Tag Archives: welfare

SOTM 2020: State Of The Markets

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

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spending Mirage

Take a look at the following chart.

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

So, here’s your pop quiz?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the problem here?

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

Corporate Profits Tell The Real Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will likely be something he eventually regrets.

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

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

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

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

The following chart should quickly put that claim to rest.

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

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

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

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

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

Those numbers continue to rise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This brings us to the hard truth.

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

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

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

Strongest economy ever? Hardly.

But it could be.

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

Debt & The Failure Of Monetary Policy To Stimulate Growth

A fascinating graphic was recently produced by Oxford Economics showing compounded economic growth rates over time.

What should immediately jump out at you is that the compounded rate of growth of the U.S. economy was fairly stable between 1950 and the mid-1980s. However, since then, there has been a rather marked decline in economic growth.

The question is, why?

This question has been a point of a contentious debate over the last several years as debt and deficit levels in the U.S. have soared higher.

Causation? Or Correlation?

As I will explain, the case can be made the surge in debt is the culprit of slowing rates of economic growth. However, we must start our discussion with the Keynesian theory, which has been the main driver both of fiscal and monetary policies over the last 30-years.

Keynes contended that ‘a general glut would occur when aggregate demand for goods was insufficient, leading to an economic downturn resulting in losses of potential output due to unnecessarily high unemployment, which results from the defensive (or reactive) decisions of the producers.’

In such a situation, Keynesian economics states that government policies could be used to increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing unemployment and deflation. Investment by government injects income, which results in more spending in the general economy, which in turn stimulates more production and investment involving still more income and spending. The initial stimulation starts a cascade of events, whose total increase in economic activity is a multiple of the original investment.”

Keynes’ was correct in his theory. In order for deficit spending to be effective, the “payback” from investments being made must yield a higher rate of return than the debt used to fund it.

The problem has been two-fold.

First, “deficit spending” was only supposed to be used during a recessionary period, and reversed to a surplus during the ensuing expansion. However, beginning in the early ’80s, those in power only adhered to “deficit spending part” after all “if a little deficit spending is good, a lot should be better,” right?

Secondly, deficit spending shifted away from productive investments, which create jobs (infrastructure and development,) to primarily social welfare and debt service. Money used in this manner has a negative rate of return.

According to the Center On Budget & Policy Priorities, roughly 75% of every tax dollar goes to non-productive spending. 

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

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

Do you see the problem here? (In the financial markets, when you borrow from others to pay obligations you can’t afford it is known as a “Ponzi-scheme.”)

Debt Is The Cause, Not The Cure

This is one of the issues with MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) in which it is assumed that “debts and deficits don’t matter” as long as there is no inflation. However, the premise fails to hold up when one begins to pay attention to the trends in debt and economic growth.

I won’t argue that “debt, and specifically deficit spending, can be productive.” As I discussed in American Gridlock:

“The word “deficit” has no real meaning. Dr. Brock used the following example of two different countries.

Country A spends $4 Trillion with receipts of $3 Trillion. This leaves Country A with a $1 Trillion deficit. In order to make up the difference between the spending and the income, the Treasury must issue $1 Trillion in new debt. That new debt is used to cover the excess expenditures, but generates no income leaving a future hole that must be filled.

Country B spends $4 Trillion and receives $3 Trillion income. However, the $1 Trillion of excess, which was financed by debt, was invested into projects, infrastructure, that produced a positive rate of return. There is no deficit as the rate of return on the investment funds the “deficit” over time.

There is no disagreement about the need for government spending. The disagreement is with the abuse, and waste, of it.”

The U.S. is Country A.

Increases in the national debt have long been squandered on increases in social welfare programs, and ultimately higher debt service, which has an effective negative return on investment. Therefore, the larger the balance of debt becomes, the more economically destructive it is by diverting an ever growing amount of dollars away from productive investments to service payments.

The relevance of debt versus economic growth is all too evident, as shown below. Since 1980, the overall increase in debt has surged to levels that currently usurp the entirety of economic growth. With economic growth rates now at the lowest levels on record, the growth in debt continues to divert more tax dollars away from productive investments into the service of debt and social welfare.

The irony is that debt driven economic growth, consistently requires more debt to fund a diminishing rate of return of future growth. It now requires $3.02 of debt to create $1 of real economic growth.

However, it isn’t just Federal debt that is the problem. It is all debt.

When it comes to households, which are responsible for roughly 2/3rds of economic growth through personal consumption expenditures, debt was used to sustain a standard of living well beyond what income and wage growth could support. This worked out as long as the ability to leverage indebtedness was an option. Eventually, debt reaches levels where the ability to consume at levels great enough to foster stronger economic growth is eroded.

For the 30-year period from 1952 to 1982, debt-free economic growth was running a surplus. However, since the early 80’s, total credit market debt growth has sharply eclipsed economic growth. Without the debt to support economic growth, there is currently an accumulated deficit of more than $50 Trillion.

What was the difference between pre-1980 and post-1980?

From 1950-1980, the economy grew at an annualized rate of 7.70%. 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.

  1. Lower levels of debt allowed for personal savings to remain robust which fueled productive investment in the economy.
  2. The economy was focused primarily on production and manufacturing which has a high multiplier effect on the economy.  

The obvious problem is the ongoing decline in economic growth. Over the past 35 years, slower rates of growth has kept the average American struggling to maintain their standard of living. As wage growth stagnates, or declines, consumers are forced to turn to credit to fill the gap in maintaining their current standard of living. (The chart below is the inflation-adjusted standard of living for a family of four as compared to disposable personal incomes and savings rate. The difference comes from debt which now exceeds $3400 per year.)

It isn’t just personal and corporate debt either. Corporations have also gorged on cheap debt over the last decade as the Fed’s “Zero Interest Rate Policy” fostered a scramble for cash for diminishing investment opportunities, such as share buybacks. These malinvestments ultimately have a steep payback.

We saw this movie play out “real-time” previously in everything from sub-prime mortgages to derivative instruments. Banks and institutions milked the system for profit without regard for the risk. Today, we see it again in non-financial corporate debt. To wit:

“And while the developed world has some more to go before regaining the prior all time leverage high, with borrowing led by the U.S. federal government and by global non-financial business, total debt in emerging markets hit a new all time high, thanks almost entirely to China.”

“Chinese corporations owed the equivalent of more than 155% of Global GDP in March, or nearly $21 trillion, up from about 100% of GDP, or $5 trillion, two decades ago.”

The Debt End Game

Unsurprisingly, Keynesian policies have failed to stimulate broad based economic growth. Those fiscal and monetary policies, from TARP, to QE, to tax cuts, only delayed the eventual clearing process. Unfortunately, the delay only created a bigger problem for the future. As noted by Zerohedge:

“The IIF pointed out the obvious, namely that lower borrowing costs thanks to central banks’ monetary easing had encouraged countries to take on new debt. Amusingly, by doing so, this makes rising rates even more impossible as the world’s can barely support 100% debt of GDP, let alone 3x that.”

Ultimately, the clearing process will be very substantial. As noted above, with the economy currently requiring roughly $3 of debt to create $1 of economic growth, a reversion to a structurally manageable level of debt would involve a nearly $40 Trillion reduction of total credit market debt from current levels. 

This is the “great reset” that is coming.

The economic drag from such a reduction in debt would be a devastating process. In fact, the last time such a reversion occurred, the period was known as the “Great Depression.”

This is one of the primary reasons why economic growth will continue to run at lower levels going into the future. We will witness an economy plagued by more frequent recessionary spats, lower equity market returns, and a stagflationary environment as wages remain suppressed while cost of living rise.

The problem of debt will continue to be magnified by the changes in structural employment, demographics, and deflationary pressures derived from changes in productivity. As I showed previously, this trend has already been in place for the last decade and will only continue to confound economists in the future.

“The U.S. is currently running at lower levels of GDP, productivity, and wage growth than before the last recession. While this certainly doesn’t confirm Shelton’s analysis, it also doesn’t confirm the conventional wisdom that $33 Trillion in bailouts and liquidity, zero interest rates, and surging stock markets, are conducive to stronger economic growth for all.”

Correlation or causation? You decide.

Let’s Be Like Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not a good thing by the way.

Let’s Be Like Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the worst that could happen?  

The Risk Of An ETF Driven Liquidity Crash

Last week, James Rickards posted an interesting article discussing the risk to the financial markets from the rise in passive indexing. To wit:

“Free riding is one of the oldest problems in economics and in society in general. Simply put, free riding describes a situation where one party takes the benefits of an economic condition without contributing anything to sustain that condition.

This is the problem of ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ investors.

The active investor contributes to markets while trying to make money in them.

A passive investor is a parasite. The passive investor simply buys an index fund, sits back and enjoys the show. Since markets mostly go up, the passive investor mostly makes money but contributes nothing to price discovery.”

Evelyn Cheng highlighted the rise of passive investing as well:

Quantitative investing based on computer formulas and trading by machines directly are leaving the traditional stock picker in the dust and now dominating the equity markets, according to a new report from JPMorgan.

‘While fundamental narratives explaining the price action abound, the majority of equity investors today don’t buy or sell stocks based on stock specific fundamentals,‘ Marko Kolanovic, global head of quantitative and derivatives research at JPMorgan, said in a Tuesday note to clients.

Kolanovic estimates ‘fundamental discretionary traders’ account for only about 10 percent of trading volume in stocks. Passive and quantitative investing accounts for about 60 percent, more than double the share a decade ago, he said.

‘Derivatives, quant fund flows, central bank policy and political developments have contributed to low market volatility’, Kolanovic said. Moreover, he said, ‘big data strategies are increasingly challenging traditional fundamental investing and will be a catalyst for changes in the years to come.’”

The rise in passive investing has been a byproduct of a decade-long infusion of liquidity and loose monetary policy which fostered a rise in asset prices to a valuation extreme only seen once previously in history. The following chart shows that this is exactly what is happening. Since 2009, over $2.5 trillion of equity investment has been added to passive-strategy funds, while $2.0 trillion has been withdrawn from active-strategy funds.

As James aptly notes:

“This chart reveals the most dangerous trend in investing today. Since the last financial crisis, $2.5 trillion has been added to “passive” equity strategies and $2.0 trillion has been withdrawn from “active” investment strategies. This means more investors are free riding on the research of fewer investors. When sentiment turns, the passive crowd will find there are few buyers left in the market.

When the market goes down, passive fund managers will be forced to sell stocks in order to track the index. This selling will force the market down further and force more selling by the passive managers. This dynamic will feed on itself and accelerate the market crash.”

He is correct, and makes the same point that Frank Holmes recently penned in Forbes:

“Nevertheless, the seismic shift into indexing has come with some unexpected consequences, including price distortion. New research shows that it has inflated share prices for a number of popular stocks. A lot of trading now is based not on fundamentals but on low fees. These ramifications have only intensified as active managers have increasingly been pushed to the side.”

“This isn’t just the second largest bubble of the past four decades. E-commerce is also vastly overrepresented in equity indices, meaning extraordinary amounts of money are flowing into a very small number of stocks relative to the broader market. Apple alone is featured in almost 210 indices, according to Vincent Deluard, macro-strategist at INTL FCStone.

If there’s a rush to the exit, in other words, the selloff would cut through a significant swath of index investors unawares.”

As Frank notes, the problem with even 35% of the market being “passive” is the liquidity issues surrounding the market as a whole. With more ETF’s than individual stocks, and the number of outstanding shares traded being reduced by share buybacks, the risk of a sharp and disorderly reversal remains due to compressed credit and liquidity risk premia. As a result, market participants need to be mindful of the risks of diminished market liquidity, asset price discontinuities, and contagion across asset markets.

The risk of a disorderly unwinding due to a lack of liquidity was highlighted by the head of the BOE, Mark Carney.

“Market adjustments to date have occurred without significant stress. However, the risk of a sharp and disorderly reversal remains given the compressed credit and liquidity risk premia. As a result, market participants need to be mindful of the risks of diminished market liquidity, asset price discontinuities and contagion across asset markets.’”

In other words, the problem with passive investing is simply that it works, until it doesn’t.

You Only Think You Are Passive

As Howard Marks, mused in his ‘Liquidity’ note:

“ETF’s have become popular because they’re generally believed to be ‘better than mutual funds,’ in that they’re traded all day. Thus an ETF investor can get in or out anytime during trading hours. But do the investors in ETFs wonder about the source of their liquidity?’”

What Howard is referring to is the “Greater Fool Theory,” which surmises there is always a “greater fool” than you in the market to sell to. While the answer is “yes,” as there is always a buyer for every seller, the question is always “at what price?” 

More importantly, individual investors are NOT passive even though they are investing in “passive” vehicles.

Today, more than ever, advisors are actively migrating portfolio management to the use of ETF’s for either some, if not all, of the asset allocation equation. However, they are NOT doing it “passively.”

The rise of index funds has turned everyone into “asset class pickers” instead of stock pickers. However, just because individuals are choosing to “buy baskets” of stocks, rather than individual securities, it is not a “passive” choice, but rather “active management” in a different form.  

While the idea of passive indexing works while all prices are rising, the reverse is also true. The problem is that once prices begin to fall – “passive indexers” will quickly become “active sellers.” With the flood of money into “passive index” and “yield funds,” the tables are once again set for a dramatic, and damaging, ending.

It is only near peaks in extended bull markets that logic is dismissed for the seemingly easiest trend to make money. Today is no different as the chart below shows the odds are stacked against substantial market gains from current levels.

The reason that mean-reverting events have occurred throughout history, is that despite the best of intentions, individuals just simply refuse to act “rationally” by holding their investments as they watch losses mount.

This behavioral bias of investors is one of the most serious risks arising from ETFs as the concentration of too much capital in too few places. But this concentration risk is not the first time this has occurred:

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

Risk concentration always seems rational at the beginning, and the initial successes of the trends it creates can be self-reinforcing.

Until it goes in the other direction.

The sell-off in February of this year was not particularly unusual, however, it was the uniformity of the price moves which revealed the fallacy “passive investing” as investors headed for the door all at the same time.

It should serve as a warning.

When “robot trading algorithms”  begin to reverse, it will not be a slow and methodical process but rather a stampede with little regard to price, valuation or fundamental measures as the exit will become very narrow.

Fortunately, while the price decline was indeed sharp, and a “rude awakening” for investors, it was just a correction within the ongoing “bullish trend.”

For now.

But nonetheless, the media has been quick to repeatedly point out the decline was the worst since 2008.

That certainly sounds bad.

The question is “which” 10% decline was it?

Regardless, it was only a glimpse at what will eventually be the “real” decline when leverage is eventually clipped. I warned of this previously:

“At some point, that reversion process will take hold. It is then investor ‘psychology’ will collide with ‘margin debt’ and ETF liquidity. It will be the equivalent of striking a match, lighting a stick of dynamite and throwing it into a tanker full of gasoline.

When the ‘herding’ into ETF’s begins to reverse, it will not be a slow and methodical process but rather a stampede with little regard to price, valuation or fundamental measures.

Importantly, as prices decline it will trigger margin calls which will induce more indiscriminate selling. The forced redemption cycle will cause catastrophic spreads between the current bid and ask pricing for ETF’s. As investors are forced to dump positions to meet margin calls, the lack of buyers will form a vacuum causing rapid price declines which leave investors helpless on the sidelines watching years of capital appreciation vanish in moments. Don’t believe me? It happened in 2008 as the ‘Lehman Moment’ left investors helpless watching the crash.

Over a 3-week span, investors lost 29% of their capital and 44% over the entire 3-month period. This is what happens during a margin liquidation event. It is fast, furious and without remorse.”

Make no mistake we are sitting on a “full tank of gas.” 

While “passive indexing” sounds like a winning approach to “pace” the markets during the late stages of an advance, it is worth remembering it will also “pace” just as well during the subsequent decline.

So, what’s your plan for when the real correction ultimately begins?

“If everybody indexed, the only word you could use is chaos, catastrophe. The markets would fail.” – John C. Bogle.

Party Like It’s 1992?

Last week, Mark Hulbert warned of an indicator that hasn’t been this inflated since the “Dot.com” bubble. To wit:

“It’s been more than 25 years since the stock market’s long-term trailing return was as low as it is today. Since the top of the internet bubble in March 2000, the S&P 500 has produced a 1.4% annualized return after adjusting for both dividends and inflation. “

Whoa! How can that be given the market just set a record for the “longest bull market” in U.S. history?

This is a point that is lost on many investors who have only witnessed one half of a full market cycle. It is also the very essence of Warren Buffett’s most basic investment lesson:

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

Over the last 147-years of market history, there have only been five (5), relatively short periods, in history where the entirety of market “gains” were made. The rest of the time, the market was simply getting back to even.

Where you start your investing journey has everything to do with outcomes. Warren Buffett, for example, launched Berkshire Hathaway when valuations, and markets, were becoming historically undervalued. If Buffett had launched his firm in 2000, or even today, his “fame and fortune” would likely be drastically different.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

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

This was a point I discussed last week:

“There are two important things to consider with respect to the chart below.

  1. The shift higher in MEDIAN valuations was a function of falling economic growth and inflationary pressures.
  2. Higher prices were facilitated by increasing levels of leverage and debt, which eroded economic growth. “

But with returns low over the last 25-years, future returns should be significantly higher. Right?

Not necessarily. As Mark noted:

“Your conclusion from this sobering factoid depends on whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty. The ‘half-full’ camp calls attention to what happened to stocks in the years after 1992, when stocks’ trailing two-decade return regressed to the mean — and then some: equities skyrocketed, elevating their trailing 18.5 year inflation-adjusted dividend-adjusted return to 11% annualized.

This optimistic view is the most pervasive. Return estimates for the S&P 500 have steadily risen in recent months as earnings have been buoyed by massive amounts of share buybacks and tax cuts.

With earnings rising, what’s not to love?

I get it.

But I disagree, and here’s why.

Throughout history, there is an undeniable link between valuation and return. More importantly, it is the expansion, or contraction, in valuations which are directly tied to the cycles of the market. When investors are willing to “pay up” for a future stream of cash flows, prices rise. When expectations for future cash flows decline, so do prices.

For those expecting a repeat of the post-1992 period, they are likely to be disappointed. As shown, in 1992, the deviation from the long-term median price/earnings ratio (using Shiller’s CAPE) was just below 0%. This gave investors plenty of room to expand valuations as inflation and interest rates fell, consumer and government debts surged, and the general masses swept into the “Wall Street Casino.” 

Today, valuations are at the second highest level in history. Despite the massive surge in earnings due to tax cuts – inflation and interest rates are low, revenue growth is weak as consumers, government, and corporations are fully leveraged, and households are “all in” the equity pool.

This is an important point which should not be overlooked.

The bullish premise has been that since tax cuts will cause a surge in earnings which we reduce valuations back to their long-term average. However, such is true as long as prices don’t increase during the period earnings are rising. But such as NOT been the case. Currently, the market has continued to “price in” those earnings increases keeping valuations elevated. 

As noted by Mark:

“Unfortunately, the CAPE today is back to within shouting distance of where it stood at the top of the internet bubble. It reached 44.2 then, and is 33.2 today. At no time in U.S. history other than the internet bubble has the CAPE been as high as it is now.”

CAPE Is B.S.

It is not surprising that during periods of valuation expansion that investors eventually come to the conclusion that “this time is different.” The argument goes something like this:

“Sure, the CAPE ratio is elevated but had you sold, you would have missed out on this booming bull market.”

That statement is 100% true.

However, it grossly misunderstands the “value” of “valuations.” 

Valuations are not, and have never been, useful as a market timing indicator. Valuations should not be used as a “buy” or “sell” indicator in a portfolio management process.

What valuations do provide is a very clear understanding of what future expected returns will be over the next 10-20 years. Bill Hester wrote a very good note in this regard in response to critics of Shiller’s CAPE ratio and future annualized returns:

We feel no particular obligation defend the CAPE ratio. It has a strong long-term relationship to subsequent 10-year market returns. And it’s only one of numerous valuation indicators that we use in our work – many which are considerably more reliable. All of these valuation indicators – particularly when record-high profit margins are accounted for – are sending the same message: The market is steeply overvalued, leaving investors with the prospect of low, single-digit long-term expected returns.

It is also the same over 20-year periods even on a rolling 20-year real total-return basis.

“Even on a 20-year real total return basis, there was a negative return period. But while the three other periods were not negative after including dividends, when it comes to saving for retirement, a 20-year period of 1% returns isn’t much different from zero.”

There is also a reasonable argument that due to the “speed of movement” in the financial markets, a shortening of business cycles, changes to accounting rules, buyback activity, and increased liquidity, there is a “duration mismatch” between Shiller’s 10-year CAPE and the financial markets currently.

Therefore, in order to compensate for the potential “duration mismatch” of a faster moving market environment, I recalculated the CAPE ratio using a 5-year average as shown in the chart below.

The high correlation between the movements of the CAPE-5 and the S&P 500 index shouldn’t be a surprise. However, notice that prior to 1950 the movements of valuations were more coincident with the overall index as price movement was a primary driver of the valuation metric. As earnings growth began to advance much more quickly post-1950, price movement became less of a dominating factor. Therefore, you can see that the CAPE-5 ratio began to lead overall price changes.

A key “warning” for investors, since 1950, has been a decline in the CAPE-5 ratio which has tended to lead price declines in the overall market. The two most recent declines in the CAPE-5 also correlated with drops in the market in 2015-2016 and the beginning of 2018.

To get a better understanding of where valuations are currently relative to past history, and why this is likely NOT 1992, we can look at the deviation between current valuation levels and the long-term average. 

The importance of deviation is crucial to understand. In order for there to be an “average,” valuations had to be both above and below that “average” over history. These “averages” provide a gravitational pull on valuations over time which is why the further the deviation is away from the “average,” the greater the eventual “mean reversion” will be.

The first chart below is the percentage deviation of the CAPE-5 ratio from its long-term average going back to 1900.

Currently, the 76.15% deviation above the long-term CAPE-5 average of 15.86x earnings puts valuations at levels only witnessed two (2) other times in history – 1929 and 2000. As stated above, while it is hoped “this time will be different,” which were the same words uttered during each of the two previous periods, you can clearly see that the eventual outcomes were much less optimal.

However, as noted, the changes that have occurred Post-WWII in terms of economic prosperity, changes in operational capacity and productivity warrant a look at just the period from 1944-present.

Again, as with the long-term view above, the current deviation is 61.8% above the Post-WWII CAPE-5 average of 17.27x earnings. Such a level of deviation has only been witnessed one other time previously over the last 70 years as we headed into the “Dot.com” peak. Again, as with the long-term view above, the resulting “reversion” was not kind to investors.

Is this a better measure than Shiller’s CAPE-10 ratio?

Maybe, as it adjusts more quickly to a faster moving marketplace. However, I want to reiterate that neither the Shiller’s CAPE-10 ratio or the modified CAPE-5 ratio were ever meant to be “market timing” indicators.

Since valuations determine forward returns, the sole purpose is to denote periods which carry exceptionally high levels of investment risk and resulted in exceptionally poor levels of future returns.

Currently, valuation measures are clearly warning the future market returns are going to be substantially lower than they have been over the past ten years. Therefore, if you are expecting the markets to crank out 10% annualized returns over the next 10 years for you to meet your retirement goals, it is likely that you are going to be very disappointed.

Does that mean you should be all in cash today? Of course, not.

However, it does suggest that a more cautious stance to equity allocations and increased risk management will likely offset much of the next “reversion” when it occurs.

My client’s have only two objectives:

  1. Protect investment capital from major market reversions,  and;
  2. Meet investment returns anchored to retirement planning projections.

Not paying attention to rising investment risks, or adjusting for lower expected future returns, are detrimental to both of those objectives.

Or, you can just hope it all works out.

For 80% of Americans, it just simply hasn’t been the case.

The Ingredients Of An “Event”

This past week marked the 10th-Anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Of course, there were many articles recounting the collapse and laying blame for the “great financial crisis” at their feet. But, as is always the case, an “event” is always the blame for major reversions rather than the actions which created the environment necessary for the crash to occur. In the case of the “financial crisis,” Lehman was the “event” which accelerated a market correction that was already well underway.

I have noted the topping process and the point where we exited the markets. Importantly, while the market was giving ample signals that something was going wrong, the mainstream analysis continued to promote the narrative of a “Goldilocks Economy.” It wasn’t until December of 2008, when the economic data was negatively revised, the recession was revealed.

Of course, the focus was the “Lehman Moment,” and the excuse was simply: “no one could have seen it coming.”

But many did. In December of 2007 we wrote:

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

A year later, we knew the truth.

Throughout history, there have been numerous “financial events” which have devastated investors. The major ones are marked indelibly in our financial history: “The Crash Of 1929,” “The Crash Of 1974,” “Black Monday (1987),” “The Dot.Com Crash,” and the “The Financial Crisis.” 

Each of these previous events was believed to be the last. Each time the “culprit” was addressed and the markets were assured the problem would not occur again. For example, following the crash in 1929, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the 1940 Securities Act, were established to prevent the next crash by separating banks and brokerage firms and protecting against another Charles Ponzi. (In 1999, legislation was passed to allow banks and brokerages to reunite. 8-years later we had a financial crisis and Bernie Madoff. Coincidence?)

In hindsight, the government has always acted to prevent what was believed to the “cause” of the previous crash. Most recently, Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank legislations were passed following the market crashes of 2000 and 2008.

But legislation isn’t the cure for what causes markets to crash. Legislation only addresses the visible byproduct of the underlying ingredients. For example, Sarbanes-Oxley addressed the faulty accounting and reporting by companies like Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing. Dodd-Frank legislation primarily addressed the “bad behavior” by banks (which has now been mostly repealed).

While faulty accounting and “bad behavior” certainly contributed to the end result, those issues were not the cause of the crash.

Recently, John Mauldin addressed this issue:

“In this simplified setting of the sandpile, the power law also points to something else: the surprising conclusion that even the greatest of events have no special or exceptional causes. After all, every avalanche large or small starts out the same way, when a single grain falls and makes the pile just slightly too steep at one point. What makes one avalanche much larger than another has nothing to do with its original cause, and nothing to do with some special situation in the pile just before it starts. Rather, it has to do with the perpetually unstable organization of the critical state, which makes it always possible for the next grain to trigger an avalanche of any size.

While the idea is correct, this assumes that at some point the markets collapse under their own weight when something gives.

I think it is actually a little different. In my view, ingredients like nitrogen, glycerol, sand, and shell are mostly innocuous things and pose little real danger by themselves. However, when they are combined together, and a process is applied to bind them, you make dynamite. But even dynamite, while dangerous, does not immediately explode as long as it is handled properly. It is only when dynamite comes into contact with the appropriate catalyst that it becomes a problem. 

“Mean reverting events,” bear markets, and financial crisis, are all the result of a combined set of ingredients to which a catalyst was applied. Looking back through history we find similar ingredients each and every time.

The Ingredients

Leverage

Throughout the entire monetary ecosystem, there is a consensus that “debt doesn’t matter” as long as interest rates remain low. Of course, the ultra-low interest rate policy administered by the Federal Reserve is responsible for the “yield chase” and has fostered a massive surge in debt in the U.S. since the “financial crisis.”  

Importantly, debt and leverage, by itself is not a danger. Actually, leverage is supportive of higher asset prices as long as rates remain low and the demand for, rates of return on, other assets remains high.

Valuations

Likewise, high valuations are also “inert” as long as everything asset prices are rising. In fact, rising valuations supports the “bullish” thesis as higher valuations represent a rising optimism about future growth. In other words, investors are willing to “pay up” today for expected further growth.

While valuations are a horrible “timing indicator” for managing a portfolio in the short-term, valuations are the “great predictor” of future investment returns over the long-term.

Psychology

Of course, one of the critical drivers of the financial markets in the “short-term” is investor psychology. As asset prices rise, investors become increasingly confident and are willing to commit increasing levels of capital to risk assets. The chart below shows the level of assets dedicated to cash, bear market funds, and bull market funds. Currently, the level of “bullish optimism” as represented by investor allocations is at the highest level on record.

Again, as long as nothing adversely changes, “bullish sentiment begets bullish sentiment” which is supportive of higher asset prices.

Ownership

Of course, the key ingredient is ownership. High valuations, bullish sentiment, and leverage are completely meaningless if there is no ownership of the underlying equities. The two charts below show both household and corporate levels of equity ownership relative to previous points in history.

Once again, we find rising levels of ownership are a good thing as long as prices are rising. As prices rise, individuals continue to increase ownership in appreciating assets which, in turn, increases the price of the assets being purchased.

Momentum

Another key ingredient to rising asset prices is momentum. As prices rice, demand for rising assets also rises which creates a further demand on a limited supply of assets increasing prices of those assets at a faster pace. Rising momentum is supportive of higher asset prices in the short-term.

The chart below shows the real price of the S&P 500 index versus its long-term bollinger-bands, valuations, relative-strength, and its deviation above the 3-year moving average. The red vertical lines show where the peaks in these measures were historically located.

The Formulation

Like dynamite, the individual ingredients are relatively harmless. However, when the ingredients are combined they become potentially dangerous.

Leverage + Valuations + Psychology + Ownership + Momentum = “Mean Reverting Event”

Importantly, in the short-term, this particular formula does indeed remain supportive for higher asset prices. Of course, the more prices rise, the more optimistic the investing becomes as it becomes common to believe “this time is different.”

While the combination of ingredients is indeed dangerous, they remain “inert” until exposed to the right catalyst.

These same ingredients were present during every crash throughout history.

All they needed was the right catalyst.

The catalyst, or rather the “match that lit the fuse,” was the same each time.

The Catalyst

In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has been the catalyst behind every preceding financial event since they became “active,” monetarily policy-wise. As shown in the chart below, when the Fed has embarked upon a rate hiking campaign, bad “stuff” has historically followed.

With the Fed expected to hike rates 2-more times in 2018, and even further in 2019, it is likely the Fed has already “lit the fuse” on the next financially-related event.

Yes, the correction will begin as it has in the past, slowly, quietly, and many investors will presume it is simply another “buy the dip” opportunity.

Then suddenly, without reason, the increase in interest rates will trigger a credit-related event. The sell-off will gain traction, sentiment will reverse, and as prices decline the selling will accelerate.

Then a secondary explosion occurs as margin-calls are triggered. Once this occurs, a forced liquidation cycle begins. As assets are sold, prices decline as buyers simply disappear. As prices drop further, more margin calls are triggered requiring further liquidation. The liquidation cycle continues until margin is exhausted.

But the risk to investors is NOT just a market decline of 40-50%.

While such a decline, in and of itself, would devastate the already underfunded 80% of the population that is currently woefully under-prepared for retirement, it would also unleash a host of related collapses throughout the economy as a rush to liquidate holdings accelerates.

The real crisis comes when there is a “run on pensions.” With a large number of pensioners already eligible for their pension, the next decline in the markets will likely spur the “fear” that benefits will be lost entirely. The combined run on the system, which is grossly underfunded, at a time when asset prices are dropping will cause a debacle of mass proportions. It will require a massive government bailout to resolve it.

But it doesn’t end there. Consumers are once again heavily leveraged with sub-prime auto loans, mortgages, and student debt. When the recession hits, the reduction in employment will further damage what remains of personal savings and consumption ability. The downturn will increase the strain on an already burdened government welfare system as an insufficient number of individuals paying into the scheme is being absorbed by a swelling pool of aging baby-boomers now forced to draw on it. Yes, more Government funding will be required to solve that problem as well. 

As debts and deficits swell in coming years, the negative impact to economic growth will continue. At some point, there will be a realization of the real crisis. It isn’t a crash in the financial markets that is the real problem, but the ongoing structural shift in the economy that is depressing the living standards of the average American family. There has indeed been a redistribution of wealth in America since the turn of the century. Unfortunately, it has been in the wrong direction as the U.S. has created its own class of royalty and serfdom.

All the ingredients for the next market crash are currently present. All that is current missing is the “catalyst” which ignites it all.

There are many who currently believe “bear markets” and “crashes” are a relic of the past. Central banks globally now have the financial markets under their control and they will never allow another crash to occur. Maybe that is indeed the case. However, it is worth remembering that such beliefs were always present when, to quote Irving Fisher, “stocks are at a permanently high plateau.”