Category Archives: Federal Reserve

Market Perspectives and Outlook

In 2016, the general election dominated the news headlines while the economy continued its slow slog for most of the year.

Stocks began the year in a slump, losing 10% in the first six weeks and then meandering sideways until July.  The markets rallied in the third quarter, followed by another decline until the election.  That’s when Trump’s surprising win started a rally that has carried the market to nearly 20,000 on the Dow.

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U.S. equities have held their gains since the election, while definitive sector rotations indicate more confidence among investors.  We believe the bull market will continue, although the sharp gains seen recently may give way to more sideways movement and/or potential pullbacks.

Improving economic data alongside a perception that the incoming Trump administration will be more business-friendly has bolstered both stock and Treasury yields.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in December and indicated that they expect further rate increases in 2017.

While it remains to be seen how much of Trump’s populist agenda will be embraced by the Republican Congress, a survey of 177 fund managers the week following the elections found they were putting cash to work  at the fastest pace since August 2009.

We always want to be good stewards of our client assets.  As such, we are participating in the market’s growth while at the same time remaining aware that the future holds many uncertainties, especially with the change in government direction and policy as we head into 2017.

As always, we value our relationship with you and welcome your comments and suggestions.

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Tectonic Shifts – Looking Ahead to 2017

The election has created tectonic shifts in government and promises to make bold changes in the economy.  We have been gathering consensus views from some leading financial analysts for 2017

  • Global interest rates are going up.
  • Global inflation is going up.
  • Global growth is going up.
  • Recession risk is going down.

A new consensus is also building.  The rise of nationalistic self-interest is upsetting the old order the world over.  For the past decade central bankers have been in control of economic policy throughout the world.  It has resulted in low or even negative interest rates in an effort to stimulate economic growth.  The result has been like pushing on a string.  Growth has been slow (the string as a whole hasn’t been moving) and the middle class in the developed world has seen their wages stagnate and their jobs disappear (the middle of the string) while those at the top (the far end of the string) have been virtually unaffected.  It’s part of the reason for the change in political leadership in the U.S. and the re-emergence of economic nationalism as evidenced by the Brexit vote in Britain.

As central bank leadership takes a back seat to aggressive fiscal policy, we can expect political leadership to focus on job growth and economic relief for the long-neglected middle class.  Domestically, here is what we expect to see:

Tax reform:  Trump’s campaign promised corporate tax reform.  To make American companies more competitive globally, he has proposed reducing corporate tax rates from 35% to 15%.  A special 10% rate is designed to repatriate corporate profits held offshore.

Individuals will be taxed at three rates depending on income: 12%, 25% and 33%.

Fiscal policy: The Trump administration wants to spend new money on infrastructure: transportation, clean water, the electric grid, telecommunications, security, and energy.

Health care: Trump wants to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Trade: The new administration has vowed to withdraw from TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) and renegotiate NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).  They also intend to challenge China regarding currency manipulation and unfair trade practices.

Immigration: President-elect Trump intends to establish new, tougher immigration controls to boost wages, build a wall along the U.S./Mexico border, deport criminal aliens and end sanctuary cities.

Economy: 25 million new jobs over the next decade is the goal of the incoming administration.  They aim to boost economic growth from 1.5% to 3.5% or 4.0% annually.

The Trump administration will focus on job creation, economic growth, infrastructure spending, reduced regulation, and energy independence while reducing governmental efforts to prevent climate change.  The people that Donald Trump has chosen for his cabinet are largely from the private sector; people that have backgrounds in running successful businesses and creating jobs.

These things are the primary reason that the stock market has reacted well to the election of Donald Trump.  Corporate earnings have been essentially flat for the past three years.  Professional investors see opportunities for renewed economic growth, which will increase corporate profits.  While we view this development with optimism, we always remain cautious.  We expect increased market volatility, especially if terrorist attacks continue throughout the globe.  We also expect interest rates to rise as the Federal Reserve brings rates to a more historically normal level.

We also see opportunities for the creation of new companies.  The number of publicly traded companies has dropped by nearly 50% since 2000.  At the same time, the number of companies that are held by private equity firms has grown explosively – by a factor of six!  This provides a great opportunity for privately held companies to go public and provide yet another opportunity for greater market growth.

As always, we remain cautious in keeping with our philosophy of preserving our clients’ capital.  Over the long term, we see the potential for a new American renaissance.

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The Election is Over. Now What?

The general election is over and the people have spoken.  Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States.

The run-up to November 8th has shown that our country is sharply divided politically.  Some people will be happy and others disappointed by the result.  However, it’s important to avoid letting your personal political beliefs and emotions cloud your long-term investment decisions.

Our job as your financial advisor is to help you navigate your way through the upcoming economic and political changes.  Forecasters can be wrong, and we have seen that pollsters can be too.  We avoid making big bets based on crystal ball gazing.  So how do we see the future?

As students of history we think that countries that keep their governments relatively small, in terms of spending, regulation, and tax rates, will provide their residents with an advantage in pursuing financial prosperity.  Regardless of who won this year’s election, we think that economic growth in the U.S. will generally continue, even with the policy mistakes the winner may make.

Since 2009, we have experienced what we’ve been referring to as a “Plow Horse Economy.”  That means that the macro-economy has gradually recovered even as many people have not seen much of an improvement in their individual economic lives.  The overall economy has grown despite the fact that debt, regulation and political turmoil have acted as a “Plow” holding the economy back.  Despite this drag, the major U.S. stock indexes are up almost 50% over the past four years.

We remain constructive on the economy and the markets.  With the election in the rear view mirror, we expect the Federal Reserve to begin its long, slow walk to raising interest rates from today’s near-zero percent.  We expect those moves to be very gradual and to have little long-term effect on the market.

One other statistic makes us optimistic for the future.  Consumer spending is said to account for 70% of the U.S. economy.  Unfortunately, that vast middle class that we think of as the “average consumer” has not seen much in the way of a fatter wallet over the last few decades.  That was one reason for the popularity of Trump’s message to the middle class that he would restore good paying middle class jobs.  We believe that if he is able to follow through on this promise, a resurgence of earnings growth by the middle class will be a positive for the American economy, and hope that he is able to implement feasible policies to promote such growth.

 

 

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Inflation Ready to Rise

Brian Wesbury is one of our favorite economists and market commentators.  One of the key indicators the Federal Reserve is watching is the rate of inflation.  The Fed wants the “core” inflation rate to be 2%.  We are not in favor of any inflation at all, but we are not the Federal Reserve so it’s worth looking at the numbers they are looking at.

Wesbury:

The consumer price index is up only 1.1% in the past year. The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation – for personal consumption expenditures, or PCE – is up 1.0%. The US doesn’t face deflation, but the overall inflation statistics are, and have remained, low.

But the money supply is accelerating, the jobs market looks very tight, and underneath the calm exterior, there are some green shoots of inflationary pressure.

The “core” measures of inflation, which exclude volatile food and energy prices, are not nearly as contained as overall measures. And before you say everyone has to eat and drive, realize that both food an energy prices are volatile and global in nature. They don’t always reveal true underlying price pressures.

The ‘core” CPI is up 2.3% in the past year, while the “core” PCE index is up 1.7%. In other words, a drop in food and energy prices has been masking underlying inflation that is already at or near the Fed’s 2% target. Energy prices have stabilized and food prices will rise again. As a result, soon, overall inflation measures are going to be running higher than the Fed’s target.

Housing costs are up 3.4% in the past year and medical care costs are up 3.4%.

Although some (usually Keynesian) analysts are waiting for much higher growth in wages before they fear rising inflation, the fact is that wage growth is already accelerating. Average hourly earnings are up 2.6% in the past year versus a 2.0% gain only two years ago. Moreover, as a paper earlier this year from the San Francisco Fed pointed out, this acceleration is happening in spite of the retirement of relatively high-wage Baby Boomers and the re-entry into the labor force of workers with below-average skills.

But we don’t think wages cause inflation – money does. Inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. The Fed has held short-term interest rates at artificially low levels for the past several years while it’s expanded its balance sheet to unprecedented levels. Monetary policy has been loose.

… M2 has expanded at an 8.6% annualized rate. More money brings more inflation.

None of this means hyperinflation is finally on its way. In the past, inflation has taken time to build, leaving room for the Fed to respond by shrinking its balance sheet and getting back to a more normal monetary policy.

In the meantime, this will be the last year in a long while, where we see inflation below the Fed’s 2% target. Look for both higher inflation and interest rates in the years ahead.

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When is the Next Recession?

One of our favorite market analysts, Brian Wesbury – who coined the term “Plow horse Economy” to describe the current economic situation – has been accused of being a “perma-bull” because he had discounted all the predictions of recession over the last 7 1/2 years.  We can understand why people are concerned about recessions because 2008 is still fresh in our minds.  The recovery that began in 2009 has been anemic.  Millions of people have not seen their financial situation improve.

Remember fears about adjustable-rate mortgage re-sets, or the looming wave of foreclosures that would lead to a double-dip recession? Remember the threat of widespread defaults on municipal debt? Remember the hyperinflation that was supposed to come from Quantitative Easing? Or how about the Fiscal Cliff, Sequester, or the federal government shutdown? Or the recession we were supposed to get from higher oil prices…and then from lower oil prices? How about the recession from the looming breakup of the Euro or Grexit or Brexit?

None of these things has brought on the oft-predicted recession.  Wesbury says that at some point a recession will come.  We have not reached the point where fiscal or economic policy has eliminated that possibility.  He mentions several indicators, including truck sales and “core” industrial production as indicators that should be watched.

Meanwhile,

Job growth continues at a healthy clip. Initial unemployment claims have averaged 261,000 over the past four weeks and have been below 300,000 for 80 straight weeks. Consumer debt payments are an unusually low share of income and consumers’ seriously delinquent debts are still dropping.   Wages are accelerating. Home building has risen the past few years even as the homeownership rate has declined, making room for plenty of growth in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, there haven’t been any huge shifts in government policy in the past two years. Yes, policy could be much better, but the pace of bad policies hasn’t shifted into overdrive lately.

In other words, our forecast remains as it has been the past several years, for more Plow Horse economic growth.   But you should never have any doubt that we are constantly on the lookout for something that can change our minds.

While the next recession may or may not be right around the corner, serious investors should be prepared for the eventuality so that when it does arrive, they will be ready.   We invite your inquiries.

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Negative Interest Rates – Searching for Meaning

We have mentioned negative interest rates in the past.  Let’s take a look at what it means to you.

Central banks lower interest rates to encourage economic activity.  The theory is that low interest rates allow companies to borrow money at lower costs, encouraging them to expand, invest in and grow their business.  It also encourages consumers to borrow money for things like new homes, cars, furniture and all the other things for which people borrow money.

It’s the reason the Federal Reserve has lowered rates to practically zero and kept them there for years.  It’s also why the Fed has not raised rates; they’re afraid that doing so will reduce the current slow rate of growth even more.

But if low rates are good for the economy, would negative interest rates be even better?  Some governments seem to think so.

Negative interest rates in Japan mean that if you buy a Japanese government bond due in 10 years you will lose 0.275% per year.  If you buy a 10 year German government bond today  your interest rate is negative 0.16%.   Why would you lend your money to someone if they guaranteed you that you would get less than the full amount back?  Good question.  Perhaps the answer is that you have little choice or are even more afraid of the alternative.

Per the Wall Street Journal:

There is now $13 trillion of global negative-yielding debt, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That compares with $11 trillion before the
Brexit vote, and barely none with a negative yield in mid-2014.

In Switzerland, government bonds through the longest maturity, a bond due in nearly half a century, are now yielding below zero. Nearly 80% of Japanese and German government bonds have negative yields, according to Citigroup.

This leaves investors are searching the world for securities that have a positive yield.  That includes stocks that pay dividends and bonds like U.S. Treasuries that still have a positive yield: currently 1.4% for ten years.  However, the search for yield also leads investors to more risky investments like emerging market debt and junk bonds.  The effect is that all of these alternatives are being bid up in price, which has the effect of reducing their yield.

The yield on Lithuania’s 10-year government debt has more than halved this year to around 0.5%, according to Tradeweb. The yield on Taiwan’s 10-year bonds has fallen to about 0.7% from about 1% this year, according to Thomson Reuters.

Elsewhere in the developed world, New Zealand’s 10-year-bond yields have fallen to about 2.3% from 3.6% as investors cast their nets across the globe.

Rashique Rahman, head of emerging markets at Invesco, said his firm has been getting consistent inflows from institutional clients in Western Europe and Asia interested in buying investment-grade emerging-market debt to “mimic the yield they used to get” from their home markets.

Clients don’t care if it is Mexico or Poland or South Korea, he said, “they just want a higher yield.” ….

Ricky Liu, a high-yield-bond portfolio manager at HSBC Global Asset Management, said his firm has clients from Asia who are willing for the first time to invest in portfolios that include the highest-rated junk bonds.

How and where this will end is anybody’s guess.  In our view, negative interest rates are an indication that central bankers are wandering into uncharted territory.  We’re not convinced that they really know how things will turn out.  We remain cautiously optimistic about the U.S. economy and are staying the course, but we are not chasing yield.

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Keeping Your Eye on the Ball

Investors face a fire-hose torrent of information every day.  Determining what’s important and what’s irrelevant is critical.  Projections of doom and gloom are interspersed with promises of fabulous wealth if only we invest in a certain way.  99% of it is useless or even counter-productive, meant to entice the unwary investor to chase after chimeras that are simply not real.

Today’s issue of First Trust’s Monday Morning Outlook:

Honest question: How much time does the Apple Inc. Board of Directors spend debating whether the Federal Reserve will hike rates once or twice more in 2016?  We don’t really know the answer, but we would guess the best answer is zero.

Now, how much time does CNBC spend debating this question, along with potential actions of the Japanese and European Central Bank?  Answer: Way, way too much.

Business news should cover business, not government, but somehow, over the years, people have been led astray and many now think actions by the government are more important than actions of businesses and entrepreneurs.  Nothing could be further from the truth…

So, while the TV debates between day traders rage on, it doesn’t really matter whether the Fed lifts rates in June, or not.  The difference between a 0.5% and 0.75% federal funds rate matters little to corporate America and entrepreneurs.  In fact, higher rates will most likely make money more available, not less.  If the Fed really wanted to tighten policy, it would get rid of all excess reserves, but it won’t.  So, we suspect a symbolic rate hike in June, no matter what the talking heads’ endless debates about the matter suggest.

As investors we want to follow the lead of Boards of Directors, not the lead of what passes for business journalism these days.  No matter what they say, it is the entrepreneurial class that drives economic activity, not the government.

After all, Greenspan, Bernanke and Yellen have never pulled all-nighters drinking Red Bull and writing Apps for the iPhone.  That’s what changes lives, not quarter point rate hikes.

Professional investors have learned the difference between meaningful information that has a real impact on portfolios and simple distractions.  If you are interested in seeing how this process works, contact us.

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How is the US Treasury managing the nation’s debt?

With interest rates at or near historic lows a lot of people are taking advantage of low rates to re-finance their debts.  Is the US Treasury taking this opportunity to lock in low rates?  Not really.

Here is First Trust’s commentary on the issue.

Instead of imposing strict fiduciary rules on Wall Street, banks, investment houses, and financial advisors, the government should apply similar rules to the managers of the federal debt. This is particularly true because unlike the private sector – which faces tough market competition every day – the debt managers at the Treasury Department have a monopoly.

These federal debt managers have been flagrantly violating what should be their fiduciary responsibility to manage the debt in the best long-term interests of the US taxpayer.

Despite a roughly $19 trillion federal debt, the interest cost of the debt remains low relative to fundamentals. In Fiscal Year 2015, interest was 1.2% of GDP and 6.9% of federal revenue, both the lowest since the late 1960s. To put this in perspective, in 1991 debt service hit a post-World War II peak of 3.2% of GDP and 18.4% of federal revenue.

In other words, for the time being low interest rates have kept down the servicing cost of the debt even as the debt itself has soared.

You would think that in a situation like this, with federal debt set to continue to increase rapidly in the future, that the government’s debt managers would bend over backwards to lock-in current low interest rates for as long as possible.

But you would be wrong. The average maturity of outstanding marketable Treasury debt (which doesn’t include debt held in government Trust Funds, like Social Security) is only 5 years and 9 months. That’s certainly higher than the average maturity of 4 years and 1 month at the end of the Bush Administration, but still way too low given the level of interest rates.

The government’s debt managers have a built-in bias in favor of using short-term debt: because the yield curve normally slopes upward, the government can save a little bit of money each year by issuing shorter term debt. In turn, that means politicians get to show smaller budget deficits or get to shift spending to pet programs.

But this is short-sighted. The US government should instead lock-in relatively low interest rates for multiple decades, by issuing more 30-year bonds, and perhaps by introducing bonds the mature in 50 years or even longer.

At present, we find ourselves in the fortunate situation of being able to easily pay the interest on the federal debt. But this isn’t going to last forever. If the government locks-in low rates for an extended period it would give us time to catch our breath and fix our long-term fiscal problems, like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

There’s no reason this has to be a partisan issue. The government’s debt managers should just treat the debt like it’s their own. If the government is determined to hold many others to a stricter standard, it should lead by example.

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Thoughts from around the investment world – 4

Today we’re featuring First Trust.  Here are some unconventional thoughts from their March 21st Morning Monday Outlook:

1 – The Panic of 2008 was not caused by tight monetary policy.

2 – Zero percent interest rate policy (ZIRP) and Quantitative Easing (QE) did not save the US or global economies.

3 – Monetary policy in the US is getting looser as the Fed hikes rates, and,

4 – Negative interest rates in Japan and Europe are not working.

If anyone’s interested we would be happy to provide a summary of their thoughts on these subjects.  We think it’s important to look at the economic world from the perspective of people who live in “Realville” and examine conventional wisdom, which is so often wrong.

Regarding the first point, keep in mind that all the “smart people” in and out of government were convinced that real estate was safe because it could not go down.  Flipping houses for ever more ridiculous prices became a national obsession and formed the basis for an entire cable TV network.

And when it ended the ultimate culprits pointed the fingers of blame to everyone except themselves, leaving millions poorer.

We will have more to say on these topics in subsequent posts, including the new phenomenon of negative interest rates which some central banks have already adopted.

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Thoughts From Around the Investment World – 3

We thought that our readers would be interested in reading the thoughts of some of the leading money management companies. We get information from these companies on a regular basis, and wanted to start passing some of it along. Today we look at the view from the money management shop Neuberger Berman.

Complex Trends, Challenging Markets

The complexities of today’s markets and economies are not lost on those who spend each day sorting through them. Diverging monetary policy, plummeting energy prices and shifting economies are all examples of fundamentals on which our investment professionals are focused. These issues have been debated for the better part of 2015 and have led to a very turbulent period for the markets, both equity and fixed income. [The] past year [2015] will shape up as one of the more challenging in recent memory.

As we enter 2016, the issues of stagnant global growth, monetary policy and China’s bumpy economic transition that have roiled markets will continue to be a major focus, the outcomes of which will likely drive market returns. We believe the Federal Reserve will take a slow approach to rate increases, that the ECB [European Central Bank] will remain accommodative as necessary, and that China has the financial wherewithal to avoid a severe “hard landing.” As for low commodity prices, they are largely supportive for now, but eventual increases are likely to come for the right reasons, reflecting broader economic health and proper supply/demand balance.

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