Tag Archives: Fed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Full Market Cycle

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

“What goes up, must come down.” 

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

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

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

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

The 4-Phases

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

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

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

So, the question to answer, obviously, is:

“Where are we now?”

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

1992-2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, came the decline.

2003-2009

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

Okay. Not really.

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

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

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

They were disastrously wrong.

Sound familiar?

2009-Present

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

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

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

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

Lost And Found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Employment Concerns Becoming An Ugly Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The virus was just such an event.

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

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

No Recession In 2020?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay Boomer”

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

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

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

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

Why This Matters

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

It isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the same every time.”

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

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

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

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

Shedlock: Recession Will Be Deeper Than The Great Financial Crisis

Economists at IHS Markit downgraded their economic forecast to a deep recession.

Please consider COVID-19 Recession to be Deeper Than That of 2008-2009

Our interim global forecast is the second prepared in March and is much more pessimistic than our 17 March regularly scheduled outlook. It is based on major downgrades to forecasts of the US economy and oil prices. The risks remain overwhelmingly on the downside and further downgrades are almost assured.

IHS Markit now believes the COVID-19 recession will be deeper than the one following the global financial crisis in 2008-09. Real world GDP should plunge 2.8% in 2020 compared with a drop of 1.7% in 2009. Many key economies will see double-digit declines (at annualized rates) in the second quarter, with the contraction continuing into the third quarter.

It will likely take two to three years for most economies to return to their pre-pandemic levels of output. More troubling is the likelihood that, because of the negative effects of the uncertainty associated with the virus on capital spending, the path of potential GDP will be lower than before. This happened in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Six Key Points

  1. Based on recent data and developments, IHS Markit has slashed the US 2020 forecast to a contraction of 5.4%.
  2. Because of the deep US recession and collapsing oil prices, IHS Markit expects Canada’s economy to contract 3.3% this year, before seeing a modest recovery in 2021.
  3. Europe, where the number of cases continues to grow rapidly and lockdowns are pervasive, will see some of the worst recessions in the developed world, with 2020 real GDP drops of approximately 4.5% in the eurozone and UK economies. Italy faces a decline of 6% or more. The peak GDP contractions expected in the second quarter of 2020 will far exceed those at the height of the global financial crisis.
  4. Japan was already in recession, before the pandemic. The postponement of the summer Tokyo Olympics will make the downturn even deeper. IHS Markit expects a real GDP contraction of 2.5% this year and a very weak recovery next year.
  5. China’s economic activity is expected to have plummeted at a near-double-digit rate in the first quarter. It will then recover sooner than other countries, where the spread of the virus has occurred later. IHS Markit predicts growth of just 2.0% in 2020, followed by a stronger-than-average rebound in 2021, because of its earlier recovery from the pandemic.
  6. Emerging markets growth will also be hammered. Not only are infection rates rising rapidly in key economies, such as India, but the combination of the deepest global recession since the 1930s, plunging commodity prices, and depreciating currencies (compounding already dangerous debt burdens) will push many of these economies to the breaking point.

No V-Shaped Recovery

With that, Markit came around to my point of view all along. Those expecting a V-shaped recovery are sadly mistaken.

I have been amused by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley predictions of a strong rebound in the third quarter.

For example Goldman Projects a Catastrophic GDP Decline Worse than Great Depression followed by a fantasyland recovery.

  • Other GDP Estimates
  • Delusional Forecast
  • Advice Ignored by Trump
  • Fast Rebound Fantasies

I do not get these fast rebound fantasies, and neither does Jim Bianco. He retweeted a Goldman Sachs estimate which is not the same as endorsing it.

I do not know how deep this gets, but the rebound will not be quick, no matter what.

Fictional Reserve Lending

Please note that Fictional Reserve Lending Is the New Official Policy

The Fed officially cut reserve requirements of banks to zero in a desperate attempt to spur lending.

It won’t help. As I explain, bank reserves were effectively zero long ago.

US Output Drops at Fastest Rate in a Decade

Meanwhile US Output Drops at Fastest Rate in a Decade

In Europe, we see Largest Collapse in Eurozone Business Activity Ever.

Lies From China

If you believe the lies (I don’t), China is allegedly recovered.

OK, precisely who will China be delivering the goods to? Demand in the US, Eurozone, and rest of the world has collapse.

We have gone from praying China will soon start delivering goods to not wanting them even if China can produce them.

Nothing is Working Now: What’s Next for America?

On March 23, I wrote Nothing is Working Now: What’s Next for America?

I noted 20 “What’s Next?” things.

It’s a list of projections from an excellent must see video presentation by Jim Bianco. I added my own thoughts on the key points.

The bottom line is don’t expect a v-shaped recovery. We will not return to the old way of doing business.

Globalization is not over, but the rush to globalize everything is. This will impact earnings for years to come.

Finally, stimulus checks are on the way, but there will be no quick return to buying cars, eating out, or traveling as much.

Boomers who felt they finally had enough retirement money just had a quarter of it or more wiped out.

It will take a long time, if ever, for the same sentiment to return. Spending will not recover. Boomers will die first, and they are the ones with the most money.

The COVID19 Tripwire

“You better tuck that in. You’re gonna’ get that caught on a tripwire.Lieutenant Dan, Forrest Gump

There is a popular game called Jenga in which a tower of rectangular blocks is arranged to form a sturdy tower. The objective of the game is to take turns removing blocks without causing the tower to fall. At first, the task is as easy as the structure is stable. However, as more blocks are removed, the structure weakens. At some point, a key block is pulled, and the tower collapses. Yes, the collapse is a direct cause of the last block being removed, but piece by piece the structure became increasingly unstable. The last block was the catalyst, but the turns played leading up to that point had just as much to do with the collapse. It was bound to happen; the only question was, which block would cause the tower to give way?

A Coronavirus

Pneumonia of unknown cause first detected in Wuhan, China, was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019. The risks of it becoming a global pandemic (formally labeled COVID-19) was apparent by late January. Unfortunately, it went mostly unnoticed in the United States as China was slow to disclose the matter and many Americans were distracted by impeachment proceedings, bullish equity markets, and other geopolitical disruptions.

The S&P 500 peaked on February 19, 2020, at 3393, up over 5% in the first two months of the year. Over the following four weeks, the stock market dropped 30% in one of the most vicious corrections of broad asset prices ever seen. The collapse erased all of the gains achieved during the prior 3+ years of the Trump administration. The economy likely entered a recession in March.

There will be much discussion and debate in the coming months and years about the dynamics of this stunning period. There is one point that must be made clear so that history can properly record it; the COVID-19 virus did not cause the stock and bond market carnage we have seen so far and are likely to see in the coming months. The virus was the passive triggering mechanism, the tripwire, for an economy full of a decade of monetary policy-induced misallocations and excesses leaving assets priced well beyond perfection.

Never-Ending Gains

It is safe to say that the record-long economic expansion, to which no one saw an end, ended in February 2020 at 128 months. To suggest otherwise is preposterous given what we know about national economic shutdowns and the early look at record Initial Jobless Claims that surpassed three million. Between the trough in the S&P 500 from the financial crisis in March 2009 and the recent February peak, 3,999 days passed. The 10-year rally scored a total holding-period return of 528% and annualized returns of 18.3%. Although the longest expansion on record, those may be the most remarkable risk-adjusted performance numbers considering it was also the weakest U.S. economic expansion on record, as shown below.

They say “being early is wrong,” but the 30-day destruction of valuations erasing over three years of gains, argues that you could have been conservative for the past three years, kept a large allocation in cash, and are now sitting on small losses and a pile of opportunity with the market down 30%.

As we have documented time and again, the market for financial assets was a walking dead man, especially heading into 2020. Total corporate profits were stagnant for the last six years, and the optics of magnified earnings-per-share growth, thanks to trillions in share buybacks, provided the lipstick on the pig.

Passive investors indiscriminately and in most cases, unknowingly, bought $1.5 trillion in over-valued stocks and bonds, helping further push the market to irrational levels. Even Goldman Sachs’ assessment of equity market valuations at the end of 2019, showed all of their valuation measures resting in the 90-99th percentile of historical levels.

Blind Bond Markets

The fixed income markets were also swarming with indiscriminate buyers. The corporate bond market was remarkably overvalued with tight spreads and low yields that in no way offered an appropriate return for the risk being incurred. Investment-grade bonds held the highest concentration of BBB credit in history, most of which did not qualify for that rating by the rating agencies’ own guidelines. The junk bond sector was full of companies that did not produce profits, many of whom were zombies by definition, meaning the company did not generate enough operating income to cover their debt servicing costs. The same held for leveraged loans and collateralized loan obligations with low to no covenants imposed. And yet, investors showed up to feed at the trough. After all, one must reach for extra yield even if it means forgoing all discipline and prudence.

To say that no lessons were learned from 2008 is an understatement.

Black Swan

Meanwhile, as the markets priced to ridiculous valuations, corporate executives and financial advisors got paid handsomely, encouraging shareholders and clients to throw caution to the wind and chase the market ever higher. Thanks also to imprudent monetary policies aimed explicitly at propping up indefensible valuations, the market was at risk due to any disruption.

What happened, however, was not a slow leaking of the market as occurred leading into the 2008 crisis, but a doozy of a gut punch in the form of a pandemic. Markets do not correct by 30% in 30 days unless they are extremely overvalued, no matter the cause. We admire the optimism of formerly super-intelligent bulls who bought every dip on the way down. Ask your advisor not just to tell you how he is personally invested at this time, ask him to show you. You may find them to be far more conservative in their investment posture than what they recommend for clients. Why? Because they get paid on your imprudently aggressive posture, and they do not typically “eat their own cooking”. The advisor gets paid more to have you chasing returns as opposed to avoiding large losses.

Summary

We are facing a new world order of DE-globalization. Supply chains will be fractured and re-oriented. Products will cost more as a result. Inflation will rise. Interest rates, therefore, also will increase contingent upon Fed intervention. We have become accustomed to accessing many cheap foreign-made goods, the price for which will now be altered higher or altogether beyond our reach. For most people, these events and outcomes remain inconceivable. The widespread expectation is that at some point in the not too distant future, we will return to the relative stability and tranquility of 2019. That assuredly will not be the case.

Society as a whole does not yet grasp what this will mean, but as we are fond of saying, “you cannot predict, but you can prepare.” That said, we need to be good neighbors and good stewards and alert one another to the rapid changes taking place in our communities, states, and nation. Neither investors nor Americans, in general, can afford to be intellectually lazy.

The COVID-19 virus triggered these changes, and they will have an enormous and lasting impact on our lives much as 9-11 did. Over time, as we experience these changes, our brains will think differently, and our decision-making will change. Given a world where resources are scarce and our proclivity to – since it is made in China and “cheap” – be wasteful, this will probably be a good change. Instead of scoffing at the frugality of our grandparents, we just might begin to see their wisdom. As a nation, we may start to understand what it means to “save for a rainy day.”

Save, remember that forgotten word.

As those things transpire – maybe slowly, maybe rapidly – people will also begin to see the folly in the expedience of monetary and fiscal policy of the past 40 years. Expedience such as the Greenspan Put, quantitative easing, and expanding deficits with an economy at full employment. Doing “what works” in the short term often times conflicts with doing what is best for the most people over the long term.

Anatomy of The Bear. Lessons from Russell Napier.

One of my annual re-reads is Russell Napier’s classic tome “Anatomy of the Bear.”

A mandatory study for every financial professional and investor who seeks to understand not only how damaging bear markets can be but also the traits which mark their bottoms. Every bear is shaken from hibernation for different reasons. However, when studying the four great bottoms of bears in 1921, 1932, 1949 and 1982, there are several common traits to these horrendous cycles.  I thought it would be interesting to share them with you.

First, keep in mind, bear markets characteristically purge weakness – weak companies, weak advisors, weak investors. I want you to consider them less a bloodletting and more a cleansing of a system. There will be unsuitable investors who will never return to the market and justifiably so. Businesses that were patronized pre-Covid, will either be gone or completely reinvent. Bear markets slash equity valuations. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that stocks return to healthy valuations quickly after a bear departure. Some believe the global economy can turn on and off like a light switch without major repercussions. In other words,  the belief is once the worst of this horrid virus ceases,  business activity invariably will return to normal. I believe it’ll be quite the contrary.

I mentioned on the radio show in December that I expected wage growth to top out in 2019. Keep in mind, through this yet another outlier economic upheaval, there will be employers who will realize they don’t require as many employees and will let them go or cap their wages for years to rebuild profit margins. Without the tailwind of stock buybacks to equity prices, corporate employees will bear the brunt of the pain. In addition, organizations will realize many of their remaining employees are equipped to work from home and perhaps gather in-person perhaps once a month or every couple of weeks. Thus, large commercial space will no longer be required which is going to require massive reinvention by the commercial real estate industry.
The cry of nationalism will rise. Products manufactured overseas especially China, will take a hit which means Americans will face greater inflationary challenges while also dealing with muted or non-existent wage growth. We will experience ‘ more money chasing too-few goods.’ Many, especially younger generations will continue to strip themselves down to basics (I especially envision this in Generation Z;  those born in the mid-late 1990s such as my daughter Haley).  This sea-change will require most of the U.S. population to finally live below their means, dramatically downsize, reinvent, expand, the definition of wealth to include more holistic, ethereal methods that go way beyond household balance sheets and dollars.
I hope I’m wrong. So very wrong about most of what I envision for the future.
Here are several traits that every major market bottom share – courtesy of Russell Napier:

  1. Bears tend to die on low volume, at least the big bears do. 

Low volume represents a complete disinterest in stocks. Keep in mind this clearly contradicts the tenet which states that bears end with one act of massive capitulation – a  downward cascade on great volume. Those actions tend to mark the beginning of a bear cycle, not the end. A rise in volume on rebounds, falling volumes on weakness would better mark a bottoming process in a bear market.

2. Bears are tricky.

There will appear to be a recovery; an ‘all-clear’ for stock prices. It’ll suck in investors who believe the market recovery is upon us just to be financially ravaged again. Anecdotally, I know this cycle isn’t over as I still receive calls from people who are anxious to get into the market and perceive the current market a buying opportunity. At the bottom of a bear, I should be hearing great despair and clear disdain for stock investing.

3. Bears can be tenacious.

They refuse to die or at the least, quickly return to hibernation. The 1921 move from overvaluation to undervaluation took over ten years. Bear markets, where three-year price declines make overvalued equities cheap, are the exception, not the rule. As of this writing,  the Shiller P/E is at 24x – hardly a bargain.  At the bottom market cycle of the Great Recession, the Shiller CAPE was at 15x. There is still valuation adjustment ahead.

4. Bears can depart before earnings actually recover.

Investors who wait for a complete recovery in corporate earnings will arrive late to the stock-investment party.  Most likely it’s going to take a while (especially with their debt burden), for the majority of U.S. companies to reflect healthy earnings growth. CEOs who employ stock buybacks to boost EPS will be considered pariahs and gain unwanted attention from Congress and even the Executive Branch. My thought is a savvy investor should look to minimize indexing and select individual stocks with strong balance sheets which include low debt and plenty of free cash flow within sectors and industries that are nimble to adjust to the global economy post-crisis.

5. Bear market damage can be inconceivable, especially to a generation of investors who never experienced one.

The bear market of 1929-32 was characterized by an 89% decline. The average is 38% for bears;  however, averages are misleading. I have no idea how much damage this bear ultimately unleashes. The closest comparison I have is the 1929-1932 cycle. However, with the massive fiscal and monetary stimulus (and I don’t believe we’ve seen the full extent of it yet),  my best guess is a bear market contraction somewhere between the Great Depression and Great Recession. At the least, I believe we re-test lows and this bear is a 40-45% retracement from the highs.

6. Bear markets end on the return of general price stability and strong demand for durables such as autos.

In 1949, as in 1921 and 1932, a return of general price stability coincided with the end of the equity bear market. Demand and price stability of selected commodities augured well for general price stabilization.  Watch how industrial metals recover such as copper, now at the lowest levels since the fall of 2017. The Baltic Dry Index is off close to 20% so far this year. Low valuations (not there yet), when combined with a return to normalcy in the general price level, may provide the best opportunity for future above-average equity returns. We are not there.

7. Bear markets that no longer decline on bad news are a positive.

The combination of large short positions in conjunction with a market that fails to decline on bad news was overall a positive indicator of a rebound in 1921, 1932 and 1949. Also, limited stock purchases by retail investors may be considered an important building block for a bottom.  Since the worst of economic numbers haven’t been witnessed yet, there remains too much hope of a vicious recovery in stock prices as well as the overall global economies.

8. Not all bear markets lead the economy by six-to-nine months.

Generally, markets lead the economy. However, this tenet failed to hold true for the four great bears. At extreme times, the bottoms for the economy and the equity market were aligned and in several cases, the economy LED stocks higher!  It’s unclear whether this bear behaves in a similar fashion only because of massive fiscal and monetary stimulus. We’re not done with stimulus methods either. If anything, they’ve just begun! I know. Tough to fathom.

For me and the RIA Team, every bear provides an important lesson. The beast comes in all sizes; their claws differ in sharpness. However, they are all dangerous to financial wealth.

I believe the market will eventually witness a “V” shaped recovery due to unprecedented stimulus. Unfortunately, I believe the economy will remain sub-par for a long period. Here’s a vision I shared on Facebook recently:

Let me give you one example how an economy cannot turn off, then on, like a light switch.

Joe’s Donuts is closed. Joe lets his 2 employees go, at least temporarily. Joe employs his wife Emily to assist as she’s just been laid off from her job. Joe is a quick thinker. He creates pre-packaged dough-to-go bags and sells them outside the store. His sales are off 75% as most businesses around him are shuttered. Joe was able to negotiate postponement of his rent for one month but will have to pay two months in May.

Joe has a profitable business but he’s already eaten through a quarter of his cash reserves to pay for supplies, maintain expenses to keep going. He can’t afford another month of quarantine.

The quarantine is lifted May 1 (best case scenario). Joe’s establishment is open! He’s hesitant to have employees return because he wants to gauge business for a month. He discovers that business is still off 40% from last year at the same time. Why? Because his patrons have either been let go or in repair of ravaged household balance sheets. In addition, he notices that purchasing boxes of donuts for office meetings is way off.

Joe contacts his former 2 employees. He tells them he still doesn’t require them. He’s handling the traffic sufficiently alone at this time. Joe now owes 2 months of rent. He takes one month from the business’ reserve account; distributes another from his retirement account.

Joe’s wife Ellen has been called back to work by her former employer, a local car dealership. She’s been asked to work the same job, same responsibilities. However, the pay is 10% less. Out of desperation, she takes the job. Meanwhile, Joe tells Ellen that they need to find a way to continue to cut household expenses…. Well, you get the picture.

I think this is reality for at least a year after the ‘all clear.’

There’s never been a better time to catch up on reading. Russell’s book is available through Amazon. For those interested in market history,  the pages hold invaluable insights.

For me, markets are always battlefields, but I’ve survived several conflicts.

Consider “Anatomy of The Bear,” part of your financial literary war chest.

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

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

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

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

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

Chart Updated Through Monday

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

So, is the bear market over? 

Are the bulls now back in charge?

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

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

Let’s get to work.

Employment

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

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

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


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


Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE)

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

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

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

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

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


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


Junk Bonds & Margin Debt

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

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

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

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

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


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


Corporate Profits/Earnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Technical Pressure

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Fed Trying To Inflate A 4th Bubble To Fix The Third

Over the last couple of years, we have often discussed the impact of the Federal Reserve’s ongoing liquidity injections, which was causing distortions in financial markets, mal-investment, and the expansion of the “wealth gap.” 

Our concerns were readily dismissed as bearish as asset prices were rising. The excuse:

“Don’t fight the Fed”

However, after years of zero interest rates, never-ending support of accommodative monetary policy, and a lack of regulatory oversight, the consequences of excess have come home to roost. 

This is not an “I Told You So,” but rather the realization of the inevitable outcome to which investors turned a blind-eye too in the quest for “easy money” in the stock market. 

It’s a reminder of the consequences of “greed.” 

The Liquidity Trap

We previously discussed the “liquidity trap” the Fed has gotten themselves into, along with Japan, which will plague economic growth in the future. To wit:

“The 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.

Our “economic composite” indicator is comprised of 10-year rates, inflation (CPI), wages, and the dollar index. Importantly, downturns in the composite index leads GDP. (I have estimated the impact to GDP for the first quarter at -2% growth, but my numbers may be optimistic)

The Fed’s problem is not only are they caught in an “economic liquidity trap,” where monetary policy has become ineffective in stimulating economic growth, but are also captive to a “market liquidity trap.”

Whenever the Fed, or other Global Central Banks, have engaged in “accommodative monetary policy,” such as QE and rate cuts, asset prices have risen. However, general economic activity has not, which has led to a widening of the “wealth gap” between the top 10% and the bottom 90%. At the same time, corporations levered up their balance sheets, and used cheap debt to aggressively buy back shares providing the illusion of increased profitability while revenue growth remained weak. 

As I have shown previously, while earnings have risen sharply since 2009, it was from the constant reduction in shares outstanding rather than a marked increase in revenue from a strongly growing economy. 

Now, the Fed is engaged in the fight of its life trying to counteract a “credit-event” which is larger, and more insidious, than what was seen during the 2008 “financial crisis.”  

Over the course of the next several months, the Federal Reserve will increase its balance sheet towards $10 Trillion in an attempt to stop the implosion of the credit markets. The liquidity being provided may, or may not be enough, to offset the risk of a global economy which is levered roughly 3-to-1 according to CFO.com:

“The global debt-to-GDP ratio hit a new all-time high in the third quarter of 2019, raising concerns about the financing of infrastructure projects.

The Institute of International Finance reported Monday that debt-to-GDP rose to 322%, with total debt reaching close to $253 trillion and total debt across the household, government, financial and non-financial corporate sectors surging by some $9 trillion in the first three quarters of 2019.”

Read that last part again.

In 2019, debt surged by some $9 Trillion while the Fed is injecting roughly $6 Trillion to offset the collapse. In other words, it is likely going to require all of the Fed’s liquidity just to stabilize the debt and credit markets. 

Bubbles, Bubbles, Bubbles

Jerome Powell clearly understands that after a decade of monetary infusions and low interest rates, he has created an asset bubble larger than any other in history. However, they were trapped by their own policies, and any reversal led to almost immediate catastrophe as seen in 2018.

As I wrote previously:

“In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has been the catalyst behind every preceding financial event since they became ‘active,’ monetarily policy-wise, in the late 70’s.”

For quite some time now, we have warned investors against the belief that no matter what happens, the Fed can bail out the markets, and keep the bull market. Nevertheless, it was widely believed by the financial media that, to quote Dr. Irving Fisher:

“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”

What is important to understand is that it was imperative for the Fed that market participants, and consumers, believed in this idea. With the entirety of the financial ecosystem more heavily levered than ever, due to the Fed’s profligate measures of suppressing interest rates and flooding the system with excessive levels of liquidity, the “instability of stability” was the most significant risk. 

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

The Fed had hoped they would have time, and the “room” needed, after more than 10-years of the most unprecedented monetary policy program in U.S. history, to try and navigate the risks that had built up in the system. 

Unfortunately, they ran out of time, and the markets stopped “acting rationally.”

This is the predicament the Federal Reserve currently finds itself in. 

Following each market crisis, the Fed has lowered interest rates, and instituted policies to “support markets.” However, these actions led to unintended consequences which have led to repeated “booms and busts” in the financial markets.  

While the market has currently corrected nearly 25% year-to-date, it is hard to suggest that such a small correction will reset markets from the liquidity-fueled advance over the last decade.

To understand why the Fed is trapped, we have to go back to what Ben Bernanke said in 2010 as he launched the second round of QE:

“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 the most recent 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.”

I highlight the last sentence because it is the most important. Consumer spending makes up roughly 70% of GDP; therefore increased consumer confidence is critical to keeping consumers in action. The problem is the economy is no longer a “productive” economy, but rather a “financial” one. A point made by Ellen Brown previously:

“The financialized economy – including stocks, corporate bonds and real estate – is now booming. Meanwhile, the bulk of the population struggles to meet daily expenses. The world’s 500 richest people got $12 trillion richer in 2019, while 45% of Americans have no savings, and nearly 70% could not come up with $1,000 in an emergency without borrowing.

Central bank policies intended to boost the real economy have had the effect only of boosting the financial economy. The policies’ stated purpose is to increase spending by increasing lending by banks, which are supposed to be the vehicles for liquidity to flow from the financial to the real economy. But this transmission mechanism isn’t working, because consumers are tapped out.”

This was shown in a recent set of studies:

The “Stock Market” Is NOT The “Economy.”

Roughly 90% of the population gets little, or no, direct benefit from the rise in stock market prices.

Another way to view this issue is by looking at household net worth growth between the top 10% to everyone else.

Since 2007, the ONLY group that has seen an increase in net worth is the top 10% of the population.

“This is not economic prosperity. This is a distortion of economics.”

As I stated previously:

“If consumption retrenches, so does the economy.

When this happens debt defaults rise, the financial system reverts, and bad things happen economically.”

That is where we are today. 

The Federal Reserve is desperate to “bail out” the financial and credit markets, which it may  be successful in doing, however, the real economy may not recover for a very long-time. 

With 70% of employment driven by small to mid-size businesses, the shutdown of the economy for an extended period of time may eliminate a substantial number of businesses entirely. Corporations are going to retrench on employment, cut back on capital expenditures, and close ranks. 

While the Government is working on a fiscal relief package, it will fall well short of what is needed by the overall economy and a couple of months of “helicopter money,” will do little to revive an already over leveraged, undersaved, consumer. 

The 4th-Bubble

As I stated previously:

“The current belief is that QE will be implemented at the first hint of a more protracted downturn in the market. However, as suggested by the Fed, QE will likely only be employed when rate reductions aren’t enough.”

The implosion of the credit markets made rate reductions completely ineffective and has pushed the Fed into the most extreme monetary policy bailout in the history of the world. 

The Fed is hopeful they can inflate another asset bubble to restore consumer confidence and stabilize the functioning of the credit markets. The problem is that since the Fed never unwound their previous policies, current policies are having a much more muted effect. 

However, even if the Fed is able to inflate another bubble to offset the damage from the deflation of the last bubble, there is little evidence it is doing much to support economic growth, a broader increase in consumer wealth, or create a more stable financial environment. 

It has taken a massive amount of interventions by Central Banks to keep economies afloat globally over the last decade, and there is little evidence that growth will recover following this crisis to the degree many anticipate.

There are numerous problems which the Fed’s current policies can not fix:

  • A decline in savings rates
  • An aging demographic
  • A heavily indebted economy
  • A decline in exports
  • Slowing domestic economic growth rates.
  • An underemployed younger demographic.
  • An inelastic supply-demand curve
  • Weak industrial production
  • Dependence on productivity increases

The lynchpin in the U.S., remains demographics, and interest rates. As the aging population grows, they are becoming a net drag on “savings,” the dependency on the “social welfare net” will explode as employment and economic stability plummets, and the “pension problem” has yet to be realized.

While the current surge in QE may indeed be successful in inflating another bubble, there is a limit to the ability to continue pulling 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 already been reached.

One thing is for certain, the Federal Reserve will never be able to raise rates, or reduce monetary policy ever again. 

Welcome to United States of Japan.

Why QE Is Not Working

The process by which money is created is so simple that the mind is repelled.” – JK Galbraith

By formally announcing quantitative easing (QE) infinity on March 23, 2020, the Federal Reserve (Fed) is using its entire arsenal of monetary stimulus. Unlimited purchases of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities for an indefinite period is far more dramatic than anything they did in 2008. The Fed also revived other financial crisis programs like the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) and created a new special purpose vehicle (SPV), allowing them to buy investment-grade corporate bonds and related ETF’s. The purpose of these unprecedented actions is to unfreeze the credit markets, stem financial market losses, and provide some ballast to the economy.

Most investors seem unable to grasp why the Fed’s actions have been, thus far, ineffective. In this article, we explain why today is different from the past. The Fed’s current predicament is unique as they have never been totally up against the wall of zero-bound interest rates heading into a crisis. Their remaining tools become more controversial and more limited with the Fed Funds rate at zero. Our objective is to assess when the monetary medicine might begin to work and share our thoughts about what is currently impeding it.

All Money is Lent in Existence.

That sentence may be the most crucial concept to understand if you are to make sense of the Fed’s actions and assess their effectiveness.

Under the traditional fractional reserve banking system run by the U.S. and most other countries, money is “created” via loans. Here is a simple example:

  • John deposits a thousand dollars into his bank
  • The bank is allowed to lend 90% of their deposits (keeping 10% in “reserves”)
  • Anne borrows $900 from the same bank and buys a widget from Tommy
  • Tommy then deposits $900 into his checking account at the same bank
  • The bank then lends to someone who needs $810 and they spend that money, etc…

After Tommy’s deposit, there is still only $1,000 of reserves in the banking system, but the two depositors believe they have a total of $1,900 in their bank accounts.  The bank’s accountants would confirm that. To make the bank’s accounting balance, Anne owes the bank $900. The money supply, in this case, is $1,900 despite the amount of real money only being $1,000.

That process continually feeds off the original $1,000 deposit with more loans and more deposits. Taken to its logical conclusion, it eventually creates $9,000 in “new” money through the process from the original $1,000 deposit.

To summarize, we have $1,000 in deposited funds, $10,000 in various bank accounts and $9,000 in new debt. While it may seem “repulsive” and risky, this system is the standard operating procedure for banks and a very effective and powerful tool for generating profits and supporting economic growth. However, if everyone wanted to take their money out at the same time, the bank would not have it to give. They only have the original $1,000 of reserves.

How The Fed Operates

Manipulating the money supply through QE and Fed Funds targeting are the primary tools the Fed uses to conduct monetary policy. As an aside, QE is arguably a controversial blend of monetary and fiscal policy.

When the Fed provides banks with reserves, their intent is to increase the amount of debt and therefore the money supply. As such, more money should result in lower interest rates. Conversely, when they take away reserves, the money supply should decline and interest rates rise. It is important to understand, the Fed does not set the Fed Funds rate by decree, but rather by the aforementioned monetary actions to incentivize banks to increase or reduce the money supply.

The following graph compares the amount of domestic debt outstanding versus the monetary base.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Why is QE not working?

So with an understanding of how money is created through fractional reserve banking and the role the Fed plays in manipulating the money supply, let’s explore why QE helped boost asset prices in the past but is not yet potent this time around.

In our simple banking example, if Anne defaults on her loan, the money supply would decline from $1,900 to $1,000. With a reduced money supply, interest rates would rise as the supply of money is more limited today than yesterday. In this isolated example, the Fed might purchase bonds and, in doing so, conjure reserves onto bank balance sheets through the magic of the digital printing press. Typically the banks would then create money and offset the amount of Anne’s default.  The problem the Fed has today is that Anne is defaulting on some of her debt and, at the same time, John and Tommy need and want to withdraw some of their money.

The money supply is declining due to defaults and falling asset prices, and at the same time, there is a greater demand for cash. This is not just a domestic issue, but a global one, as the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

For the Fed to effectively stimulate financial markets and the economy, they first have to replace the money which has been destroyed due to defaults and lower asset prices. Think of this as a hole the Fed is trying to fill. Until the hole is filled, the new money will not be effective in stimulating the broad economy, but instead will only help limit the erosion of the financial system and yes, it is a stealth form of bailout. Again, from our example, if the banks created new money, it would only replace Anne’s default and would not be stimulative.

During the latter part of QE 1, when mortgage defaults slowed, and for all of the QE 2 and QE 3 periods, the Fed was not “filling a hole.” You can think of their actions as piling dirt on top of a filled hole.

These monetary operations enabled banks to create more money, of which a good amount went mainly towards speculative means and resulted in inflated financial asset prices. It certainly could have been lent toward productive endeavors, but banks have been conservative and much more heavily regulated since the crisis and prefer the liquid collateral supplied with market-oriented loans.

QE 4 (Treasury bills) and the new repo facilities introduced in the fall of 2019 also stimulated speculative investing as the Fed once again piled up dirt on top of a filled hold.  The situation changed drastically on February 19, 2020, as the virus started impacting perspectives around supply chains, economic growth, and unemployment in the global economy. Now QE 4, Fed-sponsored Repo, QE infinity, and a smorgasbord of other Fed programs are required measures to fill the hole.

However, there is one critical caveat to the situation.

As stated earlier, the Fed conducts policy by incentivizing the banking system to alter the supply of money. If the banks are concerned with their financial situation or that of others, they will be reluctant to lend and therefore impede the Fed’s efforts. This is clearly occurring, making the hole progressively more challenging to fill. The same thing happened in 2008 as banks became increasingly suspect in terms of potential losses due to their exorbitant leverage. That problem was solved by changing the rules around how banks were required to report mark-to-market losses by the Federal Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Despite the multitude of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus failures over the previous 18 months, that simple re-writing of an accounting rule caused the market to turn on a dime in March 2009. The hole was suddenly over-filled by what amounted to an accounting gimmick.

Summary

Are Fed actions making headway on filling the hole, or is the hole growing faster than the Fed can shovel as a result of a tsunami of liquidity problems? A declining dollar and stability in the short-term credit markets are essential gauges to assess the Fed’s progress.

The Fed will eventually fill the hole, and if the past is repeated, they will heap a lot of extra dirt on top of the hole and leave it there for a long time. The problem with that excess dirt is the consequences of excessive monetary policy. Those same excesses created after the financial crisis led to an unstable financial situation with which we are now dealing.

While we must stay heavily focused on the here and now, we must also consider the future consequences of their actions. We will undoubtedly share more on this in upcoming articles.

America: WILL WE FINALLY LEARN A LESSON?

Much of what passes for orthodoxy in economics and finance proves, on closer examination, to be shaky business.” The Misbehavior of Markets – by Benoit Mandelbrot & Richard L. Hudson.

If as households we do crumble financially yet another time, will this ‘outlier’ event finally teach us a valuable lesson? One we’ll never forget (again)? I mean, how many Black Swans or events that create wholesale economic and financial devastation must we endure to work diligently, effortlessly, to shore up our family’s finances?

Unfortunately, as humans, we focus on risk and financial stability too late. Always. Too. Late. We are creatures of complacency and mainstream financial advice does nothing but fuel our overconfidence bias. Only when a storm is upon us, wreaking havoc, do we seek to board the windows and secure what’s important to us. 

We’re cajoled by ‘experts’ during good times. We’re taught how outlier events occur every 1,000 years. Strange how rare occurrences aren’t so rare. They seem to happen every decade. So, let me ask you – How many times do these so-called ‘rare’ events need to occur before fiscal discipline becomes a priority for all of us?

Over the last three years, at RIA we have created several financial tenets to guard against financial vulnerability. I don’t mean to preach; I mean to teach.

I hope over the next few years, once this pandemic is past and we rummage through the economic rubble, we’ll take it upon ourselves to remain vigilant through the complacency and take the following rules to heart.

1. A painful reminder about the ‘buy and hold’ investment philosophy or whatever horrid expletive you’re probably calling it right now.

Never forget that convincing words, piles of academic studies and mined data from big-box financial retailers in pretty packages make it easy to share convincing stories to push stocks. Hopefully, investors who spent most of their time and money getting back to even remain comforted by the narratives. They’ll now do it again.

I’ll admit – I’m nonplussed by the appeal of buy-and-hold to the purists. I truly envy them.

It seems to be a “What Me Worry?” kind of existence. There seems to be an eerie comfort to throwing money into a black hole of overvalued investments and hoping that it transforms into a white light of wealth 20 years down the road (even if it’s a very dim bulb). I truly wish I could be convinced that a blind buy-and-hold fable is truth.

I so passionately want investors to achieve returns and exceed their financial life benchmarks or goals; it’s good for me too. I also would like to minimize the damage from bears. Is that too much to ask?

At Real Investment Advice we think it’s one of a money manager’s primary responsibilities.

Buy-and-hold at the core wrapped in rules of risk management is a healthy, long-term strategy to build and protect wealth. That’s what we’re doing at this juncture.

If you’re completely out of the market for an extended period, I mean zilch, zero, then stock investing may not be appropriate for you. Hey, it isn’t for everyone, especially today when the flood of central bank liquidity (I’ve never witnessed anything like it), algos (the robots), probably $4 trillion in fiscal stimulus coming, tries to stem the devastation. The bull market is dead, a bear is tricky to navigate. I am grateful to be a partner at a firm where all members understand the devastation of bear markets and are not ‘deer in headlights’ as this crisis is upon us. Take heart – the bear will die; the bull will run again. As investors we will bleed. The key is not to hemorrhage. There is a difference.

It’s not too late to undertake a quick gut check – Realize that an allocation of 10-20% to domestic and international stocks can drop 40% on average in bear markets. Investors fail to realize that diversifying between foreign and U.S. stocks doesn’t manage the risk they care about most – risk of principal loss. We are witnessing this now – one more time on the disaster hit parade. The world has become increasingly an Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure; The Towering Inferno), film and we are the actors.

Let’s say your retirement plan balance is $90,000. In a conservative allocation, $18,000 (20%), may be allocated to stocks. If a bear cycle takes the stock balance down to $10,800 and makes you a bit queasy, then certainly the market doesn’t fit into your overall investment philosophy.

If you do have the intestinal fortitude to maintain an allocation to stocks, your financial partner is a buy-and-hold zealot (highly likely), and you haven’t taken profits (a tenet of risk management) or rebalanced this year, then there’s still an opportunity to do so on rallies. It’s acceptable to maintain additional cash as much as buy-and-hold purists abhor cash.   

You’re not the ‘idiot’ who sells at the bottom just because you adhere to rules of risk management.

Granted, investors can be their worst emotional enemies. If risk management rules are employed as an integration to an overall investment process, then selling at the very bottom may be avoided. From my experience, the dumbest actions of those who did sell at the bottom in March 2009, rest almost solely on their brokers.

You see, if financial professionals would have empathized with their clients and took enough (any) action to preserve capital as clients were calling with concern in late 2007, maybe, just maybe, those distressed investors wouldn’t have sold out of everything pretty much at the bottom.

The advice “not to worry, markets always come back,” regurgitated repeatedly did nothing to allay concerns; frankly hollow words made brokers appear as if they employed market blinders or were in a state of denial. They appeared ignorant, not aware of the severity of the crisis.

I listened enough to begin surgically trimming positions (I explained to clients we sought to take a scalpel, not a machete to reducing stock exposure in portfolios), and was proactive to sell clients out of a Charles Schwab bond fund described as “stable in price,” an “alternative to cash,” in November 2007 when the mutual fund share price was doing nothing but faltering.

Although Schwab portfolio management assured us in the field repeatedly that there was “nothing wrong with the fund,” and it wasn’t suffering mass redemptions, it did eventually go bust and Schwab was held accountable for lack of oversight.

Unfortunately, the company got off easy as the settlement with the SEC was nothing but a financial slap on the wrist when the fund held $13.5 billion at its peak.

You tell me this stuff isn’t rigged against retail investors? I believe differently. I always will.

Proactive behavior allowed me to maintain a semblance of stock ownership and then begin to increase exposure through the summer of 2009.  I deemed it buy-and-hold with a “protective twist.”

If your broker isn’t actively listening and is discounting concerns, it’s time to replace him or her. Answers received should be thorough and backed by analysis.

If you must invest today, consider dollar-cost averaging.

Usually, dollar-cost averaging where you add a fixed dollar amount to variable investments on a regular schedule, underperforms value or lump-sum investing. Unless the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings ratio or CAPE exceeds 18.6 (today, it exceeds 25).

An impressive analysis and paper by Jon M. Luskin, CFP® for the Journal of Financial Planning titled “Dollar-Cost Averaging Using the CAPE Ratio: An Identifiable Trend Influencing Outperformance,” outlines how investment periods with a CAPE greater than 18.6 is beneficial to dollar-cost averaging with investment returns .45% greater than lump-sum investing.

The other side of the coin of buy-and-hold isn’t active trading.

Cop out. Lame excuse. I can’t be clearer. Not only are you branded a ‘bear’ if you employ a sell discipline, it appears that the buy-and-hold purists can’t think outside of extremes. They tend to associate selling with active trading. It’s a clever ploy designed to avoid the conversation or even the thought of a sell process. It’s just impossible.

Not it isn’t. And it isn’t active trading either. Active trading isn’t going to generate returns, just activity. Plus, if you consider that trades cost ZERO at most big-box financial retailers, transaction costs aren’t a concern anymore.

For years, the investment industry has tried to scare clients into staying fully invested in the stock market, no matter how high stocks go or what’s going on in the economy. Investors are repeatedly warned that doing anything otherwise is simply foolish because “you can’t time the market.” 

Here’s why per Lance Roberts:

“Wall Street firms, despite what the media advertising tells you, are businesses. As a business, their job is to develop and deliver products to investors in whatever form investor appetites demand…Wall Street is always happy to provide ‘products’ to the consumers they serve.

As Wall Street quickly figured out that it was far more lucrative to collect ongoing fees rather than a one-time trading commission…The mutual fund business was booming, and business was ‘brisk’ on Wall Street as profits surged.”

I’ll add:

Frankly, it’s too much work. Financial experts are primarily peddlers of managed products. They’re hired to regurgitate sell-side biased data mined from their employer’s research department. What they’re implying is they’re too busy meeting sales goals to consider risk management (the way you define it as an investor), important.

With that being said, consider other rules to protect your household for when the next ‘outlier’ event occurs (I mean, after this one).

 2. The FVC – The Financial Vulnerability Cushion.

The main purpose of the Financial Vulnerability Cushion is to fortify the foundation of a financial house. You’ve heard about maintaining three to six months of living expenses in cash for emergencies. Well, define an emergency. The car breaks down, sure. The A/C goes out? Right. Expenses such as these fit well into a three to six-month cash cushion. However, Black Swan events remind us this cushion isn’t enough.  We must finally learn to separate emergency from crisis.

Over the last six months we’ve been discussing on the radio how important it is to build a cash war chest of one to two years’ worth of living expenses and maintain it above everything else. These reserves are for crisis. A sudden job loss; major illness. Unfortunately, millions will be out of work here. Some, long term. I’m increasingly concerned about those who work in the energy sector. Never forget. Don’t listen to mainstream financial media again. Remember this time and work diligently to build a FVC.

3. Create financial rules around debt control and savings. Then stick to them. No matter what. Good times or bad.

Consider strict debt management and savings habits as the blend of robust soil which allows opportunities to be realized. Excessive debt and limited ability to buffer against financial emergencies and crisis can limit a person’s ability to take on riskier but rewarding ventures like career change, entrepreneurial endeavors and risks that may lead to significant, long-term wealth.

Mortgage debt: Primary residence mortgage = 2X gross salary.

Student loan debt:  Limited to one year’s worth of total expense, tuition, room & board, expenses.

Personal, unsecured debt (credit card, auto): No more than 25% of gross monthly household income.

4. Be smarter with credit.

Today, credit cards are used for various reasons – convenience, cash back, travel reward points and the most unfortunate, to meet ongoing living expenses in the face of structural wage stagnation. So, consider the following.

Credit Card Debt = No greater than 4% of monthly gross income.

If your household gross income is $50,000 then credit card debt shouldn’t exceed $2,000. Per WalletHub, Texas ranks 46 with $2,848 in average credit card debt.

Survival tip: Take control of your money. Contact your credit card provider today and request a lower interest rate, perhaps the favorable balance transfer rate along with delayed payments. We are in this catastrophe together and it’s the least they can do for at least the rest of the year.

Car Loan Debt-to-Income Ratio:

Cars are required like breathing here in Houston and Texas, overall. However, they are not investments. Their values do not appreciate. If anything, auto values decrease as soon as you drive away from the dealership.

Car Loan Obligation = No greater than 25% of monthly gross income.

For example, a household bringing in $60,000 a year shouldn’t have more than $15,000 in outstanding auto loan debt. In my household, the ratio is less than 10%. I drive a Toyota RAV4. Put your ego aside; consider reliability first.

As I complete interviews with media and news outlets in Houston and across the country, my heart is overwhelmed with sorrow for those who are suffering through this, yet another ‘rare’ historical episode.

Please reach out to our team with questions and for guidance.

Every question is a good question.

Never be afraid to ask.

 

Shedlock: Fed Trying To Save The Bond Market As Unemployment Explodes

Bond market volatility remains a sight to behold, even at the low end of the curve.

Bond Market Dislocations Remain

The yield on a 3-month T-Bill fell to 1.3 basis points then surged to 16.8 basis points in a matter of hours. The yield then quickly crashed to 3 basis points and now sits at 5.1 basis points.

The Fed is struggling even with the low end of the Treasury curve.

$IRX 3-Month Yield

Stockcharts shows the 3-month yield ($IRX) dipping below zero but Investing.Com does not show the yield went below zero.

Regardless, these swings are not normal.

Cash Crunch

Bloomberg reports All the Signs a Cash Crunch Is Gripping Markets and the Economy

In a crisis, it is said, all correlations go to one. Threats get so overwhelming that everything reacts in unison. And the common thread running through all facets of financial markets and the real economy right now is simple: a global cash crunch of epic proportions.

Investors piled $137 billion into cash-like assets in the five days ending March 11, according to a Bank of America report citing EPFR Global data. Its monthly fund manager survey showed the fourth-largest monthly jump in allocations to cash ever, from 4% to 5.1%.

“Cash has become the king as the short-term government funds have had massive deposits, with ~$13 billion inflows last week (a 10-standard deviation move),” adds Maneesh Dehspande, head of equity derivatives strategy at Barclays.

4th Largest Jump in History

It’s quite telling that a jump of a mere 1.1 percentage point to 5.1% cash is the 4th largest cash jump in history.

Margin and Short Covering

“In aggregate, the market saw a large outflow, with $9 billion of long liquidation and $6 billion of short covering,” said Michael Haigh, global head of commodity research at Societe Generale. “This general and non-directional closure of money manager positions could be explained by a need for cash to pay margin calls on other derivatives contracts.

The comment is somewhat inaccurate. Sideline cash did not change “in aggregate” although cash balances t various fund managers did.

This is what happens when leveraged longs get a trillion dollar derivatives margin call or whatever the heck it was.

Need a Better Hedge

With the S&P 500 down more than 12% in the five sessions ending March 17, the Japanese yen is weaker against the greenback, the 10-year Treasury future is down, and gold is too.

That’s another sign dollars are top of mind, and investors are selling not only what they want to, but also what they have to.

Dash to Cash

It’s one thing to see exchange-traded products stuffed full of relatively illiquid corporate bonds trade below the purported sum of the value of their holdings. It’s quite another to see such a massive discount develop in a more plain-vanilla product like the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND) as investors ditched the product to raise cash despite not quite getting their money’s worth.

The fund closed Tuesday at a discount of nearly 2% to its net asset value, which blew out to above 6% last week amid accelerating, record outflows. That exceeded its prior record discount from 2008.

It is impossible for everyone to go to cash at the same time.

Someone must hold every stock, every bond and every dollar.

Fed Opens More Dollar Swap Lines

Moments ago Reuters reported Fed Opens Dollar Swap Lines for Nine Additional Foreign Central Banks.

The Fed said the swaps, in which the Fed accepts other currencies in exchange for dollars, will for at least the next six months allow the central banks of Australia, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, Singapore, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and New Zealand to tap up to a combined total of $450 billion, money to ensure the world’s dollar-dependent financial system continues to function.

The new swap lines “like those already established between the Federal Reserve and other central banks, are designed to help lessen strains in global U.S. dollar funding markets, thereby mitigating the effects of these strains on the supply of credit to households and businesses, both domestically and abroad,” the Fed said in a statement.

The central banks of South Korea, Singapore, Mexico and Sweden all said in separate statements they intended to use them.

Fed Does Another Emergency Repo and Relaunches Commercial Paper Facility

Yesterday I commented Fed Does Another Emergency Repo and Relaunches Commercial Paper Facility

Very Deflationary Outcome Has Begun: Blame the Fed

The Fed is struggling mightily to alleviate the mess it is largely responsible for.

I previously commented a Very Deflationary Outcome Has Begun: Blame the Fed

The Fed blew three economic bubbles in succession. A deflationary bust has started. They blew bubbles trying to prevent “deflation” defined as falling consumer prices.


BIS Deflation Study

The BIS did a historical study and found routine price deflation was not any problem at all.

“Deflation may actually boost output. Lower prices increase real incomes and wealth. And they may also make export goods more competitive,” stated the BIS study.

For a discussion of the study, please see Historical Perspective on CPI Deflations: How Damaging are They?

Deflation is not really about prices. It’s about the value of debt on the books of banks that cannot be paid back by zombie corporations and individuals.

Blowing bubbles in absurd attempts to arrest “price deflation” is crazy. The bigger the bubbles the bigger the resultant “asset bubble deflation”. Falling consumer prices do not have severe negative repercussions. Asset bubble deflations are another matter.

Assessing the Blame

Central banks are not responsible for the coronavirus. But they are responsible for blowing economic bubbles prone to crash.

The equities bubbles before the coronavirus hit were the largest on record.

Dollar Irony

The irony in this madness is the US will be printing the most currency and have the biggest budget deficits as a result. Yet central banks can’t seem to get enough dollars. In that aspect, the dollar ought to be sinking.

But given the US 10-year Treasury yield at 1.126% is among the highest in the world, why not exchange everything one can for dollars earning positive yield.

This is all such circular madness, it’s hard to say when or how it ends.

Unemployment Set To Explode

A SurveyUSA poll reveals 9% of the US is out of a job due to the coronavirus.

Please consider the Results of SurveyUSA Coronavirus News Poll.

Key Findings

  1. 9% of Working Americans (14 Million) So Far Have Been Laid Off As Result of Coronavirus; 1 in 4 Workers Have Had Their Hours Reduced;
  2. 2% Have Been Fired; 20% Have Postponed a Business Trip; Shock Waves Just Now Beginning to Ripple Through Once-Roaring US Economy:
  3. Early markers on the road from recession to depression as the Coronavirus threatens to stop the world from spinning on its axis show that 1 in 4 working Americans have had their hours reduced as a result of COVID-19, according to SurveyUSA’s latest time-series tracking poll conducted 03/18/20 and 03/19/20.
  4. Approximately 160 million Americans were employed in the robust Trump economy 2 months ago. If 26% have had their hours reduced, that translates to 41 million Americans who this week will take home less money than last, twice as many as SurveyUSA found in an identical poll 1 week ago. Time-series tracking graphs available here.
  5. 9% of working Americans, or 14 million of your friends and neighbors, will take home no paycheck this week, because they were laid off, up from 1% in an identical SurveyUSA poll 1 week ago. Time-series tracking graphs available here.
  6. Unlike those laid-off workers who have some hope of being recalled once the worst of the virus has past, 2% of Americans say they have lost their jobs altogether as a result of the virus, up from 1% last week.
  7. Of working Americans, 26% are working from home either some days or every day, up from 17% last week. A majority, 56%, no longer go to their place of employment, which means they are not spending money on gasoline or transit tokens.

About: SurveyUSA interviewed 1,000 USA adults nationwide 03/18/20 through 03/19/20. Of the adults, approximately 60% were, before the virus, employed full-time or part-time outside of the home and were asked the layoff and reduced-hours questions. Approximately half of the interviews for this survey were completed before the Big 3 Detroit automakers announced they were shutting down their Michigan assembly lines. For most Americans, events continue to unfold faster than a human mind is able to process the consequences.

Grim Survey of Reduced Hours

Current Unemployment Stats

Data from latest BLS Jobs Report.

If we assume the SurveyUSA numbers are accurate and will not get worse, we can arrive at some U3 and U6 unemployment estimates.

Baseline Unemployment Estimate (U3)

  • Unemployed: 5.787 million + 14 million = 19.787 million unemployed
  • Civilian Labor Force: 164.546 million (unchanged)
  • Unemployment Rate: 19.787 / 164.546 = 12.0%

That puts my off the top of the head 15.0% estimate a few days in the ballpark.

Underemployment Estimate (U6)

  • Employed: 158.759 million.
  • 26% have hours reduced = 41.277 million
  • Part Time for Economic Reasons: 4.318 million + 41.277 million = 45.595 million underemployed
  • 45.595 million underemployed + 19.787 million unemployed = 65.382 million
  • Civilian Labor Force: 164.546 million (unchanged)
  • U6 Unemployment Rate: 65.382 / 164.546 = 39.7%

Whoa Nellie

Wow, that’s not a recession. A depression is the only word.

Note that economists coined a new word “recession” after the 1929 crash and stopped using the word depression assuming it would never happen again.

Prior to 1929 every economic slowdown was called a depression. So if you give credit to the Fed for halting depressions, they haven’t. Ity’s just a matter of semantics.

Depression is a very fitting word if those numbers are even close to what’s going to happen.

Meanwhile, It’s no wonder the Fed Still Struggles to Get a Grip on the Bond Market and there is a struggled “Dash to Cash”.

Very Deflationary Outcome Has Begun: Blame the Fed

The Fed is struggling mightily to alleviate the mess it is largely responsible for.

I previously commented a Very Deflationary Outcome Has Begun: Blame the Fed

The Fed blew three economic bubbles in succession. A deflationary bust has started. They blew bubbles trying to prevent “deflation” defined as falling consumer prices.

BIS Deflation Study

The BIS did a historical study and found routine price deflation was not any problem at all.

“Deflation may actually boost output. Lower prices increase real incomes and wealth. And they may also make export goods more competitive,” stated the BIS study.

For a discussion of the study, please see Historical Perspective on CPI Deflations: How Damaging are They?

Deflation is not really about prices. It’s about the value of debt on the books of banks that cannot be paid back by zombie corporations and individuals.

Blowing bubbles in absurd attempts to arrest “price deflation” is crazy. The bigger the bubbles the bigger the resultant “asset bubble deflation”. Falling consumer prices do not have severe negative repercussions. Asset bubble deflations are another matter.

Assessing the Blame

Central banks are not responsible for the coronavirus. But they are responsible for blowing economic bubbles prone to crash.

The equities bubbles before the coronavirus hit were the largest on record.

Dollar Irony

The irony in this madness is the US will be printing the most currency and have the biggest budget deficits as a result. Yet central banks can’t seem to get enough dollars. In that aspect, the dollar ought to be sinking.

But given the US 10-year Treasury yield at 1.126% is among the highest in the world, why not exchange everything one can for dollars earning positive yield.

This is all such circular madness, it’s hard to say when or how it ends.

The Problem With Pragmatism… and Inflation

Pragmatism is seeking immediate solutions with little to no consideration for the longer-term benefits and consequences. An excellent example of this is the Social Security system in the United States. In the Depression-era, a government-sponsored savings plan was established to “solve” for lack of retirement savings by requiring contributions to a government-sponsored savings plan.  At the time, the idea made sense as the population was greatly skewed towards younger people.  No one seriously considered whether there would always be enough workers to support benefits for retired people in the future. Now, long after those policies were enacted and those that pushed the legislation are long gone, the time is fast approaching when Social Security will be unable to pay out what the government has promised.

Pragmatism is the common path of governments, led by politicians seeking re-election and the retention of power. Instead of considering the long-term implications of their policies, they focus on satisfying an immediate desire of their constituents.

In his book Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt made this point very clear by elaborating on the problems that eventually transpire from imprudent monetary and fiscal policy.

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Nine-tenths of the economic fallacies that are working such dreadful harm in the world today are the result of ignoring this lesson.”

Inflation

One of the most pernicious of these issues in our “modern and sophisticated” intellectual age is that of inflation. When asked to define inflation, most people say “rising prices,” with no appreciation for the fact that price movements are an effect, not a cause. They are a symptom of monetary circumstances. Inflation is a disequilibrium between the amounts of currency entering an economic system relative to the productive output of that same system.

In today’s world, there is only fiat (“by decree”) currencies. In other words, the value of currencies are not backed by some physical commodity such as gold, silver, or oil. Currencies are only backed by the perceived productive capacity of the nation and the stability of the issuing government. If a government takes unreasonable measures in managing its fiscal and monetary affairs, then the standard of living in that society will deteriorate, and confidence in it erodes.

Put another way, when the people of a nation or its global counterparts lose confidence in the fiscal and monetary policy-makers, the result is a loss of confidence in the medium of exchange, and a devaluation of the currency ensues. The influence of those in power will ultimately prove to be unsustainable.

Inflation is an indicator of confidence in the currency as a surrogate of confidence in the policies of a government. It is a mirror. This is why James Grant is often quoted as saying, “The gold price is the reciprocal of the world’s faith in central banking.”

Confidence in a currency may be lost in a variety of ways. The one most apparent today is creating too many dollars as a means of subsidizing the spending habits of politicians and the borrowing demands of corporations and citizens.

Precedent

There is plenty of modern-day historical precedent for a loss of confidence from excessive debt creation and the inevitable excessive currency creation. Weimar Germany in the 1920s remains the modern era poster child, but Zimbabwe, Argentina, and Venezuela also offer recent examples.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, many believed that the actions of the Federal Reserve were “heroic.” Despite failing to see the warning signs of a housing bubble in the months and even years leading up to the crisis, the Fed’s perspective was that it exists to provide liquidity. As the chart below illustrates, that is precisely what they did.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

That pragmatic response failed to heed Hazlitt’s warning. What are the longer-term effects for the economy, the bailed-out banking system, and all of us? How would these policies affect the economy, markets, society, and the wealth of the nation’s citizens in five, ten, or twenty years?

Keeping interest rates at a low level for many years following the financial crisis while the economy generally appears to have recovered raises other questions. The Fed continues to argue that inflation remains subdued. That argument goes largely undisputed despite credible evidence to the contrary. Further, it provides the Fed a rationalization for keeping rates well below normal.

Politicians who oversee the Fed and want to retain power, consent to low-rate policies believing it will foster economic growth. While that may make sense to some, it is short-sighted and, therefore, pragmatic. The assessment does not account for a variety of other complicating factors, namely, what may transpire in the future as a result? Are seeds of excess being sown as was the case in the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble? If so, can we gauge the magnitude?

Policy Imposition

In the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson sought to escalate U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In doing so, he knew he would need the help of the Fed to hold interest rates down to run the budget deficits required to fund that war. Although then-Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin was reluctant to ease monetary policy, he endured various forms of abuse from the Oval Office and finally acquiesced.

The bullying these days comes from President Trump. Although his arguments for easier policy contradict what he said on the campaign trail in 2016, Jerome Powell is compliant. Until recently, the economy appeared to be running at full employment and all primary fundamental metrics were well above the prior peaks set in 2007.

Additionally, Congress, at Trump’s behest and as the chart below illustrates, has deployed massive fiscal stimulus that created a yawning gap (highlighted) between fiscal deficits and the unemployment picture. This is a divergence not seen since the Johnson administration in the 1960s (also highlighted) and one of magnitude never seen. As is very quickly becoming clear, those actions both monetary and fiscal, were irresponsible to the point of negligence. Now, when we need it most as the economy shuts down, there is little or no “dry powder”.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

President Johnson got his way and was able to fund the war with abnormally low interest rates. However, what ensued over the next 15 years was a wave of inflation that destroyed the productive capacity of the economy well into the early 1980s. Interest rates eventually rose to 18%, and economic dynamism withered as did the spirits of the average American.

The springboard for that scenario was a pragmatic policy designed to solve an immediate problem with no regard for the future. Monetary policy that suppressed interest rates and fiscal policy that took advantage of artificially low interest rates to accumulate debt at a relatively low cost went against the American public best interests. The public could not conceive that government “of, by and for the people” would act in such a short-sighted and self-serving manner.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

The Sequel

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections for U.S. budget deficits exceeded $1 trillion per year for the next 10-years. According to the CBO, the U.S. Treasury’s $22.5 trillion cumulative debt outstanding was set to reach $34.5 trillion by 2029, and that scenario assumed a very optimistic GDP growth of 3% per year. Further, it laughably assumed no recession will occur in the next decade, even though we are already in the longest economic expansion since the Civil War. In the event of a recession, a $1.8 trillion-dollar annual deficit would align with average historical experience. Given the severity of what is evident from the early stages of the pandemic, that forecast may be very much on the low end of reality.

The 1960s taught us that monetary and fiscal policy is always better erring on the side of conservatism to avoid losing confidence in the currency. Members of the Fed repeatedly tell the public they know this. Yet, if that is the case, why would they be so influenced by a President focused on marketing for re-election purposes? Alternatively, maybe the policy table has been set over the past ten years in a way that prevents them from taking proper measures? Do they assume they would be rejected despite the principled nature of their actions?

Summary

Inflation currently seems to be the very least of our worries. Impeachment, Iran, North Korea and climate change were all crisis head fakes.

The Fed was also distracted by what amounted to financial dumpster fires in the fall of 2019. After a brief respite, the Fed’s balance sheet began surging higher again and they cut the Fed Funds rate well before there was any known threat of a global pandemic. What is unclear is whether imprudent fiscal policies were forcing the Fed into imprudent monetary policy or whether the Fed’s policies, historical and current, are the enabler of fiscal imprudence. Now that the world has changed, as it has a habit of doing sometimes even radically, policymakers and the collective public are in something of a fine mess to understate the situation.

Now we are contending with a real global financial, economic, and humanitarian threat and one that demands principled action as opposed to short-sighted pragmatism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly not a head fake nor is it a random dumpster fire. Neither is it going away any time soon. Unlike heads of state or corporate CEOs, biological threats do not have a political agenda and they do not care about the value of their stock options. There is nothing to negotiate other than the effectiveness of efforts required to protect society.

Given the potential harm caused by the divergence between stimulus and economic fundamentals, it would be short-sighted and irresponsibly pragmatic to count out the prospect of inflation. Given the actions of the central bankers, it could also be the understatement of this new and very unusual decade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why do I tell you this?

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

Two Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is now, or never, for the markets.

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

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

Cash was the only safe place to hide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, here is the math:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Too Little Is Too Much

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

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

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

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

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

RIA PRO: Risk Limits Hit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why do I tell you this?

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

Two Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is now, or never, for the markets.

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

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

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

Cash was the only safe place to hide.

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

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

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

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

On Monday morning, we took some action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, here is the math:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Too Little Is Too Much

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

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

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

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

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

#MacroView: Fed Launches A Bazooka To Kill A Virus

Last week, we discussed in Fed’s ‘Emergency Rate Cut’ Reveals Recession Risks” that while current economic data may not suggest a possibility of a recession was imminent, other “off the run” data didn’t agree.

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, even before the impact of COVID-19, and the ongoing decline of inflationary pressures longer term was already telling us just that.”

The plunge in both 5- and 10-year “breakeven inflation rates,” are currently suggesting that economic growth over the next couple of quarters will drop markedly. The last time there was such a sharp drop in inflation expectations at the beginning of the “financial crisis.”

In the meantime, the markets have been rocked as concerns over the spread of the“COVID-19” virus in the U.S. have shut down sporting events, travel, consumer activities, and a host of other economically sensitive inputs. As we discussed previously:

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

As noted, with the U.S. now shutting down and entrenching itself in response to the virus, the economic impact will be worsened. However, given that economic data is lagging, and we only have numbers that were mostly pre-virus, the reports over the next couple of months will ultimately reveal the extent of the damage.

We suspect that it will be more significant than most analysts currently expect.

With our Economic Output Composite Indicator (EOCI) at levels which have previously warned of recessions, the “timing” of the virus, and the shutdown of activity in response, will push the indications lower.

“Given the current level of the index as compared to the 6-Month rate of change of the Leading Economic Index, there is a risk of a recessionary drag within the next 6-months.”

(The EOCI is comprised of the Fed Regional Surveys, CFNAI, Chicago PMI, NFIB, LEI, and ISM Composites. The indicator is a broad measure of hard and soft data of the U.S. economy)”

One reason we are confident the economic data will worsen near term is the correlation between the index and the annual rate of change of the S&P 500 index.

The financial markets lead the economy by about 6-months as markets begin to “price in” changes to earnings due to the outlook for economic strength. The recent plunge in the S&P 500 has deviated from the current EOCI index reading suggesting the index will decline towards recessionary levels over the next few months.

What the chart above obfuscates is the severity of the recent market rout. As shown below, in just three very short weeks, the market has reversed almost the entirety of the “Trump Stock Market” gains since he took office on January 20th.

The estimation of substantially weaker economic growth is not just a random assumption. In a post next week, I am going through the math of our analysis. Here is a snippet.

“Over the last sixty years, the yield on the 10-year has approximated real GDP plus inflation (shown in the chart below). Given this historical fact, we can do some basic math to determine what yields are currently predicting for the U.S. economy currently.”

Doug Kass recently did the math:

“Given ZIRP and QE policies around the globe which has pulled an extraordinary amount of sovereign debt into negative territory coupled with secular headwinds to energy prices, I have assumed that the 10 year yield will fall from 1.0x nominal GDP and average about 0.8x nominal GDP. 

According to my pal Peter Boockvar, the 10-year inflation breakeven (in the tips market) stands at 1.41% this morning:

So, let’s solve for what the market expects Real GDP to be (over the next 1-2 years) with this formula:

10-Year Yield (0.744% Actual) = 0.8x (Real GDP + 1.41% Actual (inflation))

The implied U.S. Real GDP of this equation is now negative — at -0.48%. (This compares to the consensus 2020 Real GDP growth forecast of between +1.75% to +2.00%) It also implies that nominal GDP (Real GDP plus Inflation) will be only about +0.93% – substantially below consensus expectations of slightly above 3%.”

Doug’s estimates were before to the recent collapse in oil prices, and breakeven inflation rates. With oil prices now at $30/bbl and 10-year breakeven rates to 0.9%, the math is significantly worse, and that is what the severity of the recent selloff is telling us. Over the next two quarters, we could see as much as a 3% clip off of current GDP.

This data is not lost on the Federal Reserve and is why they have been taking action over the last two weeks.

The Fed Bazooka

It’s quite amazing that in mid-February, which now seems like a lifetime ago, we were discussing the markets being 3-standard deviations above their 200-dma, which is a rarity. Three short weeks later, the markets are now 4-standard deviations below, which is even a rarer event. 

That swing in asset prices has cut the “wealth effect” from the market, and will severely impact consumer confidence over the next few months. The decline in confidence, combined with the impact of the loss of activity from the virus, will sharply reduce consumption, which is 70% of the economy.

This is why the Fed cut rates in an “emergency action” by 0.50% previously. Then on Wednesday, increased “Repo operations” to $175 Billion.

However, like hitting a patient with a defibrillator, the was no response from the market.

Then yesterday, the Fed brought out their “big gun.”  In a statement from the New York Fed:

The Federal Reserve said it would inject more than $1.5 trillion of temporary liquidity into Wall Street on Thursday and Friday to prevent ominous trading conditions from creating a sharper economic contraction.

‘These changes are being made to address highly unusual disruptions in Treasury financing markets associated with the coronavirus outbreak.’

The New York Fed said it would conduct three additional repo offerings worth an additional $1.5 trillion this week, with two separate $500 billion offerings that will last for three months and a third that will mature in one month.

If the transactions are fully subscribed, they would swell the central bank’s $4.2 trillion asset portfolio by more than 35%.” – WSJ

As Mish Shedlock noted,

“The Fed can label this however they want, but it’s another round of QE.”

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

Of course, this is what the market has been hoping for:

  • Rate cuts? Check
  • Liquidity? Check

For about 15-minutes yesterday, stocks responded by surging higher and reversing half of the day’s losses. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm was short-lived as sellers quickly returned to continue their “panic selling.” 

This has been frustrating for investors and portfolio managers, as the ingrained belief over the last decade has been “Don’t worry, the Fed’s got this.”

All of a sudden, it looks like they don’t.

Will It Work This Time?

There is a singular risk that we have worried about for quite some time.

Margin debt.

Here is a snip from an article I wrote in December 2018.

Margin debt is the ‘gasoline,’ which drives markets higher as the leverage provides for the additional purchasing power of assets. However, that ‘leverage’ also works in reverse as it provides the accelerant for larger declines as lenders ‘force’ the sale of assets to cover credit lines without regard to the borrower’s position.

That last sentence is the most important. The issue with margin debt, in particular, is that the unwinding of leverage is NOT at the investor’s discretion. It is at the discretion of the broker-dealers that extended that leverage in the first place. (In other words, if you don’t sell to cover, the broker-dealer will do it for you.) When lenders fear they may not be able to recoup their credit-lines, they force the borrower to either put in more cash or sell assets to cover the debt. The problem is that “margin calls” generally happen all at once as falling asset prices impact all lenders simultaneously.

Margin debt is NOT an issue – until it is.”

Given the magnitude of the declines in recent days, and the lack of response to the Federal Reserve’s inputs, it certainly has the feel of a margin debt liquidation process. This was also an observation made by David Rosenberg:

“The fact that Treasuries, munis, and gold are getting hit tells me that everything is for sale right now. One giant margin call where even the safe-havens aren’t safe anymore. Except for cash.”

Unfortunately, FINRA only updates margin debt in arrears, so as of this writing, the latest margin debt stats are for January. What we do know is that due to the market decline, negative free cash balances have likely declined markedly. That’s the good news.

Back to my previous discussion for a moment:

“When an event eventually occurs, it creates a rush to liquidate holdings. The subsequent decline in prices eventually reaches a point which triggers an initial round of margin calls. Since margin debt is a function of the value of the underlying ‘collateral,’ the forced sale of assets will reduce the value of the collateral, further triggering further margin calls. Those margin calls will trigger more selling forcing, more margin calls, so forth and so on.

Given the lack of ‘fear’ shown by investors during the recent decline, it is unlikely that the recent drop in margin debt is a function of ‘forced liquidations.’ As I noted above, it will likely take a correction of more than 20%, or a ‘credit related’ event, which sparks broker-dealer concerns about repayment of their credit lines.

The risk to the market is ‘when’ those ‘margin calls’ are made.

It is not the rising level of debt that is the problem; it is the decline which marks peaks in both market and economic expansions.”

That is precisely what we have seen over the last three weeks.

While the Federal Reserve’s influx of liquidity may stem the tide temporarily, it is likely not a “cure” for what ails the market.

However, with that said, the Federal Reserve, and Central Banks globally, are not going to quietly into the night. Expect more stimulus, more liquidity, and more rate cuts. If that doesn’t work, expect more until it does.

We have already reduced a lot of equity risk in portfolios so far, but are going to continue lifting exposures and reducing risk until a bottom is formed in the market. The biggest concern is trying to figure out exactly where that is.

One thing is now certain.

We are in a bear market and a recession. It just hasn’t been announced as of yet.

That is something the Fed can’t fix right away with monetary policy alone, and, unfortunately, there won’t be any help coming from the Government until after the election.

Special Report: Fed Launches A Bazooka As Markets Hit Our Line In The Sand

The severity of the recent market rout has been quite astonishing. As shown below, in just three very short weeks, the market has reversed almost the entirety of the “Trump Stock Market” gains.

The decline has been unrelenting, and despite the Fed cutting rates last week, and President Trump discussing fiscal stimulus, the markets haven’t responded. In mid-February we were discussing the markets being 3-standard deviations above their 200-dma which is a rarity. Three short weeks later, the markets are now 4-standard deviations below which is even a rarer event. 

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve increased “Repo operations” to $175 Billion.

Still no response from the market

Then on Thursday, the Fed brought out their “big gun.”

The Fed Bazooka

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve stepped into financial markets for the second day in a row, this time dramatically ramping up asset purchases amid the turmoil created by the combination of the spreading coronavirus and the collapse in oil prices. 

In a statement from the New York Fed:

The Federal Reserve said it would inject more than $1.5 trillion of temporary liquidity into Wall Street on Thursday and Friday to prevent ominous trading conditions from creating a sharper economic contraction.

‘These changes are being made to address highly unusual disruptions in Treasury financing markets associated with the coronavirus outbreak.’

The New York Fed said it would conduct three additional repo offerings worth an additional $1.5 trillion this week, with two separate $500 billion offerings that will last for three months and a third that will mature in one month.

If the transactions are fully subscribed, they would swell the central bank’s $4.2 trillion asset portfolio by more than 35%.” – WSJ

As Mish Shedlock noted,

“The Fed can label this however they want, but it’s another round of QE.”

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

Of course, this is what the market has been hoping for:

  • Rate cuts? Check
  • Liquidity? Check

It is now, or never, for the markets.

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

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

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

Cash was the only safe place to hide.

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

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

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

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

Special Report: Panic Sets In As “Everything Must Go”

Note: All charts now updated for this mornings open.

The following is a report we generate regularly for our RIAPRO Subscribers. You can try our service RISK-FREE for 30-Days.

Headlines from the past four-days:

Dow sinks 2,000 points in worst day since 2008, S&P 500 drops more than 7%

Dow rallies more than 1,100 points in a wild session, halves losses from Monday’s sell-off

Dow drops 1,400 points and tumbles into a bear market, down 20% from last month’s record close

Stocks extend losses following 15-minute ‘circuit breaker’ halt, S&P 500 drops 8%

It has, been a heck of a couple of weeks for the market with daily point swings running 1000, or more, points in either direction.

However, given Tuesday’s huge rally, it seemed as if the market’s recent rout might be over with the bulls set to take charge? Unfortunately, as with the two-previous 1000+ point rallies, the bulls couldn’t maintain their stand.

But with the markets having now triggered a 20% decline, ending the “bull market,” according to the media, is all “hope” now lost? Is the market now like an “Oriental Rug Factory” where “Everything Must Go?”

It certainly feels that way at the moment.

“Virus fears” have run amok with major sporting events playing to empty crowds, the Houston Live Stock Show & Rodeo was canceled, along with Coachella, and numerous conferences and conventions from Las Vegas to New York. If that wasn’t bad enough, Saudi Arabia thought they would start an “oil price” war just to make things interesting.

What is happening now, and what we have warned about for some time, is that markets needed to reprice valuations for a reduction in economic growth and earnings.

It has just been a much quicker, and brutal, event than even we anticipated.

The questions to answer now are:

  1. Are we going to get a bounce to sell into?
  2. Is the bear market officially started – from a change in trend basis; and,
  3. Just how bad could this get?

A Bounce Is Likely

In January, when we discussed taking profits out of our portfolios, we noted the markets were trading at 3-standard deviations above their 200-dma, which suggested a pullback, or correction, was likely.

Now, it is the same comment in reverse. The correction over the last couple of weeks has completely reversed the previous bullish exuberance into extreme pessimism. On a daily basis, the market is back to oversold. Historically, this condition has been sufficient for a bounce. Given that the oversold condition (top panel) is combined with a very deep “sell signal” in the bottom panel, it suggests a fairly vicious reflexive rally is likely. The question, of course, is how far could this rally go.

Looking at the chart above, it is possible we could see a rally back to the 38.2%, or the 50% retracement level is the most probable. However, with the severity of the break below the 200-dma, that level will be very formidable resistance going forward. A rally to that level will likely reverse much of the current oversold condition, and set the market up for a retest of the lows.

The deep deviation from the 200-dma also supports this idea of a stronger reflexive rally. If we rework the analysis a bit, the 3-standard deviation discussed previously has now reverted to 4-standard deviation move below the 200-dma. The market may find support there, and with the deeply oversold condition, it again suggests a rally is likely.

Given that rally could be sharp, it will be a good opportunity to reduce risk as the impact from the collapse in oil prices, and the shutdown of the global supply chain, has not been fully factored in as of yet.

The following chart is a longer-term analysis of the market and is the format we use for “onboarding” our clients into their allocation models. (Vertical black lines are buy periods)

The triggering of the “sell signals” suggests we are likely in a larger correction process. With the “bull trend” line now broken, a rally toward the 200-dma, which is coincident with the bull trend line, will likely be an area to take additional profits, and reduce risk accordingly.

The analysis becomes more concerning as we view other time frames.

Has A Bear Market Started?

On a weekly basis, the rising trend from the 2016 lows is clear. The market has NOW VIOLATED that trend, which suggests a “bear market” has indeed started. This means investors should consider maintaining increased cash allocations in portfolios currently. With the two longer-term sell signals, bottom panels, now triggered, it suggests that whatever rally may ensue short-term will likely most likely fail. (Also a classic sign of a bear market.)

With the market oversold on a weekly basis, a counter-trend, or “bear market” rally is likely. However, as stated, short-term rallies should be sold into, and portfolios hedged, until the correction process is complete.

With all of our longer-term weekly “sell signals” now triggered from fairly high levels, it suggests the current selloff is much like what we saw in 2015-2016. (Noted in the chart above as well.) In other words, we will see a rally, followed by a secondary failure to lower lows, before the ultimate bottom is put in. If the market fails to hold current levels, the 2018 lows are the next most likely target.

Just How Bad Can It Get?

The idea of a lower bottom is also supported by the monthly data.

NOTE: Monthly Signals Are ONLY Valid At The End Of The Month.

On a monthly basis, sell signals have also been triggered, but we will have to wait until the end of the month for confirmation. However, given the depth of the decline, it would likely take a rally back to all-time highs to reverse those signals. This is a very high improbability.

Assuming the signals remain, there is an important message being sent, as noted in the top panel. The “negative divergence” of relative strength has only been seen prior to the start of the previous two bear markets, and the 2015-2016 slog. While the current sell-off resembles what we saw in late 2015, there is a risk of this developing into a recessionary bear market later this summer. The market is very close to violating the 4-year moving average, which is a “make or break” for the bull market trend from the 2009 lows.

How bad can the “bear market” get? If the 4-year moving average is violated, the 2018 lows become an initial target, which is roughly a 30% decline from the peak. However, the 2016 lows also become a reasonable probability if a “credit event” develops in the energy market which spreads across the financial complex. Such a decline would push markets down by almost 50% from the recent peak, and not unlike what we saw during the previous two recessions.

Caution is advised.

What We Are Thinking

Since January, we have been regularly discussing taking profits in positions, rebalancing portfolio risks, and, most recently, moving out of areas subject to slower economic growth, supply-chain shutdowns, and the collapse in energy prices. This led us to eliminate all holdings in international, emerging markets, small-cap, mid-cap, financials, transportation, industrials, materials, and energy markets. (RIAPRO Subscribers were notified real-time of changes to our portfolios.)

While there is “some truth” to the statement “that no one” could have seen the fallout of the “coronavirus” being escalated by an “oil price” war, there has been mounting risks for quite some time from valuations, to price deviations, and a complete disregard of risk by investors. While we have been discussing these issues with you, and making you aware of the risks, it was often deemed as “just being bearish” in the midst of a “bullish rally.” However, it is managing these types of risks, which is ultimately what clients pay advisors for.

It isn’t a perfect science. In times like these, it gets downright messy. But this is where working to preserve capital and limit drawdowns becomes most important. Not just from reducing the recovery time back to breakeven, but in also reducing the “psychological stress” which leads individuals to make poor investment decisions over time.

Given the extreme oversold and deviated measures of current market prices, we are looking for a reflexive rally that we can further reduce risk into, add hedges, and stabilize portfolios for the duration of the correction. When it is clear, the correction, or worse a bear market, is complete, we will reallocate capital back to equities at better risk/reward measures.

We highly suspect that we have seen the highs for the year. Most likely,,we are moving into an environment where portfolio management will be more tactical in nature, versus buying and holding. In other words, it is quite probable that “passive investing” will give way to “active management.”

Given we are longer-term investors, we like the companies we own from a fundamental perspective and will continue to take profits and resize positions as we adjust market exposure accordingly. The biggest challenge coming is what to do with our bond exposures now that rates have gotten so low OUTSIDE of a recession.

But that is an article for another day.

As we have often stated, “risk happens fast.”

Special Report: S&P 500 – Bounce Or Bull Market

Headlines from the past two days:

Dow sinks 2,000 points in worst day since 2008, S&P 500 drops more than 7%

Dow rallies more than 1,100 points in a wild session, halves losses from Monday’s sell-off

Actually its been a heck of a couple of weeks for the market with daily point swings running 1000, or more, points in either direction.

However, given Tuesday’s huge rally, is the market’s recent rout over with the bulls set to take charge? Or is this just a reflexive rally, with a retest of lows set to come?

Let’s take a look at charts to see what we can determine.

Daily

On a daily basis, the market is back to oversold. Historically, this condition has been sufficient for a bounce. Given that the oversold condition (top panel) is combined with a very deep “sell signal” in the bottom panel, it suggested a fairly vicious reflexive rally was likely. The question, of course is how far could this rally go.

Looking at the chart above, it is quite possible we could well see a rally back to the 32.8%, or even the 50% retracement level which is where the 200-dma currently resides. A rally to that level will likely reverse much of the current oversold condition and set the market up for a retest of the lows.

This idea of a stronger reflexive rally is also supported by the deep deviation from the 200-dma. If we rework the analysis a bit, the 3-standard deviation discussed previously has now reverted to 2-standard deviations below the 200-dma. The market found support there, and with the deep oversold condition it again suggests a rally to the 200-dma is likely.

Given that rally could be sharp, it will likely be a good opportunity to reduce risk as the impact from the collapse in oil prices and the shutdown of the global supply chain has not been fully factored in as of yet.

The following chart is a longer-term analysis of the market and is the format we use for “onboarding” our clients into their allocation models. (Vertical black lines are buy periods)

The triggering of the “sell signals” suggests we are likely in a larger correction process. With the “bull trend” line now broken, a rally back to toward the 200-dma, which is coincident with the bull trend line, will likely be an area to take profits and reduce risk accordingly.

The analysis becomes more concerning as we view other time frames.

Weekly

On a weekly basis, the rising trend from the 2016 lows is clear. The market has NOW VIOLATED that trend, which suggests maintaining some allocation to cash in portfolios currently. With the two longer-term sell signals, bottom panels, now triggered, it suggests that whatever rally may ensue short-term will likely fail.

The market is getting oversold on a weekly basis which does suggest a counter-trend rally is likely. However, as stated, short-term rallies should likely be sold into, and portfolios hedged, until the correction process is complete.

With all of our longer-term weekly “sell signals” now triggered from fairly high levels, it suggests the current selloff is much like what we saw in 2015-2016. (Noted in chart above as well.) In other words, we will see a rally, a failure to lower lows, before the ultimate bottom is put in.

Monthly

The idea of a lower bottom is also supported by the monthly data.

On a monthly basis, sell signals have also been triggered. HOWEVER, these signals must remain through the end of the month to be valid. These monthly signals are “important,” and one of the biggest concerns, as noted in the top panel, is the “negative divergence” of relative strength which was only seen prior to the start of the previous two bear markets, and the 2015-2016 slog. Again, the current sell-off resembles what we saw in late 2015, but there is a risk of this developing into a recessionary bear market later this summer. Caution is advised.

What We Are Thinking

Since January we have been taking profits in positions, rebalancing portfolio risks, and recently moving out of areas subject to slower economic growth, a supply-chain shut down, and the collapse in energy prices. (We have no holdings in international, emerging markets, small-cap, mid-cap, financial or energy currently.)

We are looking for a rally that can hold for more than one day to add some trading exposure for a move back to initial resistance levels where we will once again remove those trades and add short-hedges to the portfolio.

We highly suspect that we have seen the highs for the year, so we will likely move more into a trading environment in portfolios to add some returns while we maintain our longer-term holdings and hedges.

Given we are longer-term investors, we like the companies we own from a fundamental perspective and will continue to take profits and resize positions as we adjust market exposure accordingly. The biggest challenge coming is what to do with our bond exposures now that rates have gotten so low OUTSIDE of a recession.

We will keep you updated accordingly.

Technically Speaking: On The Cusp Of A Bear Market

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

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

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

I could go on, but you get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

On The Cusp Of A Bear Market

Let me start by making a point.

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

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

Bull and bear markets today are better defined as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the important point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save

Shedlock: Supply And Demand Shocks Coming Up

Dual economic shocks are underway simultaneously. There are shortages of some things and lack of demand for others.

Rare Supply-Demand Shocks

Bloomberg has an excellent article on how the Global Economy Is Gripped by Rare Twin Supply-Demand Shock.

The coronavirus is delivering a one-two punch to the world economy, laying it low for months to come and forcing investors to reprice equities and bonds to account for lower company earnings.

From one side, the epidemic is hammering the capacity to produce goods as swathes of Chinese factories remain shuttered and workers housebound. That’s stopping production of goods there and depriving companies elsewhere of the materials they need for their own businesses.

With the virus no longer contained to China, increasingly worried consumers everywhere are reluctant to shop, travel or eat out. As a result, companies are likely not only to send workers home, but to cease hiring or investing — worsening the hit to spending.

How the two shocks will reverberate has sparked some debate among economists, with Harvard University Professor Kenneth Rogoff writing this week that a 1970s style supply-shortage-induced inflation jolt can’t be ruled out. Others contend another round of weakening inflation is pending.

Some economists argue that what’s happened is mostly a supply side shock, others have highlighted the wallop to demand as well, to the degree that the distinction matters.

Slowest Since the Financial Crisis


Inflationary or Deflationary?

In terms of prices, it’s a bit of both, but mostly the latter.

There’s a run on sanitizers, face masks, toilet paper ect. Prices on face masks, if you can find them, have gone up.

But that is dwarfed by the demand shock coming from lack of wages for not working, not traveling, not eating out etc.

The lost wages for 60 million people in China locked in will be a staggering hit alone.

That has also hit Italy. It will soon hit the US.

Next add in the fear from falling markets. People, especially boomers proud of their accounts (and buying cars like mad) will stop doing so.

It will be sudden.

Bad Timing

Stockpiling

Deflation Risk Rising

Another Reason to Avoid Stores – Deflationary

Hugely Deflationary – Weak Demand

This was the subject of a Twitter thread last week. I agreed with Robin Brooks’ take and did so in advance but I cannot find the thread.

I did find this.

Deflation is not really about prices. It’s about the value of debt on the books of banks that cannot be paid back by zombie corporations and individuals.

That is what the Fed fears. It takes lower and lower yields to prevent a debt crash. But it is entirely counterproductive and it does not help the consumer, only the asset holders. Fed (global central bank) policy is to blame.

These are the important point all the inflationistas miss.

#MacroView: Fed’s “Emergency Rate Cut” Reveals Recession Risks

Last week, I discussed in “Recession Risks Tick Up” that while current data may not suggest a possibility of a recession was imminent, other “off the run” data didn’t agree.

“The problem with most of the current analysis, which suggests a “no recession” scenario, is based heavily on lagging economic data, which is highly subject to negative revisions. The stock market, however, is a strong leading indicator of investor expectations of growth over the next 12-months. Historically, stock market returns are typically favorable until about 6-months prior to the start of a recession.”

“The compilation of the data all suggests the risk of recession is markedly higher than what the media currently suggests. Yields and commodities are suggesting something quite different.”

In this particular case, while the market is suggesting there is an economic problem coming, we also discussed the impact of the “coronavirus,” or “COVID-19,” on the economy. Specifically, I stated:

But it isn’t just China. It is also hitting two other economically important countries: Japan and South Korea, which will further stall exports and imports to the U.S. 

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

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

(The EOCI is comprised of the Fed Regional Surveys, CFNAI, Chicago PMI, NFIB, LEI, and ISM Composites. The indicator is a broad measure of hard and soft data of the U.S. economy)”

“Given the current level of the index as compared to the 6-Month rate of change of the Leading Economic Index, there is a rising risk of a recessionary drag within the next 6-months.”

That analysis seemed to largely bypass the mainstream economists, and the Fed, who were focused on the “number of people getting sick,” rather than the economic disruption from the shutdown of the supply chain.

On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve shocked the markets with an “emergency rate cut” of 50-basis points. While the futures market had been predicting the Fed to cut rates at their next meeting on March 18th, the half-percent cut shocked equity markets as the Fed now seems more concerned about the economy than they previously acknowledged.

It is one thing for the Fed to cut rates to support economic growth. It is quite another for the Fed to slash rates by 50 basis points between meetings.

It smacks of “fear.” 

Previously, such emergency rate cuts have not been done lightly, but in response to a bigger crisis which was simultaneously unfolding.

While we have spilled a good bit of digital ink as of late warning about the ramifications of COVID-19:

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

This is not a trivial matter.

“Nearly half of U.S. companies in China said they expect revenue to decrease this year if business can’t return to normal by the end of April, according to a survey conducted Feb. 17 to 20 by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, or AmCham, to which 169 member companies responded. One-fifth of respondents said 2020 revenue from China would decline more than 50% if the epidemic continues through Aug. 30..”WSJ

That drop in revenue, and ultimately earnings, has not yet been factored into earnings estimates. This is a point I made on Tuesday:

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

It is quite possible even my estimates may still be too high.

While the markets have been largely dismissing the impact of the virus, the Fed’s “panic” move on Tuesday was confirming evidence that we are on the right track.

The market’s wild correction over the past two weeks, also begins to align with the Fed’s previous rate-cutting cycles. While it initially appeared “this time was different,” as the market continued to rise due to the Fed’s flood of liquidity, the markets seem to be playing catch up to previous rate-cutting cycles. If the economic data begins to weaken markedly, we may will see an alignment with the previous starts of bear markets and recessions.

Of course, we need to add some context to the chart above. Historically, the reason the Fed cuts rates, and interest rates fall, is because the Fed has acted in response to a crisis, recession, or both. The chart below shows when there is an inversion between the Fed Funds rate, and the 10-year Treasury, it has been associated with recessionary onset. (This curve will invert when the Fed cuts rates further at their next meeting.)

Not surprisingly, as suggested by the historical data above, the stock market has yielded a negative return a year after an emergency rate cut was initiated.

There is another risk the Fed may not be prepared for, an inflationary spike in prices. What could potentially impact the economy, and inflationary pressures, is the shutdown of the global supply chain which creates a lack of supply to meet immediate demand. Basic economics suggests this could lead to inflationary pressures as inventories become extremely lean, and products become unavailable. Even a short-term inflationary spike would put the Federal Reserve on the “wrong-side” of the trade, rendering the Fed’s monetary policies ineffective.

The rising recession risk is also being signaled by the collapse in the 10-year Treasury yield, a point which I have made repeatedly over the last several years in discussing why interest rates were headed toward zero.

“Outside of other events such as the S&L Crisis, Asian Contagion, Long-Term Capital Management, etc. which all drove money out of stocks and into bonds pushing rates lower, recessionary environments are especially prone at suppressing rates further. But, given the inflation of multiple asset bubbles, a credit-driven event that impacts the corporate bond market will drive rates to zero.

Furthermore, given rates are already negative in many parts of the world, which will likely be even more negative during a global recessionary environment, zero yields will still remain more attractive to foreign investors. This will be from both a potential capital appreciation perspective (expectations of negative rates in the U.S.) and the perceived safety and liquidity of the U.S. Treasury market. 

Rates are ultimately directly impacted by the strength of economic growth and the demand for credit. While short-term dynamics may move rates, ultimately the fundamentals combined with the demand for safety and liquidity will be the ultimate arbiter.”

A chart of monetary velocity tells you there is a problem in the economy as lower interest rates fails to spark an uptick in the flow of money.

My friend Caroline Baum summed up the Fed’s primary problem given the issue of plunging rates:

“All of a sudden, the reality of revisiting the zero lower bound, which the Fed now refers to as the effective lower bound (ELB), is no longer off in the distance. It could be right around the corner.

And this at a time when Fed officials are still saying that the economy and monetary policy are ‘in a good place’ and the fundamentals are sound. So what do policymakers do when the good place deteriorates into something mediocre, and the fundamentals turn sour?

Forward guidance, which I like to call talk therapy? Large-scale asset purchases? Unfortunately, the Fed goes to war with the tools it has, not the tools it might want or wish to have.”

Unfortunately, the Fed is still misdiagnosing what ails the economy, and monetary policy is unlikely to change the outcome in the U.S.

The reasons are simple. You can’t cure a debt problem with more debt. Therefore, monetary interventions, and government spending, don’t create organic, sustainable, economic growth. Simply pulling forward future consumption through monetary policy continues to leave an ever-growing void in the future that must be filled.

There is already evidence that lower rates are not leading to expanding consumption, business investment, or economic activity. Furthermore, while QE may temporarily lift asset prices, the lack of economic growth, resulting in lower earnings growth, will eventually lead to a repricing of assets.

Furthermore, there is likely no help coming from fiscal policy, either. As Caroline noted:

“Fiscal-policy measures, which entail tax cuts and government spending, will be difficult to enact in this highly charged political environment. There is little evidence that the Republicans and Democrats can put partisan differences aside to work together.”

Or, as Chuck Schumer said to Ben Bernanke just prior to the “financial crisis:”

“You’re the only game in town.” 

The real concern for investors, and individuals, is the real 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, even before the impact of COVID-19, and the ongoing decline of inflationary pressures longer term was already telling us just that.

The Fed already realizes they have a problem, as noted by Fed Chair Powell on Tuesday:

“A rate cut will not reduce the rate of infection. It won’t fix a broken supply chain. We get that.”

More importantly, this is no longer a domestic question, but rather a global one. Since every major central bank is now engaged in a coordinated infusion of liquidity, fighting slowing economic growth, a rising level of negative yields, and a spreading virus shutting down economic activity, it is “all hands on deck.”

The Federal Reserve is currently betting on a “one trick pony” which is that by increasing the “wealth effect,” it will ultimately lead to a return of consumer confidence, and mitigate the effect of a global contagion.

Unfortunately, there mounting evidence it may not work.

#FPC: Tips For A Volatile Market

These last couple of weeks have been crazy in the markets, last week we saw steady declines and this week we’re yo-yoing from one of the best days in the market to date to one of the worst. It seems like the sky is falling, it always does when we get into one of these environments, but fret not we’ve been here before. The question is what will you do different this time around? Since you’re here you’re probably already doing something different in reading the Real Investment Advice Newsletter, maybe you’re a client or a RIA Pro subscriber. Those resources will help you navigate these choppy waters.

Here are a few additional tips.

  • Understand that it’s ok to take profits and pay taxes.
  • Have a discipline to your investing approach.

Wall Street promotes an “it’s always a good time to buy” philosophy, but rarely does it give advice on when to reduce risk or increase it. For Wall Street it’s always about you… well, you staying invested. Have an exit strategy or a strategy to take profits, reduce risk and eliminate areas you no longer need to invest in. Markets change and so should your investments. Set it and forget it is not good enough.

  • Buy and hold is dead.

Portfolios should be monitored and changes should be made when needed. Not only when you visit or call your advisor. Buy, hold, monitor and sell. Buy and hold is for vampires who live forever, your life is finite. Getting back to even shouldn’t be a long term strategy.

  • Diversification is all but dead.

Wall Street will claim diversification is all you need, but we all know the type of diversification Wall Street refers to is all but dead. Markets are to intertwined in 2020, global supply chains, money flows, coordinated central bank interventions and the speed of information.

  • Speed of information is a loud, but silent killer to portfolios.

Years ago someone may be shot across the globe and we’d never hear about it or if we did by the time we received the information it was old news, outdated or like the game of telephone you may have played as a child: widely inaccurate. Now we get information in minutes if not seconds.

  • Everyone is an expert.

Have a Twitter account and an opinion or following and you are automatically an expert. There are many platforms out there for people to express their views, be careful what you consume. Facebook, Twitter or any other site may be a vacuum for your thoughts or may be a sales pitch in hiding. When I hear or see information I always want to know someone’s motive.

It’s ok to have a motive or promote your business. We promote ours daily by telling people what we do inside our business, how we invest and things you should be doing inside of your own financial plan.

Just remember, most of those so-called expert were in grade school during our last market down turn.

Nothing against being young, we were all there. But more and more advisors or experts have never been through a bear market. Many of these new investing platforms haven’t been around long enough to experience one either.  A bear market or a recession does more than impact your investments it can take a part of your soul. It changes people, I’ve heard many older advisors who’ve been around the block that they may not make it through another bad market. The emotional toll and stress is real. If you’ve never experienced a bad market it’s difficult to guide people through it. All the more reason you must guard against elation and have a process surrounding your investments, your actions and your emotions.

  • Watch for the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Fear sells. Period. We get lots of calls from readers, our daily radio show or podcast and our television interviews. A big question I get from prospects or in the form of a general question is do you guys sell annuities? Typically the reason why is they were told something bad about one, preyed on by an insurance salesman or have had a bad experience with one. I’m telling you this because just this last week I’ve had more calls asking about annuities with guarantees. Fixed annuities, fixed indexed annuities or any other that will guarantee 7%.

The reasoning for these calls is that fear sells. When markets are as volatile as they currently are we make some of our worst mistakes and the annuity sales force knows this. I’m not saying annuities are bad, just don’t get sold one and live to regret it. We believe that annuities should be planned for not sold.

  • Understand your financial plan.

Many have financial plans that use only the rosiest of data. Don’t be afraid to stress your plan, use low performance numbers, bad market returns, give yourself a raise annually-stress your plan! I’m not saying that any of those events above will happen, but what if they did? We want you to be prepared. Our job is to educate you on how all of your financial world combines to help you meet your goals and provide you with the best results and the retirement you hoped for your family.

  • Keep your cool.

This is difficult to do when you see your life’s savings eroding quickly. Markets are very reflexive when they are at extreme deviations and markets moving as quick as they have over these last couple of weeks can be a scary event. You will come out on the other side. The markets don’t just go up and no one has taken a recession out of the business cycle. It will be ok, if you work with a good advisor they have a plan, an exit strategy, maybe they’ve already reduced your equity exposure, they’ve accounted for this in your financial plan. It doesn’t feel good. Investing is difficult because we let our emotions get in the way. 

  • Just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean we should. We’re often our own worst enemy.

Our brains and gimmicky marketing often get in our way. Have you ever seen the E Trade commercial where they tell you all about your high school buddy that trades on E Trade from his yacht or the Vanguard ad with the guy next to his personal plane? When the markets go up investing can be fairly easy, but what about when markets begin to drop? Dalbar did a study in 2019 that shows since 1988 the stock market’s average return has been 10% per year, but stock fund investors have earned only 4.1% annually. Why the big difference? Fear. Human nature is for us to get into something when it’s high and get out when it’s bad. We buy high and sell low even when we know the number one rule of investing is buy low and sell high.  I need a degree in Psychology just as much as I do in Finance. We study Behavioral Finance to limit the biases, help with self control and help make rational decisions.

  • Communicate

Reach out to your advisor, we have sent numerous emails, videos, hold investor summits and one on one phone calls or meetings to discuss the overall impact and to reinforce the plan and strategy. This is when good advisors earn their keep.

If you have questions, concerns or want to know more about how to implement these strategies for your family please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’d love to help.

A Black Swan In The Ointment

A good person is as rare as a black swan”- Decimus Juvenal

In 2007, Nassim Taleb wrote a bestselling and highly impactful book titled The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The book uses the analogy of a black swan to describe negative events that appear to be very rare and occur without warning.  Since the book was published, the term black swan has been overused to describe all kinds of events that were predictable to some degree.

Last April, we wrote A Fly in the Ointment, which was one of a few articles that pointed out the risk of higher inflation to the markets and economy. Thinking about inflation in the context of the Corona Virus and the Fed’s aggressive monetary policy, might our fly be a black swan.

Corona Virus

The economic impact of the Corona Virus has been negligible thus far in the U.S., but in a growing list of other countries, the impact is high. In China, cities more populated than New York City are being quarantined. Citizens are being told to stay at home, and schools, factories, and shops are closed. Japan just closed all of its schools for at least a month. Airlines have reduced or suspended flights to these troubled regions.

From an inflation perspective, the impact of these actions will be two-fold.

Consumers and businesses will spend less, especially on elastic goods. Elastic goods are products that are easy to forego or replace with another good. Examples are things like movies, coffee at Starbucks, cruises, and other non-necessities. Inelastic goods are indispensable or those with no suitable replacement. Examples are essential medicines, water, and food. Many items fall somewhere between perfectly elastic and perfectly inelastic, and in many cases, the classification is dependent upon the consumer.

On the supply side of the inflation equation, production suspensions are leading to shortages of parts and final goods. Companies must either do without them and slow/suspend production or find new and more expensive sources.

We are purposely leaving out the role that the supply of money plays in inflation for now.

With that as a backdrop, we pose the following questions to help you assess how the virus may impact prices.

  • Will producers of elastic goods lower prices if demand falters?
  • If so, will lower prices induce more consumption?
  • Can producers lower the prices of goods if the cost to produce those goods rise?
  • How much margin compression can companies tolerate?
  • Will producers of inelastic goods try to pass on the higher costs of goods, due to supply chain problems, to consumers?
  • Inflationary or deflationary?

We do not have the answers to the questions but make no mistake; inflation related to hampered supply lines could more than offset weakened demand and pose a real inflation risk.

The Fed’s Conundrum

Monetary policy has a direct impact on prices. To quote from our recent article, Jerome Powell & The Fed’s Great Betrayal:

“One of the most pernicious of these issues in our “modern and sophisticated” intellectual age is that of inflation. Most people, when asked to define inflation, would say “rising prices” with no appreciation for the fact that price movements are an effect, not a cause. They are a symptom of monetary circumstances. Inflation defined is, in fact, a disequilibrium between the amount of currency entering an economic system relative to the productive output of that same system.”

For the past decade, the Fed has consistently sought to generate more inflation. They have kept interest rates lower than normal given the tepid economic growth trends. Further, they employed four rounds of QE. QE provides reserves to banks, which increases their ability to create money. Easy money policies, the type we have grown accustomed to, is designed to increase inflation.

On March 3, 2020, the Fed cut interest rates to try to offset the negative economic impact of the Corona Virus.  How lower interest rates will cure a disease is a question for another day. Today’s big question is the Fed fueling the embers of inflation with this sudden rate cut?

Enter the Black Swan

What would the Fed need to do if inflation were to rise due to compromised supply lines and overly aggressive Fed actions? If inflation becomes a problem, they would need to do the opposite of what they have been doing, raise interest rates and reduce the assets on their balance sheet (QT).

Such policy worked well in the 1970s when Fed Chairman Paul Volker increased Fed Funds to 20% and restricted money supply to bring down double-digit inflation. Today, however, such a prudent policy response would be incredibly problematic due to the massive amount of debt the U.S. and its citizens have accumulated. The graph below shows that there is about three and a half times more debt than annual economic activity currently in the U.S.

Unlike the 1970s, when household, corporate, and public debt levels were much lower, higher interest rates and less liquidity today would inevitably result in massive defaults by both consumers and corporations. Further, it would cause a surge in the Federal budget deficit as interest expense on U.S. Treasury debt would rise.

Over the last few decades, we have seen a steady decline in interest rates. At times in this cycle, rates have risen moderately. Each time this occurred, a crisis developed as funding problems arose. What would happen today if mortgage rates rose to 7% and auto loans to 5%? What would happen to corporate profits if borrowing rates doubled from current levels? How would corporations that depend on routine, cheap refinancing of their debt obtain it?

In such an environment, taking on new debt would be much less appealing and servicing existing debt would require a larger portion of the budget. Clearly, an inflationary outbreak accompanied by higher interest rates would result in a severe recession.

Summary

What is a black swan? A black swan is an unforeseen event like the rapid spreading of the Corona Virus that results in inflation. It is not the obvious outcome but rather an obscure second or third-order effect. Our modern economic policy framework is not designed for inflation, nor are many people even thinking about it as a possibility. That is a black swan.  

Inflation is the one thing that prevents the Fed and other central banks from supporting the economy and markets in the way they have become accustomed.

As discussed in prior articles, we believe there is ample evidence of problematic inflation data for those who choose to look. At the same time, global central bankers continue to engage in imprudent policies that are inflationary in nature. Lastly, the Corona Virus threatens to hamper supply lines and change consumer spending habits.

Whether or not those factors result in inflation is unknown. Although one cannot predict the future, one can prepare for it. Inflation is not dead, but it has been hibernating for decades. Even if the odds of inflation are relatively low, that does not mean we should ignore them. As the sub-title to Taleb’s book says, “The Impact of the Highly Improbable” can be important. An event that has a 1% chance of occurring but would cause a massive loss of wealth should not be ignored.

Three Ways to Avoid the ‘Lost Highway’ of Financial ‘Advice.’

Now boys don’t start to ramblin’ round
On this road of sin are you sorrow bound
Take my advice or you’ll curse the day
You started rollin’ down that lost highway

Hank Williams.

On the road to personal financial milestones, investors aspire to reach multiple destinations that are important to them – whether it’s saving for a college education or retirement, we all seek to assess travel risks, regularly track progress and hope to avoid hazardous conditions.

We all long to  -cheer – “I have arrived!”

However, there is imminent danger on the path to our destinations; like a low fog that hangs heavy, there are forces out there which blind and misdirect investors from the major road onto a lost highway. Unfortunately, obstacles to wealth are created by Wall Street, mainstream financial pundits and the social media they employ as a conduit of misinformation. And investors? You’re not off the hook. Your emotions are going to facilitate a major portfolio accident.

As I prepare framework for a screenplay “Lost Highway,” titled after a song written by Hank Williams, Sr., I gravitate to the Johnny Horton version which is slower, more haunting.  Consider the ‘Lost Highway’ one of regret and foreboding, a weigh station between life and death, certainty and the unknown.  Singer Johnny Horton, a spiritualist, knew for certain his demise was imminent and and it would be tragic. On November 5, 1960; at 2 am on a bridge in Milano Texas, Mr. Horton’s premonition became an unfortunate reality. More on that story later.

For now, it’s important for readers to navigate their own financial life highway and avoid the diversions which grow larger, deeper, as this bull market rages on.

As investors, let’s attempt to navigate away from these 3 financial potholes, shall we?

1 – As a retail investor, I’d avoid Twitter.

It’s called ‘FinTwit.’ A lost highway where financial experts who appear to know everything pat each other on the backs with joyous volleys of endless-scrolling bon mot. Most of these Twitter folk were running around the house in their Underoos during the last bear market or blew up portfolios during the financial crisis and conveniently chose to forget it because market recovery cures all ills – except for yours of course, because time is more valuable than money.

I mean, why not? The market recovery gave many advisors and big-box financial retailers a free pass. Of course, markets recover, don’t they? Sure they do. If you’re willing to wait a decade or so to break even. In the span of a human life, lots of events occur, lots of hair is lost, lots of wrinkles, lots of wealth stagnates over the years. The stock market is the Dorian Gray of money and the Twitter Twits believe you, as a human, have the lifespan of a vampire.

Let me show you.

Nothing wrong with Meb; he’s a very academic, smart guy.  I like his work. I understand why he shared this tweet. But as my grandfather would say – OOFA! We’re being shamed as advisors for limited exposure to international stocks. I get it. It’s a big world out there. Most investors – professionals and novices – will never seek to invest outside their borders.  And that’s a bad idea.

It’s a formidable, worldwide issue deemed Home Country Bias. However, over the last decade it’s been a fruitful endeavor for U.S. advisors  and investors to diversify mostly among U.S. stocks. International money managers should have, in hindsight, been overweight in overseas or U.S. stocks. Home-based bias has cost them. The EliteTwits would scoff at me for writing this (not that I care),  – I do not see a reason to invest in an asset class that underperforms for extended periods. I don’t find it of value to be diversified at all or at the least, greatly exposed to dormant asset classes just to ‘spread the risk.’

Diversification can indeed minimize specific company risk. If the majority of retail investors owned individual stock portfolios and sought to own ‘oil’ and ‘bleach’ in their portfolios from various countries,  diversification from an unsystemic perspective would be effective. After all, if oil stocks falter, it’s most likely food & beverage stocks are thriving or at the least, not faltering as hard as non-cyclical stocks.  Anybody you know still own individual stocks? Bueller? Heck, they don’t even split anymore.

Most investors today are encouraged to buy  baskets of stocks through index funds or their exchange-traded brethren. So, if I own an investment that represents the S&P 500  and the MSCI EAFE Index i.e; international stocks,  and one underperforms for an extended period of time, well then, why do I need to own it? Because mainstream financial media tells me so?

You must understand what diversification is and most crucial, what it isn’t. Certainly, it’s not the panacea it’s communicated to be. There’s no ‘free lunch,’ here, although I continue to hear and read this dangerous adage in the media and on Twitter. The word gets thrown around like a remedy for everything which ails a portfolio. It’s the industry’s ‘catch all’ that can lull investors into complacency, inaction.

So, who buys into this free lunch theory, again? After all, what is free on Wall Street? Investors who let their guard down, buy in to the myth of free lunches on Wall Street,  find their money on the menu.

Due to unprecedented central bank intervention, there exists extreme distortion in stock and bond prices. Global risk-averse investors have purchased bonds with a voracious appetite. The odds of negative rates even at least briefly, can manifest here in the states. As I’ve lamented on the radio show in December and January – domestic interest rates will be lower in 2020.

A way to effectively manage risk has morphed into two disparate perceptions. The investor’s definition of diversification and that of the industry has parted, leaving an asset allocation plan increasingly vulnerable.

Today, the practice of diversification is Pablum. Watered down. Reduced to a dangerous buzzword. 

What is the staid mainstream definition of diversification?

According to Investopedia – An internet reference guide on money and investments:

  • Diversification strives to smooth out unsystematic risk events in a portfolio so the positive performance of some investments neutralizes the negative performance of others. Therefore, the benefits of diversification hold only if the securities in the portfolio are not perfectly correlated.
  • Diversification benefits can be gained by investing in foreign securities because they tend to be less closely correlated with domestic investments. For example, an economic downturn in the U.S. economy may not affect Japan’s economy in the same way; therefore, having Japanese investments gives an investor a small cushion of protection against losses due to an American economic downturn.

Now let’s break down the lunch and examine how free it is. 

Unsystematic risk – This is the risk the industry seeks to help you manage. It’s the risks related to failure of a specific business or underperformance of an industry.

To wit:

  • This is a company- or industry-specific hazard that is inherent in each investment. Unsystematic risk, also known as “nonsystematic risk,” “specific risk,” “diversifiable risk” or “residual risk,” can be reduced through diversification.
  • So, by owning stocks in different companies and in different industries, as well as by owning other types of securities such as Treasuries and municipal securities, investors will be less affected by an event or decision that has a strong impact on one company, industry or investment type.

So, think of it this way: A ‘diversified’ portfolio represents a blend of investments – stocks, bonds for example, that are designed to generate returns with less overall business risk. While this information is absolutely valid, the financial industry encourages you to think of diversification as risk management, which it isn’t.

Here’s what you need to remember:

Bleach  (consumer staples) and oil (consumer cyclicals) eventually all run down-hill, in the same direction in corrections or bear markets. 

Sure, ketchup or bleach may run behind, roll slower, but the direction is the one direction that destroys wealth – SOUTH.  Large, small, international stocks. Regardless of the risk within different industries, stocks move together (they connect in down markets).

Consider:

What are the odds of one or two companies in a balanced portfolio to go bust or face an industry-specific hazard at the same time?

What’s the greater risk to you? One company going out of business or underperforming or your entire stock portfolio suffers losses great enough to change your life, alter your financial plan.

You already know the answer.

Diversification is not risk management, it’s risk reduction.

  • When your broker preaches diversification as a risk management technique, what does he or she mean?
  • It’s not risk management the pros believe in, but risk dilution.
  • There’s a difference. The misunderstanding can be painful.

To you, as an investor, diversification is believed to be risk management where portfolio losses are controlled or minimized. Think of risk management as a technique to reduce portfolio losses through down or bear cycles and the establishment of price-sell or rebalancing targets to maintain portfolio allocations. Consider risk dilution as method to spread or combine different investments of various risk to minimize volatility.

Even the best financial professionals only consider half the equation. Beware the lamb (risk management) in wolf’s clothing (risk dilution). The goal of risk dilution is to “cover all bases.” It employs vehicles, usually mutual funds, to cover every asset class so business risk can be managed. The root of the process is to spread your dollars and risk widely across and within asset classes like stocks and bonds to reduce company-specific risk.

There’s a false sense of comfort in covering your bases. Diversification in its present form is not effective reduce the risk you care about as an individual investor – risk of loss.

Today, risk dilution has become a substitute for risk management, but it should be a compliment to it. Risk dilution is a reduction of volatility or how a portfolio moves up or down in relation to the overall market. 

Risk dilution works best during rising, or up markets as since most investments move together, especially stocksThink about betting on every horse in a race.

  • In other words, a rising tide, raises all boats.

So, why is risk reduction not risk management, the prevailing sentiment?

Sales Goals: Most financial pros are saddled with aggressive sales goals. Risk dilution is a set and forget strategy. Ongoing risk management is time consuming and takes time away from the selling process. Unfortunately, the financial industry as a whole, has watered it down and broadened it to such a degree it’s become absolutely ineffective as a safeguard against losses. One reason are the sales targets that force financial representatives to spend less time with client portfolios.

Compliance Departments: A targeted diversification strategy places accountability on the advisor and poses risk to the firm. A wider approach makes it easier to vector responsibility to broad market ‘random walks’ so if a global crisis occurs and most assets move down together, an advisor and the compliance department, can “blame” everything outside their control. Here’s a perfect compliance department question: “so why isn’t this investor allocated appropriately to international stocks?” Appropriate for whom?

At RIA, we monitor global trends. We don’t believe investors need to participate in an asset class that’s been out of favor for over ten years. That doesn’t mean we won’t; it means our exposure has been minimal.  That stance can change at any time. I mean, isn’t that what your advisor is supposed to do? The average investor holding period is less than two years. So imagine attempting to convince most investors to sit on poor performance for longer than decade. In the trenches, it’s never gonna happen.

I have hundreds of examples of Twitter commentary. that will send you down a Lost Highway. To repeat, my advice to retail investors: Please avoid the medium. It’s generally unhealthy for your psyche. Yes, we’re on Twitter too because we need to be. Avoid our feed too. Follow and read the blog instead.

2 – Avoid an ‘accumulation’ mindset if you’re five years or sooner from retirement, or you may never exit the Lost Highway.

Here’s another unusual tweet. I have yet to meet an investor, average, above-average, HUMAN, over the last 30 years who’s gained 300% after losing 30%. Those who are close to retirement must avoid information like this which fosters overconfidence and complacency.

Investors five years or less until retirement must avoid FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out, when it comes to blowing up their overall asset allocations; tempted to take on more risk than they’re prepared to handle. In January when the S&P 500 was three-standard deviations above its 200-week moving average, retirees or those close to retirement were questioning their tolerance for risk even though their portfolio returns were greater than four times the personalized benchmark rate required to achieve long-term financial goals.  

Lance Roberts recently wrote: “There have only been a few points over the last 25-years where such deviations from the long-term mean were prevalent. In every case, the extensions were met by a decline, sometimes mild, sometimes much more extreme.” 

And while we were trimming gains, rebalancing and facing challenges to add money to equities for new clients, tenured ones were wondering why we were being so cautious. Now that markets have fallen precipitously, the same retirees now question why they sought greater risk in the first place.  Some of the same investors wonder why we’re buying at lower prices or dipping our pinky toe into stock waters. It’s an emotional roller-coaster that ostensibly will destroy portfolio returns.  

As we teach around town at our popular Retirement Right Lane Classes, the financial services industry preaches a wholesale accumulation mindset where every downturn is a buying opportunity. However, retirees who are need to re-create a paycheck, withdraw a fixed amount or percentage from variable assets like stocks and bonds, must realize they need to protect capital over time and severe losses must be avoided. Limited losses are inevitable. That’s the price you pay for investing in stocks. If you cannot handle an ebb and flow of risk assets, you shouldn’t be invested in the market. It’s a harsh reality; the recent downturn my serve as a valuable lesson.

James B. Sandidge, JD in his paper “Adaptive Distribution Theory,” for The Journal of Investment Consulting, describes The Butterfly Effect for retirees. The effect refers to the ability of small changes early on in a process that lead to significant impact later.

Depending on the length of this correction and damage incurred, systematic withdrawal rates may need to stay the same (do not increase cash flow requirements in any year during the first 5 that has a negative return) or reduced altogether.  James’ chart from his paper below, outlines how the sacred ‘4 percent withdrawal rule,’ can place a retiree in jeopardy if withdrawals aren’t monitored, revisited through bear market cycles.

3 – Emotions are going to be the demise of your portfolio performance.

I get it. Many investors – novice or seasoned – have forgotten markets correct; newer investors are hard-pressed to believe that bear markets are possible. I personally embrace rough markets. They provide valuable lessons, great wisdom; a dose of humility, a chance to purchase stocks at attractive prices.  Each downturn is different and I take notes. It’s through times like this I’m thankful that I’m no longer with my former employer and part of a team who employs a surgical, rules-based sell discipline.

Tenured investors need to be reminded again that portfolios fluctuate! Being all in or all out of stocks is the worst move I’ve ever witnessed. In other words, selling all stocks low, purchasing again higher or ‘when the crisis blows over’ (already too late), tells me that you my friend, should avoid stocks at all costs, through every cycle. It’s a caveman reaction that will lead to very poor returns over time. Stocks are risk assets and over the last decade, we’ve forgotten what the word ‘risk’ means.

Oh, you will bleed through bear markets; it’s crucial not to hemorrhage. Can you surgically sell through down cycles like we do at RIA? If you have solid rules to do so, yes. Should you take a chainsaw to your wealth and sell everything in a panic? No. Personally, I’m using this downturn to place cash I’ve sat on for two years, selectively, slowly, to work in stocks.  Our investment team is doing the same at RIA. We maintain a rules-based, three-prong approach to take profits, sell weak players and add to positions we believe are good opportunities. 

I pray a prolonged downturn doesn’t turn off  yet another generation of young adults from investing in equities.  These generations have embraced Twitter, so I fear the  messages they’ve taken in as gospel from the FinTwit stars over the years.  I believe the FinTwit club members with insensitive tweets which outline how Jeff Bezos lost more wealth (to help followers keep the ‘downturn in perspective,’) are nothing short of idiocy. There’s no way in hell these people deal with clients on a consistent basis. 

To keep it in perspective – Bezos, the founder of Amazon, bled close to $12 billion during the market downturn. Don’t feel bad:  He’s still worth $116 billion.  If you’re not seated at the Bezos table of wealth, big losses can derail future plans. However, an acceptable rate of loss must be accepted and built into a financial plan. Holistic investors are guided by rules; their guidebooks are their personalized financial plans. Investors who fly by the seat of their pants and get absorbed in fear and greed at bottoms and tops are going to find investing a disappointing experience.

Johnny Horton was a singer of folk/country story songs such as The Battle of New Orleans and Johnny Reb. However, my two favorites are North to Alaska and his rendition of  Hank Williams’ Lost Highway.  Mr. Horton was haunted by a premonition that he’d be killed by a drunk driver.  So much so, he cancelled his attendance for the opening of the theatrical film, North to Alaska. He was hesitant to play the famous Skyline Club in Austin.

From Arden Lambert who wrote of the fatal night:

“Soon after the gig was over, he kissed his wife Billie Jean good-bye. Jean was Hank Williams’ widow whom Horton married a year after Williams’ death in 1952. Horton gave his goodbye kiss to Jean in the same place on the same cheek where Hank had kissed her after his last gig at the Skyline.

Horton, together with his bass player Tillman Franks and manager Tommy Tomlinson, headed to Shreveport, Louisiana. From the beginning, Franks noted that Horton was driving too fast (though that wasn’t new about him as he always drove fast). Suddenly, a pick-up truck smashed head-on into Horton’s car. Horton’s companions were severely injured, and he was still alive when the ambulance came. He died, however, on their way to the hospital.”

I imagine Johnny and his bass player still driving that fatal stretch of road in Milano, Texas. Forever trapped on the Lost Highway. Two men who died way too soon.

I implore that you don’t place your portfolio and emotions on a similar road. 

Today, it’s easier than ever to do so.

Here’s Johnny’s version of the song. Let me know what you think…

 

 

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

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

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

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

Chart updated through Monday

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

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

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

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

Importantly, read that last sentence again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rally To Sell

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

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

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

For now look for rallies to be “sold.”

The End Of The Bull

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

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

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

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

Let me be clear.

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

Please read that last sentence again. 

Bulls Still In Charge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1) Clean Up Your Portfolio

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

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

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

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

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

Stay alert, things are finally getting interesting.

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MacroView: The Ghosts Of 2018?

On Jan 3rd, I wrote an article entitled: “Will The Market Repeat The Start Of 2018?” At that time, the Federal Reserve was dumping a tremendous amount of money into the financial markets through their “Repo” operations. To wit:

“Don’t fight the Fed. That is the current mantra of the market as we begin 2020, and it certainly seems to be the right call. Over the last few months, the Federal Reserve has continued its “QE-Not QE” operations, which has dramatically expanded its balance sheet. Many argue, rightly, the current monetary interventions by the Fed are technically “Not QE” because they are purchasing Treasury Bills rather than longer-term Treasury Notes.

However, ‘Mr. Market’ doesn’t see it that way. As the old saying goes, ‘if it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck…it’s a duck.'” 

As I noted then, despite commentary to the contrary, there were only two conclusions to draw from the data:

  1. There is something functionally “broken” in the financial system which is requiring massive injections of liquidity to try and rectify, and;
  2. The surge in liquidity, whether you want to call it a “duck,” or not, is finding its way into the equity markets.

Let me remind you this was all BEFORE the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

The Ghosts Of 2018

“Well, this past week, the market tripped ‘over its own feet’ after prices had created a massive extension above the 50-dma as shown below. As I have previously warned, since that extension was so large, a correction just back to the moving average at this point will require nearly a -6% decline.”

“I have also repeatedly written over the last year:

‘The problem is that it has been so long since investors have even seen a 2-3% correction, a correction of 5%, or more, will ‘feel’ much worse than it actually is, which will lead to ’emotionally driven’ mistakes.’

The question now, of course, is do you “buy the dip” or ‘run for the hills?’”

Yesterday morning, the markets began the day deeply in the red, but by mid-morning were flirting with a push into positive territory. By the end of the day, the Dow had posted its largest one-day point loss in history.”

That was from February 6th, 2018 (Technically Speaking: Tis But A Flesh Wound)

Here is a chart of October 2019 to Present.

Besides the reality that the only thing that has occurred has been a reversal of the Fed’s “Repo” rally, there is a striking similarity to 2018. That got me to thinking about the corollary between the two periods, and how this might play out over the rest of 2020.

Let’s go back.

Heading in 2018, the markets were ebullient over President Trump’s recently passed tax reform and rate cut package. Expectations were that 2018 would see a massive surge in earnings growth, due to the lower tax rates, and there would be a sharp pickup in economic growth.

However, at the end of January, President Trump shocked the markets with his “Trade War” on China and the imposition of tariffs on a wide variety of products, which potentially impacted American companies. As we said at the time, there was likely to be unintended consequences and would kill the effect of tax reform.)

“While many have believed a ‘trade war’ will be resolved without consequence, there are two very important points that most of the mainstream analysis is overlooking. For investors, a trade war would likely negatively impact earnings and profitability while slowing economic growth through higher costs.”

Over the next few months, the market dealt, and came to terms with, the trade war and the Fed’s tightening of the balance sheet. As we discussed in May 2018, the trade war did wind up clipping earnings estimates to a large degree, but massive share repurchases helped buoy asset prices.

Then in September, the Fed did the unthinkable.

After having hiked rates previously, thereby tightening the monetary supply, they stated that monetary policy was not “close to the neutral rate,” suggesting more rate hikes were coming. The realization the Fed was intent on continuing to tighten policy, and further extracting liquidity by reducing their balance sheet, sent asset prices plunging 20% from the peak, to the lows on Christmas Eve.

It was then the Fed acquiesced to pressure from the White House and began to quickly reverse their stance and starting pumping liquidity back into the markets.

And the bull market was back.

Fast forward to 2020.

“The exuberance that surrounded the markets going into the end of last year, as fund managers ramped up allocations for end of the year reporting, spilled over into the start of the new with S&P hitting new record highs.

Of course, this is just a continuation of the advance that has been ongoing since the Trump election. The difference this time is the extreme push into 3-standard deviation territory above the moving average, which is concerning.” – Real Investment Report Jan, 5th 2018

As noted in the chart below, in both instances, the market reached 3-standard deviations above the 200-dma before mean-reverting.

Of course, while everyone was exuberant over the Fed’s injections of monetary support, we were discussing the continuing decline in earnings growth estimates, along with the lack of corporate profit growth To wit:

With equities now more than 30% higher than they were then, the Fed mostly on hold in terms of rate cuts, and ‘repo’ operations starting to slow, it certainly seems that expectations for substantially higher market values may be a bit optimistic.

Furthermore, as noted above, earnings expectations declined for the entirety of 2019, as shown in the chart below. However, the impact of the ‘coronavirus’ has not been adopted into these reduced estimates as of yet. These estimates WILL fall, and likely markedly so, which, as stated above, is going to make justifying record asset prices more problematic.”

Just as the “Trade War” shocked the markets and caused a repricing of assets in 2018, the “coronavirus” has finally infected the markets enough to cause investors to adjust their expectations for earnings growth. Importantly, as in 2018, earnings estimates have not been revised lower nearly enough to compensate for the global supply chain impact coming from the virus.

While the beginning of 2020 is playing out much like 2018, what about the rest of the year?

There are issues occurring which we believe will have a very similar “feel” to 2018, as the impact of the virus continues to ebb and flow through the economy. The chart below shows the S&P 500 re-scaled to 1000 for comparative purposes.

Currently, the expectation has risen to more than a 70% probability the Fed will cut rates 3x in 2020. Historically, the market tends to underestimate just how far the Fed will go as noted by Michael Lebowitz previously:

“The graph below tracks the comparative differentials (Fed Funds vs. Fed Fund futures) using the methodology outlined above. The gray rectangular areas represent periods where the Fed was systematically raising or lowering the Fed funds rate (blue line). The difference between Fed Funds and the futures contracts, colored green or red, calculates how much the market over (green) or under (red) estimated what the Fed Funds rate would ultimately be. In this analysis, the term overestimate means Fed Funds futures thought Fed Funds would be higher than it ultimately was. The term underestimate, means the market expectations were lower than what actually transpired.”

Our guess is that in the next few weeks, the Fed will start using “forward guidance” to try and stabilize the market. Rate cuts, and more “quantitative easing,” will likely follow.

Such actions should stabilize the market in the near-term as investors, who have been pre-conditioned to “buy” Fed liquidity, will once again run back into markets. This could very well lift the markets into second quarter of this year.

But it will likely be a “trap.”

While monetary policy will likely embolden the bulls short-term, it does little to offset an economic shock. As we move further into the year, the impact to the global supply chain will begin to work its way through the system resulting in slower economic growth, reduced corporate profitability, and potentially a recession. (See yesterday’s commentary)

This is a guess. There is a huge array of potential outcomes, and trying to predict the future tends to be a pointless exercise. However, it is the thought process that helps align expectations with potential outcomes to adjust for risk accordingly.

A Sellable Rally

Just as in February 2018, following the sharp decline, the market rallied back to a lower high before failing once again. For several reasons, we suspect we will see the same over the next week or two, as the push into extreme pessimism and oversold conditions will need to be reversed before the correction can continue.

While 2019 ended in an entirely dissimilar manner as compared to 2018, the current negative sentiment, as shown by CNN’s Fear & Greed Index is back to the extreme fear levels seen at the lows of the market in 2018.

On a short-term technical basis, the market is now extremely oversold, which is suggestive of a counter-trend rally over the next few days to a week or so.

It is highly advisable to use ANY reflexive rally to reduce portfolio risk, and rebalance portfolios. Most likely, another wave of selling will likely ensue before a stronger bottom is finally put into place. 

Lastly, our composite technical overbought/oversold gauge is also pushing more extreme oversold conditions, which are typical of a short-term oversold condition.

In other words, in 2019 “everyone was in the pool,” in 2020 we just found out “everyone was swimming naked.” 

Rules To Follow

One last chart.

I just want you to pay attention to the top panel and the shaded areas. (standard deviations from the 50-dma)

We were not this oversold even during the 2015-2016 decline, much less the two declines in 2018.

Currently, not only is the market extremely oversold on a short-term basis, but is currently 5-standard deviations below the 50-dma.

Let me put that into perspective for you.

  • 1-standard deviation = 68.26% of all possible price movement.
  • 2-standard deviations = 95.45% 
  • 3-standard deviations = 99.73%
  • 4-standard deviations = 99.993%
  • 5-standard deviations = 99.9999%

Mathematically speaking, the bulk of the decline is already priced into the market.

“I get it. We are gonna get a bounce. So, what do I do?”

I am glad you asked.

Step 1) Clean Up Your Portfolio

  1. Tighten up stop-loss levels to current support levels for each position.
  2. Take profits in positions that have outperformed during the rally.
  3. Sell laggards and losers (those that lagged the rally, probably led the decline)
  4. Raise cash, and rebalance portfolios to reduced risk levels for now.

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

  1. Determine areas where exposure needs to be increased, or decreased (bonds, cash, equities)
  2. Determine how many shares need to be bought or sold to rebalance allocation requirements.
  3. Determine cash requirements for hedging purposes
  4. Re-examine the portfolio to ensure allocations are adjusted for FORWARD market risk.
  5. Determine target price levels for each position.
  6. Determine “stop loss” levels for each position being maintained.

Step 3) Be Ready To Execute

  • Whatever bounce we get will likely be short-lived. So have your game plan together before-hand as the opportunity to rebalance risk will likely not be available for very long. 

This is just how we do it.

However, there are many ways to manage risk, and portfolios, which are all fine. What separates success and failure is 1) having a strategy to begin with, and; 2) the discipline to adhere to it.

The recent market spasm certainly reminds of 2018. And, if we are right, it will get better, before it gets worse.

Special Report: S&P 500 Plunges On Coronavirus Impact

Dow plunges 1,000 points on coronavirus fears, 3.5% drop is worst in two years

“Stocks fell sharply on Monday as the number of coronavirus cases outside China surged, stoking fears of a prolonged global economic slowdown from the virus spreading. – CNBC

According to CNBC’s logic, the economy was perfectly fine on Friday, even though the market sold off then as well. However, over the weekend, stocks are plunging because the virus is now important?

No, this has been a correction in the making for the past several weeks that we have been discussing in our weekly market updates. Here was what we posted yesterday morning:

  • As noted last week: “With the market now trading 12% above its 200-dma, and well into 3-standard deviations of the mean, a correction is coming.” That correction started last Friday.
  • Currently, there is a strong bias to “buy the dip” of every corrective action. We recognize this and given the S&P 500 hit initial support on Friday we did add 1/2 position of VOOG to the Dynamic Model. The model is underallocated to equities and has a short hedge so we are taking this opportunity to add slowly. However, we suspect there is more to this corrective action to come this week.
  • As noted previously, extensions to this degree rarely last long without a correction. There is more work to be done before the overbought and extended condition is corrected. We will look to add to our holdings during that process.

While the correction occurred all in one day, which wasn’t our preference, it nonetheless set the markets up for a short-term bounce. We highly suggest using that bounce to rebalance portfolio risks accordingly.

Daily

On a daily basis, the market is back to oversold. Historically, this condition has been sufficient for a bounce. The difference, however, is the current oversold condition (top panel) is combined with a “sell signal” in the bottom panel. This suggests that any rally in the markets over the next few days should be used to reduce equity risk, raise cash, and add hedges.

If we rework the analysis a bit, the 3-standard deviation discussed previously is in the correction process. However, with the break of the 50-dma, uptrend channel, and triggering a short-term sell signal, the 200-dma comes into focus as important support.

As with the chart above, the market is oversold on a short-term basis, and a rally from current support back to the 50-dma is quite likely.

Again, that rally should be used to reduce risk.

The following chart is a longer-term analysis of the market and is the format we use for “onboarding” our clients into their allocation models. (Vertical black lines are buy periods)

Notice that while the market has been rising since early 2016, the momentum indicators are extremely stretched. Historically, such divergences result in markedly lower asset prices. In the short-term, as noted above, the market remains confined to a rising trend which is denoted by the trend channel. At this juncture, the market has not violated any major support points and does not currently warrant a drastically lower exposure to risk. However, if the “sell signals” are triggered, it will suggest a larger “reduction” of risk.

The analysis becomes more concerning as view other time frames.

Weekly

On a weekly basis, the rising trend from the 2016 lows is clear. The market has not violated that trend currently, which suggests maintaining some allocation to equity risk in portfolios currently. However, the two longer-term sell signals, bottom panels, are closing. If they both confirm, it will suggest a more significant correction process is forming.

The market is still very overbought on a weekly basis which confirms the analysis above that short-term rallies should likely be sold into, and portfolios hedged, until the correction process is complete.

Monthly

On a monthly basis, the bulls remain in control currently, which keeps our portfolios primarily allocated to equity risk. As we have noted previously, the market had triggered a “buy” signal in October of last year as the Fed “repo” operations went into overdrive. These monthly signals are “important,” but it won’t take a tremendous decline to reverse those signals. It’s okay to remain optimistic short-term, just don’t be complacent.

Don’t Panic Sell

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

It is absolutely “possible” the markets could find a reason to rally back to all-time highs and continue the bullish trend. (For us, such would be the easiest and best outcome.)

However, the analysis currently suggests the risks currently outweigh potential reward and a deeper correction is the most “probable” at this juncture.

Don’t take that statement lightly.

I am suggesting reducing risk opportunistically, and being pragmatic about your portfolio, and your money. Another 50% correction is absolutely possible, as shown in the chart below.

(The chart shows ever previous major correction from similar overbought conditions on a quarterly basis. A similar correction would currently entail a 58.2% decline.)

So, what should you be doing now. Here are our rules that we will be following on the next rally.

  1. Move slowly. There is no rush in adding equity exposure to your portfolio. Use pullbacks to previous support levels to make adjustments.
  2. If you are heavily UNDER-weight equities, DO NOT try and fully adjust your portfolio to your target allocation in one move. This could be disastrous if the market reverses sharply in the short term. Again, move slowly.
  3. Begin by selling laggards and losers. These positions are dragging on performance as the market rises and tends to lead when markets fall. Like “weeds choking a garden,” pull them.
  4. Add to sectors, or positions, that are performing with, or outperforming the broader market.
  5. Move “stop-loss” levels up to current breakout levels for each position. Managing a portfolio without “stop-loss” levels is like driving with your eyes closed.
  6. While the technical trends are intact, risk considerably outweighs the reward. If you are not comfortable with potentially having to sell at a LOSS what you just bought, then wait for a larger correction to add exposure more safely. There is no harm in waiting for the “fat pitch” as the current market setup is not one.
  7. If none of this makes any sense to you – please consider hiring someone to manage your portfolio for you. It will be worth the additional expense over the long term.

While we remain optimistic about the markets currently, we are also taking precautionary steps of tightening up stops, adding non-correlated assets, raising some cash, and looking to hedge risk opportunistically.

Everyone approaches money management differently. This is just our approach to the process of controlling risk.

We hope you find something useful in it.

#MacroView: Japan, The Fed, & The Limits Of QE

This past week saw a couple of interesting developments.

On Wednesday, the Fed released the minutes from their January meeting with comments which largely bypassed overly bullish investors.

“… several participants observed that equity, corporate debt, and CRE valuations were elevated and drew attention to  high levels of corporate indebtedness and weak underwriting standards in leveraged loan markets. Some participants expressed the concern that financial imbalances-including overvaluation and excessive indebtedness-could amplify an adverse shock to the economy …”

“… many participants remarked that the Committee should not rule out the possibility of adjusting the stance of monetary policy to mitigate financial stability risks, particularly when those risks have important implications for the economic outlook and when macroprudential tools had been or were likely to be ineffective at mitigating those risks…”

The Fed recognizes their ongoing monetary interventions have created financial risks in terms of asset bubbles across multiple asset classes. They are also aware that the majority of the policy tools are likely ineffective at mitigating financial risks in the future. This leaves them being dependent on expanding their balance sheet as their primary weapon.

Interestingly, the weapon they are dependent on may not be as effective as they hope. 

This past week, Japan reported a very sharp drop in economic growth in their latest reported quarter as a further increase in the sales-tax hit consumption. While the decline was quickly dismissed by the markets, this was a pre-coronovirus impact, which suggests that Japan will enter into an “official” recession in the next quarter.

There is more to this story.

Since the financial crisis, Japan has been running a massive “quantitative easing” program which, on a relative basis, is more than 3-times the size of that in the U.S. However, while stock markets have performed well with Central Bank interventions, economic prosperity is only slightly higher than it was prior to the turn of century.

Furthermore, despite the BOJ’s balance sheet consuming 80% of the ETF markets, not to mention a sizable chunk of the corporate and government debt market, Japan has been plagued by rolling recessions, low inflation, and low-interest rates. (Japan’s 10-year Treasury rate fell into negative territory for the second time in recent years.)

Why is this important? Because Japan is a microcosm of what is happening in the U.S. As I noted previously:

The U.S., like Japan, is caught in an ongoing ‘liquidity trap’ where maintaining ultra-low interest rates are the key to sustaining an economic pulse. The unintended consequence of such actions, as we are witnessing in the U.S. currently, is the battle with deflationary pressures. The lower interest rates go – the less economic return that can be generated. An ultra-low interest rate environment, contrary to mainstream thought, has a negative impact on making productive investments, and risk begins to outweigh the potential return.

Most importantly, while there are many calling for an end of the ‘Great Bond Bull Market,’ this is unlikely the case. As shown in the chart below, interest rates are relative globally. Rates can’t increase in one country while a majority of economies are pushing negative rates. As has been the case over the last 30-years, so goes Japan, so goes the U.S.”

As my colleague Doug Kass recently noted, Japan is a template of the fragility of global economic growth. 

“Global growth continues to slow and the negative impact on demand and the broad supply interruptions will likely expose the weakness of the foundation and trajectory of worldwide economic growth. This is particularly dangerous as the monetary ammunition has basically been used up.

As we have observed, monetary growth (and QE) can mechanically elevate and inflate the equity markets. For example, now in the U.S. market, basic theory is that in practice a side effect is that via the ‘repo’ market it is turned into leveraged trades into the equity markets. But, again, authorities are running out of bullets and have begun to question the efficacy of monetary largess.

Bigger picture takeaway is beyond the fact that financial engineering does not help an economy, it probably hurts it. If it helped, after mega-doses of the stuff in every imaginable form, the Japanese economy would be humming. But the Japanese economy is doing the opposite. Japan tried to substitute monetary policy for sound fiscal and economic policy. And the result is terrible.

While financial engineering clearly props up asset prices, I think Japan is a very good example that financial engineering not only does nothing for an economy over the medium to longer-term, it actually has negative consequences.” 

This is a key point.

The “Stock Market” Is NOT The “Economy.”

Roughly 90% of the population gets little, or no, direct benefit from the rise in stock market prices.

Another way to view this issue is by looking at household net worth growth between the top 10% to everyone else.

Since 2007, the ONLY group that has seen an increase in net worth is the top 10% of the population.


“This is not economic prosperity.

This is a distortion of economics.”


From 2009-2016, the Federal Reserve held rates at 0%, and flooded the financial system with 3-consecutive rounds of “Quantitative Easing” or “Q.E.” During that period, average real rates of economic growth rates never rose much above 2%.

Yes, asset prices surged as liquidity flooded the markets, but as noted above “Q.E.” programs did not translate into economic activity. The two 4-panel charts below shows the entirety of the Fed’s balance sheet expansion program (as a percentage) and its relative impact on various parts of the real economy. (The orange bar shows now many dollars of increase in the Fed’s balance sheet that it took to create an increase in each data point.)

As you can see, it took trillions in “QE” programs, not to mention trillions in a variety of other bailout programs, to create a relatively minimal increase in economic data. Of course, this explains the growing wealth gap, which currently exists as monetary policy lifted asset prices.

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. Not surprisingly, the latest round of QE, which rang “Pavlov’s bell,” has moved back to a near perfect 1:1 ratio.

Clearly, QE worked well in lifting asset prices, but as shown above, not so much for the economy. 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 QE will be implemented at the first hint of a more protracted downturn in the market. However, as suggested by the Fed, QE will likely only be employed when rate reductions aren’t enough. This was a point made 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 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.

So, 2-years ago David lays out the plan, and on Wednesday, the Fed reiterates that plan.

Does the Fed see a recession on the horizon? Is this why there are concerns about valuations?

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.

In 2008, when the Fed launched into their “accommodative policy” emergency strategy to bail out the financial markets, the Fed’s balance sheet was running at $915 Billion. The Fed Funds rate was at 4.2%.

If the market fell into a recession tomorrow, the Fed would be starting with a $4.2 Trillion balance sheet with interest rates 3% 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.

Importantly, QE, and rate reductions, have the MOST effect when the economy, markets, and investors are extremely negative.

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

Such was the case in 2009. Not today.

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.

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.

Furthermore, we have much more akin with Japan than many would like to believe.

  • A decline in savings rates
  • An aging demographic
  • A heavily indebted economy
  • A decline in exports
  • Slowing domestic economic growth rates.
  • An underemployed younger demographic.
  • An inelastic supply-demand curve
  • Weak industrial production
  • Dependence on productivity increases

The lynchpin to Japan, and the U.S., remains demographics and interest rates. 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.

While another $2-4 Trillion in QE might indeed be successful in keeping the bubble inflated for a while longer, there is a limit to the ability to continue pulling 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 the effectiveness of rate reductions and QE are diminished due to the reasons detailed herein, the subsequent destruction to the “wealth effect” will be larger than currently imagined. The Fed’s biggest fear is finding themselves powerless to offset the negative impacts of the next recession. 

If more “QE” works, great.

But as investors, with our retirement savings at risk, what if it doesn’t.

#FPC: Dave Ramsey Is Right & Very Wrong About Permanent Life Insurance (Pt. 2)

Last week’s piece was on why Dave Ramsey is right and wrong about permanent life insurance and some of the reasons you may consider using a permanent life insurance policy. 

To reiterate last week’s sentiment-permanent life insurance is not for most, but if you:

  • Max out your retirement savings
  • Make too much to contribute to a Roth
  • Have accumulated a large savings account
  • Want to gain flexibility from taxes
  • Want growth, but would like some protection from high valuations
  • Have a large estate that needs estate tax protection

Keep reading…

Let’s discuss some of the benefits of these policy’s:

  • No 1099’s– your cash value isn’t taxed year to year like most non-qualified investments, in fact if used properly the funds will never be taxed
  • Distributions aren’t considered income (when done properly) so unlike your pre-tax 401K, you’ll be using these funds tax free, which will be a big deal in retirement
  • No Income limitations-that’s right say goodbye to those income limitations most are familiar with on IRA’s
  • No Contribution Limits– it’s difficult to super charge your savings in tax free or tax deferred accounts due to the contribution limits.  In 2020, you can contribute $19,500 to an employer sponsored plan with a catch-up provision of $6,500 for those over 50. In an IRA you’re much more limited. You may contribute up to $6,000 with an additional $1,000 catch up provision for workers 50 or older. Another great tool that’s finally gaining the recognition it deserves is the HAS or Health Savings Account. If you have access to an HSA an individual may contribute $3,550 and a family can contribute $7,100. If you’re maxing out all of these and hopefully utilizing a Roth you’re likely in pretty good shape, but where do those additional funds go?
  • No age requirement for distributions– cash value can be used at any time. Need funds for kid’s college, or retired early prior to 59 1/2-no problem.
  • Likelihood of tax reform impacting your policy is low– this is a little loop-hole that many think may change in the future because of the ability to grow and distribute funds on a tax free basis. With the path the government is on I’m concerned not to have this tool. The 80’s were the last time changes were made to these types of plans and current policy holders were grandfathered to have no changes made to their policies, but only impacting future policy holders. The belief is that the precedent has been set and it would be unfair to materially impact the plans already underway.
  • Creditor Protection-most all states offer some sort of creditor protection some full and some partial. Check with your state to determine how protected you are from potential creditors or judgments.

All these advantageous aspects why don’t we hear more about these types of tools or why do they get a bad wrap?

Dave Ramsey is right. They’re not for everyone. BUT for the few who already know how to save, high income earners or those just looking to be a little more strategic this could be a viable option.

I think many also have an aversion to these products because they are misunderstood or they felt the pressure of someone trying to make a hard sell. Let’s be very clear, a recommendation for such a policy should only come after a thorough financial plan is done. We often say planned, not sold, they are a complex piece to an already complicated puzzle.

Buyer Beware:

Many agents, or “financial advisors,” who sell insurance are held captive to 1 firm and 1 product or are limited in some way. Here I use the term “financial advisors” very loosely, because many are just salesman trying to make a quick buck, not advisors. Have hammer, see nail. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy or at least it shouldn’t be.

I believe any and all financial decisions should be made holistically by looking at the big picture through a telescope and then bringing it back down to each star in your universe with a microscope. Not sparing any detail. After all, each piece of the puzzle must fit and work together. Ideally, you want to work with someone who is independent from working only with one firm so they may scorch the earth to find the best policy for you and your family.

Life insurance, or an annuity, is also not a tool you put all of your funds in and if anyone advises so, RUN!

In the coming weeks we’ll discuss how to use permanent life insurance for cash accumulation or estate planning, what to look for in a policy and the different types of permanent life insurance available.

6 Considerations for Long-Term Care Coverage.

Retirement is a a continuous road; mile markers that represent age may be visualized along the path.

However, if one looks to retire at 67 and in relatively good health, it’s a challenge to comprehend what quality of life may be like at 80. It’s easy to understand how 40 may not look too different from 60 from a quality of health perspective. The stretch from 60 to 90 may be so dramatically different, it’s a challenge to envision.

How does one contemplate their own increasing frailty?

People tend to avoid the topic of long-term care which is defined as financial and caregiver resources required to perform daily activities such as bathing and dressing. Services range from temporary home health services to full-time care through assisted living or memory care. At RIA, we find that investors are hesitant to confront the topic of long-term care. It’s understandable. After all,  the mitigation of long-term care risk is expensive. People barely save enough for retirement, overall. Imagine planning for the possible additional six-figure burden of long-term care services.

Also, consumers don’t understand how coverage works, premiums have the ability to skyrocket every few years which can break constrained budgets, and insurance underwriting can be a challenge. It’s reported that over 30% of those who apply for traditional long-term care coverage are rejected for health reasons. Realistically, after age 62, premiums become cost prohibitive for consumers. It’s in their mid-sixties we find people scramble to put together some patchwork plan. We call long-term care the ‘financial elephant in the room.’ You can try to lift it, move it to another area of your financial house however, wherever you go, there it is! 

As we lament at workshops, on the radio, to clients at face-to-face meetings – heck, to anybody who’ll listen! – Long-term care expenses are the greatest threat to a secure retirement. Confounding about this specific study is that over 53% of Boomers are confident about managing long-term care costs yet the majority have nothing set aside. The results lead me to conclude there’s a strong and dangerous case of DENIAL going on here. Is there more to the story? Since 50% of middle-income Boomers maintain less than $5,000 in emergency reserves, saving for retirement AND retirement care is most likely too burdensome.

Don’t ignore the elephant. Prepare for it. If traditional long-term care insurance isn’t in your future, hope isn’t lost. Consider these alternatives.

Bankers Life Center for Secure Retirement in a study conducted by Blackstone Group in October 2018, discovered that middle-income Baby Boomers (those with an annual household income between $30 and $100,000 and have less than $1 million in investable assets), are increasingly concerned about staying healthy enough to enjoy retirement (56%). Yet, an astounding 4 in 5 (79%) of Boomers sampled have no money set aside specifically for retirement care needs.

First Step: Don’t Ignore the Elephant!

Your rightful concern, if I got you thinking, is to take a deep breath and find a Certified Financial Planner® who is also a fiduciary. In other words, your interests above all else. Financial plans laud strengths; plans also expose financial vulnerabilities that require remedy.

Per the Center For A Secure Retirement® study, six out of ten Baby Boomers have a plan for how they will fund retirement. Only one-third have a retirement long-term care strategy which leads me to believe this group is not undertaking holistic financial planning which considers every facet of a fiscal life including the possible need for long-term care from custodial to skilled nursing. I’m not surprised that 88% of Boomers who have included a retirement care strategy reported a positive impact to their overall plan.

Second Step: Cover the Spouse Who’ll Most Likely Live Longest.

I’m not going to lie; the mitigation of long-term care risk using insurance isn’t cheap.  According to the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance, the best age to apply is in your mid-fifties. To obtain coverage, the current condition of your health matters or you may not qualify. Only 38% of those age 60-69 make the cut. Even if healthy, at a point in life, especially around the mid-sixties, premiums are known to be household budget nightmare. For example, a couple both age 60 in a preferred health class can wind up paying close to $5,000 a year in premiums and will likely experience premium increases over time.

The number of insurance carriers is shrinking – down to less than 12 from more than 100. Recently, Genworth, one of the heavy hitter providers of long-term care insurance temporarily suspended sales of traditional individual policies and an annuity product designed to provide income to cover long-term costs such as nursing home stays.

If you’re astute enough to plan for retirement care and concerned about the impact of dual premiums on the household budget including saving for other goals, work with a Certified Financial Planner to create a scenario to consider at least partial coverage for the spouse with a greater probability of longevity. For example, on average, women outlive men by 7 years.

If single and do not have a reason to leave a legacy to children or grandchildren, it’s likely that asset liquidation can adequately cover a long-term care event. Again, it’s best to work with a CFP Fiduciary who can help create a liquidation strategy.

Third Step: Take the Kids Out of It. 

I’m shocked by parents who assume their adult children will take care of them or ‘take them in’ in the case of a long-term care event. Personally, I find it too painful to interrupt my daughter’s life and impact her physical, emotional and financial health by providing long-term assistance to her dad.

According to www.caregiver.org, 44 million Americans provide $37 billion hours of unpaid informal care for adult family members and friends with chronic illnesses and conditions. Women provide over 75% of caregiving support. Caregiving roles are going to do nothing but blossom in importance as the 65+ age cohort is expected to double by 2030. There will be a tremendous negative impact, financial as well as emotional, on family caregivers who will possibly need to suspend employment, dramatically interrupt their own lives to assist loved ones who require assistance with activities of daily living.

Parents must begin a dialogue with adult children to determine if or how they may become caregivers. Armed with information learned from discussion, I have helped children prepare for some form of caregiving for parents.

A 47-year-old client has added financial support for parents as a specific needs-based goal in her plan; another recently purchased a larger one-story home with an additional and easily accessible bedroom and bath. Yet another has commenced building a granny pod on his property for his elderly (and still independent), mother. All these actions have taken place due to open, continuous dialogue with parents and siblings.

In addition, elder parents have been receptive to allocating financial resources to aid caregiver children. Siblings who reside too far away to provide day-to-day support have been willing to offer financial support as well. However, these initiatives weren’t pushed on children. Children weren’t forced into a situation based on an assumption. If you’re a parent, ask children if they’d be willing to provide care. As an adult child, don’t be afraid to ask parents how they plan to cover long-term care expenses.

Fourth Step: Get Creative. 

Three out of every five financial plans I create reflect deficiencies to meet long-term care expenses. Medical insurance like Medicare does not cover long-term care expenses – a common misperception. Close to 56% of people surveyed in the Bankers Life Center study are under the false impression that Medicare covers long-term care expenses.

The Genworth Cost of Care Survey has been tracking long-term care costs across 440 regions across the United States since 2004.

Genworth’s results assume an annual 3% inflation rate. In today’s dollars a home-health aide who assists with cleaning, cooking, and other responsibilities for those who seek to age in place or require temporary assistance with activities of daily living, can cost over $45,000 a year in the Houston area. On average, these services may be required for 3 years – a hefty sum of $137,000. We use a 4.25-4.5% inflation rate for financial planning purposes to reflect recent median annual costs for assisted living and nursing home care.

As I examine long-term care policies issued recently vs. those 10 years or later, it’s glaringly obvious that coverage isn’t as comprehensive and costs more prohibitive. It will require unorthodox thinking to get the job done.

One option is to consider a reverse mortgage, specifically a home equity conversion mortgage. The horror stories about these products are way overblown. The most astute of planners and academics study and understand how for those who seek to age in place, incorporating the equity from a primary residence in a retirement income strategy or as a method to meet long-term care costs can no longer be ignored. Those who talk down these products are speaking out of lack of knowledge and falling easily for overblown, pervasive false narratives.

Reverse mortgages have several layers of costs (nothing like they were in the past), and it pays for consumers to shop around for the best deals. Understand to qualify for a reverse mortgage, the homeowner must be 62, the home must be a primary residence and the debt limited to mortgage debt. There are several ways to receive payouts.

One of the smartest strategies is to establish a reverse mortgage line of credit at age 62, leave it untapped and allowed to grow along with the value of the home. The line may be tapped for long-term care expenses if needed or to mitigate sequence of poor return risk in portfolios. Simply, in years where portfolios are down, the reverse mortgage line can be used for income thus buying time for the portfolio to recover. Once assets do recover, rebalancing proceeds or gains may be used to pay back the reverse mortgage loan consequently restoring the line of credit.

Our planning software allows our team to consider a reverse mortgage in the analysis. Those plans have a high probability of success. We explain that income is as necessary as water when it comes to retirement. For many retirees, converting the glacier of a home into the water of income using a reverse mortgage is going to be required for retirement survival and especially long-term care expenses.

American College Professor Wade Pfau along with Bob French, CFA are thought leaders on reverse mortgage education and have created the best reverse mortgage calculator I’ve studied. To access the calculator and invaluable analysis of reverse mortgages click here.

Insurance companies are currently creating products that have similar benefits of current long-term care policies along with features that allow beneficiaries to receive a policy’s full death benefit equal to or greater than the premiums paid. The long-term care coverage which is linked to a fixed-premium universal life policy, allows for payments to informal caregivers such as family or friends, does not require you to submit monthly bills and receipts, have less stringent underwriting criteria and allow an option to recover premiums paid if services are not rendered (after a specified period).

Unfortunately, to purchase these policies you’ll need to come up with a policy premium of $50,000 either in a lump sum or paid over five to ten years. However, for example, paying monthly for 10 years can be more cost effective than traditional long-term care policies, payments remain fixed throughout the period (a big plus), and there’s an opportunity to have premiums returned to you if long-term care isn’t necessary (usually five years from the time your $50,000 premium is paid in full). Benefit periods can range from 3-7 years and provide two to five times worth of premium paid for qualified long-term care expenses. As a benchmark, keep in mind the average nursing home stay is three years.

I personally went with this hybrid strategy. For a total of $60,000 in premium, I purchased six years of coverage, indexed for inflation, for a total benefit of close to $190,000.

Also,  pay closer attention to your employers’ benefits open enrollment. It’s amazing to discover how many people have bypassed or didn’t realize their employers offer long-term care insurance coverage. Those with health issues and possibly ineligible for coverage in the open marketplace will find employer-offered long-term care insurance their best deal.

Fifth Step: Formalize a Liquidation/Downsize Plan. 

Consider a liquidation/downsizing hierarchy to subsidize long-term care costs. According to a Deutsche Bank report from January 2018 titled US Wealth and Income Inequality,  a record high 30% of Americans hold no wealth outside their primary residences which makes me wonder how that group is going to fund retirement, let alone long-term care expenses.

We partner with clients who can’t afford premiums or not able to pass long-term care insurance underwriting with liquidation strategies which look to begin 3-5 years before retirement.  Liquidation of a primary residence can be a workable option especially if an individual is widowed or living alone.  Empty-nesters can aspire to sell and move into one-story smaller digs early into or before retirement to lower overall fixed costs. They include in their plan home improvements such as ramps, easy access baths, kitchen cabinets and the cost of caregiver services which complement a spouse or life partner’s long-term care responsibilities. 

Per the Center for Retirement Research from their analysis dated February 11, 2020, most older Americans prefer to age in their homes. However, it’s important to decide whether a current residence is appropriate for the task. In other words, many older Baby Boomers look to remain in large homes with empty rooms and two stories which is absolutely not practical – Especially in the face of property taxes that increase annually, sometimes dramatically! 

The Center’s paper discovered that:

  • Seventy percent of households have very stable homeownership patterns, even over several decades. They either stay in the home they own in their 50s (53 percent) or purchase a new home around retirement and stay for the rest of their life (17 percent).
  • The 30 percent of households that do move consist of two distinct subgroups. Frequent movers (14 percent) appear to face labor market challenges.  Late movers (16 percent) look like a slightly more affluent version of the households that never move, but then face a health shock that forces them out of the home that they owned into a rental unit or a long-term services and supports facility.
  • Overall, the findings largely support the narrative from prior research that most people want to age in place and move only in response to a shock.

Sixth Step: Consider Long-Term Care Riders for Permanent Life Insurance.

Permanent life insurance unlike term, builds cash value. Policies can be ‘over funded’ above the cost of insurance to allocate to a fixed interest sleeve and other investment choices attached through various calculations, to stock indexes such as the S&P 500. There is no chance of loss in cash-value accumulation therefore balances have the true opportunity to compound. 

A living benefits rider allows the insured to accelerate access to death benefits due to certain conditions such as long-term care needs and terminal illness.  There are benefits to utilizing permanent life insurance to subsidize long-term care needs. Premiums remain level (unlike long-term care insurance premiums that tend to increase on a regular basis, sometimes dramatically), second, of course unlike long-term care insurance, at least there’s life insurance or dollars at the end of the road for heirs.

In addition, underwriting for morbidity risk (long-term care) can be draconian compared to mortality risk (life insurance). In other words, medical issues that have potential to affect activities of daily living may not have the same effect on life expectancy; consumers who don’t qualify for long-term care insurance may still qualify for life insurance.  There are a couple of drawbacks to these life insurance riders:  Funds accessed during a lifetime will inevitably reduce the face value or death benefit of a life insurance policy. Second, riders cost money. So, before adding a living benefits rider, through holistic financial planning be certain you require insurance to mitigate long-term care risk. Through proper planning, we discover that four out of every ten clients have assets to liquidate or are able to self-insure.

Retirement care analysis is a deep dive into the overall retirement planning process. Unlike income planning, retirement care planning requires us to face our inevitable physical limitations and the toll it can have on personal finances along with the negative ripple effects on wealth and health of loved ones.

It’s best to expose vulnerability and plan accordingly while there’s precious time to do so.

#FPC: Dave Ramsey Is Right & Very Wrong About Permanent Life Insurance (Pt. 1)

Let’s start with the basics, Dave Ramsey is great at a couple of things, budgeting, helping people get out of debt, prioritizing material things and/or putting things in perspective. 

BUT…

There are some things where good ole Dave isn’t so great. I know this is going to surprise many of you, but you need to hear this.

DAVE RAMSEY IS NOT GOOD AT FINANCIAL PLANNING OR INVESTMENT ADVICE.

Allow me to give you some additional context. Dave is good at helping people get out of debt and make better financial decisions, in fact he’s really good. His Financial Peace University has helped so many people get on track to a better life. I’m a really big fan of Dave for the work he does, but my clients and most of our readers have graduated beyond Dave’s philosophy’s to needing more sophisticated planning and advice.

Dave Ramsey believes you should buy term life insurance and invest the rest. In theory it sounds great. For example, if you were to spend $1,000 a month on a permanent life insurance policy- according to Dave you should buy a term policy and invest the rest.

And from a RISK MANAGEMENT mindset I love the idea.

In fact, this is where you should start. Buy a term policy to protect your family. There are many factors to consider when purchasing a term policy and how much you need here are a few:

  • Loss of Income
  • Debt
  • Expenses
  • Children
  • Lifestyle
  • Age
  • Do you have insurance through work? Is it portable if you leave?

The rule of thumb is 7 to 10 times your annual salary-BUT we believe each individual should go through a thorough analysis to help determine what’s right for their family.

Now that you have your bases covered to protecting your family what’s next?

I’m making an assumption that you already have an emergency fund, established a “financial vulnerability cushion” and are wondering where to put additional funds.

Here’s what I hear often-

  • I make too much to put into a Roth IRA
  • I make too much to put into a Roth 401(k)- (no you don’t there are no income limitations)
  • I can’t make tax deductible contributions to a Traditional IRA
  • Where do I put funds?
  • Savings aren’t earning much interest,
  • I’m missing out on returns in the markets (High Yield Savings) No FOMO.
  • Or alternatively, Markets are too high to put funds to work

The list goes on and on.

What has the Financial Industry beat into our brains year after year?

 Tax Deferred Savings, Tax Deferred Savings, Tax Deferred Savings!

Times are changing. With the new Secure Act we just saw the death of the Stretch IRA and are in one of the lowest tax brackets we’ve seen in years. Not to mention the TCJA (current tax code) sunsets in 2026 and there is also a political party dead set on raising taxes if elected.  In regard to debt and taxes neither Democrat or Republican party understands a budget or how to truly curtail deficit spending. U.S. Government let me introduce you to Dave. It’s a match made in Heaven-until it causes a massive recession, but that’s beside the point. I’d expect higher taxes, not austerity.

So how will you prepare for higher taxes?

When helping clients prepare for retirement we look for not only the low hanging fruit or the obvious feel good propositions, but also some of the harder ones. Like paying taxes now.  

Right now we’re the bearers of bad news.

You don’t always retire in a lower tax bracket.

AND, most aren’t prepared for the additional stealth taxes Uncle Sam surprises you with.

Stay with me, I know I’m walking you through a dark tunnel. The light is near.

Envision yourself on a 3-legged stool. Each leg represents a different tax ramification.

  • Leg 1-Fully Taxable
  • Leg 2-Partially Taxable
  • Leg 3-Tax Free

If you could put all of your eggs in one leg where would they be?

Exactly, Leg 3-but why are so many stools so wobbly? I’ll go one step further.

  • Leg 1- 401(k)’s, 403(b)’s, Traditional IRA’s (the feel good’s)
  • Leg 2- Saving’s, Brokerage Accounts, After tax investment Vehicles
  • Leg 3- ROTH 401(k)’s, ROTH IRA’s, CASH VALUE FROM PERMANENT LIFE INSURANCE

We focus on so many other things first.  The typical sequence of savings is:

  • 401(k)
  • Savings
  • Investments

What do these all have in common? Taxes

What do we want to get away from? Taxes

Here’s how I want you to look at Leg 1- it’s not all yours. Treat these funds like a business, but you don’t own all of it Uncle Sam has some ownership in your business. However, this partnership is unlike any other-they can increase their ownership at any time therefore decreasing your probability of success in retirement.

Leg 2- the principal is yours (you’ve already paid the taxes,) but any realized growth, interest and dividends are taxable at either ordinary income levels or capital gains tax rates.

Leg 3- like leg 2 you’ve already paid the taxes, but the earning’s when all the rules are followed are tax free. For obvious reasons this is the more difficult leg to stabilize. It’s not easy, it takes some proper planning and it takes some work.

I believe everyone needs to strengthen leg 3. Most people will do it by utilizing a Roth 401k or a Roth IRA, but a few will use a permanent life insurance policy.

This is where Dave is right- for most people.

Buying term and investing the difference if you are diligent enough to do so is a great strategy for the majority of Americans living paycheck to paycheck or the saver who is doing all they can to make the sacrifices for their family, but they just can’t do much more. 

This is where Dave is wrong?

What about our typical client? These are the people who are doing all the right things, maxing out retirement contributions, maxing out their HSA’s, putting funds into their savings accounts regularly with little to no debt. Do they just keep plugging away putting additional funds into accounts that are taxable?

What about our clients who have a true estate tax problem? These are people who’ve built businesses, acquired land, built wealth with hard work, blood, sweat and tears. Do their heirs liquidate assets just to pay the tax bill?

No, no they don’t they use insurance properly.

Is permanent life insurance wrong for them, Dave?

No, they use insurance as one leg of their 3-legged stool. These are people who take a big picture holistic view, have a financial plan and have planned for these events.

Insurance is something that must be planned, not sold.

I know and hear of too many insurance agents who say everyone needs a Variable Universal Life Policy aka (VUL.) Unfortunately, many of these guys primarily sell property and casualty and are looking for a big-ticket item, the VUL. Which typically carry higher fee’s little or no guarantee’s and premiums that can change. The majority of the time a realistic plan wasn’t done, illustrations are done to show only the best case scenarios and many times the agents themselves are captive to one or two carriers and/or don’t quite know what to look for in an insurance policy or how to choose one that really fits your needs. This is the have hammer, everything is a nail syndrome.

Permanent Life Insurance when done right can play a vital role in a retiree’s financial plan, it can help provide tax free income, some provide guarantee’s to principal and offer low fee’s which help with accumulation of cash value when overfunding the contract.

Which is why we believe insurance should be planned, it’s a solution to a sophisticated problem. Insurance is also a sophisticated product, that deserves a better reputation than many give it.

  • Who doesn’t want some guarantee’s?
  • Who doesn’t want to pay 0% in taxes on distributions?
  • Who doesn’t want protection from the governments stealth taxes?
  • Who doesn’t want creditor protection?
  • Who doesn’t want to protect their family and their hard-earned funds?

I hope this post has opened your eyes to another potential avenue to explore in your plan.

Next week in Part 2, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of different types of permanent life insurance, how to use them, what to look for in a policy and also what to stay away from.