Tag Archives: economic cycles

Trying To Be Consistently “Not Stupid”

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” – Charlie Munger

As described in a recent article, Has This Cycle Reached Its Tail, an appreciation for where the economy is within the cycle of economic expansion and contraction is quite important for investors. It offers a gauge, a guidepost of sorts, to know when to take a lot of risk and when to take a conservative approach.

This task is most difficult when a cycle changes. As we are in the late innings of the current cycle, euphoria is rampant, and everyone is bullish. During these periods, as risks are peaking, it is very challenging to be conservative and make less than your neighbors. It is equally difficult taking an aggressive stance at the depths of a recession, when risk is low, despair is acute, and everyone is selling.

What we know is that a downturn in the economy, a recession, is out there. It is coming, and as Warren Buffett’s top lieutenant Charlie Munger points out in the quote above, successful navigation comes down to trying to make as few mistakes as possible.

The Aging Expansion

In May 2019, the current economic expansion will tie the expansion of 1991-2001 as the longest since at least 1857 as shown below. 

Since gingerly exiting the financial crisis in June 2009, the economy has managed to maintain a growth trajectory for ten years. At the same time, it has been the weakest period of economic growth in the modern era but has delivered near-record gains in the stock market and significant appreciation in other risk assets. The contrast between those two issues – weak growth and record risky financial asset appreciation make the argument for caution even more persuasive at this juncture.

Although verbally reinforcing his optimistic outlook for continued economic growth, Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Jerome Powell and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) did not inspire confidence with their abrupt shift in monetary policy and economic outlook over the past three months.

The following is a list of considerations regarding current economic circumstances. It is a fact that the expansion is “seasoned” and quite long in the tooth, but is that a reason to become cautious and defensive and potentially miss out on future gains? Revisiting the data may help us avoid making a mistake or, in the words of Munger, be “not stupid.”

1. Despite the turmoil of the fourth quarter, the stock market has rebounded sharply and now sits confidently just below the all-time highs of September 2018. However, a closer look at the entrails of the stock market tells a different story. Since the end of August 2018, cyclically-sensitive stocks such as energy, financials, and materials all remain down by roughly 10% while defensive sectors such as Utilities, Staples and Real Estate are up by 7%.

2. Bond markets around the world are signaling concern as yields are falling and curves are inverting (a historically durable sign of economic slowdown). The amount of negative yielding bonds globally has risen dramatically from less than $6 trillion to over $10.5 trillion since October 2018. Since March 1, 2019, 2-year U.S. Treasury yields have dropped by 35 basis points (bps), and 10-year Treasury yields have fallen by 40 bps (a basis point is 1/100th of a percent). 2-year Treasury yields (2.20%) are now 0.30% less than the upper-bound of the Fed Funds target rate of 2.50%. Meanwhile, three-month Treasury-bill yields are higher than every other Treasury yield out to the 10-year yield. This inversion signals acute worry about an economic slowdown.

3. Economic data in the United States has been disappointing for the balance of 2019. February’s labor market added just 20,000 new jobs compared with an average of +234,000 over the prior 12months. This was the first month under +100,000 since September 2017. Auto sales (-0.8%) were a dud and consumer confidence, besides being down 7 points, saw the sharpest decline in the jobs component since the late innings of the financial crisis (Feb 2009), reinforcing concerns in the labor market. Retail sales and the Johnson Redbook retail data also confirm a slowing/weakening trend in consumer spending. Lastly, as we pointed out at RIA Pro, tax receipt growth is declining. Not what one would expect in a robust economy.

4. As challenging as that list of issues is for the domestic economy, things are even more troubling on a global basis. The slowdown in China persists and is occurring amid their on-going efforts to stimulate the economy (once again). China’s debt-to-GDP ratio has risen from 150% to 250% over the past ten years, and according to the Wall Street Journal, the credit multiplier is weakening. Whereas 1 yuan of credit financing used to produce 3.5 yuan of growth, 1 yuan of credit now only produces 1 yuan of growth. In the European Union, a recession seems inevitable as Germany and other countries in the EU stumble. The European Central Bank recently cut the growth outlook from 1.9% to 1.1% and, like the Fed, dramatically softened their policy language. Turbulence in Turkey is taking center stage again as elections approach. Offshore overnight financing rates recently hit 1,350% as the Turkish government intervened to restrict the outflow of funds to paper over their use of government reserves to prop up the currency.

5. The Federal Reserve (and many other central banks) has formalized the move to a much more dovish stance in the first quarter. On the one hand applauding the strength and durability of the U.S. economy as well as the outlook, they at the same time flipped from a posture of 2-3 rate hikes in 2019 to zero. This shift included hidden lingo in the recent FOMC statement that appears to defy their superficial optimism. The jargon memorialized in the FOMC statement includes a clear signal that the next rate move could just as easily be a cut as a hike. Besides the dramatic shift in rate expectations, the Fed also downgraded their outlook for growth in 2019 and 2020 and cut their expectations for unemployment and inflation (their two mandates). Finally, in addition to all of that, they formalized plans to halt balance sheet reductions. The market is now implying the Fed Funds rate will be cut to 2.07% by January 2020.

Summary

Based on the radical changes we have seen from the central bankers and the economic data over the past six months, it does not seem to be unreasonable to say that the Fed has sent the clearest signal of all. The questions we ask when trying to understand the difference between actions and words is, “What do they know that we do not”? Connecting those dots allows us to reconcile the difference between what appears to be an inconsistent message and the reality of what is written between the lines. The Fed is trying to put a happy face on evolving circumstances, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The economic cycle appears to be in the midst of a transition. This surprisingly long expansion will eventually end as all others have. A recession is out there, and it will make an appearance. Our job is not guessing to be lucky; it is to be astute and play the odds.

Reality reveals itself one moment at a time as does fallacy. Understanding the difference between the two is often difficult, which brings us back to limiting mistakes. Using common sense and avoiding the emotion of markets dramatically raises one’s ability “to be consistently not stupid.” A lofty goal indeed.

Has This Cycle Reached Its Tail?

We asked a few friends what the picture below looks like, and most told us they saw a badly drawn bird with a wide open beak. Based on the photograph below our colorful bird, they might be on to something. 

As you might suspect, this article is not about our ability to graph a bird using Excel. The graph represents the current bull market and economic cycle as told by the yield curve and investor sentiment.

As the picture is almost complete, the bird provides a clue to where we are in the current cycle and when the next cycle may begin. For investors, one of the most important pieces of information is understanding where we are in the economic cycle as it offers a critical gauge in risk-taking.

Cycles

Economic Cycles- Economic cycles are frequently depicted with a sine wave gyrating above and below a longer-term trend line. Throughout history, economic cycles include periods where economic growth exceeds its potential as well as the inevitable busts when slower than potential growth occurs.  Most often cycles track a trend line, oscillating above and below it, but spend little time at the trend other than passing through it.

Boom and bust periods occur because economic activity is governed by human behavior. In other words, our spending habits are erratic because we are subject to bouts of optimism and pessimism about the economy, our financial prospects and a host of other non-financial issues.

The graph below shows the sine wave-like quality of U.S. GDP growth, which has wavered above and below trend growth for decades. 

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

Stock Market Cycles- Stock markets also follow a pattern that is well correlated to economic cycles. Strong economic activity results in investor optimism. During these periods, investors tend to believe that rising economic growth and strong corporate profits are long-lasting. As such they are prone to extrapolate these shorter-term trends over longer periods. Investors temporarily forget that periods of above-average growth will inevitably be met with periods of below-average growth. During bust periods, these mistakes are corrected and often over-corrected.

Implied volatility is a great measure of aggregate investor sentiment. It measures the expected market movement as determined by the supply and demand for options. When investors are optimistic about future returns, they tend to neglect to hedge in the options market. The sustained and methodical reduction in options pricing causes implied volatility to decline. In recent years, ETF’s and professional strategies whose objectives were to be short volatility steadily gained in popularity and helped push implied volatility down. Conversely, when investors grow concerned over higher valuations, they hedge more frequently using options and drive implied volatility higher.

Yield Curve Cycles- The yield curve also takes on a similar path that tends to mirror economic cycles. When the economic cycle portends strong growth, the yield curve steepens. That is to say, the difference between longer and shorter maturity yields rises. This occurs as investors in longer maturity bonds become increasingly concerned with the potential for rising inflation resulting from stronger economic growth.

When strong growth spurs inflation expectations or actual inflation rises, the Fed begins to take action. To combat rising price expectations, they tighten policy with a higher Fed Funds rate. Shorter-term bond yields follow the Fed Funds rate closely, and as the Fed tries to dampen growth, the yield curve flattens. In that instance, longer-term investors are comforted by the Fed actions. This causes longer maturity yields to rise by less than those of shorter maturity yields, or it can help push longer maturity yields lower on an outright basis.

A steeper yield curve increases the incentive to lend and generates more economic growth while a flatter curve reduces the incentive and slows economic growth. The graph below shows how an inverted yield curve, where the yield on a  2-year U.S Treasury note is higher than that of a 10-year U.S. Treasury note, has paved the way for every recession since at least 1980.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

The Bird is the Word

The graph below shows a scatter plot of the relationship between implied volatility as represented by spot VIX and the 3-month to 10-year yield curve spread. With proper context, you can see the bird is a graph depicting the most recent cycle of stock market optimism (VIX) and the economic growth cycle (yield curve). The graph uses monthly periods encompassing two -year averages to smooth the data and make the longer-term trends more apparent.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

When we started on this project, we expected to see an oval shaped figure, slanting upward and to the right. Despite the irregularities of the “beak” and “front legs,” that is essentially what we got.

The blue triangle on the bottom-left is the first data point, representing the average VIX and yield curve spread from January 2006 through December of 2007. The years 2006 and 2007 were the economic peak of the prior market cycle. As shown, the two-year average progresses forward month-by-month and moves upward and to the right, meaning that VIX was increasing while the yield curve was steepening. In this period, the yield curve steepened as the Fed began rapidly reducing the fed funds rate in mid-2007. Likewise, VIX started spiking thereafter as the recession and financial crisis began to play out.

The gray and yellow segments on the graph reflect the decline in volatility as the financial crisis abated. Since 2010, the yield curve steadily flattened, and volatility fell to record lows. The one real break to the cycle trend was the “bird leg,” or the periods including 2013 when the yield curve steepened amid the taper tantrum. After that period, the oval-cycle pattern resumed. The red circle marks the most recent monthly data points and shows us where the trend is headed.

Interestingly, note that the number of dots forming the belly of the bird is much greater than those forming the back. This is typical as the expansionary portion of economic and market cycles tend to last five to ten years while market declines and recessions are usually limited to two or three years.

Summary

Think of the economy and stock market as a long-distance runner. At times they may pick up the pace for an extended period, but in doing so, they will inevitably overexert themselves and then must spend a period of time running at a below average pace. 

The stock market has been outrunning economic growth for a long time. This is witnessed by valuations that have surged to record highs. The yield curve is quite flat and volatility, despite spiking twice over the last year, currently resides well below the long-term average and not far from record lows. The current trajectory, as shown with the dotted red arrow in the chart above, is on a path towards the peak of the prior cycle.

The Fed has recently made a dovish (no pun intended) policy U-turn and appears to be on the path to lower rates. This likely means that the curve flattening is nearing an end and steepening is in the cards. At the same time, the market is showing signs of topping as witnessed by two large drawdowns and spikes in implied volatility over the last 15 months.

Based on the analysis above, it appears that the current cycle is close to completion. It is, however, but one piece of information. To borrow from Howard Marks, author of the book Mastering Market Cycles, he states the following:

While they may not know what lies ahead, investors can enhance their likelihood of success if they base their actions on a sense for where the market stands in its cycle….there is no single reliable gauge that one can look to for an indication of whether market participants’ behavior at a point in time is prudent or imprudent.  All we can do is assemble anecdotal evidence and try to draw the correct inferences from it.

We concur and will use the “bird” as evidence that the cycle is mature.

“Blind Faith” Isn’t A Strategy For “Late-Cycle” Markets

 The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  – Lao Tzu

In a tiny first step on December 16, 2015, the Federal Reserve (Fed) did something they had not done in over nine years. From the unprecedented starting point of zero, they raised the Fed Funds rate. Since, they have begun to allow their swollen balance sheet to contract in what can only be characterized as another unprecedented event. Although monetary policy remains extreme and real rates only recently have turned positive, these measures mark the end of an era of maintaining extreme financial crisis monetary policy in the United States.

Reversing these experimental policies initiates a new set of dynamics which will gradually reduce excessive liquidity from the financial system. Just as quantitative easing (QE) and zero interest rates were a grand experiment, the removal of these policy measures is equally experimental. Now, over 325 million domestic lab rats and the rest of the world wait to see how it plays out.  Importantly, if the Fed continues down this path, investors should carefully consider potential risks and the appropriate market exposure in this brave new world.

Despite the multitude of unanswerable questions about the implications of these events, what we know is that the economy is in the late stages of an economic expansion. Just as low tides follow high tides, we can use prior cycles as a guide to consider prudent, late-stage portfolio positioning.

Market Expectations

As discussed in, Everyone Hears the Fed but Few Listen, the difference between Fed officials’ expected path of Fed rate hikes and market expectations for the Fed Funds rate is important. The implications for the market and investors are especially compelling when considering asset allocation weightings. For example, if the Fed continues on their path of more rate hikes and surpasses market expectations, stocks are likely to struggle as much needed liquidity evaporates. The bond market, on the other hand, will probably continue to do what it has been doing, but to a greater extent. A flatter and possibly an inverted yield curve would be in order unless inflation rises by more than is currently expected. Conversely, if the Fed backs away from their current commitment, it will likely be bullish for risk assets and the yield curve would probably steepen, led by a decline in 2-year Treasury yields.

Context

Through September this year, the U.S. economy has posted an average growth rate of 3.3% (average quarterly annualized) and S&P 500 earnings have grown over 20% so far this year. The news from consumer and business surveys is favorable, and the country is essentially at full employment. That all sounds good, but is it sustainable?

The table below, courtesy of the Committee for a Responsible Fiscal Budget (CRFB), shows that recent tax and budget legislation along with soybean purchases in anticipation of trade tariffs drove recent economic growth at the margin.

While the stimulative impact of fiscal policy remains favorable, it will steadily decline toward neutral for the rest of this year and throughout 2019. Policies regarding tariffs and trade are likely to weigh on economic growth throughout this year and next year. Most importantly, the Fed is clear that their plans are to continuing raising rates and reducing the holdings on their balance sheet that resulted from QE.

Late-Cycle Adjustments

Since the end of the recession in June 2009, the economy has clearly moved from recovery to expansion. That means the U.S. economy is nearing the “slowdown” phase of the cycle and heading toward the contraction (recession) phase. The evidence of the U.S. now being in a late-cycle environment is compelling and strongly suggests that investors modify their asset allocation weightings to protect against losses as the cycle progresses.

The Path Forward

The past does not provide investors with perfect information about how we should invest, but it does offer excellent clues. It may be helpful to look at the major asset classes and consider portfolio adjustments for late-cycle positioning.

U.S. Stocks: To evaluate late-cycle performance, we looked at equity performance by sector in the 12-months leading up to each of the prior three recessions (1990, 2001, and 2007).

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Every environment is different, and what outperformed in the past may not on this occasion as the cycle unfolds. Prior to the last three recessions, investors preferred defensive sectors, such as staples, healthcare, utilities, energy and industrials during late-cycle periods.

U.S. Bonds: Using the same framework, we looked at various bond categories in the period leading up to the three prior recessions (due to limited data, some categories do not have return information for the 1990 period).

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

The important takeaway is that investors prefer lower risk bonds leading into a recession. This is also evident across the rating categories of the high yield bond market.  Note how much better BB-rated bonds perform relative to lower-rated B and CCC bonds.

The quality of the securities within both the investment grade and high yield market is so poor in this cycle (highly levered, high percentage of covenant-lite structures, high percentage of BBB-rated securities in the IG sector) that we urge a very conservative position in both cases. Indeed, the “up-in-quality” theme holds for any credit instrument in the late stages of the cycle.

Commodities: Despite the rise in oil and gas prices in 2018, commodities remain the most undervalued of all major asset classes. Some soft and hard commodities have been hurt by the tariffs initiated by the Trump administration, but there is a reason they are characterized as “commodities.” We need them, and they are staples to our standard of living. Supply fluctuations will occur between nations as trade negotiations evolve, but the demand will remain intact.

Additionally, global central bank interventionism remains alive and well as demonstrated by recent actions of the Peoples Bank of China (PBOC). To the extent that central bankers continue to take the easy route of solving problems by printing money to calm markets when disruptions occur, natural resources and agricultural products will likely do well as a store of value – much like gold. They all reside in the same zip code as a means of protecting wealth.

Cash is King: In addition to the ideas illustrated above, it is always a good late-cycle idea to raise cash. As American financier and statesman, Bernard Baruch said, “I made my money selling too soon.” Although the low return on cash is a disincentive, the discipline affords opportunity and peace of mind. Having cash on hand is also a reflection of the discipline of selling into high prices, a skill at which most investors fail. Cash is an undervalued asset class heading into a recession because most investors panic as markets correct. Those with “dry powder” are better able to rationally assess market changes and more clearly see opportunities as certain assets fall out of favor and are cheap to acquire.

Investment Tourist

Many investors elect to leave the “serious” decision-making to their investment advisors on the assumption that the advisor will make the right decision “on my behalf.” They delegate with full autonomy the task of adjusting risk posture, when the advisor ultimately bears far less risk in the equation. Being inquisitive, asking good questions and challenging the “hired help” is a proper prerogative.  One should always operate and engage with humility but never on blind faith.

Given the complexities and the risks of the current environment, investors should not be silent passengers on the journey. One who has wealth and takes that responsibility seriously should have valid questions that are both difficult to answer and enlightening to debate. Iron sharpens iron as the proverb says.

Summary

The Fed has now taken eight steps in their path to normalizing interest rates and trying to set the economy on a sustainable growth path. Although he probably did not consider its application in the realm of monetary policy, Sir Isaac Newton’s law of inertia states that a body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Rate hikes are in motion and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future unless and until some outside force comes in to play (crisis).

Given the extreme nature of past policy actions and the likely impact of their reversal, forecasting future events and market behavior promises to be more difficult than usual. Reliable guideposts of prior periods may or may not hold the same predictive power. Although unlikely to afford investors with prescriptive solutions this time around, there is value to doing that analytical homework and gaining awareness of those patterns. Finally, as the cycle unfolds, successfully navigating what is to come and preserving wealth will also require investors to apply sound decision-making using clear guidance and input from those who dare to be contrary.