Tag Archives: federal reserve

Where “I Bought It For The Dividend” Went Wrong

In early 2017, I warned investors about the “I bought it for the dividend” investment thesis. To wit:

“Company ABC is priced at $20/share and pays $1/share in a dividend each year. The dividend yield is 5%, which is calculated by dividing the $1 cash dividend into the price of the underlying stock.

Here is the important point. You do NOT receive a ‘yield.’

What you DO receive is the $1/share in cash paid out each year.

Yield is simply a mathematical calculation.

At that time, the article was scoffed at because we were 8-years into an unrelenting bull market where even the most stupid of investments made money.

Unfortunately, the “mean reversion” process has taken hold, which is the point where the investment thesis falls apart.

The Dangers Of “I Bought It For The Dividend”

“I don’t care about the price, I bought it for the yield.”

First of all, let’s clear up something.

In January of 2018, Exxon Mobil, for example, was slated to pay an out an annual dividend of $3.23, and was priced at roughly $80/share setting the yield at 4.03%. With the 10-year Treasury trading at 2.89%, the higher yield was certainly attractive.

Assuming an individual bought 100 shares at $80 in 2018, “income” of $323 annually would be generated.

Not too shabby.

Fast forward to today with Exxon Mobil trading at roughly $40/share with a current dividend of $3.48/share.

Investment Return (-$4000.00 ) + Dividends of $323 (Yr 1) and $343 (Yr 2)  = Net Loss of $3334

That’s not a good investment.

In just a moment, we will come and revisit this example with a better process.

There is another risk, which occurs during “mean reverting” events, that can leave investors stranded, and financially ruined.

Dividend Loss

When things “go wrong,” as they inevitably do, the “dividend” can, and often does, go away.

  • Boeing (BA)
  • Marriott (MAR)
  • Ford (F)
  • Delta (DAL)
  • Freeport-McMoRan (FCX)
  • Darden (DRI)

These companies, and many others, have all recently cut their dividends after a sharp fall in their stock prices.

I previously posted an article discussing the “Fatal Flaws In Your Financial Plan” which, as you can imagine, generated much debate. One of the more interesting rebuttals was the following:

If a retired person has a portfolio of high-quality dividend growth stocks, the dividends will most likely increase every single year. Even during the stock market crashes of 2002 and 2008, my dividends continued to grow. The total value of the portfolio will indeed fluctuate every year, but that is irrelevant since the retired person is living off his dividends and never selling any shares of stock.

Dividends usually go up even when the stock market goes down.

This comment is the basis of the “buy and hold” mentality, and many of the most common investing misconceptions.

Let’s start with the notion that “dividends always increase.”

When a recession/market reversion occurs, the “cash dividends” don’t increase, but the “yield” does as prices collapse. However, your INCOME does NOT increase. There is a risk it will decline as companies cut the dividend or eliminate it.

During the 2008 financial crisis, more than 140 companies decreased or eliminated their dividends to shareholders. Yes, many of those companies were major banks; however, leading up to the financial crisis, there were many individuals holding large allocations to banks for the income stream their dividends generated. In hindsight, that was not such a good idea.

But it wasn’t just 2008. It also occurred dot.com bust in 2000. In both periods, while investors lost roughly 50% of their capital, dividends were also cut on average of 12%.

While the current market correction fell almost 30% from its recent peak, what we haven’t seen just yet is the majority of dividend cuts still to come.

Naturally, not EVERY company will cut their dividends. But many did, many will, and in quite a few cases, I would expect dividends to be eliminated entirely to protect cash flows and creditors.

As we warned previously:

“Due to the Federal Reserve’s suppression of interest rates since 2009, investors have piled into dividend yielding equities, regardless of fundamentals, due to the belief ‘there is no alternative.’ The resulting ‘dividend chase’ has pushed valuations of dividend-yielding companies to excessive levels disregarding underlying fundamental weakness. 

As with the ‘Nifty Fifty’ heading into the 1970s, the resulting outcome for investors was less than favorable. These periods are not isolated events. There is a high correlation between declines in asset prices, and the dividends paid out.”

Love Dividends, Love Capital More

I agree investors should own companies that pay dividends (as it is a significant portion of long-term total returns)it is also crucial to understand that companies can, and will, cut dividends during periods of financial stress.

It is a good indicator of the strength of the underlying economy. As noted by Political Calculations recently:

Dividend cuts are one of the better near-real-time indicators of the relative health of the U.S. economy. While they slightly lag behind the actual state of the economy, dividend cuts represent one of the simplest indicators to track.

In just one week, beginning 16 March 2020, the number of dividend cuts being announced by U.S. firms spiked sharply upward, transforming 2020-Q1 from a quarter where U.S. firms were apparently performing more strongly than they had in the year-ago quarter of 2019-Q1 into one that all-but-confirms that the U.S. has swung into economic contraction.

Not surprisingly, the economic collapse, which will occur over the next couple of quarters, will lead to a massive round of dividend cuts. While investors lost 30%, or more in many cases, of their capital, they will lose the reason they were clinging on to these companies in the first place.

You Can’t Handle It

EVERY investor has a point, when prices fall far enough, regardless of the dividend being paid, they WILL capitulate, and sell the position. This point generally comes when dividends have been cut, and capital destruction has been maximized.

While individuals suggest they will remain steadfast to their discipline over the long-term, repeated studies show that few individuals actually do. As noted just recently is “Missing The 10-Best Days:”

“As Dalbar regularly points out, individuals always underperform the benchmark index over time by allowing “behaviors” to interfere with their investment discipline. In other words, investors regularly suffer from the ‘buy high/sell low’ syndrome.”

Behavioral biases, specifically the “herding effect” and “loss aversion,” repeatedly leads to poor investment decision-making. In fact, Dalbar is set to release their Investor Report for 2020, and they were kind enough to send me the following graphic for investor performance through 2019. (Pre-Order The Full Report Here)

These differentials in performance can all be directly traced back to two primary factors:

  • Psychology
  • Lack of capital

Understanding this, it should come as no surprise during market declines, as losses mount, so does the pressure to “avert further losses” by selling. While it is generally believed dividend-yielding stocks offer protection during bear market declines, we warned previously this time could be different:

“The yield chase has manifested itself also in a massive outperformance of ‘dividend-yielding stocks’ over the broad market index. Investors are taking on excessive credit risk which is driving down yields in bonds, and pushing up valuations in traditionally mature companies to stratospheric levels. During historic market corrections, money has traditionally hidden in these ‘mature dividend yielding’ companies. This time, such rotation may be the equivalent of jumping from the ‘frying pan into the fire.’” 

The chart below is the S&P 500 High Dividend Low Volatility ETF versus the S&P 500 Index. During the recent decline, dividend stocks were neither “safe,” nor “low volatility.” 

But what about previous “bear markets?” Since most ETF’s didn’t exist before 2000, we can look at the “strategy” with a mutual fund like Fidelity’s Dividend Growth Fund (FDGFX)

As you can see, there is little relative “safety” during a market reversion. The pain of a 38%, 56%, or 30%, loss, can be devastating particularly when the prevailing market sentiment is one of a “can’t lose” environment. Furthermore, when it comes to dividend-yielding stocks, the psychology is no different; a 3-5% yield, and a 30-50% loss of capital, are two VERY different issues.

A Better Way To “Invest For The Dividend”

“Buy and hold” investing, even with dividends and dollar-cost-averaging, will not get you to your financial goals. (Click here for a discussion of chart)

So, what’s the better way to invest for dividends? Let’s go back to our example of Exxon Mobil for a moment. (This is for illustrative purposes only and not a recommendation.)

In 2018, Exxon Mobil broke below its 12-month moving average as the overall market begins to deteriorate.

If you had elected to sell on the break of the moving average, your exit price would have been roughly $70/share. (For argument sake, you stayed out of the position even though XOM traded above and below the average over the next few months.)  

Let’s rerun our math from above.

  • In 2018, an individual bought 100 shares at $80.
  • In 2019, the individual sold 100 shares at $70.

Investment Return (-$1000.00 ) + Dividends of $323 (Yr 1) and $343 (Yr 2)  = Net Loss of $334

Not to bad.

Given the original $8,000 investment has only declined to $7,666, the individual could now buy 200 shares of Exxon Mobil with a dividend of $3.48 and a 9.3% annual yield.

Let’s compare the two strategies.

  • Buy And Hold: 100 shares bought at $80 with a current yield of 4.35% 
  • Risk Managed: 200 shares bought at $40 with a current yield of 9.3%

Which yield would you rather have in your portfolio?

In the end, we are just human. Despite the best of our intentions, emotional biases inevitably lead to poor investment decision-making. This is why all great investors have strict investment disciplines they follow to reduce the impact of emotions.

I am all for “dividend investment strategies,” in fact, dividends are a primary factor in our equity selection process. However, we also run a risk-managed strategy to ensure we have capital available to buy strong companies when the opportunity presents itself.

The majority of the time, when you hear someone say “I bought it for the dividend,” they are trying to rationalize an investment mistake. However, it is in the rationalization that the “mistake” is compounded over time. One of the most important rules of successful investors is to “cut losers short and let winners run.” 

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

#MacroView: The Fed Can’t Fix What’s Broken

“The Federal Reserve is poised to spray trillions of dollars into the U.S. economy once a massive aid package to fight the coronavirus and its aftershocks is signed into law. These actions are unprecedented, going beyond anything it did during the 2008 financial crisis in a sign of the extraordinary challenge facing the nation.” Bloomberg

Currently, the Federal Reserve is in a fight to offset an economic shock bigger than the financial crisis, and they are engaging every possible monetary tool within their arsenal to achieve that goal. The Fed is no longer just a “last resort” for the financial institutions, but now are the lender for the broader economy.

There is just one problem.

The Fed continues to try and stave off an event that is a necessary part of the economic cycle, a debt revulsion.

John Maynard Keynes contended that:

“A general glut would occur when aggregate demand for goods was insufficient, leading to an economic downturn resulting in losses of potential output due to unnecessarily high unemployment, which results from the defensive (or reactive) decisions of the producers.”

In other words, when there is a lack of demand from consumers due to high unemployment, then the contraction in demand would force producers to take defensive actions to reduce output. Such a confluence of actions would lead to a recession.

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 next week as many individuals are slow to file claims, don’t know how, and states are 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 20%, or more, over the next quarter as economic growth slides 8%, or more. (I am probably overly optimistic.)

More importantly, since the economy is 70% driven by consumption, we can approximate the loss in full-time employment by the surge in claims. (As consumption slows, and the recession takes hold, more full-time employees will be terminated.)

This erosion 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. 

Another way to analyze confidence data is to look at the consumer expectations index minus the current situation index in the consumer confidence report.

This measure also says a recession is here. The differential between expectations and the current situation, as you can see below, is worse than the last cycle, and only slightly higher than prior to the “dot.com” crash. Recessions start after this indicator bottoms, which has already occurred.

Importantly, bear markets end when the negative deviation reverses back to positive. Currently, we have only just started that reversion process.

While the virus was “the catalyst,” we have discussed previously that a reversion in employment, and a recessionary onset, was inevitable. To wit:

“Notice that CEO confidence leads consumer confidence by a wide margin. This lures bullish investors, and the media, into believing that CEO’s really don’t know what they are doing. Unfortunately, consumer confidence tends to crash as it catches up with what CEO’s were already telling them.

What were CEO’s telling consumers that crushed their confidence?

“I’m sorry, we think you are really great, but I have to let you go.” 

Confidence was high because employment was high, and consumers operate in a microcosm of their own environment.

“[Who is a better measure of economic strength?] Is it the consumer cranking out work hours, raising a family, and trying to make ends meet? Or the CEO of a company who is watching sales, prices, managing inventory, dealing with collections, paying bills, and managing changes to the economic landscape on a daily basis? A quick look at history shows this level of disparity (between consumer and CEO confidence) is not unusual. It happens every time prior to the onset of a recession.

Far From Over

Why is this important?

Hiring, training, and building a workforce is costly. Employment is the single largest expense of any business, but a strong base of employees is essential for the prosperity of a business. Employers do not like terminating employment as it is expensive to hire back and train new employees, and there is a loss of productivity during that process. Therefore, CEOs tend to hang onto employees for as long as possible until bottom-line profitability demands “leaning out the herd.” 

The same process is true coming OUT of a recession. Companies are “lean and mean” and are uncertain about the actual strength of the recovery. Again, given the cost to hire and train employees, they tend to wait as long as possible to be certain of justifying the expense.

Simply, employers are slow to hire and slow to fire. 

While there is much hope that the current “economic shutdown” will end quickly, we are still very early in the infection cycle relative to other countries. Importantly, we are substantially larger than most, and on a GDP basis, the damage will be worse.

What the cycle tells us is that jobless claims, unemployment, and economic growth are going to worsen materially over the next couple of quarters.

“But Lance, once the virus is over everything will bounce back.” 

Maybe not.

The problem with the current economic backdrop, and mounting job losses, is the vast majority of American’s were woefully unprepared for any type of disruption to their income going into recession. As discussed previously:

“The ‘gap’ between the ‘standard of living’ and real disposable incomes is shown below. Beginning in 1990, incomes alone were no longer able to meet the standard of living so consumers turned to debt to fill the ‘gap.’ However, following the ‘financial crisis,’ even the combined levels of income and debt no longer fill the gap. Currently, there is almost a $2654 annual deficit that cannot be filled.”

As job losses mount, a virtual spiral in the economy begins as reductions in spending put further pressures on corporate profitability. Lower profits lead to more unemployment, and lower asset prices until the cycle is complete.

While the virus may end, the disruption to the economy will last much longer, and be much deeper, than analysts currently expect. Moreover, where the economy is going to be hit the hardest, is a place where Federal Reserve actions have the least ability to help – the private sector.

Currently, businesses with fewer than 500-employees comprise almost 60% of all employment. 70% of employment is centered around businesses with 1000-employees, or less. Most of the businesses are not publicly traded, don’t have access to Wall Street, or Federal Reserve’s bailouts.

The problem with the Government’s $2 Trillion fiscal stimulus bill is that while it provides one-time payments to taxpayers, which will do little to extinguish the financial hardships and debt defaults they will face.

Most importantly, as shown below, the majority of businesses will run out of money long before SBA loans, or financial assistance, can be provided. This will lead to higher, and a longer-duration of, unemployment.

One-Percenter

What does this all mean going forward?

The wealth gap is going to explode, demands for government assistance will skyrocket, and revenues coming into the government will plunge as trillions in debt issuance must be absorbed by the Federal Reserve. 

While the top one-percent of the population will exit the recession relatively unscathed, again, it isn’t the one-percent I am talking about.

It’s economic growth. 

As discussed previously, there is a high correlation between debts, deficits, and economic prosperity. To wit:

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

However, simply looking at Federal debt levels is misleading.

It is the total debt that weighs on the economy.

It now requires nearly $3.00 of debt to create $1 of economic growth. This will rise to more than $5.00 by the end of 2020 as debt surges to offset the collapse in economic growth. Another way to view the impact of debt on the economy is to look at what “debt-free” economic growth would be. 

In other words, without debt, there has been no organic economic growth.

Notice that for the 30-year period from 1952 to 1982, the economic surplus fostered a rising economic growth rate, which averaged roughly 8% during that period. Since then, the economic deficit has only continued to erode economic prosperity.

Given the massive surge in the deficit that will come over the next year, economic growth will begin to run a long-term average of just one-percent. This is going to make it even more difficult for the vast majority of American’s to achieve sufficient levels of prosperity to foster strong growth. (I have estimated the growth of Federal debt, and deficits, through 2021)

The Debt End Game

The massive indulgence in debt has simply created a “credit-induced boom” which has now reached its inevitable conclusion. While the Federal Reserve believed that creating a “wealth effect” by suppressing interest rates to allow cheaper debt creation would repair the economic ills of the “Great Recession,” it only succeeded in creating an even bigger “debt bubble” a decade later.

“This unsustainable credit-sourced boom led to artificially stimulated borrowing, which pushed money into diminishing investment opportunities and widespread mal-investments. In 2007, we clearly saw it play out “real-time” in everything from sub-prime mortgages to derivative instruments, which were only for the purpose of milking the system of every potential penny regardless of the apparent underlying risk.”

In 2019, we saw it again in accelerated stock buybacks, low-quality debt issuance, debt-funded dividends, and speculative investments.

The debt bubble has now burst.

Here is the important point I made previously:

“When credit creation can no longer be sustained, the markets must clear the excesses before the next cycle can begin. It is only then, and must be allowed to happen, can resources be reallocated back towards more efficient uses. This is why all the efforts of Keynesian policies to stimulate growth in the economy have ultimately failed. Those fiscal and monetary policies, from TARP and QE, to tax cuts, only delay the clearing process. Ultimately, that delay only deepens the process when it begins.

The biggest risk in the coming recession is the potential depth of that clearing process.”

This is why the Federal Reserve is throwing the “kitchen sink” at the credit markets to try and forestall the clearing process.

If they are unsuccessful, which is a very real possibility, the U.S. will enter into a “Great Depression” rather than just a “severe recession,” as the system clears trillions in debt.

As I warned previously:

“While we do have the ability to choose our future path, taking action today would require more economic pain and sacrifice than elected politicians are willing to inflict upon their constituents. This is why throughout the entirety of history, every empire collapsed eventually collapsed under the weight of its debt.

Eventually, the opportunity to make tough choices for future prosperity will result in those choices being forced upon us.”

We will find out in a few months just how bad things will be.

But I am sure of one thing.

The Fed can’t fix what’s broken.

While the financial media is salivating over the recent bounce off the lows, here is something to think about.

  • Bull markets END when everything is as “good as it can get.”
  • Bear markets END when things simply can’t “get any worse.”

We aren’t there yet.

How COVID-19 May Move Markets

As the pandemic drives markets to the 2018 lows, certain relationships in trends between the markets and the COVID-19 virus are evident.  As social distancing increases, markets continue to fall. So, by looking at the expected breakout levels of the virus, we can assess possible market reactions. The chart below shows the inverse correlation between the expected peaks of the virus and potential lows in the markets: 

Source: FIPhysician – & Patrick Hill  – 3/18/20

In the COVID-19 – SPX model above, the steep red line is a forecast of new cases if social distancing were not in place.  The green line shows how social distancing will flatten the curve of new cases. The blue curve shows how growth in the pandemic may unfold doubling every 4 – 7 days.  The lower chart shows how social distancing correlates to movements in the SPX. As the number of cases peak, there is a related trough in the SPX. Looking at present levels, we are likely to see more selling as the number of cases increases to a possible low of 2000 in the May-June time frame.

Epidemiologists currently forecast the COVID -19 pandemic will unfold in two waves, with the current breakout and remission during the summer followed by a possible second breakout in the fall and winter of this year.  Researchers think the closest analog to the COVID -19 pandemic is the Spanish Flu in 1918, which came roaring back the following winter resulting in a second wave of even greater infections and death. 

The first blue dot shows where the SPX is today at this early stage in the pandemic.  The SPX index may continue to fall as the economic damage increases and GDP declines in the first and second quarters. Two consecutive declines will officially put the economy in a recession.  

The SPX may fall to 2030 in this first wave, which represents a Fibonacci retracement of 50 % from the 2008 low to the 2020 peak.  From there, markets may rebound back up to 2350, a Fibonacci retracement of 61% as the virus breakout fades, relief rally emerges, and economic activity picks up.  However, as this occurs, higher interest rates from massive stimulus spending may weigh on financial markets, as seen in the spike of bond yields, the decline in gold prices and other safe haven assets. 

Consumers who are already financially stretched are being furloughed or laid off, which will trigger loan defaults.  Finally, corporations are now at the highest level of debt since 2008 and are experiencing a steep decline in sales, causing a cash squeeze leading to layoffs.  The most important consideration is that the virus is exposing the heavy reliance on debt on major institutions and consumers in our economic system.

The slide into a recession is evident in announced layoffs by significant corporations. Marriott and other hotels have announced thousands of layoffs. Other hospitality industry companies will follow. Harley-Davidson, GM, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Nissan, and Tesla have all suspended manufacturing for several weeks in the U.S. Thousands of workers are on furlough until manufacturing resumes. There is a growing risk consumer demand may not return to pre coronavirus levels forcing permanent layoffs.

While manufacturing is 30% of GDP, services contribute 70% of GDP.  Many services can be offered online or via web conferencing.  The present social distancing experiment will provide significant insights into how well the economy can perform when many knowledge workers are working from home.  If working from home is successful, we expect to see more companies permanently move employees to their homes to reduce office space and cut expenses. This has grave implications for the commercial real estate industry and investors of those properties. 

The diverse U.S. economy is likely to recover quicker than the world economy.  However, an earnings recovery may stall due to the fact most S&P 100 companies derive 55% of their sales from overseas and 60% of their profits from international markets.  

Looking at a possible second virus wave in the fall, it is likely that economic damage will grow worse due to increasing unemployment, declining corporate spending, falling consumer spending, and a resumption of social distancing. The second wave fits a decline model seen in 2000 from the Y2K software bug scare.  That crisis was an external event, causing a demand shock, though little supply shock.  The bottom for the NDX did not happen until 18 months after the market peak. The virus seems to be compressing the market drop period as there have been three trading halts of 7% in the markets in just eight days of trading.  SPX support is near 1810 – 1867 in 2016, just above the Fibonacci 38% level of 1708.

In our post of February 14th about the coronavirus triggering a downturn, we saw the strong possibility of the economy sliding into a recession.  In the post we noted that Allianz Chief Economic Advisor, Mohammed El-Arian observed that we are likely headed into a U or L shaped recession:

“…analysts and modelers should respect the degree of uncertainty in play, including the inconvenient realization that the possibility of a U or, worse, an L for 2020 is still too high for comfort.”

Hope is not a strategy. Of course, we hope the virus is contained, lives saved, and the economy can weather the stress on corporations and consumers.  However, as long term investors, we need to look at the reality of what may happen based on research and plan our strategic investments accordingly. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.


Patrick Hill is the Editor of The Progressive Ensign, writes from the heart of Silicon Valley, leveraging 20 years of experience as an executive at firms like HP, Genentech, Verigy, Informatica, and Okta to provide investment and economic insights. Twitter: @PatrickHill1677.

“No One Saw It Coming” – Should You Worry About The 10-Best Days

Pippa Stevens via CNBC recently had some advice:

“Panic selling not only locks in losses, but also puts investors at risk for missing the market’s best days.

Looking at data going back to 1930, Bank of America found that if an investor missed the S&P 500′s 10 best days in each  decade, total returns would be just 91%, significantly below the 14,962% return for investors who held steady through the downturns.”

But here was her key point, which ultimately invalidates her entire premise:

“The firm noted this eye-popping stat while urging investors to ‘avoid panic selling,’ pointing out that the ‘best days generally follow the worst days for stocks.’” 

Think about that for a moment.

“The best days generally follow the worst days.

The statement is correct, as the S&P 500’s largest percentage gain days, tend to occur in clusters during the worst of times for investors.

Here is another way to look at this through Friday’s close. For an investor trying to catch the markets best 10-days, they wound up losing almost 30% of their portfolio, an astounding -9,254 points over the span of 3 weeks.

The analysis of “missing out on the 10-best days” of the market is steeped in the myth of the benefits of “buy and hold” investing. (Read more: The Definitive Guide For Investing.Buy and hold, as a strategy works great in a long-term rising bull market. It fails as a strategy during a bear market for one simple reason: Psychology.

I agree investors should never “panic sell,” as such “emotional” decisions are always made at the worst possible times. As Dalbar regularly points out, individuals always underperform the benchmark index over time by allowing “behaviors” to interfere with their investment discipline.

In other words, investors regularly suffer from the “buy high/sell low” syndrome.

Such is why investors should follow an investment discipline or strategy which mitigates volatility to avoid being put into a situation where “panic selling” becomes an issue.

Let me be clear; an investment disciple does NOT ensure your portfolio against losses if the market declines. This is particularly the case when it plummets, as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks. However, in any event, it will work to minimize the damage to a recoverable state.

The Market Timing Myth

We previously stated, that when the “crash” came, the mainstream media’s response would be: “Well, no one could have seen it coming.” 

Simply always being “bullish,” like Mr. Santolli, is what leads investors into being blindsided by rising risks in the market.

Yes, you can see, and predict, when risks exceed the grasp of rationality.

This brings us to the basic argument from the financial media which is simply you are NOT smart enough to manage your investments, so your only option is to “buy and hold.”

In 2010, Brett Arends wrote an excellent commentary entitled: “The Market Timing Myth” which primarily focused on several points we have made over the years. Brett really hits home with the following statement:

For years, the investment industry has tried to scare clients into staying fully invested in the stock market at all times, no matter how high stocks go or what’s going on in the economy. ‘You can’t time the market,’ they warn. ‘Studies show that market timing doesn’t work.’

He goes on:

“They’ll cite studies showing that over the long-term investors made most of their money from just a handful of big one-day gains. In other words, if you miss those days, you’ll earn bupkis. And as no one can predict when those few, big jumps are going to occur, it’s best to stay fully invested at all times. So just give them your money… lie back, and think of the efficient market hypothesis. You’ll hear this in broker’s offices everywhere. And it sounds very compelling.

There’s just one problem. It’s hooey.

They’re leaving out more than half the story.

And what they’re not telling you makes a real difference to whether you should invest, when and how.”

The best long-term study relating to this topic was conducted a few years ago by Javier Estrada, a finance professor at the IESE Business School at the University of Navarra in Spain. To find out how important those few “big days” are, he looked at nearly a century’s worth of day-to-day moves on Wall Street and 14 other stock markets around the world, from England to Japan to Australia.

Correctly, the study did find that if you missed the 10-best days of the market, you did indeed give up much of the gains. What he also found is that by missing the 10-worst days, you did remarkably better.

(The blue highlight shows, as of Friday’s close, investors will need a more than 40% return just to get back to even.)

Clearly, avoiding major drawdowns in the market is key to long-term investment success. If I am not spending the bulk of my time making up previous losses in my portfolio, I spend more time compounding my invested dollars towards my long term goals.

Over an investing period of about 40 years, just missing the 10-best days would have cost you about half your capital gains. But successfully avoiding the 10-worst days would have had an even bigger positive impact on your portfolio. Someone who avoided the 10-biggest slumps would have ended up with two and a half times the capital gains of someone who simply stayed in all the time.

As Brett concluded:

“In other words, it’s something of a wash. The cost of being in the market just before a crash, are at least as great as being out of the market just before a big jump, and may be greater. Funny how the finance industry doesn’t bother to tell you that.”

The reason that the finance industry doesn’t tell you the other half of the story is because it is NOT PROFITABLE for them. The finance industry makes money when you are invested – not when you are in cash. Since a vast majority of financial advisors can’t actually successfully manage money, they just tell you to “stay the course.”

However, you DO have options.

A Simple Method

Now, let me clarify. I do not strictly endorse “market timing,” which is specifically being “all-in” or “all-out” of the market at any given time. The problem with market timing is consistency.

You cannot, over the long term, effectively time the market. Being all in, or out, of the market will eventually put you on the wrong side of the “trade,” which will lead to a host of other problems.

However, there are also no great investors in history who employed “buy and hold” as an investment strategy. Even the great Warren Buffett occasionally sells investments. True investors buy when they see the value, and sell when value no longer exists.

While there are many sophisticated methods of handling risk within a portfolio, even using a basic method of price analysis, such as a moving average crossover, can be a valuable tool over the long term holding periods. Will such a method ALWAYS be right? Absolutely not. However, will such a method keep you from losing large amounts of capital? Absolutely.

The chart below shows a simple 12-month moving average crossover study. (via Portfolio Visualizer)

What should be obvious is that using a basic form of price movement analysis can provide a useful identification of periods when portfolio risk should be REDUCED. Importantly, I did not say risk should be eliminated; just reduced. 

Here are the comparative results.

Again, I am not implying, suggesting, or stating that such signals mean going 100% to cash. What I am suggesting is that when “sell signals” are given, that is the time when individuals should perform some basic portfolio risk management such as:

  • Trim back winning positions to original portfolio weights: Investment Rule: Let Winners Run
  • Sell positions that simply are not working (if the position was not working in a rising market, it likely won’t in a declining market.) Investment Rule: Cut Losers Short
  • Hold the cash raised from these activities until the next buying opportunity occurs. Investment Rule: Buy Low

By using some measures, fundamental or technical, to reduce portfolio risk by taking profits as prices/valuations rise, or vice versa, the long-term results of avoiding periods of severe capital loss will outweigh missed short term gains.

Small adjustments can have a significant impact over the long run.

As Brett continues:

Let’s be clear what it doesn’t mean. It still doesn’t mean you should try to ‘time’ the market day to day. Mr. Estrada’s conclusion is that a small number of big days, in both directions, account for most of the stock market’s price performance. Trying to catch the 10-biggest jumps, or avoid the 10-big tumbles, is almost certainly a fool’s errand. Hardly anyone can do this sort of thing successfully. Even most professionals can’t.

But, second, it does mean you that you shouldn’t let scare stories dominate your approach to investing. Don’t let yourself be bullied. Least of all by someone who isn’t telling you the full story.”

There is little point in trying to catch each twist and turn of the market. But that also doesn’t mean you simply have to be passive and let it wash all over you. It may not be possible to “time” the market, but it is possible to reach intelligent conclusions about whether the market offers good value for investors.

There is a clear advantage of providing risk management to portfolios over time. The problem, as I have discussed many times previously, is that most individuals cannot manage their own money because of “short-termism.”

Despite their inherent belief that they are long-term investors, they are consistently swept up in the short-term movements of the market. Of course, with the media and Wall Street pushing the “you are missing it” mantra as the market rises – who can really blame the average investor “panic” buying market tops, and selling out at market bottoms.

Yet, despite two major bear market declines, and working its third, it never ceases to amaze me that investors still believe they can invest their savings into a risk-based market, without suffering the eventual consequences of risk itself.

Despite being a totally unrealistic objective, this “fantasy” leads to excessive speculation in portfolios, which ultimately results in catastrophic losses. Aligning expectations with reality is the key to building a successful portfolio. Implementing a strong investment discipline, and applying risk management, is what leads to the achievement of those expectations.

#MacroView: Mnuchin & Kudlow Say No Recession?

“Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday downplayed the likelihood of an economic recession as the economy takes a beating from the coronavirus outbreak.

When asked on ABC’s ‘This Week’ if the US was now in an economic recession as some have suggested, Munchin said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ” – CNN

However, it wasn’t just Mnuchin making such a claim, but Larry Kudlow as well:

“I just think, in general, I would be very careful to put too much emphasis on what bond rates are doing, what interest rates are doing. Or even in the short, short run, the stock market. I think you have a lot of mood swings here and I don’t think it reflects the fundamentals.” – Larry Kudlow via CNBC

I understand they have to pander to the administration, but this is a stretch to say the least. 

Let’s dig into some facts to determine our real risks.

Even before COVID-19 had infected the planet, economic data, and inflationary pressures were already weakening. This already suggested the decade long economic expansion was “running lean.”

However, the sharp decline in both 5- and 10-year “breakeven inflation rates,” are suggesting 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.”

Since then, the markets have been rocked as concerns over the spread of the“COVID-19” virus. The U.S. has shut down sporting events, travel, consumer activities, restaurants, bars, stores, and a host of other economically sensitive inputs. This is on top of the collapse in oil prices, which impacts a very important economic sector of the economy. (The O&G sector either directly or indirectly creates millions of jobs, has some of the highest wages, and is responsible for about 1/4th of all capital expenditures.)

However, this is just in the United States. This is a “global issue,” and the supply chains of the world are tightly interconnected. 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.”

Our Economic Output Composite Indicator (EOCI) was already at levels which warned of weak economic growth. Furthermore, as shown below, even the Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) were already suggesting something was amiss long before the virus became “a thing.”

Data as of February 2020.

(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 two months.

The Question Isn’t If…

The U.S. economy, along with the bulk of the globe, is already in “recession.”

Let’s start with a bit of historical context. Since the 1800’s, the average length of an economic recession has been 18-months. Some of that length is skewed by a more agricultural-based economy at the beginning, with more modern recessions having been shorter. (We are assuming that March 2020 was the start of a new recession at one-month.)

While the average recession has been somewhat shorter in recent decades, the recessions of 1973, 1991, and 2007 have pushed those long-term averages. The chart below also shows the subsequent decline in asset prices during subsequent recessions.

Given, declines of these magnitudes only occur during recessionary periods, the recent near 30% decline is likely good confirmation a recession has begun. (However, at just one-month, it may be overly optimistic to assume it is over with already. )

Yields Are Screaming: “Recession”

Interest rates are also a very good confirmation of recessionary periods as well. 

Since 2013, I have disagreed the mainstream analysis (including Jeff Gundlach and Bill Gross) that the “bond bull market” was dead. The reality has been substantially different as rates have continued to trend lower, and recently approached our long-term target of ZERO.

“There is an assumption that because interest rates are low, the bond bull market has come to its inevitable conclusion. The problem with this assumption is three-fold:

  1. All interest rates are relative. With more than $10-Trillion in debt globally sporting negative interest rates, the assumption that rates in the U.S. are about to spike higher is likely wrong. 
  2. The coming budget deficit balloon. Given the lack of fiscal policy controls in Washington, and promises of continued largesse in the future, the budget deficit is set to swell back to $1 Trillion or more in the coming years. 
  3. Central Banks will continue to be a buyer of bonds to maintain the current status quo, but will become more aggressive buyers during the next recession. The next QE program by the Fed to offset the next economic recession will likely be $2-4 Trillion, which will push the 10-year yield towards zero.” – August 30, 2016

So, where are we nearly 4-years later?

  • 23% of global debt is now supporting negative interest rates. 
  • The U.S. deficit has well surpassed $1 Trillion on its way to $2 Trillion.
  • Central Banks continue to be a primary buyer of bonds as the Fed’s balance sheet has swelled back to its previous peak and the Fed recently dropped rates to zero and started a $700 billion QE program.

Here is the relevant chart I posted in 2016. At that time rates were hitting lows of 1.6%, which was unthinkable at the time. And, where are rates, today? Approaching zero.

As shown above, 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. 

Via Doug Kass:

“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%.”

It’s markedly worse now as the collapse in oil prices has sent breakeven rates below 1%. 

As we noted in “On The Cusp Of A Bear Market,” the collapse in interest rates, as well as the annual rate of change in rates, is screaming that something “has broken,” economically speaking.

Mnuchin’s suggestion the economy will likely avoid “recession,” is a bit ludicrous. The data suggests an entirely different outcome. However, David Rosenberg recently put some numbers on the impact to the economy from the “economic shutdown” from the virus. To wit:

“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.

Given the average recession is 18-months, and given the severity of the economic impact, even this 12-month forecast is likely overly optimistic. However, we are still missing a LOT of data, which will come to light over the next several months. 

The recession will be quite severe.

As David concludes:

“A 35% slump in global financial stocks and a similar plunge in U.S. small-cap equities cannot be wrong on this forecast. And the massive volume of leverage complicates the outlook that much more.”

I know you shouldn’t point and laugh, but you almost have to when Mnuchin and Kudlow have the audacity to suggest this is a temporary negative shock. This a collision of multiple shocks impacting an overly leveraged, overly valued, and overly bullish market simultaneously.

  • Coronvirus impact
  • Supply chain shutdowns
  • Economy wide “closures”
  • Consumer confidence collapse.
  • Employment shock
  • Debt crisis

The problem for the Federal Reserve is this is NOT a “financial crisis,” or a simple “business cycle” recession, that monetary policy can fix. Governments have opted for to “contain the virus” by shutting down the economy. Giving households $1000 checks sounds great, but not if you can’t spend them. Maybe they will opt to pay down debt, but that doesn’t spur economic activity, or improve earnings, in the near term. 

Of course, since stocks price in future earnings growth, and since we have a feel for the impact of the recession coming, we can guesstimate the impact to earnings.

Profit margins are probably the most mean-reverting series in finance, and if profit margins do not mean-revert, then something has gone badly wrong with capitalism. If high profits do not attract competition, there is something wrong with the system, and it is not functioning properly.” – Jeremy Grantham

The impending recession, and consumption freeze, is going to start the mean-reversion process in both corporate profits and earnings. In the following series of charts, I have projected the potential reversion.

The reversion in GAAP earnings is pretty calculable as swings from peaks to troughs have run on a fairly consistent trend. (The last drop off is the estimate to for a recession)

“Using that historical context, we can project a recession will reduce earnings to roughly $100/share. 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.”

“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.”

Unfortunately, both Larry Kudlow, Steve Mnuchin, and the Fed, are still misdiagnosing what ails the economy, and monetary policy is unlikely to change the outcome in the U.S. Furthermore, the lack of economic growth, resulting in lower earnings growth, will eventually lead to a full repricing of assets.

Yes, we are in a recession, it has just started, and we have quite a ways to go before it is over. 

Fade rallies, and reduce risk accordingly. 

Margin Call: You Were Warned Of The Risk

I have been slammed with emails over the last couple of days asking the following questions:

“What just happened to my bonds?”

“What happened to my gold position, shouldn’t it be going up?”

“Why are all my stocks being flushed at the same time?”

As noted by Zerohedge:

“Stocks down, Bonds down, credit down, gold down, oil down, copper down, crypto down, global systemically important banks down, and liquidity down

Today was the worst day for a combined equity/bond portfolio… ever…”

This Is What A “Margin Call,” Looks Like.

In December 2018, we warned of the risk. At that time, the market was dropping sharply, and Mark Hulbert wrote an article dismissing the risk of margin debt. To wit:

“Plunging margin debt may not doom the bull market after all, reports to the contrary notwithstanding.

According to research conducted in the 1970s by Norman Fosback, then the president of the Institute for Econometric Research, there is an 85% probability that a bull market is in progress when margin debt is above its 12-month moving average, in contrast to just a 41% probability when it’s below.

Why, then, do I suggest not becoming overly pessimistic? For several reasons:

1) The margin debt indicator issues many false signals

2) There is insufficient data

3) Margin debt is a strong coincident indicator.”

I disagreed with Mark on several points at the time. But fortunately the Federal Reserve’s reversal on monetary policy kept the stock market from sinking to levels that would trigger “margin calls.”

As I noted then, margin debt is not a technical indicator that can be used to trade markets. 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 and is what is currently happening in the market.

The issue with margin debt, in terms of the biggest risk, is 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.

When an “event” occurs that causes lenders to “panic” and call in margin loans, things progress very quickly as the “math” becomes a problem. Here is a simple example.

“If you buy $100,000 of stock on margin, you only need to pay $50,000. Seems like a great deal, especially if the stock price goes up. But what if your stock drops to $60,000? Suddenly, you’ve lost $40,000, leaving you with only $10,000 in your margin account. The rules state that you need to have at least 25 percent of the $60,000 stock value in your account, which is $15,000. So not only do you lose $40,000, but you have to deposit an additional $5,000 in your margin account to stay in business.

However, when margin calls occur, and equity is sold to meet the call, the equity in the portfolio is reduced further. Any subsequent price decline requires additional coverage leading to a “death spiral” until the margin line is covered.

Example:

  • $100,000 portfolio declines to $60,000. Requiring a margin call of $5000.
  • You have to deposit $5000, or sell to cover. 
  • However, if you don’t have the cash, then a problem arises. The sell of equity reduces the collateral requirement requiring a larger transaction: $5000/.25% requirement = $20,000
  • With the margin requirement met, a balance of $40,000 remains in the account with a $10,000 margin requirement. 
  • The next morning, the market declines again, triggering another margin call. 
  • Wash, rinse, repeat until broke.

This is why you should NEVER invest on margin unless you always have the cash to cover.

Just 20% 

As I discussed previously, the level we suspected would trigger a margin event was roughly a 20% decline from the peak.

“If such a decline triggers a 20% fall from the peak, which is around 2340 currently, broker-dealers are likely going to start tightening up margin requirements and requiring coverage of outstanding margin lines.

This is just a guess…it could be at any point at which “credit-risk” becomes a concern. The important point is that ‘when’ it occurs, it will start a ‘liquidation cycle’ as ‘margin calls’ trigger more selling which leads to more margin calls. This cycle will continue until the liquidation process is complete.

The Dow Jones provided the clearest picture of the acceleration in selling as “margin calls” kicked in.

The last time we saw such an event was in 2008.

How Much More Is There To Go?

Unfortunately, FINRA only updates margin debt with about a 2-month lag.

Mark’s second point was a lack of data. This isn’t actually the case as margin debt has been tracked back to 1959. However, for clarity, let’s just start with data back to 1980. The chart below tracks two things:

  1. The actual level of margin debt, and;
  2. The level of “free cash” balances which is the difference between cash and borrowed funds (net cash).

As I stated above, since the data has not been updated since January, the current level of margin, and negative cash balances, has obviously been reduced, and likely sharply so.

However, previous “market bottoms,” have occurred when those negative cash balances are reverted. Given the extreme magnitude of the leverage that was outstanding, I highly suspect the “reversion” is yet complete. 

The relationship between cash balances and the market is better illustrated in the next chart. I have inverted free cash balances, to show the relationship between reversals in margin debt and the market. Given the market has only declined by roughly 30% to date, there is likely more to go. This doesn’t mean a fairly sharp reflexive bounce can’t occur before a further liquidation ensues.

If we invert margin debt to the S&P 500, you can see the magnitude of both previous market declines and margin liquidation cycles. As stated, this data is as of January, and margin balances will be substantially lower following the recent rout. I am just not sure we have “squeezed” the last bit of blood out of investors just yet. 

You Were Warned

I warned previously, the idea that margin debt levels are simply a function of market activity, and have no bearing on the outcome of the market, was heavily flawed.

“By itself, margin debt is inert.

Investors can leverage their existing portfolios and increase buying power to participate in rising markets. While ‘this time could certainly be different,’ the reality is that leverage of this magnitude is ‘gasoline waiting on a match.’

When an event eventually occurs, it creates a rush to liquidate holdings. The subsequent decline in prices eventually reaches a point that 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, triggering further margin calls. Those margin calls will trigger more selling, forcing more margin calls, so forth and so on.

That event was the double-whammy of collapsing oil prices and the economic shutdown in response to the coronavirus.

While it is certainly hoped by many that we are closer to the end of the liquidation cycle, than the beginning, the dollar funding crisis, a blowout in debt yields, and forced selling of assets, suggests there is likely more pain to come before we are done.

It’s not too late to take actions to preserve capital now, so you have capital to invest later.

As I wrote in Tuesday’s missive “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.

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 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.”

You can’t “buy low,” if you don’t have anything to “buy with.”

Market Crash Reveals The “Liquidity Problem” Of Passive Investing

When it comes to investing, it’s a losing proposition to try and be anything better than average.

If there’s no point in trying to beat the market through ‘active’ investing – using mutual funds that managers run, selecting what they hope are market-beating investments – what is the best way to invest? Through “passive” investing, which accepts average market returns ­(this means index funds, which track market benchmarks)”Forbes

The idea of “passive indexing” sounds harmless enough, buy an “index” and be an “average” investor.

However, it isn’t as simple as that, and we have spilled a lot of ink digging into the relative dangers of it. Last week, investors saw those risks first hand.

The biggest risk to investors is when “passive indexers” turn into “panic sellers.” 

While the “sell-off” over the last couple of weeks was brutal, with the Dow posting some of the biggest declines in its history, as I will explain, it was exacerbated by the “passive indexing revolution.” 

Jim Cramer previously penned (courtesy of Doug Kass) an interesting note on the active vs. passive conflict.

“The answer is that there are two kinds of sellers in this market: hedge fund sellers, who react off of research, and portfolio shufflers, who buy and sell ETFs and index funds.

The former jumps on anything, right or wrong, as long as it is actionable. The latter, the index funds and ETF traders, rarely jump although they may press down harder on a bedraggled ETF, like one that includes the consumer products group.

But there are two kinds of buyers. The opportunistic buyers, and the index buyers. The opportunists think that the downgrades are noise and give them a chance to buy high-quality stocks with the money that comes in over the transom.

The index and ETF buyers? Well, they just buy.”

The dichotomy explains a lot of the bullish action, and isn’t talked about enough.

While Jim wrote this about those “buying” ETF’s, the same is true when they begin to “sell.” 

“The index and ETF sellers? Well, they just sell.”

It is often suggested that individuals who buy “passive indexes,” such as the SPDR S&P 500 Index (SPY), are they themselves “passive investors.” In other words, these individuals are willing to buy an “index” and hold it for an extended period regardless of market volatility.

Reality has been far different.

This was clear last week as the S&P 500 ETF (SPY) saw some of the biggest outflows in its history with the exception of the February 2018 market plunge as Trump announced his “Trade War with China.” 

The problem with individuals and “passive” investing is they are just “active” investors in a different form. They make all the same mistakes that individual stock investors make, such as “buying high and selling low,” but just using a different instrument to do it.

As the markets declined last week, there was a slow realization “this decline” was something more than another “buy the dip” opportunity. Concerns of the impact on the global supply chain, due to “COVID-19,” slowing earnings, economic growth, and a reduction of liquidity from the Federal Reserve, all culminated in a “panicked exit.”

As losses mounted, anxiety rose until individuals began to sell to “avert further losses” by selling.

Yes….it’s that psychology thing.

Individuals refuse to act “rationally” by holding their investments as losses mount.

The behavioral biases of investors are one of the most serious risks arising from ETFs as too much capital is concentrated into too few places. This concentration risk in ETF’s is not the first time this has occurred:

  • In the early 70’s it was the “Nifty Fifty” stocks,
  • Then Mexican and Argentine bonds a few years after that
  • “Portfolio Insurance” was the “thing” in the mid -80’s
  • Dot.com anything was a great investment in 1999
  • Real estate has been a boom/bust cycle roughly every other decade, but 2007 was a doozy
  • Today, it’s ETF’s and Bitcoin

Risk concentration always seems rational at the beginning, and the initial successes of the trends it creates can be self-reinforcing.

Until it goes in the other direction.

While the sell-off last week was large, it was the uniformity of the price moves, which revealed the fallacy “passive investing” as investors headed for the exits all at the same time.

The Apple Problem

Currently, there more than 1750 ETF”s trading in the U.S., with each of those ETF’s owning many of the same underlying companies. For an ETF company to “sell” you product, they need good performance. In a late-stage market cycle driven by momentum, it is not uncommon to find the same “best performing” stocks proliferating a large number of ETF’s.

For example, out of the 1750 ETF’s in the U.S., there are 175, or 10%, which own Apple (AAPL). Given that so many ETF’s own the same company, the problem of “liquidity” is exposed during a market rout. The head of the BOE, Mark Carney, warned about the risk of “disorderly unwinding of portfolios” due to the lack of market liquidity.

“Market adjustments to date have occurred without significant stress. However, the risk of a sharp and disorderly reversal remains given the compressed credit and liquidity risk premia. As a result, market participants need to be mindful of the risks of diminished market liquidity, asset price discontinuities and contagion across asset markets.”

Howard Marks, also noted in “Liquidity:”

“ETF’s have become popular because they’re generally believed to be ‘better than mutual funds,’ in that they’re traded all day. Thus an ETF investor can get in or out anytime during trading hours. But do the investors in ETFs wonder about the source of their liquidity?’”

Let me explain.

There is a statement often made by individuals about the market.

“For every buyer, there is a seller.” 

The belief has always been that if an individual wants to sell, there will always be a buyer available to execute the transaction at any given price.

However, such is not actually the case.

The correct statement is:

“For every buyer, there is a seller….at a specific price.”

In other words, when the selling begins, those wanting to “sell” overrun those willing to “buy,” so prices have to drop until a “buyer” is willing to execute a trade.

The “Apple” problem, using our example above, is that while investors who are long Apple shares directly are trying to find buyers, the 175 ETF’s that also own Apple shares are vying for the same buyers to meet redemption requests.

This surge in selling pressure creates a “liquidity vacuum” between the current price and the price at which a “buyer” is willing to step in. As we saw last week, Apple shares fell faster than the SPDR S&P 500 ETF, of which Apple is one of the largest holdings.

Secondly, the ETF market is not a PASSIVE MARKET. Today, advisors are actively migrating portfolio management to the use of ETF’s for either some, if not all, of the asset allocation equation. Importantly, they are NOT doing it “passively.” The rise of index funds has turned everyone into “asset class pickers,” instead of stock pickers. However, just because individuals are choosing to “buy baskets” of stocks, rather than individual securities, it is not a “passive” choice, but rather “active management” in a different form.  

While “passive indexing” sounds like a winning approach to “pace” the markets during the late stages of an advance, it is worth remembering it will also “pace” just as well during the subsequent decline.

The correction had the “perma-bulls” scrambling to produce commentary as to why markets will continue only to rise. Unfortunately, that is not the way markets actually work over the long-term, and why the basic rules of investing are REALLY hard to follow.

Despite the best of intentions, individual investors are NOT passive even though they are investing in “passive” vehicles. When these market swoons begin, the rush to liquidate entire baskets of stocks accelerate the decline making sell-offs much more violently than what we have seen in the past.

This concentration of risk, lack of liquidity, and a market increasingly driven by “robot trading algorithms,” reversals are no longer a slow and methodical process but rather a stampede with little regard to price, valuation, or fundamental measures as the exit becomes very narrow.

February was just a “sampling” of what will happen to the markets when the next bear market begins.

Are you prepared?

Our Triple-C Rated Economy: Complacency, Contradictions, and Corona

“I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand

Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand

Life is good today, life is good today” – Toes, Zac Brown Band

The economic and social instabilities in the U.S. are numerous and growing despite the fact that many of these factors have been in place and observable for years.   

  • Overvaluation of equity markets
  • Weak GDP Growth
  • High Debt to GDP levels
  • BBB Corporate Debt at Record Levels
  • High Leverage and Margin Debt
  • Weak Productivity
  • Growing Fiscal Deficits
  • Geopolitical uncertainty
  • Acute Domestic Political Divisiveness
  • Rising Populism
  • Trade Wars
  • Corona Virus

As we know, this list could be extended for pages, however, the one thing that will never show up on this list is…? 

Inflation.

Inflation

As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), inflation has been running above 2% for the better part of the last few years. Despite CPI being greater than their 2% target, the Federal Reserve (Fed) has been wringing their hands about the lack of inflation. They insist that inflation, as currently measured, is too low. We must disclaim, this all assumes we should have confidence in these measurements.

At his January 29, 2020 press conference, Chairman Powell stated:

“…inflation that runs persistently below our objective can lead longer-term inflation expectations to drift down, pulling actual inflation even lower. In turn, interest rates would be lower, as well, closer to their effective lower bound.

As a result, we would have less room to reduce interest rates to support the economy in a future downturn to the detriment of American families and businesses. We have seen this dynamic play out in other economies around the world and we’re determined to avoid it here in the United States.”

Contradictions

There are a couple of inconsistencies in Powell’s comments from the most recent January 2020 post-FOMC press conference. These are issues we have become increasingly interested in exploring because of the seeming incoherence of Fed policy. Further, as investors, high valuations and PE multiple expansion appear predicated upon “favorable” monetary policy. If investors are to rely on the Fed, they would be well-advised to understand them and properly judge their coherence.

 As discussed in Jerome Powell & the Fed’s Great Betrayal, Powell states that the supply of money that the Fed provides to the system is to be based on the demand for money – not the economic growth rate. That is a major departure from orthodox monetary policy. If investors had been paying attention, the bond market should have melted down on that one sentence. It did not because the market pays attention to the current implications for the Fed’s actions, not the future shock of such a policy. It is a myopic curse that someday could prove costly to investors.

As for Powell’s quote above, the first inconsistency is that the circumstances they have seen “play out in other countries” have not shown itself in the U.S. To front-run something that has not occurred assumes you are correct to anticipate it occurring in the future. It is pure speculation and quite a leap even for those smart PhDs at the Fed.

“Overall, the U.S. economy appears likely to expand at a moderate pace over the second half of 2007, with growth then strengthening a bit in 2008 to a rate close to the economy’s underlying trend.”  – Ben Bernanke, Testimony to Senate Banking Committee, July 2007

Although we have not actually seen this “dynamic” play out in the U.S. since the great depression, Fed officials are so concerned about deflation that they have begun telegraphing their intent to allow inflation to overshoot their 2% target. Based on current Fed guidance, periods of lesser inflation would be offset by periods of higher inflation.

Our question is, how do they come to that conclusion and based on what analytical rigor and evidence? There is, by the way, evidence from other countries throughout the history of humanity, that when money is printed to accommodate the spending incontinence of politicians, people lose confidence in the domestic currency. That would be devastatingly inflationary, and it is, without question of measurements, where we are headed.

The next inconsistency is that the Fed’s protracted engagement in quantitative easing (QE) over the past ten years has created precisely the circumstances about which Powell warns here – “less room to reduce interest rates… to the detriment of American families and businesses.”

The Chairman of the U.S. Fed, Jerome Powell, should understand how supply and demand works, but as a reminder, the less available something is, everything else constant, the more it is worth. Mr. Chairman, your predecessors removed $3.5 trillion of bonds from the market, what did you think would happen to bond prices and therefore yields?

Powell stumbled head-first into that self-contradiction, especially after watching the fantastic failure to normalize rates through rate hikes and quantitative tightening (QT) earlier in 2019, which caused him to perform a hasty 180-degree policy reversal in the fall of 2019.

We think this is a workable plan, and it will, as one of my colleagues, President Harker, described it, it will be like watching paint dry, that this will just be something that runs quietly in the background. – Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Chairman, June 14, 2017, FOMC Press Conference

Contrary to the reassurances of Janet Yellen and many other Fed members, it (QT) was a lot more exciting than watching paint dry. That too is troubling.

Wise Owl

In a recent interview on RealVision TV, James Grant, publisher of Grants Interest Rate Observer said:

“Is inflation a thing of the past?… are forces in place today that could reproduce [the great inflation of the 1970s? Inflation by definition, represents a loss of confidence in money. How do you lose confidence in money? Well, you create too much of it to subsidize the spending habits of the politicians. That’s one possible cause and are we on the way to something like that? Well, possibly. In this splendid economy, we’re generating a trillion-dollar budget deficit.”

Grant continues:

“Then two, there is the physical structure of the economy. We live in a world of expedited delivery of just in time rather than just in case. We live in a world of ubiquitous information about supply chains, but maybe if push comes to shove in the world of geopolitics, the supply chains might break. Lo and behold, we might be on our own in America for things we now import, and if we are, those prices would not be so low, they would be much higher.”

Again, pointing back to our recent article referenced above, Jerome Powell & the Fed’s Great Betrayal, there are other indicators of inflation that contradict what the Fed believes. In that article, we discussed real-world examples such as M2 growth, and auto and housing prices, to contrast with the BLS and Fed engineered metrics. Despite a plethora of readily available data to the contrary, we are continually reminded by the Fed of the absence of inflation.

As we know, the Fed just began another round of radical policy accommodation to incite higher inflation. If you pre-suppose a confluence of circumstances that begins to constrict global supply chains, then the inflation Grant theorizes might not be so far-fetched. The Fed, as has historically been the case, would be caught looking the wrong way, and given their proclivity toward wanting more inflation, it would almost certainly be too late to respond.

“Moreover, the agencies have made clear that no bank is too-big-too-fail, so that bank management, shareholders, and un-insured debt holders understand that they will not escape the consequences of excessive risk-taking. In short, although vigilance is necessary, I believe the systemic risk inherent in the banking system is well-managed and well-controlled.” – Benjamin S. Bernanke Fed Chairman confirmation hearing November 15, 2005

“Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.” – Senator Jim Bunning at Bernanke second confirmation hearing December 3, 2009

In the same way, there were recorded levels of laughter in FOMC meetings at the absurd incentives homebuilders were offering to sell houses in 2004, 2005, and 2006. The Fed is now equally blind, neglect, and arrogant concerning the perceived absence of inflation. The laughter in the Eccles Building boardroom stopped abruptly in mid-2007 as the housing market stalled. The Coronavirus may be a similar wake-up call with serious economic consequences.

Here and Now

The situation that is developing illustrates the one-dimensional nature of Fed thinking. Despite having the latest news on the spread of the Corona Virus at the January 29, 2020 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the Fed’s concern was for a slowdown in global growth and failed attempts to prime inflation. There was no consideration for possible second and third-order effects of the virus.

What are the possible second and third-order effects? They are the things that follow after the obvious occurs. In this case, there is no question that China’s growth is going to be hurt by the virus and quarantines, the restrictions on flight and travel, and factory shutdowns. That is obvious.

Consider the virus is now spreading rapidly to other suppliers of U.S. goods and services such as Korea, Japan, and Italy. What might not be obvious is that the growing problem will impede global commerce and cause fractures in the extensive and complex network of global supply chains. Goods and services we are accustomed to finding on the shelves of the local Wal-Mart or via the internet may not be available to us, or if they are, they may come at a cost well above the price we paid before the pandemic. If that occurs, those changes in prices will eventually find their way to the BLS inflation data collectors, and then, as the old saying goes, all bets are off.

Summary

There are plenty of uncertainties in the world. Individuals have the decision-making ability to evaluate those uncertainties and the risks they pose. That said, it is difficult to remember a time when the potential turbulence we face has been so broadly ignored by the “market” and so overlooked by the Fed and politicians. It is as though we have been tranquilized by the ever-rising stock market and net worth as an artifact of that fallacious indicator of security.

By all appearances, stock index levels convey not a worry in the world. Indeed, life is good today. We are just not so sure about tomorrow.

Decoding Media Speak & What You Can Do About It

Just recently, the Institutional Investor website published a brilliant piece entitled “Asset Manager B.S. Decoded.”

“The investment chief for one institution-sized single-family fortune decided to put pen to paper, translating these overused phrases, sales jargon, and excuses into plain — and satirical — English.”

A Translation Guide to Asset Manager-Speak

  • Now is a good entry point = Sorry, we are in a drawdown
  • We have a high Sharpe ratio = We don’t make much money
  • We have never lost money = We have never made money
  • We have a great backtest = We are going to lose money after we take your money
  • We have a proprietary sourcing approach = We invest in whatever our hedge fund friends do
  • We are not in crowded positions = We missed all the best-performing stocks
  • We are not correlated = We are underperforming while the market keeps going up
  • We invest in unique uncorrelated assets = We have an illiquid portfolio which can’t be valued and will suspend soon
  • We are soft-closing the fund = We want to raise as much money as we can right now
  • We are hard-closing the fund = We are definitely open for you
  • We are not responsible for the bad track record at our prior firm = We lost money but are blaming all our ex-colleagues
  • We have a bottom-up approach = We have no idea what markets are going to do
  • We have a top-down process = We think we know what markets will do but really who does?
  • The markets had a temporary mark-to-market loss = Our fundamental analysis was wrong and we don’t know why we lost money
  • We don’t believe in stop-loss limits = We have no risk management

Wall Street is a business.

The “business” of any business is to make a profit. Wall Street makes profits by building products to sell you, whether it is the latest “fad investment,” an ETF, or bringing a company public. While Wall Street tells you they are “here to help you grow your money,” three decades of Wall Street shenanigans should tell you differently.

I know you probably don’t believe that, but here is a survey that was done of Wall Street analysts. It is worth noting where “you” rank in terms of their concern, and compensation.

Not surprisingly, you are at the bottom of the list.

While the translation is satirical, it is also more than truthful. Investors are often told what they “want” to hear, but actual actions are always quite different, along with the eventual outcomes.

So, what can you do about it?

You can take actions to curb those emotional biases which lead to eventual impairments of capital. The following actions are the most common mistakes investors repeatedly make, mostly by watching the financial media, and what you can do instead.

1) Refusing To Take A Loss – Until The Loss Takes You.

When you buy a stock it should be with the expectation that it will go up – otherwise, why would you buy it?. If it goes down instead, you’ve made a mistake in your analysis. Either you’re early, or just plain wrong. It amounts to the same thing.

There is no shame in being wrongonly in STAYING wrong.

This goes to the heart of the familiar adage: “let winners run, cut losers short.”

Nothing will eat into your performance more than carrying a bunch of dogs and their attendant fleas, both in terms of actual losses and in dead, or underperforming, money.

2) The Unrealized Loss

From whence came the idiotic notion that a loss “on paper” isn’t a “real” loss until you actually sell the stock? Or that a profit isn’t a profit until the stock is sold and the money is in the bank? Nonsense!

Your portfolio is worth whatever you can sell it for, at the market, right at this moment. No more. No less.

People are reluctant to sell a loser for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s an ego/pride thing, an inability to admit they’ve made a mistake. That is false pride, and it’s faulty thinking. Your refusal to acknowledge a loss doesn’t make it any less real. Hoping and waiting for a loser to come back and save your fragile pride is just plain stupid.

Realize that your loser may NOT come back. And even if it does, a stock that is down 50% has to put up a 100% gain just to get back to even. Losses are a cost of doing business, a part of the game. If you never have losses, then you are not trading properly.

Take your losses ruthlessly, put them out of mind and don’t look back, and turn your attention to your next trade.

3) More Risk

It is often touted the more risk you take, the more money you will make. While that is true, it also means the losses are more severe when the tide turns against you.

In portfolio management, the preservation of capital is paramount to long-term success. If you run out of chips the game is over. Most professionals will allocate no more than 2-5% of their total investment capital to any one position. Money management also pertains to your total investment posture. Even when your analysis is overwhelmingly bullish, it never hurts to have at least some cash on hand, even if it earns nothing in a “ZIRP” world.

This gives you liquid cash to buy opportunities and keeps you from having to liquidate a position at an inopportune time to raise cash for the “Murphy Emergency:”

This is the emergency that always occurs when you have the least amount of cash available – (Murphy’s Law #73)

4) Bottom Feeding Knife Catchers

Unless you are really adept at technical analysis, and understand market cycles, it’s almost always better to let the stock find its bottom on its own, and then start to nibble. Just because a stock is down a lot doesn’t mean it can’t go down further. In fact, a major multi-point drop is often just the beginning of a larger decline. It’s always satisfying to catch an exact low tick, but when it happens, it’s usually by accident. Let stocks and markets bottom and top on their own and limit your efforts to recognizing the fact “soon enough.”

Nobody, and I mean nobody, can consistently nail the bottom or top ticks. 

5) Averaging Down

Don’t do it. For one thing, you shouldn’t even have the opportunity, as a failing investment should have already been sold long ago.

The only time you should average into any investment is when it is working. If you enter a position on a fundamental or technical thesis, and it begins to work as expected, thereby confirming your thesis to be correct, it is generally safe to increase your stake in that position, on the way up.

6) Don’t Fight The Trend

Yes, there are stocks that will go up in bear markets and stocks that will go down in bull markets, but it’s usually not worth the effort to hunt for them. The vast majority of stocks, some 80+%, will go with the market flow. And so should you.

It doesn’t make sense to counter trade the prevailing market trend. Don’t try and short stocks in a strong uptrend and don’t own stocks that are in a strong downtrend. Remember, investors don’t speculate – “The Trend Is Your Friend”

7) A Good Company Is Not Necessarily A Good Stock

There are some great companies that are mediocre stocks, and some mediocre companies that have been great stocks over a short time frame. Try not to confuse the two.

While fundamental analysis will identify great companies, it doesn’t take into account market and investor sentiment. Analyzing price trends, a view of the “herd mentality,” can help in the determination of the “when” to buy a great company that is also a great stock.

8) Technically Trapped

Amateur technicians regularly fall into periods where they tend to favor one or two indicators over all others. No harm in that, so long as the favored indicators are working, and keep on working.

But always be aware of the fact that as market conditions change, so will the efficacy of indicators. Indicators that work well in one type of market may lead you badly astray in another. You have to be aware of what’s working now and what’s not, and be ready to shift when conditions change.

There is no “Holy Grail” indicator that works all the time and in all markets. If you think you’ve found it, get ready to lose money. Instead, take your trading signals from the “accumulation of evidence” among ALL of your indicators, not just one.

9) The Tale Of The Tape

I get a kick out of people who insist that they’re long-term investors, buy a stock, then anxiously ask whether they should bail the first time the stocks drops a point or two. More likely than not, the panic was induced by listening to financial television.

Watching “the tape” can be dangerous. It leads to emotionalism and hasty decisions. Try not to make trading decisions when the market is in session. Do your analysis and make your plan when the market is closed. Turn off the television, get to a quiet place, and then calmly and logically execute your plan.

10) Worried About Taxes

Don’t let tax considerations dictate your decision on whether to sell a stock.  Pay capital gains tax willingly, even joyfully. The only way to avoid paying taxes on a stock trade is to not make any money on the trade.

“If you are paying taxes – you are making money…it’s better than the alternative”

Conclusion

Don’t confuse genius with a bull market. It’s not hard to make money in a roaring bull market. Keeping your gains when the bear comes prowling is the hard part. The market whips all our butts now and then, and that whipping usually comes just when we think we’ve got it all figured out.

Managing risk is the key to survival in the market and ultimately in making money. Focus on managing risk, market cycles and exposure.

The law of change states: Change will occur, and the elements in the environment will adapt or become extinct, and that extinction in and of itself is a consequence of change. 

Therefore, even if you are a long-term investor, you have to modify and adapt to an ever-changing environment otherwise, you will become extinct.

To navigate through this complex world, we suggest investors need to be open-minded, avoid concentrated risks, be sensitive to early warning signs, constantly adapt and always prepare for the worst.” – Tim Hodgson, Thinking Ahead Institute

Investing is not a competition.

It is a game of long-term survival.

Start by turning off the mainstream financial media. You will be a better investor for it.

I hope you found this helpful.

Will The Corona Virus Trigger A Recession?

As if waking up to an economic nightmare, investors see headlines like these and many others flashing across their Bloomberg terminals:

  • Facebook says Oculus headphone production will be delayed due to virus
  • Apple extends country wide store closing for another week
  • Foxconn delays iPhone production
  • Qualcomm cuts production forecast due to virus uncertainty
  • Starbucks announces China store closures through Lunar New Year, uncertain when they may reopen
  • US Steel flashes a warning of a cut in demand
  • Nike shoe production halted
  • Under Armour missed on sales, and their outlook is weak. They partially blamed the Corona Virus outbreak.
  • IEA forecasts drop in oil demand this quarter- first time in a decade

The seemingly never ending list of delays, disruptions, and cuts rolls on from retail to high technology. Even services are impacted as flights and train trips are canceled within and to and from China.  While some technology-based services are provided over the Internet service, restaurants, training, and consulting, as examples, must be performed in person.  Manufacturing operations require workers to be at the factory to produce products. Thus, manufacturing is much more acutely affected by quarantines, shutdowns, transportation disruption, and other government actions.

It is as if an economic tsunami is rolling over the global economy. China’s economy was 18 % of world GDP in 2019.  For most S & P 100 corporations, the Asian giant is their fastest growing market at 20 – 30 % per year.  Even more critical, China has become the hub of world manufacturing after entering the World Trade Organization in 2000. Over the past two decades, U.S. corporations have relocated manufacturing to China to leverage an inexpensive labor force and modern business infrastructure.

Source: The Wall Street Journal – 2/7/20

Prior to the epidemic, world trade had begun to slow as a result of the China – U.S. trade war and other tariffs.  World trade for the first time since the last recession has turned negative.

Source: Haver Analytics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 1/19/20

Based on severity estimates, analysts have forecasted the impact on first-quarter China GDP growth. In the chart below from Fitch Ratings, growth for first quarter drops almost in half and for year growth drops to 5.2 % if containment is delayed:

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 2/6/20

When news of the virus first was announced, the market sustained a quick modest decline. The next day, investors were reassured by official news from China and the World Health Organization that the virus could be contained. Market valuations bounced on optimism that the world economy would see little to no damage in the first quarter of 2020.  Yet, there is growing skepticism that the official tolls of the virus are short of reality. Doctors report that at the epicenter of Wuhan that officials are grossly underestimating the number of people infected and dead. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has an epidemic model indicating there will be at least 500,000 infections at the peak in a few weeks far greater than the present 45,000 officially reported.

The reaction, and not statements, of major governments to the epidemic hint that the insider information they have received is far worse and uncertain.  U.S. global airlines have canceled flights to China until mid-March and 30 other carriers have suspended flights indefinitely – severely reducing business and tourist activities.  The U.S. government has urged U.S. citizens to leave the country, flown embassy staff and families back to the U.S., and elevated the alert status of China to ‘Do Not Travel’ on par with Syria and North Korea. All of these actions have angered the Chinese government. While protecting U.S. citizens from the illness it adds stress to an already tense trade relationship. To reduce trade tension, China announced a relaxation of import tariffs on $75 billion of U.S. goods, reducing tariffs by 5 to 10 %.  President Xi on a telephone call with President Trump committed to complete all purchases of U.S. goods on target by the end of the year while delaying shipments temporarily.  It remains to be seen if uncontrolled events will drive a deeper trade wage between the U.S. and China.

Inside China, chaos in the supply chain operations is creating great uncertainty. Workers are being told to work from home and stay away from factories for at least for another week beyond the Lunar New Year and now well into late-February.  Foxconn and Tesla announced plant openings on February 10th, yet ramping up output is still an issue. It will be a challenge to staff factories as many workers are in quarantined cities and train schedules have been curtailed or canceled.  Many factories are dependent on parts from other cities around the country that may have more severe restrictions on transportation and/or workers reporting to work. Thus, even when a plant is open, it is likely to be operating at limited capacity.

On February 7th, the Federal Reserve announced that while the trade war pause has improved the global economy, it cautioned that the coronavirus posed a ‘new threat to the world economy.’  The Fed is monitoring the situation. The central bank of China infused CNY 2 trillion in the last four weeks to provide fresh liquidity.  The liquidity will help financially stretched Chinese companies survive for a while, but they are unlikely to be able to continue operations unless production and sales return to pre epidemic levels quickly.

Will the Federal Reserve really be able to buffer the supply chain disruption and sales declines in the first quarter of 2020?  The Fed already seems overwhelmed, keeping a $1+ trillion yearly federal deficit under control and providing billions in repo financing to banks and hedge funds causing soaring prices in risk assets. While the Fed may be able to assist U.S. corporations with liquidity through a tough stretch of declining sales and supply chain disruptions, it cannot create sales or build products.

Prior to the virus crisis, CEO Confidence was at a ten year low.  Then, CEO confidence levels improved a little with the Phase One trade deal driving brighter business prospects for the coming year. Now, a possible black swan epidemic has entered the world economic stage creating extreme levels of sales and operational uncertainty.  Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, expresses the anxiety many CEOs feel about trade:

 “Because that issue (trade) is on the table, then everybody has a question mark around in some part of their business,” he said. “I mean, we’re in this strange economic time, we all know that.”

Adding to the uncertainty is a deteriorating political environment in China.  During the first few weeks of December, local Wuhan officials denounced a doctor that was calling for recognition of the new virus. He later died of the disease, triggering a social media uproar over the circumstances of his treatment. Many Chinese people have posted on social media strident criticisms of the delayed government response.  Academics have posted petitions for freedom of speech, laying the blame on government censors for making the virus outbreak worse.  The wave of freedom calls is rising as Hong Kong protester’s messages seem to be spreading to the mainland. The calls for freedom of speech and democracy are posing a major challenge to President Xi.  Food prices skyrocketed by 20 % in January with pork prices rising 116 % adding to consumer concerns. Political observers see this challenge to government policies on par with the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The ensuing massacre of protestors is still in the minds of many mainland people. As seems to be true of many of these events that it is not the crisis itself, but the reaction and ensuing waves of social disorder which drive a major economic impact.

Oxford Economics has forecast a slowdown in US GDP growth in the first quarter of 2020 to just .6 %

Sources: Oxford Economics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 2/6/20

Will U.S. GDP growth really be shaved by just .4 %?  If we consider the compounding effect of the epidemic to disrupt both demand and supply, the social chaos in China challenging government authority (i.e., Hong Kong), and a lingering trade war – these factors all make a decline into a recession a real and growing possibility.  We hope the epidemic can be contained quickly and lives saved with a return to a more certain world economy.  Yet, 1930s historical records show rising world nationalism, trade wars, and the fracturing of the world order does not bode well for a positive outcome. Mohammed A. El-Arian. Chief Economic Advisor at Allianz in a recent Bloomberg opinion warns of a U shaped recession or worse an L :

I worry that many analysts do not fully appreciate the notable differences between financial and economic sudden stops. Rather than confidently declare a V, economic modelers need more time and evidence to assess the impact on the Chinese economy and the related spillovers – a consideration that is made even more important by two observations. First, the Chinese economy was already in an unusually fragile situation because of the impact of trade tensions with the U.S. Second, it has been navigating a tricky economic development transition that has snared many countries before China in the “middle income trap. All this suggests it is too early to treat the economic effects of the coronavirus on China and the global economy as easily containable, temporary and quickly reversible. Instead, analysts and modelers should respect the degree of uncertainty in play, including the inconvenient realization that the possibility of a U or, worse, an L for 2020 is still too high for comfort.”

Patrick Hill is the Editor of The Progressive Ensignhttps://theprogressiveensign.com/ writes from the heart of Silicon Valley, leveraging 20 years of experience as an executive at firms like HP, Genentech, Verigy, Informatica, and Okta to provide investment and economic insights. Twitter: @PatrickHill1677.

Why “Not-QE” is QE: Deciphering Gibberish

I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.”  – Alan Greenspan

Imagine if Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Jerome Powell told the American people they must pay more for the goods and services they consume.

How long would it take for mobs with pitchforks to surround the Mariner Eccles building?  However, Jerome Powell and every other member of the Fed routinely and consistently convey pro-inflationary ideals, and there is nary a protest, which seems odd. The reason for the American public’s complacency is that the Fed is not that direct and relies on carefully crafted language and euphemisms to describe the desire for higher inflation.

To wit, the following statements from past and present Fed officials make it all but clear they want more inflation:  

  • That is why it is essential that we at the Fed use our tools to make sure that we do not permit an unhealthy downward drift in inflation expectations and inflation,” – Jerome Powell November 2019
  • In order to move rates up, I would want to see inflation that’s persistent and that’s significant,” -Jerome Powell December 2019
  • Been very challenging to get inflation back to 2% target” -Jerome Powell December 2019
  • Ms. Yellen also said that continuing low inflation, regarded as a boon by many, could be “dangerous” – FT – November 2017
  • One way to increase the scope for monetary policy is to retain the Fed’s current focus on hitting a targeted value of inflation, but to raise the target to, say, 3 or 4 percent.” –Ben Bernanke October 2017
  • Further weakness in inflation could prompt the U.S. Federal Reserve to cut interest rates, even if economic growth maintains its momentum”  -James Bullard, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis  May 2019
  • Fed Evans Says Low Inflation Readings Elevating His Concerns” -Bloomberg May 2019
  • “I believe an aggressive policy action such as this is required to re-anchor inflation expectations at our target.”  Neel Kashkari, President Minneapolis Fed June 2019

As an aside, it cannot be overemphasized the policies touted in the quotes above actually result in deflation, an outcome the Fed desperately fears.

The Fed, and all central banks for that matter, have a long history of using confusing economic terminology. Economics is not as complicated as the Fed makes it seem. What does make economics hard to grasp is the technical language and numerous contradictions the Fed uses to explain economics and justify unorthodox monetary policy. It is made even more difficult when the Fed’s supporting cast – the media, Wall Street and other Fed apologists – regurgitate the Fed’s gibberish.   

The Fed’s fourth installment of quantitative easing (“QE4”, also known as “Not-QE QE”) is vehemently denied as QE by the Fed and Fed apologists. These denials, specifically a recent article in the Financial Times (FT), provide us yet another opportunity to show how the Fed and its minions so blatantly deceive the public.

What is QE?

QE is a transaction in which the Fed purchases assets, mainly U.S. Treasury securities and mortgage-backed-securities, via their network of primary dealers. In exchange for the assets, the Fed credits the participating dealers’ reserve account at the Fed, which is a fancy word for a place for dormant money. In this transaction, each dealer receives payment for the assets sold to the Fed in an account that is essentially the equivalent of a depository account with the Fed. Via QE, the Fed has created reserves that sit in accounts maintained by it.

Reserves are the amount of funds required by the Fed to be held by banks (which we are using interchangeably with “primary dealer” for the remainder of this discussion) in their Fed account or in vault cash to back up a percentage of specified deposit liabilities. While QE is not directly money printing, it enables banks to create loans at a multiple of approximately ten times the reserves available, if they so choose.

Notice that “Quantitative Easing” is the preferred terminology for the operations that create additional reserves, not something easier to understand and more direct like money/reserve printing, Fed bond buying program, or liquidity injections. Consider the two words used to describe this policy – Quantitative and Easing. Easing is an accurate descriptor of the Fed’s actions as it refers to an action that makes financial conditions easier, e.g., lower interest rates and more money/liquidity. However, what does quantitative mean? From the Oxford Dictionary, “quantitative” is “relating to, measuring, or measured by the quantity of something rather than its quality.”   

So, QE is a measure of the amount of easing in the economy. Does that make sense to you? Would the public be so complacent if QE were called BBMPO (bond buying and money printing operations)? Of course not. The public’s acceptance of QE without much thought is a victory for the Fed marketing and public relations departments.

Is “Not-QE” QE?

The Fed and media are vehemently defending the latest round of repurchase market (“repo”) operations and T-bill purchases as “not QE.” Before the Fed even implemented these new measures, Jerome Powell was quick to qualify their actions accordingly: “My colleagues and I will soon announce measures to add to the supply of reserves over time,” “This is not QE.”

This new round of easing is QE, QE4, to be specific. We dissect a recent article from the FT to debunk the nonsense commonly used to differentiate these recent actions from QE.  

On February 5th, 2020, Dominic White, an economist with a research firm in London, wrote an article published by the FT entitled The Fed is not doing QE. Here’s why that matters.

The article presents three factors that must be present for an action to qualify as QE, and then it rationalizes why recent Fed operations are something else. Here are the requirements, per the article:

  1. “increasing the volume of reserves in the banking system”
  2. “altering the mix of assets held by investors”
  3. “influence investors’ expectations about monetary policy”

Simply:

  1.  providing banks the ability to make more money
  2.  forcing investors to take more risk and thereby push asset prices higher
  3.  steer expectations about future Fed policy. 

Point 1

In the article, White argues “that the US banking system has not multiplied up the Fed’s injection of reserves.”

That is an objectively false statement. Since September 2019, when repo and Treasury bill purchase operations started, the assets on the Fed’s balance sheet have increased by approximately $397 billion. Since they didn’t pay for those assets with cash, wampum, bitcoin, or physical currency, we know that $397 billion in additional reserves have been created. We also know that excess reserves, those reserves held above the minimum and therefore not required to backstop specified deposit liabilities, have increased by only $124 billion since September 2019. That means $273 billion (397-124) in reserves were employed (“multiplied up”) by banks to support loan growth.

Regardless of whether these reserves were used to back loans to individuals, corporations, hedge funds, or the U.S. government, banks increased the amount of debt outstanding and therefore the supply of money. In the first half of 2019, the M2 money supply rose at a 4.0% to 4.5% annualized rate. Since September, M2 has grown at a 7% annualized rate.  

Point 2

White’s second argument against the recent Fed action’s qualifying as QE is that, because the Fed is buying Treasury Bills and offering short term repo for this round of operations, they are not removing riskier assets like longer term Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities from the market. As such, they are not causing investors to replace safe investments with riskier ones.  Ergo, not QE.

This too is false. Although by purchasing T-bills and offering repo the Fed has focused on the part of the bond market with little to no price risk, the Fed has removed a vast amount of assets in a short period. Out of necessity, investors need to replace those assets with other assets. There are now fewer non-risky assets available due to the Fed’s actions, thus replacement assets in aggregate must be riskier than those they replace.

Additionally, the Fed is offering repo funding to the market.  Repo is largely used by banks, hedge funds, and other investors to deploy leverage when buying financial assets. By cheapening the cost of this funding source and making it more readily available, institutional investors are incented to expand their use of leverage. As we know, this alters the pricing of all assets, be they stocks, bonds, or commodities.

By way of example, we know that two large mortgage REITs, AGNC and NLY, have dramatically increased the leverage they utilize to acquire mortgage related assets over the last few months. They fund and lever their portfolios in part with repo.

Point 3

White’s third point states, “the Fed is not using its balance sheet to guide expectations for interest rates.”

Again, patently false. One would have to be dangerously naïve to subscribe to White’s logic. As described below, recent measures by the Fed are gargantuan relative to steps they had taken over the prior 50 years. Are we to believe that more money, more leverage, and fewer assets in the fixed income universe is anything other than a signal that the Fed wants lower interest rates? Is the Fed taking these steps for more altruistic reasons?

Bad Advice

After pulling the wool over his reader’s eyes, the author of the FT article ends with a little advice to investors: Rather than obsessing about fluctuations in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, then, investors might be better off focusing on those things that have changed more fundamentally in recent months.”

After a riddled and generally incoherent explanation about why QE is not QE, White has the chutzpah to follow up with advice to disregard the actions of the world’s largest central bank and the crisis-type operations they are conducting. QE 4 and repo operations were a sudden and major reversal of policy. On a relative basis using a 6-month rate of change, it was the third largest liquidity injection to the U.S. financial system, exceeded only by actions taken following the 9/11 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. As shown below, using a 12-month rate of change, recent Fed actions constitute the single biggest liquidity injection in 50 years of data.

Are we to believe that the latest round of Fed policy is not worth following? In what is the biggest “tell” that White is not qualified on this topic, every investment manager knows that money moves the markets and changes in liquidity, especially those driven by the central banks, are critically important to follow.

The graph below compares prior balance sheet actions to the latest round.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

This next graph is a not so subtle reminder that the current use of repo is simply unprecedented.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

Summary

This is a rebuttal to the FT article and comments from the Fed, others on Wall Street and those employed by the financial media. The wrong-headed views in the FT article largely parrot those of Ben Bernanke. This past January he stated the following:

“Quantitative easing works through two principal channels: by reducing the net supply of longer-term assets, which increases their prices and lower their yields; and by signaling policymakers’ intention to keep short rates low for an extended period. Both channels helped ease financial conditions in the post-crisis era.”   -LINK

Bourbon, tequila, and beer offer drinkers’ very different flavors of alcohol, but they all have the same effect. This round of QE may be a slightly different cocktail of policy action, but it is just as potent as QE 1, 2, and 3 and will equally intoxicate the market as much, if not more.

Keep in mind that QE 1, 2, and 3 were described as emergency policy actions designed to foster recovery from an economic crisis. Might that fact be the rationale for claiming this round of liquidity is far different from prior ones? Altering words to describe clear emergency policy actions is a calculated effort to normalize those actions. Normalizing them gives the Fed greater latitude to use them at will, which appears to be the true objective. Pathetic though it may be, it is the only rationale that helps us understand their obfuscation.

Jerome Powell & The Fed’s Great Betrayal

“Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”

John Maynard Keynes – The Economic Consequences of Peace 1920

“And when we see that we’ve reached that level we’ll begin to gradually reduce our asset purchases to the level of the underlying trend growth of demand for our liabilities.” –Jerome Powell January 29, 2020.

With that one seemingly innocuous statement, Chairman Powell revealed an alarming admission about the supply of money and your wealth. The current state of monetary policy explains why so many people are falling behind and why wealth inequality is at levels last seen almost 100 years ago. 

REALity

 “Real” is a very important concept in the field of economics. Real generally refers to an amount of something adjusted for the effects of inflation. This allows economists to measure true organic growth or decline.

Real is equally important for the rest of us. The size of our paycheck or bank account balance is meaningless without an understanding of what money can buy. For instance, an annual income of $25,000 in 1920 was about eight times the national average. Today that puts a family of four below the Federal Poverty Guideline. As your grandfather used to say, a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.

Real wealth and real wage growth are important for assessing your economic standing and that of the nation.

Here are two facts:

  • Wealth is largely a function of the wages we earn
  • The wages we earn are predominately a function of the growth rate of the economy

These facts establish that the prosperity and wealth of all citizens in aggregate is meaningfully tied to economic growth or the output of a nation. It makes perfect sense.

Now, let us consider inflation and the role it plays in determining our real wages and real wealth.

If the rate of inflation is less than the rate of wage growth over time, then our real wages are rising and our wealth is increasing. Conversely, if inflation rises at a pace faster than wages, wealth declines despite a larger paycheck and more money in the bank.

With that understanding of “real,” let’s discuss inflation.

What is Inflation?

Borrowing from an upcoming article, we describe inflation in the following way:

“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.”

The price of cars, cheeseburgers, movie tickets, and all the other goods and services we consume are chiefly based on supply and demand. Demand is a function of both our need and desire to own a good and, equally importantly, how much money we have. The amount of money we have in aggregate, known as money supply, is governed by the Federal Reserve. Therefore, the supply of money is a key component of demand and therefore a significant factor affecting prices.

With the linkage between the supply of money and inflation defined, let us revisit Powell’s recent revelation.

“And when we see that we’ve reached that level we’ll begin to gradually reduce our asset purchases to the level of the underlying trend growth of demand for our liabilities.”

In plain English, Powell states that the supply of money is based on the demand for money and not the economic growth rate.  To clarify, one of the Fed’s largest liabilities currently are bank reserves. Banks are required to hold reserves for every loan they make. Therefore, they need reserves to create money to lend. Ergo, “demand for our liabilities,” as Powell states, actually means bank demand for the seed funding to create money and make loans.

The relationship between money supply and the demand for money may, in fact, be aligned with economic growth. If so, then the supply of money should rise with the economy. This occurs when debt is predominately employed to facilitate productive investments.

The problem occurs when money is demanded for consumption or speculation. For example:

  • When hedge funds demand billions to leverage their trading activity
  • When Apple, which has over $200 billion in cash, borrows money to buy back their stock  
  • When you borrow money to buy a car, the size of the economy increases but not permanently as you are not likely to buy another car tomorrow and the next day

Now ask, should the supply of money increase because of those instances?

The relationship between the demand for money and economic activity boils down to what percentage of the debt taken on is productive and helps the economy and the populace grow versus what percentage is for speculation and consumption.

While there is no way to quantify how debt is used, we do know that speculative and consumptive debt has risen sharply and takes up a much larger percentage of all debt than in prior eras.  The glaring evidence is the sharp rise of debt to GDP.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

If most of the debt were used productively, then the level of debt would drop relative to GDP. In other words, the debt would not only produce more economic growth but would also pay for itself.  The exact opposite is occurring as growth languishes despite record levels of debt accumulation.

The speculative markets provide further evidence. Without presenting the long list of asset valuations that stand at or near record levels, consider that since the last time the S&P 500 was fairly valued in 2009, it has grown 375%. Meanwhile, total U.S. Treasury debt outstanding is up by 105% from $11 trillion to $22.5 trillion and corporate debt is up 55% from $6.5 trillion to $10.1 trillion. Over that same period, nominal GDP has only grown 46% and Average Hourly Earnings by 29%.

When the money supply is increased for consumptive and speculative purposes, the Fed creates dissonance between our wages, wealth, and the rate of inflation. In other words, they generate excessive inflation and reduce our real wealth.  

If this is the case, why is the stated rate of inflation less than economic growth and wage growth?

The Wealth Scheme

This scheme works like all schemes by keeping the majority of people blind to what is truly occurring. To perpetuate such a scheme, the public must be convinced that inflation is low and their wealth is increasing.

In 2000, a brand new Ford Taurus SE sedan had an original MSRP of $18,935. The 2019 Ford Taurus SE has a starting price of $27,800.  Over the last 19 years, the base price of the Ford Taurus has risen by 2.05% a year or a total of 47%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statics (BLS), since the year 2000, the consumer price index for new vehicles has only risen by 0.08% a year and a total of 1.68% over the same period.

For another instance of how inflation is grossly underreported, we highlighted flaws in the reporting of housing prices in MMT Sounds Great in Theory But…  To wit: 

“Since then, inflation measures have been tortured, mangled, and abused to the point where it scarcely equates to the inflation that consumers deal with in reality. For example, home prices were substituted for “homeowners equivalent rent,” which was falling at the time, and lowered inflationary pressures, despite rising house prices.

Since 1998, homeowners equivalent rent has risen 72% while house prices, as measured by the Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index has almost doubled the rate at 136%. Needless to say, house prices, which currently comprise almost 25% of CPI, have been grossly under-accounted for. In fact, since 1998 CPI has been under-reported by .40% a year on average. Considering that official CPI has run at a 2.20% annual rate since 1998, .40% is a big misrepresentation, especially for just one line item.”

Those two obscene examples highlight that the government reported inflation is not the same inflation experienced by consumers. It is important to note that we are not breaking new ground with the assertion that the government reporting of inflation is low. As we have previously discussed, numerous private assessments quantify that the real inflation rate could easily be well above the average reported 2% rate. For example, Shadow Stats quantifies that inflation is running at 10% when one uses the official BLS formula from 1980.

Despite what we may sense and a multitude of private studies confirming that inflation is running greater than 2%, there are a multitude of other government-sponsored studies that argue inflation is actually over-stated. So, the battle is in the trenches, and the devil is in the details.

As defined earlier, inflation is “a disequilibrium between the amount of currency entering an economic system relative to the productive output of that same system.”

The following graph shows that the supply of money, measured by M2, has grown far more than the rate of economic growth (GDP) over the last 20 years.

Data St. Louis Federal Reserve

Since 2000, M2 has grown 234% while GDP has grown at half of that rate, 117%. Over the same period, the CPI price index has only grown by 53%. M2 implies an annualized inflation rate over the last 20 years of 6.22% which is three times that of CPI. 

Dampening perceived inflation is only part of the cover-up. The scheme is also perpetuated with other help from the government. The government borrows to boost temporary economic growth and help citizens on the margin. This further limits people’s ability to detect a significant decline in their standard of living.

As shown below, when one strips out the change in government debt (the actual increase in U.S. Treasury debt outstanding) from the change in GDP growth, the organic economy has shrunk for the better part of the last 20 years. 

Data St. Louis Federal Reserve

It doesn’t take an economist to know that a 6.22% inflation rate (based on M2) and decade long recession would force changes to our monetary policy and send those responsible to the guillotines. If someone suffering severe headaches is diagnosed with a brain tumor, the problem does not go away because the doctor uses white-out to cover up the tumor on the x-ray film.

Despite crystal clear evidence, the mirages of economic growth and low inflation prevent us from seeing reality.

Summary

Those engaging in speculative ventures with the benefit of cheap borrowing costs are thriving. Those whose livelihood and wealth are dependent on a paycheck are falling behind. For this large percentage of the population, their paychecks may be growing in line with the stated government inflation rate but not the true inflation rate they pay at the counter. They fall further behind day by day as shown below.

While this may be hard to prove using government inflation data, it is the reality. If you think otherwise, you may want to ask why a political outsider like Donald Trump won the election four years ago and why socialism and populism are surging in popularity. We doubt that it is because everyone thinks their wealth is increasing. To quote Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

That brings us back to Jerome Powell and the Fed. The U.S. economy is driven by millions of individuals making decisions in their own best interests. Prices are best determined by those millions of people based on supply and demand – that includes the price of money or interest rates. Any governmental interference with that natural mechanism is a recipe for inefficiency and quite often failure.

If monetary policy is to be set by a small number of people in a conference room in the Eccles Building in Washington, D.C. who think they know what is best for us based on flawed data, then they should prepare themselves for even more radical social and political movements than we have already seen.

Yes, Rates Are Still Going To Zero

“If the U.S. economy entered a recession soon and interest rates fell in line with levels seen during the moderate recessions of 1990 and 2001, yields on even longer-dated Treasury securities could fall to or below zero.” – Senior Fed Economist, Michael Kiley – January 20, 2020

I was emailed this article no less than twenty times within a few hours of it hitting the press. Of course, this was not a surprise to us. To wit:

“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. Given the current low level of interest rates, the next recessionary bout in the economy will very likely see rates near zero.” 

That article was written more than 3-years ago in August 2016. 

Of course, three-years ago, as the “Bond Gurus,” like Jeff Gundlach and Bill Gross, were flooding the media with talk about how the “bond bull market was dead,” and “interest rates were going to rise to 4%, or more,” I repeatedly penned why this could not, and would not, be the case.

While it seemed a laughable concept at the time, particularly as the Fed was preparing to hike rates and reduce their balance sheet, the critical aspect of leverage was overlooked.

“There is an assumption that because interest rates are low, that the bond bull market has come to its inevitable conclusion. The problem with this assumption is three-fold:

  1. All interest rates are relative. With more than $10-Trillion in debt globally sporting negative interest rates, the assumption that rates in the U.S. are about to spike higher is likely wrong. Higher yields in U.S. debt attracts flows of capital from countries with negative yields, which pushes rates lower in the U.S. Given the current push by Central Banks globally to suppress interest rates to keep nascent economic growth going, an eventual zero-yield on U.S. debt is not unrealistic.
  2. The coming budget deficit balloon. Given the lack of fiscal policy controls in Washington, and promises of continued largesse in the future, the budget deficit is set to swell above $1 Trillion in coming years. This will require more government bond issuance to fund future expenditures, which will be magnified during the next recessionary spat as tax revenue falls.
  3. Central Banks will continue to be a buyer of bonds to maintain the current status quo, but will become more aggressive buyers during the next recession. The next QE program by the Fed to offset the next economic recession will likely be $2-4 Trillion which will push the 10-year yield towards zero.”

Of course, since the penning of that article, let’s take a look at where we currently stand:

  1. Negative yielding debt surged past $17 trillion pushing more dollars into positive yielding U.S. Treasuries which led to rates hitting decade lows in 2019.
  2. The budget deficit has indeed swelled to $1 Trillion and will exceed that mark in 2020 as unbridled Government largesse continues to run amok in Washington.
  3. The Federal Reserve, following a very short period of trying to hike rates and reduce the bloated balance sheet, completely reversed the policy stance by cutting rates and flooding the system with liquidity by ramping up bond purchases.

The biggest challenge the Fed faces currently is how to deal with a recession. Given the current expansion is the longest on record; a downturn at some point is inevitable. Over the last decade, as shown in the chart below, the Federal Reserve has kept rates at extremely low levels, and flooded the system with liquidity, which did NOT have the effect of fostering either economic growth or inflation to any significant degree. (As noted the composite index is of inflation, GDP, wages, and savings which has closely tracked the long-term trend of interest rates.)

Naturally, at any point monetary accommodation is removed, an economic, and market downturn is almost immediate. This is why it is feared central banks do not have enough tools to fight the next recession. During and after the financial crisis, they responded with a mixture of conventional interest-rate cuts and, when these reached their limit, with experimental measures, such as bond-buying (“quantitative easing”, or QE) and making promises about future policy (“forward guidance”).

The trouble currently is that global short-term interest rates are still close to, or below zero, and cannot be cut much more, which has deprived central banks of their main lever if a recession strikes.

The Fed Is Trapped

While the Fed talks about wanting higher rates of inflation, as shown above, they can’t run the risk that rates will rise. Simply, in an economy that requires $5 of debt to create $1 of economic growth, the leverage ratio requires rates to remain low or “bad things” happen economically.

1) The Federal Reserve has been buying bonds for the last 10- years in an attempt to keep interest rates suppressed to support the economy. The recovery in economic growth is still dependent on massive levels of domestic and global interventions. Sharply rising rates will immediately curtail that growth as rising borrowing costs slows consumption.

2) Rising interest rates immediately slows the housing market, taking that small contribution to the economy away. People buy payments, not houses, and rising rates mean higher payments.

3) An increase in interest rates means higher borrowing costs, which leads to lower profit margins for corporations. This will negatively impact the stock market given that a bulk of the “share buybacks” have been completed through the issuance of debt.

4) One of the main arguments of stock bulls over the last 10-years has been the stocks are cheap based on low interest rates. When rates rise, the market becomes overvalued very quickly.

5) The massive derivatives market will be negatively impacted, leading to another potential credit crisis as interest rate spread derivatives go bust.

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

7) Rising defaults on debt service will negatively impact banks, which are still not adequately capitalized and still burdened by large levels of risky debt.

8) Commodities, which are very sensitive to the direction and strength of the global economy, will plunge in price as recession sets in. (Such may already be underway.)

9) The deficit/GDP ratio will begin to soar as borrowing costs rise sharply. The many forecasts for lower future deficits have already crumbled as the deficits have already surged to $1 Trillion and will continue to climb.

10) Rising interest rates will negatively impact already massively underfunded pension plans leading to insecurity about the ability to meet future obligations. With a $7 Trillion funding gap, a “run” on the pension system becomes a high probability.

I could go on but you get the idea.

The issue of rising borrowing costs spreads through the entire financial ecosystem like a virus. The rise and fall of stock prices have very little to do with the average American and their participation in the domestic economy. This is because the vast majority of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

However, since average American’s requires roughly $3000 in debt annually to maintain their standard of living, interest rates are an entirely different matter.

As I noted last week, this is a problem too large for the Fed to bail out, which is why they are terrified of an economic downturn.

The Fed’s End Game

The ability of the Fed to use monetary policy to combat recessions is at an end. A recent article by the WSJ agrees with our assessment above.

“In many countries, interest rates are so low, even negative, that central banks can’t lower them further. Tepid economic growth and low inflation mean they can’t raise rates, either.

Since World War II, every recovery was ushered in with lower rates as the Fed moved to stimulate growth. Every recession was preceded by higher interest rates as the Fed sought to contain inflation.

But with interest rates now stuck around zero, central banks are left without their principal lever over the business cycle. The eurozone economy is stalling, but the European Central Bank, having cut rates below zero, can’t or won’t do more. Since 2008, Japan has had three recessions with the Bank of Japan, having set rates around zero, largely confined to the sidelines.

The U.S. might not be far behind. ‘We are one recession away from joining Europe and Japan in the monetary black hole of zero rates and no prospect of escape,’ said Harvard University economist Larry Summers. The Fed typically cuts short-term interest rates by 5 percentage points in a recession, he said, yet that is impossible now with rates below 2%.”

This too sounds familiar as it is something we wrote in 2017 prior to the passage of the tax reform bill:

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

This is the same problem that Japan has wrestled with for the last 20 years. While Japan has entered into an unprecedented stimulus program (on a relative basis twice as large as the U.S. on an economy 1/3 the size) there is no guarantee that such a program will result in the desired effect of pulling the Japanese economy out of its 30-year deflationary cycle. The problems that face Japan are similar to what we are currently witnessing in the U.S.:

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

The 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.

It’s good news the WSJ, and mainstream economists, are finally catching up to analysis we have been producing over the last several years.

The only problem is that it is likely too little, too late.Save

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The Fed Won’t Avert The Next “Crisis,” They Will Cause It.

John Mauldin recently penned an interesting piece:

“Ignoring problems rarely solves them. You need to deal with them—not just the effects, but the underlying causes, or else they usually get worse. In the developed world, and especially the US, and even in China, our economic challenges are rapidly approaching that point. Things that would have been easily fixed a decade ago, or even five years ago, will soon be unsolvable by conventional means.

Yes, we did indeed need the Federal Reserve to provide liquidity during the initial crisis. But after that, the Fed kept rates too low for too long, reinforcing the wealth and income disparities and creating new bubbles we will have to deal with in the not-too-distant future.

This wasn’t a ‘beautiful deleveraging’ as you call it. It was the ugly creation of bubbles and misallocation of capital. The Fed shouldn’t have blown these bubbles in the first place.”

John is correct. The problem with low interest rates for so long is they have encouraged the misallocation of capital. We see it everywhere throughout the entirety of the financial system from consumer debt, to subprime auto-loans, to corporate leverage, and speculative greed.

Misallocation Of Capital – Everywhere

Debt, if used for productive purposes, can be beneficial. However, as discussed in The Economy Should Grow Faster Than Debt:

“Since the bulk of the debt issued by the U.S. has been squandered on increases in social welfare programs and debt service, there is a negative return on investment. Therefore, the larger the balance of debt becomes, the more economically destructive it is by diverting an ever-growing amount of dollars away from productive investments to service payments.”

Currently, throughout the entire monetary ecosystem, there is a rising consensus that “debt doesn’t matter” as long as interest rates and inflation remain low. Of course, the ultra-low interest rate policy administered by the Federal Reserve is responsible for the “yield chase,” and the massive surge in debt since the “financial crisis.” 

Yes, current economic growth is good, but not great. Inflation, and interest rates, remain low, which creates an “illusion” that using debt remains opportunistic. However, as stated, rising levels of non-productive debt has negative long-term economic consequences.

Before the deregulation of the financial industry under President Reagan, which led to an explosion in consumer credit issuance, it required just $1.00 of total system-wide debt to create $1.00 of economic growth. Today, it requires $3.97 to create the same $1 of economic growth. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that “debt” detracts from economic growth as the “debt service” diverts income from productive investments and leads to a “diminishing rate of return” for each new dollar of debt.

The irony is that while it appears the economy is growing, akin to the analogy of “boiling a frog,” we accept 2% economic growth as “strong,” whereas such growth rates were previously considered near recessionary.

Another conundrum is that corporations, and financial institutions, appear to be healthier, not to mention wealthier than ever. If such is indeed the case, then why is the Federal Reserve still needing to engage in “emergency monetary measures” to support the financial markets and economy after more than a decade?

As John stated above, the Fed’s actions are only “ignoring the problems” which, combined, is a problem too large for the Federal Reserve to fix.

The Dark Side Of Stock Buybacks

While many argue that “share buybacks” are just a method by which corporations can return cash to shareholders, there is a dark side. In moderation, repurchases can be a beneficial method for a company to deploy capital when no better options are available. (It’s the least best use of cash.)

But, as with everything in life, when taken to “excess” the beneficial effects, can become detrimental.

The rules now reward management, not for generating revenue, but to drive up the price of the share price, thus making their options and stock grants more valuable.” – John Mauldin

The problem for the Fed was, despite the best of intentions, lowering interest rates to zero did not spark a “bank lending spree” throughout the economy. Instead, the excess liquidity flowed directly back into the financial system, creating a global wealth gap, rather than supporting stronger economic growth.

The most vivid example of this “closed loop” was in corporate share repurchases. Corporations, able to borrow cheaply due to low rates, used debt and cash to repurchase shares to increase earnings per share. This was the easiest route to create “executive wealth,” rather than deploying capital in more risky endeavors. As the Financial Times penned:

Corporate executives give several reasons for stock buybacks but none of them has close to the explanatory power of this simple truth: Stock-based instruments make up the majority of their pay and in the short-term buybacks drive up stock prices.

Importantly, as noted by the Securities & Exchange Commission:

“SEC research found that many corporate executives sell significant amounts of their own shares after their companies announce stock buybacks.”

Again, buybacks may not be an issue, but when taken to excess such can have the negative side effects of inflating asset bubbles. As John Authers pointed out:

“For much of the last decade, companies buying their own shares have accounted for all net purchases. The total amount of stock bought back by companies since the 2008 crisis even exceeds the Federal Reserve’s spending on buying bonds over the same period as part of quantitative easing. Both pushed up asset prices.”

“Stock buybacks” are only a short-term benefit. With liquid cash, or worse debt, used for a one-time benefit, there is a long-term negative return on uses of capital for non-productive investments.

All Levered Up

Currently, total corporate debt has surged to $10.1 trillion – its highest level relative to U.S. GDP (47%) since the financial crisis. In just the last two years, corporations have issued another $1.2 trillion of new debt NOT for expansion, but primarily used for share buybacks.

For the last 10-years, the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” has left investors chasing yield, and corporations were glad to oblige. The end result is the risk premium for owning corporate bonds over U.S. Treasuries is at historic lows, and debt has allowed many “zombie companies” to remain alive.

During the next market reversion, the 10-year rate will fall towards “zero” as money seeks the stability and safety of the U.S Treasury bond. However, corporate bonds will be decimated. When “high yield,” or “junk bonds,” begin to default in large numbers, as they always do in a recession, which is why they are called “junk bonds,” investors will face sharp losses on the one side of their portfolio they “thought” was safe. 

As the credit market falls into crisis, the Fed will have to ramp up additional stimulus to bail out the financial institutions caught long with an exceeding amount of poor-quality debt. As shown below, Treasuries will gain a bid as yields fall to zero, while corporate bonds lose value.

“In just the last 10 years, the triple-B bond market has exploded from $686 billion to $2.5 trillion—an all-time high. To put that in perspective, 50% of the investment-grade bond market now sits on the lowest rung of the quality ladder.

And there’s a reason BBB-rated debt is so plentiful. Ultra-low interest rates have seduced companies to pile into the bond market and corporate debt has surged to heights not seen since the global financial crisis.” John Mauldin:

As noted previously, there is a large tranche of BBB bonds on the verge of being downgraded to “junk.” When this occurs, there will be an avalanche of selling as pension, mutual, and hedge fund managers dump bonds simultaneously into what will be an illiquid market.

Pensions Are Broke

But it is NOT just “share buybacks” and debt, which are problems hiding in plain sight.

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

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

The $6 Trillion “Pension Crisis” is just one sharp market downturn away from imploding. As I wrote in “The Next Financial Crisis Will Be The Last:”

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

This $6 trillion hit is going to come at a time where the Federal Reserve will already be at “full tilt” monetizing debt to stabilize declining financial markets to keep a “debt crisis” from spreading.

Strike Three, You’re Out

While investors have become extremely complacent over the last decade that Central Banks have gained control of the financial markets, this is likely an illusion. There are numerous catalysts which could pressure a downturn in the equity markets:

  • An exogenous geopolitical event
  • A credit-related event
  • Failure of a major financial institution
  • Recession
  • Falling profits and earnings
  • A loss of confidence by corporations which contacts share buybacks

Whatever the event is, which is currently unexpected and unanticipated, the decline in asset prices will initiate a “chain reaction.”

  • Investors will begin to panic as asset prices drop, curtailing economic activity, and further pressuring economic growth.
  • The pressure on asset prices and weaker economic growth, which impairs corporate earnings, shifts corporate views from “share repurchases” to “liquidity preservation.” This removes a major support of asset prices.
  • As asset prices decline further, and economic growth deteriorates, credit defaults begin triggering a near $5 Trillion corporate bond market problem.
  • The bond market decline will pressure asset prices lower, which triggers an aging demographic who fears the loss of pension benefits, sparks the $6 trillion pension problem. 
  • As the market continues to cascade lower at this point, the Fed is monetizing nearly 100% of all debt issuance, and has to resort to even more drastic measures to stem selling and defaults. 
  • Those actions lead to a further loss of confidence and pressures markets even further. 

The Federal Reserve can not fix this problem, and the next “bear market” will NOT be like that last.

It will be worse.

As John concluded:

Coordinated monetary policy is the problem, not the solution. And while I have little hope for change in that regard, I have no hope that monetary policy will rescue us from the next crisis.

Let me amplify that last line: Not only is there no hope monetary policy will save us from the next crisis, it will help cause the next crisis. The process has already begun.” – John Mauldin

Can Six Myths Keep The Market Going?

Piper Jaffray forecasts by year end 2020, the S&P 500 (SPX) will hit 3600, a 12.8 % increase. Of eighteen analysts interviewed by Marketwatch only three forecasters expect a decline for the SPX. Will the SPX reach 3600?  The SPX has soared over 400 % from a low of 666 in 2009 to over 3200 at the close of 2019. Mapping the SPX ten year history onto a psychology market cycle map of growth and decline phases poses interesting questions. As the market has zoomed over 400% upwards over ten years, it is clearly in the Mania Phase. Yet, the US economy is growing at the slowest rate of any economic recovery since WWII at 2.2 % GDP per year, why the disconnect?

Source: Patrick Hill – 12-31-19

One reason for the disconnect is investment analysts and the media lead investors to believe there is no downside risk. On New Year’s Eve, Goldman Sachs released a prediction for 2020 claiming that the ‘tools of the Great Moderation’ (Fed policy shift) begun 30 years ago low-interest rates, low volatility, sustainable growth and muted inflation are still in place and were only interrupted by the 2008 financial crisis. Plus we would add the Dotcom crash. GS concluded that the economy ‘was nearly recession-proof.’

The mainstream financial media also feed the Mania Phase with stories like Goldman Sachs declaring the Great Moderation is working with our economy in a ‘new paradigm’. We are to believe there will not be a recession because our policymakers have the economy under control.  Really?  With over $17 trillion of negative debt worldwide to keep the world economy going, central banks have succeeded in sustaining worldwide GDP at 1 – 2 % and falling as of late! For the SPX market to not descend into the Blow Off phase, investors will need to continue to believe in six economic myths:

  1. The Growth Phase of the Economic Cycle is Continuing
  2. Consumers Will Bailout the Economy
  3. The Fed Will Keep the Economy Humming
  4. If the Fed Fails Then the Federal Government Will Provide Stimulus
  5. The Trade War Won’t Hurt Global Growth
  6. The Economy and Markets Are Insulated from World Politics

Let’s look at each myth that is likely to affect portfolio and market performance in the next year.  This analysis is based on research data of economic, social, government, business trends and observation of markets and the economy. If markets are to continue to climb, either policymakers must solve difficult issues or investors must continue to believe these myths are true. The first myth establishes a critical framework for viewing all economic activity. We are actually at the end of the growth phase of the economic cycle; here is why.

Myth 1. The Growth Phase of the Economic Cycle is Continuing

The Fed has reported that the economy is still in ‘mid-cycle’ phase.  We differ with this position as several indicators show the economy is reaching the end of its growth cycle and ready to revert to the mean. As GDP is driven 70 % by consumers, let’s look at what is really happening to consumers.  The ratio of current consumer conditions minus consumer expectations is at levels seen just before prior recessions not mid-stage growth economies.

Sources: The Conference Board, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 6/14/19

In the chart below, consumers are stretched as loan default rates are rising despite a 50-year low unemployment rate. Rising delinquencies tend to signal rising unemployment and economic decline is likely in the near future.

Sources: Deutsche Bank, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 6/4/19

Of major concern is that the manufacturing sector is now in a recession based on five months of ISM reports below the 50 % economic expansion benchmark. The overall contraction is validated as 70 % of manufacturing sub-sectors are contracting as noted in the report below.  While the US economy is primarily driven by services, the manufacturing sector has a multiplier effect on productivity, support services, and employment with high paying jobs. Note the contraction in sub-sectors is reaching levels last seen before recessions.

            Sources Oxford Economics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 12-20-19

There are other indicators pointing to the end of the growth phase.  For example, the inversion of the 2 – 10 yield curve last summer is now steepening – often seen before an economic slowdown. Another indicator is the number of firms with negative earnings launching IPOs in 2019 was at levels not seen since 2000. Finally, productivity and capital investments are at ten year lows.

Myth 2.  Consumers Will Bailout the Economy

Market pundits have been quick to rely on the consumer to continue spending at growth sustaining rates.  Yet, budgets for the middle class are squeezed as consumers cope with student loan debt payments, new car payments, health care bills, and credit card debt.  The Bloomberg Personal Finance Index dropped significantly in October:

Source: Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 11/10/19

Car loans now span seven years on average versus five years a few years ago. Further, the new loans ‘roll in’ debt from previous car purchases due to negative equity in the owner’s trade-in vehicle.  Vehicle price increases up to 10 % over the last year for both cars and trucks add to the debt burden.  Car debt is beginning to weigh on consumers as delinquencies are climbing:

Sources: NY Federal Reserve, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 10/29/19

Today, credit card rates are running at a ten-year peak of 17 – 22 % have seen no relief despite the Fed cutting rates.  There is a record spread between the Federal Funds rate and credit card rates as banks seek new revenue sources beyond making loans. Many consumers are turning to credit cards to pay bills to sustain their lifestyle as their wages are not keeping up with rising living costs.

In addition, consumers are increasingly working at more than one job to be sure they can pay their bills.

Sources: Deutsche Bank, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 10/21/19

Workers need to take on multiple jobs in the gig economy. McKinsey & Company estimates that 52 million people are gig workers or a third of the 156 million person workforce. Contractors have no job security.  Gig workers often receive hourly wages with no health, retirement or other benefits. The lack of benefits means they have limited or no financial safety net in the event of an economic slowdown.

There are other key indicators of consumer financial distress, for example, consumer spending on a quarter over quarter basis has continued to decline, Bankrate reports that 50 % of workers received no raise in the last year.  Real wages (taking into account inflation) for 80 % of all workers have been stagnant for the past twenty years.  Uncertain economic forces are putting consumers in a financial bind, for more details, please see our post: Will the Consumer Bailout the Economy?


Myth 3.  The Fed Will Keep the Economy Humming

The Fed has said it will do whatever necessary to keep the economy growing by keeping interest rates low and injecting liquidity into the financial system. However, a survey on Fed actions shows that 70 % of economists interviewed believe the Fed is running out of ammo to turnaround the economy.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 12-30-19

We agree with their perspective that the Fed is entering an economic space where no central bank has gone before.  In the past, the Fed lowered rates when an economic downturn was evident. Just prior to earlier recession’s interest rates were at a higher starting level of at least 4 – 5 %.  Plus, today the Fed has returned to pumping liquidity into the economy via its repo operation and QE as shown below.

Sources: The Federal Reserve of St. Louis, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 12/30/19

The International Bureau of Settlements (BIS) disclosed in their analysis of recent Fed repo operations that funding supported not only banks but hedge funds. A key concern is the nature of the hedge fund bailout. How steep is the loss being mitigated? Is there a possibility of contagion? Is more than one hedge fund involved?  Should the Fed be bailing out hedge funds that are overextended due to speculation? The Fed is already using its tools at the height of the current economic growth cycle. The Fed financial tools are too stretched to turnaround an economy in a recession from multiple financial bubbles bursting.

The Fed continues to declare that inflation is at 2.1 %, missing the reality of what consumers are actually paying for goods and services.  We find from industry research that finds inflation is likely in the 6 – 10% range. Inflation should be defined as price increases of goods and services that consumers buy, not inflation defined by a formula to suit political needs. Using inflation lifestyle ‘cost of living’ data, which is not transparent or available for audit does not meet the foundational data needs of investors.  Gordon Haskett Research Advisors conducted a study by purchasing a basket of 76 typical items consumers frequently buy at Walmart and Target.  Their study showed that from June 2018 to June 2019, prices increased by about 5.5%. 

Other industry research supports inflation running at a much higher level than government figures. On a city by city basis, Chapwood has developed an index for 500 items in major metropolitan areas of the US.  Chapwood reports the average national inflation level to be about 10 %.  Note inflation is compounded; for example, in San Jose a five year average price increase of 13% is for each year. An item costing $1.00 would cost $1.13 the next year and then $1.28 the third year and so forth. It is likely workers caught in a squeeze between stagnant wages and 10 % inflation will not be able to continue to sustain present levels of economic growth.

Real inflation at 6 – 10 % has major policy, portfolio, and social implications.  For example, with the ten year Treasury Bond at 1.90% and inflation at 6 %, we are actually living in a ’de facto negative interest’ economy of – 4.10 %Higher inflation levels fit the financial reality of what workers, portfolio managers, and retirees are facing in managing their finances.  Many workers must take multiple jobs and develop a ‘side hustle’ to just keep up with inflation much less get ahead. For portfolio managers, they must grow their portfolio at much higher rates than was previously thought just to maintain portfolio value.  Finally, for retirees on a fixed income portfolio it is imperative they have additional growth income sources or part-time work to keep up with inflation eating away at their portfolio. For more details on our analysis of a variety of inflation, categories see our post: Is Inflation Really Under Control?

One additional assumption about Fed intervention repeated by many analysts is the Fed liquidity injections mean that corporate sales and profits will bounce back.  For some financially sensitive industries this argument may be true. For other firms with excellent credit ratings, they may be able to obtain low-interest loans to ride out falling sales. But, the reality is that corporations build and sell products based on demand. If demand falls, low-interest loans will not increase sales.  Only new products, new channels, reduced pricing, marketing and other initiatives will revive sales.

Myth 4.  If the Fed Fails Then the Federal Government Will Provide Stimulus

European Central Bank leaders have called on European governments to provide economic stimulus for their markets.  Picking up on this idea, analysts have proposed the US government move on infrastructure and other spending programs. However, tax cuts, low-interest rates, stock buybacks, and record corporate debt offerings have shifted a huge balance of world-wide wealth to the private sector.  For 40 years, there has been a significant increase in private capital worldwide while public wealth has declined. In 2015, the value of net public wealth (or public capital) in the US was negative -17% of net national income, while the value of net private wealth (or private capital) was 500% of national income. In comparison to 1970, net public wealth amounted to 36% of national income, while net private wealth was at 326 %.

Source: World Inequality Lab, Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman et al. – 2018

Essentially, central banks, Wall Street, and governments have built monetary and economic systems that have increased private wealth at the expense of public wealth.  The lack of public capital makes the creation of major levels of public goods and services nearly impossible. The US government is now running $1 trillion yearly deficits with public debt at record levels not seen since WWII and total debt to GDP at all-time highs. The development of public goods and services like basic research and development, education, infrastructure, and health services are necessary for an economic rebound. The economy will need a huge stimulus ‘lifting’ program and yet the capital necessary to do the job is in the private sector where private individuals make investment allocation decisions.  Congress may pass an ‘infrastructure’ bill in 2020 but given the election, it is likely to be lightly funded to pass both houses of Congress and receive the president’s signature.

Myth 5.  The Trade War Won’t Hurt Global Growth

By closing the Phase One trade deal, the market has been sighing with relief with observers declaring that trade will resume a growth track.  Yet, the Phase One deal is not a long term fix. If anything, the actions on the part of both governments have been to dig in for the long term.  The Chinese government has taken several key actions in parallel to the deal to move their agenda ahead.

China has quietly raised the exchange rate of their currency to offset some of the impact of still in place tariffs on the U.S. economy.  The government made a major move to block US and foreign companies from providing key technical infrastructure. The technology ministry has told government agencies that all IT hardware and software from foreign firms are to be replaced by Chinese systems within three years. If the Chinese government decides to establish ‘China only’ network standards it may be difficult for US firms to even work with state-sponsored companies or private businesses that must meet China’s only standards. Apple and Microsoft would have to build two versions of their products. One version for the Chinese economy and one for the world.  A critical change is taking place in world trade which is the establishment of a two-block trading world.  China is a key growth market at a 20 % – 30 % increase in sales annually for US multinational companies. For these corporations navigating the trade war will be problematic even with the Phase One agreement.  Our post characterizing this major change in world trade can be found at: Navigating a Two Block Trading World.  

The U.S. has placed sanctions on Chinese sponsored network provider Huawei, effectively limiting the network vendor from US government and private networks.  The Phase One agreement includes the US canceling planned tariffs for December 15th in 2019 and rolling back tariffs to 7.5 % on $120 billion of goods imposed on September 1st of last year. Yet, tariffs of 25 % remain in place on $250 billion of Chinese goods.  The Chinese have canceled retaliatory tariffs planned for December 15th and plan to increase purchases of US goods and services by $200 billion over two years. In addition, China will purchase US agriculture products at a $40 billion rate per year from a baseline of $24 billion in 2017.  If the Chinese follow through on their purchase commitments US companies should see increased sales.  However, history on Chinese purchases shows they forecast large purchases but small purchases are made.

A major trade issue has been created when the US decided not to appoint any new judges to the World Trade Organization court for disputes. The court cannot hear or make decisions on any disputes any longer; meaning countries will resort to free-for-all negotiations on trade disputes.  We expect as economies falter, nationalist policies on trade will gain more popularity and world trade will continue to decline after a slight blip up from the U.S.-China Phase One deal.

Sources: BCOT Research, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 12/16/19

Finally, prior to the trade war global trade has been facing major headwinds. Since 2008, global firms have looked to open more international markets to sell their goods, but have met sales resistance causing revenue and profits to be flat or decline.  We expect the flattening of global sales to output to continue and eventually decline as overall world trade falls.

CEOs in a Conference Board survey rate trade as a major concern as they look at a highly uncertain economic picture.  Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, described his concerns at a company all hands meeting last November:

 “Because that issue (trade) is on the table, then everybody has a question mark around in some part of their business,” he said. “I mean, we’re in this strange economic time, we all know that.”

Myth 6. The Economy and Markets Are Insulated from World Politics

Protests have broken out in Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, Chile, and other world cities while stock markets continue their climb.  Yet, when the U.S. killed a key Iranian general the overnight S &P futures market fell 41 pts before recovering and closing 23 pts lower. The VIX soared 22 % overnight before settling back to close for a 12 % increase at 14.02.  The U.S. – Iran conflict does not seem to be under control with most Middle East analysts predicting a major retaliation by the Iranian government. The price of oil spiked 4 % before settling to a 3.57 % increase on fears the Iranians may attack oil tankers in the Gulf.  An escalating conflict will drive oil prices higher, disturb supply chains and likely tip the world economy into a recession.

We saw during the negotiations for the Phase One trade deal how rumors both in China and the U.S. would send the S & P futures market up or down by 10 – 15 points depending upon whether the news was positive or negative. Algo traders would drop 30k contracts in a matter of seconds to make huge moves in SPX price, while the VIX was at 12.50, supposedly a calm market. The chart below shows how positive and negative news whipsawed the market.

Source: Liz Ann Sonders – Schwab – 12-7-19

Political news not only moves markets but the economy as well.  When the president tweets a tariff threat, consumers and industry move swiftly to buy those goods before their prices go up.  Businesses have to build the product quickly, sell it and they are left with falling sales as future purchases are pulled forward.  Business to business deals are caught up in this constant flip flop on trade policies as well. CEOs must make investment decisions to build a plant in a particular country 1 – 3 years in advance. They must calculate their allocation plans based on inadequate information and in a highly uncertain policy environment.  Often, rather than make an investment decision, executives will wait for the economic clouds to clear.

Summary:

The current bull market run has set record highs continuously.  Yet, as the saying goes: markets go up in stair steps and down in an elevator.  As a selling panic sets in the market goes into a free fall. If an economic myth is revealed by market action, corporate results, economic reports or an event the loss of belief causes the market to fall much faster than a slow stair step up.

The prudent investor will recognize the end of the business cycle is likely underway. It is time to prepare for an economic slowdown and a resulting equity market reversion to the mean. A reversion to the mean quite often requires that markets swing beyond the mean.

The wary investor will ask hard questions of their financial advisor and review corporate reports with an eye on fundamentals. Financial success is likely to result from good risk management and implementation combined with agility to make mid-course corrections.  Investors should test their assumptions based on breaking trends that may impact portfolio performance.  At the same time, constantly flipping investments will lead to poor performance. Allocate funds to different portfolio groups based on long, medium and short term goals to keep from being emotionally swept up in temporary market swings. The key is to be prepared for the unknown, or a black swan event.  Expect the unexpected and consider the advice of market legends like Bernard Baruch:

Some people boast of selling at the top of the market and buying at the bottom – I don’t believe this can be done. I had bought when things seemed low enough and sold when they seemed high enough. In that way, I have managed to avoid being swept along to those wild extremes of market fluctuations which prove so disastrous.”

Patrick Hill is the Editor of The Progressive Ensignhttps://theprogressiveensign.com/ writes from the heart of Silicon Valley, leveraging 20 years of experience as an executive at firms like HP, Genentech, Verigy, Informatica and Okta to provide investment and economic insights. Twitter: @PatrickHill1677.

UPDATE: To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide to QE 4

In our RIA Pro article, To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide To QE4, we studied asset performance returns during the first three episodes of QE. We then normalized the data for the duration and amount of QE to project how QE4 might affect various assets.  

With a month of QE4 under our belt, we update you on the pacing of this latest version of extreme monetary policy and review how various assets are performing versus our projections. Further, we share some recent comments from Fed speakers and analyze trading in the Fed Funds market to provide some unique thoughts about the future of QE4.

QE4

Since October 14th, when QE4 was announced by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, the Fed’s balance sheet has increased by approximately $100 billion. The graph below compares the current weekly balance sheet growth with the initial growth that occurred during the three prior iterations of QE.  

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

As shown above, the Fed is supplying liquidity at a pace greater than QE2 but slightly off the pace of QE 1 and 3. What is not shown is the $190 billion of growth in the Fed’s balance sheet that occurred in the weeks before announcing QE4. When this amount is considered along with the amount shown since October 14th, the current pacing is much larger than the other three instances of QE.

To put this in context, take a step back and consider the circumstances under which QE1 occurred. When the Fed initiated QE1 in November of 2008, markets were plummeting, major financial institutions had already failed with many others on the brink, and the domestic and global economy was broadly in recession. The Fed was trying to stop the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression from worsening.

Today, U.S. equity markets sit at all-time highs, the economic expansion has extended to an all-time record 126 months, unemployment at 3.6% is at levels not seen since the 1960s, and banks are posting record profits.

The introduction of QE4 against this backdrop reveals the possibility that one of two things is occurring, or quite possibly both.

One, there could be or could have been a major bank struggling to borrow or in financial trouble. The Fed, via repo operations and QE, may be providing liquidity either to the institution directly or indirectly via other banks to forestall the ramifications of a potential banking related default.

Two, the markets are struggling to absorb the massive amount of Treasury debt issued since July when Congress extended the debt cap. From August through October 2019, the amount of Treasury debt outstanding grew by $1 trillion. Importantly, foreign entities are now net sellers of Treasury debt, which is worsening the problem. For more read our recent article, Who Is Funding Uncle Sam?

The bottom line is that the Fed has taken massive steps over the last few months to provide liquidity to the financial markets. As we saw in prior QEs, this liquidity distorts financial markets.  

QE4 Projections and Updates

The following table provides the original return projections by asset class as well as performance returns since October 14th.  The rankings are based on projected performance by asset class and total.  

Here are a few takeaways about performance during QE4 thus far:

  • Value is outperforming growth by 1.67% (5.95% vs. 4.28%)
  • There is general uniformity amongst the equity indexes
  • Equity indices have captured at least 50%, and in the case of value and large caps (S&P 100) over 100% of the expected gains, despite being only one-sixth of the way through QE4
  • The sharp variation in sector returns is contradictory to the relatively consistent returns at the index level
  • Discretionary stocks are trading poorly when compared to other sectors and to the expected performance forecast for discretionary stocks
  • Defensive sectors are trading relatively weaker as occurred during prior QE
  • The healthcare sector has been the best performing sector within the S&P as well as versus every index and commodity in the tables
  • The yield curve steepened as expected
  • In the commodity sector, precious metals are weaker, but oil and copper are positive

Are Adjustments to QE4 Coming?

The Fed has recently made public statements that lead us to believe they are concerned with rising debt levels. In particular, a few Fed speakers have noted the sharp rise in corporate and federal debt levels both on an absolute basis and versus earnings and GDP. The increase in leverage is made possible in part by low interest rates and QE. In addition, some Fed speakers over the last year or two have grumbled about higher than normal equity valuations.

It was for these very reasons that in 2013, Jerome Powell voiced concerns about the consequences of asset purchases (QE). To wit: 

“What of the potential costs or risks of the asset purchases? A variety of concerns have been raised over time. With inflation in check, the most important potential risk, in my view, is that of financial instability. One concern is that our policies might drive excessive risk-taking or create bubbles in financial assets or housing.”

Earlier this month, Jerome Powell, in Congressional testimony said:

“The debt is growing faster than the economy. It’s as simple as that. That is by definition unsustainable. And it is growing faster in the United States by a significant margin.”

With more leverage in the financial system and higher valuations in the equity and credit markets, how does Fed Chairman Powell reconcile those comments with where we are today? It further serves to highlight that political expediency has thus far trumped the long-run health of the economy and the financial system.

Based on the Fed’s prior and current warnings about debt and valuations, we believe they are trying to fix funding issues without promoting greater excesses in the financial markets. To thread this needle, they must supply just enough liquidity to restore financing markets to normal but not over stimulate them. This task is much easier said than done due to the markets’ Pavlovian response to QE.

Where the fed funds effective rate sits within the Fed’s target range can be a useful gauge of the over or undersupplying of liquidity. Based on this measure, it appears the Fed is currently oversupplying liquidity as seen in the following chart. For the first time in at least two years, as circled, the effective Fed Funds rate has been consistently below the midpoint of the Fed’s target range.

If the Fed is concerned with debt levels and equity valuations and is comfortable that they have provided sufficient liquidity, might they halt QE4, reduce monthly amounts, or switch to a more flexible model of QE?

We think all of these options are possible.

Any effort to curtail QE will be negative for markets that have been feasting on the additional liquidity. Given the symbiotic relationship between markets and QE, the Fed will be cautious in making changes. As always, the first whisper of change could upset the apple cart.

Summary

Equity markets have been rising on an almost daily basis despite benign economic reports, negative trade and tariff headlines, and Presidential impeachment proceedings, among other worrisome factors. We have little doubt that investors have caught QE fever again, and they are more concerned with the FOMO than fundamentals.

As the fresh round of liquidity provided by the Fed leaks into the markets, it only further advances more misallocation of capital, such as excessive borrowing by zombie companies and borrowing to further fund unproductive stock buybacks. Like dogs drooling at the sound of a ringing bell, most investors expect the bull run to continue. It may, but there is certainly reason for more caution this time around as the contours of the economy and the market are vastly different from prior rounds. Add to this the incoherence of this policy action in light of the record expansion, benign inflation readings, and low unemployment rate and we have more questions about QE4 than feasible answers.

Technically Speaking: A Correction Is Coming, Just Don’t Tell The Bulls…Yet.

In this past weekend’s newsletter, I discussed the rather severe extensions of the market above both the longer-term bullish trend and the 200-dma. To wit:

“Currently, it will likely pay to remain patient as we head into the end of the year. With a big chunk of earnings season now behind us, and economic data looking weak heading into Q4, the market has gotten a bit ahead of itself over the last few weeks.

On a short-term basis, the market is now more than 6% above its 200-dma. These more extreme price extensions tend to denote short-term tops to the market, and waiting for a pull-back to add exposures has been prudent..”

But it isn’t just the more extreme advance of the market over the past 5-weeks which has us a bit concerned in the short-term, but a series of other indications which typically suggest short- to intermediate-terms corrections in the market. 

Not surprisingly, whenever I discuss the potential of a market correction, it is almost always perceived as being “bearish.” Therefore, by extension, such must mean I am either all in cash or shorting the market. In either case, it is assumed I “missed out” on the previous advance.

If you have been reading our work for long, you already know we have remained primarily invested in the markets, but hedge our risk with fixed income and cash, despite our “bearish” views. I am reminded of something famed Morgan Stanley strategist Gerard Minack said once:

The funny thing is there is a disconnect between what investors are saying and what they are doing. No one thinks all the problems the global financial crisis revealed have been healed. But when you have an equity rally like you’ve seen for the past four or five years, then everybody has had to participate to some extent.

What you’ve had are fully invested bears.”

While the mainstream media continues to misalign individual’s expectations by chastising them for “not beating the market,” which is actually impossible to do, the job of a portfolio manager is to participate in the markets with a preference toward capital preservation. This is an important point:

“It is the destruction of capital during market declines that have the greatest impact on long-term portfolio performance.”

It is from that view, as a portfolio manager, the idea of “fully invested bears” defines the reality of the markets that we live with today. Despite this understanding, the markets are overly bullish, extended, and overvalued and portfolio managers must stay invested or suffer potential “career risk” for underperformance. What the Federal Reserve’s ongoing interventions have done is push portfolio managers to chase performance despite concerns of potential capital loss.

Managing portfolios for both risk adjusted returns while protecting capital is a delicate balance. Each week in the Real Investment Report (click here for free weekly e-delivery) we discuss the risks and challenges of the current market environment and report on how we are adjusting our exposures to the market over time.

In this past weekend’s missive, we discussed how to “play” the latest round of the Fed’s QE program, along with what sectors and markets tend to perform the best.

However, I wanted to share a few charts which suggests that being patient currently, will likely yield a much better entry point for investors in the not-so-distant future.

Overbought And Extended

By the majority of measures that we track from momentum, to price, and deviation, the market’s sharp advance has pushed the totality of those indicators back to overbought.

Historically, when all of the indicators are suggesting the market has likely encompassed the majority of its price advance, a correction to reverse those conditions is often not far away. Regardless of the timing of that correction, it is unlikely there is much upside remaining in the current advance, and taking on additional equity exposure at these levels will likely yield a poor result.

Overly Complacent

The post-Fed rate cut and QE driven advance in the market has also pushed investors back to levels of extreme complacency.

Such extremely low levels of volatility, combined with investors piling into record “short positions” on the VIX, provides all the “fuel” necessary for a fairly sharp 3-5% correction given the proper catalyst.

Given that investors are “all in,” as discussed last week, there is plenty of room for investors to get forced out of holdings and push markets lower over the next few weeks. However, it isn’t just individual investors that are “all in,” but professionals as well.

Eurodollar Sends A Warning

Eurodollar positioning is also sending a major warning. (“Eurodollar” refers to U.S. dollar-denominated deposits at foreign banks, or at the overseas branches of American banks.)

When the ECB launched QE following the 2016 selloff, foreign banks liquidated Eurodollar deposits as it was deemed less risky to hold foreign denominated deposits. Currently, that view has reversed sharply as the global economy slows, and foreign banks are “hedging” their risk by flooding money into U.S. dollar denominated deposits. Historically, when you have an extremely sharp reversal in Eurodollars, it has preceded more troubling market events.

With Eurodollar deposits at record levels, do foreign banks know something we don’t?

Earnings Vs. Profits

The deviation between corporate GAAP earnings and corporate profits is currently at record levels. It is also entirely unsustainable. Either corporate profits will catch up with earnings, or vice-versa. Historically, profits have never caught up with earnings, it is always the other way around.

Expectations for corporate earnings going forward are still way to elevated, and with corporate share buybacks slowing, this leaves lots of room for disappointment.

Deviation

I have written many times in the past that the financial markets are not immune to the laws of physics.

There is a simple rule for markets:

“What goes up, must, and will, eventually comes down.”

The example I use most often is the resemblance to “stretching a rubber-band.” Stock prices are tied to their long-term trend which acts as a gravitational pull. When prices deviate too far from the long-term trend they will eventually, and inevitably, “revert to the mean.”

See Bob Farrell’s Rule #1

Currently, the market is not only more than 6% above its 200-dma, as shown in the opening of this missive, but is currently more than 15% above its 3-year moving average.

More importantly, the market is currently extremely deviated above it long-term bullish trend. During this entire decade-long bull market advance, the trendline is retested with some regularity from such extreme extensions.

Sentiment

Lastly, is sentiment. When sentiment is heavily skewed toward those willing to “buy,” prices can rise rapidly and seemingly “climb a wall of worry.” However, the problem comes when that sentiment begins to change and those willing to “buy” disappear.

This “vacuum” of buyers leads to rapid reductions in prices as sellers are forced to lower their price to complete a transaction. The problem is magnified when prices decline rapidly. When sellers panic, and are willing to sell “at any price,” the buyers that remain gain almost absolute control over the price they will pay. This “lack of liquidity” for sellers leads to rapid and sharp declines in price, which further exacerbates the problem and escalates until “sellers” are exhausted.

Currently, there is a scarcity of “bears.”

See Bob Farrell’s Rule #6

As we discussed just recently, consumer and investor confidence are both closely tied and are extremely elevated. However, CEO confidence is pushing record lows. A quick look at history shows this level of disparity is not unusual around market peaks and recessionary onsets.

Another way to analyze confidence data is to look at the consumer expectations index minus the current situation index in the consumer confidence report.

This measure also is signaling a correction/recession is coming. The differential between expectations and the current situation, as you can see below, is worse than the last cycle, and only slightly higher than prior to the “dot.com” crash. Recessions start after this indicator bottoms, which has already started happening.

Currently, the bottoming process, and potential turn higher, which signals a recession and bear market, appears to be in process.

None of this should be surprising as we head into 2020. With near-record low levels of unemployment and jobless claims, combined with record high levels of sentiment, job openings, and record asset prices, it seems to be just about as “good as it can get.”

Does this mean the current bull market is over?

No.

However, it does suggest the “risk” to investors is currently to the downside, and some caution with respect to equity-based exposure should be considered.

What Are We Doing About It?

Given the fact that the short, intermediate, and long-term indicators have all aligned, the risk of running portfolios without a hedge is no longer optimal. As such, we added an “inverse” S&P 500 position to all of our portfolios late yesterday afternoon. 

While none of the charts above necessarily mean the next “great bear market” is coming, they do suggest a modest correction is likely. The reason we hedge against declines is that one day, and we never know when, a modest correction will turn into a more significant decline.

Remaining fully invested in the financial markets without a thorough understanding of your “risk exposure” will likely not have the desirable end result you have been promised. All of the charts above have linkages to each other, and when one breaks, they all break.

So pay attention to the details.

As I stated above, my job, like every portfolio manager, is to participate when markets are rising. However, it is also my job to keep a measured approach to capital preservation.

SO, why shouldn’t you show these charts to the bulls?

Because you need someone to “sell to” first.

Corporate Profits Are Worse Than You Think – Addendum

We recently published Corporate Profits Are Worse Than You Think to expose stock prices that have surged well beyond levels that are justified by corporate profits. 

A topic not raised in the article, but a frequent theme of ours, is the role that share buybacks have played in this bull market. Corporations have not only been the largest buyer of stocks over the last few years, but share buybacks result in misleading earnings per share data, which warp valuations and makes stocks look cheaper. Over the last five years, corporations have been heavily leaning on the issuance of corporate debt to facilitate share buybacks. In doing so, earnings per share appear to sustain a healthy upward trajectory, but only because the denominator of the ratio (number of shares) is being reduced as debt on the balance sheet rises. This corporate shell game is one of the most obvious and egregious manifestations of imprudent Federal Reserve policies of the past decade.

Given the importance of debt to share buybacks, we provide two graphs below which question the sustainability of this practice.

The first graph below compares the growth of corporate debt and corporate profits since the early 1950s. The growing divergence, especially as of late, is a clear warning that debt is not being used for productive purposes. If it were, profits would be rising in a manner commensurate or even greater than the debt curve. The unproductive nature of corporate debt is also seen in the rising ratio of corporate debt to GDP, which now stands at all-time highs. Too much debt is being used for buybacks that curtail capital investment, innovation, productivity, and ultimately profits.  

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

The next graph uses the same data but presents the growth rates of profits and debt since 2015. Keep in mind the bump up in corporate profits in 2018 was largely due to tax legislation.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

Lastly, we present a favorite chart of ours showing how the universe of corporate debt has migrated towards the lower end of the investment-grade bucket. Many investment-grade companies (AAA – BBB-) are issuing debt until they reach the risk of a credit downgrade to junk status (BB+ or lower). We believe many companies are now limited in their use of debt for fear of downgrades, which will naturally restrict their further ability to conduct buybacks. For more on this graph, please read The Corporate Maginot Line.

Powell’s Revelation And A TIP For Defense

I think we would need to see a really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent before we even consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.” – Jerome Powell 10/30/2019

The recent quote above from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is powerful, to say the least. We cannot remember a time in the last 30 years when a Fed Chairman has so clearly articulated such a strong desire for more inflation.

In particular, let’s dissect the bolded words in the quote for further clarification. 

  • “Really Significant”– Powell is not only saying that the Fed will allow a substantial boost to inflation but does one better by adding the word “really.”
  • “Persistent”– Unlike the prior few Fed Chairman who claimed to be vigilant towards inflation, Powell is clearly telling us that he will not react to inflation that is not only a “really significant” leap from current levels, but a rate that lasts for a while.
  • “Even Consider”– The language he uses here conveys the seriousness of the Fed’s commitment. The rise in inflation must not only be “really significant” but also “persistent.” Powell is saying both conditions must be met before they will even discuss rate hikes. A significant rise in inflation but one they do not deem to be persistent will not suffice. Nor would a persistent move in inflation but one they do not measure as significant. Both conditions must be present together based on his language.

We are stunned by the choice of words Powell used to describe the Fed’s view on inflation. We are even more shocked that the markets and the media are ignoring it. Maybe, they are failing to focus on the three bolded sections.

In fact, what they probably think they heard was:

I think we would need to see a move up in inflation before we consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.

Such a statement is more in line with traditional Fed-speak. The other alternative is that Powell has altered his language in so many different ways over the past year that nobody seems to be paying attention to his words anymore. If so, he has lost credibility.

This article presents Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) as a hedge against Jerome Powell and the Fed getting what they want.

Inflation and Stable Prices – Apples and Oranges

Before a discussion on using TIPS as a way to protect your investments from the deleterious effects of inflation, we need to examine how the Fed gauges inflation and debunk the narrative that terms inflation and price stability as one and the same. Price data going back about 250 years, as shown below, shows the stark difference between inflation and price stability.  

Data Courtesy: Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, ‘The Annual Consumer Price Index for the United States, 1774-Present

The orange line plots annual price changes before the Fed was established in 1913. As shown, prices were volatile year to year, but cumulative inflation over the entire 138 year period was negligible at 23% or .15% annualized. Dare we say prices were stable?

Compare that to the era after the Fed’s creation (represented by the blue line above). Annual inflation rates were less volatile but largely positive. The cumulative growth of prices has been an astonishing 2491% in the post-Fed area, which equates to 3.1% annually. There is nothing stable about such massive price inflation. 

Here is another graph to shed more light on price stability.

Stable prices should be defined as prices that are constant. In other words, a dollar today can purchase the same basket of goods that it did yesterday. Inflation must be near zero over longer periods for this to occur.

The Fed’s definition of stable denotes a consistent rate of annual inflation. Based on their actions and words, they have little regard for the destruction of a dollar’s purchasing power caused by a steady inflation rate. The Fed benefits from this linguistic imprecision because it allows for economic expansion via the accumulation of debt while their Congressional mandates are achieved. This is why the Fed wants to produce inflation. It reduces the amount of debt on an inflation-adjusted basis. The Fed wants inflation but disguises it under the banner of price stability.

With Federal deficits now topping $1 trillion and corporate debt and consumer debt and financial liabilities at all-time highs as a percentage of GDP, we must think about hedging our equity and fixed income portfolios in case the Fed gets more inflation than the 2% goal they consider stable.

Despite what the Fed leads us to believe, they have little control over the rate of inflation and they do not know how to accurately measure it. As occurred 50 years ago, they can easily lose control of prices.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect yourself or profit from it is to anticipate it.

The rest of this article is for RIA Pro subscribers only. If you are not a subscriber and want to learn about the mechanics of TIPS and how they can protect you in an inflationary or deflationary environment, please SIGN UP HERE for a 30-day free trial.

The Market Soars As Corporate Profits Slump!

The SPX recorded new highs this week.  Investors appear to be excited about the U.S. – China Phase 1 trade agreement, which only goes so far in ending the trade war.  Plus, the Fed is cutting interest rates, injecting $100 billion in repo financing over the next month, and embarking on a new round of QE. So, is it clear sailing for corporate America? Maybe companies are not as financially viable as record SPX levels would indicate.

Let’s look at the lifeblood of a company, cash flow.  Goldman Sachs analysis of corporate cash flows shows that SPX companies are actually running, in aggregate, negative cash flow at 103.8% while keeping stock buybacks and dividends flowing to shareholders. Debt is up 8% squeezing corporate cash flow to the point where aggregate cash flows are down 15% versus the prior year.

Source: Goldman Sachs – 7/25/19

Cash is the lifeblood of a company, but a company can’t borrow money forever without being a viable profitable entity able to pay back debt.

Non-financial corporations have taken on record debt at 47% to GDP.  The last time corporations approached this level of debt was during the Great Recession.  Yet, default rates have not gone up.

Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Edward Altman – 8/5/19

Is this time for debt payment defaults different?  It would seem this is a ‘benign credit cycle’ when defaults don’t rise.  However, a more likely cause is that corporate cash flows are being pumped up by low interest rate loans. This corporate financial cliff maybe one reason the Fed is moving quickly to keep overnight and interest rates low.  The Fed has said it is concerned about high levels of corporate debt.  What is wrong with corporate debt at 47% of GDP?

The issue is when profits sink due to the trade war or as consumer spending slows, companies will no longer qualify for low interest loans. Banks and investors will hesitate to take on risky loans to companies raking up continuous losses.  Without low cost loans to provide needed cash flows, sales decline will result in a freeze on hiring, the layoff of full time workers, and a closure of offices and plants. Management will take these measures to try to keep the company open until sales turnaround.

The profit margin squeeze has been happening over the past 4 ½ years, well before the trade war started.  Profits were flat for the past nine years, supported by a huge corporate tax cut from the Tax Cut Bill of 2018. The contraction in profit margins has been the longest one on record since WWII. Note how recessions usually follow steep declines in profit margins at 1 to 4 years.

Source: Oxford Economics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 10/28/19

Why have margins been contracting?  Margins can be increased by investing in automation, lowering material costs, deploying productivity enhancements, and other efficiencies. Instead of investing in margin increasing activities, corporate executives have been spending available cash from profits and debt on stock buybacks totaling $1.15 trillion in 2018.  Stock buybacks are a way to boost corporate stock prices thereby increasing the income of shareholders and executives. Executives have squandered over the past ten years the opportunity to use profits for investments in research, productivity enhancements, raising wages, or cutting costs.  Management has focused on short term stock gains at the cost of long term corporate viability. The chickens are finally coming home to roost.

In addition, profit margins are declining due to declining international sales. It is difficult to maintain healthy margins when sales are falling due to base spending for sales, support, and transportation to reach a certain sales threshold of profitability. Major corporations face increasing trade headwinds.  For most S & P 100 corporations 50 to 60% of their sales come from overseas with prior growth rates from 15 – 25% per year in emerging markets.  The Asia – Pacific region is the fastest growing sales region for many companies. Yet, the accumulating tax of trade tariffs and trade uncertainty is stifling sales growth.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Tariffs Hurt the Heartland, USTR Office, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 10/28/19

Since January of 2018, U.S. companies have paid about $34 billion in tariffs. To hold price levels and market share, companies largely paid tariff costs themselves rather than passing them onto customers. Taking tariff costs onto corporate ledgers has squeezed profit margins. The loss of decent margins in high growth markets is creating a huge profit challenge for companies. 

While the Phase 1 agreement with China may provide a pause to the trade war, breaking up into two major trade blocks.  Corporations will have to navigate selling into two opposing markets with focused sales, support, and product features and pricing.  For more details, see our post Navigating A Two Block Trade World to see how companies plan on changing supply chains, and the implications for investors.

Corporate executives see a loss of profits and margin tightening in the future. A recent CEO survey showed confidence levels of SPX CEOs at recession levels.  The survey results indicate a possible SPX decline beginning as soon as four months from now.

Sources: USA CEO Confidence Survey, Macrobond, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 10/18/19

The concerns that CEOs see in revenue and profitability were borne out in 3rd quarter reports of 40% of S &P companies.  Companies with more than 50% of sales in international markets report a 9.1% decline in profits and a 2.0% decline in revenue.  All S &P companies report a 3.7% slip in earnings thus far for 3rd quarter of 2019.

Source: Factset – 10/25/19

Are equity markets recognizing the decline in profits for corporations?  The chart below shows the SPX rising despite flat national corporate profits since 2013, with a huge divergence emerging in the past four years. The SPX soaring to new heights tells us that stock market complacency is at record levels in appraising stock valuations versus actual corporate profits. The chart below shows how wide the gap has become which is about twice the gap size just before the Dotcom decline into 2002 from a peak in 2000.

Source: Soc Gen – Albert Edwards – Marketwatch – 10-28-19

The economic storm corporate executives see on the horizon is likely to be a future economic reality, and not liquidity fueled soaring valuationsExecutives are closest to economic reality because they have to make the economic system work for their company day in and day out. A reversion of equity valuations to the reality of falling corporate profits is coming.  The only question remaining is: when will the SPX reversion happen?

Patrick Hill is the Editor of The Progressive Ensign, writes from the heart of Silicon Valley, leveraging 20 years of experience as an executive at firms like HP, Genentech, Verigy, Informatica and Okta to provide investment and economic insights. Twitter: @PatrickHill1677.

Powell’s Revelation And A TIP For Defense

I think we would need to see a really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent before we even consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.” – Jerome Powell 10/30/2019

The recent quote above from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is powerful, to say the least. We cannot remember a time in the last 30 years when a Fed Chairman has so clearly articulated such a strong desire for more inflation.

In particular, let’s dissect the bolded words in the quote for further clarification. 

  • “Really Significant”– Powell is not only saying that the Fed will allow a substantial boost to inflation but does one better by adding the word “really.”
  • “Persistent”– Unlike the prior few Fed Chairman who claimed to be vigilant towards inflation, Powell is clearly telling us that he will not react to inflation that is not only a “really significant” leap from current levels, but a rate that lasts for a while.
  • “Even Consider”– The language he uses here conveys the seriousness of the Fed’s commitment. The rise in inflation must not only be “really significant” but also “persistent.” Powell is saying both conditions must be met before they will even discuss rate hikes. A significant rise in inflation but one they do not deem to be persistent will not suffice. Nor would a persistent move in inflation but one they do not measure as significant. Both conditions must be present together based on his language.

We are stunned by the choice of words Powell used to describe the Fed’s view on inflation. We are even more shocked that the markets and the media are ignoring it. Maybe, they are failing to focus on the three bolded sections.

In fact, what they probably think they heard was:

I think we would need to see a move up in inflation before we consider raising rates to address inflation concerns.

Such a statement is more in line with traditional Fed-speak. The other alternative is that Powell has altered his language in so many different ways over the past year that nobody seems to be paying attention to his words anymore. If so, he has lost credibility.

This article presents Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) as a hedge against Jerome Powell and the Fed getting what they want.

Inflation and Stable Prices – Apples and Oranges

Before a discussion on using TIPS as a way to protect your investments from the deleterious effects of inflation, we need to examine how the Fed gauges inflation and debunk the narrative that terms inflation and price stability as one and the same. Price data going back about 250 years, as shown below, shows the stark difference between inflation and price stability.  

Data Courtesy: Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, ‘The Annual Consumer Price Index for the United States, 1774-Present

The orange line plots annual price changes before the Fed was established in 1913. As shown, prices were volatile year to year, but cumulative inflation over the entire 138 year period was negligible at 23% or .15% annualized. Dare we say prices were stable?

Compare that to the era after the Fed’s creation (represented by the blue line above). Annual inflation rates were less volatile but largely positive. The cumulative growth of prices has been an astonishing 2491% in the post-Fed area, which equates to 3.1% annually. There is nothing stable about such massive price inflation. 

Here is another graph to shed more light on price stability.

Stable prices should be defined as prices that are constant. In other words, a dollar today can purchase the same basket of goods that it did yesterday. Inflation must be near zero over longer periods for this to occur.

The Fed’s definition of stable denotes a consistent rate of annual inflation. Based on their actions and words, they have little regard for the destruction of a dollar’s purchasing power caused by a steady inflation rate. The Fed benefits from this linguistic imprecision because it allows for economic expansion via the accumulation of debt while their Congressional mandates are achieved. This is why the Fed wants to produce inflation. It reduces the amount of debt on an inflation-adjusted basis. The Fed wants inflation but disguises it under the banner of price stability.

With Federal deficits now topping $1 trillion and corporate debt and consumer debt and financial liabilities at all-time highs as a percentage of GDP, we must think about hedging our equity and fixed income portfolios in case the Fed gets more inflation than the 2% goal they consider stable.

Despite what the Fed leads us to believe, they have little control over the rate of inflation and they do not know how to accurately measure it. As occurred 50 years ago, they can easily lose control of prices.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect yourself or profit from it is to anticipate it.

Part two of this article is for RIA Pro subscribers only. If you are not a subscriber and want to learn about the mechanics of TIPS and how they can protect you in an inflationary or deflationary environment, please SIGN UP HERE for a 30-day free trial.

TIPS Mechanics

Few investors truly understand the mechanics of TIPS, so let’s review the basics.

TIPS are debt securities issued by the U.S. government.  Like most U.S. Treasury securities, TIPS have a stated maturity and coupon. Unlike other securities, the principal value of TIPS adjust based on changes in the rate of inflation. The principal value can increase or decrease but will never fall below the bond’s initial par value. The semi-annual coupon on TIPS are a function of the yield of a like-maturity Treasury bond less the expected inflation rate over the life of the security, known as the break-even inflation rate.

The tables below compare the cash flows of a typical fixed coupon Treasury bond, referred to as a nominal coupon bond, and a TIPS bond to help further clarify.

The table above shows the cash flows that an investor pays and receives when purchasing a five-year bond with a fixed coupon of 4% a year. The investor initially invests $1,000 in the bond and in return receives $40 or 4% a year plus a return of the original investment ($1,000) at maturity. In our example, the annual return to the bondholder is 4%. While the price and yield of the security will change during the life of the bond, an investor holding the bond to maturity will be guaranteed the cash flows, as shown.

The TIPS table above shows the cash flows an investor pays and receives when purchasing a five-year TIPS bond with a fixed coupon of 2% a year. Like the fixed coupon bond, the investor initially pays $1,000 to purchase the bond. The similarities end here. Every six months the principal value adjusts for inflation. The coupon payment for each period is then calculated based on the new principal value (and not on the original par value. The principal value can adjust downward, but it cannot fall below the original value. This is an important safety feature that guarantees a minimum return equal to the coupon times the original principal value.  At maturity, the investor receives the final adjusted principal value, not the original principal value. Please note that if a TIPS is bought in the secondary market at a principal value exceeding its original value, the investor can lose the premium and returns can be negative in a deflationary environment.

In the hypothetical example above and excluding reinvestment of coupon payments, an investor in the nominal bond will receive $1,200 in cumulative cash flows over the life of the security. The TIPS investor would receive $1,209.12 in cumulative cash flows.

TIPS are a bet or a hedge on the breakeven inflation rate. If realized inflation over the life of a TIPS is less than the breakeven rate the investor earns a lower return than on a nominal Treasury bond with the same coupon rate. As shown in our example, if inflation is greater than the breakeven rate, then the TIPS investor earns a higher return than a nominal Treasury bond with the same coupon.

The following charts show the return profiles under various inflation scenarios, for the fixed coupon and TIPS examples used in the tables above.

The first graph shows the real (inflation-adjusted) coupon payments at various levels of inflation and deflation. In deflationary environments, both bonds provide positive real returns with the fixed coupon bond outperforming by the 2% breakeven rate. As inflation rises above the breakeven rate, the real return on the TIPS bond increasingly outperforms the fixed bond.

The next graph shows the nominal coupons of both bonds, assuming the investor holds them to maturity. The fixed bond earns the 4% coupon through all inflation scenarios. The TIPS bond earns a constant 2% coupon through all deflationary scenarios while the coupon rises in value as inflation increases. 

At any point in a TIPS life, investors may incur mark to market losses, and if the bonds are sold before maturity, this can result in a permanent loss. Any TIPS bond held from issuance to maturity will have a real positive gain assuming the coupon is above zero, the same is not true for a fixed rate bond.

Current environment

Various inflation surveys, as well as market-implied readings, suggest investors expect low levels of inflation to continue for at least the next ten years. The following graph provides a historical perspective on inflation trends and current long term inflation expectations as measured by 5, 10, and 20-year TIPS breakeven inflation rates.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

The rate of inflation over the last 20 years, as measured by the consumer price index, has generally been decelerating. In other words, prices are rising but at a progressively slower pace.  Since 1985, the year over year change in inflation has averaged 2.6%, and since 2015, it has averaged 1.5%.

The market determined break-even inflation rate, or the differential between TIPS yields and like maturity fixed coupon yields, for the next 5, 10, and 20 years is currently 1.39%, 1.59%, and 1.65%, respectively. Inflation expectations for the next twenty years are consistent with the actual rate of inflation for the last ten years.

The Case For TIPS

While most forecasts are based on the past and therefore do not predict meaningful inflation, we must remain cognizant that since the Great Financial Crisis in 2008/09, the Federal Reserve (FED) and many other central banks have taken extraordinary monetary policy actions. The Fed lowered their targeted interest rates to zero while central banks in Japan and Europe have gone even further and introduced negative interest rates. Additionally, banks have sharply increased their balance sheets. These actions are being employed to incentivize additional borrowing to foster economic growth and boost inflation. More recently, as we are now seeing with a new round of QE, it appears the Fed is now using monetary policy to help facilitate trillion-dollar Federal deficits. 

Investors must be careful with the market’s assumption that the Fed’s efforts to stimulate inflation will lead to the same inflation rates of the past decade. Further, if “warranted”, a central bank can literally print money and hand it out to its citizens or directly fund the government. These alternative methods of monetary policy, deemed “helicopter money” by Ben Bernanke, would most likely cause prices to rise significantly.   

“Too much” inflation would be a detriment to the equity and bond markets. If inflation rates greater than three or four percent were to occur, a large majority of investors would pay dearly. Such circumstances would depreciate investor asset values and simultaneously reduce their purchasing power. With this double-edged sword in mind, TIPS should be considered by all investors.

The graph below, courtesy Doug Short and Advisor Perspectives, shows that equity valuations tend to be at their highest when inflation ranges between zero and two percent. Outside of that band, valuations are lower.  Currently, the market is making a big bet that valuations can remain near historical highs and inflation will remain in its recent range.

The worst case scenario for TIPS, as shown in the graphs, is a continuation of the inflation trends of yesterday. In those circumstances, TIPS would provide a return on par with or slightly less than comparable maturity nominal Treasury bonds. Investors also need to incorporate the opportunity cost of not allocating those funds towards stocks or riskier bonds should inflation remain subdued.

For those conservative investors sitting on excess cash, TIPS can be effectively employed as a surrogate to cash but with the added benefits of coupon payments and protection against the uncertainty of inflation.  In a worst case scenario, TIPS provide a return similar to those found on money market mutual funds. In the event of deflation and/or negative rates, TIPS should outperform these funds, which could easily experience negative returns.

Summary

Markets have a long history of assuming the future will be just like the past. Such assumptions and complacency work great until they don’t.  We do not profess to know when inflation may pick up in earnest, and we do not have a good economic explanation for what would cause that to happen. That being said, monetary policy around the world is managed by aggressive central bankers with strong and misplaced beliefs about the benefits of inflation. At some point, there is a greater than zero likelihood central bankers will be pushed to take actions that are truly inflationary. While the markets may initially cheer, the inevitable consequences may be dire for anyone not focused on preserving their purchasing power.

We urge you to focus on the forgotten leg of wealth, purchasing power. The opportunity costs of owning TIPS are minimal and the potential hedge value of TIPS is tremendous. Change can happen in a hurry, and the only way to protect and or profit from it is to anticipate it. As has been said, you cannot predict the future, but you can prepare for it.

We leave you with an important quote from our recent article- Warning, No Life Guards on Duty.

Another “lifeguard” is Daniel Oliver of Myrmikan Capital. In a recently published article entitled QE for the People, Oliver eloquently sums up the Fed’s policy situation this way:

The new QE will take place near the end of a credit cycle, as overcapacity starts to bite and in a relatively steady interest rate environment. Corporate America is already choked with too much debt. As the economy sours, so too will the appetite for more debt. This coming QE, therefore, will go mostly toward government transfer payments to be used for consumption. This is the “QE for the people” for which leftwing economists and politicians have been clamoring. It is “Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.” The Fed wants inflation and now it’s going to get it, good and hard.”

To Buy, Or Not To Buy- An Investors Guide to QE 4

In no sense is this QE” – Jerome Powell

On October 9, 2019, the Federal Reserve announced a resumption of quantitative easing (QE). Fed Chairman Jerome Powell went to great lengths to make sure he characterized the new operation as something different than QE. Like QE 1, 2, and 3, this new action involves a series of large asset purchases of Treasury securities conducted by the Fed. The action is designed to pump liquidity and reserves into the banking system.

Regardless of the nomenclature, what matters to investors is whether this new action will have an effect on asset prices similar to prior rounds of QE. For the remainder of this article, we refer to the latest action as QE 4.

To quantify what a similar effect may mean, we start by examining the performance of various equity indexes, equity sectors, commodities, and yields during the three prior QE operations. We then normalize the data for the duration and amount of QE to project what QE 4 might hold in store for the assets.

Equally important, we present several factors that are unique to QE 4 and may result in different outcomes. While no one has the answers, we hope that the quantitative data and the qualitative commentary we provide arms you with a better appreciation for asset return possibilities during this latest round of QE. 

How QE 1, 2, and 3 affected the markets

The following series of tables, separated by asset class, breaks down price performance for each episode of QE. The first table for each asset class shows the absolute price return for the respective assets along with the maximum and minimum returns from the start of each QE. The smaller table below it normalizes these returns, making them comparable across the three QE operations. To normalize the data, we annualize the respective QE returns and then scale the returns per $100 billion of QE. For instance, if the S&P 500 returned 10% annualized and the Fed bought $500 billion of assets during a particular QE, then the normalized return would be 2% per $100 billion of QE.

Data in the tables are from Bloomberg.  Click on any of the tables to enlarge.

QE 4 potential returns

If we assume that assets will perform similarly under QE 4, we can easily forecast returns using the normalized data from above. The following three tables show these forecasts. Below the tables are rankings by asset class as well as in aggregate. For purposes of this exercise, we assume, based on the Fed’s guidance, that they will purchase $60 billion a month for six months ($360 billion) of U.S. Treasury Bills.

Takeaways

The following list provides a summarization of the tables.

  • Higher volatility and higher beta equity indexes generally outperformed during the first three rounds of QE.
  • Defensive equity sectors underperformed during QE.
  • On average, growth stocks slightly outperformed value stocks during QE. Over the last decade, inclusive of non-QE periods, growth stocks have significantly outperformed value stocks.
  • Longer-term bond yields generally rose while shorter-term yields were flat, resulting in steeper yield curves in all three instances. 
  • Copper, crude oil, and silver outperformed the S&P 500, although the exceptional returns primarily occurred during QE 1 for copper and crude and QE 1 and 2 for Silver.
  • On a normalized basis, Silver’s 10.17% return per $100bn in QE 2, is head and shoulders above all other normalized returns in all three prior instances of QE.
  • In general, assets were at or near their peak returns as QE 1 and 3 ended. During QE 2, a significant percentage of early gains were relinquished before QE ended.
  • QE 2 was much shorter in duration and involved significantly fewer purchases by the Fed.
  • The expected top five performers during QE4 on a normalized basis from highest to lowest are: Silver, S&P 400, Discretionary stocks, S&P 600, and Crude Oil. 
  • Projected returns for QE 4 are about two-thirds lower than the average of prior QE. The lesser expectations are, in large part, a function of our assumption of a smaller size for QE4. If the actual amount of QE 4 is larger than current expectations, the forecasts will rise.

QE, but in a different environment

While it is tempting to use the tables above and assume the future will look like the past, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the current environment surrounding QE 4 is different from prior QE periods. The following bullet points highlight some of the more important differences.

  • As currently planned, the Fed will only buy Treasury Bills during QE 4, while the other QE programs included the purchase of both short and long term Treasury securities as well as mortgages backed securities and agency debt. 
  • Fed Funds are currently targeted at 1.75-2.00%, leaving the Fed multiple opportunities to reduce rates during QE 4. In the other instances of QE, the Fed Funds rate was pegged at zero. 
  • QE 4 is intended to provide the banking system needed bank reserves to fill the apparent shortfall evidenced by high overnight repo funding rates in September 2019. Prior instances of QE, especially the second and third programs, supplied banks with truly excess reserves. These excess reserves helped fuel asset prices.
  • Equity valuations are significantly higher today than during QE 1, 2, and 3.
  • The amount of government and corporate debt outstanding is much higher today, especially as compared with the QE 1 and 2 timeframes.
  • Having achieved a record-breaking duration, the current economic expansion is old and best described as “late-cycle”.

Déjà vu all over again?

The prior QE operations helped asset prices for three reasons.

  • The Fed removed a significant amount of securities from the market, which forced investors to buy other assets. Because the securities removed were the least risky available in the market, investors, in general, moved into riskier assets. This had a circular effect pushing investors further and further into riskier assets.
  • QE 4 appears to be providing the banks with needed reserves. Assuming that true excess reserves in the system do not rise sharply, as they did in prior QE, the banks will probably not use these reserves for proprietary trading and investing. 
  • Because the Fed is only purchasing Treasury Bills, the boost of liquidity and reserves is relatively temporary and will only be in the banking system for months, not years or even decades like QE 1, 2, and 3.

Will QE 4 have the same effect on asset prices as QE 1, 2, and 3?

Will the bullish market spirits that persisted during prior episodes of QE emerge again during QE 4?

We do not have the answers, but we caution that this version of QE is different for the reasons pointed out above. That said, QE 4 can certainly morph into something bigger and more akin to prior QE. The Fed can continue this round beyond the second quarter of 2020, an end date they provided in their recent announcement. They can also buy more securities than they currently allude to or extend their purchases to longer maturity Treasuries or both. If the economy stumbles, the Fed will find the justification to expand QE4 into whatever they wish.

The Fed is sensitive to market returns, and while they may not want excessive valuations to keep rising, they will do anything in their power to stop valuations from returning to more normal levels. We do not think investors can blindly buy on QE 4, as the various wrinkles in Fed execution and the environment leave too many unanswered questions. Investors will need to closely follow Fed meetings and Fed speakers for clues on expectations and guidance around QE 4.

The framework above should afford the basis for critical evaluation and prudent decision-making. The main consideration of this analysis is the benchmark it provides for asset prices going forward. Should the market disappoint despite QE 4 that would be a critically important contrarian signal.

In The Fed We TRUST – Part 2: What is Money?

Part one of this article can be found HERE.

President Trump recently nominated Judy Shelton to fill an open seat on the Federal Reserve Board. She was recently quoted by the Washington Post as follows: “(I) would lower rates as fast, as efficiently, and as expeditiously as possible.” From a political perspective there is no doubting that Shelton is conservative.

Janet Yellen, a Ph.D. economist from Brooklyn, New York, appointed by President Barack Obama, was the most liberal Fed Chairman in the last thirty years.

Despite what appears to be polar opposite political views, Mrs. Shelton and Mrs. Yellen have nearly identical approaches regarding their philosophy in prescribing monetary policy. Simply put, they are uber-liberal when it comes to monetary policy, making them consistent with past chairmen such as Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan and current chairman Jay Powell.

In fact, it was Fed Chairman Paul Volcker (1979 to 1987), a Democrat appointed by President Jimmy Carter, who last demonstrated a conservative approach towards monetary policy. During his term, Volcker defied presidential “advice” on multiple occasions and raised interest rates aggressively to choke off inflation. In the short-term, he harmed the markets and cooled economic activity. In the long run, his actions arrested double-digit inflation that was crippling the nation and laid the foundation for a 20-year economic expansion.

Today, there are no conservative monetary policy makers at the Fed. Since Volcker, the Fed has been run by self-described liberals and conservatives preaching easy money from the same pulpit. Their extraordinary policies of the last 20 years are based almost entirely on creating more debt to support the debt of yesteryear as well as economic and market activity today. These economic leaders show little to no regard for tomorrow and the consequences that arise from their policies. They are clearly focused on political expediency.

Different Roads but the Same Path –Government

Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, and a host of others from the left-wing of the Democrat party are pushing for more social spending. To support their platform they promote an economic policy called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Read HERE and HERE for our thoughts on MMT. 

In general, MMT would authorize the Fed to print money to support government spending with the intention of boosting economic activity. The idealized outcome of this scheme is greater prosperity for all U.S. citizens. The critical part of MMT is that it would enable the government to spend well beyond tax revenue yet not owe a dime.   

President Trump blamed the Fed for employing conservative monetary policy and limiting economic growth when he opined, “Frankly, if we didn’t have somebody that would raise interest rates and do quantitative tightening (Powell), we would have been at over 4 instead of a 3.1.” 

Since President Trump took office, U.S government debt has risen by approximately $1 trillion per year. The remainder of the post-financial crisis period saw increases in U.S. government debt outstanding of less than half that amount. Despite what appears to be polar opposite views on just about everything, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, Congress has not done anything to slow spending or even consider the unsustainable fiscal path we are on. The last time the government ran such exorbitant deficits while the economy was at full employment and growing was during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The inflationary mess it created were those that Fed Chairman Volcker was charged with cleaning up.

From the top down, the U.S. government is and has been stacked with fiscal policymakers who, despite their political leanings, are far too undisciplined on the fiscal front.

We frequently assume that a candidate of a certain political party has views corresponding with those traditionally associated with their party. However, in the realm of fiscal and monetary policy, any such distinctions have long since been abandoned.

TRUST

Now consider the current stance of Democratic and Republican fiscal and monetary policy within the TRUST framework. Government leaders are pushing for unprecedented doses of economic stimulus. Their secondary goal is to maximize growth via debt-driven spending. Such policies are fully supported by the Fed who keeps interest rates well below what would be considered normal. The primary goal of these policies is to retain power.

To keep interest rates lower than a healthy market would prescribe, the Fed prints money. When policy consistently leans toward lower than normal rates, as has been the case, the money supply rises. In the wake of the described Fed-Government partnership lies a currency declining in value. As discussed in prior articles, inflation, which damages the value of a currency, is always the result of monetary policy decisions.

If the value of a currency rests on its limited supply, are we now entering a phase where the value of the dollar will begin to get questioned? We don’t have a definitive answer but we know with 100% certainty that the damage is already done and the damage proposed by both political parties increases the odds that the almighty dollar will lose value, and with that, TRUST will erode. Recall the graph of the dollar’s declining purchasing power that we showed in Part 1.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

Got Money? 

If the value of the dollar and other fiat currencies are under liberal monetary and fiscal policy assault and at risk of losing the valued TRUST on which they are 100% dependent, we must consider protective measures for our hard-earned wealth.

With an underlying appreciation of the TRUST supporting our dollars, the definition of terms becomes critically important. What, precisely, is the difference between currency and money? 

Gold is defined as natural element number 79 on the periodic table, but what interests us is not its definition but its use. Although gold is and has been used for many things, its chief purpose throughout the 5,000-year history of civilization has been as money.

In testimony to Congress on December 18, 1912, J.P. Morgan stated: “Money is gold, and nothing else.” Notably, what he intentionally did not say was money is the dollar or the pound sterling. What his statement reveals, which has long since been forgotten, is that people are paid for their labor through a process that is the backbone of our capitalist society. “Money,” properly defined, is a store of labor and only gold is money.

In the same way that cut glass or cubic zirconium may be made to look like diamonds and offer the appearance of wealth, they are not diamonds and are not valued as such. What we commonly confuse for money today – dollars, yen, euro, pounds – are money-substitutes. Under an evolution of legal tender laws since 1933, global fiat currencies have displaced the use of gold as currency. Banker-generated currencies like the dollar and euro are not based on expended labor; they are based on credit. In other words, they do not rely on labor and time to produce anything. Unlike the efforts required to mine gold from the ground, currencies are nearly costless to produce and are purely backed by a promise to deliver value in exchange for labor.

Merchants and workers are willing to accept paper currency in exchange for their goods and services in part because they are required by law to do so. We must TRUST that we are being compensated in a paper currency that will be equally TRUSTed by others, domestically, and internationally. But, unlike money, credit includes the uncertainty of “value” and repayment.

Currency is a bank liability which explains why failing banks with large loan losses are not able to fully redeem the savings of those who have their currency deposited there. Gold does not have that risk as there is no intermediary between it and value (i.e., the U.S. government or the Japanese government). Gold is money and harbors none of these risks, while currency is credit. Said again for emphasis, only gold is money, currency is credit.

There is a reason gold has been the money of choice for the entirety of civilization. The last 90 years is the exception and not the rule.

Despite their actions and words, the value of gold, and disTRUST of the dollar is not lost on Central Bankers. Since 2013, global central banks have bought $140 billion of gold and sold $130 billion of U.S. Treasury bonds. Might we say they are trading TRUST for surety?

Summary

To repeat, currency, whether dollars, pounds, or wampum, are based on nothing more than TRUST. Gold and its 5000 year history as money represents a dependable store of labor and real value; TRUST is not required to hold gold. No currency in the history of humankind, the almighty U.S. dollar included, can boast of the same track record.

TRUST hinges on decision makers who are people of character and integrity and willingness to do what is best for the nation, not the few. Currently, both political parties are taking actions that destroy TRUST to gain votes. While political party narratives are worlds apart, their actions are similar. Deficits do matter because as they accumulate, TRUST withers.

This article is not a call to action to trade all of your currency for gold, but we TRUST this article provokes you to think more about what money is.

QE By Any Other Name

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” – Juliet Capulet in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Burgeoning Problem

The short-term repo funding turmoil that cropped up in mid-September continues to be discussed at length. The Federal Reserve quickly addressed soaring overnight funding costs through a special repo financing facility not used since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC). The re-introduction of repo facilities has, thus far, resolved the matter. It remains interesting that so many articles are being written about the problem, including our own. The on-going concern stems from the fact that the world’s most powerful central bank briefly lost control over the one rate they must control.

What seems clear is the Fed measures to calm funding markets, although superficially effective, may not address a bigger underlying set of issues that could reappear. The on-going media attention to such a banal and technical topic could be indicative of deeper problems. People who understand both the complexities and importance of these matters, frankly, are still wringing their hands. The Fed has applied a tourniquet and gauze to a serious wound, but permanent medical attention is still desperately needed.

The Fed is in a difficult position. As discussed in Who Could Have Known – What the Repo Fiasco Entails, they are using temporary tools that require daily and increasingly larger efforts to assuage the problem. Taking more drastic and permanent steps would result in an aggressive easing of monetary policy at a time when the U.S. economy is relatively strong and stable, and such policy is not warranted in our opinion. Such measures could incite the most underrated of all threats, inflationary pressures.

Hamstrung

The Fed is hamstrung by an economy that has enjoyed low interest rates and stimulative fiscal policy and is the strongest in the developed world. By all appearances, the U.S. is also running at full employment. At the same time, they have a hostile President sniping at them to ease policy dramatically and the Federal Reserve board itself has rarely seen internal dissension of the kind recently observed. The current fundamental and political environment is challenging, to be kind.

Two main alternatives to resolve the funding issue are:

  1. More aggressive interest rate cuts to steepen the yield curve and relieve the banks of the negative carry in holding Treasury notes and bonds
  2. Re-initiating quantitative easing (QE) by having the Fed buy Treasury and mortgage-backed securities from primary dealers to re-liquefy the system

Others are putting forth their perspectives on the matter, but the only real “permanent” solution is the second option, re-expanding the Fed balance sheet through QE. The Fed is painted into a financial corner since there is no fundamental justification (remember “we are data-dependent”) for such an action. Further, Powell, when asked, said they would not take monetary policy actions to address the short-term temporary spike in funding. Whether Powell likes it or not, not taking such an action might force the need to take that very same action, and it may come too late.

Advice from Those That Caused the Problem

There was an article recently written by a former Fed official now employed by a major hedge fund manager.

Brian Sack is a Director of Global Economics at the D.E. Shaw Group, a hedge fund conglomerate with over $40 billion under management. Prior to joining D.E. Shaw, Sack was head of the New York Federal Reserve Markets Group and manager of the System Open Market Account (SOMA) for the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). He also served as a special advisor on monetary policy to President Obama while at the New York Fed.

Sack, along with Joseph Gagnon, another ex-Fed employee and currently a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, argue in their paper LINK that the Fed should first promptly establish a standing fixed-rate repo facility and, second, “aim for a higher level of reserves.” Although Sack and Gagnon would not concede that reserves are “low”, they argue that whatever the minimum level of reserves may be in the banking system, the Fed should “steer well clear of it.” Their recommendation is for the Fed to increase the level of reserves by $250 billion over the next two quarters. Furthermore, they argue for continued expansion of the Fed balance sheet as needed thereafter.

What they recommend is monetary policy slavery. No matter what language they use to rationalize and justify such solutions, it is pure pragmatism and expediency. It may solve short-term funding issues for the time being, but it will leave the U.S. economy and its citizens further enslaved to the consequences of runaway debt and the monetary policies designed to support it.

If It Walks and Quacks Like a Duck…

Sack and Gagnon did not give their recommendation a sophisticated name, but neither did they call it “QE.” Simply put, their recommendation is in fact a resumption of QE regardless of what name it is given.

To them it smells as sweet as QE, but the spin of some other name and rationale may be more palatable to the public. By not calling it QE, it may allow the Fed more leeway to do QE without being in a recession or bringing rates to near zero in attempts to avoid becoming a political lightening rod.

The media appears to be helping with what increasingly looks like a sleight of hand. Joe Weisenthal from Bloomberg proposed the following on Twitter:

To help you form your own opinion let’s look at some facts about QE and balance sheet increases prior to the QE era. From January of 2003 to December of 2007, the Fed’s balance sheet steadily increased by $150 billion, or about $30 billion a year. The new proposal from Sack and Gagnon calls for a $250 billion increase over six months. QE1 lasted six months and increased the Fed’s balance sheet by $265 billion. Maybe its us, but the new proposal appears to be a mirror image of QE.

Summary

The challenge, as we see it, is that these former Fed officials do not realize that the policies they helped create and implement were a big contributor to the financial crisis a decade ago. The ensuing problems the financial system is now enduring are a result of the policies they implemented to address the crisis. Their proposed solutions, regardless of what they call them, are more imprudent policies to address problems caused by imprudent policies since the GFC.

Who Could Have Known: What The Repo Fiasco Entails

Imagine approaching a friend that you think is very wealthy and asking her to borrow ten thousand dollars for just one night. To entice her, you offer as collateral the title to your 2019 Lexus parked in her driveway along with an interest rate that is 5% above that which she is earning in the bank. Shockingly, your friend says she can’t. Given the risk-free nature of the transaction and excellent one-day profit, we can assume that our friend may not be as wealthy as we thought.

On Monday, September 16th, 2019, a similar situation occurred in the overnight repurchase agreement (repo) funding market. On that day, banks were unwilling or unable to lend on a collateralized basis, even with the promise of large risk-free profits. This behavior reveals something very important about the banking system and points to the end of market stimulus that has been around for the past decade.

The Plumbing of the Banking System and Financial Markets

Interbank borrowing is the engine that allows the financial system to run smoothly. Banks routinely borrow and lend to each other on an overnight basis to ensure that all banks have ample funds to meet daily cash flow needs and that banks with excess funds can earn interest on them. Literally, years go by with no problems in the interbank markets and not a mention in the media.

Before proceeding, what follows is a definition of the funding instruments used in the interbank markets.

  • Fed Funds are uncollateralized interbank loans that are almost exclusively done on an overnight basis. Except for a few exceptions, only banks can trade Fed Funds.
  • Repo (repurchase agreements) are collateralized loans. These transactions occur between banks but often involve other non-bank financial institutions such as insurance companies. Repo can be negotiated on an overnight and longer-term basis. General collateral, or “GC,” is a term used to describe Treasury, agency, and mortgage collateral that backs certain repo loans. In a GC repo, the particular securities backing the loan are not determined until after the transaction is agreed upon by the counterparties. The securities delivered must meet certain pre-defined criteria.

On September 16th, overnight GC repo traded as high as 8%, almost 6% higher than the Fed Funds rate, which theoretically should keep repo and other money market rates closely tied to it. The billion-dollar question is, “Why did a firm willing to pay a hefty premium, with risk-free collateral, struggle to borrow money”?  Before the 16th, a premium of 25 to 50 basis points versus Fed Funds would have enticed a mob of financial institutions to lend money via the repo markets. On the 16th, many multiples of that premium were not enticing enough.

Most likely, there was an unexpected cash crunch that left banks and/or financial institutions underfunded. The media has talked up the corporate tax date and a large Treasury bond settlement date as potential reasons. We are not convinced by either excuse as they were easily forecastable weeks in advance.

Regardless of what caused the liquidity crunch, we do know, that in aggregate, banks did not have the capacity to lend money. Given the capacity, they would have done so in a New York minute and at much lower rates.

To highlight the enormity of the aberration, consider the following:

  • Since 2006, the average daily difference between the overnight GC repo rate and the Fed Funds effective rate was .025%.
  • Three standard deviations or 99.5% of the observances should have a spread of .56% or less.
  • 8% is a bewildering 42 standard deviations from the average, or simply impossible assuming a traditional bell curve.

What was revealed on the 16th?

The U.S. and global banking systems revolve around fractional reserve banking. That means banks need only hold a fraction of the cash deposits that they hold in reserve accounts at the Fed. For example, if a bank has $1,000 in deposits (a liability to the bank), they may lend $900 of those funds and retain only 10% in reserves. This is meant to ensure they have enough funding on hand to make payments during the day and also as a buffer against unanticipated liquidity needs. Before 2008, banks held only just as many reserves as were required by the Fed. Holding anything more than the required minimum was a drag on earnings, as excess reserves were unremunerated at the time.

Quantitative Easing (QE) and the need for the Fed to pay interest on newly formed excess reserves changed that. When the Fed conducted QE, they bought U.S. Treasury, agency, and mortgage-backed securities and credited the selling bank’s reserve account. The purpose of QE1 was to ensure that the banking system was sufficiently liquid and equipped to deal with the ramifications of the ongoing financial crisis. Round one of QE was logical given the growing list of bank/financial institution failures. However, additional rounds of QE appear to have had a different motive and influence as banks were highly liquid after QE1 and had shored up their capital as well. That is a story for another day.

The graph below shows how “excess” reserves were close to zero before 2008 and soared by over $2.5 trillion after the three rounds of QE. Before QE, “excess” reserves were tiny, measured in the hundreds of millions. The amount is so small it is not visible on the graph below. The reserves produced by multiple rounds of quantitative easing may have been truly excess, meaning above required reserves, on day one of QE. However, on day two and beyond that is not necessarily true for any particular bank or the system as a whole, as we are about to explain.

Data courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The Fed, having pushed an enormous amount of reserves on the banks, created a potential problem. The Fed feared that once the smoke cleared from the financial crisis, banks would revert to their pre-crisis practice of keeping only the minimum amount of reserves required. This would leave them an unprecedented surplus of excess funds to buy financial assets and/or create loans which would vastly increase the money supply with inflationary consequences. To combat this problem, they incentivized the banks to keep the reserves locked down by paying them a rate of interest on the reserves that were higher than the Fed funds rates and other prevailing money market rates. This rate is called the IOER or the interest on excess reserves.

The Fed assumed banks would hold excess reserves because they could make risk free profits at no cost. This largely worked, but some reserves were leveraged by the banks and flowed into the financial markets. This was a big factor in driving stock prices higher, credit spreads tighter, and bond yields lower. This form of inflation the Fed seemed to desire as evidenced from their many speeches talking about generating household net worth.

From the banks’ perspective, the excess reserves supplied by the Fed during QE were preferential to traditional uses of excess reserves. Historically, excess bank reserves were invested in the Treasury market or lent on to other banks in the Fed Funds market. Purchasing Treasury securities had no credit risk, but banks are required to mark their Treasury holdings to market and therefore produce unexpected gains and losses. Lending reserves in the interbank market also incurred counterparty risk, as there was always the chance the borrowing bank would be unable to repay the loan, especially in the immediate post-crisis period. Additionally, as QE had produced trillions in excess reserves, there was not much demand from other banks. Therefore, the banks preferred use of excess reserves was leaving them on deposit with the Fed to earn IOER. This resulted in no counterparty risk and no mark to market risk.

Beginning in 2018, the Fed began reducing their balance sheet via QT and the amount of excess reserves held by banks began to decline appreciably.

Solving Our Mystery

It is nearly impossible for the public to figure out how much in excess reserves the banking system is truly carrying. Indeed, even the Fed seems uncertain. It is common knowledge that they have been declining, and over the last six months, clues emerged that the amount of “truly excess reserves,” meaning the amount banks could do without, was possibly approaching zero.  

Clue one came on March 20th, 2019 when the Fed said QT would end in October 2019. Then, on July 31st, 2019, as small problems occurred in the funding markets, the Fed abruptly announced that they would halt the balance sheet reduction in August, two months earlier than originally planned. The QT effort, despite assurances from Bernanke, Yellen, and Powell that it would be uneventful, ended 22 months after it began. The Fed’s balance sheet declined only $800 billion as a result of QT, less than a quarter of what the Fed added to their balance sheet during QE.

Clue two was the declining spread between the IOER rate and the effective Fed Funds rate as the level of excess reserves was declining, as seen in the chart below. The spread between IOER and the Fed Funds rate was narrowing because the Fed was having trouble maintaining the Fed Funds rate within the targeted range. In March 2019, the spread became negative, which was counter to the Fed’s objectives. Not surprisingly, this is when the Fed first announced that QT would end.

Data courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The third and final clue emerged on September 16, 2019, when overnight repo traded at 7%-8%. If banks truly had excess reserves, they would have lent some of that excess into the repo market and rates would never have gotten close to 7-8%. It seems logical that banks would have been happy to lend on a collateralized basis at 3%, much less 7-8%, when their alternative, leaving excess reserves to the Fed, would have earned them 2.25%.   

Further confirmation that something was amiss occurred on September 17th, 2019, when the Fed Funds effective rate was above the upper end of the Fed’s target range of 2-2.25% at the time. This marked the first time the Fed Funds rate traded above its target since 2008.

On September 17th, the Fed entered the repo markets with a $53 billion overnight repo operation, whereby banks could pledge Treasury collateral to the Fed and receive cash. The temporary liquidity injection worked and brought repo rates back to normal. The following day the Fed pumped $75 billion into the markets. These were the first repo transactions executed by the Fed since the Financial Crisis, as shown below.

These liquidity operations will likely continue as long as there is demand from banks. The Fed will also conduct longer-term repo operations to reduce the amount of daily liquidity they provide.

The Fed can continue to resort to the pre-QE era tactics and use temporary daily operations to help target overnight borrowing rates. They can also reduce the reserve requirements which would, at least for some time, provide the system with excess reserves. Lastly, they can permanently add reserves with QE. Recent rhetoric from Fed Chairman Powell and New York Fed President Williams suggests a resumption of QE in some form may be closer than we think.

Why should we care?

The QE-related excess reserves were used to invest in financial assets. While the investments were probably high-grade liquid assets, they essentially crowded out investors, pushing them into slightly riskier assets. This domino effect helped lift all asset prices from the most risk-free and liquid to those that are risky and illiquid. Keep in mind the Fed removed about $3.6 trillion of Treasury and mortgage securities from the market which had a similar effect.

The bottom line is that the role excess reserves played in stimulating the markets over the last decade is gone. There are many other factors driving asset prices higher such as passive investing, stock buybacks, and a broad-based, euphoric investment atmosphere, all of which are byproducts of extraordinary monetary policies. The new modus operandi is not necessarily a cause for concern, but it does present a new demand curve for the markets that is different from what we have become accustomed to.

Summary

Short-term funding is never sexy and rarely if ever, the most exciting part of the capital markets. A brief recollection of 2008 serves as a reminder that, when it is exciting, it is usually a harbinger of volatility and disruption.

In a Washington Post article from 2010, Bernanke stated, “We have made all necessary preparations, and we are confident that we have the tools to unwind these policies at the appropriate time.”

Much more recently, Jay Powell stated, “We’ve been operating in this regime for a full decade. It’s designed specifically so that we do not expect to be conducting frequent open market operations to keep fed fund [sic] rates in the target range.” 

Today, a decade after the financial crisis, we see that Bernanke and Powell have little appreciation for the inner-workings of the financial system. 

In the Wisdom of Peter Fisher, an RIA Pro article released in July, we discussed the insight of Peter Fisher, a former Treasury, and Federal Reserve official. Unlike most other Fed members and politicians, he discussed how hard getting back to normal will be. As we are learning, it turns out that Fisher’s wisdom from 2017 was visionary.

“As Fisher stated in his remarks, The challenge of normalizing policy will be to undo bad habits that have developed in how monetary policy is explained and understood.” He continues, “…the Fed will have to walk back from their early assurances that the “exit would be easy.”

Prophetic indeed.

Surging Repo Rates- Why Should I Care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We leave you with a couple of thoughts-

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

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

Black Monday – Can It Happen Again?

The 1987 stock market crash, better known as Black Monday, was a statistical anomaly, often referred to as a Black Swan event. Unlike other market declines, investors seem to be under the false premise that the stock market in 1987 provided no warning of the impending crash. The unique characteristics of Black Monday, the magnitude and instantaneous nature of the drop, has relegated the event to the “could never happen again” compartment of investors’ memories.

On Black Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) fell 22.6% in the greatest one-day loss ever recorded on Wall Street. Despite varying perceptions, there were clear fundamental and technical warnings preceding the crash that were detected by a few investors. For the rest, the market euphoria raging at the time blinded them to what in hindsight seemed obvious.

Stock markets, like in 1987, are in a state of complacency, donning a ‘what could go wrong’ brashness and extrapolating good times as far as the eye can see. Even those that detect economic headwinds and excessive valuations appear emboldened by the thought that the Fed will not allow anything bad to happen. 

While we respect the bullish price action, we also appreciate that investors are not properly assessing fundamental factors that overwhelmingly argue the market is overvalued. There is no doubt that prices and valuations will revert to more normal levels. Will it occur via a long period of market malaise, a single large drawdown like 1987, or something more akin to the crashes of 2001 and 2008? When will it occur? We do not have the answers, nor does anyone else; however, we know that those who study prior market drawdowns are better prepared and better equipped to limit their risk and avoid a devastating loss.

History provides us with the gift of insight, and though history will not repeat itself, it may rhyme. While we do not think a 1987-like crash is likely, we would be remiss if we did not at least consider it and assign a probability. 

Fundamental Causes

Below is a summary of some of the fundamental dynamics that played a role in the market rally and the ultimate crash of 1987.

Takeover Tax Bill- During the market rally preceding the crash, corporate takeover fever was running hot. Leveraged Buyouts (LBOs), in which high yield debt was used to purchase companies, were stoking the large majority of stocks higher. Investors were betting on rumors of companies being taken over and were participating in strategies such as takeover risk arbitrage. A big determinant driving LBOs was a surge in junk bond issuance and the resulting acquirer’s ability to raise the necessary capital. The enthusiasm for more LBO’s, similar to buybacks today, fueled speculation and enthusiasm across the stock market. On October 13, 1987, Congress introduced a bill that sought to rescind the tax deduction for interest on debt used in corporate takeovers. This bill raised concerns that the LBO machine would be impaired. From the date the bill was announced until the Friday before Black Monday, the market dropped over 10%.

Inflation/Interest Rates- In April 1980, annual inflation peaked at nearly 15%. By December of 1986, it had sharply reversed to a mere 1.18%.  This reading would be the lowest level of inflation from that point until the financial crisis of 2008. Throughout 1987, inflation bucked the trend of the prior six years and hit 4.23% in September of 1987. Not surprisingly, interest rates rose in a similar pattern as inflation during that period. In 1982, the yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note peaked at 15%, but it would close out 1986 at 7%. Like inflation, interest rates reversed the trend in 1987, and by October, the ten-year U.S. Treasury note yield was 3% higher at 10.23%. Higher interest rates made LBOs more costly, takeovers less likely, put pressure on economic growth and, most importantly, presented a rewarding alternative to owning stocks. 

Deficit/Dollar- A frequently cited contributor to the market crash was the mounting trade deficit. From 1982 to 1987, the annual trade deficit was four times the average of the preceding five years. As a result, on October 14th Treasury Secretary James Baker suggested the need for a weaker dollar. Undoubtedly, concerns for dollar weakness led foreigners to exit dollar-denominated assets, adding momentum to rising interest rates. Not surprisingly, the S&P 500 fell 3% that day, in part due to Baker’s comments.

Valuations- From the trough in August 1982 to the peak in August 1987, the S&P 500 produced a total return (dividends included) of over 300% or nearly 32% annualized. However, earnings over the same period rose a mere 8.1%. The valuation ratio, price to trailing twelve months earnings, expanded from 7.50 to 18.25. On the eve of the crash, this metric stood at a 33% premium to its average since 1924. 

Technical Factors

This section examines technical warning signs in the days, weeks, and months before Black Monday. Before proceeding, the chart below shows the longer-term rally from the early 1980s through the crash.

Portfolio Insurance- As mentioned, from the 1982 trough to the 1987 peak, the S&P 500 produced outsized gains for investors. Further, the pace of gains accelerated sharply in the last two years of the rally.

As the 1980s progressed, some investors were increasingly concerned that the massive gains were outpacing the fundamental drivers of stock prices. Such anxiety led to the creation and popularity of portfolio insurance. This new hedging technique, used primarily by institutional investors, involved conditional contracts that sold short the S&P 500 futures contract if the market fell by a certain amount. This simple strategy was essentially a stop loss on a portfolio that avoided selling the actual portfolio assets. Importantly, the contracts ensured that more short sales would occur as the market sell-off continued. When the market began selling off, these insurance hedges began to kick in, swamping bidders and making a bad situation much worse. Because the strategy required incremental short sales as the market fell, selling begat selling, and a correction turned into an avalanche of panic.

Price Activity- The rally from 1982 peaked on August 25, 1987, nearly two months before Black Monday. Over the next month, the S&P 500 fell about 8% before rebounding to 2.65% below the August highs. This condition, a “lower high,” was a warning that went unnoticed. From that point forward, the market headed decidedly lower. Following the rebound high, eight of the nine subsequent days just before Black Monday saw stocks in the red. For those that say the market did not give clues, it is quite likely that the 15% decline before Black Monday was the result of the so-called smart money heeding the clues and selling, hedging, or buying portfolio insurance.

Annotated Technical Indicators

The following chart presents technical warnings signs labeled and described below.

  • A:  7/30/1987- Just before peaking in early August, the S&P 500 extended itself to three standard deviations from its 50-day moving average (3-standard deviation Bollinger band). This signaled the market was greatly overbought. (description of Bollinger Bands)
  • B: 10/5/1987- After peaking and then declining to a more balanced market condition, the S&P 500 recovered but failed to reach the prior high.
  • C: 10/14/1987- The S&P 500 price of 310 was a point of both support and resistance for the market over the prior two months. When the index price broke that line to the downside, it proved to be a critical technical breach.
  • D: 10/16/1987- On the eve of Black Monday, the S&P 500 fell below the 200-day moving average. Since 1985, that moving average provided dependable support to the market on five different occasions.
  • E: August 1987- The relative strength indicator (RSI – above the S&P price graph) reached extremely overbought conditions in late July and early August (labeled green). When the market rebounded in early October to within 2.6% of the prior record high, the RSI was still well below its peak. This was a strong sign that the underlying strength of the market was waning.  (description of RSI)

Volatility- From the beginning of the rally until the crash, the average weekly gain or loss on the S&P 500 was 1.54%. In the week leading up to Black Monday, volatility, as measured by five-day price changes, started spiking higher. By the Friday before Black Monday, the five-day price change was 8.63%, a level over six standard deviations from the norm and almost twice that of any other five-day period since the rally began.   

A longer average true range graph is shown above the longer term S&P 500 graph at the start of the technical section.

Similarities and differences

While comparing 1987 to today is helpful, the economic, political, and market backdrops are vastly different. There are, however some similarities worth mentioning.

Similarities:

  • While LBO’s are not nearly as frequent, companies are essentially replicating similar behavior by using excessive debt and leverage to buy their own shares. Corporate debt stands at all-time highs measured in both absolute terms and as a ratio of GDP. Since 2015, stock buybacks and dividends have accounted for 112% of earnings
  • Federal deficits and the trade deficit are at record levels and increasing rapidly
  • The trade-weighted dollar index is now at the highest level in at least 25 years. We are likely approaching the point where President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin will push for a weak dollar policy
  • Equity valuations are extremely high by almost every metric and historical comparison of the last 100+ years
  • Sentiment and expectations are declining from near record levels
  • The use of margin is at record high levels
  • Trading strategies such as short volatility, passive/index investing, and algorithms can have a snowball effect, like portfolio insurance, if they are unwound hastily

There are also vast differences. The economic backdrop of 1987 and today are nearly opposite.

  • In 1987 baby boomers were on the verge of becoming an economic support engine, today they are retiring at an increasing pace and becoming an economic headwind
  • Personal, corporate, and public Debt to GDP have grown enormously since 1987
  • The amount of monetary stimulus in the system today is extreme and delivering diminishing returns, leaving one to question how much more the Fed can provide 
  • Productivity growth was robust in 1987, and today it has nearly ground to a halt

While some of the fundamental drivers of 1987 may appear similar to today, the current economic situation leaves a lot to be desired when compared to 1987. After the 1987 market crash, the market rebounded quickly, hitting new highs by the spring of 1989.

We fear that, given the economic backdrop and limited ability to enact monetary and fiscal policy, recovery from an episodic event like that experienced in October 1987 may look vastly different today.

Summary

Market tops are said to be processes. Currently, there are an abundance of fundamental warnings and some technical signals that the market is peaking.

Those looking back at 1987 may blame tax legislation, portfolio insurance, and warnings of a weaker dollar as the catalysts for the severe declines. In reality, those were just the sparks that started the fire. The tinder was a market that had become overly optimistic and had forgotten the discipline of prudent risk management.

When the current market reverses course, as always, there will be narratives. Investors are likely to blame a multitude of catalysts both real and imagined. Also, like 1987, the true fundamental catalysts are already apparent; they are just waiting for a spark. We must be prepared and willing to act when combustion becomes evident.

The Dreaded “R” Word

In early July, Michael Lebowitz appeared on Real Vision’s, “Investment Ideas” (LINK), with Edward Harrison. In the interview, Michael stated that the window for a recession was open but that a recession was not necessarily imminent. He based this opinion on the premise that the benefits of increased government spending and recent tax reform are waning and economic headwinds such as China-U.S. trade discussions, slowing European growth, Iran, and a disorderly BREXIT are all serving to slow the growth of the economy. Importantly, he warned that historically the catalyst for recession is often something that is not easy to forecast or predict.

Over the last month, we have noted the “R” word increasingly bandied about by the media. This potential recession catalyst is in everyone’s face, literally, but few recognize it.

Consumers Drive the Bus

Almost 70% of U.S. GDP results from personal consumption. Since 1993, retail sales and GDP have a correlation of 78%, meaning that over three-quarters of the quarterly change in GDP is attributable to the change in retail sales.  

The table below shows the dominant role consumption plays in the GDP calculation. In this hypothetical example, 2.5% consumption growth more than offsets a 4% decline in every other GDP category (an increase in net exports negatively affects GDP). If in the same example consumption was 1% weaker at +1.5%, GDP would go from positive .12% to negative .58%.

Spending decisions, whether for low dollar items such as coffee or dinner or bigger ticket items like a new TV, vacation, or housing, are influenced by our economic outlooks. If we are confident in our job, financial situation, and the economy, we are likely to maintain the pace of consumption or even spend more. If we fear an economic slowdown with financial repercussions, we are likely to tighten our purse strings. Whether we skimp on a cup of Starbucks once a week or postpone the purchase of a car or house, these one-off decisions, when replicated by the masses, sway the economic barometer.

Our economic outlooks and spending habits are primarily based on gut analysis, essentially what we see and hear. Accordingly, print, television, and social media play a large role in molding our economic view.

Recession Fear Mongering

Increasingly, the media has been playing up the possibility of a recession. For example, on August 15, 2019, the day after the yield curve inverted for the first time in over a decade, the lead article on the Washington Post’s front page was entitled Markets Sink on Recession Signal. The signal, per the Washington Post, is the inverted curve. The New York Times followed a few days later with an article entitled How the Recession of 2020 Could Happen. Since mid-August, the number of articles mentioning recession has skyrocketed, as shown below. Furthermore, the number of Google searches for the “R” word has risen to levels not seen since the last recession.

Data Courtesy Google Trends

We have little doubt that the media airing recession warnings are partially politically motivated, but regardless of their motivation, these articles present a growing threat to the consumer psyche and economic growth. 

The more the media mentions “recession,” the higher the likelihood that consumers will retrench in response. Small decisions like not going out to dinner once a week may seem inconsequential, but when similar actions occur throughout a population of hundreds of millions of people, the result can be impactful.  To wit, in The Dog Whistle Heard Around the World, we personalized how our decisions play an important role in measuring economic activity:

Picture your favorite restaurant, one that is always packed and with a long waiting list. One Saturday night you arrive expecting to wait for a table, but to your delight, the hostess says you can sit immediately. The restaurant is crowded, but uncharacteristically there are a couple of empty tables. Those empty tables, while seemingly insignificant, may mean the restaurant’s sales that night will be down a few percent from the norm.

A few percent may not seem like a lot, but consider that the average annual recessionary GDP trough was only -1.88% for the last five recessions.

If economic growth is starting from a relatively weak point, as it is today, then it requires even smaller reductions in consumption habits than in the past to take the economy from expansion to contraction. GDP growth before the last three recessions peaked at 4.47%, 5.29%, and 4.32% respectively. The recent peak in GDP growth was 3.13%, leaving at least 25% less of a cushion than prior peaks.

Summary

Recessions are difficult to predict because they are usually borne out of slight changes in consumer behavior. Needless to say, changes in short term behavioral patterns are difficult to predict at best for a large population and likely impossible.  

Whether or not a recession is imminent is an open question, but the window for a recession is open, allowing a strong negative catalyst to push the economy into contraction. What if that catalyst is as simple as the media repeatedly using the dreaded “R” word?

Over the coming months, we will pay close attention to consumer confidence and expectations surveys for signs that consumer spending is slowing. We leave you with the most recent consumer sentiment and expectations surveys from the University of Michigan and the Conference Board. At this point, neither set of surveys are overly concerning, but we caution they can change quickly.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

What is Bill Dudley Thinking?

On August 27, 2019, Bill Dudley, former Chief Economist for Goldman Sachs and President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2009-2018, published a stunning editorial in Bloomberg (LINK). After reading the article numerous times, there are a few noteworthy observations worth discussing.

Dudley’s Myopic View

Before we dissect Bill Dudley’s opinions and try to understand his motivations, consider the article’s subtitle- “The central bank should refuse to play along with an economic disaster in the making.”

There is little doubt that Trump’s hard stance on trade and the seemingly impetuous use of tariffs and harsh Twitter commentary presents new challenges for economic growth. Global trade has slowed and manufacturers are retrenching to limit their risks.

Whether the trade war is or will be an “economic disaster” as Dudley says, is up for debate. What is remarkable about this comment is the lack of understanding of the economic instability prior to the trade war and how it got to that point.   

As we have discussed on numerous occasions, the Fed has used excessive monetary policy over the last decade to promote economic growth. Dudley and the Fed fail to recognize that their actions have led to rampant speculation in the financial markets, encouraged significant uses of debt for nonproductive purposes, and have fueled the wealth and income divergences. More concerning, their actions have reduced the natural economic growth rate of the country for years and possibly decades to come. Dudley and colleagues arranged the tinder for what will inevitably be an economic disaster. Trump may or may not be the spark.

Dudley sets up his article with a leading question-“This manufactured disaster-in-the-making presents the Federal Reserve with a dilemma: Should it mitigate the damage by providing offsetting stimulus, or refuse to play along?”

He answers, in part, by saying that, based on the Fed’s obligations and “conventional wisdom”, the Fed should respond to economic weakness due to the trade war by “adjusting monetary policy accordingly.” Historically, the Fed has changed policy to counter outside, non-economic factors.

Dudley, however, takes a different tack and asks if easier Fed policy would encourage “the President to escalate the trade war further.” This is where the editorial gets political. He goes on to state his case for the Fed taking a hard line and not adjust monetary policy if the trade war negatively affects economic activity. Dudley believes that by doing nothing, the Fed would:

  • Discourage further trade war escalation
  • Reinforce the Fed’s independence
  • Preserve much needed “ammunition”, as there is little room to cut rates

In the next paragraph, he stresses Trump’s attacks on Chairman Powell and provides more reasoning for the Fed to leave policy alone. Dudley believes the Fed, by not adjusting monetary policy to offset the effects of the trade war in progress, would send a clear signal to the President that he bears the risks of a recession and losing an election. The Fed, thereby, would not be complicit.  

Before going on, we think it’s appropriate to re-emphasize that the next recession will be amplified due to Fed actions over the last ten years. Bernanke should never have extended extraordinary measures beyond the first round of quantitative easing, and Janet Yellen had ample opportunities to raise interest rates and reduce the Fed’s balance sheet during her tenure. Trying to place all of the blame on the current President, or anyone else for that matter, may work in the media and even the populace but it does not line up with the facts.

Dudley’s Summary

Dudley concludes with a stunning and politically motivated statement- “There’s even an argument that the election itself falls within the Fed’s purview. After all, Trump’s reelection arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy, to the Fed’s independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.”   

Dudley is essentially imploring Powell to base monetary policy on the coming election. If Fed independence is what Dudley cherishes, he certainly did not do the Fed any favors. This implicates elites like Dudley, one of the “Davos Men,” who think they know better than the collective decisions of people engaged in free-market exchanges. It also makes him guilty of an effort to manipulate an election.

Summary

Here is an important question. Is this editorial solely Dudley’s thoughts, or was Jerome Powell and the Fed involved in any way?  The Fed has already come out against the article, but in Washington, nothing is ever that clear cut.

If the editorial was in some way subsidized or suggested by Powell, the implications of the Fed going after the President will call into question their independence in the future. No matter how deeply improper that is, it certainly leaves open the question of whether or not people are justified in those efforts. In the same way that no Fed official should ever be viewed as complicit, no President should impose his will from the bully pulpit of the Presidency to influence monetary policy.

From an investment perspective, this is not good. The markets have benefited from a Fed that has promoted asset price inflation and sought to convince us that the economic cycle is dead. Despite sky-high valuations, investors tend to believe that these valuations are fair and that the Fed will always be there as a reliable safety net.

We do not know how this saga will end, but we do know that if confidence in the Fed is compromised, investors will likely vote with their feet.

Caroline’s Summary

We leave you with some thoughts on the subject from Caroline Baum of MarketWatch:

“It is hard to fathom what Dudley was thinking in advocating such an off-the-wall idea of factoring political outcomes into policy decisions. The Fed has a dual mandate from Congress to promote maximum employment and price stability. There is nothing in that mandate, or in the Federal Reserve Act, about influencing election outcomes. Nothing in there either about being part of “the Resistance” to this president.

That would be a dangerous expansion of Federal Reserve’s operating framework.”

The Mechanics of Absurdity

Over the past few decades, the central banks, including the Federal Reserve (Fed), have relied increasingly on interest rates to help modify economic growth. Interest rate management is their tool of choice because it can be effective and because central banks regulate the supply of money, which directly effects the cost to borrow it. Lower interest rates incentivize borrowers to take on debt and consume while dis-incentivizing savings.

Regrettably, a growing consequence of favoring lower than normal interest rates for prolonged periods is that consumers, companies, and nations grow increasingly indebted as a percentage of their respective income. In many cases, consumption is pulled from the future to the present day. Accordingly, less consumption is needed in the future and a larger portion of income and wealth must be devoted to servicing the accumulated debt as opposed to productive ventures which would otherwise generate income to help pay off the debt.

Today, interest rates are at historically low levels around the globe. Interest rates are negative in Japan and throughout much of Europe. In this article, we expound on the themes laid out in Negative is the New Subprime, to discuss the mechanics of negative-yielding debt as well as the current mindset of investors that invest in negative-yielding debt.

Is invest the right word in describing an asset that when held to maturity guarantees a loss of capital?

Negative Yield Mechanics

Negative yields are not only bestowed upon sovereign debt, as investment grade and even some junk-rated debt in Europe now carry negative yields. Even stranger, Market Watch just wrote about a Danish bank offering consumers’ negative interest rate mortgages (LINK).

You might be thinking, “Wow, I can take out a negative interest rate loan, receive payments every month or quarter and then pay back what was lent to me?” That is not how it works, at least not yet. Below are two examples that walk through the lender and borrower cash flows for negative-yielding debt.

Some of the bonds trading at negative yields were issued when yields were positive and therefore have coupon payments. For example, in August of 2018, Germany issued a 30 year bond with a coupon of 1.25%. The price of the bond is currently $143, making the yield to maturity -0.19%. Today, it will cost you $14,300 to buy $10,000 face value of the bond. Going forward, you will receive coupon payments of $125 a year and ultimately receive $10,000 in 2048. Over the next 29 years you will receive $3,625 in coupon payments but lose $4,300 in principal, hence the current negative yield to maturity.

Bonds issued with a zero coupon with negative yields are similar in concept but the mechanics are slightly different than our positive coupon example from above. Germany issued a ten-year bond which pays no coupon. Currently, the price is 106.76, meaning it will cost an investor $10,676 to buy $10,000 face value of the bond. Over the next ten years the investor will receive no coupon payments, and at the end of the term they will receive $10,000, resulting in a $676 loss. The lower the negative yield to maturity, the higher premium to par and the greater loss of principal at maturity.

We suspect that example two, the zero-coupon bond issued at a price above par, will be the issuance model going forward for negative yielding bonds.

Why?

At this point, after reviewing the cash flows on the German bonds, you are probably asking why an investor would make an investment in which they are almost guaranteed to lose money. There are two predominant reasons worth exploring.

Safety: Investors that store physical gold in a gold vault pay a fee for safe storage. Individuals with expensive jewelry or other keepsakes pay banks a fee to use their vaults. Custodians, such as Fidelity or Schwab, are paid fees for the safekeeping of our stocks and bonds.

Storing money, as a deposit in a bank, is a little different from the prior examples. While banks are a safer place to store money than a personal vault, mattress, or wallet, the fact is that deposits are loans to the bank. Banks traditionally pay depositors an interest rate so that they have funds they can lend to borrowers at higher rates than the rate incurred on the deposit.

With rates negative in Europe and Japan, their respective central banks have essentially made the storing of deposits with banks akin to the storage of gold, jewelry, and stocks – they are subject to a safe storage fee.  Unfortunately, many people and corporations have no choice but to store their money in negative-yielding instruments and must lend money to a bank and pay a “storage fee.”  

On a real return basis, in other words adjusted for inflation, whether an investor comes out ahead by lending in a negative interest rate environment, depends on changes to the cost of living during that time frame. Negative yielding bonds emphatically signal that Germany will be in a deflationary state over the next ten years. With global central bankers taking every possible step, legal and otherwise, to avoid deflation and generate inflation, betting on deflation via negative yielding instruments seems like a poor choice for investors.

Greater Fool Theory: Buying a zero-coupon bond for 101 today with the promise of receiving 100 is a bad investment. Period. Buying the same bond for 101 today and selling it for 102 tomorrow is a great investment. As yields continue to fall further into negative territory, the prices of bonds rise. While the buyer of a negative-yielding bond may not receive a coupon, they can still profit, and sometimes appreciably as yields decline.

This type of trade mindset falls under the greater fool theory. Per Wikipedia:

“In finance and economics, the greater fool theory states that the price of an object is determined not by its intrinsic value, but rather by irrational beliefs and expectations of market participants. A price can be justified by a rational buyer under the belief that another party is willing to pay an even higher price. In other words, one may pay a price that seems “foolishly” high because one may rationally have the expectation that the item can be resold to a “greater fool” later.”

More succinctly, someone buying a bond that guarantees a loss can profit if they can find someone even more willing to lose money.

Scenario Analysis

Let’s now do a little scenario analysis to understand the value proposition of holding a negative-yielding bond.

For all three examples we use a one year bond to keep the math simple. The hypothetical bond details are as follows:

  • Issue Date: 9/1/2019
  • Maturity Date: 9/1/2020
  • Coupon = 0%
  • Yield at Issuance: -1.0%
  • Price at Issuance: 101.00

Greater fool scenario: In this scenario, the bondholder buys the new issue bond at 101 and sells it a week later at 101.50. In this case, the investor makes a .495% return or almost 29% annualized.

Normalization: This next scenario assumes that yields return to somewhat normal levels and the holder sells the bond in six months.If the yield returns to zero in six months, the price of the bond would fall to 100. In this case, our investor, having paid 101.00, will lose 1% over the six month period or 2% annualized.

Hold to maturity: If the bond is held to maturity, the bondholder will be redeemed at par losing 1% as they are paid $100 at maturity on a bond they purchased for $101.

Summary

Writing and thinking about the absurdity of negative yields is taxing and unnatural. It forces us to contemplate basic financial concepts in ways that defy common sense and rational thought. This is not a pedantic white paper discussing hypothetical central bank magic tricks and sleight of hand; this is about something occurring in real-time.

Excessive monetary policy has been the crutch of growth for decades spurred by an intense desire to avoid and minimize otherwise healthy and routine economic corrections. It was fueled by the cult of personality which took over in the 1990s when Alan Greenspan was labeled “The Maestro”. He, Robert Rubin, and Lawrence Summers were christened “The Committee to Save the World” by Time magazine in February 1999.  Greenspan was then the subject of a biography by famed Watergate journalist Bob Woodward infamously titled Maestro in 2000.

Under Greenspan and then Bernanke, Yellen and now Powell, rational monetary policy and acknowledgement of naturally occurring business cycles has taken a back seat to avoidance of these economic cycles at all cost. As a result, central bankers around the world are trying justify the inane logic of negative rates.