Employment Situation, March 2017

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly Employment Situation report earlier this morning.

With an addition of +98,000 jobs, the figures were a little more than half the rate of gain or recent months.  Revisions to data from the prior two months clipped another -38,000 positions from the total.

Although the report isn’t great reading for stock market bulls, we’ve seen over the past eight years of economic recovery that bad months occasionally occur, even in the midst of a sharply upsloping trend.  In addition, although the monthly figures are seasonally adjusted, the weather during 1Q17 has been so unusual in the populated regions of the US–unusually mild in January-February, ugly in March–that the first two months probably look better than they should and March worse.

The only really eyebrow-raising aspect of this report, in my view, is that despite the unemployment rate being at a very low 4.5%, there is still no sign of acceleration in wages.  This implies no urgency for the Fed to raise interest rates aggressively.

reversing quantitative easing

US stocks were up by about 1% yesterday when the minutes of the last Fed meeting came out.  As Fed watchers saw the topic of paring down the Fed’s $4 trillion+ holdings of government bonds was mentioned, stocks (but not bonds) began to give back their gains and ultimately finished the day lower.

What’s this about?

  1.  The Fed typically uses the Federal Funds rate for overnight loan to loosen or tighten money policy.  In doing so, it depends on the banking system to broadcast increases or declines in interest rates into the market for longer-term debt.  The problem since 2008 is that the banks had destroyed their own creditworthiness through years of unsavory and unsuccessful speculative financial markets trading.  So they were ineffective in performing this crucial rate-determining role.  Congress and the administration were–and still remain–lost in their inside-the-Beltway alternative universe, so there was no hope of help for the failing economy from that source.  The Fed’s solution was to begin “unconventional” operations, by buying huge amounts of longer-dated government debt in order to push down long-term interest rates itself.  It now holds something like $4.3 trillion worth of Treasury and government agency debt.
  2. The Fed has long since stopped making new net purchases of longer-dated bonds.  But as its existing bonds mature, it has continued to roll over the money it gets from them into new bond purchases.  The next step for the Fed in normalizing the long-term debt market will be to stop this rollover.  The consensus is that this change will happen later this year or early next.
  3. What’s “new” from yesterday is that the Fed put this thought down in writing, without specifying any details.

My take:  while the Fed announcement may have been the trigger for an intra-day selloff in stocks, the Fed minutes are not a big deal.  There is an investment issue as to how the Fed will proceed, but that will ultimately be influenced by how capable Mr. Trump will be to get Washington working again.

The President’s early performance has had two consequences:  US investors are beginning to think about shifting money to Europe.  Despite Brexit, that region is beginning to experience its own economic growth.  As well, it is having deep second thoughts about electing Trump-like figures in their own countries (we’ll learn more in the first round of the French elections on April 23rd), thereby increasing their attractiveness as an investment destination.

the Fed’s inflation target: 2% or 3%?

There seems to me to be increasing questioning recently among professional economists about whether the Fed’s official inflation target of 2% is a good thing or whether the target should be changed to, say, 3%.

The 2% number has been a canon of academic thought in macroeconomics for a long time.  But the practical issue has become whether 2% inflation and zero are meaningfully different.  Critics of 2% point out that governments around the world haven’t been able to stabilize inflation at that level.  Rather, inflation seems to want to dive either to zero or into the minus column once it gets down that low, with all the macro problems that entails.  It’s also proving exceptionally hard to get the needle moving in the upward direction from t sub-2% starting point.  My sense is that the 3% view is gaining significant momentum because of current central bank struggles.

This is not the totally wonkish topic it sounds like at first.  A 2% inflation target or 3% actually makes a lot of difference for us as stock market investors:

–If the target is 3%, Fed interest rate hikes will happen more slowly than Wall Street is now expecting.

–At the same time, the end point for normalization of rates–having cash instruments provide at least protection from inflation–is 100 basis points higher, which would be another minus for bonds (other than inflation-adjusted ones) during the normalization process.

–Over long periods of time, stocks have tended to deliver annual returns of inflation + 6%.  If inflation is 2%, nominal returns are 8% yearly; at 3% inflation, returns are 9%.  In the first case, your money doubles in 9 years, in the second, 8 years.  This doesn’t sound like much, either, although over three decades the higher rate of compounding produces a third more nominal dollars.

Yes, the real returns are the same.

But the point is that the pain of holding fixed income instruments that have negative real yields is greater with even modestly higher inflation than with lower.  So in a 3% inflation world, investors will likely be more prone to favor equities over bonds than in a 2% one.

–Inflation is a rise in prices in general.  In a 3% world, there’s more room for differentiation between winners and losers.  That’s good for you and me as stock pickers.

 

why are higher interest rates good for banks?

There are two factors involved:

behavior of bank managements:  To a considerable degree, commercial banks are able to use changes in interest rates to their money-making advantage.  When rates are declining, banks immediately lower the interest they pay for deposits but they keep the rates they charge to borrowers high for as long as they can.

When rates are rising, as is the case in the current economic environment, banks do the opposite.  To the degree they can, and given that most loans are variable-rate that is considerable, they raise rates to borrowers immediately.  But they keep the interest rate they pay for deposits low for as long as they can.

A generation ago, banks had a much greater ability  than they do now to maneuver the interest rate spread.  That’s because money market funds were in their infancy.  There were no junk bonds to serve as substitutes for commercial loans.  There was even a Federal Reserve rule, Regulation Q, that prevented banks from paying interest on checking accounts and put a (low) cap on what they could pay to holders of savings accounts.

Nevertheless, especially as rates are rising, spreads still can widen a lot.

economic circumstances:   bank lending business tends to tail off in recession, since most companies don’t want to take the risk of increasing their debt burden during bad times–even if the potential rewards seem enticing.  The credit quality of existing loans also worsens as demand for capital and consumer goods flags.

The opposite happens during recovery.  The quality of the loan book improves and customers begin to take on new loans.

stock market effects

The market tends to begin to favor banks as soon as it senses that interest rates are about to rise.  Wall Street was helped along this time around when perma-bear bank analyst Mike Mayo turned positive on the group for the first time in ages last summer.

After the anticipatory move, banks have a second leg up when the extent of their actual earnings gains becomes clear.  It seems to me the first move has already come to an end   …but the second is still ahead of us.

three steps and a stumble?

That’s the conventional wisdom (read: old wives tale) about Fed rate hikes and the stock market.  The idea is that the market absorbs the first two hikes in any rate rise series as if nothing were going on   …but reacts negatively on the third.

The third in this series of rate hikes will almost certainly come tomorrow.

The problem with this particular old saw is that there’s very little evidence from the past to support it.  Yes, there may be an immediate knee-jerk reaction downward.  But in almost all cases the S&P 500 is higher a year after a third hike than it was on the day of the rate rise.  Sometimes, the S&P has been a lot higher, once in a while a percent or two lower, but there’s no third-hike disaster on record.

Generally speaking, the reason is that rate rises occur as a policy offset to the threat of the runaway inflation that can happen during a too-rapid acceleration in economic growth.  As financial instruments, stocks face downward pressure as higher rates make cash a more attractive investment option.  On the other hand, strong earnings growth exerts contervailing upward pressure on stock prices.  In most cases, the two effects more or less offset one another.  (Bonds are a different story.  With the possible exception of junk bonds, all the pressure is downward.)

Of course, nothing having to do with economics is that simple.  There are always other forces at work.  Usually they don’t matter, however.

In this case, for example:

–I think of a neutral position for the Fed Funds rate as one where holding cash gives protection against inflation and little, if anything, more.  If so, the neutral Fed Funds rate in today’s world should be between 2.5% and 3.0%.  Let’s say 2.75%.  Three-month T-bills yield 0.75% at present.  To get back to neutral, then, we need the Fed Funds rate to be 200 basis points higher than it is now.

I was stunned when an economist explained this to me when I was a starting out portfolio manager.  I simply didn’t believe what she told me, until I went through the past data and verified what she said.  Back then, I was the odd man out.  Given the wholesale layoffs of experienced talent on Wall Street over the past ten years, however, I wonder how many more budding PMs are in the position I was in the mid-1980s.

–the bigger issue, I think, is Washington.  I read the post-election rally as being based on the belief that Mr. Trump has, and will carry out, a mandate to reform corporate taxes and markedly increase infrastructure spending.  The Fed decision to move at faster than a glacial pace in raising interest rates is based to a considerable degree, I think, on the premise that Mr. Trump will get a substantial amount of that done.  If that assumption is incorrect, then future earnings growth will be weaker than the market now imagines and the Fed will revert to its original snail’s pace plan.  That’s probably a negative for stocks …and a positive for bonds.

 

 

 

Trump and the big banks

banks and their social function

Banks aren’t ordinary corporations.  In addition to being private, for-profit organizations, they also carry out important social economic functions.  They’re the primary instrument the government uses to carry out national money policy.  Through letters of credit, they also underpin the workings of the international trade of multinational firms that is increasingly important for economic growth.

This is why the major banks are considered “too big to fail.”

bank failures

US banks have been on the brink of failure twice during the past hundred years–in the late 1920s and in 2007-09.  Both times this has been the result of rampant speculative financial market activity coupled with reckless lending, both driven by the search for earnings per share growth.

Glass-Steagall, and its repeal

In the 1930s, Washington enacted legislation, including the Glass-Steagall Act that barred the banks from non-banking activities (like brokerage, proprietary trading and investment banking).  The new laws ushered in a period of relative stability for the banks that lasted until the late 1990s, when their intense lobbying succeeded in getting Glass-Steagall repealed.

(An aside:  yes, the banks manufactured periodic crises through imprudent lending to emerging economies–the Walter Wriston-led binge of the 1970s being a prime example–but these were relatively tame in comparison.)

Less than ten years later, many big banks were broke.  World trade had come to a standstill as manufacturers refused to accept banks’ guarantees that shipped merchandise would be paid for (the worry was that the guaranteeing bank would file for bankruptcy while the goods were en route, reducing the shipper to being an unsecured creditor).  The deepest peacetime period of world economic decline since the Great Depression began.

This, in turn, spawned Dodd-Frank, the 21st century equivalent of Glass-Steagall.

repeal again?   so soon?

While it took more than half a century for the memory of the Depression to fade enough for Congress to consider removing restrictions on bank activity, we’re now less than a decade away from the 2007-09 collapse.

Despite this, despite campaigning on an anti-establishment platform, and despite warning that Hillary Clinton should not be elected because she would be a creature of the big banks, during his first few days in office Donald Trump is proposing to restore to the big banks the tools of self-destruction they have wielded to devastating effect twice before.

How odd.

 

the September 7th Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its latest JOLTS report on Wednesday.

The main results:

–nationwide job openings are now at 5.9 million, the highest figure in the 16 year history of the report.  This is substantially above the 4.5 million level of 2006-07.

–the rate of new hires has been flat for about two years at just over 5 million monthly.  While this is 5% – 10% below the rate of 2006-07, the very high number of job openings would have been consistent with an unemployment rate of 3% ten years ago.  This seems to me to be a point in favor of the idea that the main impediment to filling jobs is finding workers with needed skills.

–3 million workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs monthly.  This is a sign they’re confident of finding employment again without much difficulty.  That’s back to the pre-recession levels of 2006, and almost double the recession lows.

All of this argues that the US is at or near full employment.  On the other hand, however, there’s little sign of the upward pressure on wages that this situation would have produced in the past.

 

Whatever the reason for slow-rising wages, it seems to me there’s no reason in the employment figures for the Fed to maintain anything near the current emergency-room-low level of short-term interest rates.