interest rates and economic growth

Over the past few days, I’ve written about two approaches to the question of the appropriate level for interest rates.

fixed income as an investment on its own

The first considers fixed income as an investment, with no reference to current economic conditions or to use of rates as a government policy tool.  According to it, holders of short-term fixed income instruments receive protection against inflation + a small real return; holders of long-term instruments receive inflation + a real return of 3% or so + an extra return if the instrument carries higher risk.

rates and economic policy

The second looks at short-term interest rates as a tool of economic that aims at steering growth along the preferred path of a given nation’s government.  The monetary authority slows the economy down and speeds it up by raising/lowering rates as circumstances dictate.  In the US, the recent preferred metric for judging success has been the employment figures.

quantity of money

There is a third, admittedly subjective, approach to this topic, one that many professional investors have traditionally used to gauge the tone of financial markets.  The idea is that the economy requires a certain amount of liquidity (i.e., money) in order to operate efficiently.  This is to maintain inventories, pay salaries and fund new investments.   It operates best when it has precisely that amount.

In a period like the current one of continuous radical supply chain and financial innovation, it may be hard to judge when too little money is available, and therefore activity is constrained and rates are too high.

On the other hand, adherents to this idea think that when money is too abundant, the excess inevitably finds its way into economically destructive financial speculation.  The signs that rates are too low are easier to spot:  soaring housing prices, bubble-level stock PEs and high-risk, nevertheless covenantless, junk bonds.

recent financial market worries

This third idea is the basis for the recent conversation in financial markets that ultra-low interest rates have passed their best-by date and are now doing more harm than good.  The strongest evidence that this is the case is in the junk bond market, I think.  However,  if there’s speculation in one corner of the financial markets, it must also be at work in the others.

the traditional business cycle

The easiest place to start is at the low point of the cycle–and to talk about every place in the world except the US.

the target for government policy 

A typical rule governing policy action would be for a country to act so as to maintain the highest sustainable (that is, non-inflation-inducing) rate of economic growth.

the bottom

At its low point, activity in an economy is advancing at considerably less than that.  The economy may even be contracting.  The cause may be prior action by the government to slow the economy from a previous overheated state (policy actions are blunt tools:  most often they overshoot their objective) or the economy may have been hit by an out-of-the-blue event, like an oil shock or a financial crisis.

In either case, companies are laying off workers, reducing inventories, closing now-unprofitable operations  …all of which is causing the slowdown to feed on itself.

The traditional remedy to break the downward spiral is to lower interest rates–we might also describe this as lowering the cost of money by making a much larger quantity available to borrow.

What does this do?

In theory, and often also in practice, companies have a list of new capital projects they are ready to implement but which are unprofitable at the high interest rates/weak growth that accompany/trigger a slowdown.  By lowering rates, the monetary authority makes at least some of those projects into moneymakers.  So companies commit to new capital projects.  They hire planners and construction firms; they buy machinery; they hire workers to staff new plants.

As these formerly unemployed workers get paychecks, they begin to consume more–they buy clothes, and then houses and new cars.  They begin to eat restaurant meals and go on vacations again.  As consumer-oriented service industries see their businesses picking up, they begin to hire again, too–adding to the new wave of consumer spending.  At the same time, the supply chain begins to expand inventories to be able to satisfy rising demand.  Similarly, manufacturers hire more workers and begin to expand their own productive capacity.

In this way, self-feeding slowdown turns into self-feeding expansion.

the top

At some point, the economy reaches full employment.  Companies want to continue to expand because they now see many profitable investment projects.  But there are no more unemployed workers.  So firms begin to offer higher wages to bid workers away from other firms.  They begin to raise prices to cover their higher costs.  This activity doesn’t create more output, however.  It only creates inflation.

Either in anticipation of, or in reaction to, budding inflation the monetary authority begins to raise interest rates to cool down the now feverish expansion.  It keeps rates high until it begins to see signs of slowdown–inventory reductions, new project cancellations, layoffs.

 

The economy eventually reaches a low point   …and the cycle begins again.

observations

–in the model just described, industry recovers first, followed by consumers.  This happens in most of the world.  In the US, however, as soon as interest rates begin to decline, the consumer typically begins to spend again.  Business follows with a lag.

–conventional wisdom is that money policy actions need 12 – 18 months to take full effect.  In the current situation, short-term interest rates have been effectively at zero for eight years (!!) without seeing a sharp surge in economic growth in either the US or the EU.

–economists have been concerned for years that there’s been no oomph in capital spending in the developed world, despite low rates.  The traditional model explains he concern–business capital spending is thought to be a key element in any recovery.

 

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

interest rates, inflation and economic growth

A reader asked me to write about this.  I think it’s an interesting topic, since traditional relationships appear to be be breaking down.

interest rates

Let’s just focus on government debt, since other debt markets tend to key off what happens here.

 

At the end of the term of a loan, lenders expect the safe return of their principal plus compensation for having made it.  In the case of all but gigantic mutual fund/ETF lenders, participants in government bonds also enjoy a highly liquid secondary market where they can sell their holdings.

The compensation a lender receives is normally broken out into:  protection against inflation + a possible real return.

In the case of T-bills, that is, loans to the government lasting one year or less, the total return in normal times would be: protection against inflation + an annual real return of, say, 0.5%.  In a world where inflation was at the Fed target of 2%, that would mean one-year T-bills would be sold at par and yield 2.5%.

In the case of a 10-year T-bond, the annual return would be inflation + a real return of around 3% per year, the latter as compensation for the lender tying up his money for ten years.  In a normal world, that would be 2% + 3% = a 5% annual interest rate for a bond sold at par.

Compare those figures with today’s one-year T-bill yield of 0.6% and 1.62% for the ten-year and we can see we’re not in anything near normal times.  We haven’t been for almost a decade.

How did this happen?

Fed policy

The highest-level economic objective of the government in Washington is to achieve maximum sustainable long-term economic growth for the country. Policymakers think that growth rate is about 2.0% real per annum.  Assuming inflation at 2.0%, this would imply nominal growth at 4.0% yearly.

expanding too fast

In theory, if the economy is running at a nominal rate much faster than 4% for an extended period, companies will reach a point where they’re ramping up operations even when there are no more unemployed workers.  So they’ll staff up by poaching workers from each other by offering higher wages.  But since there are no net new workers, all that will happen is that wages–and selling prices–will go up a lot.  They’re be no greater amount of output, only an acceleration in inflation.  This last happened in the US in the late 1970s.

Before things get to this state, the Federal government will act–either by lowering spending, raising taxes or raising interest rates–to slow the economy back down to the 2% real growth level.  Typically, the economy ends up contracting mildly while this is going on.

Given long-standing dysfunction in Congress, the first two of these remedies are long since off the table.  This leaves money policy–raising interest rates–as the only weapon in the government arsenal.

growing too slowly/external shock

If the economy slows too much or if it suffers a sharp out-of-the-blue economic shock, the possible government remedies are: lower taxes, increase spending, reduce interest rates.  Washington has elected to do neither of the first two in response to the financial collapse in 2008-09, leaving monetary policy to do all the work of helping the country recover.

Fed policy in cases like this is to reduce the cost of debt to below the rate of inflation.  That hurts lenders (the wealthy, pension funds, retirees) severely, since they are no longer able to earn a real return or even preserve the purchasing power of their money through buyng government securities.

On the other hand, this is like Christmas come early for borrowers.  In theory, they now have many more viable projects they can launch.  They’ll not only be making money on the merits of their new products/services; inflation will also be eroding the real value of the loans they will eventually have to pay back.

 

More on Monday.

 

 

globalization and the stock market

For most of the thirty years I’ve been a professional investor, there has been a very dependable, high-beta link between world economic growth and world trade.   When economies were expanding, trade would expand at a much higher rate;  when economies were slowing, or contracting, developments in world trade were much more negative.

 

What was equally important for an investor was that although the economic data were clear from the outset, for many years equity investors in the US and Europe were slow to figure out what was going on.  As a result, from the 1970s through the 1990s there was plenty of outperformance to be had simply by overweighting multinationals and global transport companies during economic expansions and underweighting them during slowdowns.  Of course, one also had to give at least some consideration to currencies–that is, to make sure that a company had its revenues generally in harder currencies and its costs in weaker ones.  Still the main idea was to exploit the high sensitivity of trade to world growth.

 

Today’s equity markets have caught on.  It’s now part of most equity portfolio managers’ tool kits to favor multinationals and transports in upturns and shy away during downturns.

 

What I find interesting–and important–is that the economics seem to have changed over the last half-decade.  Over the past few years, global trade has grown no faster than the world in general.  It’s not 100% clear why this is so, but a reasonable guess is that the era of global production reshuffling between developed and developing nations to take advantage of lower labor costs, newer, more efficient plant and stronger management is over.

If this is right, and if I’m correct that stock markets haven’t really caught on to the new reality yet, then multinationals will be disappointing vs. expectations and the (more difficult) place to look for outperformance is with domestic firms within a given national arena.

There are also political implications (although I usually find political speculation irrelevant for making stock market gains).  Maybe the anti-trade stance of both Hillary and Trump is a case of fighting the last war.  The new economics would also suggest that the Trump campaign is much more deeply rooted in notions of white supremacy we thought had been left behind in the 1960s than we would like to believe.

 

 

online ordering/delivery and supermarkets/drugstores

In Manhattan, where I spend a considerable amount of time, a reasonable rule of thumb is that household goods and food both cost about twice what they would in nearby suburbs.  Part of this premium, I’m sure, has to do with high rents and the logistics of getting inventory into the city.  But I also think that if we could see into the management control books of the firms involved, we’d see that these urban locations are extraordinarily profitable.

Online is changing this situation in two ways.  Anyone who is able to wait a day or two–and who has a way of accepting delivery safely–has been shifting away from bricks and mortar.  Just as important, fringe areas in the city, which have few (if any) drugstores/supermarkets, become more attractive as neighborhoods because traditional infrastructure is no longer as crucial as it once was.

 

On the other end of the population density spectrum, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that in rural areas online ordering is also supplanting supermarkets–at least for non-perishables–in much the same way that Wal-Mart disrupted mom-and-pop retailers a generation ago.  The Journal cites a Kantar Retail study that shows 30%+ of rural shoppers are now members of Amazon Prime and almost three-quarters are online shoppers of some sort.

What had once been protecting the margins of local rural retailers is the cost of shipping items to out-of-the-way locations.  But with the near-ubiquity of free/membership shipping (meaning the bargaining power of, say, Amazon to lower shipping costs), this barrier has been substantially reduced.

 

My guess is that the biggest winners from this rural trend are local convenience stores.  Since these are typically linked with gasoline stations, which have long benefited from lower oil prices, I think they’re no longer hidden gems.  The idea that locals will have more money to spend may mean the convenience stores will run for longer than the consensus expects.  During a correction maybe, but right now I’m not a buyer.

 

index fund gains in the US

According to a survey reported in the Financial Times and done at the newspaper’s request by Morningstar, assets in US index mutual funds now comprise a third of total domestic mutual fund assets.  That’s up from 25% this time three years ago.

Nevertheless, actively managed assets under management have risen by 14%, despite the market share shift.  So the fees being collected by active managers are up.  This is doubtless due mostly to the fact that markets have been rising.  The S&P 500 is up by about a third over the three-year span, the Bloomberg Treasury index by 12%.  Watch out, though, if markets flatten or begin to decline.

 

More bad news:  the FT is reporting that 90.2% of US active equity managers underperformed their benchmark, after deducting fees, over the twelve months ending June.  Not numbers that will stem outflows.

 

Since I’m getting such an unbelievably late start today, I’ll only make two points:

–in the investment organizations I’m aware of, management control is in the hands of professional marketers, not professional investors.  I think their giving a much higher priority to selling rather than making products is a substantial part of the underperformance problem for these firms.  It’s highly unlikely, I think, that marketers will volunteer to step down and turn the reins over to makers.  So I expect underperformance issues will continue.  If I’m correct, the next bear market could prove crushing for these organizations, since the combination of falling prices and client withdrawals will doubtless mean sharp declines in profits.  Where will the money come from to beef up research and portfolio management operations then?

–some large investment management firms known for active management are reported to be finally entering the index fund market themselves.  First of all, this seems to me to show the marketing bent of their managements, giving support to my first point.

In addition, index funds have very large economy of scale effects and the oldest/largest have been in existence for decades.  Because of this, I can’t imagine that Johnny-come-lately firms will ever have profitable index offerings.  The firms may subsidize their index funds  so that the fees for you and me will be on a par with bigger rivals’, but I don’t see how the subsidies can ever be taken away.  Yes, such firms may retain assets, but their bottom lines will be worse off than if they retained them.

the trouble(s) with the luxury goods industry

For most of the past quarter-century, the publicly traded luxury goods industry, both companies based in the EU and in the US, has been a source of almost continual outperformance.

the old pattern

Its appeal rested (and I do mean the past tense) on two major trends:

–the gradual aging of the working population in the US and EU.  A twenty- or thirty-something in either area typically aspires to own a work wardrobe, a car and a house.  A forty- or fifty-something, in contrast, wants to own jewelry and a vacation house, and to go on a cruise.

So the rising affluence of older workers in the US and Europe has meant increasing demand for luxury goods.

–growth in Japan and the development of capitalism in China, beginning with Deng’s turn away from Mao in the late 1970s.  Again, increasing affluence has sparked higher demand for globally recognized luxury goods.  In addition, in China “gifts” (read: bribes) of luxury goods have long greased the wheels of bureaucratic approval of new projects–until the ongoing anti-corruption crackdown there began a few years ago, that is.

What has been less well understood is that the unit profits from selling a given luxury good in either China or Japan has been much, much higher than elsewhere (double would be my first approximation).  This means that if Japan/China accounted for 25% of a company’s sales (and a sales figure would typically be all a luxury goods firm would announce), they would represent half the company’s profits.

the new

–the rise of Millennials (the suit, car, house people) in the US and EU and the gradual retirement–and loss of income–of Boomers are putting a crimp in demand for luxury goods in these areas.

–luxury goods sales in Japan have hit a brick wall in recent years.  This is partly demographics, partly the immense loss in purchasing power that the Abenomics-induced depreciation of the yen has caused.

–the China case is a little more complicated.  The main reason for the falloff in Western luxury goods sales there is, of course, the anti-corruption campaign.  But even before this, there was a clear trend of high-end consumers in China away from foreign luxury brands and toward domestic ones.   It also seems to me that years of economic stagnation in the EU have further undermined the image of European brands as cultural symbols of power and influence.  So my guess is that even as/when the anti-corruption campaign runs its course, the bounceback of traditional European luxury goods sales will be muted.

my bottom line

Studying stock performance patterns of the past twenty or thirty years suggests that major selloffs of luxury goods stocks are always buying opportunities.  I don’t think this will be the case any longer.   This is not to say the stocks won’t go up in market rallies.  They likely will.  Bur they won’t be leaders.   And the best-known names will lag firms that primarily serve Millennials, as well as companies that tap into growing consumption in China.