Trump and the Federal Reserve

dubious strategies…

I was thinking about last year’s Federal government shutdown the other day.  There are two million+ Federal workers.  They make an average salary of just above $90,000 a year, which is 50% more than the typical worker in the US.   Add in health insurance and pension benefits and their total compensation is double the national average.

On the surface, it seems odd to me that Federal workers began to run out of money almost the minute Mr. Trump laid them all off late last year.  On second thought, though, given their apparent job security and generous benefits, there’s arguably no urgent reason for them to build up savings.  Maybe they do live at what for others might be right on the edge.

That might explain the outsized negative impact laying Federal workers off en masse had on the economy, given that they represent only about 1.3% of the workforce?  If each consumes as much as two average workers, which I think is a reasonable guess, then the layoff does the same damage as 2.5% of the total American workforce becoming unemployed.

This is bigger than you might think.  A 2.5% rise in unemployment is what happens in a garden-variety recession.  No wonder the economy appeared to fall off a cliff in January.

 

Consider, too, the effect of the Trump decision to withdraw from international associations in favor of waging country-to-country trade warfare.  The resulting flurry of highly targeted tariffs and retaliatory counter-tariffs has made the US, at least for the moment, a uniquely bad place for new capital investment.  That’s even without considering the administration’s policy of restricting domestic firms’ ability to hire highly talented foreign technicians and executives–a policy that has made Toronto the fastest-growing tech city in North America.  Again, no surprise that new domestic capital additions sparked by tax cuts have fallen far below Washington estimates.  And, of course, tariff wars have lowered demand for US goods abroad and raised prices of foreign goods here.

My point is that–apart from the ultimate merits of administration goals–they are being pursued in a strikingly shoot-yourself-in-the-foot way.

…continue

Yes, Federal workers are back on the job.  I can’t imagine that they will resume their old spending habits, though, given the new employment uncertainty they are facing.  Last week the administration discussed disrupting the supply chains of American multinationals with operations in Mexico.  Yesterday, the talk was of a possible $11 billion in new tariffs on imports from the EU …and the retaliation that would surely follow.  Even if none of this materializes, their possibility alone will increase the reluctance of companies to operate inside the US.  The negative effect of all this may be much greater than the consensus thinks.

 

now the Federal Reserve

This central bank’s official role is to set monetary policy through its control of short-term interest rates.  Its unoffical role is to be a political whipping boy.  It takes the blame for (always) unpopular rises in interest rates that are needed to keep the economy from overheating, and on track to achieve maximum sustainable long-term GDP growth.

The two instances where the Fed has succumbed to Washington arm-twisting–the late 1970s and the early 2000s–have created really disastrous outcomes, the big recessions in 1981 and 2008.

Despite this, Mr. Trump has apparently decided to offset the negative economic effects of his tax and trade policies, not by stopping doing what’s causing harm, but by forcing the Federal Reserve into an ill-advised reduction in interest rates.  His first step down this road will apparently be the nomination of two loyalists without economic credentials to fill open seats on the Fed’s board.

If the two, or similar individuals, are nominated and confirmed, the likely result will be a decline in the dollar, the start of a residential real estate bubble and a further shift of corporate expansion plans away from the US.  We may also see the beginnings of the kind of upward inflationary spiral that plagued us in the late 1970s.

 

investment implications

Replying to a comment on my MMT post, I wrote:

“Ultimately, though, the results would be a loss of confidence, both home and abroad, that lenders to the government would be paid back in full. That would show itself in some combination of currency weakness, accelerating inflation and higher interest rates. Typically, bonds and bond-like investments would fare the worst; investments in hard-currency assets or physical assets like real estate/minerals, or in companies with hard-currency revenues would fare the best. I think gold, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies would go through the roof.”

I think the same applies to Mr. Trump gaining control over the Fed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

threatening Federal Reserve independence

trying to intimidate the Fed?

Just before Christmas, news reports surfaced that President Trump was discussing how to go about firing Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, ten months after having him appointed to the post.  The purported reason:  Mr. Trump was blaming stock market turbulence–not on his tax bill, which failed to reform the system and increased the government deficit, nor on the negative effect of his tariffs–but on Mr. Powell’s continuing to gradually raise short-term interest rates from their financial crisis lows back toward normal.

Ironically, the S&P 500 plunged by about 10%, making what I think will be seen as an important low, as the president’s deliberations became public.

why this is scary

The highest-level economic aim of the US is maximum sustainable GDP growth, with low inflation.  In today’s world, the burden of achieving this falls almost entirely on the Fed (even I realize I write this too much, but: the rest of Washington is dysfunctional).  The unwritten agreement within government is that the Fed will do things that are economically necessary but not politically popular, accepting associated blame, and the rest of Washington will leave it alone.

Mr. Trump seems, despite his Wharton diploma, not to have gotten the memo.  This despite the likelihood that his strange mix of crony-oriented tax cuts and trade protection has made so few negative ripples in financial markets because participants believe the Fed will act as an economic stabilizer.

What happens, though, if the Fed is politicized in the way Mr. Trump appears to want?

The straightforward US example is the 1970s, when the Fed succumbed to Nixonian pressure for a too-easy monetary policy.  That resulted in runaway inflation and a plunging currency.  By 1978, foreigners were requiring that Treasury bonds be denominated in German marks or Swiss francs rather than dollars before they would purchase.   The Fed Funds rate rose 20% in 1981 as the monetary authority struggled to get inflation under control.

The point is the negative effects are very bad and happen surprisingly quickly.  This is more problematic for the US than for, say, Japan because about half the Treasuries in public hands are owned by foreigners, for who currency effects are immediately apparent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

a US market milestone, of sorts

rising interest rates

Yesterday interest rose in the US to the point where the 10-year Treasury yield cracked decisively above 3.00% (currently 3.09%).  Also, the combination of mild upward drift in six month T-bill yields and a rise in the S&P (which lowers the yield on the index) have conspired to lift the three-month bill yield, now 1.92%, above the 1.84% yield on the S&P.

What does this mean?

For me, the simple-minded reading is the best–this marks the end of the decade-long “no brainer” case for pure income investors to hold stocks instead of bonds.  No less, but also no more.

The reality is, of course, much more nuanced.  Investor risk preferences and beliefs play a huge role in determining the relationship between stocks and bonds.  For example:

–in the 1930s and 1940s, stocks were perceived (probably correctly) as being extremely risky as an asset class.  So listed companies tended to be very mature, PEs were low and the dividend yield on stocks exceeded the yield on Treasuries by a lot.

–when I began to work on Wall Street in 1978 (actually in midtown, where the industry gravitated as computers proliferated and buildings near the stock exchange aged), paying a high dividend was taken as a sign of lack of management imagination.  In those days, listed companies either expanded or bought rivals for cash rather than paid dividends.  So stock yields were low.

three important questions

dividend yield vs. earnings yield

During my investing career, the key relationship between long-dated investments has been the interest yield on bonds vs. the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.  For us as investors, it’s the anticipated cyclical peak in yields that counts more than the current yield.

Let’s say the real yield on bonds should be 2% and that inflation will also be 2% (+/-).  If so, then the nominal yield when the Fed finishes normalizing interest rates will be around 4%.  This would imply that the stock market (next year?) should be trading at 25x earnings.

At the moment, the S&P is trading at 24.8x trailing 12-month earnings, which is maybe 21x  2019 eps.  To my mind, this means that the index has already adjusted to the possibility of a hundred basis point rise in long-term rates over the coming year.  If so, as is usually the case, future earnings, not rates, will be the decisive force in determining whether stocks go up or down.

stocks vs. cash

This is a more subjective issue.  At what point does a money market fund offer competition for stocks?  Let’s say three-month T-bills will be yielding 2.75%-3.00% a year from now.  Is this enough to cause equity holders to reallocate away from stocks?   Even for me, a died-in-the-wool stock person, a 3% yield might cause me to switch, say, 5% away from stocks and into cash.  Maybe I’d also stop reinvesting dividends.

I doubt this kind of thinking is enough to make stocks decline.  But it would tend to slow their advance.

currency

Since the inauguration last year, the dollar has been in a steady, unusually steep, decline.  That’s the reason, despite heady local-currency gains, the US was the second-worst-performing major stock market in the world last year (the UK, clouded by Brexit folly, was last).

The dollar has stabilized over the past few weeks.  The major decision for domestic equity investors so far has been how heavily to weight foreign-currency earners.  Further currency decline could lessen overseas support for Treasury bonds, though, as well as signal higher levels of inflation.  Either could be bad for stocks.

my thoughts:  I don’t think that current developments in fixed income pose a threat to stocks.

My guess is that cash will be a viable alternative to equities sooner than bonds.

Continuing sharp currency declines, signaling the world’s further loss of faith in Washington, could ultimately do the most damage to US financial markets.  At this point, though, I think the odds are for slow further drift downward rather than plunge.

 

 

 

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?

 

 

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, 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.