Category Archives: Federal Reserve

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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Wall Street down following Fed comments

From Reuters:

Wall Street dropped on Wednesday after the U.S. Federal Reserve frustrated investors hoping for a strong sign it might scale back future interest rate hikes because of recent financial and economic turmoil.

In a widely expected decision, the Fed kept interest rates unchanged and it said it was “closely monitoring” global economic and financial developments, but it maintained an otherwise upbeat view of the U.S. economy.

This morning Art Cashin predicted :

That, I think, will make them [the Fed] very reluctant to say anything that might look like a full mea culpa or a rethink. Therefore, I think the statement will say they remain flexible and data dependent and that they are aware of crosscurrents. Let’s see if that’s enough to boost the bulls.
Art was absolutely right about the Fed’s announcement but the market didn’t see it as a bullish sign.

 

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Thoughts after the First Trading Day of 2016

The first trading day of 2016 was not pleasant – unless you are looking for bargains. Geopolitical forces are making investors nervous. Iran and Saudi Arabia have broken off relations and an already tense situation is getting worse. Millions of refugees are voting with their feet.

Chinese central-planners are finding out how bad central planning actually works in practice. We don’t expect the Chinese economy to completely collapse, but we do expect to see a little more humility on the part of those who argue that the Chinese model is one that should be copied.

That leads us to look at the U.S., where the economy continues to move along, albeit slower than we would like. The number of “Help Wanted” signs on store windows does offer some encouragement. We also note the number of new buildings and shopping centers under construction. That seems to indicate that Main Street is feeling more optimistic.

The drop in oil prices has been good for the consumer, but not so good for the energy industry, creating a headwind for parts of the economy that produce or extract raw materials, such as petroleum products and mining.

We don’t expect the minor tweaks that the Federal Reserve is making in interest rates to have much of an impact on the slow economic recovery.

We echo the sentiments of Brian Wesbury, who wrote in an e-mail earlier today:

The entrepreneurial spirit will continue to push back against the weight of government spending, taxation and regulation. In addition, market participants will deal with the fog of war in the Middle East and flailing attempts by Chinese central-planners to boost growth using command-and-control. Look, we can’t promise anything. But, in spite of the increase in the past year, government is no bigger today than it was three years ago, stocks remain undervalued, and money isn’t tight. In spite of the huge decline in stocks today, the first trading day of the year, we remain positive.

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The Fed Raises Rates, the Market Throws a Party

Back in September we wrote two short articles on the long anticipated rate hikes.  Dear Fed: Just Do It! Followed by Oh No They Didn’t!

Our thesis was that the Fed’s zero interest rate policy  (ZIRP) wasn’t doing anything for the economy and that a rate hike would actually be viewed as a vote of confidence in the current slow growth economy.

Main Street may not be enjoying a boom, but Wall Street is doing just fine. Thanks to corporate actions to improve profitability, the continued emergence of new products and technology, and a drop in oil prices caused by huge supplies of new energy, companies are reporting record earnings.

Yes, there are pockets of weakness caused in part by an inevitable slowdown in Chinese growth and its insatiable appetite for raw materials, but here in the U.S. the low interest rates are hurting savers more than they’re helping the economy.

Today the Fed announced a much anticipated 0.25% hike in rates.  Despite predictions in some corners of a market sell-off, the DJIA rose by 1.28%, the S&P 500 rose by 1.45% and the NASDAQ by 1.52%.

Thank you Fed.  It’s long overdue.

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