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.

 

 

stocks vs. cash

At present, cash yields zero.  Investors who hold cash receive safeguarding of their deposits but no financial return.

Stocks carry no guarantees against loss.  At present, the S&P 500 yields about 2%.  One might reasonably estimate that yearly capital gains will average, say, 6% over longer periods of time.

A guaranteed zero vs. a possible +8% per year.  To my mind, not exactly a compelling case for cash.

In theory, and in practice during the 1970s- 1980s, investors have shifted large amounts of money from stocks to cash when the returns on cash have been high enough.

Hence, the thought-experiment question:  how high would short-term interest rates have to be to trigger serious reallocation away from stocks in favor of cash?

My answer:  I don’t know for sure.

In my experience, during periods of much higher interest rates than are the norm today, when short rates would get above half of the expected return (of about +10% per year) on stocks, then money would begin to shift away from equities.  That flow would accelerate–causing stocks to begin to stall–if short rates got to 60% of the expected return on stocks.

 

My conclusion is that short rates would have to get well above 3% in today’s world before reallocation becomes a worry.

If so, a rising Fed Funds rate is something to keep an eye on but not a serious current threat to stocks, in my view.

Fed rate hike in June?

I think the Fed will raise the Fed Funds rate on overnight deposits by 25 basis points in June.

Five reasons:

–I think the economy is in considerably better shape than the consensus realizes

–We’ve been in intensive care for close to a decade.  We’re at the point where remaining in this state is more harmful than moving elsewhere in the hospital

–The Fed is, to some degree, a political animal.  It doesn’t want to be seen as attempting to influence the presidential election, which would have been a routine action by the Fed a generation ago

–Other than psychologically, it really doesn’t matter to the economy whether the cost of overnight borrowing is 0.25% or 0.50%

–Neither political party has a viable economic policy, in my view.  Leaving rates at zero prolongs the Fed’s role in enabling dysfunction in Washington (which seems to me to be the key issue in the election, whether ordinary citizens are articulating this or not).

 

the Employment Situation–now scanning the horizon for wage increases

the Employment Situation

Last Friday morning the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its monthly Employment Situation report for September.  The numbers were good– +248,000 new jobs added in the economy, +236,000 of them in the private sector.

Revisions were also favorable.  July figures were boosted from +212,000 to +243,000, and the worrisome +142,000 number posted for August was revised up to +180,000.

With last month’s poor employment gain showing now being interpreted as simply a hiccup in the reporting system rather than an indicator of a slowdown in hiring, the stock market’s attention is beginning to turn toward the wage gain information in the ES, rather than the employment numbers themselves.

wage gains?

what counts aw wages in the ES?

The figure itself appears to me to be pretty solid.  It’s derived from actual gross wage figures reported by the large number of substantial private sector firms who are participants in the BLS Establishment survey.  There is some government estimation, in the sense that the participating firms are thought to be representative of the economy as a whole.  But the data aren’t estimations.  They’re the real, complete salary figures.

The figures are gross, in the sense that they are before any deduction for taxes or benefits.

They’re salary figures only.  They don’t include payroll taxes that employers pay.  They also don;t include health or retirement benefits that employees may receive.

the current rate of wage gains…

…is 2% per year.

In one sense, this suits the Fed just fine.  The absence of sharp upward pressure on wages means the central bank doesn’t have to hurry to raise interest rates to stave off potentially runaway inflation (in the US, inflation is almost completely about wage gains).  The low number implies that employers can easily find all the qualified workers they need to grow their businesses either from new entrants into the labor market or from the currently unemployed.  They don’t need to poach new hires from rivals by offering very large pay increases.

On the other, it’s kind of eerie that the Fed can have had the monetary stimulus taps more wide open than ever before for over five years and not have wages be rising faster than this.

The wage gain numbers will increase in importance to Wall Street in the coming months, I think, as the Fed prepares to start raising the Federal Funds rate from the current level of zero.

My sense of the consensus belief is that:

–rates will being to rise next Spring,

–the “normal” rate is not the 4.0%-4.5% the Fed was talking about in 2012-13, but rather 2.5%-3.0%, and

–the Fed Funds rate could be halfway back to normal by the end of 2015–meaning five or six quarter-percent moves next year.

 

liquidity trap: what is it? are we in one?

liquidity trap

Over the weekend, Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said at a Fed conference in Boston that he thought the US is in a “bona fide liquidity trap.”  His prescription to cue this situation:  a second round of quantitative easing (basically, the Fed trying directly to push down longer-term interest rates) plus inflation-level targeting (promising to continue loose money policy until inflation reaches 2%).  The purpose of the second is to try to assuage fears of deflation by money market participants.

What does all this mean?

what it is

When the Fed, or any central bank, lowers short-term interest rates, the move has a whole series of effects:

–the initial move signals that the short-term direction of policy is reversing;  the money authority wants to encourage faster economic growth, not slow down inflation

–lower returns on savings instruments tied to short-term rates encourages people to spend money rather than to leave it in the bank

–lower rates on lending money tend to encourage consumers to borrow to finance consumption;  to the extent that younger people tend to be borrowers and senior citizens savers, economic power undergoes a demographic shift that puts money in the hands of those more likely to consume

–arbitrage extends the lowering of rates to longer-maturity debt instruments; lower long-term rates make company investment projects more economically attractive and thus encourage spending on capacity expansion and new hiring.

You can, in theory–and, looking at Japan over the past twenty years, in practice–envision circumstances where this process of lowering interest rates to stimulate economic activity won’t work.  That’s a liquidity trap.  The money authority lowers rates but gets no economic response.

Economists have, not always clearly, distinguished between two types of liquidity trap:

1.  deflationary, sometimes called the “zero bound” case.  The goal of accommodative money policy is to lower nominal rates until they are negative in real terms.  The idea is that once the saver realizes he is no longer even preserving his purchasing power by holding short-term deposits, he will boost his consumption and look for (riskier) investments where he can earn a positive real return.

But nominal rates can in practice only be reduced to zero.  If prices are falling (which is what deflation is), real rates stay high despite the best efforts of the money authority.  If prices are dropping by 3% a year, for example, a zero nominal rate is a 3% real rate.  As a result, savers don’t budge.

There have been instances of negative nominal interest rates–like in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, when the government there announced plans to charge a recurring fee to foreigners for holding bank deposits.  But they’re a practical impossibility.

2.  a “true” liquidity trap, or “pushing on a string.”  The idea is that a point might be reached where central bank action in pumping ever larger amounts of money into the economy would have no further positive effect.  The economy would, in a sense, be saturated with money.  The original thought was that interest rates would remain above zero but would not decline further, despite the efforts of the central bank to push them down.  But the idea can easily be expanded to include other cases where money polity is ineffective:  the transmission mechanism may break down if economic entities are frightened and want to hold precautionary balances even though they earn no economic return; or there may be enough regulatory or government policy uncertainty that it’s hard to identify viable projects to invest in.

where we are now

In the US, inflation has been running at about 1% over the past year or so.  The sharp decline in the dollar over the past several months suggests that, if anything, inflation will rise a bit as we head into 2011.  So, although policy makers and economists may fear deflation, we’re not in that situation today.  That means type #1 above doesn’t apply to us.

There’s a lot of liquidity sloshing around in the US–in the whole world, for that matter.  Several private companies have been able to borrow money at a fixed rate for fifty years or more.  Mexico, despite its history of economic meltdowns and its internal political difficulties, has recently successfully issued a hundred year fixed-rate bond.

This leaves us with breakdown in the transmission mechanism as the reason why money policy has become ineffective.

Mr. Evans of the Chicago Fed seems to think that fear of deflation is the main problem, or at least that’s what his remedy of in effect having the Fed promise to create 2% inflation suggests.  Other economists lack of enthusiastic support suggests his is a lone voice.

This leaves the possibility that attractive investment projects are hard to find.  In a recent speech, the head of the Minnesota Fed, Narayana Kocherlakota, suggested that the gating factor may be lack of skilled workers.  The sound bite the press picked up was his observation that the Fed has no ability to turn construction workers into machinery workers.  He also pointed out that Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate the economy has about 800,000 more unfilled jobs now than it did in March 2009.

It’s also at least a logical possibility that uncertainty about medical care costs or about future taxes is at the root of companies’ reluctance to invest domestically.  Given that the Fed members are political appointees, though, I think there’s a pragmatic limit to what they’re willing to say in print.  To me, however, it’s clear the Fed thinks a dysfunctional congress and an ineffective president are the reasons the current liquidity trap persists.

I think adjustment to the new economic circumstances is already taking place.  Lack of effective regulation and supportive legislation will just mean the transition process is a longer one.

No more reversion to the mean?–Mohamed El-Erian (I)

“uncertainty changing investment landscape”

The other day I was paging through some old newspapers that I never got to during August (yes, I read the business news on paper).  Sometimes it gives you a sense of perspective to read, a couple of weeks after the event, what trivial things people were thrilled or fearful about at a certain moment.  But mostly I got lazy when the weather got hot and read novels instead of news.  So I was catching up.

I ran across an article from August 2nd with the above title in the Financial Times. It was written by Mohamed El-Erian and Richard Clarida, a professor of economics at Columbia.  Mr. El-Erian is the chief executive of the mammoth bond manager Pimco and an occasional columnist for the FT; Mr. Clarida consults for Pimco.

I usually skip over what Mr. El-Erian writes.  It typically reflects the economic consensus.  Besides that, Mr. El-Erian has seldom been known to use one small word when six or eight big ones will do the same job.  He’s also the public marketing face of Pimco, so we know in advance what his investment conclusion will be namely:

–The global economic landscape will be bleak for many years to come.

–Therefore bonds, even at today’s super-expensive levels, are still a buy; stocks, which are the same price today as a decade ago and the cheapest they’ve been vs. bonds for sixty years, are still a sell.  Pimco’s only change to this mantra over the past year or so has been to kick dividend paying stocks off the approved list.

Nevertheless, I did read this piece.  Despite the fact Mr. El-Erian comes to his usual (horribly incorrect, in my opinion) conclusion about stocks and bonds, I’m glad I did.  For once, Mr. El-Erian wrote something really thought provoking.

I’m going to write about this in two posts.  Today I’ll outline what Mr. El-Erian says.  Tomorrow I’ll write about where I disagree.

the article

The article makes five points.  Four of them are different facets of the same idea–that the disinflationary era that began with the appointment of Paul Volcker as Fed chairman in the US almost thirty years ago is over.  As a result, we can no longer depend on continuingly rising bond prices and falling yields to bail us out of investment mistakes.  Investors have to rethink and retest their strategies.

That isn’t the interesting part.  Equity investors have been soulsearching about excessive leverage and unwarranted risk-taking since the collapse of the Internet bubble in 2000.  (If so, how did the financial meltdown happen?  Investors made three basic mistakes:  we assumed the banks’ accounting statements were reasonably accurate; we wildly overestimated the capabilities and appetite of the regulators to enforce banking and securities laws; and we attributed to bank managements a level of integrity and risk-management competence that most American industrialists possess but many in this industry didn’t.)

The intriguing point is Mr. El-Erian’s first, that “investing on ‘mean reversion’ will be less compelling” in the future.  He implicitly describes the (bond) investing process over the past twenty-five years as having two steps:

–determine the consensus economic forecast, and

–find securities whose valuations imply an outcome that deviates markedly from the consensus.  If the imbedded expectations are too pessimistic, buy the security; if they are too optimistic, sell it short.

Why won’t this work anymore?  In the past, a compilation of expectations from professional economists would form a bell curve, with the areas at and around the mean having very high probability.  The “tails” of the distribution, that is, the forecasts that deviate a lot from the consensus, were short and stubby, that is, highly unlikely and increasingly so the farther away from the consensus they were.

Today, the compilation of forecasts looks less like a bell with a sharp, fat peak in the middle, and more like a straight line with a small bump up in the center.  The economic situation around the world is so uncertain, and the policy actions governments may take to stabilize their countries so unpredictable, that there is, in effect, no solid macroeconomic consensus to bet against.  Not only that, but the more extreme “long tail” outcomes, both bad and good, have become much more likely.

What do you do in a world like this?  Mr El-Erian’s answer is (surprise, surprise)–buy bonds, sell stocks.  You do so because (government) bonds are liquid and default-free.  Therefore, they protect you against the world going to hell in a handbasket.  I guess this means individual investors haven’t been panicking over the past year or more but responding rationally to the current situation by dumping their stocks and embracing bonds.  I suppose that if you really wanted to secure yourself against the worst, you should also think about a cabin in the woods, stocked with freeze-dried food and near a good source of water, maybe with a bow and arrows in case you need to hunt.  Maybe people are.

I’m with Mr. El-Erian up until his conclusion, with which, to put it mildly, I disagree.  Not so surprising, since I’ve spent all my investing life on Wall Street.  The real question, the thought-provoking aspect of the article I’ve linked to above, is to be able to say why I disagree.  What’s wrong with what he’s saying?

More tomorrow.