Category Archives: Federal Reserve

3% – Why It Doesn’t Matter

The stock market reacted negatively when the yield on the 10-year U.S. Government bond reached 3%.  There was a major one-day sell-off the first time that benchmark was reached.  Here’s what Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust has to say.

Just a few weeks ago, the Pouting Pundits of Pessimism were freaked out over the potential for the yield curve to invert. They’ve now completely reversed course and are freaked out over a 3% 10-year Treasury note yield.

All this gnashing of teeth is driven by a belief that low interest rates and QE have “distorted” markets, created a “mirage,” a “sugar high” – a “bubble.”

These fears are overblown. Faster growth and inflation are pushing long-term yields up – a good sign. And, yes, the Fed is normalizing its extraordinarily easy monetary policy, but that policy never distorted markets as much as many people suspect. Quantitative Easing created excess reserves in the banking system but never caused a true acceleration in the money supply. That’s why hyper-inflation never happened and both real GDP and inflation remained subdued. Profits, not QE, lifted stocks.

And our models show that low interest rates were never priced into equity values, either. We measure the fair value of equities by using a capitalized profits model. Simply put, we divide economy-wide corporate profits by the 10-year Treasury yield and compare these “capitalized profits” to stock prices over time. In other words, we compare profits, interest rates, and equity values and determine fair value given historical relationships. The lower the 10-year yield, the higher the model pushes the fair value of stocks.

Because the Fed held short-term rates so low, and gave forward guidance that they would stay low, they pulled long-term rates down, too. As a result, over the past nine years, artificially low 10-year yields have caused our model to show that stocks were, on average, 55% undervalued.

In other words, stocks never priced in artificially low interest rates. If they had, stock prices would have been significantly higher, and in danger of falling when interest rates went up.

But we have consistently adjusted our model by using a 3.5% 10-year yield. Using that yield today, along with profits from the fourth quarter, we show the stock market 15% undervalued. In other words, we’ve anticipated yields rising and still believe stocks are undervalued. A 3% 10-year yield does not change our belief that stocks can rise further this year, especially with our expectation that profits will rise by 15-20% in 2018.

The yield curve will not invert until the Fed becomes too tight and that won’t happen until the funds rate is above the growth rate of nominal GDP growth. Stay bullish.

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How interest rates are determined

From our favorite economist – Brian Wesbury:

An entire generation of investors has been misled about interest rates: where they come from, what they mean, how they’re determined.

Lots of this confusion has to do with the role of central banks. Many think central banks, like the Fed, control all interest rates. This isn’t true. They can only control short-term rates. It’s true these can have an impact on other rates, but it doesn’t mean they control the entire yield curve.

Ultimately, an interest rate is simply the cost of transferring consumption over time. If someone wants to save (spend less than they earn today) in order to consume more in the future, they must find someone else who wants to spend more today than they earn, and then repay in the future.

Savers (lenders) want to be compensated by maintaining – or improving – their future purchasing power, which means they need payment for three things: inflation, credit risk, and taxes.

Lenders deserve compensation for inflation. Credit risk – the chance a loan will not be repaid – is also part of any interest rate. And, of course, those who earn interest owe taxes on that income. After taxes, investors deserve a positive return. In other words, interest rates that naturally occur in a competitive marketplace should include these three factors.

So, why haven’t they? In July 2012, the 10-year Treasury yield averaged just 1.53%. But since then, the consumer price index alone is up 1.5% per year. An investor who paid a tax rate of 25% would owe roughly 0.375% of the 1.53% yield in taxes. In other words, after inflation and taxes (and without even thinking about credit risk, which on a Treasury is essentially nil), someone who bought a 10-year bond in July 2012 has lost 0.35% of purchasing power each year, in addition to capital losses as bond prices have declined.

Something is off. The bond market has not been compensating investors for saving, it has been punishing them.

Some blame Quantitative Easing. The theory is that when the Fed buys bonds, yields fall. It’s simply supply and demand. But this is a mistake. Bonds aren’t like commodities, where if someone buys up all the steel, the price will move higher. A bond is a bond, no matter how many exist. Just because Apple has more bonds outstanding than a small cap company doesn’t mean Apple pays a higher interest rate.

If the Fed bought every 10-year Treasury in existence except for a single $10,000 Note, why would its yield be less than the current yield on the 10-year note (putting aside artificial government rules that goad banks into buying Treasury securities)? It’s the same issuer, same inflation rate, same tax rate, same credit risk, and the same maturity and coupon. It should have the same yield. It didn’t become a collector’s item; it still faces competition from a wide array of other investments. It’s still the same bond.

The real reason interest rates have remained so low is because many think the Fed will keep holding short-term rates down below fundamental levels well into the future. If the Fed promises to hold the overnight rate at zero for 2-years then the 2-year Treasury will also be close to zero. And since the 10-year note is made up of five continuous 2-year notes, then Fed policy can influence (but not control) longer-term yields as well. The Fed’s zero percent interest rate policy artificially held down longer-term Treasury yields, not Quantitative Easing. That’s why longer-term yields have risen as the Fed has hiked rates.

And they will continue to rise. Why? Because the Fed has held short-term rates too low for too long. Interest rates are below inflation and well below nominal GDP growth. The Fed has gotten away with this for quite some time because they over-regulated banks, making it hard to lend and grow. Those days are ending and low rates now are becoming dangerous.

With inflation and growth rising, and regulation on the decline, interest rates must go higher. It’s true the Fed is unwinding QE, but that’s not why rates are going up. They’re going up because the economy is telling savers that they should demand higher rates.

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Does Volatility Make You Nervous?

One of our favorite economists, Brian Wesbury, has some comments on recent volatility and the economy.

When Volatility is Just Volatility

Stock market volatility scares people. But, volatility itself isn’t necessarily bad. Only if there are fundamental economic problems, something that could cause a recession, would we think volatility itself is a warning sign.

So, we watch the Four Pillars. These Pillars – monetary policy, tax policy, spending & regulatory policy, and trade policy – are the real threats to prosperity. Right now, these Pillars suggest that economic fundamentals remain sound.

Monetary Policy: We’re astounded some analysts interpreted last Wednesday’s pronouncements from the Federal Reserve as dovish. The Fed upgraded its forecasts for economic growth, projected a lower unemployment rate through 2020 and also expects inflation to temporarily exceed its long-term inflation target of 2.0% in 2020.

As recently as December, only four of sixteen Fed policymakers projected four or more rate hikes this year; now, seven of fifteen are in the more aggressive camp. Some analysts dwell on the fact that the “median” policymaker still expects only three hikes in 2018, ignoring the trend toward a more aggressive Fed.

But all of this misses the real point. Monetary policy will still be loose at the end of 2018, whether the Fed raises rates three or four times this year. The federal funds rate is about 120 basis points below the yield on the 10-year Treasury (which will rise as the Fed hikes), and is also well below the trend in nominal GDP growth. Meanwhile, the banking system still holds about $2 trillion in excess reserves. Monetary policy is a tailwind for growth, not a headwind.

Taxes: The tax cut passed last year is the most pro-growth tax cut since the early 1980s, particularly on the corporate side. Some analysts argue that the money is just going to be used for share buybacks, but we find that hard to believe. A lower tax rate means companies have more of an incentive to pursue business ideas that they were on the fence about.

And there is a big difference between who cuts a check to the government and who truly bears the burden of a tax, what economists call the “incidence of a tax.”

Cutting the tax rate on Corporate America will lift the demand for labor, meaning workers and managers share the benefits with shareholders. Yes, some of the tax cut will be used for share buybacks, but that’s OK with us; it means shareholders get money to reinvest in other companies. Buybacks also move capital away from corporate managers who might otherwise squander the money on “empire building,” pursuing acquisitions for the sake of growth, when returning it to shareholders is more efficient.

Spending & Regulation: This pillar is a little shaky. On regulation, Washington has moved aggressively to reduce red tape rather than expand it. That’s good. But, Congress can’t keep a lid on spending. That’s bad.

Back in June, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting that discretionary spending in Fiscal Year 2018 would be $1.222 trillion. (Discretionary spending doesn’t include entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, or net interest on the federal debt.) Now, the CBO says that’ll reach $1.309 trillion, a gain of 7.1% in just nine months.

Assuming the CBO got it right back in June on entitlements and interest, that would put this year’s federal spending at 20.9% of GDP, a tick higher than last year at 20.8% – despite faster economic growth. This extra spending represents a shift in resources from the private sector to the government. The more the government spends, the slower the economy grows.

Trade: Trade wars are not good for growth. And the US move to put tariffs in place creates the potential for a trade war. We aren’t dismissing this threat, but a “full blown” trade war remains a low probability event.

The bottom line: taxes, regulation and monetary policy are a plus for growth, spending and new tariffs are threats. Things aren’t perfect, but, in no way do the fundamentals signal major economic problems ahead. The current volatility in markets is not a warning, it’s just volatility.

 

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Ten for 2018

1. It’s going to get complicated. The global economy is strengthening but there are crosscurrent including rising interest rates and changes on the way trade issues are addressed.
2. Central banks are winding down unprecedented levels of monetary stimulus. At the same time government policy and spending are stimulative.
3. The geopolitical climate remains unsettled. Elections are being held throughout the world and the electorate is looking at new faces.
4. China has confirmed that leader Xi will be in office as long as he wishes. His rule will impact China’s economic development and foreign policy.
5. The search for income will continue as the Federal Reserve has far to go before fixed income investment becomes appealing for the retail investor.
6. Current low default rates may change as public pension plans come under increased pressure as the elderly begin to outnumber the young.
7. Two-way markets return following the post-election bounce that saw a smoothly rising market with no meaningful interruptions.
8. Active management set to recover its value as some of the components of popular indexes become significantly overpriced.
9. Finding opportunities and avoiding “torpedo stocks” becomes a challenge for individual investors and fund managers.
10. Planning becomes critical as an aging population will be spending decades in retirement even as pensions and social security come under pressure.

If these issues trouble you, getting professional assistance and creating a financial plan may help you navigate the uncertainty of 2018.

 

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Market Shakeout

Following a virtual non-stop rally in the stock market since the beginning of 2017, we are not particularly surprised that the stock market should stop and take a breather. What many people find disconcerting about this sudden drop is it’s steepness and breadth. We have not been exposed to a decline this steep for quite a while.

Some commentators actually blame good economic news for the market drop, claiming that a robust economy has triggered renewed inflation fears, which they assert will lead the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster than expected.

Our view is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the economy, or with an increase in interest rates which has been widely anticipated. Long-time market observers have seen this movie before, it’s just been a long time since we last saw it. From what we have been reading, some large institutions are employing trading systems that trigger large sell orders at certain levels in the market, which in turn causes a cascading series of further drops.

On a fundamental level, the stock market responds to the economy, and we see no indications that anything has changed since the start of the year. Hiring is up, wages are rising, and millions of people are getting bonuses that they haven’t seen in years. Take-home pay will go up for millions more Americans beginning this month. Lower corporate tax rates should lead to higher corporate profits which should lead to higher stock prices. Still other corporations that have billions of dollars parked overseas, like Apple, are bringing a lot of that money home and are promising to invest it in the U.S. economy.

While the recent free-fall in the Dow has been spectacular, the markets have been abnormally placid for about eight years now. A healthy market sees run-ups and pull-backs, and in recent memory the pull-backs have been on the maximum order of maybe 3% total. While we certainly prefer the markets always go up, the reality of long-term market history is that to have corrections on the order of 5% – 10% in the midst of a bull market isn’t unprecedented or even that unusual. We don’t think this pull-back signals the end of the bull market run, but rather that we might be getting back to a more historical norm.

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Don’t Fear Higher Interest Rates

Here’s some weekly commentary from Brian Wesbury of First Trust 

The Federal Reserve has a problem.  At 4.1%, the jobless rate is already well below the 4.6% it thinks unemployment would/could/should average over the long run.  We think the unemployment rate should get to 3.5% by the end of 2019 and wouldn’t be shocked if it got that low in 2018, either.

Add in extra economic growth from tax cuts and the Fed will be worried that it is “behind the curve.”  As a result, we think the Fed will raise rates three times next year, on top of this year’s three rate hikes, counting the almost certain hike this month.  And a fourth rate hike in 2018 is still certainly on the table.  By contrast, the futures market is only pricing in one or two rate hikes next year – exactly as it did for 2017.  In other words, the futures markets are likely to be wrong for the second year in a row.

And as short-term interest rates head higher, we expect long-term interest rates to head up as well.  So, get ready, because the bears will seize on this rising rate environment as one more reason for the bull market in stocks to end.

They’ll be wrong again.  The bull market, and the US economy, have further to run.  Rising rates won’t kill the recovery or bull market anytime in the near future.

Higher interest rates reflect a higher after-tax return to capital, a natural result of cutting taxes on corporate investment via a lower tax rate on corporate profits as well as shifting to full expensing of equipment and away from depreciation for tax purposes.

Lower taxes on capital means business will more aggressively pursue investment opportunities, helping boost economic growth and the demand for labor – leading to more jobs and higher wages.  Stronger growth means higher rates.

For a recent example of why higher rates don’t mean the end of the bull market in stocks look no further than 2013.  Economic growth accelerated that year, with real GDP growing 2.7% versus 1.3% the year before.  Meanwhile, the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note jumped to 3.04% from 1.78%.  And during that year the S&P 500 jumped 29.6%, the best calendar year performance since 1997.

This was not a fluke.  The 10-year yield rose in 2003 and 2006, by 44 and 32 basis points, respectively.  How did the S&P 500 do those years: up 26.4% in 2003, up 13.8% in 2006.

Sure, in theory, if interest rates climb to reflect the risk of rising inflation, without any corresponding increase in real GDP growth, then higher interest rates would not be a good sign for equities.  That’d be like the late 1960s through the early 1980s.  But with Congress and the president likely to soon agree to major pro-growth changes in the tax code on top of an ongoing shift toward deregulation, we think the growth trend is positive, not negative.

It’s also true that interest on the national debt will rise as well.  But federal interest costs relative to both GDP and tax revenue are still hovering near the lowest levels of the past fifty years.  As we’ve argued, sensible debt financing that locks in today’s low rates would be prudent. However, it will take many years for higher interest rates to lift the cost of borrowing needed to finance the government back to the levels we saw for much of the 1980s and 1990s.  And as we all remember the 80s and 90s were not bad for stocks.

Bottom line: interest rates across the yield curve are headed higher.  But, for stocks, it’s just another wall of worry not a signal that the bull market is anywhere near an end.

 

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Time To Drain The Fed Swamp

The Panic of 2008 is widely misunderstood.  Part of this is due to the fact that financial issues are complicated.  How many people, after all, know what “mark to market accounting” is?  Part of it is due to politics.  Government policies encouraged home ownership by lowering lending standards, leading to NINA (“No Income No Assets”) loans.  At one time home prices were rising so fast that people believed that no matter what they paid for a house they could always sell it for more.

A thought-provoking article by Brian Wesbury of First Trust expands on this issue.

 Time To Drain The Fed Swamp

The Panic of 2008 was damaging in more ways than people think. Yes, there were dramatic losses for investors and homeowners, but these markets have recovered. What hasn’t gone back to normal is the size and scope of Washington DC, especially the Federal Reserve. It’s time for that to change.

D.C. institutions got away with blaming the crisis on the private sector, and used this narrative to grow their influence, budgets, and size. They also created the narrative that government saved the US economy, but that is highly questionable.

Without going too much in depth, one thing no one talks about is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at the direction of HUD, were forced to buy subprime loans in order to meet politically-driven, social policy objectives. In 2007, they owned 76% of all subprime paper (See Peter Wallison: Hidden in Plain Sight).

At the same time, the real reason the crisis spread so rapidly and expanded so greatly was not derivatives, but mark-to-market accounting.

It wasn’t government that saved the economy. Quantitative Easing was started in September 2008. TARP was passed on October 3, 2008. Yet, for the next five months markets continued to implode, the economy plummeted and private money did not flow to private banks.

On March 9, 2009, with the announcement that insanely rigid mark-to-market accounting rules would be changed, the markets stopped falling, the economy turned toward growth and private investors started investing in banks. All this happened immediately when the accounting rule was changed. No longer could these crazy rules wipe out bank capital by marking down asset values despite little to no change in cash flows. Changing this rule was the key to recovery, not QE, TARP or “stress tests.”

The Fed, and supporters of government intervention, ignore all these facts. They never address them. Why? First, institutions protect themselves even if it’s at the expense of the truth. Second, human nature doesn’t like to admit mistakes. Third, Washington DC always uses crises to grow. Admitting that their policies haven’t worked would lead to a smaller government with less power.

The Fed has become massive. Its balance sheet is nearly 25% of GDP. Never before has it been this large. And yet, the economy has grown relatively slowly. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, with a much smaller Fed balance sheet, the economy grew far more rapidly.

So how do you drain the Fed? By not appointing anyone that is already waiting in D.C.’s revolving door of career elites. We need someone willing to challenge Fed and D.C. orthodoxy. If we had our pick to fill the chair and vice chair positions (with Stanley Fischer announcing his departure) we would be focused on the likes of John Taylor, Peter Wallison, or Bill Isaac.

They would bring new blood to the Fed and hold it to account for its mistakes. It’s time for the Fed to own up and stop defending the nonsensical story that government, and not entrepreneurs, saved the US economy. Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have never fracked a well or written an App. We need a government that is willing to support the private sector and stop acting as if the “swamp” itself creates wealth.

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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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