A Faster Rate of Creep…..Better Weather but Still a Lousy Climate 3/26/2012

March 26, 2012

I have not written a new Musings since last fall. There was not really anything new to write about. Nothing new? Think for a minute about the issues that have concerned us for the past two years. Are they still paramount? You bet.

Okay, Europe has succeeded in postponing its problems for a while, although Spain may be the new Greece.

And, yes, the U.S. economy is improving at a slightly better rate than was true on average for 2009-2010. But by most measures we are still below where we were five years ago. The dents being made in unemployment are still miniscule, although total employment growth has been modestly encouraging.

Ben Bernanke spoke to the National Association of Business Economists this morning and expressed some puzzlement over the reasons why GDP growth wasn’t matching the improvement in employment. The best he could muster was that employers, shocked by the pace of decline during the worst of the crisis, overdid the layoffs and are now in a catchup phase of hiring.

But the truth is that we are still clawing our way back from a precipice, a precipice that was avoided by massive, world-wide monetary expansion, and giant federal deficits.

I am aware, of course, of the critics who say that the cure for an overload of debt either cannot or should not be more debt. They point to the apparent lack of success of these monetary and fiscal actions in speeding the recovery, but, in my opinion, fail to give enough credit to them for avoiding what probably would have been a full-blown depression, and whether we would have had any recovery without them.

But the past is now prologue for a future that will require very different and very difficult political-economic decisions if we are to have the recovery continue and if we are to avoid both a serious inflationary aftermath and severe decline of our sovereign credit worthiness.

The nation’s political fortitude continues to sag. The hope of having either a congress or a president willing to tackle out-of-control entitlements is feeble at best. And the senate’s making it necessary to garner 60-votes for passage of controversial legislation was not what our founders had in mind; nor is it true to our democratic spirit.

What happens to interest rates when inflation of, say, 5-6%, is combined with lack of faith in the nation’s credit? And what does the federal budget look like then? It will be overwhelmed by interest costs alone.

And how does the economy’s growth survive what must be both a significantly higher level of taxation and spending cuts if we are to bring our fiscal mess in to some sort of order? Truly forceful leadership would help. Right now, I don’t see that on the horizon. Frightening to contemplate is the fact that historically our best leaders were created by crises, e.g., Lincoln, FDR, Harry Truman. Must we, therefore have another serious crisis? All the recent crisis did was aggravate an ideological war, not create leadership.

These are truly serious issues. When will they be addressed and by whom? That question forms the context for the economy’s next few years. It forms the investment climate, not the day-to-day reports on retail sales, employment, production , and profits, all of which are merely weather reports.

This climate, I believe, will limit investor enthusiasm and valuations for some time to come. The future holds similarity to the recent past; that is, spurts of more rapid improvement followed by periods of doubt and worry. Investment returns are likely to be modest at best.

For now, go ahead and enjoy the faster rate of economic creep, but remember we are living in a bad climate.


More of the Same

October 7, 2011


October 6, 2011

As I write this , the S&P 500 is at a level first reached on April 1, 2010. What has changed since then? Not much. What I wrote one year ago I could write today. To wit:

“…..our economic problems are not stemming from the business cycle as we came to know it over the past 60 years. They are deeply structural in nature.

The most overriding of our structural problems is, of course, the immense debt load the private economy assumed during the two decades leading up to the financial crisis, and which is now being whittled away by paydowns, foreclosures, and bankruptcies. As it is being reduced, the public debt has soared as a result of lower tax collections and higher spending, as we have attempted to stimulate the economy, both fiscally and monetarily.

The financial system has stepped back from the edge of an abyss, but remains stressed. Bank asset quality is still lousy, and many assets remain to be written down or off. …………….

State and local governments, experiencing lower revenues from property taxes, sales taxes, and income taxes, have found themselves face-to-face with the spending excesses and contractual obligations, e.g., pension guarantees, of a bygone era. At the federal level, our politicians seemingly ignore the ticking time bombs of Medicare and Social Security, and show no signs of producing a credible plan to bring the deficits under control.”

So, as the French say,” plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose” (the more things change the more they stay the same). All the political activity and rhetoric, all the economic forecasts, all the day-by-day machinations of investors, huge federal deficits, and massive purchases of treasury securities by the Federal Reserve, have combined to produce no significant change in the economy, the economic outlook, or the level of the stock market.

Retrospectively, what has become increasingly clear is just how the stage for the financial crisis was set by what has been dubbed the “uphill flow” of capital in the form of official currency reserves. China and other less developed countries made conscious decisions to promote exports by maintaining low real exchange rates. The decision of those countries to build foreign exchange reserves, which tripled over the past five years, was also a conscious one, influenced strongly by their experiencing the financial crises of the early ‘90’s. Consumers in the U.S and Europe gobbled up goods made in China and other developing Asian countries. Their foreign exchange reserves soared.

Very high savings rates in China and other developing nations made the domestic investment of this rapidly accumulateing capital unnecessary. Hence, this capital flowed back here mainly through purchases of U.S. Treasury securities, and the effects were enormous. This capital flow set the stage for an extended period of low real interest rates and bubbles in asset prices, first in technology related stuff in the late ‘90’s, then in residential real estate. At the same time, low real interest rates pushed investors further and further out the risk curve.

To be sure, slack regulation, too much faith in the power of free markets, and an immense wave of financial innovation played important parts in causing the financial disaster, but none of that could have happened without the stage first being set by these “uphill” capital flows.

Developments since the crisis peaked in 2009 have been dubbed by some as The Great Rebalancing. But any rebalancing is quite young, as indicated by the fact that China’s reserves are still growing, albeit at a slower rate. So we are still seriously unbalanced. Recent higher values for the Yuan are encouraging, but have considerable distance still to go. We can expect increasingly strident demands for China to float or at least revalue their currency.

Since the worst of the crisis, we have been seeing just what we expected: total credit market debt in the U.S. has registered its most significant and longest decline of the post-WWII era, but is still at 340% of GDP, up from 250% in just 12 years. The flip side of this contraction of private credit, of course, is the most anemic economic recovery we have seen since WW II. The deleveraging side of what now appears to be a long-term credit cycle (65 years??) is still young and the end is not yet visible.

As I have said many times over the past year, we should expect a continuing mix of lumpy, bumpy economic news. One day it’s encouraging, the next it’s the opposite. Growth estimates are raised, then lowered. In the markets, one day risk is on and the next day it’s off. Currently, we see fears of a recession and fears of sovereign debt problems dominating the scene.

The risks emanating from the sovereign debt burdens in the southern periphery of the eurozone are not trivial and are the biggest threat to the global economy. The disorderly collapse of the euro area, or default by a major economy, could trigger a second global financial crisis. Assuming that does not happen—my hopeful forecast is that disaster will be averted — the austerity measures now in force or being planned in many EU countries will still have a dampening effect on economic growth. In fact, fiscal austerity for a country like Greece, and other European countries with lesser problems, is self-defeating. Greece’s only way out is a growing economy, and austerity is not the path to growth.

The risks that would emanate from another recession in the U.S. so close on the heels of 2008-2009, and at a time when the central bank is out of ammunition and there is zero political tolerance for any fiscal stimulation, are also serious. But it’s my strong belief that even if we do enter an actual recession in GDP, it would be mild simply because there are no excesses to be corrected. Essentially, such a recession would be indistinguishable from what we have been seeing over the past several quarters

To be sure, there are some strong headwinds holding the economy’s growth at a very low level. Yes…..consumers are still deleveraging, but consumer debt service has receded substantially from its peak, thanks inportantly to foreclosures and extremely low interest rates. And yes…the decline of housing prices has slowed but not stopped, so consumer wealth remains depressed. But residential investment is running at only 0.75% of GDP, a record low level, and the inventory of unsold new homes is down significantly.

In fact, the aggregate of the economy’s cyclical sectors (consumer durable goods, construction, and capital spending) as a percent of GDP (now 20%) has barely bounced off its 2009 bottom, which was a 60-year low. Auto sales are at a 12-13 million unit rate, compared to the range of 15-17 million units for most of the 20 years from the mid-80’s to 2007. The low was about 9 million units for a short time in 2009-10.

I should give a nod here to one of the investment fraternity’s more successful integrators of economic forecasting and the stock market, John Hussman. He believes a new recession (not a double dip within the old one) is coming, if not already here.

Hussman puts the blame for the Great Recession squarely on the policy makers for encouraging two successive bubbles and then refusing to recognize them for what they were in the name of free market economics. Hussman’s analysis of the continuing sluggish state of the economy is that the “fiscal bandaids” and “monetary distortions” applied to the economy have been entirely misplaced and are failing to deal with the core of the problem.

The problem, in Hussman’s view, is the refusal to restructure bad debts, particularly the residential mortgages still residing on balance sheets of financial institutions and that have stated values far in excess of the current value of the underlying real estate. His solution: restructure to bring down the debt of homeowners to levels more commensurate with current values, and create a pool of appreciation rights that would give the lending institutions a fair share of longer-term price appreciation. This is an interesting idea that should be aggressively explored, in my opinion. (To read more of what Hussman has been saying go to: http://www.hussmanfunds.com)

Obama has presented a “jobs bill” to Congress and the next few months will be spent in unproductive argument about its potential effectiveness and how to pay for it. Pretty discouraging! Meanwhile, Bernanke, looking for something the Fed can “do” to give the economy a shot in the arm, has led the way to “operation twist”, an effort to further reduce longer-term interest rates, as if that would actually do any good.
Recently, I heard Ed Lazear, Stanford prof and former head of the Council of Economic Advisers, say, “We should stop worrying about finding something that will work quickly. Nothing will work quickly.” Amen to that!

We need longer-term help that finally recognizes that it’s a structural, not a cyclical problem that we have. The debt restructuring that John Hussman suggests is one course of action. Another can be a properly structured, major infrastructure rebuilding program lasting a decade or more.

The Tea Party types will resist anything that costs money. Some strong leader must tell them that this is NOT the time to insist on fiscal austerity. Fixing the longer-term entitlements problems is applaudable, but cutting current spending is NOT okay in today’s situation.

The current mess has brought out every goldbug, every monetary kook, and every economic quack, all expressing fears of an economic/financial calamity. Professional economists have not been much help in cutting through all the nonsense and providing comfort. I’m afraid that just as it took a couple of generations of economists to figure what really happened in the 1930’s, what actually caused the Great Depression, so it will be some years before we really understand what is happening now.

Finally, I say simply, “Get used to it”; what you see in today’s economy you will continue to see for several more years.

Employment Statistics: the “real” numbers

April 3, 2011

The part of the Great Economic Malaise that is the human tragedy, unemployment, has been experiencing better headline news. Initial unemployment claims are down below 400,000, and the official unemployment rate is down to below 9%. Job creation in the private sector is fluctuating around the 200,000 per month level. All welcome news indeed.

But before we celebrate, take a look at some charts that provide context in which this has been happening. (all charts, unless noted, are fromwww.calculatedrisk.com , a quite worthwhile blog)

First, here are the good news charts of unemployment claims and job creation:

                                                           (click on any chart to enlarge)

Now, here is the context; not such good news; a most unattractive comparison with other recessions:

Here is the same chart except the data are aligned at the recession low points:


And here is evidence of widespread UNDERemployment:

If we take into account the fewer people looking for work and those working part-time but would rather work full-time, the “real” unemployment rate is close to 16%.  This is down only slightly from its peak.

                                                                                       (chart from ECONOMICPICDATA)

It is impossible to measure the human pain associated with uemployment. About all we can do is look at the duration of joblessness, as this chart does:

Finally, let me say that the idea for this posting came from a conversation I had with Susan Sipprelle, a talented journalist who has been documenting interviews with people over 50 and unemployed. These interviews are worth your time to see and hear. They are at www.overfiftyandoutofwork.com. My other motivation is a sense that many people deal with employment statistics as only numbers, without thought to their deeply human side.


Illusionomics?? March 2, 2011

March 2, 2011

The stock market is up and has continued to rise. Thus, all must be better with the economic world. At least that seems to be the current consensus view, a view that appears to be confirmed by the numbers that are streamed by us. This year is likely to see real growth in the vicinity of 3%, or so most of the economists are forecasting.

 However, several of my respected friends and associates in the investment world are questioning the reality and sustainability of the improvement we are seeing. One of them, my friend Robert Marcin, an experienced and clever investor, calls the whole scene “illusionomics”.

 Robert’s view, one shared by David Rosenberg, formerly economist of Merrill Lynch and now with Toronto-based Gluskin Sheff, looks at the truly massive monetary and fiscal stimulus that has been applied to the U.S. economy relative to what has been accomplished in the way of recovery and asks, “Is that all we’ve got for our money?”

 Here are some quotes from Robert:

 “Ben (Bernanke) is selling real hard these days with infinite QE, 0% short rates, and a bailout for every bondholder extant. Don’t get me wrong, corporate profits and M&A activity are real. Global growth is decent. But until we have a normal budget, free market interest rates, and no Bernanke put, no one knows how sustainable economic activity and financial asset prices are. Until we have the death of the Fed salesman’s relentless manipulations in financial markets, we cannot know what’s real or an illusion, even if it feels good.

The structural imbalances that helped cause the Great Decession of 2008-2009 have not really been addressed and solved. Rather most of the world has borrowed and stimulated, back-stopped and printed its way to trillions of dollars/renminbi/yen/euros/etc in order to avoid restructuring the financial system and meaningfully reduce the excess leverage. Most countries/economies are guilty, and many are still vulnerable.

Quite simply its INSANE to believe in US economic normalcy with a one thousand billion dollar, structural federal deficit, US taxpayer ownership/guarantee for 50%/95% of existing/new mortgages, 0% interest rates, near record u-6 unemployment, record government transfer share of gdp, record food stamp usage, depression like housing price action, and debt/GDP at obscene and unsustainable levels.

However, near universal belief in this artificial stimulus policy of Illusionomics has generated a profound complacency regarding economic cyclicality and risk taking. And it has led to massive amounts of speculation in stocks, commodities, precious metals, and credit.”

My opinion? While I think Robert’s doubts about economic normalcy are on target, I believe his negative/cynical implications regarding monetary policy, and fiscal and other forms of stimulation are misplaced.

The idea that we have received so little for what has been expended gives no recognition to how serious the economic and financial situation was. The edge of a huge brink was very close, and we pulled back from it only because of the massive actions that were taken. It’s frightening to think about what might have happened had we been reluctant to be fiscally “irresponsible”, or too scared of inflation to have the Fed push new money into the economy. In my view, policy actions have been very effective, not in the sense that they have created real growth or reduced unemployment, but in preventing economic disaster.

It’s certainly true that we are far from “normalcy”, as ill-defined as that may be, and those that are betting heavily the other way may ultimately be gravely disappointed. The idea that recent stronger economic statistics are the beginning of a smooth, strong, and extended period of healthy growth is probably wrong.

Rather, we continue to be in an economy and financial system with serious structural problems ranging from federal, state and local government deficits, to stubbornly high unemployment, to energy profligacy, to huge numbers of homeowners whose mortgage debt is in excess of their home value, even while home values are still receding. Add to this list the over-promised, underfunded healthcare and retirement benefits, and a woefully inadequate educational system, and it’s enough to make one become more than a bit cynical, even depressed!

During the next few years we must and will chip away at these problems, and that chipping away will work to limit growth. Think about tighter lending standards, higher taxes, lower government spending, and reduced social benefits that will need to be offset by higher personal savings. Think also about the huge wave of baby-boomers passing from productive years into retirement. This is not the kind of environment that is productive of robust growth.

For the past two years, global growth led by the developing nations has proceeded to drag the rest of us along at sufficient strength to keep our heads above water. Now, however, commodity price inflation, particularly food and oil, are denting the growth of the emerging nations where food and energy costs absorb a much greater proportion of consumer incomes than in the developed world. Thus, still another headwind has appeared.

Fortunately, the profitability and financial strength of U.S. corporations has never been better. Their weathering of the financial and economic storm was truly remarkable, a fact which by itself has reinforced investors faith and carried valuations substantially higher despite the problem-laden environment in which they operate. Is the higher stock market just rampant speculation spawned by Ben Bernanke’s profligacy, as Robert has said?  I don’t think so. It is caused by increased confidence, spawned by evidence of a bit more economic strength, and the earning power, strong financial condition, and surprising recession immunity that the corporate world has demonstrated.

We are still nursing wounds, but maybe we are at the beginning of a beginning to reckon with huge structural problems. Yes, I know, we have many reasons to be cynical about our politicians lack of courage even while being full of courageous rhetoric. But I think the better bet is that we will peck away at the problems and see some progress over the next several years.

Shorter term, we face the withdrawal of certain sustaining economic forces, particularly the end of the Fed’s quantitative easing, known popularly as QE2, and the end (at year-end) of the suspension of the payroll tax. Additionally, government spending levels, both federal and state and local, appear certain to decline. Finally, while we can’t predict oil prices, if they stay where they are currently or move higher, the world economy will experience a heavy suppressant. Financial markets will not be immune.

So far the markets’ reaction to the North Africa/Middle East turmoil has been quite muted. That makes an anchor to the windward seem a sensible stance.


Third Presidential Years: Coincidence or Causation?

December 1, 2010

Third Presidential Years: Coincidence or Causation?

December 1, 2010

Beginning in the 1970’s, and after seeing some work by my good friend Jon Lovelace of Capital Research and Management, I have tracked U.S. stock total returns (S&P 500) by Presidential Years.

Now I know that many others have done similar work, but I think my studies have been unique in an interesting way. I have used Jon Lovelace’s idea of looking at years as politicians see them, that is, twelve month periods bookended by election days. For convenience I have used November 1st to October 31st.

Each November I have presented a forecast for the following twelve months based on the historical data for that presidential year. The forecasts have been in a range, using the standard deviation, plus and minus, around the historical mean return.  The range forecasts have scored pretty well, but often only because they were quite wide, and therefore of limited practical use.

In November 2009, for example, the forecast for the year just ended on October 31, 2010 was for a return of 7.2%, plus or minus a whopping 21%, or a range of 28.2% to negative 13.8%, hardly a courageous prediction! The actual return was 16.5%.

However, over time one presidential year, the Third has been very different:

  • It has been, by far, the highest return year, with an average return of over twice any other year. The median return has also been more than twice Years One and Two and 90% higher than Year Four.
  • There has never been a negative Third Year.
  • Of the fifteen Third Years beginning in 1951, only one (1987, Reagan’s Third Year) had a return below 14.6%.
  • The variability of returns in Third Years has been the narrowest by considerable measure. The standard deviation has been only 8.8%, a bit more than half the level of other years.
  • After considering this data it may not be surprising that there have been no business cycle peaks in Third Years, while there have been five cyclical troughs.
  • The Third Years’ lows in stock prices have only once (1975, Ford’s presidency) been more than 10% below the previous October’s close, and in only five years have the lows been more than 5% below the October close.

Based solely on this history, the forecast for the current year ending next October 31 is for a total return of 23.4%, plus or minus 8.8%, or a range of 14.6% to 32.2%. The low for the year, if historical average holds, will be only 2.6% below the October close.

I hope you find all this entertaining, but I’m sure you are asking whether there is causation here or simply coincidence.  Well, I can at least advance a hypothesis, one that I doubt can be either proved or disproved.

The hypothesis is that the party in power (in the presidency) should be expected to try  to take the bad economic knocks in Years One and Two, then gear up the economy in Year Three for the election push in Year Four. Some confirmation of this shows up in the timing of business cycle peaks and troughs. Eight of the eleven cyclical peaks experienced since 1948 have occurred in Years One and Two. To the extent that the federal government can significantly affect the economy, the politicians will try to take as much stimulative action as possible in Year Three, knowing that such actions have an effect only with a lag.

I know, I know, I hear what you say: what can be done this year with a split Congress, a bunch of new legislators arriving with ideological obsessions and no experience, and a huge continuing deficit staring at us??

True, there certainly are obvious ways that this year is different from the past. The economy is more global in scope than in earlier years, we are still exiting the worst recession and financial meltdown since the Great Depression, there is no room to either lower interest rates or expand federal spending, state and local governments are on the financial ropes, and consumers are still paying back debt.  What can government do? Not much, in my opinion, except to get out of the way and let the private economy continue to expand slowly but surely.  Also, a credible plan to reduce the federal deficit would help confidence. Maybe that combination will be enough to give us another good Third Presidential Year.

Am I willing to make the prediction for a good market year based on this data?  Sure.  It may not be scholarly or the result of deep economic/financial analysis, and I may not bet the ranch on it,  but do you know a better way to forecast the stock market?

Here is some of the data.  If you want more I may be able to send it by email….it’s voluminous!


Years Ending Oct. 31 President S&P500 Total Return Business Cycle Peaks Business Cycle Troughs Low as % of Oct
1951 Truman 26.0     97.3
1955 Eisenhower 39.4 N   100.3
1959 Eisenhower 15.7     99.4
1963 Kennedy 35.3 O   101.1
1967 Johnson 21.0     99.3
1971 Nixon 16.9 N Nov ’70 99.4
1975 Ford 26.0   Mar ’75 88.0
1979 Carter 15.3 E 99.3
1983 Reagan 27.9   Nov ’82 99.4
1987 Reagan 6.6     92.2
1991 Bush 33.5   April ’91 100.7
1995 Clinton 26.4     94.3
1999 Clinton 25.7     101.1
2003 Bush 20.8   Nov ’02 90.4
2007 Bush 14.7     99.0

Here is a summary table covering all years:

Presidential Years ONE TWO THREE FOUR
Average Return 7.9 7.8 23.4 10.8
Median Return 7.3 11.3 25.7 13.5
Std. Deviation 15.2 20.4 8.8 15.6
Low as % of Oct 90.0 88.1 97.4 92.9
Negative Years 4 of 16 6 of 16 None 2 of 15
Cyclical Peaks 5 3 None 3
Cyclical Troughs 3 2 5 1