Tag Archives: QE

Shedlock: Recession Will Be Deeper Than The Great Financial Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

Six Key Points

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

No V-Shaped Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fictional Reserve Lending

Please note that Fictional Reserve Lending Is the New Official Policy

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

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

US Output Drops at Fastest Rate in a Decade

Meanwhile US Output Drops at Fastest Rate in a Decade

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

Lies From China

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

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

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

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

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

I noted 20 “What’s Next?” things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The COVID19 Tripwire

“You better tuck that in. You’re gonna’ get that caught on a tripwire.Lieutenant Dan, Forrest Gump

There is a popular game called Jenga in which a tower of rectangular blocks is arranged to form a sturdy tower. The objective of the game is to take turns removing blocks without causing the tower to fall. At first, the task is as easy as the structure is stable. However, as more blocks are removed, the structure weakens. At some point, a key block is pulled, and the tower collapses. Yes, the collapse is a direct cause of the last block being removed, but piece by piece the structure became increasingly unstable. The last block was the catalyst, but the turns played leading up to that point had just as much to do with the collapse. It was bound to happen; the only question was, which block would cause the tower to give way?

A Coronavirus

Pneumonia of unknown cause first detected in Wuhan, China, was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019. The risks of it becoming a global pandemic (formally labeled COVID-19) was apparent by late January. Unfortunately, it went mostly unnoticed in the United States as China was slow to disclose the matter and many Americans were distracted by impeachment proceedings, bullish equity markets, and other geopolitical disruptions.

The S&P 500 peaked on February 19, 2020, at 3393, up over 5% in the first two months of the year. Over the following four weeks, the stock market dropped 30% in one of the most vicious corrections of broad asset prices ever seen. The collapse erased all of the gains achieved during the prior 3+ years of the Trump administration. The economy likely entered a recession in March.

There will be much discussion and debate in the coming months and years about the dynamics of this stunning period. There is one point that must be made clear so that history can properly record it; the COVID-19 virus did not cause the stock and bond market carnage we have seen so far and are likely to see in the coming months. The virus was the passive triggering mechanism, the tripwire, for an economy full of a decade of monetary policy-induced misallocations and excesses leaving assets priced well beyond perfection.

Never-Ending Gains

It is safe to say that the record-long economic expansion, to which no one saw an end, ended in February 2020 at 128 months. To suggest otherwise is preposterous given what we know about national economic shutdowns and the early look at record Initial Jobless Claims that surpassed three million. Between the trough in the S&P 500 from the financial crisis in March 2009 and the recent February peak, 3,999 days passed. The 10-year rally scored a total holding-period return of 528% and annualized returns of 18.3%. Although the longest expansion on record, those may be the most remarkable risk-adjusted performance numbers considering it was also the weakest U.S. economic expansion on record, as shown below.

They say “being early is wrong,” but the 30-day destruction of valuations erasing over three years of gains, argues that you could have been conservative for the past three years, kept a large allocation in cash, and are now sitting on small losses and a pile of opportunity with the market down 30%.

As we have documented time and again, the market for financial assets was a walking dead man, especially heading into 2020. Total corporate profits were stagnant for the last six years, and the optics of magnified earnings-per-share growth, thanks to trillions in share buybacks, provided the lipstick on the pig.

Passive investors indiscriminately and in most cases, unknowingly, bought $1.5 trillion in over-valued stocks and bonds, helping further push the market to irrational levels. Even Goldman Sachs’ assessment of equity market valuations at the end of 2019, showed all of their valuation measures resting in the 90-99th percentile of historical levels.

Blind Bond Markets

The fixed income markets were also swarming with indiscriminate buyers. The corporate bond market was remarkably overvalued with tight spreads and low yields that in no way offered an appropriate return for the risk being incurred. Investment-grade bonds held the highest concentration of BBB credit in history, most of which did not qualify for that rating by the rating agencies’ own guidelines. The junk bond sector was full of companies that did not produce profits, many of whom were zombies by definition, meaning the company did not generate enough operating income to cover their debt servicing costs. The same held for leveraged loans and collateralized loan obligations with low to no covenants imposed. And yet, investors showed up to feed at the trough. After all, one must reach for extra yield even if it means forgoing all discipline and prudence.

To say that no lessons were learned from 2008 is an understatement.

Black Swan

Meanwhile, as the markets priced to ridiculous valuations, corporate executives and financial advisors got paid handsomely, encouraging shareholders and clients to throw caution to the wind and chase the market ever higher. Thanks also to imprudent monetary policies aimed explicitly at propping up indefensible valuations, the market was at risk due to any disruption.

What happened, however, was not a slow leaking of the market as occurred leading into the 2008 crisis, but a doozy of a gut punch in the form of a pandemic. Markets do not correct by 30% in 30 days unless they are extremely overvalued, no matter the cause. We admire the optimism of formerly super-intelligent bulls who bought every dip on the way down. Ask your advisor not just to tell you how he is personally invested at this time, ask him to show you. You may find them to be far more conservative in their investment posture than what they recommend for clients. Why? Because they get paid on your imprudently aggressive posture, and they do not typically “eat their own cooking”. The advisor gets paid more to have you chasing returns as opposed to avoiding large losses.

Summary

We are facing a new world order of DE-globalization. Supply chains will be fractured and re-oriented. Products will cost more as a result. Inflation will rise. Interest rates, therefore, also will increase contingent upon Fed intervention. We have become accustomed to accessing many cheap foreign-made goods, the price for which will now be altered higher or altogether beyond our reach. For most people, these events and outcomes remain inconceivable. The widespread expectation is that at some point in the not too distant future, we will return to the relative stability and tranquility of 2019. That assuredly will not be the case.

Society as a whole does not yet grasp what this will mean, but as we are fond of saying, “you cannot predict, but you can prepare.” That said, we need to be good neighbors and good stewards and alert one another to the rapid changes taking place in our communities, states, and nation. Neither investors nor Americans, in general, can afford to be intellectually lazy.

The COVID-19 virus triggered these changes, and they will have an enormous and lasting impact on our lives much as 9-11 did. Over time, as we experience these changes, our brains will think differently, and our decision-making will change. Given a world where resources are scarce and our proclivity to – since it is made in China and “cheap” – be wasteful, this will probably be a good change. Instead of scoffing at the frugality of our grandparents, we just might begin to see their wisdom. As a nation, we may start to understand what it means to “save for a rainy day.”

Save, remember that forgotten word.

As those things transpire – maybe slowly, maybe rapidly – people will also begin to see the folly in the expedience of monetary and fiscal policy of the past 40 years. Expedience such as the Greenspan Put, quantitative easing, and expanding deficits with an economy at full employment. Doing “what works” in the short term often times conflicts with doing what is best for the most people over the long term.

Technically Speaking: 5-Questions Bulls Need To Answer Now.

In last Tuesday’s Technically Speaking post, I stated:

From a purely technical basis, the extreme downside extension, and potential selling exhaustion, has set the markets up for a fairly strong reflexive bounce. This is where fun with math comes in.

As shown in the chart below, after a 35% decline in the markets from the previous highs, a rally to the 38.2% Fibonacci retracement would encompass a 20% advance.

Such an advance will ‘lure’ investors back into the market, thinking the ‘bear market’ is over.”

Chart Updated Through Monday

Not surprisingly, as we noted in this weekend’s newsletter, the headlines from the mainstream media aligned with our expectations:

So, is the bear market over? 

Are the bulls now back in charge?

Honestly, no one knows for certain. However, there are 5-questions that “Market Bulls” need to answer if the current rally is to be sustained.

These questions are not entirely technical, but since “technical analysis” is simply the visualization of market psychology, how you answer the questions will ultimately be reflected by the price dynamics of the market.

Let’s get to work.

Employment

Employment is the lifeblood of the economy.  Individuals cannot consume goods and services if they do not have a job from which they can derive income. From that consumption comes corporate profits and earnings.

Therefore, for individuals to consume at a rate to provide for sustainable, organic (non-Fed supported), economic growth they must work at a level that provides a sustainable living wage above the poverty level. This means full-time employment that provides benefits, and a livable wage. The chart below shows the number of full-time employees relative to the population. I have also overlaid jobless claims (inverted scale), which shows that when claims fall to current levels, it has generally marked the end of the employment cycle and preceded the onset of a recession.

This erosion in jobless claims has only just begun. As jobless claims and continuing claims rise, it will lead to a sharp deceleration in economic confidence. Confidence is the primary factor of consumptive behaviors, which is why the Federal Reserve acted so quickly to inject liquidity into the financial markets. While the Fed’s actions may prop up financial markets in the short-term, it does little to affect the most significant factor weighing on consumers – their job. 


Question:  Given that employment is just starting to decline, does such support the assumption of a continued bull market?


Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE)

Following through from employment, once individuals receive their paycheck, they then consume goods and services in order to live.

This is a crucial economic concept to understand, which is the order in which the economy functions. Consumers must “produce” first, so they receive a paycheck, before they can “consume.”  This is also the primary problem of Stephanie Kelton’s “Modern Monetary Theory,” which disincentivizes the productive capacity of the population.

Given that Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) is a measure of that consumption, and comprises roughly 70% of the GDP calculation, its relative strength has great bearing on the outcome of economic growth.

More importantly, PCE is the direct contributor to the sales of corporations, which generates their gross revenue. So goes personal consumption – so goes revenue. The lower the revenue that flows into company coffers, the more inclined businesses are to cut costs, including employment and stock buybacks, to maintain profit margins.

The chart below is a comparison of the annualized change in PCE to corporate fixed investment and employment. I have made some estimates for the first quarter based on recent data points.


Question: Does the current weakness in PCE and Fixed Investment support the expectations for a continued bull market from current price levels? 


Junk Bonds & Margin Debt

While global Central Banks have lulled investors into an expanded sense of complacency through years of monetary support, it has led to willful blindness of underlying risk. As we discussed in “Investor’s Dilemma:”

Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) refers to a learning procedure in which a potent stimulus (e.g. food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell). What Pavlov discovered is that when the neutral stimulus was introduced, the dogs would begin to salivate in anticipation of the potent stimulus, even though it was not currently present. This learning process results from the psychological “pairing” of the stimuli.”

That “stimuli” over the last decade has been Central Bank interventions. During that period, the complete lack of “fear” in markets, combined with a “chase for yield,” drove “risk” assets to record levels along with leverage. The chart below shows the relationship between margin debt (leverage), stocks, and junk bond yields (which have been inverted for better relevance.)

While asset prices declined sharply in March, it has done little to significantly revert either junk bond yields or margin debt to levels normally consistent with the beginning of a new “bull market.”

With oil prices falling below $20/bbl, a tremendous amount of debt tied to the energy space, and the impact the energy sector has on the broader economy, it is likely too soon to suggest the markets have fully “priced in” the damage being done.


Question:  What happens to asset prices if more bankruptcies and forced deleveraging occurs?


Corporate Profits/Earnings

As noted above, if the “bull market” is back, then stocks should be pricing in stronger earnings going forward. However, given the potential shakeout in employment, which will lower consumption, stronger earnings, and corporate profits, are not likely in the near term.

The risk to earnings is even higher than many suspect, given that over the last several years, companies have manufactured profitability through a variety of accounting gimmicks, but primarily through share buybacks from increased leverage. That cycle has now come to an end, but before it did it created a massive deviation of the stock market from corporate profitability.

“If the economy is slowing down, revenue and corporate profit growth will decline also. However, it is this point which the ‘bulls’ should be paying attention to. Many are dismissing currently high valuations under the guise of ‘low interest rates,’ however, the one thing you should not dismiss, and cannot make an excuse for, is the massive deviation between the market and corporate profits after tax. The only other time in history the difference was this great was in 1999.”

It isn’t just the deviation of asset prices from corporate profitability, which is skewed, but also reported earnings per share.

The impending recession, and consumption freeze, is going to start the mean-reversion process in both corporate profits, and earnings. I have projected the potential reversion in the chart below. The reversion in GAAP earnings is pretty calculable as swings from peaks to troughs have run on a fairly consistent trend.

Using that historical context, we can project a recession will reduce earnings to roughly $100/share. (Goldman Sachs currently estimates $110.) The resulting decline asset prices to revert valuations to a level of 18x (still high) trailing earnings would suggest a level of 1800 for the S&P 500 index. (Yesterday’s close of 2626 is still way to elevated.)

The decline in economic growth epitomizes the problem that corporations face today in trying to maintain profitability. The chart below shows corporate profits as a percentage of GDP relative to the annual change in GDP. The last time that corporate profits diverged from GDP, it was unable to sustain that divergence for long. As the economy declines, so will corporate profits and earnings.


Question: How long can asset prices remain divorced from falling corporate profits and weaker economic growth?


Technical Pressure

Given all of the issues discussed above, which must ultimately be reflected in market prices, the technical picture of the market also suggests the recent “bear market” rally will likely fade sooner than later. As noted above”

Such an advance will ‘lure’ investors back into the market, thinking the ‘bear market’ is over.”

Importantly, despite the sizable rally, participation has remained extraordinarily weak. If the market was seeing strong buying, as suggested by the media, then we should see sizable upticks in the percent measures of advancing issues, issues at new highs, and a rising number of stocks above their 200-dma.

However, on a longer-term basis, since this is the end of the month, and quarter, we can look at our quarterly buy/sell indication which has triggered a “sell” signal for the first time since 2015. While such a signal does not demand a major reversion, it does suggest there is likely more risk to the markets currently than many expect.


Question:  Does the technical backdrop currently support the resumption of a bull market?


There are reasons to be optimistic on the markets in the very short-term. However, we are continuing to extend the amount of time the economy will be “shut down,” which will exacerbate the decline in the unemployment and personal consumption data. The feedback loop from that data into corporate profits and earnings is going to make valuations more problematic even with low interest rates currently. 

While Central Banks have rushed into a “burning building with a fire hose” of liquidity, there is the risk that after a decade of excess debt, leverage, and misallocation of assets, the “fire” may be too hot for them to put out.

Assuming that the “bear market” is over already may be a bit premature, and chasing what seems like a “raging bull market” is likely going to disappoint you.

Bear markets have a way of “suckering” investors back into the market to inflict the most pain possible. This is why “bear markets” never end with optimism, but in despair.

Seth Levine: COVID-19 Is Not The Last War

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

Caveat Emptor

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

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

The Whole Kit and Caboodle

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

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

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

The Last War

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

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

This War

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

Source: Variant Perception

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

Decentralized Solutions Needed

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

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

Fishing With Dynamite

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

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

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

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

Daniel Want, 2020 03 14 Prerequisite Update pt 4

What To Do

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

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

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

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

Why QE Is Not Working

The process by which money is created is so simple that the mind is repelled.” – JK Galbraith

By formally announcing quantitative easing (QE) infinity on March 23, 2020, the Federal Reserve (Fed) is using its entire arsenal of monetary stimulus. Unlimited purchases of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities for an indefinite period is far more dramatic than anything they did in 2008. The Fed also revived other financial crisis programs like the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) and created a new special purpose vehicle (SPV), allowing them to buy investment-grade corporate bonds and related ETF’s. The purpose of these unprecedented actions is to unfreeze the credit markets, stem financial market losses, and provide some ballast to the economy.

Most investors seem unable to grasp why the Fed’s actions have been, thus far, ineffective. In this article, we explain why today is different from the past. The Fed’s current predicament is unique as they have never been totally up against the wall of zero-bound interest rates heading into a crisis. Their remaining tools become more controversial and more limited with the Fed Funds rate at zero. Our objective is to assess when the monetary medicine might begin to work and share our thoughts about what is currently impeding it.

All Money is Lent in Existence.

That sentence may be the most crucial concept to understand if you are to make sense of the Fed’s actions and assess their effectiveness.

Under the traditional fractional reserve banking system run by the U.S. and most other countries, money is “created” via loans. Here is a simple example:

  • John deposits a thousand dollars into his bank
  • The bank is allowed to lend 90% of their deposits (keeping 10% in “reserves”)
  • Anne borrows $900 from the same bank and buys a widget from Tommy
  • Tommy then deposits $900 into his checking account at the same bank
  • The bank then lends to someone who needs $810 and they spend that money, etc…

After Tommy’s deposit, there is still only $1,000 of reserves in the banking system, but the two depositors believe they have a total of $1,900 in their bank accounts.  The bank’s accountants would confirm that. To make the bank’s accounting balance, Anne owes the bank $900. The money supply, in this case, is $1,900 despite the amount of real money only being $1,000.

That process continually feeds off the original $1,000 deposit with more loans and more deposits. Taken to its logical conclusion, it eventually creates $9,000 in “new” money through the process from the original $1,000 deposit.

To summarize, we have $1,000 in deposited funds, $10,000 in various bank accounts and $9,000 in new debt. While it may seem “repulsive” and risky, this system is the standard operating procedure for banks and a very effective and powerful tool for generating profits and supporting economic growth. However, if everyone wanted to take their money out at the same time, the bank would not have it to give. They only have the original $1,000 of reserves.

How The Fed Operates

Manipulating the money supply through QE and Fed Funds targeting are the primary tools the Fed uses to conduct monetary policy. As an aside, QE is arguably a controversial blend of monetary and fiscal policy.

When the Fed provides banks with reserves, their intent is to increase the amount of debt and therefore the money supply. As such, more money should result in lower interest rates. Conversely, when they take away reserves, the money supply should decline and interest rates rise. It is important to understand, the Fed does not set the Fed Funds rate by decree, but rather by the aforementioned monetary actions to incentivize banks to increase or reduce the money supply.

The following graph compares the amount of domestic debt outstanding versus the monetary base.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Why is QE not working?

So with an understanding of how money is created through fractional reserve banking and the role the Fed plays in manipulating the money supply, let’s explore why QE helped boost asset prices in the past but is not yet potent this time around.

In our simple banking example, if Anne defaults on her loan, the money supply would decline from $1,900 to $1,000. With a reduced money supply, interest rates would rise as the supply of money is more limited today than yesterday. In this isolated example, the Fed might purchase bonds and, in doing so, conjure reserves onto bank balance sheets through the magic of the digital printing press. Typically the banks would then create money and offset the amount of Anne’s default.  The problem the Fed has today is that Anne is defaulting on some of her debt and, at the same time, John and Tommy need and want to withdraw some of their money.

The money supply is declining due to defaults and falling asset prices, and at the same time, there is a greater demand for cash. This is not just a domestic issue, but a global one, as the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

For the Fed to effectively stimulate financial markets and the economy, they first have to replace the money which has been destroyed due to defaults and lower asset prices. Think of this as a hole the Fed is trying to fill. Until the hole is filled, the new money will not be effective in stimulating the broad economy, but instead will only help limit the erosion of the financial system and yes, it is a stealth form of bailout. Again, from our example, if the banks created new money, it would only replace Anne’s default and would not be stimulative.

During the latter part of QE 1, when mortgage defaults slowed, and for all of the QE 2 and QE 3 periods, the Fed was not “filling a hole.” You can think of their actions as piling dirt on top of a filled hole.

These monetary operations enabled banks to create more money, of which a good amount went mainly towards speculative means and resulted in inflated financial asset prices. It certainly could have been lent toward productive endeavors, but banks have been conservative and much more heavily regulated since the crisis and prefer the liquid collateral supplied with market-oriented loans.

QE 4 (Treasury bills) and the new repo facilities introduced in the fall of 2019 also stimulated speculative investing as the Fed once again piled up dirt on top of a filled hold.  The situation changed drastically on February 19, 2020, as the virus started impacting perspectives around supply chains, economic growth, and unemployment in the global economy. Now QE 4, Fed-sponsored Repo, QE infinity, and a smorgasbord of other Fed programs are required measures to fill the hole.

However, there is one critical caveat to the situation.

As stated earlier, the Fed conducts policy by incentivizing the banking system to alter the supply of money. If the banks are concerned with their financial situation or that of others, they will be reluctant to lend and therefore impede the Fed’s efforts. This is clearly occurring, making the hole progressively more challenging to fill. The same thing happened in 2008 as banks became increasingly suspect in terms of potential losses due to their exorbitant leverage. That problem was solved by changing the rules around how banks were required to report mark-to-market losses by the Federal Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Despite the multitude of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus failures over the previous 18 months, that simple re-writing of an accounting rule caused the market to turn on a dime in March 2009. The hole was suddenly over-filled by what amounted to an accounting gimmick.

Summary

Are Fed actions making headway on filling the hole, or is the hole growing faster than the Fed can shovel as a result of a tsunami of liquidity problems? A declining dollar and stability in the short-term credit markets are essential gauges to assess the Fed’s progress.

The Fed will eventually fill the hole, and if the past is repeated, they will heap a lot of extra dirt on top of the hole and leave it there for a long time. The problem with that excess dirt is the consequences of excessive monetary policy. Those same excesses created after the financial crisis led to an unstable financial situation with which we are now dealing.

While we must stay heavily focused on the here and now, we must also consider the future consequences of their actions. We will undoubtedly share more on this in upcoming articles.

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

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

Bond Market Dislocations Remain

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

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

$IRX 3-Month Yield

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

Regardless, these swings are not normal.

Cash Crunch

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

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

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

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

4th Largest Jump in History

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

Margin and Short Covering

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

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

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

Need a Better Hedge

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

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

Dash to Cash

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

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

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

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

Fed Opens More Dollar Swap Lines

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

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

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

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

Fed Does Another Emergency Repo and Relaunches Commercial Paper Facility

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

Very Deflationary Outcome Has Begun: Blame the Fed

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

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

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


BIS Deflation Study

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing the Blame

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

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

Dollar Irony

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

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

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

Unemployment Set To Explode

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

Please consider the Results of SurveyUSA Coronavirus News Poll.

Key Findings

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

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

Grim Survey of Reduced Hours

Current Unemployment Stats

Data from latest BLS Jobs Report.

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

Baseline Unemployment Estimate (U3)

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

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

Underemployment Estimate (U6)

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

Whoa Nellie

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

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

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

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

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

Very Deflationary Outcome Has Begun: Blame the Fed

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

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

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

BIS Deflation Study

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing the Blame

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

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

Dollar Irony

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

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

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

Shedlock: Supply And Demand Shocks Coming Up

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

Rare Supply-Demand Shocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowest Since the Financial Crisis


Inflationary or Deflationary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be sudden.

Bad Timing

Stockpiling

Deflation Risk Rising

Another Reason to Avoid Stores – Deflationary

Hugely Deflationary – Weak Demand

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

I did find this.

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

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

These are the important point all the inflationistas miss.

Seth Levine: Commoditizing My Framework For A New Paradigm

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

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

Money Now for Money Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything’s Commodity-like

In a recent client letter, Want notes that:

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

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

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

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

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

Seth Klarman, Margin of Safety via ValueWalk

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

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

The Commodity-like World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reframing for the New Paradigm

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

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

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

Appendix: Speculation Rises as Yields Fall

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

Example: Initial Bond

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

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

Example: Falling Coupon

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

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

Example: Shortened Maturity

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

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

Example: Pre-maturity Sale

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

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

Conclusion

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

#MacroView: Japan, The Fed, & The Limits Of QE

This past week saw a couple of interesting developments.

On Wednesday, the Fed released the minutes from their January meeting with comments which largely bypassed overly bullish investors.

“… several participants observed that equity, corporate debt, and CRE valuations were elevated and drew attention to  high levels of corporate indebtedness and weak underwriting standards in leveraged loan markets. Some participants expressed the concern that financial imbalances-including overvaluation and excessive indebtedness-could amplify an adverse shock to the economy …”

“… many participants remarked that the Committee should not rule out the possibility of adjusting the stance of monetary policy to mitigate financial stability risks, particularly when those risks have important implications for the economic outlook and when macroprudential tools had been or were likely to be ineffective at mitigating those risks…”

The Fed recognizes their ongoing monetary interventions have created financial risks in terms of asset bubbles across multiple asset classes. They are also aware that the majority of the policy tools are likely ineffective at mitigating financial risks in the future. This leaves them being dependent on expanding their balance sheet as their primary weapon.

Interestingly, the weapon they are dependent on may not be as effective as they hope. 

This past week, Japan reported a very sharp drop in economic growth in their latest reported quarter as a further increase in the sales-tax hit consumption. While the decline was quickly dismissed by the markets, this was a pre-coronovirus impact, which suggests that Japan will enter into an “official” recession in the next quarter.

There is more to this story.

Since the financial crisis, Japan has been running a massive “quantitative easing” program which, on a relative basis, is more than 3-times the size of that in the U.S. However, while stock markets have performed well with Central Bank interventions, economic prosperity is only slightly higher than it was prior to the turn of century.

Furthermore, despite the BOJ’s balance sheet consuming 80% of the ETF markets, not to mention a sizable chunk of the corporate and government debt market, Japan has been plagued by rolling recessions, low inflation, and low-interest rates. (Japan’s 10-year Treasury rate fell into negative territory for the second time in recent years.)

Why is this important? Because Japan is a microcosm of what is happening in the U.S. As I noted previously:

The U.S., like Japan, is caught in an ongoing ‘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 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.

Most importantly, while there are many calling for an end of the ‘Great Bond Bull Market,’ this is unlikely the case. As shown in the chart below, interest rates are relative globally. Rates can’t increase in one country while a majority of economies are pushing negative rates. As has been the case over the last 30-years, so goes Japan, so goes the U.S.”

As my colleague Doug Kass recently noted, Japan is a template of the fragility of global economic growth. 

“Global growth continues to slow and the negative impact on demand and the broad supply interruptions will likely expose the weakness of the foundation and trajectory of worldwide economic growth. This is particularly dangerous as the monetary ammunition has basically been used up.

As we have observed, monetary growth (and QE) can mechanically elevate and inflate the equity markets. For example, now in the U.S. market, basic theory is that in practice a side effect is that via the ‘repo’ market it is turned into leveraged trades into the equity markets. But, again, authorities are running out of bullets and have begun to question the efficacy of monetary largess.

Bigger picture takeaway is beyond the fact that financial engineering does not help an economy, it probably hurts it. If it helped, after mega-doses of the stuff in every imaginable form, the Japanese economy would be humming. But the Japanese economy is doing the opposite. Japan tried to substitute monetary policy for sound fiscal and economic policy. And the result is terrible.

While financial engineering clearly props up asset prices, I think Japan is a very good example that financial engineering not only does nothing for an economy over the medium to longer-term, it actually has negative consequences.” 

This is a key point.

The “Stock Market” Is NOT The “Economy.”

Roughly 90% of the population gets little, or no, direct benefit from the rise in stock market prices.

Another way to view this issue is by looking at household net worth growth between the top 10% to everyone else.

Since 2007, the ONLY group that has seen an increase in net worth is the top 10% of the population.


“This is not economic prosperity.

This is a distortion of economics.”


From 2009-2016, the Federal Reserve held rates at 0%, and flooded the financial system with 3-consecutive rounds of “Quantitative Easing” or “Q.E.” During that period, average real rates of economic growth rates never rose much above 2%.

Yes, asset prices surged as liquidity flooded the markets, but as noted above “Q.E.” programs did not translate into economic activity. The two 4-panel charts below shows the entirety of the Fed’s balance sheet expansion program (as a percentage) and its relative impact on various parts of the real economy. (The orange bar shows now many dollars of increase in the Fed’s balance sheet that it took to create an increase in each data point.)

As you can see, it took trillions in “QE” programs, not to mention trillions in a variety of other bailout programs, to create a relatively minimal increase in economic data. Of course, this explains the growing wealth gap, which currently exists as monetary policy lifted asset prices.

The table above shows that QE1 came immediately following the financial crisis and had an effective ratio of about 1.6:1. In other words, it took a 1.6% increase in the balance sheet to create a 1% advance in the S&P 500. However, once market participants figured out the transmission system, QE2 and QE3 had an almost perfect 1:1 ratio of effectiveness. The ECB’s QE program, which was implemented in 2015 to support concerns of an unruly “Brexit,” had an effective ratio of 1.5:1. Not surprisingly, the latest round of QE, which rang “Pavlov’s bell,” has moved back to a near perfect 1:1 ratio.

Clearly, QE worked well in lifting asset prices, but as shown above, 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.

But Will It Work Next Time?

This is the single most important question for investors.

The current belief is that QE will be implemented at the first hint of a more protracted downturn in the market. However, as suggested by the Fed, QE will likely only be employed when rate reductions aren’t enough. This was a point made 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 other words, the Federal Reserve is rapidly becoming aware they have become caught in a liquidity trap keeping them unable to raise interest rates sufficiently to reload that particular policy tool. There are certainly growing indications the U.S. economy maybe be heading towards the next recession. 

Interestingly, 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. 

In other words, 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.

So, 2-years ago David lays out the plan, and on Wednesday, the Fed reiterates that plan.

Does the Fed see a recession on the horizon? Is this why there are concerns about valuations?

Maybe.

But there is a problem with the entire analysis. The effectiveness of QE, and zero interest rates, is based on the point at which you apply these measures.

In 2008, when the Fed launched into their “accommodative policy” emergency strategy to bail out the financial markets, the Fed’s balance sheet was running at $915 Billion. The Fed Funds rate was at 4.2%.

If the market fell into a recession tomorrow, the Fed would be starting with a $4.2 Trillion balance sheet with interest rates 3% 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.

Importantly, QE, and rate reductions, have the MOST effect when the economy, markets, and investors are extremely negative.

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

Such was the case in 2009. Not today.

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.

Summary

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.

Furthermore, we have much more akin with Japan than many would like to believe.

  • A decline in savings rates
  • An aging demographic
  • A heavily indebted economy
  • A decline in exports
  • Slowing domestic economic growth rates.
  • An underemployed younger demographic.
  • An inelastic supply-demand curve
  • Weak industrial production
  • Dependence on productivity increases

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.

While another $2-4 Trillion in QE might indeed be successful in keeping the bubble inflated for a while longer, there is a limit to the ability to continue pulling 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 the effectiveness of rate reductions and QE are diminished due to the reasons detailed herein, the subsequent destruction to the “wealth effect” will be larger than currently imagined. The Fed’s biggest fear is finding themselves powerless to offset the negative impacts of the next recession. 

If more “QE” works, great.

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

Why “Not-QE” is QE: Deciphering Gibberish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is QE?

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

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

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

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

Is “Not-QE” QE?

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

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

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

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

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

Simply:

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

Point 1

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

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

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

Point 2

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

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

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

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

Point 3

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

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

Bad Advice

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

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

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

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

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

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

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bloomberg Econoday Synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recession Arithmetic: What Would It Take?

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

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

Here is the chart he presented.

Fixed Investment, Imports, Government Share of GDP


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

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

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

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

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

Fixed Investment Year-Over-Year

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

Fixed Investment Year-Over-Year Detail

Fixed Investment Tipping Point

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

Manufacturing Has Peaked This Economic Cycle

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

Key Manufacturing Details

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

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

Manufacturing Jobs

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

PPI Confirmation

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

Shipping Confirmation

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

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

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

Seth Levine: The Unsurprising Repo Surprise

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

What is Repo

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

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

What Went Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

Centralization Breeds Instability

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

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

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

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

Merely a Matter of Time

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

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

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

Principles Bring Clarity

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

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

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

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

Yeah…But

Yeah… Barry Bonds, a Major League Baseball (MLB) player, put up some amazing stats in his career. What sets him apart from other players is that he got better in the later years of his career, a time when most players see their production rapidly decline.

Before the age of 30, Bonds hit a home run every 5.9% of the time he was at bat. After his 30th birthday, that rate almost doubled to over 10%. From age 36 to 39, he hit an astounding .351, well above his lifetime .298 batting average. Of all Major League baseball players over the age of 35, Bonds leads in home runs, slugging percentage, runs created, extra-base hits, and home runs per at bat. We would be remiss if we neglected to mention that Barry Bonds hit a record 762 homeruns in his MLB career and he also holds the MLB record for most home runs in a season with 73.

But… as we found out after those records were broken, Bond’s extraordinary statistics were not because of practice, a new batting stance, maturity, or other organic factors. It was his use of steroids. The same steroids that allowed Bonds to get stronger, heal quicker, and produce Hall of Fame statistics will also take a toll on his health in the years ahead.  

Turn on CNBC or Bloomberg News, and you will inevitably hear the hosts and interviewees rave on and on about the booming markets, low unemployment, and the record economic expansion. To that, we say Yeah… As in the Barry Bonds story, there is also a “But…” that tells the whole story.

As we will discuss, the economy is not all roses when one considers the massive amount of monetary steroids stimulating growth. Further, as Bonds too will likely find out at some point in his future, there will be consequences for these performance-enhancing policies.

Wicksell’s Wisdom

Before a discussion of the abnormal fiscal and monetary policies responsible for surging financial asset prices and the record-long economic expansion, it is important to impart the wisdom of Knut Wicksell and a few paragraphs from a prior article we published entitled Wicksell’s Elegant Model.

“According to Wicksell, when the market rate (of interest) is below the natural rate, there is an incentive to borrow and reinvest in an economy at the higher natural rate. This normally leads to an economic boom until demand drives up the market rate and eventually chokes off demand. When the market rate exceeds the natural rate, borrowing slows along with economic activity eventually leading to a recession, and the market rate again falls back below the natural rate. Wicksell viewed the divergences between the natural rate and the market rate as the mechanism by which the economic cycle is determined. If a divergence between the natural rate and the market rate is abnormally sustained, it causes a severe misallocation of capital.

Per Wicksell, optimal policy should aim at keeping the natural rate and the market rate as closely aligned as possible to prevent misallocation. But when short-term market rates are below the natural rate, intelligent investors respond appropriately. They borrow heavily at the low rate and buy existing assets with somewhat predictable returns and shorter time horizons. Financial assets skyrocket in value while long-term, cash-flow driven investments with riskier prospects languish. The bottom line: existing assets rise in value but few new assets are added to the capital stock, which is decidedly bad for productivity and the structural growth of the economy.

Essentially, Wicksell warns that when interest rates are lower than they should be, speculation in financial assets is spurred and investment into the real economy suffers. The result is a boom in financial asset prices at the expense of future economic activity. Sound familiar? 

But… Monetary Policy

The Fed’s primary tool to manage economic growth and inflation is the Fed Funds rate. Fed Funds is the rate of interest that banks charge each other to borrow on an overnight basis. As the graph below shows, the Fed Funds rate has been pinned at least 2% below the rate of economic growth since the financial crisis. Such a low relative rate spanning such a long period is simply unprecedented, and in the words of Wicksell not “optimal policy.” 

Until the financial crisis, managing the Fed Funds rate was the sole tool for setting monetary policy. As such, it was easy to assess how much, if any, stimulus the Fed was providing at any point in time. The advent of Quantitative Easing (QE) made this task less transparent at the same time the Fed was telling us they wanted to be more transparent.  

Between 2008 and 2014, through three installations of QE, the Fed bought nearly $3.2 trillion of government, mortgage-backed, and agency securities in exchange for excess banking reserves. These excess reserves allowed banks to extend more loans than would be otherwise possible. In doing so, not only was economic activity generated, but the money supply rose which had a positive effect on the economy and financial markets.

Trying to quantifying the amount of stimulus offered by QE is not easy. However, in 2011, Fed Chairman Bernanke provided a simple rule in Congressional testimony to allow us to transform a dollar amount of QE into an interest rate equivalent. Bernanke suggested that every additional $6.6 to $10 billion of excess reserves, the byproduct of QE, has the effect of lowering interest rates by 0.01%. Therefore, every trillion dollars’ worth of new excess reserves is equivalent to lowering interest rates by 1.00% to 1.50% in Bernanke’s opinion. In the ensuing discussion, we use Bernanke’s more conservative estimate of $10 billion to produce a .01% decline in interest rates.

The graph below aggregates the two forms of monetary stimulus (Fed Funds and QE) to gauge how much effective interest rates are below the rate of economic growth. The blue area uses the Fed Funds – GDP data from the first graph. The orange area representing QE is based on Bernanke’s formula. 

Since the financial crisis, the Fed has effectively kept interest rates 5.11% below the rate of economic growth on average. Looking back in time, one can see that the current policy prescription is vastly different from the prior three recessions and ensuing expansions. Following the three recessions before the financial crisis, the Fed kept interest rates lower than the GDP rate to help foster recovery. The stimulus was limited in duration and removed entirely during the expansion. Before comparing these periods to the current expansion, it is worth noting that the amount of stimulus increased during each expansion. This is a function of the growth of debt in the economy beyond the economy’s growth rate and the increasing reliance on debt to generate economic growth. 

The current expansion is being promoted by significantly more stimulus and at much more consistent levels. Effectively the Fed is keeping rates 5.11% below normal, which is about five times the stimulus applied to the average of the prior three recessions. 

Simply the Fed has gone from periodic use of stimulus to heal the economy following recessions to a constant intravenous drip of stimulus to support the economy.

Moar

Starting in late 2015, the Fed tried to wean the economy from the stimulus. Between December of 2015 and December of 2018, the Fed increased the Fed Funds rates by 2.50%. They stepped up those efforts in 2018 as they also reduced the size of their balance sheet (via Quantitative Tightening, “QT”) from $4.4 trillion to $3.7 trillion.

The Fed hoped the economic patient was finally healing from the crisis and they could remove the exorbitant amount of stimulus applied to the economy and the markets. What they discovered is their imprudent policies of the post-crisis era made the patient hopelessly addicted to monetary drugs.

Beginning in July 2019, the Fed cut the target for the Fed Funds rate three times by a cumulative 0.75%. A month after the first rate cut they abruptly halted QT and started increasing their balance sheet through a series of repo operations and QE. Since then, the Fed’s balance sheet has reversed much of the QT related decrease and is growing at a pace that rivals what we saw immediately following the crisis. It is now up almost a half a trillion dollars from the lows and only $200 billion from the high watermark. The Fed is scheduled to add $60 billion more per month to its balance sheet through April. Even more may be added if repo operations expand.

The economy was slowing, and markets were turbulent in late 2018. Despite the massive stimulus still in place, the removal of a relatively small amount of stimulus proved too volatility-inducing for the Fed and the markets to bear.

Summary

Wicksell warned that lower than normal rates lead to speculation in financial assets and less investment into the real economy. Is it any wonder that risk assets have zoomed higher over the last five years despite tepid economic growth and flat corporate earnings (NIPA data Bureau of Economic Analysis -BEA)? 

When someone tells you the economy is doing fine, remind them that Barry Bonds was a very good player but the statistics don’t tell the whole story.

To provide further context on the extremity of monetary policy in America and around the world, we present an incredible graph courtesy of Bianco Research. The graph shows the Bank of England’s balance sheet as a percentage of GDP since 1700. If we focus on the past 100 years, notice the only period comparable to today was during World War II. England was in a life or death battle at the time. What is the rationalization today? Central banker inconvenience?

While most major countries cannot produce similar data going back that far, they have all experienced the same unprecedented surge in their central bank’s balance sheet.

Assuming today’s environment is normal without considering the but…. is a big mistake. And like Barry Bonds, who will never know when the consequences of his actions will bring regret, neither do the central bankers or the markets. 

Comparison & The Role Your Advisor Should Play

A recent article on MarketWatch by Sanjib Saha caught my attention:

“After taking the Series 65 exam last February, I set a goal for 2019: Help 10 friends and family members with their finances. Instead of giving specific investment advice, I wanted to educate them on money matters. I knew that they would benefit from one-on-one discussions, well-regarded books, educational videos and credible websites.”

Think about that for a moment. Here is a young man, who grew up during the longest bull market in history, just took his exam last year, has no real investment experience to speak of, and is now giving advice to people with no investment knowledge.

What could possibly go wrong?

While the majority of the article is grossly misinformed and a regurgitation of the “bullish mantras,” there was one paragraph that jumped out with respect to investment success and failure over time. To wit:

“Many years ago, Aisha, received a windfall that she needed to invest. She interviewed a few financial advisers and went with someone who had an impressive job title, a long list of designations and a friendly demeanor. She regularly reviewed her portfolio with the adviser, but never considered there might be performance problems. After all, a paid professional ought to do better than the market, not worse—or so she thought.

As it turned out, her portfolio had more than doubled over 16½ years.Aisha was impressed, until she backtested an identical asset allocation—one with half U.S. stocks and half corporate bonds. A 50-50 allocation consisting of just two broadly diversified index funds would have quadrupled her money over the same holding period. She stared at the results in disbelief. The opportunity cost was huge.”

The Comparison Trap

This is one of the biggest tools used by financial advisors to get clients to switch their accounts over to a “better” program. Let me explain.

Comparison is the cause of more unhappiness in the world than anything else. Perhaps it is inevitable that human beings as social animals have an urge to compare themselves with one another. Maybe it is just because we are all terminally insecure in some cosmic sense. Social comparison comes in many different guises. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” is one well-known way.

Think about it this way.

If your boss gave you a Mercedes as a yearly bonus, you would be thrilled, right? However, what if you found out shortly afterward that everyone else in the office got two cars.

WTF? Now, you are ticked.

But really, are you deprived of getting a Mercedes? Shouldn’t that enough?

Comparison-created unhappiness and insecurity is pervasive, judging from the amount of spam touting everything from weight-loss to plastic surgery. The basic principle seems to be that whatever we have is enough, until we see someone else who has more. Whatever the reason, comparison in financial markets can lead to remarkably bad decisions.

It is this ongoing measurement against some random benchmark index which remains the key reason why investors have trouble patiently sitting on their hands, letting whatever process they are comfortable with, work for them. They get waylaid by some comparison along the way and lose their focus.

If you tell a client that they made 12% on their account, they are very pleased. If you subsequently inform them that “everyone else” made 14%, you’ve now made them upset. The whole financial services industry, as it is constructed now, is predicated on making people upset so they will move their money around in a frenzy.

Therein lies the dirty little secret. Money in motion creates revenue. The creation of more and more benchmarks, indexes, and style boxes is nothing more than the creation of more things to COMPARE to, allowing clients to stay in a perpetual state of outrage.

Aisha, for example, was completely happy with doubling her money over the last 16-years, until our young, inexperienced, newly minted financial advisor showed her “what she could have had.” Now she will make decisions which will potentially increase the amount of risk she is taking in the second most expensive bull market in history.

Our Worst Enemy

I have written about the psychological issues which impede investors returns over longer-term time frames in the past. The two biggest factors, according to Dalbar Research, which lead to chronic investor underperformance over time are:

  • Lack of capital to invest, and;
  • Psychological behaviors

Psychological factors account for fully 50% of investor shortfalls in the investing process. Of course, not having the capital to invest is equally important.

These factors, as shown by data from Dalbar, lead to the lag in performance between investors and the markets over all time periods.

Behavioral biases are an issue which remains little understood and accounted for when individuals begin their investing journey. There are (9) nine of these behavioral biases specifically which impact investors the most.

  • Loss Aversion – The fear of loss leads to a withdrawal of capital at the worst possible time.  Also known as “panic selling.”
  • Narrow Framing – Making decisions about on part of the portfolio without considering the effects on the total.
  • Anchoring – The process of remaining focused on what happened previously and not adapting to a changing market.
  • Mental Accounting – Separating performance of investments mentally to justify success and failure.
  • Lack of Diversification – Believing a portfolio is diversified when in fact it is a highly correlated pool of assets.
  • Herding– Following what everyone else is doing. Leads to “buy high/sell low.”
  • Regret – Not performing a necessary action due to the regret of a previous failure.
  • Media Response – The media has a bias to optimism to sell products from advertisers and attract view/readership.
  • Optimism – Overly optimistic assumptions tend to lead to rather dramatic reversions when met with reality.

These cognitive biases impair our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money. As a consequence, we are continually lured into making decisions which are inherently bad for our long-term outcomes.

The Advisor’s Role

These psychological and behavioral issues are exceedingly difficult to control and lead us regularly to making poor investment decisions over time. But this is where the role of an “experienced advisor” should be truly defined and valued.

While the performance chase, a by-product of the very behavioral issues we wish to control, leads everyone to seek out last years “hottest” performing manager or advisor, this is not really the advisor’s main role. The role of an advisor is NOT beating some random benchmark index or to promote a “buy and hold” strategy. (There is no sense in paying for a model you can do yourself.)

Jason Zweig summed it well:

“The only legitimate response of the investment advisory firm, in the face of these facts, is to ensure that it gets no blood on its hands. Asset managers must take a public stand when market valuations go to extremes — warning their clients against excessive enthusiasm at the top and patiently encouraging clients at the bottom.”

Given that individuals are emotional and subject to emotional swings caused by market volatility, the advisors role is not only to be a portfolio manager, but also a psychologist. Dalbar suggested four successful practices to reduce harmful behaviors:

  1. Set Expectations Below Market Indices: Change the threshold at which the fear of failure causes investors to abandon an investment strategy. Set reasonable expectations and do not permit expectations to be inferred from historical records, market indexes, personal experiences or media coverage. The average investor cannot be above average. Investors should understand this fact and not judge the performance of their portfolio based on broad market indices.
  2. Control Exposure to Risk: Include some form of portfolio protection that limits losses during market stresses. Explicit, reasonable expectations are best set by agreeing on a goal that consists of a predetermined level of risk and expected return. Keeping the focus on the goal and the probability of its success will divert attention away from frequent fluctuations that lead to imprudent actions
  3. Monitor Risk Tolerance: Periodically reevaluate investor’s tolerance for risk, recognizing that the tolerance depends on the prevailing circumstances and that these circumstances are subject to change. Even when presented as alternatives, investors intuitively seek both capital preservation and capital appreciation. Risk tolerance is the proper alignment of an investor’s need for preservation and desire for capital appreciation. Determination of risk tolerance is highly complex and is not rational, homogenous nor stable.
  4. Present Forecasts In Terms Of Probabilities: Simply stating that past performance is not predictive creates a reluctance to embark on an investment program. Provide credible information by specifying probabilities, or ranges, that create the necessary sense of caution without negative effects. Measuring progress based on a statistical probability enables the investor to make a rational choice among investments based on the probability of reward.

The challenge, of course, it understanding that the next major impact event, and market reversion, will NOT HAVE the identical characteristics of the previous events. This is why comparing today’s market to that of 2000 or 2007 is pointless. Only the outcome will be the same.

One thing that all the negative behaviors have in common is that they can lead investors to deviate from a sound investment strategy which was narrowly tailored towards their goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon.

The best way to ward off the aforementioned negative behaviors is to employ a strategy that focuses on one’s goals and is not reactive to short-term market conditions. The data shows that the average mutual fund investor has not stayed invested for a long enough period of time to reap the rewards that the market can offer more disciplined investors. The data also shows that when investors react, they generally make the wrong decision.

The reality is that the majority of advisors are ill-prepared for an impact event to occur. This is particularly the case in late-stage bull market cycles where complacency runs high.

When the impact event occurs, advisors who are prepared to handle responses, provide clear messaging, and an action plan for both conserving investment capital and eventual recovery will find success in obtaining new clients.

The “do-it-yourself” crowd will also come to learn the value of experience. When the impact event occurs, the losses in passive investments, “yield-chase” investments, and ETF’s will be substantially larger than individuals currently imagine. Those losses will permanently impair individuals ability to obtain their financial goals.

If you don’t believe me, then explain why, with 30 of the last 40 years in major bull market trends, is a large majority of the population woefully underfunded for retirement?

The reason is that investing is not simple. If it was, everyone would be rich. The reality is that whatever gains investors have garnered over the last decade will be largely wiped away by the next impact event.

Of course, this is the sad history of individual investors in the financial markets as they are always “told to buy” but never “when to sell.”

You can do better.

30% Up Years – Should You Sell It?

The bull market turned in an impressive gain of over 30% (on a total return basis) in 2019. While not a rarity in market history, it certainly falls into the “outlier” category. Not surprisingly, the media has been quick to jump on the story suggesting that if 2019 was strong, just wait until 2020. To wit:

“BTIG’s Julian Emanuel believes 2020 will be a milestone year. With the major indexes kicking off Christmas week at fresh all-time highs, he’s not ruling out a 22% surge in the S&P 500. 

The reason: Most investors don’t trust the record rally.”

I am not sure such is the case judging by both our “Smart/Dumb Money” and “Investor Positioning Fear/Greed” indices.

One of the primary tenants of investing, other than “buy low and sell high,” is always analyzing BOTH sides of every argument to avoid confirmation bias. Therefore, while many are making the case for being invested in the market, we should at least question the possibility of what could go wrong?

With the S&P 500’s stellar gain for 2019, the case for raising some cash is comprised of three primary issues:

    1. The impact of reversions,
    2. Historical length of economic recoveries, and;
    3. Historical returns following years of 30% market returns.

The Impact Of Reversions

There have been numerous studies and discussions on the historical impact to returns due to “reversions to the mean.” However, the impact of reversions remains lost on most individuals as the emotion of “greed” overtakes rationality during strong market advances.

One of the biggest mistakes that individuals make when investing is “not doing the math.” Let’s assume that the S&P 500 is trading at 3000 (nice round number for easy math purposes). If the market advances 30% it would then be trading at 3900 (3000 x 1.3).

However, the “risk,” and inherently the reality for the majority of investors, is that individuals would not “sell out” of their portfolios at the next market peak and would suffer the next 20% decline.

“So what, I am still up 10%.”

That is where the flaw in “the math” comes in. A 20% decline, following a 30% advance, does not leave you holding a 10% gain. In reality, the 30% gain is reduced to just 4%, as the market reverts back to 2600.

In other words, if a 20% correction occurs at any point in the next year, your previous gain would be almost entirely wiped out, not to mention the emotional strain of the decline.

The impact of reversions are devastating to long term portfolio returns, particularly when individuals, as opposed to financial markets, have a finite period within which to save and invest before needing those savings for retirement.

Economic Recoveries & Subsequent Market Returns

However, the real issue is the market is unlikely to correct “just 20%.” The next major market correction will very likely coincide with the next economic recession. (Of course, by simply writing the “R” word, this article will be summarily dismissed by the ‘financial illuminati’ who continue to marvel at the day to day levitation of the market with the inherent belief ‘trees can grow to the sky'”). However, all economic recoveries will eventually contract. The chart below shows every post-recession economic recovery from 1879 to the present.

The statistics are quite interesting:

  • Number of economic recoveries = 29
  • Average number of months per recovery = 42
  • Current economic recovery = 126 months
  • Number of economic recoveries that lasted longer than current = 0
  • Percentage of economic recoveries lasting 60 months or longer = 20.6%

Think about this for a moment. We are currently experiencing the longest economic recovery in history, with most analysts and economists giving no consideration for a recession in the near future.  This is important because, as stated above, major market corrections occur during economic recessions, and those “reversions” tend to be much larger than 20%. The chart shows each of the past economic recoveries and the subsequent market correction during the inevitable contraction.

The statistics are equally interesting:

  • Average number of months of contraction: 14
  • Average market declines during all contractions: -29.13%
  • Average market decline following top seven economic recoveries: -36%

With these statistics, it is somewhat easy to assess the risk/reward of remaining invested in the markets currently in hopes of further advances. If we assume that the markets reach our target of 3300 before the onset of the next economic contraction, the resulting decline, using the historical average of -36%, would push the markets back down to 2100ish.

In other words, all your gains since 2015 would be wiped away.

30% Gains And Sideways Markets

The following chart shows the annual real returns (capital appreciation only) using monthly data for the S&P 500. The purple bars are years of gains 29% or greater. I then showed the subsequent years following that 30% gain and the P/E cycle (expansion or contraction) they were contained in.

Here are the statistics:

  • Number of years the market gained 29% or more:  19
  • Average return of 19 markets:  35.65%
  • Number of total subsequent years measured: 53
  • Average return in subsequent years following a 30% year:  1.48%

What you should notice is that 29%+ return years tended to mark the beginning of a period of both declining rates of annualized returns and typically sideways markets. It is also essential to notice that some of the biggest negative annual returns eventually followed 30% up years.

While it is entirely possible that the markets could “melt up” another 20% from current levels due to the ongoing monetary interventions; history suggests that forward returns not only decline, but bad things have eventually happened.

Go To Cash Now?

I want to be clear that I am not advocating that anyone should go to cash today. The problem with this analysis, unfortunately, is while individuals are unlikely to sell at the top of the market; they are just as unlikely to buy at the bottom. History is replete with market booms and busts and the devastation of individuals along the way.

This is why chasing an all equity benchmark is inherently flawed. Benchmark indexes are riddled with issues that you can not replicate in your portfolio which I discussed in detail in Active vs. Passive & The Simple Reasons You Can’t Beat An Index:”

The reason that individuals are plagued by these emotional behaviors is due to well-meaning articles espousing stock ownership at cyclical valuation peaks.

Sure, it is entirely possible the current cyclical bull market is not over yet.

Momentum driven markets are hard to kill in the latter stages, particularly as exuberance builds. However, they do eventually end. That is unless the Fed has truly figured out a way to repeal economic and business cycles altogether. As we enter into the next decade, we are likely closer to the next contraction than not. This is particularly the case as the Federal Reserve continues to build a bigger economic void in the future by pulling forward consumption through its monetary policies.

Will the market likely be higher in another decade from now? Maybe. However, if interest rates or inflation rise sharply, the economy moves through a normal recessionary cycle, or if Jack Bogle is right – then things could be much more disappointing. As Seth Klarman from Baupost Capital once stated:

“Can we say when it will end? No. Can we say that it will end? Yes. And when it ends and the trend reverses, here is what we can say for sure. Few will be ready. Few will be prepared.”

We saw much of the same mainstream analysis at the peak of the markets in 1999, and again in 2007. New valuation metrics, IPO’s of negligible companies, valuation dismissals as “this time was different,” and a building exuberance were all common themes. Unfortunately, the outcomes were always the same.

“History repeats itself all the time on Wall Street”  – Edwin Lefevre

Gold: How High Will It Go In 2020?


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

Gold Monthly Chart 2004-Present

Gold Monthly Chart 2010-Present


Smart Money Shorts

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

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

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

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

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

Technically Speaking

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

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

Gold Fundamentals

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

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

Not Fundamentally Important

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

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

Gold vs the Dollar

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

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

True Supply of Gold and Reservation Demand

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

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

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

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

Faith in Central Banks

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

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

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

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

Is everything under control or not?

Hussman Agrees With Powell: It’s Not QE4

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


Organic Growth

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

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

Not QE

On October 10, Powell commented on Not QE.

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

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

Quacks Like QE

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

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

Hussman Sides With Powell

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

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

Not quite.

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

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

Balance Sheet, Monetary Base, Excess Reserves vs QE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Don’t Call it QE

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

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

Organic Growth

Let’s return to the top.

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

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

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

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

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

QE4

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

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QE4 Projections and Updates

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

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

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

Are Adjustments to QE4 Coming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We think all of these options are possible.

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

Summary

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

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

Seth Levine: Why Are We So Scared

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

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

Why Scared

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

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

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

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

Central Bank Dependence

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

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

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

Political Dependence

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

via GIPHY

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

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

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

The Monetary Policy—Fiscal Policy False Dichotomy

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

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

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

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

Pacifying Investment Decisions

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

Source: Morningstar

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

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

Share Buybacks Are Safest

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

Source: 13D Research

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

Scared As An Investment Theme

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

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

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

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

The Market Soars As Corporate Profits Slump!

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

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

Source: Goldman Sachs – 7/25/19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Factset – 10/25/19

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

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

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

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

Warning! No Lifeguards On Duty

In a poll administered by the CFA Institute of America {Link}, readers, many of whom are professional investors, were asked which behavioral biases most affect investment decisions. The results are shown in the chart below.

We are not surprised by the results, but we believe a rational investor would put these in reverse order.

Compounding wealth, which should be the primary objective of every investor, depends first and foremost on avoiding large losses. Based on the poll, loss aversion was the lowest ranked bias. Warren Buffett has commented frequently on the importance of limiting losses. His two most important rules are: “Rule #1 of investing is don’t lose money. Rule #2 is never forget rule #1.”

At Real Investment Advice, we have covered a lot of ground on investor behavioral biases. In 5 Mental Traps Investors are Falling In To Right Now, Lance Roberts lucidly points out, “Cognitive biases are a curse to portfolio management as they impair our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money. As history all too clearly shows, investors always do the “opposite” of what they should when it comes to investing their own money.”

Lance’s quote nicely sums up the chart above. These same biases driving markets higher today also drove irrational conduct in the late 1920s and the late 1990s. Currently, valuations are at or near levels reached during those two historical market peaks. Current valuations have long since surpassed all other prior valuation peaks.

One major difference between the late 1920s, the late 1990s, and today is the extent to which the Federal Reserve (Fed) is fostering current market conditions and imprudent investor behavior. To what extent have investors fallen into the overconfidence trap as the herd marches onward?

This “ignorance is bliss” type of behavior raises some serious questions, especially in light of the recent changes in Fed policy.

Not QE

As predicted in QE By Any Other Name, the Fed recently surprised investors with a resumption of quantitative easing (QE). The announcement of $60 billion in monthly Treasury bill purchases to replenish depleted excess reserves and another $20 billion to sustain existing balances was made late in the afternoon on Friday October 11. With a formal FOMC meeting scheduled in less than three weeks, the timing and substance of this announcement occurred under unusual circumstances.

The stated purpose of this new round of QE is to address recent liquidity issues in the short-term funding markets. Up to this point, the Fed added additional liquidity through its repo facility. These are actions not taken since the financial crisis a decade ago. The liquidity problems, though not resolved, certainly have largely subsided.

So why the strange off-cycle announcement? In other words, why did the Fed seemingly scramble over the prior few days to announce a resumption of QE now? Why not wait to make this announcement through the normal FOMC meeting statement and press conference process? The answer to those questions tells us more about current circumstances than the actual policy change itself.

The Drowning Man

As is always the case with human beings, actions speak louder than words. If you observe the physical behavior of someone in distress and know what to look for, you learn far more about their circumstance than you would by listening to their words. As an example, the signs of drowning are typically not what we would expect.  A person who is drowning can often appear to be playing in the water. When a person in the water is in distress, their body understands the threat and directs all energy toward staying alive.

People who drown seldom flail and scream for help as is often portrayed on television. If you ask a drowning person if they are okay, you might not receive a response. They are often incapable of producing the energy to speak or scream as all bodily functions are focused on staying afloat.

Since the Financial Crisis, investors, market analysts, and observers are helplessly watching the Fed, a guardian that does not realize the market is drowning. The Fed, the lifeguard of the market, is unaware of the signs of distress and unable to diagnose the problem (see also The Voice of the Market – The Millennial Perspective).

In this case, it is the global banking system that has become so dependent on excess reserves and dollar liquidity that any shortfall, however temporary, causes acute problems. Investor confidence and Fed hubris are blinding many to the source of the turbulence.

Lifeguards

Fortunately, there are a few other “lifeguards” who have not fallen into the behavioral traps that prevent so many investors from properly assessing the situation and potential consequences.

One of the most articulate “lifeguards” on this matter is Jeff Snyder of Alhambra Investments. For years, he has flatly stated that the Fed and their army of PhDs do not understand the global money marketplace. They set domestic policy and expect global participants to adjust to their actions. What is becoming clear is that central bankers, who more than anyone else should understand the nature of money, do not. Therefore, they repeatedly make critical policy errors as a result of hubris and ignorance.

Snyder claims that without an in-depth understanding of the dollar-based global lending market, one cannot grasp the extent to which problems exist and monetary policy is doomed to fail. Like the issues that surfaced around the sub-prime mortgage market in 2007, the funding turmoil that emerged in September was a symptom of that fact. Every “solution” the Fed implements creates another larger problem.

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

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

We added the emphasis in the quote because we believe that to be a critically important point of consideration. Inflation is the one thing no one is looking for or even considering a possibility.

Summary

Today, similar to the months leading up to the Financial Crisis, irrational behavioral biases are the mindset of the market. As such, there are very few “lifeguards” that know what to look for in terms of distress. Those who do however, are sounding the alarm. Thus far warnings go largely unheeded because blind confidence in the Fed and profits from yesteryear are blinding investors. Similar to the analogy James Grant uses, where he refers to the Fed as an arsonist not a firefighter, here the Fed is not the lifeguard on duty but the invisible undertow.

Investors should frequently evaluate a list of cognitive biases and be aware of their weaknesses. Humility will be an enormous asset as this economic and market expansion ends and the inevitable correction takes shape.  We have attached links to our other behavioral investing articles as they may be helpful in that difficult task of self-evaluation.

Finally, we must ask what asset can be a life preserver that is neither being chased higher by the herd nor providing any confirmation bias.

Gold is currently one of the most hated investments by the media and social media influencers. The only herd following gold are thought to be relics of ancient history and doomsday preppers. Maybe, as we saw in the aftermath of the prior valuation peaks, those who were ridiculed for their rigor and discipline will once again come out on top.

Gold provides ballast to a portfolio during troubling times and should definitely be considered today as the distress becomes more pronounced and obvious.

Please find below links to some of our favorite behavioral investing articles:  

Dalbar 2017: Investors Suck at Investing and Tips for Advisors

8 Reasons to Hold Some Extra Cash

The 5-Laws Of Human Stupidity & How To Be A “Non-Stupid” Investor

The Money Game & the Human Brain

The Definitive Guide to Investing for the Long Run

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

In no sense is this QE” – Jerome Powell

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

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

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

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

How QE 1, 2, and 3 affected the markets

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

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

QE 4 potential returns

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

Takeaways

The following list provides a summarization of the tables.

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

QE, but in a different environment

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

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

Déjà vu all over again?

The prior QE operations helped asset prices for three reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-QE QE and How to Trade It

“I want to emphasize that growth of our balance sheet for reserve management purposes should in no way be confused with the large-scale asset purchase programs that we deployed after the financial crisis.” He then stated: “In no sense is this QE.” –Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell 10/8/2019

Jerome Powell can call balance sheet growth whatever he wants, but operationally and in its effect on the bond markets, it is QE. For more on the Fed’s latest iteration of QE, what we dub the non-QE QE, please read our article QE By Any Other Name.

Non-QE = QE4

It is increasingly likely the Fed will announce an asset purchase operation at the FOMC meeting on October 30, 2019. Given Powell’s comments, the asset purchases will differ somewhat from QE 1, 2, and 3 in that the Fed will add needed reserves to the banking system to help alleviate recent bouts of stress in overnight funding markets. Prior versions of QE added excess reserves to the system as a byproduct. The true benefit of prior rounds of QE was the reduction of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities in the marketplace, which pushed investors into riskier stocks and bonds.  

Since the Feds motivation seems to be stress in the short term funding markets, we believe the Fed will purchase short-term notes and Treasury bills instead of longer-term bonds. QE1 also involved the purchase the short term securities, but these securities were later sold and the proceeds used to purchase longer term bonds, in what was called Operation Twist.

Trading Non QE QE4

In Profiting From a Steepening Yield Curve and in a subsequent update to the article, we presented two high dividend stocks (AGNC and NLY) that should benefit from a steeper yield curve. When we wrote the articles, we did not anticipate another round of QE, at least not this soon. Our premise behind these investments was weakening economic growth, the likelihood the Fed would cut rates aggressively, and thus a steepening yield curve as a result.

The Fed has since cut rates twice, and Wall Street expects them to cut another 25bps at the October 30th meeting and more in future meetings. This new round of proposed QE further bolsters our confidence in this trade.

If the Fed purchases shorter-term securities, the removal of at least $200 to $300 billion, as is being touted in the media, should push the front end of the curve lower in yield. Short end-based QE in conjunction with the Fed cutting rates will most certainly reduce front-end yields. The rate cuts combined with QE will likely prevent long term yields from falling as much as they would have otherwise. On balance, we expect the combination of QE and further rate cuts to result in a steeper yield curve.

The following graph shows how the 10yr/2yr Treasury yield curve steepened sharply after all three rounds of QE were initiated. In prior QE episodes, the yield curve steepened by 112 basis points on average to its peak steepness in each episode.  

Data Courtesy: Federal Reserve

New Trade Idea

In addition to our current holdings (AGNC/NLY), we have a new recommendation involving a long/short bond ETF strategy. The correlation of performance and shape of the yield curve of this trade will likely be similar to the AGNC/NLY trade, but it should exhibit less volatility.

Equity long/short trades typically involve equal dollar purchases and sales of the respective securities, although sometimes they are also weighted by beta or volatility. Yield curve trades are similar in that they should be dollar-weighted, but they must also be weighted for the bond’s respective durations to account for volatility. This is because the price change of a two-year note is different than that of a 5 or 10-year note for the same change in yield, a concept called duration. Failing to properly duration weight a yield curve trade will not provide the expected gains and losses for given changes in the shape of the yield curve. 

Before presenting the trade, it is important to note that the purest way to trade the yield curve is with Treasury bonds or Treasury bond futures. Once derivative instruments, like the ETFs we discuss, are introduced, other factors such as fees, dividends, and ETF rebalancing will affect performance.  

The duration for SHY and IEF is 2.17 and 7.63, respectively. The ratio of the price of SHY to IEF is .74. The trade ratio of SHY shares to IEF shares is accordingly 4.75 as follows: [(1/.74)*(7.63/2.17)]. As such one who wishes to follow our guidance should buy 5 shares for every 1 share of IEF that they short.

Because we cannot buy fractions of shares, we rounded up the ratio to 5:1. This slight overweighting of SHY reflects our confidence that the short end of the yield curve will fall as the Fed operates as we expect.

Summary

In Investors Are Grossly Underestimating the Fed, we highlighted that every time the Fed has raised and lowered rates, the market has underestimated their actions. To wit:

“If the Fed initiates rate cuts and if the data in the graphs prove prescient, then current estimates for a Fed Funds rate of 1.50% to 1.75% in the spring of 2020 may be well above what we ultimately see. Taking it a step further, it is not farfetched to think that that Fed Funds rate could be back at the zero-bound, or even negative, at some point sooner than anyone can fathom today.”

Despite the Fed’s guidance earlier this year of one or two cuts and their characterization of it as a “mid-cycle adjustment”, the Fed has already lowered rates twice and appears ready to cut rates a third time later this month. If, in fact, the market is once again underestimating the Fed, the Fed Funds rate and short term Treasury yields will ultimately fall to 1% or lower.

In an environment of QE and the Fed actively lowering rates, we suspect the yield curve will steepen. That is in no small part their objective, as a steeper yield curve also provides much needed aid to their constituents, the banks. If we are correct that the curve steepens, the long-short trade discussed above along with AGNC and NLY should perform admirably.  AGNC and NLY are much more volatile than IEF and SHY; as such, this new recommendation is for more risk-averse traders.  

Will Monetary or Fiscal Stimulus Turnaround the Next Recession?

A recession is emerging with interest rate curves inverted, the end of the business cycle at hand, world trade falling, and consumers and businesses beginning to pull back on spending.  The question is: will monetary or fiscal stimulus turn around a recession? 

In this post, we find both stimulus alternatives likely to be too weak to have the necessary economic impact to lift the economy out of a recession. Finally, we will identify the key characteristics of a coming recession and the implications for investors.

Our economy is at the nexus of several major economic trends formed over decades that are limiting monetary and fiscal options. The monetary policy of central banks has caused world economies to be abundant in liquidity, yet producing limited growth. Central bankers in Japan and Europe have been trying to revive growth with $17 trillion injections using negative interest rates.  Japan can barely keep its economy growing with an estimate of GDP at .5 % through 2019. The Japanese central bank holds 200 % of GDP in government debt.  The European Central Bank holds 85 % of GDP in debt and uses negative interest rates as well. Germany is in a manufacturing recession with the most recent PMI in manufacturing activity at 47.3 and other European economies contracting toward near-zero GDP growth.  

Lance Roberts notes that the world economy is not running on a solid economic foundation if there is $17 trillion in negative-yielding debt in his blog, Powell Fails, Trump Rails, The Failure of Negative Rates. He questions the ability of negative interest policies to stabilize world economies,

You don’t have $17 Trillion in negative-yielding sovereign debt if there is economic and fiscal stability.”

Negative interest rates and extreme monetary stimulus policies have distorted financial relationships between debt and risk assets. This financial distortion has created a significantly wider gap between the 90 % and the top 1 % in wealth.

Roberts outlines in the six panel chart below how personal income, employment, industrial production, real consumer spending, real wages, and real GDP are all weakening in the U.S.:

Source: RIA – 8/23/19

Trillions of dollars of monetary stimulus have not created prosperity for all. The chart below shows how liquidity fueled a dramatic increase in asset prices while the amount of world GDP per money supply declined by about 25 %:

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 9/23/19

Low interest rates have not driven real growth in wages, productivity, innovation, and services development that create real wealth for the working class. Instead, wealth and income are concentrated in the top 1 %. The concentration of wealth in the top one percent is at the highest level since 1929. The World Inequality Report notes inequality has squeezed the middle class between emerging countries and the U.S. and Europe. The top 1 % has received twice the financial growth benefits as the bottom 50 % since 1980:

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

There are several reasons monetary stimulus by itself has not lifted the incomes of the middle class. One of the big causes is that stimulus money has not translated into wage increases for most workers.  U.S. real earnings for men have essentially been flat since 1975, while earnings for women have increased though basically flat since 2000:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau – 9/10/19

If monetary policy is not working, then fiscal investment from private and public sectors is necessary to drive an economic reversal.  But, will the private and public sector sectors have the necessary tools to bring new life to an economy in decline?

Wealth Creation Has Gone to the Private Sector

The last 40 years have seen the rise of private capital worldwide while public capital has declined. In 2015, the value of net public wealth (or public capital) in the US was negative -17% of net national income, while the value of net private wealth (or private capital) was 500% of national income. In comparison to 1970, net public wealth amounted to 36% of national income, while net private wealth was at 326 %.

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

Essentially, world banks and governments have built monetary and fiscal economic systems that increased private wealth at the expense of public wealthThe lack of public capital makes the creation of public goods and services nearly impossible. The development of public goods and services like basic research and development, education and health services are necessary for an economic rebound. The economy will need a huge stimulus ‘lifting’ program and yet the capital necessary to do the job is in the private sector where private individuals make investment allocation decisions.  

Why is building high levels of private capital a problem?  Because, as we have discussed, private wealth is now concentrated in the top 1 %, while 70 % of U.S GDP is dependent on consumer spending.  The 90 % have been working for stagnant wages for decades, right along with diminishing GDP growth.  There is a direct correlation between wealth creation for all the people and GDP growth.

Corporations Are Not In A Position to Invest

Some corporations certainly have invested in their businesses, people, and technology.  The issue is the majority of corporations are now financially strapped.  Many corporate executives have made profit allocation decisions to pay themselves and their stockholders well at the expense of workers, their communities and the economy. 

S & P 500 corporations are paying out more cash than they are taking in, creating a cash flow crunch at a – 15 % rate (that’s right they are burning cash) to maintain stock buyback and dividend levels:

Source: Real Investment Advice

Sources: Compustat, Factset, Goldman Sachs – 7/25/19

In 2018 stock buybacks at $1.01 trillion were at the highest level they have ever been since buybacks were allowed under the 1982 SEC safe harbor provision decision. It is interesting to consider where our economy would be today if corporations spent the money they were wasting on boosting stock prices and instead invested in long term value creation.  One trillion dollars invested in raising wages, research, and development, cutting prices, employee education, and reducing health care premiums would have made a significant impact lifting the financial position of millions. This year stock buybacks have fallen back slightly as debt loads increase and sales fall:

Source: Dow Jones – 7/2019

Many corporations with tight cash flows have borrowed to purchase shares, pay dividends and keep their stock price elevated causing corporate debt to hit new highs as a percentage of GDP (note recessions followed three peaks):

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas – 3/6/2019

Corporate debt has ballooned to 46 % of GDP totaling $5.7 trillion in 2018 versus $2.2 trillion in 2008.  While the bulk of these nonfinancial corporate bonds have been investment grade, many bond covenants have become weaker as corporations seek more funding. Some bondholders may find their investment not as secure as they thought resulting in significantly less than 100 % return of principal at maturity.

In a recession, corporate sales fall, cash flow goes negative, high debt payments become hard to make, employees are laid off and management tries to hold on.  Only a select set of major corporations have cash hoards to ride out a recession, and others may be able obtain loans at steep interest rates, if at all.  Other companies may try going to the stock market which will be problematic with low valuations.  Plus, investors will be reluctant to buy stock in negative cash flow companies.

Thus, most corporations will be hard pressed to invest the billions of dollars necessary to turnaround a recession. Instead, they will be just trying to keep the doors open, the lights on, and maintain staffing levels to hold on until the day sales stop falling and finally turn up.

Public Sector is Also Tapped Out

In past recessions, federal policy makers have turned to fiscal policy – public spending on infrastructure projects, research development, training, corporate partnerships, and public services to revive the economy.  When the 2008 financial crisis was at its peak the Bush administration, followed by the Obama government pumped fiscal stimulus of $983 billion in spending over four years on roads, bridges, airports, and other projects. The Fed funds interest rate before the recession was at 5.25 % at the peak allowing lower rates to have plenty of impact. Today, with rates at 1.75-2.00 %, the impact will be negligible. In 2008, it was the combined massive injection of monetary and fiscal stimulus that created a V-shaped recession with the economy back on a path to recovery in 18 months. It was not monetary policy alone that moved the economy forward.  However, the recession caused lasting financial damage to wealth of millions. Many retirement portfolios lost 40 – 60 % of their value, millions of homeowners lost their homes, thousands of workers were laid off late in their careers and unable to find comparable jobs.  The Great Recession changed many people’s lives permanently, yet it was relatively short-lived compared to the Great Depression.

As noted in the chart above, public sector wealth has actually moved to negative levels in the U.S. at – 17 % of national income.  Our federal government is running a $1 trillion deficit per year.  In 2007, the federal government debt level was at 39 % of GDP. The Congressional Budget Office projects that by 2028 the Federal deficit will be at 100 % of GDP

Source: CBO – 4/9/19

We are at a different time economically than 2008. Today with Federal debt is over 100% of GDP and expected to grow rapidly. The Feds balance sheet is still excessive and they formally stopped reducing the size (QT).  In a recession federal policymakers will likely make spending cuts to keep the deficit from going exponential. Policy makers will be limited by the twin deficits of $22.0 trillion national debt and ongoing deficits of $1+ trillion a year, eroding investor confidence in U.S. bonds. The problem is the political consensus for fiscal stimulus in 2008 – 2009 does not exist today, and it will probably be even worse after the 2020 election. Our cultural, social and political fabric is so frayed as a result of decades of divisive politics it is likely to take years to sort out during a recession. Our political leaders will be fixing the politics of our country while searching for intelligent stimulus solutions to be developed, agreed upon and implemented.

What Will the Next Recession Look Like?

We don’t know when the next recession will come. Yet, present trends do tell us what the structure of a recession might look like, as a deep U- shaped, slow recovery measured in years not months:

  • Corporations Short of Cash – Corporations already strapped are short on cash, will lay off workers, pull back spending, and are stuck paying off huge debts instead of investing.
  • Federal Government Spending Cuts – The federal government caught with falling revenues from corporations and individuals, is forced to make deep cuts first in discretionary spending and then social services and transfer funding programs. The reduction of transfer programs will drive slower consumer spending.
  • Consumers Pull Back Spending – Consumers will be forced to tighten budgets, pay off expensive car loans and student debt, and for those laid off seeking work anywhere they can find a job.
  • World Trade Declines – World trade will not be a source of rebuilding sales growth as a result of the China – US trade war, and tariffs with Europe and Japan.  We expect no trade deal or a small deal with the majority of tariffs to stay in place. In other words, just reversing some tariffs will not be enough to restart sales. New buyer – seller relationships are already set, closing sales channels to US companies. New country alliances are already in place, leaving the US closed out of emerging high growth markets.  A successor Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with Japan and eleven other countries was signed in March, 2018 without the US. China is negotiating a new agreement with the EU. EU and China trade totals 365 billion euros per year. China is working with a federation of African countries to gain favorable trade access to their markets.
  • ­Pension Payments in Jeopardy – Workers dependent on corporate and public pensions may see their benefits cut from pensions, which are poorly funded today with markets at all-time highs. GE just announced freezing pensions for 20,000 employees, the harbinger of a possible trend that will  reduce consumer spending
  • Investment Environment Uncertain – Uncertainty in investments will be extremely high, ‘get rich quick’ schemes will flourish as they did in 2008 – 2009 and 2000.
  • Fed Implements Low Rates & QE – The Fed is likely to implement very low interest rates (though not negative rates), and QE with liquidity in abundance but the economy will have low inflation, and declining GDP feeling like the Japanese economic stasis – ‘locked in irons’.

Implications for Investors

The following recommendations are intended for consideration just prior or during a recession with a sharp decline in the markets, not necessarily for today’s markets.

Cash – It is crucial to maintain a significant cash hoard so you can purchase corporate stocks when they cheapen. The SPX could decline by 40 – 50 % or more when the economy is in recession.  Yet, good values in some stocks will be available.  At the 1500 level, there is an excellent opportunity to make good long term growth and value investments based on sound research.

CDs – as Will Rogers noted during the Depression, “I’m more interested in Return of my Capital than Return on my Capital”, a prudent investor should be too.  CDs are FDIC insured while offering lower interest rates than other investments. Importantly, they provide return of capital and allow you to sleep at night.

Bonds – U.S. Treasuries certainly provide safety, return of principal, and during a recession will provide better overall returns than high-risk equity investments. Corporate bonds may come under greater scrutiny by investors even for so-called ‘blue chips’ like General Electric. The firm is falling on hard times with $156 billion in debt. GE is seeking business direction and selling off assets. The major conglomerate’s bonds have declined in value by 2.5 % last year with their rating dropped to BBB. Now with new management the price of GE bonds is climbing up slightly.

Utilities – are regulated to have a profit.  While they may see declining revenues due to less energy use by corporations and individuals, they still will pay dividends to shareholders as they did in 2008.  Consumer staple companies are likely to be cash flow strained; most did not pay dividends to investors during the 2008 – 2009 recession. REITs need to be evaluated on a company by company basis to determine how secure their cash streams are from leases. During the 2008 – 2009 downturn, some REITs stopped paying dividends due to declining revenues from lease defaults.

Growth & Value Equities– invest in new sectors that have government support or emerging demand based on social trends like climate change: renewables, water, carbon emission recovery, environmental cleanup. From our Navigating A Two Block Trade World – US and China post, we noted possible investments in bridge companies between the two trade blocks; services, and countries that act as bridges like Australia. Look for firms with good cash positions to ride out the recession, companies in new markets with sales generated by innovations, or problem solving products that require spending by customers.  For example, seniors will have to spend money on health services. Companies serving an increasingly aging population with innovative low cost health solutions are likely to see good demand and sales growth.

The intelligent investor will do well to ‘hope for the best, but plan for the worst’ in terms of portfolio management in a coming recession.  Asking hard questions of financial product executives and doing your own research will likely be keys to survival.

In the end, Americans have always pulled together, solved problems, and moved ahead toward an even better future. After a reversion to the mean in the capital markets and an economic recession things will improve.  A reversion in social and culture values is likely to happen in parallel to the financial reversion. The complacency, greed, and selfishness that drove the present economic extremes will give way to a new appreciation of values like self-sacrifice, service, fairness, fair wages and benefits for workers, and creation of a renewed economy that creates financial opportunities for all, not just the few.

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

QE By Any Other Name

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

Burgeoning Problem

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

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

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

Hamstrung

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

Two main alternatives to resolve the funding issue are:

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

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

Advice from Those That Caused the Problem

There was an article recently written by a former Fed official now employed by a major hedge fund manager.

Brian Sack is a Director of Global Economics at the D.E. Shaw Group, a hedge fund conglomerate with over $40 billion under management. Prior to joining D.E. Shaw, Sack was head of the New York Federal Reserve Markets Group and manager of the System Open Market Account (SOMA) for the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). He also served as a special advisor on monetary policy to President Obama while at the New York Fed.

Sack, along with Joseph Gagnon, another ex-Fed employee and currently a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, argue in their paper LINK that the Fed should first promptly establish a standing fixed-rate repo facility and, second, “aim for a higher level of reserves.” Although Sack and Gagnon would not concede that reserves are “low”, they argue that whatever the minimum level of reserves may be in the banking system, the Fed should “steer well clear of it.” Their recommendation is for the Fed to increase the level of reserves by $250 billion over the next two quarters. Furthermore, they argue for continued expansion of the Fed balance sheet as needed thereafter.

What they recommend is monetary policy slavery. No matter what language they use to rationalize and justify such solutions, it is pure pragmatism and expediency. It may solve short-term funding issues for the time being, but it will leave the U.S. economy and its citizens further enslaved to the consequences of runaway debt and the monetary policies designed to support it.

If It Walks and Quacks Like a Duck…

Sack and Gagnon did not give their recommendation a sophisticated name, but neither did they call it “QE.” Simply put, their recommendation is in fact a resumption of QE regardless of what name it is given.

To them it smells as sweet as QE, but the spin of some other name and rationale may be more palatable to the public. By not calling it QE, it may allow the Fed more leeway to do QE without being in a recession or bringing rates to near zero in attempts to avoid becoming a political lightening rod.

The media appears to be helping with what increasingly looks like a sleight of hand. Joe Weisenthal from Bloomberg proposed the following on Twitter:

To help you form your own opinion let’s look at some facts about QE and balance sheet increases prior to the QE era. From January of 2003 to December of 2007, the Fed’s balance sheet steadily increased by $150 billion, or about $30 billion a year. The new proposal from Sack and Gagnon calls for a $250 billion increase over six months. QE1 lasted six months and increased the Fed’s balance sheet by $265 billion. Maybe its us, but the new proposal appears to be a mirror image of QE.

Summary

The challenge, as we see it, is that these former Fed officials do not realize that the policies they helped create and implement were a big contributor to the financial crisis a decade ago. The ensuing problems the financial system is now enduring are a result of the policies they implemented to address the crisis. Their proposed solutions, regardless of what they call them, are more imprudent policies to address problems caused by imprudent policies since the GFC.

Who Could Have Known: What The Repo Fiasco Entails

Imagine approaching a friend that you think is very wealthy and asking her to borrow ten thousand dollars for just one night. To entice her, you offer as collateral the title to your 2019 Lexus parked in her driveway along with an interest rate that is 5% above that which she is earning in the bank. Shockingly, your friend says she can’t. Given the risk-free nature of the transaction and excellent one-day profit, we can assume that our friend may not be as wealthy as we thought.

On Monday, September 16th, 2019, a similar situation occurred in the overnight repurchase agreement (repo) funding market. On that day, banks were unwilling or unable to lend on a collateralized basis, even with the promise of large risk-free profits. This behavior reveals something very important about the banking system and points to the end of market stimulus that has been around for the past decade.

The Plumbing of the Banking System and Financial Markets

Interbank borrowing is the engine that allows the financial system to run smoothly. Banks routinely borrow and lend to each other on an overnight basis to ensure that all banks have ample funds to meet daily cash flow needs and that banks with excess funds can earn interest on them. Literally, years go by with no problems in the interbank markets and not a mention in the media.

Before proceeding, what follows is a definition of the funding instruments used in the interbank markets.

  • Fed Funds are uncollateralized interbank loans that are almost exclusively done on an overnight basis. Except for a few exceptions, only banks can trade Fed Funds.
  • Repo (repurchase agreements) are collateralized loans. These transactions occur between banks but often involve other non-bank financial institutions such as insurance companies. Repo can be negotiated on an overnight and longer-term basis. General collateral, or “GC,” is a term used to describe Treasury, agency, and mortgage collateral that backs certain repo loans. In a GC repo, the particular securities backing the loan are not determined until after the transaction is agreed upon by the counterparties. The securities delivered must meet certain pre-defined criteria.

On September 16th, overnight GC repo traded as high as 8%, almost 6% higher than the Fed Funds rate, which theoretically should keep repo and other money market rates closely tied to it. The billion-dollar question is, “Why did a firm willing to pay a hefty premium, with risk-free collateral, struggle to borrow money”?  Before the 16th, a premium of 25 to 50 basis points versus Fed Funds would have enticed a mob of financial institutions to lend money via the repo markets. On the 16th, many multiples of that premium were not enticing enough.

Most likely, there was an unexpected cash crunch that left banks and/or financial institutions underfunded. The media has talked up the corporate tax date and a large Treasury bond settlement date as potential reasons. We are not convinced by either excuse as they were easily forecastable weeks in advance.

Regardless of what caused the liquidity crunch, we do know, that in aggregate, banks did not have the capacity to lend money. Given the capacity, they would have done so in a New York minute and at much lower rates.

To highlight the enormity of the aberration, consider the following:

  • Since 2006, the average daily difference between the overnight GC repo rate and the Fed Funds effective rate was .025%.
  • Three standard deviations or 99.5% of the observances should have a spread of .56% or less.
  • 8% is a bewildering 42 standard deviations from the average, or simply impossible assuming a traditional bell curve.

What was revealed on the 16th?

The U.S. and global banking systems revolve around fractional reserve banking. That means banks need only hold a fraction of the cash deposits that they hold in reserve accounts at the Fed. For example, if a bank has $1,000 in deposits (a liability to the bank), they may lend $900 of those funds and retain only 10% in reserves. This is meant to ensure they have enough funding on hand to make payments during the day and also as a buffer against unanticipated liquidity needs. Before 2008, banks held only just as many reserves as were required by the Fed. Holding anything more than the required minimum was a drag on earnings, as excess reserves were unremunerated at the time.

Quantitative Easing (QE) and the need for the Fed to pay interest on newly formed excess reserves changed that. When the Fed conducted QE, they bought U.S. Treasury, agency, and mortgage-backed securities and credited the selling bank’s reserve account. The purpose of QE1 was to ensure that the banking system was sufficiently liquid and equipped to deal with the ramifications of the ongoing financial crisis. Round one of QE was logical given the growing list of bank/financial institution failures. However, additional rounds of QE appear to have had a different motive and influence as banks were highly liquid after QE1 and had shored up their capital as well. That is a story for another day.

The graph below shows how “excess” reserves were close to zero before 2008 and soared by over $2.5 trillion after the three rounds of QE. Before QE, “excess” reserves were tiny, measured in the hundreds of millions. The amount is so small it is not visible on the graph below. The reserves produced by multiple rounds of quantitative easing may have been truly excess, meaning above required reserves, on day one of QE. However, on day two and beyond that is not necessarily true for any particular bank or the system as a whole, as we are about to explain.

Data courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The Fed, having pushed an enormous amount of reserves on the banks, created a potential problem. The Fed feared that once the smoke cleared from the financial crisis, banks would revert to their pre-crisis practice of keeping only the minimum amount of reserves required. This would leave them an unprecedented surplus of excess funds to buy financial assets and/or create loans which would vastly increase the money supply with inflationary consequences. To combat this problem, they incentivized the banks to keep the reserves locked down by paying them a rate of interest on the reserves that were higher than the Fed funds rates and other prevailing money market rates. This rate is called the IOER or the interest on excess reserves.

The Fed assumed banks would hold excess reserves because they could make risk free profits at no cost. This largely worked, but some reserves were leveraged by the banks and flowed into the financial markets. This was a big factor in driving stock prices higher, credit spreads tighter, and bond yields lower. This form of inflation the Fed seemed to desire as evidenced from their many speeches talking about generating household net worth.

From the banks’ perspective, the excess reserves supplied by the Fed during QE were preferential to traditional uses of excess reserves. Historically, excess bank reserves were invested in the Treasury market or lent on to other banks in the Fed Funds market. Purchasing Treasury securities had no credit risk, but banks are required to mark their Treasury holdings to market and therefore produce unexpected gains and losses. Lending reserves in the interbank market also incurred counterparty risk, as there was always the chance the borrowing bank would be unable to repay the loan, especially in the immediate post-crisis period. Additionally, as QE had produced trillions in excess reserves, there was not much demand from other banks. Therefore, the banks preferred use of excess reserves was leaving them on deposit with the Fed to earn IOER. This resulted in no counterparty risk and no mark to market risk.

Beginning in 2018, the Fed began reducing their balance sheet via QT and the amount of excess reserves held by banks began to decline appreciably.

Solving Our Mystery

It is nearly impossible for the public to figure out how much in excess reserves the banking system is truly carrying. Indeed, even the Fed seems uncertain. It is common knowledge that they have been declining, and over the last six months, clues emerged that the amount of “truly excess reserves,” meaning the amount banks could do without, was possibly approaching zero.  

Clue one came on March 20th, 2019 when the Fed said QT would end in October 2019. Then, on July 31st, 2019, as small problems occurred in the funding markets, the Fed abruptly announced that they would halt the balance sheet reduction in August, two months earlier than originally planned. The QT effort, despite assurances from Bernanke, Yellen, and Powell that it would be uneventful, ended 22 months after it began. The Fed’s balance sheet declined only $800 billion as a result of QT, less than a quarter of what the Fed added to their balance sheet during QE.

Clue two was the declining spread between the IOER rate and the effective Fed Funds rate as the level of excess reserves was declining, as seen in the chart below. The spread between IOER and the Fed Funds rate was narrowing because the Fed was having trouble maintaining the Fed Funds rate within the targeted range. In March 2019, the spread became negative, which was counter to the Fed’s objectives. Not surprisingly, this is when the Fed first announced that QT would end.

Data courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The third and final clue emerged on September 16, 2019, when overnight repo traded at 7%-8%. If banks truly had excess reserves, they would have lent some of that excess into the repo market and rates would never have gotten close to 7-8%. It seems logical that banks would have been happy to lend on a collateralized basis at 3%, much less 7-8%, when their alternative, leaving excess reserves to the Fed, would have earned them 2.25%.   

Further confirmation that something was amiss occurred on September 17th, 2019, when the Fed Funds effective rate was above the upper end of the Fed’s target range of 2-2.25% at the time. This marked the first time the Fed Funds rate traded above its target since 2008.

On September 17th, the Fed entered the repo markets with a $53 billion overnight repo operation, whereby banks could pledge Treasury collateral to the Fed and receive cash. The temporary liquidity injection worked and brought repo rates back to normal. The following day the Fed pumped $75 billion into the markets. These were the first repo transactions executed by the Fed since the Financial Crisis, as shown below.

These liquidity operations will likely continue as long as there is demand from banks. The Fed will also conduct longer-term repo operations to reduce the amount of daily liquidity they provide.

The Fed can continue to resort to the pre-QE era tactics and use temporary daily operations to help target overnight borrowing rates. They can also reduce the reserve requirements which would, at least for some time, provide the system with excess reserves. Lastly, they can permanently add reserves with QE. Recent rhetoric from Fed Chairman Powell and New York Fed President Williams suggests a resumption of QE in some form may be closer than we think.

Why should we care?

The QE-related excess reserves were used to invest in financial assets. While the investments were probably high-grade liquid assets, they essentially crowded out investors, pushing them into slightly riskier assets. This domino effect helped lift all asset prices from the most risk-free and liquid to those that are risky and illiquid. Keep in mind the Fed removed about $3.6 trillion of Treasury and mortgage securities from the market which had a similar effect.

The bottom line is that the role excess reserves played in stimulating the markets over the last decade is gone. There are many other factors driving asset prices higher such as passive investing, stock buybacks, and a broad-based, euphoric investment atmosphere, all of which are byproducts of extraordinary monetary policies. The new modus operandi is not necessarily a cause for concern, but it does present a new demand curve for the markets that is different from what we have become accustomed to.

Summary

Short-term funding is never sexy and rarely if ever, the most exciting part of the capital markets. A brief recollection of 2008 serves as a reminder that, when it is exciting, it is usually a harbinger of volatility and disruption.

In a Washington Post article from 2010, Bernanke stated, “We have made all necessary preparations, and we are confident that we have the tools to unwind these policies at the appropriate time.”

Much more recently, Jay Powell stated, “We’ve been operating in this regime for a full decade. It’s designed specifically so that we do not expect to be conducting frequent open market operations to keep fed fund [sic] rates in the target range.” 

Today, a decade after the financial crisis, we see that Bernanke and Powell have little appreciation for the inner-workings of the financial system. 

In the Wisdom of Peter Fisher, an RIA Pro article released in July, we discussed the insight of Peter Fisher, a former Treasury, and Federal Reserve official. Unlike most other Fed members and politicians, he discussed how hard getting back to normal will be. As we are learning, it turns out that Fisher’s wisdom from 2017 was visionary.

“As Fisher stated in his remarks, The challenge of normalizing policy will be to undo bad habits that have developed in how monetary policy is explained and understood.” He continues, “…the Fed will have to walk back from their early assurances that the “exit would be easy.”

Prophetic indeed.

Negative Rates Are Destructive But Profitable

“Remember that Time is Money.”

Benjamin Franklin, Advice to a Young Tradesman

It’s unfortunate that such genius identifications as the above have long been forgotten by the economic community. First penned in 1748, Benjamin Franklin makes the connection between human effort—or rather the application of human effort towards productive work—and the effect/product, i.e. wealth. We measure this increase in prosperity, of course, in terms of money. Thus, “Time is Money” (or rather, time is potential money). They are one in the same since time is the one truly scarce resource with which all living creatures have to work.

However, you’d never know this by a look at today’s markets. Negative interest rates are now common place and widely accepted as a policy tool. In fact, a tradition of thought is being established as a means of “normalizing” them. Pushing deeper into negative territory seems all but a foregone conclusion. No longer is the absurdity and devastation of such policies discussed. No longer discussed is that negative interest rates negative human life.

Negative Interest Rates Negate Human Life

“Negative interest rates negative human life” is a bold statement, I know, but I stand by it. I suspect “Big Ben” would too. We both understand what economics is all about. It has nothing to do with fine tuning commercial activities for some nebulous greater good. Rather, economics is about individual, human happiness. It’s about making the most of our time on this planet; to use our time, effort, and brainpower to maximize the human experience while it lasts. The better use of time we make—via productivity—the more wealth can be created, the more comfortable and fulfilling our lives, and the better the existence we can enjoy. Hence, time is money in a pure, genuine, and profound way.

This is why negative interest rate policies (NIRP) are so pernicious and beyond absurd, irrespective of whether or not they saved the collapsing financial system in 2008. NIRP implies contractions on such fundamental scales that they cannot be beneficial. Specifically, that either: 1) your time and efforts are valueless (or worse, destructive), or; 2) your currency is valueless. In other words, action is detrimental to survival; time is not money, and; one’s currency choice is not important. None could be more obviously false.

Time and Effort Are Valuable

Your time and effort are valuable. Fundamentally, these are your survival tools. If time and effort were not valuable then there would be no need to ever take any action of any sort. You’d be better served to lay curled up in the fetal position than to attempt to work. This is clearly false. Human survival (and thriving beyond this basic need) requires one to produce and trade for values. This requires action; hence time and effort are valuable.

Time is Money

If time were not money then no one would work, full stop. Why toil if the fruits of one’s labor did not exceed the effort and time spent while working? Humans work for the purpose of survival; however we’re lucky that civilization has sufficiently advanced such that immediate survival is no longer of primary concern for much of the developed world.

Instead of concerning ourselves with food and shelter, human effort can be diverted towards life enhancements. Today, engineers make software, artists make films, ride-sharing drivers transport us, and financiers fund dreams. Without people working on such projects there would be none of the results. There’d be no Ubers and iPhones and movies and biotechnology and office buildings without men and women applying their time towards these endeavors.

If time were not money why on earth would anyone work? Surely there would be better ways to spend one’s only truly scare resource of time. Simply doing nothing and conserving energy would be an evolutionary advantage. Why work if there are no values to gain?

Working to lose would favor not working or acting at all. This is the absurdity of negative interest rates. To apply capital only to lose it—i.e. NIRP—would favor not applying capital in the first place. Thus, NIRP’s existence implies a contrived construct to exist, not one grounded in natural law.

Sound Money Is Universally Desired

Another possibility of NIRP is that it says something negative about the currency and not necessarily output. The currency is depreciating over time. But this too is nonsensical. Why would anyone use a depreciating currency given the choice? In fact, no one ever chooses such inferior currency, looking at history. These circumstances typically arise with a healthy dose of force. Poor currencies are typically foisted upon an unwilling population and they typically don’t last; no one wants to lose value in a transaction. If a currency cannot serve as a reliable unit of account, the populace will eventually find something that can—officially or unofficially sanctioned.

Thus, people will flock to the best currency option available so long as they are not forced to choose otherwise by regulation and statute. This in part explains the U.S. Dollar’s dominance in international financial transactions. True it’s the “reserve currency” but it’s the reserve currency for a reason and the dominance of the U.S. Navy is not one. Rather, the respect for the rule of law, deep capital pools, and established and incentivized institutions are what likely preserves the U.S. Dollar’s reserve status. Don’t kid yourself; an IMF mandate for settling trade in renminbi would yield no (material) results. Economic actors will act according to their best interests, factoring in the price of non-compliance. Thus, the “bag-holders” are always those compelled to hold depreciating currency.

Sweet Siren’s Song

The challenge with negative and low rates is just how profitable they can be to trade. Hence, they should not be ignored, in my view. I introduced the chart below nearly a year ago. It illustrates how much return potential is embedded in the 10 year U.S. Treasury bond (USTs) expressed as a function of its current yield (see here for a more detailed description). As yields have fallen, the appreciation/depreciation potential has dramatically increased. No longer are USTs boring, yield providing investment vehicles. In the environments of NIRP and ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) they are now total-rate-of-return vehicles ripe for speculation and outperformance.

Today’s Bizarre State of the World

These dynamics gave us the current state of the world. Investors cheer the stupidity of NIRP because they yield profits. The more ZIRP, NIRP, and QE (quantitative easing) the more capital gains can be reaped despite no detectable economic benefits produced. Hence, investors cheer the nonsensical which policymakers mistake as as endorsements. A self-reflective loop is established.

Many claim that NIRP, ZIRP, and QE saved the failing financial system. This, however, is mere conjecture. We simply don’t know what would have arisen from the ashes, better or worse. Counter-factual claims cannot be empirically debated.

Thus to claim that NIRP is beneficial displays one’s bias and, in my view, is grounds for mistrust on non-objectivity. This is particularly true since we can see how truly absurd the theoretical construct for NIRP is. Time is money and freely exchanging citizens desire sound currency, these we know as fact. Arguing to the contrary in papers or by inciting tradition can’t negate these.

So long as the academic and political will favors the incumbent policies they will likely be entrenched. The IMF recently published their playbook for the next economic slowdown and NIRP plays prominently. Economics (true economics) illustrate why these next rounds will also fail to stoke economic activity.

There’s no breaking the link between time and money and the desirability for sound currency. These are universal truths. That said, bond math illustrates that trading “rates” in such an absurd environment can be lucrative, at least for the time being. Thus, I find it useful to know both: the absurd and the trading potential. Profitably trading won’t negate the deleterious effects of NIRP, but it can help preserve one’s capital for better, more intellectually sound times.

Superforecasting A Bear Market

There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not the U.S. is approaching a recession. As an investor, this question is of utmost importance. It is precisely at these times when fortunes can be made and lost. There’s no shortage of pundits with strong opinions in both the affirmative and negative camps armed with plausible narratives and supporting data sets. How to decide which side to take? Applying some proven forecasting methods to historical data can help bring clarity to this question.

Forecasting is tricky business. It’s really hard to do well consistently, especially in investing.

Fortunately for us, Philip Tetlock has made a study of forecasting. In the book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (aka Superforecasting) he and coauthor Dan Gardner share their findings of a multi-year study aimed to discover the best forecasters, uncover their methods, and to determine if forecasting skills could improve. There are many great lessons conveyed in the book. We can thus apply them to our problem at hand: the question of whether or not the U.S. will enter a recession.

The Lessons

By running a series of geopolitical forecasting tournaments, Tetlock and Gardner discovered a group of elite forecasters and uncovered their best practices. Ironically, specialized knowledge played little role in their success. Rather, it was their approach.

Superforecasting had a profound impact on me. I took away a more concretized framework for dealing with predictions. Rather than feeling my way through a situation, Superforecasting gave me a method I could apply. Well-devised forecasts share four characteristics:

  1. They’re probabilistic
  2. They start with a base rate formed by an “outside view”
  3. They’re adjusted using the specifics of the “inside view”
  4. They’re updated as frequently as required by incoming facts, no matter how small the increments

Think Probabilistically

The best forecasters (aka Superforecasters) made predictions in a probabilistic manner. In other words, outcomes weren’t binary—i.e. something would or would not occur. Rather, the Superforecasters ascribed a probability to a forecast. For example, they would assign a 30% chance to the U.S. entering a recession rather than saying it was unlikely. This precision is important.

Establish a Base Rate Formed by an “Outside View”

Before making a prediction, the Superforecasters first established a base rate informed by an “outside view.” A base rate is merely a starting probability. It will later be adjusted. An outside view, as introduced in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, is a perspective that looks for historically analogous situations for guidance.

To establish a base rate using an outside view, we should first look at previous recessions and periods where economic conditions were similar. How often did conditions deteriorate into recessions? What events tended to precede them? This should give us starting point.

Adjust Using the “Inside View”

After establishing a base rate using an outside view, the Superforecasters adjusted it by taking an inside view—another Kahneman concept. An inside view is a perspective that only considers the situation at hand. It ignores historical precedents and seeks to induce an outcome using only the current facts. In a sense, every situation is treated as unique.

Thus, the Superforecasters considered both the historical context and idiosyncratic characteristics to inform their predictions. In a lot of ways this resembles using deductive and inductive reasoning in concert with each other; a practice I condone. To follow with our example, a Superforecaster would adjust their 30% recession base rate up or down based on current economic and market conditions. It might be increased due to the prospect of a trade war; it might be reduced based on strong jobs data.

Frequently Updated

Lastly, the Superforecasters frequently adjusted their forecasts. They constantly updated their probabilities, even in increments that seemed insignificant if warranted by new information. While this might sound trite, Tetlock and Gardner found it to be a key component of accuracy. Thus, forecasts might be changed with each presidential tweet in our ongoing example.

Establishing a Recession Base Case

Armed with an improved forecasting method, I applied it to the recession question. I ditched my bullish or bearish perspective and established an outside view base rate. Here, I illustrate my process using two of the most hotly debated metrics: the Institute for Supply Management’s Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) and the U.S. Treasury yield curve (YC), defined by the 10 year U.S. Treasury bond minus the Federal Funds Rate.

I compiled monthly data through July 2019. I then looked at the frequency of negative monthly returns for the S&P 500 index (SPX) after a specific threshold was breached. For the PMI I used its latest reading of 51.2. For the YC I looked at periods of inversion (i.e. when the spread was zero and below). Once these months were identified, I calculated the SPX’s return over the following 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months.

Note that I analyzed SPX returns and not whether or not a recession occurred. As an investor, my only concern is if asset prices will rise or fall, not recessions as such. It just so happens that recessions and falling stock prices coincide; but it’s the values that we ultimately care about, not recessions.

Findings From PMI Data

Below is my analysis of SPX returns for when the PMI historically reached these levels (51.2). Note that my data covered 858 months for my 1 month sample period and 835 months when looking at 24 month returns (i.e. 23 less data points). The PMI was 51.2 or below in 322 of those months, or ~38% of the time across sample periods. During these instances, successive SPX returns were negative for 14% of the months using a 24-month time horizon and 35% of the months using a 1-month one. Thus, 29% is a reasonable base rate for taking a bearish stance on the SPX over a 6 month time horizon using an outside view of PMI data.

Also, note that the longer the negative return environment persisted the larger the average losses.

Here is a similar table examining YC inversions. Both the instances and magnitudes of negative SPX returns appear to be higher for this data set. A base rate of 52% seems reasonable for taking a bearish stance on the SPX over a 6 month time horizon for this data set.

Findings From Combined PMI & YC Data

It’s an even rarer occurrence for the YC to invert when the PMI is 51.2 or below. This happened in just 65 months out of the past 780, or 8% of the time. SPX returns were negative 28% to 55% of the time depending on one’s timeframe, with 3 month displaying the highest frequency. We could use a 46% base rate for a 6 month time horizon. While losses were less frequent using this dual-signal than the YC alone, they were also more severe. Average drawdowns ranged from 4.3% to 31.4%.

Calibrating Your Grizzly

This analysis affords us two advantages. First, it removes the binary guesswork in trying to predict a recession. We no longer need to make a definite call on whether returns are likely to be higher or lower under the current conditions; we can take a more nuanced, probabilistic approach. Secondly, we can establish a starting base rate that is grounded in historical data.

According to the best practices discussed in Superforecasting this is just the first two steps in creating a robust forecast. The base rate requires adjusting by considering an inside view of today’s economic and market landscapes. It must also be updated as new information materializes.

The conditions examined (a PMI lower or equal to 51.2 and an inverted YC) were recently triggered. History suggests that we’re in a serious position. In the past, SPX returns were negative nearly half the time over the succeeding 3 to 12 months. To be sure, using just two signals is not an exhaustive process. However, it was a good first step in helping me calibrate my bearish instincts.

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to apply your own inside view of the markets to this base rate. Ultimately, we must determine the extent to which “it’s different this time.” While forecasting is guesswork by definition, Superforecasting provided me with a useful framework to apply to all investing situations. Hopefully I’ll do so profitably.

The Fed’s Massive Debt for Equity Swap

All assets are priced where they are today because of central banks. That’s modern finance — it’s not about psychology or flows anymore, it’s about what the central banks are going to do next.” – Mark Spitznagel

Cause and Effect

Rene Descartes, a 17th-century mathematician, asked the fundamental question of how causal power functions. He was interested in how things relate to each other in terms of causality and how the thought of an action gets translated into a physical action. The theory he came up with, called “Interactionism,” affirms the relationship between thought and action. Importantly for our discussion, Descartes knew that any effect must have an antecedent cause.

When we are unclear about something, Descartes teaches us to search diligently for first principles, those things about which we are certain, and then explore what might have caused an event or observed the effect.

Warnings

In recent weeks, we have heard a variety of pundits, including a parade of Federal Reserve (Fed) officials speaking about mounting risks in the credit markets. Steve Eisman, who correctly pre-identified the magnitude of the sub-prime mortgage debacle, expressed confidence in commercial banks but worried that a U.S. recession would bring “massive” losses to the corporate bond market. The Fed published a report stating that there are meaningful risks in the corporate bond markets due to the amount of issuance that has occurred over the past decade and the weak credit quality of much of that issuance. As documented in many prior articles, we concur with those concerns and suggest the effect has a nasty way of sneaking up on central bankers. For our latest on the topic please read The Corporate Maginot Line.

The potential problems brewing in the credit markets are an effect. Corporations did not just decide to issue mountains of debt, much of which is low rated and of poor quality, for no reason at all. They did it, in large part, as a result of the economic and market environment created by the Fed through low interest rates and quantitative easing (QE).

The Fed removed over $4 trillion of the highest quality bonds out of the domestic market. In doing so, they pushed interest rates to historic lows. The combined effect all but forced investors to seek out higher-yielding, riskier instruments. As a result, the demand was ready and more than willing to absorb the on-coming wave of corporate supply and to do so at remarkably low yields and therefore very favorable terms for the issuers.

Cause

At the depths of the financial crisis, the Fed advertised QE as a means to boost asset prices, create a wealth effect, and fuel consumer borrowing and spending. It was sold as an economic growth booster that would benefit everyone. The ultimate objective was to staunch the crisis and foster an economic recovery.

Through QE, the Fed did this by acquiring mortgage and Treasury bonds from large banks and crediting those banks’ reserve accounts with digitally manufactured U.S. dollars. From September 2008 until January 2015, when the third round of QE was completed, the Fed balance sheet swelled by nearly $4 trillion while bank reserves grew from $2 billion (that’s $0.002 trillion) in July 2008 to almost $3.0 trillion.

As the Fed acquired vast amounts of high quality fixed-income securities from banks through QE, it created a vacuum in the bond market that had to be filled. The vanishing high-quality Treasuries and mortgages generated fresh demand for investments of lower-quality bonds.

Strong investor demand was met by corporations increasingly anxious to issue cheap debt to fund their activities. While those activities included capital expenditures, the debt increasingly was used to fund dividend payouts and share buybacks. Not coincidently, while the Fed’s balance sheet was expanding by $4 trillion, corporate debt outstanding exploded from $5 trillion to well over $9 trillion.

Debt-for-equity

As mentioned, the Fed removed high-quality securities from the market enabling corporate issuers to step in to fill the resulting gap. Since QE began, nearly 30% of the new corporate debt issued was used for stock buybacks. Putting the pieces of the mosaic together, it is fair to say the most intense corporate debt-for-equity swap in recorded history was enabled by the Fed via monetary policy and the federal government through tax-cuts.

This is symptomatic of a variety of issues that have been created by prolonged extraordinary monetary policy. In the same way that corporate behavior has been seriously altered as described above, every central bank in the developed world has undertaken even more extreme measures to foster growth, dictating that the behavior of market participants transform in some manner.

The chart below is a stark reminder of how the Fed has changed the natural order of the corporate debt market. Over the past 25 years, when corporate debt loads became onerous, investors required higher yields and wider spreads to compensate them for the added risks.

Today, despite the extreme amount of corporate leverage and the low quality of corporate credit, junk spreads remain near all-time lows. As shown below and highlighted by the red arrow, the long-standing correlation between leverage and high yield spreads is broken.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

This gross distortion and many others throughout the market offer clues and compelling evidence of a “cause.” Collectively, they point to a monetary policy that is manipulating the price of money and fostering irrational behaviors.

Effect

In his book, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt states, “…the whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

The side-effects of extraordinary monetary policy, especially those that have been left in place for a decade, have scarcely been considered by the Federal Reserve. What was great (as in “get filthy rich” great) for the banks and the wealthy was not such a hot deal for the rest of the American public. The side effects are becoming more apparent and serious every day. As an aside, the rolling wave of populism did not emerge unprompted. It too is an effect. As Deep Throat said to Woodward and Bernstein, “Follow the money.”

Instead of investing in new property, plant, equipment, innovation, and employee training for the long-term benefit of their shareholders, employees, and the communities in which they operate, companies instead are taking advantage of ultra-low funding costs to buy back expensive stock. In a desire to prop up stock prices to enhance their compensation and satisfy short term investors, corporate executives have and continue to make poor capital allocation choices.

If the goal was to increase shareholder value via a temporarily higher share price, then corporations succeeded, albeit temporarily. The goal always should be to increase long-term shareholder value via stronger growth; a goal corporations have largely ignored. After ten years of poor decision making, many companies are left with inflated stock prices but dim prospects for future growth to fund their obese debt structures.

Summary

A weak post-crisis economic recovery that hurt low income wage earners alongside monetary policy that fueled steady gains in the cost of living meant many people were going to be left behind. The calculus did not anticipate that effect would extend so far up into the middle class. Struggling to maintain their previous standard of living, consumers borrow at the Fed’s new cheap rates. Quoting from the book, The Big Short, “If you want to make poor people feel rich, give them cheap loans.

That is exactly what the Fed did after the financial crisis for more than a decade and counting. That game has an unhappy effect as the economy loses productive capacity and has little fuel to spur organic growth and wage gains.

The series of events playing out right before us, like a pre-release movie trailer, reveals teasing fragments of information. The corporate debt market is today’s teaser. The set-up for that was the Fed-induced debt-for-equity swap. To anyone willing to pay attention to the data, it is again plain to see the excesses brewing in today’s environment which is eerily similar to those of 2005 and 2006. Even Dallas Fed President Kaplan has raised a warning flag by highlighting the amount and poor quality of corporate debt which could add to the burden on the economy in a downturn. He diplomatically understates the problem but at least he acknowledges it.

Monetary policies of the Fed are the cause. Those policies enable imprudent deficit-spending and accumulation of leverage at ultra-low interest rates.

Debt loads in the government, corporate and household sector, and various other hidden imbalances are the effect. What we know about circumstances is a concern, but what should be especially troubling are those things of which we are not even yet aware.

Turning back to Descartes, he offers this wisdom: “The senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once.”