Is the US exporting a recession?

Is the US exporting a recession?

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Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018

Is the US exporting a recession?

  • The Federal Reserve continue to raise rates as S&P earnings beat estimates
  • The ECB and BoJ maintain QE
  • Globally, corporations rely on US$ financing, nonetheless
  • Signs of a slowdown in growth are clearer outside the US

After last week’s ECB meeting, Mario Draghi gave the usual press conference. He confirmed the continuance of stimulus and mentioned the moderation in the rate of growth and below-target inflation. He also referred to the steady expansion in money supply. When it came to the Q&A he revealed rather more:-

It’s quite clear that since our last meeting, broadly all countries experienced, to different extents of course, some moderation in growth or some loss of momentum. When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries.

It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators. Sharp declines were experienced by PMI, almost all sectors, in retail, sales, manufacturing, services, in construction. Then we had declines in industrial production, in capital goods production. The PMI in exports orders also declined. Also we had declines in national business and confidence indicators.

I quote this passage out of context because the entire answer was more nuanced. My reason? To highlight the difference between the situation in the EU and the US. In Europe, money supply (M3) is growing at 4.3% yet inflation (HICP) is a mere 1.3%. Meanwhile in the US, inflation (CPI) is running at 2.4% and money supply (M2) is hovering a fraction above 2%. Here is a chart of Eurozone M3 since 1999:-

EU M3 Money Supply

Source: Eurostat

The recent weakening of momentum is a concern, but the absolute level is consistent with a continued expansion.

Looked at over a rather longer time horizon, here is a chart of US M2 since 1900:-

M2 since 1900 - Hoisington

Source: Hoisington Asset Management, Federal Reserve

The letters A, B, C, D denote the only occasions, during the last 118 years, when a decline in the expansion (or, during the 1930’s, contraction) of M2 did not lead to a recession. 17 out of 21 is a quite compelling record.

Another concern for markets is the flatness of the US yield curve. Here is the 2yr – 10yr yield differential since 1990:-

US 2yr - 10yr Factset Mauldin

Source: Factset, Mauldin Economics

More importantly, for international borrowers, the 6-month LIBOR rate has risen by more than 60 basis points since the start of the year (from 1.8% to 2.5%) whilst 30yr Swap rates have increased by only 40 basis points (2.6% to 3%). The 10yr – 30yr Swap curve is now practically flat.

Also worthy of comment, as US Treasury yields have risen, the relationship between Bonds and Swaps has begun to normalise – 30yr T-Bond yields are only 40 basis points above their level of January and roughly at the same level as in the spring of last year. In April 2017 I wrote in Macro Letter – No 74 – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?:-

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.

It looks like I may have to eat my words, here is the Bond vs Swap table revisited:-

Evolution_of_T-Bond_and_IRS_Spreads_-_investing_co_002

Source: Investing.com, Interestrateswaps.com, BBA

What is evident is that the Bond/Swap inversion in the longer maturities has closed substantially even as shorter maturity spreads have narrowed. Federal Reserve policy has been the dominate factor.

Why is it, however, that the effect of higher US rates is, seemingly, felt more poignantly in Europe than the US? Does this bring us back to protectionism? Perhaps, but in less contentious terms, the US has run a capital account surplus for many years. Outside the US investment is closely tied to LIBOR financing costs, these have remained higher, except in the longest maturities, and these rates have risen most precipitously this year. Looked at another way, the higher interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve, despite the continued largesse of other central banks, is exporting the next recession to the rest of the world.

I ended Macro Letter – No 74 back in April 2017 – saying:-

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.

One year on, cracks in the capital markets edifice are beginning to become more evident. GDP growth has started to rollover in the US, Eurozone and Japan. Yields are still relatively low but the absolute increase in rates for shorter maturities (e.g. the near doubling of US 2yr yields from 1.25% to 2.5% in a single year) is guaranteed to take its toll on corporate interest servicing costs. US capital markets are the envy of the world. They are deep and allow borrowers to finance far into the future. The rest of the world is forced to borrow at shorter tenors. A three basis point narrowing of 5yr spreads between Swaps and Bonds is hardly compensation for the near 1% increase in interest rates, or, put in starker terms, a 46% increase in absolute borrowing costs.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

How is the rise in borrowing costs impacting the US stock market? Volatility is back, but earnings are robust. Factset – S&P 500 Earnings Season Update: April 27, 2018 – described it thus:-

To date, 53% of the companies in the S&P 500 have reported actual results for Q1 2018. In terms of earnings, more companies are reporting actual EPS above estimates (79%) compared to the five-year average. If 79% is the final percentage for the quarter, it will mark the highest percentage of S&P 500 companies reporting actual EPS above estimates since FactSet began tracking this metric in Q3 2008. In aggregate, companies are reporting earnings that are 9.1% above the estimates, which is also above the five-year average. In terms of sales, more companies (74%) are reporting actual sales above estimates compared to the five-year average. In aggregate, companies are reporting sales that are 1.7% above estimates, which is also above the five-year average. If 1.7% is the final percentage for the quarter, it will mark the largest revenue surprise percentage since FactSet began tracking this metric in Q3 2008.

… The blended (combines actual results for companies that have reported and estimated results for companies that have yet to report), year-over-year earnings growth rate for the first quarter is 23.2% today, which is higher than the earnings growth rate of 18.5% last week. Positive earnings surprises reported by companies in multiple sectors (led by the Information Technology sector) were responsible for the increase in the earnings growth rate for the index during the past week. All 11 sectors are reporting year-over-year earnings growth. Nine sectors are reporting double-digit earnings growth, led by the Energy, Materials, Information Technology, and Financials sectors.

We are more than halfway through Q1 earnings (I’m writing this letter on Wednesday 2nd May). Results have generally been above forecast and now the Fed seems conscious that they must not be too hasty to reverse the effects of both zero rates and QE. Added to which, while US stocks have been languishing mid-range, European stocks have recently broken out of their recent ranges to the upside, despite discouraging economic data.

The US stock market looks less expensive than it did in January 2017, when I wrote Macro Letter – 68 – Equity valuation in a de-globalising world. Then I was looking for stock markets with a low correlation to the US: they were (and remain) hard to find.

Other indicators to watch which exert a strong influence on stocks include the US PMI Index – last at 54.8 up from 54.2 in March. Above 50 there is little cause for concern. For the Eurozone it is even higher at 55.2, whilst throughout G20 no economy is recording a PMI below 50.

The chart below shows the Citigroup Economic Surprises Index (blue) vs the S&P500 Forward P/E estimates (red):-

Citi Economic Surprises vs SandP - Yardeni 27-4-18

Source: Yardeni Research, S&P, Thompson Reuters, Citigroup

Economic surprises remain positive rather than negative for the US. In the Eurozone it is quite another matter:-

Citigroup Economic Surprises Index - Eurozone

Source: Bloomberg, Citigroup

A number of economic indicators are pointing to a slowdown, yet US stocks are beating estimates. To judge from price action, the market appears to be unimpressed by earnings. I am reminded of the old adage, ‘When all the buyers are in the market it’s time to sell.’ From a technical perspective it makes sense to be patient, but the market has failed to rise substantially on a positive slew of earnings news. This may be because there is a more important factor driving sentiment: the direction of US rates. It certainly appears to have engendered a revival of the US$. It rallied last month having been in a downtrend since January 2017 despite a steadily tightening Federal Reserve. For EURUSD the move from 1.10 to 1.25 appears to have taken its toll. On the basis of the CESI chart, above, if Wall Street sneezes, the Eurozone might catch pneumonia.

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Inflation or Employment

Inflation or Employment

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 95 – 20-04-2018

Inflation or Employment

  • Inflationary fears are growing and US rates continue to rise
  • Employment has become more flexible since the crisis of 2008/2009
  • Commodity prices have risen but from multi-year lows
  • During the next recession job losses will rapidly temper inflationary pressures

Given the official policy response to the Great Financial Recession – a mixture of central bank balance sheet expansion, lower for longer interest rates and a general lack of fiscal rectitude on the part of developed nation governments – I believe there are two factors which are key for stock markets over the next few years, inflation and employment. The fact that these also happen to be the two mandated targets of the Federal Reserve – full employment and price stability – is more than coincidental. My struggle is in attempting to decide whether demand-pull inflation can survive the impact of a rapid rise in unemployment come the next recession.

Inflation and the Central Bankers response is clearly the new narrative of the financial markets. In his latest essay, Ben Hunt of Salient Partners makes some fascinating observations – Epsilon Theory: The Narrative Giveth and The Narrative Taketh Away:-

This market, like all markets, cares about two things and two things only — the price of money and the real return on invested capital. Or, as they are typically represented in cartoon form, interest rates and growth.

…This market, like all markets, needs a positive narrative on risk (the price of money) or reward (the real return on capital) to go up. Any narrative will do! But when neither risk nor reward is represented with a positive narrative, this market, like all markets, will go down. And that’s where we are today. 

Does the Fed have our back? No, they do not. They’ve told us and told us that they’re going to keep raising rates. And they will. The market still doesn’t fully believe them, and that’s going to be a constant source of market disappointment over the next few years. In the same way that markets go up as they climb a wall of worry, so do markets go down as they descend a wall of hope. The belief that central bankers care more about the stock market than the price stability of money is that wall of hope. It’s a forlorn hope.

The author goes on to discuss the way that inflation and the war on trade has derailed the global synchronized growth narrative. Dr Hunt writes at length about narratives; those who have been reading my letters for a while will know I regularly quote from his excellent Epsilon Theory.

The narrative has not yet become flesh, to coin a phrase, but in the author’s opinion it will:-

My view: the inflation narrative will surge again, as wage inflation is, in truth, not contained at all.

The trade war narrative hit markets in force in late February with the White House announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs. It subsided through mid-March as hope grew that Trump’s bark was worse than his bite, then resurfaced in late March with direct tariff threats against China, then subsided again on hopes that direct negotiations would contain the conflict, and has now resurfaced this past week with still more direct tariff threats against and from China. Already this weekend you’ve got Kudlow and other market missionaries trying to rekindle the hope of easy negotiations. But being “tough on trade” is a winning domestic political position for both Trump and Xi, and domestic politics ALWAYS trumps (no pun intended) international economics. 

My view: the trade war narrative will be spurred on by BOTH sides, and is, in truth, not contained at all.

The two charts below employ natural language processing techniques. They show how the inflation narrative has rapidly increased during the last 12 months. I shall leave Dr Hunt to elucidate:-

… analysis of a large set of market relevant articles — in this case everything Bloomberg has published that talks about inflation — where linguistic similarities create clusters of articles with similar meaning (essentially a linguistic “gravity model”), and where the dynamic relationships between and within these clusters can be measured over time.

epsilon-theory-the-narrative-giveth-and-the-narrative-taketh-away-april-10-2018-chart-one

Source: Quid.inc

What this chart shows is the clustering of content in 1,400 Bloomberg articles, which mention US inflation, between April 2016 and March 2017. The graduated colouring – blue earlier and red later in the year – enriches the analysis.

The next chart is for the period April 2017 to March 2018:-

epsilon-theory-the-narrative-giveth-and-the-narrative-taketh-away-april-10-2018-chart-two

Source: Quid.Inc

During this period there were 2,400 articles (a 75% increase) but, of more relevance is the dramatic increase in clustering.

What is clear from these charts is the rising importance of inflation as a potential driver of market direction. Yet there are contrary signals that suggest that economic and employment growth are already beginning to weaken. Can inflation continue to rise in the face of these headwinds. Writing in The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has his doubts (this transcript is care of Mauldin Economics) – JP Morgan fears Fed “policy mistake” as US yield curve inverts:-

US jobs growth fizzled to stall-speed levels of 103,000 in March. The worldwide PMI gauge of manufacturing and services has dropped to a 14-month low. The average “Nowcast” tracker of global growth has slid suddenly to a quarterly rate of 3.2pc from 4.1pc as recently as early February.

Analysts at JP Morgan say the forward curve for the one-month Overnight Index Swap rate (OIS) – a market proxy for the Fed policy rate – has flattened and “inverted” two years ahead. This is a collective bet by big institutional investors and fund managers that interest rates may be falling by then.

…The OIS yield curve has inverted three times over the last two decades. In 1998 it proved to be a false alarm because the Greenspan Fed did a pirouette and flooded the system with liquidity. In 2000 it was a clear precursor of recession. In 2005 it signaled that the US housing boom was already starting to deflate.

…Growth of the “broad” M3 money supply in the US has slowed to a 2pc rate over the last three months (annualised)…pointing to a “growth recession” by early 2019. Narrow real M1 money has actually contracted slightly since November.

…RBC Capital Markets says this will drain M3 money by roughly $300bn a year…

…Three-month Libor rates – used to set the cost of borrowing on $9 trillion of US and global loans, and $200 trillion of derivatives – have surged 60 basis points since January.

…The signs of a slowdown are even clearer in Europe…Citigroup’s economic surprise index for the region has seen the worst four-month deterioration since 2008.  A reduction in the pace of QE from $80bn to $30bn a month has removed a key prop. The European Central Bank’s bond purchase programme expires altogether in September.

…The global money supply has been slowing since last September. The Baltic Dry Index measuring freight rates for dry goods peaked in mid-December and has since dropped 45pc.

Which brings us neatly to the commodity markets. Are real assets a safe place to hide in the coming inflationary (or perhaps stagflationary) environment? Will the lack of capital investment, resulting from the weakness in commodity prices following the financial crisis, feed through to cost-push inflation?

The trouble with commodities

Commodities are an excellent portfolio diversifier because they tend to be uncorrelated with stock, bonds or real estate. They have a weakness, however, since to invest in commodities one needs to accept that over the long run they have a negative real-expected return. Why? Because of man’s ingenuity. We improve our processes and invest in new technologies which reduce our production costs. We improve extraction techniques and enhance acreage yields. You cannot simply buy and hold commodities: they are trading assets.

Demand and supply of commodities globally is a complex challenge to measure; for grains, oilseeds and cotton the USDA World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates for March offers a fairly balanced picture:-

World 2017/18 wheat supplies increased this month by nearly 3.0 million tons as production is raised to a new record of 759.8 million

Global coarse grain production for 2017/18 is forecast 7.0 million tons lower than last month to 1,315.0 million

Global 2017/18 rice production is raised 1.2 million tons to a new record led by 0.3- million-ton increases each for Brazil, Burma, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Global rice exports are raised 0.8 million tons with a 0.3-million-ton increase for Thailand and 0.2- million-ton increases each for Burma, India, and Pakistan. Imports are raised 0.5 million tons for Indonesia and 0.3 million tons for Bangladesh. Global domestic use is reduced fractionally. With supplies increasing and total use decreasing, world ending stocks are raised 1.4 million tons to 144.4 million and are the second highest stocks on record.

Global oilseed production is lowered 5.7 million tons to 568.8 million, with a 6.1-million-ton reduction for soybean production and slightly higher projections for rapeseed, sunflower seed, copra, and palm kernel. Lower soybean production for Argentina, India, and Uruguay is partly offset by higher production for Brazil.

Cotton – Lower global beginning stocks this month result in lower projected 2017/18 ending stocks despite higher world production and lower consumption. World beginning stocks are 900,000 bales lower this month, largely attributable to historical revisions for Brazil and Australia. World production is about 250,000 bales higher as a larger Brazilian crop more than offsets a decline for Sudan. Consumption is about 400,000 bales lower as lower consumption in India, Indonesia, and some smaller countries more than offsets Vietnam’s increase. Ending stocks for 2017/18 are nearly 600,000 bales lower in total this month as reductions for Brazil, Sudan, the United States, and Australia more than offset an increase for Pakistan.

It is worth remembering that local market prices can be dramatically influenced by small changes in regional supply or demand and the vagaries of supply chain logistics. Added to which, for US grains there is heightened anxiety regarding tariffs: they are expected to be the main target of the Chinese retaliation.

Here is the price of US Wheat since 2007:-

Wheat since 2007

Source: Trading Economics

Crisis? What crisis? It is still near to multi-year lows, although above the nadir of the financial crisis in 2009.

The broader CRB Index shows a more pronounced recovery, it has been rising since the beginning of 2016:-

CRB Index since 2007 Core Commodity Indexes

Source: Reuters, Core Commodity Indexes

Neither of these charts suggest that price momentum is that robust.

Another (and, perhaps, more global) measure of economic activity is the Baltic Dry Freight Index. This chart shows a very different reaction to the synchronised increase in world economic growth:-

Baltic Dry Index - Quandl since 2007

Source: Quandl

In absolute terms the index has more than tripled in price from the 2016 low, nonetheless, it is still in the lower half of the range of the past decade.

Global economic growth may have encouraged a rebound in Copper, another industrial bellwether, but it appears to have lost some momentum of late:-

Copper Since 2007

Source: Trading Economics

Brent Crude Oil also appears to be benefitting from the increase in economic activity. It has doubled from its low of two years ago. The US rig count has increased in response but at 800 it remains at half the level of a few years ago:-

Brent Oil Since 2007

Source: Trading Economics

US Natural Gas, which might still manage an upward price spike on account of the unseasonably cold weather in the US, provides a less compelling argument:-

US Nat Gas Since 2007

Source: Trading Economics

Commodity markets are clearly off their multi-year lows, but the strength of momentum looks mixed and, in grains and oil seeds, global supply and demand look fairly balanced. Cost push inflation may be a factor in certain markets, but, without price-pull demand, inflation pressures are likely to be short-lived. Late cycle increases in commodity prices are quite common, however, so we may experience a short-run stagflationary squeeze on incomes.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

When ever I write about commodities in a collective way, I remind readers that each market is unique, pretending they are homogenous is often misleading. The recent rise in Cocoa, after a two-year downtrend resulting from an increase in global supply, is a classic example. The time it takes to grow a Cocoa plant governs the length of the cycle. Similarly, the lead time for producing a new ship is a major factor in determining the length of the freight rate cycle. Nonetheless, at the risk of contradicting myself, what may keep a bid under commodity markets is the low level of capital investment which has been a hall-mark of the long, listless recovery from the great financial recession. I believe an economic downturn is likely and job losses will occur rapidly in response.  

I entitled this letter ‘Inflation or Employment’, these are the factors which will dominate Central Bank policy. Currently commentators view inflation as the greater concern, as Dr Hunt’s research indicates, but I believe those Central Bankers who can (by which I mean the Federal Reserve) will attempt to insure they have raised interest rates to a level from which they can be cut, rather than having to rely on ever more unorthodox monetary policies.

What to expect from Central Bankers

What to expect from Central Bankers

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Macro Letter – No 94 – 06-04-2018

What to expect from Central Bankers

  • The Federal Reserve continues to tighten and other Central Banks will follow
  • The BIS expects stocks to lose their lustre and bond yields to rise
  • The normalisation process will be protracted, like the QE it replaces
  • Macro prudential policy will have greater emphasis during the next boom

As financial markets adjust to a new, higher, level of volatility, it is worth considering what the Central Banks might be thinking longer term. Many commentators have been blaming geopolitical tensions for the recent fall in stocks, but the Central Banks, led by the Fed, have been signalling clearly for some while. The sudden change in the tempo of the stock market must have another root.

Whenever one considers the collective views of Central Banks it behoves one to consider the opinions of the Central Bankers bank, the BIS. In their Q4 review they discuss the paradox of a tightening Federal Reserve and the continued easing in US national financial conditions. BIS Quarterly Review – December 2017 – A paradoxical tightening?:-

Overall, global financial conditions paradoxically eased despite the persistent, if cautious, Fed tightening. Term spreads flattened in the US Treasury market, while other asset markets in the United States and elsewhere were buoyant…

Chicago Fed’s National Financial Conditions Index (NFCI) trended down to a 24-year trough, in line with several other gauges of financial conditions.

The authors go on to observe that the environment is more reminiscent of the mid-2000’s than the tightening cycle of 1994. Writing in December they attribute the lack of market reaction to the improved communications policies of the Federal Reserve – and, for that matter, other Central Banks. These policies of gradualism and predictability may have contributed to, what the BIS perceive to be, a paradoxical easing of monetary conditions despite the reversals of official accommodation and concomitant rise in interest rates.

This time, however, there appears to be a difference in attitude of market participants, which might pose risks later in this cycle:-

…while investors cut back on the margin debt supporting their equity positions in 1994, and stayed put in 2004, margin debt increased significantly over the last year.

At a global level it is worth remembering that whilst the Federal Reserve has ceased QE and now begun to shrink its balance sheet, elsewhere the expansion of Central Bank balance sheets continues with what might once have passed for gusto.

The BIS go on to assess stock market valuations, looking at P/E ratios, CAPE, dividend pay-outs and share buy-backs. By most of these measures stocks look expensive, however, not by all measures:-

Stock market valuations looked far less frothy when compared with bond yields. Over the last 50 years, the real one- and 10-year Treasury yields have fluctuated around the dividend yield. Having fallen close to 1% prior to the dotcom bust, the dividend yield has been steadily increasing since then, currently fluctuating around 2%. Meanwhile, since the GFC, real Treasury yields have fallen to levels much lower than the dividend yield, and indeed have usually been negative. This comparison would suggest that US stock prices were not particularly expensive when compared with Treasuries.

The authors conclude by observing that EM sovereign bonds in local currency are above their long-term average yields. This might support the argument that those stock markets are less vulnerable to a correction – I would be wary of jumping this conclusion, global stocks market correlation may have declined somewhat over the last couple of years but when markets fall hard they fall in tandem: correlations tend towards 100%:-

Credit spreads - BIS

Source: BIS, BOML, EPFR, JP Morgan

The BIS’s final conclusion?-

In spite of these considerations, bond investors remained sanguine. The MOVE* index suggested that US Treasury volatility was expected to be very low, while the flat swaption skew for the 10-year Treasury note denoted a low demand to hedge higher interest rate risks, even on the eve of the inception of the Fed’s balance sheet normalisation. That may leave investors ill-positioned to face unexpected increases in bond yields.

*MOVE = Merrill lynch Option Volatility Estimate

Had you read this on the day of publication you might have exited stocks before the January rally. As markets continue to vacillate wildly, there is still time to consider the implications.

Another BIS publication, from January, also caught my eye, it was the transcript of a speech by Claudio Borio’s – A blind spot in today’s macroeconomics? His opening remarks set the scene:-

We have got so used to it that we hardly notice it. It is the idea that, for all intents and purposes, when making sense of first-order macroeconomic outcomes we can treat the economy as if its output were a single good produced by a single firm. To be sure, economists have worked hard to accommodate variety in goods and services at various levels of aggregation. Moreover, just to mention two, the distinctions between tradeables and non-tradeables or, in some intellectual strands, between consumption and investment goods have a long and distinguished history. But much of the academic and policy debate among macroeconomists hardly goes beyond that, if at all.

The presumption that, as a first approximation, macroeconomics can treat the economy as if it produced a single good through a single firm has important implications. It implies that aggregate demand shortfalls, economic fluctuations and the longer-term evolution of productivity can be properly understood without reference to intersectoral and intrasectoral developments. That is, it implies that whether an economy produces more of one good rather than another or, indeed, whether one firm is more efficient than another in producing the same good are matters that can be safely ignored when examining macroeconomic outcomes. In other words, issues concerned with resource misallocations do not shed much light on the macroeconomy.

Borio goes on to suggest that ignoring the link between resource misallocations and macroeconomic outcomes is a dangerous blind spot in marcoeconomic thinking. Having touched on the problem of zombie firms he talks of a possible link between interest rates, resource misallocations and productivity.

The speaker reveals two key findings from BIS research; firstly that credit booms tend to undermine productivity growth and second, that the subsequent impact of the labour reallocations that occur during a financial boom last for much longer if a banking crisis follows. Productivity stagnates following a credit cycle bust and it can be protracted:-

Taking, say, a (synthetic) five-year credit boom and five postcrisis years together, the cumulative shortfall in productivity growth would amount to some 6 percentage points. Put differently, for the period 2008–13, we are talking about a loss of some 0.6 percentage points per year for the advanced economies that saw booms and crises. This is roughly equal to their actual average productivity growth during the same window.

Productivy stagnates - BIS

Source: Borio et al, BIS

Borio’s conclusion is that different sectors of the economy expand and the contract with greater and lesser momentum, suggesting the need for more research in this area.

He then moves to investigate the interest rate productivity nexus, believing the theory that, over long enough periods, the real economy evolves independently of monetary policy and therefore that market interest rates converge to an equilibrium real interest rates, may be overly simplistic. Instead, Borio suggests that causality runs from interest rates to productivity; in other words, that interest rates during a cyclical boom may have pro-cyclical consequences for certain sectors, property in particular:-

During the expansion phase, low interest rates, especially if persistent, are likely to increase the cycle’s amplitude and length. After all, one way in which monetary policy operates is precisely by boosting credit, asset prices and risk-taking. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to this effect. Moreover, the impact of low interest rates is unlikely to be uniform across the economy. Sectors naturally differ in their interest rate sensitivity. And so do firms within a given sector, depending on their need for external funds and ability to tap markets. For instance, the firms’ age, size and collateral availability matter. To the extent that low interest rates boost financial booms and induce resource shifts into sectors such as construction or finance, they will also influence the evolution of productivity, especially if a banking crisis follows. Since financial cycles can be quite long – up to 16 to 20 years – and their impact on productivity growth quite persistent, thinking of changes in interest rates (monetary policy) as “neutral” is not helpful over relevant policy horizons.

During the financial contraction, persistently low interest rates can contribute to this outcome (Borio (2014)). To be absolutely clear: low rates following a financial bust are welcome and necessary to stabilise the economy and prevent a downward spiral between the financial system and output. This is what the crisis management phase is all about. The question concerns the possible collateral damage of persistently and unusually low rates thereafter, when the priority is to repair balance sheets in the crisis resolution phase. Granted, low rates lighten borrowers’ heavy debt burden, especially when that debt is at variable rates or can be refinanced at no cost. But they may also slow down the necessary balance sheet repair.

Finally, Borio returns to the impact on zombie companies, whose number has risen as interest rates have fallen. Not only are these companies reducing productivity and economic growth in their own right, they are draining resources from the more productive new economy. If interest rates were set by market forces, zombies would fail and investment would flow to those companies that were inherently more profitable. Inevitably the author qualifies this observation:-

Now, the relationship could be purely coincidental. Possible factors, unrelated to interest rates as such, might help explain the observed relationship. One other possibility is reverse causality: weaker profitability, as productivity and economic activity decline in the aggregate, would tend to induce central banks to ease policy and reduce interest rates.

Zombies - BIS

Source: Banerjee and Hoffmann, BIS

Among the conclusions reached by the Central Bankers bank, is that the full impact and repercussions of persistently low rates may not have been entirely anticipated. An admission that QE has been an experiment, the outcome of which remains unclear.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

These two articles give some indication of the thinking of Central Bankers globally. They suggest that the rise in bond yields and subsequent fall in equity markets was anticipated and will be tolerated, perhaps for longer than the market anticipate. It also suggests that Central Banks will attempt to use macro-prudential policies more extensively in future, to insure that speculative investment in the less productive areas of the economy do not crowd out investment in the more productive and productivity enhancing sectors. I see this policy shift taking the shape of credit controls and increases in capital requirements for certain forms of collateralised lending.

Whether notionally independent Central Banks will be able to achieve these aims in the face of pro-cyclical political pressure remains to be seen. A protracted period of readjustment is likely. A stock market crash will be met with liquidity and short term respite but the world’s leading Central Banks need to shrink their balance sheets and normalise interest rates. We have a long way to go. Well managed profitable companies, especially if they are not saddled with debt, will still provide opportunities, but stock indices may be on a sideways trajectory for several years while bond yields follow the direction of their respective Central Banks official rates.

Stocks for the Long Run but not the short

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Macro Letter – No 93 – 23-03-2018

Stocks for the Long Run but not the short

  • In the long run stocks outperform bonds
  • For a decade stocks, bonds and real estate have risen in tandem
  • The risk of a substantial correction is high
  • Value-based equity investment is unfashionably enticing

The first part of the title of this Macro Letter is borrowed from an excellent book originally written in 1994. Among several observations made by the author, Jeremy Siegel, was the idea that stocks would at least keep pace with GDP growth or even exceed it at the national level. The data, which went back to the 19th Century, showed that stocks also outperformed bonds in the long-run. The price one has to pay for that outperformance is higher volatility than for bonds and occasional, possibly protracted, periods of under-performance or, if your portfolio is concentrated, the risk of default. This is not to say that bonds are exempt from default risk, notwithstanding the term ‘risk free rate’ which we associate with many government obligations. A diversified portfolio of stocks (and bonds) has been seen as the ideal investment approach ever since Markowitz promulgated the concept of modern portfolio theory.

Today, passive index tracking funds have swallowed a massive percentage of all the investment which flows into the stock market. Why? Because robust empirical data shows that it is almost impossible for active portfolio managers to consistently outperform their benchmark index in the long run once their higher fees have been factored in.

An interesting way of showing how indexation has propelled the stock market higher recently, regardless of valuation, is shown in this chart from Ben Hunt at Epsilon Theory – Three Body Problem. He uses it to show how the factor which is QE has trumped everything in its wake. I’ll allow Ben to explain:-

Here’s the impact of all that gravity on the Quality-of-Companies derivative investment strategy.

The green line below is the S&P 500 index. The white line below is a Quality Index sponsored by Deutsche Bank. They look at 1,000 global large cap companies and evaluate them for return on equity, return on invested capital, and accounting accruals … quantifiable proxies for the most common ways that investors think about quality. Because the goal is to isolate the Quality factor, the index is long in equal amounts the top 20% of measured  companies and short the bottom 20% (so market neutral), and has equal amounts invested long and short in the component sectors of the market (so sector neutral). The chart begins on March 9, 2009, when the Fed launched its first QE program.

epsilon-theory-the-three-body-problem-december-21-2017-quality-index-graph

Source: Bloomberg, Deutsche Bank

Over the past eight and a half years, Quality has been absolutely useless as an investment derivative. You’ve made a grand total of not quite 3% on your investment, while the S&P 500 is up almost 300%.

Long term there are two strategies which have been shown to consistently improve risk adjusted return from the stock market, momentum (by which I mean trend following) and value (I refer you to Graham and Dodd). Last month the Managed Futures community, consisting primarily of momentum based strategies, had its worst month for 17 years. Value, as the chart above declares, has been out of favour since the great recession at the very least. Indiscriminate Momentum has been the star performer over the same period. The chart below uses a log scale and is adjusted for inflation:-

S&P 1870 to 2018

Source: Advisor Perspectives

At the current level we are certainly sucking on ether in terms of the variance from trend. If the driver has been QE and QQE then the experiment have been unprecedented; a policy mistake is almost inevitable, as Central Banks endeavour to unwind their egregious largesse.

My good friend, and a former head of bond trading at Bankers Trust, wrote a recent essay on the subject of Federal Reserve policy in the new monetary era. He has kindly consented to allow me to quote some of his poignant observations, he starts by zooming out – the emphasis is mine:-

Recent debates regarding future monetary policy seem to focus on a degree of micro-economic precision no longer reliably available from the monthly data.  Arguments about minor changes in the yield curve or how many tightening moves will occur this year risk ignoring the dramatic adjustments in all major economic policies of the United States, not to mention the plausible array of international responses…

for the first time since the demise of Bear Stearns, et al; global sovereign bond markets will have to seek out a new assemblage of price-sensitive buyers…

Given that QE was a systematic purchase programme devoid of any judgement about relative or absolute value, the return of the price-sensitive buyer, is an important distinction. The author goes on to question how one can hope to model the current policy mix.

 …There is no confident means of modeling the interaction of residual QE, tax reform, fiscal pump-priming, and now aggressive tariffs. This Mnuchin concoction is designed to generate growth exceeding 3%.  If successful, the Fed’s inflation goal will finally be breached in a meaningful way…

…Classical economists will argue that higher global tariffs are contractionary; threatening the recession that boosts adrenaline levels among the passionate yield curve flattening crowd.  But they are also inflationary as they reduce global productivity and bolster input prices…

Contractionary and inflationary, in other words stagflationary. I wonder whether the current bevvy of dovish central bankers will ever switch their focus to price stability at the risk of destroying growth – and the inevitable collapsed in employment that would signify?

Hot on the heels of Wednesday’s rate hike, the author (who wrote the essay last week) goes on to discuss the market fixation with 25bp rate increases – an adage from my early days in the market was, ‘Rates go up by the lift and down by the stairs,’ there is no reason why the Fed shouldn’t be more pre-emptive, except for the damage it might do to their reputation if catastrophe (read recession) ensues. A glance at the 30yr T-Bond chart shows 3.25% as a level of critical support. Pointing to the dwindling of foreign currency reserves of other central banks as the effect of tariffs reduces their trade surplus with the US, not to mention the deficit funding needs of the current administration, Allan concludes:-

…Powell will hopefully resort to his own roots as a pragmatic investment banker rather than try to retool Yellenism.  He will have to be very creative to avoid abrupt shifts in liquidity preference.  I strongly advise a very open mind on Powell monetary policy.  From current levels, a substantial steepening of the yield curve is far more likely than material flattening, as all fiscal indicators point toward market-led higher bond yields.

What we witnessed in the stock market during February was a wake-up call. QE is being reversed in the US and what went up – stocks, bonds and real estate – is bound to come back down. Over the next decade it is unlikely that stocks can deliver the capital appreciation we have witnessed during the previous 10 years.

Whilst global stock market correlations have declined of late they remain high (see the chart below) the value based approach – which, as the Deutsche Bank index shows, has underwhelmed consistently for the past decade – may now offer a defensive alternative to exiting the stock market completely. This does not have to be Long/Short or Equity Market Neutral. One can still find good stocks even when overall market sentiment is dire.

Stock Mkt correlations July 2017

Source: Charles Schwab, Factset

For momentum investors the first problem with stocks is their relatively high correlation. A momentum based strategy may help if there is a dramatic sell-off, but if the markets move sideways, these strategies are liable to haemorrhage via a steady sequence of false signals, selling at the nadir of the trading range and buying at the zenith, as the overall market moves listlessly sideways. Value strategies generally fare better in this environment by purchasing the undervalued and selling the overvalued.

The table below from Star Capital assesses stock indices using a range of metrics, it is sorted by the 10yr CAPE ratio:-

CAPE etc Star Capital 28-2-2018

Source: Star Capital

Of course there are weaknesses in using these methodologies even at the index level. The valuation methods applied by Obermatt in the table below may be of greater benefit to the value oriented investor. These are there Top 10 stocks from the S&P500 index by value, they also assess each stock on the basis of growth and safety, creating a composite ‘combined’ evaluation:-

TOP 10 VALUE SandP500 - Obermatt

Source: Obermatt

Conclusion

I was asked this week, why I am still not bearish on the stock market? The simple answer is because the market has yet to turn. ‘The market can remain irrational longer than I can remain solvent,’ is one of Keynes more enduring observations. Fundamental valuations suggest that stocks will underperform over the next decade because they are expensive today. This implies that a bear market may be nigh, but it does not guarantee it. Using a very long-term moving average one might not have exited the stock market since the 1980’s, every bear-market since then has been a mere corrective wave.

The amount of political capital tied up in the stock market is unparalleled. In a world or QE, fiat currencies, budget deficits and big government, it seems foolhardy to bite the hand which feeds. Stocks may well suffer from a sharp and substantial correction. Even if they don’t plummet like a stone they are likely to deliver underwhelming returns over the next decade, but I still believe they offer the best value in the long run. A tactical reduction in exposure may be warranted but be prepared to wait for a protracted period gaining little or nothing from your cash. Diversify into other asset classes but remember the degree to which the level of interest rates and liquidity may influence their prices. Unfashionable value investing remains a tempting alternative.

Are we nearly there yet? Employment, interest rates and inflation

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 92 – 09-03-2018

Are we nearly there yet? Employment, interest rates and inflation

  • Rising interest rates and inflation are spooking financial markets
  • Unemployment data suggests that labour markets are tight
  • Central Banks will have to respond to a collapse in the three asset bubbles

There are two factors, above all others, which are spooking asset markets at present, inflation and interest rates. The former is impossible to measure with any degree of certainty – for inflation is in the eye of the beholder – and the latter is divergent depending on whether you look at the US or Japan – with Europe caught somewhere between the two extremes. In this Macro Letter I want to investigate the long term, demand-pull, inflation risk and consider what might happen if stocks, bonds and real estate all collapse in tandem.

It is reasonable to assume that US rates will rise this year, that UK rates might follow and that the ECB (probably) and BoJ (almost certainly) will remain on the side-lines. An additional worry for export oriented countries, such as Japan and Germany, is the protectionist agenda of the current US administration. If their exports collapse, GDP growth is likely to slow in its wake. The rhetoric of retaliation will be in the air.

For international asset markets, the prospect of higher US interest rates and protectionism, spells lower growth, weakness in employment and a lowering of demand-pull inflationary pressure. Although protectionism will cause prices of certain goods to rise – use that aluminium foil sparingly, baste instead – the overall effect on employment is likely to be swift.

Near-term impact

Whilst US bond yields rise, European bond yields may fail to follow, or even decline, if export growth collapses. Stocks in the US, by contrast, may be buoyed by tax cuts and the short-term windfall effect of tariff barriers. The high correlation between equity markets and the international nature of multinational corporations, means global stocks may remain levitated a while longer. The momentum of recent economic growth may lead to increased employment and higher wages in the near-term – and this might even spur demand for a while – but the spectre of inflation at the feast, will loom like a hawk.

Longer-term effects

But is inflation really going to be a structural problem? In an attempt to answer this we must delve into the murky waters of the employment data. As a starting point, at what juncture can we be confident that the US and other countries at or near to full-employment? Let us start by looking at the labour force participation rate. It is a difficult measure to interpret. As the table below shows, in the US and Japan the trend has been downward whilst the UK and the EU are hitting record highs:-

Labor_Force_Participation_Rates

Source: Trading Economics

One possible reason for this divergence between the EU and the US/Japan is that the upward trend in European labour participation has been, at least partially, the result of an inexorable reduction in the scope and scale of the social safety net throughout the region.

More generally, since the Great Recession of 2008/2009 a number of employment trends have been evident across most developed countries. Firstly, many people have moved from full-time to part-time employment. Others have switched from employment to self-employment. In both cases these trends have exerted downward pressure on earnings. What little growth in earnings there has been, has mainly emanated from the public sector, but rising government deficits make this source of wage growth unsustainable in the long run.

The Record of Meeting of the CAC and Federal Reserve Board of Governors – published last November, stated the following in relation to US employment:-

The data indicate that despite the drop in unemployment, there has not been an increase in the number of quality jobs—those that pay enough to cover expenses and enable workers to save for the future. The 2017 Scorecard reports that one in four jobs in the U.S. is in a low-wage occupation, which means that at the median salary, these jobs pay below the poverty threshold for a family of four. For the first time, the 2017 Scorecard includes a measure of income volatility that shows that one in five households has significant income fluctuations from month to month. The percentage varies by state, from a low of 14.7 percent of households in Virginia to a stunning 29.8 percent of households in Wyoming. In addition, 40 percent of those experiencing volatility reported struggling to pay their bills at least once in the last year because of these income fluctuations. These two factors contribute significantly to the fact that almost 37 percent of U.S. households, and 51 percent of households of color, live in the financial red zone of “liquid asset poverty.” This means that they do not have enough liquid savings to replace income at the poverty level for three months if their main source of income is disrupted, such as from job loss or illness. This level of financial insecurity has profound implications for the security of households, and for the overall economic growth of the nation.

Another trend that has been evident is the increase in the number of people no longer seeking employment. Setting aside those who, for health related reasons, have exited the employment pool, early retirement has been one of the main factors swelling the ranks of the previously employable. For this growing cohort, inflation never went away. In particular, inflation in healthcare has been one of the main sources of increases in the price level over the past decade.

At the opposite end of the working age spectrum, education is another factor which has reduced the participation rate. It has also exerted downward pressure on wages; as more students enrol in higher education in order to gain, hopefully, better paid employment, the increased supply of graduates insures that the economic value of a degree diminishes. Whilst a number of corporations have begun to offer apprenticeships or in-work degree qualifications, in order to address the skill gap between what is being taught and what these firms require from their employees, the overall impact of increased demand for higher education has been to reduce the participation rate.

For a detailed assessment of the situation in the US, this paper from the Kansas City Federal Reserve – Why Are Prime-Age Men Vanishing from the Labor Force? provides some additional and fascinating insights. Here is the author’s conclusion:-

Over the past two decades, the nonparticipation rate among primeage men rose from 8.2 percent to 11.4 percent. This article shows that the nonparticipation rate increased the most for men in the 25–34 age group and for men with a high school degree, some college, or an associate’s degree. In 1996, the most common situation prime-age men reported during their nonparticipation was a disability or illness, while the least common situation was retirement. While the share of primeage men reporting a disability or illness as their situation during nonparticipation declined by 2016, this share still accounted for nearly half of all nonparticipating prime-age men. This result is in line with Krueger’s (2016) finding, as many of these men with a disability or illness are likely suffering from daily pain and using prescription painkillers.

I argue that a decline in the demand for middle-skill workers accounts for most of the decline in participation among prime-age men. In addition, I find that the decline in participation is unlikely to reverse if current conditions hold. In 2016, the share of nonparticipating prime-age men who stayed out of the labor force in the subsequent month was 83.8 percent. Moreover, less than 15 percent of nonparticipating prime-age men reported that they wanted a job. Together, this evidence suggests nonparticipating prime-age men are less likely to return to the labor force at the moment.

The stark increase in prime-age men’s nonparticipation may be the result of a vicious cycle. Skills demanded in the labor market are rapidly changing, and automation has rendered the skills of many less-educated workers obsolete. This lack of job opportunities, in turn, may lead to depression and illness among displaced workers, and these health conditions may become further barriers to their employment. Ending this vicious cycle—and avoiding further increases in the nonparticipation rate among prime-age men—may require equipping workers with the new skills employers are demanding in the face of rapid technological advancements.

For an even more nuanced interpretation of the disconnect between corporate profits and worker compensation this essay by Jonathan Tepper of Varient Perception – Why American Workers Aren’t Getting A Raise: An Economic Detective Story – is even more compelling:-

Rising industrial concentration is a powerful reason why profits don’t mean revert and a powerful explanation for the imbalance between corporations and workers. Workers in many industries have fewer choices of employer, and when industries are monopolists or oligopolists, they have significant market power versus their employees.

The role of high industrial concentration on inequality is now becoming clear from dozens recent academic studies. Work by The Economist found that over the fifteen-year period from 1997 to 2012 two-thirds of American industries were more concentrated in the hands of a few firms. In 2015, Jonathan Baker and Steven Salop found that “market power contributes to the development and perpetuation of inequality.”

One of the most comprehensive overviews available of increasing industrial concentration shows that we have seen a collapse in the number of publicly listed companies and a shift in power towards big companies. Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely have documented how despite a much larger economy, we have seen the number of listed firms fall by half, and many industries now have only a few big players. There is a strong and direct correlation between how few players there are in an industry and how high corporate profits are.

Tepper goes on to discuss monopolies and monopsonies. At the heart of the issue is the zombie company phenomenon. With interest rates at artificially low levels, companies which should have been liquidated have survived. Others have used their access to finance, gained from many years of negotiation with their bankers, to buy out their competitors. If interest rates were correctly priced this would not have been possible – these zombie corporations would have gone to the wall. I wrote a rather long two part essay on this subject in 2016 for the Cobden Centre – A history of Fractional Reserve Banking – or why interest rates are the most important influence on stock market valuations? This is about the long-run even by my standards but I commend it to those of you with an interest in economic history. Here is a brief quote from part 2:-

…This might seem incendiary but, let us assume that the rate of interest at which the UK government has been able to borrow is a mere 300bp below the rate it should have been for the last 322 years – around 4% rather than 7%. What does this mean for corporate financing?

There are two forces at work: a lower than “natural” risk free rate, which should make it possible for corporates to borrow more cheaply than under unfettered conditions. They can take on new projects which would be unprofitable under normal conditions, artificially prolonging economic booms. The other effect is to allow the government to crowd out private sector borrowing, especially during economic downturns, where government borrowing increases at the same time that corporate profitability suffers. The impact on corporate interest rates of these two effects is, to some extent, self-negating. In the long run, excessive government borrowing permanently reduces the economic capacity of the country, by the degree to which government investment is less economically productive than private investment.

To recap, more people are remaining in education, more people are working freelance or part-time and more people are choosing to retire early. The appreciation of the stock, bond and property markets has certainly helped those who are asset rich, choose to exit the ranks of the employable, but, I suspect, in many cases this is only because asset prices have been rising for the past decade. Pension annuity rates appear to have hit all-time lows, a reckoning for asset markets is overdue.

What happens come the next bust and beyond?

If inflation rises and Central Banks respond by raising interest rates, bond prices will fall and stocks will have difficulty avoiding the force of gravity. Once bond and stock markets fall, property prices are likely to follow, as the cost of financing mortgages increases. With all the major asset classes in decline, economic growth will slow and unemployment will rise. Meanwhile, the need to work, in order to supplement the reduction in income derived from a, no longer appreciating, pool of assets, will increase, putting downward pressure on average earnings. Here is the most recent wage, inflation and real wage data. For France, Germany and the UK, wages continue to lag behind prices. A 2% inflation target is all very well, just so long as wages can keep up:-

Wages_and_Inflation

Source: Trading Economics

The first place where this trend in lower earnings will become evident is likely to be among freelance and part-time workers – at least they will still have employment. The next casualty will be the fully employed. Corporations will lay-off staff as corporate profit warnings force their hands. Governments will be beseeched to create jobs and, regardless of whether the inflation rate is still rising or not, Central Banks will be implored, cajoled (whatever it takes) to cut interest rates and renew their quest to purchase every asset under the sun.

Wage deflation will, of course, continue, harming those who have no alternative but to work; those who lack sufficient unearned income to survive. Government debt will accelerate, Central Bank balance sheets will balloon and asset prices will eventually recover. Bond yields may even reach new record lows, prompting assets to flow into stocks – the ones Central Banks have not yet purchased as part of their QQE programmes – despite their inflated valuations. Corporate executives will no doubt take the view that interest rates are artificially low and conclude that they can best serve their shareholders by buying back their own stock – accompanied by the occasional special dividend to avoid accusations for impropriety.

As economic growth takes a nose drive, inflation will moderate, providing justification for the pre-emptive rate cutting and balance sheet expanding actions of the Central Banks. Articles will begin to appear, in esteemed journals, talking of a new era of low economic trend growth. Finally, after several years of QE, QQE and whatever the stage beyond that may be – helicopter money anyone? – the world economy will start to grow more rapidly and the labour force participation rate, increase once more. Inflation will start to rise, interest rates will be tightened, bond yields, increase. At this point, stocks will fall and the next downward leg of the economic cycle will have to be averted by renewed QQE and fiscal stimulus. If this is reminiscent of a scene from Groundhog Day, I regret to inform you, it is.

There will be a point at which the financialisation of the global economy and the nationalisation of the stock market can no longer deliver the markets from the deleterious curse of debt, but, sadly, I do not believe that moment has yet arrived. Are we nearly there yet? Not even close.