Tag Archives: consumer credit

Everyone’s In The Pool

With the market breaking out to all-time highs, the media has started to once again reach for their party hats as headlines suggest clear sailing for investors ahead.

After all, why not?  We have run one of the longest stretches in history without a 5%, much less a 10% decline. Threats of nuclear war, hurricanes, disaster, fires, earthquakes, and civil unrest have failed to unnerve investors. It seems all that has been missed was famine and pestilence.

Nonetheless, the breakout is indeed bullish, and signals the continuation of the bullish trend. However, such does not mean there are more than sufficient reasons to remain cautious. As noted on Tuesday, earnings growth remains weak outside of share buybacks, along with top line revenue. There is scant evidence of economic resurgence outside of a restocking cycle bounce, and inflationary pressures globally remain nascent. But such concerns, and I am not even sure the “4-horseman of the apocalypse” would make a difference, are “trumped,” by the ongoing global central bank interventions.

Not surprisingly, while it took individuals time to develop their “Pavlovian” response to the ringing of the “BTFD” bell, they have now fully complied as measured by the Investment Company Institute (ICI).

As shown in the chart above, as asset prices have escalated, so have individuals appetite to chase risk. The herding into equity ETF’s suggest that investors have simply thrown caution to the wind.

The same can be seen for the American Association of Individual Investors as shown below.

While the ICI chart above shows “net flows,” the AAII chart shows percentage allocated to stocks versus cash. With cash levels at the lowest level since 1997, and equity allocations near the highest levels since 1999 and 2007, it also suggests investors are now functionally “all in.” 

With net exposure to equity risk by individuals at historically high levels, it suggests two things:

  1. There is little buying left from individuals to push markets marginally higher, and;
  2. The stock/cash ratio, shown below, is at levels normally coincident with more important market peaks.

Here is the point, despite ongoing commentary about mountains of cash on the sidelines, this is far from the case. This leaves the current advance in the markets almost solely in the realm of Central Bank activity.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with that…until there is.

Which brings us to the ONE question everyone should be asking.

“If the markets are rising because of expectations of improving economic conditions and earnings, then why are Central Banks pumping liquidity like crazy?”

Despite the best of intentions, Central Bank interventions, while boosting asset prices may seem like a good idea in the short-term, in the long-term has had a negative impact on economic growth. As such, it leads to the repetitive cycle of monetary policy.

  1. Using monetary policy to drag forward future consumption leaves a larger void in the future that must be continually refilled.
  2. Monetary policy does not create self-sustaining economic growth and therefore requires ever larger amounts of monetary policy to maintain the same level of activity.
  3. The filling of the “gap” between fundamentals and reality leads to consumer contraction and ultimately a recession as economic activity recedes.
  4. Job losses rise, wealth effect diminishes and real wealth is destroyed. 
  5. Middle class shrinks further.
  6. Central banks act to provide more liquidity to offset recessionary drag and restart economic growth by dragging forward future consumption. 
  7. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

If you don’t believe me, here is the evidence.

The stock market has returned more than 60% since 2007 peak, which is more than three times the growth in corporate sales growth and 30% more than GDP. The all-time highs in the stock market have been driven by the $4.5 trillion increase in the Fed’s balance sheet, hundreds of billions in stock buybacks, PE expansion, and ZIRP.

In turn, this has driven the average valuation of stocks to the highest ratio in history.

Which, as noted, has been driven by a debt-driven binge of share repurchases to boost bottom line earnings.

What could possibly go wrong?

However, whenever there is a discussion of valuations, it is invariably stated that “low rates justify higher valuations.” 

Maybe. But the argument suggests rates are low BECAUSE the economy is healthy and operating near full capacity. However, the reality is quite different as the always insightful Dr. John Hussman pointed out this past week:

“Make no mistake: the main contributors to the illusion of permanent prosperity have been decidedly cyclical factors.

Again, when interest rates are low because growth is also low, no valuation premium is ‘justified’ at all. In the present environment, investors are inviting disastrous losses by paying the highest S&P 500 price/revenue ratio in history (outside of the single week of the 2000 market high) and the highest median price/revenue ratio in history across S&P 500 component stocks (more than 50% beyond the 2000 peak, because extreme valuations in that episode were focused on much narrower subset of stocks than at present). Glorious past returns and record valuations are a Potemkin Village with a barren field behind it.”

There are virtually no measures of valuation which suggest making investments today, and holding them for the next 20-30 years, will work to any great degree.

That is just the math.

Which brings me to something Michael Sincere’s 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 is interesting that prior to the election the majority of analysts, media and investors were “certain” the market would crash if Trump was elected. Since the election, it’s “high-fives and pats on the back.” 

While nothing has changed, the confidence of individuals and investors has surged. Of course, as the markets continue their relentless rise, investors begin to feel “bullet proof” as investment success breeds over-confidence.

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 that the realization of those “risks” occurs.

As Michael stated:

“Most investors believe the Fed will protect their investments from any and all harm, but that cannot go on forever. When the Fed attempts to extricate itself from the market one day, that is when the music stops, and the blame game begins.”

In the end, 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 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.

The markets are indeed in a liquidity-driven up cycle currently. With margin debt near peaks, stock prices in a near vertical rise and “junk bond yields” near record lows, the bullish media continues to suggest there is no reason for concern.

The support of liquidity is being extracted by the Federal Reserve as they simultaneously tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates. Those combined actions, combined with excessive exuberance and risk taking, have NEVER been good for investors over the long term.

At market peaks – “everyone’s in the pool.”

Consumer Credit & The American Conundrum

What to do?  This is not as an innocuous question as one might think. For most American families, who have to balance their living standards to their income, they face this conundrum each and every month.  Today, more than ever, the walk to the end of the driveway has become a dreaded thing as bills loom large in the dark crevices of the mailbox.

What to do?

In a continuation of last week’s discussion on consumer debt, the conundrum exists because there is not enough money to cover the costs of the current living standard.

“The average family of four have few choices available to them as discretionary spending becomes problematic for the bottom 80% of the population whose wage growth hasn’t kept up with the standard of living.”

The burden of debt that was accumulated during the credit boom can’t simply be disposed of. Many can’t sell their house because they can’t qualify to buy a new one and the cost to rent are now higher than current mortgage payments in many places. There is no ability to substantially increase disposable incomes because of deflationary wage pressures, and despite the mainstream spin on recent statistical economic improvements, the burdens on the average American family are increasing.

Nothing brought this to light more than the recent release of the Fed’s Report on “The Economic Well-Being Of U.S. Households.” The overarching problem can be summed up in one chart:

Of course, the recent rise in consumer credit to all-time highs supports that analysis.

Don’t be fooled by the rise in “student loan” debt either. That is NOT representative of a mass hoard of individuals all clamoring into classrooms across the country to garner the benefits of higher education. According to a 2016 Student Loan Hero survey, individuals have other plans for student loan funds which are easy to acquire.

Or as Bloomberg noted in their survey, 1-in-5 American students will use their student loans to pay for expenses such as vacations, dining out and entertainment. To wit:

“Texas A&M graduate Eric Hazard recalls the excitement of student loan refund day.

‘Checks were celebrated across the campus as almost like a bonus for being a college kid. [Students] would go directly to the bank to cash it. I bought electronics for my dorm room and drinks. You know you have to pay it back, but you don’t have a timeline in your mind about what that was going to look like. I just knew it would happen later.'”

Of course, the problem comes when the bills come due. Can you spell “d-e-l-i-q-u-e-n-c-y.”

So, therein lies the “Great American Consumer Conundrum.” If 70% of the economy is driven by personal consumption, what happens when consumers simply hit the wall?

There is a limit.

Under more normal circumstances rising consumer credit would mean more consumption. The rise in consumption should, in theory, led to stronger rates of economic growth. I say, in theory, only because the data doesn’t support the claim.

Prior to 1980, when the amount of debt used to support consumption was fairly stagnant, the economy, wages, and personal consumption expanded. However, as I noted previously, that all changed with financial deregulation in the early 80’s which fostered three generations of debt driven excesses.

In the past, if they wanted to expand their consumption beyond the constraint of incomes they turned to credit in order to leverage their consumptive purchasing power. Steadily declining interest rates and lax lending standards put excess credit in the hands of every American.  (Seriously, my dog Jake got a Visa in 1999 with a $5000 credit limit)  This is why during the 80’s and 90’s, as the ease of credit permeated its way through the system, the standard of living seemingly rose in America even while economic growth rate slowed in America along with incomes.

Therefore, as the gap between the “desired” living standard and disposable income expanded it led to a decrease in the personal savings rates and increase in leverage. It is a simple function of math. But the following chart shows why this has likely come to the inevitable conclusion, and why tax cuts and reforms are unlikely to spur higher rates of economic growth.

Beginning in 2009, the gap between the real disposable incomes and the cost of living was no longer able to be filled by credit expansion. In other words, as opposed to prior 1980, the situation is quite different and a harbinger of potentially bigger problems ahead. The consumer is no longer turning to credit to leverage UP consumption – they are turning to credit to maintain their current living needs.

There are currently clear signs of stress emerging from credit. Commercial lending has taken a sharp dive as delinquencies have risen. These are signs of both a late stage economic expansion and a weakening environment.

As incomes remain weak, the real-world inflationary pressures of food, energy, medical and utilities have consumed more of discretionary incomes. This is why dependency on social support systems now comprise a record level of disposable incomes.

“Without government largesse, many individuals would literally be living on the street. The chart above shows all the government “welfare” programs and current levels to date. The black line represents the sum of the underlying sub-components.  While unemployment insurance has tapered off after its sharp rise post the financial crisis, social security, Medicaid, Veterans’ benefits and other social benefits have continued to rise.

Importantly, for the average person, these social benefits are critical to their survival as they make up more than 22% of real disposable personal incomes. With 1/5 of incomes dependent on government transfers, it is not surprising that the economy continues to struggle as recycled tax dollars used for consumption purposes have virtually no impact on the overall economy.”

It is hard to make the claim that the economy is on the verge of recovery with statistics like that. Of course, it is the real reason why after 9-years of “emergency measures” from Central Banks globally, they are still using “emergency measures” despite claiming monetary policy victory.

It isn’t just about the “baby boomers,” either. Millennials are haunted by the same problems, with 40%-ish unemployed, or underemployed, and living back home with parents. In turn, parents are now part of the “sandwich generation” that are caught between taking care of kids and elderly parents. The rise in medical costs and healthcare goes unabated consuming more of their incomes.

Hopefully, the recent upticks in the economic data are more than just the temporary “restocking cycles” we have seen repeatedly over the last 8-years. Hopefully, the current Administration will achieve some part of their legislative agenda to help boost economic growth. Hopefully, international economies can continue their growth trends as they account for 40% of corporate profits. Hopefully, an economic cycle that is already the 3rd longest in history with the lowest annual growth rate, can continue indefinitely into the future.

But that is an awful lot of hoping.

Yes, You Should Be Concerned With Consumer Debt

Just recently the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released its quarterly survey of the composition and balances of consumer debt. Importantly, it was the fact that total indebtedness reached a new all-time record that sent the mainstream media abuzz with questions about the economic implications. Here is the graphic that accompanied the commentary.

One of the more interesting points made, in order to support the bullish narrative, was that record levels of debt is irrelevant because of the rise in disposable personal incomes. The following chart was given as evidence to support that claim.

Looks pretty good, as long as you don’t scratch too deeply. Let’s scratch a little.

There are several problems with this analysis.

First, the calculation of disposable personal income, income less taxes, is largely a guess and very inaccurate due to the variability of income taxes paid by households.

Secondly, but most importantly, the measure is heavily skewed by the top 20% of income earners, needless to say, the top 5%. As shown in the chart below, those in the top 20% have seen substantially larger median wage growth versus the bottom 80%.

(Note: all data used below is from the Census Bureau and the IRS.)

Lastly, disposable incomes and discretionary incomes are two very different animals. Discretionary income is what is left of disposable incomes after you pay for all of the mandatory spending like rent, food, utilities, health care premiums, insurance, etc. According to a Gallup survey, it requires about $53,000 a year to maintain a family of four in the United States. For 80% of Americans, this is a problem even on a GROSS income basis.

This is why record levels of consumer debt is a problem. There is simply a limit to how much “debt” each household can carry even at historically low interest rates.

It is also the primary reason why we can not have a replay of the 1980-90’s.

“Beginning 1983, the secular bull market of the 80-90’s began. Driven by falling rates of inflation, interest rates, and the deregulation of the banking industry, the debt-induced ramp up of the 90’s gained traction as consumers levered their way into a higher standard of living.”

“While the Internet boom did cause an increase in productivity, it also had a very deleterious effect on the economy.

As shown in the chart above, the rise in personal debt was used to offset the declines in personal income and savings rates. This plunge into indebtedness supported the ‘consumption function’ of the economy. The ‘borrowing and spending like mad’ provided a false sense of economic prosperity.

During the boom market of the 1980’s and 90’s consumption, as a percentage of the economy, grew from roughly 61% to 68% currently. The increase in consumption was largely built upon a falling interest rate environment, lower borrowing costs, and relaxation of lending standards. (Think mortgage, auto, student and sub-prime loans.)

In 1980, household credit market debt stood at $1.3 Trillion. To move consumption, as a percent of the economy, from 61% to 67% by the year 2000 it required an increase of $5.6 Trillion in debt.

Since 2000, consumption as a percent of the economy has risen by just 2% over the last 17 years, however, that increase required more than a $6 Trillion in debt.

The importance of that statement should not be dismissed. It has required more debt to increase consumption by 2% of the economy since 2000 than it did to increase it by 6% from 1980-2000. 

The problem is quite clear. With interest rates already at historic lows, consumers already heavily leveraged and economic growth running at sub-par rates – there is not likely a capability to increase consumption as a percent of the economy to levels that would replicate the economic growth rates of the past.

This can be clearly seen in the following chart of personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and debt. Up until 2000, debt expansion and PCE rose in tandem. But beginning in 2000, as economic growth rates plunged to 2%ish, which isn’t strong enough to foster job growth beyond population growth, debt took the lead in supporting consumption. This was primarily centered on those in the bottom 80% who were simply trying to maintain their current standard of living.

There is a vast difference between the level of indebtedness (per household) for those in the bottom 80% versus those in the top 20%.

Of course, the only saving grace for many American households is that artificially low interest rates have reduced the average debt service levels. Unfortunately, those in the bottom 80% are still having a large chunk of their median disposable income eaten up by debt payments. This reduces discretionary spending capacity even further.

The problem is quite clear. With interest rates already at historic lows, the consumer already heavily leveraged and wage growth stagnant, the capability to increase consumption to foster higher rates of economic growth is limited.

With respect to those who say “the debt doesn’t matter,” I respectfully argue that you looking at a very skewed view of the world driven by those at the top.

Yes, the ongoing interventions by the Federal Reserve have certainly boosted asset prices higher, but that has only served to widen the wealth gap between the top 20% of individuals that have dollars invested in the financial markets and everyone else. What monetary interventions have failed to accomplish is an increase in production to foster higher levels of economic activity.

Corporate profitability is illusory also as it has primarily been a function of cost cutting, increased productivity, stock buybacks, and accounting gimmicks. While this has certainly provided an illusion of economic prosperity on the surface, however, the real economy remains very subject to actual economic activity. It is here that the inability to re-leverage balance sheets, to any great degree, to support consumption provides an inherent long-term headwind to economic prosperity.

With the average American still living well beyond their means, the reality is that economic growth will remain mired at lower levels as savings continue to be diverted from productive investment into debt service.  The issue, of course, is not just a central theme to the U.S. but to the global economy as well.  After eight years of excessive monetary interventions, global debt levels have yet to be resolved.

Debt is a negative thing for the borrower. It has been known to be such a thing even in biblical times as quoted in Proverbs 22:7:

“The borrower is the slave to the lender.”

Debt acts as a “cancer” on an individual’s wealth as it siphons potential savings from income to service the debt. Rising levels of debt, means rising levels of debt service that reduces actual disposable personal incomes that could be saved or reinvested back into the economy.

The mirage of consumer wealth has been a function of surging debt levels. “Wealth” is not borrowed, but “saved,” and this is a lesson that too few individuals have learned.

Until the deleveraging cycle is allowed to occur, and household balance sheets return to more sustainable levels, the attainment of stronger, and more importantly, self-sustaining economic growth could be far more elusive than currently imagined.