Tag Archives: Hayek

1995 Rate Cut & The Case For The Final Leg Of The Bull Market

Market participants want to believe today’s bull market is similar to 1995.

In 1995, July to be specific, the Fed cut rates as the stock market was setting a new record high. The next Fed meeting is July 31st, and the market is currently trading near record highs.

As Upfina recently tweeted:

That is correct, and, when the Fed cut interest rates as a preventative measure, U.S. equity markets have historically done very well. However, a quick look at the history of Fed rate cuts, and subsequent market tantrums, suggests 1995 is more of an anomaly rather than the rule.

As J.P. Morgan noted, the three “insurance cut” easing cycles in 1980, 1995 and 1998 appear to be outliers. ”

“The late 1990’s rate cuts were used as insurance against Mexican and Russian default and collapse of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management at the time, bolstered the equity market. The only other time the S&P 500 saw stronger performance following a rate cut was in 1980. At the time, there was an 8.5% reduction in the Fed funds rate from 20% to 11.5% — a level of monetary easing that is ‘obviously not possible in the current conjuncture,'”

Another thing about the 1980’s was that the economy was just coming out of back-to-back recessions, valuations were extremely low, and dividends were high. Reagan had just passed tax reform, the banks were deregulated, and inflation and interest rates were plummeting. Household debt was only about 60% of net worth and just starting the near 40-year period of “leveraging up” which was a massive boost to consumption and ultimately economic growth.

However, despite the market performing well, the two periods in the 1980s where the Fed hiked rates led to the “Continental Illinois” failure, the “Savings and Loan crisis,” and the “1987 Crash.”

The mid-late 1990’s rate cuts was also another anomalous market environment. The Fed began a rate hiking campaign in 1993 as the economy began to stretch its legs post the 1991 recession. However, the Fed cut rates slightly in 1995, and again in 1998, to offset the risk imposed from three major market-related events. Ironically, it was the Fed’s tightening of monetary policy which caused those events to begin with.

Despite the cuts being relatively minimal, they only likely provided more liquidity to drive the massive market melt up, which was occurring from 1995 to 2000. It was a period of market nirvana as the internet became mainstream changing the way information was accessed, utilized, and institutionalized. Mutual funds were a virtual “Hoover vacuum” sucking up retail assets and lofting asset prices higher. Pension funds were finally allowed to invest in stocks rather than just Treasuries which brought massive buying power to the markets. Foreign flows also poured into Wall Street to chase the raging bull market higher. Lastly, E*Trade hit the internet and further opened the doors of the “WallStreet Casino” to the masses.

Yes, for a brief moment, the markets lofted higher as “irrational exuberance” prevailed. Of course, while the rate cuts in 1995 didn’t slow the growth of the “bubble” immediately, it wasn’t long before all the gains were wiped out by the “Dot.com” crash.

Why This Isn’t 1995?

There are lots of other differences between today and 1995.

As noted above, the Fed cut rates in 1995 as an concerns mounted over this:

“The sudden plunge of Orange County, Calif., into bankruptcy shook the market for public borrowing across the country yesterday, threatening to make it more expensive for many localities to borrow. It also left some Wall Street firms facing the potential of big losses.

And, it served as a warning of how rapidly new and popular financial strategies can sour, leaving an apparently prosperous county unable to pay its bills”

Geez, you could have written that same statement in 2008 as well.

However, let me explain why I disagree with the following mainstream thesis:

“There are certainly parallels between the environment today and 1995-1996. Back then, the Fed embarked on a series of three interest rate cuts (75 basis points) in total, the catalyst being low inflation rather than a recessionary economy, remarkably similar to today. The whole cycle lasted for seven months.” – CNBC

Let’s take a closer look.  The chart below shows several key economic indicators from 1991 to 2000.

  • Personal Incomes averaged 4% and were rising to 5% on an annual rate at the turn of the century. 
  • Employment averaged a 2.5% annual growth rate and was solid heading into 2000.
  • Industrial Production averaged about 5% annual growth and was rising in the last few months of 1999.
  • Real Consumer Spending was rising strongly headed into 2000, averaging nearly a 12% growth rate.
  • Real Wages were climbing steadily from 1991 to 1999 and hit a peak of almost 14% annualized in December 1999.
  • Real GDP was running at more than 4% annually in December of 1999.

In 1995, there was little to be worried about from an economic perspective. The Fed cut rates to hedge off the risk of a “financial contagion” from the Orange County bankruptcy.

But also note, there was absolutely “no sign of recession” in late 1999 either. 

The recession, and “Dot.com” crash, started just a few months later anyway.

However, according to CNBC, today’s economic backdrop is much like that of 1995.

Or is it? Let’s compare.

  • Personal Incomes currently average about 2% versus 4% in 1995
  • Employment is averaging about a 1.5% annualized growth rate versus 2.5% in 1995.
  • Industrial Production has averaged about 2% annual growth vs 5% previously.
  • Real Consumer Spending has averaged about 4% annual growth versus 8-10% in 1995.
  • Real Wages have averaged about a 3.5 annual growth rate versus 8-10% in 1995.
  • Real GDP has averaged about 2% annual growth over the last decade versus 3% previously.

Just as it was in 1999, there is “clearly no sign of recession” in the economic data currently.

But that doesn’t mean a recession can’t start more quickly than you think.

It’s The Debt Stupid

One of the biggest differences between today and the 1990’s is the level of indebtedness. In the 1990’s, the government ran a slight deficit coming out of the 1991 recession which eclipsed $250 Billion at time. With some slight of hand, President Clinton temporarily turned the deficit into a surplus by borrowing a $2 trillion from Social Security allowing Federal disposable income (tax revenue and other governmental income less mandated spending) to rise which supported economic growth headed into 2000.

Such is most assuredly not the case today. Since 2009, the Federal government has consistently run a deficit averaging $750 billion annually. Also, unlike the 1990’s where Federal disposable income was positive, today, it is negative for the second time since the financial crisis. Said differently, all discretionary spending plus some mandated spending must come from borrowed funds.

More importantly, economic growth from 1995 through 2000 was positive even after removing the impact of government spending. Today, if you extract out government spending, the U.S. economy has had a negative growth rate for the last 4-quarters. Or rather, the U.S. economy has been in recession. 

The Case For The Final Bull Run

While the current economic backdrop is clearly not what it was in the 1990’s, there is nonetheless a case for a continued bull market in the short-term.

First, as I discussed on Tuesday, corporate share buybacks currently account for roughly all “net purchases” of U.S. equities in recent years. To wit:

But that may well now be coming to an end. As the benefit of the recent tax cut legislation fades and corporate debt has ballooned, the amount of capital for share repurchases is declining.

“It is likely that 2018/2019 will be the potential peak of corporate share buybacks, thereby reducing the demand for equities in the market. This “artificial buyer” explains the high degree of complacency in the markets despite recent volatility. It also suggests that the “bullish outlook” from a majority of mainstream analysts could also be a mistake. 

If the economy is weakening, as it appears to be, it won’t be long until corporations redirect the cash from “share repurchases” to shoring up operations and protecting cash flows.”

There is still likely enough “juice in the tank” in repatriations to keep the markets elevated for a while longer. Also, equity outflows have currently reached levels which have denoted previous points where a reversal occurred and equity inflows pushed asset prices higher.

However, just like in 1995, when the Fed cut rates for the first time, equities did lift higher creating one of the biggest asset bubbles in human history. But that bubble popped roughly 10-years after the bull market started.

Today, the markets have already experienced a 300%+ increase and is already 10-years into the current expansion. While it is certainly possible for equities to push higher from here, it is likely the last leg of the current bull advance.

If history is any guide, the next mean reverting event will likely wipe out of the bulk of the gains made over the last 5-years.

Today isn’t 1995.

But even if it is, the end result will likely be the same also.

The 3-Big Lies About Tax Cuts & The Economic Impact

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The Usual Suspects (1995)

Just recently, Politico ran a story by Brain Faler entitled: “Big Businesses Paying Even Less Than Expected Under GOP Law.” To wit:

“The U.S. Treasury saw a 31 percent drop in corporate tax revenues last year, almost twice the decline official budget forecasters had predicted. Receipts were projected to rebound sharply this year, but so far they’ve only continued to fall, down by almost 9 percent or $11 billion.

Though business profits remain healthy and the economy is strong, total corporate taxes are at the lowest levels seen in more than 50 years. Analysts agree they can’t yet explain the decline in corporate tax payments.

Uhm, excuse me?

This is where I get to say, “I Told You So!”

The Big Lie #1

While the Devil may have convinced the world he doesn’t exist, it was that “corporate cronyism” devoured Washington politics.

“Our companies won’t be leaving our country any longer because our tax burden is so high.” – Donald Trump 

That was an outright lie.

First of all, there is a massive difference between “statutory,” the stated tax rate, and the “effective” tax rate, or what companies actually pay. The chart below shows corporate profits before and after-tax with a measure of what the effective tax rate was.

Just prior to the passage of the tax cut bill, the effective tax rate for U.S. companies was about 16%, or less than half of the statutory rate of 35%. After the passage of the legislation, the effective tax rate fell to 11%, again less than half of the statutory rate of 21%.

There is also the matter that every other country in the world has a “value added tax,” or VAT, added to their corporate tax rate. Dr. John Hussman did a good piece of analysis on this.

“I’ll add that another feature of Wall Street’s blissful delusion is the notion that ‘U.S. corporate taxes are the highest in the world.’ It’s striking how disingenuous this claim is. The fact is that among all OECD countries, the U.S. is also the only country that does not levy any tax at all on corporate value-added in the production of goods and services.”

“The main point is this. The argument that U.S. taxes on corporate profits are somehow oppressive relative to other countries is an apples-to-oranges comparison. It wholly ignores that the U.S. levies no value-added tax on corporations at all, whereas the value-added tax is the principal revenue source for most other countries. The rhetoric on corporate taxes here is unfiltered effluvium.

It is a myth that the U.S. has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. We simply didn’t, and don’t.

The Big Lie #2:

The second big lie was:

““It’ll be fantastic for the middle-income people and for jobs, most of all … I think we could go to 4%, 5% or even 6% [GDP growth], ultimately. We are back. We are really going to start to rock.” – Donald Trump

So, what happened?

Nearly seven months PRIOR to the passage of the legislation, I discussed that engaging in tax cuts at the end of an economic cycle would nullify the majority of the expected effect.

“Tax rates CAN make a difference in the short run, particularly when coming out of recession as it frees up capital for productive investment at a time when recovering economic growth and pent-up demand require it.”

The reason that tax receipts have fallen since the passage of tax reform is that top-line revenue growth has slowed along with both domestic and global economies. However, we already knew this was going to be an issue as we discussed in that 2017 article noted above. To wit:

Importantly, as has been stated, the proposed tax cut by President-elect Trump will be the largest since Ronald Reagan. However, in order to make valid assumptions on the potential impact of the tax cut on the economy, earnings and the markets, we need to review the differences between the Reagan and Trump eras. My colleague, Michael Lebowitz, recently penned the following on this exact issue.

‘Many investors are suddenly comparing Trump’s economic policy proposals to those of Ronald Reagan. For those that deem that bullish, we remind you that the economic environment and potential growth of 1982 was vastly different than it is today.  Consider the following table:’”

The differences between today’s economic and market environment could not be starker. The tailwinds provided by initial deregulation, consumer leveraging, declining interest rates, and inflation provided huge tailwinds for corporate profitability growth.

Just for clarity, tax rates CAN make a difference coming out of recession. However, given the economy was already growing near maximum capacity in 2018, the boost from tax cuts was mostly mitigated.

Secondly, corporations, which is where the tax cuts were primarily focused, used the tax cuts not to increase productivity, make investments, or grow revenues. Such investment most likely would have resulted in greater economic growth and higher tax revenue, however, the windfall was mainly used to manipulate stock prices through massive share buybacks.

“A recent report from Axios noted that for 2019, IT companies are again on pace to spend the most on stock buybacks this year, as the total looks set to pass 2018’s $1.085 trillion record total.”

“The reality is that stock buybacks create an illusion of profitability. Such activities do not spur economic growth or generate real wealth for shareholders, but it does provide the basis for with which to keep Wall Street satisfied and stock option compensated executives happy.”

The Big Lie #3:

The third big lie was that tax cuts would pay for themselves.

“Not only will this tax plan pay for itself, but it will pay down debt.” – Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

That didn’t happen.

In fact, the debt and deficit got materially worse as I predicted they would in “3 Myths About Tax Cuts:”

“During the previous Administration, the GOP wielded ‘fiscal conservatism’ as a badge of honor. Since the election, they have completely abandoned those principals in a full-blown effort to achieve tax reform.

We are told, by these same Republican Congressman and Senators who passed a fiscally irresponsible 2018 budget of more than $4.1 trillion, that tax cuts will ‘pay for themselves’ over the next decade as higher rates of economic growth will lead to more tax collections.

Again, we see that over the “long-term” this is simply not the case. The deficit has continued to grow during every administration since Ronald Reagan. Furthermore, the widening deficit has led to a massive surge in Federal debt which is currently in excess of $22 trillion, and growing much faster than economic activity, or the nations ability to pay if off.

This was the exact point made in “Tax Cuts & The Failure To Change The Economic Balance:”

As noted in a 2014 study by William Gale and Andrew Samwick:

The argument that income tax cuts raise growth is repeated so often that it is sometimes taken as gospel. However, theory, evidence, and simulation studies tell a different and more complicated story. Tax cuts offer the potential to raise economic growth by improving incentives to work, save, and invest. But they also create income effects that reduce the need to engage in productive economic activity, and they may subsidize old capital, which provides windfall gains to asset holders that undermine incentives for new activity.

In addition, tax cuts as a stand-alone policy (that is, not accompanied by spending cuts) will typically raise the federal budget deficit. The increase in the deficit will reduce national saving — and with it, the capital stock owned by Americans and future national income — and raise interest rates, which will negatively affect investment. The net effect of the tax cuts on growth is thus theoretically uncertain and depends on both the structure of the tax cut itself and the timing and structure of its financing.”

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 leaves 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 empty promises of surging economic activity.

It is all just as we predicted.

Recessionary Warning

While well-designed tax reforms can certainly provide for better economic growth, those tax cuts must also be combined with responsible spending in Washington. That has yet to be the case as policy-makers continue to opt for “continuing resolutions” that grow expenditures by 8% per year rather than doing the hard work of passing a budget.

Given that tax receipts fall as the economy slows, tax receipts as a percentage of GDP is a pretty good indicator of recessionary onset.

The true burden on taxpayers is government spending, because the debt requires future interest payments out of future taxes. As debt levels, and subsequently deficits, increase, economic growth is burdened by the diversion of revenue from productive investments into debt service. 

As expected, lowering corporate tax rates certainly helped businesses increase their bottom line earnings, however, it did not “trickle down” to middle-class America. As noted by Jesse Colombo:

“‘In 1929 — before Wall Street’s crash unleashed the Great Depression — the top 0.1% richest adults’ share of total household wealth was close to 25%, today, the that same group controls more wealth than the bottom 50% of the economy combined.”

Not surprisingly, focusing tax cuts on corporations, rather than individuals, only exacerbated the divide between the top 1% and the rest of the country as the reforms did not focus on the economic challenges facing us.

  • Demographics
  • Structural employment shifts
  • Technological innovations
  • Globalization
  • Financialization 
  • Global debt

These challenges will continue to weigh on economic growth, wages and standards of living into the foreseeable future.  As a result, incremental tax and policy changes will have a more muted effect on the economy as well.

As investors, we must understand the difference between a “narrative-driven” advance and one driven by strengthening fundamentals.

The first is short-term and leads to bad outcomes. The other isn’t, and doesn’t. 

One Trick Pony: The Fed Is Pushing On A String

Last week, I discussed the Fed’s recent comments suggesting they might be closer to cutting rates and restarting “QE” than not.

“In short, the proximity of interest rates to the ELB (Effective Lower Bound) has become the preeminent monetary policy challenge of our time, tainting all manner of issues with ELB risk and imbuing many old challenges with greater significance.  

“Perhaps it is time to retire the term ‘unconventional’ when referring to tools that were used in the crisis. We know that tools like these are likely to be needed in some form in future ELB spells, which we hope will be rare.”

After a decade of zero interest rates and floods of liquidity by the Fed into the financial markets, it is not surprising the initial “Pavlovian” response to those comments was to push asset prices higher.

However, as I covered in my previous article in more detail, such an assumption may be a mistake as there is a rising probability the effectiveness of QE will be much less than during the last recessionary cycle. I also suggested that such actions will drive the 10-year interest rate to ZERO. 

Not surprisingly, those comments elicited reactions from many suggesting that rates will rise sharply as inflationary pressures become problematic. 

I disagree.

First, there is no historical evidence that is the case. The chart below shows that each time the Fed embarks upon a rate reduction campaign, interest rates have fallen by 3.15% on average.

Of course, we need to add some context to the chart above. Historically, the reason the Fed cuts rates, and interest are falling, is because the Fed has acted in response to a crisis, recession, or both. The chart below shows when there is an inversion between the Fed Funds rate and 10-year Treasury it has been associated with recessionary onset.

Secondly, after a decade of QE and zero interest rates inflation, outside of asset prices, (as measured by CPI), remains muted at best. The reason that QE does not cause “inflationary” pressures is that it is an “asset swap” and doesn’t affect the money supply or the velocity of money. QE remains confined to the financial markets which lifts asset prices, but it does not impact the broader economy.

Since 2013, I have laid out the case, repeatedly, as to why interest rates will not rise. Here are a few of the most recent links for your review:

As I said, I have been fighting this battle for a while as “everyone else” has remained focused on the wrong reasons for higher interest rates. As I stated in Let’s Be Like Japan:”

This is the same liquidity trap 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 interest rates. If interest rates rise sharply it is effectively “game over” as borrowing costs surge, deficits balloon, housing falls, revenues weaken, and consumer demand wanes. It is the worst thing that can happen to an economy that is currently remaining on life support.”

This last bolded sentence is the most important and something that Michael Lebowitz discussed in “Pulling Forward:”

“Debt allows a consumer (household, business, or government) to pull consumption forward or acquire something today for which they otherwise would have to wait. When the primary objective of fiscal and monetary policy becomes myopically focused on incentivizing consumers to borrow, spend, and pull consumption forward, there will eventually be a painful resolution of the imbalances that such policy creates. The front-loaded benefits of these tactics are radically outweighed by the long-term damage they ultimately cause.”

Unfortunately, the Fed is still misdiagnosing what ails the economy, and monetary policy is unlikely to change the outcome in the U.S., just as it failed in Japan. The reason is simple. You can’t cure a debt problem with more debt. Therefore, monetary interventions, and government spending, don’t create organic, sustainable, economic growth. Simply pulling forward future consumption through monetary policy continues to leave an ever growing void in the future that must be filled. Eventually, the void will be too great to fill.

Doug Kass made a salient point as well about the potential futility of Fed actions at the wrong end of an economic cycle.

“Pushing on a string is a metaphor for the limits of monetary policy and the impotence of central banks.

Monetary policy sometimes only works in one direction because businesses and household cannot be forced to spend if they do not want to. Increasing the monetary base and banks’ reserves will not stimulate an economy if banks think it is too risky to lend and the private sector wants to save more because of economic uncertainty.

This cycle is much different than previous cycles as there are a host of anomalous conditions that will work against the likely rate cuts that lie ahead.

What has occurred in the last decade? 

  • $4 trillion of QE
  • $4 trillion of corporate debt piled up
  • $4 trillion of corporate buybacks
  • A Potemkin-like expansion in earnings per share as the share count drops to a two decade low. (h/t Rosie)
  • Meanwhile, capital spending has failed to revive (leading to negative productivity growth).

While this is not a short term call for an imminent drop in the equity market, if my concerns are prescient and fully realized we will likely see more than the process of a market making a broad and important top.

The Fed is pushing on a string.”

Monetary policy is a blunt weapon best used coming out of recession, not going into one.

Unfortunately, as Caroline Baum penned for MarketWatch recently, the Fed has little to work with at this juncture.

“No one is disputing the idea that the Fed needs additional tools at a time when the benchmark rate (2.25%-2.5%) is already low and offers little room for traditional stimulus. Historically, the fed funds rate has been reduced by 5 percentage points, on average, to combat recessions, according to Harvard University economist Lawrence Summers.

As Eberly, Stock and Wright note in their paper, when the policy rate is close to zero, it ‘imposes significant restraints on the efficacy of Fed policy, and our estimates suggest that those constraints are only partially offset by the new slope policies.’

I am not disputing that dropping rates and restarting QE won’t work at temporarily sustaining asset prices, but the reality is that such measures take time to filter through the economy. The impact of hiking rates 240 basis points over the last couple of years are still working their way through the economic system combined with the impact of tariffs on exports and consumption.

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

Should we have an expectation that the same monetary policies employed by Japan will have a different outcome in the U.S? This isn’t our first attempt at manipulating cycles. (H/T Doug)

“Governor Eccles: ‘Under present circumstances, there is very little, if anything, that can be done.’

Congressman T. Alan Goldsborough: ‘You mean you cannot push a string.’

Governor Eccles: ‘That is a good way to put it, one cannot push a string. We are in the depths of a depression and…, beyond creating an easy money situation through reduction of discount rates and through the creation of excess reserves, there is very little, if anything that the reserve organization can do toward bringing about recovery.’

– House Committee on Banking and Currency (in 1935)

More importantly, this is no longer a domestic question – but rather a global one since every major central bank is now engaged in a coordinated infusion of liquidity. The problem is that despite the inflation of asset prices, and suppression of interest rates, on a global scale there is scant evidence that the massive infusions are doing anything other that fueling asset bubbles in corporate debt and financial markets. The Federal Reserve is currently betting on a “one trick pony” which is that by increasing the “wealth effect” it will ultimately lead to a return of consumer confidence and a fostering of economic growth?

Currently, there is little real evidence of success.

Nonetheless, we can certainly have some fun at the Fed’s expense. My colleague Mike “Mish” Shedlock did a nice summation of the “Powell’s Pivot.” 

Bubbles B. Goode from Mike “Mish” Shedlock on Vimeo.

Hope For The Best, Plan For The Worst

Around 46 BC, Cicero wrote to a friend saying, “you must hope for the best.” To be happy in life we must always have “hope.” It is “hope” which is the beacon that lights the pathway from the darkness that eventually befalls everyone at one point or another in their life.

However, when it comes to financial planning and investing we should consider Benjamin Disraeli’s version from “The Wondrous Tale Of Alroy:”

“I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.” 

During very late stage bull markets, the financial press is lulled into a sense of complacency that markets will only rise. It is during these late stage advances you start seeing a plethora articles suggesting simple ways to create wealth. Here are a few of the most recent ones I have seen:

  • The Power Of Compounding
  • The New Math Of Retirement: Save 10%.
  • 3-Easy Steps To Retire Early

It’s easy.

Just stick your money in an index fund and “viola” you will be rich.

It reminds me of the old Geico commercials: “It’s so easy a cave man can do it.”

The problem is that these articles are all written by individuals who have never seen, must less survived, a bear market. Bear markets change your way of thinking.

For instance, Grant Sabatier has been in the media a good bit as of late with his success story of going from a net worth of $2.26 to $1 million in 5-years. It is quite an accomplishment. So what was his secret? Save like crazy and invest in index funds, stocks and REIT’s. It’s simple, as long as you have the benefit of a liquidity driven stock market make it all work. (As is always the case, the best way to become a millionaire is to write a book about how to become a millionaire.)

This is all a symptom of the decade-long bull market which has all but erased the memories of the financial crisis.

Following the financial crisis, you didn’t see stories like these. The brutal reality of what happened to individual’s life savings, and lives, was too brutal to discuss. No longer were there mentions of “buy and hold” investing, “dollar cost averaging,” and “buying dips.”

10-years, and 300% gains later, those brutal lessons have been forgotten as the “Wall Street Casino” has finally reignited the “animal spirits” of individuals.

Animal spirits came from the Latin term “spiritus animalis” which means the breath that awakens the human mind. Its use can be traced back as far as 300BC where the term was used in human anatomy and physiology in medicine. It referred to the fluid or spirit that was responsible for sensory activities and nerves in the brain. Besides the technical meaning in medicine, animal spirits was also used in literary culture and referred to states of physical courage, gaiety, and exuberance.

It’s more modern usage came about in John Maynard Keynes’ 1936 publication, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money,” wherein he used the term to describe the human emotions driving consumer confidence. Ultimately, the “breath that awakens the human mind,” was adopted by the financial markets to describe the psychological factors which drive investors to take action in the financial markets.

The 2008 financial crisis revived the interest in the role that “animal spirits” could play in both the economy and the financial markets. The Federal Reserve, then under the direction of Ben Bernanke, believed it to be necessary to inject liquidity into the financial system to lift asset prices in order to “revive” the confidence of consumers. The result of which would evolve into a self-sustaining environment of economic growth.

Ben Bernanke & Co. were successful in fostering a massive lift to equity prices since 2009 which, in turn, did correspond to a lift in the confidence of consumers. (The chart below is a composite index of both the University of Michigan and Conference Board surveys.)

Unfortunately, despite the massive expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and the surge in asset prices, there was relatively little translation into wages, full-time employment, or corporate profits after tax which ultimately triggered very little economic growth.

The problem, of course, is the surge in asset prices remained confined to those with “investible wealth” but failed to deliver a boost to the roughly 90% of American’s who have experienced little benefit.  In turn, this has pushed asset prices, which should be a reflection of underlying economic growth, well in advance of the underlying fundamental realities. Since 2009, the S&P has risen by roughly 300%, while economic and earnings per share growth (which has been largely fabricated through share repurchases, wage and employment suppression and accounting gimmicks) have lagged.

The stock market has returned almost 80% since the 2007 peak which is more than twice the growth in GDP and nearly 4-times the growth in corporate revenue. (I have used SALES growth in the chart below as it is what happens at the top line of income statements and is not as subject to manipulation.) The all-time highs in the stock market have been driven by the $4 trillion increase in the Fed’s balance sheet, hundreds of billions in stock buybacks, PE expansion, and ZIRP. With Price-To-Sales ratios and median stock valuations not the highest in history, one should question the ability to continue borrowing from the future?

A Late Stage Event

Here’s a little secret, “Animal Spirits” is simply another name for “Irrational Exuberance,” as it is the manifestation of the capitulation of individuals who are suffering from an extreme case of the “FOMO’s” (Fear Of Missing Out). The chart below shows the stages of the previous bull markets and the inflection points of the appearance of “Animal Spirits.” 

Not surprisingly, the appearance of “animal spirits” has always coincided with the latter stages of a bull market advance and has been coupled with over valuation, high levels of complacency, and high levels of equity ownership.

As we wrote in detail just recently, valuations are problematic for investors going forward. When high valuations are combined with an extremely long economic expansion, the risk to the “bull market” thesis is an economic slowdown, or contraction, that derails the lofty expectations of continued earnings growth.

The rise in “animal spirits” is simply the reflection of the rising delusion of investors who frantically cling to data points which somehow support the notion “this time is different.”  As David Einhorn once stated:

The bulls explain that traditional valuation metrics no longer apply to certain stocks. The longs are confident that everyone else who holds these stocks understands the dynamic and won’t sell either. With holders reluctant to sell, the stocks can only go up – seemingly to infinity and beyond. We have seen this before.

There was no catalyst that we know of that burst the dot-com bubble in March 2000, and we don’t have a particular catalyst in mind here. That said, the top will be the top, and it’s hard to predict when it will happen.”

This is a crucially important point.

There is nothing wrong with “hoping” for the best possible outcome. However, taking actions to prepare for a negative consequence removes a good deal of the risk with very low short-term costs.

Rules Of The Road

While investing in the markets over the last decade has generated a good deal of wealth for those that have been fortunate enough to have liquid assets to invest, the next bear market will also take much, if not all of it, away.

As the last two decades should have taught the financial media by now, the stock market is not a “get wealthy for retirement” scheme. You cannot continue to under save for your retirement hoping the stock market will make up the difference. This is the same trap that pension funds all across this country have fallen into and are now paying the price for.

Chasing an arbitrary index that is 100% invested in the equity market requires you to take on far more risk that you most likely want. Two massive bear markets have left many individuals further away from retirement than they ever imagined. Furthermore, all investors lost something far more valuable than money – the TIME that was needed to prepare properly for retirement.

Investing for retirement, no matter what age you are, should be done conservatively and cautiously with the goal of outpacing inflation over time. This doesn’t mean that you should never invest in the stock market, it just means that your portfolio should be constructed to deliver a rate of return sufficient to meet your long-term goals with as little risk as possible.

  1. The only way to ensure you will be adequately prepared for retirement is to “save more and spend less.” It ain’t sexy, but it will absolutely work.
  2. You Will Be WRONG. The markets cycle, just like the economy, and what goes up will eventually come down. More importantly, the further the markets rise, the bigger the correction will be. RISK does NOT equal return.   RISK = How much you will lose when you are wrong, and you will be wrong more often than you think.
  3. Don’t worry about paying off your house. A paid off house is great, but if you are going into retirement being “house rich” and “cash poor” will get you in trouble. You don’t pay off your house UNTIL your retirement savings are fully in place and secure.
  4. In regards to retirement savings – have a large CASH cushion going into retirement. You do not want to be forced to draw OUT of a pool of investments during years where the market is declining.  This compounds the losses in the portfolio and destroys principal which cannot be replaced.
  5. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. You should want a happy and secure retirement – so plan for the worst. If you are banking solely on Social Security and a pension plan, what would happen if the pension was cut? Corporate bankruptcies happen all the time and to companies that most never expected. By planning for the worst, anything other outcome means you are in great shape.

Most likely what ever retirement planning you have done, is wrong.

Change your assumptions, ask questions, and plan for the worst.

There is no one more concerned about YOUR money than you and if you don’t take an active interest in your money – why should anyone else?