Tag Archives: inflation

Shedlock: Recession Will Be Deeper Than The Great Financial Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

Six Key Points

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

No V-Shaped Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fictional Reserve Lending

Please note that Fictional Reserve Lending Is the New Official Policy

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

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

US Output Drops at Fastest Rate in a Decade

Meanwhile US Output Drops at Fastest Rate in a Decade

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

Lies From China

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

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

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

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

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

I noted 20 “What’s Next?” things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seth Levine: COVID-19 Is Not The Last War

These are truly remarkable times in the investment markets. The speed, intensity, and ubiquity of this selloff brings just one word to mind: violence. It would be remarkable if it wasn’t so destructive. Sadly, the reactions from our politicians and the public were predictable. The Federal Reserve (Fed) faithfully and forcefully responded. Despite its unprecedented actions, it seems like they’re “fighting the last war.”

Caveat Emptor

My intention here is to discuss some observations from the course of my career as an investor and try to relate them to the current market. I won’t provide charts or data; I’m just spit-balling here. My goal is twofold: 1) to better organize my own thoughts, and; 2) foster constructive discussions as we all try to navigate these turbulent markets. I realize that this approach puts this article squarely into the dime-a-dozen opinion piece category—so be it.

Please note that what you read is only as of the date published. I will be updating my views as the data warrants. Strong views, held loosely.

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

Investment markets are in freefall. U.S stock market declines tripped circuit breakers on multiple days. U.S. Treasuries are gyrating. Credit markets fell sharply. Equity volatility (characterized by the VIX) exploded. The dollar (i.e. the DXY index) is rocketing. We are in full-out crisis mode. No charts required here

With the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 (GFC) still fresh in the minds of many, the calls for a swift Fed action came loud and fast. Boy, the Fed listen. Obediently, it unleashed its full toolkit, dropping the Fed Funds rate to 0% (technically a 0.00% to 0.25% range), reducing interest on excess reserves, lowering pricing on U.S. dollar liquidity swaps arrangements, and kick-starting a $700 billion QE (Quantitative Easing) program. The initiatives are coming so fast and so furious that it’s hard to keep up! The Fed is even extending credit to primary dealers collateralized by “a broad range of investment grade debt securities, including commercial paper and municipal bonds, and a broad range of equity securities.” Really?!

Reflexively, the central bank threw the whole kit and caboodle at markets in hopes of arresting their declines. It’s providing dollar liquidity in every way it can imagine that’s within its power. However, I have an eerie sense that the Fed is (hopelessly) fighting the last war.

The Last War

There are countless explanations for the GFC. The way I see it is that 2008 was quite literally a financial crisis. The financial system (or plumbing) was Ground Zero. A dizzying array of housing-related structured securities (mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, asset-backed commercial paper, etc.) served as the foundation for the interconnected, global banking system, upon which massive amounts of leverage were employed.

As delinquencies rose, rating agencies downgraded these structured securities. This evaporated the stock of foundational housing collateral. Financial intuitions suddenly found themselves short on liquidity and facing insolvency. It was like playing a giant game of musical chairs whereby a third of the chairs were suddenly removed, unbeknownst to the participants. At once, a mad scramble for liquidity ensued. However, there simply was not enough collateral left to go around. Panic erupted. Institutions failed. The financial system literally collapsed.

This War

In my view, today’s landscape is quite different. The coronavirus’s (COVID-19) impact is a “real economy” issue. People are stuck at home; lots are not working. Economic activity has ground to a halt. It’s a demand shock to nearly every business model and individual’s finances. Few ever planned for such a draconian scenario.

Source: Variant Perception

Thus, this is not a game of musical chairs in the financial system. Rather, businesses will be forced to hold their breaths until life returns to normal. Cash will burn and balance sheets will stretch. The commercial environment is now one of survival, plain and simple (to say nothing of those individuals infected). Businesses of all sizes will be tested, and in particular small and mid-sized ones that lack access to liquidity lines. Not all will make it. To be sure, the financial system will suffer; however, as an effect, not a primary cause. This war is not the GFC.

Decentralized Solutions Needed

Given this dynamic, I’m skeptical that flooding the financial system with liquidity necessarily helps. In the GFC, a relatively small handful of banks (and finance companies) sat at the epicenter. Remember, finance is a levered industry characterized by timing mismatches of cash flows; it borrows “long” and earns “short.” This intermediation is its value proposition. Thus, extending liquidity can help bridge timing gaps to get them through short-term issues, thereby forestalling their deleveraging.

Today, however, the financial system is not the cause of the crisis. True, liquidity shortfalls are the source of stress. However, they are not limited to any one industry or a handful of identifiable actors. Rather, nearly every business may find itself short on cash. Availing currency to banks does not pay your favorite restaurant’s rent or cover its payroll. Quite frankly, I’m skeptical that any mandated measure can. A centralized solution simply cannot solve a decentralized problem.

Fishing With Dynamite

The speed and intensity at which investment markets are reacting is truly dizzying. In many ways they exceed those in the GFC. To be sure, a response to rapidly eroding fundamentals is appropriate. However, this one seems structural.

In my opinion, the wide-scale and indiscriminate carnage is the calling card of one thing: leverage unwinding. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn of a Long Term Capital Management type of event occurring, whereby some large(?), obscure(?), new (?), leveraged investment fund(s) is (are) being forced to liquidate lots of illiquid positions into thinly traded markets. This is purely a guess. Only time will tell.

Daniel Want, the Chief Investment Officer of Prerequisite Capital Management and one of my favorite investment market thinkers, put it best:

“Something is blowing up in the world, we just don’t quite know what. It’s like if you were to go fishing with dynamite. The explosion happens under the water, but it takes a little while for the fish to rise to the surface.”

Daniel Want, 2020 03 14 Prerequisite Update pt 4

What To Do

This logically raises the question of: What to do? From a policy perspective, I have little to offer as I am simply not an expert in the field (ask me in the comment section if you’re interested in my views). That said, the Fed’s response seems silly. Despite the severe investment market stresses, I don’t believe that we’re reliving the GFC. There’s no nail that requires a central banker’s hammer (as if there ever is one). If a financial crisis develops secondarily, then we should seriously question the value that such a fragile system offers.

Markets anticipate developments. I can envision a number of scenarios in which prices reverse course swiftly (such as a decline in the infection rate, a medical breakthrough, etc.). I can see others leading to a protracted economic contraction, as suggested by the intense market moves. Are serious underlying issues at play, even if secondarily? Or are fragile and idiosyncratic market structures to blame? These are the questions I’m trying to grapple with, weighing the unknowns, and allocating capital accordingly.

As an investor, seeing the field more clearly can be an advantage. Remember, it’s never different this time. Nor, however, is it ever the same. This makes for a difficult paradox to navigate. It’s in chaotic times when an investment framework is most valuable. Reflexively fighting the last war seems silly. Rather, let’s assess the current one as it rapidly develops and try to stay one step ahead of the herd.

Good luck out there and stay safe. Strong views, held loosely.

How COVID-19 May Move Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bond Market Dislocations Remain

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

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

$IRX 3-Month Yield

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

Regardless, these swings are not normal.

Cash Crunch

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

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

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

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

4th Largest Jump in History

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

Margin and Short Covering

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

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

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

Need a Better Hedge

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

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

Dash to Cash

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

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

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

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

Fed Opens More Dollar Swap Lines

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

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

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

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

Fed Does Another Emergency Repo and Relaunches Commercial Paper Facility

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

Very Deflationary Outcome Has Begun: Blame the Fed

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

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

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


BIS Deflation Study

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing the Blame

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

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

Dollar Irony

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

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

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

Unemployment Set To Explode

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

Please consider the Results of SurveyUSA Coronavirus News Poll.

Key Findings

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

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

Grim Survey of Reduced Hours

Current Unemployment Stats

Data from latest BLS Jobs Report.

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

Baseline Unemployment Estimate (U3)

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

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

Underemployment Estimate (U6)

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

Whoa Nellie

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

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

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

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

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

Very Deflationary Outcome Has Begun: Blame the Fed

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

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

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

BIS Deflation Study

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing the Blame

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

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

Dollar Irony

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

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

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

Margin Call: You Were Warned Of The Risk

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

“What just happened to my bonds?”

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

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

As noted by Zerohedge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) The margin debt indicator issues many false signals

2) There is insufficient data

3) Margin debt is a strong coincident indicator.”

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

As I noted then, margin debt is not a technical indicator that can be used to trade markets. Margin debt is the “gasoline,” which drives markets higher as the leverage provides for the additional purchasing power of assets. However, that “leverage” also works in reverse as it provides the accelerant for larger declines as lenders “force” the sale of assets to cover credit lines without regard to the borrower’s position.

That last sentence is the most important and is what is currently happening in the market.

The issue with margin debt, in terms of the biggest risk, is the unwinding of leverage is NOT at the investor’s discretion.

It is at the discretion of the broker-dealers that extended that leverage in the first place. (In other words, if you don’t sell to cover, the broker-dealer will do it for you.) 

When lenders fear they may not be able to recoup their credit-lines, they force the borrower to either put in more cash or sell assets to cover the debt. The problem is that “margin calls” generally happen all at once as falling asset prices impact all lenders simultaneously.

Margin debt is NOT an issue – until it is.

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

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

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

Example:

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

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

Just 20% 

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

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

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

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

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

How Much More Is There To Go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Were Warned

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

“By itself, margin debt is inert.

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

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

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

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

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

As I wrote in Tuesday’s missive “When Too Little Is Too Much:”

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem With Pragmatism… and Inflation

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

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

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

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

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

Inflation

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

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

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

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

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

Precedent

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

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

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

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

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

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

Policy Imposition

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

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

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

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

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

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

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

The Sequel

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Shedlock: Supply And Demand Shocks Coming Up

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

Rare Supply-Demand Shocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowest Since the Financial Crisis


Inflationary or Deflationary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be sudden.

Bad Timing

Stockpiling

Deflation Risk Rising

Another Reason to Avoid Stores – Deflationary

Hugely Deflationary – Weak Demand

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

I did find this.

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

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

These are the important point all the inflationistas miss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inflation.

Inflation

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

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

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

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

Contradictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wise Owl

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

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

Grant continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here and Now

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

Seth Levine: Commoditizing My Framework For A New Paradigm

When it comes to investing it’s never different this time; nor, however, is it ever the same. This difficult-to-navigate paradox creates a scarcity of longevity. Today’s persistently low yield environment has upped the ante and put many marquis names out of business. To be fair, alpha’s been elusive of late. It’s not that anyone suddenly became dumb. Rather, traditional methodologies are less robust today. Perhaps adopting a commodity framework can help generate returns in these investment conditions.

Let’s face it, investment yields are scarce. Those on sovereign bonds evaporated. Corporate credit interest rates are numbingly low. Earnings yields on stocks are paltry (i.e. multiples are high). Real estate cap rates are tumbling. No matter what the cause—central banks, safe asset shortages, the proliferation of passive investing, a lack of growth, whatever—cash flows derived from invested principals are small. Unfortunately, this is the current state of the investment markets. It’s our job to play the hand.

Money Now for Money Later

Valuation lies at the heart of my investment framework … at least it did, historically. As Warren Buffett famously said, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” This resonates with me; however, I’m currently rethinking my position. Price is easy to determine, just look at it. What about value?

Before answering this seemingly simple question, it’s helpful to clarify just what investing is all about. Making money, right? Well, one can make money in lots of ways. I can perform a service for my employer in exchange for a paycheck; I can bake some cookies and sell them on my corner; I can also buy a bond and earn its yield. In all cases I make money, yet in different ways. (Note, that’ll use money interchangeably with currency, despite a pet peeve).

In the first case (the job), I trade my time and labor for money. In the second (the baker), I also buy raw materials in order to produce higher value goods. In the investment case, however, I purchase an (assumed) income stream using money that I currently have in order to earn even more over the course of time; it’s money now for (more) money later. Thus, investing is the act of making money from money.

With a clear definition of investing in hand, we can get back to our question of valuation. Valuation is a way to assess the attractiveness of an investment. In other words, it’s a way to frame how much money we expect to make (or lose) in the future in return for our money today. More later for less now is the objective—risk aside.

Today, however, cash flow yields are low when compared to history. Thus, investing appears less attractive under a traditional valuation framework. Yet, the “show must go on”, especially for us professionals. We must find a way to grow our capital in spite of these challenges.

Herein lays the dilemma: What to do when one’s approach no longer applies? Abandoning discipline is simply not a satisfactory solution for serious investors. We all need investing principals to guide our actions. Luckily, my friend Daniel Want, the Chief Investment Officer of Prerequisite Capital Management and one of my favorite investment market thinkers, offers some helpful advice.

Everything’s Commodity-like

In a recent client letter, Want notes that:

“When ‘everything’ is commodity-like… when bonds, fixed income securities and even most equities have minimal to no yield … , then it’s not a ‘valuation’ paradigm you need, but rather you need more of a merchant-type trading philosophy to guide your portfolio operations – you need to focus more on capital/money flows and positioning in order to harvest the natural swings in market prices driven by the underlying behaviours of participants …”

Prerequisite Capital Management’s January 10th, 2020 Quarterly Client BRIEFING

According to Want, traditional valuation-based frameworks are less efficacious in low yield environments. Rather, the supply and demand dynamics of capital flows matter most. I’m certainly sympathetic to that! However, I think this view can be harmonized with a valuation approach without overhauling one’s entire investment philosophy.

When everything is “commodity-like”, the final price dominates its return profile. Remember, the purpose of investing is to earn money, not to hold the underlying assets. Thus, as yields converge to zero (and below, absurd as it may be), positive returns increasingly require the selling at a higher price; or as Want puts it, to “harvest the natural swings in market prices.” In essence, all assets become “trading sardines.”

“There is the old story about the market craze in sardine trading when the sardines disappeared from their traditional waters in Monterey, California. The commodity traders bid them up and the price of a can of sardines soared. One day a buyer decided to treat himself to an expensive meal and actually opened a can and started eating. He immediately became ill and told the seller the sardines were no good. The seller said, ‘You don’t understand. These are not eating sardines, they are trading sardines.’”

Seth Klarman, Margin of Safety via ValueWalk

Thus, as yields dissipate, all investment decisions converge to price speculation … even for bonds that can only return par. (Please see the Appendix at the end of the article for some illustrations.) However, valuation need not be cast aside whole cloth. Rather, it must be reframed to acknowledge that all the “value” lies in the asset’s terminal value, when it’s finally exchanged for cash—be that at maturity or an intermediate sales date.

I find Want’s framework of recasting financial assets as commodities to be clarifying. It helped me override my previously held notions of valuation and provided me with a more powerful framework with which to understand the current investment landscape.

The Commodity-like World

What might this commodity-like world look like? Well, perhaps more commoditized (pun intended). Want continues:

“… Such swings won’t always make sense to a traditional analysis paradigm, it’s likely going to be best to dispassionately view each ‘asset class’ category as simply ‘categories of inventories’ that you may or may not wish to hold at different times depending upon how capital is behaving, where the money is flowing (& why), and how participants are positioned. A more detached and objective approach to markets will be even more valuable than usual.”

Prerequisite Capital Management’s January 10th, 2020 Quarterly Client BRIEFING

In other words, as differentiations of cash flows diminish, investment decisions increasingly shift from allocation within asset classes to allocation among asset classes. Thus, the importance of (tactical) asset allocation increases in Want’s framework.

I can see other investment implications of a more commodity-like world. Perhaps:

  • Speculation in bonds increases and investment horizons shorten as investors take a more total rate of return approach in light of falling yields; volatilities could rise
  • Equity investment time horizons extend, as higher multiples force investors to look further into the future for required growth to materialize; volatilities could fall
  • Commodities appear more attractive as storage costs become less of a relative disadvantage in a world where bonds don negative yields
  • Correlations converge as interest rate sensitivities increase
  • Security selection’s role in portfolio construction shifts to risk management as the risk of loss dominates return profiles
  • Or, I’m wrong about all of the above!

Unfortunately, we’re short on historical precedents for the current paradigm. Hence, we can only guess what impacts might materialize. However, I suspect that focusing on capital flows as Want suggests is a useful framework.

Reframing for the New Paradigm

It’s an understatement to call these challenging times for active management. Many traditional investment frameworks simply don’t work as well. Is it truly different this time?

Rather than abandon valuation in my framework, I’m reframing my decisions. Commoditizing my investment approach has brought some clarity to these confounding times.

Rather than abandon valuation in my framework, I’m reframing it. Conceptualizing “’everything’ [as] commodity-like” helps. We must speculate on all assets, plain and simple, looking to terminal values for returns. While my acceptance has been slow, commoditizing my investment framework has brought some clarity to these confounding times.

Appendix: Speculation Rises as Yields Fall

In this section I show what happens to hypothetical bond returns (using IRR) when coupons fall, maturities shorten, and when a sale occurs at a higher price prior to maturity. Note that in all cases the value shifts more towards the final payment. Thus, the incentive for speculation rises as yields fall. Assume all values are in U.S. dollars and undiscounted for simplicity. This exercise is for illustration purposes only.

Example: Initial Bond

Below is the payment stream for a hypothetical bond that matures at par in 5 years with a 10% coupon.

Note that the holder receives $150 in total payments. The final payment ($110) accounts for 73% of all value received.

Example: Falling Coupon

Here, I illustrate the payments for the same hypothetical bond but with a lower coupon of 5%.

Note that only $125 is received—due to the lower interest rate—and that the final payment ($105) accounts for a greater percentage (84%) of the total value.

Example: Shortened Maturity

Next, I show the payments for our 5% hypothetical bond but with a 3 year maturity instead of 5.

Here, only $115 is received due to 2 fewer years of coupon payments, though the IRR remains constant. As a result, the final payment occurs in year 3. It also accounts for 91% of the of the total value received.

Example: Pre-maturity Sale

In this last example, I illustrate what happens to the 5% hypothetical bond with a 5 year maturity when sold at a higher price ($105) prior to maturity (shown year 3).

There are a couple of interesting points to note. Since it was sold for $5 more than the maturity value (par), our total payments amount to $120. While this is $5 less than had it been held to maturity, the IRR increases to 7% (from 5%). The final payment now accounts for 92% of the total value received—the highest percentage of all our examples.

Conclusion

Note that the pre-maturity sale example had the highest return for the hypothetical, 5%-coupon bond. The sale price also dominated the return profile, illustrating how the bond became a more effective total rate of return instrument, ripe for speculation.

Gone Fishing Newsletter: The Inflation Edition

We are thrilled to present a recent article from Samantha LaDuc, the Founder of LaDucTrading.com and the CIO at LaDuc Capital LLC. 

Samantha LaDuc is known for timing major inflection points in equities, commodities, bonds/rates, currencies and volatility. As a Macro-to-Micro strategic technical analyst, educator and trader, she makes her insights available to active traders and investors who want to minimize risk while seizing year-making opportunities.  


Spoiler Alert: We have no inflation in commodities.

Healthcare, Education, Concert Tickets … absolutely.

Image

But what about the stuff we consume and use every day?

CRB Commodities is made up of the following weighting:

  • Softs (Coffee, Sugar, Orange Juice) 23.5%
  • Energy 17.6%
  • Grains 17.6%
  • Precious Metals 17.6%
  • Industrials (Copper & Cotton) 11.8%
  • Meats 11.8%

Commodities – Big Picture on a Monthly Time-frame – show that we are still in a multi-decade low.

“Yields have been falling, reflecting concerns about global growth, and also the dramatic change of direction by central banks, which was itself largely driven by fears for growth. The 10-year Treasury yield is now almost a full percentage point lower than it was two years ago, and its trend is clearly downward. Indeed, if we take inflation expectations into account, the real 10-year Treasury yield has just gone negative.

According to the Bloomberg commodity indexes, industrial metals have now under-performed precious metals over the period since Donald Trump was elected U.S. president; and the price of oil is collapsing anew relative to gold. These moves only make sense if people are worried about growth.” – John Authers, Bloomberg

Sounds dreary, and John’s commentary was before the CoronaVirus outbreak really grabbed American businesses’ attention.

Despite my bearish leanings as detailed here: Perfect Storm: CoronaVirus and Market Risks, from my vantage point, we ‘should’ bounce soon (yellow circle). If not, we have more serious deflation to deal with – not just disinflation in the commodity patch.

Now let’s drop the USD softly behind the same chart and add some annotations. We have potential for a bounce, but also a lot of resistance and indecision. No clean signal yet. Still chop. And a DXY that has been range-bound for 4 years! Clearly, the US Dollar makes the weather for commodities and Foreign Exchange volatility as at an All Time Low. You know my saying: Outliers Revert With Velocity. Watch the USD for The Tell.

I should also add to this Intermarket analysis with the Macro read: it’s bearish inflation.

 @ISABELNET_SA Chart is suggesting that M2 velocity YoY leads US core inflation by 21 months. It has been quite accurate for more than 20 years. And it portends lower.

Image

Commodities are Dead, Long Live Commodities?

So why fight the trend? Humor me for ‘the other side” of the argument. Let’s assume inflation catches a bounce, pulling up commodities and yields with it, what segments are most likely to rise?

Food – Softs, Grains, Meats: China is experiencing strong Food price inflation from drought conditions (Rice), culling of all that Pork (and soon Chicken?). But in the US, these input prices are declerating (Coffee, Corn, Hogs, etc). With the new Coronavirus shutting off the flow of goods into and out of China for the time-being – and I suspect until April/May – we could start to see a tick up in Food Prices. Worst case, as the pandemic spreads, people with be unwilling/unable to go to work which could also trigger supply chain constraints. Prices could accelerate quickly on supply contraction.

Energy: What’s the bull case for Energy? Oversold, “value” play with high trailing dividend yields? They are high for a reason and still major laggard of all SPY sectors for several years now. Oil investment is waning not expanding (given Trump’s energy policies). So aside from a geopolitical ‘flare’ to temporarily disrupt supply, like with Iran, the case for sustainable higher oil is weak. And if/when Venezuela comes back online, it would be a big hit to the bull case (more supply). In the meantime, we have demand destruction out of China as a result of the CoronaVirus and general trends in decreasing demand due to:

1) Deglobalization
2) Decarbonization
3) Debt saturation
4) Donald Trump

Industrials: Copper is the big one, and it is at 2016 levels, so not expressing an economic growth look. Translation: The Trump Bump (2017) has been Dumped.

Precious Metals: Here are two charts that sum up my frustration on the perception versus reality of bidding up precious metals.

(Separate from the whole Palladium and Platinum play, which I have written about since early November as a bullish thesis.)

Treasury yields are negative after adjusting for inflation so that is supposed to be a plus for gold….

But, Gold/Silver Mining stocks are looking weary and potentially rolling over.

OK, I may have talked you out of a Commodity bump, but stick with me.

Commodities, The New Bonds?

Just over a year ago, the Fed finished systematically hiking rates (after 8 of them) as ECB quit QE. Today, Fed has lowered rates 3 times in 2019 and market is pricing in 2 more cuts for 2020! Fed clearly seems to unwind their 2017 tightening to avoid what happened in Fall of 2018 where U.S. stocks collapsed nearly 20% from Oct 3 to Dec 31st. Basically, the Fed realized it had spent three years tightening into a low inflation, low growth U.S. economy, and the global economy was too fragile to handle the liquidity and tightening drain.

But rate cuts at this point have reached the law of diminishing returns and Repo operations to inject capital in the money markets seems inadequate to jump-start growth. Fiscal policies in combination may be the fuel that flame inflation, in which case, commodities could recover and rally, but there are some heady headwinds:

Headwinds:

  1. Demand destruction from slowing global growth from Coronavirus in particular, economic cycle and ‘protectionist’ trends in general.
  2. Lower yields pull commodities with it, (and vice versa), but right now Fed has their proverbial thumb on any increases.
  3. Global central banks have suppressed volatility by anchoring expectations with “lower for longer”, thereby enhancing the effect of rate cuts which suppresses commodities.
  4. A more dovish Fed also reduces the US-Foreign bond yield spread which strengthens the dollar, thereby suppressing local currency valuation while burdening thier USD funding obligations.
  5. A stronger dollar is tailwind to commodity run (inversely related since commodities are priced in USD).

Tailwinds:

  1. Local and Coordinated Global Fiscal Policies trigger global economic optimism; Debt and Deficit hawks be damned.
  2. Containment of CoronaVirus psychologically and financially allow for economic expansion. Both will drive yields higher.

Until these factors reveal themselves, yields are falling and at risk of breaking critical support.

Top 10 Reasons for Bond Reversal:

From Buy Bonds, Wear Zirconia:

  1. Yields are approaching my buy point just above All Time Lows.
  2. Bonds/Yields are on their respective Bollinger Bands/Keltner Channel bands (yellow circle on weekly chart) which often acts as resistance causing a rubberband.snap-back effect.
  3. Seasonal tendency to Sell Bonds starts Jan 31st.
  4. Nomura’s Charlie McElligott  “1m Price Reversal” trade has run its course (1.94 drop to 1.64 in 10 yr yield since Dec 18th)
  5. Duration infatuation” (the safety-trade) often kicks in at the first sign of trouble, but then unwinds.
  6. The “normal” viral drag on US10Yr has the following tendency – yields fall then bounce back sharply.
  7. Fed won’t want the yield curve inversion which already erased half of the Q4 steepening.
  8. UPDATED PRE FOMC: Fed may need to guide inflation above target … which in turn supports a steeper curve, SO there is strong potential for final 2020 rate cut to CAUSE inflation expectations to rise.
  9. And the best reason potentially of all: Stocks are now Yielding More Than Bonds Again

“In the early summer of last year, the 10-Year Treasury Note was bid up considerably, resulting in it yielding less than the S&P 500’s dividend yield. In fact, at the point of the largest divergence between the two in late August, the dividend yield of the S&P 500 was 56.9 bps higher than the yield on the 10-Year Treasury. Although the disparity between the two has shrunk from that August peak, that trend has generally continued in the months since then, though equities’ surge into the end of the year saw bonds briefly yielding more in December. Since the start of the new year, stocks once again hold a higher yield, especially today as worries about the coronavirus have resulted in the selling of risk assets (raising the S&P 500’s yield) and subsequent buying of safe-havens (lowering the 10-Year Treasury yield). Now, the spread between the S&P 500’s dividend yield and that of the 10-Year is at its widest level in favor of the S&P 500 since October 10th.” –  DATATREK

I am nothing if not persistent.

Here is my client post from January 24th on this related subject: All Alone With My Higher Yield Thesis:

High Yield corporate debt is in trouble with Oil dropping 20% since Jan 7th and Shale companies facing their biggest loan refinancing wall in 20 years. When HY credit passes 358 bp then Momentum will very likely sell off – like happened in early September 2019 – and Value will finally catch a sustainable bid! And when Hedge Funds cover their Value shorts,  they sell Bonds! And when bonds get sold, with momentum selling off too, rates rip and we have a perfect storm set up for a massive VIX spike and gamma flipping.”

That is still my baseline projection. Market just doesn’t see it yet.


LaDuc Trading/LaDuc Capital LLC Is Not a Financial Advisor, RIA or Broker/Dealer.  Trading Stocks, Options, Futures and Forex includes significant financial risk. We teach and inform. You enter trades at your own risk. Learn more.

Gone Fishing Newsletter: The Inflation Edition

We are thrilled to present a recent article from Samantha LaDuc, the Founder of LaDucTrading.com and the CIO at LaDuc Capital LLC. 

Samantha LaDuc is known for timing major inflection points in equities, commodities, bonds/rates, currencies and volatility. As a Macro-to-Micro strategic technical analyst, educator and trader, she makes her insights available to active traders and investors who want to minimize risk while seizing year-making opportunities.  


Spoiler Alert: We have no inflation in commodities.

Healthcare, Education, Concert Tickets … absolutely.

Image

But what about the stuff we consume and use every day?

CRB Commodities is made up of the following weighting:

  • Softs (Coffee, Sugar, Orange Juice) 23.5%
  • Energy 17.6%
  • Grains 17.6%
  • Precious Metals 17.6%
  • Industrials (Copper & Cotton) 11.8%
  • Meats 11.8%

Commodities – Big Picture on a Monthly Time-frame – show that we are still in a multi-decade low.

“Yields have been falling, reflecting concerns about global growth, and also the dramatic change of direction by central banks, which was itself largely driven by fears for growth. The 10-year Treasury yield is now almost a full percentage point lower than it was two years ago, and its trend is clearly downward. Indeed, if we take inflation expectations into account, the real 10-year Treasury yield has just gone negative.

According to the Bloomberg commodity indexes, industrial metals have now under-performed precious metals over the period since Donald Trump was elected U.S. president; and the price of oil is collapsing anew relative to gold. These moves only make sense if people are worried about growth.” – John Authers, Bloomberg

Sounds dreary, and John’s commentary was before the CoronaVirus outbreak really grabbed American businesses’ attention.

Despite my bearish leanings as detailed here: Perfect Storm: CoronaVirus and Market Risks, from my vantage point, we ‘should’ bounce soon (yellow circle). If not, we have more serious deflation to deal with – not just disinflation in the commodity patch.

Now let’s drop the USD softly behind the same chart and add some annotations. We have potential for a bounce, but also a lot of resistance and indecision. No clean signal yet. Still chop. And a DXY that has been range-bound for 4 years! Clearly, the US Dollar makes the weather for commodities and Foreign Exchange volatility as at an All Time Low. You know my saying: Outliers Revert With Velocity. Watch the USD for The Tell.

I should also add to this Intermarket analysis with the Macro read: it’s bearish inflation.

 @ISABELNET_SA Chart is suggesting that M2 velocity YoY leads US core inflation by 21 months. It has been quite accurate for more than 20 years. And it portends lower.

Image

Commodities are Dead, Long Live Commodities?

So why fight the trend? Humor me for ‘the other side” of the argument. Let’s assume inflation catches a bounce, pulling up commodities and yields with it, what segments are most likely to rise?

Food – Softs, Grains, Meats: China is experiencing strong Food price inflation from drought conditions (Rice), culling of all that Pork (and soon Chicken?). But in the US, these input prices are declerating (Coffee, Corn, Hogs, etc). With the new Coronavirus shutting off the flow of goods into and out of China for the time-being – and I suspect until April/May – we could start to see a tick up in Food Prices. Worst case, as the pandemic spreads, people with be unwilling/unable to go to work which could also trigger supply chain constraints. Prices could accelerate quickly on supply contraction.

Energy: What’s the bull case for Energy? Oversold, “value” play with high trailing dividend yields? They are high for a reason and still major laggard of all SPY sectors for several years now. Oil investment is waning not expanding (given Trump’s energy policies). So aside from a geopolitical ‘flare’ to temporarily disrupt supply, like with Iran, the case for sustainable higher oil is weak. And if/when Venezuela comes back online, it would be a big hit to the bull case (more supply). In the meantime, we have demand destruction out of China as a result of the CoronaVirus and general trends in decreasing demand due to:

1) Deglobalization
2) Decarbonization
3) Debt saturation
4) Donald Trump

Industrials: Copper is the big one, and it is at 2016 levels, so not expressing an economic growth look. Translation: The Trump Bump (2017) has been Dumped.

Precious Metals: Here are two charts that sum up my frustration on the perception versus reality of bidding up precious metals.

(Separate from the whole Palladium and Platinum play, which I have written about since early November as a bullish thesis.)

Treasury yields are negative after adjusting for inflation so that is supposed to be a plus for gold….

But, Gold/Silver Mining stocks are looking weary and potentially rolling over.

OK, I may have talked you out of a Commodity bump, but stick with me.

Commodities, The New Bonds?

Just over a year ago, the Fed finished systematically hiking rates (after 8 of them) as ECB quit QE. Today, Fed has lowered rates 3 times in 2019 and market is pricing in 2 more cuts for 2020! Fed clearly seems to unwind their 2017 tightening to avoid what happened in Fall of 2018 where U.S. stocks collapsed nearly 20% from Oct 3 to Dec 31st. Basically, the Fed realized it had spent three years tightening into a low inflation, low growth U.S. economy, and the global economy was too fragile to handle the liquidity and tightening drain.

But rate cuts at this point have reached the law of diminishing returns and Repo operations to inject capital in the money markets seems inadequate to jump-start growth. Fiscal policies in combination may be the fuel that flame inflation, in which case, commodities could recover and rally, but there are some heady headwinds:

Headwinds:

  1. Demand destruction from slowing global growth from Coronavirus in particular, economic cycle and ‘protectionist’ trends in general.
  2. Lower yields pull commodities with it, (and vice versa), but right now Fed has their proverbial thumb on any increases.
  3. Global central banks have suppressed volatility by anchoring expectations with “lower for longer”, thereby enhancing the effect of rate cuts which suppresses commodities.
  4. A more dovish Fed also reduces the US-Foreign bond yield spread which strengthens the dollar, thereby suppressing local currency valuation while burdening thier USD funding obligations.
  5. A stronger dollar is tailwind to commodity run (inversely related since commodities are priced in USD).

Tailwinds:

  1. Local and Coordinated Global Fiscal Policies trigger global economic optimism; Debt and Deficit hawks be damned.
  2. Containment of CoronaVirus psychologically and financially allow for economic expansion. Both will drive yields higher.

Until these factors reveal themselves, yields are falling and at risk of breaking critical support.

Top 10 Reasons for Bond Reversal:

From Buy Bonds, Wear Zirconia:

  1. Yields are approaching my buy point just above All Time Lows.
  2. Bonds/Yields are on their respective Bollinger Bands/Keltner Channel bands (yellow circle on weekly chart) which often acts as resistance causing a rubberband.snap-back effect.
  3. Seasonal tendency to Sell Bonds starts Jan 31st.
  4. Nomura’s Charlie McElligott  “1m Price Reversal” trade has run its course (1.94 drop to 1.64 in 10 yr yield since Dec 18th)
  5. Duration infatuation” (the safety-trade) often kicks in at the first sign of trouble, but then unwinds.
  6. The “normal” viral drag on US10Yr has the following tendency – yields fall then bounce back sharply.
  7. Fed won’t want the yield curve inversion which already erased half of the Q4 steepening.
  8. UPDATED PRE FOMC: Fed may need to guide inflation above target … which in turn supports a steeper curve, SO there is strong potential for final 2020 rate cut to CAUSE inflation expectations to rise.
  9. And the best reason potentially of all: Stocks are now Yielding More Than Bonds Again

“In the early summer of last year, the 10-Year Treasury Note was bid up considerably, resulting in it yielding less than the S&P 500’s dividend yield. In fact, at the point of the largest divergence between the two in late August, the dividend yield of the S&P 500 was 56.9 bps higher than the yield on the 10-Year Treasury. Although the disparity between the two has shrunk from that August peak, that trend has generally continued in the months since then, though equities’ surge into the end of the year saw bonds briefly yielding more in December. Since the start of the new year, stocks once again hold a higher yield, especially today as worries about the coronavirus have resulted in the selling of risk assets (raising the S&P 500’s yield) and subsequent buying of safe-havens (lowering the 10-Year Treasury yield). Now, the spread between the S&P 500’s dividend yield and that of the 10-Year is at its widest level in favor of the S&P 500 since October 10th.” –  DATATREK

I am nothing if not persistent.

Here is my client post from January 24th on this related subject: All Alone With My Higher Yield Thesis:

High Yield corporate debt is in trouble with Oil dropping 20% since Jan 7th and Shale companies facing their biggest loan refinancing wall in 20 years. When HY credit passes 358 bp then Momentum will very likely sell off – like happened in early September 2019 – and Value will finally catch a sustainable bid! And when Hedge Funds cover their Value shorts,  they sell Bonds! And when bonds get sold, with momentum selling off too, rates rip and we have a perfect storm set up for a massive VIX spike and gamma flipping.”

That is still my baseline projection. Market just doesn’t see it yet.


LaDuc Trading/LaDuc Capital LLC Is Not a Financial Advisor, RIA or Broker/Dealer.  Trading Stocks, Options, Futures and Forex includes significant financial risk. We teach and inform. You enter trades at your own risk. Learn more.

Will The Corona Virus Trigger A Recession?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why “Not-QE” is QE: Deciphering Gibberish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is QE?

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

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

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

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

Is “Not-QE” QE?

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

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

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

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

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

Simply:

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

Point 1

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

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

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

Point 2

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

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

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

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

Point 3

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

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

Bad Advice

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

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

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

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

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

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

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

Summary

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

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

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

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

Dallas Fed President Sees “No Move” In Fed Funds Rate

Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan made some interesting comments today on interest rates, repos, and the coronavirus.


Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan was on panel discussion today at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business on the “2020 Business Outlook: Real Estate and the Texas Economy” in Austin, Texas.

Bloomberg Econoday Synopsis

  1. Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan is neutral right now on monetary policy, saying neither a rate cut nor a rate hike are necessary in the medium term. “My base case is no movement up or down in the Fed funds rate [in 2020], but I’ll be monitoring [things] carefully … this year,” Kaplan said in a panel discussion.
  2. Kaplan believes the outlook for the economy has stabilized and if anything has “firmed”, and though he now has “a more confident outlook” he isn’t ready to commit to a rate hike saying it’s “too soon to judge if a hike is coming, and you’ve got a number of [risky] factors going on.”
  3. Regarding a so-called “coronavirus cut” to reassure markets, Kaplan doesn’t see justification yet adding, however, that he is carefully watching how the virus unfolds and that he will have a better sense of its effects over the next few months. Kaplan also noted that he will be watching the first-half impact of the Boeing 737 production shutdown.
  4. On repo operations, Kaplan described the rise in the Fed’s balance sheet through year-end as “substantial” but he sees slowing growth through June. “I’d be hopeful and expect that as we continue bill purchases during the second quarter, the repo usage will begin to decline and the headline net balance-sheet growth for the Fed will moderate – certainly far more moderate than what’s we’ve seen to this period.”
  5. On inflation, Kaplan’s base case is an upward trend toward 2 percent in the medium term. Kaplan said the Fed is debating whether to lengthen out its look at inflation from a one-year average to perhaps a two-year average. “We look at a variety of factors to make our judgment.”

Regarding no interest rate movement, the market disagrees, and so do I.

On inflation, the entire fed is clueless about what it is.

In regards to a firming economic outlook, Kaplan may wish to ponder Coronavirus Deaths Surge, No Containment In Sight.

The supply chains disruptions will be massive. A “Made in China” Economic Hit is coming right up.

On repo operations, yep, it’s entirely believable the Fed will keep ballooning its balance sheet risking even bigger bubbles.

The yield curve is inverted once again. And that’s flashing another recession signal. On Average, How Long From Inversion to Recession?

Jerome Powell & The Fed’s Great Betrayal

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

John Maynard Keynes – The Economic Consequences of Peace 1920

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

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

REALity

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

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

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

Here are two facts:

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

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

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

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

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

What is Inflation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

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

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

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

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

The Wealth Scheme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data St. Louis Federal Reserve

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

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

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

Data St. Louis Federal Reserve

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

Retired Or Retiring Soon? Yes, Worry About A Correction

When I was growing up, my father used to tell me I should “never take advice from anyone who hasn’t succeeded at what they are advising.” 

The most truth of that statement is found in the financial press, which consists mostly of people writing articles and giving advice on topics where they have little experience, and in general, have achieved no success.

The best example came last week in an email quoting:

“You recently suggested that you took profits from your portfolios; however, I read an article saying retirees shouldn’t change their strategies. ‘If you’ve got a thoughtful financial plan and a diversified investment portfolio, the general rule is to leave everything alone.'” 

This seems to be an entirely different approach to what you are suggesting. Also, since corrections can’t be predicted, it seems to make sense.” 

One of the biggest reasons why investors consistently underperform over the long-term is due to flawed investment advice.

Let me explain.

Corrections & Bear Markets Matter

It certainly seems logical, by looking the 120-year chart of the market, that one should just stay invested regardless of what happens. Eventually, as the financial media often suggests, the markets always get back to even. One such chart is the percentage gain/loss chart over the long-term, as shown below.

This is one of the most deceptive charts an advisor can show a client, particularly one that is close to, or worse in, retirement.

The reality is that you DIED long before ever achieving that 8% annualized long-term return you were promised. Secondly, math is a cruel teacher.

Visually, percentage drawdowns seem to be inconsequential relative to the massive percentage gains that preceded them. That is, until you convert percentages into points and reveal an uglier truth.

It is important to remember that a 100% gain on a $1000 investment, followed by a 50% loss, does not leave you with $1500. A 50% loss wipes out the previous 100% gain, leaving you with a 0% net return.

For retirees, this is a critically important point.

In 2000, the average “baby boomer” was around 45-years of age. The “dot.com” crash was painful, but with 20-years to go before retirement, there was time to recover. In 2010, following the financial crisis, the time to retirement for the oldest boomers was depleted, and the average boomer only had 10-years to recover. During both of these previous periods, portfolios were still in accumulation mode. However, today, only the youngest tranche of “boomers,” have the luxury of “time” to work through the next major market reversion. (This also explains why the share of workers over the age of 65 is at historical highs.) 

With the majority of “boomers” now faced with the implications of a transition into the distribution phase of the investment cycle, such has important ramifications during market declines. The following example shows a $1 million portfolio with, and without, an annualized 4% withdrawal rate. (We are going into much deeper analysis on this in a moment.)

While a 10% decline in the market will reduce a portfolio from $1 million to $900,000, when combined with an assumed monthly withdrawal rate, the portfolio value is reduced by almost 14%. This is the result of taking distributions during a period of declining market values. Importantly, while it ONLY requires a non-withdrawal portfolio an 11.1% return to break even, it requires nearly a 20% return for a portfolio in the distribution phase to attain the same level.

Impairments to capital are the biggest challenges facing pre- and post-retirees currently. 

This is an important distinction. Most articles written about retirees, or those ready to retire, is an unrealized assumption of an indefinite timeline.

While the market may not be different than it has been in the past. YOU ARE!

Starting Valuations Matter

As I have discussed previously, without understanding the importance of starting valuations on your investment returns, you can’t understand the impact the market will have on psychology, and investor behavior.

Over any 30-year period, beginning valuation levels have a tremendous impact on future returns.

As valuations rise, future rates of annualized returns fall. This should not be a surprise as simple logic states that if you overpay for an asset today, the future returns must, and will, be lower.

This is far less than the 8-10% rates of return currently promised by the Wall Street community. It is also why starting valuations are critical for individuals to understand when planning for both the accumulation and distribution, phases of the investment life-cycle.

Let’s elaborate on our example above.

We know that markets go up and down over time, therefore when advisors use “average” or “annualized” rates of return, results often deviate far from reality. However, we do know from historical analysis that valuations drive forward returns, so using historical data, we calculated the 4-periods where starting valuations were either above 20x earnings, or below 10x earnings. We then ran a $1000 investment going forward for 30-years on a total-return, inflation-adjusted, basis. 

The results were not surprising.

At 10x earnings, the worst performing period started in 1918 and only saw $1000 grow to a bit more than $6000. The best performing period was actually not the screaming bull market that started in 1980 because the last 10-years of that particular cycle caught the “dot.com” crash. It was the post-WWII bull market that ran from 1942 through 1972 that was the winner. Of course, the crash of 1974, just two years later, extracted a good bit of those returns.

Conversely, at 20x earnings, the best performing period started in 1900, which caught the rise of the market to its peak in 1929. Unfortunately, the next 4-years wiped out roughly 85% of those gains. However, outside of that one period, all of the other periods fared worse than investing at lower valuations. (Note: 1993 is still currently running as its 30-year period will end in 2023.)

The point to be made here is simple and was precisely summed up by Warren Buffett:

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” 

To create our variable return assumption model, we averaged each of the 4-periods above into a single total return, inflation-adjusted, index. We could then see the impact of $1000 invested in the markets at both valuations BELOW 10x trailing earnings, and ABOVE 20x. Investing at 10x earnings yields substantially better results.

Starting Valuations Are Critical To Withdrawal Rates

With a more realistic return model, the impact of investing during periods of high valuations becomes more evident, particularly during the withdrawal phase of retirement.

Let’s start with our $1 million retirement portfolio. The chart below shows various “spend down” assumptions of a $1 million retirement portfolio adjusted for an 8% annualized return, the impact of inflation at 3%, and the effect of taxation on withdrawals.

By adjusting the annualized rate of return for the impact of inflation and taxes, the life expectancy of a portfolio grows considerably shorter. Unfortunately, this is what “really happens” to investors over time, but is never discussed in mainstream analysis.

To understand “real outcomes,” we must adjust for variable rates of returns. There is a significant difference between 8% annualized rates of return and 8% real rates of return. 

When we adjust the spend down structure for elevated starting valuation levels, and include inflation and taxes, a far different, and less favorable, outcome emerges. Retirees will run out of money not in year 30, but in year 18.

With this understanding, let’s revisit what happens to “buy and hold” investors over time. The chart below shows $3000 invested annually into the S&P 500 inflation-adjusted, total return index at 10% compounded annually, and both 10x and 20x valuation starting levels. I have also shown $3000 saved annually and “stuffed in a mattress.”

The red line is 10% compounded annually. While you don’t get compounded returns, it is there for comparative purposes to the real returns received over the 30-year investment horizon starting at 10x and 20x valuation levels. The shortfall between the promised 10% annual rates of return and actual returns are shown in the two shaded areas. In other words, if you are banking on some advisor’s promise of 10% annual returns for retirement, you aren’t going to make it.

Questions Retirees Need To Ask About Plans

What this analysis reveals is that “retirees” SHOULD be worried about bear markets. 

Taking the correct view of your portfolio, and the risks being undertaken is critical when entering the retirement and distribution phase of the portfolio life cycle.

Most importantly, when building and/or reviewing your financial plan, these are the questions you must ask and have concrete answers for:

  • What are the expectations for future returns going forward given current valuation levels? 
  • Should the withdrawal rates be downwardly adjusted to account for potentially lower future returns? 
  • Given a decade long bull market, have adjustments been made for potentially front-loaded negative returns? 
  • Has the impact of taxation been carefully considered in the planned withdrawal rate?
  • Have future inflation expectations been carefully considered?
  • Have drawdowns from portfolios during declining market environments, which accelerates principal bleed, been considered?
  • Have plans been made to harbor capital during up years to allow for reduced portfolio withdrawals during adverse market conditions?
  • Has the yield chase over the last decade, and low interest rate environment, which has created an extremely risky environment for retirement income planning, been carefully considered?
  • What steps should be considered to reduce potential credit and duration risk in bond portfolios?
  • Have expectations for compounded annual rates of returns been dismissed in lieu of a plan for variable rates of future returns?

 If the answer is “no” to the majority of these questions. then feel free to contact one of the CFP’s in our office who take all of these issues into account. 

Yes, not only should you worry about bear markets, you should worry about them a lot.

Recession Arithmetic: What Would It Take?

David Rosenberg explores Recession Arithmetic in today’s Breakfast With Dave. I add a few charts of my own to discuss.

Rosenberg notes “Private fixed investment has declined two quarters in a row as of 2019 Q3. Since 1980, this has only happened twice outside of a recession.”

Here is the chart he presented.

Fixed Investment, Imports, Government Share of GDP


Since 1980 there have been five recessions in the U.S.and only once, after the dotcom bust in 2001, was there a recession that didn’t feature an outright decline in consumption expenditures in at least one quarter. Importantly, even historical comparisons are complicated. The economy has changed over the last 40 years. As an example, in Q4 of 1979, fixed investment was 20% of GDP, while in 2019 it makes up 17%. Meanwhile, imports have expanded from 10% of GDP to 15% and the consumer’s role has risen from 61% to 68% of the economy. All that to say, as the structure of the economy has evolved so too has its susceptibility to risks. The implication is that historical shocks would have different effects today than they did 40 years ago.

So, what similarities exist across time? Well, every recession features a decline in fixed investment (on average -9.8% from the pre-recession period), and an accompanying decline in imports (coincidentally also about -9.5% from the pre-recession period). Given the persistent trade deficit, it’s not surprising that declines in domestic activity would result in a drawdown in imports (i.e. a boost to GDP).

So, what does all of this mean for where we are in the cycle? Private fixed investment has declined two quarters in a row as of 2019 Q3. Since 1980, this has only happened two other times outside of a recession. The first was in the year following the burst of the dotcom bubble, as systemic overinvestment unwound itself over the course of eight quarters. The second was in 2006, as the housing market imploded… and we all know how that story ended.Small sample bias notwithstanding, we can comfortably say that this is not something that should be dismissed offhand.

For now, the consumer has stood tall. Real consumption expenditures contributed 3.0% to GDP in Q2, and 2.1% in Q3. Whether the consumer can keep the economy from tipping into recession remains to be seen.

Dave’s comments got me thinking about the makeup of fixed investment. It does not take much of a slowdown to cause a recession. But there are two components and they do not always move together.

Fixed Investment Year-Over-Year

One thing easily stands out. Housing marked the bottom in 12 of 13 recessions. 2001 was the exception.

Fixed Investment Year-Over-Year Detail

Fixed Investment Tipping Point

We are very close to a tipping point in which residential and nonresidential fixed investment are near the zero line. The above chart shows recessions can happen with fixed investment still positive year-over-year.

Manufacturing Has Peaked This Economic Cycle

The above charts are ominous given the view Manufacturing Has Peaked This Economic Cycle

Key Manufacturing Details

  • For the first time in history, manufacturing production is unlikely to take out the previous pre-recession peak.
  • Unlike the the 2015-2016 energy-based decline, the current manufacturing decline is broad-based and real.
  • Manufacturing production is 2.25% below the peak set in december 2007 with the latest Manufacturing ISM Down 5th Month to Lowest Since June 2009.

Other than the 2015-2016 energy-based decline, every decline in industrial production has led or accompanied a recession.

Manufacturing Jobs

After a manufacturing surge in November due to the end of the GM strike, Manufacturing Sector Jobs Shrank by 12,000 in December.

PPI Confirmation

Despite surging crude prices, the December Producer Price Inflation was Weak and Below Expectations

Shipping Confirmation

Finally, please note that the Cass Year-Over-Year Freight Index Sinks to a 12-Year Low

Manufacturing employment, shipping, industrial production, and the PPI are all screaming the same word.

In case you missed the word, here it is: Recession.

Seth Levine: The Unsurprising Repo Surprise

Have you heard? There’s trouble in the repo markets. Even casual investment market participants probably know that something’s amiss. While only a handful of investors participate in repo, this obscure corner of the investment markets rests at the epicenter of the financial system—hence all the attention. The turmoil caught many by surprise, prompting the Federal Reserve (Fed) into emergency action. However, the real surprise is, in my opinion, why this took any of us by surprise to begin with?

What is Repo

Repo is financial jargon for a repurchase agreement. While it sounds complex, repo is simply a form of short-term, secured lending. The borrower sells collateral (typically a high quality bond) to a lender. At the same time, it agrees to repurchase the same collateral back at a later date for a predetermined and higher price; hence the moniker repurchase agreement. The borrower receives the use of currency for this short period. The lender receives interest in the form of the price difference.

If this sounds overly complicated, it’s because it is. The details, however, are unimportant for our discussion. One need only grasp that repo sits at the bottom of the financial system pyramid. It’s a primary funding source for many large institutions that comprise the plumbing of financial markets. Due to leverage, small disturbances in the repo (and other money) markets can ripple through the entire system. This is what some fear.

What Went Wrong

Repo rates dramatically spiked on September 17, 2019, more than doubling the previous day’s (using SOFR as a proxy). This is highly unusual for the most illiquid of all markets, let alone one of the most trafficked. Arbitrage should render this behavior anomalous as the rise in repo rates represented a highly profitable opportunity. Why weren’t the big banks picking up all this free money? With the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) still fresh in the minds of many, the rumor mill kicked into overdrive surmising why.

Repo rates (estimated with SOFR) unexpectedly spiked on September 17, 2019.

The cause of this unexpected rate spike is still a matter of speculation. The financial system is highly complex with innumerable inputs and outputs making it difficult to establish direct, behavioral links. However, it’s likely that routine balance sheet mismanagement by the Fed was the culprit (as discussed by George Selgin here and Zoltan Pozar of Credit Suisse).

The Fed’s responsibilities expanded as a result of the GFC. These, and other regulatory changes, might have created some idiosyncrasies that underpinned the unexpected rise in repo rates. One is that the Fed now banks the U.S. Treasury. The Treasury used to have bank accounts with private institutions. It now keeps its money at the Fed in an account called the Treasury General Account (TGA). Another important development is the increased size of the foreign repo pool. The Fed avails its balance sheet to “about 250 central banks, governments and international official institutions.” While not new, the aptly named foreign repo pool usage is up nearly 3-fold since 2014.

The significant growth in the TGA (blue) and foreign repo pool (red) after the GFC creates new balance sheet volatility for the Fed to manage.

The chart above illustrates that both the TGA and foreign repo pool are large and volatile. They are also relatively new in their importance to the Fed from an operational perspective. Let’s not forget that while the Fed is a central bank, it’s nonetheless just a bank. Unpredictable and violent swings in account balances are difficult to manage—community, commercial, and central bank alike. Too be sure, we may later discover different reasons for the repo rate spike … but not until later.

Centralization Breeds Instability

It’s easy to get bogged down in the details when analyzing the financial system. After all, it may be the most complex one we’ve built. Thus, applying some more macroscopic principles can help in understanding the system as a whole.

Generally speaking, decentralized systems are more stable than centralized ones. We intuitively get this and can witness its widespread application throughout the man-made and natural worlds. We diversify our investment portfolios, manufacturers source from multiple suppliers, organisms spawn many offspring, and successful animals eat varied diets. Decentralization is a primary thesis for Bitcoin, breeds a fear of monopolies, and is why I find capitalism so attractive (among other reasons).

Imagine if you kept your entire net worth in a single account at a single bank and it failed (ignoring FDIC insurance, which protect against just this). Your wealth would disappear overnight. What if your investment portfolio comprised of a single stock and it went bankrupt? Such reckless behaviors are rightfully condemned. Yet, we expect differently from our financial system; why?

For some reason we believe that centralizing our monetary system reduces volatility and increases stability. Thus, the financial system is either a complete outlier or the premise is false. Modern day economies are built on the belief of the former, yet the evidence is underwhelming.

Merely a Matter of Time

I find no reason to believe that centralizing our financial system holds unique benefits. It’s just another type system. From a stability perspective, all benefit from decentralization. It follows that our financial one should too. Thus, I believe it was (is) only a matter of time until the monetary system broke (breaks) again. It happened in 2008—which I see as a run on banking collateral rather than a housing market collapse (ask me to explain in the comment section if you’re interested in my view)—and it will inevitably happen again. It has to because the future is unknowable and risks are concentrated.

It’s not that decentralization breed omniscience. No, omniscience doesn’t exist. Rather, it allows for discovery. Decentralized systems have more actors striving towards the same goals. However, all will not proceed in the same way. Inevitably, some will fail and some will succeed and to varying degrees. Diversity ensures that the failures are inconsequential to the system as a whole. Yet, we all benefit from the knowledge that those who succeed discover. Hence, human prosperity advances.

Following the GFC we changed a bunch of rules and allegedly strengthened regulations. Despite the best of intentions, these actions further homogenized behavior ensuring that the system breaks again! Remember, centralized systems are most fragile. Further centralization—which is what laws and regulations actually do—limits diversity by raising the barriers to entry (compliance costs money) and conforms incentive schemes (to comply with regulatory demands). Thus, we got fewer actors behaving in more similar fashions. The financial system became more fragile as a result, not stronger. Here we are, a decade later, and low and behold trouble’s a brewin’ in financial markets again, and in new and unforeseen ways.

Principles Bring Clarity

In the end, the presence of a central bank and the myriad of rules and regulations are counterproductive. They work to limit competition, stymie diversity, and ultimately increase frailty. Progress requires failure and centralized systems are not flexible enough to allow for this. If a centralized actor goes down, so goes the whole. “Too big to fail” is only a feature of centralized systems.

While unexpected, the breakdown of repo markets should come as no surprise. Further centralization of the financial system increased its fragility qua system. Of course, predicting how and when it might fail ex ante is nearly impossible. If the current problems were obvious they wouldn’t have escalated to this point.

That said, the inevitability of a system failure doesn’t make it an investible theme, especially for casual observers. In fact, waiting for a repeat of the GFC may be expensive in opportunity cost terms and cause one to miss out on other profitable investments. Rather, I plan to simply keep this analysis in the back of my mind. If financial markets seize up (again), I know what to look for: decentralizing, market fixes.

Following causal chains of events is one of the many challenges of macro investing. While the spike in repo rates is perplexing, proper first principles can bring some clarity. Faulty ones, however, breed only surprises.

Can Six Myths Keep The Market Going?

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

Source: Patrick Hill – 12-31-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth 2.  Consumers Will Bailout the Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Myth 3.  The Fed Will Keep the Economy Humming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary:

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

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

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

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

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

Gold: How High Will It Go In 2020?


Gold broke out of a six year consolidation. Things look up in 2020.

Gold Monthly Chart 2004-Present

Gold Monthly Chart 2010-Present


Smart Money Shorts

I ignore short-term COT “smart money” warnings although I would prefer there to be fewer bulls.

For discussion of “smart money“, please see Investigating Alleged Smart Money Positions in Gold.

Pater Tenebrarum at the Acting Man blog pinged me with this idea: The only caveat remains the large net speculative long position, but at the moment this strikes me almost as a “bear hook” that is keeping people on the sidelines waiting for the “inevitable” pullback while the train is leaving the station.

With the 6-year consolidation over, there is every reason fundamentally and technically for gold to continue up.

So, be my guest if you want to time gold to COT positions.

Technically Speaking

Technically, there is short-term monthly resistance between here and $1566. Perhaps there’s a pullback now, but with technical and fundamentals otherwise aligned why bet on it?

The next technical resistance area is the $1700 to $1800 area so any move above $1566 is likely to be a fast, strong one, perhaps with a retest of the $1566 area from above that.

Gold Fundamentals

Gold fundamentals are in excellent shape as I noted in How Does Gold React to Interest Rate Policy?

Much of the alleged “fundamentals” are noise, not fundamental price factors.

Not Fundamentally Important

  • Mine supply
  • Central Bank Buying
  • ETF analysis
  • The ever popular jewelry buying in India discussion

Aso, gold does not follow the dollar except superficially and in short-term time frames.

Gold vs the Dollar

Many people believe gold reacts primarily to changes in the US dollar.

Last week, I rebutted than notion in Gold’s vs the US Dollar: Correlation Is Not What Most Think.

True Supply of Gold and Reservation Demand

It is important to note that nearly every ounce of gold ever mined is still in existence. A small fraction of that mined gold has been lost, and other small fractions sit in priceless statues in museums etc., and is thus not available for sale.

Otherwise, someone has to hold every ounce of gold ever mined, 100% of the time. That is the true supply. Jewelry buying and mine output are insignificant in comparison. We are not about to run out of gold as some gold shills suggest.

Mises refers to the desire to hold gold as “Reservation Demand“, that is the desire of people to hold their gold coins, bullion, bars, and jewelry rather than trading it for something else.

If we strike out jewelry buying, central bank buying, the dollar, and mine supply, what then determines “Reservation Demand” to own gold vs some other asset?

Faith in Central Banks

Talk of normalization was nonsense, as were various “Dot Plots” that suggested the Fed was on a major hiking cycle.

For an amusing chart of where the Fed projected interest rates would be in 2020, please see Dot Plot Fantasyland Projections.

The market did not believe the Fed, neither did I, and neither did gold.

Once again we are back to my central gold theme question.

Is everything under control or not?

Hussman Agrees With Powell: It’s Not QE4

A debate over a sudden dramatic surge in Repos is raging. Is it or isn’t it QE4?


Organic Growth

On October 9, Powell discussed “Organic Growth” of its balance sheet.

“Going forward, we’re going to be very closely monitoring market developments and assessing their implications for the appropriate level of reserves,” Powell said at a news conference. “And we’re going to be assessing the question of when it will appropriate to resume the organic growth of our balance sheet.”

Not QE

On October 10, Powell commented on Not QE.

“I want to emphasize that growth of our balance sheet for reserve management purposes should in no way be confused with the large-scale asset purchase programs that we deployed after the financial crisis,” said Powell.

In no sense, is this QE,” Powell said in a moderated discussion after delivering his speech.

Quacks Like QE

Peter Schiff chimed in what what I believe to be the consensus view: Powell Can Call It What He Wants, But It Quacks Like QE

As the reliable American folk wisdom states: if something “looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” In this case, Powell can call the new Fed program anything he wants, but it certainly quacks like QE.

Hussman Sides With Powell

In One Tier and Rubble Down Below John Hussman made the case that Powell is correct.

There’s a broad misunderstanding that the Fed’s recent repo operations somehow represent “quantitative easing in disguise.”

Not quite.

The essential feature of QE was that the Fed purchased interest-bearing Treasury bonds, replaced them with zero-interest base money, and created such a massive pile of zero-interest hot potatoes that investors went absolutely out of their minds to seek alternatives, resulting in a multi-year bender of yield-seeking speculation.

With that understanding, it should be clear why the Federal Reserve’s recent repo facilities do not, in fact, represent a fresh round of QE. The difference is that the repo facilities replace interest-bearing Treasury bills with bank reserves that are eligible for the same rate of interest. This swap does nothing to promote yield-seeking speculation. Now, the psychology around these repos has certainly been good for a burst of investor enthusiasm and a nice little can-kick. But that enthusiasm isn’t driven by actual yield differentials – as QE was – it rests wholly on the misconception that these repos themselves represent fresh QE.

Balance Sheet, Monetary Base, Excess Reserves vs QE

To better understand and explain what Hussman is saying, I created the above chart.

I based my QE boxes on Yadeni Chronology of Fed’s QE and Tightening.

Hussman mentioned “Treasury Bonds” but the Fed bought various durations. I used the 10-year Treasury Rate as a proxy in my chart.

If one wants to nitpick, zero-interest base money is not perfectly accurate as interest on excess reserves was slightly above 0% as shown by the green line.

That tiny correction aside, the Fed did suck up bonds yielding over 3% at time and replaced then with reserves yielding just over 0%.

As Hussman points out, someone has to hold those cash reserves at all times resulting in the “hot potato” environment in which those earning 0% desperately tried to get rid of the cash.

This only “worked”, using the term loosely, because asset prices were rising. If at any time, asset prices fell for a prolonged period, cash at near-0% would not have looked so bad.

Effectively, with its policy, the Fed blew another massive bubble.

Just Don’t Call it QE

Subadra Rajappa, head of US rates strategy at Société Générale, also sides with Hussman.

That’s the distinction between QE and just increasing cash reserves in the system. It’s a communication challenge. It’s a very nuanced difference which could easily get lost,” said Rajappa as quoted by the Financial Times.

Organic Growth

Let’s return to the top.

If you accept what Hussman is saying, this isn’t QE, but is sure the heck cannot be called “organic” growth either.

Organic growth looks like slow upward movement in monetary base, not the explosions in monetary base and asset growth

Is Inflation Really Under Control

Recently, analysts have been discussing the pros and cons of using negative interest rates to keep the U.S. economy growing.  Despite this, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has said that he does not anticipate the Federal Reserve will implement a policy of negative interest rates as it may be detrimental to the economy.  One argument against negative interest rates is that they would squeeze bank margins and create more financial uncertainty. However, upon examining the actual rate of inflation we are likely already in a ‘de facto’ negative ­­interest rate environment. Multiple inflation data sources show that actual inflation maybe 5%. With the ten year Treasury bond at 1.75%, there is an interest rate gap of – 3.25%. Let’s look at multiple inflation data points to understand why there is such a divergence between the Fed assumptions that inflation is under control versus the much higher rate of price hikes consumers experience.

In October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the core consumer price index (CPI) grew by 2.2% year over year.  The core CPI rate is the change in the price of goods and services minus energy and food.  Energy and food are not included because they are commodities and trade with a high level of volatility.  However, the Median CPI shows a ten year high at 2.96% and upward trend as we would expect, though it starts at a lower level than other inflation indicators. The Median CPI excludes items with small and large price changes.

Source: Gavekal Data/Macrobond, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 11-29-19

Excluding key items that have small and large price changes is not what a consumer buying experience is like. Consumers buy based on immediate needs. When a consumer drives up to a gas pump, they buy at the price listed on the pump that day.  Consumers buying groceries don’t wait for food commodity prices to go down; they have to pay the price when they need the food. Recent consumer purchase research shows that prices of many goods and services continue to increase at a rate much higher than 2.2%.

Gordon Haskett Research Advisors conducted a study by purchasing a basket of 76 typical items consumers buy at Walmart and Target.  The study showed that from June 2018 to June 2019, prices increased about 5%. 

Sources: Gordon Haskett Research Advisors, Bloomberg – 8/10/19

Walmart and Target are good proxies for consumer buying experiences. Walmart is the largest retailer in the U.S. with over 3,000 locations marketing to price-conscious consumers. Target has 1,800 locations in the U.S. and is focused on a similar consumer buyer profile, though a bit less price sensitive. Importantly, both Walmart and Target have discount food sections in their stories.

Housing has been rapidly increasing in cost as well.  Rental costs have soared in 2019 as the following chart shows a month over month shift to .45%, which is an annualized rate of 5.4%.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nomura – 5/13/19


The costs of other services like health care and education have increased dramatically as well. Service sectors, which make up 70% of the U.S. economy, are where wages are generally higher than in manufacturing sectors. Techniques to increase service productivity have been slow to implement due to service complexity. Without productivity gains, prices have continued to rise in most services sectors.

Sources: Deutsche Bank – 11/14/19

Medical care costs have increased by 5.2% per year, and education costs have risen 6.8 % per year. Wages of non-supervisory and production workers have fallen behind at 3.15 % increase per year. Note that the overall CPI rate significantly underestimates the rate of costs in these basic consumer services, likely due to underweighting of services in the cost of living calculation.

For many consumers, housing, utilities, health care, debt payments, clothing, and transportation comprise their major expenses. Utility and clothing costs have generally declined. While transportation, housing, and health care costs have increased.  The rate of new car annual inflation was as low as 1 percent in 2018.  Yet, according to Kelly Blue Book, the market shift to SUVs, full-sized trucks, and increasing Tesla sales have caused average U.S. yearly vehicle prices to zoom 4.2% in 2019. The soaring price of vehicles has caused auto loans to be extended out to 7 or 8 years, in some cases beyond the useful life of the car. 

Dealers are financing 25% of new car purchases with ‘negative equity deals’ where the debt from a previous vehicle purchase is rolled into the new loan.  The October consumer spending report shows consumer spending up by .3% yet durable goods purchases falling by .7% primarily due to a decline in vehicle purchases.  A 4.2% increase in vehicle prices year over year is unsustainable for most buyers and indicates likely buyer price resistance resulting in falling sales. The October durables sales decline could have been anticipated if inflation reporting was based on actual consumer purchasing experiences.

The trade wars with China, Europe, and other countries are contributing to significant price increases for consumer goods.  Tariffs have driven consumer prices higher for a variety of product groups, including: appliances, furniture, bedding, floor coverings, auto parts, motorcycles, sports vehicles, housekeeping supplies, and sewing equipment.

Sources: Department of Commerce, Goldman Sachs, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 5/13/19

In the chart above, prices increased by about 3.5% over 16 months before mid-May 2019. As uncertainty in the trade wars grows and earlier cheaper supplies are sold, prices will likely continue to rise. The President has announced new tariffs of 15% on $160 billion of Chinese consumer goods for December 15th if a Phase One deal is not signed. On December 2nd, he announced resuming tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Argentina and Brazil and 100 % tariffs on $2.4 billion of French goods. The implementation of all these tariffs on top of existing tariffs will only make consumer inflation worse. Tariffs are driving an underlying inflationary trend that is being under-reported by government agencies.

Evidently, the prices for goods and services that consumers experience are vastly different from what the federal government reports and uses to establish cost of living increases for programs like Social Security. So, why is there a disconnect between the government CPI rate of 2.2% and consumer reality of inflation at approximately 5%?  The raw data that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses to calculate the CPI rate is not available to the public.  When a Forbes reporter asked the BLS why the data was not available to the public the BLS response was companies could ‘compare prices’. This assumption does not make sense as companies can compare prices on the Internet, in stores, or find out from suppliers. The ‘basket of consumer items’ approach was discontinued in the 1980s for a ‘cost of living’ index based on consumer buying behaviors. There was political pressure to keep the inflation rate low. If real inflation figures were reported the government would have to increase payments to Social Security beneficiaries, food stamp recipients, military and Federal Civil Service retirees and survivors, and children on school lunch programs.  Over the past 30 years the BLS has changed the calculation at least 20 times, but due to data secrecy there is no way to audit the results. The BLS tracks prices on 80,000 goods and services based on consumer spending patterns, not price changes on goods and services per se.  For example, if consumers substitute another item for a higher-priced one it is discontinued in the calculation. 

Economist John Williams has calculated inflation rates based upon the pre-1980s basket approach versus the cost of living formula used by BLS today.  His findings show a dramatically higher rate of inflation using the 1980s formula.

Source: Shadow Government – 10/2019

His calculation using the earlier basket formula sets the present inflation rate at nearly 10%.  Based on our research on various price reporting services, we think the real consumer inflation rate is probably about 5 to 6%.

The implications of this gap between real inflation and reported inflation rates are profound and far-reaching.  Federal Reserve complacency about a low inflation rate to justify a low Fed Funds rates is called into question. In fact the economic reality of today is we are living in a 3.25%  ‘de facto’ negative interest rate environment where the ten year Treasury bond rate is 1.75%, and inflation is 5%. The liquidity pumping into the economy, based in part on low inflation, is overheating risk assets while providing support for corporate executives to take on debt at decade record levels.

Building the economic framework on erroneous inflation data versus the reality for consumers and businesses lead to massive financial dislocations. This economic bubble is unsustainable and will require a brutal recession to rebalance the economy.  As part of a possible soft ‘landing’ policy, the BLS could make price data available to all economists. Full data access will provide an opportunity for objective comments and feedback based on other consumer price research.

The Fed actually focuses on the even lower Personal Consumption Expenditure rate of 1.6% reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis for October. The Fed prefers the PCE rate because a consumer survey technique is used, while economists prefer the CPI, which is more granular so it is easier to identify goods and services categories that are driving inflation. Using unrealistically low inflation assumptions leads to misguided policy decisions and perpetuation of the myth that inflation is under control. Yet, in fact inflation it is out of control due to extremely low Fed interest rates, liquidity injections, and trade war tariffs.

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

Dimon’s View Of Economic Reality Is Still Delusional

“This is the most prosperous economy the world has ever seen and it’s going to be a very prosperous economy for the next 100 years.” – Jamie Dimon

That’s what the head of JP Morgan Chase told viewers in a recent “60-Minutes” interview.

“The consumer, which is 70% of the U.S. economy, is quite strong. Confidence is very high. Their balance sheets are in great shape. And you see that the strength of the American consumer is driving the American economy and the global economy. And while business slowed down, my current view is that, no, it just was a slowdown, not a petering out.” – Jamie Dimon

If you’re in the top 1-2% of income earners, like Jamie, I am sure it feels that way.

For everyone else, not so much.

This isn’t the first time that I have discussed Dimon’s distorted views, and just as we discussed then, even just marginally scratching the surface on the economy and the “household balance sheet,” reveals an uglier truth.

The Most Prosperous Economy

Let’s start with the “most prosperous economy in the world” claim.

As we recently discussed in “Socialism Rises,” 

“How did a country which was once the shining beacon of ‘capitalism’ become a country on the brink of ‘socialism?’

Changes like these don’t happen in a vacuum. It is the result of years of a burgeoning divide between the wealthy and everyone else. It is also a function of a 40-year process of capitalism morphing an entire population into ‘debt slaves’ to sustain economic prosperity. 

It is a myth that the economy has grown by roughly 5% since 1980. In reality, economic growth rates have been on a steady decline over the past 40 years, which has been supported by a massive push into deficit spending by consumers.”

With the slowest average annual growth rate in history, it is hard to suggest the economy has been the best it has ever been.

However, if an economy is truly prosperous it should benefit the majority of economic participants, which brings us to claim about “household balance sheet” health.

For Billionaires, The Grass Is Always Green

If you are in the upper 20% of income earners, not to mention the top .01% like Mr. Dimon, I am quite sure the “economic grass is very green.”  If you are in the bottom 80%, the “view” is more akin to a “dirt lot.” Since 1980, as noted by a recent study from Chicago Booth Review, the wealth gap has progressively gotten worse.

“The data set reveals since 1980 a ‘sharp divergence in the growth experienced by the bottom 50 percent versus the rest of the economy,’ the researchers write. The average pretax income of the bottom 50 percent of US adults has stagnated since 1980, while the share of income of US adults in the bottom half of the distribution collapsed from 20 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2014. In a mirror-image move, the top 1 percent commanded 12 percent of income in 1980 but 20 percent in 2014. The top 1 percent of US adults now earns on average 81 times more than the bottom 50 percent of adults; in 1981, they earned 27 times what the lower half earned.

The issue is the other 80% are just struggling to get by as recently discussed in the Wall Street Journal:

The American middle class is falling deeper into debt to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.

Cars, college, houses and medical care have become steadily more costly, but incomes have been largely stagnant for two decades, despite a recent uptick. Filling the gap between earning and spending is an explosion of finance into nearly every corner of the consumer economy.

Consumer debt, not counting mortgages, has climbed to $4 trillion—higher than it has ever been even after adjusting for inflation. Mortgage debt slid after the financial crisis a decade ago but is rebounding.”WSJ

The ability to simply “maintain a certain standard of living” has become problematic for many, which forces them further into debt.

“The debt surge is partly by design, a byproduct of low borrowing costs the Federal Reserve engineered after the financial crisis to get the economy moving. It has reshaped both borrowers and lenders. Consumers increasingly need it, companies increasingly can’t sell their goods without it, and the economy, which counts on consumer spending for more than two-thirds of GDP, would struggle without a plentiful supply of credit.” – WSJ

I show the “gap” between the “standard of living” and real disposable incomes below. Beginning in 1990, incomes alone were no longer able to meet the standard of living, so consumers turned to debt to fill the “gap.” However, following the “financial crisis,” even the combined levels of income and debt no longer fill the gap. Currently, there is almost a $2600 annual deficit that cannot be filled. (Note: this deficit accrues every year which is why consumer credit keeps hitting new records.)

But this is where it gets interesting.

Mr. Dimon claims the “household balance sheet” is in great shape. However, this suggestion, which has been repeated by much of the mainstream media, is based on the following chart.

The problem with the chart is that it is an illusion created by the skew in disposable incomes by the top 20% of income earners, needless to say, the top 5%. The Wall Street Journal exposed this issue in their recent analysis.

“Median household income in the U.S. was $61,372 at the end of 2017, according to the Census Bureau. When inflation is taken into account, that is just above the 1999 level. Without adjusting for inflation, over the three decades through 2017, incomes are up 135%.” – WSJ

“The median net worth of households in the middle 20% of income rose 4% in inflation-adjusted terms to $81,900 between 1989 and 2016, the latest available data. For households in the top 20%, median net worth more than doubled to $811,860. And for the top 1%, the increase was 178% to $11,206,000.

Put differently, the value of assets for all U.S. households increased from 1989 through 2016 by an inflation-adjusted $58 trillion. A third of the gain—$19 trillion—went to the wealthiest 1%, according to a Journal analysis of Fed data.

‘On the surface things look pretty good, but if you dig a little deeper you see different subpopulations are not performing as well,’ said Cris deRitis, deputy chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.” – WSJ


With this understanding, we need to recalibrate the “debt to income” chart above to adjust for the bottom 80% of income earnings versus those in the top 20%. Clearly, the “household balance sheet” is not nearly as healthy as Mr. Dimon suggests.

Of course, the only saving grace for many American households is that artificially low interest rates have reduced the average debt service levels. Unfortunately, those in the bottom 80% are still having a large chunk of their median disposable income eaten up by debt payments. This reduces discretionary spending capacity even further.

The problem is quite clear. With interest rates already at historic lows, the consumer already heavily leveraged, and wage growth stagnant, the capability to increase consumption to foster higher rates of economic growth is limited.

With respect to those who say “the debt doesn’t matter,” I respectfully argue that you looking at a very skewed view of the world driven by those at the top.

Mr. Dimon’s Last Call

What Mr. Dimon tends to forget is that it was the U.S. taxpayer who bailed out the financial system, him included, following the financial crisis. Despite massive fraud in the major banks related to the mortgage crisis, only small penalties were paid for their criminal acts, and no one went to jail. The top 5-banks which were 40% of the banking system prior to the financial crisis, became 60% afterwards. Through it all, Mr. Dimon became substantially wealthier, while the American population suffered the consequences.

Yes, “this is the greatest economy ever” if you are at the top of heap.

With household debt, corporate debt, and government debt now at records, the next crisis will once again require taxpayers to bail it out. Since it was Mr. Dimon’s bank that lent the money to zombie companies, households again which can’t afford it, and took on excessive risks in financial assets, he will gladly accept the next bailout while taxpayers suffer the fallout. 

For the top 20% of the population that have money actually invested, or directly benefit from surging asset prices, like Mr. Dimon, life is great. However, for the vast majority of American’s, the job competition is high, wages growth is stagnant, and making “ends meet” is a daily challenge.

While Mr. Dimon’s view of America is certainly uplifting, it is delusional. But of course, give any person a billion dollars and they will likely become just as detached from economic realities.

Does America have “greatest hand ever dealt.”

The data certainly doesn’t suggest such. However, that can change.

We just have to stop hoping that we can magically cure a debt problem by adding more debt, and then shuffling it between Central Banks. 

But then again, such a statement is also delusional.

Can The Fed Fight Wealth Inequality

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari says the Fed Can Fight Inequality. Then in a move guaranteed to fail, Kashkari Hires an Obama Economic Advisior as His Guide.

Neel Kashkari, the outspoken dove at the Minneapolis Fed, says monetary policy can play the kind of redistributing role once thought to be the preserve of elected officials.

When Kashkari, a year into his job, launched an in-house effort in 2017 to examine widening disparities in the economy, he was expecting to generate research that might inform lawmakers’ decisions, rather than the Fed’s.

“We had historically said: distributional outcomes, monetary policy has no role to play,” he said in an October interview. “That was kind of the standard view at the Fed, and I came in assuming that. I now think that’s wrong.”

Kashkari’s project has taken an unexpected turn over the last two years, morphing into something more ambitious. It has the potential to transform an intensely political debate about inequality into a scientific endeavor that the Fed’s 21st-century technocrats could take up.

This year, he finally found someone to lead it: Abigail Wozniak, a Notre Dame economics professor, became the first head of the Minneapolis Fed’s Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute. Wozniak was a member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

One of its priorities has been to build a network of experts on income and wealth distribution, the same way the Fed brings in specialists in financial markets or growth.


Fed a Key Driver of Income Inequality

Kashkari is correct in a perverse sort of way given that Fed is a key driver of income inequality:

  1. By bailing out banks and financial institutions when they get in trouble
  2. By keeping interest rates too low too long
  3. By promoting economic bubbles
  4. By promoting inflation

So yes, the Fed could help if it simply stopped doing those things. It would be better still if there was no Fed at all, so the main thing the Fed could do would be to promote a sound currency then disband itself.

There is No Economic Benefit to Inflation

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

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

It’s asset bubble deflation that is damaging. When asset bubbles burst, debt deflation results.

Central banks’ seriously misguided attempts to defeat routine consumer price deflation is what fuels the destructive asset bubbles that eventually collapse.

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

Challenge to Keynesians

And my Challenge to Keynesians “Prove Rising Prices Provide an Overall Economic Benefit” has gone unanswered.

There is no answer because history and logic both show that concerns over consumer price deflation are seriously misplaced.

Irony Abounds

Kashkari came to the right conclusion but instead of disbanding the Fed or changing any of the above four points, he hires and Obama economic clown as his guide.

Note that Kashkari is the biggest dove on the Fed. He would vote for 2, 3, and 4 at every chance.

Yet, inflation benefits those with first access to money (banks, wealthy, asset holders, and corrupt politicians). The poor only participate in bubbles after there is nothing left to gain.

Curiously, my answer is the same as Kashkari’s. Yes, the Fed can help. And the first thing Kashkari could do to help is simple enough, resign.

Addendum

A reader criticized the title “income inequality”. He thought distorted the picture.

He is correct but in the opposite sense as he intended. Wealth inequality (via asset bubbles) is imore of the issue.

I change the title to “wealth inequality”. The title of the linked-to article simply says “inequality”. It’s both income and wealth actually.

Income inequality is via stock options and pay bonuses for blowing bubbles. Wealth comes from cashing out stock options and holding assets accumulated during bubble phases.

$250 Trillion In Global Debt: How Can That Be Paid Back

Global debt just topped $250 trillion. Please ponder paying the interest on that, let alone the principal.

Global Debt $250 Trillion and Rising

Please note that Global debt surged to a record $250 trillion in the first half of 2019, led by the US and China.

What about Global GDP?


Global GDP

Global GDP Numbers from the World Bank.

To get a $1 rise in GDP it takes about a $3 rise in debt.

Things keep pointing back to 1971.

I have written about the importance of 1971 many times, most recently in Nixon Shock, the Reserve Currency Curse, and a Pending Dollar Crisis

Dollar Crisis

A reader asked the other day what I meant by “dollar crisis“.

What I meant to say was “currency crisis” and the above title is now changed.

Since the dollar is still rising (thanks to European, Japanese, and Chinese tactics), It may take even bigger US deficits before something major breaks.

On that score, both political parties in the US are poised to deliver increasing deficits as far as the eye can see.

Meanwhile, negative interest rates are destroying the European banks. For discussion of this important issue, please see In Search of the Effective Lower Bound.

US Picture

Currency Crisis Awaits

$250 Trillion in debt. How will that be paid back?

I expect an uncontrolled collapse of a major currency, debt market, or bank system that cannot be funded. It is hard to say where it starts but I doubt it starts in the US.

Chinese and European banks are in far worse shape than US banks. European banks are getting hammered by negative rates.

Japan still struggles with decades of Abenomics.

The Fed and Central Banks brought this on by refusing to let zombie banks and corporations go under and insisting on cramming more debt into a global financial system choking on debt.

But this all has its roots in 1971. Central banks are the enablers, but Nixon Shock set things off.

A currency crisis awaits but the timing and conditions of the crisis are not knowable. It can start anywhere but I suspect the EU, Japan, or China as opposed to the US.

Ponder even paying the interest on $250 trillion, let alone the principal. What interest rate will it take?

Meanwhile, please reflect on gold.

Gold is Not a Function of the US Dollar Nor is Gold an Inflation Hedge

In the link below I post charts that make a mockery of the claim gold is some sort of inflation hedge or tied to movements in the US dollar.

But if Gold is Not a Function of the US Dollar Nor is Gold an Inflation Hedge, what is it?

Here’s the answer.

If you think central banks have everything under control, gold is not where you want to be.

If you think otherwise, gold is where you want to be.

Do central banks have everything under control?

Addendum

My friend Pater Tenebrarum at the Acting Man Blog just pinged me with this pertinent thought:

“The answer is of course: It won’t be paid back. And since every debt is someone else’s asset, you can imagine what that ultimately means. A great many people are a lot less wealthy than they think. It is all phantom wealth that can disappear in an eyeblink.”

Seth Levine: Why Are We So Scared

I always find this time of year to be self-reflective. Year-end provides a natural point for critiquing past performance and fitting it into a broader investing context. These holidays in particular have a way of foisting this perspective upon me, and with deep meaning. As a parent of two young kids, my holidays now kick off with Halloween. Perhaps stuck in this spirit, I find myself wondering: Why are we so scared?

I can’t seem to shake this sense that we live in a culture that’s scared. I see a number of signs across the economic, political, and investment landscapes that seem support this observation. To be sure, this is not universally true on an individual level. However, as a culture we seem to have lost our mojo, our swagger, and the confidence that fuels significant economic advancements.

Why Scared

Scared is psychological state. It connotes being afraid or frightened. Scared feelings typically arise when one feels helpless in a situation or believes he/she is unable to improve it via action. Thus, it’s closely associated with victimhood. Scared is not a feeling that accompanies independence, confidence, and capability.

By all accounts this is the best time in human history to be alive. It’s never been easier to access information, collaborators, and different perspectives, nor in such abundance. These conditions should enable self-reliance and wealth creation. They are a perfect crucible for unbounded development and prosperity.

Yet, economic independence doesn’t seem as valued today as it once was. The cultural impetus shies away from proximal challenges and looks to others for solutions—and in particular, for political solutions. This doesn’t square with the times.

In my view, this shift is a matter of confidence and self-esteem. It’s not the shirking of responsibility that’s telling; it’s the unwillingness to engage with the issues. Confident individuals face challenges head-on. Scared ones look to others. Problem solving often requires creativity, not reverting to staid and ineffective ideas. The former is a strength of the market; the latter is a politician’s. To be sure, there’s a time and place for politicians and bureaucrats to assist. However, economics is not the place and these are not the times. The obsession with finding political fixes for economic underperformance suggests to me that we lack the self-confidence to tackle it ourselves. We seem scared.

Central Bank Dependence

The clearest example of this in the investment markets is the neurotic obsession with central banks. I commonly hear people critique their ignorance and ineffectiveness only to follow with—the same people, mind you—what central bankers ought to do next. I thought central bankers were ineffective?

It’s time we stop looking to central banks for solutions. They don’t have them. In fact, I see no need for them at all. In theory, central banks were created to oversee the money supply. Dual mandates were afterthoughts. Since the money supply merely reflects economic activity, this should be a fairly mundane task and one that decentralized private banking centers performed quite well (despite the popular narrative).

Today, however, our opinions of central bankers are quite different. They are viewed as omniscient, economic alchemists. We look to central bankers to manipulate business cycles, control inflation, and prescribe prosperous economic conditions. Where did this come from and when did it become so prevalent? Central banks can’t create money let alone produce these other conditions. They fall under the purview of the productive economy and thus are products of our actions alone. The perception of central bank dependence is false and marginalizes our own economic efficacies.

Political Dependence

The central bank obsession is, in my view, part of the more general, cultural shift towards increased political dependence. This can be observed by the rise of populism writ large. From Trump’s presidency in the U.S., to Brexit, to the Five Star Party in Italy, to the yellow-vest movement in France, there’s a clamor for retrenchment within national borders. The U.S.-China trade war is just another iteration of this, justified rationalized or not.

via GIPHY

To me, there’s a common theme to these movements. They are indicative of a reversion to tribalism, the cutting of global ties that underpin modern day prosperity, and represent a fear of “the other” mentality common in all primitive and destructive cultures.

Why is it important where the human who produced your steel resides? Seriously, why does it matter to you? If that person’s so evil the solution is simple: deal with someone else. I promise you there is no greater commercial influence than that. Just put yourself in the shoes of a business owner to see (go ahead, close your eyes and imagine).

Why are we suddenly seeking politicians to protect us from the ever-changing world? Economic issues are those of voluntary exchange and they are dynamic. Very few problems require political fixes. Seeking them indicates that one is too scared to trust his/her actions. It’s a skepticism over the power one commands in the marketplace. It’s cowardly.

The Monetary Policy—Fiscal Policy False Dichotomy

It’s often helpful to compare and contrast ideas against extreme conditions. Doing so can surface the essential issues for easier analysis. This is especially true for complex concepts such as those found in economics. Oftentimes, impacts are not obvious and secondary and tertiary effects must be considered.

In the investment markets we often hear about fiscal or monetary policy initiatives. Whenever the economy needs a boost, commentators opine that more accommodative monetary policy might be needed (such as lower interest rates). Or perhaps this particular instance requires a fiscal policy response (like lower taxes and/or greater government spending). Whatever the case may be, prescriptions are framed as being a matter of monetary policy or fiscal policy initiatives.

Nothing, in my view, illustrates cultural fear more than this false dichotomy of monetary policy—fiscal policy. They are conceptually similar and not appropriate book-ends of a conceptual dichotomy. Rather, monetary and fiscal policies are different flavors of central planning. Both seek government intervention in the economy, differing only by their preferred branch. Monetary policy utilizes central bank action while fiscal policy seeks legislative cures. They are not opposites.

The true opposite to central planning is economic liberty. Thus, the proper spectrum, in my view, has economic freedom on one side (deregulation and less controls) and central planning—i.e. fiscal and monetary policy, which are greater controls—on the other. One side reflects independence and confidence while the other forceful paternal shelter. Considering monetary or fiscal policy actions only rejects self-reliance as an option altogether. It’s a scared perspective.

Pacifying Investment Decisions

I also see the shift to passive investment strategies to fit into the fear of independence theme. To be sure, there are virtues of passive investing. Track records and fees relative to active management are compelling enough. But are these the sole motives?

Source: Morningstar

What if a fear of underperforming popular indices or standing out plays a part? Speculating on the future often yields wrong outcomes; it’s part and parcel with investing. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, “we’re not bootstrapping treasuries.” By this he means that earning returns requires taking risks. Sometimes things don’t pan out as planned and losses occur. The trick, of course, is to minimize the losses; not neurotically seek to avoid them.

Are allocators more concerned with finding the comfort of consultants’ consensus rather than investing according to their own observations? Could career risk play a part in this trend? Are we too scared of being wrong to invest in themes that might play out over longer time horizons?

Share Buybacks Are Safest

What about share buybacks? Much has been made about the magnitude at which corporations have repurchased their shares. Why is this happening at such an unusually high level?

Source: 13D Research

To be sure, I take no issue with share repurchases and see them as a legitimate use of capital. However, even accretive buy-backs have short-lived impacts. They last only a year when year-over-year comparisons are made. Why aren’t businesses investing in projects that could yield multi-year benefits? Are executives simply playing it safe, too scared to commit capital to projects that might fail? Are the majority of shareholders really so shortsighted?

Scared As An Investment Theme

It’s easy to roll your eyes at this article and dismiss it as another meme. However, my intention is neither to seek scapegoats nor to emotionally vent. Rather, I’m interested in exploring whether this behavior is part of a larger cultural phenomenon of fear. If so, the next downturn could push us further from economic liberty and more towards political controls. This would surely have investment implications.

Of course, there is no such thing as “we.” We is just an aggregation of “I’s.” Thus the real question is: Why am I so scared? While an uncomfortable, if not antagonistic question to ask, it’s critical to understanding this emergent theme.

The world is in constant flux. No one should appreciate this more than investors. Change is the essence of our jobs—to profit from the movements in asset prices. Prices don’t move in stagnant conditions.

Yet, as a culture we seem terrified by change. I find this puzzling since we’ve never been better equipped to adapt and capitalize from it. Those investors who embrace change will survive and thrive. Those who don’t could perish from this business. What could be scarier than that?

10-Reasons Why Productivity Is Declining

Economists debate whether the decline in productivity is real. It is real. let’s investigate 10 reasons why.

Productivity Measurement

Brookings questions the Productivity Slump. It cites measurement issues.

Much of the recent debate, and related research, on productivity measurement issues has focused on this decline in productivity in the U.S. Predating the financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession, and now continuing for more than a decade, the productivity slowdown in the U.S. does not appear to be just cyclical in nature, but rather seems to reflect also deeper, structural phenomena. There are different views on what factors explain the slowdown. But one view challenges the very reality of the slowdown, arguing that the slowdown wholly or largely reflects the failure of the productivity statistics to capture recent productivity gains, particularly those from new and higher-quality ICT goods and services

There are two potentially important sources of underestimation of productivity related to ICT goods and services. First, if prices do not fully capture quality improvements in the new ICT products, price deflators are overestimated and real output (adjusted for improvements in quality, including product variety) is underestimated. Second, many ICT services, in particular internet-based services such as Google searches and Facebook, are largely not reflected in GDP measurement even though they generate substantial utility for consumers, the reason being that their use does not involve monetary cost as they are available free of charge to the users.


Facebook a Productivity Killer

Google searches are indeed a time-saver. But what the hell is “produced” by them. And where do the searches and Facebook playing take place?

At work perhaps. After discussing the above Brookings did come to this conclusion: “In large part, the productivity slowdown—and the associated productivity paradox—are real.”

It never explained why. Rather Brookings remains puzzled: “While recent research suggests that mismeasurement, although sizable, does not explain most of the observed decline in productivity, it must be noted that there remain unknowns and gaps in data.”

Real or Imagined

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) asks Is the U.S. Productivity Slowdown a Mirage?

Labor productivity in the United States—defined as total output divided by total hours of labor—has been increasing for over a century and continues to increase today. However, its growth rate has fallen. One explanation for this phenomenon focuses on measurement difficulties, in particular the possibility that current tools for measuring economic growth do not fully capture recent advances in the goods and services associated with digital communications technology.

One reason some analysts believe that labor productivity is understated is that price inflation may be overstated for digital goods and services.

As with Brookings, the NBER concludes there is some mismeasurement but fails to figure out why.

As an aside, the NBER group is the official arbiter of recession dates in the US.

Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Study

The FRBSF asked the same question: Does Growing Mismeasurement Explain Disappointing Growth?

The FRBSF came to the same conclusion that mismeasurement is a problem but like the others fails to offer credible rationale.

No Hidden Productivity

The problem with the above analysis is the Fed, Brookings, and the NBER all focused on the measurement issue in apparent belief there is some sort of hidden productivity waiting to be discovered.

Mismeasurement Irony

I propose productivity is likely to be overstated, not understated because of mismeasurement.

How so?

  • How many overtime hours do supervisory workers at Walmart, Target, etc., actually work while getting paid for 40?
  • How many hours do employees work at home and on vacation while not getting paid for them?

Before diving into a 6-point practical explanation as to why productivity losses are real, please ponder a few charts that I put together.

Nonfarm Productivity 1990-Present

In the above and all the following charts, I let Excel plot the trendline. The chart shows declining productivity, but it’s horribly misleading. Let’s investigate other timeframes to understand why.

Nonfarm Productivity 1990-2000

Those are the heydays of the internet revolution. Computers replaced people. Spreadsheets replaced accountants. Robots replaced manufacturing workers at an increased pace.

Nonfarm Productivity 2001-2007

Productivity soared coming out of the dotcom and 911-related recession.

By 2004, economic activity was all about housing and finance.

Nonfarm Productivity 2009-2019

Productivity soared coming out the the Great Recession as is the case coming out of any recession. Since then corporate productivity has been anemic.

Manufacturing Real Output vs Employees

From 1990 until 2008 manufacturing output per employee skyrocketed. Both plunged in the Great Recession and the trends are now positive but output per employee has slowed to a crawl as the number of manufacturing employees has been on the rise.

This indicates decreasing marginal utility of robots, lower worker skill sets, or both.

Obesity Trends

Chart from the National Institute of Health.

Obese workers have more health-related issues and thus need more time off. They also move slower and do not function as well as healthy workers.

Rise of the Zombies

Zombie firms are companies that are unable to cover debt servicing costs from current profits over an extended period. Cheap financing is the primary cause. The result is low productivity.

Please review Rise of the Zombie Corporations: Percentage Keeps Increasing

Collective Bargaining with Militant Unions

On October 31, I asked Chicago ISM Crashes: How Much is GM to Blame?

I do not pretend to have the answer, but GM agreed to a lot of worker protections, guaranteed hours, plant improvements, etc, that will not make any sense if there is an economic slowdown.

Chicago also just settled its teacher strike to which I commented Chicago Headed for Insolvency, Get the Hell Out Now

Chicago Teacher Contract Details

  1. 16% raise over five years (not including raises based on longevity)
  2. Three-year freeze on health insurance premiums
  3. Lower insurance copays
  4. Caps on class sizes
  5. More than 450 new social workers and nurses.
  6. New job protections for substitute teachers who going forward may only be removed after conferring with the union about “performance deficiencies.”
  7. Chicago Public Schools will become a “sanctuary district,” meaning school officials won’t be allowed to cooperate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement without a court order.
  8. Employees will be allowed 10 unpaid days for personal immigration matters.
  9. Under the new contract, a joint union-school board committee will be convened to “mitigate or eliminate any disproportionate impacts of observations or student growth measures” on teacher evaluations.
  10. Instead of student performance, teachers will probably be rated on more subjective measures, perhaps congeniality in the lunchroom.
  11. The new union contract caps the number of charter-school seats, so no new schools will be able to open without others closing.

Points four through 11 are all productivity killers.

Soaring Fiscal Deficits

Government does not spend money wisely to say the least. It collects money via taxes then wastes in on counterproductive military operations and other nonsense.

When it spends on infrastructure, it overpays because of prevailing wage laws and collective bargaining.

For further discussion of the debt vs deficits, please see Budget Deficit Lies: What’s the Real Deficit?

It’s the Debt Stupid

It takes $103 in public debt for a $100 increase in GDP.

Build up public debt, expect lower productivity.

Interest on the National Debt

According to Treasury Direct, Interest on the National Debt is $574 billion.

There is nothing remotely productive about paying interest to banks.

Corporate Buybacks

Trump’s tax cuts did not spur investment as claimed. Corporations took the cuts and another repatriation holiday for dividend and buybacks.

In addition to using profits to buy back shares, some companies went further into debt to buy back shares.

If you skimp on investment, don’t expect productivity miracles.

Real Productivity Decline, 10 Simple Explanations

  1. The internet boom and the rising productivity associated with it were very real. The rate of change in internet-related improvements has fallen since 2000.
  2. Decreasing marginal utility of robots.
  3. The Fed’s easy money policies sponsored numerous corporate zombies. Those zombies survive only because of ultra-easy financing. Zombie companies are unproductive, by definition. Things are even worse in the EU because of negative rates.
  4. The Fed’s easy money policies also sponsored a “store on every corner”. There are far more retail stores, restaurants, fast food establishments, and outlet malls than needed.
  5. Marginal stores have to be manned by somebody and they are, by increasingly marginal employees as the unemployment rate declines.
  6. Demographics. As skilled workers retire, those workers are replaced by workers with lower skills.
  7. Health issues in general. Obesity and drug-related issues are on the rise as are time off for those reasons.
  8. Militant unions demand and receiving unwarranted pay, time off, and control over workplace conditions.
  9. Corporate buybacks mainly benefit CEOs and executives who cash out their shares and options. It takes careful investment, not reckless expansion, not buybacks to have productivity gains.
  10. It’s the debt, stupid. Fiscal deficits are totally out of control. Interest on the national debt by itself is $574 billion. What are we getting for it?

Looking in the Wrong Place

The San Francisco Fed, Brookings, and the National Bureau of Economic Research all struggle to explain falling productivity.

They can’t come up with the answer because they all have a spotlight on mismeasurement (and in the wrong direction at that, failing to count supervisory overtime and hours worked at home).

But there’s the answer, in ten easy to understand points, supported by data, logical analysis, and graphs.

By the way, this enormous buildup of debt at every level is hugely deflationary. Bubbles do burst eventually.

Powell’s Revelation And A TIP For Defense

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, what they probably think they heard was:

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

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

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

Inflation and Stable Prices – Apples and Oranges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powell’s Revelation And A TIP For Defense

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, what they probably think they heard was:

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

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

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

Inflation and Stable Prices – Apples and Oranges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIPS Mechanics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current environment

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

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED)

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

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

The Case For TIPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Growth Much Worse Than Reported, What About The U.S.?

China doubles value of infrastructure project approvals to stave off economic slowdown amid trade war.

The South China Morning Post reports China Doubles Value of Infrastructure Project Approvals to Stave Off Slowdown.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has approved 21 projects, worth at least 764.3 billion yuan (US$107.8 billion), according to South China Morning Post calculations based on the state planner’s approval statements released between January and October this year.

The amount is more than double the size of last year’s 374.3 billion yuan (US$52.8 billion) in approvals recorded over the same period, which included 11 projects such as railways, roads and airports.

Local governments have been under increasing pressure from Beijing to support the economy, but they have less budget room due to lower tax revenues after the central government over the past year ordered individual and business tax cuts.

To fill the gap, Beijing has allowing local governments to sell more special purpose bonds, whose proceeds can only be used to fund infrastructure projects. At the beginning of this year, the Ministry of Finance raised the quota for special bonds to 2.15 trillion (US$302 billion) from 1.35 trillion (US$190 billion) last year. And when local governments came close to exhausting their annual quota set this autumn, the central government brought forward a portion of their 2020 quota so they could continue to raise funding for new projects.

Infrastructure Urgency

Michael Pettis, Finance Professor, Peking University, and author of the China Financial Markets website has an interesting take infrastructure projects.

Allocation of Money

To fund the projects China Cuts Banks’ Reserve Ratios, Frees up $126 Billion for Loans.

Analysts had expected China to announce more policy easing measures soon as the world’s second-largest economy comes under growing pressure from escalating U.S. tariffs and sluggish domestic demand.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) said it would cut the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) by 50 basis points (bps) for all banks, with an additional 100 bps cut for qualified city commercial banks. The RRR for large banks will be lowered to 13.0%. The PBOC has now slashed the ratio seven times since early 2018. The size of the latest move was at the upper end of market expectations, and the amount of funds released will be the largest so far in the current easing cycle.

The broad-based cut, which will release 800 billion yuan in liquidity, is effective Sept. 16. The additional targeted cut will release 100 billion yuan, in two phases effective Oct. 15 and Nov. 15.

Real Growth

Trade Agreement

Chinese Local Government Funds Run Out of Projects to Back

On October 16, the Fiancial Times reported Chinese Local Government Funds Run Out of Projects to Back.

There are not many economically viable projects for us to take on,” an official at Sichuan Development told the FT. “We have plenty of bridges and roads already.

GDP Formula

GDP = C + I + G + (X – M)

GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government investment + government spending + (exports – imports).

Whether or not the projects are viable, government spending adds to nominal GDP.

If the government paid people to spit at the moon it would add to GDP.

Arguably, that’s a far better use than dropping bombs and making enemies in the process.

Not Writing Down Losses

​China isn’t writing down losses, but neither is the US, EU, or any other country.

With that in mind How Badly Overstated is Chinese and US GDP?

Concern over GDP with no concern over losses and malinvestment is concern over nonsense.