investment portfolios and allocation models.

Does the data above support the notion of a strongly growing economy that still has “years left to run?”  

Or, does the fact the Fed is considering cutting interest rates to stimulate economic growth suggests the economy may already be weaker than headlines suggest?

One important note to all of this is the conclusion from Achuthan and Banerji:

“But there’s even more cause for concern. Months from now, the Establishment Survey will undergo its annual retrospective benchmark revision, based almost entirely on the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages conducted by the Labor Department. That’s because the QCEW is not just a sample-based survey, but a census that counts jobs at every establishment, meaning that the data are definitive but take time to collect. 

The Establishment Survey’s nonfarm jobs figures will clearly be revised down as the QCEW data show job growth averaging only 177,000 a month in 2018. That means the Establishment Survey may be overstating the real numbers by more than 25%.”

These facts are in sharp contrast to strong job growth narrative.

But then again, maybe the yield-curve is already telling the answer to these questions.

Everything You Are Being Told About Saving & Investing Is Wrong – Part 3

Click Here For Part 1 – The Savings Error

Click Here for PART 2 – You Don’t Get Average Or Compound Returns

This final chapter is going to cover some concepts which will destroy the best laid financial plans if they are not accounted for properly. 

Just recently, CNBC ran a story discussing the “Magic Number” needed to retire:

“For many people who adhere to the mission, there’s a savings target they want to hit, at which point they will have reached financial independence, as they define it. It’s called their FIRE number, and typically, it’s equal to 25 times a household’s annual spending, invested in low-cost, passive stock funds. Many wannabe-early retirees aim to save between $1 million and $2 million.”

This was the savings level we addressed in part one, which is erroneous because it is based on today’s income-replacement level and not the future inflation-adjusted replacement level, as it requires substantially higher savings levels. To wit:

“The chart below takes the inflation-adjusted level of income for each bracket and calculates the asset level necessary to generate that income assuming a 4% withdrawal rate. This is compared to common recommendations of 25x current income.”

“If you need to fund a lifestyle of $100,000 or more today. You are going to need $5 million at retirement in 30-years.

Not accounting for the future cost of living is going to leave most individuals living in tiny houses and eating lots of rice and beans.”

The Cost Of Miscalculation

As noted in the CNBC article above, it is recommended that you invest your savings into low-cost index funds. The assumption, of course, is that these funds will average 8% annually. As discussed in Part One, markets don’t operate that way. 

“When imputing volatility into returns, the differential between what investors were promised (and this is a huge flaw in financial planning) and what actually happened to their money is substantial over long-term time frames.”

During strongly trending bull markets, investors tend to forget that devastating events happen. Major events such as the “Crash of 1929,” “The Great Depression,” the “1974 Bear Market,” the “Crash of ’87”, the “Dot.com” bust, and the “Financial Crisis,” etc. often written off as “once in a generation” or “1-in-100-year events.” However, these financial shocks have come along much more often than suggested. Importantly, all of these events had a significant negative impact on an individual’s “plan for retirement.”

It doesn’t have to be a “financial crisis” which derails the best laid of financial plans either. An investment gone wrong, an unexpected illness, loss of job, etc. can all have devastating impacts to future retirement plans. 

Then there is just “life,” which tends to screw up things without a tragedy occurring. 

Making the correct assumptions in your planning is critical to your eventual success.

Your Personal Returns Will Be Less Than An “Index”

One of the biggest mistakes made is assuming markets will grow at a consistent rate over the given time frame to retirement. As noted, there is a massive difference between compounded returns and real returns as shown above. Furthermore, the shortfall is compounded further when you begin to add in the impact of fees, taxes, and inflation over the given time frame.

The chart below shows what happens to a $1000 investment from 1871 to present, including the effects of inflation, taxes, and fees. (Assumptions: I have used a 15% tax rate on years the portfolio advanced in value, CPI as the benchmark for inflation and a 1% annual expense ratio.)

There are other problems with chasing an “index” also:

  • The index contains no cash
  • An index has no life expectancy requirements – but you do.
  • It doesn’t have to compensate for distributions to meet living requirements – but you do.
  • It requires you to take on excess risk (potential for loss) in order to obtain equivalent performance – this is fine on the way up, but not on the way down.
  • It has no taxes, costs or other expenses associated with it – but you do.
  • It has the ability to substitute at no penalty – but you don’t.
  • It benefits from share buybacks (market capitaliziaton) – but you don’t.

As an individual you have very little in common with a “benchmark index.” Investing is not a “competition” and treating it as such has had disastrous consequences over time. 

Financial Planning Gone Wrong

I know, you still don’t believe me.  Let’s use CNBC’s example and then break it down.

For instance, imagine a retiree who has a $1,000,000 balanced portfolio, and wants to plan for a 30-year retirement, where inflation averages 3% and the balanced portfolio averages 8% in the long run. To make the money last for the entire time horizon, the retiree would start out by spending $61,000 initially, and then adjust each subsequent year for inflation, spending down the retirement account balance by the end of the 30th year.”

Over the last 120-years, the market has indeed averaged 8-10% annually. Unfortunately, you do NOT have 90, 100, or more years to invest. All that you have is the time between today and when you want to retire to reach your goals. If that stretch of time happens to include a 12-15 year period in which returns are flat, which happens with some regularity, the odds of achieving goals are massively diminished.

But what drives those 12-15 year periods of flat to little return? Valuations.

Understanding this, we can use valuations, such as CAPE, to form expectations around risk and return. The graph below shows the actual 30-year annualized returns that accompanied given levels of CAPE.

The analysis above reveals the important points individuals should consider in their financial planning process:

  • Expectations for future returns and withdrawal rates should be downwardly adjusted.
  • The potential for front-loaded returns going forward is unlikely.
  • The impact of taxation must be considered in the planned withdrawal rate.
  • Future inflation expectations must be carefully considered.
  • Drawdowns from portfolios during declining market environments accelerates the principal bleed. Plans should be made during up years to harbor capital for reduced portfolio withdrawals during adverse market conditions.
  • The yield chase over the last 8-years, and low interest rate environment, has created an extremely risky environment for retirement income planning. Caution is advised.
  • Expectations for compounded annual rates of returns should be dismissed in lieu of plans for variable rates of future returns.

Investing for retirement, no matter what age you are, should be done conservatively and cautiously with the goal of outpacing inflation over time. This doesn’t mean you should never invest in the stock market, it just means that your portfolio should be constructed to deliver a rate of return sufficient to meet your long-term goals with as little risk as possible.

  1. Save More And Spend Less: This is the only way to ensure you will be adequately prepared for retirement. It ain’t sexy, or fun, but it will absolutely work.
  2. You Will Be WRONG. The markets go through cycles, just like the economy. Despite hopes for a never-ending bull market, the reality is “what goes up will eventually come down.”
  3. RISK does NOT equal return. The further the markets rise, the bigger the correction will be. RISK = How much you will lose when you are wrong, and you will be wrong more often than you think.
  4. Don’t Be House Rich. A paid off house is great, but if you are going into retirement house rich and cash poor, you will be in trouble. You don’t pay off your house UNTIL your retirement savings are fully in place and secure.
  5. Have A Huge Wad. Going into retirement have a large cash cushion. You do not want to be forced to draw OUT of a pool of investments during years where the market is declining. This compounds the losses in the portfolio and destroys principal which cannot be replaced.
  6. Plan for the worst. You should want a happy and secure retirement – so plan for the worst. If you are banking solely on Social Security and a pension plans, what would happen if the pension was cut? Corporate bankruptcies happen all the time and to companies that most never expected. By planning for the worst, anything other outcome means you are in great shape.

Most likely what ever retirement planning you have done is most likely overly optimistic.

Change your assumptions, ask questions, and plan for the worst. 

The best thing about “planning for the worst” is that all other outcomes are a “win.” 

Everything You Are Being Told About Saving & Investing Is Wrong – Part 2

Click Here For Part 1 – The Savings Error

Click Here For PART 3 – Flaws In Financial Planning

It is always interesting reading article comments as they are generally full of excuses why saving money and building wealth can’t be done. The general thesis is that as long as you have social security (which is threatening payout cuts over the next decade) and/or a pension (which only applies to 15% of the country currently,) then you don’t need to save as much. 

Personally,  I don’t want my retirement based on things which are a) underfunded 2) subject to government-mandated changes, and 3) out of my control. In other words, when planning for an uncertain future, it is always optimal to hope for the best but plan for the worst.

However, the premise of the article was to clear up the disconnect between the cost of living today and 30-years into the future, as well as the amount of money needed to be financially independent for the entire lifespan after retirement.

Yes, we can all get by on less, in theory. But an examination of retirement savings statistics and the cost of healthcare in retirement (primarily due to poor healthcare habits earlier in life) doesn’t necessarily support those comments that saving less and being primarily dependent on Social Security is optimal. 

The Investing Problem

While “Part One”  focused on the amount savings required to sustain whatever level of lifestyle you choose in the future, we also need to discuss the issue of the investing side of the equation. 

Let’s start with a comment made on Part-One of this series:

“If you want to play it safe just buy a no-load, low fee, index fund and index into it regularly. Pay yourself first. Let the power of compounding do its magic.”

See, it’s so easy. Just buy and index fund, dollar cost average into it, and “bingo,” you have got it made. 

Okay, I’ll bite. 

If that is the case, then why this?

“More than half of Americans who were adults amid the Great Recession said they endured some type of negative financial impact, Bankrate found. And half of those people say they’re doing worse now than before the crisis.”

Or this:

“According to a brand new survey from Bankrate.com, just 37% of Americans have enough savings to pay for a $500 or $1,000 emergency. The other 63% would have to resort to measures like cutting back spending in other areas (23%), charging to a credit card (15%) or borrowing funds from friends and family (15%) in order to meet the cost of the unexpected event.”

As I stated in the previous article, I am all for any program and process which encourages people to save and invest for their retirement. My hope is that we can clear up some of the “misconceptions” to improve the chances that retirement years are not spent collecting food stamps and shopping at the local “Goodwill” store, 

Let’s start by clearing up the numerous erroneous comments on the previous article with respect to returns and investing. 

Compound & Average Are Not The Same Thing

” Markets have returned roughly 10% per year of compounded growth, INCLUDING the down years.”

What the commenter is confused about is, as stated previously, is that markets have variable rates of returns. Historically, over the last 120 years, the market has AVERAGED roughly 10% annually. (6% from capital appreciation which is equivalent to the long-term economic growth rate, and 4% from dividends. Today, economic growth is averaging 2%ish since 2000 and dividends are 2% so do the math for future return expectations. 2+2=4%. (Since 2000, average growth has been just a bit more than 5% and the next bear market will roll that average back to 4%)

The chart below shows the difference in nominal values of $1000 invested on an actual basis versus a compounded rate of return of 6% (For the example we are using capital appreciation only.)

Mathematically, both of those lines equate to a 6% return.

The top line is what investors THINK they will get (compound returns.) The bottom line is what they ACTUALLY get 

The difference is when losses applied to invested dollars. The periods of time spent making up previous losses is not the same as growing money. (Bonds, which mature at face value and have a fixed coupon, have had the same return as stocks since the turn of the century.)

This “math problem” is the reason there is a pension fund crisis in the U.S. The massively underfunded pension system was caused by depending on 7%-annual returns in order to reduce saving rates. 

Variable Rates Of Return Change The Game

In Part 1, we laid out a simple example of various current incomes adjusted for inflation 30-years into the future. I am presenting the chart again so the subsequent charts have context.

Now, let’s look at the impact of variable rates of returns on outcomes.

Let’s assume someone starts a super aggressive program of saving 50% of their income annually in 1988. (This was at the beginning of one of the greatest bull market booms in history giving them every advantage of front loaded returns and they get the benefit of the last 10-year long bull market.)  Since our young saver has to have a job from which to earn income to save and invest, we assume he begins his journey at the age of 25.

The chart below starts with an initial investment of 50% of the various income levels shown above with 50% annual savings into the S&P 500 index. The entire portfolio is on a total return basis and adjusted for inflation. 

Wow, they certainly saved a lot of money, and they met the amount need to completely replace their inflation-adjusted living standards for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, our young saver didn’t actually retire all that early.

Despite the idea that by saving 50% of one’s income and dollar-cost averaging into index funds, it still took until April of 2017 to reach the retirement goal. Yes, our your saver did retire early at the age of 54, and it only took 29-years of saving and investing 50% of their salary to get there.

Given the realities of simply maintaining a rising standard of living, the ability for many to save 50% of their income is likely unrealistic. If it wasn’t then we would not have statistics like this:

Instead, the next chart shows the same data but starting with 10% of our young saver’s income and adding 10% annually. (Which is theMagic Number” for success)

Okay, it’s not so “Magic.” 

There are two important things to note in the charts above. 

The first is that saving 10% annually leaves individuals far short of their retirement needs. The second is that despite two massive bull market advances, it was the lost 13-year period from 2000 to 2013 which left individuals far short of their retirement goals. 

What the majority of investors misunderstand when throwing around numbers like 6% average returns, 10% compound returns, etc., is that losses matter, and they matter a lot.

Here are the TWO most important lessons:

  1. Getting back to even is not the same as making money.
  2. The time lost in reaching your financial goals can not be recovered.

It should be relatively obvious the last decade of a massive, liquidity driven advance will eventually suffer much the same fate as every other massive bull market advance in history. This isn’t a message of “doom,” but rather the simple reality that every bull market advance must be followed by a reversion to remove the excesses built up during the previous cycle.

The chart below tells a simple story. When valuations are elevated (red), forward returns have been low and market corrections have been exceptionally deep. When valuations are cheap (green), investors have been handsomely rewarded for taking on investment risk.

With valuations currently on par with those on the eve of the Great Depression and only bettered by the late 1990’s tech boom, it should not be surprising that many are ringing alarm bells about potentially low rates of return in the future. It is not just CAPE, but a host of other measures including price/sales, Tobin’s Q, and Equity-Q are sending the same message.

The problem with fundamental measures, as shown with CAPE, is that they can remain elevated for years before a correction, or a “mean reverting” event, occurs. It is during these long periods where valuation indicators “appear” to be “wrong” that investors dismiss them and chase market returns instead.

Such has always, without exception, had an unhappy ending. 

Things You Can Do To Succeed

There are many ways to approach managing portfolio risk and avoiding more major “mean reverting”events. While we don’t recommend or suggest that you try to “time the market” by being “all in” or “all out,”  it is critical to avoid major market losses during the accumulation phase. As an example, the chart below shows how using a simple 12-month moving average to avoid major drawdowns can impact long-term returns. We used the same 10% savings rate as above, dollar cost averaged into an S&P 500 index on a monthly basis, and moved to cash when the 12-month moving average is breached.

By avoiding the drawdowns, our young saver not only succeeded in reaching their goals but did so 31-months sooner than our example of saving 50% annually. It doesn’t matter what methodology you use to minimize risk, the end result will be same if you can successfully navigate the full-cycles of the market.  

You Can Do This

Last week, we laid out some suggestions on what you can do to build savings. This week will add the suggestions for the investing side of the equation.

  • It’s all about “cash flow.” – you can’t save if you don’t have positive cash flow.
  • Budget – it’s a four-letter word for most Americans, but you can’t have positive cash flow without it.
  • Get off social media – one of the biggest impacts to over spending is “social media” and “keeping up with the Jones’.” If advertisers were getting your money from social media they wouldn’t advertise there.
  • Get out of debt and stay that way. No, you do not need a credit card to build credit.
  • If you can’t pay cash for it, you can’t afford it. Do I really need to explain that?
  • Expectations for future returns should be downwardly adjusted. (You aren’t going to make 6% annually)
  • The potential for front-loaded returns going forward is unlikely.
  • Control investment behaviors and emotions that detract from portfolio returns is critical.
  • Future inflation expectations must be carefully considered.
  • Account for “variable rates of returns” in your plan rather than “average” or “compound.” 
  • Understand risk and control drawdowns in portfolios during market declines.
  • Save money regularly, invest when reward outweighs the risk. Cash is always an alternative.

Lastly, remember that “time” is your most valuable commodity and is the only thing we can’t get more of. 

Everything You Are Being Told About Saving & Investing Is Wrong – Part I

Click Here for PART 2 – You Don’t Get Average Or Compound Returns

Click Here For PART 3 – Flaws In Financial Planning

Let me start out by saying that I am all for any piece of advice which suggest individuals should save more. Saving money is a huge problem for the bulk of American’s as noted by numerous statistics. To wit:

“American have an average of $6,506 in credit card debt, according to a new Experian report out this week. But which expenses are adding to that balance the most? A full 23% of Americans say that paying for basic necessities such as rent, utilities and food contributes the most to their credit card debt. Another 12% say medical bills are the biggest portion of their debt.”

That $6500 credit card balance is something we have addressed previously as it relates to the ability of an average family of four in the U.S. to just cover basic living expenses.

“The ‘gap’ between the ‘standard of living’ and real disposable incomes is more clearly shown below. Beginning in 1990, incomes alone were no longer able to meet the standard of living so consumers turned to debt to fill the ‘gap.’ However, following the ‘financial crisis,’ even the combined levels of income and debt no longer fill the gap. Currently, there is a $3200 annual deficit that cannot be filled.”

This is why we continue to see consumer credit hitting all-time records despite an economic boom, rising wage growth, historically low unemployment rates.

Flawed Advice

The media loves to put out “feel good” information like the following:

“If you start at age 23, for instance, you only have to save about $14 a day to be a millionaire by age 67. That’s assuming a 6% average annual investment return.”

Or this one from IBD:

“If you’re earning $75,000, by age 40 you need 2.4 times your income, or $180,000, in retirement savings. Simple as that.” (Assumes 10% annual savings rate and a 6% annual rate of return)

See, it’s easy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

Let’s start with return assumptions.

Markets Don’t Compound

I have written numerous times about this in the past.

Let’s assume an investor wants to compound their investments by 10% a year over a 5-year period.

The ‘power of compounding’ ONLY WORKS when you do not lose money. As shown, after three straight years of 10% returns, a drawdown of just 10% cuts the average annual compound growth rate by 50%. Furthermore, it then requires a 30% return to regain the average rate of return required. In reality, chasing returns is much less important to your long-term investment success than most believe.”

When imputing volatility into returns, the differential between what investors were promised (and this is a huge flaw in financial planning) and what actually happened to their money is substantial over long-term time frames.

Here is another way to look at it.

If you could simply just stick money in the market and it grew by 6% every year, then how is it possible to have 10 and 20-year periods of near ZERO to negative returns?

The level of valuations when you start your investing journey is all you need to know about where you are going to wind up.

$1 Million Sounds Like A Lot – It’s Not

I get it.

$1 million sounds like a whole lot of money. It’s a nice, big, round number with lot’s of zeros.

In 1980, $1 million would generate between $100,000 and $120,000 per year while the cost of living for a family of four in the U.S. was approximately $20,000/year.

Today, there is about a $40,000 shortfall between the income $1 million will generate and the cost of living.

This is just a rough calculation based on historical averages. However, the amount of money you need in retirement is based on what you think your income needs will be when you get there and how long you have to reach that goal.

If you are part of the F.I.R.E. movement and want to live in a tiny house, sacrifice luxuries, and eat lots of rice and beans, like this couple, that is certainly an option.

For most there is a desire to live a similar, or better, lifestyle in retirement. However, over time our standard of living will increase with respect to our life-cycle stages. Children, bigger houses to accommodate those children, education, travel, etc. all require higher incomes. (Which is the reason the U.S. has the largest retirement savings gap in the world.)

If you are in the latter camp, like me, a “million dollars ain’t gonna cut it.”

Don’t Forget The Inflation

The problem with all of these “It’s so simple a cave man could do it” articles about “save and invest your way to wealth” is not only the variable rates of returns discussed above, but impact of inflation on future living standards.

Let’s set up an example.

  • John is 23 years old and earns $40,000 a year.
  • He saves $14 a day 
  • At 67 he will have $1 million saved up (assuming he actually gets that 6% annual rate of return)
  • He then withdraws 4% of the balance to live on matching his $40,000 annual income.

That pretty straightforward math.

IT’S ENTIRELY WRONG.

The living requirement in 44 years is based on today’s income level, not the future income level required to maintain the current living standard. 

Look at the chart below and select your current level of income. The number on the left is your income level today and the number on the right is the amount of income you will need in 30-years to live the same lifestyle you are living today.

This is based on the average inflation rate over the last two decades of 2.1%. However, if inflation runs hotter in the future, these numbers become materially larger.

Here is the same chart lined out.

The chart above exposes two problems with the entire premise:

  1. The required income is not adjusted for inflation over the savings time-frame, and;
  2. The shortfall between the levels of current income and what is actually required at 4% to generate the income level needed.

The chart below takes the inflation-adjusted level of income for each brackets and calculates the asset level necessary to generate that income assuming a 4% withdrawal rate. This is compared to common recommendations of 25x current income.

If you need to fund a lifestyle of $100,000 or more today. You are going to need $5 million at retirement in 30-years.

Not accounting for the future cost of living is going to leave most individuals living in tiny houses and eating lots of rice and beans.

Things You Can Do To Succeed

The analysis reveals the important points young investors should consider given current valuation levels and the reality of investing over the long-term:

  • Pay yourself first, aggressively. Saving money is how you pay yourself for working. 30% is the real magic number. 
  • It’s all about “cash flow.” – you can’t save if you spend more than you make and rack up debt. #Logic
  • Budget – it’s a four-letter word for most Americans, but you can’t have positive cash flow without it.
  • Get off social media – one of the biggest impacts to over-spending is “social media” and “keeping up with the friends.” If advertisers were not getting your money from social media ads they wouldn’t advertise there. (Side benefit is that you will be mentally healthier and more productive by doing so.)
  • Pick up a side hustle, or two, or threeOnce you drop social media it will free up 4-6 hours a week, or more, with which you can increase your income. There are tons of apps today to let you earn extra money and “No” it’s not beneath you to do so. 
  • Get out of debt and stay that way. No, you do not need a credit card to build credit.
  • If you can’t pay cash for it, you can’t afford it. Do I really need to explain that?
  • Future inflation expectations must be carefully considered.
  • Expectations for compounded annual rates of returns should be dismissed 

Don’t misunderstand me….I love ANY program that encourages individuals to get out of debt, save money, and invest. 

Period. No caveats.

There is one sure-fire way to go from “being broke” to being “rich” – write a book on how to do it and sell it to broke people. (See “Broke Millennial” and “Millennial Money.”– but hey that’s capitalism and you can do it too.)

But, if investing were as easy as just sticking your money in the market, wouldn’t “everyone” be rich?

Technically Speaking: The Drums Of Trade War – Part Deux

In June of 2018, as the initial rounds of the “Trade War” were heating up, I wrote:

“Next week, the Trump Administration will announce $50 billion in ‘tariffs’ on Chinese products. The trade war remains a risk to the markets in the short-term.

Of course, 2018 turned out to be a volatile year for investors which ended in the sell-off into Christmas Eve.

As we have been writing for the last couple of weeks, the risks to the market have risen markedly as we head into the summer months.

“It is a rare occasion when the markets don’t have a significant intra-year correction. But it is a rarer event not to have a correction in a year where extreme deviations from long-term moving averages occur early in the year. Currently, the market is nearly 6% above its 200-dma. As noted, such deviations from the norm tend not to last long and “reversions to the mean” occur with regularity.”

“With the market pushing overbought, extended, and bullish extremes, a correction to resolve this condition is quite likely. The only question is the cause, depth, and duration of that corrective process. Again, this is why we discussed taking profits and rebalancing risk in our portfolios last week.”

Well, that certainly didn’t take long. As of Monday’s close, the entirety of the potential 5-6% decline has already been tagged.

The concern currently, is that while the 200-dma is critical to warding off a deeper decline, the escalation of the “trade war” is going to advance the timing of a recession and bear market. 

Let me explain why.

The Drums Of “Trade War”

On Monday, we woke to the “sound of distant drums” beating out the warning of escalation as China retaliated to Trump’s tariffs last week. To wit:

“After vowing over the weekend to “never surrender to external pressure,” Beijing has defied President Trump’s demands that it not resort to retaliatory tariffs and announced plans to slap new levies on $60 billion in US goods.

  • CHINA SAYS TO RAISE TARIFFS ON SOME U.S. GOODS FROM JUNE 1
  • CHINA SAYS TO RAISE TARIFFS ON $60B OF U.S. GOODS
  • CHINA SAYS TO RAISE TARIFFS ON 2493 U.S. GOODS TO 25%
  • CHINA MAY STOP PURCHASING US AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS:GLOBAL TIMES
  • CHINA MAY REDUCE BOEING ORDERS: GLOBAL TIMES
  • CHINA ADDITIONAL TARIFFS DO NOT INCLUDE U.S. CRUDE OIL
  • CHINA RAISES TARIFF ON U.S. LNG TO 25% EFFECTIVE JUNE 1

China’s announcement comes after the White House raised tariffs on some $200 billion in Chinese goods to 25% from 10% on Friday (however, the new rates will only apply to goods leaving Chinese ports on or after the date where the new tariffs took effect).

Here’s a breakdown of how China will impose tariffs on 2,493 US goods. The new rates will take effect at the beginning of next month.

  • 2,493 items to be subjected to 25% tariffs.
  • 1,078 items to be subject to 20% of tariffs
  • 974 items subject to 10% of tariffs
  • 595 items continue to be levied at 5% tariffs

In further bad news for American farmers, China might stop purchasing agricultural products from the US, reduce its orders for Boeing planes and restrict service trade. There has also been talk that the PBOC could start dumping Treasuries (which would, in addition to pushing US rates higher, also have the effect of strengthening the yuan).”

The last point is the most important, particularly for domestic investors, as it is a change in their stance from last year. As we noted when the “trade war” first started:

The only silver lining in all of this is that so far, China hasn’t invoked the nuclear options: dumping FX reserves (either bonds or equities), or devaluing the currency. If Trump keeps pushing, however, both are only a matter of time.”

Clearly, China has now put those options on the table, at least verbally.

It is essential to understand that foreign countries “sanitize” transactions with the U.S. by buying or selling Treasuries to keep currency exchange rates stable. As you can see, there is a high correlation between fluctuations in the Yuan and treasury activity.

One way for China to both penalize the U.S. for tariffs, and by “the U.S.” I mean the consumer, is to devalue the Yuan relative to the dollar. This can be done by either stopping the process of sanitizing transactions with the U.S. or by accelerating the issue through the selling of U.S. Treasury holdings.

The other potential ramification is the impact on interest rates in the U.S. which is a substantial secondary risk.

China understands that the U.S. consumer is heavily indebted and small changes to interest rates have an exponential impact on consumption in the U.S.. For example, in 2018 interest rates rose to 3.3% and mortgages and auto loans came to screeching halt. More importantly, debt delinquency rates showed a sharp uptick.

Consumers have very little “wiggle room” to adjust for higher borrowing costs, higher product costs, or a slowing economy that accelerates job losses.

However, it isn’t just the consumer that will take the hit. It is the stock market due to lower earnings.

Playing The Trade

Let me review what we said previously about the impact of a trade war on the markets.

“While many have believed a ‘trade war’ will be resolved without consequence, there are two very important points that most of mainstream analysis is overlooking. For investors, a trade war would likely negatively impact earnings and profitability while slowing economic growth through higher costs.”

While the markets have indeed been more bullishly biased since the beginning of the year, which was mostly based on “hopes” of a “trade resolution,” we have couched our short-term optimism with an ongoing view of the “risks” which remain. An escalation of a “trade war” is one of those risks, the other is a policy error by the Federal Reserve which could be caused by the acceleration a “trade war.” 

In June of 2018, I did the following analysis:

“Wall Street is ignoring the impact of tariffs on the companies which comprise the stock market. Between May 1st and June 1st of this year, the estimated reported earnings for the S&P 500 have already started to be revised lower (so we can play the “beat the estimate game”).  For the end of 2019, forward reported estimates have declined by roughly $6.00 per share.”

The red dashed line denoted the expected 11% reduction to those estimates due to a “trade war.”

“As a result of escalating trade war concerns, the impact in the worst-case scenario of an all-out trade war for US companies across sectors and US trading partners will be greater than anticipated. In a nutshell, an across-the-board tariff of 10% on all US imports and exports would lower 2018 EPS for S&P 500 companies by ~11% and, thus, completely offset the positive fiscal stimulus from tax reform.”

Fast forward to the end of Q1-2019 earnings and we find that we were actually a bit optimistic on where things turned out.

The problem is the 2020 estimates are currently still extremely elevated. As the impact of these new tariffs settle in, corporate earnings will be reduced. The chart below plots our initial expectations of earnings through 2020. Given that a 10% tariff took 11% off earnings expectations, it is quite likely with a 25% tariff we are once again too optimistic on our outlook.

Over the next couple of months, we will be able to refine our view further, but the important point is that since roughly 50% of corporate profits are a function of exports, Trump has just picked a fight he most likely can’t win.

Importantly, the reigniting of the trade war is coming at a time where economic data remains markedly weak, valuations are elevated, and credit risk is on the rise. The yield curve continues to signal that something has “broken,” but few are paying attention.

With the market weakness yesterday, we are holding off adding to our equity “long positions” until we see where the market finds support. We have also cut our holdings in basic materials and emerging markets as tariffs will have the greatest impact on those areas. Currently, there is a cluster of support coalescing at the 200-dma, but a failure at the level could see selling intensify as we head into summer.

The recent developments now shift our focus from “risk taking” to “risk control.” “Capital preservation strategies” now replace “capital growth strategies,” and “cash” now becomes a favored asset class for managing uncertainty.

As a portfolio manager, I must manage short-term opportunities as well as long-term outcomes. If I don’t, I suffer career risk, plain and simple. However, you don’t have to. If you are truly a long-term investor, you have to question the risk being undertaken to achieve further returns in the current market environment.

Assuming that you were astute enough to buy the 2009 low, and didn’t spend the bulk of the bull market rally simply getting back to even, you would have accumulated years of excess returns towards meeting your retirement goals. 

If you went to cash now, the odds are EXTREMELY high that you will outpace investors who remain invested in the years ahead. Sure, they may get an edge on you in the short-term, and chastise you for “missing out,”  but when the next “mean reverting event” occurs, the decline will destroy most, if not all, of the returns accumulated over the last decade.

China understands that Trump’s biggest weakness is the economy and the stock market. So, by strategically taking actions which impact the consumer, and ultimately the stock market, it erodes the base of support that Trump has for the “trade war.”

This is particularly the case with the Presidential election just 18-months away.

Don’t mistake how committed China can be.

This fight will be to the last man standing, and while Trump may win the battle, it is quite likely that “investors will lose the war.” 

Save

Technically Speaking: “‘Trade War’ In May & Go Away.”

Over the weekend, President Trump decided to reignite the “trade war” with China with two incendiary tweets. Via WSJ:

“In a pair of Twitter messages Sunday, Mr. Trump wrote he planned to raise levies on $200 billion in Chinese imports to 25% starting Friday, from 10% currently. He also wrote he would impose 25% tariffs ‘shortly’ on $325 billion in Chinese goods that haven’t yet been taxed.

‘The Trade Deal with China continues, but too slowly, as they attempt to renegotiate,’ the president tweeted. ‘No!’”

This is an interesting turn of events and shows how President Trump has used the markets to his favor.

In January of 2018, the Fed was hiking rates and beginning to reduce their balance sheet but markets were ramping higher on the back of freshly passed tax reform. As Trump’s approval ratings were hitting highs, he launched the “trade war” with China. (Which we said at the time was likely to have unintended consequences and would kill the effect of tax reform.)

“While many have believed a ‘trade war’ will be resolved without consequence, there are two very important points that most of mainstream analysis is overlooking. For investors, a trade war would likely negatively impact earnings and profitability while slowing economic growth through higher costs.”

As I updated this past weekend:

But even more important is the impact to forward guidance by corporations.

Nonetheless, with markets and confidence at record highs, Trump had room to play “hard  ball” with China on trade.

However, by the end of 2018, with markets down 20% from their peak, Trump’s “running room” had been exhausted. He then applied pressure to the Federal Reserve to back off their policy tightening and the White House begin a regular media blitz that a “trade deal” would soon be completed.

These actions led to the sharp rebound over the last 4-months to regain highs, caused a surge in Trump’s approval ratings, and improved consumer confidence. In other words, we are now back to exactly the same point where we were the last time Trump started a “trade war.” More importantly, today, like then, market participants are at record long equity exposure and record net short on volatility.

With the table reset, President Trump now has “room to operate” heading into the 2020 election cycle.

The problem, is that China knows time is short for the President and subsequently there is “no rush” to conclude a “trade deal” for several reasons:

  1. China is playing a very long game. Short-term economic pain can be met with ever-increasing levels of government stimulus. The U.S. has no such mechanism currently, but explains why both Trump and Vice-President Pence have been suggesting the Fed restarts QE and cuts rates by 1%.
  2. The pressure is on the Trump Administration to conclude a “deal,” not on China. Trump needs a deal done before the 2020 election cycle AND he needs the markets and economy to be strong. If the markets and economy weaken because of tariffs, which are a tax on domestic consumers and corporate profits, as they did in 2018, the risk off electoral losses rise. China knows this and are willing to “wait it out” to get a better deal.
  3. As I have stated before, China is not going to jeopardize its 50 to 100-year economic growth plan on a current President who will be out of office within the next 5-years at most. It is unlikely, the next President will take the same hard line approach on China that President Trump has, so agreeing to something that is unlikely to be supported in the future is unlikely. It is also why many parts of the trade deal already negotiated don’t take effect until after Trump is out of office when those agreements are unlikely to be enforced. 

Even with that said, the markets rallied from the opening lows on Monday in “hopes” that this is actually just part of Trump’s “Art of the Deal” and China will quickly acquiesce to demands. I wouldn’t be so sure that is case.

The “good news” is that Monday’s “recovery rally” should embolden President Trump to take an even tougher stand with China, at least temporarily. The risk remains a failure to secure a trade agreement, even if it is more “show” than anything else.

Importantly, this is all coming at a time when the “Seasonal Sell Signal” has been triggered.

Sell In May

Let’s start with a basic assumption.

I am going to give you an opportunity to make an investment where 70% of the time you will win, but by the same token, 30% of the time you will lose. 

It’s a “no-brainer,” right? But,  you invest and immediately lose.

In fact, you lose the next two times, as well.

Unfortunately, you just happened to get all three instances, out of ten, where you lost money. Does it make the investment any less attractive? No. 

However, when in comes to the analysis of “Sell In May,” most often the analysis typically uses too short of a time-frame as the look back period to support the “bullish case.” For example, Mark DeCambre recently touched on this issue in an article on this topic.

“‘Sell in May and go away,’ — a widely followed axiom, based on the average historical underperformance of stock markets in the six months starting from May to the end of October, compared against returns in the November-to-April stretch — on average has held true, but it’s had a spotty record over the past several years.”

That is a true statement. But, does it make paying attention to seasonality any less valuable? Let’s take Dr. Robert Shiller’s monthly data back to 1900 to run some analysis. The table below, which provides the basis for the rest of this missive, is the monthly return data from 1900-present.

Using the data above, let’s take a look at what we might expect for the month of May

Historically, May is the 4th WORST performing month for stocks with an average return of just 0.29%. However, it is the 3rd worst performing month on a median return basis of just 0.52%.

(Interesting note:  As you will notice in the table above and chart below, average returns are heavily skewed by outlier events. For example, while October is the “worst month” because of major crashes like 1929 with an average return of -0.29%, the median return is actually a positive 0.39%. Such makes it just the 2nd worst performing month of the year beating out February [the worst].)

May and June tend to be some of weakest months of the year along with September. This is where the old adage of “Sell In May” is derived from. Of course, while not every summer period has been a dud, history does show that being invested during summer months is a “hit or miss” bet at best.

Like October, May’s monthly average is skewed higher by 32.5% jump in 1933. However, in more recent years returns have been primarily contained, with only a couple of exceptions, within a +/- 5% return band as shown below.

The chart below depicts the number of positive and negative returns for the market by month. With a ratio of 54 losing months to 66 positive ones, there is a 46% chance that May will yield a negative return.

The chart below puts this analysis into context by showing the gain of $10,000 invested since 1957 in the S&P 500 index during the seasonally strong period (November through April) as opposed to the seasonally weak period (May through October).

A Correction IS Coming

Based on the historical evidence it would certainly seem prudent to “bail” on the markets, right? No, at least not yet.

The problem with statistical analysis is that we are measuring the historical odds of an event occurring in the near future. Like playing a hand of poker, the odds of drawing to an inside straight are astronomically high. However, it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.

Currently, the study of current price action suggests that the markets haven’t done anything drastically wrong as of yet. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t. As I discussed this past weekend:

“While the market did hold inside of its consolidation pattern, we are still lower than the previous peak suggesting we wait until next week for clarity. However, a bit of caution to overly aggressive equity exposure is certainly warranted.I say this for a couple of reasons.

  1. The market has had a stellar run since the beginning of the year and while earnings season is giving a “bid” to stocks currently, both current and forecast earnings continue to weaken.
  2. We are at the end of the seasonally strong period for stocks and given the outsized run since the beginning of the year a decent mid-year correction is not only normal, but should be anticipated.”

With the markets on “buy signals” deference should be given to the bulls currently. More importantly, the bullish trend, on both a daily and weekly basis, remains intact which keeps our portfolio allocations on the long side for now.

However, a correction is coming. This is why we took profits in some positions which have had outsized returns this year, rebalanced portfolio risk, and continue to carry a higher level of cash than normal.

As I noted last week:

“The important point to take away from this data is that “mean reverting” events are commonplace within the context of annual market movements. 

Currently, investors have become extremely complacent with the rally from the beginning of the year and are quick extrapolating current gains through the end of 2019.

As shown in the chart below this is a dangerous bet. In every given year there are drawdowns which have historically wiped out some, most, or all of the previous gains. While the market has ended the year, more often than not, the declines have often shaken out many an investor along the way.”

Let’s take a look at what happened the last time the market started out the year up 13% in 2012.

Here are some other years:

2007

2010

2011

Do you really think this market will continue its run higher unabated?

It is a rare occasion the markets don’t have a significant intra-year correction. But it is a rarer event not to have a correction in a year where extreme deviations from long-term moving averages occurs early in the year. Currently, the market is nearly 6% above its 200-dma. As noted, such deviations from the norm tend not to last long and “reversions to the mean” occur with regularity. 

With the market pushing overbought, extended, and bullish extremes, a correction to resolve this condition is quite likely. The only question is the cause, depth, and duration of that corrective process. Again, this is why we discussed taking profits and rebalancing risk in our portfolios last week.

I am not suggesting you do anything, but it is just something to consider when the media tells you to ignore history and suggests “this time may be different.” 

That is usually just about the time when it isn’t.

Save

Why Warning About A Bubble For A Decade Is Completely Rational

In my experience as someone who warns about the development of dangerous economic bubbles (both the mid-2000s U.S. housing bubble and the post-2009 “Everything Bubble”), I have been criticized literally thousands of times as the stock market surges year after year and the economy continues to grow. The criticisms typically take the form of “you’ve been warning about bubbles for years – you’re a broken clock!,” “you’re a permabear!,” and “you’ve been missing out on tons of profits!” I’ve heard every criticism in the book and I’m completely unfazed by them because those criticisms are based on misunderstandings of my approach and because I know that my analyses are correct.

The number one mistake that my critics make is assuming that I am calling to sell the market and go short at the very same time that I warn about a bubble. This is completely untrue because my goal is to spot and warn about bubbles as early as possible as an activist for the purpose of warning society that it is going down the wrong path. As someone who graduated college straight into the 2008 financial crisis and struggled for a number of years after, I know from first-hand experience how destructive bubbles are to the economy and overall society. As a result, I feel that it is my moral duty to help spot and warn about bubbles in an effort to prevent another 2008-style crisis.

Though my goal is to warn about bubbles as early as possible as an activist, I do not approach trading and investing the same way. I am able to separate anti-economic bubble activism from tactical trading and investing. I am fully aware that shorting a bubble too early (such as when I make my warnings) would completely wipe out any trader who is foolish enough to do so. Furthermore, I have publicly stated for years that I believe in “trading with the trend and not against it,” which is an approach that helps economic skeptics like myself avoid the bad outcomes experienced by typical “permabears” who are short all the time.

I have been warning that we are experiencing another massive bubble for eight years now (starting in June 2011) and I am proud of it (and the crowd gasps!). My belief is that our so-called economic recovery (both U.S. and global) is actually a “bubblecovery” based on the growth of dangerous new bubbles and another debt binge. These bubbles are ballooning across the globe in numerous assets, industries, and countries such as U.S. equities and bonds, U.S. higher education, U.S. corporate debt, tech startups, shale energy, China & emerging markets, Australian and Canadian property, and more. The actual driver of these bubbles is the extremely aggressive central bank policies since the global financial crisis (record low interest rates and quantitative easing) .

While most of my trolls and critics assume that I’ve been calling to short the market for nearly a decade because of my bubble warnings (and have, therefore, been wrong all along), they couldn’t be further from the truth. In April 2012, I wrote a detailed piece called “We May Be On the Verge of the Next Major Bubble Boom” in which I laid out my thesis that a new crop of central bank-driven bubbles would come out of left field and help create an economic recovery and bull market in stocks. Of course, I claimed that this so-called “recovery” would be artificial and will ultimately lead to a tremendous crash and depression once the cycle fully played out, which I said would be the result of monetary tightening as inflation makes a comeback.

Here’s an excerpt from my April 2012 bubble boom thesis that captures my thoughts in a nutshell:

If a credit-fueled bubble boom does occur, the resulting surge in economic growth will surely surprise the vast majority of people, including most economists and financial professionals. People in the bearish camp, a huge group these days, would clearly be the most surprised by a bubble boom as they typically envision either a 1929-style deflationary meltdown ahead or a quantitative easing-induced hyperinflationary holocaust – both of which are scenarios in which economic growth dives off a cliff. On the contrary, the initial stages of a credit-fueled bubble boom are likely to bring about feelings of relief as stock prices soar, jobs come back (in bubble-related areas) and economic data marches steadily higher. While the surge in stock prices and economic activity will be driven by bubbles, few people will recognize this fact and simply questioning the bubble boom may elicit harsh reactions by a public (including politicians) that is so grateful for the newfound economic growth and basking in feelings that “happy times are here again!”

Though my beliefs about the coming bubble boom, including soaring stock prices, have been proven correct, critics still hurl comments at me such as “you’ve been warning for eight years now – when are you going to admit you were wrong?!” and “you’re like one of those guys with a sandwich board sign saying ‘the end of the world is nigh!'” The reality is, as crazy as it may sound, warning about a bubble for eight years – or even a full decade – can be completely rational, provided it is done for activism purposes rather than making the disastrous mistake of shorting too early.

In a central bank-driven, fiat currency-based economy like the U.S. has had for the past few decades, a good portion of the growth and booms are actually unsustainable bubbles. That explains the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble, and the current “Everything Bubble.” Someone who is aware of the unsustainability of fiat currency-based economies (a group known as Austrian School economists) can quite feasibly spot the development of dangerous bubbles a decade before they actually collapse and cause tremendous damage to the economy and overall society.

One prime example of this phenomenon is analyst and portfolio manager Doug Noland, who chronicled and warned about the development of the dot-com, housing, and current bubbles in great detail in his must-read Credit Bubble Bulletin. I was recently pouring through the Credit Bubble Bulletin’s archives to read more about the dot-com bubble era (because I was only in middle school then!) and I was surprised by how similar it was to today’s situation. I was fascinated to learn that Doug was warning about the development of the housing bubble starting in the year 2000…even before the dot-com bubble burst! Of course, he ended up being right about both bubbles.

Here are some excerpts of his prescient U.S. housing bubble warnings from 2000 to 2007:

01/21/2000:

Of course, it is our strongly held view that we are in the midst of a momentous financial and economic bubble fueled by unprecedented money and credit excess. It is also our belief that, unappreciated by the vast majority of analysts, non-banks have developed into the leading propagators of the credit bubble. In this vein, this week Freddie Mac reported that it expanded its balance sheet by $22 billion during the fourth quarter, a 25% annualized rate. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae combined to increase assets by $46 billion during the fourth quarter, and $155 billion for the year. After moderating growth during the first half of the year, Fannie and Freddie came on strong to increase assets by $94 billion during the second half. For the year, Fannie and Freddie increased assets by 19%. Interestingly, money market fund assets also increased by about 19% during 1999, expanding almost $260 billion. Also noteworthy, money market fund asset growth slowed during the first half but also came on very strong during the second half of 1999. Mere coincidence? We don’t think so. After all, it is Fannie and Freddie along with the aggressive non-bank lenders such as GE Capital, GMAC, and the Wall Street firms, that borrow from the money market and finance the bubble excesses. As goes their borrowing and lending, goes the fuel for the bubble. This was particularly the case during the second half of 1998, and again during the latter months of 1999. 

2/18/2000:

We have believed for some time that crisis would be the unavoidable consequence of truly unprecedented credit market leverage and speculation. Eventually, markets always punish egregious excess – always. Actually, this unhealthy bubble was in the process of being pierced back in the autumn of 1998. It should be recognized today that it would have been much better for the system to have taken the medicine back then. Instead, the Federal Reserve cuts rates sharply, while Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Bank System moved aggressively as buyers of last resort for the leveraged speculators. In the process, hundreds of billions of new credit was created by the GSEs that gave a dangerously maladjusted credit system another lease on life – and what a life it became. For sure, this bailout created huge moral hazard for the credit and stock markets. It incited truly unprecedented credit and speculative excess.

It is also our view that historians will look back on the fall of 1998 and see it as the critical point where the Federal Reserve truly lost control of the financial system. Since the bailout, the corporate sector has likely added over $700 billion in debt, while mortgage debt has probably expanded by $750 billion. The GSE’s have added more than $500 billion in debt and contracted for hundreds of billions of interest rate derivative protection. 

02/25/2000:

Last week we made the case that the US financial sector is one massive and precarious interest rate arbitrage. Well, it is clear to us that money market funds are the key source of liquidity for this historic speculation. Instead of the expected reasonable role of funding the short-term borrowing requirements for businesses involved in actual commerce, money funds are predominantly lending to holders of securities, most likely mortgage, credit card and auto receivables. With insufficient investor demand for the now nearly $1 trillion annual increase in mortgage, agency and corporate securities, Wall Street has created a structure where conduit “funding corporations” purchase much of the long-dated loans with liquidity created through the money market funds. This is a powerful new twist to the age-old game of borrowing short and lending long. It has worked like magic as the expansion of money market fund assets has created a virtually unlimited source of loanable funds for the financial sector. If one ever wonders how our economy functions so marvelously with little savings, able at the same time to so easily accommodate an unending flood of new credit creation, we think the answer lies in the uncontrolled expansion of money market assets. The downside, however, lies in acute systemic vulnerability from the truly unprecedented leverage and related use of derivatives, as well as historic distortions and imbalances to the real economy. 

03/17/2000:

During 1999, total non-financial debt increased a record $1.1 trillion, an increase of about 10% above 1998’s credit growth. For comparison, last year’s non-financial debt growth was 43% greater than 1997’s increase of $776 billion. Total mortgage debt increased $601 billion in 1999, 20% greater than mortgage debt growth in 1998 and almost double that of 1997. Commercial mortgage debt increased $122 billion during 1999, this compares to $97 billion in 1998, $51 billion in 1997 and $28 billion in 1996. Corporate debt growth was a record $444 billion, compared to $406 billion in 1998, $286 billion in 1997 and $155 billion in 1996.

04/13/2000:

We believe it is virtually impossible to overstate the importance of what is now unfolding. In past commentaries, we have often focused on mortgage and consumer credit excess. The GSEs, with their balance sheets ballooning with residential mortgage loans, have championed egregious credit growth, leading to housing inflation, a dangerous misallocation of resources, and momentous distortions to the real economy. This almost monopolizing of the conventional mortgage marketplace has only worked to exacerbate the banking and financial sector’s drift into increasingly risky lending. Indeed, an over-zealous US banking system and Wall Street have for some time joined forces to incite an historic corporate debt bubble, with technology and telecommunications lending at the heart of unprecedented lending excess. We now see the corporate debt bubble as the next key “domino” in jeopardy, with quite troubling ramifications for a financial sector with extraordinarily high exposure. 

09/28/2000:

From the California Association of Realtors: “The median price of a single-family home in California hit a new record in August, rising 14% to $255,580. August also was the 42nd consecutive month that the median price of a home posted an increase compared to the previous year…resale activity posted an increase of 17.7% in August 2000 compared to July 2000.” The unsold inventory index ended the month at 3.4 months. It is truly amazing how the California real estate bubble has expanded to include the entire state, from luxury neighborhoods in Hillsborough to working class communities in Riverside County and the high desert. Year over year, prices have surged 39% in Marin County, 47% in Santa Clara, 30% in Sonoma Country, 19% in Orange Country, and 35% in San Diego. Increasingly, however, the key development appears to be the dramatic broadening of this historic real estate bubble. In the Greater San Francisco Bay area, we see year-over-year prices increased 26% in Hayward, 23% in Oakland, and 34% in Richmond, not areas traditionally recognized as the most desirable. Down south with the least expensive desert real estate, we see that Palmdale experienced a 36% increase to $117,000. 

03/29/2002:

And as long as ultra-easy money stokes the booming nationwide real estate Bubble, we should expect spending to continue to surprise on the upside. Final fourth-quarter GDP was reported yesterday at a stronger than expected annual rate of 1.7%. While numbers look fine on the surface, the detail provides unmistakable evidence of an extraordinarily maladjusted economy. 

01/31/2003:

Second, the “structured finance” monetary regime that retains its dominance at the epicenter of our nation’s financial system (The Master of the Great Credit Bubble) is absolutely and unalterably dysfunctional. Indelible Monetary Processes specifically direct finance to where it is not needed – to sectors where there remains an inflationary bias. The entire U.S. financial system, then, has become trapped in a consumer and Mortgage Finance Bubble that has the corporate debt and stock market Bubbles appearing quite manageable in comparison.

09/08/2004:

Yet the ramifications of the mortgage finance bubble are anything but confined to the financial arena. Indeed, the bubble’s effects on the real economy may very well prove the most intractable. Mortgage credit excess and asset inflation today foster household over-borrowing and over-consumption. Investment decisions are similarly distorted. About two million residential units will be constructed this year, approximately 45 percent higher than the 1990s average of 1.37 million. The ongoing multi-year construction boom also includes retail, restaurant, hotel and gaming, sports venues, and other consumption-related structures. Regrettably, we are witnessing a replay of the late-1990s telecommunications and technology boom-and-bust experience, where a surfeit of speculative finance fosters destabilizing over-spending in the “hot” sectors. 

08/18/2005:

This is a most fascinating period for analyzing the Mortgage Finance Bubble.  On the one hand, with both home transaction volumes and average prices at all-time highs, Mortgage Credit growth remains at extreme levels.  Fannie’s latest forecast has Mortgage debt expanding by 10.4% this year, this following the doubling of Mortgage borrowings over the previous seven years.  On the other hand, there is clearly newfound seriousness by bank regulators seeking to stymie the riskiest bank lending practices.  And while home sales remain at a record pace, the inventory of unsold homes is rising.  Some of the hottest markets are experiencing a rapid buildup of houses for sale.  The highflying mortgage REIT and subprime stocks are coming back to earth, while MBS spreads are quietly widening.  Meanwhile, the media are now all over the housing Bubble story.

01/13/2006:

As I noted again last week, it is a central tenet of Credit Bubble Analysis that if an expanding Financial Sphere provides Easy Credit Availability and Abundant Marketplace Liquidity (prospective purchasing power), the Economic Sphere will undoubtedly conceive of ways to spend it.  It is also critical to appreciate that a rapidly expanding Financial Sphere creates its own reinforcing (cheap) liquidity.  And it is the nature of evolving Bubbles to circumvent processes that would typically marshal adjustment and self-correction.  For the past several years, Mortgage Finance Bubble excesses have fostered massive Current Account Deficits that have been easily recycled back to booming U.S. debt securities markets.  This has engendered only easier Credit Availability and General Liquidity Over-abundance.  Credit Bubble Dynamics dictate that, if accommodated, Credit Inflation Manifestations will strengthen and broaden.  Excess feeds and is fed by Credit excess until the unavoidable bust.  These are fundamental analytical constructs to guide us as we look forward.

03/15/2007:

The Mortgage Finance Bubble should have burst last year, taking the lead from housing market dynamics. But the extraordinary dynamism associated with global Credit, speculative and liquidity excesses proved overpowering. The global leveraged speculating community was in aggressive expansion mode; Bubble excesses were going to reckless extremes throughout “Credit arbitrage;” the M&A and corporate debt Bubbles were in full bloom; and securities leveraging was taking the entire world by storm.

It’s clear that Doug Noland saw the housing bubble developing early on and chronicled it great detail. Had our society – including the Fed, Wall Street, and financial media – listened to him and others who were sounding the alarm, we could have avoided the 2008 crisis and all of the damage it did to our economy and society. On top of it all, we are still suffering from the effects of the 2008 crisis – for example, our economy is still so weak that the Fed can’t even raise the Fed Funds rate more than 2.25% without causing a market panic. Our economy is still very much on life support – make no mistake about that. To tell someone who was warning about the housing bubble for seven years before it happened “you were wrong!” is, frankly, a slap in the face and extremely immature and shortsighted. I firmly believe that my “Everything Bubble” warnings since June 2011 are just like Doug Noland’s housing bubble warnings that began in the year 2000.

The reason why the general public and mainstream economics community misunderstands the bubble warnings of Austrian School economists like Doug Noland and myself is directly rooted in the dramatically different beliefs we have regarding how and why bubbles form. To put it simply, Austrian School economists believe that bubble development is a process that occurs over a potentially long period of time (such as a decade), while the mainstream economics community believes that a bubble only becomes a “bubble” near the very peak, shortly before it bursts.

Because of our skepticism of central bank-driven economic booms in fiat currency-based economies, Austrian School economists believe that such booms are actually bubbles from the very day they start until the day they burst. The mainstream economics community, however, believes that central bank-driven economic booms are legitimate and sustainable for most of their lifespans and can only be considered a “bubble” when market sentiment becomes outright euphoric and excesses become impossible to deny (and, even then, most
mainstream economists will only admit that there was a bubble after it bursts and a crisis has resulted – too late!).

To illustrate my point, I’ve created and annotated charts of U.S. home prices and total outstanding mortgage debt during the housing bubble. The first chart shows that U.S. home prices started to rise in the late-1990s at the same time as the tech bubble (and they inflated for similar reasons – loose Fed policy). Though the bubble finally burst in 2007, it got to those lofty levels by inflating in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, and so on. Bubbles are a process – not a specific point in time.

The chart of total outstanding mortgage debt shows that Americans started binging on mortgage debt in the late-1990s and using it to buy increasingly expensive homes, which is what pushed housing prices higher and higher. Those with trained eyes like Doug Noland were able to see this mortgage credit bubble developing very early on even though it took a full decade to develop. Can you imagine the frustration of being someone who was warning about this mortgage debt buildup in the early-2000s and having nobody believe you and, even worse, many thinking you’re completely crazy?!

The last two charts showed how Austrian School economists think about bubbles, while the next two charts will show how mainstream economists think about bubbles. Mainstream economists see the majority of the U.S. housing price surge (from 1998 until approximately 2005) as a boom that helped to rev up the U.S. economy again after dot-com bust and September 11th attacks. In their minds, the U.S. housing bubble only became a “bubble” at the very end of the boom in 2006 and 2007 (and, even then, they only admitted that it was a bubble after it had burst, when it was too late).

Similarly, mainstream economists see the majority of the U.S. mortgage debt surge (from 1998 until approximately 2005) as a boom that helped to create jobs for mortgage brokers, bankers, etc. They believe that the mortgage boom only became a “bubble” toward the very end in 2006 and 2007.

The way mainstream economists view the development of bubbles is wrong and dangerous – end of story. It is absolutely absurd to think that the dangerous speculation, price increases, and lending activity that ultimately leads to an economic crisis only occurs at the very end of a bubble. The truth is that the buildup of risk and malinvestment starts at the very beginning of central bank-driven bubbles. According to this logic, the U.S. housing bubble was a “bubble” as early as 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. I firmly believe that. The fact that the buildup of risk and malinvestment starts so early on in a bubble explains why I believe in warning about bubbles (but not shorting!) as early as possible as an activist who is trying to prevent the human suffering that will inevitably result when that bubble bursts. Of course, you will be ridiculed, hated, and have your career sabotaged throughout that entire time that you warn about the bubble as an activist.

I have been warning about the “Everything Bubble” each year since 2011 because that is when I started to see the buildup of risk and malinvestment as a result of global central bank policies. Though I am warning about numerous bubbles around the world, I will use the chart of the U.S. stock market below to explain my early bubble warning philosophy. Simply stated, I believe that the S&P 500 stock index’s 300% rise from its 2009 low is a bubble (please read my detailed explanation about this). Though the U.S. stock market has been surging for a decade, I believe that saying it was experiencing a bubble as early as 2011 is completely accurate and rational because it is not driven by organic economic growth, but by cheap credit and central bank market meddling. In order for the stock market bubble to have become as large as it is today, it had to inflate in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and so on. I believe that those early years of the current stock market bubble and “Everything Bubble” are equivalent to the housing bubble’s early years during the late-1990s and early-2000s.

The chart of U.S. household wealth as a percent of GDP shows just how inflated asset prices (primarily stocks and bonds) have become relative to the underlying economy. Household wealth surged during the dot-com bubbles and housing bubbles, only to come crashing down again. Our current Fed-driven bubble blows the last two out of the water, and the coming coming bust will be proportional to the surge (which is a very scary thought).

As I’ve said earlier, the only reason why the U.S. and global economy have continued to grow after the Great Recession was because we are taking on more debt and inflating new bubbles – we’re basically on the same path that we were on before 2008. According to the chart below, total U.S. debt started to grow again in the early-2010s. Someone who is concerned about another economic crisis is completely justified for warning about the resumption of the U.S. credit bubble’s growth back in 2011, 2012, and 2013, even though it didn’t immediately result in a crisis. People with high future time orientations worry about trends that are likely to cause our society problems in the future; those with low future time orientations don’t think about the long-term implications of trends – “I’m makin’ money now! Your losin’ money by worryin’” [sic].

Global debt is up by nearly $150 trillion in the past 15 years and up $70 trillion since 2008. Anyone who was warning about that dangerous debt buildup each year is completely justified for doing so, in my view. It will all make sense some day when the chickens come home to roost.

To summarize, being an anti-economic bubble activist doesn’t automatically equate to “losin’ money.” We are a much more sophisticated group than we are given credit for. As proven in this piece, many of us are able to foresee powerful economic booms and bull markets well in advance simply due to our understanding of how these booms and bubbles form in fiat currency-based economies that are dominated by central banks. Though we are fully aware that shorting too early on is risky and that those bubble-driven market gains can be captured through use of trend following trading systems, we still choose to warn about bubbles for many years simply because we care about the societies we live in. Please keep that in mind next time you feel tempted to taunt a “bear.”

Reality Vs Fantasy: What To Watch For This Earnings Season

Just recently, David Robertson ran an article discussing the deviation which has grown between “fantasy” and “reality” in the investing markets.

“The phenomenon of extreme differences is also increasingly appearing in financial numbers, which are the life blood of markets. Andrew Smithers conducted research on the usefulness of accounting numbers and his work was summarized by Jonathan Ford

‘Corporate data now provide worse information than before.’

The ironic consequence of all this is that investors increasingly rely on non-Gaap numbers for valuation. These are not only idiosyncratic, and thus not always capable of comparison, they are also devised by bosses whose views may well be richly coloured by their own outsize incentives.’

Henny Sender highlights some prominent examples of “unusual measures of corporate performance.” Specifically, she mentions “gross merchandise value” as a metric commonly used by e-commerce firms and “community adjusted” earnings which is a controversial metric recently introduced by WeWork.

The entire article is a great read. However, what struck a cord with me was it brought up the memories of the late 1998-2000 bull market run when start up-IPO internet companies were being valued with “eyeballs per page” since most traditional measures of profitability, such as cash flows, earnings, and revenue were non-existent.

I know…most of you reading this article probably weren’t investing in the late 90’s, however, the few of you who were in the trenches with me will remember it all to well. Names like Enron, Worldcom, Global Crossing, Lucent Technologies, and a vast graveyard of others have long been forgotten and are now ancient artifacts of an age gone by.

Much like then, today we see companies going public like Lyft, Uber, Instagram, and others who have massive cash burn rates, little to no prospect for profitability in the near future, and astronomical valuations. Companies that are public, like Facebook (FB), are valued on “Monthly Average Users” or “MAU’s” which is highly suspect given that studies have suggested that as much as 50% of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube’s users may be “fake.” Further, there is no verification process for what constitutes a valid account and as such, the stats are mostly just taken at the companies word. Importantly, the point is that creative use of new “metrics” are being used to justify valuations to satiate investor appetites.

Much like the late 1990’s, no one “really” wants to know the real answer, they just want to buy high and sell higher.

This is what Wall Street does, and does very well,  as David noted in his missive.

“The potential to create a very misleading impression of financial condition with alternative metrics was the subject of a report on the cloud software industry in the FT’s AlphavilleThe article highlights the fact that the average free cash flow margin for the cloud companies is 8.6% which is impressive. However, that margin falls to a far less impressive -0.6% when the real expenses of stock compensation are included.

At the end of the day, alternative metrics like these are better designed to tell stories than to provide information content. Sender notes, rightly, that such alternative measures “are no substitutes for profits or a path to them.” As the Alphaville report also points out, however, ‘Investors don’t seem to care that much.’”

Well, they may not care much at the moment.

But they will.

If You Can’t Make It, Fake It?

I just recently reviewed the latest completed earnings season (Q4). As has become the norm, companies once again beat drastically lowered earnings estimates with a variety of measures. To wit:

“Since the recessionary lows, much of the rise in “profitability” have come from a variety of cost-cutting measures and accounting gimmicks rather than actual increases in top-line revenue. While tax cuts certainly provided the capital for a surge in buybacks, revenue growth, which is directly connected to a consumption-based economy, has remained muted. 

Since 2009, the reported earnings per share of corporations has decreased from 353% in Q2-2018 to just 285% in Q4. However, even with the recent decline, this is still the sharpest post-recession rise in reported EPS in history. 

Moreover, the increase in earnings did not come from a commensurate increase in revenue which has only grown by a marginal 56% during the same period. (Again, note the sharp drop in EPS despite both tax cuts and massive share buybacks. This is not a good sign for 2019.)”

The reality is that stock buybacks create an illusion of profitability. Such activities do not spur economic growth or generate real wealth for shareholders, but it does provide the basis for with which to keep Wall Street satisfied and stock option compensated executives happy.

However, the recent downturn in corporate profitability may be more than just due to an economic “soft patch” as currently suggested by the majority of Wall Street analysts. The problem with cost cutting, wage suppression, labor hoarding and stock buybacks, along with a myriad of accounting gimmicks, is that there is a finite limit to their effectiveness and a long term cost that must eventually be paid.

Wall Street is well aware that “missing earnings,” even by the slightest margin, can have an extremely negative impact on their current share price. As such, it should come as no surprise that companies manipulate bottom line earnings to win the quarterly “beat the estimate” game. By utilizing “cookie-jar” reserves, heavy use of accruals, and other accounting instruments they can mold earnings to expectations.

“The tricks are well-known: A difficult quarter can be made easier by releasing reserves set aside for a rainy day or recognizing revenues before sales are made, while a good quarter is often the time to hide a big ‘restructuring charge’ that would otherwise stand out like a sore thumb.

What is more surprising though is CFOs’ belief that these practices leave a significant mark on companies’ reported profits and losses. When asked about the magnitude of the earnings misrepresentation, the study’s respondents said it was around 10% of earnings per share.

cooking-the-books-2

It should not be surprising that more than 90% of the companies surveyed pointed to “influence on stock price” and “outside pressure” as reasons for manipulating earnings.

Note: For fundamental investors this manipulation of earnings skews valuation analysis particularly with respect to P/E’s, EV/EBITDA, PEG, etc.

A couple of years ago, the Associated Press has a fantastic article entitled: “Experts Worry That Phony Numbers Are Misleading Investors:”

“Those record profits that companies are reporting may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

As the stock market climbs ever higher, professional investors are warning that companies are presenting misleading versions of their results that ignore a wide variety of normal costs of running a business to make it seem like they’re doing better than they really are.

What’s worse, the financial analysts who are supposed to fight corporate spin are often playing along. Instead of challenging the companies, they’re largely passing along the rosy numbers in reports recommending stocks to investors.

Here are the key findings of the report:

  • Seventy-two percent of the companies reviewed by AP had adjusted profits that were higher than net income in the first quarter of this year. That’s about the same as in the comparable period five years earlier, but the gap between the adjusted and net income figures has widened considerably: adjusted earnings were typically 16 percent higher than net income in the most recent period versus 9 percent five years ago.
  • For a smaller group of the companies reviewed, 21 percent of the total, adjusted profits soared 50 percent or more over net income. This was true of just 13 percent of the group in the same period five years ago.
  • Quarter after quarter, the differences between the adjusted and bottom-line figures are adding up. From 2010 through 2014, adjusted profits for the S&P 500 came in $583 billion higher than net income. It’s as if each company in the S&P 500 got a check in the mail for an extra eight months of earnings.
  • Fifteen companies with adjusted profits actually had bottom-line losses over the five years. Investors have poured money into their stocks just the same.
  • Stocks are getting more expensive, meaning there could be a greater risk of stocks falling if the earnings figures being used to justify buying them are questionable. One measure of how richly priced stocks are suggests trouble. Three years ago, investors paid $13.50 for every dollar of adjusted profits for companies in the S&P 500 index, according to S&P Capital IQ. Now, they’re paying nearly $18.

The obvious problem, when it comes to investing in individual companies, is that playing “leapfrog with a unicorn,” pun intended, ultimately has very negative outcomes. While valuations may not matter currently, in hindsight it will become clear that such valuation levels were clearly unsustainable. However, by the time the financial media reports such revelations it will be long after it matters to anyone.

As David noted in his article, it is important to be aware of the difference, and ultimately what constitutes, “Fantasy” and “Reality.” Most portfolio managers are using valuation measures today based on recent 5- or 10-year averages, or worse, forward “operating earnings.”  They will be unpleasantly surprised by the depth of the reversion when it eventually comes.

A couple of years ago, Wade Slome, penned an excellent article pointing out four things to look for when analyzing corporate earnings:

  • Distorted Expenses: If a $10 million manufacturing plant is expected to last 10 years, then the depreciation expense should be $1 million per year. If for some reason the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) suddenly decided the building would last 40 years rather than 10 years, then the expense would only be $250,000 per year. Voila, an instant $750,000 annual gain was created out of thin air due to management’s change in estimates.
  • Magical Revenues: Some companies have been known to do what’s called ‘stuffing the channel.’ Or in other words, companies sometimes will ship product to a distributor or customer even if there is no immediate demand for that product. (Think Autos) This practice can potentially increase the revenue of the reporting company, while providing the customer with more inventory on-hand. The major problem with the strategy is cash collection, which can be pushed way off in the future or become uncollectible.
  • Accounting Shifts: Under certain circumstances, specific expenses can be converted to an asset on the balance sheet, leading to inflated EPS numbers. A common example of this phenomenon occurs in the software industry, where software engineering expenses on the income statement get converted to capitalized software assets on the balance sheet. Again, like other schemes, this practice delays the negative expense effects on reported earnings.
  • Artificial Income: Not only did many of the troubled banks make imprudent loans to borrowers that were unlikely to repay, but the loans were made based on assumptions that asset prices would go up indefinitely and credit costs would remain freakishly low. Based on the overly optimistic repayment and loss assumptions, banks recognized massive amounts of gains which propelled even more imprudent loans. That said, relaxation of mark-to-market accounting makes it even more difficult to estimate the true values of assets on the bank’s balance sheets.

These points are more valid today than they were then. The abuses to financial statements to meet earnings estimates have continued to grow. However, most investors don’t look beyond the media headlines before click the “buy” button on the latest “bull call de jour” on CNBC.

However, for longer term investors who are depending on their “hard earned” savings to generate a “living income” through retirement, understanding the “real” value of a stock will mean a great deal. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions, on-line tips or media advice will not supplant rolling up your sleeves and doing your homework.

Investors would do well to remember the words of the then-chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission Arthur Levitt in a 1998 speech entitled “The Numbers Game:”

‘While the temptations are great, and the pressures strong, illusions in numbers are only that—ephemeral, and ultimately self-destructive.’”

The reality is that this “time is NOT different.” The eventual outcome will be the same as every previous speculative/liquidity driven bubble throughout history. The only difference will be the catalyst that eventually sends investors running for cover.

The Message From The Jobs Report – The Economy Is Slowing

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published the March monthly “employment report” which showed an increase in employment of 196,000 jobs. As Mike Shedlock noted on Friday:

“The change in total non-farm payroll employment for January was revised up from +311,000 to +312,000, and the change for February was revised up from +20,000 to +33,000. With these revisions, employment gains in January and February combined were 14,000 more than previously reported. After revisions, job gains have averaged 180,000 per month over the last 3 months.

BLS Jobs Statistics at a Glance

  • Nonfarm Payroll: +196,000 – Establishment Survey
  • Employment: -201,000 – Household Survey
  • Unemployment: -24,000 – Household Survey
  • Involuntary Part-Time Work: +189,000 – Household Survey
  • Voluntary Part-Time Work: +144,000 – Household Survey
  • Baseline Unemployment Rate: Unchanged at 3.8% – Household Survey
  • U-6 unemployment: Unchanged at 7.3% – Household Survey
  • Civilian Non-institutional Population: +145,000
  • Civilian Labor Force: -224,000 – Household Survey
  • Not in Labor Force: +369,000 – Household Survey
  • Participation Rate: -0.2 to 63.0– Household Survey”

There is little argument the streak of employment growth is quite phenomenal and comes amid hopes the economy will continue to avoid a recessionary contraction. When looking at the average rate of employment growth over the last 3-months, as Mike noted at 180,000, there is a clear slowing in the trend of employment. It is this “trend” we will examine more closely today.

While a tremendous amount of attention is focused on the monthly employment numbers, the series is one of the most highly manipulated, guesstimated, and annually revised series produced by any agency. The whole issue of seasonal adjustments, which try to account for temporary changes to employment due to a variety of impacts, is entirely too systematic to be taken at face value. The chart below shows the swings between the non-seasonally adjusted and seasonally adjusted data – anything this rhythmic should be questioned rather than taken at face value as “fact.”

As stated, while most economists focus at employment data from one month to the next for clues as to the strength of the economy, it is the “trend” of the data which is far more important to understand.

The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment before the onset of a recession. The current annual rate of employment growth is 1.4% which is lower than any previous employment level prior to a recession in history.

But while this is a long-term view of the trend of employment in the U.S., what about right now? The chart below shows employment from 1999 to present.

While the recent employment report was slightly above expectations, the annual rate of growth is slowing. The chart above shows two things. The first is the trend of the household employment survey on an annualized basis. Secondly, while the seasonally-adjusted reported showed 196,000 jobs created, the actual household survey showed a loss of 200,000 jobs. 

Many do not like the household survey for a variety of reasons but even if we use the 3-month average of seasonally-adjusted employment we see the same picture. (The 3-month average simply smooths out some of the volatility.)

But here is something else to consider.

While the BLS continually adjusts and fiddles with the data to mathematically adjust for seasonal variations, the purpose of the entire process is to smooth volatile monthly data into a more normalized trend. The problem, of course, with manipulating data through mathematical adjustments, revisions, and tweaks, is the risk of contamination of bias. A simpler method to use for smoothing volatile monthly data is using a 12-month moving average of the raw data as shown below.

Notice that near peaks of employment cycles the employment data deviates from the 12-month average but tends to reconnect as reality emerges. (Also, note the pickup in employment due to the slate of “natural disasters” in late 2017 which are now fading as reconstruction completes)

Sometimes, “simpler” gives us a better understanding of the data.

Importantly, there is one aspect to all the charts above which remains constant. No matter how you choose to look at the data, peaks in employment growth occur prior to economic contractions rather than an acceleration of growth. 

However, there is more to this story.

A Function Of Population

One thing which is never discussed when reporting on employment is the “growth” of the working age population. Each month, new entrants into the population create “demand” through their additional consumption. Employment should increase to accommodate the increased demand from more participants in the economy. Either that or companies resort to automation, off-shoring, etc. to increase rates of production without increases in labor costs. The chart below shows the total increase in employment versus the growth of the working age population.

The missing “millions” shown in the chart above is one of the “great mysteries” about one of the longest economic booms in U.S. history. This is particularly a conundrum when the Federal Reserve talks about the economy nearing “full employment.” The Labor Force Participation Rate below shows this great mystery.

Since many conservatives continue to credit President Trump with a booming economy and employment gains, we can look at changes to the labor force participation rate by President as a measure of success. Currently, Trump’s gains are either less than Clinton, the same as Reagan, or tracking Bush Sr.; “spin it” as you will.

Of course, as we are all very aware, there are many people who are working part-time, going to school, etc. But even when we consider just those working “full-time” jobs, particularly when jobless claims are reaching record lows, the percentage of full-time employees is still well below levels of the last 35 years.

“With jobless claims at historic lows, and the unemployment rate at 4%, then why is full-time employment relative to the working-age population at just 50.27% which is down from 50.5% last month?”

It’s All The Baby Boomers Retiring

One of the arguments often given for the low labor force participation rate is that millions of “baby boomers” are leaving the workforce for retirement. This argument doesn’t carry much weight given that the “Millennial” generation, which is significantly larger, is simultaneously entering the workforce. The other problem is shown below, there are more individuals over the age of 55, as a percentage of that age group, in the workforce today than in the last 50-years.

Of course, the reason they aren’t retiring is that they can’t. After two massive bear markets, weak economic growth, questionable spending habits,and poor financial planning, more individuals over the age of 55 are still working because they simply can’t “afford” to retire.

However, for argument sake, let’s assume that every worker over the age of 55 retires. If the “retiring” argument is valid, then employment participation rates should soar once that group is removed. The chart below is full-time employment relative to the working-age population of 16-54.

Importantly, note in the first chart above the number of workers over the age of 55 increased last month. However, employment of 16-54 year olds declined from 50.78% to 50.55%. It is also, the lowest rate since 1985, which was the last time employment was increasing from such low levels.

The other argument is that Millennials are going to school longer than before so they aren’t working either. (We have an excuse for everything these days.) The chart below strips out those of college age (16-24) and those over the age of 55. Uhm…

Here is the same chart of employed 25-54 year olds as a percentage of just that group.

When refined down to this level, talk about data mining, we do actually see recovery, however, after the longest economic expansion on record, a record stock market, and record levels of corporate debt to fund expansions and buybacks; employment ratios for this group are at the same level as seen in 1988. Such should raise the question of just how robust the labor market actually is?

Low initial jobless claims coupled with the historically low unemployment rate are leading many economists to warn of tight labor markets and impending wage inflation. If there is no one to hire, employees have more negotiating leverage according to prevalent theory. While this seems reasonable on its face, further analysis into the employment data suggests these conclusions are not so straightforward.

Strong Labor Statistics

Michael Lebowitz recently pointed out some important considerations in this regard.

“The data certainly suggests that the job market is on fire. While we would like nothing more than to agree, there is other employment data which contradicts that premise.”

For example, if there are indeed very few workers in need of a job, then current workers should have pricing leverage over their employers.  This does not seem to be the case as shown in the graph of personal income below.

Furthermore, a closer inspection of the BLS data reveals that, since 2008, 16 million people were reclassified as “leaving the workforce”. To put those 16 million people into context, from 1985 to 2008, a period almost three times longer than the post-crisis recovery, a similar number of people left the workforce.

Why are so many people struggling to find a job and terminating their search if, as we are repeatedly told, the labor market is so healthy? To explain the juxtaposition of the low jobless claims number and unemployment rate with the low participation rate and weak wage growth, a calculation of the participation rate adjusted unemployment rate is revealing.

When people stop looking for a job, they are still unemployed, but they are not included in the U-3 unemployment calculation. If we include those who quit looking for work in the data, the employment situation is quite different. The graph below compares the U-3 unemployment rate to one that assumes a constant participation rate from 2008 to today. Contrary to the U-3 unemployment rate of 3.90%, this metric implies an adjusted unemployment rate of 8.69%.

Importantly, this number is much more consistent with the data we have laid out above, supports the reasoning behind lower wage growth, and is further confirmed by the Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Employment Index.

(The Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Non-Employment Index including People Working Part-Time for Economic Reasons (NEI+PTER) is a weighted average of all non-employed people and people working part-time for economic reasons expressed as the share of the civilian non-institutionalized population 16 years and older. The weights take into account persistent differences in each group’s likelihood of transitioning back into employment. Because the NEI is more comprehensive and includes tailored weights of non-employed individuals, it arguably provides a more accurate reading of labor market conditions than the standard unemployment rate.)

One of the main factors driving the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates and reduce its balance sheet is the perceived low level of unemployment. Simultaneously, multiple comments from Fed officials suggest they are justifiably confused by some of the signals emanating from the jobs data. As we have argued in the past, the current monetary policy experiment has short-circuited the economy’s traditional traffic signals. None of these signals is more important than employment.

As Michael noted:

“Logic and evidence argue that, despite the self-congratulations of central bankers, good wage-paying jobs are not as plentiful as advertised and the embedded risks in the economy are higher. We must consider the effects that these sequences of policy error might have on the economy – one where growth remains anemic and jobs deceptively elusive.

Given that wages translate directly to personal consumption, a reliable interpretation of employment data has never been more important. Oddly enough, it appears as though that interpretation has never been more misleading. If we are correct that employment is weak, then future rate hikes and the planned reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet will begin to reveal this weakness soon.”

As an aside, it is worth noting that in November of 1969 jobless claims stood at 211,000, having risen slightly from the lows recorded earlier that year. Despite the low number of claims, a recession started a month later, and jobless claims would nearly double within six months. This episode serves as a reminder that every recession followed interim lows in jobless claims and the unemployment rate. We are confident that the dynamics leading to the next recession will not be any different.

But then again, maybe the yield-curve is already giving us the answer.

The Interview: Why Another 50% Correction Is Possible

I recently sat down with Peak Prosperity’s Chris Martenson to discuss an article I wrote last year on why another 50% correction is possible.

I have attached a link to the original article below the interview along with a the chart and explanation of the RIA Economic Composite Indicator I discuss with Chris.

Notes To Interview:

“During a bull market, prices trade above the long-term moving average. However, when the trend changes to a bear market prices trade below that moving average. This is shown in the chart below which compares the market to the 75-week moving average. During ‘bullish trends’ the market tends to trade above the long-term moving average and below it during ‘bearish trends.’”

In other words, at least for me, it is the overall TREND of the market which determines a bull or bear market. Currently, that trend is still rising. But such will not always be the case, and we may be in the process of the “trend change” now.

Fed:

In 2008, when the Fed launched into their “accommodative policy” emergency strategy to bail out the financial markets, the Fed’s balance sheet was only about $915 Billion. The Fed Funds rate was at 4.2%.

If the market fell into a recession tomorrow, the Fed would be starting with roughly a $4 Trillion dollar balance sheet with interest rates 2% lower than they were in 2009. In other words, the ability of the Fed to “bail out” the markets today, is much more limited than it was in 2008.

Valuations

One of the most important issues overhanging the market is simply that of valuations. As Goldman Sachs pointed out recently, the market is pushing the 89% percentile or higher in 6 out of 7 valuation metrics.

So, just how big of a correction would be required to revert valuations back to long-term means? Michael Lebowitz recently did some analysis for RIA PRO:

“Since 1877 there are 1654 monthly measurements of Cyclically Adjusted Price -to- Earnings (CAPE 10). Of these 82, only about 5%, have been the same or greater than current CAPE levels (30.5). Other than a few instances over the last two years and two others which occurred in 1929, the rest occurred during the late 1990’s tech boom. The graph below charts the percentage of time the market has traded at various ranges of CAPE levels.”

Given that valuations are at 30.5x earnings, and that profit growth tracks closely with economic growth, a reversion in valuations would entail a decline in asset prices from current levels to somewhere between 1350 and 1650 on the S&P (See table below). From the recent market highs, such would entail a 54% to 44% decline respectively. To learn how to use the table below to create your own S&P 500 forecast give RIA Pro a 14-day free trial run.

This also corresponds with the currently elevated “Price to Revenue” levels which are currently higher than at any point in previous market history. Given that the longer-term norm for the S&P 500 price/sales ratio is roughly 1.0, a retreat back towards those levels, as was seen in 2000 and 2008, each required a price decline of 50% or more. 

Economy

I discuss with Chris our Economic Output Composite Indicator (EOCI):

To see this more clearly we can look at our own RIA Economic Output Composite Index (EOCI) which is an extremely broad indicator of the U.S. economy. It is comprised of:

  • Chicago Fed National Activity Index (an index comprised of 85 subcomponents)
  • Chicago Purchasing Managers Index
  • ISM Composite Index (composite of the manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys)
  • Richmond Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • New York (Empire) Manufacturing Survey
  • Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • Dallas Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • Markit Composite Manufacturing Survey
  • PMI Composite Survey
  • Economic Confidence Survey
  • NFIB Small Business Index 
  • Leading Economic Index (LEI)

All of these surveys (both soft and hard data) are blended into one composite index which, when compared to U.S. economic activity, has provided a good indication of turning points in economic activity. (Read More)

Economic growth is slowing and, as I penned just recently (see article for composite index makeup), the domestic economy has already shown early signs of a more significant slowdown. Given that corporate profits are a function of economic activity, it should not be surprising that the rate of change of the S&P 500 is closely tied to annual changes in the Economic Output Composite Index.

Pension Funds

“An April 2016 Moody’s analysis pegged the total 75-year unfunded liability for all state and local pension plans at $3.5 trillion. That’s the amount not covered by current fund assets, future expected contributions, and investment returns at assumed rates ranging from 3.7% to 4.1%. Another calculation from the American Enterprise Institute comes up with $5.2 trillion, presuming that long-term bond yields average 2.6%.

With employee contribution requirements extremely low, averaging about 15% of payroll, the need to stretch for higher rates of return have put pensions in a precarious position and increases the underfunded status of pensions.”

“With pension funds already wrestling with largely underfunded liabilities, the shifting demographics are further complicating funding problems.”

Leverage

As I discussed previously:

“What is immediately recognizable is that reversions of negative ‘free cash’ balances have led to serious implications for the stock market. With negative free cash balances still at historically high levels, a full mean reverting event would coincide with a potentially disastrous decline in asset prices as investors are forced to liquidate holdings to meet ‘margin calls.’”

Asset Ownership

Of course, the key ingredient is ownership. High valuations, bullish sentiment, and leverage are completely meaningless if there is no ownership of the underlying equities. The two charts below show both household and corporate levels of equity ownership relative to previous points in history.

As can be clearly seen, leverage fuels both halves of the full market cycle. On the way up, increases in leverage provide the capital necessary for accelerated share buybacks and increased speculation in the markets. Leverage, like gasoline, is inert until a catalyst is applied. It is the unwinding of that leverage that accelerates the liquidation of assets in the markets causes prices to plunge faster and further than most can possibly imagine.

Momentum

The chart below shows the real price of the S&P 500 index versus its long-term Bollinger-bands, valuations, relative-strength, and its deviation above the 3-year moving average. The red vertical lines show where the peaks in these measures were historically located.

What causes the next correction is always unknown until after the fact. However, there are ample warnings that suggest the current cycle may be closer to its inevitable conclusion than many currently believe. There are many factors that can, and will, contribute to the eventual correction which will “feed” on the unwinding of excessive exuberance, valuations, leverage, and deviations from long-term averages.

The biggest risk to investors currently is the magnitude of the next retracement. As shown below the range of potential reversions runs from 36% to more than 54%.

That can’t happen you say?

It’s happened twice before in the last 20 years and with less debt, less leverage, and better funded pension plans.

I leave you with a final thought:

“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau. I do not feel there will be soon if ever a 50 or 60 point break from present levels, such as they have predicted. I expect to see the stock market a good deal higher within a few months.” – Dr. Irving Fisher, Economist at Yale University 1929

VLOG: Savvy Social Security Strategies For Maximizing Benefits

Are you closing in on retirement and have questions about social security?

When you begin to collect benefits, how you collect them, and what potentially can impact those payments can be very confusing. Danny Ratliff and Richard Rosso, both highly qualified CFP’s, delve into the many most commonly asked questions about social security and how to maximize the benefits in retirement.

Still have questions? 

No problem.

We at RIA Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, specialize in preserving and growing investor wealth in times like these. If you are concerned about your financial future, click here to ask a question and find out more.