Is there any value in the government bond markets?

Is there any value in the government bond markets?

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Macro Letter – Supplemental – No 4 – 12-5-2017

Is there any value in the government bond markets?

  • Since 2008 US 10yr T-bond yields have fallen from more than 5% to less than 2%
  • German 10yr Bunds yields have fallen even further from 4.5% to less than zero
  • With Central Bank inflation targets of 2% many bond markets offer little or no real return
  • In developed markets the inverse yield gap between dividend and bond has disappeared

Since the end of the great financial recession, bond yields in developed countries have fallen to historic lows. The bull market in stocks which began in March 2009, has been driven, more than any other factor, by the fall in the yield of government bonds.

With the Federal Reserve now increasing interest rates, investors are faced with a dilemma. If they own bonds already, should they continue to remain invested? Inflation is reasonable subdued and commodity prices have weakened recently as economic growth expectations have moderated once more. If investors own stocks they need to be watching the progress of the bond market: bonds drove stocks up, it is likely they will drive them back down as well.

The table below looks at the relative valuation between stocks and bonds in the major equity markets. The table (second item below) is ranked by the final column, DY-BY – Dividend Yield – Bond Yield, sometimes referred to as the yield gap. During most of the last fifty years the yield gap has been inverse, in other words dividend yields have been lower than bond yields, the chart directly below shows the pattern for the S&P500 and US 10yr government bonds going back to 1900:-

Chart-2-the-reverse-yield-gap-in-a-longer-term-con

Source: Newton Investment Management

Bonds_versus_Equities

Source: StarCapital, Investing.com, Trading Economics

The CAPE – Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings Ratio and Dividend Yield Data is from the end of March, bond yields were taken on Monday morning 8th May, so these are not direct comparisons. The first thing to notice is that an inverse yield gap tends to be associated with countries which have higher inflation. This is logical, an equity investment ought to offer the investor an inflation hedge, a fixed income investor, by contrast, is naturally hedged against deflation.

Looking at the table in more detail, Turkey tops the list, with an excess return, for owning bonds rather than stocks, of more than 7%, yet with inflation running at a higher rate than the bond yield, the case for investment (based simple on this data) is not compelling – Turkish bonds offer a negative real yield. Brazil offers a more interesting prospect. The real bond yield is close to 6% whilst the Bovespa real dividend yield is negative.

Some weeks ago in Low cost manufacturing in Asia – The Mighty Five – MITI VI looked more closely at India and Indonesia. For the international bond investor it is important to remember currency risk:-

Currency_changes_MITI_V (1)

Source: Trading Economics, World Bank

If past performance is any guide to future returns, and all investment advisors disclaim this, then you should factor in between 2% and 4% per annum for a decline in the value of the capital invested in Indian and Indonesian bonds over the long run. This is not to suggest that there is no value in Indian or Indonesian bonds, merely that an investor must first decide about the currency risk. A 7% yield over ten years may appear attractive but if the value of the asset falls by a third, as has been the case in India during the past decade, this may not necessarily suffice.

Looking at the first table again, the relationship between bond yields in the Eurozone has been distorted by the actions of the ECB, nonetheless the real dividend yield for Finnish stocks at 3.2% is noteworthy, whilst Finnish bonds are not. Greek 10yr bonds are testing their lowest levels since August 2014 this week (5.61%) which is a long way from their highs of 2012 when yields briefly breached 40% during the Eurozone crisis. Emmanuel Macron’s election as France’s new President certainly helped but the German’s continue to baulk at issuing Eurobonds to bail out their profligate neighbours.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunity

Returning to the investor’s dilemma. Stocks and bonds are both historically expensive. They have been driven higher by a combination of monetary and quantitative easing by Central Banks and subdued inflation. For long-term investors such as pension funds, which need to invest in fixed income securities to match liabilities, the task is Herculean, precious few developed markets offer a real yield at all and none offer sufficient yield to match those pension liabilities.

During the bull-market these long-term investors actively increased the duration of their portfolios whilst at the same time the coupons on new issues fell steadily: new issues have a longer duration as well. It would seem sensible to shorten portfolio duration until one remembers that the Federal Reserve are scheduled to increase short term interest rates again in June. Short rates, in this scenario will rise faster than long-term rates. Where can the fixed income portfolio manager seek shelter?

Emerging market bonds offer limited liquidity since their markets are much smaller than those of the US and Europe. They offer the investor higher returns, but expose them to heady cocktail of currency risk, credit risk and the kind of geopolitical risk that ultra-long dated developed country bonds do not.

A workable solution is to consider credit and geopolitical risk at the outset and then actively manage the currency risk, or sub-contract this to an overlay manager. Sell long duration, low yielding developed country bonds and buy a diversified basket of emerging market bonds offering acceptable real return and, given that in many emerging markets corporate bonds offer lower credit risk than their respective government bond market, buy a carefully considered selection of liquid corporate names too. Sadly, many pension fund managers will not be permitted to make this type of investment for fiduciary reasons.

In answer to the original question in my title? Yes, I do believe there is still value in the government bond markets, but, given the absence of liquidity in many of the less developed markets – which are the ones offering identifiable value – the portfolio manager must be prepared to actively hedge using liquid markets to avoid a forced liquidation – currency hedging is one aspect of the strategy but the judicious use of interest rate swaps and options is a further refinement managers should consider.

This strategy shortens the duration of the bond portfolio because, not only purchase bonds with a shorter maturity, but also ones with a higher coupon. Actively managing currency risk (or delegating this role to a specialist currency overlay operator) whilst not entirely mitigating foreign exchange exposures, substantially reduces them.

Emerging market equities may well offer the best long run return, but a portfolio of emerging market bonds, with positive rather than negative real-yields, is far more compelling than continuously extending duration among the obligations of the governments of the developed world.

Trumped or Stumped? The tax cut, the debt ceiling and riding the gravy train

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Macro Letter – No 76 – 05-05-2017

Trumped or Stumped? The tax cut, the debt ceiling and riding the gravy train

  • A corporate tax cut from 35% to 15% will cost US$200bln/annum
  • A Border Adjustment Tax could raise US$100bln/annum
  • The boost to GDP growth is unlikely to generate sufficient tax receipts to bridge the gap
  • Without fiscal austerity, total US debt is likely to rise under Trump as it did under Reagan

 

“Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”

Donald J. Trump

The current US debt ceiling is set at $19.8trln. Debt levels are already close to that level and special accounting measures have already been implemented by the US Treasury. This year alone total federal expenditures will be $3.7trln – leaving a tax shortfall of $559bln. Meanwhile, last week, Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin announced the long awaited tax cut plan. It included a proposal to reduce the US corporate tax rate to 15% from the current level of 35%. This, it is estimated by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, will increase the government deficit by $5.5trln over the next decade.

The Trump administrations other spending plans remain on the agenda, including $1trln for infrastructure, $54bln for the military and – assuming the Mexican’s can’t pay and won’t pay – $10bln for the Southern Border Wall.

How can this possibly add up? Through spending cuts, is the simple answer. Cuts have already been made to the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, Inland Revenue Service and Department of Education but around 65% of government expenditure, in areas such as welfare and healthcare, have been ring-fenced – they will remain off-limits. Balancing the books is going to be an awesome conjuring trick.

Even by the more conservative estimates of the Tax Foundation, the proposed tax cut will cost $2.2trln over the next 10 years. They estimate economic growth would increase by 0.4% as a result of the tax reduction, but point out that +0.9% annual GDP growth is required to offset the estimated decline in tax revenues. The sums do not appear to balance.

The chart below looks at US investment as a percentage of GDP going back to 1950, the era of Reaganomics (1981-1989) when the last substantial tax cuts occurred, suggests that the positive impact of tax reduction on economic growth, if Art Laffer is correct, may be, to borrow a phrase from Milton Friedman, long and variable:-

Investment_to_GDP_-_Economist_BEA

Source: The Economist, BEA

The Cato Institute – Lessons from the Reagan Tax Cuts which was published at this week, makes a number of observations (see below) but this chart, showing the GDP growth in the Reagan and Obama recessions, is instructive:-

ReaganVsObamaCumulGDPthru20quarters - Cato

Source: Cato Institute

One may argue that the Reagan period was an era of much higher inflation and therefore dispute the real-GDP growth differential, but the Cato Institute produce further evidence to support their argument, that tax cuts boost economic growth. Here are some of the highlights:-

Lesson #1: Lower Tax Rates Can Boost Growth

We can draw some conclusions by looking at how low-tax economies such as Singapore and Hong Kong outperform the United States. Or we can compare growth in the United States with the economic stagnation in high-tax Europe.

hk-sing-usa-growth_Maddison_Cato

Source: Maddison, Cato

We can also compare growth during the Reagan years with the economic malaise of the 1970s.

Moreover, there’s lots of academic evidence showing that lower tax rates lead to better economic performance

The bottom line is that people respond to incentives. When tax rates climb, there’s more “deadweight loss” in the economy. So when tax rates fall, output increases.

Lesson #2: Some Tax Cuts “Pay for Themselves”

The key insight of the Laffer Curve is not that tax cuts are self-financing. Instead, the lesson is simply that certain tax cuts (i.e., lower marginal rates on productive behavior) lead to more economic activity. Which is another way of saying that certain tax cuts lead to more taxable income.

1980-88-laffer_Tax_returns

Source: Cato 

It’s then an empirical issue to assess the level of revenue feedback.

In the vast majority of the cases, the revenue feedback caused by more taxable income isn’t enough to offset the revenue loss associated with lower tax rates. However, we do have very strong evidence that upper-income taxpayers actually paid more to the IRS because of the Reagan tax cuts.

This is presumably because wealthier taxpayers have much greater ability to control the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Lesson #3: Reagan Put the United States on a Path to Fiscal Balance

I already explained above why it is wrong to blame the Reagan tax cuts for the recession-driven deficits of the early 1980s. Indeed, I suspect most leftists privately agree with that assessment.

cbo-1990-deficit-forecast_CBO_Cato 

Source: CBO, Cato

But there’s still a widespread belief that Reagan’s tax policy put the United States on an unsustainable fiscal path.

Yet the Congressional Budget Office, as Reagan left office in early 1989, projected that budget deficits, which had been consistently shrinking as a share of GDP, would continue to shrink if Reagan’s policies were left in place.

Moreover, the deficit was falling because government spending was projected to grow slower than the private sector, which is the key to good fiscal policy.

The Border Tax

One of the ways the Trump administration intend to balance the books is through the imposition of border taxes. They may become embroiled in the quagmire of legal challenges, that they are in contravention of World Trade Organisation rules, but I shall leave that topic for another time.

This February 2017 article from the Peterson Institute – PIIE Debates Border Adjustment Tax is an excellent primer on the pros and cons of this controversial policy proposal. The Peterson conference delegates did manage to concur that the corporate tax rate should be lower – the Trump proposal would merely bring the rate in line with the current level of corporate tax in Germany. The delegates also agreed that some form of ad valorem tax should be introduced to make up the tax shortfall, although they accepted that this would directly encroach on individual State taxation systems. Peterson’s Adam Posen raised the valid concern that VAT tends to fall most heavily upon the poorest in society, thus increasing income inequality still further. Adjusting the tax system is always fraught with dangers.

At the heart of the Peterson debate was the impact a Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) would have on US businesses:-

Figure 1 below shows net exports to total trade in a sector, relative to how labor intensive the sector is. The size of the bubbles reflects the size of total trade in the sector. Two things are important: (1) Most industries are net importers, thus they believe they will be forced to raise prices under the proposal. (2) The industries that will gain the most—those with a relatively high labor cost share and positive net exports—are largely absent in the United States. The aerospace industry is the lone exception. This breakdown implies that many more big lobbies will be against the BAT than in favor.

Impact of BAT - BLS, Census Bureau

Source: BLS, US Census Bureau

BAT revenues are estimated to be around $100bln per annum, about half the cost of the corporate tax cut, using the more conservative Tax Foundation estimate, however, this assumes that the trade deficit remains unchanged in response to the imposition of BAT. Whilst some countries will see their currencies decline versus the US$ the recent plight of the Mexican Peso begs caution. It depreciated from USDMXN 18.2 to 21 versus the US$ in the aftermath of the US election but has since recovered to around USDMXN 19.

Financial Market Response and Investment Opportunities

The table below shows the level of the US$ Index, S&P500 Stock Index and the US 10yr Government Bond Yield on elections week and yesterday:-

US_Markets_pre-post_Trump (1)

Source: Investing.com

It is worth noting that the US$ Index initially strengthened into the end of 2016, testing 104. It has subsequently moderated. 10yr bond yields also rose sharply, reaching 2.64%, but have since consolidated. It is the US stock market, which continues to achieve new all-time highs, which maintains faith in the pro-business credentials of the new administration.

The US bond market is dogged by the twin concerns of the fiscal profligacy of the government on the one hand and the hawkish intentions of the Federal Reserve, determined to normalise interest rates whilst they still can, on the other.

US GDP growth moderated in Q1. Commodity prices for staples, such as Iron Ore, Copper and Oil have diminished, as Chinese demand has waned of late. Meanwhile rising purchasing managers indices seem to be correlating with a rise in inventories. Personal income continues to growth slowly and personal savings has remains subdued, household debt to GDP is rising slightly but it remains well below the levels seen early in the decade. Consumers are unlikely to increase spending dramatically until they are more confident about long-term employment prospects. I wrote, last month about the impact of technology on jobs, in – Will technology change the prospects for emerging market growth?    The impact on developed market employment will also be profound, but, I believe, it is also influencing the consumers’ response to higher prices. As prices rise, demand will fall. Central Banks should not target an inflation rate because it distorts the efficient working of the economy, but wage inflation, about which they are inclined to obsess, is likely to be subdued for a protracted period – years rather than months – by the effects of new technology.

Where does this leave stocks and bonds? Bond yields may rise if the US government deficit explodes: and a significant increase in bond yields will inevitably detract from the allure of the stock market. For the present, however, we continue to make new highs in stocks – the Nasdaq finally breached its, dot-com induced, 2000 highs at the end of April, after sixteen years – S&P500 valuations are high (a PE of 23 times and a CAPE of 27 times earnings) and yet “Buy American, Hire American” is a compelling slogan. As an international firm, hoping to continue selling your products to the United States, it makes sense to invest there. Pro-business US economic policy will continue to drive US stocks: the words of Pink Floyd spring to mind…we call it riding the gravy train.

US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?

US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?

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Macro Letter – No 74 – 07-04-2017

US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?

  • With 30yr Swap yields below T-bond yields arbitrage should be possible
  • Higher capital requirements have increased the cost of holding T-bonds
  • Central clearing has reduced counterparty risk for investors in swaps
  • Maintaining swap market liquidity will be a critical role for Central Banks in the next crisis

Global investors are drawn to US fixed income markets, among other reasons, because of the depth of liquidity. The long term investor, wishing to match assets against liabilities would traditionally purchase US Treasury bonds (T-bonds). This pattern of investment has not changed, but the yield on longer dated Treasuries has become structurally higher than the yield on interest rate swaps (IRS).

In a normally functioning market the lowest yield for a given maturity is usually the yield on government bonds – the so called risk free rate – however, regulatory and monetary policy changes have undermined this relationship.

Writing in March 2016 for Forbes, Darrell Duffie of Stanford University – Why Are Big Banks Offering Less Liquidity To Bond Markets?  described the part of the story which relates to the repo market:-

The new Supplementary Leverage Ratio (SLR) rule changes everything for the repo market. For the largest U.S. banks, the SLR, meant to backstop risk-adjusted capital requirements, now requires 6% capital for all assets, regardless of their risk. For a typical large dealer bank, the SLR is a binding constraint and therefore pushes up the bank’s required equity for a $100 million repo trade by as much as for any other new position of the same gross size, for example a risky real estate loan of $100 million. This means that the bank’s required profit on a repo trade must be in the vicinity of the profit on a risky real estate loan in order for the repo trade to be viable for shareholder value maximization. That profit hurdle has become almost prohibitive for repo intermediation, so banks are providing dramatically less liquidity to the repo market. As a result, the spread between repo rates paid by non-banks and by banks has roughly tripled. The three-month treasury-secured repo rates paid by non-bank dealers are now even higher than three-month unsecured borrowing rates paid by banks, a significant market distortion. Trade volume in the bank-to-non-bank dealer market for U.S. government securities repo is less than half of 2012 levels.

Other factors that are distorting the Bond/Swap relationship include tighter macro prudential regulation and reduced dealer balance sheet capacity. Another factor is the activities of companies issuing debt.

Companies exchange floating rates of interest for fixed rates. When a company sells fixed-rate debt, it can use a swap to offset the payment of a bond coupon and pay a lower floating rate. Heavy corporate issuance can depress the spread between swaps and bonds. This can be exacerbated when dealers are swamped by sales of T-bonds. A combination of heavy company issuance being swapped and higher dealer inventories of Treasury debt, might explain why swap spreads turn negative over shorter periods.

Back in 2015, when the 10yr spread turned sharply negative, Deutsche Bank estimated that the long term fair value for swaps was 3bp higher than the same maturity T-bond. But negative spreads have continued. A side effect has been to raise the cost of US government financing, but Federal Reserve buying has probably more than compensated for this.

The declining volume of transactions in the repo market is one factor, the declining liquidity in the T-bond market is another. The quantitative easing policies of the Federal Reserve have lowered yields but they have also lowered liquidity of benchmark issues.

The final factor to consider is the demand for leveraged investment. One solution to the problem of matching assets versus liabilities is to leverage one’s investment in order to generate the requisite yield. This does, however, dramatically increase the risk profile of one’s portfolio. The easiest market in which to leverage a fixed income investment remains the IRS market but, as a white paper published last May – PNC – Why are swap rates trading below US Treasury Rates? highlights, the cost of leverage in the swap market has, if anything, increased more than in the bond repo market:-

The regulatory requirement for central clearing of most interest rate swaps (except for swaps with commercial end users) has removed counterparty risk from such swap contracts. Regulatory hedging costs and balance sheet constraints have also come into effect over the past few years. These rules have significantly reduced the market-making activity of swap dealers and increased the cost of leverage for such dealers. This is evidenced in the repo rates versus the Overnight Interest Swap* (OIS) basis widening. This basis widening strips rate expectations (OIS) from the pure funding premium (repo) rates. Swaps and Treasuries are less connected than in the past. The spread between them is a reflection of the relative demand for securities, which need to be financed, versus derivatives, which do not.

*The LIBOR-OIS Spread: The difference between LIBOR and OIS is called the LIBOR-OIS Spread and is deemed to be the health taking into consideration risk and liquidity. (An Overnight Index Swap (OIS) is a swap where the floating payments are based on the overnight Federal Funds Rate.)

For a more nuanced explanation, the publication, last month by Urban J. Jermann of the Wharton School, of a paper entitled – Negative Swap Spreads and Limited Arbitrage – is most insightful. Here are his conclusions based on the results of his arbitrage model:-

Negative swap spreads are inconsistent with an arbitrage-free environment. In reality, arbitrage is not costless. I have presented a model where specialized dealers trade swaps and bonds of different maturities. Costs for holding bonds can put a price wedge between bonds and swaps. I show a limiting case with very high bond holding costs, expected swap spreads should be negative. In this case, no term premium is required to price swaps, and this results in a significantly lower fixed swap rate. As a function of the level of bond holding costs, the model can move between this benchmark and the arbitrage-free case. The quantitative analysis of the model shows that under plausible holding costs, expected swap spreads are consistent with the values observed since 2008. Demand effects would operate in the model but are not explicitly required for these results.

My model can capture relatively rich interest rate dynamics. Conditional on the short rate, the model predicts a negative link between the term spread and the swap spread. The paper has presented some empirical evidence consistent with this property.

The chart below, which covers the period from 1999 up to Q3 2015, shows the evolution before and after the Great Financial Crisis. It is worth noting that the absolute yield may be an influence on this relationship too: as yields have risen in the past year, 30yr swap spreads have become less negative, 5yr and 10yr spreads have reverted to positive territory:-

US Swap Spreads Zero Hedge Goldman Sachs

Source: ZeroHedge, Goldman Sachs

This table shows the current rates and spreads (6-4-2017):-

Bond_-_Swap_Spread_6-4-17

Source: Investing.com, The Financials.com

Conclusion and investment opportunity

The term “Risk-Free Rate” has always been suspect to my mind. As an investor, one seeks the highest return for the lowest risk. How different investors define risk varies of course, but, in public markets, illiquidity is usually high on the list of risks for which an investor would wish to be paid. If longer dated US T-bonds trade at a structurally higher yield than IRS’s, it is partly because they are perceived to lack their once vaunted liquidity. Dealers hold lower inventories of bonds, repo volumes have collapsed and central counterparty clearing of swaps has vastly reduced the counterparty risks of these, derivative, instruments. Added to this, as Jermann points out in his paper, frictional costs and uncertainty, about capital requirements and funding availability, make arbitrage between swaps and T-bonds far less clear cut.

When the German bond market collapsed during the unification crisis of the late 1980’s, it was Bund futures rather than Bunds which were preferred by traders. They offered liquidity and central counterparty clearing: and they did not require a repurchase agreement to set up the trade.

Today the IRS market increasingly determines the cost of finance, during the next crisis IRS yields may rise or fall by substantially more than the same maturity of US T-bond, but that is because they are the most liquid instruments and are only indirectly supported by the Central Bank.

At its heart, the Great Financial Crisis revolved around a drying up of liquidity in multiple financial markets simultaneously. Tightening of regulation and increases in capital requirements since the crisis has permanently reduced liquidity in many of these markets. Meanwhile, increasingly sophisticated technology has increased the speed at which liquidity provision can be withdrawn.

It behoves the Federal Reserve to become an active participant in the IRS market. Control of the swap market is likely to be the key to maintaining market stability, come the next crisis. IRS’s, replete with their leveraged investors, have assumed the mantle which was once the preserve of the US Treasury market.

In previous crises the “flight to quality” effect was substantial, in the next, with such a small free float of actively traded T-bonds, which are not already owned by the Federal Reserve, the effect is likely to be much greater. The latest FOMC Minutes suggest the Fed may turn its attention towards reducing the size of its balance sheet but the timing is still unclear and the first asset disposals are likely to be Mortgage Backed Securities rather than T-bonds.

Meanwhile, although interest rates have risen from historic lows they remain far below their long run average. Pension funds and other long term investors still require 7% or more in annualised returns in order to meet their liabilities. They are being forced to continuously increase their investment risk and many have chosen to use the swap market. The next crisis is likely to see an even more pronounced unravelling than in 2008/2009. The unravelling may not happen for some while but the stresses are likely to be focused on the IRS market.

Equity valuation in a de-globalising world

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Macro Letter – No 68 – 13-01-2017

Equity valuation in a de-globalising world

  • The Federal Reserve will raise rates in the coming year
  • The positive Yield Gap will vanish but equity markets should still rise
  • After an eight year bull market equities are vulnerable to negative shocks
  • A value based investment approach is to be favoured even in the current environment

In this Macro Letter I review stock market valuation. I conclude with some general recommendations but the main purpose of my letter is to investigate different methods of valuation and consider the benefits and dangers of diversification. I begin by looking at the US market and the prospects for the US economy. Then I turn to global equity markets, where I consider the benefits and perils of diversification into Frontier stocks. I go on to review global industry sectors, before returning to examine the long term value to be found in developed markets. I finish by looking at the recent outperformance of Value versus Growth.

US Stocks and the Yield Gap

The Equity bull market is entering its eighth year and for US stocks this is the second longest bull-market since WWII – the longest being, between 1987 and 2000. The current bull-market has differed from the 1987-2000 period in that interest rates have fallen throughout the period. Bond yields have also declined to historically low levels. The Yield Gap – the premium of dividend yields over bond yields – which had been inverted since the mid-1950’s, turned positive once more. The chart below shows the yield of the S&P500 and 10yr T-Bonds since 1900:-

yield-gap-in-a-longer-term-context-jpeg

Source: Reuters

What this chart shows most clearly is that the return to a positive Yield Gap has been a function of falling bond yields rather than any substantial rise in dividend pay-out.

The chart below looks at the relationships between the Yield Gap and the real return on US 10yr Treasuries and S&P500 dividends since 1930 – I have used the Implicit Price Deflator as the measure of inflation:-

us_yield_gap_-_real_bond_yld_-_real_div_yld

Source: Multpl, St Louis Federal Reserve

The decline in the real dividend yield was a response to rising inflation from the late 1950’s onwards. The return to a positive Yield Gap has been a recent phenomenon. The average Yield Gap since 1900 is -0.51%, since 1930 it has been -1.17%. It has been below its long-run average at -0.37% since 2008. The executive officers of US corporations will continue to favour share buy-backs over increased dividends – I do not expect dividend yields to keep pace with any pick-up in inflation in the near-term, but, share buy-backs will continue to support stocks in general.

S&P 500 forecasts for 2017

What does this mean for the return on the S&P 500 in 2017? According to Bloomberg, the consensus forecast is for a rise of 4% but the range of forecasts is a rather narrow +1.3% to +8.3%. As at the close on 11th January we were already up 1.6% from the 30th December close.

Corporate earnings continue to rise although the pace of increase has moderated. Factset Earning Insight – January 6th – makes the following observations:-

Earnings Growth: For Q4 2016, the estimated earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 is 3.0%. If the index reports earnings growth for Q4, it will mark the first time the index has seen year-over-year growth in earnings for two consecutive quarters since Q4 2014 and Q1 2015.

Earnings Revisions: On September 30, the estimated earnings growth rate for Q4 2016 was 5.2%. Ten of the eleven sectors have lower growth rates today (compared to September 30) due to downward revisions to earnings estimates, led by the Materials sector.

Earnings Guidance: For Q4 2016, 77 S&P 500 companies have issued negative EPS guidance and 34 S&P 500 companies have issued positive EPS guidance.

Valuation: The forward 12-month P/E ratio for the S&P 500 is 17.1. This P/E ratio is above the 5-year average (15.1) and the 10-year average (14.4).

Earnings Scorecard: As of today (with 4% of the companies in the S&P 500 reporting actual results for Q4 2016), 73% of S&P 500 companies have beat the mean EPS estimate and 36% of S&P 500 companies have beat the mean sales estimate.

…For Q1 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 11.0% and revenue growth of 7.9%.

For Q2 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 10.5% and revenue growth of 6.0%.

For all of 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 11.5% and revenue growth of 5.9%.

…At the sector level, the Energy (33.2) sector has the highest forward 12-month P/E ratio, while the Telecom Services (14.2) and Financials (14.2) sectors have the lowest forward 12-month P/E ratios. Nine sectors have forward 12-month P/E ratios that are above their 10-year averages, led by the Energy (33.2 vs. 17.9) sector. One sector (Telecom Services) has a forward 12-month P/E ratio that is below the 10-year average (14.2 vs. 14.6).

Other indicators, which should be supportive for the US economy, include the ISM – PMI Index which is closely correlated to the business cycle. It came in at 54. 7 the highest since November 2014. Here is a 10 year chart:-

united-states-business-confidence-10yr

Source: Trading Economics, Institute for Supply Management

A shorter-term indicator for the US economy is the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index – CESI. The chart below suggests that the surprise caused by Trump’s presidential victory is still gathering momentum:-

citi_cesi_index_-_january_2017_-_yardeni

Source: Yardeni, Citigroup

With both the ISM and the CESI indices rising, even the most bearish of macro-economist is likely to be “sceptically positive” on the US economy and this should be supportive for the US stock market.

Global Stocks

I have focussed on the US stock market because of the close correlation between the US and other major stock markets around the world.

As the world becomes less globalised, or as one moves away from the major stock markets, the diversification benefits of a global portfolio, such as the one Andrew Craig describes in his book “How to Own the World”, becomes more enticing. Andrew recommends diversification by asset class, but even a diversified equity portfolio – without the addition of bonds, commodities, real-estate and infrastructure – can offer an enhanced Sharpe Ratio. The table below looks at the three year monthly correlations of emerging and frontier stock markets with a correlation of less than 0.40 to the US market:-

Country Correlations < 0.40 to US stocks – 36 months
Malawi -0.12
Iraq -0.12
Panama -0.01
Cambodia 0.00
Rwanda 0.01
Venezuela 0.01
Uganda 0.01
Trinidad and Tobago 0.02
Tunisia 0.02
Botswana 0.07
Mauritius 0.07
Tanzania 0.08
Palestine 0.09
Laos 0.09
Ghana 0.10
Zambia 0.10
Peru 0.11
Bahrain 0.13
Jordan 0.15
Cote D’Ivoire 0.15
Sri Lanka 0.16
Argentina 0.17
Nigeria 0.17
Qatar 0.21
Kenya 0.21
Pakistan 0.24
Jamaica 0.24
Oman 0.25
Colombia 0.27
Saudi Arabia 0.31
Kuwait 0.36
China 0.37
Bermuda 0.38
Egypt 0.38
Vietnam 0.39

Source: Investment Frontier

Many of these stock markets are illiquid or suffer from investment restrictions: but here you will find some of the fastest growing economies in the world. These correlations look beguilingly low but remember that during broad-based market declines short-term correlations tend to rise – the illusory nature of liquidity drives this process. The price of a financial asset is driven by investment flows, cognitive behavioural biases drive investment decisions. Herd instinct rises dramatically when fear replaces greed.

Industry Sectors

The major stock markets also offer opportunities. Looking globally by industry sector there are some attractive longer-term value propositions. The table below ranks the major markets by sector as at 30th December 2016. The sectors have been sorted by trailing P/E ratio (mining and alternative energy P/E data is absent but by other measures mining is relatively cheap):-

Industry Sector PE PC PB PS DY
Real Est Serv 11.2 14.9 1 2.2 2.70%
Auto 12.1 5.7 1.4 0.6 2.50%
Banks 13.8 9.6 1.1 3.30%
Life Insur 14.2 6.4 1.1 0.7 3.00%
Electricity 14.9 5.6 1.3 1.1 4.00%
Forest & Paper 15.1 7.1 1.6 0.9 2.90%
Nonlife Ins 16.2 10.4 1.3 1 2.40%
Financial Serv 16.7 13.8 1.8 2.3 2.20%
Telecom (fxd) 17.5 5.5 2.3 1.4 4.20%
Travel & Leisure 17.6 9.1 2.9 1.4 2.10%
Tech HW & Equ 18.3 10.7 3 1.8 2.30%
Chemicals 18.8 10.1 2.4 1.3 2.60%
Household Gds 18.8 15 2.8 1.7 2.40%
Gen Ind 19 11.3 1.9 1.1 2.40%
REITs 20.4 16.7 1.7 7.7 4.50%
Construction 20.9 11.4 1.9 0.9 2.10%
Telecom (mob) 21.4 5.6 1.9 1.5 3.30%
Tobacco 21.5 21.1 9.8 4.9 3.60%
Media 21.6 10.9 2.9 2 2.10%
Food Retail 21.6 10.2 2.8 0.4 2.00%
Eltro & Elect Equ 21.7 12.2 2.2 1 1.70%
Pharma & Bio 22.4 16.3 3.4 3.5 2.30%
Food Prod 23.2 14.3 2.6 1.2 2.20%
Healthcare 23.7 13.1 3.2 1.4 1.10%
Leisure Gds 23.9 8.4 2 1.1 1.20%
Inds Transport 23.9 10.4 2.5 1.3 2.50%
Aero & Def 23.9 14.9 5 1.3 2.10%
Inds Eng 24.6 12.4 2.5 1.1 2.00%
Personal Gds 24.7 16.8 4.3 2 2.00%
Gen Retail 25.8 14 4.2 1 1.70%
Support Serv 26.4 11.9 2.8 1.1 1.90%
Beverages 27 14.9 4.2 2.4 2.70%
SW & Comp Serv 27.3 15.9 4.5 3.8 1.10%
Oil Service 73.9 11.8 1.9 1.7 3.70%
Oil&Gas Prod 116.9 8.2 1.4 1 3.10%
Inds Metal 165.7 7.7 1.1 0.7 2.40%
Mining 8.9 1.6 1.5 1.90%
Alt Energy 10.5 1.7 0.9 1.20%

Source: Star Capital

A number of sectors have been out of favour since 2008 and may remain so in 2017 but it is useful to know where under-performance can be found.

Developed Market Opportunities

At a country level there is better long-term valuation to be found outside the US, even among the developed countries. Here is Star Capital’s 10 to 15 year total annual return forecast for the major markets and regions:-

Country CAPE Forecast PB Forecast ø Forecast
Italy 12.7 9.10% 1.2 10.40% 9.70%
Spain 11.7 9.70% 1.4 8.80% 9.30%
United Kingdom 14.8 8.00% 1.8 7.20% 7.60%
France 18.3 6.60% 1.6 8.10% 7.30%
Australia 16.8 7.10% 2 6.60% 6.90%
Germany 18.6 6.40% 1.8 7.40% 6.90%
Japan 24.9 4.40% 1.3 9.40% 6.90%
Netherlands 19.8 6.00% 1.8 7.20% 6.60%
Canada 20.5 5.70% 1.9 6.90% 6.30%
Sweden 20.6 5.70% 2.1 6.20% 5.90%
Switzerland 21.5 5.40% 2.4 5.30% 5.30%
United States 26.4 4.00% 2.9 4.10% 4.00%
Emerging Markets 14 8.40% 1.6 7.90% 8.20%
Developed Europe 16.6 7.20% 1.8 7.40% 7.30%
World AC 20.8 5.60% 2 6.70% 6.20%
Developed Markets 21.9 5.30% 2 6.50% 5.90%

Source: Star Capital, Bloomberg, Reuters

I have sorted this data based on Star Capital’s composite annual return forecast. The first three countries, Italy, Spain and the UK, all face uncertainty linked to the future of the EU. Interestingly Switzerland offers better long-term returns than the US – with considerably less currency risk for the international investor.

Value Investing

Since the financial crisis in 2008 through to 2015 Growth stocks outperformed Value stocks. I predict a sea-change. The fathers of Value Investing, Ben Graham and David Dodd first published Securities Analysis in 1934. Towards the end of his career Graham opined (emphasis is mine):-

I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook “Graham and Dodd” was first published; but the situation has changed a great deal since then. In the old days any well-trained security analyst could do a good professional job of selecting undervalued issues through detailed studies; but in the light of the enormous amount of research now being carried on, I doubt whether in most cases such extensive efforts will generate sufficiently superior selections to justify their cost. To that very limited extent, I’m on the side of the “efficient market” school of thought now generally accepted by the professors.

As we embrace the “Big Data” era, the cost of analysing vast amounts of data will collapse, whilst, at the same time, the amount of available data will grow exponentially. I believe we are at the dawn of a new age for Value Investing where the quantitative analysis of a vast array of qualitative factors will allow investors to defy the Efficient Market Hypothesis, even if we cannot satisfactorily refute Eugene Fama’s premise. In 2016, for the first time in seven years, Value beat Growth across all major categories:-

value_outperformance_of_growth_2016

Source: MSCI, Bloomberg

Value stocks tend to exhibit higher volatility than growth stocks, but volatility is only one aspect of risk: buying Value offers long-term protection, especially during an economic downturn. According to Bloomberg’s Nir Kaissar, Value has consistently underperformed Growth since the financial crisis except in US Small Cap’s – his article – Value Investing Hits Back – is insightful.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

When I first began investing in stocks the one of the general rules was to buy when the P/E ratio was below 10 and sell when it rose above 20. Today, of the world’s major stock markets, only Russia and China offer single digit P/Es – low ratios are a structural feature of these markets. I wrote about Russia last month in – Russia – Will the Bear come in from the cold? My conclusion was that one should be cautiously optimistic:-

The Russian stock market has already factored in much of the positive economic and political news. The OPEC deal took shape in a series of well publicised stages. The “Trump Effect” is unlikely to be as significant as some commentators hope. The ending of sanctions is the one factor which could act as a positive price shock, however, the Russian economy has suffered a severe recession and now appears to be recovering of its own accord.

Interest rates in the US will rise, though probably not by as much, nor as quickly as the market is currently betting. A value based approach to stock selection offers greater protection and greater return in the long run.

The US stock market continues to rise. The US economy looks set to grow more rapidly in 2017 due to tax cuts and fiscal stimulus, but, for international companies which export to the US, the threat of protectionism is likely to temper enthusiasm for their stocks.

US financial services firms were a big winner after the Trump election result, they should continue to benefit even as interest rates increase – yield curves will steepen, increasing return on capital. US telecommunications stocks have a performed well since the election along with biotechnology – I have no specific view on these industries. Energy stocks have also rallied, perhaps as much on the OPEC deal as the Trump triumph – many new technologies are starting to be implemented by the energy industry but enthusiasm for these stocks may be tempered by a decline in oil prices once the rig count rebounds. The Baker-Hughes Rig Count ended the year at 525 up from a low of 316 in May. The old high of 1,609 was set back in October 2014 – there is plenty of spare capacity which will exert downward pressure on oil prices.

Indian economic growth will outpace China for another year. Despite a weakening Chinese Yuan, Vietnam remains competitive – it is on the cusp of moving from Frontier to Emerging Market status. Indonesia also looks likely to perform well during 2017, GDP forecasts are around 5%; however, Indonesia’s strong reliance on commodity exports makes it more vulnerable than some of its South and East Asian neighbours.

US growth – has the windfall of cheap oil arrived or is there a spectre at the feast?

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Macro Letter – No 53 – 22-04-2016

US growth – has the windfall of cheap oil arrived or is there a spectre at the feast?

  • Oil prices have been below $60/bbl since late 2014
  • The benefit of cheaper oil is being felt across the US
  • Without lower oil prices US growth would be significantly lower
  • Increasing levels of debt are stifling the benefits of lower prices

In this letter I want to revisit a topic I last discussed back in June 2015 – Can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment? In this article I wrote:-

The impact of the oil price collapse is still feeding through the US economy but, since the most vulnerable states have learnt the lessons of the 1980’s and diversified away from an excessive reliance of on the energy sector, the short-run downturn will be muted whilst the long-run benefits of new technology will be transformative. US oil production at $10/barrel would have sounded ludicrous less than five years ago: today it seems almost plausible.

This week the San Francisco Fed picked up the theme in their FRBSF Economic Letter – The Elusive Boost from Cheap Oil:-

The plunge in oil prices since the middle of 2014 has not translated into a dramatic boost for consumer spending, which has continued to grow moderately. This has been particularly surprising since the sharp drop should free up income for households to use toward other purchases. Lessons from an empirical model of learning suggest that the weak response may reflect that consumers initially viewed cheaper oil as a temporary condition. If oil prices remain low, consumer perceptions could change, which would boost spending.

Given the perceived wisdom of the majority of central banks – that deflation is evil and must be punished – the lack of consumer spending is a perfect example of the validity of the Fed’s inflation targeting policy; except that, as this article suggests, deflations effect on spending is transitory. I could go on to discuss the danger of inflation targeting, arguing that the policy is at odds with millennia of data showing that technology is deflationary, enabling the consumer to pay less and get more. But I’ll save this for another day.

The FRBSF paper looks at the WTI spot and futures price. They suggest that market participants gradually revise their price assumptions in response to new information, concluding:-

The steep decline in oil prices since June 2014 did not translate into a strong boost to consumer spending. While other factors like weak foreign growth and strong dollar appreciation have contributed to this weaker-than-expected response, part of the muted boost from cheaper oil appears to stem from the fact that consumers expected this decline to be temporary. Because of this, households saved rather than spent the gains from lower prices at the pump. However, continued low oil prices could change consumer perceptions, leading them to increase spending as they learn about this greater degree of persistence.

In a related article the Kansas City Fed – Macro Bulletin – The Drag of Energy and Manufacturing on Productivity Growth observes that the changing industry mix away from energy and manufacturing, towards the production of services, has subtracted 0.75% from productivity growth. They attribute this to the strength of the US$ and a decline in manufacturing and mining.

…even if the industry mix stabilizes, the relative rise in services and relative declines in manufacturing and mining are likely to have a persistent negative effect on productivity growth going forward.

The service and finance sector of the economy has a lower economic multiplier than the manufacturing sector, a trend which has been accelerating since 1980. A by-product of the growth in the financial sector has been a massive increase in debt relative to GDP. By some estimates it now requires $3.30 of debt to create $1 of GDP growth. A reduction of $35trln would be needed to get debt to GDP back to 150% – a level considered to be structurally sustainable.

Meanwhile, US corporate profits remain a concern as this chart from PFS group indicates:-

corporate-profits-peak

Source: PFS Group, Bloomberg

The chart below from Peter Tenebrarum – Acting Man looks at whole economy profits – it is perhaps more alarming still:-

saupload_4-whole-economy-profits

Source: Acting Man

With energy input costs falling, the beneficiaries should be non-energy corporates or consumers. Yet wholesale inventories are rising, total business sales seem to have lost momentum and, whilst TMS-2 Money Supply growth remains solid at 8%, it is principally due to commercial and industrial lending.

US oil production has fallen below 9mln bpd versus a peak of 9.6mln. Rig count last week was 351 down three from the previous week but down 383 from the same time last year. Meanwhile the failure of Saudi Arabia to curtail production, limits the potential for the oil market to rally.

From a global perspective, cheap fuel appears to be cushioning the US from economic headwinds in other parts of the world. Employment outside mining and manufacturing is steady, and wages are finally starting to rise. However, the overhang of debt and muted level of house price appreciation has dampened the animal spirits of the US consumer:-

US-house-prices-_Federal_Housing_Finance_Agency

Source: Global Property Guide, Federal Housing Finance Agency

According to the Dallas Fed – Increased Credit Availability, Rising Asset Prices Help Boost Consumer Spendingthe consumer is beginning to emerge:-

A combination of much less household debt, revived access to consumer credit and recovering asset prices have bolstered U.S. consumer spending. This trend will likely continue despite an estimated 50 percent reduction since the mid-2000s of the housing wealth effect— an important amplifier during the boom years.

…Since the Great Recession, the ratio of household debt-to-income has fallen back to about 107 percent, a more sustainable—albeit relatively high—level.

…The wealth-to-income ratio rose from about 530 percent in fourth quarter 2003 to 650 percent in mid-2007 as equity and house prices surged. Not surprisingly, consumer spending also jumped.

The conventional estimate of the wealth effect—the impact of higher household wealth on aggregate consumption—is 3 percent, or $3 in additional spending every year for each $100 increase in wealth.

…Recent research suggests that the spendability, or wealth effect, of liquid financial assets—almost $9 for every $100—is far greater than the effect for illiquid financial assets, which explains why falling equity prices do not generate larger cutbacks in aggregate consumer spending. Other things equal, higher mortgage and consumer debt significantly depress consumer spending.

…The estimated housing wealth effect varies over time and captures the ability of consumers to tap into their housing wealth. It rose steadily from about 1.3 percent in the early 1990s to a peak of about 3.5 percent in the mid- 2000s. It has since halved, to about the same level as that of the mid-1990s. During the subprime and housing booms, rising house prices and housing wealth effects propagated and amplified expansion of consumption and GDP.

During the bust, this mechanism went into reverse. High levels of mortgage debt, falling house prices and a reduced ability to tap housing equity generated greater savings and reduced consumer spending. Fortunately, house prices have recovered, deleveraging has slowed or stopped, and consumer spending is strong, even though the housing wealth effect is only half as large as it was in the mid-2000s.

Countering the positive spin placed on the consumer credit data by the Dallas Fed is a recent interview with  Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub by Financial Sense – Credit Card Debt Levels Reaching Unsustainable Levels:-

In 2015, we accumulated almost $71 billion in new credit card debt. And for the first time since the Great Recession, we broke the $900 billion level in total credit card debt so we are back on track in getting to $1 trillion.

total-consumer-credit-outstanding

Source: Bloomberg, Financial Sense

Another factor which has been holding back the US economy has been the change in the nature of employment. Full-time jobs have been replaced by lower paying part-time roles and the participation rate has been in decline. This may also be changing, but is likely to be limited, as the Kansas City Fed – Flowing into Employment: Implications for the Participation Rate reports:-

After a long stretch of declines, the labor force participation rate has risen in recent months, driven in part by an increase in the share of prime-age people flowing into employment from outside the labor force. So far, this flow has remained largely confined to those with higher educational attainment, suggesting further increases in labor force participation rate could be relatively limited.

…Overall, the scenarios show that while more prime-age people could enter the labor force in the coming years, the cyclical improvement in the overall participation rate may be limited to the extent only those with higher educational attainment flow into employment. In addition, the potential increase in the participation rate could be constrained by other factors such as an increase in the share of prime-age population that reports they are either retired or disabled and a limited pool of people saying they want a job, even if they have not looked recently. Thus, while higher NE flow indicates the prime-age participation rate could increase further, it will likely remain lower than its pre-recession rate.

Conclusion

At the 2015 EIA conference Adrian Cooper of Oxford Economics gave a presentation – The Macroeconomic Impact of Lower Oil Prices – in which he estimated that a $30pb decline in the oil price would add 0.9% to US GDP between 2015 and 2017. If this estimate is correct, lower oil is responsible for more than a quarter of the current US GDP growth. It has softened the decline from 2.9% to 2% seen over the last year.

I would argue that the windfall of lower oil prices has already arrived, it has shown up in the deterioration of the trade balance, the increase in wages versus consumer prices and the nascent rebound in the participation rate. That the impact has not been more dramatic is due to the headwinds on excessive debt and the strength of the US$ TWI – it rose from 103 in September 2014 to a high of 125 in January 2016. After the G20 meeting Shanghai it has retreated to 120.

According to the March 2015 BIS – Oil and debt report, total debt in the Oil and Gas sector increased from $1trln in 2006 to $2.5trln by 2015. The chart below looks at the sectoral breakdown of US Capex up to the end of 2013:-

US CAPEX by sector

Source: Business Insider, Compustat, Goldman Sachs

With 37% allocated to Energy and Materials by 2013 it is likely that the fall in oil prices will act as a drag on a large part of the stock market. Energy and Materials may represent less than 10% of the total but they impact substantially in the financial sector (15.75%).

Notwithstanding the fact that corporate defaults are at the highest level for seven years, financial institutions and their central bank masters will prefer to reschedule. This will act as a drag on new lending and on the profitability of the banking sector.

The table below from McGraw Hill shows the year to date performance of the S&P Spider and the sectoral ETFs. This year Financials are taking the strain whilst Energy has been the top performer – over one year, however, Energy is still the nemesis of the index.

Sector SPDR Fund % Change YTD % Change 1 year
S&P 500 Index 2.86% 0.10%
Consumer Discretionary (XLY) 2.23% 5.05%
Consumer Staples (XLP) 4.16% 6.83%
Energy (XLE) 10.20% -19.16%
Financial Services (XLFS) -2.49% 0.00%
Financials (XLF) -1.22% -2.85%
Health Care (XLV) -1.01% -3.31%
Industrials (XLI) 6.41% -0.07%
Materials (XLB) 8.45% -5.78%
Real Estate (XLRE) 1.98% 0.00%
Technology (XLK) 3.60% 5.19%
Utilities (XLU) 10.74% 7.08%

Source: McGraw Hill

The benefit of lower oil and gas prices will continue, but, until debt levels are reduced, anaemic GDP growth is likely to remain the pattern for the foreseeable future. In Hoisington Investment Management – Economic Review – Q1 2016 – Lacy Hunt makes the following observation:-

The Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China have been unable to gain traction with their monetary policies…. Excluding off balance sheet liabilities, at year-end the ratio of total public and private debt relative to GDP stood at 350%, 370%, 457% and 615%, for China, the United States, the Eurocurrency zone, and Japan, respectively…

The windfall of cheap oil has arrived, but cheap oil has been eclipsed by the beguiling spectre of cheap debt.

What are the bond markets telling us about inflation, recession and the path of central bank policy?

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Macro Letter – No 41 – 11-09-2015

What are the bond markets telling us about inflation, recession and the path of central bank policy?

  • Since January US Government bond yields have risen across the yield curve
  • Corporate bond yields have risen more rapidly as stock markets have retreated
  • China, Canada and Mexico have seen their currencies weaken against the US$

For several years some commentators have been concerned that the Federal Reserve is behind the curve and needs to tighten interest rates before inflation returns. To date, inflation – by which I refer narrowly to CPI – has remained subdued. The recent recovery in the US economy and improvement in the condition of the labour market has seen expectations of rate increases grow and bond market yields have risen in response. In this letter I want to examine whether the rise in yields is in expectation of a Fed rate increase, fears about the return of inflation or the potential onset of a recession for which the Federal Reserve and its acolytes around the globe are ill-equipped to manage.

Below is a table showing the change in yields since the beginning of February. Moody Baa rating is the lowest investment grade bond. Whilst the widening of spreads is consistent with the general increase in T-Bond yields, the yield on Baa bonds has risen by 30bp more than Moody BB – High Yield, sub-investment grade. This could be the beginning of an institutional reallocation of risk away from the corporate sector.

Bond       Spread over T-Bonds    
08-Sep 02-Feb Change 08-Sep 02-Feb Change
10yr US T-Bond 2.19 1.65 0.54 N/A N/A N/A
Baa Corporate 5.28 4.29 0.99 3.09 2.64 0.45
BB Corporate 5.55 4.86 0.69 3.36 3.21 0.15

 

Source: Ycharts and Investing.com

The chart below shows the evolution of Baa bond yields over the last two years:-

FRED Baa Corporate bond yield 2013-2015

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

The increase in the cost of financing for the corporate sector is slight but the trend, especially since May, is clear.

Another measure of the state of the economy is the breakeven expected inflation rate. This metric is derived from the differential between 10-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Securities and 10-Year Treasury Inflation-Indexed Constant Maturity Securities:-

FRED Breakeven Inflation rate 2007-2015

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

By this measure inflation expectations are near their lowest levels since 2010. It looks as if the bond markets are doing the Federal Reserve’s work for it. Added to which the July minutes of the FOMC stated:-

The risks to the forecast for real GDP and inflation were seen as tilted to the downside, reflecting the staff’s assessment that neither monetary nor fiscal policy was well positioned to help the economy withstand substantial adverse shocks.

This is hardly hiking rhetoric.

The International perspective

The table below looks at the largest importers into the US and their contribution to the US trade deficit as at December 2014:-

Country/Region Imports Deficit
China $467bln $343bln
EU $418bln $142bln
Canada $348bln $35bln
Mexico $294bln $54bln
Japan $134bln $68bln

Source: US Census Bureau

The TWI US$ Index shows a rather different picture to the US$ Index chart I posted last month, it has strengthened against its major trading partners steadily since it lows in July 2011; after a brief correction, during the first half of 2015, the trend has been re-established and shows no signs of abating:-

FRED USD TWI 2008-2015

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

A closer inspection of the performance of the Loonie (CAD) and Peso (MXN) reveals an additional source of disinflation:-

CAD and MXN vs USD 2yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Focus Economics – After dismal performance in May, exports and imports increase in June – investigates the bifurcated impact of lower oil prices and a weaker currency on the prospects for the Mexican economy:-

Looking at the headline numbers, exports increased 1.2% year-on-year in June, which pushed overseas sales to USD 33.8 billion. The monthly expansion contrasted the dismal 8.8% contraction registered in May. June’s expansion stemmed mainly from a solid increase in non-oil exports (+6.8% yoy). Conversely, oil exports registered another bleak plunge (-41.0% yoy).

Should the U.S. economy continue to recover and the Mexican peso weaken, growth in Mexico’s overseas sales is likely to continue improving in the coming months.

Mexico’s gains have to some extent been at the expense of Canada as this August 2015 article from the Fraser Institute – Canada faces increased competition in U.S. market – explains:-

There are several possible explanations of the cessation of real export growth to the U.S. One is the slow growth of the U.S. economy over much of the period from 2000-2014, particularly during and following the Great Recession of 2008. Slower real growth of U.S. incomes can be expected to reduce the growth of demand for all types of goods including imports from Canada.

A second possible explanation is the appreciation of the Canadian dollar over much of the time period. For example, the Canadian dollar increased from an all-time low value of US$.6179 on Jan. 21, 2002 to an all-time high value of US$1.1030 on Nov. 7, 2007. It then depreciated modestly to a value of US$.9414 by Jan. 1, 2014.

A third possible explanation is the higher costs to shippers (and ultimately to U.S. importers) associated with tighter border security procedures implemented by U.S. authorities after 9/11.

Perhaps a more troubling and longer-lasting explanation is Canada’s loss of U.S. market share to rival exporters. For example, Canada’s share of total U.S. imports of motor vehicles and parts decreased by almost 12 percentage points from 2000 through 2013, while Mexico’s share increased by eight percentage points. Canada lost market share (particularly to China) in electrical machinery and even in its traditionally strong wood and paper products sectors.

There is fundamentally only one robust way for Canadian exporters to reverse the recent trend of market share loss to rivals. Namely, Canadian manufacturers must improve upon their very disappointing productivity performance over the past few decades—both absolutely and relatively to producers in other countries. Labour productivity in Canada grew by only 1.4 per cent annually over the period 1980-2011. By contrast, it grew at a 2.2 per cent annual rate in the U.S. Even worse, multifactor productivity—basically a measure of technological change in an economy—did not grow at all over that period in Canada.

With an election due on 19th October, the Canadian election campaign is focused on the weakness of the domestic economy and measures to stimulate growth. While energy prices struggle to rise, non-energy exports are likely to be a policy priority. After rate cuts in January and July, the Bank of Canada left rates unchanged this week, but with an election looming this is hardly a surprise.

China, as I mentioned in my last post here, unpegged its currency last month. Official economic forecasts remain robust but, as economic consultants Fathom Consulting pointed out in this July article for Thomson Reuters – Alpha Now – China a tale of two economies – there are many signs of a slowing of economic activity, except in the data:-

With its usual efficiency, China’s National Bureau of Statistics released its 2015 Q2 growth estimate earlier this week. Reportedly, GDP rose by 7.0% in the four quarters to Q2. We remain sceptical about the accuracy of China’s GDP data, and the speed with which they are compiled. Our own measure of economic activity — the China Momentum Indicator — suggests the current pace of growth is nearer 3.0%.

…although policymakers are reluctant to admit that China has slowed dramatically, the recent onslaught of measures aimed at stimulating the economy surely hints at their discomfort. While these measures may temporarily alleviate the downward pressure, they do very little to resolve China’s long standing problems of excess capacity, non-performing loans and perennially weak household consumption.

Accordingly, as China tries out the full range of its policy levers, we believe that eventually it will resort to exchange rate depreciation. Its recent heavy-handed intervention in the domestic stock market has demonstrated afresh its disregard for financial reform.

The chart below is the Fathom Consulting – China Momentum Indicator – note the increasing divergence with official GDP data:-

Fathom_Consulting_China_Momentum_Indicator

Source: Fathom Consulting/Thomson Reuters

A comparison between international government bonds also provides support for those who argue Fed policy should remain on hold:-

Government Bonds 2yr 2yr Change 5yr 5yr Change 10yr 10yr Change 30yr 30yr Change
08-Sep 02-Feb 08-Sep 02-Feb 08-Sep 02-Feb 08-Sep 02-Feb
US 0.74 0.47 0.27 1.52 1.17 0.35 2.19 1.65 0.54 2.96 2.23 0.73
Canada 0.45 0.39 0.06 0.79 0.61 0.18 1.48 1.25 0.23 2.24 1.83 0.41
Mexico 5.01* 4.13* 0.88 5.29 4.89 0.4 6.15 5.41 0.74 6.81 6.1 0.71
Germany -0.22 -0.19 -0.03 0.05 -0.04 0.09 0.68 0.32 0.36 1.44 0.9 0.54
Japan 0.02 0.04 -0.02 0.07 0.09 -0.02 0.37 0.34 0.03 1.41 1.31 0.1
China 2.59 3.22 -0.63 3.2 3.45 -0.25 3.37 3.53 -0.16 3.88 4.04 -0.16

*Mexico 3yr Bonds

Source: Investing.com

Canada and Mexico have both witnessed rising yields as their currencies declined, whilst Germany (a surrogate for the EU) and Japan have seen a marginal fall in shorter maturities but an increase for maturities of 10 years or more. China, with a still slowing economy and aided by PBoC policy, has lower yields across all maturities. Mexican inflation – the highest of these trading partners – was last recorded at 2.59% whilst core inflation was 2.31%. The 2yr/10yr curve for both Mexico and Canada, at just over 100bps, is flatter than the US at 145bp. The Chinese curve is flatter still.

A final, if somewhat tangential, article which provides evidence of a lack of inflationary pressure comes from this fascinating post by Stephen Duneier of Bija Advisors – Doctoring Deflation – in which he looks at the crisis in healthcare and predicts that computer power will radically reduce costs globally:-

The future of medical diagnosis is about to experience a radical shift. The same pocket sized computer which now holds the power to beat any human being at the game of chess, will soon be used to diagnose medical ailments and prescribe actions to follow, far more cheaply and with a whole lot more accuracy.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

The bond yield curves of America’s main import partners have steepened in train with the US – Canada being an exception – whilst stock markets are unchanged or lower over the same period – February to September. Corporate bond spreads have widened, especially the bottom of the investment grade category. Corporate earnings have exceeded expectations, as they so often do – see this paper by Jim Liew et al of John Hopkins for more on this topic – but by a negligible margin.

The FOMC has already expressed concern about the momentum of GDP growth, commodity prices remain under pressure, China has unpegged and the US$ TWI has reached new highs. This suggests to me, that inflation is not a risk, disinflationary forces are growing – especially driven by the commodity sector. Major central banks are unlikely to tighten but corporate bond yields may rise further.

Currencies

Remain long US$ especially against resource based currencies, but be careful of current account surplus countries which may see flight to quality flows in the event of “risk off” panic.

Stocks

At the risk of stating what any “value” investor should always look for, seek out firms with strong cash-flow, low leverage, earnings growth and comfortable dividend cover. In addition, in the current environment, avoid commodity sensitive stocks, especially in oil, coal, iron and steel.

Bonds

US T-Bonds will benefit from a strengthening US$, if the FOMC delay tightening this will favour shorter maturities. An early FOMC tightening, after initial weakness, will be a catalyst for capital repatriation – US T-Bonds will fare better in this scenario too. Bunds and JGBs are likely to witness similar reactions but, longer term, both their currencies and yields are less attractive.

US Growth and employment – can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment?

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Macro Letter – No 38 – 19-06-2015

US Growth and employment – can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment?

  • Last year’s oil price falls are still feeding through to the wider economy
  • Oil producing states have remained resilient despite the continued lower price of WTI
  • The wider economy has rebounded after the slowdown in Q1
  • Stock earnings growth is regaining upward momentum

At the end of last year I became cautious about the prospects for the US stock market. The principal concern was the effect a sustained decline in the price of oil was likely to have on the prospects for employment and economic growth.

The Texan Experience

Oil rich Texas represents a microcosm of the effect lower energy prices may be having on employment and growth. This article from December 2014 by Mauldin Economics – Oil, Employment, and Growth – neatly sums up my concerns at the end of last year:-

…we need to research in depth as we try to peer into the future and think about how 2015 will unfold. In forecasting US growth, I wrote that we really need to understand the relationships between the boom in energy production on the one hand and employment and overall growth in the US on the other. The old saw that falling oil prices are like a tax cut and are thus a net benefit to the US economy and consumers is not altogether clear to me. I certainly hope the net effect will be positive, but hope is not a realistic basis for a forecast. Let’s go back to two paragraphs I wrote last week:

Texas has been home to 40% of all new jobs created since June 2009. In 2013, the city of Houston had more housing starts than all of California. Much, though not all, of that growth is due directly to oil. Estimates are that 35–40% of total capital expenditure growth is related to energy. But it’s no secret that not only will energy-related capital expenditures not grow next year, they are likely to drop significantly. The news is full of stories about companies slashing their production budgets. This means lower employment, with all of the knock-on effects.

As we will see, energy production has been the main driver of growth in the US economy for the last five years. But changing demographics suggest that we might not need the job-creation machine of energy production as much in the future to ensure overall employment growth.

…The oil-rig count is already dropping, and it will continue to drop as long as oil stays below $60. That said, however, there is the real possibility that oil production in the United States will actually rise in 2015 because of projects already in the works. If you have already spent (or committed to spend) 30 or 40% of the cost of a well, you’re probably going to go ahead and finish that well. There’s enough work in the pipeline (pardon the pun) that drilling and production are not going to fall off a cliff next quarter. But by the close of 2015 we will see a significant reduction in drilling.

Given present supply and demand characteristics, oil in the $40 range is entirely plausible. It may not stay down there for all that long (in the grand scheme of things), but it will reduce the likelihood that loans of the nature and size that were extended the last few years will be made in the future. Which is entirely the purpose of the Saudis’ refusing to reduce their own production. A side benefit to them (and the rest of the world) is that they also hurt Russia and Iran.

Employment associated with energy production is going to fall over the course of next year. It’s not all bad news, though. Employment that benefits from lower energy prices is likely to remain stable or even rise. Think chemical companies that use natural gas as an input as an example.

I am, however, at a loss to think of what could replace the jobs and GDP growth that the energy complex has recently created. Certainly, reduced production is going to impact capital expenditures. This all leads one to begin thinking about a much softer economy in the US in 2015.

Last month’s employment report suggests we may have avoided the downturn from cheaper oil, but uncertainty remains. Earlier this month the Dallas Fed – Robust Regional Banking Sector Faces New Economic Hurdles whilst focusing on the health of the banking sector, worried that the effect of lower oil prices, combined with higher interest rates, may yet wreak havoc in the Eleventh District. Here are some of the highlights:-

Not only have district banks achieved greater profitability than their counterparts nationwide, but their loan portfolios also have grown twice as fast. District banks returned to lending sooner than banks in the rest of the country and experienced more rapid loan growth due to the region’s economic strength.

…Possibly reflecting banks’ quest for yield in a low-interest-rate environment, the so-called three-year asset/ liability gap has been growing, particularly for district banks. This measure subtracts liabilities with maturities greater than three years (certificates of deposit, for example) from loans and securities with maturities greater than three years and divides the difference by total assets. A bigger gap means that banks would be hurt by rising interest rates because their assets are tied up for a longer time relative to their liabilities. Consequently, when interest rates rise, banks’ funding costs could rise while interest income remains stagnant, squeezing profitability.

…The other big concern is potential fallout from recent dramatic oil and gas price declines, which affects Texas banks in particular. In July 2014, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) spot price exceeded $105 a barrel; by March, it had tumbled to below $50 before bouncing back to near $60 at the start of May. The size and rapidity of the decline raised concerns about the impact on the Texas economy and Texas banks, especially given the experiences of the energy and financial collapses of the 1980s. While the state’s economy has become more diverse and thus less reliant on the oil and gas industry, the price drop has still negatively affected the Texas economy and labor market. Some pockets of the state remain heavily dependent on the energy sector, making local industries vulnerable to spillover effects. And because of community banks’ close ties to the areas they serve, they are more exposed than large banks.

…One measure of potential distress is the so-called Texas ratio, the book value of an institution’s nonperforming assets as a percent of its tangible equity capital and its loan-loss reserves. Essentially, the Texas ratio compares an institution’s bad assets to its available capital. A Texas ratio above 1 (expressed as 100 percent) indicates that probable and potential losses exceed an institution’s immediate loss-absorbing cushion, putting it at greater risk of bankruptcy. There have been two instances of dramatic oil price declines since 1980; one gives rise to concern and the other to hope.

Between June 1980 and September 1986, the WTI price declined 74 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Roughly 20 percent of all Texas institutions had a Texas ratio greater than 100 percent by year-end 1988. A staggering 706 Texas banks and thrifts failed—including nine of the 10 largest banking institutions—between September 1986 and year-end 1990.9

A more recent oil price decline, in the second half of 2008 and early 2009, was also dramatic, but in a different way. Over a nine-month period beginning in June 2008, the price fell more than 71 percent. Yet less than 1 percent of Texas banks had a Texas ratio exceeding 100 percent and only seven failed in 2008–09. The slight pickup in bank troubles in 2010 is likely attributable to generally difficult financial and economic conditions that year.

From June 2014 through March 2015, the price of WTI fell 58 percent. Nevertheless, not one Texas bank had a Texas ratio greater than 100 percent as of the first quarter and only one bank had failed as of March.

The bottom line: The persistence of low oil prices seems to matter more for banks than the magnitude of falling prices. A precipitous, but short-lived, decline is likely to have only a minor impact on the banking industry. Even a longer-term decline similar to that seen in the 1980s is unlikely to provoke the same scope of disruption now as it did then.

…Mitigating factors also make Texas banks better able to weather falling oil prices. Memories of the 1980s crisis linger, and the 2008–09 financial crisis is also fresh in the minds of bankers and regulators. Apart from regulatory changes, Texas bankers manage their risks more prudently, using better risk diversification. The Shared National Credit (SNC) program is one example. Generally, large loans are held by multiple institutions through the SNC program, allowing individual institutions to spread the risk of large credit exposures. While the SNC program has been around since 1977, it has grown in importance and coverage. SNC industry trends by sector show that commodities credits, including those tied to the oil and gas industry, increased from $395 billion in 2002 to $798 billion in 2014. Regulatory filings and investor conference calls suggest that energy exposure at the larger banks in Texas is now predominantly through these shared credits.

…The low-interest-rate environment and a flat yield curve with relatively little difference in interest rates across various maturities have pressured bank earnings over the past five years. Banks have responded by extending their maturity profile in an attempt to generate more robust returns. As interest rates normalize, regulators will need to monitor banks’ ability to restructure their maturity profiles and adapt to the new environment.

The impact of recent oil price declines on banks also bears watching, particularly in Texas. While banks appear to be managing their energy exposure well—and a relatively short spell of low energy prices is not expected to have a severe, adverse effect on local banks—the importance of energy in certain regions points to the possibility of relatively large localized disruptions. The banking system has navigated a post crisis path to recovery. Conditions have improved markedly, but the industry must remain vigilant to potential risks to its financial health and stability.

According to the Dallas Fed – Texas Economic Indicatorspublished on 4th June, the region is showing mixed performance:-

Region Employment Growth
Austin 7.70%
Dallas 2.20%
El Paso 3.30%
Houston 0%
San Antonio -0.50%
Southern New Mexico -0.90%

Source: Dallas Federal Reserve

For the state as a whole, April employment was 1% higher versus the US +1.9%. The largest fall was seen in Oil and Gas Extraction (-14.4%) followed by Manufacturing (-4%) and Construction (-2.6%). Leisure and Hospitality led employment increases (5.3%) Information (4.6%) Education and Health (2.6%) and Trade, Transportation and Utilities (2.3%).

The importance of Oil and Gas to Texas, from an employment perspective, is small– only 2.5% of the workforce – but the sector’s impact on the rest of the region’s economy is much greater. Many ancillary sectors, including manufacturing, banking and finance rely on energy. The most encouraging aspect of the data above is the 2.3% increase in Trades, Transportation and Utilities. As an employer this sector amounts to 20.2% of the total. For this sector, lower energy prices are like the tax cut John Mauldin alluded back in December.

The Energy Complex and US growth

The recent energy technology boom has increased the oil and gas sector’s importance – please revisit Manhattan Institute – New Technology for Old Fuels – my personal favourite essay on this subject. The share of oil and gas in total employment peaked in the early 1980s at 0.8% it’s now back to 0.5%. Its share of GDP followed a similar path, falling from 4% in the 1980’s to less than 1% at the start of the millennium; it’s now back around 2%. Energy self-sufficiency remains elusive – the US is still a net oil importer and therefore benefits from lower oil prices. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates a $700 per household saving from the decline in gasoline prices in 2015. This should also spur an increase in capital investment. The traditional estimate of a halving of output has increased dramatically; meanwhile energy efficiency has significantly improved. The fall from $105 to $60 – assuming the market remains around the current level – will probably add 0.4% to GDP.

As one might expect, the direct impact of cheaper oil on the energy sector has been negative. The US rig count fell by 850 between December 2014 and March 2015. Many energy exploration firms have reduced headcount and cut capital expenditure. I don’t believe the benefits of technology have been exhausted by the energy exploration firms, especially the shale-industry. The Manhattan Institute – Shale 2.0 – takes up the story and go on to make some policy recommendations:-

John Shaw, chair of Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, recently observed: “It’s fair to say we’re not at the end of this [shale] era, we’re at the very beginning.” He is precisely correct. In recent years, the technology deployed in America’s shale fields has advanced more rapidly than in any other segment of the energy industry. Shale 2.0 promises to ultimately yield break-even costs of $5–$20 per barrel—in the same range as Saudi Arabia’s vaunted low-cost fields.

The shale industry is unlike any other conventional hydrocarbon or alternative energy sector, in that it shares a growth trajectory far more similar to that of Silicon Valley’s tech firms. In less than a decade, U.S. shale oil revenues have soared, from nearly zero to more than $70 billion annually (even after accounting for the recent price plunge). Such growth is 600 percent greater than that experienced by America’s heavily subsidized solar industry over the same period.

Shale’s spectacular rise is also generating massive quantities of data: the $600 billion in U.S. shale infrastructure investments and the nearly 2,000 million well-feet drilled have produced hundreds of petabytes of relevant data. This vast, diverse shale data domain—comparable in scale with the global digital health care data domain—remains largely untapped and is ripe to be mined by emerging big-data analytics.

Shale 2.0 will thus be data-driven. It will be centered in the United States. And it will be one in which entrepreneurs, especially those skilled in analytics, will create vast wealth and further disrupt oil geopolitics. The transition to Shale 2.0 will take the following steps: 1.Oil from Shale 1.0 will be sold from the oversupply currently filling up storage tanks. 2. More oil will be unleashed from the surplus of shale wells already drilled but not in production. 3. Companies will “high-grade” shale assets, replacing older techniques with the newest, most productive technologies in the richest parts of the fields. 4. And as the shale industry begins to embrace big-data analytics, Shale 2.0 begins.

Further, if the U.S. is to fully reap the economic and geopolitical benefits of Shale 2.0, Congress and the administration should: 1. Remove the old, no longer relevant, rules prohibiting American companies from selling crude oil overseas. 2. Remove constraints, established by the 1920 Merchant Marine Act, on transporting domestic hydrocarbons by ship. 3. Avoid inflicting further regulatory hurdles on an already heavily regulated industry. 4. Open up and accelerate access to exploration and production on federally controlled lands.

Nonetheless, in the near-term, states which benefitted from $100+ crude oil and the energy related innovations it spawned, are now feeling the effects of what appears to be a sustained period of lower energy prices. The EIA predicts WTI crude will average $60 over the course of 2015.

The CFR – Energy Brief – October 2013 – predicted that a 50% oil price fall would affect the employment prospects of eight states in particular:-

State Fall in Employment
Alaska -1.70%
Louisiana -1.60%
North Dakota -2%
New Mexico -0.70%
Oklahoma -2.30%
Texas -1.20%
West Virginia -0.70%
Wyoming -4.30%

Source: Council for Foreign Relations

So far, if Texas is any guide, the negative effects of the oil price decline have failed to materialise.

The effect of a 25% rise in crude oil prices is also worth considering:-

State Employment Change State Employment Change
Wisconsin -0.74 Ohio -0.61
Minnesota -0.73 Missouri -0.6
Tennessee -0.72 Illinois -0.59
Rhode Island -0.71 Massachusetts -0.59
Florida -0.71 Delaware -0.58
New Hampshire -0.7 South Dakota -0.57
Idaho -0.69 New York -0.57
Nevada -0.69 California -0.56
Arizona -0.68 Alabama -0.56
Indiana -0.68 DC -0.5
Nebraska -0.67 Kentucky -0.48
Vermont -0.66 Pennsylvania -0.47
Iowa -0.66 Utah -0.38
New Jersey -0.65 Kansas -0.35
Washington -0.64 Mississippi -0.35
Maryland -0.64 Arkansas -0.34
Georgia -0.64 Montana -0.31
Michigan -0.64 Colorado -0.15
Virginia -0.64 New Mexico 0.36
South Carolina -0.64 West Virginia 0.36
Oregon -0.64 Texas 0.6
Connecticut -0.63 Louisiana 0.78
Maine -0.62 Alaska 0.87
North Carolina -0.62 North Dakota 1.01
Hawaii -0.61 Oklahoma 1.16
Wyoming 2.14

Sources: CFR, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Wall Street Journal

The effect on the US as a whole is estimated at -0.43%. In other words, a fall in crude oil is good for employment and should also act as a cathartic stimulus to GDP growth.

A final measure of the vulnerability of the US economy to the recent oil price decline is shown by the next table. This shows the substantial diversification away from the energy sector seen in every one of the major oil producing states since the 1980’s:-

Share of Oil and Gas Extraction as a % of GDP
1981 2000 2010
Alaska 49.5 15.1 19.1
Louisiana 35.5 11.1 9.7
New Mexico 26.1 5.2 5.1
North Dakota 20.3 0.9 4.3
Oklahoma 21.6 4.8 9.1
Texas 19.1 5.8 7.8
West Virginia 2.4 1 1.5
Wyoming 37.1 9.8 18.5

Source: CFR, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Looking at how unemployment has changed across the 51 states over the last 12 months:-

State April April 12-month net change
2014 2015
Alabama 7.1 5.8 -1.3
Alaska 6.9 6.7 -0.2
Arizona 6.9 6 -0.9
Arkansas 6.3 5.7 -0.6
California 7.8 6.3 -1.5
Colorado 5.4 4.2 -1.2
Connecticut 6.8 6.3 -0.5
Delaware 5.9 4.5 -1.4
DC 7.8 7.5 -0.3
Florida 6.4 5.6 -0.8
Georgia 7.3 6.3 -1
Hawaii 4.5 4.1 -0.4
Idaho 4.9 3.8 -1.1
Illinois 7.4 6 -1.4
Indiana 6 5.4 -0.6
Iowa 4.4 3.8 -0.6
Kansas 4.5 4.3 -0.2
Kentucky 7 5 -2
Louisiana 5.7 6.6 0.9
Maine 5.8 4.7 -1.1
Maryland 5.9 5.3 -0.6
Massachusetts 5.8 4.7 -1.1
Michigan 7.5 5.4 -2.1
Minnesota 4.2 3.7 -0.5
Mississippi 7.8 6.6 -1.2
Missouri 6.3 5.7 -0.6
Montana 4.7 4 -0.7
Nebraska 3.4 2.5 -0.9
Nevada 8.1 7.1 -1
New Hampshire 4.5 3.8 -0.7
New Jersey 6.7 6.5 -0.2
New Mexico 6.7 6.2 -0.5
New York 6.5 5.7 -0.8
North Carolina 6.4 5.5 -0.9
North Dakota 2.7 3.1 0.4
Ohio 5.9 5.2 -0.7
Oklahoma 4.7 4.1 -0.6
Oregon 7 5.2 -1.8
Pennsylvania 6 5.3 -0.7
Rhode Island 8.1 6.1 -2
South Carolina 6.1 6.7 0.6
South Dakota 3.4 3.6 0.2
Tennessee 6.5 6 -0.5
Texas 5.2 4.2 -1
Utah 3.8 3.4 -0.4
Vermont 4 3.6 -0.4
Virginia 5.3 4.8 -0.5
Washington 6.2 5.5 -0.7
West Virginia 6.8 7 0.2
Wisconsin 5.5 4.4 -1.1
Wyoming 4.3 4.1 -0.2

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Only Louisiana (+0.9%) North Dakota (+0.4%) and West Virginia (+0.2%) of the top oil producing states, have witnessed increased levels of unemployment. South Dakota (+0.2%) and South Carolina (+0.6%) were the only other states in the union to see unemployment rise. This is not the picture of a faltering economy.

The Federal Reserve Leading Index, whilst it hit a low point of +0.9% in January – down from +2% in July 2014 – has rebounded – April +1.12% – and has remained in positive territory since August 2009. The Conference Board Leading Economic Index increased 0.7% in April to 122.3, following a +0.4% in March, and a -0.2% February. The Conference Board commented:-

April’s sharp increase in the LEI seems to have helped stabilize its slowing trend, suggesting the paltry economic growth in the first quarter may be temporary. However, the growth of the LEI does not support a significant strengthening in the economic outlook at this time. The improvement in building permits helped to drive the index up this month, but gains in other components, in particular the financial indicators, have been somewhat more muted.

The outlook appears steady rather than robust but this has been the pattern of the economic recovery ever since the first round of quantitative easing (QE) in November 2008.

Conclusion and Equity Investment Opportunities

The US economic recovery remains intact. The long run economic benefits of structurally lower energy prices and energy security are slowly feeding through to the wider economy. This is good for the US and, as long as the US continues to run a trade deficit with the rest of the world, it’s good for the US main trading partners too.

After a sharp correction in October 2014 the S&P500 recovered. Since its January lows the market has ground slowly higher:-

S&P500 - 1yr

Source: Barchart.com

The table below shows a series of additional valuation measures:-

Indicator Ratio Date Start of Data
Trailing 12 month P/E 20.53
Mean 15.54
Min 5.31 Dec 1917
Max 123.73 May 2009 1875
Shiller Case P/E 27.1
Mean 16.61
Min 4.78 Dec 1920
Max 44.19 Dec 1999 1885
Price to Sales 1.81
Mean 1.4
Min 0.8 Mar 2009
Max 1.81 Jun 2015 2001
Price to Book 2.89
Mean 2.75
Min 1.78 Mar 2009
Max 5.06 Mar 2000 2000

Source: multpl.com

On most of these metrics the market looks relatively expensive but the current level of interest rates is unprecedented. JP Morgan Asset Management predict average corporate earnings to grow by 4% in 2015 – stripping out energy stocks this rises to 11%. They also remind investors that the S&P has seen 10 bear markets since 1926. Eight occurred as a result of economic recessions or commodity price shocks (price increases not decreases) and extreme valuations were a contributing factor only on four occasions. They go on to refute the idea that interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve will derail the bull market, pointing to the positive correlation between rising interest rates and rising equity prices when interest rates start from a low point. They make the caveat that the initial reaction to interest rate increases is negative but in the longer term stocks tend to rise.

At the risk of uttering that most dangerous of phrases – “this time it’s different” – I believe the majority of the rise in equity prices was a function of the reduction in the level of interest rates since 2008. This had two effects; investors switched from interest bearing securities to equities, hoping that capital appreciation would offset the declining income from bonds: and corporations, faced with negative real interest rates, decided to raise dividends and buy back stock, rather than make capital investments when interest rates were artificially low. The chart below shows US 10yr Government Bond yields since 1790:-

US 10 yr Bond Yield Global Financial Data

Source: Global Financial Data

The chart ends in 2013, since when yields have plumbed new depths. Ignoring the inflation shock of the 1970’s and 1980’s it would be reasonable to expect US Treasuries to yield around 3% but that was before the Federal Reserve moved from a stable price target – i.e. around zero – to a 2% inflation target. I think it is reasonable for corporates to assume a long-term cost of finance based on a 3% real yield for US Treasuries plus an appropriate credit spread. Is it any wonder that corporates continue to buy back stock?

The impact of the oil price collapse is still feeding through the US economy but, since the most vulnerable states have learnt the lessons of the 1980’s and diversified away from an excessive reliance of on the energy sector, the short-run downturn will be muted whilst the long-run benefits of new technology will be transformative. US oil production at $10/barrel would have sounded ludicrous less than five years ago: today it seems almost plausible.

US stocks are not cheap, but Q1 earnings declines have been reversed and, whilst growth is muted, the longer term benefits of lower energy prices are just beginning to feed through. At the beginning of the year I was cautious and considering reducing exposure to the US market. Now, I am still cautious, but, if earnings start to improve, today’s valuations will prove justified and further upside may be well ensue. The US bond market is doing the Fed’s work for it – 10yr yields have risen from a low of 1.64% in January to 2.30% today. Whilst the first rise in official rates is likely to act as a negative for stocks, the market will recover as long as the momentum of earnings growth remains positive and energy prices remain subdued.