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SOTM 2020: State Of The Markets

“I am thrilled to report to you tonight that our economy is the best it has ever been.” – President Trump, SOTU

In the President’s “State of the Union Address” on Tuesday, he used the podium to talk up the achievements in the economy and the markets.

  • Low unemployment rates
  • Tax cuts
  • Job creation
  • Economic growth, and, of course,
  • Record high stock markets.

While it certainly is a laundry list of items he can claim credit for, it is the claim of record-high stock prices that undermines the rest of the story.

Let me explain.

The stock market should be a reflection of actual economic growth. Since corporate earnings are derived primarily from consumptive spending, corporate investments, and imports and exports, actual economic activity should be reflected in the price investors are willing to pay for the earnings being generated.

For the majority of the 20th century, this was indeed the case as corporate earnings were reflective of economic activity. The chart below shows the annual change in reported earnings, nominal GDP, and the price of the S&P 500.

Not surprisingly, as the economy grew at 6.47% annually, earnings also grew at 6.68% annually as would be expected. Since investors are willing to a premium for earnings growth, the S&P 500 grew at 9% annually over that same period.

Importantly, note that long-term economic growth has averaged 6% annually. However, as shown in the lower panel, economic growth has been running below the long-term average since 2000, but has been substantially weaker since 2007, growing at just 2% annually.

The next chart shows this weaker growth more clearly. Since the financial crisis, economic growth has failed to recover back to its long-term exponential growth trend. However, reported earnings are exceedingly deviated from what actual underlying economic growth can generate. This is due to a decade of accounting gimmickry, share buybacks, wage suppression, low interest rates, and high corporate debt levels.

The next chart looks at the deviation by looking at the market itself versus long-term economic growth. The S&P 500 and GDP have been scaled to 100, and displayed on a log-scale for comparative purposes.

The current growth trend of the economy is running well below its long-term exponential trend, but the S&P 500 is currently at the most significant deviation from that growth on record. (It should be noted that while these deviations from economic growth can last for a long-time, the eventual mean reversion always occurs.)

The Spending Mirage

Take a look at the following chart.

While the President’s claims of an exceptionally strong economy rely heavily on historically low unemployment and jobless claims numbers, historically high levels of asset prices, and strong consumer spending trends, there is an underlying deterioration which goes unaddressed.

So, here’s your pop quiz?

If consumer spending is strong, AND unemployment is near the lowest levels on record, AND interest rates are low, AND job creation is high – then why is the economy only growing at 2%?

Furthermore, if the economy was doing as well as government statistics suggest, then why does the Federal Reserve need to continue providing the economy with “emergency measures,” cutting rates, and giving “verbal guidance,” to keep the markets from crashing?

The reality is that if it wasn’t for the Government running a massive trillion-dollar fiscal deficit, economic growth would actually be recessionary.

In GDP accounting, consumption is the largest component. Of course, since it is impossible to “consume oneself to prosperity,” the ability to consume more is the result of growing debt. Furthermore, economic growth is also impacted by Government spending, as government transfer payments, including Medicaid, Medicare, disability payments, and SNAP (previously called food stamps), all contribute to the calculation.

As shown below, between the Federal Reserve’s monetary infusions and the ballooning government deficit, the S&P 500 has continued to find support.

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

Another way to look at this is through tax receipts as a percentage of GDP.  If the economy was indeed “the strongest ever,” then we should see an increase in wage growth commensurate with increased economic activity. As a result of higher wages, there should be an increase in the taxes collected by the Government from wages, consumption, imports, and exports.

See the problem here?

Clearly, this is not the case as tax receipts as a percentage of GDP peaked in 2012, and have now declined to levels which historically are more coincident with economic recessions, rather than expansions. Yet, currently, because of the artificial interventions, the stock market remains well detached from what economic data is actually saying.

Corporate Profits Tell The Real Story

When it comes to the state of the market, corporate profits are the best indicator of economic strength.

The detachment of the stock market from underlying profitability guarantees poor future outcomes for investors. But, as has always been the case, the markets can certainly seem to “remain irrational longer than logic would predict,” but it never lasts indefinitely.

Profit margins are probably the most mean-reverting series in finance, and if profit margins do not mean-revert, then something has gone badly wrong with capitalism. If high profits do not attract competition, there is something wrong with the system, and it is not functioning properly.” – Jeremy Grantham

As shown, when we look at inflation-adjusted profit margins as a percentage of inflation-adjusted GDP, we see a clear process of mean-reverting activity over time. Of course, those mean reverting events are always coupled with recessions, crises, or bear markets.

More importantly, corporate profit margins have physical constraints. Out of each dollar of revenue created, there are costs such as infrastructure, R&D, wages, etc. Currently, the biggest contributors to expanding profit margins has been the suppression of employment, wage growth, and artificially suppressed interest rates, which have significantly lowered borrowing costs. Should either of the issues change in the future, the impact to profit margins will likely be significant.

The chart below shows the ratio overlaid against the S&P 500 index.

I have highlighted peaks in the profits-to-GDP ratio with the green vertical bars. As you can see, peaks, and subsequent reversions, in the ratio have been a leading indicator of more severe corrections in the stock market over time. This should not be surprising as asset prices should eventually reflect the underlying reality of corporate profitability.

It is often suggested that, as mentioned above, low interest rates, accounting rule changes, and debt-funded buybacks have changed the game. While that statement is true, it is worth noting that each of those supports are artificial and finite.

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

The correlation is clearer when looking at the market versus the ratio of corporate profits to GDP. (Again, since corporate profits are ultimately a function of economic growth, the correlation is not unexpected.) 

It seems to be a simple formula for investors that as long as the Fed remains active in supporting asset prices, the deviation between fundamentals and fantasy doesn’t matter. 

However, investors are paying more today than at any point in history for each $1 of profit, which history suggests will not end well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will likely be something he eventually regrets.

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

Strongest Economy Ever? Americans Receive More In Benefits Than Pay In Taxes

At the beginning of August, I discussed the following tweet from the President:

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

The following chart should quickly put that claim to rest.

While the claims of an exceptionally strong economy rely heavily on historically low unemployment and jobless claims numbers, historically high levels of asset prices, and strong consumer spending trends, there is an underlying deterioration that goes unaddressed.

For example, while reported unemployment is hitting historically low levels, there is a swelling mass of uncounted individuals that have either given up looking for work or are working multiple part-time jobs. This is shown by those “not in labor force” as a percent of the working-age population, which has skyrocketed since the recession.

The employment to population ratio would not still be at levels from the 1980s.

If employment was indeed as strong as reported by government agencies, then social benefits would not be comprising a record high of 22% of real disposable incomes. Here is the breakdown:

  • 40 million Americans on food stamps
  • An estimated 50% of the 330 million Americans in this country get at least one federal benefit, according to the Census Bureau.
  • An estimated 63 million get Social Security; 59.9 million get Medicare; 75 million get Medicaid; 5 million get housing subsidies; and 4 million get Veterans’ benefits.

Those numbers continue to rise.

Without government largesse, many individuals would literally be living on the street. The chart above shows all the government “welfare” programs and current levels to date. While unemployment insurance has hit record lows following the financial crisis, social security, medicaid, veterans’ benefits, and other social benefits have continued to rise and have surged sharply over the last few months.

With 1/5 of incomes dependent on government transfers, it is not surprising that the economy continues to struggle as recycled tax dollars used for consumption purposes have virtually no impact on the overall economy.

In fact, in the ongoing saga of the demise of the American economy U.S. households are now getting more in cash handouts from the government than they are paying in taxes for the first time since the Great Depression. This, of course, at a time when the current administration is more enthralled with trying to find some universe where cutting taxes actually increases tax revenues as a percent of GDP rather than actually cutting spending.

In 2018, households received $2.2 trillion in some form of government transfer payments, which was more than the $1.7 trillion paid in personal income taxes.

“Yes, but wages are now the highest ever.”

Fair enough, but if that were truly the case, then why are transfer payments as a percent of disposable personal income still hanging near its highs from the “Great Recession?”

In the “strongest economy in history,” American’s should be earning a bulk of the income from their labor, rather than from Government handouts. This is why, despite tax cuts, tax revenue growth has waned as the economy has remained weak.

You simply can’t create economic growth by recycling tax dollars. 

In short, Americans have the government, not private enterprise, to thank for their wealth growth – but, of course, there are massive implications to this.

As I noted in our recent discussion on the fallacy of the “savings rate:”

“The ‘gap’ between the ‘standard of living’ and real disposable incomes is shown below. Beginning in 1990, incomes alone were no longer able to meet the standard of living so consumers turned to debt to fill the ‘gap.’ However, following the ‘financial crisis,’ even the combined levels of income and debt no longer fill the gap. Currently, there is almost a $2654 annual deficit that cannot be filled.”

That gap explains why consumer debt is at historic highs and growing each year.

Furthermore, if more households have the government to thank for their wealth, does that mean those households are more inclined to re-elect politicians who are pushing for more government handouts? 

The answers to that question is quite obvious if you look at the candidates currently running for President on the Democratic ticket.

The bottom line is that America can’t grow its way back to prosperity on the back of social assistance. The average American is fighting to make ends meet as their cost of living rises while wage growth largely remains stagnant.

This brings us to the hard truth.

The budget deficit is set to grow over the next few years as interest payments alone absorb a chuck of the tax revenue. This comes at a time when that same dollar of tax revenue only covers entitlement spending as 75 million baby boomers begin their migration into the social safety net.

The call by the American people at the last election was a mandate to reduce the size of government and spending, however, that has fallen on deaf ears and weak stomachs. The current electorate is log jammed by personal agendas as the White House elected to cut taxes, increase defense spending, and exacerbate the crony-capitalism which currently plagues the country.

By the way, the only other time government income support exceeded taxes paid was during the “Great Depression” from 1931 to 1936.

Strongest economy ever? Hardly.

But it could be.

Today, we have the ability to choose our battles, make tough choices, and restore the economic balance for future growth. However, 800-years of history tells us that we will fail to make those choices, and at some point, those choices will be forced upon us.