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.

 

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.

 

 

 

a steadily rising Fed Funds rate into 2019

That’s the thrust of Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s remarks yesterday about rates in the US.

She said that there would be “a few” increases in the Fed Funds rate in each of 2017 and 2018.  Assuming that a few = three and that each increase will be 0.25%, Yellen’s statement implies that the rate will rise steadily until it reaches 2.0% sometime next year.

In one sense, two years of rising interest rates sounds like a lot–I know that’s what I thought the first time I was facing this prospect as a portfolio manager.  But if the neutral target rate for overnight money is the level that achieves inflation protection but no real return, 2% should be the target.  If anything, it’s a bare minimum.

In my view, two surprises to the Yellen forecast are possible:

–if President Trump is able to launch a significant fiscal stimulus program, the rate rise timetable will likely be accelerated, and

–if the inflation rate rises above 2%, which I think is a good possibility, then the Fed Funds rate may need to rise above 2% (2.5%?) to keep inflation in check.

Typically, a time of rising rates is one in which stocks–buoyed by increasing corporate earnings–go sideways, while bonds go down.  In the present case, earnings growth will likely depend on an end to dysfunction in Washington.

 

 

refinancing/repricing bank loans

One way that an investment bank can win merger and acquisition business is to offer financing to bidders through what are called bank loans.  These are essentially long-term corporate bonds that carry high variable-rate coupons based on libor.   The successful bidding company issues them to the bank to pay for an acquisition.  The bank resells the loans to institutional investors.

There has been strong interest in such loans over the past couple of years for two reasons:  yielding, say libor +4%, they offer high current yields; and, at least in theory, there’s the possibility of rising income as libor increases.  Some of these bonds have the further fillip that the variable (libor) portion can’t go below a fixed amount, say 1%, no matter what the actual libor rate is.

Three-month libor is now approaching 1%, up from as low as 0.2% in 2015.  This benchmark rate is certainly heading higher.

Fro the perspective of holders, one flaw with these bank loans, however, is that they offer little call protection.  What’s now happening on a massive scale is that banks are approaching institutional customers who bought high-yielding bank loans and offering to replace a loan yielding, say,  libor +4% with an equivalent loan from the same borrower yielding libor +3%.

Customers are taking up such deals in droves.  How so?  Technicially, the original loan instruments are being called, meaning the issuer is exercising its right to pay the loans off at par.  The customer can either get his money back in cash–and therefore be forced to find a new place to invest the funds–or accept payment in a new, less lucrative, loan.

The customer has two incentives to take the latter:  the new terms are still attractive; and the borrower will have developed deeper confidence in the issuer through continuing study of company operations and a history of on-time coupon payments.

 

The real winners here are the banks, who collect another round of fees for providing this service. In all likelihood, this won’t be the last round of repricing, either.

 

stocks in a 4% T-bond world

There are two questions here:

–what happens to stocks as interest rates rise? and

–what should the PE on the S&P 500 be if the main investment alternative for US investors, Treasury bonds, yield something around 4%?

On the first, over my 38+ year investment career stocks have gone mostly sideways when the Fed is raising short-term interest rates.  The standard explanation for this, which I think is correct, is that while stocks can show rising earnings to counter the effect of better yields on newly-issued bonds, existing bonds have no defense.

Put a different way, the market’s PE multiple should contract as rates rise, but rising earnings counter at least part of that effect.

The second question, which is not about how we get there but what it looks like when we arrive, is the subject of this post.

in a 4% world

The arithmetic solution to the question is straightforward.  Imagining that stocks are quasi-bonds, in the way traditional finance academics do, the equivalent of a bond coupon payment is the earnings yield. It’s the portion of a company’s profits that each share has a claim on ÷ the share price.  For example, if a stock is trading at $50 a share and eps are $2, the earnings yield is $2/$50 = 4%.  This is also 1/PE.

A complication:  Ex dividends, corporate profits don’t get deposited into our bank accounts; they remain with management.  So they’re somewhat different from an interest payment.  If management is a skillful user of capital, that’s good.  Otherwise…

If we take this proposed equivalence at face value, a 4% earnings yield and 4% T-bond annual interest payment should be more or less the same thing.  In the ivory tower universe, stocks should trade at 25x earnings if T-bonds are yielding 4%.  That’s almost exactly where the S&P 500 is trading now, based on trailing 12-months “as reported” earnings (meaning not factoring out one-time gains/losses).  Why this measure?   It’s the easiest to obtain.

More tomorrow.