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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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

Charts Both Bulls & Bears Should Consider

There has been a litany of articles written recently discussing how the stock market is set for a continued bull rally and that last year’s 20% decline was just an anomaly. The are some primary points that are common threads among each of these articles which are:  1) interest rates are low, 2) corporate profitability is high, and; 3) the Fed continues to put a floor under stocks, and 4) there is no recession in sight. Each of these arguments, while currently accurate, are based primarily on artificial influences and conjecture.

  • Interest rates are low because real economic growth remains weak.
  • Profitability is high due to accounting gimmicks and share repurchases.
  • The Fed is verbally putting a floor under stocks but continues to extract liquidity from the market, and;
  • “There is no recession in sight” argument have been famous last words historically.

While the promise of a continued bull market is very enticing it is important to remember that all markets ultimately complete a “full cycle.” Therefore, if your portfolio, and ultimately your retirement, is dependent upon the thesis of an indefinite bull market, you should at least consider the following charts.

It is often stated that valuations are still cheap based on forward estimates. However, as I noted on Tuesday, forward estimates are always flawed, overly estimated, and repeatedly lead to poor outcomes over time (buy high/sell low) Therefore, trailing reported earnings is truly the only measure one should use.

The chart below shows Dr. Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted P/E ratio combined with Tobin’s Q-Ratio. Both measures of valuations simply show that markets are not cheap which historically lead to lower future returns.

  • Shiller’s PE Ratio – is calculated by taking the current price of the market and dividend it by the average of 10-years of reported earnings.
  • Tobin’s Q Ratio – is calculated as the market value of a company divided by the replacement value of the firm’s assets.) 

Most people dismiss valuations because of their inefficiency in dictating market turns. I understand.

However, valuations are NOT, and have never been, a market timing indicator. They are simply a “road map” to future returns.

On a much shorter time-frame, a look at the price of the market as compared to corporate profits give us a better clue. Currently, with the market is trading substantially above the level of corporate profits, any weakness in profit growth (which is heavily tied to economic growth) will foster a reversion in price.

Another way to look at the excess over time is by examining the inflation-adjusted S&P 500 index as compared to real profits. Note that previous extensions of price above profits have generally not ended well when profit growth reversed.

We recently proved this point by looking at the RIA Economic Composite Index as compared to the annual rate of change of the market. Not surprisingly, markets tend to perform poorly during weakening economic environments.

Another way to look at the issue of profits as it relates to the market is shown below. When we measure the cumulative change in the S&P 500 index as compared to the level of profits we find again that when investors pay more than $1 for a $1 worth of profits there is an eventual mean reversion.

The correlation is clearer when looking at the market versus the ratio of corporate profits to GDP. (Again, since corporate profits are ultimately a function of economic growth, the correlation is not unexpected.) With investors paying more today than at any point in history, the next mean reversion will be a humbling event.

Another argument made lately to support the bullish meme is that retail investors all jumped out of the market. The chart below shows the percentage of stocks, bonds and cash owned by individual investors according to the American Association of Individual Investor’s survey.  As you can see, equity ownership did indeed drop from the second highest level on record. However, while many are suggesting this is “bullish,” it is worth noting that historically sharp downturns have also denoted the start of bigger declines and bear markets.

As we have noted previously, investors have been leveraging up portfolios to chase the market. The issue with margin debt is NOT the increasing levels of it. Rising leverage provides buying power to continue to push stocks higher. The issue of margin debt is when it reverses. Just as margin debt increases the rise of stock prices, the reverse is also true.

The chart below shows the history of margin debt levels versus the 12-month moving average. Over the last decade, when the 12-month moving average was violated it has previously been met with Central Bank interventions. Currently, the Fed still remains on a path of reducing accommodative policy and liquidity is being slowly drained. The decline in margin debt is an additional removal of liquidity which has previously supported higher asset prices.

As a money manager, we are currently long the stock market albeit at reduced levels currently. The reality is that I must maintain exposure or potentially suffer career risk. However, my job is not only to make money for my clients, but also to preserve their gains, and investment capital, as much as possible.

The bullish case is based on expectations that current trends from the last decade will continue indefinitely, such as:

  1. Profit margins will only grow and never mean revert.
  2. Yields will remain stable at low levels.
  3. Fed rate hikes and yield curve inversions no longer matter
  4. Weakness in housing, autos, and other credit sensitive ares will not impact domestic growth.
  5. $1 Trillion+ deficits won’t slow the economy.
  6. Inflationary pressures will remain forever muted.
  7. Political turmoil will not roil markets or inhibit consumer confidence.
  8. U.S. dollar won’t appreciate to higher levels
  9. The U.S. economy can remain indefinitely decoupled from the rest of world.
  10. Trade wars and tariffs are a non-event.
  11. Corporations will continue to be the predominant purchasers of U.S. stocks.
  12. Liquidity will remain plentiful
  13. The Central Bank “put” will remain in place forever.
  14. This time is different.

Understanding these bullish arguments is important. But more importantly is the understanding that many of these beliefs have already begun to deteriorate and are substantially increasing the risk to investors and their capital. The markets will not rise indefinitely, and the eventual mean reversion will be more destructive than most realize.

Unfortunately, since most individuals only consider the “bull case,” as it creates confirmation bias for their “greed” emotion, they never see the “train coming.”

Hopefully, these charts will give you some food for thought. 

The Economy IS Slowing

In August of last year, I wrote an article entitled “As Good As It Gets which discussed the record levels being set by a broad swath of economic indicators. To wit:

First, “record levels” of anything are records for a reason. It is where the point where previous limits were reached. Therefore, when a ‘record level’ is reached, it is NOT THE BEGINNING, but rather an indication of the MATURITY of a cycle. While the media has focused on employment, record stock market levels, etc. as a sign of an ongoing economic recovery, history suggests caution.”

In the “rush to be bullish” this a point often missed. When data is hitting “record levels” it is when investors get “the most bullish.” Conversely, they are the most “bearish” at the lows.

But as investors, such is exactly the opposite of what we should do. It is just our human nature.

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” – T.S. Eliot

There currently seems to be a very high level of complacency that the economy will continue its current cycle indefinitely. Or should I say, there seems to be a very large consensus the economy has entered into a “permanently high plateau,” or an era in which economic recessions have been effectively eliminated through monetary and fiscal policy.

Interestingly, it is that very belief on which the Fed is dependent.  They have voiced some minor concerns over a slowing in some of the data, yet they remain committed to trailing economic data points which suggest the economy remains robust.

But herein lies “the trap” for investors.

With the entirety of the financial ecosystem now more heavily levered than ever, due to the Fed’s profligate measures of suppressing interest rates and flooding the system with excessive levels of liquidity, “instability of stability” is now the biggest risk.

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

Again, the Fed is highly dependent on this assumption to provide the “room” needed, after a decade of the most unprecedented monetary policy program in U.S. history, to extricate themselves from it.

The Fed is dependent on “everyone acting rationally.” However, as was seen in the last two months of 2018, such may not actually be the case.

That market rout, and pressure from the White House, has caused the Fed to tilt a bit more “dovish” as of late. However, it should not be mistaken that their views have substantially changed or that they are no longer committed to the reduction of their balance sheet and hiking rates, albeit at a potentially slower pace.

There is good reason to expect that this strong [economic] performance will continue. I believe that this gradual process of normalization remains appropriate.

But that may be a mistake as I pointed out recently:

“But the cracks are already starting to appear as underlying economic data is beginning to show weakness. While the economy ground higher over the last few quarters, it was more of the residual effects from the series of natural disasters in 2017 than “Trumponomics” at work. The “pull forward” of demand is already beginning to fade as the frenzy of activity culminated in Q2 of 2018.

To see this more clearly we can look at our own RIA Economic Output Composite Index (EOCI) which is an extremely broad indicator of the U.S. economy. It is comprised of:

  • Chicago Fed National Activity Index (an index comprised of 85 subcomponents)
  • Chicago Purchasing Managers Index
  • ISM Composite Index (composite of the manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys)
  • Richmond Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • New York (Empire) Manufacturing Survey
  • Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • Dallas Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • Markit Composite Manufacturing Survey
  • PMI Composite Survey
  • Economic Confidence Survey
  • NFIB Small Business Index 
  • Leading Economic Index (LEI)

All of these surveys (both soft and hard data) are blended into one composite index which, when compared to U.S. economic activity, has provided a good indication of turning points in economic activity.

As shown, the slowdown in economic activity has been broad enough to turn this very complex indicator lower.

One of the components of the EOCI is the Leading Economic Index (LEI) which is a strong leading indicator of the economy as shown below.

The recent downturn in the LEI suggests economic data will likely be weaker in the quarters ahead. However, this downturn wasn’t a surprise and was something I showed would be the case in July of 2018.

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

Another component of the EOCI is the National Federation of Small Business index. In 2018, that index peaked at a record of 108.8 and has since fallen more than 4-points in recent months. While it has been of little concern to the media, it should be noticed that at no point in history did the index peak at a record and not substantially decline over the coming months.

More importantly, notice that peaks in the optimism have previously always occurred shortly after a recession ended, not nearly a decade into an economic upturn. Such suggests the time between the current peak and the next recessionary spat could be closer than seen previously.

However, while small business owners are still “saying” they are optimistic, they are not necessarily acting that way. A look at their level of economic confidence versus their capital expenditures suggests a much more cautious stance relative to their level of “optimism.”

Currently, their level of capital expenditures has plunged back to levels more often seen during a recessionary period than a burgeoning economic upswing.

The same goes for the difference between the “expectation of sales” versus their “actual sales.”

Notice that actual sales are always less than expectations, but the current gap is one of the largest on record. More importantly, both actual and expected sales have turned lower in recent months which was during the seasonally strong Christmas shopping period.

All of this underscores the single biggest risk to your investment portfolio.

In extremely long bull market cycles, investors become “willfully blind,” to the underlying inherent risks. Or rather, it is the “hubris” of investors they are now “smarter than the market.” 

However, while the Fed is focused on what has happened in the past, the market is focused on what will happen in the future. What the current trend of economic data suggests is that the global economic weakness, which we have been discussing for the last few months, has now come home to roost. As shown below, the EOCI index has provided a leading indication historically to market weakness. The difference between small corrections and larger declines was determined by the secular period of the market.

What shouldn’t be overlooked, is that the risk to investors is a negative impact to corporate profitability in the quarters ahead. Valuations are still a major issue for investors as corporate profits have not grown over the last 8-years. (They have only set a record recently on an “after tax” basis due to recent legislative changes.)

Of course, changing profits on the bottom line of the corporate balance sheet is not what drives the economy. That comes from consumption, and if pretax corporate profits aren’t growing, neither is revenue which is consistent with the modest rates of economic growth seen over the last decade.

This is why both the Fed, and the markets, are very dependent on “stability.” As long as no one asks the “tough questions,” the bullish thesis can continue as momentum and psychology remain intact.

Unfortunately, as seen in the last quarter of 2018, “instability” can happen very quickly leaving investors with little time to react. The recent market rout was likely a warning sign that investors should not dismiss as a “one-off” event.

  • The Federal Reserve is still looking to increase rates.
  • They are also committed to continuing the reduction of their balance sheet which is extracting liquidity from the financial markets.
  • Even if the Fed doesn’t hike rates further, rates are still materially higher than they were two-years ago which is impinging consumers discretionary incomes.
  • Earnings estimates are still too high
  • China is becoming a bigger problem.
  • Debt remains a substantial problem as default risks increase
  • Domestic economic weakness, as shown, is gaining traction
  • The Global economy is weakening at a faster pace than the US economy, and;
  • Markets have begun to show their vulnerabilities.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, but erring to the side of caution currently will likely turn out to be a good decision.

What Will Cause The Next Recession?

J. Bradford Delong wrote a very interesting article discussing the trigger for the next recession. 

“Three of the last four US recessions stemmed from unforeseen shocks in financial markets. Most likely, the next downturn will be no different: the revelation of some underlying weakness will trigger a retrenchment of investment, and the government will fail to pursue counter-cyclical fiscal policy.

Over the past 40 years, the US economy has experienced four recessions. Among the four, only the extended downturn of 1979-1982 had a conventional cause. The US Federal Reserve thought that inflation was too high, so it hit the economy on the head with the brick of interest-rate hikes. As a result, workers moderated their demands for wage increases, and firms cut back on planned price increases.

The other three recessions were each caused by derangements in financial markets. After the savings-and-loan crisis of 1991-1992 came the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000-2002, followed by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in 2007, which triggered the global financial crisis the following year.”

While I agree with Bradford’s point, I think there is a disconnect between the crises he points out and repeated behaviors which lead to those events.

Let’s review some basic realities about the economy that seems to be lost on the mainstream media. 

First, this is NOT an economic cycle:

This is:

Despite the hopes the economy will continue into an everlasting expansion, such has historically never been the case. The current economic expansion, which has been driven by massive infusions of liquidity, extremely accommodative interest rate policy, and a surge in debt accumulation, is just 4-months away from setting a new record. 

Secondly, while the recession prior to 1980 was driven by a super-aggressive Fed rate tightening policy, since 1950 we can find fingerprints of monetary policy in every event.

I am not saying that just because the Fed hikes rates, that a recession, or crisis, will be triggered.

What I am saying is that over the entire rate cycle, the Fed has fostered the credit driven expansion and laid the groundwork necessary for a crisis to be born.

Let’s revisit Bradford’s three specific crises.

The S&L Crisis

The savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s (commonly dubbed the S&L crisis) was the failure of 1,043 out of the 3,234 savings and loan associations in the United States from 1986 to 1995.

However, just looking at the event we miss the bigger picture.

If we go back in time before the crisis began, we find an environment where the Federal Reserve had drastically lowered the overnight lending rates in order to spur more borrowing and economic activity coming out of the back-to-back recessions of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Of course, in a capitalist-driven economy, as demand for loans for cars, housing, businesses, etc. rose; bankers figured out ways to continue to extend credit in order to maximize their profitability. As is always the case, greed over took prudence and many bankers relaxed risk management protocols which would ultimately cost them their jobs and in many cases the bank.

Of course, in 1979, when the Federal Reserve hiked the discount rate from 9.5% to 12%, ostensibly to quell inflation pressures, it also slowed the economy. Since the S&L’s had issued long-term loans at fixed rates lower than the now higher rate at which they could borrow the rise in rates combined with rising default rates, led to insolvency.

Probably the most famous example from the S&L Crisis period was
that of financier Charles Keating, who paid $51 million financed through Michael Milken’s “junk bond” operation, for his Lincoln Savings and Loan Association which at the time had a negative net worth exceeding $100 million.

The Dot.Com Bubble

While the “dot.com” bubble is often thought of as a one-off event caused by speculative excess, there was actually much more going on at the time.

Many have forgotten the names of Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, and other booming tech companies which were riff with financial shenanigans at the time which ultimately led to the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

However, again, we can’t look at just the event itself but need to go back prior to the event to understand the groundwork that was laid.

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

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

Of course, it wasn’t long until the Federal Reserve, again concerned about the prospect of rising inflation and an overheating economy, started hiking rates. As monetary policy became more restrictive, the cost of capital rose, and the economy slowed.

It wasn’t long before the system came unglued.

The Great Financial Crisis

In response to the “Dot.com” crisis, the Federal Reserve once again drastically lowered interest rates to spur economic growth.

This was also the point where the Bush Administration, along with the Alan Greenspan headed Federal Reserve, decided that “everyone” should own a home. Lending standards were relaxed and a variety of new mortgage structures were introduced by Wall Street in the quest to make money.

Over the next several years, as lending rates declined, and everyone wanted to buy into the surging housing market, Wall Street packaged mortgages into exotic instruments allowing them to sell the mortgages to investors. The cycle continued with ever increasing demand from home buyers and demand from investors.

As the housing market boomed, the stock market fully recovered from the “dot.com” crash, and with the economy booming, the Federal Reserve, now under the leadership of Ben Bernanke, decided to start tightening monetary policy in the belief that inflation was an imminent threat from an overheating economy.

But there were no pressing concerns as it was believed that “subprime mortgage loans were contained” and the ongoing “Goldilocks economy” would continue uninterrupted.

They weren’t and it didn’t.

If you are interested in this crisis we urge you to read or watch The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Common Threads

While each of these events were much more complex than what I have outlined here, there were many others along the way like the Russian Debt Default, The Asian Contagion, and Long-Term Capital Management, which all shared important commonalities between them.

In each case we find that prior to the event the Federal Reserve was loosening monetary policy to spur economic growth following a preceding economic downturn. They did this to halt the downturn but in doing so failed to allow the system to clear itself over time.

Looser monetary policy, and continuing relaxation of regulations led to excessive greed by the primary players in the market which was supported by a rising level of speculative frenzy and easy access to capital by investors.

In other words, instead allowing the system to clear the previous build up of excesses, the Federal Reserve intervened to keep that process from happening. As a result, each crisis has been worse than the one before it because the debt and leverage in the system continues to mount.

As shown in the chart below, whenever the Federal Reserve previously loosened monetary policy, debt as a percentage of the economy surged. Naturally, when monetary policy was reversed, things tended to go bad…and generally very quickly.

Since 1980, the eventual and inevitable unwind of an overly levered system was met by a drastic drop in the Fed Funds rate to stimulate debt induced consumption and spur economic activity. The problem, is that each effort by the Fed to limit the impact to the system has required a lower interest rate than the one that preceded.

With rates near the lowest level on record still, the next event will once again require dramatic measures to stem the unwinding of a decade long, debt supported, economic cycle.

But this is where Bradford gets it absolutely right about the cause of the next recession.

“Specifically, the culprit will probably be a sudden, sharp ‘flight to safety’ following the revelation of a fundamental weakness in financial markets. “

Of course, such has always been the case when it comes to the financial markets.

However, the risk of a recession has continue to rise in recent months with plenty of warnings already showing up from a near-inverted yield curve, declining economic momentum, low nominal and real bond yields, and struggling stock prices

The problem, as Bradford notes, is the next financial cataclysm may well fall outside of the capability of the Federal Reserve and Government to neutralize.

“If a recession comes anytime soon, the US government will not have the tools to fight it. The White House and Congress will once again prove inept at deploying fiscal policy as a counter-cyclical stabilizer; and the Fed will not have enough room to provide adequate stimulus through interest-rate cuts. As for more unconventional policies, the Fed most likely will not have the nerve, let alone the power, to pursue such measures.”

As a result, for the first time in a decade, Americans and investors cannot rule out a downturn. At a minimum, they must prepare for the possibility of a deep and prolonged recession, which could arrive whenever the next financial shock comes.”

He is absolutely correct in his assessment of the impact of the next fiscal problem. When it comes, it will be totally unexpected, unanticipated, and unprepared for by investors. Such has always been the case through out history.

But there is one thing that all these crises have in common.

A belief by the Federal Reserve that inflation is going to be problem and that they can control inflation through monetary policy.

This time will be no different.

The Problem With Wall Street’s Forecasts

Over the last few weeks, I have been asked repeatedly to publish my best guess as to where the market will wind up by the end of 2019.

Here it is:

“I don’t know.”

The reality is that we can not predict the future. If it was actually possible, fortune tellers would all win the lottery.  They don’t, we can’t, and we aren’t going to try.

However, this reality certainly does not stop the annual parade of Wall Street analysts from pegging 12-month price targets on the S&P 500 as if there was actual science behind what is nothing more than a “WAG.” (Wild Ass Guess).

The biggest problem with Wall Street, both today and in the past, is the consistent disregard of the possibilities for unexpected, random events. In a 2010 study, by the McKinsey Group, they found that analysts have been persistently overly optimistic for 25 years. During the 25-year time frame, Wall Street analysts pegged earnings growth at 10-12% a year when in reality earnings grew at 6% which, as we have discussed in the past, is the growth rate of the economy.

Ed Yardeni published the two following charts which show that analysts are always overly optimistic in their estimates.

This is why using forward earnings estimates as a valuation metric is so incredibly flawed – as the estimates are always overly optimistic roughly 33% on average.

Most importantly, the reason earnings only grew at 6% over the last 25 years is because the companies that make up the stock market are a reflection of real economic growth. Stocks cannot outgrow the economy in the long term…remember that.

The McKenzie study noted that on average “analyst’s forecasts have been almost 100% too high” which leads investors into making much more aggressive bets in the financial markets which has a general tendency of not working as well as planned.

However, since “optimism” is what sells products, it is not surprising, as we head into 2019, to see Wall Street once again optimistic about higher markets even after massively missing 2018’s outcome.

But, that was so last year.

For 2019, analysts have outdone themselves on scrambling to post the most bullish of outcomes that I can remember. Analysts currently expect a median projected return of 23.66% from the 2018 close.

No…seriously. This is what Wall Street is currently expecting despite the fact that foreign and domestic economic data is weakening, corporate profit growth is likely peaking, trade wars are heating up and the Federal Reserve is tightening monetary policy. As Greg Jensen, co-chief investment officer of Bridgewater Associates, the biggest hedge fund in the world, recently stated: 

“The biggest theme developing is that you are going to have significantly weaker growth, near recession-level growth in 2019, based on our measures, and the markets are generally not pricing that in.

Although the movement has been in that direction, the degree of [ the market’s decline] is still small relative to what we are seeing in terms of the shifts in likely economic conditions.  2019 will be a year of weaker growth and central banks struggling to move from their current tightening stance to easing and finding it difficult to ease because they have very little ammunition to ease.”

All of this should sound very familiar if you have been reading our work over the past year.

The problem with the year-end “guesses” above is they are based on “forward operating earnings estimates” which is another set of severely flawed “WAG’s” on top of a “WAG.”

Let me explain.

First, operating earnings are at best a myth, and mostly a lie. As opposed to reported earnings, operating earnings are essentially “earnings if everything goes right with all the bad stuff excluded.”

Secondly, operating earnings are cooked, baked, and fudged in more ways than you can imagine to win the “beat the estimate gaime.” The Wall Street Journal confirmed as much in a 2012 article entitled “Earnings Wizardry” which stated:

“If you believe a recent academic study, one out of five [20%] U.S. finance chiefs have been scrambling to fiddle with their companies’ earnings. Not Enron-style, fraudulent fiddles, mind you. More like clever—and legal—exploitations of accounting standards that ‘manage earnings to misrepresent [the company’s] economic performance,’ according to the study’s authors, Ilia Dichev and Shiva Rajgopal of Emory University and John Graham of Duke University. Lightly searing the books rather than cooking them, if you like.”

This should not come as a major surprise as it is a rather “open secret.” Companies manipulate bottom line earnings by utilizing “cookie-jar” reserves, heavy use of accruals, and other accounting gimmicks to either increase or depress, earnings.


“The tricks are well-known: A difficult quarter can be made easier by releasing reserves set aside for a rainy day or recognizing revenues before sales are made, while a good quarter is often the time to hide a big ‘restructuring charge’ that would otherwise stand out like a sore thumb. What is more surprising though is CFOs’ belief that these practices leave a significant mark on companies’ reported profits and losses. When asked about the magnitude of the earnings misrepresentation, the study’s respondents said it was around 10% of earnings per share.”

Since company executives are highly compensated by rising stock prices, it should not be surprising to see 93% of the respondents pointing to “influence on stock price” and “outside pressure” as reasons for manipulating earnings.

Note: For fundamental investors, this manipulation of earnings skews valuation analysis particularly with respect to P/E’s, EV/EBITDA, PEG, etc.

This was brought to the fore in 2015 by the Associated Press in: “Experts Worry That Phony Numbers Are Misleading Investors:”

“Those record profits that companies are reporting may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

As the stock market climbs ever higher, professional investors are warning that companies are presenting misleading versions of their results that ignore a wide variety of normal costs of running a business to make it seem like they’re doing better than they really are.

What’s worse, the financial analysts who are supposed to fight corporate spin are often playing along. Instead of challenging the companies, they’re largely passing along the rosy numbers in reports recommending stocks to investors.

Here were the key findings of the report:

  • Seventy-two percent of the companies reviewed by AP had adjusted profits that were higher than net income in the first quarter of this year.
  • For a smaller group of the companies reviewed, 21 percent of the total, adjusted profits soared 50 percent or more over net income. This was true of just 13 percent of the group in the same period five years ago.
  • From 2010 through 2014, adjusted profits for the S&P 500 came in $583 billion higher than net income. It’s as if each company in the S&P 500 got a check in the mail for an extra eight months of earnings.
  • Fifteen companies with adjusted profits actually had bottom-line losses over the five years. Investors have poured money into their stocks just the same.
  • Stocks are getting more expensive. Three years ago, investors paid $13.50 for every dollar of adjusted profits for companies in the S&P 500 index, according to S&P Capital IQ. Now, they’re paying nearly $18.

These “gimmicks” to boost earnings, combined with artificially suppressed interest rates and massive rounds of monetary interventions, unsurprisingly pushed asset prices to historically high levels. However, as noted, the boost to “profitability” did not come from organic economic growth. As I showed previously:

“Since the recessionary lows, much of the rise in ‘profitability’ has come from a variety of cost-cutting measures and accounting gimmicks rather than actual increases in top-line revenue. While tax cuts certainly provided the capital for a surge in buybacks; revenue growth, which is directly connected to a consumption-based economy, has remained muted. 

Here is the real kicker. Since 2009, the reported earnings per share of corporations has increased by a total of 391%. This is the sharpest post-recession rise in reported EPS in history. However, the increase in earnings did not come from a commensurate increase in revenue which has only grown by a marginal 44% during the same period. This is an important point when you realize only 11% of total reported EPS growth actually came from increased revenues.”

“While stock buybacks, corporate tax cuts, and debt-issuance can create an illusion of profitability in the short-term, the lack of revenue growth the top line of the income statement suggests a much weaker economic environment over the long-term.”

Way Too Optimistic

With share buyback activity already beginning to slow, the Federal Reserve extracting liquidity from the financial markets, and the Administration continuing their “trade war,” the risks to extremely elevated forward earnings estimates remain high. We are already seeing the early stages of these actions through falling home prices, automobile sales, and increased negative guidance for corporations.

If history, and logic, is any guide, we will likely see the U.S. economy pushing into a recession in 2019 particularly as the global economy continues to weaken. This is something both domestic and global yield curves are already screaming is an issue, but to which few are listening.

Currently, analysts’ forward earnings estimates are still way too lofty going into 2019. As I noted in the recent missive on rising headwinds to the market, earnings expectations have already started to get markedly ratcheted down for the end of 2019. In just the last 45-days the estimates for the end of 2019 have fallen by more than $14/share. The downside risk remains roughly $10/share lower than that and possibly much more if a recession hits.

As stated, beginning in 2019, the estimated quarterly rate of change in earnings will drop markedly and head back towards the expected rate of real economic growth. (Note: these estimates are as of 12/31/18 from S&P and are still too high relative to expected future growth. Expect estimates to continue to decline which allow for continued high levels of estimate “beat” rates.)

The end of the boost from tax cuts has arrived.

Since the tax cut plan was poorly designed, to begin with, it did not flow into productive investments to boost economic growth. As we now know, it flowed almost entirely into share buybacks to boost executive compensation. This has had very little impact on domestic growth.

The “sugar high” of economic growth seen in the first two quarters of 2018 has been from a massive surge in deficit spending and the rush by companies to stockpile goods ahead of tariffs. These activities simply pull forward “future” consumption and have a very limited impact but leave a void which must be filled in the future.

Nearly a full year after the passage of tax cuts, we face a nearly $1 Trillion deficit, a near-record trade deficit, and, as expected, economic and earnings reports are now showing markedly weaker projections. Apple (AAPL) is just the first of many companies that will confirm this in the coming weeks.

It is all just as we predicted.

The problem when it comes to blindly invest in markets without a thorough understanding of underlying dynamics is much the same as playing “leapfrog with a unicorn,” eventually, there is a very negative outcome.

As we head into 2019, all of the anecdotal evidence continues to suggest weaker markets rather than a surging recovery.

But, that is just a guess.

As I said, I honestly “don’t know.”

What I do know is that I will continue to manage our portfolios for the inherent risks to capital, take advantage of opportunities when I see them, and will allow the market to “tell me” what it wants to do rather than “guessing” at it.

While I read most of the mainstream analyst’s predictions to get a gauge on the “consensus.”  This year, more so than most, the outlook for 2019 is universally, and to many degrees, exuberantly bullish.

What comes to mind is Bob Farrell’s Rule #9 which states:

“When everyone agrees…something else is bound to happen.”