Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

Hint For Stock Investors: Margins Matter

Sooner or later, stock prices are related to corporate profits. Anything can push stock prices around in a day, month, or year. But a stock or an ownership unit of a business ultimately has to do with how profitable that business is. When you buy a stock, you’re buying an interest in a company’s future profits, pure and simple.

Since around 2000, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP have been stellar. Accordingly, stocks have traded at prices relative to underlying earnings that can only be justified if profits will be permanently higher than they were prior to 2000. Will they be? Justin Lahart of the Wall Street Journal said no over the weekend. And that could mean bad news for stock investors.

For the first time in over two years corporate profit margins are falling, according to Lahart. Nobody knows if that’s a permanent trend, but Lahart argues that margins rose so much in the first place because of a lower share of revenues going to labor, increased global trade, lower taxes, and gains in market share.

All of these factors seem to be at risk now. Concerns about inequality might make squeezing workers further difficult politically. A trade war may change how we conduct commerce with China. And big companies with high market share that set prices and have little competition for labor are on the defensive.

Lahart’s article had three excellent charts — one showing increased net profit margin since 2010  for S&P 500 constituents (from around 8% to nearly 12.5% last year), another showing decreased employee compensation as a share of GDP since 1970 (from 58% to 53%), and the last showing decreased corporate taxes since 1975 (from more than 35% to less than 15%).

Here’s another one we constructed with data from the St.Louis Fed’s website, showing corporate profits as a percentage of GDP since 1947. The average from 1947 to 2000 was a little more than 6%, but the average since 2000 is nearly 9%.

If profit margins decline, Lahart is correct about that being bad news over the longer term for stock investors. That doesn’t mean nobody should invest in stocks. But it means investors should moderate their return expectations.

For more on the intersection of profit margins, valuations and return expectations we suggest reading our article : DIY Market Forecast.

Powell Keeps The Bond Bull Kicking

In a widely expected outcome, the Federal Reserve announced no change to the Fed funds rate but did leave open the possibility of a rate hike next year. Also, they committed to stopping “Quantitative Tightening (or Q.T.)” by the end of September. 

The key language from yesterday’s announcement was:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January indicates that the labor market remains strong but that growth of economic activity has slowed from its solid rate in the fourth quarter. Payroll employment was little changed in February, but job gains have been solid, on average, in recent months, and the unemployment rate has remained low.

Recent indicators point to slower growth of household spending and business fixed investment in the first quarter. On a 12-month basis, overall inflation has declined, largely as a result of lower energy prices; inflation for items other than food and energy remains near 2 percent. On balance, market-based measures of inflation compensation have remained low in recent months, and survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed.”

What is interesting is that despite the language that “all is okay with the economy,” the Fed has completely reversed course on monetary tightening by reducing the rate of balance sheet reductions in coming months and ending them entirely by September. At the same time, all but one future rate hike has disappeared, and the Fed discussed the economy might need easing in the near future. To wit, my colleague Michael Lebowitz posted the following Tweet after the Fed meeting:

This assessment of a weak economy is not good for corporate profitability or the stock market. However, it seems as if investors have already gotten the “message” despite consistent headline droning about the benefits of chasing equities. Over the last several years investors have continued to chase “safety” and “yield.” The chart below shows the cumulative flows of both ETF’s and Mutual Funds in equities and fixed income. 

This chase for “yield” over “return” is also seen in the global investor positing report for March.

Clearly, investors have continued to pile into fixed income and safer equity income assets over the last few years despite the sharp ramp up in asset prices. This demand for “yield” and “safety” has been one of the reasons we have remained staunchly bullish on bonds in recent years despite continued calls for the “Death of the Bond Bull Market.” 

The Reason The Bond Bull Lives

Importantly, one of the key reasons we have remained bullish on bonds is that, as shown below, it is when the Fed is out of the “Q.E” game that rates fall. This, of course, was the complete opposite effect of what was supposed to happen.

Of course, the reasoning is simple enough and should be concerning to investors longer-term. Without “Q.E” support, economic growth stumbles which negatively impacts asset prices pushing investors into the “safety” of bonds. 

As the Fed now readily admits, their pivot to a more “dovish” stance is due to the global downturn in economic growth, and the bond market has been screaming that message in recent months. As Doug Kass noted on Tuesday:

“Which brings me to today’s fundamental message of the fixed income markets – which are likely being ignored and could be presaging weakening economic and profit growth relative to consensus expectations and, even (now here is a novel notion) that could lead to lower stock prices. That message is undeniable – economic and profit growth is slowing relative to expectations as financial asset prices move uninterruptedly higher.

  • The yield on the 10 year U.S. note has dropped below 2.60% this morning. (I have long had a low 2.25% forecast for 2019)
  • The (yield curve and) difference between 2s and 10s is down to only 14 basis points.
  • High-frequency economic statistics (e.g. Cass Freight Index) continue to point to slowing domestic growth.
  • Auto sales and U.S. residential activity are clearly rolling over.
  • PMIs and other data are disappointing.
  • Fixed business investment is weakening.
  • No country is an economic island – not even the U.S.
  • Europe is approaching recession and China is overstating its economic activity (despite an injection of massive amounts of liquidity).”

He is correct, yields continue to tell us an important story. 

First, three important facts are affecting yields now and in the foreseeable future:

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

As I have discussed many times in the past, interest rates are a function of three primary factors: economic growth, wage growth, and inflation. The relationship can be clearly seen in the chart below.

Okay…maybe not so clearly. 

Let me clean this up by combining inflation, wages, and economic growth into a single composite for comparison purposes to the level of the 10-year Treasury rate.

As you can see, the level of interest rates is directly tied to the strength of economic growth, wages and inflation. This should not be surprising given that consumption is roughly 70% of economic growth.

As Doug notes, the credit markets have been right all along the way. At important points in time, when the Fed signaled policy changes, credit markets have correctly interpreted how likely those changes were going to be. A perfect example is the initial rate hike path set out in December 2015 by then Fed Chairman Janet Yellen. This was completely wrong at the time and the credit markets told us so from the beginning. 

The credit markets have kept us on the right side of the interest rate argument in repeated posts since 2013. Why, because the credit market continues to tell us an important story if you are only willing to listen. 

The bond market is screaming “secular stagnation.” 

Since 2009, asset prices have been lofted higher by artificially suppressed interest rates, ongoing liquidity injections, wage and employment suppression, productivity-enhanced operating margins, and continued share buybacks have expanded operating earnings well beyond revenue growth.

As I wrote in mid-2017:

“The Fed has mistakenly believed the artificially supported backdrop they created was actually the reality of a bright economic future. Unfortunately, the Fed and Wall Street still have not recognized the symptoms of the current liquidity trap where short-term interest rates remain near zero and fluctuations in the monetary base fail to translate into higher inflation. 

Combine that with an aging demographic, which will further strain the financial system, increasing levels of indebtedness, and lack of fiscal policy, it is unlikely the Fed will be successful in sparking economic growth in excess of 2%. However, by mistakenly hiking interest rates and tightening monetary policy at a very late stage of the current economic cycle, they will likely be successful at creating the next bust in financial assets.”

It didn’t take long for that prediction to come to fruition and change the Fed’s thinking.

On December 24th, 2018, while the S&P 500 was plumbing it’s depths of the 2018 correction, I penned “Why Gundlach Is Still Wrong About Higher Rates:”

“At some point, the Federal Reserve is going to step back in and reverse their policy back to “Quantitative Easing” and lowering Fed Funds back to the zero bound.

When that occurs, rates will not only go to 1.5%, but closer to Zero, and maybe even negative.”

What I didn’t know then was that literally the next day the Fed would reverse course. 

The chart below shows the rolling 4-week change in the Fed’s balance sheet versus the S&P 500. 

The issue for the Fed is that they have become “market dependent” by allowing asset prices to dictate policy. What they are missing is that if share prices actually did indicate higher rates of economic growth, not just higher profits due to stock buybacks and accounting gimmickry, then US government bond yields would be rising due to future rate hike expectations as nominal GDP would be boosted by full employment and increased inflation. But that’s not what’s happening at all.

Instead, the US 10-year bond is pretty close to 2.5% and the yield curve is heading into inversion.

Since inversions are symptomatic of weaker economic growth, such would predict future rate hikes by the Fed will be limited. Not surprisingly, that is exactly what is happening now as shown by yesterday’s rapid decline in the Fed’s outlook.

Why?

Let’s go back to that 2017 article:

“However, the issue of rising borrowing costs spreads through the entire financial ecosystem like a virus. The rise and fall of stock prices have very little to do with the average American and their participation in the domestic economy. Interest rates are an entirely different matter.

Since interest rates affect ‘payments,’ increases in rates quickly have negative impacts on consumption, housing, and investment which ultimately deters economic growth.”

All it took was for interest rates to crest 3% and home, auto, and retail sales all hit the skids. Given the current demographic, debt, pension, and valuation headwinds, the future rates of growth are going to be low over the next couple of decades – approaching ZERO.

While there is little left for interest rates to fall in the current environment, there is also not a tremendous amount of room for increases. Therefore, bond investors are going to have to adopt a “trading” strategy in portfolios as rates start to go flat-line over the next decade.

Whether, or not, you agree there is a high degree of complacency in the financial markets is largely irrelevant. The realization of “risk,” when it occurs, will lead to a rapid unwinding of the markets pushing volatility higher and bond yields lower. This is why I continue to acquire bonds on rallies in the markets, which suppresses bond prices, to increase portfolio income and hedge against a future market dislocation.

In other words, I get paid to hedge risk, lower portfolio volatility and protect capital.

Bonds aren’t dead, in fact, they are likely going to be your best investment in the not too distant future.

“I don’t know what the seven wonders of the world are, but the eighth is compound interest.” – Baron Rothschild 


Stock Buybacks Aren’t Bad, Just Misused & Abused

There has been a lot of commentary as of late regarding the issue of corporate share repurchases. Even Washington D.C. has chimed into the rhetoric as of late discussing potential bills to limit or eliminate these repurchases. It is an interesting discussion because most people don’t remember that share repurchases were banned for decades prior to President Reagan in 1982. 

Even after the ban was lifted, share repurchases were few and far between as during the “roaring bull market of the 90’s” it was more about increasing outstanding shares through stock splits. Investors went crazy over stock splits as they got more shares of the company they loved at half the price. Most didn’t realize, or understand the effective dilution; but for them it was more of a Yogi Berra analogy:

“Can you cut my pizza into four pieces because I can’t eat eight.” 

However, following the financial crisis stock splits disappeared and a new trend emerged – share repurchases. Like stock splits, share repurchases in and of themselves are not necessarily a bad thing, it is just the least best use of cash. Instead of using cash to expand production, increase sales, acquire competitors, or buy into new products or services, the cash is used to reduce the outstanding share count and artificially inflate earnings per share. Here is a simple example:

  • Company A earns $1 / share and there are 10 / shares outstanding. 
  • Earnings Per Share (EPS) = $0.10/share.
  • Company A uses all of its cash to buy back 5 shares of stock.
  • Next year, Company A earns $0.20/share ($1 / 5 shares)
  • Stock price rises because EPS jumped by 100%.
  • However, since the company used all of its cash to buy back the shares, they had nothing left to grow their business.
  • The next year Company A still earns $1/share and EPS remains at $0.20/share.
  • Stock price falls because of 0% growth over the year. 

This is a bit of an extreme example but shows the point that share repurchases have a limited, one-time effect, on the company. This is why once a company engages in share repurchases they are inevitably trapped into continuing to repurchase shares to keep asset prices elevated. This diverts ever-increasing amounts of cash from productive investments and takes away from longer term profit and growth.

As shown in the chart below, the share count of public corporations has dropped sharply over the last decade as companies scramble to shore up bottom line earnings to beat Wall Street estimates against a backdrop of a slowly growing economy and sales.

(The chart below shows the differential added per share via stock backs. It also shows the cumulative growth in EPS and Revenue/Share since 2011)

The Abuse & Misuse 

As I stated, share repurchases aren’t necessarily a bad thing. It is just the misuse and abuse of them which becomes problematic. It’s not just share repurchases though. In “4-Tools To Beat The Wall Street Estimate Game” we discussed how companies not only use stock repurchases, but a variety of other accounting gimmicks to “meet their numbers.” 

“The tricks are well-known: A difficult quarter can be made easier by releasing reserves set aside for a rainy day or recognizing revenues before sales are made, while a good quarter is often the time to hide a big ‘restructuring charge’ that would otherwise stand out like a sore thumb.

What is more surprising though is CFOs’ belief that these practices leave a significant mark on companies’ reported profits and losses. When asked about the magnitude of the earnings misrepresentation, the study’s respondents said it was around 10% of earnings per share.

cooking-the-books-2

The reason that companies do this is simple: stock-based compensation. Today, more than ever, many corporate executives have a large percentage of their compensation tied to company stock performance. A “miss” of Wall Street expectations can lead to a large penalty in the companies stock price.

As shown in the table above, it is not surprising to see that 93% of the respondents pointed to “influence on stock price” and “outside pressure” as the reason for manipulating earnings figures.

The use of stock buybacks has continued to rise in recent years and went off the charts following the passage of tax cuts in 2017. As I wrote in early 2018. while it was widely believed that tax cuts would lead to rising capital investment, higher wages, and economic growth, it went exactly where we expected it would. To wit:

“Not surprisingly, our guess that corporations would utilize the benefits of “tax cuts” to boost bottom line earnings rather than increase wages has turned out to be true. As noted by Axios, in just the first two months of this year companies have already announced over $173 BILLION in stock buybacks.  This is ‘financial engineering gone mad'” 

Share buybacks are expected to hit a new record by the end of 2019.

“Share repurchases aren’t bad. It is simply the company returning money to shareholders.”

There is a problem with that statement.

Share buybacks only return money to those individuals who sell their stock. This is an open market transaction so if Apple (AAPL) buys back some of their outstanding stock, the only people who receive any capital are those who sold their shares.

So, who are the ones mostly selling their shares?

As noted above, it’s the insiders, of course, as changes in compensation structures since the turn of the century has become heavily dependent on stock based compensation. Insiders regularly liquidate shares which were “given” to them as part of their overall compensation structure to convert them into actual wealth. As the Financial Times recently penned:

Corporate executives give several reasons for stock buybacks but none of them has close to the explanatory power of this simple truth: Stock-based instruments make up the majority of their pay and in the short-term buybacks drive up stock prices.

A recent report on a study by the Securities & Exchange Commission found the same:

  • SEC research found that many corporate executives sell significant amounts of their own shares after their companies announce stock buybacks, Yahoo Finance reports.

What is clear, is that the misuse and abuse of share buybacks to manipulate earnings and reward insiders has become problematic. As John Authers recently pointed out:

“For much of the last decade, companies buying their own shares have accounted for all net purchases. The total amount of stock bought back by companies since the 2008 crisis even exceeds the Federal Reserve’s spending on buying bonds over the same period as part of quantitative easing. Both pushed up asset prices.”

In other words, between the Federal Reserve injecting a massive amount of liquidity into the financial markets, and corporations buying back their own shares, there have been effectively no other real buyers in the market. 

As Jesse Felder wrote:

“Without that $4 trillion in stock buybacks and in a market where trading volume has been falling for decades they never would have been able to soar as high as they have. The chart below plots ‘The Buffett Yardstick’ (total equity market capitalization relative to gross national product) against total net equity issuance (inverted). Since the late-1990’s both valuations and buybacks have been near record highs. Is this just a coincidence? I think it’s safe to say it’s not.”

The other problem with the share repurchases is that is has increasingly been done with the use of leverage. The ongoing suppression of interest rates by the Federal Reserve led to an explosion of debt issued by corporations. Much of the debt was not used for mergers, acquisitions or capital expenditures but for the funding of share repurchases and dividend issuance. 

The explosion of corporate debt in recent years will become problematic if rates rise markedly, further deterioration in credit quality locks companies out of refinancing, or if there is a recessionary drag which forces liquidation of debt. This is something Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan warned about:

U.S. nonfinancial corporate debt consists mostly of bonds and loans. This category of debt, as a percentage of gross domestic product, is now higher than in the prior peak reached at the end of 2008.

A number of studies have concluded this level of credit could ‘potentially amplify the severity of a recession,’

The lowest level of investment-grade debt, BBB bonds, has grown from $800 million to $2.7 trillion by year-end 2018. High-yield debt has grown from $700 million to $1.1 trillion over the same period. This trend has been accompanied by more relaxed bond and loan covenants, he added.

This was recently noted by the Bank of International Settlements. 

“If, on the heels of economic weakness, enough issuers were abruptly downgraded from BBB to junk status, mutual funds and, more broadly, other market participants with investment grade mandates could be forced to offload large amounts of bonds quickly. While attractive to investors that seek a targeted risk exposure, rating-based investment mandates can lead to fire sales.”

Summary

While share repurchases by themselves may indeed be somewhat harmless, it is when they are coupled with accounting gimmicks and massive levels of debt to fund them in which they become problematic. 

The biggest issue was noted by Michael Lebowitz:

“While the financial media cheers buybacks and the SEC, the enabler of such abuse idly watches, we continue to harp on the topic. It is vital, not only for investors but the public-at-large, to understand the tremendous harm already caused by buybacks and the potential for further harm down the road.”

Money that could have been spent spurring future growth for the benefit of investors was instead wasted only benefiting senior executives paid on the basis of fallacious earnings-per-share.

As stock prices fall, companies that performed un-economic buybacks are now finding themselves with financial losses on their hands, more debt on their balance sheets, and fewer opportunities to grow in the future. Equally disturbing, the many CEO’s who sanctioned buybacks, are much wealthier and unaccountable for their actions.

This article may be best summed up with just one word:

Fraud – frôd/ noun:

Wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.


Cliff Asness On Buybacks – Boosting Returns or Liquidating Companies?

Asset manager Cliff Asness recently wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal wondering if those who decried companies buying back their stock didn’t suffer from “buyback derangement syndrome.”

Asness allowed that net investment, normalized by total assets or total market capitalization, was recently lower for companies in the Russell 3000 Index than it was in the 1990s, “but positive and much higher than during the 2008 financial crisis.”

It seems strange to crow that investment is better now than during the financial crisis.

And Asness offers no opinion or interpretation on why investment should be lower now than in the 1990s, especially given that low interest rates after the financial crisis were supposed to stimulate investment. Granted, his purpose isn’t to comment on Federal Reserve policy, but one might think he’d have something to say about lower investment immediately after a financial crisis – when investment is most needed. Asness also doesn’t say how much lower investment is now. That’s strange, given that he will conclude by asserting the buyback arguments amount to “innumerate nonsense.”

Asness mentions that companies aren’t shrinking away by buying their stock, because they are also borrowing a lot of money. “Think of this as a debt-for-equity swap,” he says – again neutrally or flatly. Is it good or bad – and for whom? — that companies are exchanging equity for debt? Asness doesn’t say. Moreover, later Asness will defend the argument that buybacks are indeed a form of liquidation.

Next, Asness argues that investors do not spend the money paid out in buybacks frivolously. Instead, investors buy other stocks and bonds with their buyback bounty, thereby shifting capital from companies that don’t need it to those that do. But that’s a little too neat. An investor buying stock on the secondary market isn’t giving money to a company in exchange for shares. Rather the investor is buying from another investor a claim to profits on capital already raised by a company previously.

Then things get stranger in Asness’s article. He argues that there’s no way to tell how much buybacks have boosted stock market returns since the financial crisis. And returns have been prodigious – around 15% annualized. But in making this argument Asness admits that it’s possible buybacks have boosted stock returns. Yet when turning to arguments about Apple – that the firm is a scam fueled by buybacks – he relies on the argument that buybacks are a form of liquidation that reduce market capitalization.

So do buybacks boost stock market returns or reduce market capitalization? It’s hard to know what Asness thinks. Clearly reducing share count and elevating earnings-per-share – the obvious immediate effects of buybacks — should increase the share price. But Asness doesn’t say whether a higher share price should compensate for fewer shares precisely and keep market capitalization stable, or whether it should alter market capitalization.  He only says that it’s difficult to know if buybacks have boosted stock market returns, but also that it’s crazy to think Apple’s market capitalization shouldn’t be reduced instead of elevated by share buybacks.

Perhaps Asness is consistent is asserting that buybacks probably haven’t boosted market returns and certainly haven’t boosted Apple’s market capitalization. But he doesn’t think it’s impossible that buybacks have boosted stock returns, leaving himself vulnerable to the charge that he is confused about whether buybacks boost returns (and market capitalization) or amount to a liquidation and shrinkage of market capitalization.

Ultimately, Asness is upset that people are examining what corporations do with their profits when Americans have so many other things to debate. But when profit margins are so persistently high and a higher percentage of profits are returned to capital, perhaps he shouldn’t be so naïve to think a political debate wouldn’t commence about corporate profits and share buybacks. Moreover, despite calling the buyback arguments “innumerate nonsense,” it seems Asness has some thinking to do about whether buybacks boost market returns or are a form of liquidation.