Tag Archives: margin debt

Previous Employment Concerns Becoming An Ugly Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The virus was just such an event.

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

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

No Recession In 2020?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay Boomer”

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

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

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

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

Why This Matters

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

It isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the same every time.”

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

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

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

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

Yes, Rates Are Still Going To Zero

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

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

“Outside of other events such as the S&L Crisis, Asian Contagion, Long-Term Capital Management, etc. which all drove money out of stocks and into bonds pushing rates lower, recessionary environments are especially prone at suppressing rates further. Given the current low level of interest rates, the next recessionary bout in the economy will very likely see rates near zero.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fed Is Trapped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could go on but you get the idea.

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

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

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

The Fed’s End Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lynchpin to Japan, and the U.S., remains demographics and interest rates. As the aging population grows becoming a net drag on “savings,” the dependency on the “social welfare net” will continue to expand. The “pension problem” is only the tip of the iceberg.

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

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

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Stocks Vs. Bonds: Why We Own Them & You Should Too

Flip on CNBC, pick up a financial paper, or scroll a financial website and you will find a great range of materials discussing the stock market, hot stocks, bad stocks, stock trading tips, and stock investment strategies.

Why? Because stocks are sexy, and the Wall Street casino — with all its flickering lights, screaming patrons, and carnival barkers — makes money for the purveyors of products ranging from IPOs to mutual funds and investment research.

On the other hand, you don’t hear much about bonds. Why? Because bonds are boring? Maybe so. Historically, however, discounting bonds has constituted an investment mistake, and the inevitable cooling down and possible volatility of the stock market in the next decade will make bonds a crucial part of your portfolio.

A recent BNY Mellon Investment Management survey underscored the lack of understanding about bonds and the bond market.

“A BNY Mellon Investment Management national survey on fixed-income investing was stunning: A measly 8% of Americans were able to accurately define fixed-income investments.

The 29-question online survey of just more than 2,000 adults, conducted in July, clearly shows that many Americans admit to having little knowledge about various fixed-income markets and how to invest in them. Here’s a rundown of those who answered “I do not understand it at all” with regard to the following types of bonds: Treasuries, 39%; municipal bonds, 45%; high-yield bonds, 46%; corporate bonds, 51%; structured products, 53%; Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, 63%. Of the 849 respondents who don’t own fixed income or don’t have any investment portfolio, 44% said they don’t buy bonds because they don’t understand the different types of securities.”

This is fascinating but not surprising. Since the financial media focuses only on headline-grabbing corporate news, the minute-by-minute price change of the markets, or what some investment guy with a product to sell you has to say, bonds don’t get much attention.

But, as BNY states, if you don’t understand what bonds are — and more importantly, what they can do for your portfolio — you may be missing out on something really big: And not just if you’re a retiree either.

Bonds can play a vital role for investors of any age because they reduce overall portfolio volatility. The less volatility a portfolio has, the less likely an investor will be to act emotionally during market declines and panic-sell investments to reduce losses.

Bonds also provide the third leg to the total return of a portfolio. Equities offer the first two legs, capital appreciation and dividends. Bonds offers stability by providing investors with both a safety-of-principal function (by returning the initial principal at maturity) and interest income.

Adding bonds to portfolios create better diversification and asset allocation for investors, which can lead to better returns over time, particularly during periods of increased volatility.

Is It The Right Time To Invest In Bonds?

Because interest rates are currently low, concerns about a recession in the U.S. economy have risen. This has led many media commentators to suggest the bonds are now wildly overvalued. For example:

“When evaluating the desirability of government bonds as a long-term investment, it’s imperative to compare the prevailing yields of bonds with the earnings yields for stocks.”

While this is a common comparison, it is also wrong.

Let’s compare the two:

Earnings Yield

  • “Earnings yield” is the inverse of P/E ratios and tells you only what the yield is currently, not what it will be in the future.
  • Investors do not “receive” an “earnings yield” from owning stocks. There is no “yield payment” paid out to shareholders; it is merely a mathematical calculation.
  • There is no protection of principal.

Treasury Yield

  • Investors receive a specific yield, calculable to the penny, which is paid to the holder.
  • Holders also have a government-guaranteed return of principal at maturity.

As we have written previously, it is essential to align expectations and investing requirements. Stocks have liquidity, and potential return (or loss), but no safety of principal. Treasuries have a stated return and a high degree of safety. However, to guarantee the stated return, Treasuries must be held to maturity and may not be liquid, if liquidity is part of your goal.

For most investors, completely discounting the advantage of owning bonds over the last 20 years has been a mistake. By reducing volatility and drawdowns, investors were better able to withstand the eventual storms that wiped out large chunks of capital.

Some may look at the graph below and see that bonds and stocks are at the same level. While this is true, bonds gave you the same amount of return as stocks with much less risk (and, needless to say, stress) during two major bear markets.

It is also worth pointing out that stocks are once again grossly overvalued, and a significant drawdown is probable in the coming years.

Over the next decade, the prospect of low stock market returns, possibly approaching zero, seems much less appealing than the positive return offered by risk-free asset.

Given that we are in the most extended bull market cycle in history, combined with high valuations and weakening fundamentals, it might be time to pay more attention to what bonds can offer you.

They could turn out to be one of the best-performing assets in your portfolio during the next cycle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you’ve had are fully invested bears.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overbought And Extended

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

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

Overly Complacent

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

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

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

Eurodollar Sends A Warning

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

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

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

Earnings Vs. Profits

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

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

Deviation

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

There is a simple rule for markets:

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

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

See Bob Farrell’s Rule #1

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

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

Sentiment

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

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

Currently, there is a scarcity of “bears.”

See Bob Farrell’s Rule #6

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

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

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

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

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

Does this mean the current bull market is over?

No.

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

What Are We Doing About It?

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

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

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

So pay attention to the details.

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

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

Because you need someone to “sell to” first.

Margin Debt Is Declining. Are The Bulls In The Clear?

In a recent weekly newsletter (Subscribe for free e-delivery), I discussed the rather dramatic decline of short-interest in the S&P 500 which suggests a high degree of complacency by investors.

As Wolf Richter recently noted:

“Of the total shares outstanding of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF, only 2.6% were out on loan to short-sellers this week, the lowest since early October 2018, and down from 7% during the summer, according to IHS Markit data cited by Bloomberg. Meaning that short-sellers who want to short the entire market, and not specific companies, are worried that the market will break out, powered by a Brexit deal or a miraculous US-China trade deal as per presidential tweet, or whatever, and rip their faces off if they’re short the market.”

In other words, optimism about the “bull market” continuing is actually rather high, despite seemingly negative sentiment from headlines.

As Wolf goes on to note, short-sellers are “speculators” in the purest form. They are also leveraged investors who have been deleveraging as of late. The chart below shows margin debt as reported by FINRA, as compared to the “free cash balance” of investors.

You can see that since May 2018, the level of “negative cash balances” has improved as margin debt has declined. However, we need to keep this in perspective as even with the recent improvement, negative cash balances are still twice as high as any other point in history.

More importantly, note the events related to increases in margin debt. Clearly, a decade of ultra-low interest rates, ongoing liquidity infusions by Central Banks, and surging levels of stock buybacks have emboldened speculators to take on ever-increasing levels of “risk” through leverage.

This deleveraging process over the last year, combined with the sharp drop in “short interest,” suggests the speculative investors have become much more cautious on the market.

However, is this more negative positioning, a contrarian signal for the markets?

Are The Bulls In The Clear?

Maybe not.

“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.”

Currently, margin debt has crossed below the 12- month average. If we take a longer-term look at the data we find that breaks of the 12-month moving average have indeed provided a decent signal to reduce equity risk in portfolios (blue highlights). Yes, as with any indicator, there are times that it doesn’t work, but more often than not, it has provided a reasonable assessment of elevated risk. 

Importantly, margin debt is not a technical indicator which can be used to trade markets. Margin debt is just additional “gasoline” to lift asset prices higher as the leverage provides for additional purchasing power. However, “leverage” also works in reverse as it provides an accelerant for larger declines as lenders “force” the liquidation of assets to cover credit lines without regard to the borrower’s position.

That last sentence is the most important. The issue with margin debt, in particular, is that the unwinding of leverage is NOT at the investor’s discretion. It is at the discretion of the broker-dealers that extended the 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.

It is when an “event” causes lenders to “panic” that margin becomes problematic. As I discussed previously:

“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 critical 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 last time we saw such an event was here:”

Note in the chart above the market had two declines early in 2008, which ‘reduced’ margin debt but did NOT trigger “margin calls.” The event which caused lenders to panic was when Lehman Brothers was forced into bankruptcy and concerns over counter-party risk caused banks to dramatically reduce their “risk exposure.”

We never know what the catalyst will be which forces lenders to become concerned about “default” risk, but there is more than sufficient leverage in the market, with deteriorating credit quality, to supply an “event.”

Growth Rate Vs. Market

History, going back to 1959, also suggests the “bulls” should not be overly complacent with the modest pullback in “margin debt.” 

While not always immediately coincident, there is a significant correlation between the growth rate in margin debt relative to the growth rate of the S&P 500 (both adjusted for inflation). Over the last year, the S&P 500 has struggled to make advances as margin debt growth has weakened.

Furthermore, if we look at real, inflation-adjusted margin debt as a percent of GDP, the declines have also been coincident with both weaker economic and market outcomes.

It is hard to see what was happening prior to 1980. The next chart shows margin debt growth from 1959-1987.

(Most people have forgotten there were three back-to-back bear markets in 1960’s-1970’s as interest rates were spiking higher. The 1974 bear market was the one that simply wiped everyone out!)

Again, what we find is a correlation between asset prices and margin debt. When margin growth occurs extremely quickly, which coincides with more extreme investor exuberance, corresponding unwinds of the debt have been brutal.

This time is not likely any different. 

As shown, it is not uncommon for margin debt to start to unwind (margin debt inverted for clarity) before the bear market begins.

It’s All Coincident

When it comes to “margin debt,” it is a “coincident” indicator. Such should not be surprising since rising levels of margin debt are considered to be a measure of investor confidence. Investors are more willing to take out debt against investments when shares are rising, and they have more value in their portfolios to borrow against. However, the opposite is also true when falling asset prices reduce the amount of credit available and assets must be sold to bring the account back into balance.

I both agree and disagree with the idea that margin debt levels are simply a function of market activity and have no bearing on the outcome of the market.

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 finally 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 further triggering further margin calls. Those margin calls will trigger more selling forcing more margin calls, so forth and so on.

As I noted above, it will likely take a correction of more than 20%, or a “credit related” event, which sparks broker-dealer concerns about repayment of their credit lines. The risk to the market is “when” those “margin calls” are made.

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

Currently, the “bullish bias” remains intact, and the recent volatility in the market has not shaken investors loose as of yet. Therefore, it is certainly understandable why so many are suggesting you should ignore the recent drop in margin debt.

But history suggests you probably shouldn’t.

The Fed & The Stability/Instability Paradox

“Only those that risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Eliot

Well, this certainly seems to be the path that the Federal Reserve, and global Central Banks, have decided take.

Yesterday, the Fed lowered interest rates by a quarter-point and maintained their “dovish” stance but suggested they are open to “allowing the balance sheet to grow.” While this isn’t anything more than just stopping Q.T. entirely, the markets took this as a sign that Q.E. is just around the corner.

That expectation is likely misguided as the Fed seems completely unconcerned of any recessionary impact in the near-term. However, such has always been the case, historically speaking, just before the onset of a recession. This is because the Fed, and economists in general, make predictions based on lagging data which is subject to large future revisions. Regardless, the outcome of the Fed’s monetary policies has always been, without exception, either poor, or disastrous.

“In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has been the catalyst behind every preceding financial event since they became ‘active,’ monetarily policy-wise, in the late 70’s. As shown in the chart below, when the Fed has lifted the short-term lending rates to a level higher than the 2-year rate, bad ‘stuff’ has historically followed.”

The idea of pushing limits to extremes also applies to stock market investors. As we pointed out on Tuesday, the risks of a liquidity-driven event have increased markedly in recent months. Yet, despite the apparent risk, investors have virtually “no fear.” (Bullish advances are supported by extremely low levels of volatility below the long-term average of 19.)

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

In the “rush to be bullish” this a point often missed. When markets are hitting “record levels,” it is when investors get “the most bullish.” That is the case currently with retail investors “all in.”

Conversely, they are the most “bearish” at the lows.

It is just human nature.

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

The point here is that “all things do come to an end.” The further from the “mean” something has gotten, the greater the reversion is going to be. The two charts below illustrate this point clearly.

Bull markets, with regularity, are almost entirely wiped out by the subsequent bear market.

Despite the best of intentions, market participants never act rationally.

Neither do consumers.

The Instability Of Stability

This is the problem facing the Fed.

Currently, investors have been led to believe that no matter what happens, the Fed can bail out the markets and keep the bull market going for a while longer. Or rather, as Dr. Irving Fisher once uttered:

“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”

Interestingly, the Fed is dependent on both market participants, and consumers, believing in this idea. As we have noted previously, with the entirety of the financial ecosystem now more heavily levered than ever, due to the Fed’s profligate measures of suppressing interest rates and flooding the system with excessive levels of liquidity, the “instability of stability” is now the most significant risk.

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

The Fed is highly dependent on this assumption as it provides the “room” needed, after more than 10-years of the most unprecedented monetary policy program in U.S. history, to try and navigate the risks that have built up in the system.

Simply, the Fed is dependent on “everyone acting rationally.”

Unfortunately, that has never been the case.

The behavioral biases of individuals is one of the most serious risks facing the Fed. Throughout history, as noted above, the Fed’s actions have repeatedly led to negative outcomes despite the best of intentions.

  • In the early 70’s it was the “Nifty Fifty” stocks,
  • Then Mexican and Argentine bonds a few years after that
  • “Portfolio Insurance” was the “thing” in the mid -80’s
  • Dot.com anything was a great investment in 1999
  • Real estate has been a boom/bust cycle roughly every other decade, but 2006 was a doozy
  • Today, it’s ETF’s and “Passive Investing,” and levered credit.

As noted Tuesday, the risk to this entire house of cards is a credit-related event.

Anyone wonder what might happen should passive funds become large net sellers of credit risk? In that event, these indiscriminate sellers will have to find highly discriminating buyers who–you guessed it–will be asking lots of questions. Liquidity for the passive universe–and thus the credit markets generally–may become very problematic indeed.

The recent actions by Central Banks certainly suggest risk has risen. Whether this was just an anomalous event, or an early warning, it is too soon to know for sure. However, if there is a liquidity issue, the risk to ‘uniformed investors’ is substantially higher than most realize. 

Risk concentration always seems rational at the beginning, and the initial successes of the trends it creates can be self-reinforcing. That is, until suddenly, and often without warning, it all goes “pear\-shaped.”

In November and December of last year, it was the uniformity of the price moves which revealed the fallacy “passive investing” as investors headed for the door all at the same time. While, that rout was quickly forgotten as markets stormed back to all-time highs, on “hopes” of Central Bank liquidity and “trade deals.”

The difference today, versus then, are the warning signs of deterioration in areas which pose a direct threat to everyone “acting rationally.” 

“While yields going to zero] certainly sounds implausible at the moment, just remember that all yields globally are relative. If global sovereign rates are zero or less, it is only a function of time until the U.S. follows suit. This is particularly the case if there is a liquidity crisis at some point.

It is worth noting that whenever Eurodollar positioning has become this extended previously, the equity markets have declined along with yields. Given the exceedingly rapid rise in the Eurodollar positioning, it certainly suggests that ‘something has broken in the system.’” 

Risk is clearly elevated as the Fed is cutting rates despite the “economic data” not supporting it. This is clearly meant to keep everyone acting rationally for now.

The problem comes when they don’t.

The Single Biggest Risk To Your Money

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

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

Yet, the list of concerns remains despite being completely ignored by investors and the mainstream media.

  • Growing economic ambiguities in the U.S. and abroad: peak autos, peak housing, peak GDP.
  • Political instability and a crucial election.
  • The failure of fiscal policy to ‘trickle down.’
  • An important pivot towards easing in global monetary policy.
  • Geopolitical risks from Trade Wars to Iran 
  • Inversions of yield curves
  • Deteriorating earnings and corporate profit margins.
  • Record levels of private and public debt.
  •  More than $3 trillion of covenant light and/or sub-prime corporate debt. (now larger and more pervasive than the size of the subprime mortgages outstanding in 2007)

For now, none of that matters as the Fed seems to have everything under control.

The more the market rises, the more reinforced the belief “this time is different” becomes.

Yes, our investment portfolios remain invested on the long-side for now. (Although we continue to carry slightly higher levels of cash and hedges.)

However, that will change, and rapidly so, at the first sign of the “instability of stability.” 

Unfortunately, by the time the Fed realizes what they have done, it has always been too late.

The August Jobs Report Confirms The Economy Is Slowing

After the monthly jobs report was released last week, I saw numerous people jumping on the unemployment rate as a measure of success, and in this particular case, Trump’s success as President.

  • Unemployment November 2016: 4.7%
  • Unemployment August 2019: 3.7%

Argument solved.

President Trump has been “Yuugely” successful at putting people to work as represented by a 1% decline in the unemployment rate since his election.

But what about President Obama?

  • Unemployment November 2008: 12.6%
  • Unemployment November 2016: 4.7%

Surely, a 7.9% drop in unemployment should be considered at least as successful as Trump’s 1%.

Right?

Here’s a secret, neither one is important.

First, Presidents don’t put people to work. Corporations do. The reality is that President Obama and Trump had very little to do with the actual economic recovery.

Secondly, as shown below, the recovery in employment began before either President took office as the economic recovery would have happened regardless of monetary interventions. Importantly, note the drop in employment has occurred with the lowest level of annual economic growth on record. (I wouldn’t necessarily be touting this as #winning.)

Lastly, both measures of “employment success” are erroneous due to the multitude of problems with how the entire series is “guessed at.” As noted previously by Morningside Hill:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been systemically overstating the number of jobs created, especially in the current economic cycle.
  • The BLS has failed to account for the rise in part-time and contractual work arrangements, while all evidence points to a significant and rapid increase in the so-called contingent workforce.
  • Full-time jobs are being replaced by part-time positions, resulting in double and triple counting of jobs via the Establishment Survey.  (Examples: Uber, Lyft, GrubHub, FedEx, Amazon)
  • A full 93% of the new jobs reported since 2008 were added through the business birth and death model – a highly controversial model which is not supported by the data. On the contrary, all data on establishment births and deaths point to an ongoing decrease in entrepreneurship.
  • Jobless claims have recently reached their lowest level on record which purportedly signals job market strength. Since hiring patterns have changed significantly and increasingly more people are joining the contingent workforce, jobless claims are no longer a good leading economic indicator. Part-time and contract-based workers are most often ineligible for unemployment insurance. In the next downturn, corporations will be able to cut through their contingent workforce before jobless claims show any meaningful uptick.

Nonetheless, despite a very weak payroll number, the general “view” by the mainstream media, and the Federal Reserve, is the economy is still going strong.

In reality, one-month of employment numbers tell us very little about what is happening in the actual economy. While most economists obsess over the data from one month to the next, it is the “trend” of the data which is far more important to understand.

The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment prior to the onset of a recession. The current annual rate of employment growth is 1.4% which is lower than any previous employment level in history prior to the onset of a recession.

But while this is a long-term view of the trend of employment in the U.S., what about right now? The chart below shows the civilian employment level from 1999 to present.

While the recent employment report was slightly below expectations, the annual rate of growth is slowing at a faster pace. Moreover, there are many who do not like the household survey due to the monthly volatility in the data. Therefore, by applying a 3-month average of the seasonally-adjusted employment report, we see the slowdown more clearly.

But here is something else to consider.

While the BLS continually fiddles with the data to mathematically adjust for seasonal variations, the purpose of the entire process is to smooth volatile monthly data into a more normalized trend. The problem, of course, with manipulating data through mathematical adjustments, revisions, and tweaks, is the risk of contamination of bias. A simpler method to use for smoothing volatile monthly data is using a 12-month moving average of the raw data as shown below.

Near peaks of employment cycles, the employment data deviates from the 12-month average, but then reconnects as reality emerges.

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

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

But there is more to this story.

A Function Of Population

One thing which is not discussed when reporting on employment is the “growth” of the working-age population. Each month, new entrants into the population create “demand” through their additional consumption. Employment should increase to accommodate for the increased demand from more participants in the economy. Either that or companies resort to automation, off-shoring, etc. to increase rates of production without increases in labor costs. The chart below shows the total increase in employment versus the growth of the working-age population.

The missing “millions” shown in the chart above is one of the “great mysteries” about the longest economic booms in U.S. history. This is particularly a conundrum when the Federal Reserve talks about the economy nearing “full employment.” The disparity shows up in both the Labor Force Participation Rate and those “Not In Labor Force.”

Note that since 2009, the number of those “no longer counted” has dominated the employment trends of the economy. In other words, those “not in labor force” as a percent of the working-age population has skyrocketed.

Of course, as we are all very aware, there are many who work part-time, are going to school, etc. But even when we consider just those working “full-time” jobs, particularly when compared to jobless claims, the percentage of full-time employees is still well below levels of the last 35 years.

It’s All The Baby Boomers Retiring

One of the arguments often given for the low labor force participation rate is that millions of “baby boomers” are leaving the workforce for retirement.

This argument doesn’t carry much weight given that the “Millennial” generation, which is significantly larger, is simultaneously entering the workforce. The other problem is shown below, there are more individuals over the age of 55, as a percentage of that age group, in the workforce today than in the last 50-years.

Of course, the reason they aren’t retiring is that they can’t. After two massive bear markets, weak economic growth, questionable spending habits,and poor financial planning, more individuals over the age of 55 are still working because they simply can’t “afford” to retire.

However, for argument sake, let’s assume that every worker over the age of 55 retires. If the “retiring” argument is valid, then employment participation rates should soar once that group is removed. The chart below is full-time employment relative to the working-age population of 16-54.

Nope.

The other argument is that Millennials are going to school longer than before so they aren’t working either. (We have an excuse for everything these days.)

The chart below strips out those of college-age (16-24) and those over the age of 55.

With the prime working-age group of labor force participants still at levels seen previously in 1988, it does raise the question o2f just how robust the labor market actually is?

Michael Lebowitz touched on this issue previously:

“Why are so many people struggling to find a job and terminating their search if, as we are repeatedly told, the labor market is so healthy? To explain the juxtaposition of the low jobless claims number and unemployment rate with the low participation rate and weak wage growth, a calculation of the participation rate adjusted unemployment rate is revealing.”

‘When people stop looking for a job, they are still unemployed, but they are not included in the U-3 unemployment calculation. If we include those who quit looking for work in the data, the employment situation is quite different. The graph below compares the U-3 unemployment rate to one that assumes a constant participation rate from 2008 to today. Contrary to the U-3 unemployment rate of 3.90%, this metric implies an adjusted unemployment rate of 8.69%.

Importantly, this number is much more consistent with the data we have laid out above, supports the reasoning behind lower wage growth, and is further confirmed by the Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Employment Index.”

(The Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Non-Employment Index including People Working Part-Time for Economic Reasons (NEI+PTER) is a weighted average of all non-employed people and people working part-time for economic reasons expressed as the share of the civilian non-institutionalized population 16 years and older. The weights take into account persistent differences in each group’s likelihood of transitioning back into employment. Because the NEI is more comprehensive and includes tailored weights of non-employed individuals, it arguably provides a more accurate reading of labor market conditions than the standard unemployment rate.)

One of the main factors which was driving the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, and reduce its balance sheet, was the perceived low level of unemployment. However, now, they are trying to lower rates despite an even lower level of unemployment than previous.

The problem for the Federal Reserve is they are caught between a “stagflationary economy” and a “recession.” 

“With record low jobless claims, there is no recession on the horizon.” -says mainstream media.

Be careful with that assumption.

In November of 1969 jobless claims stood at 211,000, having risen slightly from the lows recorded earlier that year. Despite the low number of claims, a recession started a month later, and jobless claims would nearly double within six months.

This episode serves as a reminder that every recession followed interim lows in jobless claims and the unemployment rate. We are confident that the dynamics leading to the next recession will not be any different.

But then again, maybe the yield-curve is already giving us the answer.

No Matter What The Fed Does, It’s Bullish?

It’s Bullish…Always

Last Wednesday, the Federal Reserve announced the latest decision concerning monetary policy which contained three primary components:

  1. A cut of 25bps
  2. Stopping balance sheet reductions (or Quantitative Tightening or Q.T.)
  3. An outlook suggestive this may be the only rate cut for a while.

While stocks dropped on disappointment they Fed may not cut further; it didn’t take long for bullish commentators to start suggesting why the cuts were supportive of higher asset prices. To wit:

“Given today’s Fed decision and guidance, we remain comfortable with our view that the Fed will provide two more 25bp cuts this year (September and October),” – Bank of America.

Simply, cutting rates, and stopping Q.T., is the return of “accommodative policy” for the markets and the “ringing of Pavlov’s bell.”  Via CNBC:

“The old investing mantra ‘don’t fight the Fed’ stands the test of time for a reason. Going back to 1982, the average annualized return for the S&P 500 between the first rate cut and the next hike has been 20%, while the median increase has been 13%, according to Strategas. The data show investors would do well if they invest in a way that aligns with the Federal Reserve’s policy direction, rather than against it, hence ‘don’t fight the Fed.’”

This is an interesting premise because when the Fed started hiking rates at the end of 2015, it also was bullish. Via Forbes:

“Early in a rate increase cycle, however, higher rates are actually good for the stock market. This is because rising rates, early on, signal an improving economy, and the faster growth more than compensates for higher rates.”

So, exactly “when” are Fed actions are “not bullish?” 

I would suggest now.

As I noted in this past weekend’s missive:

“Lower rates have less impact on the ‘economy,’when the monetary transmission system is weak. This is evident from the fact that surging asset prices have left 80% of the population behind in terms of higher levels of prosperity. This also is why tax cuts failed to work as intended. After a decade of low rates, and excess liquidity, the ability to ‘pull-forward’ demand has become limited.”

While, in the short-term, it may seem that whatever the Fed does is “bullish,” as the performance of the stock market since 2009 would seem to support, it has been a function unbridled fiscal largesse. As shown in the chart below, the Fed’s actions have been supported by a massive amount of Government spending as noted last week:

“As shown in the chart below, since 2010 it has taken continually increases in Federal expenditures just to maintain economic growth at the same level it was nearly a decade ago.”

But let’s modify that chart to compare the Fed’s actions plus government expenditures to the S&P 500.

With that much liquidity sloshing around, it had to go somewhere. Not surprisingly, as the Fed suppressed interest rates, it forced investors to chase yield.

The problem with the table from CNBC above, as it only tells you what happens immediately after the Fed cut rates the first time. By the time the Fed is starts cutting rates, the markets are well entrenched into a bullish trend. Stocks aren’t beginning a bull run, but rather are being carried higher by existing momentum which has typically been a hallmark of a late-stage bullish cycle. In every case, there was an eventual negative outcome following Fed rate cut cycles. (The table below uses the 3-month average of the effective Fed Funds rate.)

The chart of the effective Fed funds rate and the S&P 500 tells the story. (The vertical dashed lines marked the initial cuts, and you can see where subsequent crisis and declines occurred.)

The one exception was the initial rate cut in 1995 following the Orange County Bankruptcy, an “insurance cut,” despite both a strong market and economy at the time. As recently noted by J.P. Morgan:

“The late 1990’s rate cuts were used as insurance against Mexican and Russian default and collapse of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management at the time, bolstered the equity market. The only other time the S&P 500 saw stronger performance following a rate cut was in 1980.”

The early 1980s are NOT comparative to the current cycle.

  • The U.S. economy was just coming out of back-to-back recessions
  • Valuations were extremely low
  • Dividends were high; and,
  • Inflation and interest rates were in double-digits.
  • President Reagan had just passed tax reform
  • The banks were deregulated; and,
  • Inflation and interest rates were beginning a 40-year secular decline.
  • Household debt was only about 60% of net worth and just starting a 40-year “leveraging cycle” .

In other words, there was nowhere for the market to go but up.

Clearly, such is not the case today, as deflation, debt, and demographic shifts loom large.

But What About 1995?

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

Another critical point is that rates were relatively stable post the 1991 recession rather than the rather sharp increase we have seen over the last couple of years. Also, economic growth, as I showed last week, was running at an average of 3.5% on an inflation-adjusted basis, versus 2%-ish today.

Importantly, the markets sharp advance in the late-1990’s was due to a period of “market nirvana” as the internet became mainstream changing the way information was accessed, utilized, and institutionalized.

  • Mutual funds were a virtual “Hoover vacuum” sucking up retail assets and lofting asset prices higher.
  • Pension funds were finally allowed to invest in stocks, rather than just Treasuries, which brought massive buying power to the markets.
  • Foreign flows also poured into Wall Street to chase the raging bull market higher.
  • Lastly, “internet trading” hit the internet, which further opened the doors of the “WallStreet Casino” to the masses.

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

Timing, as they say, is everything.

This Isn’t 1995

A quick comparison between 1995, and today, also elicits many other concerns about the markets ability to dramatically extend its current cycle.

From 1991-2000 (10-Years)

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

NOTE: There was NO SIGN of RECESSION in late 1999.

Compare the chart above with the one below.

There is a vast difference between the strength of the economy today versus 1999; particularly we are already in a longer economic expansion than we were then.

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

There is also one other significant difference.

In 1995, Consumer Confidence was at about 100 on its way to 140.

Today, it is likely not possible to get more optimistic than consumers are currently.

It’s All Bullish

“We could get more volatility in the coming days, but as we settle into August you’ll see equities start to perk again. My assumption is that we could start to see a buy-the-dip mentality, created by the easy money move and the need to chase returns.”Yousef Abbasi, INTL FCStone

“Low rates will continue to support a higher-than-average valuations for the S&P 500. At the same time that corporations are growing revenue at a healthy clip and appear set to avoid the earnings recession that many investors had been fearing this year.”Brad McMillan, CommonWealth

Not surprisingly, since the Fed’s announcement, the financial media and Wall Street have been pushing the bullish narrative. Just as they did in 1999 and 2007, as there was “no recession in sight,” then either.

The problem is financial media, or Wall Street, is they never tell you when to sell. (They don’t make money when you are in cash.)

Currently, the risk to the market is elevated.

  • Confidence is at highs, not lows.
  • Economic growth is at a cycle peak
  • Earnings growth is beginning to weaken, and corporate profits are on the decline.
  • Valuations are elevated
  • Leverage is at records
  • Stock buyback activity is slowing  (As we noted previously, since 2014, buyback activity has accounted for nearly 100% of net equity purchases in the market and is now slowing).

While it is certainly possible for equities to push higher over the short-term, seemingly to confirm the “bullish calls,” don’t forget your time horizon is substantially longer than 6-12 months. 

No one will ring a bell at the eventual top, the media won’t tell you to “sell,” and the mainstream financial advice will tell you that if your only option is to “buy and hold.” 

If history is any guide, the next mean reverting event will likely wipe out of the bulk of the gains made over the last 5-7 years at a minimum.

If you are close to retirement, it should be clear that risk outweighs the reward currently. 

Not everything the Fed does can be bullish.

Strongest Economy Ever? I Warned You About Negative Revisions

Over the last 18-months, there has been a continual drone of political punditry touting the success of “Trumponomics” as measured by various economic data points. Even the President himself has several times taken the opportunity to tweet about the “strongest economy ever.”

But if it is the “strongest economy ever,” then why the need for aggressive rate cuts which are “emergency measures” to be utilized to offset recessionary conditions?

First, it is hard to have an “aggressive rate-cutting cycle” when you only have 2.4% to work with.

Secondly, I am not sure we want to be like China or Europe economically speaking, and running a $1.5 Trillion deficit during an expansion, suspending the debt ceiling, and expanding spending isn’t that much different.

Nonetheless, I have repeatedly cautioned about the risk of taking credit for the economic bump, or the stock market, as a measure of fiscal policy success. Such is particularly the case when you are a decade into the current economic cycle.

Economic growth is more than just a reported number. The economy has been “in motion” following the last recession due to massive liquidity injections, zero interest rates, and a contraction in the labor force. Much like a “snowball rolling downhill,” the continuation of economic momentum should have been of little surprise.

As an example, we can look at full-time employment (as a percentage of 16-54  which removes the “retiring baby boomer” argument) by President. The rise in full-time employment has been on a steady trend higher following the financial crisis as the economic and financial systems repaired themselves.

As discussed previously, economic data is little more than a “wild @$$ guess” when it is initially reported. However, one-year and three-years later, the data is revised to reveal a more accurate measure of the “real” economy.

Unfortunately, we pay little attention to the revisions.

While there are many in the media touting “the strongest economy ever” since Trump took office, a quick look at a chart should quickly put that claim to rest.

Yes, there was a spurt in economic growth during 2018, which did seem to support the claims that Trump’s policies were working. As I warned then, there were factors at play which were obfuscating the data.

“Lastly, government spending has been very supportive to the markets in particular over the last few quarters as economic growth has picked up. However, that “sugar-high” was created by 3-massive Hurricanes in 2017 which has required billions in monetary stimulus which created jobs in manufacturing and construction and led to a temporary economic lift. We saw the same following the Hurricanes in 2012 as well.”

“These “sugar highs” are temporary in nature. The problem is the massive surge in unbridled deficit spending only provides a temporary illusion of economic growth.”

The importance is that economic “estimates” become skewed by these exogenous factors, and I have warned these over-estimations would be reversed when annual revisions are made.

Last week, the annual revisions to the economic data were indeed negative. The chart below shows “real GDP” pre- and post-revisions.

This outcome was something I discussed previously:

With the Fed Funds rate running at near 2%, if the Fed now believes such is close to a ‘neutral rate,’ it would suggest that expectations of economic growth will slow in the quarters ahead from nearly 6.0% in Q2 of 2018 to roughly 2.5% in 2019.”

However, there is further evidence that actual, organic, economic growth is weaker than the current negative revisions suggest. More importantly, the revisions to the 2019 data, in 2020, will very likely be as negative as well.

This is also the case with the employment data which I discussed previously:

“Months from now, the Establishment Survey will undergo its annual retrospective benchmark revision, based almost entirely on the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages conducted by the Labor Department. That’s because the QCEW is not just a sample-based survey, but a census that counts jobs at every establishment, meaning that the data are definitive but take time to collect.”

“The Establishment Survey’s nonfarm jobs figures will clearly be revised down as the QCEW data show job growth averaging only 177,000 a month in 2018. That means the Establishment Survey may be overstating the real numbers by more than 25%.”

There is nothing nefarious going on here.

It is the problem with collecting data from limited samples, applying various seasonal adjustment factors to it, and “guesstimating” what isn’t known. During expansions, the data is always overstated and during recessions it is understated. This is why using lagging economic data as a measure of certainty is always erroneous.

Debt-Driven Growth

I recently discussed the “death of fiscal conservatism” as Washington passed another spending bill.

“In 2018, the Federal Government spent $4.48 Trillion, which was equivalent to 22% of the nation’s entire nominal GDP. Of that total spending, ONLY $3.5 Trillion was financed by Federal revenues, and $986 billion was financed through debt.

In other words, if 75% of all expenditures is social welfare and interest on the debt, those payments required $3.36 Trillion of the $3.5 Trillion (or 96%) of revenue coming in.”

The “good news” is, if you want to call it that, is that Government spending does show up in economic growth. The “bad news” is that government spending has a negative “multiplier” effect since the bulk of all spending goes to non-productive investments. (Read this)

Nonetheless, the President suggests we are “winning.”

The problem is that economic growth less government spending is actually “recessionary.” 

As shown in the chart below, since 2010 it has taken continually increases in Federal expenditures just to maintain economic growth at the same level it was nearly a decade ago. Such a “fiscal feat” is hardly indicative of “winning.”

As Mike Shedlock noted, part of the issue with current economic estimates is simply in how it is calculated.

In GDP accounting, consumption is the largest component. Naturally, it is not possible to consume oneself to prosperity. The ability to consume more is the result of growing prosperity, not its cause. But this is the kind of deranged economic reasoning that is par for the course for today.

In addition to what Tenebrarum states, please note that government transfer payments including Medicaid, Medicare, disability payments, and SNAP (previously called food stamps), all contribute to GDP.

Nothing is “produced” by those transfer payments. They are not even funded. As a result, national debt rises every year. And that debt adds to GDP.”

This is critically important to understand.

While government spending, a function of continually increasing debt, does appear to have an economic benefit, corporate profits tell a very different story.

The Real Economy

I have been noting for a while the divergence between “operating earnings” (or rather “earnings fantasy”) versus corporate profits which are what companies actually report for tax purposes. From “Earnings Growth Much Weaker Than Advertised:”

“The benefit of a reduction in tax rates is extremely short-lived since we compare earnings and profit growth on a year-over-year basis.

In the U.S., the story remains much the same as near-term economic growth has been driven by artificial stimulus, government spending, and fiscal policy which provides an illusion of prosperity.”

Since consumption makes up roughly 70% of the economy, then corporate profits pre-tax profits should be growing if the economy was indeed growing substantially above 2%.”

We now know the economy wasn’t growing well above 2% and, as a consequence, corporate profits have been revised sharply lower on a pre-tax basis.

The reason we are looking at PRE-tax, rather than post-tax, profits is because we can see more clearly what is actually happening at the corporate level.

Since corporate revenues come for the sale of goods and services, if the economy was growing strongly then corporate profits should be reflective of that. However, since 2014, profits have actually been declining. If we take the first chart above and adjust it for the 2019-revisions we find that corporate profits (both pre- and post-tax) are the same level as in 2012 and have been declining for the last three-years in particular.

Again, this hardly indicates the “strongest economy in history.”

These negative revisions to corporate profits also highlight the over-valuation investors are currently paying for asset prices.  Historically, such premiums have had rather horrific “paybacks” as markets eventually “reprice” for reality.

Trump’s Political Risk

While the media is quick to attribute the current economic strength, or weakness, to the person who occupies the White House, the reality is quite different.

Most fiscal, and monetary, policy changes can take up to a year before the impact shows in the economic data. While changes to “tax rates” can have a more immediate impact, “interest rate” changes take longer to filter through.

The political risk for President Trump is taking too much credit for an economic cycle which was already well into recovery before he took office. Rather than touting the economic numbers and taking credit for liquidity-driven financial markets, he should be using that strength to begin the process of returning the country to a path of fiscal discipline rather than a “drunken binge” of spending.

With the economy, and the financial markets, sporting the longest-duration in history, simple logic should suggest time is running out.

This isn’t doom and gloom, it is just a fact.

Politicians, over the last decade, failed to use $33 trillion in liquidity injections, near zero interest rates, and surging asset prices to refinance the welfare system, balance the budget, and build surpluses for the next downturn.

Instead, they only made the deficits worse and the U.S. economy will enter the next recession pushing a $2 Trillion deficit, $24 Trillion in debt, and a $6 Trillion pension gap which will devastate many in their retirement years.

While Donald Trump talked about “Yellen’s big fat ugly bubble” before he took office, he has now pegged the success of his entire Presidency on the stock market.

It will likely be something he eventually regrets.

“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” – Matthew 26, 26:52

Technically Speaking: 5-Charts Invested Bears Are Watching Now

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

There is also just the simple issue that markets are very extended above their long-term trends, as shown in the chart below. A geopolitical event, a shift in expectations, or an acceleration in economic weakness in the U.S. could spark a mean-reverting event which would be quite the norm of what we have seen in recent years.”

“As shown below, while the market is on a near-term “buy signal”(lower panel) the overbought condition, and near 9% extension above the 200-dma, suggests a pullback is in order.”

Of course, discussing the potential of a market correction is almost always perceived as being “bearish.” Therefore, by extension that must mean that I am either all in cash or shorting the market. In either case, it is assumed I “missed out” on previous advances.

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

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

What you’ve had are fully invested bears.”

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

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

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

Managing portfolios for both risk adjusted returns while protecting capital is a delicate balance. Each week in the Real Investment Report we discuss the risks and challenges of the current market environment and report on how we are adjusting our exposures to the market over time. I wanted to share these charts from our friends at Crescat Capital which are all sending an important message. Currently, these are “risks” the market is ignoring, but eventually they will matter, and they will matter a lot.

Valuations

One of the consistent drivers behind the bull market over the last few years has been the idea of the “Fed Put.” As long as the Federal Reserve was there to “bailout” the markets if something went wrong, there was no reason NOT to be invested in equities. In turn, this has pushed investors to not only “chase yield,” due to artificially suppressed interest rates but to push valuations on stocks back to levels only seen prior to the turn of the century. As Crescat notes:

 The reality is that stocks have never been this expensive for how low the 10-year Treasury yield is today. It’s true that all else equal, low interest rates justify higher valuations. However, the lowest interest rates historically haven’t corresponded to the highest P/E markets because extremely depressed yields also signal fundamental problems in the economy. Ultra-low rate environments are often marked by highly leveraged economies where future growth is likely to be weak.”

Given that valuations are all in the 90th percentile of historical values, it suggests that a reversion to the mean is increasingly likely.

Given these valuations are occurring against a backdrop of deteriorating economic growth and corporate profits, the risk to investor capital is high.

Divergences

I have previously addressed the narrowing of participation in the markets. Much of the advance in the markets this year alone can be solely accounted for by a handful of mega-capitalization stocks. Since those mega-cap reside in both the Nasdaq and the S&P 500 index, the lack of breadth is worth noting. As Crescat points out:

“While many US equity indices have marginally broken out to new highs recently, they have done so in the face of weakening market internals. Equity indices are being propped up by a narrowing group of leaders. The deteriorating breadth is most evident in the NASDAQ Composite, home to today’s leading growth stocks. While the overall index has reached record levels, the number of declining stocks has significantly outpaced the number of advancing stocks since last September. The collapsing internals point to an exhausted bull market.”

Volume & Participation

Another warning sign is that volume and participation have have also weakened markedly. These are all signs of a market advance nearing “exhaustion.”  Back to Crescat:

“Stocks are also rising in defiance of extremely low volume. On July 16th, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) had its lowest daily volume in almost 2 years. In a 15-daily average terms, volume is now as low as it was at the peak of the housing bubble and prior to the last two selloffs in 2018. Unusual calmness and breadth deterioration are not a good set up for record overvalued stocks.”

“The following chart is yet another illustration of how this recent rally in equities is running on empty, and again lacking substance. On July 15th, S&P 500 reached record levels, but only three sectors were at all-time highs. Market breadth today is faltering just as much as it did ahead of the last two recessions. In 2015, this was also the case, but back then only 20% of the yield curve was inverted. Now it’s close to 60%!”

Deviation

I have written many times in the past that the financial markets are not immune to the laws of physics. As I started out this missive, the deviation between the current market and long-term means is at some of the highest levels in market history.

There is a simple rule for markets:

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

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

See Bob Farrell’s Rule #1

As Crescat laid out, a “mean reverting” event would currently encompass a 53% decline from recent peaks.

Does this mean the current bull market is over?

No.

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

Sentiment

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

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

Currently, there is a scarcity of “bears.”

See Bob Farrell’s Rule #6

With sentiment currently at very high levels, combined with low volatility and excess margin debt, all the ingredients necessary for a sharp market reversion are present. Am I sounding an “alarm bell” and calling for the end of the known world?

Of course, not.

However, I am suggesting that remaining fully invested in the financial markets without a thorough understanding of your “risk exposure” will likely not have the desirable end result you have been promised. All of the charts above have linkages to each other, and when one goes, they will all go.

So pay attention to the details.

The markets currently believe that when the Fed cuts rates this week, the bull market will continue higher. Crescat, and history, suggest a different outcome.

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

Yes, I am bearish on the longer-term outlook of the markets for the reasons, and many more, stated above.

Just make sure you understand that I am an “almost fully invested bear.”

At least for now.

But that can, and will, rapidly change as the indicators I follow dictate.

What’s your strategy?

Questions About The “Stellar” June Jobs Report (Which Also Confirm The Fed’s Concerns)

On Wednesday, Jerome Powell testified before Congress the U.S. economy is “suffering” from a bout of uncertainty caused by trade tensions and slow global growth. To wit:

“Since [the Fed meeting in mid-June], based on incoming data and other developments, it appears that uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the U.S. economic outlook.”

That outlook, however, would seem to be askew of the recent employment report for June from the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week. That report showed an increase in employment of 224,000 jobs. It was also the 105th consecutive positive jobs report, which is one of the longest in U.S. history.

However, if employment is as “strong” as is currently believed, which should be a reflection of the underlying economy, then precisely what is the Fed seeing?

Well, I have a few questions for you to ponder concerning to the latest employment report which may actually support the Fed’s case for rate cuts. These questions are also important to your investment outlook as there is a high correlation between employment, economic growth, and not surprisingly, corporate profitability.

Let’s get started.

Prelude: The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment prior to the onset of a recession. The current annual rate of employment growth is 1.5%, which is lower than any previous employment level prior to a recession in history.

More importantly, as noted by Lakshman Achuthan and Anirvan Banerji via Bloomberg:

“A key part of the answer lies with jobs ‘growth,’ which has been slowing much more than most probably realize. Despite the better-than-forecast jobs report for June, the fact is the labor force has contracted by more than 600,000 workers this year. And we’re not just talking about the disappointing non-farm payroll jobs numbers for April and May.

Certainly, that caused year-over-year payroll growth, based on the Labor Department’s Establishment Survey – a broad survey of businesses and government agencies – to decline to a 13-month low. But year-over-year job growth, as measured by the separate Household Survey – based on a Labor Department survey of actual households – that is used to calculate the unemployment rate is only a hair’s breadth from a five-and-a-half-year low.”


Question: Given the issues noted above, does it seem as if the entirety of the economy is as robust as stated by the mainstream media? More importantly, how does 1.5% annualized growth in employment create sustained rates of higher economic growth going forward?


Prelude: One thing which is never discussed when reporting on employment is the “growth” of the working age population. Each month, new entrants into the population create “demand” through their additional consumption. Employment should increase to accommodate for the increased demand from more participants in the economy. Either that or companies resort to automation, off-shoring, etc. to increase rates of production without increases in labor costs. The next chart shows the total increase in employment versus the growth of the working age population.


Question: Just how “strong” is employment growth? Does it seem that 96%+ of the working-age population is gainfully employed?


Prelude: The missing “millions” shown in the chart above is one of the “great mysteries” about one of the longest economic booms in U.S. history. This is particularly a conundrum when the Federal Reserve talks about the economy nearing “full employment.”

The next several charts focus on the idea of “full employment” in the U.S. While Jobless Claims are reaching record lows, the percentage of full time versus part-time employees is still well below levels of the last 35 years. It is also possible that people with multiple part-time jobs are being double counted in the employment data.


Question: With jobless claims at historic lows, and the unemployment rate below 4%, then why is full-time employment relative to the working-age population at just 50.10% (Only slightly above the 1980 peak)?


Prelude: One of the arguments often given for the low labor force participation rates is that millions of “baby boomers” are leaving the workforce for retirement. This argument doesn’t carry much weight given the significantly larger “Millennial” generation that is simultaneously entering the workforce.

However, for argument sake, let’s assume that every worker over the age of 55 retires. If the “retiring” argument is valid, then employment participation rates should soar once that group is removed. The chart below is full-time employment relative to the working-age population of 16-54.


Question: At 50.38%, and the lowest rate since 1981, just how big of an impact are “retiring baby boomers” having on the employment numbers?


Prelude: One of the reasons the retiring “baby boomer” theory is flawed is, well, they aren’t actually retiring. Following two massive bear markets, weak economic growth, questionable spending habits, and poor financial planning, more individuals over the age of 55 are still working than at any other time since 1960.

The other argument is that Millennials are going to school longer than before so they aren’t working either. The chart below strips out those of college age (16-24) and those over the age of 55. Those between the ages of 25-54 should be working.


Question: With the prime working age group of labor force participants still at levels seen previously in 1988, just how robust is the labor market actually?


Prelude: Of course, there are some serious considerations which need to be taken into account about the way the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures employment. The first is the calculation of those no longer counted as part of the labor force. Beginning in 2000, those no longer counted as part of the labor force detached from its longer-term trend. The immediate assumption is all these individuals retired, but as shown above, we know this is not exactly the case.


Question: Where are the roughly 95-million Americans missing from the labor force? This is an important question as it relates to the labor force participation rate. Secondly, these people presumably are alive and participating in the economy so exactly how valid is the employment calculation when 1/3rd of the working-age population is simply not counted?


Prelude: The second questionable calculation is the birth/death adjustment. I addressed this in more detail previously, but here is the general premise.

Following the financial crisis, the number of “Births & Deaths” of businesses unsurprisingly declined. Yet, each month, while the market is glued to the headline number, they additions from the “birth/death” adjustment go both overlooked and unquestioned.

Every month, the BLS adds numerous jobs to the non-seasonally adjusted payroll count to “adjust” for the number of “small businesses” being created each month, which in turns “creates a job.”  (The total number is then seasonally adjusted.)

Here is my problem with the adjustment.

The BLS counts ALL business formations as creating employment. However, in reality, only about 1/5th of businesses created each year actually have an employee. The rest are created for legal purposes like trusts, holding companies, etc. which have no employees whatsoever. This is shown in the chart below which compares the number of businesses started WITH employees from those reported by the BLS. (Notice that beginning in 2014, there is a perfect slope in the advance which is consistent with results from a mathematical projection rather than use of actual data.)

These rather “fictitious” additions to the employee ranks reported each year are not small, but the BLS tends even to overestimate the total number of businesses created each year (employer AND non-employer) by a large amount.

How big of a difference are we talking about?

Well, in the decade between 2006 and 2016 (the latest update from the Census Bureau) the BLS added roughly 7.6 million more employees than were created in new business formations.

This data goes a long way in explaining why, despite record low unemployment, there is a record number of workers outside the labor force, 25% of households are on some form of government benefit, wages remain suppressedand the explosion of the “wealth gap.” 


Question: If 1/3rd of the working-age population simply isn’t counted, and the birth-death adjustment inflates the employment roles, just how accurate is the employment data?


Prelude: If the job market was as “tight” as is suggested by an extremely low unemployment rate, the wage growth should be sharply rising across all income spectrums. The chart below is the annual change in real national compensation (less rental income) as compared to the annual change in real GDP. Since the economy is 70% driven by personal consumption, it should be of no surprise the two measures are highly correlated.

Side Question: Has “renter nation” gone too far?


Question: Again, if employment was as strong as stated by the mainstream media, would not compensation, and subsequently economic growth, be running at substantially stronger levels rather than at rates which have been more normally associated with past recessions?


I have my own assumptions and ideas relating to each of these questions. However, the point of this missive is simply to provide you the data for your own analysis. The conclusion you come to has wide-ranging considerations for investment portfolios and allocation models.

Does the data above support the notion of a strongly growing economy that still has “years left to run?”  

Or, does the fact the Fed is considering cutting interest rates to stimulate economic growth suggests the economy may already be weaker than headlines suggest?

One important note to all of this is the conclusion from Achuthan and Banerji:

“But there’s even more cause for concern. Months from now, the Establishment Survey will undergo its annual retrospective benchmark revision, based almost entirely on the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages conducted by the Labor Department. That’s because the QCEW is not just a sample-based survey, but a census that counts jobs at every establishment, meaning that the data are definitive but take time to collect. 

The Establishment Survey’s nonfarm jobs figures will clearly be revised down as the QCEW data show job growth averaging only 177,000 a month in 2018. That means the Establishment Survey may be overstating the real numbers by more than 25%.”

These facts are in sharp contrast to strong job growth narrative.

But then again, maybe the yield-curve is already telling the answer to these questions.

The Fed, QE, & Why Rates Are Going To Zero

On Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, in his opening remarks at a monetary policy conference in Chicago, raised concerns about the rising trade tensions in the U.S.,

“We do not know how or when these issues will be resolved. As always, we will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion, with a strong labor market and inflation near our symmetric 2 percent objective.”

However, while there was nothing “new” in that comment it was his following statement that sent “shorts” scrambling to cover.

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

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

As Zerohedge noted:

“To translate that statement, not only is the Fed ready to cut rates, but it may take ‘unconventional’ tools during the next recession, i.e., NIRP and even more QE.”

This is a very interesting statement considering that these tools, which were indeed unconventional “emergency” measures at the time, have now become standard operating procedure for the Fed.

Yet, these “policy tools” are still untested.

Clearly, QE worked well in lifting asset prices, but not so much for the economy. In other words, QE was ultimately a massive “wealth transfer” from the middle class to the rich which has created one of the greatest wealth gaps in the history of the U.S., not to mention an asset bubble of historic proportions.

However, they have yet to operate within the confines of an economic recession or a mean-reverting event in the financial markets. In simpler terms, no one knows for certain whether the bubbles created by monetary policies are infinitely sustainable? Or, what the consequences will be if they aren’t.

The other concern with restarting monetary policy at this stage of the financial cycle is the backdrop is not conducive for “emergency measures” to be effective. As we wrote in “QE, Then, Now, & Why It May Not Work:”

“If the market fell into a recession tomorrow, the Fed would be starting with roughly a $4 Trillion balance sheet with interest rates 2% lower than they were in 2009. In other words, the ability of the Fed to ‘bail out’ the markets today, is much more limited than it was in 2008.

But there is more to the story than just the Fed’s balance sheet and funds rate. The entire backdrop is completely reversed. The table below compares a variety of financial and economic factors from 2009 to present.

“The critical point here is that QE and rate reductions have the MOST effect when the economy, markets, and investors have been ‘blown out,’ deviations from the ‘norm’ are negatively extended, confidence is hugely negative.

In other words, there is nowhere to go but up.”

The extremely negative environment that existed, particularly in the asset markets, provided a fertile starting point for monetary interventions. Today, as shown in the table above, the economic and fundamental backdrop could not be more diametrically opposed.

This suggests that the Fed’s ability to stem the decline of the next recession, or offset a financial shock to the economy from falling asset prices, may be much more limited than the Fed, and most investors, currently believe.

While Powell is hinting at QE4, it likely will only be employed when rate reductions aren’t enough. Such was noted in 2016 by David Reifschneider, deputy director of the division of research and statistics for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., released a staff working paper entitled “Gauging The Ability Of The FOMC To Respond To Future Recessions.” 

The conclusion was simply this:

“Simulations of the FRB/US model of a severe recession suggest that large-scale asset purchases and forward guidance about the future path of the federal funds rate should be able to provide enough additional accommodation to fully compensate for a more limited [ability] to cut short-term interest rates in most, but probably not all, circumstances.”

In effect, Powell has become aware he has become caught in a liquidity trap. Without continued “emergency measures” the markets, and subsequently economic growth, can not be sustained. This is where David compared three policy approaches to offset the next recession:

  1. Fed funds goes into negative territory but there is no breakdown in the structure of economic relationships.
  2. Fed funds returns to zero and keeps it there long enough for unemployment to return to baseline.
  3. Fed funds returns to zero and the FOMC augments it with additional $2-4 Trillion of QE and forward guidance. 

This is exactly the prescription that Jerome Powell laid out on Tuesday suggesting the Fed is already factoring in a scenario in which a shock to the economy leads to additional QE of either $2 trillion, or in a worst case scenario, $4 trillion, effectively doubling the current size of the Fed’s balance sheet.

This is also why 10-year Treasury rates are going to ZERO.

Why Rates Are Going To Zero

I have been discussing over the last couple of years why the death of the bond bull market has been greatly exaggerated. To wit: (Also read: The Bond Bull Market)

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

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

It’s item #3 that is most important.

In “Debt & Deficits: A Slow Motion Train Wreck” I laid out the data constructs behind the points above.

However, it was in April 2016, when I stated that with more government spending, a budget deficit heading towards $1 Trillion, and real economic growth running well below expectations, the demand for bonds would continue to grow. Even from a purely technical perspective, the trend of interest rates suggested at that time a rate below one-percent was likely during the next economic recession.

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

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

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

With the majority of yield curves that we track now inverted, many economic indicators flashing red, and financial markets dependent on “Fed action” rather than strong fundamentals, it is likely the bond market already knows a problem in brewing.

However, while I am fairly certain the “facts” will play out as they have historically, rest assured that if the “facts” do indeed change, I will gladly change my view.

Currently, there is NO evidence that a change of facts has occurred.

Of course, we aren’t the only ones expecting rates to go to zero. As Bloomberg noted:

“Billionaire Stan Druckenmiller said he could see the Fed funds rate going to zero in the next 18 months if the economy softens and that he recently piled into Treasuries as the U.S. trade war with China escalated.

‘When the Trump tweet went out, I went from 93% invested to net flat, and bought a bunch of Treasuries,’ Druckenmiller said Monday evening, referring to the May 5 tweet from President Donald Trump threatening an increase in tariffs on China. ‘Not because I’m trying to make money, I just don’t want to play in this environment.’”

It has taken a massive amount of interventions by Central Banks to keep economies afloat globally over the last decade and there is rising evidence that growth is beginning to decelerate.

While another $2-4 Trillion in QE might indeed be successful in further inflating the third bubble in asset prices since the turn of the century, there is a finite ability to continue to pull forward future consumption to stimulate economic activity. In other words, there are only so many autos, houses, etc., which can be purchased within a given cycle. 

There is evidence the cycle peak has been reached.

If I am correct, and the effectiveness of rate reductions and QE are diminished due to the reasons detailed herein, the subsequent destruction to the “wealth effect” will be far larger than currently imagined. There is a limit to just how many bonds the Federal Reserve can buy and a deep recession will likely find the Fed powerless to offset much of the negative effects. 

If more “QE” works, great.

But as investors, with our retirement savings at risk, what if it doesn’t?Save

Save

Save

The Message From The Jobs Report – The Economy Is Slowing

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published the March monthly “employment report” which showed an increase in employment of 196,000 jobs. As Mike Shedlock noted on Friday:

“The change in total non-farm payroll employment for January was revised up from +311,000 to +312,000, and the change for February was revised up from +20,000 to +33,000. With these revisions, employment gains in January and February combined were 14,000 more than previously reported. After revisions, job gains have averaged 180,000 per month over the last 3 months.

BLS Jobs Statistics at a Glance

  • Nonfarm Payroll: +196,000 – Establishment Survey
  • Employment: -201,000 – Household Survey
  • Unemployment: -24,000 – Household Survey
  • Involuntary Part-Time Work: +189,000 – Household Survey
  • Voluntary Part-Time Work: +144,000 – Household Survey
  • Baseline Unemployment Rate: Unchanged at 3.8% – Household Survey
  • U-6 unemployment: Unchanged at 7.3% – Household Survey
  • Civilian Non-institutional Population: +145,000
  • Civilian Labor Force: -224,000 – Household Survey
  • Not in Labor Force: +369,000 – Household Survey
  • Participation Rate: -0.2 to 63.0– Household Survey”

There is little argument the streak of employment growth is quite phenomenal and comes amid hopes the economy will continue to avoid a recessionary contraction. When looking at the average rate of employment growth over the last 3-months, as Mike noted at 180,000, there is a clear slowing in the trend of employment. It is this “trend” we will examine more closely today.

While a tremendous amount of attention is focused on the monthly employment numbers, the series is one of the most highly manipulated, guesstimated, and annually revised series produced by any agency. The whole issue of seasonal adjustments, which try to account for temporary changes to employment due to a variety of impacts, is entirely too systematic to be taken at face value. The chart below shows the swings between the non-seasonally adjusted and seasonally adjusted data – anything this rhythmic should be questioned rather than taken at face value as “fact.”

As stated, while most economists focus at employment data from one month to the next for clues as to the strength of the economy, it is the “trend” of the data which is far more important to understand.

The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment before the onset of a recession. The current annual rate of employment growth is 1.4% which is lower than any previous employment level prior to a recession in history.

But while this is a long-term view of the trend of employment in the U.S., what about right now? The chart below shows employment from 1999 to present.

While the recent employment report was slightly above expectations, the annual rate of growth is slowing. The chart above shows two things. The first is the trend of the household employment survey on an annualized basis. Secondly, while the seasonally-adjusted reported showed 196,000 jobs created, the actual household survey showed a loss of 200,000 jobs. 

Many do not like the household survey for a variety of reasons but even if we use the 3-month average of seasonally-adjusted employment we see the same picture. (The 3-month average simply smooths out some of the volatility.)

But here is something else to consider.

While the BLS continually adjusts and fiddles with the data to mathematically adjust for seasonal variations, the purpose of the entire process is to smooth volatile monthly data into a more normalized trend. The problem, of course, with manipulating data through mathematical adjustments, revisions, and tweaks, is the risk of contamination of bias. A simpler method to use for smoothing volatile monthly data is using a 12-month moving average of the raw data as shown below.

Notice that near peaks of employment cycles the employment data deviates from the 12-month average but tends to reconnect as reality emerges. (Also, note the pickup in employment due to the slate of “natural disasters” in late 2017 which are now fading as reconstruction completes)

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

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

However, there is more to this story.

A Function Of Population

One thing which is never discussed when reporting on employment is the “growth” of the working age population. Each month, new entrants into the population create “demand” through their additional consumption. Employment should increase to accommodate the increased demand from more participants in the economy. Either that or companies resort to automation, off-shoring, etc. to increase rates of production without increases in labor costs. The chart below shows the total increase in employment versus the growth of the working age population.

The missing “millions” shown in the chart above is one of the “great mysteries” about one of the longest economic booms in U.S. history. This is particularly a conundrum when the Federal Reserve talks about the economy nearing “full employment.” The Labor Force Participation Rate below shows this great mystery.

Since many conservatives continue to credit President Trump with a booming economy and employment gains, we can look at changes to the labor force participation rate by President as a measure of success. Currently, Trump’s gains are either less than Clinton, the same as Reagan, or tracking Bush Sr.; “spin it” as you will.

Of course, as we are all very aware, there are many people who are working part-time, going to school, etc. But even when we consider just those working “full-time” jobs, particularly when jobless claims are reaching record lows, the percentage of full-time employees is still well below levels of the last 35 years.

“With jobless claims at historic lows, and the unemployment rate at 4%, then why is full-time employment relative to the working-age population at just 50.27% which is down from 50.5% last month?”

It’s All The Baby Boomers Retiring

One of the arguments often given for the low labor force participation rate is that millions of “baby boomers” are leaving the workforce for retirement. This argument doesn’t carry much weight given that the “Millennial” generation, which is significantly larger, is simultaneously entering the workforce. The other problem is shown below, there are more individuals over the age of 55, as a percentage of that age group, in the workforce today than in the last 50-years.

Of course, the reason they aren’t retiring is that they can’t. After two massive bear markets, weak economic growth, questionable spending habits,and poor financial planning, more individuals over the age of 55 are still working because they simply can’t “afford” to retire.

However, for argument sake, let’s assume that every worker over the age of 55 retires. If the “retiring” argument is valid, then employment participation rates should soar once that group is removed. The chart below is full-time employment relative to the working-age population of 16-54.

Importantly, note in the first chart above the number of workers over the age of 55 increased last month. However, employment of 16-54 year olds declined from 50.78% to 50.55%. It is also, the lowest rate since 1985, which was the last time employment was increasing from such low levels.

The other argument is that Millennials are going to school longer than before so they aren’t working either. (We have an excuse for everything these days.) The chart below strips out those of college age (16-24) and those over the age of 55. Uhm…

Here is the same chart of employed 25-54 year olds as a percentage of just that group.

When refined down to this level, talk about data mining, we do actually see recovery, however, after the longest economic expansion on record, a record stock market, and record levels of corporate debt to fund expansions and buybacks; employment ratios for this group are at the same level as seen in 1988. Such should raise the question of just how robust the labor market actually is?

Low initial jobless claims coupled with the historically low unemployment rate are leading many economists to warn of tight labor markets and impending wage inflation. If there is no one to hire, employees have more negotiating leverage according to prevalent theory. While this seems reasonable on its face, further analysis into the employment data suggests these conclusions are not so straightforward.

Strong Labor Statistics

Michael Lebowitz recently pointed out some important considerations in this regard.

“The data certainly suggests that the job market is on fire. While we would like nothing more than to agree, there is other employment data which contradicts that premise.”

For example, if there are indeed very few workers in need of a job, then current workers should have pricing leverage over their employers.  This does not seem to be the case as shown in the graph of personal income below.

Furthermore, a closer inspection of the BLS data reveals that, since 2008, 16 million people were reclassified as “leaving the workforce”. To put those 16 million people into context, from 1985 to 2008, a period almost three times longer than the post-crisis recovery, a similar number of people left the workforce.

Why are so many people struggling to find a job and terminating their search if, as we are repeatedly told, the labor market is so healthy? To explain the juxtaposition of the low jobless claims number and unemployment rate with the low participation rate and weak wage growth, a calculation of the participation rate adjusted unemployment rate is revealing.

When people stop looking for a job, they are still unemployed, but they are not included in the U-3 unemployment calculation. If we include those who quit looking for work in the data, the employment situation is quite different. The graph below compares the U-3 unemployment rate to one that assumes a constant participation rate from 2008 to today. Contrary to the U-3 unemployment rate of 3.90%, this metric implies an adjusted unemployment rate of 8.69%.

Importantly, this number is much more consistent with the data we have laid out above, supports the reasoning behind lower wage growth, and is further confirmed by the Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Employment Index.

(The Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Non-Employment Index including People Working Part-Time for Economic Reasons (NEI+PTER) is a weighted average of all non-employed people and people working part-time for economic reasons expressed as the share of the civilian non-institutionalized population 16 years and older. The weights take into account persistent differences in each group’s likelihood of transitioning back into employment. Because the NEI is more comprehensive and includes tailored weights of non-employed individuals, it arguably provides a more accurate reading of labor market conditions than the standard unemployment rate.)

One of the main factors driving the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates and reduce its balance sheet is the perceived low level of unemployment. Simultaneously, multiple comments from Fed officials suggest they are justifiably confused by some of the signals emanating from the jobs data. As we have argued in the past, the current monetary policy experiment has short-circuited the economy’s traditional traffic signals. None of these signals is more important than employment.

As Michael noted:

“Logic and evidence argue that, despite the self-congratulations of central bankers, good wage-paying jobs are not as plentiful as advertised and the embedded risks in the economy are higher. We must consider the effects that these sequences of policy error might have on the economy – one where growth remains anemic and jobs deceptively elusive.

Given that wages translate directly to personal consumption, a reliable interpretation of employment data has never been more important. Oddly enough, it appears as though that interpretation has never been more misleading. If we are correct that employment is weak, then future rate hikes and the planned reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet will begin to reveal this weakness soon.”

As an aside, it is worth noting that in November of 1969 jobless claims stood at 211,000, having risen slightly from the lows recorded earlier that year. Despite the low number of claims, a recession started a month later, and jobless claims would nearly double within six months. This episode serves as a reminder that every recession followed interim lows in jobless claims and the unemployment rate. We are confident that the dynamics leading to the next recession will not be any different.

But then again, maybe the yield-curve is already giving us the answer.

You Have A “Trading” Problem – 10 Steps To Fix It

In April of 2018, I wrote an article entitled “10-Reasons The Bull Market Ended In 2018” in which I concluded:

“There is a reasonably high possibility, the bull market that started in 2009 has ended. We may not know for a week, a month or even possibly a couple of quarters. Topping processes in markets can take a very long time.

If I am right, the conservative stance and hedges in portfolios will protect capital in the short-term. The reduced volatility allows for a logical approach to further adjustments as the correction becomes more apparent. (The goal is not to be forced into a ‘panic selling’ situation.)

If I am wrong, and the bull market resumes, we simply remove hedges and reallocate equity exposure.

‘There is little risk, in managing risk.’

The end of bull markets can only be verified well after the fact, but therein lies the biggest problem. Waiting for verification requires a greater destruction of capital than we are willing to endure.”

It is important to remember, that “Risk” is simply the function of how much you will lose when you are wrong in your assumptions.

2018 has been a year of predictions gone horribly wrong.

Not surprisingly, after a decade-long bull market, individuals who were betting on a more positive outcome this year are now clinging to “hope.”

Do you remember all of the analysis about how:

  • Rate hikes won’t matter
  • Surging earnings due to tax cuts will power the market higher
  • Valuations are reasonable

These were all issues which we have heavily questioned over the last couple of years.

And the majority of our warnings “fell on deaf ears” as just being simply “bearish.” 

Of course, you really can’t blame the average investor for ignoring fundamental realities considering they have been repeatedly told the stock market is a “sure thing.” Just “buy and hold” and the market will return 10% a year just as it has over the last 100 years.

This fallacy has been so repeatedly espoused by pundits, brokers, financial advisors, and the media that it has become accepted as “truth.”

But, if it were true, then explain why roughly 80% of Americans, according to numerous surveys, have less than one years salary saved up on average? Furthermore, no one who simply bought and held the S&P 500 has ever lost money over a 10- or 20-year time span. Right? 

Not exactly.

Here is the problem.

No matter how resolute people think they are about buying and holding, they usually fall into the same old emotional pattern of “buying high” and “selling low.”

Investors are human beings. As such, we gravitate towards what feels good and we seek to avoid pain. When things are euphoric in the market, typically at the top of a long bull market, we buy when we should be selling. When things are painful, at the end of a bear market, we sell when we should be buying.

In fact, it’s usually the final capitulation of the last remaining “holders” that sets up the end of the bear market and the start of a new bull market. As Sy Harding says in his excellent book “Riding The Bear:” 

“No such creature as a ‘buy and hold’ investor ever emerged from the other side of the subsequent bear market.”

Statistics compiled by Ned Davis Research back up Harding’s assertion. Every time the market declines more than 10%, (and “real” bear markets don’t even officially begin until the decline is 20%), mutual funds experience net outflows of investor money. To wit:

“Lipper also found the largest outflows on record from stocks ($46BN)the largest outflows since December 2015 from taxable bond ($13.4BN) and Investment Grade bond ($3.7BN) funds, and the 4th consecutive week of outflows from high yield bonds ($2.1BN), offset by a panic rush into cash as money market funds attracted over $81BN in inflows, the largest inflow on record.”

“Fear is a stronger emotion than greed.”

Most bear markets last for months (the norm), or even years (both the 1929 and 1966 bear markets), and one can see how the torture of losing money week after week, month after month, would wear down even the most determined “buy and hold” investor.

But the average investor’s pain threshold is a lot lower than that. The research shows that it doesn’t matter if the bear market lasts less than 3 months (like the 1990 bear) or less than 3 days (like the 1987 bear). People will still sell out, usually at the very bottom, and almost always at a loss.

So THAT is how it happens.

And the only way to avoid it – is to avoid owning stocks during bear markets. If you try to ride them out, odds are you’ll fail. And if you believe that we are in a “New Era,” and that bear markets are a thing of the past, your next of kin will have our sympathies.

But you can do something about it.

Just like any “detox” program, these are the steps to follow to becoming a better long-term investor.

10-Step Process To Curing The Addiction

STEP 1: Admitting there is a problem 

The first step in solving any problem is to realize that you have a “trading” problem. Be willing to take the steps necessary to remedy the situation

STEP 2: You are where you are

It doesn’t matter what your portfolio was in March of 2000, March of 2009, or last Friday.  Your portfolio value is exactly what it is, rather it is realized or unrealized. The loss is already lost, and understanding that will help you come to grips with needing to make a change. Open those statements and look at them – shock therapy is usually effective in bringing about awareness.

STEP 3:  You are not a loser

Most people have a tendency to believe that if they “sell a loser,” then they are a “loser” by extension. They try to ignore the situation, or hide the fact they lost money, which in turn causes more mistakes. This only exacerbates the entire problem until they then try to assign blame to anyone and anything else.

You are not a loser. You made an investment mistake. You lost money. 

It has happened to every person that has ever invested in the stock market, and there are many others who lost more than you.

STEP 4:  Accept responsibility

In order to begin the repair process, you must accept responsibility for your situation. It is not the market’s fault. It is not your advisor’s or money manager’s fault, nor is it the fault of Wall Street. 

It is your fault.

Once you accept that it is your fault and begin fixing the problem, rather than postponing the inevitable and suffering further consequences of inaction, only then can you begin to move forward.

STEP 5:  Understand that markets change

Markets change due to a huge variety of factors from interest rates to currency risks, political events, to geo-economic challenges.

If this is a true statement, then how does it make sense to buy and hold?

If markets are in a constant state of flux, and your portfolio remains in a constant state, then the law of change must apply: 

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

Therefore, if you are a buy and hold investor then you have to modify and adapt to an ever-changing environment or you will become extinct.

STEP 6:  Ask for help

This market has baffled, and confused, even the best of investors and will likely continue to do so for a while. So, what chance do you have doing it on your own?

Don’t be afraid to ask, or get help, if you need it. This is no longer a market which will forgive mistakes easily and while you may pay a little for getting help, a helping hand may keep you from making more costly investment mistakes in the future.

STEP 7:  Make change gradually

No one said that change was going to easy or painless. Going against every age-old philosophy and piece of advice you have ever been given about investing is tough, confusing and froth with doubt.

However, make changes gradually at first – test the waters and measure the results. For example, sell the positions that are smallest in size with the greatest loss. You will make no noticeable change in the portfolio right away, but it will make you realize that you can actually execute a sell order without suffering a negative consequence.

Gradually work your way through the portfolio on rallies and cleanse the portfolio of the evil seeds of greed that now populate it, and replace them with a garden of investments that will flourish over time.

STEP 8:  Develop a strategy 

Now that you have cleaned everything up you should be feeling a lot more in control of your portfolio and your investments. Now you are ready to start moving forward in the development of a goal-based investment strategy.

If your portfolio is a hodge-podge of investments, then how do you know whether or not your portfolio will generate the return you need to meet your goals. A goal-based investment strategy builds the portfolio to match investments, and investment vehicles, in an orderly structure to deliver the returns necessary with the least amount of risk possible. Ditch the benchmark index and measure your progress against your investment destination instead.

STEP 9:  Learn it. Live it. Love it.

Once you have designed the strategy, including monthly contributions to the plan, it is time to implement it. This is where the work truly begins.

  • You must learn the plan inside and out so every move you make has a reason and a purpose. 
  • You must live the plan so that adjustments are made to the plan, and the investments, to match performance, time and value horizons.
  • Finally, you must love the plan so that you believe in it and will not deviate from it. 

It must become a part of your daily life, otherwise, it will be sacrificed for whims and moments of weakness.

STEP 10:  Live your life 

That’s it.

You are in control of your situation rather than the situation controlling you.

The markets will continue to remain volatile as a more important “bear market” takes hold in the next year or so.

The good news is that there will be lots of opportunities to make money along the way.

But that is just how it works. As long as you work your plan, the plan will work for you, and you will reach your goals…eventually.

There is no “get rich quick” plan.

So, live your life, enjoy your family, and do whatever it is that you do best. Most importantly, make your portfolio work as hard for you as you did for the money you put into it.

Did The Market Miss Powell’s Real Message?

Last week, I discussed the recent message from Fed Chairman Jerome Powell which sent the markets surging higher.

“During his speech, Powell took to a different tone than seen previously and specifically when he stated that current rates are ‘just below’ the range of estimates for a ‘neutral rate.’ This is a sharply different tone than seen previously when he suggested that a “neutral rate” was still a long way off.

Importantly, while the market surged higher after the comments on the suggestion the Fed was close to ‘being done’ hiking rates, it also suggests the outlook for inflation and economic growth has fallen. With the Fed Funds rate running at near 2%, if the Fed now believes such is close to a ‘neutral rate,’ it would suggest that expectations of economic growth will slow in the quarters ahead from nearly 6.0% in Q2 of 2018 to roughly 2.5% in 2019.”

Since then, the bond market has picked up on that realization as the yield has flattened considerably over the last few days as the 10-year interest rate broke back below the 3% mark. The chart below shows the difference between the 2-year and the 10-year interest rate.

Now, there are many who continue to suggest “this time is different” and an inverted yield curve is not signaling a recession, and Jerome Powell’s recent comments are “in line” with a “Goldilocks economy.”

Maybe.

But historically speaking, while an inversion of the yield curve may not “immediately” coincide with a recessionary onset, given its relationship to economic activity it is likely a “foolish bet” to suggest it won’t. A quick trip though the Fed’s rate hiking history and “soft landing” scenarios give you some clue as to their success.

While the Fed has been acting on previously strong inflationary data due to surging oil prices, the real long-term drivers of inflation pressures weren’t present. I have commented on this previously, but Kevin Giddis from Raymond James had a good note on this:

“We have always known that the bond market wasn’t as worried about inflation as the Fed, but it really needed the Fed to come out and indicate a ‘shift’ in that way of thought to seal the deal.”

This is exactly correct, and despite the many arguments to the contrary we have repeatedly stated the rise in interest rates was a temporary phenomenon as “rates impact real economic activity.” The “real economy,” due to a surge in debt-financed activity, was not nearly strong enough to withstand substantially higher rates. Of course, such has become readily apparent in the recent housing and auto sales data.

Flat As A Pancake

All of sudden, the bond market has woken up to reality after a year-long slumber. The current spread between the 2-year note and the 10-year note is as tight as it has been in many years and has rarely occurred when the economic fundamentals were as strong as many believe.

The reality, of course, is much of the current strength in economic activity is not from organic inputs in a consumer-driven economy, but rather from one-off impacts of several natural disasters, a surge in consumer debt, and a massive surge in deficit spending. To wit:

“The problem is the massive surge in unbridled deficit spending only provides a temporary illusion of economic growth. Over the long-term, debt leads to economic suppression. Currently, the deficit is rapidly approaching $1 Trillion, and will exceed that level in 2019, which will require further increases in the national debt.”

“There is a limited ability to issue debt to pay for excess spending. The problem with running a $1 Trillion deficit during an economic expansion is that it reduces the effectiveness of that tool during the next recession.”

Our assessment of Powell’s change in tone comes from the message the bond market is sending about the risk to the economy. Since economic data is revised in arrears, the onset of a recession will likely surprise most economists when they learn about it “after the fact.”  Let’s go back to Kevin:

“Here is what we know right now:

1) The U.S. economy seems to be slowing, falling under the weight of higher borrowing costs. What’s hard to predict is whether this is a trend change or a temporary pause.

2) The Fed appeared to blink last week, but we won’t know for sure until December 19th when they release their Rate Decision and ‘tell’ the market what the forward-looking path looks like to them.

3) Inflation is well-contained. For all of you who left town riding on the ‘inflation train,’ welcome back.

4) Global economies are weakening and could get weaker.

5) Friday’s release of the Employment Report should give the market guidance on wages, but not much else.

Kevin is correct, take a look at inflation breakeven rates.

It is quite likely these are not temporary stumbles, but rather a more important change in the previous trends. More importantly, the “global weakness” has continued to accelerate and given that roughly 40% of corporate profits are driven by exports, this does not bode well for extremely lofty earnings forecasts going into 2019.

What Powell Really Said

Caroline Baum had an interesting comment on MarketWatch on Tuesday morning:

“I read with interest the articles last week about the Federal Reserve’s new “unpredictable” and “flexible” approach to monetary policy. No longer can financial markets rely on the gradual, premeditated and practically pre-announced adjustments to the benchmark overnight interest rate, according to these analyses. From now on, the Fed will be ‘data dependent.’”

The whole article is worth a read, but the point being made is that the Fed has always been “data dependent” even if their ability to read and interpret the data has been somewhat flawed. The table below is the average range of their predictions for GDP they publish each quarter versus what really happened.

As Caroline noted, the September projections pegged the “neutral rate” range at 2.5-3.5% with a median estimate of 3%. If Powell is indeed suggesting that the neutral rate has fallen to the low-end of that range, he is likely only confirming what the “yield curve” has been telling us for months. As I quoted previously:

“The yield curve itself does not present a threat to the U.S. economy, but it does reflect a change in bond investor expectations about Federal Reserve actions and about the durability of our current economic expansion.”

Importantly, yield curves, like valuations, are “terrible” with respect to the “timing” of the economic slowdown and/or the impact to the financial markets. So, the longer the economy and markets continue to grow without an event, or sign of weakness, investors begin to dismiss the indicator under the premise “this time is different.” 

The spread between the 10-year and 2-year Treasury rates, historically a good predictor of economic recessions, is also suggesting that Powell may have “woken up to smell the coffee.” While the curve is not inverted as of yet, the trend of the spread is clearly warning the economy is much weaker much of the mainstream economists suggests. (The boosts to economic growth are now all beginning to fade and the 2nd-derivative of growth will begin to become more problematic starting in Q4.)

Mr. Powell most likely also realizes that continuing to tighten monetary policy will simply accelerate the time frame to the onset of the next recession. In fact, there have been absolutely ZERO times in history that the Federal Reserve has begun an interest-rate hiking campaign that has not eventually led to a negative outcome.

The only question is the timing.

There are currently too many indicators already suggesting higher rates are impacting interest rate sensitive, and economically important, areas of the economy. The only issue is when investors recognize the obvious and sell in the anticipation of a market decline.

As I discussed previously, the stock market is a strong leading indicator of economic turns and the turmoil this year may be signaling just that.

Believing that professional investors will simply ignore the weight of evidence to contrary in the “hopes” this “might” be different this time is not a good bet as “risk-based” investors will likely act sooner, rather than later. Of course, the contraction in liquidity causes the decline in asset prices which will contribute to the economic contraction as consumer confidence is shattered. Importantly, since recessions are only identified in hindsight when current data is negatively revised in the future, it won’t become “obvious” the yield curve was sending the correct message until far too late to be useful.

While it is unwise to use the “yield curve” as a “market timing” tool, it is just as unwise to completely dismiss the message it is currently sending.

Jeremy Grantham’s Best Long-Term Advice For Investors

Over the weekend, I was reviewing some old commentary and stumbled across a piece from 2012 which contained an excerpt from Jeremy Grantham who is the famed investor at GMO.

I have spoken, and written many times in the past, that the media and Wall Street alike promotes the bullish and optimistic views not because it is correct – but because it sells product. There is no value in telling the retail investor the truth about the risks in the market because investors would pull money out of the market which would reduce Wall Street’s profitability. In other words, the bullish and optimistic marketing machines are good for their bottom line – just not necessarily yours.  This is one of the primary points that Jeremy Grantham brought out in his commentary.

This is a read which is well worth your time and consideration. It speaks to the very issues that we address most often about understanding the long-term risks to your portfolio, investment rules, and the legacy that we are leaving to our children.

It was refreshing and enlightening in 2012. It is just as important and educational today. I have added illustrations to support his points.

Advice From Uncle Polonius

by Jeremy Grantham, GMO

For individual investors setting out on dangerous investment voyages.

Believe in history. In investing Santayana is right: history repeats and repeats, and forget it at your peril. All bubbles break, all investment frenzies pass away. You absolutely must ignore the vested interests of the industry and the inevitable cheerleaders who will assure you that this time it’s a new high plateau or a permanently higher level of productivity, even if that view comes from the Federal Reserve itself. No. Make that, especially if it comes from there. The market is gloriously inefficient and wanders far from fair price but eventually, after breaking your heart and your patience (and, for professionals, those of their clients too), it will go back to fair value. Your task is to survive until that happens. Here’s how.

Neither a lender nor a borrower be.” If you borrow to invest, it will interfere with your survivability. Unleveraged portfolios cannot be stopped out, leveraged portfolios can. Leverage reduces the investor’s critical asset: patience. (To digress, excessive borrowing has turned out to be an even bigger curse than Polonius could have known. It encourages financial aggressiveness, recklessness, and greed. It increases your returns over and over until, suddenly, it ruins you. For individuals, it allows you to have today what you really can’t afford until tomorrow. It has proven to be so seductive that individuals en masse have shown themselves incapable of resisting it, as if it were a drug. Governments also, from the Middle Ages onwards and especially now, it seems, have proven themselves equally incapable of resistance. Any sane society must recognize the lure of debt and pass laws accordingly. Interest payments must absolutely not be tax deductible or preferred in any way. Governments must apparently be treated like Polonius’s children and given limits. By law, cumulative government debt should be given a sensible limit of, say, 50% of GDP, with current transgressions given 10 or 20 years to be corrected.) But, back to investing …

Don’t put all of your treasure in one boat. This is about as obvious as any investment advice could be. It was learned by merchants literally thousands of years ago. Several different investments, the more the merrier, will give your portfolio resilience, the ability to withstand shocks. Clearly, the more investments you have and the more different they are, the more likely you are to survive those critical periods when your big bets move against you.

Be patient and focus on the long term. Wait for the good cards. If you’ve waited, and waited some more, until finally a very cheap market appears, this will be your margin of safety. Now all you have to do is withstand the pain as the very good investment becomes exceptional. Individual stocks usually recover, entire markets always do. If you’ve followed the previous rules, you will outlast the bad news.

Try to contain natural optimism. Optimism has probably been a positive survival characteristic. Our species is optimistic, and successful people are probably more optimistic than average. Some societies are also more optimistic than others: the U.S. and Australia are my two picks. I’m sure (but I’m glad I don’t have to prove it) that it has a lot to do with their economic success. The U.S. in particular encourages risk-taking: failed entrepreneurs are valued, not shunned. But optimism comes with a downside, especially for investors: optimists don’t like to hear bad news. Tell a European you think there’s a housing bubble and you’ll have a reasonable discussion. Tell an Australian and you’ll have World War III. Been there, done that! And in a real stock bubble like that of 2000, bearish news in the U.S. will be greeted like news of the bubonic plague; bearish professionals will be fired just to avoid the dissonance of hearing the bear case, and this is an example where the better the case is made, the more unpleasantness it will elicit. Here again it is easier for an individual to stay cool than it is for a professional who is surrounded by hot news all day long (and sometimes irate clients too). Not easy, but easier.

But on rare occasions, try hard to be brave. You can make bigger bets than professionals can when extreme opportunities present themselves because, for them, the biggest risk that comes from temporary setbacks – extreme loss of clients and business – does not exist for you. So, if the numbers tell you it’s a real outlier of a mispriced market, grit your teeth and go for it. This goes against the natural psychological behaviors of humans.

Resist the crowd: cherish numbers only. We can agree that in real life as opposed to theoretical life, this is the hardest advice to take: the enthusiasm of a crowd is hard to resist. Watching neighbors get rich at the end of a bubble while you sit it out patiently is pure torture. The best way to resist is to do your own simple measurements of value, or find a reliable source (and check their calculations from time to time). Then hero-worship the numbers and try to ignore everything else. Ignore especially short-term news: the ebb and flow of economic and political news is irrelevant. Stock values are based on their entire future value of dividends and earnings going out many decades into the future. Shorter-term economic dips have no appreciable long-term effect on individual companies, let alone the broad asset classes that you should concentrate on. Leave those complexities to the professionals, who will on average lose money trying to decipher them

Remember too that for those great opportunities to avoid pain or make money – the only investment opportunities that really matter – the numbers are almost shockingly obvious: compared to a long-term average of 15 times earnings, the 1929 market peaked at 21 times, but the 2000 S&P 500 tech bubble peaked at 35 times! Conversely, the low in 1982 was under 8 times. This is not about complicated math!

In the end it’s quite simple. Really. GMO predicts asset class returns in a simple and apparently robust way: we assume profit margins and price earnings ratios will move back to long-term average in 7 years from whatever level they are today. We have done this since 1994 and have completed 40 quarterly forecasts. (We started with 10-year forecasts and moved to 7 years more recently.) Well, we have won all 40 in that every one of them has been usefully above random and some have been, well, surprisingly accurate. These estimates are not about nuances or PhDs. They are about ignoring the crowd, working out simple ratios, and being patient. (But, if you are a professional, they would also be about colossal business risk.) These forecasts were done with a robust but simple methodology. The problem is that though they may be simple to produce, they are hard for professionals to implement. Some of you individual investors, however, may find it much easier.

This above all: to thine own self be true.” Most of us tennis players have benefited from playing against non-realists: those who play to some romanticized vision of that glorious September day 20 years earlier, when every backhand drive hit the corner and every drop shot worked, rather than to their currently sadly atrophied skills and diminished physical capabilities. And thank Heavens for them. But doing this in investing is brutally expensive. To be at all effective investing as an individual, it is utterly imperative that you know your limitations as well as your strengths and weaknesses. If you can be patient and ignore the crowd, you will likely win. But to imagine you can, and to then adopt a flawed approach that allows you to be seduced or intimidated by the crowd into jumping in late, or getting out early, is to guarantee a pure disaster. You must know your pain and patience thresholds accurately and not play over your head.

Good luck. Uncle Polonius

Let’s Be Like Japan

There has been a lot of angst lately over the rise in interest rates and the question of whether the government will be able to continue to fund itself given the massive surge in the fiscal deficit since the beginning of the year.

While “spending like drunken sailors” is not a long-term solution to creating economic stability, unbridled fiscal stimulus does support growth in the short-term. Spending on natural disaster recovery last year (3-major hurricanes and two wildfires) led to a pop in Q2 and Q3 economic growth rates. The two recent hurricanes that slammed into South Carolina and Florida were big enough to sustain a bump in activity into early 2019. However, all that activity is simply “pulling forward” future growth.

But the most recent cause of concern behind the rise in interest rates is that there will be a “funding shortage” of U.S. debt at a time where governmental obligations are surging higher. I agree with Kevin Muir on this point who recently noted:

“Well, let me you in on a little secret. The US will have NO trouble funding itself. That’s not what’s going on.

If the bond market was truly worried about US government’s deficits, they would be monkey-hammering the long-end of the bond market. Yet the US 2-year note yields 2.88% while the 30-year bond is only 55 basis points higher at 3.43%. That’s not a yield curve worried about US fiscal situation.

And let’s face it, if Japan can maintain control of their bond market with their bat-shit-crazy debt-to-GDP level of 236%, the US will be just fine for quite some time.”

That’s not a good thing by the way.

Let’s Be Like Japan

“Bad debt is the root of the crisis. Fiscal stimulus may help economies for a couple of years but once the ‘painkilling’ effect wears off, U.S. and European economies will plunge back into crisis. The crisis won’t be over until the nonperforming assets are off the balance sheets of US and European banks.” – Keiichiro Kobayashi, 2010

While Kobayashi will ultimately be right, what he never envisioned was the extent to which Central Banks globally would be willing to go. As my partner Michael Lebowitz pointed out previously:

“Global central banks’ post-financial crisis monetary policies have collectively been more aggressive than anything witnessed in modern financial history. Over the last ten years, the six largest central banks have printed unprecedented amounts of money to purchase approximately $14 trillion of financial assets as shown below. Before the financial crisis of 2008, the only central bank printing money of any consequence was the Peoples Bank of China (PBoC).”

The belief was that by driving asset prices higher, economic growth would follow. Unfortunately, this has yet to be the case as debt both globally and specifically in the U.S. has exploded.

“QE has forced interest rates downward and lowered interest expenses for all debtors. Simultaneously, it boosted the amount of outstanding debt. The net effect is that the global debt burden has grown on a nominal basis and as a percentage of economic growth since 2008. The debt burden has become even more burdensome.”

Not surprisingly, the massive surge in debt has led to an explosion in the financial markets as cheap debt and leverage fueled a speculative frenzy in virtually every asset class.

The continuing mounting of debt from both the public and private sector, combined with rising health care costs, particularly for aging “baby boomers,” are among the factors behind soaring US debt. While “tax reform,” in a “vacuum”  should boost rates of consumption and, ultimately, economic growth, the economic drag of poor demographics and soaring costs, will offset many of the benefits.

The complexity of the current environment implies years of sub-par economic growth ahead as noted by the Fed last week as their long-term projections, along with the CBO, remain mired at 2%.

The US is not the only country facing such a gloomy outlook for public finances, but the current economic overlay displays compelling similarities with Japan in the 1990s.

Also, while it is believed that “tax reform” will fix the problem of lackluster wage growth, create more jobs, and boost economic prosperity, one should at least question the logic given that more expansive spending, as represented in the chart above by the surge in debt, is having no substantial lasting impact on economic growth. As I have written previously, debt is a retardant to organic economic growth as it diverts dollars from productive investment to debt service.

One only needs to look at Japan for an understanding that QE, low-interest rate policies, and expansion of debt have done little economically. Take a look at the chart below which shows the expansion of the BOJ assets versus the growth of GDP and levels of interest rates.

Notice that since 1998, Japan has not achieved a 2% rate of economic growth. Even with interest rates still near zero, economic growth remains mired below one-percent, providing little evidence to support the idea that inflating asset prices by buying assets leads to stronger economic outcomes.

But yet, the current Administration believes our outcome will be different.

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

This is the same problem that Japan has wrestled with for the last 25 years. While Japan has entered into an unprecedented stimulus program (on a relative basis twice as large as the U.S. on an economy 1/3 the size) there is no guarantee that such a program will result in the desired effect of pulling the Japanese economy out of its 30-year deflationary cycle. The problems that face Japan are similar to what we are currently witnessing in the U.S.:

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

The lynchpin to Japan, and the U.S., remains demographics and interest rates. As the aging population grows becoming a net drag on “savings,” the dependency on the “social welfare net” will continue to expand. The “pension problem” is only the tip of the iceberg.

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

Japan, like the U.S., is caught in an on-going “liquidity trap”  where maintaining ultra-low interest rates are the key to sustaining an economic pulse. The unintended consequence of such actions, as we are witnessing in the U.S. currently, is the ongoing battle with deflationary pressures. The lower interest rates go – the less economic return that can be generated. An ultra-low interest rate environment, contrary to mainstream thought, has a negative impact on making productive investments and risk begins to outweigh the potential return.

More importantly, while there are many calling for an end of the “Great Bond Bull Market,” this is unlikely the case for two reasons.

  1. As shown in the chart below, interest rates are relative globally. Rates can’t rise in one country while a majority of global economies are pushing low to negative rates. As has been the case over the last 30-years, so goes Japan, so goes the U.S.
  2. Increases in rates also kill economic growth which drags rates lower. Like Japan, every time rates begin to rise, the economy rolls into a recession. The U.S. will face the same challenges. 

Unfortunately, for the current Administration, the reality is that cutting taxes, tariffs, and sharp increases in debt, is unlikely to change the outcome in the U.S. The reason is simply that monetary interventions, and government spending, don’t create organic, sustainable, economic growth. Simply pulling forward future consumption through monetary policy continues to leave an ever-growing void in the future that must be filled. Eventually, the void will be too great to fill.

But hey, let’s just keep doing the same thing over and over again, which hasn’t worked for anyone as of yet, but we can always hope for a different result. 

What’s the worst that could happen?  

All Markets Are Cyclical – When Will This One End?

I always enjoy reading John Stepek’s work at MoneyWeek. Just recently he addressed the question of where are we in the current market cycle. To wit:

“In his latest memo to clients, [Howard Marks] outlines his basic philosophy and how it affects Oaktree’s investment process at the moment. Marks’ basic point – which appears pretty self-evident, though you’d be surprised by how many people try to deny it – is that markets move in cycles.

The tricky part is trying to work out when the cycle is going to turn.”

This is a fascinating point as it is not just individuals who try and deny that markets, and the economy, move in cycles but also the Federal Reserve and Government agencies. As I noted last week, the Congressional Budget Office is currently estimating the next 10-years of growth in the economy at a steady 2%.

Given this is already approaching the longest economic growth cycle in history, at the lowest rate of growth, and with the Federal Reserve hiking rates, it is highly unlikely the economy will remain “recession free” for another decade. It is also important to note the CBO didn’t predict the recessions in 2001-2002 or in 2008. In fact, in 2000 the CBO predicted the U.S. would be running a $1 Trillion surplus by 2010. They were only off by $2 Trillion when 2010 finally rolled around.

What is clear is that both markets and the economy do not only cycle, but cycle together.

However, knowing when these cycles will occur isn’t that simple. As John notes:

“Of course, it’s not that simple. You might know that winter is coming; you’ll also know when it’s here. But can that knowledge tell you when the first snow will fall – or if it will fall at all?

And there’s your problem right there. Markets might be cyclical but timing them is almost impossible. You might know that the equivalent of an asset-market winter is coming. But you don’t know when it will hit and you don’t know how severe it will be.

So – to put it bluntly – what is the use of a theory of market cycles if it can’t tell you when to invest and when to pull out?”

That is absolutely correct. But it also the same analysis given for valuations.

Just like market and economic cycles, valuations are a horrible “timing” indicator. But like cycles, valuations are simply an indication of expected returns in the future.

As Marks noted there is no magic formula, or timing device, that can tell you “go to cash now” or “go all in today”. However, it is quite obvious that when valuations are elevated, and interest rates are rising, taking on excessive portfolio risk will have a very low future return.

The same goes for market and economic cycles. Today, there are plenty of warning signs which suggest we are nearer the top of this particular cycle versus than not.

As I noted previously:

“Timing, as they say, is everything.

It is worth noting that valuations clearly run in cycles over time. The current evolution of valuations has been extended longer than previous cycles due to 30-years of falling interest rates, massive increases in debt and leverage, unprecedented amounts of artificial stimulus, and government spending.”

No matter how you look at the markets currently, there are substantial signs of excess:

  • Corporate leverage is at all time highs
  • Margin debt is a record levels
  • Investor allocations to equities are pushing record levels
  • Investor allocations to cash are at record lows
  • Investor confidence is at record levels
  • Economic confidence is at record levels
  • Rates are rising
  • Jobless claims are at record lows
  • Stock valuations are at the second highest level in history

Marks also cited several points as well:

  • Private equity funds are raising record amounts of money to invest
  • A record proportion of loans are now classed as “covenant-lite” (ie, few if any protections for the lenders)
  • The quality of debt is deteriorating, and;
  • Investors are paying ever-higher multiples for increasingly-indebted companies.

All of these signs suggest an economy, and a market, that is fully matured with investors are behaving imprudently. In other words, things are as “good as they can get,” which happens at the end of a cycle rather than the beginning.

So, How Long Until This Cycle Ends?

Throughout history, interest rates are at the heart of every cyclical recovery and decline. As I discussed in “Did Something Just Break?”:

“With housing and auto sales already a casualty of higher rates, it won’t be long before it filters through the rest of the economy. The chart below shows nominal GDP versus the 24-month rate of change (ROC) of the 10-year Treasury yield. Not surprisingly, since 1959, every single spike in rates killed the economic growth narrative.”

I urge you not to fall prey to the “This Time Is Different” thought process.

Despite the consensus belief that global growth is gathering steam, there is mounting evidence of financial strain rising throughout the financial ecosystem. The recent spurt of economic growth has been a direct result of massive fiscal stimulus which will fade, wage growth has been weak, and job growth remains below the rate of working-age population growth.

While the talking points of the economy being as “strong as an ox” is certainly “media friendly,” the yield curve, as shown below, is telling a different story. While the spread between 2-year and 10-year Treasury rates has not fallen into negative territory as of yet, they are certainly headed in that direction.

Of course, the yield curve has been a strong predictor of the end of economic and market cycles. As such can it provide us with a clue as to when this cycle is likely to end? As Jesse Colombo recently noted in Forbes:

At the current rate the yield curve is flattening, many economists estimate that the yield curve may invert as soon as December 2018, so we will use that time frame for this exercise. It took an average of 9.7 months between the time that the yield curve inverted and the stock market peaked, which means that the current bull market would peak in September 2019. It also took an average of 5 months between historic market peaks and the start of recessions, which means that the next U.S. recession would start in February 2020, assuming the current cycle follows the historic average perfectly.”

Jesse’s analysis fits with the expectations of two-thirds of economists predictions on the timing of the next recession:

Two-thirds of business economists in the U.S. expect a recession to begin by the end of 2020, while a plurality of respondents say trade policy is the greatest risk to the expansion, according to a new survey.

About 10 percent see the next contraction starting in 2019, 56 percent say 2020 and 33 percent said 2021 or later, according to the Aug. 28-Sept. 17 poll of 51 forecasters issued by the National Association for Business Economics on Monday.

Forty-one percent said the biggest downside risk was trade policy, followed by 18 percent of respondents citing higher interest rates and the same share saying it would be a substantial stock-market decline or volatility.”

See, nothing to worry about for another 12-months.

Not so fast.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Recession

The majority of the analysis of economic data is short-term focused with prognostications based on single data points. For example, let’s take a look at the data below of real economic growth rates:

  • January 1980:        1.43%
  • July 1981:                 4.39%
  • July 1990:                1.73%
  • March 2001:           2.30%
  • December 2007:    1.87%

Each of the dates above shows the growth rate of the economy immediately prior to the onset of a recession.

You will remember that during the entirety of 2007, the majority of the media, analyst, and economic community were proclaiming continued economic growth into the foreseeable future as there was “no sign of recession.”

I myself was rather brutally chastised in December of 2007 when I wrote that:

“We are now either in, or about to be in, the worst recession since the ‘Great Depression.’”

Of course, a full year later, after the annual data revisions had been released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis was the recession officially revealed. Unfortunately, by then it was far too late to matter.

The chart below shows the S&P 500 index with recessions and when the National Bureau of Economic Research dated the start of the recession.

There are three lessons that should be learned from this:

  1. The economic “number” reported today will not be the same when it is revised in the future.
  2. The trend and deviation of the data are far more important than the number itself.
  3. “Record” highs and lows are records for a reason as they denote historical turning points in the data.

Here is the important point.

When will this cycle end? No one really knows for sure.

Will it end? Absolutely. 

The recent spike in rates, combined with rising oil prices, is a toxic brew for a heavily indebted consumer both domestically and globally. The recent rise in rates has already accelerated the timing of the next recession and it is now only a function of time until “something breaks.” 

As Mr. Stepek concludes:

“Be defensive when everyone else is being aggressive. 

Why? So that when the time comes when there are lots of opportunities but hardly any money around (and it will come, because markets are cyclical and winter eventually arrives again), you’ll be in a position to take advantage.

And keep an eye on corporate debt. That’s where we’ll see the strains first.”

While the call of a “recession” may seem far-fetched based on today’s economic data points, no one was calling for a recession in early 2000, or 2007, either. By the time the data is adjusted, and the eventual recession is revealed, it won’t matter as the damage will have already been done.

But then again, “no one could have seen it coming.” Right?

The Two Biggest Threats To This Bull Market

This bull market seems unstoppable.

Regardless of short-term events, investors have quickly looked beyond those risks to in a bid to push stock prices higher. For example, in February of this year the markets dove roughly 10% as “trade wars” became a “thing.”  Over the next two months, the markets vacillated coming to grips with what “Trump’s war with China” would actually mean. Last week, the Administration announced a further $200 billion in tariffs against China, China cancels talks with the U.S., and China imposes similar tariffs against the U.S. – and the market barely budges..

Seemingly, nothing can derail this bull market which is now the “longest in history” by some counts.

However, in my opinion, the two biggest threats to the bull market may very well be the two issues which are the most visible currently – tariffs and interest rates.

Tariffs

One of the biggest drivers of the “bullish thesis” is the explosion in earnings due to the tax cuts passed in December of 2017. However, the issue is that tax cuts only provide a very short-term benefit and, since we compare earnings on a year-over-year basis, growth will drop back towards the growth rate of the economy next year.

For now, the issue has been overlooked due to the surge in earnings from the changes to the tax code as well as the massive surge in repatriated dollars from overseas due to that lower tax rate. As shown by the Federal Reserve:

“Balance of payments data show that U.S. firms repatriated just over $300 billion in 2018:Q1, roughly 30 percent of the estimated stock of offshore cash holdings. For reference, the 2004 tax holiday, which provided a temporary one-year reduction in the repatriation tax rate, resulted in $312 billion repatriated in 2005, of an estimated $750 billion held abroad.”

Of course, while it was expected to go to CapEx and wages, it went to share buybacks instead.

The top 15 firms account for roughly 80 percent of total offshore cash holdings, and roughly 80 percent of their total cash (domestic plus foreign) is held abroad. Following the passage of the TCJA in late December 2017, share buybacks spiked dramatically for the top 15 cash holders, with the ratio of buybacks to assets more than doubling in 2018:Q1.”

Not surprisingly, since buybacks reduce the number of shares outstanding, bottom line EPS surged sharply despite a quarterly decline in revenues/share which slumped from $329.59/share in Q4 to $320.39/share in Q1. 

While the bull market thesis continues to be that earnings expansion will justify higher valuations, such may not be the case. Tariffs, which are a “tax on profits,” could effectively eliminate the majority of the temporary benefits provided by tax cuts to begin with.

“As I wrote recently, the estimated reported earnings for the S&P 500 have already started to be revised lower (so we can play the “beat the estimate game”) but an ongoing trade war could effectively wipe out the entire benefit of the tax cut bill. For the end of 2019, forward reported estimates have declined by roughly $9.00 per share.”

But it isn’t just this year where estimates are falling, but into 2019 as well. The chart below shows the changes in estimates a bit more clearly. It compares where estimates were on January 1st versus April, June, and September 1st. Currently, optimism is exceedingly “optimistic” for the end of 2019.

However, those estimates are likely to be revised down sharply in the months ahead as the number of S&P 500 companies issuing negative EPS guidance is now the highest since 2016.

The more tariffs that are laid on companies which do international business, the more likely we are going to see further decreases in earnings expectations. This is particularly the case given the divergence between the U.S. and the global economy.

“The trade war is now a reality. The recently announced imposition of US tariffs on a further $200 billion of imports from China will have a material impact on global growth and, even though we have now included the 25 percent tariff shock in our GEO [Global Economic Outlook – Ed.] baseline, the downside risks to our global growth forecasts have also increased.” – Fitch Chief Economist Brian Coulton.

Of course, the other issue that will weigh on corporate profitability and earnings is interest rates.

Interest Rates Matter

Yesterday, the Fed hiked interest rates for a third time this year and is set to raise again by the end of the year. With the Fed Funds rate now at 2%, it is equivalent to the Fed’s long-term outlook of the economy and inflation. More importantly, the Fed removed the word “accommodative” from their statement which also suggests they may be nearing the “neutral rate policy setting.” 

Nonetheless, markets have continued to discount the risk of rising rates.

They most likely shouldn’t.

Rising interest rates, like tariffs, are a “tax” on corporations and consumers as borrowing costs rise. When combined with a stronger dollar, which negatively impacts exporters (exports make up roughly 40% of total corporate profits), the catalysts are in place for a problem to emerge.

The chart below compares total non-financial corporate debt to GDP to the 2-year annual rate of change for the 10-year Treasury. As you can see sharply increasing rates have typically preceded either market or economic events. Of course, it is during those events which loan default rates rise, and leverage is reduced, generally not in the most “market-friendly” way.

The same applies for heavily levered households. With household debt is also at historic highs, rising rates eventually lead to a reversion in household net worth.

With leverage, both corporate and household, at historical peaks, the question is not “if” but “when” rising interest rates pricks the debt balloon.

As Doug Kass recently noted – rising interest rates do matter:

  1. The private and public sector have inflated debt loads today. Rising interest rates raise the cost of servicing that debt and reduce spending and productive investment.
  2. Private sector activity is importantly influenced by interest rates:
    • Rising mortgage rates and higher mortgage payments reduce home affordability and hurt home turnover and refinancings.
    • Slowing home sales and reduced refinancings hurt spending on renovations and remodeling.
    • Given record-high auto prices and the difficulty in further lengthening out already long auto loan maturities, rising interest rates will hurt auto sales by raising monthly payments.
    • Consumer, mortgage and corporate loans that are variable rate are hurt by climbing interest rates.
    • The credit markets fall when interest rates rise, serving to have a negative wealth effect on consumers and corporations that own bonds.
    • Rising interest rates impede corporate profit margins, overall profits and earnings per share
    • Debt is issued by corporations in order to buy back stock and pay dividends. Advancing rates reduce a company’s return on investment on those buybacks.
    • Corporate capital spending is partially dependent on borrowings. Higher borrowing costs could lead to lower capital spending.
  3. Public sector activity and profitability are greatly influenced by interest rates:
    • The deficit/GDP ratio will increase as interest rates rise and the expectation for lower future deficits will crumble.
  4. Dividend discount models are based on future estimates of cash flow discounted back at an appropriate interest rate:
    • Rising interest rates reduce the value of those future cash flows and, in turn, the value or worth of a company’s stock.
  5. There is now an alternative to stocks as the yield on the one-month Treasury bill (2.06%) and two-year Treasury note (2.85%) compare favorably to the S&P’s dividend yield of only 1.75%. Additional increases in interest rates will serve as an even more competitive and attractive alternative to stocks.

As I noted previously, the Fed has a bad habit of hiking rates until something breaks.

Stock Market Implications

As long as the backdrop is healthy, in this case strong earnings and economic growth, the markets can fend off attacks from higher rates and geopolitical issues. However, as tariffs attack corporate profitability, and weakens economic growth, it makes the system much more susceptible to the virus of higher rates. This will most likely expose itself as credit-related event which will be blamed for a bigger correction in the market. However, “Patient Zero” will be the Federal Reserve.

Even one of the most bullish individuals on Wall Street, Wharton finance professor Jeremy Siegel, is now turning cautious. While he isn’t abandoning his bullish backdrop for stocks, particularly since he is involved in everything from ETF’s to Robo-advisors, he suggests it is vital for investors to be aware of growing risks stemming from tariffs and interest rates which could spark a sell-off.

“This market has had a great run, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another correction. We have some major challenges. The trade war is not yet resolved.

We’re going to see how hawkish [the Fed] is with the labor market as tight as it is. I still believe that they’re going to be on track for four increases this year. The question is how will they feel about another raise in December. And, I think between the trade situation and the interest rate situation, and then, of course, the midterms in November, there are a lot of challenges facing Wall Street.” – Trading Nation.

While Siegel only expects a sell-off like the one we saw in February of this year, the real risk is of one much deeper in nature. As noted just recently in “Ingredients Of An Event.”

“The risk to investors is NOT just a market decline of 40-50%. The real crisis comes when there is a ‘run on pensions.’ 

This is a $4-5 Trillion problem with no resolve to “fix” the problem before it occurs. This leaves a large number of pensioners already eligible for their pension at risk and the next decline will likely spur the “fear” benefits will be lost entirely. The combined run on the system, which is grossly underfunded at a time when asset prices are dropping, will cause a debacle. With consumers are once again heavily leveraged with sub-prime auto loans, mortgages, and student debt, they too will be forced to liquidate assets to meet payment demands.

All the ingredients for a more severe market correction are currently present. Between Trump’s “trade war” and the Fed insistence on hiking rates,  it certainly seems as if they are “hell-bent” on lighting the fuse.

Employment: It’s The Trend That Matters

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published the August monthly “employment report” which showed an increase in employment of 201,000 jobs. It was also the 94th consecutive positive jobs report which is one of the longest in U.S. history.

There is little argument the streak of employment growth is quite phenomenal and comes amid hopes the economy is beginning to shift into high gear.

But while there were a reported 201,000 jobs created in the month of August, the two prior months were quietly revised lower by 50,000 jobs. For the 3-months combined, the average rate of job growth between June and August was just 185,333 which stands decently below the 211,000 average rates of job growth over the last five years.

Then there is the whole issue of seasonal adjustments which try to account for temporary changes to employment due to seasonal workers. The chart below shows the swings between the non-seasonally adjusted and seasonally adjusted data.

But while most economists focus at employment data from one month to the next for clues as to the strength of the economy, it is actually the “trend” of the data which is far more important to understand.

The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment prior to the onset of a recession. The current annual rate of employment growth is 1.6% which is lower than any previous employment level prior to a recession in history.

But while this is a long-term view of the trend of employment in the U.S., what about right now? The chart below shows employment from 1999 to present.

While the recent employment report was slightly above expectations, the annual rate of growth is slowing. The chart above shows two things. The first is the trend of the household employment survey on an annualized basis. Secondly, while the seasonally-adjusted reported showed 201,000 jobs being created, the actual household survey showed a loss of 423,000 jobs which wiped out all of the job gains in June and July as summer workers returned to school. 

There are many that do not like the household survey for a variety of reasons. However, even if we use the 3-month average of the seasonally-adjusted employment report, we see the exact same picture. (The 3-month average simply smooths out some of the volatility.)

But here is something else to consider.

While the BLS continually adjusts and fiddles with the data to mathematically adjust for seasonal variations, the purpose of the entire process is to smooth volatile monthly data into a more normalized trend. The problem, of course, with manipulating data through mathematical adjustments, revisions, and tweaks, is the risk of contamination of bias. A simpler method to use for smoothing volatile monthly data is using a 12-month moving average of the raw data as shown below.

Notice that near peaks of employment cycles the employment data deviates from the 12-month average but tends to reconnect as reality emerges.

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

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

But there is more to this story.

A Function Of Population

One thing which is never discussed when reporting on employment is the “growth” of the working age population. Each month, new entrants into the population create “demand” through their additional consumption. Employment should increase to accommodate for the increased demand from more participants in the economy. Either that or companies resort to automation, off-shoring, etc. to increase rates of production without increases in labor costs. The chart below shows the total increase in employment versus the growth of the working age population.

The missing “millions” shown in the chart above is one of the “great mysteries” about one of the longest economic booms in U.S. history. This is particularly a conundrum when the Federal Reserve talks about the economy nearing “full employment.” The Labor Force Participation Rate below shows this great mystery.

Of course, as we are all very aware, there are many people who are working part-time, going to school, etc. But even when we consider just those working “full-time” jobs, particularly when jobless claims are reaching record lows, the percentage of full-time employees is still well below levels of the last 35 years.

“With jobless claims at historic lows, and the unemployment rate at 4%, then why is full-time employment relative to the working-age population at just 49.82% which is down from 49.9% last month?”

It’s All The Baby Boomers Retiring

One of the arguments often given for the low labor force participation rate is that millions of “baby boomers” are leaving the workforce for retirement. This argument doesn’t carry much weight given that the “Millennial” generation, which is significantly larger, is simultaneously entering the workforce. The other problem is shown below, there are more individuals over the age of 55, as a percentage of that age group, in the workforce today than in the last 50-years.

Of course, the reason they aren’t retiring is that they can’t. After two massive bear markets, weak economic growth, questionable spending habits,and poor financial planning, more individuals over the age of 55 are still working because they simply can’t “afford” to retire.

However, for argument sake, let’s assume that every worker over the age of 55 retires. If the “retiring” argument is valid, then employment participation rates should soar once that group is removed. The chart below is full-time employment relative to the working-age population of 16-54.

Importantly, note in the first chart above the number of workers over the age of 55 increased last month. However, employment of 16-54 year olds declined from 50.43% to 50.35%. It is also, the lowest rate since 1985, which was the last time employment was increasing from such low levels.

The other argument is that Millennials are going to school longer than before so they aren’t working either. (We have an excuse for everything these days.) The chart below strips out those of college age (16-24) and those over the age of 55.