Tag Archives: crisis

When It Becomes Serious You Have To Lie: Update On The Repo Fiasco

Occasionally, problems reveal themselves gradually. A water stain on the ceiling is potentially evidence of a much larger problem. Painting over the stain will temporarily relieve the unsightly condition, but in time, the water stain will return. This is analogous to a situation occurring within the banking system. Almost three months after water stains first appeared in the overnight funding markets, the Fed has stepped in on a daily basis to “re-paint the ceiling” and the problem has appeared to vanish. Yet, every day the stain reappears and the Fed’s work begins anew. One is left to wonder why the leak hasn’t been fixed. 

In mid-September, evidence of issues in the U.S. banking system began to appear. The problem occurred in the overnight funding markets which serve as one of the most important components of a well-functioning financial and economic system. It is also a market that few investors follow and even fewer understand. At that time, interest rates in the normally boring repo market suddenly spiked higher with intra-day rates surpassing a whopping 8%. The difference between the 8% repo rate recorded on September 16, 2019 and Treasuries was an eight standard deviation event. Statistically, such an event should occur once every three billion years.

For a refresher on the details of those events, we suggest reading our article from September 25, 2019, entitled Who Could Have Known: What The Repo Fiasco Entails.  

At the time, it was surprising that the sudden change in overnight repo borrowing rates caught the Fed completely off guard and that they lacked a reasonable explanation for the disruption. Since then, our surprise has turned to concern and suspicion.

We harbor doubts about the cause of the problem based on two excuses the Fed and banks use to explain the situation. Neither are compelling or convincing. 

As we were putting the finishing touches on this article, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) reported that the overnight repo problems might stem from the reluctance of the four largest U.S. banks to lend to some of the largest hedge funds. The four banks are being forced to fund a massive surge in U.S. Treasury issuance and therefore reallocated funding from the hedge funds to the U.S. Treasury.  Per the Financial Times in Hedge Funds key in exacerbating repo market turmoil, says BIS: “High demand for secured (repo) funding from non-financial institutions, such as hedge funds heavily engaged in leveraging up relative value trades,” – was a key factor behind the chaos, said Claudio Borio, Head of the monetary and economic department at the BIS.

In the article, the BIS implies that the Fed is providing liquidity to banks so that banks, in turn, can provide the hedge funds funding to maintain their leverage. The Fed is worried that hedge funds will sell assets if liquidity is not available. Instead of forcing hedge funds to deal with a funding risk that they know about, they are effectively bailing them out from having to liquidate their holdings. If that is the case, and as the central bank to central bankers the BIS should be well informed on such matters, why should the Fed be involved in micro-managing leverage to hedge funds? It would certainly represent another extreme example of mission creep.

Excuse #1

In the article linked above, we discussed the initial excuse for the funding issues bandied about by Wall Street, the banks, and the media as follows:

Most likely, there was an unexpected cash crunch that left banks and/or financial institutions underfunded. The media has talked up the corporate tax date and a large Treasury bond settlement date as potential reasons.”

While the excuse seemed legitimate, it made little sense as we surmised in the next sentence:

“We are not convinced by either excuse as they were easily forecastable weeks in advance.”

If the dearth of liquidity in the overnight funding markets was due to predictable, one-time cash demands, the problem should have been fixed easily. Simply replenish the cash with open market operations as the Fed routinely did prior to the Financial Crisis.

Since mid-September, the Fed has elected instead to increase their balance sheet by over $320 billion.  In addition to conducting daily overnight repo auctions, they introduced term repo that extends for weeks and then abruptly restarted quantitative easing (QE).

Imagine your plumber coming into your house with five other plumbers and a bull dozer to fix what you assumed was a leaky pipe.

The graph below, courtesy Bianco Research, shows the dramatic rise in the Fed’s balance sheet since September.

Based on the purported cash shortfall excuse, one would expect that the increase in the Fed’s balance sheet would have easily met demands for cash and the markets would have stabilized. Liquidity hole filled, problem solved.

However, as witnessed by the continuing growth of the Fed’s balance sheet and ever-increasing size of Fed operations, the hole seems to be growing. It is worth noting that the Fed has committed to add $60 billion a month to their balance sheet through March of 2020 via QE. In other words, the stain keeps reappearing and getting bigger despite increasing amounts of paint. 

Excuse #2

The latest rationale used to explain the funding problems revolves around banking regulations. Many Fed members and banking professionals have recently stated that banking regulations, enacted after the Financial Crisis, are constraining banks’ ability to lend to other banks and therefore worsening the funding situation. In the words of Randy Quarles, Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Banking Supervision, in his testimony to the House Financial Services Committee:

We have identified some areas where our existing supervision of the regulatory framework…may have created some incentives that were contributors

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, is quoted in MarketWatch as saying the following:

“The turmoil may be a precursor of a bigger crisis if the Fed doesn’t adjust its regulations. He said the liquidity requirements tie up what was seen as excess reserves.”

Essentially, Quarles and Dimon argue that excess reserves are not really excess. When new post Financial Crisis regulatory requirements are factored in, banks only hold the appropriate amount of reserves and are not exceeding requirements.

This may be the case, and if so, the amount of true excess reserves was dwindling several months prior to the repo debacle in September.  Any potential or forecasted shortfalls due to the constraints should have been easily identifiable weeks and months in advance of any problem.

The banks and the Fed speak to each other quite often about financial conditions and potential problems that might arise. Most of the systemically important financial institutions (SIFI banks) have government regulators on-site every day. In addition, the Fed audits the banks on a regular basis. We find it hard to believe that new regulatory restraints and the effect they have on true excess reserves were not discussed. This is even harder to believe when one considers that the Fed was actively reducing the amount of reserves in the system via Quantitative Tightening (QT) through 2018 and early 2019. The banks and the regulators should have been alerting everyone they were getting dangerously close to exhausting their true excess reserves. That did not occur, at least not publicly.

Theories and Speculation

A golden rule we follow is that when we think we are being misled, especially by market participants, the Fed, or the government, it pays to try to understand the motive.  “Why would they do this?” Although not conclusive, we have a few theories about the faulty explanations for the funding shortage. They are as follows:

  • The banks and the Fed would like to reduce the regulatory constraints imposed on them in recent years. Disruptions demonstrating that the regulations not only inhibit lending but can cause a funding crisis allow them to leverage lobbying efforts to reduce regulations.
  • There may be a bank or large financial institution that is in distress. In an effort to keep it out of the headlines, the Fed is indirectly supplying liquidity to the institution. This would help explain why the September Repo event was so sudden and unexpected. Rumors about troubles at certain European banks have been circulating for months.
  • The Fed and the banks grossly underestimated how much of the increased U.S. Treasury debt issuance they would have to buy. In just the last quarter, the Treasury issued nearly $1 trillion dollars of debt. At the same time, foreign sponsorship of U.S. Treasuries has been declining. While predictable, the large amount of cash required to buy Treasury notes and bonds may have created a cash shortfall. For more on why this problem is even more pronounced today, read our article Who Is Funding Uncle Sam. If this is the case, the Fed is funding the Treasury under the table via QE. This is better known as “debt monetization”.
  • Between July and November the Fed reduced the Fed Funds rate by 0.75% without any economic justification for doing so. The Fed claims that the cuts are an “insurance” policy to ensure that slowing global growth and trade turmoil do not halt the already record long economic expansion. Might they now be afraid that further cuts would raise suspicion that the Fed has recessionary concerns? QE, which was supposedly enacted to combat the overnight funding issues, has generously supported financial markets in the past. Maybe a funding crisis provides the Fed cover for QE despite rates not being at the zero bound. Since 2008, the Fed has been vocal about the ways in which market confidence supports consumer confidence. 

The analysis of what is true and what is rhetoric spins wildly out of control when we allow our imaginations to run. This is what happens when pieces do not fit neatly into the puzzle and when sound policy decisions are subordinated to public relations sound bites. One thing seems certain, despite what we are being told, there likely something else is going on.

Of greater concern in this matter of overnight funding, is the potential the Fed and banks were truly blindsided. If that is the case, we should harbor even deeper concern as there is likely a much bigger issue being painted over with temporary liquidity injections.

Summary

In the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, one of the more famous quotes is, “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

We do not accept the rationale the Fed is using to justify the reintroduction of QE and the latest surge in their balance sheet. Although we do not know why the Fed has been so incoherent in their application of monetary policy, our theories offer other ideas for thinking through the monetary policy maze. They also have various implications for the markets, none of which should be taken lightly.

We are just as certain that we are not entirely correct as we are certain that we aren’t entirely wrong. Like the water spot on the ceiling, financial market issues normally reveal themselves gradually. Prudent risk management suggests finding and addressing the source of the problem rather than cosmetics. We want to reiterate that, if the Fed is papering over problems in the overnight funding market, we are left to question the Fed’s understanding of global funding markets and the global banking system’s ability to weather a more significant disruption than the preview we observed in September.

The Difference Between Investing & Speculation (10-Investing Rules)

Are you an “investor” or a “speculator?” 

In today’s market the majority of investors are simply chasing performance. However, why would you NOT expect this to be the case when financial advisers, the mainstream media, and WallStreet continually press the idea that investors “must beat” some random benchmark index from one year to the next.

But, is this “speculation” or “investing?” 

Think about it this way.

If you were playing a hand of poker, and were dealt a “pair of deuces,” would you push all your chips to the center of the table?

Of course, not.

The reason is you intuitively understand the other factors “at play.” Even a cursory understanding of the game of poker suggests other players at the table are probably holding better hands which will lead to a rapid reduction of your wealth.

Investing, ultimately, is about managing the risks which will substantially reduce your ability to “stay in the game long enough” to “win.”

Robert Hagstrom, CFA penned a piece discussing the differences between investing and speculation:

“Philip Carret, who wrote The Art of Speculation (1930), believed “motive” was the test for determining the difference between investment and speculation. Carret connected the investor to the economics of the business and the speculator to price. ‘Speculation,’ wrote Carret, ‘may be defined as the purchase or sale of securities or commodities in expectation of profiting by fluctuations in their prices.’”

Chasing markets is the purest form of speculation. It is simply a bet on prices going higher rather than determining if the price being paid for those assets are selling at a discount to fair value.

Benjamin Graham, along with David Dodd, attempted a precise definition of investing and speculation in their seminal work Security Analysis (1934).

An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.”

There is also very important passage in Graham’s The Intelligent Investor:

“The distinction between investment and speculation in common stocks has always been a useful one and its disappearance is a cause for concern. We have often said that Wall Street as an institution would be well advised to reinstate this distinction and to emphasize it in all its dealings with the public. Otherwise the stock exchanges may some day be blamed for heavy speculative losses, which those who suffered them had not been properly warned against.”

Indeed, the meaning of investment has been lost on most individuals. However, the following 10-guidelines from legendary investors of our time will hopefully get you back on track.


10-Investing Guidelines From Legendary Investors

1) Jeffrey Gundlach, DoubleLine

“The trick is to take risks and be paid for taking those risks, but to take a diversified basket of risks in a portfolio.”

This is a common theme that you will see throughout this post. Great investors focus on “risk management” because “risk” is not a function of how much money you will make, but how much you will lose when you are wrong. In investing, or gambling, you can only play as long as you have capital. If you lose too much capital but taking on excessive risk, you can no longer play the game.

Be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy. One of the best times to invest is when uncertainty is the greatest and fear is the highest.

2) Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates

“The biggest mistake investors make is to believe that what happened in the recent past is likely to persist. They assume that something that was a good investment in the recent past is still a good investment. Typically, high past returns simply imply that an asset has become more expensive and is a poorer, not better, investment.”

Nothing good, or bad, goes on forever. The mistake that investors repeatedly make is thinking “this time is different.” The reality is that despite Central Bank interventions, or other artificial inputs, business and economic cycles cannot be repealed. Ultimately, what goes up, must and will come down.

Wall Street wants you to be fully invested “all the time” because that is how they generate fees. However, as an investor, it is crucially important to remember that “price is what you pay and value is what you get.” Eventually, great companies will trade at an attractive price. Until then, wait.

3) Seth Klarman, Baupost

“Most investors are primarily oriented toward return, how much they can make and pay little attention to risk, how much they can lose.”

Investor behavior, driven by cognitive biases, is the biggest risk in investing. “Greed and fear” dominate the investment cycle of investors which leads ultimately to “buying high and selling low.”

4) Jeremy Grantham, GMO

“You don’t get rewarded for taking risk; you get rewarded for buying cheap assets. And if the assets you bought got pushed up in price simply because they were risky, then you are not going to be rewarded for taking a risk; you are going to be punished for it.”

Successful investors avoid “risk” at all costs, even it means under performing in the short-term. The reason is that while the media and Wall Street have you focused on chasing market returns in the short-term, ultimately the excess “risk” built into your portfolio will lead to extremely poor long-term returns. Like Wyle E. Coyote, chasing financial markets higher will eventually lead you over the edge of the cliff.

5) Jesse Livermore, Speculator

“The speculator’s deadly enemies are: ignorance, greed, fear and hope. All the statute books in the world and all the rule books on all the Exchanges of the earth cannot eliminate these from the human animal….”

Allowing emotions to rule your investment strategy is, and always has been, a recipe for disaster. All great investors follow a strict diet of discipline, strategy, and risk management. The emotional mistakes show up in the returns of individuals portfolios over every time period. (Source: Dalbar)

Dalbar-2015-QAIB-Performance-040815

6) Howard Marks, Oaktree Capital Management

“Rule No. 1: Most things will prove to be cyclical.

Rule No. 2: Some of the greatest opportunities for gain and loss come when other people forget Rule No. 1.”

As with Ray Dalio, the realization that nothing lasts forever is critically important to long term investing. In order to “buy low,” one must have first “sold high.” Understanding that all things are cyclical suggests that after long price increases, investments become more prone to declines than further advances.

7) James Montier, GMO

“There is a simple, although not easy alternative [to forecasting]… Buy when an asset is cheap, and sell when an asset gets expensive…. Valuation is the primary determinant of long-term returns, and the closest thing we have to a law of gravity in finance.”

“Cheap” is when an asset is selling for less than its intrinsic value. “Cheap” is not a low price per share. Most of the time when a stock has a very low price, it is priced there for a reason. However, a very high priced stock CAN be cheap. Price per share is only part of the valuation determination, not the measure of value itself.

8) George Soros, Soros Capital Management

“It’s not whether you’re right or wrong that’s important, but how much money you make when you’re right and how much you lose when you’re wrong.”

Back to risk management, being right and making money is great when markets are rising. However, rising markets tend to mask investment risk that is quickly revealed during market declines. If you fail to manage the risk in your portfolio, and give up all of your previous gains and then some, then you lose the investment game.

9) Jason Zweig, Wall Street Journal

“Regression to the mean is the most powerful law in financial physics: Periods of above-average performance are inevitably followed by below-average returns, and bad times inevitably set the stage for surprisingly good performance.”

The chart below is the 3-year average of annual inflation-adjusted returns of the S&P 500 going back to 1900. The power of regression is clearly seen. Historically, when returns have exceeded 10% it was not long before returns fell to 10% below the long-term mean which devastated much of investor’s capital.

10) Howard Marks, Oaktree Capital Management

“The biggest investing errors come not from factors that are informational or analytical, but from those that are psychological.”

The biggest driver of long-term investment returns is the minimization of psychological investment mistakes.

As Baron Rothschild once stated: “Buy when there is blood in the streets.” This simply means that when investors are “panic selling,” you want to be the one they are selling to at deeply discounted prices. Howard Marks opined much of the same sentiment: “The absolute best buying opportunities come when asset holders are forced to sell.”

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 to manage the inherent risk.

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

As I stated at the beginning of this missive, “Market Timing” is not an effective method of managing your money. However, as you will note, every great investor through out history has had one core philosophy in common; the management of the inherent risk of investing to conserve and preserve investment capital.

“If you run out of chips, you are out of the game.”

Surging Repo Rates- Why Should I Care?

A subscriber emailed us regarding our repurchase agreement (repo) analysis from Tuesday’s Daily Commentary. Her question is, “why should I care about a surge in repo rates?” The commentary she refers to is at the end of this article.

Before answering her question, it is worth emphasizing that it is rare for overnight Fed Funds or Repo rates to spike, as happened this week, other than at quarter and year ends when bank balance sheets have little flexibility. Clearly, balance sheet constraints due to the end of a quarter or year are not causing the current situation.  Some say the current situation may be due to a lack of bank reserves which are used to make loans, but banks have almost $2 trillion in excess cash reserves. Although there may likely be an explanation related to general bank liquidity, there is also a chance the surge in funding costs is due to a credit or geopolitical event with a bank or other entity that has yet to be disclosed to the public.

Before moving ahead, let us take a moment to clarify our definitional terms.

Fed Funds are daily overnight loans between banks that are unsecured, or not collateralized. Overnight Repo funding are also daily overnight loans but unlike Fed Funds, are backed with assets, typically U.S. Treasuries or mortgage-backed securities. The Federal Reserve has the authority to conduct financing transactions to add or subtract liquidity to ensure overnight markets trade close to the Fed Funds target. These transactions are referred to as open market operations which involve the buying or selling of Treasury bonds to increase or decrease the amount of reserves (money) in the system. Reserves regulate how much money a bank can lend. When reserves are limited, short-term interest rates among and between banks rise and conversely when reserves are abundant, funding costs fall. QE, for instance, boosted reserves by nearly $3.5 trillion which enabled banks to provide liquidity to markets and make loans at low interest rates.

Our financial system and economy are highly leveraged. Currently, in the U.S., there is over $60 trillion in debt versus a monetary base of $3.3 trillion. Further, there is at least another $10-15 trillion of dollar-based debt owed outside of the U.S. 

Banks frequently have daily liquidity shortfalls or overages as they facilitate the massive amount of cash moving through the banking system. To balance their books daily, they borrow from or lend to other banks in the overnight markets to satisfy these daily imbalances. When there is more demand than supply or vice versa for overnight funds, the Fed intervenes to ensure that the overnight markets trade at, or close to, the current Fed Funds rate.

If overnight funding remains volatile and costly, banks will increase the amount of cash on hand (liquidity) to avoid higher daily costs. To facilitate more short term cash on their books, funds must be conjured by liquidating other assets they hold. The easiest assets to sell are those in the financial markets such as U.S. Treasuries, investment-grade corporate bonds, stocks, currencies, and commodities.  We may be seeing this already. To wit the following is from Bloomberg:  

“What started out as a funding shortage in a key U.S. money market is now making it more costly to get hold of dollars globally. After a sudden surge in the overnight rate on Treasury repurchase agreements, demand for the dollar is showing up in swap rates from euros, pounds, yen and even Australia’s currency. As an example, the cost to borrow dollars for one week in FX markets while lending euros almost doubled.”

A day or two of unruly behavior in the overnight markets is not likely to meaningfully affect banks’ behaviors. However, if the banks think this will continue, they will take more aggressive actions to bolster their liquidity.

To directly answer our reader’s question and reiterating an important point made, if banks bolster liquidity, the financial markets will probably be the first place from which banks draw funds. In turn, this means that banks and their counterparties will be forced to reduce leverage used in the financial markets. Stocks, bonds, currencies, and commodities are all highly leveraged by banks and their clientele. As such, all of these markets are susceptible to selling pressure if this occurs.

We leave you with a couple of thoughts-

  • If the repo rate is 3-4% above the Fed Funds rate, the borrower must either not be a bank or one that is seriously distressed. As such, is this repo event related to a hedge fund, bank or other entity that blew up when oil surged over 10% on Monday? Could it be a geopolitical related issue given events in the Middle East? 
  • The common explanation seems to blame the massive funding outlays due to the combination of Treasury debt funding and corporate tax remittances. While plausible, these cash flow were easy to predict and plan for weeks in advance. This does not seem like a valid excuse.

In case you missed it, here is Tuesday’s RIA repo commentary:  Yesterday afternoon, overnight borrowing costs for banks surged to 7%, well above the 2.25% Fed Funds rate. Typically the rate stays within 5-10 basis points of the Fed Funds rate. Larger variations are usually reserved for quarter and year ends when banks face balance sheet constraints. It is believed the settlement of new issue Treasury securities and the corporate tax date caused a funding shortage for banks. If that is the case, the situation should clear up in a day or two. Regardless of the cause, the condition points to a lack of liquidity in the banking sector. We will follow the situation closely as it may impact markets if it continues.

The $6 Trillion Pension Bailout Is Coming

Fiscal responsibility is dead.

This past week, Trump announced he had reached an agreement with Congress to pass a continuing resolution which will suspend the debt ceiling until July 2021.

The good news is that it will ONLY increase spending by just $320 billion. 

What a bargain, right?

It’s a lie.

That is just the “starting point” of proposed spending. Without a “debt ceiling” to constrain spending, the actual spending will be substantially higher.

However, the $320 billion is also deceiving because that is on top of the spending we have already committed. As I noted just recently:

“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.” 

Do some math here.

The U.S. spent $986 billion more than it received in revenue in 2018, which is the overall “deficit.” If you just add the $320 billion to that number you are now running a $1.3 Trillion deficit.

Sure enough, this is precisely where I forecast we would be in December of 2017.

“Of course, the real question is how are you going to ‘pay for it?’ On the ‘fiscal’ side of the tax reform bill, without achieving accelerated rates of economic growth – ‘the debt will balloon.’

The reality, of course, is that is what will happen because there is absolutely NO historical evidence that cutting taxes, without offsetting cuts to spending, leads to stronger economic growth.”

More importantly, Federal Tax Revenue is DECLINING. Such was NOT supposed to be the case, as the whole “corporate tax cut” bill was supposed to lift tax revenues due to rising incomes.

More spending, less revenue, equals bigger deficits, which equates to slower economic growth.

“Increases in the national debt have long been squandered on increases in social welfare programs, and ultimately higher debt service, which has an effective negative return on investment. Therefore, the larger the balance of debt becomes, the more economically destructive it is by diverting an ever growing amount of dollars away from productive investments to service payments.

The relevance of debt versus economic growth is all too evident, as shown below. Since 1980, the overall increase in debt has surged to levels that currently usurp the entirety of economic growth. With economic growth rates now at the lowest levels on record, the growth in debt continues to divert more tax dollars away from productive investments into the service of debt and social welfare.”

“The irony is that debt driven economic growth, consistently requires more debt to fund a diminishing rate of return of future growth. It now requires $3.02 of debt to create $1 of real economic growth.”

Over the next 12-18 months, spending will expand, and the deficit will quickly approach $2 Trillion. 

But, here’s the worse part: The projected budget deficits over the next couple of years are coming at the end of a decade-long growth cycle with the economy essentially at full employment. This is significant because, while budget deficits can be helpful in recessions by providing an economic stimulus, there are good reasons we should be retrenching during good economic times, including the one we are in now.

As William Gale stated:

“As President Kennedy once said, ‘the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.’  Instead, we are punching more holes in the fiscal roof. The fact that debt and deficits are rising under conditions of full employment suggests a deeper underlying fiscal problem.”

During the next recession, revenue will drop sharply, deficits will explode, and the Government will be forced into another round of bailouts.

Congress is already committing you to pay for it.

The $6 Trillion Bailout

I previously penned an article discussing the “Unavoidable Pension Crisis.” 

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, or future expected contributions, or 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%.

Since then, we have gotten some updated estimates. Surely, after 3-years of surging stock market returns things have gotten markedly better, right?

“Moody’s Investor Service estimated last year that the total pension funding gap in the US is $4.4 trillion. A few months ago the American Legislative Exchange Council estimated it at nearly $6 trillion.”

Apparently, not.

Don’t worry, Congress has your back. 

In “The Next Financial Crisis Will Be The Last” I stated:

“The real crisis comes when there is a ‘run on pensions.’ With a large number of pensioners already eligible for their pension, the next decline in the markets will likely spur the ‘fear’ that benefits will be lost entirely. The combined run on the system, which is grossly underfunded, at a time when asset prices are declining will cause a debacle of mass proportions. It will require a massive government bailout to resolve it.”

Fortunately, Congress has made some movement to get ahead of the problem with the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act. The legislation, if passed, is an attempt to address the multi-trillion dollar problem of unfunded pension plans in America.

By the way, this isn’t JUST an American problem, it is a $70-Trillion global problem, as noted recently by 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.”

This is why Central Banks globally are terrified of a global downturn. The pension crisis IS the “weapon of mass destruction” to the global financial system, and it has started ticking.

While pension plans in the United States are guaranteed by a quasi-government agency called the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), the reality is the PBGC is already nearly bust from taking over plans following the financial crisis. The PBGC is slated to run out of money in 2025. Moreover, its balance sheet is trivial compared to the multi-trillion dollar pension problem.

The proposal from Congress is simply to use more debt. According to the new legislation, whenever a pension plan runs out of funds, Congress wants the pension plan to borrow money in order to keep making payments to beneficiaries.

Think about that for a moment. 

Who would loan money to an insolvent pension fund?

Oh, that would be you, the taxpayer.

In other words, the Government wants you to bail out your own retirement fund.

Genius.

But it’s going to get far worse.

We Are Out Of Time

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. And many of them are public-sector employees. In a 2015 study of public-sector organizations, nearly half of the responding organizations stated that they could lose 20% or more of their employees to retirement within the next five years. Local governments are particularly vulnerable: a full 37% of local-government employees were at least 50 years of age in 2015.

The vast majority of these individuals, when they retire, will depend on their pension (if they are in the 15% of the population that has one, and Social Security for a bulk of their living expenses in retirement.

The problem is that pension funds aren’t going to be able to keep their promises. Social Security, according to its own annual report, will run out of money in 15 years. Medicare has a massive underfunded problem as well.

But yet, the current Administration believes our outcome will be different.

More debt, and lack of any budgetary controls, will somehow lead to surging levels of economic growth despite no historical evidence of that being the case.

The reality is that the U.S. is now caught in the same liquidity trap as Japan. With the current economic recovery already pushing the long end of the economic cycle, the risk is rising that the next economic downturn is closer than not. The danger is that the Federal Reserve is now potentially trapped with an inability to use monetary policy tools to offset the next economic decline when it occurs. Combine this with:

  • A decline in savings rates to extremely low levels which depletes productive investments
  • An aging demographic that is top heavy and drawing on social benefits at an advancing rate.
  • A heavily indebted economy with debt/GDP ratios above 100%.
  • A decline in exports due to a weak global economic environment.
  • Slowing domestic economic growth rates.
  • An underemployed younger demographic.
  • An inelastic supply-demand curve
  • Weak industrial production
  • Dependence on productivity increases to offset reduced employment

The combined issues of debt, deflation, and demographics will continue to push the U.S. closer to the “point of no return.”

As the aging population grows becoming a net drag on “savings,” the dependency on the “social welfare net” will continue to expand. The “pension problem” is only the tip of the iceberg.

It’s an unsolvable problem.

It will happen.

It will devastate many Americans.

It is just a function of time.

“Demography, however, is destiny for entitlements, so arithmetic will do the meddling.” – George Will

But here is the real question that needs to be answered:

“Who is going to buy all the debt?”

QE – Then, Now, & Why It May Not Work

Since the beginning of the year, the market has rallied sharply. That rally has been fueled by commentary from both the Trump Administration and the Federal Reserve of the removal of obstacles which plagued stocks in 2018. The chart below is an abbreviated, and a bit sarcastic, version of events.

While the resolution of the trade war is certainly beneficial to the economy, as it removes an additional tax on consumers, the biggest support for the market has been the assumption the Fed will return to a much more accommodative stance.

As we summed up previously for our RIA PRO subscribers (try it FREE for 30-days)

  • The Fed will be “patient” with future rate hikes, meaning they are now likely on hold as opposed to their forecasts which still call for two to three more rate hikes in 2019 and more in 2020.
  • The pace of QT, or balance sheet reduction, will not be on “autopilot” but instead driven by the current economic situation and tone of the financial markets. It is expected the Fed will announce in March that QT will end and the balance sheet will stabilize at a much higher level.
  • QE is a tool that WILL BE employed when rate reductions are not enough to stimulate growth and calm jittery financial markets.

In mid-2018, the Federal Reserve was adamant a strong economy, and rising inflationary pressures, required tighter monetary conditions. At that time they were discussing additional rate hikes and a continued reduction of their $4 Trillion balance sheet.

All it took was a rough December, pressure from Wall Street’s member banks, and a disgruntled White House to completely flip their thinking.

The Fed isn’t alone.

China has launched its version of “Quantitative Easing” to help prop up its slowing economy.

Lastly, the ECB downgraded Eurozone growth, and as announced today, not only will they not raise rates in 2019, they also extended the TLTRO program, which is the Targeted Longer-Term Refinancing Operations scheme which gives cheap loans to struggling Eurozone banks, into 2021.

But there is nothing to worry about, right?

Think about this for a moment.

For a decade the global economy has been growing. Market participants are crowing about the massive surge in asset prices as clear evidence of the strength of the economy.

However, such hasn’t been the case. As I discussed previously for the Fed, China, and the ECB, are signaling their concerns about “economic reality,” which as the data through the end of December shows, the U.S. economy is beginning to slow.

“As shown, over the last six months, the decline in the LEI has been sharper than originally anticipated. Importantly, there is a strong historical correlation between the 6-month rate of change in the LEI and the EOCI index. As shown, the downturn in the LEI predicted the current economic weakness and suggests the data is likely to continue to weaken in the months ahead.”

More importantly, monetary policy never really impacted the economy as prolifically as was anticipated following the financial crisis. The two 4-panel charts below show the percentage change in the Fed’s balance sheet from 2009-present (309%) versus the total percentage change in various economic components. I have also included the amount of stimulus required to create those changes.

First, it is interesting to note that despite headlines of strong employment growth, the percentage of people considered “Not In Labor Force or NILF” has grown more than full-time employment. Of course, and not surprisingly, the biggest beneficiary of monetary policy was…corporate profits.

Secondly, where monetary policy did work was lifting asset prices as shown in the chart and table below.

The table above shows that QE1 came immediately following the financial crisis and had an effective ratio of about 1.6:1. In other words, it took a 1.6% increase in the balance sheet to create a 1% advance in the S&P 500. However, once market participants figured out the transmission system, QE2 and QE3 had an almost perfect 1:1 ratio of effectiveness. The ECB’s QE program, which was implemented in 2015 to support concerns of an unruly “Brexit,” had an effective ratio of 1.5:1.

Clearly, QE worked well in lifting asset prices, but not so much for the economy as shown above. In other words, QE was ultimately a massive “wealth transfer” from the middle class to the rich which has created one of the greatest wealth gaps in the history of the U.S., not to mention an asset bubble of historic proportions.

But Will It Work Next Time?

This is the single most important question for investors.

The current belief is that QE4 will be implemented at the first hint of a more protracted downturn in the market. However, as we noted above, QE will likely only be employed when rate reductions aren’t enough. Such was noted in 2016 by David Reifschneider, deputy director of the division of research and statistics for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., released a staff working paper entitled “Gauging The Ability Of The FOMC To Respond To Future Recessions.” 

The conclusion was simply this:

“Simulations of the FRB/US model of a severe recession suggest that large-scale asset purchases and forward guidance about the future path of the federal funds rate should be able to provide enough additional accommodation to fully compensate for a more limited [ability] to cut short-term interest rates in most, but probably not all, circumstances.”

In other words, the Federal Reserve is rapidly becoming aware they have become caught in a liquidity trap keeping them unable to raise interest rates sufficiently to reload that particular policy tool. There are certainly growing indications, as discussed recently, the U.S. economy maybe be heading towards the next recession. 

Interestingly, David compared three policy approaches to offset the next recession.

  1. Fed funds goes into negative territory but there is no breakdown in the structure of economic relationships.
  2. Fed funds returns to zero and keeps it there long enough for unemployment to return to baseline.
  3. Fed funds returns to zero and the FOMC augments it with additional $2-4 Trillion of QE and forward guidance. 

In other words, the Fed is already factoring in a scenario in which a shock to the economy leads to additional QE of either $2 trillion, or in a worst case scenario, $4 trillion, effectively doubling the current size of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Here is what is interesting, as reported by Jennifer Ablan:

So, 2-years ago David lays out the plan and yesterday Williams reiterates that plan.

Does the Fed see a recession on the horizon? Is this the reason for the sudden change in views by Powell in recent weeks?

Maybe.

But there is a problem with the entire analysis. The effectiveness of QE, and zero interest rates, is based on the point at which you apply these measures. This was something I pointed out previously:

“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 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.”

But there is more to the story than just the Fed’s balance sheet and funds rate. The entire backdrop is completely reversed. The table below compares a variety of financial and economic factors from 2009 to present.

The critical point here is that QE and rate reductions have the MOST effect when the economy, markets, and investors have been “blown out,” deviations from the “norm” are negatively extended, confidence is hugely negative.

In other words, there is nowhere to go but up.

Such was the case in 2009. Even without Federal Reserve interventions, it is highly probable that the economy would have begun a recovery as the normal economic cycle took hold. No, the recovery would not have been as strong, and asset prices would be about half of where they are today, but an improvement would have happened nonetheless.

The extremely negative environment that existed, particularly in the asset markets, provided a fertile starting point for monetary interventions. Today, as shown in the table above, the economic and fundamental backdrop could not be more diametrically opposed.

This suggests that the Fed’s ability to stem the decline of the next recession, or offset a financial shock to the economy from falling asset prices, may be much more limited than the Fed, and most investors, currently believe.

The Fed’s hope has always been that at some point they would be able to wean the economy off of life support and it would operate under its own strength. This would allow the Fed to raise interest rates back to more normalized levels and provide a policy tool to offset the next recession. However, given the Fed has never been able to get rates higher than the last crisis, it has only led to bigger “booms and busts” in recent decades.

Summary

It has taken a massive amount of interventions by Central Banks to keep economies afloat globally over the last decade and there is rising evidence that growth is beginning to decelerate.

While another $2-4 Trillion in QE might indeed be successful in further inflating the third bubble in asset prices since the turn of the century, there is a finite ability to continue to pull forward future consumption to stimulate economic activity. In other words, there are only so many autos, houses, etc., which can be purchased within a given cycle. There is evidence the cycle peak has been reached.

If I am correct, and the effectiveness of rate reductions and QE are diminished due to the reasons detailed herein, the subsequent destruction to the “wealth effect” will be far larger than currently imagined. There is a limit to just how many bonds the Federal Reserve can buy and a deep recession will likely find the Fed powerless to offset much of the negative effects. 

If more “QE” works, great. But as investors, with our retirement savings at risk, what if it doesn’t.

The Fed Doesn’t Target The Market?

Earlier this month, I penned an article asking if we “really shouldn’t worry about the Fed’s balance sheet?” The question arose from a specific statement made by previous New York Federal Reserve President Bill Dudley:

“Financial types have long had a preoccupation: What will the Federal Reserve do with all the fixed income securities it purchased to help the U.S. economy recover from the last recession? The Fed’s efforts to shrink its holdings have been blamed for various ills, including December’s stock-market swoon. And any new nuance of policy — such as last week’s statement on “balance sheet normalization” — is seen as a really big deal.

I’m amazed and baffled by this. It gets much more attention than it deserves.”

As I noted, there is a specific reason why “financial types” have a preoccupation with the balance sheet.

The preoccupation came to light in 2010 when Ben Bernanke added the “third mandate” to the Fed – the creation of the “wealth effect.”

“This approach eased financial conditions in the past and, so far, looks to be effective again. Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell when investors began to anticipate this additional action. Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”

– Ben Bernanke, Washington Post Op-Ed, November, 2010.

As he noted, the Fed specifically targeted asset prices to boost consumer confidence. Given that consumption makes up roughly 70% of economic growth in the U.S., it makes sense. So, not surprisingly, when the economy begins to show signs of deterioration, the Fed acts to offset that weakness.

This is why the slowdown in global growth became an important factor behind the central bank’s decision to put plans for interest rate increases on hold. That comment was made by Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Richard Clarida during a question-and-answer session last week.

“The reality is that the global economy is slowing. You’ve got negative growth in Italy, Germany may just grow…1% this year, [and] a slowdown in China. These are all things that we need to factor in. 

Slower global growth would crimp U.S. exports and could also negatively influence financial and asset markets, a primary transmission mechanism for monetary policy.”

As we noted previously in “Data or Markets,” the Fed is not truly just “data dependent.” They are, in many ways, co-dependent on each other. A strongly rising market allows the Fed to raise rates and reduce accommodative as higher asset prices support confidence. However, that “leeway” is quickly reduced when asset prices reverse. This has been the Fed cycle for the last 40-years.

The problem for the Fed is they have now become “liquidity trapped.”

What is that? Here is the definition:

“A liquidity trap is a situation described in Keynesian economics in which injections of cash into the private banking system by a central bank fail to lower interest rates and hence fail to stimulate economic growth. A liquidity trap is caused when people hoard cash because they expect an adverse event such as deflation, insufficient aggregate demand, or war. Signature characteristics of a liquidity trap are short-term interest rates that are near zero and fluctuations in the monetary base that fail to translate into fluctuations in general price levels.

The chart below shows the correlation between the decline of GDP and the Fed Funds rate.

There are two important things to notice from the chart above. The first is that prior to 1980, the trend of both economic growth and the Fed Funds rate were rising. Then, post-1980, as then Fed Chairman Paul Volker and President Ronald Reagan set out to break the back of inflation, each successive cycle of rate increases were started from a level lower than the previous cycle.

The difference between the two periods was the amount of debt in the system and the shift from an expansive production and manufacturing based economy to one driven primarily by services which have a substantially lower multiplier effect. Since 1980, it has required increasing levels of debt to manufacture $1 of GDP growth.

In every case, the rate cycle increase ALWAYS led to either a recession, bear market, crisis, or all three. Importantly, those events occurred not when the Fed STARTED hiking rates, but when they recognized that their tightening process was confronted by weakening economic growth. 

The Trap

The problem for the Fed is that while lower interest rates may help spur economic growth in the short-term, the growth has come from an increasing level of debt accumulation. Therefore, the economy cannot withstand a reversal of those rates. As shown above, each successive round of rate increases was never able to achieve a rate higher than the previous peak. For example, in 2007, the Fed Funds rate was roughly 5% when the Fed started lowering rates to combat the financial crisis. Today, if the Fed started lowering rates to combat economic weakness,  they would do so from less than half that previous rate.

As Richard Clarida noted in his speech, one of the potential risks to Central Banks globally is the lack of monetary policy firepower available. We previously pointed out that in 2009, the Fed went to work to rescue the economy with a $915 billion balance sheet and Fed Funds at 4.2%. Today, that balance sheet remains above $4 trillion and rates are at 2.5%.

It isn’t lost on the Fed that if a recession were to occur, their main lever for stimulating economic activity, interest rate reductions, will have little value. Given the amount of debt outstanding and the onerous burden of servicing it, the marginal benefit of lower rates will likely not be enough to lift the country out of a recession. In such a tough situation the next lever at their disposal is increasing their balance sheet and flooding the markets with liquidity via QE.

However, even that may not be enough as both Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have acknowledged that they were aware that each successive round of QE was somewhat less effective than the last. That certainly must be a concern for Powell if he is called upon to re-engage QE in a recession or another economic crisis.

For the Federal Reserve, they are now caught in the same “liquidity trap” that has been the history of Japan for the last three decades. One only needs to look at Japan for an understanding that QE, low-interest rate policies, and expansion of debt have done little economically. Take a look at the chart below which shows the expansion of the BOJ assets versus the growth of GDP and levels of interest rates.

Notice that since 1998, Japan has not achieved a 2% rate of economic growth. Even with interest rates still near zero, economic growth remains mired below one-percent, providing little evidence to support the idea that inflating asset prices by buying assets leads to stronger economic outcomes.

But yet, the current Administration believes our outcome will be different.

With the current economic recovery already pushing the long end of the economic cycle, the risk is rising that the next economic downturn is closer than not. The danger is that the Federal Reserve is now potentially trapped with an inability to use monetary policy tools to offset the next economic decline when it occurs.

This is the same problem that Japan has wrestled with for the last 30-years. While Japan has entered into an unprecedented stimulus program (on a relative basis twice as large as the U.S. on an economy 1/3 the size) there is no guarantee that such a program will result in the desired effect of pulling the Japanese economy out of its 30-year deflationary cycle. The problems that face Japan are similar to what we are currently witnessing in the U.S.:

  • A decline in savings rates to extremely low levels which depletes productive investments
  • An aging demographic that is top heavy and drawing on social benefits at an advancing rate.
  • A heavily indebted economy with debt/GDP ratios above 100%.
  • A decline in exports due to a weak global economic environment.
  • Slowing domestic economic growth rates.
  • An underemployed younger demographic.
  • An inelastic supply-demand curve
  • Weak industrial production
  • Dependence on productivity increases to offset reduced employment

The real concern for investors, and individuals, is the actual economy. We are likely experiencing more than just a ‘soft patch’ currently despite the mainstream analysts’ rhetoric to the contrary. There is clearly something amiss within the economic landscape and the ongoing decline of inflationary pressures longer term is likely telling us just that. The big question for the Fed is how to get out of the ‘liquidity trap’ they have gotten themselves into without cratering the economy, and the financial markets, in the process.

The One Thing

However, the one statement, which is arguably the most important for investors, is what Bill Dudley stated relative to the size of the balance sheet and it’s use a tool to stem the next decline.

“The balance sheet tool becomes relevant only if the economy falters badly and the Fed needs more ammunition.”

In other words, it will likely require a substantially larger correction than what we have just seen to bring “QE” back into the game. Unfortunately, as I laid out in “Why Another 50% Correction Is Possible,” the ingredients for a “mean-reverting” event are all in place.

“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%.”

“It’s happened twice before in the last 20 years and with less debt, less leverage, and better-funded pension plans.

More importantly, notice all three previous corrections, including the 2015-2016 correction which was stopped short by Central Banks, all started from deviations above the long-term exponential trend line. The current deviation above that long-term trend is the largest in history which suggests that a mean reversion will be large as well.

It is unlikely that a 50-61.8% correction would happen outside of the onset of a recession. But considering we are already pushing the longest economic growth cycle in modern American history, such a risk which should not be ignored.”

While Bill makes the point that “QE” is available as a tool, it won’t likely be used until AFTER the Fed lowers interest rates back to the zero-bound. Which means that by the time “QE” comes to the fore, the damage to investors will likely be much more severe than currently contemplated.

Yes, the Fed absolutely targets the financial markets with their policies. The only question will be what “rabbit” they pull out of their hat if it doesn’t work next time?

I am not sure even they know.

The Fed Conundrum – Data Or Markets?

Following the Fed’s last meeting, we published for our RIA PRO subscribers (use code PRO30 for a 30-day free trial) a simple question:

“What does the Fed know?”

Of course, this meeting followed the stock market plunge at the end of 2018 where their tone that turned from “hawkish” to “dovish” in the span of just a few weeks. Seemingly, despite the previous commentary about concerns over rising inflationary pressures, it was pressure from Wall Street and the White House that quickly “realigned” the Fed’s views.

  • The Fed will be “patient” with future rate hikes, meaning they are now likely on hold as opposed to their forecasts which still call for two to three more rate hikes this year.
  • The pace of QT or balance sheet reduction will not be on “autopilot” but instead driven by the current economic situation and tone of the financial markets.
  • QE is a tool that WILL BE employed when rate reductions are not enough to stimulate growth and calm jittery financial markets.

This change in stance, not surprisingly, buoyed the stock market as the proverbial “Fed Put” was back in place.

But the change view may have also just trapped the Fed in their own “data dependent” decision-making process.

The Fed Should Be Hiking Rates

As we noted in our RIA Pro article:

“During the press conference, the Chairman was asked what has transpired since the last meeting on December 19, 2019, to warrant such an abrupt change in policy given that he recently stated that policy was accommodative, and the economy did not require such policy anymore.

In response, Powell stated:

‘We think our policy stance is appropriate right now. We do. We also know that our policy rate is now in the range of the committee’s estimates of neutral.'”

Powell’s awkward response, and unsatisfactory rationale to a simple and obvious question, the question must be asked if it is possible that economic or credit risks are greater than currently believed which would account for the policy U-turn?

However, given that the Fed’s two primary mandates are supposed to be “full employment” and “price stability,” the conflict between managing inflation and supporting the markets is a conundrum.

For example, there is currently sufficient data which suggests “real inflationary pressures” are mounting in the economy. For example, with a 300,000 job print in January and rising wage pressures, the Fed should raise interest rates. The chart below of labor costs clearly show the problem business owners are facing.

As noted employment remains strong and data suggests there is upward pressure on companies to hire more workers.

That pressure to hire is coming from the reality there are currently more demands on labor than there are people to fill them.

Wage pressures are clearly rising in recent months putting additional upward pressures on pricing as companies pass on higher labor costs.

More importantly, inflationary pressures as measured by both PPI, CPI, and the Fed’s preferred measure of Core PCE, continue to rise as well.

The chart below is the spread between PPI and CPI, historically, when “producer price” inflation rises faster than consumer prices, it has impacted economic growth by suggesting that inflation can’t be passed on to consumers.

The composite inflation index is also screaming higher suggesting that if the Fed pauses they could potentially get well “behind the curve.” 

Even the Federal Reserve’s favorite measure of inflation, PCE, is also suggesting the Fed should be hiking rates rather than pausing.

All of this data clearly suggests that the Fed should be hiking rates currently, rather than pausing. 

The Conundrum

However, all of this data is also consistent with the end of an economic cycle rather than a continued expansion. As we quoted last week from John Mauldin:

I think because unemployment is lowest when the economy is in a mature growth cycle, and stock returns are in the process of flattening and rolling over. Sadly, that is where we seem to be right now. Unemployment is presently in the ‘low’ range which, in the past, often preceded a recession.

That loss of confidence is already beginning to show signs as noted recently by Zerohedge:

“American small-business owners are growing increasingly anxious about a looming economic slowdown.

After a report published last week by Vistage Worldwide suggested that small-business confidence had collapsed with the number of small business owners worried that the economy could worsen in 2019 numbering more than twice those who expected it to improve, the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index – a widely watched sentiment gauge – apparently confirmed that more business owners are growing fearful that economic conditions might begin to work against them in the coming months.”

Furthermore, most of these data points are at levels that typically precede economic slowdowns and recession, so hiking rates further from current levels could exacerbate the recessionary risk.

The problem the Fed faces currently, as we discussed previously, is that when the last recession started the Fed Funds rate was at 4.2% not 2.2% and the Fed balance sheet was $915 billion not $4+ trillion.

“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.”

But…what do you do?

The Trap

There are clearly rising inflationary pressures on the market, which are also beginning to impede economic growth. Those pressures, combined with a sharp decline in asset prices, spurred the Fed to react to political and market pressures.

The Fed is most likely aware that if a recession were to occur, their main lever for stimulating economic activity, interest rate reductions, will have little value. Given the amount of debt outstanding and the onerous burden of servicing it, the marginal benefit of lower rates will likely not provide enough benefits to lift the country out of a recession. In such a tough situation the next lever at their disposal is increasing their balance sheet and flooding the markets with liquidity via QE.

Sure, Powell might be taking a dovish tone to placate the markets, the President and his member banks and concurrently buying time to further normalize the balance sheet? But this approach is like pouring liquid out of your cup so you can add more when the time is right. You would do this because it is not clear just how much “the cup” will ultimately hold.

Bernanke and Yellen have both acknowledged that they were aware that each successive round of QE was somewhat less effective than prior rounds. That certainly must be a concern for Powell if he is called upon to re-engage QE in a recession or another economic crisis.

If this is the case, Powell will continue to publicly discuss minimizing reductions to the balance sheet and refrain from further rate hikes. Despite such dovish Fed-speak, he would continue to shrink the balance sheet at the current pace. This tactic may trick investors for a few months but at some point, the market will question his intentions and damage Fed credibility.

So, therein lies the trap. Do you hike rates and reduce the balance sheet anyway to be better prepared for the onset of the next recession, OR reverse policy to try to “kick the recession can” down the road a bit which leaves you under-prepared for the next crisis?

For the Fed, it is a choice between the lesser of two evils. The only question is did they make the right one?

While the Fed has a long history of using economic jargon and, quite frankly, non-truths to help promote their agenda, they also have a long history of making the wrong policy moves which spark either some sort of crisis, recession or both.

As Michael Lebowitz concluded for our RIA PRO subscribers last week:

“The market has largely recovered from the fourth quarter swoon, as such the Fed should be resting more comfortably. Economic data remains strong, and if anything it is slightly better than December when the Fed was ready to raise rates three times and put balance sheet reduction on “autopilot.”

Today the Fed has all but put the kibosh on further rate hikes and, per Mester’s comments, will end balance sheet reduction (QT) in the months ahead.

It is becoming more suspect that the Fed knows something the market does not.”

But, exactly what is it?

Recession Risks Are Likely Higher Than You Think

It is often said that one should never discuss religion or politics as you are going to wind up offending someone. In the financial world it is mentioning the “R” word.

The reason, of course, is that it is the onset of a recession that typically ends the “bull market” party. As the legendary Bob Farrell once stated:

“Bull markets are more fun than bear markets.”

Yet, recessions are part of a normal and healthy economy that purges the excesses built up during the first half of the cycle.

economic_cycle-2

Since “recessions” are painful, as investors, we would rather not think about the “good times” coming to an end. However, by ignoring the risk of a recession, investors have historically been repeatedly crushed by the inevitable completion of the full market and economic cycle.

But after more than a decade of an economic growth cycle, investors have become complacent in the idea that recessions may have been mostly mitigated by monetary policy.

While monetary policy can certainly extend cycles, they cannot be repealed.

Given that monetary policy has consistently inflated asset prices historically, the reversions of those excesses have been just as dramatic. The table below shows every economic recovery and recessionary cycle going back to 1873.

Importantly, note that the average recessionary drawdown historically is about 30%. While there were certainly some recessionary drawdowns which were very small, the majority of the reversions, particularly from more extreme overvaluation levels as we are currently experiencing, have not been kind to investors.

So, why bring this up?

“In the starkest warning yet about the upcoming global recession, which some believe will hit in late 2019 or 2020 at the latest, the IMF warned that the leaders of the world’s largest countries are ‘dangerously unprepared’ for the consequences of a serious global slowdown. The IMF’s chief concern: much of the ammunition to fight a slowdown has been exhausted and governments will find it hard to use fiscal or monetary measures to offset the next recession, while the system of cross-border support mechanisms — such as central bank swap lines — has been undermined.” – David Lipton, first deputy managing director of the IMF.

Despite recent comments that “recession risk” is non-existent, there are various indications which suggest that risk is much higher than currently appreciated.  The New York Federal Reserve recession indicator is now at the highest level since 2008.

Also, as noted by George Vrba recently, the unemployment rate may also be warning of a recession as well.

“For what is considered to be a lagging indicator of the economy, the unemployment rate provides surprisingly good signals for the beginning and end of recessions. This model, backtested to 1948, reliably provided recession signals.

The model, updated with the January 2019 rate of 4.0%, does not signal a recession. However, if the unemployment rate should rise to 4.1% in the coming months the model would then signal a recession.”

John Mauldin also recently noted the same:

“This next chart needs a little explaining. It comes from Ned Davis Research via my friend and business partner Steve Blumenthal. It turns out there is significant correlation between the unemployment rate and stock returns… but not the way you might expect.

Intuitively, you would think low unemployment means a strong economy and thus a strong stock market. The opposite is true, in fact. Going back to 1948, the US unemployment rate was below 4.3% for 20.5% of the time. In those years, the S&P 500 gained an annualized 1.7%.”

“Now, 1.7% is meager but still positive. It could be worse. But why is it not stronger? I think because unemployment is lowest when the economy is in a mature growth cycle, and stock returns are in the process of flattening and rolling over. Sadly, that is where we seem to be right now. Unemployment is presently in the ‘low’ range which, in the past, often preceded a recession.

The yield spread between the 10-year and the 2-year Treasury yields is also suggesting there is a rising risk of a recession in the economy.

As I noted previously:

“The yield curve is clearly sending a message that shouldn’t be ignored and it is a good bet that ‘risk-based’ investors will likely act sooner rather than later. Of course, it is simply the contraction in liquidity that causes the decline which will eventually exacerbate the economic contraction. Importantly, since recessions are only identified in hindsight when current data is negatively revised in the future, it won’t become ‘obvious’ the yield curve was sending the correct message until far too late to be useful.

While it is unwise to use the ‘yield curve’ as a ‘market timing’ tool, it is just as unwise to completely dismiss the message it is currently sending.”

We can also see the slowdown in economic activity more clearly we can look at our RIA Economic Output Composite Index (EOCI). (The index is comprised of the CFNAI, Chicago PMI, ISM Composite, All Fed Manufacturing Surveys, Markit Composite, PMI Composite, NFIB, and LEI)

As shown, over the last six months, the decline in the LEI has actually been sharper than originally anticipated. Importantly, there is a strong historical correlation between the 6-month rate of change in the LEI and the EOCI index. As shown, the downturn in the LEI predicted the current economic weakness and suggests the data is likely to continue to weaken in the months ahead.”

With the exception of the yield curve, which is “real time,” the rest of the data is based on economic data which has a multitude of problems.

There are many suggesting currently that based on current economic data, there is “no recession” in sight. This is based on looking at levels of economic data versus where “recessions” started in the past.

But therein lies the biggest flaw.

“The problem with making an assessment about the state of the economy today, based on current data points, is that these numbers are ‘best guesses’ about the economy currently. However, economic data is subject to substantive negative revisions in the future as actual data is collected and adjusted over the next 12-months and 3-years. Consider for a minute that in January 2008 Chairman Bernanke stated:

‘The Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession.’

In hindsight, the NBER called an official recession that began in December of 2007.”

The issue with a statement of “there is no recession in sight,” is that it is based on the “best guesses” about the economy currently. However, economic data is subject to substantive negative revisions in the future as actual data is collected and adjusted over the next 12-months and 3-years. Consider for a minute that in January 2008 Chairman Bernanke stated:

“The Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession.”

In hindsight, the NBER called an official recession that began in December of 2007.

But this is almost always the case. Take a look at the data below of real (inflation-adjusted)economic growth rates:

  • September 1957:     3.07%
  • May 1960:                 2.06%
  • January 1970:        0.32%
  • December 1973:     4.02%
  • January 1980:        1.42%
  • July 1981:                 4.33%
  • July 1990:                1.73%
  • March 2001:           2.31%
  • December 2007:    1.97%

Each of the dates above shows the growth rate of the economy immediately prior to the onset of a recession.  In 1957, 1973, 1981, 2001, 2007 there was “no sign of a recession.” 

The next month a recession started.

So, what about now?

“The recent decline from the peak in the market, is just that, a simple correction. With the economy growing at 3.0% on an inflation-adjusted basis, there is no recession in sight.” 

Is that really the case or is the market telling us something?

The chart below is the S&P 500 two data points noted.

The green dots are the peak of the market PRIOR to the onset of a recession. In 8 of 9 instances, the S&P 500 peaked and turned lower prior to the recognition of a recession. The yellow dots are the official recessions as dated by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and the dates at which those proclamations were made.

At the time, the decline from the peak was only considered a “correction” as economic growth was still strong.

In reality, however, the market was signaling a coming recession in the months ahead. The economic data just didn’t reflect it as of yet. (The only exception was 1980 where they coincided in the same month.) The chart below shows the date of the market peak and real GDP versus the start of the recession and GDP growth at that time.

The problem is in waiting for the data to catch up.

Today, we are once again seeing many of the same early warnings. If you have been paying attention to the trend of the economic data, the stock market, and the yield curve, the warnings are becoming more pronounced. In 2007, the market warned of a recession 14-months in advance of the recognition. 

So, therein lies THE question:

Is the market currently signaling a “recession warning?”

Everybody wants a specific answer. “Yes” or “No.

Unfortunately, making absolute predictions can be extremely costly when it comes to portfolio management.

There are three lessons to be learned from this analysis:

  1. The economic “number” reported today will not be the same when it is revised in the future.
  2. The trend and deviation of the data are far more important than the number itself.
  3. “Record” highs and lows are records for a reason as they denote historical turning points in the data.

As Doug Kass noted on Tuesday there are certainly plenty of risks to be aware of:

  1. Domestic economic growth weakens, Chinese growth fails to stabilize and Europe enters a recession
  2. U.S./China fail to agree on a trade deal
  3. Trump institutes an attack on European Union trade by raising auto tariffs
  4. U.S. Treasury yields fail to ratify an improvement in economic growth
  5. The market leadership of FANG and Apple (AAPL) subsidies
  6. Earnings decline in 2019 and valuations fail to expand
  7. The Mueller Report jeopardizes the president
  8. A hard and disruptive Brexit
  9. Crude oil supplies spike and oil prices collapse, taking down the high-yield market
  10. Draghi is replaced by a hawk

While the call of a “recession” may seem far-fetched based on today’s economic data points, no one was calling for a recession in early 2000, or 2007, either. By the time the data is adjusted, and the eventual recession is revealed, it won’t matter as the damage will have already been done.

Pay attention to the message markets are sending. It may just be saying something very important.

Dalio’s Fear Of The Next Downturn Is Likely Understated

“What scares me the most longer term is that we have limitations to monetary policy — which is our most valuable tool — at the same time we have greater political and social antagonism.” – Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates

Dalio made the remarks in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos on Tuesday where he reiterated that a limited monetary policy toolbox, rising populist pressures and other issues, including rising global trade tensions, are similar to the backdrop present in the latter part of the Great Depression in the late 1930s.

Before you dismiss Dalio’s view Bridgewater’s Pure Alpha Strategy Fund posted a gain of 14.6% in 2018, while the average hedge fund dropped 6.7% in 2018 and the S&P 500 lost 4.4%.

The comments come at a time when a brief market correction has turned monetary and fiscal policy concerns on a dime. As noted by Michael Lebowitz yesterday afternoon at RIA PRO

“In our opinion, the Fed’s new warm and cuddly tone is all about supporting the stock market. The market fell nearly 20% from record highs in the fourth quarter and fear set in. There is no doubt President Trump’s tweets along with strong advisement from the shareholders of the Fed, the large banks, certainly played an influential role in persuading Powell to pivot.

Speaking on CNBC shortly after the Powell press conference, James Grant stated the current situation well.

“Jerome Powell is a prisoner of the institutions and the history that he has inherited. Among this inheritance is a $4 trillion balance sheet under which the Fed has $39 billon of capital representing 100-to-1 leverage. That’s a symptom of the overstretched state of our debts and the dollar as an institution.”

As Mike correctly notes, all it took for Jerome Powell to completely abandon any facsimile of “independence” was a rough December, pressure from Wall Street’s member banks, and a disgruntled White House to completely flip their thinking.

In other words, the Federal Reserve is now the “market’s bitch.”

However, while the markets are celebrating the very clear confirmation that the “Fed Put” is alive and well, it should be remembered these “emergency measures” are coming at a time when we are told the economy is booming.

“We’re the hottest economy in the world. Trillions of dollars are flowing here and building new plants and equipment. Almost every other data point suggests, that the economy is very strong. We will beat 3% economic growth in the fourth quarter when the Commerce Department reopens. 

We are seeing very strong chain sales. We don’t get the retail sales report right now and we see very strong manufacturing production. And in particular, this is my favorite with our corporate tax cuts and deregulation, we’re seeing a seven-month run-up of the production of business equipment, which is, you know, one way of saying business investment, which is another way of saying the kind of competitive business boom we expected to happen is happening.” – Larry Kudlow, Jan 24, 2019.

Of course, the reality is that while he is certainly “spinning the yarn” for the media, the Fed is likely more concerned about “reality” which, as the data through the end of December shows, the U.S. economy is beginning to slow.

“As shown, over the last six months, the decline in the LEI has actually been sharper than originally anticipated. Importantly, there is a strong historical correlation between the 6-month rate of change in the LEI and the EOCI index. As shown, the downturn in the LEI predicted the current economic weakness and suggests the data is likely to continue to weaken in the months ahead.”

Limited Monetary Tool Box

As Dalio noted, one of the biggest issues facing global Central Banks is the ongoing effectiveness of “Quantitative Easing” programs. As previously discussed:

“Of course, after a decade of Central Bank interventions, it has become a commonly held belief the Fed will quickly jump in to forestall a market decline at every turn. While such may have indeed been the case previously, the problem for the Fed is their ability to ‘bail out’ markets in the event of a ‘credit-related’ crisis.”

“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.”

But it isn’t just the issue of the Fed’s limited toolbox, but the combination of other issues, outside of those noted by Dalio, which have the ability to spur a much larger

The nonprofit National Institute on Retirement Security released a study in March stating that nearly 40 million working-age households (about 45 percent of the U.S. total) have no retirement savings at all. And those that do have retirement savings don’t have enough. As I discussed recently, the Federal Reserve’s 2016 Survey of consumer finances found that the mean holdings for the bottom 80% of families with holdings was only $199,750.

Such levels of financial “savings” are hardly sufficient to support individuals through retirement. This is particularly the case as life expectancy has grown, and healthcare costs skyrocket in the latter stages of life due historically high levels of obesity and poor physical health. The lack of financial stability will ultimately shift almost entirely onto the already grossly underfunded welfare system.

However, that is for those with financial assets heading into retirement. After two major bear markets since the turn of the century, weak employment and wage growth, and an inability to expand debt levels, the majority of American families are financially barren. Here are some recent statistics:

  1. 78 million Americans are participating in the “gig economy” because full-time jobs just don’t pay enough to make ends meet these days.
  2. In 2011, the average home price was 3.56 times the average yearly salary in the United States. But by the time 2017 was finished, the average home price was 4.73 times the average yearly salary in the United States.
  3. In 1980, the average American worker’s debt was 1.96 times larger than his or her monthly salary. Today, that number has ballooned to 5.00.
  4. In the United States today, 66 percent of all jobs pay less than 20 dollars an hour.
  5. 102 million working age Americans do not have a job right now.  That number is higher than it was at any point during the last recession.
  6. Earnings for low-skill jobs have stayed very flat for the last 40 years.
  7. Americans have been spending more money than they make for 28 months in a row.
  8. In the United States today, the average young adult with student loan debt has a negative net worth.
  9. At this point, the average American household is nearly $140,000 in debt.
  10. Poverty rates in U.S. suburbs “have increased by 50 percent since 1990”.
  11. Almost 51 million U.S. households “can’t afford basics like rent and food”.
  12. The bottom 40 percent of all U.S. households bring home just 11.4 percent of all income.
  13. According to the Federal Reserve, 4 out of 10 Americans do not have enough money to cover an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing the money or selling something they own. 
  14. 22 percent of all Americans cannot pay all of their bills in a typical month.
  15. Today, U.S. households are collectively 13.15 trillion dollars in debt.  That is a new all-time record.

Here is the problem with all of this.

Despite Central Bank’s best efforts globally to stoke economic growth by pushing asset prices higher, the effect is nearly entirely mitigated when only a very small percentage of the population actually benefit from rising asset prices. The problem for the Federal Reserve is in an economy that is roughly 70% based on consumption, when the vast majority of American’s are living paycheck-to-paycheck, the aggregate end demand is not sufficient to push economic growth higher.

While monetary policies increased the wealth of those that already have wealth, the Fed has been misguided in believing that the “trickle down” effect would be enough to stimulate the entire economy. It hasn’t. The sad reality is that these policies have only acted as a transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy and created one of the largest “wealth gaps” in human history.

The real problem for the economy, wage growth and the future of the economy is clearly seen in the employment-to-population ratio of 16-54-year-olds. This is the group that SHOULD be working and saving for their retirement years.

The current economic expansion is already set to become the longest post-WWII expansion on record. Of course, that expansion was supported by repeated artificial interventions rather than stable organic economic growth. As noted, while the financial markets have soared higher in recent years, it has bypassed a large portion of Americans NOT because they were afraid to invest, but because they have NO CAPITAL to invest with.

To Dalio’s point, the real crisis will come during the next economic recession.

While the decline in asset prices, which are normally associated with recessions, will have the majority of its impact at the upper end of the income scale, it will be the job losses through the economy that will further damage and already ill-equipped population in their prime saving and retirement years.

Furthermore, the already grossly underfunded pension system will implode.

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%.

The massive amount of corporate debt, when it begins to default, will trigger further strains on the financial and credit systems of the economy.

Dalio’s View Is Likely Understated. 

The real crisis comes when there is a “run on pensions.” With a large number of pensioners already eligible for their pension, the next decline in the markets will likely spur the “fear” that benefits will be lost entirely. The combined run on the system, which is grossly underfunded, at a time when asset prices are dropping will cause a debacle of mass proportions. It will require a massive government bailout to resolve it.

But it doesn’t end there. Consumers are once again heavily leveraged with sub-prime auto loans, mortgages, and student debt. When the recession hits, the reduction in employment will further damage what remains of personal savings and consumption ability. The downturn will increase the strain on an already burdened government welfare system as an insufficient number of individuals paying into the scheme is being absorbed by a swelling pool of aging baby-boomers now forced to draw on it. Yes, more Government funding will be required to solve that problem as well. 

As debts and deficits swell in the coming years, the negative impact to economic growth will continue. At some point, there will be a realization of the real crisis. It isn’t a crash in the financial markets that is the real problem, but the ongoing structural shift in the economy that is depressing the living standards of the average American family. There has indeed been a redistribution of wealth in America since the turn of the century. Unfortunately, it has been in the wrong direction as the U.S. has created its own class of royalty and serfdom.

The issue for future politicians won’t be the “breadlines” of the 30’s, but rather the number of individuals collecting benefit checks and the dilemma of how to pay for it all.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the next “crisis,” will be the “great reset” which will also make it the “last crisis.”

The Important Role Of Recessions

It is a given that you should never mention the “R” word.

People assume you mean the end of the world is coming and you are sitting in cash, burying gold in the backyard, and stocking up on “beanie weenies” and ammo.

The reality is that recessions are just a necessary part of the economic cycle and the only real debate is on the timing of when the next recession will begin. Currently, most economists expect no recession until 2020 or even later. However, given the economy’s weakened ability to withstand higher interest rates, which has been compounded by a decade of artificially suppressed interest rates which have pulled forward future demand, I suspect it could come sooner.

More importantly, the decade of low rates has allowed fundamentally weak companies to stay in business by taking on cheap debt for unproductive purposes like stock buybacks and dividends. This will only serve to compound the problem of the next recession when it comes.

However, it is the Fed’s mentality of constant growth, with no tolerance for recession, which has allowed this situation to inflate rather than allowing the natural order of the economy to perform its Darwinian function of “weeding out the weak.”

As I have shown previously, today’s economy is once again at risk of a massive level of indebtedness which has been misallocated in non-productive assets. Now rising rates have become the “pin” that will lead to the quick deflation of those excesses.

Again, this isn’t a new concept but one that has repeated itself throughout history. It is more than just a coincidence that the Fed’s not-so-invisible hand has left fingerprints on previous financial unravellings.

The problem for the Federal Reserve at this juncture is that despite hopes of a “recession free” economy over the next several years, the current economic cycle is already very long historical standards.

Given the years of “ultra-accommodative” policies following the financial crisis, the majority of the ability to “pull-forward” consumption appears to have run its course. This is an issue that can’t, and won’t be, fixed by simply issuing more debt.

The Keynes/Austrian Debate

According to Keynesian theory, some microeconomic-level actions, if taken collectively by a large proportion of individuals and firms, can lead to inefficient aggregate macroeconomic outcomes, where the economy operates below its potential output and growth rate (i.e. a recession). Keynes contended that “a general glut would occur when aggregate demand for goods was insufficient, leading to an economic downturn resulting in losses of potential output due to unnecessarily high unemployment, which results from the defensive (or reactive) decisions of the producers.” In other words, when there is a lack of demand from consumers due to high unemployment then the contraction in demand would, therefore, force producers to take defensive, or react, actions to reduce output.

In such a situation, Keynesian economics states that government policies could be used to increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing unemployment and deflation. Investment by government injects income, which results in more spending in the general economy, which in turn stimulates more production and investment involving still more income and spending and so forth. The initial stimulation starts a cascade of events, whose total increase in economic activity is a multiple of the original investment.

This seemed to work. From the 1950’s through the late 1970’s interest rates were in a generally rising trend with the Federal Funds rate at 0.8% in 1954 and rose to its peak of 19.1% in 1981. When the economy went through its natural and inevitable slowdowns, or recessions, the Federal Reserve could lower interest rates which in turn would incentivize producers to borrow at cheaper rates, refinance activities, etc. which spurred production and ultimately hiring and consumption.

As the economy recovered and began to grow again, the Fed would need to raise interest rates. This program seemed to work fairly well as interest rates went to a level higher than the last as the economy grew at an increasingly stronger level. This provided the Federal Reserve with plenty of room to maneuver during the next evolution of the business cycle.

However, beginning in 1980 that trend changed as we discovered the world of financial engineering, easy money, and the wealth creation ability through the abuse of leverage. However, what we did not realize then, and are still ignoring today, is that financial engineering had a very negative side effect of deteriorating economic prosperity.

The Austrian business cycle theory attempts to explain business cycles:

“As the inevitable consequence of excessive growth in bank credit, exacerbated by inherently damaging and ineffective central bank policies, which cause interest rates to remain too low for too long, resulting in excessive credit creation, speculative economic bubbles and lowered savings.”

In other words, the proponents of Austrian economics believe that a sustained period of low interest rates and excessive credit creation results in a volatile and unstable imbalance between saving and investment. In other words, low interest rates tend to stimulate borrowing from the banking system that in turn leads, as one would expect, to the expansion of credit. This expansion of credit then, in turn, creates an expansion of the supply of money.

Therefore, as one would ultimately expect, the credit-sourced boom becomes unsustainable as artificially stimulated borrowing seeks out diminishing investment opportunities which ultimately results in widespread malinvestments.

When the exponential credit creation can no longer be sustained, a “credit contraction” occurs which ultimately shrinks the money supply and the markets finally “clear” which then causes resources to be reallocated back towards more efficient uses.

As shown in the chart above, actions by the Federal Reserve halted the much needed deleveraging of the household balance sheet. With incomes stagnant and debt levels still high, it is of little wonder why 80% of American’s currently have little or no “savings” to meet an everyday emergency.

Furthermore, the velocity of money has plunged as overall aggregate demand has waned.

For the last 40 years, each Administration has continued to foster the Keynesian monetary and fiscal policies believing the model worked – when in reality most of the aggregate growth in the economy has been financed by deficit spending, credit and a reduction in savings.

In turn, this surge in debt reduced both productive investments into, and the output from, the economy. As the economy slowed, and wages fell, the consumer was forced to take on more leverage which continued to decrease the savings rate. As a result, of the increased leverage, more of their income was needed to service the debt.

(The chart below shows the shortfall between the inflation-adjusted cost of living and what wages and savings will cover. The deficit is the difference that has to be made up with debt every year.)

All of these issues have weighed on the overall prosperity of the economy and what has obviously gone clearly awry is the inability for the current economists, who maintain our monetary and fiscal policies, to realize what downturns encompass.

The Fed continues to follow the Keynesian logic, mistaking recessions as periods of falling aggregate demand, and they rush to try and stimulate demand hoping to increase the rate of consumption. However, the reason the policies that have been enacted by the current Administration have all but failed to this point, be it from “cash for clunkers” to “Quantitative Easing”, is because all they have done is either to drag future consumption forward or to stimulate asset markets that create an artificial wealth effect thereby decreasing savings that could, and should have been, used for productive investment.

The Keynesian view that “more money in people’s pockets” will drive up consumer spending, with a boost to GDP being the result, is clearly wrong. It has not happened in 30 years. What is missed is that things like temporary tax cuts, or one time injections, do not create economic growth but merely reschedules it. The average American may fall for a near-term increase in their take-home pay and any increased consumption in the present will be matched by a decrease later on when the tax cut is revoked.

This is, of course, assuming the balance sheet at home is not broken. As we saw during the period of the “Great Depression” most economists thought that the simple solution was just more stimulus. Work programs, lower interest rates, government spending all didn’t work to stem the tide of the depression era.

The problem currently is that the Fed’s actions halted the “balance sheet” deleveraging process keeping consumers indebted and forcing more income to pay off the debt which detracts from their ability to consume. This is the one facet that Keynesian economics does not factor in. More importantly, it also impacts the production side of the equation as well since no act of saving ever detracts from demand. Consumption delayed, is merely a shift of consumptive ability to other individuals, and even better, money saved is often capital supplied to entrepreneurs and businesses that will use it to expand, and hire new workers.

The continued misuse of capital and continued erroneous monetary policies have instigated not only the recent downturn but actually 30 years of an insidious slow moving infection that has destroyed the American legacy. “Recessions” should be embraced and utilized to clear the “excesses” that accrue in the economic system during the first half of the economic growth cycle. Trying to delay the inevitable, only makes the inevitable that much worse in the end.

Why 80% Of Americans Face A Retirement Crisis

Fox Business recently discussed a new study showing that more Americans doubted they would be able to save enough for retirement than those confident of reaching their goals. There were some interesting stats from the study:

  • 37% are NOT confident they can save enough to retire
  • 32% ARE confident they can save enough. 
  • 48%, however, don’t think their retirement savings will reach $1 million. 

Northwestern Mutual also did a study that showed equally depressing statistics.

“Americans feel under-prepared for the financial realities of retirement, according to new data from Northwestern Mutual. Nearly eight in 10 (78%) Americans are “extremely” or “somewhat” concerned about affording a comfortable retirement while two-thirds believe there is some likelihood of outliving retirement savings.”

Those fears are substantiated even further by a new report from the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security which found that nearly 60% of all working-age Americans do not own assets in a retirement account.

Here are some additional findings from the report:

  • Account ownership rates are closely correlated with income and wealth. More than 100 million working-age individuals (57 percent) do not own any retirement account assets, whether in an employer-sponsored 401(k)-type plan or an IRA nor are they covered by defined benefit (DB) pensions.
  • The typical working-age American has no retirement savings. When all working individuals are included—not just individuals with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $0 among all working individuals. Even among workers who have accumulated savings in retirement accounts, the typical worker had a modest account balance of $40,000.
  • Three-fourths (77 percent) of Americans fall short of conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income based on working until age 67 even after counting an individual’s entire net worth—a generous measure of retirement savings.

So, what’s the problem?

Why do so many Americans face a retirement crisis today after a decade of surging stock market returns?

A survey from Bankrate.com touched on the issue.

“13 percent of Americans are saving less for retirement than they were last year and offers insight into why much of the population is lagging behind. The most popular response survey participants gave for why they didn’t put more away in the past year was a drop, or no change, in income.”

Just Getting By

Just last Wednesday, the Census Bureau released its latest report on “Income and Poverty In The United States” which showed that median incomes just hit a record high.

“For the third consecutive year, households in the United States experienced an increase in real annual median income. Median household income was $61,372 in 2017, a 1.8 percent increase from the 2016 median of $60,309 in real terms. Since 2014, median household income has increased 10.4 percent in real terms.”

So, if median incomes just hit an all-time high, then why are Americans having such a problem saving for retirement?

Simple.

The cost of living has risen much more dramatically than incomes. According to Pew Research:

“In fact, despite some ups and downs over the past several decades, today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.”

But the problem isn’t just the cost of living due to inflation, but the “real” cost of raising a family in the U.S. has grown incredibly more expensive with surging food, energy, health, and housing costs.

Researchers at Purdue University recently studied data culled from across the globe and found that in the U.S., $65,000 was found to be the optimal income for “feeling” happy. In other words, this was a level where bills were met and there was enough “excess” income to enjoy life. (However, that $65,000 was based on a single individual. For a “family of four” in the U.S., that number was $132,000 annually.)

Gallup also surveyed to find out what the “average” family required to support a family of four in the U.S. (Forget about being happy, we are talking about “just getting by.”) That number turned out to be $58.000.

Skewed By The 1%

The issue with the Census Bureau’s analysis is that the income numbers are heavily skewed by those in the top 20% of income earners. For the bottom 80%, they are well short of the incomes needed to obtain “happiness.” 

The chart below shows the “disposable income” of Americans from the Census Bureau data. (Disposable income is income after taxes.)

So, while the “median” income has broken out to all-time highs, the reality is that for the vast majority of Americans there has been little improvement. Here are some stats from the survey data which was NOT reported:

  • $306,139 – the difference between the annual income for the Top 5% versus the Bottom 80%.
  • $148,504 – the difference between the annual income for the Top 5% and the Top 20%.
  • $157,635 – the difference between the annual income for the Top 20% and the Bottom 80%.

So, if you are in the Top 20% of income earners, congratulations. If not, it is a bit of a different story.

No Money, But I Got Credit

As noted above, sluggish wage growth has failed to keep up with the cost of living which has forced an entire generation into debt just to make ends meet.

While savings spiked during the financial crisis, the rising cost of living for the bottom 80% has outpaced the median level of “disposable income” for that same group. As a consequence, the inability to “save” has continued.

So, if we assume a “family of four” needs an income of $58,000 a year to be “make it,” such becomes problematic for the bottom 80% of the population whose wage growth falls far short of what is required to support the standard of living, much less to obtain “happiness.” 

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 almost a $3300 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.

The mirage of consumer wealth has not been a function of a broad increase in the net worth of Americans, but rather a division in the country between the Top 20% who have the wealth and the Bottom 80% dependent on increasing debt levels to sustain their current standard of living.

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

More Money

Of course, by just looking at household net worth, once again you would not really suspect a problem existed. Currently, U.S. households are the richest ever on record. The majority of the increase over the last several years has come from increasing real estate values and the rise in various stock-market linked financial assets like corporate equities, mutual and pension funds.

However, once again, the headlines are deceiving even if we just slightly scratch the surface. Given the breakdown of wealth across America we once again find that virtually all of the net worth, and the associated increase thereof, has only benefited a handful of the wealthiest Americans. 

Despite the mainstream media’s belief that surging asset prices, driven by the Federal Reserve’s monetary interventions, has provided a boost to the overall economy, it has really been anything but. Given the bulk of the population either does not, or only marginally, participates in the financial markets, the “boost” has remained concentrated in the upper 10%. The Federal Reserve study breaks the data down in several ways, but the story remains the same – “if you are wealthy – life is good.”

The illusion by many of ratios of “economic prosperity,” such as debt-to-income ratios, wages, assets, etc., is they are heavily skewed to the upside by the top 20%. Such masks the majority of Americans who have an inability to increase their standard of living. The chart below is the debt-to-disposable income ratios of the Bottom 80% versus the Top 20%. The solvency of the vast majority of Americans is highly questionable and only missing a paycheck, or two, can be disastrous.

While the ongoing interventions by the Federal Reserve have certainly boosted asset prices higher, the only real accomplishment has been a widening of the wealth gap between the top 10% 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.

It is hard to make the claim the economy is on the verge of acceleration with the underlying dynamics of savings and debt suggesting a more dire backdrop. It also goes a long way in explaining why, as stated above, the majority of Americans are NOT saving for their retirement.

“In addition, many workers whose employers do offer these plans face obstacles to participation, such as more immediate financial needs, other savings priorities such as children’s education or a down payment for a house, or ineligibility. Thus, less than half of non-government workers in the United States participated in an employer-sponsored retirement plan in 2012, the most recent year for which detailed data were available.

But more importantly, they are not saving on their own either for the same reasons.

“Among filers who make less than $25,000 a year, only about 8% own stocks. Meanwhile, 88% of those making more than $1 million are in the market, which explains why the rising stock market tracks with increasing levels of inequality. On average across the United States, only 18.7% of taxpayers directly own stocks.”

With the vast amount of individuals already vastly under-saved, the next major correction will reveal the full extent of the “retirement crisis” silently lurking in the shadows of this bull market cycle.

This 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” who are caught between taking care of kids and elderly parents.

But the real crisis will come when the next downturn rips a hole in the already massively underfunded pension funds on which many American’s are now solely dependent.

For the 75.4 million “boomers,” about 26% of the population, heading into retirement by 2030, the reality is that only about 20% will be able to actually retire.

The rest will be faced with tough decisions in the years ahead.

Q1-Earnings Review & The Risk To Estimates

With roughly 98% of the S&P 500 having reported earnings, as of mid-June, we can take a closer look at the results through the 1st quarter of the year. During the most recent reported period, 12-month operating earnings per share rose from $33.85 per share in Q4-2017 to $36.43 which translates into a quarterly increase of 7.62%. While operating earnings are widely discussed by analysts and the general media; there are many problems with the way in which these earnings are derived due to one-time charges, inclusion/exclusion of material events, and outright manipulation to “beat earnings.”

Therefore, from a historical valuation perspective, reported earnings are much more relevant in determining market over/undervaluation levels. It is from this perspective the news improved markedly as 12-month reported earnings per share rose from $26.96 in Q4-2017 to $32.81, or a whopping 21.7% in Q1. This jump, of course, is directly related to the reduction in corporate tax rates following the passage of the “tax reform” bill in December of 2017.

However, as shown below, top-line revenue growth (sales) has also improved since the market bottom in early 2016. The issue is that while sales are indeed rising, the price investors are paying for each dollar of sales has grown exponentially since 2009. In other words, it is already well “priced in.”

Since the media focus on earnings per share (EPS), we see the same issue. Since the end of 2014, investors are paying twice the rate of earnings growth.

No matter how you look at the data, the point remains the same. Investors are currently overpaying today for a stream of future sales and/or earnings which may, or may not, occur in the future. The risk, as always, is disappointment.

Always Optimistic

But optimism is certainly one commodity that Wall Street always has in abundance. When it comes to earnings expectations, estimates are always higher regardless of the trends of economic data. The problem is that the difference between expectations and reality have been quite dramatic. 

As I wrote previously, 

“Despite a recent surge in market volatility, combined with the drop in equity prices, analysts have ‘sharpened their pencils’ and ratcheted UP their estimates for the end of 2018 and 2019. Earnings are NOW expected to grow at 26.7% annually over the next two years.”

“The chart below shows the changes a bit more clearly. It compares where estimates were on January 1st versus March and April. ‘Optimism’ is, well, ‘exceedingly optimistic’ for the end of 2019.”

That was so a month-and-a-half ago.

Since then, analysts have gotten a bit of religion about the impact of higher rates, tighter monetary accommodation, and trade wars. As I wrote yesterday, 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.

However, the onset of a “trade war” could reduce earnings growth by 11% which would effectively wipe out all of the benefits from the recent tax reform legislation.

As you can see, the erosion of forward estimates is quite clear and has gained momentum in the last month. 

There is no arguing corporate profitability improved in the last quarter as oil prices recovered. The recovery in oil prices specifically helped sectors tied to the commodity such as Energy, Basic Materials, and Industrials. However, such a recovery may be fleeting. There are signs currently that global economic growth is showing signs of weakening. As noted by Adem Tumerkan:

Taking the contrarian route – it’s not hard to see the market isn’t pricing in any potential global earnings issues. And this is troublesome because the risks keep adding up. The historically accurate South Korean Export Growth Indicator (SKEG) is signaling a looming global earnings recession.”

“[And] for the first time since the 2008 Great Recession, corporate bond yields have inverted.”

“…this inversion signals trouble ahead for the stock market. It means that ‘the cost of capital for corporates is now higher than the return on capital.’ Corporate Bond investors are clearly expecting a recession and deflation ahead – which will cause the prime rate to plunge…this will spill into the stock market and negatively send prices tumbling.”

Accounting Magic

Looking back it is interesting to see that much of the rise in “profitability” since the recessionary lows have come from a variety of cost-cutting measures and accounting gimmicks rather than actual increases in top line revenue. As shown in the chart below, there has been a stunning surge in corporate profitability despite a lack of revenue growth. Since 2009, the reported earnings per share of corporations has increased by a total of 336%. This is the sharpest post-recession rise in reported EPS in history. However, that sharp increase in earnings did not come from revenue which has only increased by a marginal 49% during the same period.

Of course, stock buybacks have been the “go to” method for boosting earnings. According to Greg Haendel from Wealth Management:

“The largest beneficiary of repatriation spending has been the stockholder with the most utilized tool being corporate stock buybacks. Share buybacks increased during Q12018 to a record $178 billion, up from $135 billion a year ago. Further, the 24 U.S. companies with the largest foreign cash holdings accounted for two-thirds of the increase in share buybacks. There has already been $324 billion of buyback announcements year-to-date with an expected total buyback amount of $800 billion for the year. ”

Furthermore, while the majority of buybacks have been done with “repatriated” cash, it just goes to show how much cash has been used to boost earnings rather than expanding production, making productive acquisitions or returning cash to shareholders. 

Ultimately, 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. Eventually, you simply run out of people to fire, costs to cut and the ability to reduce labor costs. 

Recently, compensation costs have been rising as the labor market has indeed grown tighter. Of course, this is what is normally seen at the end of economic cycle as rising compensation triggers a profit contraction.

While it would seem that sharply rising employee compensation would be a “good thing,” you will notice that sharply rising employee compensation, which impacts earnings growth, has historically coincided with weaker economic outcomes as higher costs erode profitability.

“It is worth noting that in both charts above, despite hopes of continued economic expansion, both employee compensation, and economic growth have continued to trend to lower since the 1980’s. This declining growth trend has been compensated for by soaring levels of debt to sustain the current standard of living.”

Economics Matter

The last chart below compares economic growth to earnings growth. Wall Street has always extrapolated earnings growth indefinitely into the future without taking into account the effects of the normal economic and business cycles. This was the same in 2000 and in 2007. Unfortunately, the economy neither forgets nor forgives.

With analysts once again hoping for a continued surge in earnings in the months ahead, it is worth noting this has always been the case. Currently, there are few, if any, Wall Street analysts expecting a recession at any point in the future. Unfortunately, it is just a function of time until the recession occurs and earnings fall in tandem.

The deterioration in earnings is something worth watching closely. While earnings have improved in the recent quarter, due to the benefit of tax cuts, it is likely transient given the late stage of the current economic cycle, continued strength in the dollar and potentially weaker commodity prices in the future.

Wall Street is notorious for missing the major turning of the markets and leaving investors scrambling for the exits.

This time will likely be no different.

It is important to remember the bump in earnings growth will only last for one year at which point the analysis will return to more normalized year-over-year comparisons. While anything is certainly possible, the risk of disappointment is extremely high.

Pascal’s Wager Shows Why Stocks Get More “Risky” Over Time

Blaise Pascal, a brilliant 17th-century mathematician, famously argued that if God exists, belief would lead to infinite joy in heaven, while disbelief would lead to infinite damnation in hell. But, if God doesn’t exist, belief would have a finite cost, and disbelief would only have at best a finite benefit.

Pascal concluded, given that we can never prove whether or not God exists, it’s probably wiser to assume he exists because infinite damnation is much worse than a finite cost.

When it comes to investing, Pascal’s argument applies as well. Let’s start with an email I received this past week.

“The risk of buying and holding an index is only in the short-term. The longer you hold an index the less risky it becomes. Also, managing money is a fool’s errand anyway as 95% of money managers underperform their index from one year to the next.”

This is an interesting comment as it exposes two primary falsehoods.

Let’s start with the second comment “95% of money managers can’t beat their index from one year to the next.” 

One of the greatest con’s ever perpetrated on the average investor by Wall Street is the “you can’t beat the index game.” It is true that many mutual funds underperform their index from one year to the next, but this has nothing to do with their long-term performance. The reasons that many funds, and investors, underperform in the short-term are simple enough to understand if you think about what an index is versus a portfolio of invested capital.

  1. The index contains no cash
  2. It has no life expectancy requirements – but you do.
  3. It does not have to compensate for distributions to meet living requirements – but you do.
  4. 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.
  5. It has no taxes, costs or other expenses associated with it – but you do.
  6. It has the ability to substitute at no penalty – but you don’t.
  7. It benefits from share buybacks – but you don’t.
  8. It doesn’t have to deal with what “life” throws at you…but you do.

But as I have addressed previously, the myth of “active managers can’t beat their index” falls apart given time.

Larry Swedroe wrote a piece just recently admonishing active portfolio managers and suggesting that everyone should just passively invest. After all, the primary argument for passive investing is that active fund managers can’t beat their  indices over time which is clearly demonstrated in the following chart.”

“Oops. There are large numbers of active fund managers who have posted stellar returns over long-term time frames. No, they don’t beat their respective benchmarks every year, but beating some random benchmark index is not the goal of investing to begin with. The goal of investing is to grow your ‘savings’ over time to meet your future inflation-adjusted income needs without suffering large losses of capital along the way.”

It isn’t just mutual funds that regularly outperform their respective benchmarks but also hedge funds, private managers and numerous individual investors that put in the necessary time, work and effort.

But, I will admit that today, more than ever, the game is stacked against the average investor as high-speed trading takes advantage of retail investor online order flows. The proprietary trading desks, who have access to massive pools of capital, can push markets on an intra-day basis while computerized programs execute orders based on data flows. It has truly become the battle of “David and Goliath” with Wall Street armed with better technology, more resources, more information, teams of people dedicated solely to a single outcome versus – you and your computer. One can certainly understand why many individuals have given up trying to manage their investments.

But therein lies the huge conflict of interest between Wall Street and you. They need your money flowing into their products so they can charge fees. Wall Street is a business and, for them, business is good, and very profitable, as long as investors buy into the game that investing is the ONLY way to grow “rich.”

However, as investors, we must abandon the idea of chasing some random benchmark index, which really has very little to do with our own personal investing goals, and focus on the things that will make us wealth over time: spend less, save more, reduce debt (increase cash flow), grow our “human capital,” (earning power), invest and avoid major losses.

Investing and avoiding major losses brings us to the first point of the email which is “stocks become less ‘risky’ over time.”

Stocks Become Less “Risky” Over Time?

This idea suggests the “risk” of the loss of capital diminishes as time progresses.

First, risk does not equal reward. “Risk” is a function of how much money you will lose when things don’t go as planned. The problem with being wrong is the loss of capital creates a negative effect to compounding that can never be recovered. Let me give you an example.

Let’s assume an investor wants to compound their investments by 10% a year over a 5-year period.

Math-Of-Loss-10pct-Compound-011916

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. 

The problem with following Wall Street’s advice to be “all in – all the time” is that eventually you are going to dealt a bad hand. By being aggressive, and chasing market returns on the way up, the higher the market goes the greater the risk that is being built into the portfolio. Most investors routinely take on more “risk” than they realize which exposes them to greater damage when markets go through a reversion process.

How do we know that risk increases over time? The cost of “insurance” tells us so. If the “risk” of ownership actually declines over time, then the cost of “insuring” the portfolio should decline as well. The chart below is the cost of “buying insurance (put options) on the S&P 500 exchange-traded fund ($SPY).

As you can see, the longer a period our “insurance” covers the more “costly” it becomes. This is because the risk of an unexpected event that creates a loss in value rises the longer an event doesn’t occur.

Furthermore, history shows that large drawdowns occur with regularity over time.

Byron Wien was asked the question of where we are in terms of the economy and the market to a group of high-end investors. To wit:

“The one issue that dominated the discussion at all four of the lunches was whether or not we were in the late stages of the business cycle as well as the bull market. This recovery began in June 2009 and the bull market began in March of that year. So we are more than 100 months into the period of equity appreciation and close to that in terms of economic expansion.

Importantly, it is not just the length of the market and economic expansion that is important to consider. As I explained just recently, the “full market cycle” will complete itself in due time to the detriment of those who fail to heed history, valuations, and psychology.

“There are two halves of every market cycle. 

“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.

With valuations currently pushing the 2nd highest level in history, it is only a function of time before the second-half of the full-market cycle ensues.

That is not a prediction of a crash.

It is just a fact.”

But as Mr. Pascal suggests, even if the odds that something will happen are small, we should still pay attention to that slim possibility if the potential consequences are dire. Rolling the investment dice while saving money by skimping on insurance may give us a shot at amassing more wealth, but with that chance of greater success, comes a risk of devastating failure.

Winning The Long Game

In golf, there is a saying that you “drive for show and putt for dough” meaning that it is not necessary to be able to drive a golf ball 300 yards down the center of the fairway – it is the short putting, measured in feet, which will win the game. In investing, it is much the same – being invested in the market is one thing, however, understanding the “short game” of investing is critically important to winning the “long game.”

When valuations rise to rarely seen levels, and the associated risks of a major drawdown increase exponentially, focus on managing the “risk” of the portfolio rather than chasing “returns.”

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.”

But it was Howard Marks who summed up our philosophy on “risk management” well when he stated:

“If you refuse to fall into line in carefree markets like today’s, it’s likely that, for a while, you’ll (a) lag in terms of return and (b) look like an old fogey. But neither of those is much of a price to pay if it means keeping your head (and capital) when others eventually lose theirs. In my experience, times of laxness have always been followed eventually by corrections in which penalties are imposed. It may not happen this time, but I’ll take that risk.” 

Clients should not pay a fee to mimic markets. Fees should be paid to investment professionals to employ an investment discipline, trading rules, portfolio hedges and management practices that have been proven to reduce the probability a serious and irreparable impairment to their hard earned savings.

Unfortunately, the rules are REALLY hard to follow. If they were easy, then everyone would be wealthy from investing. They aren’t because investing without a discipline and strategy has horrid consequences.

Personally, I choose to “believe” as I really don’t like the sound of “eternal damnation.” 

The Coming Collision Of Debt & Rates

On Tuesday, I discussed the issue of what has historically happened to the financial markets when both the dollar and rates are rising simultaneously. To wit:

“With the 10-year treasury rate now extremely overbought on a monthly basis, combined with a stronger dollar, the impact historically has not been kind to stock market investors. While it doesn’t mean the market will “crash” today, or even next week, historically rising interest rates combined with a rising dollar has previously led to unexpected and unintended consequences previously.”

I wanted to reiterate this point after reading a recent comment from Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, whom, as I have previously written about, makes rather “disconnected” statements from time to time.

“We’re probably in the sixth inning (of this economic cycle), and it’s very possible you’re going to see stronger growth in the U.S. I’ve heard people say, well, it’s looking like 2007. Completely untrue. There’s much less leverage in the system. The banks are much better capitalized.”

First, while he talks about banks being much better capitalized, the interesting question is:

“If banks are so well capitalized, why hasn’t FASB Rule 157 been reinstated?”

As I noted previously, FASB Rule 157 was repealed during the financial crisis to allow banks to mark bad assets to “face value” making balance sheets stronger than they appear. This served the purpose of reducing panic in the system, supported “Too Big To Fail” banks, and kept many banks in operation. But if banks are once again so well capitalized, leverage reduced and the economy firing on all cylinders – why is that repeal still in place today? And, if the financial system and economic environment are so strong, then why are Central Banks globally still utilizing “emergency measures” to support their economies?

Likely it is because economic growth remains tepid and banks are once again heavily leveraged as noted by Zero Hedge:

“It is by now well known that consolidated leverage in the system is at an all-time high, with both the IMF and the IIF calculating in April that total global debt has hit a new all-time high of $237 trillion, up $70 trillion in the past decade, and equivalent to a record 382% of developed and 210% of emerging market GDP.”

However, let me address the leverage issue from an economic standpoint. Rising interest rates are a “tax.” When combined with a stronger dollar, which negatively impacts exporters (exports make up roughly 40% of total corporate profits), the catalysts are in place for a problem to emerge.

The chart below compares total non-financial corporate debt to GDP to the 2-year annual rate of change for the 10-year Treasury. As you can see sharply increasing rates have typically preceded either market or economic events. Of course, it is during those events which loan default rates rise, and leverage is reduced, generally not in the most “market-friendly” way.

This leverage issue is more clearly revealed when we look at non-financial corporate debt and assets as a percentage of the gross-value added (GVA). Again, as above, rising rates have historically sparked a rapid reversion in this ratio which has generally coincided with the onset of a recession.

With leverage, both corporate and household, at historical peaks, the only question is how long can consumers continue to absorb higher rates?

While Mr. Dimon believes we are only in the “sixth-inning” of the current economic cycle, considering all of the economically sensitive areas which are negatively impacted by higher rates, one has to question the sustainability of the current economic cycle?

1) Rising interest rates raise the debt servicing requirements which reduces future productive investment.

2) Rising interest rates slow the housing market as people buy payments, not houses, and rising rates mean higher payments.

3) An increase in interest rates means higher borrowing costs which leads to lower profit margins for corporations. 

4) One of the main arguments of stock bulls over the last 5-years has been the “stocks are cheap based on low interest rates.”

5) The massive derivatives and credit markets will be negatively impacted. (Deutsche Bank, Italy, etc.)

6) As rates increase so does the variable rate interest payments on credit cards and home equity lines of credit. With the consumer being impacted by stagnant wages and increased taxes, higher credit payments will lead to a contraction in disposable income and rising defaults.

7) Rising defaults on debt service will negatively impact banks.

8) Many corporate share buyback plans and dividend payments have been done through the use of cheap debt, which has led to increased corporate balance sheet leverage.

9) Corporate capital expenditures are dependent on lower borrowing costs. Higher borrowing costs leads to lower CapEx.

10) The deficit/GDP ratio will rise as borrowing costs rise. 

You get the idea. Interest rates, economic growth, and credit are extremely linked. When it comes to the stock market, the claim that higher rates won’t impact stock prices falls into the category of “timing is everything.”  

If we go back to the first chart above, what is clear is that sharp increase in interest rates, particularly on a heavily levered economy, have repeatedly led to negative outcomes. With rates now at extensions only seen in 7-periods previously, there is little room left for further acceleration in rates before such an outcome spawns.

As Bridgewater just recently noted:

“Markets are already vulnerable, as the Fed is pulling back liquidity and raising rates, making cash scarcer and more attractive – reversing the easy liquidity and 0% cash rate that helped push money out of the risk curve over the course of the expansion. The danger to assets from the shift in liquidity and the building late-cycle dynamics is compounded by the fact that financial assets are pricing in a Goldilocks scenario of sustained strength, with little chance of either a slump or an overheating as the Fed continues its tightening cycle over the next year and a half.”

Here are the things that you need to know:

1) There have been ZERO times when the Federal Reserve has embarked upon a rate hiking campaign that did not eventually lead to negative economic and financial market consequences.

2) The median number of months following the initial rate hike has been 17-months. However, given the confluence of central bank interventions, that time frame could extend to the 35-month median or late-2018 or early-2019.

3) The average and median increases in the 10-year rate before negative consequences have occurred has historically been 43%. We are currently at double that level.

4) Importantly, there have been only two times in recent history that the Federal Reserve has increased interest rates from such a low level of annualized economic growth. Both periods ended in recessions.

5) The ENTIRETY of the“bullish” analysis is based on a sustained 34-year period of falling interest rates, inflation and annualized rates of economic growth. With all of these variables near historic lows, we can only really guess at how asset prices, and economic growth, will fair going forward.

6) Rising rates, and valuations, are indeed bullish for stocks when they START rising. Investing at the end of rising cycle has negative outcomes.

What is clear from the analysis is that bad things have tended to follow sustained increases in interest rates. As the Fed continues to press forward hiking rates into the current economic cycle, the risk of a credit related event continues to rise.

For all the reasons currently prognosticated that rising rates won’t affect the “bull market,” such is the equivalent of suggesting “this time is different.”

It isn’t.

Importantly, “This Cycle Will End,”  and investors who have failed to learn the lessons of history will once again pay the price for hubris.

China Is Winning The “Trade War” Without Firing A Shot

This past weekend, the Administration announced a tentative deal with China to temporarily postpone the burgeoning “trade war.” While the details of the deal are yet to be worked out, the concept is fairly simple – China will reduce the existing “trade deficit” by over $200 billion annually with the U.S. by reducing tariffs and allowing more goods to flow into China for purchase. On Monday, the markets reacted positively with industrial and material stocks rising sharply as it is expected these companies will be the most logical and direct beneficiaries of any deal.

Unfortunately, there are several reasons the whole scenario is quite implausible. Amitrajeet Batabyal recently explained the problem quite well.

“With China, the U.S. imports a whopping $375 billion more than it exportsHow could it whittle that down to $175 billion? There are three ways.

  • First, China could buy more U.S. goods and services.
  • Second, Americans could buy less Chinese stuff.
  • Finally, both actions could happen simultaneously.

The kinds of Chinese goods that Americans buy tend to be relatively inexpensive consumer goods, so even a dramatic decline is likely to have only a trivial impact on the deficit. And since China explicitly controls only one lever — its imports — it’ll have to buy a lot more American-made things to achieve this goal.

For this to happen, without upsetting other trade balances, the American economy would have to make a lot more than it currently produces, something that isn’t possible in so short a time frame.”

While the Administration will be able to claim a “trade victory” over a deficit reduction agreement, such is unlikely to lead to more economic growth as promised.

If we assume China does indeed spend an additional $200 billion on U.S. goods, those purchases will increase flows into the U.S. dollar, causing dollar strengthening relative to not only the Yuan but also other currencies as well. Since U.S. exports comprise about 40% of domestic corporate profits, a stronger dollar will counter the benefits of China’s purchase as other foreign importers seek cheaper goods elsewhere.

For China, a stronger dollar also makes imports to their country more expensive. To offset that, China will need to “sell” more of its U.S. Treasury holdings to “sanitize” those transactions and stabilize the exchange rate. This is not “good news” for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who would lose the largest foreign buyer for U.S. Treasuries.  This particularity problematic with the national debt expected to increase by at least one trillion dollars in each of the next four years.

There has been a lot of angst in the markets as of late as interest rates have risen back to the levels last seen, oh my gosh, all the way back to 2011. Okay, a bit of sarcasm, I know. But from all of the teeth gnashing and rhetoric of the recent rise in rates, you would have thought the world just ended. The chart below puts the recent rise in rates into some perspective. (The vertical dashed lines denote similar rate increases previously.)

It is important to understand that foreign countries “sanitize” transactions with the U.S. by buying or selling Treasuries to keep currency exchange rates stable. From 2014-2016China was dumping U.S Treasuries, and converting the proceeds back into Yuan, in an attempt to stem the outflows and resulting depreciation of their currency. Since 2016, China has been buying bonds as the Yuan has appreciated.

If China does indeed increase U.S. imports, the stronger dollar will increase the costs of imports into China from the U.S. which negatively impacts their economy. The relationship between the currency exchange rate and U.S. Treasuries is shown below.

With respect to the “trade deficit,” there is little evidence of a sustainable rise in inflationary pressures. The current inflationary push has come primarily from the transient effect of a disaster-related rebuilding cycle last year, along with pressures from rising energy, health care, and rental prices. These particular inflationary pressures are not “healthy” for the economy as they are “costs” which must be passed along to consumers without a commensurate rise in wages to offset them.

Asia is the source of most global demand for commodities, while also a huge supplier of goods into the US. Asian currencies have followed U.S. bond yields higher and lower since the 1990s, as well as followed commodity prices higher and lower over that time. There has only been one previous period when this relationship failed which was in 2007 and 2008.

With the Chinese financial system showing signs of increasing stress, any threat which devalues the currency will lead to further selling of Treasuries. Rising import costs due to a forced “deficit balancing,” will likely have more of a negative impact to the U.S. than currently believed.

Sum-Zero Game

While much of the mainstream media continues to expect a global resurgence in economic growth, there is currently scant evidence of such being the case. Since economic growth is roughly 70% dependent on consumption, then productivity, population, wage and consumer debt growth become key inputs into that equation. Unfortunately, productivity is hardly growing in the U.S. as well as in most developed nations. Further, wage and population growth remain weak as consumers remain highly leveraged. This combination makes a surge in economic growth highly unlikely particularly as rate increases reduce the ability to generate debt-driven consumption.

With unemployment rates near historic lows and production measures near highs, the problem of meeting Chinese demand will be problematic. As Amitrajeet states:

“That’s because when a nation’s economy is using its resources to produce goods efficiently, economists say that it has reached its production possibility frontier and cannot produce more goods.”

This makes Chinese promises largely illusory given the structural hurdles in China to allow for increased purchases of American exports much less the sheer amount of goods the United States would have to produce to meet Beijing’s demand.

As stated, with the United States economy already running near its full productive capacity, it is virtually impossible to produce enough new goods to meet Chinese demands, especially in the short term.

Sure, the United States could stop selling airplanes, soybeans and other exports to other countries and just sell them to China instead. Such actions would indeed shrink the United States trade deficit with China, but the trade deficit with the entire world would remain unchanged.

In other words, it’s a sum-zero game.

More importantly, if the U.S. cannot deliver the goods and services needed by China the entire agreement is worthless from the start. More importantly, China’s “concessions,” so far, are things it had planned to do anyway. As noted by Heather Long via the Washington Post:

“The Chinese have one of the fastest-growing economies and middle classes in the world. Chinese factories and cities need more energy, and its people want more meat. It’s no surprise then that China said it was interested in buying more U.S. energy and agricultural products. The Trump administration is trying to cast that as a win because the United States will be able to sell more to China, but it was almost certain that the Chinese were going to buy more of that stuff anyway.

What Trump got from the Chinese is ‘the kind of deal’ that China would be able to offer any U.S. president,’ said Brad Setser, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘China has to import a certain amount of energy from someone and needs to import either animal feed or meat to satisfy Chinese domestic demand.’

China has been buying about $20 billion worth of U.S. agricultural products a year and $7 billion in oil and gas, according to government data. Even if China doubled — or tripled — purchases of these items, it won’t equal anywhere near a $200 billion reduction in the trade deficit.”

But where China really won the negotiation was when the United States folded and agreed to suspend “trade tariffs.” While the current Administration is keen on “winning” a deal with China, without specific terms (such as a defined amount of increased purchases from the U.S. and the ability to meet that demand) the “deal” has little meaning. China has a long history of repeatedly reneging on promises it has made to past administrations.

By agreeing to a reduction of the “deficit” in exchange for “no tariffs,” China removed the most important threat to their economy as it will take 18-24 months before the current Administration realizes the problem.

“Yes, it’s good for both sides not to be in a trade war, but the Chinese had more to lose economically from the tariffs. The Trump administration rolling back its $150 billion tariff threat against China is a good ‘get’ for the Chinese.”

As with all things, there are always two sides to the story. While the benefits of reducing the trade may seem like a big win for America, reality could largely offset any benefits. If the goal was simply to be seen as the winner, Trump may have won the prize. But, it will likely be China laughing all the way to the bank.

No Strategy Works All The Time & The 10-Rules That Do

I was recently reviewing some old notes and ran across a comment made by David Merkel from the Aleph Blog back in 2013. The discussion centered around the impact of volatility on investment disciplines. The most important concept is that most investors tend to chase performance. Unfortunately, performance chasing occurs very late in the investment cycle as exuberance overtakes logic which leads to consistent underperformance. What David touches on is the importance of being disciplined when it comes to your investment approach, however, that is singularly the most difficult part of being a successful investor.

“One of the constants in investing is that investment theories are disbelieved, prosper, bloom, overshoot, die, and repeat. So is the only constant change? That’s not my view.

There are valid theories on investing, and they work on average. If you pursue them consistently, you will do well. If you pursue them after failure, you can do better still. How many times have you seen articles on investing entitled ‘The Death of ____.’ (fill in the blank) Strategies trend. There is an underlying kernel of validity; it makes economic sense, and has worked in the past. But any strategy can be overplayed, even my favorite strategy, value investing. 

Prepare yourself for volatility. It is the norm of the market. Focus on what you can control – margin of safety. By doing that you will be ready for most of the vicissitudes of the market, which stem from companies taking too much credit or operating risk.

Finally, don’t give up. Most people who give up do so at a time where stock investments are about to turn. It’s one of those informal indicators to me, when I hear people giving up on an asset class. It makes me want to look at the despised asset class, and see what bargains might be available.

Remember, valid strategies work on average, but they don’t work every month or year. Drawdowns shake out the weak-minded, and boost the performance of value investors willing to buy stocks when times are pessimistic.”

When it comes to investing it is important to remember that no investment strategy works all the time.

Most guys know that in baseball a player that is batting .300 is a really solid hitter. In fact, according to the “Baseball-Almanac,” the ALL-TIME leader was Ty Cobb with a lifetime average of .366. This means that every time that Ty Cobb stepped up to the plate he was only likely to get a hit a 36.6% of the time.  In other words he struck out, or walked, roughly 2 out of every three times at bat. All of a sudden that doesn’t sound as great, but compared to the performance of other players – it was fantastic.

The problem is a .366 average won’t get you into the “investor hall of fame”; it will likely leave you broke. When it comes to investing it requires about a .600 average to win the game long-term. No, you are not going to invest in the markets and win every time. You are going to have many more losers than you think. What separates the truly great investors from the average person is how they deal with their losses – not their winners.

10-Rules That Work

There are 10 basic investment rules that have historically kept investors out of trouble over the long term. These are not unique by any means but rather a list of investment rules that in some shape, or form, has been uttered by every great investor in history.

1) You are a speculator – not an investor

Unlike Warren Buffet who takes control of a company and can affect its financial direction – you can only speculate on the future price someone is willing to pay you for the pieces of paper you own today. Like any professional gambler – the secret to long-term success was best sung by Kenny Rogers; “You gotta know when to hold’em…know when to fold’em”

2) Asset allocation is the key to winning the “long game”

In today’s highly correlated world there is little diversification between equity classes. Therefore, including other asset classes, like fixed income which provides a return of capital function with an income stream, can reduce portfolio volatility. Lower volatility portfolios outperform over the long term by reducing the emotional mistakes caused by large portfolio swings.

3) You can’t “buy low” if you don’t “sell high”

Most investors do fairly well at “buying,” but stink at “selling.” The reason is purely emotional, which is driven primarily by “greed” and “fear.” Like pruning and weeding a garden; a solid discipline of regularly taking profits, selling laggards and rebalancing the allocation leads to a healthier portfolio over time.

4) No investment discipline works all the time – Sticking to a discipline works always.

Like everything in life, investment styles cycle. There are times when growth outperforms value, or international is the place to be, but then it changes. The problem is that by the time investors realize what is working they are late rotating into it. This is why the truly great investors stick to their discipline in good times and bad. Over the long term – sticking to what you know, and understand, will perform better than continually jumping from the “frying pan into the fire.”

5) Losing capital is destructive. Missing an opportunity is not.

As any good poker player knows – once you run out of chips you are out of the game. This is why knowing both “when” and “how much” to bet is critical to winning the game. The problem for most investors is that they are consistently betting “all in all of the time.” as they maintain an unhealthy level of the“fear of missing out.” The reality is that opportunities to invest in the market come along as often as taxi cabs in New York City. However, trying to make up lost capital by not paying attention to the risk is a much more difficult thing to do.

6) Your most valuable, and irreplaceable, commodity is “time.”

Since the turn of the century investors have recovered, theoretically, from two massive bear market corrections. It took 14- years for investors to get back to where they were in 2000 on an inflation-adjusted total return basis. Furthermore, despite the bullish advance from the 2009 lows, the compounded annual total return for the last 18-years remains below 3%.

The problem is that the one commodity which has been lost, and can never be recovered, is “time.” For investors getting back to even is not an investment strategy. We are all “savers” that have a limited amount of time within which to save money for our retirement. If you were 18 years from retirement in 2000 – you are now staring it in the face with a large shortfall between the promised 8% annualized return rate and reality. Do not discount the value of “time” in your investment strategy.

7) Don’t mistake a “cyclical trend” as an “infinite direction”

There is an old Wall Street axiom that says the “trend is your friend.”  Investors always tend to extrapolate the current trend into infinity. In 2007, the markets were expected to continue to grow as investors piled into the market top. In late 2008, individuals were convinced that the market was going to zero. Extremes are never the case.

It is important to remember that the “trend is your friend” as long as you are paying attention to, and respecting its direction. Get on the wrong side of the trend and it can become your worst enemy.

8) If you think you have it figured out – sell everything.

Individuals go to college to become doctors, lawyers, and even circus clowns. Yet, every day, individuals pile into one of the most complicated games on the planet with their hard earned savings with little, or no, education at all.

For most individuals, when the markets are rising, their success breeds confidence. The longer the market rises; the more individuals attribute their success to their own skill. The reality is that a rising market covers up the multitude of investment mistakes that individuals make by taking on excessive risk, poor asset selection or weak management skills.  These errors are revealed by the forthcoming correction.

9) Being a contrarian is tough, lonely and generally right.

Howard Marks once wrote that:

“Resisting – and thereby achieving success as a contrarian – isn’t easy. Things combine to make it difficult; including natural herd tendencies and the pain imposed by being out of step, since momentum invariably makes pro-cyclical actions look correct for a while. (That’s why it’s essential to remember that ‘being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong.’)

Given the uncertain nature of the future, and thus the difficulty of being confident your position is the right one – especially as price moves against you – it’s challenging to be a lonely contrarian.”

The best investments are generally made when going against the herd. Selling to the “greedy” and buying from the “fearful” are extremely difficult things to do without a very strong investment discipline, management protocol, and intestinal fortitude. For most investors, the reality is that they are inundated by “media chatter” which keeps them from making logical and intelligent investment decisions regarding their money which, unfortunately, leads to bad outcomes.

10) Benchmarking performance only benefits Wall Street

The best thing you can do for your portfolio is to quit benchmarking it against a random market index that has absolutely nothing to do with your goals, risk tolerance or time horizon.

Comparison in the financial arena is the main reason clients have trouble patiently sitting on their hands, letting whatever process they are comfortable with work for them. They get waylaid by some comparison along the way and lose their focus. If you tell a client that they made 12% on their account, they are very pleased. If you subsequently inform them that ‘everyone else’ made 14%, you have made them upset. The whole financial services industry, as it is constructed now, is predicated on making people upset so they will move their money around in a frenzy. Money in motion creates fees and commissions. The creation of more and more benchmarks and style boxes is nothing more than the creation of more things to COMPARE to, allowing clients to stay in a perpetual state of outrage.

The only benchmark that matters to you is the annual return that is specifically required to obtain your retirement goal in the future. If that rate is 4% then trying to obtain 6% more than doubles the risk you have to take to achieve that return. The end result is that by taking on more risk than is necessary will put your further away from your goal than you intended when something inevitably goes wrong.

It’s all about the risk

Most people are in denial about uncertainty. They assume they’re lucky, and that the unpredictable can be reliably forecasted. This keeps business brisk for palm readers, psychics, and stockbrokers, but it’s a terrible way to deal with uncertainty.

It should be obvious that an honest assessment of uncertainty leads to better decisions. It may seem contradictory, embracing uncertainty reduces risk while denial increases it. Another benefit of “acknowledged uncertainty” is it keeps you honest. A healthy respect for uncertainty, and a focus on probability, drives you never to be satisfied with your conclusions. It keeps you moving forward to seek out more information, to question conventional thinking and to continually refine your judgments and understanding that difference between certainty and likelihood can make all the difference.

The reality is that we can’t control outcomes; the most we can do is influence the probability of certain outcomes which is why the day to day management of risks and investing based on probabilities, rather than possibilities, is important not only to capital preservation but to investment success over time.

Everyone Is On The Same Side Of The Boat

In early 2018, I penned a post which illustrated the legendary Bob Farrell’s 10-investment rules. Bob, one of the great investors of our time, had a very pragmatic approach to managing money. Investing rules, and a subsequent discipline, should be a staple for any investor who has put their hard earned “savings” at risk in the market. Unfortunately, far too many invest without either which leads to less than desirable outcomes.

As of late, there has been a lot of excitement over two areas of the market in particular: interest rates and oil prices. In fact, at this moment the speculation in these two areas is at record levels.

Why is that important?

First, the speculation that oil and interest rates will go higher are the two areas which have the greatest negative impact on economic growth and earnings. Rising interest rates increase borrowing costs and higher oil prices increase input costs for manufacturers. As I noted previously, with a heavily indebted consumer, there is little ability to pass on higher costs which, if absorbed, reduces profits.

Secondly, the speculation brings forward two of Mr. Farrell’s most important rules:

  • Rule #2: Excess in one direction will lead to an opposite excess in the other direction, and;
  • Rule #9: When all the experts and forecasts agree – something else is going to happen.

Currently, when it comes to oil prices, there is little room left for more bullishness. As oil prices have risen due to concerns over the potential supply concerns from geopolitical tensions, the price of oil is now as overbought and extended as at every other prior peak.

Of course, the cycle of rising oil prices leading to increased optimism which begets bullish bets on oil continues to press prices higher. However, it is also the exuberance which has repeatedly set up the next fall. As shown below, bets on crude oil prices are sitting near the highest levels on record and substantially higher than what was seen at the peak of oil prices prior to 2008 and 2014.

Importantly, while bullish bets on oil are at extremes, there is also a high correlation between the direction of oil and the S&P 500. (Importantly, rising oil prices have been a major contributing factor to the rise in earnings for the S&P 500. A reversal in prices will be problematic as well.)

As JPM recently noted, via Zerohedge,

“The sharp increase in oil prices over the past month has been accompanied by a further rise in spec positions, which as JPMorgan notes, has now risen to new record highs. This suggests that hedge funds and other speculative investors have been at least partly behind the recent sharp spike in oil prices.

As JPM further notes, both Systematic and Discretionary hedge funds have been building up long positions in oil, with the former induced entirely by momentum and positive carry, while the latter have rushed in due to geopolitical issues, continued inventory declines in the US and expectations of Saudi Arabia engineering a higher oil price ahead of privatizations next year.

Bloomberg confirms the recent surge in commodity fund inflows, noting that hedge funds investing in oil are luring capital at the fastest pace in more than a year. After years of pain, commodity funds have recovered the client outflows they suffered last year. According to eVestment data, investors allocated $3 billion to commodity-focused hedge funds from January through March, the most since the third quarter of 2016

But it is not only speculative investors such as hedge funds, systematic or discretionary, responsible for the rise in oil prices, it is also real money investors such as retail investors and asset allocators that have been buying oil indirectly via purchases of commodity tracking funds as they seek to increase their overall allocation to commodities.”

The last paragraph is problematic as retail investors are always “late to the party.” From a contrarian standpoint, this alone should be worrisome. However, with speculators pushing prices higher, the economics of the cycle are very mature. Higher prices has led to a surge in production to an all-time record. However, demand, which has started to deteriorate over the last 12-months, remains stagnant and more representative of the economic demand-driven side of the equation.

With oil, a direct cost to consumers, the surge in prices acts as an additional tax on consumers which detracts from other economically sensitive discretionary purchases. With production at records, along with net speculative long-positioning by investors, the risk of a reversion caused by an economic slowdown or recession is problematic.

This is where the second “overly crowded trade” comes into play. 

The rise in commodity prices, combined with the Fed’s instance on hiking interest rates, has led to a belief that demand-driven inflation is finally set to return to the U.S. This has led speculators to build the largest net-short positioning in U.S. Treasuries on record.

Once again, we see Bob Farrell’s rule in action. Previously, such record net-short positioning has been more indicative of peaks in the interest rate cycle as opposed to the beginning of higher rates. You can see this more clearly if we strip out all of the positionings except those periods where net-short contracts exceeded 100,000.

With the net-short positioning on the U.S. Treasury at records, the net-short positioning on the Eurodollar has also reached a record. Once again, what we find is when the net-short positioning starts to get overcrowded, that too has been a good indication of a bottom in bond prices (or a peak in rates.)

The problem is the tentative rise in inflation is driven by higher costs being pushed onto consumers. This is the wrong type of inflationary rise which negatively impacts economic growth. As opposed to rising prices driven by rising demand, cost-push inflation simply eats away at discretionary incomes reducing consumptive spending which is 70% of economic growth.

With positioning on the U.S. Dollar net-short, along with interest rates and the Eurodollar, there is plenty to suggest that traders, and investors, have all rushed to the same side of the boat.

As our analyst Jesse Colombo explained last week:

“If another wave of dollar strength occurs, it would be very bad news for crude oil and the overall energy sector (crude oil and the dollar trade inversely). The U.S. dollar’s surge in 2014 and 2015 was the trigger for the violent crude oil bust. Even more concerning is the fact that the ‘smart money’ are more bearish on crude oil now than they were immediately before the 2014 oil bust, as I discussed in greater detail last week. While oil’s short-term trend is still up for now, and I believe in respecting the trend, there is a very real risk that another violent liquidation sell-off may occur when the trend changes.”

Like all rules on Wall Street, Bob Farrell’s rules are not meant has hard and fast rules. There are always exceptions to every rule and while history never repeats exactly it does often “rhyme” very closely.

Nevertheless, one thing is true, in the short-term it may well seem that everyone is correct in their thesis of higher rates, inflation and oil prices. However, history has a pretty clear record to suggest that when “everyone in on the same side of the boat” it has generally often paid to put on a “life vest.”

The Pension Crisis Is Worse Than You Think

Last year I penned an article discussing the “Unavoidable Pension Crisis.” 

“Currently, many pension funds, like the one in Houston, are scrambling to slightly lower return rates, issue debt, raise taxes or increase contribution limits to fill some of the gaping holes of underfunded liabilities in their plans. The hope is such measures combined with an ongoing bull market, and increased participant contributions, will heal the plans in the future.

This is not likely to be the case.

This problem is not something born of the last ‘financial crisis,’ but rather the culmination of 20-plus years of financial mismanagement.

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.”

But it is actually worse than we originally thought as Aaron Brown recently penned:

“Today, the hard stop is five to 10 years away, within the career plans of current officials.  In the next decade, and probably within five years, some large states are going to face insolvency due to pensions, absent major changes.

If we extrapolate from the past, rather than use promises in the state budget, current employees plus the state will contribute about $25 billion over those seven years, which could provide another few years before the till is empty. But it will also add around $60 billion of future liabilities to current employees. The system probably breaks down before the pension fund gets to zero, for example if assets were to fall below $30 billion while projected future liabilities exceeded $300 billion. Even the most optimistic people would have to admit the situation is unsustainable. This could happen in three years in a bad stock market, or perhaps 10 with good stock returns. But fund assets are so low relative to payouts that good returns aren’t that helpful.

The next phase of public pension reform will likely be touched off by a stock market decline that creates the real possibility of at least one state fund running out of cash within a couple of years. The math says that tax increases and spending cuts cannot do much.

But the problem is not just in the United States, but the mismanagement of assets combined with irrational and flawed return expectations has spread globally. Visual Capitalist recently took a look at the global pension problem stating:

“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.”

“The graphic illuminates a growing problem attached to an aging population (and those that will be supporting it).

Since social security programs were initially developed, the circumstances around work and retirement have shifted considerably. Life expectancy has risen by three years per decade since the 1940s, and older people are having increasingly long life spans. With the retirement age hardly changing in most economies, this longevity means that people are spending longer not working without the savings to justify it.

This problem is amplified by the size of generations and fertility rates. The population of retirees globally is expected to grow from 1.5 billion to 2.1 billion between 2017-2050, while the number of workers for each retiree is expected to halve from eight to four over the same timeframe.

The WEF has made clear that the situation is not trivial, likening the scenario to ‘financial climate change.’

Like climate change, some of the early signs of this retirement savings gap can be ‘sandbagged for the time being – but if not handled properly in the medium and long-term, the adverse effects could be overwhelming”

While we all want to ignore the problem, it is isn’t going away. More importantly, there is nothing that can, or will, change the two primary problems fueling the crisis.

Problem #1: Demographics

With pension funds already wrestling with largely underfunded liabilities, the shifting demographics are further complicating funding problems.

One of the primary problems continues to be the decline in 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.) However, this “support ratio” is not only declining in the U.S. but also in much of the developed world. This is due to two demographic factors: increased life expectancy coupled with a fixed retirement age, and a decrease in the fertility rate.

In 1950, there were 7.2 people aged 20–64 for every person of 65 or over in the OECD countries. By 1980, the support ratio dropped to 5.1 and by 2010 it was 4.1. It is projected to reach just 2.1 by 2050.

Of course, as I have discussed previously, the problem is that while the “baby boom” generation may be heading towards retirement years, there is little indication a large majority of them will be actually retiring. As Richard Eisenberg recently noted:

“The dark, depressing and sometimes physically painful life of a tribe of men and women in their 50s and 60s who are surviving America in the twenty-first century. Not quite homeless, they are ‘houseless,’ living in secondhand RVs, trailers and vans and driving from one location to another to pick up seasonal low-wage jobs, if they can get them, with little or no benefits.

The ‘workamper’ jobs range from helping harvest sugar beets to flipping burgers at baseball spring training games to Amazon’s “CamperForce,” seasonal employees who can walk the equivalent of 15 miles a day during Christmas season pulling items off warehouse shelves and then returning to frigid campgrounds at night. Living on less than $1,000 a month, in certain cases, some have no hot showers.

Many saw their savings wiped out during the Great Recession or were foreclosure victims and, felt they’d spent too long losing a rigged game. Some were laid off from high-paying professional jobs. Few have chosen this life. Few think they can find a way out of it. They’re downwardly mobile older Americans in mobile homes.”

They, of course, are part of a large majority of individuals being dependent on the various pension systems in retirement, and the ultimate burden will fall on those next in line.

Problem #2: Markets Don’t Compound

The biggest problem, however, is the continually perpetrated “lie” that markets compound over time. 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.

It is the same problem for the average American who plans on getting 6-8% return a year on their 401k plan, so why save money? Which explains why 8-out-of-10 American’s are woefully underfunded for retirement.

As shown in the long-term, total return, inflation-adjusted chart of the S&P 5oo below, the difference between actual and compounded (7% average annual rate) returns are two very different things. The market does NOT return an AVERAGE rate each year and one negative return compounds the future shortfall.

This is the problem that pension funds have run into and refuse to understand.

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

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 reduction in the assumed rate of return 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.

But therein lies the problem.

The chart below is the S&P 500 TOTAL return from 1995 to present. I have then projected for using variable rates of market returns with cycling bull and bear markets, out to 2060. I have then run projections of 8%, 7%, 6%, 5% and 4% average rates of return from 1995 out to 2060. (I have made some estimates for slightly lower forward returns due to demographic issues.)

Given real-world return assumptions, pension funds SHOULD lower their return estimates to roughly 3-4% in order to potentially meet future obligations and maintain some solvency.

They won’t make such reforms because “plan participants” won’t let them. Why? Because:

  1. It would require a 40% increase in contributions by plan participants which they simply can not afford.
  2. Given that many plan participants will retire LONG before 2060 there simply isn’t enough time to solve the issues, and;
  3. The next bear market, as shown, will devastate the plans abilities to meet future obligations without massive reforms immediately. 

In a recent note by my friend John Mauldin, he discussed an email Rob Arnott, of Research Affiliates, sent regarding this specific issue.

If our logic is sound, we earn 0.8% from our bonds (40% allocation x 2% return) and 2% to 3.2% from our stocks (60% x 3.3%, or 60% x 5.4%). Add up the return from stocks and the return from bonds, and we get 2.8% to 4% from our balanced portfolio.

Bottom line … US public service pensions are toast. One of three constituencies gets nailed: 

  • The taxpayer (keeping in mind that the affluent are mobile!),
  • The current and/or future pensioners (keep in mind that private-sector pensions are now far less generous than public pensions … there’s an inequity here!), or;
  • The public services that are on offer to our citizenry, net of sunk costs from servicing past generations.

Most likely, it’ll be a blend of the three.”

Exactly right, and the chart above of projected stock market returns agrees with that assumption.

We Are Out Of Time

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. And many of them are public-sector employees. In a 2015 study of public-sector organizations, nearly half of the responding organizations stated that they could lose 20% or more of their employees to retirement within the next five years. Local governments are particularly vulnerable: a full 37% of local-government employees were at least 50 years of age in 2015.

It is no surprise that public pension funds are completely overwhelmed, but they still have not come to the realization that markets do not compound at an annual return of 8% annually. This has led to a continued degradation of funding levels as liabilities continue to pile up. 

If the numbers above are right, the unfunded obligations of approximately $4-$5.6 trillion, depending on the estimates, would have to be set aside today such that the principal and interest would cover the program’s shortfall between tax revenues and payouts over the next 75 years.

That isn’t going to happen.

With rates pushing higher, economic growth slowing and Central Banks extracting liquidity, we are already closer to the next major bear market than not.

The next crisis won’t be secluded to just sub-prime auto loans, payday loans, student loans, and commercial real estate. It will be fueled by the “run on pensions” when “fear” prevails benefits will be lost entirely.

It’s an unsolvable problem. It will happen. And it will devastate many Americans.

It is just a function of time.

“Demography, however, is destiny for entitlements, so arithmetic will do the meddling.” – George Will

Whatever amount you are saving for retirement is probably not enough.