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?

 

 

the Fed’s next move

The highest economic policy objective of the US is achieving maximum sustainable growth in the economy consistent with annual inflation around 2%.

If growth deviates from this desired path, either through overheating or recession, the government has two tools it can use to nudge the economy back toward trend:

monetary policy, controlled by the Federal Reserve, which can relatively quickly alter the rate of growth of the money supply and thereby either energize or cool down activity

fiscal policy–government taxing and spending–controlled by the administration and Congress, and which may be thought of as more strategic than tactical, since there are typically long lags between need and any legislative action.

As a matter of fact, the Fed has been calling for fiscal stimulus from Congress and the administration for several years–worrying that continuing monetary stimulus is increasingly less effective and even potentially harmful to the economy.  Its pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

The Fed has been using two methods to keep rates low:

–it has kept the Federal Funds rate, the interest rate it sets for overnight bank deposits, at/near zero, and

–it has taken the unconventional step of putting downward pressure on rates of long-maturity instruments by buying a total of $4 trillion+ of government securities in the open market.  This is called quantitative easing.

Donald Trump was the only candidate to address the problem of fiscal policy inaction, by promising giant fiscal stimulus through lower corporate tax rates plus a massive spending program to repair/improve infrastructure.

After Mr. Trump’s surprise win last November, the Fed seems to have breathed a sigh of relief and aanounced a series of interest rate hikes that would begin to return monetary policy closer to a normal amount of stimulus–based on the idea that Washington would also provide serious fiscal policy stimlus in 2017.

We’re now in month nine since the election, without the slightest sign of any action on the fiscal front, despite the fact that the Republicans hold the Oval Office and both houses of Congress.  Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa) remarked last week that this is because no one expected Mr. Trump to win, so Congress made no plans to implement his platform.   It hasn’t helped that, despite his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Trump has shown little grasp of, or interest in, the issue.

This leaves the Fed in an awkward position.

I think its solution will be to shift from raising the Fed funds rate to slowing down or stopping its purchases of securities farther along the yield curve.  Although in a sense the Fed is already no longer buying new government bonds, it is taking the money it receives in interest payments and principal return from its current holdings and reinvesting that in new securities.

Its first step will be to reduce or eliminate such reinvestment–which will presumably nudge longer-term interest rates upward.  Since the process is being so well advertised in advance by the Fed, it’s likely that most of the upward movement in rates will have occurred before the Fed begins to act.  The most likely date for the Fed to more is in September.

 

Employment Situation, June 2017

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its Employment Situation report for June this morning at 8:30 edt.  The report was a strong one, indicating that the economy added +222,000 new jobs during the month.

Revisions to the so-so reports of the prior two months (made as fuller information comes in to government statisticians from participating employers) were also strong, adding a total of +47,000 positions to the previously estimated gains of +174,000 new jobs for April and +138,000 for May.

The ES is having a positive impact on stock trading in New York today, partly because the numbers are good.  It’s also partly–maybe mostly–because the monthly employment report released by ADT a couple of days in advance of the ES, and which is designed to mimic the ES, reported +158,000 job additions, which was the weakest in that series for a considerable time.

If anything, the June ES gives more encouragement to the Fed to begin in the next month or two its unwinding of unconventional measures to keep long-term interest rates low.

More on this Monday.

 

the curious case of Toshiba and the Mitsui keiretsu

The Financial Times, now owned by the Nihon Keisei Shimbun (the Nikkei)–and which should therefore have a particularly sharp insight into goings on in corporate Japan, had an interesting article the other day about Toshiba.

Toshiba is facing possible bankruptcy and potential delisting from the Tokyo Stock Exchange as a result of the disastrous performance of its nuclear power business.  To avoid this fate, it has decided to sell its flash memory business, which is a world leader in this important class of semiconductor devices and owns essential intellectual property for their manufacture.

The Japanese government is intervening in the matter, with the aim of ensuring that this important asset remains in Japanese hands.  What is distinctly not happening, as pointed out in an FT article two days ago, is any aid being offered by other members of the Mitsui industrial group.  This is very unusual.

background

At the core of Japanese economy in the first half of the twentieth century stood a number of powerful industrial conglomerates, called zaibatsu, which emerged from the samurai culture of shogun-era Tokyo.  The zaibatsu were outlawed after WWII for their role in Japan’s participation in that conflict.  But their dissolution was in name only.  The groups continue to exist in substance but were referred to as keiretsu.

One of the principal features of the keiretsu is mutual assistance in times of trouble.

For example,

Some years ago, Mistubishi Motors tried to buy its way into the US car market with a “0-0-0” financing campaign.  That meant zero down, a zero interest rate on 100% financing, and no loan repayment for the first year.  As it turned out, there was also a fourth zero–no credit checks.  And very large number of buyers (if you can call them that) simply made no payments when the time came.  They continued to drive the cars until they were repossessed.  Mitsubishi Motors as a whole, not just the US subsidiary, was faced with financial failure as a result.

What happened?

The other members of the Mitsubishi group injected hundreds of billions of yen into the auto company so that it remained afloat.  I remember speaking about this at the time with the chairman of Mitsubishi Corp, the group’s trading company.  He was deeply unhappy about having to invest in the auto arm of the group, and knew that this made no economic sense, but felt that his honor demanded that he do so.

today

Fast-forwarding to today and Toshiba     …not a peep from other Mitsui group members.

There may be something unusual about Toshiba.  More likely, the zaibatsu concept, a vital aspect of the samurai culture, may have finally passed its best-by date.  Interesting, too, that this should come while a descendant of the samurai is the prime minister.

calling for higher inflation

Last week a group of prominent economists wrote an open letter to the Federal Reserve arguing that the current Fed target of 2% annual inflation is too low.

Their basic view is:

–circumstances have changed a lot in the US since 2% became the economists’ consensus for the right level of inflation a quarter-century ago, so it isn’t necessarily the right number anymore, and

–the lack of oomph in the US economy is a result of maintaining an inflation target that’s too low.  So let’s try 3% instead.

Having a 3% inflation target instead of 2% isn’t a new idea.  I heard it for the first time about 20 years ago, from an economist at the then Swiss Bank Corp.  Her argument was that getting from 3% to 2% inflation would require an enormous amount of effort without any obvious payoff.  The whole idea of inflation targeting is to eliminate the possibility of the kind of runaway inflation–and associated crazy economic choices–of the kind the US had begun to experience in the late 1970s.  Whether actual inflation is 3% or 2% matters little, just as long as the current level is not the launching pad for a progression of 4%, 6% 9%…

Another way of looking at this would be to say that the nominal figures matter much more than academic economists realize, and that 4% nominal GDP growth (2% trend economic growth + 2% inflation) feels too much like stagnation.  Therefore, it undermines the entrepreneurial tendencies of ordinary people.

 

How to create 3% inflation?  …slower interest rate increases and/or increased government stimulus (meaning tax cuts and infrastructure spending).

 

The letter certainly won’t affect the Fed’s thinking about a rate rise in June.  But it seems to me that the debate on this issue can only intensify.

By the way, I think 3% inflation would be good for stocks, neutral/bad for fixed income.

 

a new casino for Connecticut, good or bad?

Shortly after I retired as a portfolio manager, I went to work part-time at the Rutgers business school in Newark.  No, it wasn’t to teach investing or portfolio management–accreditation rules effectively rule this out for anyone without a PhD in (the alternate reality of) academic finance.  Instead, it was in a practical management consulting class run by adjuncts with real-world experience and advising mostly small businesses.  (We were all fired several years later and the program–the only profitable area in a school dripping red ink–dissolved.   …but that’s another story).

Anyway, one of the projects I mentored involved a casual dining restaurant.  A student had a connection with a very successful pizza restaurant whose approach might serve as a model for our client.  The pizza owner said he had superior results.  How so?  …he had cloth tablecloths and fresh flowers on each table; the food was good;  he spoke with every customer himself to make sure everyone knew they were welcome.  In fact, he drew customers from as far as 15 miles away.

How far was the closest competing pizza restaurant?   …30 miles.

Put a different way, in this state customers hungry for pizza went to the closest restaurant, despite what this owner thought was his special charm!

It’s the same with a lot of other things, including local casinos.

In the case of Connecticut, the two existing operators are coming under threat by the decision of Massachusetts to legalize gambling in that state.  In particular, it’s allowing MGM to open a casino just on the northern border of Connecticut in Springfield, MA.

Hartford has just responded by authorizing a new casino in East Windsor just on the Connecticut side of the border from Springfield, to be jointly run by the two incumbent operators.

This is an interesting case.  Let’s take a (simple) look:

My pizza rule says customers go to the closest casino.   If that’s correct, the new Massachusetts casino will reduce the existing Connecticut casinos’ revenue by a substantial amount.  Hartford estimates that amount at a quarter of the current business, about $1.6 billion.   If they want to keep the remaining 75%, however, it seems unlikely to me that the casino operators will be able to reduce their costs by much.  So their profits could easily be cut in half.

And when the proposed East Windsor casino opens?

Figure that East Windsor will take back from Springfield half of the revenue initially lost.   That’s $200 million a year.  From the state’s point of view, any revenue gain means higher tax collections–in this case, about another $35 million a year.  So it’s understandable why East Windsor has gotten a legislative seal of approval.  It’s not clear, however, that the casino operators are going to be better off–because they’re taking on the expense of a third location in order to protect 12% of their current revenue.

 

We’ve also seen this movie before in the northeast US, with the effect on Atlantic City of gambling legalization in Pennsylvania, and on Pennsylvania of legalization in Ohio and Maryland.  One additional complication in this instance is that both of the incumbent operators are Native American tribes, for whom maintaining/expanding employment may be more important than profits.  A second is that the new CT casino will be run by two in-state rivals.  That should be interesting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Employment Situation, May 2017

As usual, at 8:30 edt this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its monthly Employment Situation.

The May results were ok, but not great.

The economy added 138,000 new jobs during the month, a reasonable number although one below recent reporting trends.  In addition, results for March and April were revised down by a total of 66,000.  Ouch!

Wage growth remains at an inflation-beating pace of +2.5% but continues to show none of the acceleration one might be hoping for,  given that the unemployment rate has fallen another notch to 4.3%.

my take

Let’s separate what’s going on from why it’s happening.

On the second question, I have inklings/prejudices but nothing that I’d care to act on.  My guess/fear is that jobs are being created, but in lower tax-rate foreign jurisdictions (meaning just about anywhere other than the US), and that machines are substituting for domestic labor, thereby keeping wages low.  If that were so, it would imply US employers believe President Trump won’t be able to advance his tax and infrastructure agenda.

But, really, who knows.

On the first, the signs are that after eight years, the US is finally at full employment again.  This would imply what other indicators seem to be showing–that’s there’s no reason to bet that there’ll be any “pent-up,” cyclically unfulfilled demand showing itself in surprisingly strong future consumer spending.

If so, the stock market should move away from cyclical ideas to secular growth and structural change beneficiaries.  In addition, overall annual upward movement in the broad indices should be limited to, at best, 1.5x the growth in nominal GDP.

The way I see things, this is the way Wall Street has been acting since early in 2017.  So this ES report is not new news.  Rather it’s confirmation of the direction the market has already recently taken.