America: a weakening brand

When I first became interested in Tiffany (TIF) as a stock years ago, one thing that stood out was that the company was doing a land office business in almost all facets of its rapid international expansion.  One exception:  the EU.  I quickly became convinced that the reason was because TIF is an American company.

For Europeans, France, Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent the rest of the EU, are the font of all knowledge and culture.  As local literature and philosophy make clear, being situated on the sacred soil of (fill in any EU country) is the key to its superiority.  The US,  lacking requisite hallowed ground, is a semi-boorish johnny-come-lately.  Sporting a piece of jewelry from an American firm therefore implies one has suffered a devastating reversal of fortune that puts “authentic” jewelry out of reach.

 

In the rest of the world, however, the US is a symbol of aspiration.  America stands for freedom, opportunity, cutting-edge technology, the best universities and an ethos that prizes accomplishment not heritage.  It’s “all men are created equal”  “give me your …huddled masses yearning to be free” and “I am not throwing away my shot.”  Wearing, or just owning, a piece of American jewelry becomes a symbolic linking of the holder to these national values.  It hasn’t hurt, either, particularly with an older generation (paradoxically, ex the EU) that the US made a monumental effort to help heal the world after WWII.

 

The “brand” of the United States has taken a real beating since Mr. Trump has become president.  Surveys, one of which is reported in INC magazine, show a sharp drop in US prestige right after his victory and continuing deterioration since.   I don’t think the biggest negative issue is the president’s insecurities, his constant prevarication, his very weak record as a real estate developer or his (hare-brained) economic policies while in office.  I see the worst damage coming instead from his love of leaders with poor human rights records and his disdain for women and people of color …plus the whiff of sadism detectable in his treatment of both.

 

Whatever the precise cause may be, the deterioration of the America’s reputation under Mr. Trump is a very real worry for domestic consumer companies.  Damage will likely show itself in two ways:  weaker sales to foreign tourists, and the absence of positive surprises from foreign subsidiaries.  For domestic retail firms, it seems clear that economic recovery has finally come to the less wealthy parts of the US over the past year or two–witness the profit performance of Walmart or the dollar stores.  On the other hand, it seems to me that people who have trusted Mr. Trump in the past–like the banks that lent him money, the contractors who built his casinos, those who bought DJT stock and bonds, farmers who voted for him–have all ended up considerably worse off than the more wary.  So while they may be good temporary hiding places, holders should be nimble.

One final thought:  brands don’t deteriorate overnight but the cumulative damage can be enormous.  The first to react will be younger consumers, who have the least experience with/of the “old” brand.   They will be the most difficult to win back.  As well, as time passes, their views will be increasingly important in commerce.

 

 

 

shrinking bond yields ii

why look at bonds? 

If we’re stock market investors, why are we interested in bonds anyway?  It’s because at bottom we’re not really interested in stocks per se.  We’re interested in liquid publicly-traded securities–i.e., stocks, bonds and cash.  We’re interested in publicly-traded securities because we can almost always sell them in an instant, and because there’s usually enough information available about them that we can make an educated decision.

 

comparing bonds with stocks

bond yields, at yesterday’s close

One-month Treasury bills = 2.18%

Ten-year Treasury notes = 2.07%

30-year Treasury bonds = 2.57%.

S&P 500

Current dividend yield on the index = 1.7%.

 

According to Yardeni Research (a reputable firm, but one I chose because it was the first name up in my Google search), index earnings for calendar year 2019 are estimated to be about $166, earning for the coming 12 months, about $176.

Based on this, the S&P at 3000 means a PE ratio of 18.0 for calendar year 2019, and 17.0 for the 12 months ending June 2020.

Inverting those figures, we obtain an “earnings yield,” a number we can use to compare with bond yields–the main difference being that we get bond interest payments in our pockets while our notional share of company managers remains with them.

The 2019 figure earnings yield for the S&P is 5.6%; for the forward 12 months, it’s 5.8%.

the result

During my time in the stock market, there has typically been a relatively stable relationship between the earnings yield and 10-/30-year Treasury yields.  (The notable exception was the period just before the 2008-09 recession, when, as I see it, reported financials massively misstated the profitability of banks around the world.  So although there was a big mismatch between bond and stock yields, faulty SEC filings made this invisible.)

At present, the earnings yield is more than double the government bond yield.  This is very unusual.  Perhaps more significant, the yield on the 10-year Treasury is barely above the dividend yield on stocks, a level that, in my experience, is breached only at market bottoms.

Despite the apparently large overvaluation of bonds vs. stocks, there continues to be a steady outflow from US stock mutual funds and into bond funds.

the valuation gap

Using earnings yield vs coupon rationale outlined above, stocks are way cheaper than bonds.  How can this be?

–for years, part of world central banks’ efforts to repair the damage done by the financial crisis has been to inject money into circulation by buying government bonds.  This has pushed up bond prices/pushed down yields.  Private investors have also been acting as arbitrageurs, selling the lowest-yielding bonds and buying the highest (in this case meaning Treasuries).  This process compresses yields and lowers them overall.

–large numbers of retiring Baby Boomers are reallocating portfolios away from           stocks

–I presume, but don’t know enough about the inner workings of the bond market to be sure, that a significant number of bond professionals are shorting Treasuries and buying riskier, less liquid corporate bonds with the proceeds.  This will one day end in tears (think:  Long Term Capital), but likely not in the near future.

currency

To the extent that 1 and 3 involve foreigners, who have to buy dollars to get into the game, their activity puts at least some upward pressure on the US currency.  The dollar has risen by about 2.4% over the past year on a trade-weighted basis, and by about 3% against the yen and the euro.  That’s not much.  In fact, I was surprised when calculating these figures how little the dollar has appreciated, given the outcry from the administration and its pressure on the Fed to weaken the dollar by lowering the overnight money rate. (My guess is that our withdrawing from the TPP, tariff wars, and the tarnishing of our image as a democracy have, especially in the Pacific, done much more to damage demand for US goods than the currency.)

high-yielding stocks as a substitute for bonds?

I haven’t done any work, so I really don’t know.  I do know a number of fellow investors who have been following this idea for more than five years.  So my guess is that there aren’t many undiscovered bargains in this area.

 

my bottom line

I’m less concerned now about the message low bond yields are sending than I was before I started to write these posts.  I still think the valuation mismatch between stocks and bonds will eventually be a problem for both markets.  But my guess is that normalization, if that’s the right word, won’t start until the EU begins to repair the serious fissures in its structure.  Maybe this is a worry for 2020, maybe not even then.

It seems to me that the US stock market’s main economic concern remains the damage from Mr. Trump’s misguided effort to resuscitate WWII-era industries in the US.  The best defense will likely be cloud-oriented cash-generating software-based US multinationals.  (see the comments by a former colleague attached to yesterday’s post).

 

 

 

 

 

shrinking global bond yields

valuing bonds   …and stocks

Conventional US financial markets wisdom–maybe glorified common sense–says that the yearly return on financial instruments should consist of protection against inflation plus some additional reward that varies according to the risk taken.  For stocks, the belief is that they should earn the inflation rate + six percentage points for risk annually; ten-year government bonds should return inflation + three percent.

If inflation is 2%+, this means the 10-year Treasury should have an annual yield of 5%+.

Stocks should have a total return (price change + dividend received) on average of 8%+ yearly.

last Friday

the 10-year

Last Friday, the 10-year Treasury yield broke below 2%, to an intra-day low of 1.95%!

Austria

Even weirder, across the Atlantic, the Austrian government is warming up to issue 100-year bonds yielding 1.2%.  Demand appears to be strong, possibly because its issue of century bonds in 2017 at a 2.1% yield is up in price by about 60% since.  Of course, it’s also true that many EU sovereign instruments are trading at negative interest rates–a result of central bank efforts to stimulate economic growth there.

Trumponomics

Odder still, but probably not that surprisingly, Mr. Trump is actively browbeating the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates further, despite the fact that virtually no domestic evidence is calling for further distortion to rates.  I say “virtually,” because there is one contrary–the administration’s policy on trade and immigration.  If there is a master plan behind that, I guess it’s what Mr. Trump believes is needed to assure his reelection.  One issue for him is that the price increases he has put on imported goods have offset almost all of the Federal income tax reduction the average American family got last year.  In addition, the seemingly arbitrariness and changing nature of Trump tariffs–plus the radio silence of Congress tacitly approving of the circus–appear to have slowed domestic capital investment significantly.  More forethought is likely out of the question for the administration   …hence Mr. Trump’s Rube Goldberg-esque call for counterbalancing monetary stimulus.

???

I’ll happily confess that I’m not a bond expert.  For what it’s worth, I don’t like bonds, either.  But the present state of affairs in the bond market–the absence of any return above protection from inflation– seems to me to say that money policy in the US and EU is still enormously stimulative, no longer effective and need of careful handling in extracting us from this situation.  The last thing we need is higher taxation through tariffs and even more distortion of yields.

 

What would make someone want to buy the proposed Austrian century bonds anyway?

…the greater fool theory, i.e., the idea I can sell it at a higher price to someone else (which certainly worked with the 2017 issue)?

…the fact that lots of EU government instruments sport negative yields, so this may be a comparatively good deal?

…I’m a bond fund manager and need coupon payments so my portfolio can pay expenses and management fees to myself?

…I’m shorting negative yield bonds against this long position?

 

global/demographic/government influences on yields

aging populations…

Another general principle:  as people get older and as they get wealthier they become more risk averse.  Put another way, in either situation people shift their investment portfolios away from stocks and toward bonds.

The traditional rule of thumb is that a person’s bond holdings should make up the same percentage of the total portfolio as his age in years.  The remainder goes into stocks.  For example, for a 65-year old, 65% of the portfolio should be in fixed income.  (I don’t think this is a particularly good rule, but it’s simple and it is used.)

What’s important is that the aging of the populations in the US and the EU (which is older than us) is a powerful asset allocation force.  In the US in 2000, for example, (according to the Investment Company Institute) investors held $276 billion in funds, of which 82% was in equity funds.  At the end of last year, the total was $681 billion, of which 40% was in equities.  Over that time, the amount of money in stock funds rose by 20%; bond funds went up by 10x, however; asset allocation funds, which hold both, had 6.5x their 2000 assets.

national economic policy

For as long as I’ve been around, the preferred tool of government economic management has been monetary I can be applied faster than fiscal policy   …and it leaves no fingers pointing at politicians if implement is painful or executed maladroitly.

The chief characteristic of expansive monetary policy is the suppression of interest rates.  The burden of adjustment falls squarely on the shoulders of savers, i.e. older citizens, and the poor, who have no ability to borrow to take advantage of the lower cost of money.

 

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

the threat in Trump’s deficit spending

In an opinion piece in the Financial Times a few days ago, Gillian Tett points to and expands on a comment in a Wall Street advisory committee letter to the Treasury Secretary.  Although it may not have implications for financial markets today or tomorrow, it’s still worth keeping in mind, I think.

The comment concerns the changes in the income tax code the administration pushed through Congress in late 2017.  Touted as “reform,” the tax bill is such only because it brings down the top domestic corporate tax rate from 35%, the highest in the world, to about average at 21%.  This reduces the incentive for US-based multinationals (think: drug company “inversions”) to recognize profits abroad.  But special interest tax breaks remained untouched, and tax reductions for the ultra-wealthy were tossed in for good measure.  Because of this, the legislation results in a substantial reduction in tax money coming in to Uncle Sam.

Ms. Tett underlines the worry that there are no obvious buyers for the trillions of dollars in Treasury bonds that the government will have to issue over the coming years to cover the deficit the tax bill has created.

 

A generation ago Japan was an avid buyer of US government debt, but its economy has been dormant for a quarter-century.  Over the past twenty years, China has taken up the baton, as it placed the fruits of its trade surplus in US Treasuries.  But Washington is aggressively seeking to reduce the trade deficit with China; the Chinese economy, too, is starting to plateau; and Beijing, whatever its reasons, has already been trimming its Treasury holdings for some time.

Who’s left to absorb the extra supply that’s on the way?   …US individuals and companies.

 

The obvious question is whether domestic buyers have a large enough appetite to soak up the increasing issue of Treasuries.  No one really knows.

Three additional observations (by me):

–the standard (and absolutely correct, in my view) analysis of deficit spending is that it isn’t free.  It is, in effect, a bill that’s passed along to be paid by future generations of Americans–diminishing the quality of life of Millennials while enhancing that of the top 0.1% of Boomers

–historically, domestic holders have been much more sensitive than foreign holders to creditworthiness-threatening developments from Washington like the Trump tax bill, and

–while foreign displeasure might be expressed mostly in currency weakness, and therefore be mostly invisible to dollar-oriented holders, domestic unhappiness would be reflected mostly in an increase in yields.  And that would immediately trigger stock market weakness.  If I’m correct, the decline in domestic financial markets what Washington folly would trigger implies that Washington would be on a much shorter leash than it is now.

 

the state of play in US stocks

down by 12% 

From its intra-day high on January 28th, the S&P 500 dropped to an intraday low of 12% below that last Friday before recovering a bit near the close.

What’s going on?

As I see it, at any given time, liquid investments (i.e., stocks, fixed income, cash) are in a rough kind of equilibrium.  If the price of one of the three changes, sooner or later the price of the others will, too.

What I think the stock market is now (belatedly/finally) factoring into prices is the idea that the Fed is firmly committed to raising interest rates away from the intensive-care lows of the past decade.  That is, rates will continue to rise until they’re back to “normal” –in other words, until yields on fixed income not only provide compensation for inflation but a real return as well.  If we take the Fed target of 2% inflation as a guideline and think the 10-year Treasury should have a 2% real return, then the 10-yr yield needs to rise to 4%  — or 115 basis points from where it is this morning.  Cash needs to be yielding 150 basis points more than it does now.

One important result of this process is that as fixed income investments become more attractive (by rising in yield/falling in price), the stock market becomes less capable of sustaining the sky-high price-earnings ratio it achieved when it was the only game in town.  PEs contract.

Stocks are not totally defenseless during a period like this.  Typically, the Fed only raises rates when the economy is very healthy and therefore corporate earnings growth is especially strong.  If there is a typical path for stocks during a cyclical valuation shift for bonds, it’s that there’s an initial equity dip, followed by several months of going sideways, as strong reported earnings more or less neutralize the negative effect on PEs of competition from rising fixed income yields.

living in interesting times

Several factors make the situation more complicated than usual:

–the most similar period to the current one, I think, happened in the first half of the 1990s–more than 20 years ago.  So there are many working investment professionals who have never gone through a period like this before

–layoffs of senior investment staff during the recession, both in brokerage houses and investment managers, has eroded the collective wisdom of Wall Street

–trading algorithms, which seem not to discount future events (today’s situation has been strongly signaled by the Fed for at least a year) but to react after the fact to news releases and current trading patterns, are a much more important factor in daily trading now than in the past

–Washington continues to follow a bizarre economic program.  It refused to enact large-scale fiscal stimulus when it was needed as the economy was crumbling in 2008-9, but is doing so now, when the economy is very strong and we’re at full employment.   It’s hard to imagine the long-term consequences of, in effect, throwing gasoline on a roaring fire as being totally positive.  However, the action frees/forces the Fed to raise rates at a faster clip than it might otherwise have

an oddity

For the past year, the dollar has fallen by about 15%–at a time when by traditional economic measures it should be rising instead.  This represents a staggering loss of national wealth, as well as a reason that US stocks have been significant laggards in world terms over the past 12 months.  I’m assuming this trend doesn’t reverse itself, at least until the end of the summer.  But it’s something to keep an eye on.

my conclusion

A 4% long bond yield is arguably the equivalent of a 25x PE on stocks.  If so, and if foreign worries about Washington continue to be expressed principally through the currency, the fact that the current PE on the S&P 500 is 24.5x suggests that a large part of the realignment in value between stocks and bonds has already taken place.

If I’m right, we should spend the next few months concentrating on finding individual stocks with surprisingly strong earnings growth and on taking advantage of any  individual stock mispricing that algorithms may cause.

bonds …a threat to stocks?

I read an odd article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, an opinion piece that in the US bonds are a current threat to stocks.  Although not explicitly stated, the idea seems to be that the US is in the grip of cult-like devotion to stocks.  One day, however, after a series of Fed monetary policy tightening steps, the blinders we’re wearing will drop off.  We’ll suddenly see that higher yields have made bonds an attractive alternative to equities   …and there’ll be a severe correction in the stock market as we all reallocate our portfolios.

What I find odd about this picture:

–the dividend yield on the S&P 500 is just about 2%, which compares with the yield of 2.3% on a 10-year Treasury bond.  So Treasuries aren’t significantly more attractive than stocks today, especially since we know that rates are headed up–meaning bond prices are headed down.  Actually, bonds have been seriously overvalued against stocks for years, although they are less so today than in years past

–from 2009 onward, individual investors have steadily reallocated away from stocks to the perceived safety of bonds, thereby missing out on the bull market in stocks.  If anything there’s cult-like devotion to bonds, not stocks

–past periods of Fed interest rate hikes have been marked by falling bond prices and stock prices moving sideways.  So stocks have been the better bet while rates are moving upward.  Maybe this time will be different, but those last five words are among the scariest an investor can utter.

 

Still, there’s the kernel of an important idea in the article.

At some point, through some combination of stock market rises and bond market falls, bonds will no longer be heavily overvalued vs. stocks and become serious competition for investor savings.

Where is that point?  What is the yield level where holders of stocks will seriously consider reallocating to bonds?

I’m not sure.

Two thoughts, though:

–I think the typical total return on holding stocks will continue be around 8% annually.  For me, the return on bonds has got to be at least 4% before they have any appeal.  So the Fed has a lot of interest-rate boosting work to do before I’d feel any urge to reallocate

–movement in yield for the 10-year Treasury from 2.3% to 4.0% means that the price of today’s bonds will go down.  So, while there is a clear argument for holding cash during a period of interest rate hikes, I don’t see any for holding bonds–and particularly none for holding bonds on the idea that stocks might fall in price as rates rise

Of course, I’m an inveterate holder of stocks.  And this is an interesting question to ask yourself.  What yield on bonds would make them attractive to you?

 

 

interest rates: how high?

the speed of interest rate rises

The best indicator of how fast the Fed will raise the Fed Funds rate will likely be the pace of wage gains and new job creation, as shown in the monthly Employment Situation report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Infrastructure investment legislation that may be passed by the new Congress next year may also factor into the Fed’s thinking.  On the other hand, the continuing example of Japan, whose quarter-century of no economic growth is due in part to premature tightening of economic policy is also likely to play a part in decision making.

Much of that will be hard to be certain about in advance.  Current Wall Street thinking, for what it’s worth, is that the pace will be north of glacial but not fast at all–maybe a move of +0.50% next year, after a boost of +0.25% later this month.

The endpoint of policy, however, may be somewhat easier to forecast.

the final policy goal

 

Fed policy is aimed at holding inflation at +2.0% per year.  Its main problem recently is that it can’t get inflation that high, in spite of having flooded the economy with money for the past eight years.  So let’s say we’ll have inflation at 2%, but not higher, some time in the future.

cash

If so, and if the return on cash-like investments during normal times continues to provide protection against inflation and little else, then the final target for the Fed Funds rate is 2%.

bonds

If we consider the 30-year bond and say that the normal annual return should be inflation protection + 2% per year, then the target yield for it would be 4%–vs slightly over 3% today.

The 10-year?  subtract 50 basis points from the 30-year annual yield.  That would mean 3.5% as the target yield.

If this is correct, the important thing about the domestic bond market since the US election is the substantial steepening of the yield curve.  While cash has another 150 bp to rise to get to 2%, the long bond is within 100bp of where I think it will eventually settle in.

In other words, a substantial amount of readjustment has already occurred.