Tag Archives: Trump

Special Report: Fed Launches A Bazooka As Markets Hit Our Line In The Sand

The severity of the recent market rout has been quite astonishing. As shown below, in just three very short weeks, the market has reversed almost the entirety of the “Trump Stock Market” gains.

The decline has been unrelenting, and despite the Fed cutting rates last week, and President Trump discussing fiscal stimulus, the markets haven’t responded. In mid-February we were discussing the markets being 3-standard deviations above their 200-dma which is a rarity. Three short weeks later, the markets are now 4-standard deviations below which is even a rarer event. 

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve increased “Repo operations” to $175 Billion.

Still no response from the market

Then on Thursday, the Fed brought out their “big gun.”

The Fed Bazooka

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve stepped into financial markets for the second day in a row, this time dramatically ramping up asset purchases amid the turmoil created by the combination of the spreading coronavirus and the collapse in oil prices. 

In a statement from the New York Fed:

The Federal Reserve said it would inject more than $1.5 trillion of temporary liquidity into Wall Street on Thursday and Friday to prevent ominous trading conditions from creating a sharper economic contraction.

‘These changes are being made to address highly unusual disruptions in Treasury financing markets associated with the coronavirus outbreak.’

The New York Fed said it would conduct three additional repo offerings worth an additional $1.5 trillion this week, with two separate $500 billion offerings that will last for three months and a third that will mature in one month.

If the transactions are fully subscribed, they would swell the central bank’s $4.2 trillion asset portfolio by more than 35%.” – WSJ

As Mish Shedlock noted,

“The Fed can label this however they want, but it’s another round of QE.”

As you can see in the chart below, this is a massive surge of liquidity hitting the market at a time the market is hitting important long-term trend support.

Of course, this is what the market has been hoping for:

  • Rate cuts? Check
  • Liquidity? Check

It is now, or never, for the markets.

With our portfolios already at very reduced equity levels, the break of this trendline will take our portfolios to our lowest levels of exposure. However, given the extreme oversold condition, noted above, it is likely we are going to see a bounce, which we will use to reduce risk into.

What happened today was an event we have been worried about, but didn’t expect to see until after a break of the trendline – “margin calls.”

This is why we saw outsized selling in “safe assets” such as REITs, utilities, bonds, and gold.

Cash was the only safe place to hide.

This also explains why the market “failed to rally” when the Fed announced $500 billion today. There is another $500 billion coming tomorrow. We will see what happens.

We aren’t anxious to “fight the Fed,” but the markets may have a different view this time.

Use rallies to raise cash, and rebalance portfolio risk accordingly.

We are looking to be heavy buyers of equities when the market forms a bottom, we just aren’t there as of yet.

Special Report: Panic Sets In As “Everything Must Go”

Note: All charts now updated for this mornings open.

The following is a report we generate regularly for our RIAPRO Subscribers. You can try our service RISK-FREE for 30-Days.

Headlines from the past four-days:

Dow sinks 2,000 points in worst day since 2008, S&P 500 drops more than 7%

Dow rallies more than 1,100 points in a wild session, halves losses from Monday’s sell-off

Dow drops 1,400 points and tumbles into a bear market, down 20% from last month’s record close

Stocks extend losses following 15-minute ‘circuit breaker’ halt, S&P 500 drops 8%

It has, been a heck of a couple of weeks for the market with daily point swings running 1000, or more, points in either direction.

However, given Tuesday’s huge rally, it seemed as if the market’s recent rout might be over with the bulls set to take charge? Unfortunately, as with the two-previous 1000+ point rallies, the bulls couldn’t maintain their stand.

But with the markets having now triggered a 20% decline, ending the “bull market,” according to the media, is all “hope” now lost? Is the market now like an “Oriental Rug Factory” where “Everything Must Go?”

It certainly feels that way at the moment.

“Virus fears” have run amok with major sporting events playing to empty crowds, the Houston Live Stock Show & Rodeo was canceled, along with Coachella, and numerous conferences and conventions from Las Vegas to New York. If that wasn’t bad enough, Saudi Arabia thought they would start an “oil price” war just to make things interesting.

What is happening now, and what we have warned about for some time, is that markets needed to reprice valuations for a reduction in economic growth and earnings.

It has just been a much quicker, and brutal, event than even we anticipated.

The questions to answer now are:

  1. Are we going to get a bounce to sell into?
  2. Is the bear market officially started – from a change in trend basis; and,
  3. Just how bad could this get?

A Bounce Is Likely

In January, when we discussed taking profits out of our portfolios, we noted the markets were trading at 3-standard deviations above their 200-dma, which suggested a pullback, or correction, was likely.

Now, it is the same comment in reverse. The correction over the last couple of weeks has completely reversed the previous bullish exuberance into extreme pessimism. On a daily basis, the market is back to oversold. Historically, this condition has been sufficient for a bounce. Given that the oversold condition (top panel) is combined with a very deep “sell signal” in the bottom panel, it suggests a fairly vicious reflexive rally is likely. The question, of course, is how far could this rally go.

Looking at the chart above, it is possible we could see a rally back to the 38.2%, or the 50% retracement level is the most probable. However, with the severity of the break below the 200-dma, that level will be very formidable resistance going forward. A rally to that level will likely reverse much of the current oversold condition, and set the market up for a retest of the lows.

The deep deviation from the 200-dma also supports this idea of a stronger reflexive rally. If we rework the analysis a bit, the 3-standard deviation discussed previously has now reverted to 4-standard deviation move below the 200-dma. The market may find support there, and with the deeply oversold condition, it again suggests a rally is likely.

Given that rally could be sharp, it will be a good opportunity to reduce risk as the impact from the collapse in oil prices, and the shutdown of the global supply chain, has not been fully factored in as of yet.

The following chart is a longer-term analysis of the market and is the format we use for “onboarding” our clients into their allocation models. (Vertical black lines are buy periods)

The triggering of the “sell signals” suggests we are likely in a larger correction process. With the “bull trend” line now broken, a rally toward the 200-dma, which is coincident with the bull trend line, will likely be an area to take additional profits, and reduce risk accordingly.

The analysis becomes more concerning as we view other time frames.

Has A Bear Market Started?

On a weekly basis, the rising trend from the 2016 lows is clear. The market has NOW VIOLATED that trend, which suggests a “bear market” has indeed started. This means investors should consider maintaining increased cash allocations in portfolios currently. With the two longer-term sell signals, bottom panels, now triggered, it suggests that whatever rally may ensue short-term will likely most likely fail. (Also a classic sign of a bear market.)

With the market oversold on a weekly basis, a counter-trend, or “bear market” rally is likely. However, as stated, short-term rallies should be sold into, and portfolios hedged, until the correction process is complete.

With all of our longer-term weekly “sell signals” now triggered from fairly high levels, it suggests the current selloff is much like what we saw in 2015-2016. (Noted in the chart above as well.) In other words, we will see a rally, followed by a secondary failure to lower lows, before the ultimate bottom is put in. If the market fails to hold current levels, the 2018 lows are the next most likely target.

Just How Bad Can It Get?

The idea of a lower bottom is also supported by the monthly data.

NOTE: Monthly Signals Are ONLY Valid At The End Of The Month.

On a monthly basis, sell signals have also been triggered, but we will have to wait until the end of the month for confirmation. However, given the depth of the decline, it would likely take a rally back to all-time highs to reverse those signals. This is a very high improbability.

Assuming the signals remain, there is an important message being sent, as noted in the top panel. The “negative divergence” of relative strength has only been seen prior to the start of the previous two bear markets, and the 2015-2016 slog. While the current sell-off resembles what we saw in late 2015, there is a risk of this developing into a recessionary bear market later this summer. The market is very close to violating the 4-year moving average, which is a “make or break” for the bull market trend from the 2009 lows.

How bad can the “bear market” get? If the 4-year moving average is violated, the 2018 lows become an initial target, which is roughly a 30% decline from the peak. However, the 2016 lows also become a reasonable probability if a “credit event” develops in the energy market which spreads across the financial complex. Such a decline would push markets down by almost 50% from the recent peak, and not unlike what we saw during the previous two recessions.

Caution is advised.

What We Are Thinking

Since January, we have been regularly discussing taking profits in positions, rebalancing portfolio risks, and, most recently, moving out of areas subject to slower economic growth, supply-chain shutdowns, and the collapse in energy prices. This led us to eliminate all holdings in international, emerging markets, small-cap, mid-cap, financials, transportation, industrials, materials, and energy markets. (RIAPRO Subscribers were notified real-time of changes to our portfolios.)

While there is “some truth” to the statement “that no one” could have seen the fallout of the “coronavirus” being escalated by an “oil price” war, there has been mounting risks for quite some time from valuations, to price deviations, and a complete disregard of risk by investors. While we have been discussing these issues with you, and making you aware of the risks, it was often deemed as “just being bearish” in the midst of a “bullish rally.” However, it is managing these types of risks, which is ultimately what clients pay advisors for.

It isn’t a perfect science. In times like these, it gets downright messy. But this is where working to preserve capital and limit drawdowns becomes most important. Not just from reducing the recovery time back to breakeven, but in also reducing the “psychological stress” which leads individuals to make poor investment decisions over time.

Given the extreme oversold and deviated measures of current market prices, we are looking for a reflexive rally that we can further reduce risk into, add hedges, and stabilize portfolios for the duration of the correction. When it is clear, the correction, or worse a bear market, is complete, we will reallocate capital back to equities at better risk/reward measures.

We highly suspect that we have seen the highs for the year. Most likely,,we are moving into an environment where portfolio management will be more tactical in nature, versus buying and holding. In other words, it is quite probable that “passive investing” will give way to “active management.”

Given we are longer-term investors, we like the companies we own from a fundamental perspective and will continue to take profits and resize positions as we adjust market exposure accordingly. The biggest challenge coming is what to do with our bond exposures now that rates have gotten so low OUTSIDE of a recession.

But that is an article for another day.

As we have often stated, “risk happens fast.”

Special Report: S&P 500 – Bounce Or Bull Market

Headlines from the past two days:

Dow sinks 2,000 points in worst day since 2008, S&P 500 drops more than 7%

Dow rallies more than 1,100 points in a wild session, halves losses from Monday’s sell-off

Actually its been a heck of a couple of weeks for the market with daily point swings running 1000, or more, points in either direction.

However, given Tuesday’s huge rally, is the market’s recent rout over with the bulls set to take charge? Or is this just a reflexive rally, with a retest of lows set to come?

Let’s take a look at charts to see what we can determine.

Daily

On a daily basis, the market is back to oversold. Historically, this condition has been sufficient for a bounce. Given that the oversold condition (top panel) is combined with a very deep “sell signal” in the bottom panel, it suggested a fairly vicious reflexive rally was likely. The question, of course is how far could this rally go.

Looking at the chart above, it is quite possible we could well see a rally back to the 32.8%, or even the 50% retracement level which is where the 200-dma currently resides. A rally to that level will likely reverse much of the current oversold condition and set the market up for a retest of the lows.

This idea of a stronger reflexive rally is also supported by the deep deviation from the 200-dma. If we rework the analysis a bit, the 3-standard deviation discussed previously has now reverted to 2-standard deviations below the 200-dma. The market found support there, and with the deep oversold condition it again suggests a rally to the 200-dma is likely.

Given that rally could be sharp, it will likely be a good opportunity to reduce risk as the impact from the collapse in oil prices and the shutdown of the global supply chain has not been fully factored in as of yet.

The following chart is a longer-term analysis of the market and is the format we use for “onboarding” our clients into their allocation models. (Vertical black lines are buy periods)

The triggering of the “sell signals” suggests we are likely in a larger correction process. With the “bull trend” line now broken, a rally back to toward the 200-dma, which is coincident with the bull trend line, will likely be an area to take profits and reduce risk accordingly.

The analysis becomes more concerning as we view other time frames.

Weekly

On a weekly basis, the rising trend from the 2016 lows is clear. The market has NOW VIOLATED that trend, which suggests maintaining some allocation to cash in portfolios currently. With the two longer-term sell signals, bottom panels, now triggered, it suggests that whatever rally may ensue short-term will likely fail.

The market is getting oversold on a weekly basis which does suggest a counter-trend rally is likely. However, as stated, short-term rallies should likely be sold into, and portfolios hedged, until the correction process is complete.

With all of our longer-term weekly “sell signals” now triggered from fairly high levels, it suggests the current selloff is much like what we saw in 2015-2016. (Noted in chart above as well.) In other words, we will see a rally, a failure to lower lows, before the ultimate bottom is put in.

Monthly

The idea of a lower bottom is also supported by the monthly data.

On a monthly basis, sell signals have also been triggered. HOWEVER, these signals must remain through the end of the month to be valid. These monthly signals are “important,” and one of the biggest concerns, as noted in the top panel, is the “negative divergence” of relative strength which was only seen prior to the start of the previous two bear markets, and the 2015-2016 slog. Again, the current sell-off resembles what we saw in late 2015, but there is a risk of this developing into a recessionary bear market later this summer. Caution is advised.

What We Are Thinking

Since January we have been taking profits in positions, rebalancing portfolio risks, and recently moving out of areas subject to slower economic growth, a supply-chain shut down, and the collapse in energy prices. (We have no holdings in international, emerging markets, small-cap, mid-cap, financial or energy currently.)

We are looking for a rally that can hold for more than one day to add some trading exposure for a move back to initial resistance levels where we will once again remove those trades and add short-hedges to the portfolio.

We highly suspect that we have seen the highs for the year, so we will likely move more into a trading environment in portfolios to add some returns while we maintain our longer-term holdings and hedges.

Given we are longer-term investors, we like the companies we own from a fundamental perspective and will continue to take profits and resize positions as we adjust market exposure accordingly. The biggest challenge coming is what to do with our bond exposures now that rates have gotten so low OUTSIDE of a recession.

We will keep you updated accordingly.

Special Report: S&P 500 Plunges On Coronavirus Impact

Dow plunges 1,000 points on coronavirus fears, 3.5% drop is worst in two years

“Stocks fell sharply on Monday as the number of coronavirus cases outside China surged, stoking fears of a prolonged global economic slowdown from the virus spreading. – CNBC

According to CNBC’s logic, the economy was perfectly fine on Friday, even though the market sold off then as well. However, over the weekend, stocks are plunging because the virus is now important?

No, this has been a correction in the making for the past several weeks that we have been discussing in our weekly market updates. Here was what we posted yesterday morning:

  • As noted last week: “With the market now trading 12% above its 200-dma, and well into 3-standard deviations of the mean, a correction is coming.” That correction started last Friday.
  • Currently, there is a strong bias to “buy the dip” of every corrective action. We recognize this and given the S&P 500 hit initial support on Friday we did add 1/2 position of VOOG to the Dynamic Model. The model is underallocated to equities and has a short hedge so we are taking this opportunity to add slowly. However, we suspect there is more to this corrective action to come this week.
  • As noted previously, extensions to this degree rarely last long without a correction. There is more work to be done before the overbought and extended condition is corrected. We will look to add to our holdings during that process.

While the correction occurred all in one day, which wasn’t our preference, it nonetheless set the markets up for a short-term bounce. We highly suggest using that bounce to rebalance portfolio risks accordingly.

Daily

On a daily basis, the market is back to oversold. Historically, this condition has been sufficient for a bounce. The difference, however, is the current oversold condition (top panel) is combined with a “sell signal” in the bottom panel. This suggests that any rally in the markets over the next few days should be used to reduce equity risk, raise cash, and add hedges.

If we rework the analysis a bit, the 3-standard deviation discussed previously is in the correction process. However, with the break of the 50-dma, uptrend channel, and triggering a short-term sell signal, the 200-dma comes into focus as important support.

As with the chart above, the market is oversold on a short-term basis, and a rally from current support back to the 50-dma is quite likely.

Again, that rally should be used to reduce risk.

The following chart is a longer-term analysis of the market and is the format we use for “onboarding” our clients into their allocation models. (Vertical black lines are buy periods)

Notice that while the market has been rising since early 2016, the momentum indicators are extremely stretched. Historically, such divergences result in markedly lower asset prices. In the short-term, as noted above, the market remains confined to a rising trend which is denoted by the trend channel. At this juncture, the market has not violated any major support points and does not currently warrant a drastically lower exposure to risk. However, if the “sell signals” are triggered, it will suggest a larger “reduction” of risk.

The analysis becomes more concerning as view other time frames.

Weekly

On a weekly basis, the rising trend from the 2016 lows is clear. The market has not violated that trend currently, which suggests maintaining some allocation to equity risk in portfolios currently. However, the two longer-term sell signals, bottom panels, are closing. If they both confirm, it will suggest a more significant correction process is forming.

The market is still very overbought on a weekly basis which confirms the analysis above that short-term rallies should likely be sold into, and portfolios hedged, until the correction process is complete.

Monthly

On a monthly basis, the bulls remain in control currently, which keeps our portfolios primarily allocated to equity risk. As we have noted previously, the market had triggered a “buy” signal in October of last year as the Fed “repo” operations went into overdrive. These monthly signals are “important,” but it won’t take a tremendous decline to reverse those signals. It’s okay to remain optimistic short-term, just don’t be complacent.

Don’t Panic Sell

The purpose of the analysis above is to provide you with the information to make educated guesses about the “probabilities” versus the “possibilities” of what could occur in the markets over the months ahead.

It is absolutely “possible” the markets could find a reason to rally back to all-time highs and continue the bullish trend. (For us, such would be the easiest and best outcome.)

However, the analysis currently suggests the risks currently outweigh potential reward and a deeper correction is the most “probable” at this juncture.

Don’t take that statement lightly.

I am suggesting reducing risk opportunistically, and being pragmatic about your portfolio, and your money. Another 50% correction is absolutely possible, as shown in the chart below.

(The chart shows ever previous major correction from similar overbought conditions on a quarterly basis. A similar correction would currently entail a 58.2% decline.)

So, what should you be doing now. Here are our rules that we will be following on the next rally.

  1. Move slowly. There is no rush in adding equity exposure to your portfolio. Use pullbacks to previous support levels to make adjustments.
  2. If you are heavily UNDER-weight equities, DO NOT try and fully adjust your portfolio to your target allocation in one move. This could be disastrous if the market reverses sharply in the short term. Again, move slowly.
  3. Begin by selling laggards and losers. These positions are dragging on performance as the market rises and tends to lead when markets fall. Like “weeds choking a garden,” pull them.
  4. Add to sectors, or positions, that are performing with, or outperforming the broader market.
  5. Move “stop-loss” levels up to current breakout levels for each position. Managing a portfolio without “stop-loss” levels is like driving with your eyes closed.
  6. While the technical trends are intact, risk considerably outweighs the reward. If you are not comfortable with potentially having to sell at a LOSS what you just bought, then wait for a larger correction to add exposure more safely. There is no harm in waiting for the “fat pitch” as the current market setup is not one.
  7. If none of this makes any sense to you – please consider hiring someone to manage your portfolio for you. It will be worth the additional expense over the long term.

While we remain optimistic about the markets currently, we are also taking precautionary steps of tightening up stops, adding non-correlated assets, raising some cash, and looking to hedge risk opportunistically.

Everyone approaches money management differently. This is just our approach to the process of controlling risk.

We hope you find something useful in it.

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

What We Are Not Being Told About The Trade Deal

Unlike most trade deals where the terms are readily available, the details of the Phase One trade agreement between China and the U.S. will not be announced nor signed in public. Accordingly, investors are left to cobble together official comments, anonymous statements from officials, and rumors to ascertain how it might affect their portfolios.

Based on official and unofficial sources, existing tariffs will remain in place, new tariff hikes will be delayed, and China will purchase $40-50 billion in agricultural goods annually. At first blush, the “deal” appears to be a hostage situation- China will buy more goods in exchange for tariff relief.

The chart below, courtesy of Bloomberg, provides reasons for skepticism. The rumored $40-50 billion in goods is nearly double what China purchased from the U.S. in any year of the last decade. It is over four times what they bought in 2018 before the trade war started in earnest.

The commitment is even more questionable when one considers that China recently agreed to purchase agricultural products from Brazil, Argentina, and New Zealand. 

The following tweet by Karen Braun, (@kannbwx), a Global Agricultural Columnist for Thomson-Reuters, puts the massive commitment into further context.  She claims that the maximum annual totalimport of four key agriculture products, only adds up to $56 billion. As she stresses in the tweet, the figures are based on the maximum amount China bought for each respective good in any one year.

Either China will buy more agriculture than they need and stockpile a tremendous amount of agriculture, which is possible, or they have agreed to something else that is not being disclosed. That, to us, seems more likely. We have a theory about what might not be disclosed and why it may matter to our investment portfolios.

Donald’s Dollar

Given the agreement as laid out in public, what else can China can offer that would satisfy President Trump? While there are many possibilities, the easiest and most beneficial commitment that China can offer the U.S. is a stronger yuan, and thus, a weaker dollar.

The tweets below highlight Trump’s disdain for the strengthening dollar.

A weaker dollar would reduce the U.S. trade deficit by making exports cheaper and imports more expensive. If sustained, it could provide an incentive for some companies to move production back to the U.S. This would help fulfill one of Trump’s core promises to voters, especially in “fly over” states that pushed him over the top in the last election. Further, a weaker dollar is inflationary, which would boost nominal GDP and help satisfy the Fed’s craving for more inflation.

From China’s point of view, a weaker dollar/ stronger yuan would hurt their exporting sectors but allow them to buy U.S. goods at lower prices. This is an important consideration based on what we wrote on December 11th, in our RIA Pro daily Commentary:   

“In part, due to skyrocketing pork prices, food prices in China have risen 19.1% year over year. In addition to hurting consumers, inflation makes monetary stimulus harder for the Bank of China to administer as it is inflationary. From a trade perspective, consumer inflation will likely be one factor that pushes Chinese leaders to come to some sort of Phase One agreement.

Food inflation is a growing problem for China and its leadership. In part, due to the issues in Hong Kong, Chairman Xi benefits from pleasing his people. While a stronger yuan would result in some lost trade and possibly jobs, the price of the agricultural goods will be lower which benefits the entire population.

A stronger yuan is not ideal for China, but it appears to be a nice tradeoff and something that benefits Trump. This is speculation, but if correct, and recent weakness in the dollar suggests it is, then we must assess how a weaker dollar affects our investment stance. 

Investment Implications

The following table shows the recent and longer-term average monthly correlations between the U.S. dollar and various asset classes. Below the table is a graph that shows the history of the two-year running monthly correlations for these asset classes to provide more context.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

The takeaway from the data shown above is that gold and ten-year Treasury yields have a consistent negative correlation with the dollar. This means that we would expect higher gold prices and Treasury yields if the dollar weakens. Interestingly, the CRB (broad commodities index) and Emerging Equity Markets have the most positive correlation. Oil and the S&P 500 appear to be neutral.

The S&P 500 is a broad measure, so when looking at particular stocks or sectors, it is important to consider the size of the company(s) and the global or domestic nature of the company(s). For instance, domestic large-cap companies with global sales should benefit most from a weaker dollar, while small-cap domestic companies, reliant on foreign sources to produce their goods, should perform relatively poorly.  

Summary

From the onset of negotiations, the China-US trade war has been tough to handicap. China has a lot to lose if they give in to Trump’s demands. Trump has leverage as a tariff war hits China’s economy harder than the U.S. economy. China is fully aware that the U.S. election is only 11 months away, and Trump’s re-election prospects are sensitive to the state of the economy and market sentiment. A trade victory should help Trump at the polls.

Our dollar thesis is speculation, but such an agreement is self-serving for both sides. Keep a close eye on the dollar, especially versus the yuan, as a weaker dollar has implications for all asset classes.

“The Art Of The Deal” & How To Lose A “Trade War.”

This past Monday, on the #RealInvestmentShow, I discussed that it was exceedingly likely that Trump would delay, or remove, the tariffs which were slated to go into effect this Sunday, On Thursday, that is exactly what happened.

Not only did the tariffs get delayed, but on Friday, it was reported that China and the U.S. reached “Phase One” of the trade deal, which included “some” tariff relief and agricultural purchases. To wit:

“The U.S. plans to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods in phases, a priority for Beijing, Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen said. However, Wang did not detail when exactly the U.S. would roll back duties.

President Donald Trump later said his administration would cancel its next round of tariffs on Chinese goods set to take effect Sunday. In tweets, he added that the White House would leave 25% tariffs on $250 billion in imports in place, while cutting existing duties on another $120 billion in products to 7.5%.

China will also consider canceling retaliatory tariffs set for Dec. 15, according to Vice Finance Minister Liao Min. 

Beijing will increase agricultural purchases significantly, Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Han Jun said, though he did not specify by how much. Trump has insisted that China buy more American crops as part of a deal, and cheered the commitment in his tweets.”

Then from the USTR:

The United States will be maintaining 25 percent tariffs on approximately $250 billion of Chinese imports, along with 7.5 percent tariffs on approximately $120 billion of Chinese imports.”

Not surprisingly, the market initially rallied on the news, but then reality begin to set in.

Art Of The Deal Versus The Art Of War

Over the past 18-months we have written numerous articles about the ongoing “trade war,” which was started by Trump against China. As I wrote previously:

“This is all assuming Trump can actually succeed in a trade war with China. Let’s step back to the G-20 meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping. As I wrote then:

‘There is a tremendous amount of ‘hope’ currently built into the market for a ‘trade war truce’ this weekend. However, as we suggested previously, the most likely outcome was a truce…but no deal.  That is exactly what happened.

While the markets will likely react positively next week to the news that ‘talks will continue,’ the impact of existing tariffs from both the U.S. and China continue to weigh on domestic firms and consumers.

More importantly, while the continued ‘jawboning’ may keep ‘hope alive’ for investors temporarily, these two countries have been ‘talking’ for over a year with little real progress to show for it outside of superficial agreements.

Importantly, we have noted that Trump would eventually ‘cave’ into the pressure from the impact of the ‘trade war’ he started.

The reasons, which have been entirely overlooked by the media, is that China’s goals are very different from the U.S. To wit:

  1. China is playing a very long game. Short-term economic pain can be met with ever-increasing levels of government stimulus. The U.S. has no such mechanism currently, but explains why both Trump and Vice-President Pence have been suggesting the Fed restarts QE and cuts rates by 1%.
  2. The pressure is on the Trump Administration to conclude a “deal,” not on China. Trump needs a deal done before the 2020 election cycle AND he needs the markets and economy to be strong. If the markets and economy weaken because of tariffs, which are a tax on domestic consumers and corporate profits, as they did in 2018, the risk-off electoral losses rise. China knows this and are willing to “wait it out” to get a better deal.
  3. China is not going to jeopardize its 50 to 100-year economic growth plan on a current President who will be out of office within the next 4-years at most. It is unlikely as the next President will take the same hard-line approach on China that President Trump has, so agreeing to something that won’t be supported in the future is doubtful.”

As noted in the second point above, on Friday, Trump caved to get the “Trade Deal” off the table before the election. As noted in September, China had already maneuvered Trump into a losing position.

“China knows that Trump needs a way out of the “trade war” he started, but that he needs something he can “boast” as a victory to a largely economically ignorant voter base. Here is how a “trade deal” could get done.

Understanding that China has already agreed to 80% of demands for a trade deal, such as buying U.S. goods, opening markets to U.S. investors, and making policy improvements in certain areas, Trump could conclude that ‘deal’ at the October meeting.”

Read the highlighted text above and compare it to the statement from  the WSJ: on Thursday:

“The U.S. side has demanded Beijing make firm commitments to purchase large quantities of U.S. agricultural and other products, better protect U.S. intellectual-property rights and widen access to China’s financial-services sector.”

What is missing from the agreement was the most critical 20%:

  • Cutting the share of the state in the overall economy from 38% to 20%,
  • Implementing an enforcement check mechanism; and,
  • Technology transfer protections

These are the “big ticket” items that were the bulk of the reason Trump launched the “trade war” to begin with. Unfortunately, for China, these items are seen as an infringement on its sovereignty, and requires a complete abandonment the “Made in China 2025” industrial policy program.

The USTR did note that the Phase One deal:

“Requires structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, agriculture, financial services, and currency and foreign exchange.”

However, since there is no actual enforcement mechanism besides merely pushing tariffs back to where they were, none of this will be implemented.

All of this aligns with our previous suggestion the only viable pathway to a “trade deal” would be a full surrender.

“However, Trump can set aside the last 20%, drop tariffs, and keep market access open, in exchange for China signing off on the 80% of the deal they already agreed to.”

Which is precisely what Trump agreed to.

This Is The Only Deal

This is NOT a “Phase One” trade-deal.

This is a “Let’s get a deal on the easy stuff, call it a win, and go home,” deal.

It is the strategy we suggested was most likely:

“For Trump, he can spin a limited deal as a ‘win’ saying ‘China is caving to his tariffs’ and that he ‘will continue working to get the rest of the deal done.’ He will then quietly move on to another fight, which is the upcoming election, and never mention China again. His base will quickly forget the ‘trade war’ ever existed.

Kind of like that ‘Denuclearization deal’ with North Korea.”

Speaking of the “fantastic deal with N. Korea,” here is the latest on that failed negotiation:

“Reuters reported Thursday via Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that, even if denuclearization talks resumed between both countries, the Trump administration has nothing to offer.

North Korea’s foreign ministry criticized the Trump administration for meeting with officials at the UN Security Council and suggested that it would be ready to respond to any corresponding measures that Washington imposes. ‘The United States said about corresponding measure at the meeting, as we have said we have nothing to lose and we are ready to respond to any corresponding measure that the US chooses,’ said KCNA citing a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson.”

While Trump has announced he will begin to “immediately” work on “Phase Two,” any real agreement is highly unlikely. However, what Trump understands, is that he gets another several months of “tweeting” a “trade deal is coming” to keep asset markets buoyed to support his re-election campaign.

Not Really All That Amazing

While Trump claimed this was an “amazing deal” with China, and that America’s farmers need to get ready for a $50 billion surge in agricultural exports, neither is actually the case.

China did not agree to buy any specific amount of goods from the U.S. What they said was, according to Bloomberg, was:

  • CHINA PLANS TO IMPORT U.S. WHEAT, RICE, CORN WITHIN QUOTAS

Furthermore, there is speculation the agreement is primarily verbal in terms of purchases, and the actual agreement of the entire trade deal will never be made public.

But let’s put some hard numbers to this.

Currently, China is buying about $10 billion of farm produce in 2018. That is down from a peak of $25 billion in 2012, which was long before the trade war broke out.

Since the trade war was started, China has sourced deals from Brazil and Argentina for pork and soybeans to offset the shortfall in imports from the U.S. These agreements, and subsequent imports, won’t be cancelled to shift to the U.S. since at any moment Trump could reinstate tariffs.

More importantly, as noted by Zerohedge on Friday, if this “deal” was as amazing as claimed, the agricultural commodity index should be screaming higher.

Importantly, even if China agrees to double their exports in the coming year, which would be a realistic goal, it would only reset the trade table to where it was before the tariffs started.

While China may have “agreed” to buy more, it is extremely unlikely China will meet such levels. Given they have already sourced products from other countries, they will import what they require.

Since most don’t pay attention to the long-game, while there will be excitement over a short-term uptick in agricultural purchases, those purchases will fade. However, with time having passed, and the focus of the media now elsewhere, Trump will NOT go back to the table and restart the “trade war” again. As I wrote on May 24, 2018:

China has a long history of repeatedly reneging on promises it has made to past administrations. What the current administration fails to realize is that China is not operating from short-term political-cycle driven game plan.

As we stated in Art Of The Deal vs. The Art Of War:”

“While Trump is operating from a view that was a ghost-written, former best-seller, in the U.S. popular press, XI is operating from a centuries-old blueprint for victory in battle.”

Trump lost the “trade war,” he just doesn’t realize it, yet.

No More “Trade Tweets?”

Since early 2018, and more importantly since the December lows of last year, the market has risen on the back of continued “hopes” of Federal Reserve easing, and the conclusion of a “trade deal.”

With the Fed now signaling that they are effectively done lowering rates through next year, and President Trump concluding a “trade deal,” what will be the next driver of the markets. While will the “algo’s” do without daily “trade tweets” to push stock markets higher?

While I am a bit sarcastic, there is also a lot of truth to the statement.

However, what is important is that while the Trump administration are rolling back 50% of the tariffs, they are not “removing” all of them. This means there is still some drag being imposed by tariffs, just at a reduced level.

More importantly, the rollback of tariffs do not immediately undo the damage which has already occurred.

  • Economic growth has weakened globally
  • Corporate profit growth has turned negative.
  • Tax cuts are fully absorbed into the economy
  • The “repo” market is suggesting that something is “broken.”
  • All of which is leading to rising recession risk.

In other words, while investors have hung their portfolios hopes of a “trade deal,” it may well be too little, too late.

Over the next couple of months, we will be able to refine our views further as we head into 2020. However, the important point is that since roughly 40% of corporate profits are a function of exports, the damage caused already won’t easily be reversed.

Furthermore, the Fed’s massive infusions of liquidity into the overnight lending market signal that something has “broken,” but few are paying attention.

Our suspicion is that the conclusion of the “trade deal” could well be a “buy the rumor, sell the news” type event as details are likely to be disappointing. Such would shift our focus from “risk taking” to “risk control.” Also, remember “cash” is a valuable asset for managing uncertainty.

With the market pushing overbought, extended, and bullish extremes, a correction to resolve this condition is quite likely. The only question is the cause, depth, and duration of that corrective process. 

I am not suggesting you do anything, but just something to consider when the media tells you to ignore history and suggests “this time may be different.” 

That is usually just about the time when it isn’t.

The Dreaded “R” Word

In early July, Michael Lebowitz appeared on Real Vision’s, “Investment Ideas” (LINK), with Edward Harrison. In the interview, Michael stated that the window for a recession was open but that a recession was not necessarily imminent. He based this opinion on the premise that the benefits of increased government spending and recent tax reform are waning and economic headwinds such as China-U.S. trade discussions, slowing European growth, Iran, and a disorderly BREXIT are all serving to slow the growth of the economy. Importantly, he warned that historically the catalyst for recession is often something that is not easy to forecast or predict.

Over the last month, we have noted the “R” word increasingly bandied about by the media. This potential recession catalyst is in everyone’s face, literally, but few recognize it.

Consumers Drive the Bus

Almost 70% of U.S. GDP results from personal consumption. Since 1993, retail sales and GDP have a correlation of 78%, meaning that over three-quarters of the quarterly change in GDP is attributable to the change in retail sales.  

The table below shows the dominant role consumption plays in the GDP calculation. In this hypothetical example, 2.5% consumption growth more than offsets a 4% decline in every other GDP category (an increase in net exports negatively affects GDP). If in the same example consumption was 1% weaker at +1.5%, GDP would go from positive .12% to negative .58%.

Spending decisions, whether for low dollar items such as coffee or dinner or bigger ticket items like a new TV, vacation, or housing, are influenced by our economic outlooks. If we are confident in our job, financial situation, and the economy, we are likely to maintain the pace of consumption or even spend more. If we fear an economic slowdown with financial repercussions, we are likely to tighten our purse strings. Whether we skimp on a cup of Starbucks once a week or postpone the purchase of a car or house, these one-off decisions, when replicated by the masses, sway the economic barometer.

Our economic outlooks and spending habits are primarily based on gut analysis, essentially what we see and hear. Accordingly, print, television, and social media play a large role in molding our economic view.

Recession Fear Mongering

Increasingly, the media has been playing up the possibility of a recession. For example, on August 15, 2019, the day after the yield curve inverted for the first time in over a decade, the lead article on the Washington Post’s front page was entitled Markets Sink on Recession Signal. The signal, per the Washington Post, is the inverted curve. The New York Times followed a few days later with an article entitled How the Recession of 2020 Could Happen. Since mid-August, the number of articles mentioning recession has skyrocketed, as shown below. Furthermore, the number of Google searches for the “R” word has risen to levels not seen since the last recession.

Data Courtesy Google Trends

We have little doubt that the media airing recession warnings are partially politically motivated, but regardless of their motivation, these articles present a growing threat to the consumer psyche and economic growth. 

The more the media mentions “recession,” the higher the likelihood that consumers will retrench in response. Small decisions like not going out to dinner once a week may seem inconsequential, but when similar actions occur throughout a population of hundreds of millions of people, the result can be impactful.  To wit, in The Dog Whistle Heard Around the World, we personalized how our decisions play an important role in measuring economic activity:

Picture your favorite restaurant, one that is always packed and with a long waiting list. One Saturday night you arrive expecting to wait for a table, but to your delight, the hostess says you can sit immediately. The restaurant is crowded, but uncharacteristically there are a couple of empty tables. Those empty tables, while seemingly insignificant, may mean the restaurant’s sales that night will be down a few percent from the norm.

A few percent may not seem like a lot, but consider that the average annual recessionary GDP trough was only -1.88% for the last five recessions.

If economic growth is starting from a relatively weak point, as it is today, then it requires even smaller reductions in consumption habits than in the past to take the economy from expansion to contraction. GDP growth before the last three recessions peaked at 4.47%, 5.29%, and 4.32% respectively. The recent peak in GDP growth was 3.13%, leaving at least 25% less of a cushion than prior peaks.

Summary

Recessions are difficult to predict because they are usually borne out of slight changes in consumer behavior. Needless to say, changes in short term behavioral patterns are difficult to predict at best for a large population and likely impossible.  

Whether or not a recession is imminent is an open question, but the window for a recession is open, allowing a strong negative catalyst to push the economy into contraction. What if that catalyst is as simple as the media repeatedly using the dreaded “R” word?

Over the coming months, we will pay close attention to consumer confidence and expectations surveys for signs that consumer spending is slowing. We leave you with the most recent consumer sentiment and expectations surveys from the University of Michigan and the Conference Board. At this point, neither set of surveys are overly concerning, but we caution they can change quickly.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Navigating A Two Block Trade World

“Investors Need to Be Ready for a Two Block Trade World – U.S. and China”

On Bloomberg TV, VMware CEO, Pat Gelsinger, observed that with escalation of the trade war he sees, “two separate trading blocks forming the United States and China, we want to be a player in both and will have to adjustour strategy, investments, supply chains and operations as a result.”  He sees both countries digging in for the foreseeable future.

The evolution of a two trading block global economy has a major impact on how businesses operate in the next five to ten years.  Those with major operations in China that ship products to the U.S. will continue to be adversely affected by U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods. Growing trade headwinds also face, U.S. companies shipping goods to China. Besides tariffs, trade research shows Chinese importers will need to deal with U.S. non-tariff barriers that are not only costly but time consuming.

Here is a list of industry sectors most impacted by the trade war with businesses exports and imports to China:

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Marketwatch  – 6/27/19

Major software and electronics companies like Apple, with $56b in sales making up 20% of total global revenue from China, will continue to see declining sales. Apple, and other companies in the same shoes, will have to radically shift supply chains and sourcing for manufacturing.

CISCO, a global network systems manufacturer, recently reported to shareholders a 25% drop in sales of network products to both state-owned and private corporations in China. Many American manufacturers’ source components and sub-assemblies from China which are then shipped to the U.S. mainland for final manufacturing. These supply chains will have to change if they are to sustain profits.

Caterpillar, in the transportation sector, recognizes 10% of global revenue from China and has experienced a significant drop in sales.  Tariffs have significantly reduced soybean exports to China by U.S. farmers to nearly zero. The Federal Reserve in Minneapolis reports farm bankruptcies have reached 2008 levels.

These are just a few examples. Each day the list of impacted industries and companies grows longer.

What does the two block trading world mean to investors?  

The trade war seems to be here to stay. As such, agile CEOs are already planning for the U.S and China to be heavily competing for global trade.  Investors will need to assess the implications for both short and long term investments.

Short term tactical investments:

  1. Research business sectors with major exposure to imports and exports to China
  2. Identify companies with exposure to China trade and related operational vulnerabilities
  3. Identify countries that may act as bridge zones between the two blocks, ie: Australia, Singapore, and Vietnam

Long term strategic investments:

  1. Identify companies that are well-positioned to leverage quickly the now forming two block trading world
  2. Research bridge countries that are making investments in shipping infrastructure and establishing long term trade treaties with both the U.S. and China
  3. Watch the business horizon for new businesses or services that will evolve as a result of the new U.S. – China trade competition

A new global trading structure is forming fast presenting both opportunities and pitfalls for investors.  Agile investors might want to position themselves for optimal growth and income in bridge countries or firms like VMware, where the CEO is moving quickly to establish good relationships with both countries.  

Investors should also consider longer-term investments in Australian based companies or U.S. firms with major operations in Australia as a bridge country.  Many U.S. firms have regional operations headquarters in Sydney.  Sydney, positioned in the Asian region, offers a well-skilled labor force, is an open country to many immigrants from all over Asia that speak and write many languages. Further English is the main language for easy use of technical documentation and recruitment of support staff. The Australian government has been an ally of the U.S. for decades and yet has a bilateral free trade agreement with the Chinese government signed in 2015. As a bonus, the Australian economy has been in expansion for 27 straight years.  The incredibly long string of growth is likely due to a diverse economy, welcoming immigrants who start new businesses, an abundance of natural resources, located at the nexus of Asian growth and a business positive government and culture. It is these same traits that should help them thrive in a two trading block economy.

Investors should be wary of Hong Kong or China-based businesses with American ties that are not politically correct.  The Chinese economy is a state controlled managed economy of state run businesses and private businesses that run under strict guidelines.  Problems in Hong Kong go beyond the present protests. The island city has seen the CEOs of a few local businesses ‘disappear’ when making trips to mainland China. In some instances these disappearances have happened for months throwing the businesses into turmoil and dropping stock prices by 70 – 80%. 

Hong Kong’s future is highly uncertain as the Chinese government is growing increasingly concerned that democracy might ‘leak’ to the mainland and thereby threaten authoritarian rule.  The Chinese government has announced the development of an ‘entites’ list of U.S. companies that Chinese firms are not to do business. American firms affiliated with these targeted firms will see significantly reduced sales. On the U.S. side, the Trump administration has gone back and forth on suppliers to Huawei and is now writing a ‘blacklist’ of Chinese firms that American companies are to end business with. Smart investors will need to keep track of U.S. and Chinese government pronouncements and policies in regard to which companies are ‘in’ and which are ‘out’. These may change by the day or week.

Monitoring markets or executive behaviors that are likely to catch government scrutiny will offer investors an early warning of which firms may soon appear on the lists. One possible new sector of scrutiny are cybersecurity companies, which provide both countries an edge in the digital economy. Both countries will want to maintain control, access and future development of digital security power.

The two trading block global economy will require careful research, constant monitoring, and quick moves as politically ‘in’ companies can become ‘out’ at the whim of government leaders in both countries.  Investments in stable countries, with firms that have a long history of bridging their business between both China and the U.S. are likely to be the best investment opportunities over the long term. Note that in any global recession, these bridge countries and companies are likely to be the first to recover from a recession.

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.

Special Report: S&P 500 Plunges On Yield Curve Inversion

Yesterday, the financial media burst into flames as the yield on the 10-year Treasury fell below that of the 2-Year Treasury. In other words, the yield curve became negative, or “inverted.”

“Stocks plunged on Wednesday, giving back Tuesday’s solid gains, after the U.S. bond market flashed a troubling signal about the U.S. economy.” – CNBC

According to CNBC’s logic, the economy was perfectly fine on Tuesday, notably as Trump delayed “tariffs” on China, since the yield curve was NOT inverted. However, in less than 24-hours, stocks are plunging because the yield curve inverted?

Let’s step back for a moment and think about this.

Historically speaking, the inversion of a yield curve has been a leading indicator of economic recessions as the demand for liquidity exceeds the demand for longer-term loans. The chart below shows the history of yield curves and recessions.

The yield curve has been heading towards an inversion for months, suggesting that something was “not healthy” about the state of the economy. In August 2018, I wrote, “Don’t Fear The Yield Curve?”

“The spread between the 10-year and 2-year Treasury rates, historically a good predictor of economic recessions, is also suggesting the Fed may be missing the bigger picture in their quest to normalize monetary policy. While not inverted as of yet, the trend of the spread is clearly warning the economy is much weaker than the Fed is suggesting. (The boosts to economic growth are now all beginning to fade and the 2nd-derivative of growth will begin to become more problematic starting in Q3)

Despite the flattening slope of the yield curve, the mainstream media was consistently dismissing the message it was sending.

“There are always a lot of things to worry about in our economy — short range and long range. The yield curve, however. isn’t one of them. It just shows that some other people are worried, too. It doesn’t mean that they are right.” – James McCusker

“Contrary to what many people think, inverted yield curves don’t always sound the alarm to sell. In fact, looking at the past five recessions, the S&P 500 didn’t peak for more than 19 months on average after the yield curve inverted, along the way adding more than 22% on average at the peak,” – Ryan Detrick, LPL

In fact, an inversion is often a buying opportunity. During each of the past seven economic cycles, the S&P 500 has gained in the six-months before a yield-curve inversion.” Tony Dwyer, analyst at Canaccord Genuity.

While the nearly inverted yield curve didn’t matter on Tuesday, it suddenly mattered on Wednesday? From the WSJ:

“It was a very bad day in the stock market on Wednesday. That big rally on Tuesday after the U.S. delayed some China tariffs? Completely erased, and then quite a bit more. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 800 points, or 3%, and the S&P 500 dropped 2.9%.

A big factor in the selling appeared to be concern over a brief drop in the yield on the 10-year Treasury yield below the yield on the two-year. Since such yield curve inversions have tended to occur ahead of recessions, worries that the U.S. is at risk of downturn got set off.”

We have been warning for the last 18-months that despite a sharp rise in volatility, the bull market that began in 2009 had likely come to an end. To wit:

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

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

The last highlighted phrase is THE most important. There is an old saying about “con men” which sums this idea up perfectly:

“Thieves run out of town. Con men walk.”

The goal of portfolio management is NOT to be forced into a liquidation event. Such doesn’t mean you must try and “time the market” to sell at the peak (which is impossible to do), but rather being aware of the risk you are carrying and exiting the market when you choose. Being put into a position, either “emotionally” or “operationally,” where you are forced to liquidate always occurs at the worst possible time and creates the greatest amount of capital destruction.

With this premise in place, let’s review the S&P 500 over several different time frames and metrics to determine what actions should be considered over the next few days and weeks.

Daily

On a daily basis, the market is back to oversold. Historically, this condition has been sufficient for a bounce. The difference, however, is the current oversold condition (top panel) is combined with a “sell signal” in the bottom panel. This suggests that any rally in the markets over the next few days should be used to reduce equity risk, raise cash, and add hedges.

If we stretch the analysis out a bit, the “megaphone” pattern becomes much more apparent. The repeated failures at the upper trend line continues to complete a “broadening topping process,” which is more suggestive of a larger, more concerning market peak.

As with the chart above, the market is oversold on a short-term basis, and a rally from current support back to the 50-dma is quite likely.

Again, that rally should be used to reduce risk. I wrote about this on Tuesday in “5-Reasons To Be Bullish (Or Not) On Stocks:”

“For longer-term investors, it is worth considering the historical outcomes of the dynamics behind the financial markets currently. The is a huge difference between a short-term bullish prediction and longer-term bearish dynamics.As Howard Ruff once stated:

“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”

The following chart is a longer-term analysis of the market and is the format we use for “onboarding” our clients into their allocation models. (Vertical green lines are buy periods, red lines are sell periods.)

Notice that while the market has been rising since early 2018, the momentum indicators are negatively diverging. Historically, such divergences result in markedly lower asset prices. In the short-term, as noted above, the market remains confined to a rising trend which is running along the 200-dma. At this juncture, the market has not violated any major support points and does currently warrant a drastically lower exposure to risk. However, the “sell signals” combined with negatively diverging indicators, suggest a “reduction” of risk, and hedging, is warranted on any rally.

The analysis becomes more concerning as view other time frames.

Weekly

On a weekly basis, the rising trend from the 2016 lows is clear. The market has not violated that trend currently, which suggests maintaining some allocation to equity risk in portfolios currently. However, the two longer-term sell signals, bottom panels, are close to confirming each other, and suggests a more significant correction process is forming.

The market is still very overbought on a weekly basis which confirms the analysis above that short-term rallies should likely be sold into, and portfolios hedged, until the correction process is complete.

Monthly

On a monthly basis, the concerns rise even further. We have noted previously, the market had triggered a major “sell” signal in September of last year. These monthly signals are “rare,” and coincide with more important market events historically.

These signals should not be ignored.

Don’t Panic Sell

The purpose of the analysis above is to provide you with the information to make educated guesses about the “probabilities” versus the “possibilities” of what could occur in the markets over the months ahead.

It is absolutely “possible” the markets could find a reason to rally back to all-time highs and continue the bullish trend. (For us, such would be the easiest and best outcome.)

However, the analysis currently suggests the risks currently outweigh potential reward and a deeper correction is the most “probable” at this juncture.

Don’t take that statement lightly.

I am suggesting reducing risk opportunistically, and being pragmatic about your portfolio and your money. Another 50% correction is absolutely possible, as shown in the chart below.

(The chart shows ever previous major correction from similar overbought conditions on a quarterly basis. A similar correction would currently entail a 53.7% decline.)

So, what should you be doing now. Here are our rules that we will be following on the next rally.

15-Portfolio Management Rules:

  • Cut losers short and let winner’s run(Be a scale-up buyer into strength.)
  • Set goals and be actionable.(Without specific goals, trades become arbitrary and increase overall portfolio risk.)
  • Emotionally driven decisions void the investment process.(Buy high/sell low)
  • Follow the trend.(80% of portfolio performance is determined by the long-term, monthly, trend. While a “rising tide lifts all boats,” the opposite is also true.)
  • Never let a “trading opportunity” turn into a long-term investment.(Refer to rule #1. All initial purchases are “trades,” until your investment thesis is proved correct.)
  • An investment discipline does not work if it is not followed.
  • “Losing money” is part of the investment process.(If you are not prepared to take losses when they occur, you should not be investing.)
  • The odds of success improve greatly when the fundamental analysis is confirmed by the technical price action. (This applies to both bull and bear markets)
  • Never, under any circumstances, add to a losing position.(As Paul Tudor Jones once quipped: “Only losers add to losers.”)
  • Market are either “bullish” or “bearish.” During a “bull market” be only long or neutral. During a “bear market”be only neutral or short.(Bull and Bear markets are determined by their long-term trend as shown in the chart below.)
  • When markets are trading at, or near, extremes do the opposite of the “herd.”Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.(Traditional rebalancing takes money from winners and adds it to losers. Rebalance by reducing losers and adding to winners.)
  • “Buy” and “Sell” signals are only useful if they are implemented.(Managing a portfolio without a “buy/sell” discipline is designed to fail.)
  • Strive to be a .700 “at bat” player.(No strategy works 100% of the time. However, being consistent, controlling errors, and capitalizing on opportunity is what wins games.)
  • Manage risk and volatility.(Controlling the variables that lead to investment mistakes is what generates returns as a byproduct.)

Everyone approaches money management differently. This is just our approach to the process of controlling risk.

We hope you find something useful in it.

UNLOCKED RIA PRO: S&P 500 Plunges On Yield Curve Inversion

We have unlocked yesterday’s report that went out to our RIA PRO subscribers following the crash. You can subscribe at RIAPRO.NET and get 30-DAYS FREE to gain access to our portfolio models, analysis, and research.

Yesterday, the financial media burst into flames as the yield on the 10-year Treasury fell below that of the 2-Year Treasury. In other words, the yield curve became negative, or “inverted.”

“Stocks plunged on Wednesday, giving back Tuesday’s solid gains, after the U.S. bond market flashed a troubling signal about the U.S. economy.” – CNBC

According to CNBC’s logic, the economy was perfectly fine on Tuesday, notably as Trump delayed “tariffs” on China, since the yield curve was NOT inverted. However, in less than 24-hours, stocks are plunging because the yield curve inverted?

Let’s step back for a moment and think about this.

Historically speaking, the inversion of a yield curve has been a leading indicator of economic recessions as the demand for liquidity exceeds the demand for longer-term loans. The chart below shows the history of yield curves and recessions.

The yield curve has been heading towards an inversion for months, suggesting that something was “not healthy” about the state of the economy. In August 2018, I wrote, “Don’t Fear The Yield Curve?”

“The spread between the 10-year and 2-year Treasury rates, historically a good predictor of economic recessions, is also suggesting the Fed may be missing the bigger picture in their quest to normalize monetary policy. While not inverted as of yet, the trend of the spread is clearly warning the economy is much weaker than the Fed is suggesting. (The boosts to economic growth are now all beginning to fade and the 2nd-derivative of growth will begin to become more problematic starting in Q3)

Despite the flattening slope of the yield curve, the mainstream media was consistently dismissing the message it was sending.

“There are always a lot of things to worry about in our economy — short range and long range. The yield curve, however. isn’t one of them. It just shows that some other people are worried, too. It doesn’t mean that they are right.” – James McCusker

“Contrary to what many people think, inverted yield curves don’t always sound the alarm to sell. In fact, looking at the past five recessions, the S&P 500 didn’t peak for more than 19 months on average after the yield curve inverted, along the way adding more than 22% on average at the peak,” – Ryan Detrick, LPL

In fact, an inversion is often a buying opportunity. During each of the past seven economic cycles, the S&P 500 has gained in the six-months before a yield-curve inversion.” Tony Dwyer, analyst at Canaccord Genuity.

While the nearly inverted yield curve didn’t matter on Tuesday, it suddenly mattered on Wednesday? From the WSJ:

“It was a very bad day in the stock market on Wednesday. That big rally on Tuesday after the U.S. delayed some China tariffs? Completely erased, and then quite a bit more. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 800 points, or 3%, and the S&P 500 dropped 2.9%.

A big factor in the selling appeared to be concern over a brief drop in the yield on the 10-year Treasury yield below the yield on the two-year. Since such yield curve inversions have tended to occur ahead of recessions, worries that the U.S. is at risk of downturn got set off.”

We have been warning for the last 18-months that despite a sharp rise in volatility, the bull market that began in 2009 had likely come to an end. To wit:

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

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

The last highlighted phrase is THE most important. There is an old saying about “con men” which sums this idea up perfectly:

“Thieves run out of town. Con men walk.”

The goal of portfolio management is NOT to be forced into a liquidation event. Such doesn’t mean you must try and “time the market” to sell at the peak (which is impossible to do), but rather being aware of the risk you are carrying and exiting the market when you choose. Being put into a position, either “emotionally” or “operationally,” where you are forced to liquidate always occurs at the worst possible time and creates the greatest amount of capital destruction.

With this premise in place, let’s review the S&P 500 over several different time frames and metrics to determine what actions should be considered over the next few days and weeks.

Daily

On a daily basis, the market is back to oversold. Historically, this condition has been sufficient for a bounce. The difference, however, is the current oversold condition (top panel) is combined with a “sell signal” in the bottom panel. This suggests that any rally in the markets over the next few days should be used to reduce equity risk, raise cash, and add hedges.

If we stretch the analysis out a bit, the “megaphone” pattern becomes much more apparent. The repeated failures at the upper trend line continues to complete a “broadening topping process,” which is more suggestive of a larger, more concerning market peak.

As with the chart above, the market is oversold on a short-term basis, and a rally from current support back to the 50-dma is quite likely.

Again, that rally should be used to reduce risk. I wrote about this on Tuesday in “5-Reasons To Be Bullish (Or Not) On Stocks:”

“For longer-term investors, it is worth considering the historical outcomes of the dynamics behind the financial markets currently. The is a huge difference between a short-term bullish prediction and longer-term bearish dynamics.As Howard Ruff once stated:

“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”

The following chart is a longer-term analysis of the market and is the format we use for “onboarding” our clients into their allocation models. (Vertical green lines are buy periods, red lines are sell periods.)

Notice that while the market has been rising since early 2018, the momentum indicators are negatively diverging. Historically, such divergences result in markedly lower asset prices. In the short-term, as noted above, the market remains confined to a rising trend which is running along the 200-dma. At this juncture, the market has not violated any major support points and does currently warrant a drastically lower exposure to risk. However, the “sell signals” combined with negatively diverging indicators, suggest a “reduction” of risk, and hedging, is warranted on any rally.

The analysis becomes more concerning as view other time frames.

Weekly

On a weekly basis, the rising trend from the 2016 lows is clear. The market has not violated that trend currently, which suggests maintaining some allocation to equity risk in portfolios currently. However, the two longer-term sell signals, bottom panels, are close to confirming each other, and suggests a more significant correction process is forming.

The market is still very overbought on a weekly basis which confirms the analysis above that short-term rallies should likely be sold into, and portfolios hedged, until the correction process is complete.

Monthly

On a monthly basis, the concerns rise even further. We have noted previously, the market had triggered a major “sell” signal in September of last year. These monthly signals are “rare,” and coincide with more important market events historically.

These signals should not be ignored.

Don’t Panic Sell

The purpose of the analysis above is to provide you with the information to make educated guesses about the “probabilities” versus the “possibilities” of what could occur in the markets over the months ahead.

It is absolutely “possible” the markets could find a reason to rally back to all-time highs and continue the bullish trend. (For us, such would be the easiest and best outcome.)

However, the analysis currently suggests the risks currently outweigh potential reward and a deeper correction is the most “probable” at this juncture.

Don’t take that statement lightly.

I am suggesting reducing risk opportunistically, and being pragmatic about your portfolio and your money. Another 50% correction is absolutely possible, as shown in the chart below.

(The chart shows ever previous major correction from similar overbought conditions on a quarterly basis. A similar correction would currently entail a 53.7% decline.)

So, what should you be doing now. Here are our rules that we will be following on the next rally.

15-Portfolio Management Rules:

  • Cut losers short and let winner’s run(Be a scale-up buyer into strength.)
  • Set goals and be actionable.(Without specific goals, trades become arbitrary and increase overall portfolio risk.)
  • Emotionally driven decisions void the investment process.(Buy high/sell low)
  • Follow the trend.(80% of portfolio performance is determined by the long-term, monthly, trend. While a “rising tide lifts all boats,” the opposite is also true.)
  • Never let a “trading opportunity” turn into a long-term investment.(Refer to rule #1. All initial purchases are “trades,” until your investment thesis is proved correct.)
  • An investment discipline does not work if it is not followed.
  • “Losing money” is part of the investment process.(If you are not prepared to take losses when they occur, you should not be investing.)
  • The odds of success improve greatly when the fundamental analysis is confirmed by the technical price action. (This applies to both bull and bear markets)
  • Never, under any circumstances, add to a losing position.(As Paul Tudor Jones once quipped: “Only losers add to losers.”)
  • Market are either “bullish” or “bearish.” During a “bull market” be only long or neutral. During a “bear market”be only neutral or short.(Bull and Bear markets are determined by their long-term trend as shown in the chart below.)
  • When markets are trading at, or near, extremes do the opposite of the “herd.”Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.(Traditional rebalancing takes money from winners and adds it to losers. Rebalance by reducing losers and adding to winners.)
  • “Buy” and “Sell” signals are only useful if they are implemented.(Managing a portfolio without a “buy/sell” discipline is designed to fail.)
  • Strive to be a .700 “at bat” player.(No strategy works 100% of the time. However, being consistent, controlling errors, and capitalizing on opportunity is what wins games.)
  • Manage risk and volatility.(Controlling the variables that lead to investment mistakes is what generates returns as a byproduct.)

Everyone approaches money management differently. This is just our approach to the process of controlling risk.

We hope you find something useful in it.

The Fed Continues To Make Policy Mistakes

“During the last year, the Federal Reserve has hinted that the period of ‘ultra-accommodative monetary policy’ was coming to an end. The Fed started that process last October by terminating the latest ‘Quantitative Easing’ program, which induced massive amounts of liquidity into the financial markets. Subsequently, the Fed has turned its focus towards the near ZERO level of the ‘Fed Funds’ rate.” – July 6, 2015

It seems like an eternity ago now, but I warned then the Fed was too late in the cycle to tighten monetary policy due to the impact higher rates have on economic growth.

“While the Federal Reserve hopes that they can effectively raise interest rates without cratering economic growth, the problem is that the bond market may have already beaten them to the punch.

While I do not expect Treasury rates to rise very much, the increase in borrowing costs in an already weak economic environment has an almost immediate impact. The chart below shows the periods in history where Treasury rates have risen and the impact of subsequent rates of economic growth.”

As we suggested, the rise in rates to 3.25% was all the economy could withstand at the time.

I followed up that previous analysis in October 2015 suggesting the Fed had missed its window to hike rates. To wit:

“The problem for the Federal Reserve is that getting caught in a liquidity trap was not an unforeseen outcome of monetary policybut rather an inevitable conclusion. The current low levels of inflation, interest rates, and economic growth are the result of more than 30-years of misguided monetary policies that have led to a continued misallocation of capital.”

“From our cyclical vantage point, we have long been aware of the truism that ‘recessions kill inflation.’ Therefore, when the next recession arrives, it is more likely to push inflation below zero at a time when the Fed has no obvious policy response. The resulting deflation will be the stuff of policy nightmares.”

Why am I reminding you of this?

It is becomingly increasingly clear from a variety of inputs that deflationary pressures are mounting in the economy. Recent declines in manufacturing, and production reports, along with the collapse in commodity prices, all suggest that something is amiss in the production side of the economy.

As shown in the chart below, the Fed should have started lifting rates as the spike in economic growth occurred in 2010-2011 as both the Fed and Government flooded the economy with liquidity. While hiking rates would have slowed the advance in the financial markets, the excess liquidity sloshing around the system would have offset tighter monetary policy.

If they had hiked rates sooner, interest rates on the short-end of would have risen giving the Fed a policy tool to combat economic weakness with in the future. However, assuming a historically normal response to economic recoveries, the yield curve has been negative for quite some time. This explains why “financial conditions” remain at historically low levels despite higher Fed Funds rates.

The chart above also explains the delay in the “yield curve” turning negative earlier in this cycle.

  1. As shown in the chart above, the 2-year Treasury has a very close relationship with the Effective Fed Funds Rate. Historically, the Federal Reserve began to lift rates shortly after economic growth turned higher. Post-2000 the Fed lagged in raising rates which led to the real estate bubble / financial crisis. Since 2009, the Fed has held rates at the lowest level in history artificially suppressing the short-end of the curve.
  2. The artificial suppression of shorter-term rates has skewed the effectiveness of the yield curve as a recession indicator.
  3. Lastly, negative yield spreads have historically occurred well before the onset of a recession. Despite their early warnings, market participants, Wall Street, and even the Fed came up with excuses each time to why “it was different.” Historically, it has never been the case.

However, the Fed is now trapped in a difficult position and is making a “policy mistake” once again.

Given the Fed waiting so long into the economic cycle to hike rates to begin with, they weren’t able to gain much of a spread before the economy was negatively impacted. There have been absolutely ZERO times in history when the Federal Reserve began an interest-rate hiking campaign that did not eventually lead to a negative outcome. To wit:

While the Federal Reserve clearly should not raise rates in the current environment, there is a possibility they will, regardless of the outcome. 

The Fed understands that economic cycles do not last forever, and we are closer to the next recession than not. While raising rates would likely accelerate a potential slowdown and a significant market correction, from the Fed’s perspective, it might be the ‘lesser of two evils. Being caught at the ‘zero bound’ at the onset of a recession leaves few options for the Federal Reserve to stabilize an economic decline.”

The problem for the Fed is that the bond market was NEVER worried about inflation.

Only the Fed saw an “inflation-monster under the bed.” All the bond market needed was the Fed to come out and indicate a “shift” in their stance to worrying about “deflation” to seal the deal.

Despite the many arguments to the contrary, we have repeatedly stated that the rise in interest rates was a temporary phenomenon as “rates impact real economic activity.” 

The “real economy,” due to a surge in debt-financed activity, was not nearly strong enough to withstand substantially higher rates. Of course, such has become readily apparent in the recent housing and auto sales data. Consequently, the Fed was unable to gain much clearance between the current level of rates and the “zero-bound.” 

Navarro’s Naivety 

On Tuesday, Peter Navarro, who is the White House trade advisor, called on the Federal Reserve to lower rates.

“The Federal Reserve before the end of the year has to lower interest rates by at least another 75 basis points or 100 basis points to bring interest rates here in America in line with the rest of the world. We have just too big a spread between our rates and that costs us jobs.’

While Peter, and President Trump, both want an “aggressive rate-cutting cycle” to sustain economic growth while he fights an unwinnable “trade war,” the reality is that rate cuts, and even additional measures of quantitative easing, or Q.E., are likely to have a muted effect. As I explained previously, the effectiveness of QE, and zero interest rates, is based upon the point at which you apply the stimulus.

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

If the market fell into a recession tomorrow, the Fed would be starting with roughly a $4 Trillion balance sheet with interest rates 2% lower than they were in 2009. In other words, the ability of the Fed to ‘bailout’ 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 the present.”

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

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

A simple analogy is throwing gasoline on a raging bonfire. The fire will burn for a bit longer, but it won’t burn any hotter. However, throwing gasoline on a pile of dry wood and hitting it with a match provides a better outcome.

Such was the case in 2009. Even without Federal Reserve interventions, it is highly probable the economy would have begun a recovery as the normal economic cycle took hold. No, the recovery would not have been as strong, and asset prices would be about half of where they are today, but an improvement would have happened nonetheless.

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

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

The Fed has a long history of making policy mistakes which have led to negative outcomes, crisis, bear markets, and recessions.

As I showed, above, the Fed made a mistake not using the flood of liquidity to lift rates. Instead, the Fed opted to create an asset bubble instead. Or, should I say, “again.”

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

Currently, there is evidence the cycle peak has been reached.

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

If more “accommodation” works, great.

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

Trump Praising Today’s Stock Market Would Be Like Bush Praising Housing In 2006

Despite all of the controversies, drama, and staff turnover, one thing has been consistent throughout Trump’s presidency: his frequent praise of the stock market’s performance and taking credit for it. As someone who has been warning that our stock market boom is really a dangerous, debt-driven bubble that is going to end disastrously, I have been publicly cautioning that it is extremely unwise and irresponsible for President Trump to be encouraging and taking ownership of this irrational speculative boom. In this piece, I will explain why Trump’s praise of today’s stock market bubble would be like President George W. Bush praising the housing bubble in the mid-2000s before it crashed and sunk the country into a deep recession.

Trump uses the stock market as one of the main yardsticks of his administration’s performance, as the following tweets show:

Imagine, theoretically, if President George W. Bush was praising the U.S. housing bubble as it inflated in the mid-2000s while saying extremely arrogant and cocky things like “I’m making you all rich!” and “Thank you, Mr. President! Then, the housing bubble bursts and causes the most severe recession since the Great Depression. Well, that’s basically what President Trump is doing when he praises the soaring stock market.

As a result of the Fed’s ultra-stimulative monetary policies, the U.S. stock market (as measured by the S&P 500) surged 300% higher in the past decade. Note: the market surged due to the actions of the Fed, not Trump (read my detailed explanation). The market was already surging and quite inflated before Trump even got into office in late-2016.

Trump himself even called the stock market a “big, fat, ugly bubble” when he was on the campaign trail in 2016. He changed his tune immediately after he won the election.

The Fed’s aggressive inflation of the U.S. stock market caused stocks to rise at a faster rate than their underlying earnings, which means that the market is extremely overvalued right now. Whenever the market becomes extremely overvalued, it’s just a matter of time before the market falls to a more reasonable valuation again. As the chart below shows, the U.S. stock market is nearly as overvalued as it was in 1929, right before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. It is very unwise for Trump to be fanning the flames of this bubble as well as taking ownership of it.

The Fed’s aggressive inflation of the U.S. financial markets has created a massive bubble in household wealth. U.S. household wealth is extremely inflated relative to the GDP: since 1952, household wealth has averaged 384% of the GDP, so the current bubble’s 535% figure is in rarefied territory. The dot-com bubble peaked with household wealth hitting 450% of GDP, while household wealth reached 486% of GDP during the housing bubble. Unfortunately, the coming household wealth crash will be proportional to the run-up.

To make matters worse, Goldman Sachs’ very accurate Bear Market Risk Indicator has been at its highest level since the early-1970s:

In addition, the probability of a U.S. recession in the next twelve months may be as high as 64%. It should go without saying that recessions are not kind to the stock market – especially when the market is overvalued like it is now.

To summarize, President Trump is extremely foolish for encouraging the current stock market bubble and conditioning the public to believe that the stock market boom of the past decade (which had started long before he became president) is the direct result of his policies. A responsible leader who genuinely cares about the long-term future of the country would have distanced himself from this bubble and done everything in his power to try to defuse the bubble to prevent it from doing even more damage when it ultimately bursts. Do I say this as an avowed liberal? Quite the opposite. I say this as a conservative who is worried that President Trump is going to make conservatives look bad when this artificial market and economy implodes.

Technically Speaking: The Drums Of Trade War – Part Deux

In June of 2018, as the initial rounds of the “Trade War” were heating up, I wrote:

“Next week, the Trump Administration will announce $50 billion in ‘tariffs’ on Chinese products. The trade war remains a risk to the markets in the short-term.

Of course, 2018 turned out to be a volatile year for investors which ended in the sell-off into Christmas Eve.

As we have been writing for the last couple of weeks, the risks to the market have risen markedly as we head into the summer months.

“It is a rare occasion when the markets don’t have a significant intra-year correction. But it is a rarer event not to have a correction in a year where extreme deviations from long-term moving averages occur early in the year. Currently, the market is nearly 6% above its 200-dma. As noted, such deviations from the norm tend not to last long and “reversions to the mean” occur with regularity.”

“With the market pushing overbought, extended, and bullish extremes, a correction to resolve this condition is quite likely. The only question is the cause, depth, and duration of that corrective process. Again, this is why we discussed taking profits and rebalancing risk in our portfolios last week.”

Well, that certainly didn’t take long. As of Monday’s close, the entirety of the potential 5-6% decline has already been tagged.

The concern currently, is that while the 200-dma is critical to warding off a deeper decline, the escalation of the “trade war” is going to advance the timing of a recession and bear market. 

Let me explain why.

The Drums Of “Trade War”

On Monday, we woke to the “sound of distant drums” beating out the warning of escalation as China retaliated to Trump’s tariffs last week. To wit:

“After vowing over the weekend to “never surrender to external pressure,” Beijing has defied President Trump’s demands that it not resort to retaliatory tariffs and announced plans to slap new levies on $60 billion in US goods.

  • CHINA SAYS TO RAISE TARIFFS ON SOME U.S. GOODS FROM JUNE 1
  • CHINA SAYS TO RAISE TARIFFS ON $60B OF U.S. GOODS
  • CHINA SAYS TO RAISE TARIFFS ON 2493 U.S. GOODS TO 25%
  • CHINA MAY STOP PURCHASING US AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS:GLOBAL TIMES
  • CHINA MAY REDUCE BOEING ORDERS: GLOBAL TIMES
  • CHINA ADDITIONAL TARIFFS DO NOT INCLUDE U.S. CRUDE OIL
  • CHINA RAISES TARIFF ON U.S. LNG TO 25% EFFECTIVE JUNE 1

China’s announcement comes after the White House raised tariffs on some $200 billion in Chinese goods to 25% from 10% on Friday (however, the new rates will only apply to goods leaving Chinese ports on or after the date where the new tariffs took effect).

Here’s a breakdown of how China will impose tariffs on 2,493 US goods. The new rates will take effect at the beginning of next month.

  • 2,493 items to be subjected to 25% tariffs.
  • 1,078 items to be subject to 20% of tariffs
  • 974 items subject to 10% of tariffs
  • 595 items continue to be levied at 5% tariffs

In further bad news for American farmers, China might stop purchasing agricultural products from the US, reduce its orders for Boeing planes and restrict service trade. There has also been talk that the PBOC could start dumping Treasuries (which would, in addition to pushing US rates higher, also have the effect of strengthening the yuan).”

The last point is the most important, particularly for domestic investors, as it is a change in their stance from last year. As we noted when the “trade war” first started:

The only silver lining in all of this is that so far, China hasn’t invoked the nuclear options: dumping FX reserves (either bonds or equities), or devaluing the currency. If Trump keeps pushing, however, both are only a matter of time.”

Clearly, China has now put those options on the table, at least verbally.

It is essential to understand that foreign countries “sanitize” transactions with the U.S. by buying or selling Treasuries to keep currency exchange rates stable. As you can see, there is a high correlation between fluctuations in the Yuan and treasury activity.

One way for China to both penalize the U.S. for tariffs, and by “the U.S.” I mean the consumer, is to devalue the Yuan relative to the dollar. This can be done by either stopping the process of sanitizing transactions with the U.S. or by accelerating the issue through the selling of U.S. Treasury holdings.

The other potential ramification is the impact on interest rates in the U.S. which is a substantial secondary risk.

China understands that the U.S. consumer is heavily indebted and small changes to interest rates have an exponential impact on consumption in the U.S.. For example, in 2018 interest rates rose to 3.3% and mortgages and auto loans came to screeching halt. More importantly, debt delinquency rates showed a sharp uptick.

Consumers have very little “wiggle room” to adjust for higher borrowing costs, higher product costs, or a slowing economy that accelerates job losses.

However, it isn’t just the consumer that will take the hit. It is the stock market due to lower earnings.

Playing The Trade

Let me review what we said previously about the impact of a trade war on the markets.

“While many have believed a ‘trade war’ will be resolved without consequence, there are two very important points that most of mainstream analysis is overlooking. For investors, a trade war would likely negatively impact earnings and profitability while slowing economic growth through higher costs.”

While the markets have indeed been more bullishly biased since the beginning of the year, which was mostly based on “hopes” of a “trade resolution,” we have couched our short-term optimism with an ongoing view of the “risks” which remain. An escalation of a “trade war” is one of those risks, the other is a policy error by the Federal Reserve which could be caused by the acceleration a “trade war.” 

In June of 2018, I did the following analysis:

“Wall Street is ignoring the impact of tariffs on the companies which comprise the stock market. Between May 1st and June 1st of this year, the estimated reported earnings for the S&P 500 have already started to be revised lower (so we can play the “beat the estimate game”).  For the end of 2019, forward reported estimates have declined by roughly $6.00 per share.”

The red dashed line denoted the expected 11% reduction to those estimates due to a “trade war.”

“As a result of escalating trade war concerns, the impact in the worst-case scenario of an all-out trade war for US companies across sectors and US trading partners will be greater than anticipated. In a nutshell, an across-the-board tariff of 10% on all US imports and exports would lower 2018 EPS for S&P 500 companies by ~11% and, thus, completely offset the positive fiscal stimulus from tax reform.”

Fast forward to the end of Q1-2019 earnings and we find that we were actually a bit optimistic on where things turned out.

The problem is the 2020 estimates are currently still extremely elevated. As the impact of these new tariffs settle in, corporate earnings will be reduced. The chart below plots our initial expectations of earnings through 2020. Given that a 10% tariff took 11% off earnings expectations, it is quite likely with a 25% tariff we are once again too optimistic on our outlook.

Over the next couple of months, we will be able to refine our view further, but the important point is that since roughly 50% of corporate profits are a function of exports, Trump has just picked a fight he most likely can’t win.

Importantly, the reigniting of the trade war is coming at a time where economic data remains markedly weak, valuations are elevated, and credit risk is on the rise. The yield curve continues to signal that something has “broken,” but few are paying attention.

With the market weakness yesterday, we are holding off adding to our equity “long positions” until we see where the market finds support. We have also cut our holdings in basic materials and emerging markets as tariffs will have the greatest impact on those areas. Currently, there is a cluster of support coalescing at the 200-dma, but a failure at the level could see selling intensify as we head into summer.

The recent developments now shift our focus from “risk taking” to “risk control.” “Capital preservation strategies” now replace “capital growth strategies,” and “cash” now becomes a favored asset class for managing uncertainty.

As a portfolio manager, I must manage short-term opportunities as well as long-term outcomes. If I don’t, I suffer career risk, plain and simple. However, you don’t have to. If you are truly a long-term investor, you have to question the risk being undertaken to achieve further returns in the current market environment.

Assuming that you were astute enough to buy the 2009 low, and didn’t spend the bulk of the bull market rally simply getting back to even, you would have accumulated years of excess returns towards meeting your retirement goals. 

If you went to cash now, the odds are EXTREMELY high that you will outpace investors who remain invested in the years ahead. Sure, they may get an edge on you in the short-term, and chastise you for “missing out,”  but when the next “mean reverting event” occurs, the decline will destroy most, if not all, of the returns accumulated over the last decade.

China understands that Trump’s biggest weakness is the economy and the stock market. So, by strategically taking actions which impact the consumer, and ultimately the stock market, it erodes the base of support that Trump has for the “trade war.”

This is particularly the case with the Presidential election just 18-months away.

Don’t mistake how committed China can be.

This fight will be to the last man standing, and while Trump may win the battle, it is quite likely that “investors will lose the war.” 

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Trump Is Asking For A 1999-Style Stock Market Melt-Up

Last week, President Donald Trump reiterated his call for the Fed to cut interest rates:

President Trump is technically correct in saying that the economy (or, more accurately, the stock market) would “go up like a rocket” if the Fed cut rates by 1%, but only because doing that would supercharge the dangerous bubbles that are driving our growth. If Trump theoretically got his way and the Fed cut rates by 1% (assuming it was a preemptive move rather than a reaction to a sharp economic slowdown), the stock market would most likely launch a powerful 1999-style melt-up, which would ultimately culminate in an equally devastating bust like we experienced in the early-2000s.

Here’s what led to the 1999 market melt-up: the Asian financial crisis, the Russian debt default, and the resulting failure of U.S. hedge fund Long Term Capital Management roiled the financial markets in 1997 and 1998 and led to concerns about a more extensive contagion. Even though U.S. economic data was still very strong, Fed Chair Alan Greenspan cut the Fed Funds rate three times in rapid succession in late-1998 (25 basis points each time for a total cut of .75%) in an effort to shore up confidence and help cushion the U.S. economy.

Prudential Securities analyst Michelle Laughlin captured the thinking behind the rate hikes at the time:

This tells me the Fed is correctly looking forward, looking at the risk of consumers pulling back in spending because stocks have fallen. They’re working in anticipation of that to make sure the U.S. economy does not slip into recession. I’m very encouraged by the Fed’s action.

The Fed’s aggressive preemptive interest rate cuts in 1998 were like pouring gasoline onto a fire: the Nasdaq Composite Index exploded 280% in the next year-and-half as the dot-com bubble went into overdrive. Of course, the dot-com bubble peaked in March 2000 and the Nasdaq proceeded to crash 80% over the next three years. The Nasdaq’s bear market erased the entire post-1998 gain and then some.

There are enough parallels between today’s market and the late-1990s market that if Trump got his way and the Fed slashed rates aggressively, the U.S. stock market could pull another ’99. Though the S&P 500 is up 300% from its 2009 lows, it has basically stalled since the start of 2018. The market pulled back approximately 20% in late-2018 (in a move similar to 1998’s pullback), before the Fed panicked and backpedaled on its previously hawkish outlook for rate hikes and quantitative tightening.

In 1998, the U.S. stock market was already quite overvalued just like it is now (in both 1998 and now, the cyclically-adjusted P/E ratio was in the low-30s). After the Fed slashed rates in 1998, the stock market surged and the cyclically-adjusted P/E ratio went into the low-40s – an all-time high. If Trump gets his way, the market would likely surge and valuations would approach their old highs.

Considering how stretched today’s market already is, Trump’s demand for a 1% rate cut is nonsensical and downright dangerous. As a result of the current stock and bond market bubbles, U.S. household net worth has hit record levels relative to the GDP in recent years, which is a sign that household wealth is overly inflated. The last two times household wealth became so stretched relative to the GDP were during the dot-com bubble and housing bubble, both of which ended in disaster. If Trump got his way, the current household wealth bubble would inflate even further, which would result in an even more powerful crash in the end.

It is extremely irresponsible for President Trump to demand a strong interest rate cut and more quantitative easing at a time when asset prices are already so inflated. It appears that he cares more about having the Fed juice the financial markets to help ensure his 2020 election win rather than the long-term economic health of the country. Although the Fed is supposed to be independent to avoid influence from political leaders, reality is quite different: heavy pressure from Trump during the late-2018 market rout likely contributed to the Fed’s about-face on rate hikes. If there is another market rout or even the slightest sign of economic weakness, President Trump will undoubtedly step up the pressure on the Fed to cut rates. If Trump gets his way, the market may take off like a rocket, but will ultimately experience the mother of all crashes.

Technically Speaking: “‘Trade War’ In May & Go Away.”

Over the weekend, President Trump decided to reignite the “trade war” with China with two incendiary tweets. Via WSJ:

“In a pair of Twitter messages Sunday, Mr. Trump wrote he planned to raise levies on $200 billion in Chinese imports to 25% starting Friday, from 10% currently. He also wrote he would impose 25% tariffs ‘shortly’ on $325 billion in Chinese goods that haven’t yet been taxed.

‘The Trade Deal with China continues, but too slowly, as they attempt to renegotiate,’ the president tweeted. ‘No!’”

This is an interesting turn of events and shows how President Trump has used the markets to his favor.

In January of 2018, the Fed was hiking rates and beginning to reduce their balance sheet but markets were ramping higher on the back of freshly passed tax reform. As Trump’s approval ratings were hitting highs, he launched the “trade war” with China. (Which we said at the time was likely to have unintended consequences and would kill the effect of tax reform.)

“While many have believed a ‘trade war’ will be resolved without consequence, there are two very important points that most of mainstream analysis is overlooking. For investors, a trade war would likely negatively impact earnings and profitability while slowing economic growth through higher costs.”

As I updated this past weekend:

But even more important is the impact to forward guidance by corporations.

Nonetheless, with markets and confidence at record highs, Trump had room to play “hard  ball” with China on trade.

However, by the end of 2018, with markets down 20% from their peak, Trump’s “running room” had been exhausted. He then applied pressure to the Federal Reserve to back off their policy tightening and the White House begin a regular media blitz that a “trade deal” would soon be completed.

These actions led to the sharp rebound over the last 4-months to regain highs, caused a surge in Trump’s approval ratings, and improved consumer confidence. In other words, we are now back to exactly the same point where we were the last time Trump started a “trade war.” More importantly, today, like then, market participants are at record long equity exposure and record net short on volatility.

With the table reset, President Trump now has “room to operate” heading into the 2020 election cycle.

The problem, is that China knows time is short for the President and subsequently there is “no rush” to conclude a “trade deal” for several reasons:

  1. China is playing a very long game. Short-term economic pain can be met with ever-increasing levels of government stimulus. The U.S. has no such mechanism currently, but explains why both Trump and Vice-President Pence have been suggesting the Fed restarts QE and cuts rates by 1%.
  2. The pressure is on the Trump Administration to conclude a “deal,” not on China. Trump needs a deal done before the 2020 election cycle AND he needs the markets and economy to be strong. If the markets and economy weaken because of tariffs, which are a tax on domestic consumers and corporate profits, as they did in 2018, the risk off electoral losses rise. China knows this and are willing to “wait it out” to get a better deal.
  3. As I have stated before, China is not going to jeopardize its 50 to 100-year economic growth plan on a current President who will be out of office within the next 5-years at most. It is unlikely, the next President will take the same hard line approach on China that President Trump has, so agreeing to something that is unlikely to be supported in the future is unlikely. It is also why many parts of the trade deal already negotiated don’t take effect until after Trump is out of office when those agreements are unlikely to be enforced. 

Even with that said, the markets rallied from the opening lows on Monday in “hopes” that this is actually just part of Trump’s “Art of the Deal” and China will quickly acquiesce to demands. I wouldn’t be so sure that is case.

The “good news” is that Monday’s “recovery rally” should embolden President Trump to take an even tougher stand with China, at least temporarily. The risk remains a failure to secure a trade agreement, even if it is more “show” than anything else.

Importantly, this is all coming at a time when the “Seasonal Sell Signal” has been triggered.

Sell In May

Let’s start with a basic assumption.

I am going to give you an opportunity to make an investment where 70% of the time you will win, but by the same token, 30% of the time you will lose. 

It’s a “no-brainer,” right? But,  you invest and immediately lose.

In fact, you lose the next two times, as well.

Unfortunately, you just happened to get all three instances, out of ten, where you lost money. Does it make the investment any less attractive? No. 

However, when in comes to the analysis of “Sell In May,” most often the analysis typically uses too short of a time-frame as the look back period to support the “bullish case.” For example, Mark DeCambre recently touched on this issue in an article on this topic.

“‘Sell in May and go away,’ — a widely followed axiom, based on the average historical underperformance of stock markets in the six months starting from May to the end of October, compared against returns in the November-to-April stretch — on average has held true, but it’s had a spotty record over the past several years.”

That is a true statement. But, does it make paying attention to seasonality any less valuable? Let’s take Dr. Robert Shiller’s monthly data back to 1900 to run some analysis. The table below, which provides the basis for the rest of this missive, is the monthly return data from 1900-present.

Using the data above, let’s take a look at what we might expect for the month of May

Historically, May is the 4th WORST performing month for stocks with an average return of just 0.29%. However, it is the 3rd worst performing month on a median return basis of just 0.52%.

(Interesting note:  As you will notice in the table above and chart below, average returns are heavily skewed by outlier events. For example, while October is the “worst month” because of major crashes like 1929 with an average return of -0.29%, the median return is actually a positive 0.39%. Such makes it just the 2nd worst performing month of the year beating out February [the worst].)

May and June tend to be some of weakest months of the year along with September. This is where the old adage of “Sell In May” is derived from. Of course, while not every summer period has been a dud, history does show that being invested during summer months is a “hit or miss” bet at best.

Like October, May’s monthly average is skewed higher by 32.5% jump in 1933. However, in more recent years returns have been primarily contained, with only a couple of exceptions, within a +/- 5% return band as shown below.

The chart below depicts the number of positive and negative returns for the market by month. With a ratio of 54 losing months to 66 positive ones, there is a 46% chance that May will yield a negative return.

The chart below puts this analysis into context by showing the gain of $10,000 invested since 1957 in the S&P 500 index during the seasonally strong period (November through April) as opposed to the seasonally weak period (May through October).

A Correction IS Coming

Based on the historical evidence it would certainly seem prudent to “bail” on the markets, right? No, at least not yet.

The problem with statistical analysis is that we are measuring the historical odds of an event occurring in the near future. Like playing a hand of poker, the odds of drawing to an inside straight are astronomically high. However, it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.

Currently, the study of current price action suggests that the markets haven’t done anything drastically wrong as of yet. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t. As I discussed this past weekend:

“While the market did hold inside of its consolidation pattern, we are still lower than the previous peak suggesting we wait until next week for clarity. However, a bit of caution to overly aggressive equity exposure is certainly warranted.I say this for a couple of reasons.

  1. The market has had a stellar run since the beginning of the year and while earnings season is giving a “bid” to stocks currently, both current and forecast earnings continue to weaken.
  2. We are at the end of the seasonally strong period for stocks and given the outsized run since the beginning of the year a decent mid-year correction is not only normal, but should be anticipated.”

With the markets on “buy signals” deference should be given to the bulls currently. More importantly, the bullish trend, on both a daily and weekly basis, remains intact which keeps our portfolio allocations on the long side for now.

However, a correction is coming. This is why we took profits in some positions which have had outsized returns this year, rebalanced portfolio risk, and continue to carry a higher level of cash than normal.

As I noted last week:

“The important point to take away from this data is that “mean reverting” events are commonplace within the context of annual market movements. 

Currently, investors have become extremely complacent with the rally from the beginning of the year and are quick extrapolating current gains through the end of 2019.

As shown in the chart below this is a dangerous bet. In every given year there are drawdowns which have historically wiped out some, most, or all of the previous gains. While the market has ended the year, more often than not, the declines have often shaken out many an investor along the way.”

Let’s take a look at what happened the last time the market started out the year up 13% in 2012.

Here are some other years:

2007

2010

2011

Do you really think this market will continue its run higher unabated?

It is a rare occasion the markets don’t have a significant intra-year correction. But it is a rarer event not to have a correction in a year where extreme deviations from long-term moving averages occurs early in the year. Currently, the market is nearly 6% above its 200-dma. As noted, such deviations from the norm tend not to last long and “reversions to the mean” occur with regularity. 

With the market pushing overbought, extended, and bullish extremes, a correction to resolve this condition is quite likely. The only question is the cause, depth, and duration of that corrective process. Again, this is why we discussed taking profits and rebalancing risk in our portfolios last week.

I am not suggesting you do anything, but it is just something to consider when the media tells you to ignore history and suggests “this time may be different.” 

That is usually just about the time when it isn’t.

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Post Election Growth Analysis

With the mid-term elections now behind us, we can begin to better assess market dynamics using a known outcome. The Democratic party has regained control of the House of Representatives while at the same time Republicans extended their majority in the Senate. Nevertheless, the power shift in the House will certainly change the political dynamics and increase the level of acrimony on Capitol Hill. The pent-up frustrations of Democrats and their disdain for everything “Trump” seems certain to apply brakes to the agenda of the current administration.

Over the past two years, that agenda has demonstrated itself to be decidedly pro-growth by any means necessary. Of chief concern to us is that growth and prosperity are two very different things. Temporary growth by means of further expanding the country’s debt obligations, as has been the case since the financial crisis, will do nothing for long-term prosperity. Indeed, as the populist movement here and abroad demonstrates, we are already well down the path of sacrificing prosperity for growth.

This matters more so today than in prior years because of the problems we are beginning to see in capital markets as interest rates rise. The advancement of pro-growth strategies fueled by debt and non-productive expenditures by policy-makers has assured a widening of wealth inequality and the populist revolt (if there were another way for us to emphasize that statement, we would). Just to ensure readers do not think us partisan, this is the same strategy advanced to varying degrees by every President and Fed since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. It certainly does not hold any promise of advancing prosperity to her citizens. Like the socialization of losses in the financial crisis, only a few benefit while the vast majority of the population bears the ultimate and eventual burden.

With Republicans now forced to share power and having less influence in pursuing the Trump plan, it raises an important question: What difference will the congressional split and resulting gridlock make for the economy?

The Signals

Even before the results of this election were known, the bond market was sending confounding signals about the direction of the economy. It can best be described by looking at short-term interest rates (Fed Funds, Eurodollars and 2-Year note Treasuries) on the one hand and longer-term interest rates (10-year notes and 30-year Treasury bonds) on the other. Traditionally, when economic growth picks up steam as an expansion advances, interest rates begin to rise to anticipate that growth may cause rising inflation. Investors’, concerned about the rate of inflation, demand a higher return. Historically, the Federal Reserve (Fed) would follow the markets lead by raising the Fed Funds rate. As higher interest rates begin to cause businesses to be more discriminating in their use of capital for projects, economic activity slows. Responding to that dynamic, long-term interest rates would stop rising and eventually begin to fall well before the Fed lowers short-term interest rates. This causes the yield curve to flatten (or invert).

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

What we see today, in a time when markets have become accustomed to the Fed leading the markets as opposed to following them, is an unusual contrast between the short-end and the long-end of the yield curve. Using the Eurodollar and Fed Funds futures complex as market-based indicators of short-term interest rates, investors imply that the Fed will hike interest rates two times (0.25% each) in 2019 and stop. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is telling us through their projection of rate hikes (the dot plot) that they intend to hike rates at least three times in 2019 and possibly more in 2020.

The long end of the yield curve, which is less responsive to Fed Funds expectations and more sensitive to fundamental economic activity like growth and inflation, has recently been steepening. That is to say, although short rates have continued to move higher, the longer end of the yield curve is also moving higher and by a greater magnitude. The 10-year and 30-year Treasury yields are either telling us that economic activity is durably robust and therefore threatens a rise in inflation and/or the longer maturity Treasuries are worried about the amount of issuance required to fund the coming trillion dollar deficits. But if that were the case, it seems the short end would also be mutually expressing those concerns.

Graph courtesy Bloomberg

The conflicting message is that while on the one hand, the market in short rates is underestimating what the Fed is telegraphing regarding rate hikes (2 versus 3), the long end is expressing a concern that the Fed is going to need to be more aggressive.

Summary

Like the tax cuts and budget deal passed a few months ago, incremental federal spending going forward can only be funded by expanding the deficit even further. The optics of more fiscal stimulus (i.e., infrastructure spending and tax cuts) will boost near-term estimates of economic growth and likely impose on the Fed to extend plans for rate hikes further. At the same time, larger deficits mean even more Treasury supply at a time when foreign interest is declining which also implies higher interest rates. For an economy so sodden with debt, higher interest rates are problematic which appears to be the outcome no matter what.

Democrats’ control of the House likely puts an end to any such plans as they seem determined to railroad any further stimulus efforts put forth by Trump. That may relieve bond markets from worrying about the risk of even more deficit spending, but it does not atone for past sins and the anvil of debt burdens now hanging around the country’s neck.

For anyone who is unclear about the idea that growth does not equal prosperity, we would argue that you are about to get a first-hand lesson in that difference. If you think Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were outsiders in the 2016 campaign, the tone in Washington here forward is likely to fuel populist momentum. The only thing we are willing to predict is that of even bigger surprises heading into 2020.

 

 

Election Night Cheat Sheet

Historically, the last two years of a president’s term have been great for stock investors as shown below. We can blindly follow history and hope that this is once again the case, or we can examine the facts in front of us and decide if there is reason to be suspect.

Public policy matters to markets and the economy and as a result a significant determinant of the next two years depends on what happens tonight. While the pollsters from both sides of the aisle are claiming victory, the fact of the matter is no one knows what this election may bring. Trump proved the pollsters wrong two years ago and we have little reason to believe they have it right this time. The results depend heavily on the much anticipated “Blue Wave” and whether Democratic turnout can offset the successes, economic and otherwise, of the Trump administration’s first two years.

The question of whether or not the Republicans can keep control of the House and Senate has vast implications for the economy and markets. The following Cheat Sheet provides our latest thoughts on three election result scenarios and what each might mean for the stock and bond markets as well as Federal Reserve policy, the U.S. dollar and economic activity. Please click on the picture to enlarge it.

 

 

Trump Is Completely Misguided On Interest Rates

President Donald Trump has been making a big stink about the Federal Reserve’s rate hikes lately. Last week, after the Dow plunged nearly 2,000 points, he blamed the Fed for it, saying “I think the Fed is making a mistake. They’re so tight. I think the Fed has gone crazy…” On Tuesday, Trump said that the Federal Reserve is “my biggest threat.” Since he became president, Trump has been praising the soaring stock market (something I said was very dangerous to do), viewing it as evidence of the success of his administration’s policies. Trump is worried that rising interest rates will put an end to the stock market boom, which will make him look bad.

Unfortunately, the president is extremely misguided about how interest rates work and the role they play in creating booms in the stock market and economy. As I’ve explained in great detail, the U.S. stock market has been booming because the Fed held interest rates at record low levels for a record length of time after the Great Recession. This Fed-driven stock market boom is an unsustainable bubble instead of a genuine, organic boom.

Fed Funds Rate

The fact that the Fed held rates at record low levels and inflated a credit and asset bubble meant that a crisis was already “baked into the cake” whether the Fed raised interest rates or not. Once a credit expansion or bubble is already in motion, the actions of the central bank from that point on can only determine what type of crisis occurs when the credit expansion ends – not whether a crisis will occur or not.

The Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises said it best in his book Human Action:

There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.

If the Fed or other central bank voluntarily abandons further credit expansion (most commonly by raising interest rates), the credit and asset bubble will experience a deflationary bust. Deflationary episodes entail credit busts, falling consumer prices, bear markets in stocks and housing prices, and falling wages. If the central bank decides to never put an end to the credit expansion (for example, if the Fed never raised rates), however, the result would be a runaway credit and asset bubble that leads to a severe decrease in the value of the currency and high rates of inflation. The latter scenario is what would occur if President Trump got his way – hardly a desirable outcome for the economy.

To summarize, the Fed is crazy – they’re crazy for creating such a large bubble in the first place via loose monetary policy, but not for raising interest rates and normalizing their monetary policy.

We at Clarity Financial LLC, a registered investment advisory firm, specialize in preserving and growing investor wealth in times like these. If you are concerned about your financial future, click here to ask me a question and find out more.

Tariff Turbulence, Mollified Market

The founder who shaped our economic system more than all the others was Alexander Hamilton. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton favored an economy based on finance and industry rather than agriculture. And Hamilton was also in favor of tariffs

But in a recent post Matt Winesett of the American Enterprise Institute doubts that Hamilton would favor tariffs today. First, he quotes Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow saying that Hamilton favored free trade except when government could stimulate nascent enterprises with tariffs. The U.S. was what me might now call an “emerging” market or even a “frontier” market at the time of the founding, and tariffs could improve “American self-sufficiency, leading to a favorable trade balance and more hard currency.”

Since the U.S. has abandoned the gold standard, Winsett thinks it’s no longer necessary to worry about hard currency flows (the exchange of goods for gold). Moreover, national security isn’t threatened by free trade. Winsett notes that “the DOD only needs about 3% of current U.S. steel production to meet its needs.” This is important because even Adam Smith, who generally favored free trade, recognized that the defense of one’s country is of higher importance than “opulence,” according to Dartmouth economist Douglas Irwin’s recent book Clashing Over Commerce. But if defense isn’t imperiled, then free trade should prevail.

Winsett quotes Irwin from a recent WSJ op-ed arguing that Hamilton wanted moderate tariffs as a means of collecting revenue, not onerous ones to stop the importing of foreign goods. The government had to finance its Revolutionary War debt, after all, and wasn’t interested in imposing excessive tariffs as much as it was in collecting taxes Tariffs couldn’t be so heavy that they stopped the inflow of goods. Chernow also notes, according to Winsett, that Hamilton favored lower tariffs on raw materials to encourage manufacturing. In other words, the point wasn’t to be draconian against other nations, but to get some revenue for the government and facilitate industry.

None of this means free trade eliminates the government’s role completely. Irwin quotes Hamilton remarking on the idea that trade can be left to itself as “one of those wild speculative paradoxes, which have grown into credit among us, contrary to the uniform practice and sense of the most enlightened nations.” Still, this doesn’t mean Hamilton would have favored heavy tariffs today.

It’s possible that President Trump is interested in imposing tariffs – or interested in threatening to impose tariffs – in order to compel foreign countries into reciprocity or removing their own tariffs. This means President Trump is really a free trader. So argues Marc Thiessen, also of the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent op-ed.

However, Thiessen’s AEI colleague, Claude Barfield, disagrees, arguing that Trump’s invocation of national security to our historical allies and his compounding protection with subsidies, such as the recent $12 billion to farmers harmed by foreign tariffs, display something other than a desire for free trade. Barfield thinks Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is more accurate in his assessment of Trump’s tariff subsidy as a “Soviet type of economy. .. (with) Commissars. . . . figuring out how they are going to sprinkle around the benefits.” Columnist George Will agrees with Barfield, calling Trump a socialist for seeking to create a managed economy. There is no rule for who gets subsidies, Will notes; everything is done on a whim, putting us on what economist Friedrich Hayek called the “road to serfdom.”

Of course, still another possibility is that Trump is so erratic and inconsistent that he doesn’t have a clearly defined policy goal. Not fully understanding if he wants free trade or not, and perhaps correctly perceiving that things are not as advantageous as they could be for the U.S., he argues different things at different times – national security at one moment, the quest for free trade and tariffs as a means or threat to that end at another. How financial markets remain relatively clam through inconsistent rhetoric and lack of defined policy goals is another mystery.

The Coming Collision Of Debt & Rates

On Tuesday, I discussed the issue of what has historically happened to the financial markets when both the dollar and rates are rising simultaneously. To wit:

“With the 10-year treasury rate now extremely overbought on a monthly basis, combined with a stronger dollar, the impact historically has not been kind to stock market investors. While it doesn’t mean the market will “crash” today, or even next week, historically rising interest rates combined with a rising dollar has previously led to unexpected and unintended consequences previously.”

I wanted to reiterate this point after reading a recent comment from Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, whom, as I have previously written about, makes rather “disconnected” statements from time to time.

“We’re probably in the sixth inning (of this economic cycle), and it’s very possible you’re going to see stronger growth in the U.S. I’ve heard people say, well, it’s looking like 2007. Completely untrue. There’s much less leverage in the system. The banks are much better capitalized.”

First, while he talks about banks being much better capitalized, the interesting question is:

“If banks are so well capitalized, why hasn’t FASB Rule 157 been reinstated?”

As I noted previously, FASB Rule 157 was repealed during the financial crisis to allow banks to mark bad assets to “face value” making balance sheets stronger than they appear. This served the purpose of reducing panic in the system, supported “Too Big To Fail” banks, and kept many banks in operation. But if banks are once again so well capitalized, leverage reduced and the economy firing on all cylinders – why is that repeal still in place today? And, if the financial system and economic environment are so strong, then why are Central Banks globally still utilizing “emergency measures” to support their economies?

Likely it is because economic growth remains tepid and banks are once again heavily leveraged as noted by Zero Hedge:

“It is by now well known that consolidated leverage in the system is at an all-time high, with both the IMF and the IIF calculating in April that total global debt has hit a new all-time high of $237 trillion, up $70 trillion in the past decade, and equivalent to a record 382% of developed and 210% of emerging market GDP.”

However, let me address the leverage issue from an economic standpoint. Rising interest rates are a “tax.” When combined with a stronger dollar, which negatively impacts exporters (exports make up roughly 40% of total corporate profits), the catalysts are in place for a problem to emerge.

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

This leverage issue is more clearly revealed when we look at non-financial corporate debt and assets as a percentage of the gross-value added (GVA). Again, as above, rising rates have historically sparked a rapid reversion in this ratio which has generally coincided with the onset of a recession.

With leverage, both corporate and household, at historical peaks, the only question is how long can consumers continue to absorb higher rates?

While Mr. Dimon believes we are only in the “sixth-inning” of the current economic cycle, considering all of the economically sensitive areas which are negatively impacted by higher rates, one has to question the sustainability of the current economic cycle?

1) Rising interest rates raise the debt servicing requirements which reduces future productive investment.

2) Rising interest rates slow the housing market as people buy payments, not houses, and rising rates mean higher payments.

3) An increase in interest rates means higher borrowing costs which leads to lower profit margins for corporations. 

4) One of the main arguments of stock bulls over the last 5-years has been the “stocks are cheap based on low interest rates.”

5) The massive derivatives and credit markets will be negatively impacted. (Deutsche Bank, Italy, etc.)

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

7) Rising defaults on debt service will negatively impact banks.

8) Many corporate share buyback plans and dividend payments have been done through the use of cheap debt, which has led to increased corporate balance sheet leverage.

9) Corporate capital expenditures are dependent on lower borrowing costs. Higher borrowing costs leads to lower CapEx.

10) The deficit/GDP ratio will rise as borrowing costs rise. 

You get the idea. Interest rates, economic growth, and credit are extremely linked. When it comes to the stock market, the claim that higher rates won’t impact stock prices falls into the category of “timing is everything.”  

If we go back to the first chart above, what is clear is that sharp increase in interest rates, particularly on a heavily levered economy, have repeatedly led to negative outcomes. With rates now at extensions only seen in 7-periods previously, there is little room left for further acceleration in rates before such an outcome spawns.

As Bridgewater just recently noted:

“Markets are already vulnerable, as the Fed is pulling back liquidity and raising rates, making cash scarcer and more attractive – reversing the easy liquidity and 0% cash rate that helped push money out of the risk curve over the course of the expansion. The danger to assets from the shift in liquidity and the building late-cycle dynamics is compounded by the fact that financial assets are pricing in a Goldilocks scenario of sustained strength, with little chance of either a slump or an overheating as the Fed continues its tightening cycle over the next year and a half.”

Here are the things that you need to know:

1) There have been ZERO times when the Federal Reserve has embarked upon a rate hiking campaign that did not eventually lead to negative economic and financial market consequences.

2) The median number of months following the initial rate hike has been 17-months. However, given the confluence of central bank interventions, that time frame could extend to the 35-month median or late-2018 or early-2019.

3) The average and median increases in the 10-year rate before negative consequences have occurred has historically been 43%. We are currently at double that level.

4) Importantly, there have been only two times in recent history that the Federal Reserve has increased interest rates from such a low level of annualized economic growth. Both periods ended in recessions.

5) The ENTIRETY of the“bullish” analysis is based on a sustained 34-year period of falling interest rates, inflation and annualized rates of economic growth. With all of these variables near historic lows, we can only really guess at how asset prices, and economic growth, will fair going forward.

6) Rising rates, and valuations, are indeed bullish for stocks when they START rising. Investing at the end of rising cycle has negative outcomes.

What is clear from the analysis is that bad things have tended to follow sustained increases in interest rates. As the Fed continues to press forward hiking rates into the current economic cycle, the risk of a credit related event continues to rise.

For all the reasons currently prognosticated that rising rates won’t affect the “bull market,” such is the equivalent of suggesting “this time is different.”

It isn’t.

Importantly, “This Cycle Will End,”  and investors who have failed to learn the lessons of history will once again pay the price for hubris.

China Is Winning The “Trade War” Without Firing A Shot

This past weekend, the Administration announced a tentative deal with China to temporarily postpone the burgeoning “trade war.” While the details of the deal are yet to be worked out, the concept is fairly simple – China will reduce the existing “trade deficit” by over $200 billion annually with the U.S. by reducing tariffs and allowing more goods to flow into China for purchase. On Monday, the markets reacted positively with industrial and material stocks rising sharply as it is expected these companies will be the most logical and direct beneficiaries of any deal.

Unfortunately, there are several reasons the whole scenario is quite implausible. Amitrajeet Batabyal recently explained the problem quite well.

“With China, the U.S. imports a whopping $375 billion more than it exportsHow could it whittle that down to $175 billion? There are three ways.

  • First, China could buy more U.S. goods and services.
  • Second, Americans could buy less Chinese stuff.
  • Finally, both actions could happen simultaneously.

The kinds of Chinese goods that Americans buy tend to be relatively inexpensive consumer goods, so even a dramatic decline is likely to have only a trivial impact on the deficit. And since China explicitly controls only one lever — its imports — it’ll have to buy a lot more American-made things to achieve this goal.

For this to happen, without upsetting other trade balances, the American economy would have to make a lot more than it currently produces, something that isn’t possible in so short a time frame.”

While the Administration will be able to claim a “trade victory” over a deficit reduction agreement, such is unlikely to lead to more economic growth as promised.

If we assume China does indeed spend an additional $200 billion on U.S. goods, those purchases will increase flows into the U.S. dollar, causing dollar strengthening relative to not only the Yuan but also other currencies as well. Since U.S. exports comprise about 40% of domestic corporate profits, a stronger dollar will counter the benefits of China’s purchase as other foreign importers seek cheaper goods elsewhere.

For China, a stronger dollar also makes imports to their country more expensive. To offset that, China will need to “sell” more of its U.S. Treasury holdings to “sanitize” those transactions and stabilize the exchange rate. This is not “good news” for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who would lose the largest foreign buyer for U.S. Treasuries.  This particularity problematic with the national debt expected to increase by at least one trillion dollars in each of the next four years.

There has been a lot of angst in the markets as of late as interest rates have risen back to the levels last seen, oh my gosh, all the way back to 2011. Okay, a bit of sarcasm, I know. But from all of the teeth gnashing and rhetoric of the recent rise in rates, you would have thought the world just ended. The chart below puts the recent rise in rates into some perspective. (The vertical dashed lines denote similar rate increases previously.)

It is important to understand that foreign countries “sanitize” transactions with the U.S. by buying or selling Treasuries to keep currency exchange rates stable. From 2014-2016China was dumping U.S Treasuries, and converting the proceeds back into Yuan, in an attempt to stem the outflows and resulting depreciation of their currency. Since 2016, China has been buying bonds as the Yuan has appreciated.

If China does indeed increase U.S. imports, the stronger dollar will increase the costs of imports into China from the U.S. which negatively impacts their economy. The relationship between the currency exchange rate and U.S. Treasuries is shown below.

With respect to the “trade deficit,” there is little evidence of a sustainable rise in inflationary pressures. The current inflationary push has come primarily from the transient effect of a disaster-related rebuilding cycle last year, along with pressures from rising energy, health care, and rental prices. These particular inflationary pressures are not “healthy” for the economy as they are “costs” which must be passed along to consumers without a commensurate rise in wages to offset them.

Asia is the source of most global demand for commodities, while also a huge supplier of goods into the US. Asian currencies have followed U.S. bond yields higher and lower since the 1990s, as well as followed commodity prices higher and lower over that time. There has only been one previous period when this relationship failed which was in 2007 and 2008.

With the Chinese financial system showing signs of increasing stress, any threat which devalues the currency will lead to further selling of Treasuries. Rising import costs due to a forced “deficit balancing,” will likely have more of a negative impact to the U.S. than currently believed.

Sum-Zero Game

While much of the mainstream media continues to expect a global resurgence in economic growth, there is currently scant evidence of such being the case. Since economic growth is roughly 70% dependent on consumption, then productivity, population, wage and consumer debt growth become key inputs into that equation. Unfortunately, productivity is hardly growing in the U.S. as well as in most developed nations. Further, wage and population growth remain weak as consumers remain highly leveraged. This combination makes a surge in economic growth highly unlikely particularly as rate increases reduce the ability to generate debt-driven consumption.

With unemployment rates near historic lows and production measures near highs, the problem of meeting Chinese demand will be problematic. As Amitrajeet states:

“That’s because when a nation’s economy is using its resources to produce goods efficiently, economists say that it has reached its production possibility frontier and cannot produce more goods.”

This makes Chinese promises largely illusory given the structural hurdles in China to allow for increased purchases of American exports much less the sheer amount of goods the United States would have to produce to meet Beijing’s demand.

As stated, with the United States economy already running near its full productive capacity, it is virtually impossible to produce enough new goods to meet Chinese demands, especially in the short term.

Sure, the United States could stop selling airplanes, soybeans and other exports to other countries and just sell them to China instead. Such actions would indeed shrink the United States trade deficit with China, but the trade deficit with the entire world would remain unchanged.

In other words, it’s a sum-zero game.

More importantly, if the U.S. cannot deliver the goods and services needed by China the entire agreement is worthless from the start. More importantly, China’s “concessions,” so far, are things it had planned to do anyway. As noted by Heather Long via the Washington Post:

“The Chinese have one of the fastest-growing economies and middle classes in the world. Chinese factories and cities need more energy, and its people want more meat. It’s no surprise then that China said it was interested in buying more U.S. energy and agricultural products. The Trump administration is trying to cast that as a win because the United States will be able to sell more to China, but it was almost certain that the Chinese were going to buy more of that stuff anyway.

What Trump got from the Chinese is ‘the kind of deal’ that China would be able to offer any U.S. president,’ said Brad Setser, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘China has to import a certain amount of energy from someone and needs to import either animal feed or meat to satisfy Chinese domestic demand.’

China has been buying about $20 billion worth of U.S. agricultural products a year and $7 billion in oil and gas, according to government data. Even if China doubled — or tripled — purchases of these items, it won’t equal anywhere near a $200 billion reduction in the trade deficit.”

But where China really won the negotiation was when the United States folded and agreed to suspend “trade tariffs.” While the current Administration is keen on “winning” a deal with China, without specific terms (such as a defined amount of increased purchases from the U.S. and the ability to meet that demand) the “deal” has little meaning. China has a long history of repeatedly reneging on promises it has made to past administrations.

By agreeing to a reduction of the “deficit” in exchange for “no tariffs,” China removed the most important threat to their economy as it will take 18-24 months before the current Administration realizes the problem.

“Yes, it’s good for both sides not to be in a trade war, but the Chinese had more to lose economically from the tariffs. The Trump administration rolling back its $150 billion tariff threat against China is a good ‘get’ for the Chinese.”

As with all things, there are always two sides to the story. While the benefits of reducing the trade may seem like a big win for America, reality could largely offset any benefits. If the goal was simply to be seen as the winner, Trump may have won the prize. But, it will likely be China laughing all the way to the bank.

Trump’s Volley – Hoover’s Folly?

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store” 
– Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford

Shortly following Donald Trump’s election victory we penned a piece entitled Hoover’s Folly. In light of Trump’s introduction of tariffs on steel and other selected imports, we thought it wise to recap some of the key points made in that article and provide additional guidance.

While the media seems to treat Trump’s recent demands for tariffs as a hollow negotiating stance, investors are best advised to pay attention. At stake are not just more favorable trade terms on a few select products and possibly manufacturing jobs but the platform on which the global economic regime has operated for the last 50 years. So far it is unclear whether Trump’s rising intensity is political rhetoric or seriously foretelling actions that will bring meaningful change to the way the global economy works. Either as a direct result of policy and/or uncharacteristic retaliation to strong words, abrupt changes to trade, and therefore the role of the U.S. Dollar as the world’s reserve currency, has the potential to generate major shocks in the financial markets.

Hoover’s Folly

The following paragraphs are selected from Hoover’s Folly to provide a background.

In 1930, Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act into law. As the world entered the early phases of the Great Depression, the measure was intended to protect American jobs and farmers. Ignoring warnings from global trade partners, the new law placed tariffs on goods imported into the U.S. which resulted in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods exported to other countries. By 1934, U.S. imports and exports were reduced by more than 50% and many Great Depression scholars have blamed the tariffs for playing a substantial role in amplifying the scope and duration of the Great Depression. The United States paid a steep price for trying to protect its workforce through short-sighted political expedience.

Although it remains unclear which approach the Trump trade team will take, much less what they will accomplish, we are quite certain they will make waves. The U.S. equity markets have been bullish on the outlook for the new administration given its business-friendly posture toward tax and regulatory reform, but they have turned a blind eye toward possible negative side effects of any of his plans. Global trade and supply chain interdependencies have been a tailwind for corporate earnings for decades. Abrupt changes in those dynamics represent a meaningful shift in the trajectory of global growth, and the equity markets will eventually be required to deal with the uncertainties that will accompany those changes.  

From an investment standpoint, this would have many effects. First, commodities priced in dollars would likely benefit, especially precious metals. Secondly, without the need to hold as many U.S. dollars in reserve, foreign nations might sell their Treasury securities holdings. Further adding pressure to U.S. Treasury securities and all fixed income securities, a weakening dollar is inflationary on the margin, which brings consideration of the Federal Reserve and monetary policy into play.

The Other Side of the Story

The President recently tweeted the following:

Regardless of political affiliation, most Americans agree with President Trump that international trade should be conducted on fair terms. The problem with assessing whether or not “trade wars are good” is that one must understand the other side of the story.

Persistent trade imbalances are the manifestation of explicit global trade agreements that have been around for decades and have historically received broad bi-partisan support. Those policies were sponsored by U.S. leaders under the guise of “free trade” from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to ushering China in to the World Trade Organization (WTO). During that time, American politicians and corporations did not just rollover and accept unfair trade terms; there was clearly something in it for them. They knew that in exchange for unequal trade terms and mounting trade deficits came an implicit arrangement that the countries which export goods to the U.S. would also fund that consumption. Said differently, foreign countries sold America their goods on credit. That construct enabled U.S. corporations, the chief lobbyists in favor of such agreements, to establish foreign production facilities in cheap labor markets for the sale of goods back into the United States.

The following bullet points show how making imports into the U.S. easier, via tariffs and trade pacts, has played out.

  • Bi-partisan support for easing multi-lateral trade agreements, especially with China
  • One-way tariffs or producer subsidies that favor foreign producers were generally not challenged
  • Those agreements, tariffs, and subsidies enable foreign competitors to employ cheap labor to make goods at prices that undercut U.S. producers
  • U.S. corporations moved production overseas to take advantage of cheap labor
  • Cheaper goods are then sold back to U.S. consumers creating a trade deficit
  • U.S. dollars received by foreign producers are used to buy U.S. Treasuries and other dollar-based corporate and securitized individuals liabilities
  • Foreign demand for U.S. Treasuries and other bonds lower U.S. interest rates
  • Lower U.S. interest rates encourage consumption and debt accumulation
  • U.S. economic growth increasingly centered on ever-increasing debt loads and declining interest rates to facilitate servicing the debt

Trade Deficits and Debt

These trade agreements subordinated traditional forms of production and manufacturing to the exporting of U.S. dollars. America relinquished its role as the world’s leading manufacturer in exchange for cheaper imported goods and services from other countries. The profits of U.S.-based manufacturing companies were enhanced with cheaper foreign labor, but the wages of U.S. employees were impaired, and jobs in the manufacturing sector were exported to foreign lands. This had the effect of hollowing out America’s industrial base while at the same time stoking foreign appetite for U.S. debt as they received U.S. dollars and sought to invest them. In return, debt-driven consumption soared in the U.S.

The trade deficit, also known as the current account balance, measures the net flow of goods and services in and out of a country. The graph below shows the correlation between the cumulative deterioration of the U.S. current account balance and manufacturing jobs.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (NIPA)

Since 1983, there have only been two quarters in which the current account balance was positive. During the most recent economic expansion, the current account balance has averaged -$443 billion per year.

To further appreciate the ramifications of the reigning economic regime, consider that China gained full acceptance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. The trade agreements that accompanied WTO status and allowed China easier access to U.S. markets have resulted in an approximate quintupling of the amount of exports from China to the U.S.  Similarly, there has been a concurrent increase in the amount of credit that China has extended the U.S. government through their purchase of U.S. Treasury securities as shown below.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury Department

The Company Store

To further understand why the current economic regime is tricky to change, one must consider that the debts of years past have not been paid off. As such the U.S. Treasury regularly issues new debt that is used to pay for older debt that is maturing while at the same time issuing even more debt to fund current period deficits. Therefore, the important topic not being discussed is the United States’ (in)ability to reduce reliance on foreign funding that has proven essential in supporting the accumulated debt of consumption from years past.

Trump’s ideas are far more complicated than simply leveling the trade playing field and reviving our industrial base. If the United States decides to equalize terms of trade, then we are redefining long-held agreements introduced and reinforced by previous administrations.  In breaking with that tradition of “we give you dollars, you give us cheap goods (cars, toys, lawnmowers, steel, etc.), we will most certainly also need to source alternative demand for our debt. In reality, new buyers will emerge but that likely implies an unfavorable adjustment to interest rates. The graph below compares the amount of U.S. Treasury debt that is funded abroad and the total amount of publicly traded U.S. debt. Consider further, foreigners have large holdings of U.S. corporate and securitized individual debt as well. (Importantly, also note that in recent years the Fed has bought over $2 trillion of Treasury securities through quantitative easing (QE), more than making up for the recent slowdown in foreign buying.)

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The bottom line is that, if Trump decides to put new tariffs on foreign goods, we must presume that foreign creditors will not be as generous lending money to the U.S. Accordingly, higher interest rates will be needed to attract new sources of capital. The problem, as we have discussed in numerous articles, is that higher interest rates put a severe burden on economic growth in a highly leveraged economy. In Hoover’s Folly we stated: Further adding pressure to U.S. Treasury securities and all fixed income securities, a weakening dollar is inflationary on the margin, which brings consideration of the Federal Reserve and monetary policy into play.

It seems plausible that a trade war would result in potentially controversial intervention from the Federal Reserve. The economic cost of higher interest rates would likely be too high a price for the Fed to sit idly by and watch. Such policy would be controversial because it would further blur the lines between monetary and fiscal policy and potentially jeopardize the already tenuous independent status of the Fed.

Importantly, this is not purely a problem for the U.S. Still the world’s reserve currency, the global economy is dependent upon U.S. dollars and needs them to transact. Any disruption in economic activity as a result of rising U.S. interest rates, the risk-free benchmark for the entire world, would most certainly go viral. That said, for the godless Communist regimes of China and Russia, a moral barometer is not just absent, it is illegal. Game theory, considering those circumstances and actors, becomes infinitely more complex.

Summary

Investors concerned about the ramifications of a potential trade war should consider how higher interest rates would affect their portfolios. Further, given that the Fed would likely step in at some point if higher interest rates were meaningfully affecting the economy, they should also consider how QE or some other form of intervention might affect asset prices. While QE has a recent history of being supportive of asset prices, can we assume that to be true going forward?  The efficacy of Fed actions will be more closely scrutinized if, for example, the dollar is substantially weaker and/or inflation higher.

There will be serious ramifications to changing a global trade regime that has been in place for several decades. It seems unlikely that Trump’s global trade proposals, if pursued and enacted, will result in more balanced trade without further aggravating problems for the U.S. fiscal circumstance.  So far, the market response has been fidgety at worst and investors seem to be looking past these risks. The optimism is admirable but optimism is a poor substitute for prudence.

In closing, the summary from Hoover’s Folly a year ago remains valid:

It is premature to make investment decisions based on rhetoric and threats. It is also possible that much of this bluster could simply be the opening bid in what is a peaceful renegotiation of global trade agreements. To the extent that global growth and trade has been the beneficiary of years of asymmetries at the expense of the United States, then change is overdue. Our hope is that the Trump administration can impose the discipline of smart business with the tact of shrewd diplomacy to affect these changes in an orderly manner. Regardless, we must pay close attention to trade conflicts and their consequences can escalate quickly. 

RIA-2017 Economic & Investment Summit (Videos/Slide Decks)

Just recently, I hosted the 2017-Economic & Investment Summit in Houston to discuss the markets, economy, the Fed, and the outlook ahead.

It was a great event and I very much appreciated my friends pitching in and helping me out.

  • Michael Lebowitz – 720 Global Research
  • Danielle DiMartino-Booth – Money Strong and Author of “Fed Up!”
  • Dave Collum – Professor at Columbia University
  • Greg Morris – Author of “Investing With The Trend”

The video presentations are below along with the appropriate slide presentations for viewing.

I hope you enjoy and find the information helpful and we look forward to next year as we continue to expand the line up and the information and topics covered. We hope you will consider attending if you missed this year.


LANCE ROBERTS

Welcome, Intro & Opening Presentation On Economics, Market Cycles & Interest Rates

Slide Deck

Lance Roberts – Economic & Investment Summit 2017 Opening Presentation


Michael Lebowitz

The Virtuous Cycle & Why Valuations Matter

Slide Deck

Lebowitz – Valuations Matter & The Virtuous Cycle by streettalk700 on Scribd


Dave Collum – Professor, Cornell University

The Snowflake Generation


Panel Discussion

Left To Right: Michael Lebowitz, Lance Roberts, Danielle DiMartino-Booth, Dave Collum and Richard Rosso (Moderator)


Greg Morris

Questionable Practices

Slide Deck

Greg Morris – 2017 Economic & Investment Summit Presentation – Questionable Practices by streettalk700 on Scribd


Danielle DiMartino-Booth

Fed-Up: A Look At The Inner Workings Of The Federal Reserve


Many thanks to all of my friends for helping make the entire event a huge success. I hope you enjoy the presentations and will plan to attend next year.

 

Summit – RIA Summer Outlook & Market Forecast

RIA – SUMMER OUTLOOK & FORECAST


  • LAID OFF? RETIRING? OR PLANNING FOR YOUR FUTURE?

  • CONCERNED ABOUT WHERE WE ARE HEADED ECONOMICALLY?

  • IS IT TIME TO “SELL IN MAY & GO AWAY?”

  • HOW TO INVEST FOR A TRUMP OR CLINTON PRESIDENCY?

THEN YOU NEED TO WATCH THE FOLLOWING SUMMER OUTLOOK & MARKET FORECAST.

(Brought to you by Real Investment Advice, Lance Roberts Show and KSEV Radio am700)


Topics Covered:

  • The state of the economy.

  • The risk of a severe market correction.

  • What would a Trump or Clinton Presidency mean for the stock market and the economy. 

  • Where are interest rates headed next? Oil? The Dollar?
  • The long-term outlook for the markets & your money, and;

  • What you should be doing now to protect yourself.

This is an educational and informational presentation to help you make better financial decisions for your future. It is not a “sales pitch” to sell you gold, guns, ammo, or oversized cans of “beanie-weenies.”

SLIDE PRESENTATION

Summer Market Outlook & Forecast by streettalk700


The Great American Economic Growth Myth

Since the end of the financial crisis, economists, analysts, and the Federal Reserve have continued to predict a return to higher levels of economic growth. As I showed in my discussion of the Fed’s forecasts, these predictions have continued to fall short of reality.

“Besides being absolutely the worst economic forecasters on the planet, the Fed’s real problem is contained within the table and chart below. Despite the rhetoric of stronger employment and economic growth – plunging imports and exports, falling corporate profits, collapsing manufacturing and falling wages all suggest the economy is in no shape to withstand tighter monetary policy at this juncture.”

FOMC-Economic-Forecasts-031616

“Of course, if the Fed openly suggested a ‘recession’ could well be in the cards, the markets would sell off sharply, consumer confidence would drop and a recession would be pulled forward to the present. This is why “what the Fed says” is much less important than what they do.”

Importantly, this point was not lost even on the most bullish minded of individuals, David Rosenberg, who just penned the same for Business Insider:

“I have been in this business for 30 years and have never seen a central bank chief slip the word “uncertainty” into the headline.

Not just that, but she invoked the term no fewer than 10 times to describe the domestic and global macro and market backdrop — this even as we pass seven years since the worst point of the Great Recession and seven years into the most radical easing of monetary policy in recorded history.

It begs the question: what has gone wrong?”

However, the issue is much greater than just what has gone wrong in recent months. Since 1999, the annual real economic growth rate has run at 1.86%, which is the lowest growth rate in history including the ‘Great Depression.’  I have broken down economic growth into major cycles for clarity.

GDP-GrowthByCycle-041816

While economists, politicians, and analysts point to current data points and primarily coincident indicators to create a “bullish spin” for the investing public, the underlying deterioration in economic prosperity is a much more important long-term concern. The question that we should be asking is “why is this happening?”

From 1950-1980 nominal GDP grew at an annualized rate of 7.55%. This was accomplished with a total credit market debt to GDP ratio of less 150%. The CRITICAL factor to note is that economic growth was trending higher during this span going from roughly 5% to a peak of nearly 15%. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, lower levels of debt allowed for personal savings to remain robust which fueled productive investment in the economy. Secondly, the economy was focused primarily on production and manufacturing which has a high multiplier effect on the economy. This feat of growth also occurred in the face of steadily rising interest rates which peaked with economic expansion in 1980.

GDP-Debt-Growth-041816

However, beginning in 1980 the shift of the economic makeup from a manufacturing and production based economy to a service and finance economy, where there is a low economic multiplier, is partially responsible for this transformation. The decline in economic output was further exacerbated by increased productivity through technological advances and outsourcing of manufacturing which plagued the economy with steadily decreasing wages. Unlike the steadily growing economic environment prior to 1980; the post-1980 economy has experienced a steady decline. Therefore, a statement that the economy has had an average growth of X% since 1980 is grossly misleading. The trend of the growth is far more important, and telling, than the average growth rate over time.

This decline in economic growth over the past 30 years has kept the average American struggling to maintain their standard of living. As their wages declined, they were forced to turn to credit to fill the gap in maintaining their current standard of living. This demand for credit became the new breeding ground for the financed based economy. Easier credit terms, lower interest rates, easier lending standards and less regulation fueled the continued consumption boom. By the end of 2007, the household debt outstanding had surged to 140% of GDP. It was only a function of time until the collapse in the “house built of credit cards” occurred.

PCE-Wages-GDP-Debt-040416

This is why the economic prosperity of the last 30 years has been a fantasy. While America, at least on the surface, was the envy of the world for its apparent success and prosperity; the underlying cancer of debt expansion and declining wages was eating away at the core. The only way to maintain the “standard of living” that American’s were told they “deserved,” was to utilize ever-increasing levels of debt. The now deregulated financial institutions were only too happy to provide that “credit” as it was a financial windfall of mass proportions.

GDP-Economic-Deficit-041816

The massive indulgence in debt, what the Austrians refer to as a “credit induced boom,” has likely reached its inevitable conclusion. The unsustainable credit-sourced boom, which led to artificially stimulated borrowing, has continued to seek out ever diminishing investment opportunities. Ultimately these diminished investment opportunities repeatedly lead to widespread mal-investments. Not surprisingly, we clearly saw it play out “real-time” in everything from subprime mortgages to derivative instruments which were only for the purpose of milking the system of every potential penny regardless of the apparent underlying risk. We see it playing out again in the “chase for yield” in everything from junk bonds to equities. Not surprisingly, the end result will not be any different.

GDP-Debt-To-Finance-041816

When credit creation can no longer be sustained, the process of clearing the excesses must be completed before the cycle can resume.  It is only then, and must be allowed to happen, can resources be reallocated back towards more efficient uses. This is why all the efforts of Keynesian policies to stimulate growth in the economy have ultimately failed. Those fiscal and monetary policies, from TARP and QE to tax cuts, only delay the clearing process. Ultimately, that delay only potentially worsens the inevitable clearing process.

The clearing process is going to be very substantial. The economy currently requires nearly $3.00 of debt to create $1 of real (inflation adjusted) economic growth.  A reversion to a structurally manageable level of debt* would require in excess of $35 Trillion in debt reduction. The economic drag from such a reduction would be dramatic while the clearing process occurs.

Debt-Sustainable-Level-041816

*Structural Debt Level – Estimated trend of debt growth in a normalized economic environment which would be supportive of economic growth levels of 150% of debt-to-GDP.

Rosenberg is right. It is likely that “something has gone wrong” for the Federal Reserve as the efficacy to pull-forward future consumption through monetary interventions has been reached. Despite ongoing hopes of “higher growth rates” in the future, it is likely that such will not be the case until the debt overhang is eventually cleared.

Does this mean that all is doomed? Of course, not. However, we will likely remain constrained in the current cycle of “spurt and sputter” growth cycle we have witnessed since 2009. Such will be marked by continued volatile equity market returns and a stagflationary environment as wages remain suppressed while costs of living rise. Ultimately, it is the process of clearing the excess debt levels that will allow personal savings rates to return to levels that can promote productive investment, production, and consumption.

The end game of three decades of excess is upon us, and we can’t deny the weight of the debt imbalances that are currently in play. The medicine that the current administration is prescribing is a treatment for the common cold; in this case a normal business cycle recession. The problem is that the patient is suffering from a “debt cancer,” and until the proper treatment is prescribed and implemented; the patient will most likely continue to suffer.

Has something gone wrong? Absolutely.


Lance Roberts

lance_sig

Lance Roberts is a Chief Portfolio Strategist/Economist for Clarity Financial. He is also the host of “The Lance Roberts Show” and Chief Editor of the “Real Investment Advice” website and author of “Real Investment Daily” blog and “Real Investment Report“. Follow Lance on Facebook, Twitter, and Linked-In

The Illusion Of Permanent Liquidity

It’s been more than seven years since the financial crisis and Central Banks globally have kept their rates at record lows, and have even ventured into negative rate territory, to stave off the threat of a recessionary relapse and boost anemic economic growth. While such policies have failed to spark inflationary pressures or boost economic growth, the “illusion of permanent liquidity” has spurred investors to make risky bets and push up asset prices.

This “illusion” has not only been driving investors to make risky bets across the entire spectrum of asset classes; it has also led to the illusion of economic stability and growth. For example, in 2014, financial analysts started pushing the idea of a “new generational cycle” of growing earnings driven by a stronger economic growth that would last for another decade.  Unfortunately, as we are now witnessing, such rosy projections have fallen far short of reality.

SP500-EarningsReversions-030616

Even the Federal Reserve’s own forecasts have fallen well short of reality. As I discussed previously:

“As shown in the chart below, once again the Fed lowered expectations further for economic growth and reduced the number of rate hikes this year from 4 to 2. Yep, ‘accommodative policy’ is here to stay for a while longer which lifted stocks yesterday’s close.”

FOMC-Economic-Forecasts-031616

“Besides being absolutely the worst economic forecasters on the planet, the Fed’s real problem is contained within the table and chart above. Despite the rhetoric of stronger employment and economic growth – plunging imports and exports, falling corporate profits, collapsing manufacturing and falling wages all suggest the economy is in no shape to withstand tighter monetary policy at this juncture.”

While Central Banks globally are working to “repeal” the economic cycle, the continued deterioration in economic growth has become more prevalent as even ongoing accounting manipulations, share buybacks, and cost cutting are no longer boosting bottom-line earnings.  

SP500-Earnings-Pre-Post-Buyback-041116

Of course, such an outlook was ALWAYS overly optimistic and fraught with peril as such an economic expansion would rival the longest previous period on record (119 Months) from March of 1991 through March of 2001 during the “technological revolution.”

Recessions-AvgRecoveries-1871-Present

Such a prolonged expansion will be quite a feat if it were to occur, particularly given an economy growing at half the rate it was during the 1990’s. Furthermore, given that a bulk of the economic expansion during the 1980-90’s was driven by an $11 Trillion dollar increase in consumer credit, there is little ability to repeat such a “tailwind” currently.

Debt-GDP-InterestRates-041116

However, the idea of “permanent liquidity,” and the belief that economic growth can be sustained by monetary policy alone, despite slowing in China, Japan, and the Eurozone, has emboldened analysts to continue to expect a resurgence of profit growth in the months ahead. As I noted in this past weekend’s newsletter:

From BCA Research:

“However, leading economic indicators remain bearish, and the slide in the monetary base warns that the path of least resistance for GDP growth is lower. History shows that once GDP growth dips below the level of 10-year Treasury yields, a prolonged slump in stocks typically ensues.

This outlook contrasts starkly with current expectations. The Chart below shows that an aggressive recovery in S&P 500 earnings is expected this year.”

DIN-20160314-135040

Importantly, these expectations are not simply a reflection of hopes for a recovery in resource prices, but are broad-based across sectors. That is wildly optimistic, underscoring that disappointment will remain a key risk.”

It is unlikely given the current scenario of sub-par economic growth, excess labor slack globally and deflationary pressures rising, that such lofty expectations will be obtained. Importantly, it will be the consequences of such a failure that will be the most important as the longer the music plays the more deafening the silence will be that follows. 

There is a rising realization by Central Banks these excess liquidity flows have failed to work as anticipated. The Bank of Japan’s foray into a “quantitative easing” program nearly 3x the size of that of the Federal Reserve’s last endeavor, or a relative basis, was met with nothing but an ongoing drop in economic growth. Domestically, the Federal Reserve’s program has boosted asset prices that has inflated the wealth of the top 10% but left the bottom 90% in arguably a worse financial position today than five years ago. (see “For 90% of Americans There Has Been No Recovery”)

But what ongoing liquidity interventions have accomplished, besides driving asset prices higher, is instilling a belief there is little risk in the markets as low interest rates will continue or only be gradually tightened.

Fed-BalanceSheet-SP500-041116

However, it is a common mistake is to take unusually low volatility and risk spreads as a sign of low risk when, in fact, they are a sign of high risk-taking.

The ongoing mistake currently being made by the vast majority of Wall Street analysts is two-fold. The first is the assumption that the Federal Reserve can normalize interest rates given the underlying deterioration in global growth currently. The second is that increases in interest rates will have ZERO effect on future earnings or economic growth.

As I discussed repeatedly in the past, there has been no previous point in history where rising interest rates did not only slow the economy, but eventually led to an economic recession, market dislocation or both.

“While rising interest rates may not “initially” drag on asset prices, it is a far different story to suggest that they won’t. This is particularly the case when those rate increases are coming from a period of very low economic growth.

What the mainstream analysts fail to address is the ‘full-cycle’ effect from rate hikes. The chart and table below address this issue by showing the return to investors from the date of the first rate increase through the subsequent correction and/or recession.”

Fed-Funds-Outcomes-Statistics-031516

The “Illusion of Permanent Liquidity” has obfuscated the underlying inherent investment risk that investors are undertaking currently. The belief that Central Banks will always be able to jump in and avert a dislocation in financial or credit markets is likely deeply flawed.

The problem is these excessive liquidity flows have only impacted the economic surface by dragging forward future consumption. Eventually, the ability to fill the future economic void through monetary policies will fail as the efficacy of liquidity interventions fade. It is only then that investors will come to understand the gravity of the “risks” they have undertaken as the illusion of permanent liquidity fades.


Lance Roberts

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Lance Roberts is a Chief Portfolio Strategist/Economist for Clarity Financial. He is also the host of “The Lance Roberts Show” and Chief Editor of the “Real Investment Advice” website and author of “Real Investment Daily” blog and “Real Investment Report“. Follow Lance on Facebook, Twitter, and Linked-In

Is Trump’s “Recession Warning” Really All Wrong?

Over the weekend, Donald Trump, in an interview with the Washington Post, stated that economic conditions are so perilous that the country is headed for a “very massive recession” and that “it’s a terrible time right now” to invest in the stock market.

Of course, such a distinctly gloomy view of the economy runs counter to the more mainstream consensus of economic outlooks as witnessed by some of the immediate rebuttals:

Here is the problem.

Ben is correct. There is CURRENTLY no evidence of a recession now, or even in the few months ahead. There never is.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Recession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, it is here the mainstream media should have learned their lesson.

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

SP500-NBER-RecessionDating-040416

There are three lessons that should be learned from this:

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

For example, the level of jobless claims is one data series currently being touted as a clear example of why there is “no recession” in sight. As shown below, there is little argument that the data currently appears extremely “bullish” for the economy.

Jobless-Claims-Recessions-040416

However, if we step back to a longer picture we find that such levels of jobless claims have historically noted the peak of economic growth and warned of a pending recession.

Jobless-Claims-Recessions-040416-2

This makes complete sense as “jobless claims” fall to low levels when companies “hoard existing labor” to meet current levels of demand. In other words, companies reach a point of efficiency where they are no longer terminating individuals to align production to aggregate demand. Therefore, jobless claims naturally fall. 

But there is more to this story.

Less Than Meets The Eye

The last two-quarters of economic growth have been less than exciting, to say the least. However, these rather dismal quarters of growth come at a time when oil prices and gasoline prices have plummeted AND amidst one of the warmest winters in 65-plus years.

Why is that important? Because falling oil and gas prices and warm weather are effective “tax credits” to consumers as they spend less on gasoline, heating oil and electricity. Combined, these “savings” account for more than $200 billion in additional spending power for the consumer. So, personal consumption expenditures should be rising, right?

PCE-AnnualChange-040406

What’s going on here? The chart below shows the relationship between real, inflation-adjusted, PCE, GDP, Wages and Employment. The correlation is no accident.

PCE-GDP-Employment-040406

Economic cycles are only sustainable for as long as excesses are being built. The natural law of reversions, while they can be suspended by artificial interventions, can not be repealed. 

More importantly, while there is currently “no sign of recession,” what is going on with the main driver of economic growth – the consumer?

The chart below shows the real problem. Since the financial crisis, the average American has not seen much of a recovery. Wages have remained stagnant, real employment has been subdued and the actual cost of living (when accounting for insurance, college, and taxes) has risen rather sharply. The net effect has been a struggle to maintain the current standard of living which can be seen by the surge in credit as a percentage of the economy. 

PCE-Wages-GDP-Debt-Post2007-040416

To put this into perspective, we can look back throughout history and see that substantial increases in consumer debt to GDP have occurred coincident with recessionary drags in the economy. No sign of recession? Are you sure about that?

PCE-Wages-GDP-Debt-040416

Importantly, the extremely warm winter weather is currently wrecking havoc with the seasonal adjustments being applied to the economic data. This makes every report from employment, retail sales, and manufacturing appear more robust than they would be otherwise. However, as the seasonal trends turn more normal we are likely going to see fairly negative adjustments in future revisions. This is a problem that the mainstream analysis continues to overlook currently, but will be used as an excuse when it reverses.

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

As Howard Marks once quipped:

“Being right, but early in the call, is the same as being wrong.” 

While being optimistic about the economy and the markets currently is far more entertaining than doom and gloom, it is the honest assessment of the data and the underlying trends that is useful in protecting one’s wealth longer term.

Is there a recession currently? No.

Will there be a recession in the not so distant future? Absolutely.

Trump’s call for a “massive recession” may very well turn out not to be true. However, whether it is a mild, or “massive,” recession will make little difference as the net destruction to personal wealth will be just as disastrous. That is the nature of recessions on the financial markets.

Of course, I am sure to be chastised for penning such thoughts just as I was in 2000 and again in 2007. That is the cost of heresy against the financial establishment, but well worth paying to keep my clients from being burned at the stake, not if, but when the next recession begins.


Lance Roberts

lance_sig

Lance Roberts is a Chief Portfolio Strategist/Economist for Clarity Financial. He is also the host of “The Lance Roberts Show” and Chief Editor of the “Real Investment Advice” website and author of “Real Investment Daily” blog and “Real Investment Report“. Follow Lance on Facebook, Twitter, and Linked-In