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.


–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.



Henkel and Sanofi bond issues

Henkel and Sanofi, two European industrials, just completed successful multi-billion euro bond offerings.  Both are reported to have attracted wide interest.

What’s striking to me is that parts of both issues carry negative yields.


The Sanofi website has yet to be updated, but the Henkel issue looks like this:

–€500 million in two-year bonds with an annual coupon of 0.0% and a yield to maturity of -0.05% (meaning that the bond was issued slightly above par)

–€700 million in five-year bonds with a coupon of 0.0% and a yield to maturity of 0.0%

–$750 million in three-year Euromarket (meaning issued outside the US) bonds with a coupon of 1.5%, and

–£300 million in six-year bonds with a coupon of 0.875%.

How can these new issue yields be so low?  

Three reasons:

–for each category, bonds in the secondary market are already trading at these levels,

–global bond investors believe that market yields will become more negative from where they are today, generating capital gains–small ones, in all likelihood, but gains nonetheless–for today’s buyers,

–bond managers don’t really believe yields will get more negative but know that if they are holding cash they’ll be left behind in the dust by competitors who are buying issues like these.  So they hold their noses and participate.

My guess is that there’s a liberal dose of #3 in managers’ thinking.

my thoughts

First is me reminding myself that what I really know about is stocks, not bonds.

The yields for €, £ and $ tranches are all roughly in line with their respective sovereign 10-year bond yields, taking Germany as the € exemplar, yielding -0.09% (Greek ten-year eurobonds yield +8.5%, by the way).

To the degree that these are rational economic commitments, and not just driven by the fear of missing out, buyers must believe that euroland rates will remain low for an extended period of time

They think there’ll be continuing mild weakness in sterling vs. the euro.

They believe that US rate rises over the next couple of years may be significant, given that the pickup over 3-year treasuries is 60 basis points.   The same is true for sterling bonds, but I’m attributing some of that to currency fears.





keeping nominal GDP growth above zero

A reader asked a question about this after my Stephen King post from last Friday.  I think the best place for an answer is here.

In most circumstances, what counts is real GDP, not nominal.  That latter is, after all, just real GDP + inflation.  However, what comes to mind when people start to look for instances where nominal GDP shrinks is the Great Depression   …or maybe Japan during the series of Lost Decades it has been experiencing since 1990.

A potentially huge economic problem during a period of declining nominal GDP is that virtually all borrowing contracts–bonds or bank debt–are written in nominal terms.    In many places, labor contracts are also framed the same way, with an x% increase in wages yearly over the term of the agreement.

The revenues that businesses generate to meet these obligations are a function of unit volumes and price changes.  If real GDP is falling by, say, 3% and prices rising by only 1%, overall revenues are contracting.  Given that operating costs are typically fixed over the short term, this means firms in the aggregate will have less income to meet debt repayments and salary obligations.  For highly operationally or financially leveraged companies, even small declines in revenues can be deadly.

If, on the other hand, volumes are down by 3% and prices are rising by 4%, then revenue growth will still be positive.  On the margin, at least, this means fewer layoffs and fewer insolvencies to act as an economic drag during a time  when governments are trying to stimulate demand.


The situation where nominal prices are actually falling–which we’re not talking about here– is far worse.  Consumer soon learn that waiting a month, or two or three, before buying will mean a lower price.  So they just stop buying.  Given that consumers make up the bulk of economic growth in developed economies, they can ill afford to get the idea in consumers’ heads that purchasing anything today is a bad idea.

Stephen King on productivity and monetary policy

The Stephen King I’m writing about is an economic advisor to HSBC who was formerly the bank’s chief economist.  He’s one of the most interesting economists I’m aware of.  For instance, he was one of the first to warn of excesses in the US housing market a decade ago, and perhaps the most vocal in doing so.

Last week he weighed in on the issue of productivity in an Opinion article in the Financial Times.  His main points:

1. The current low level of productivity–+1% yearly in the US, flat to down elsewhere–may not be due to lack of infrastructure spending (Lawrence Summers) or that most productivity-enhancing inventions have already been made (Robert Gordon).  It may be instead that we’re seeing now is normal.  It’s the generation that rebuilt after WWII, creating high growth in productivity in the process, that’s the outlier.

2.  If #1 is true, then many of the mainstays of orthodox macroeconomic policy need to be reexamined.  In particular,

–if the world is being flooded with money, then capital is equally available at cheap prices to high productivity enterprises and low ones.  The result may be that the very process thought to be increasing economic growth is neutralizing the competitive advantage of high-productivity enterprises

–in a low-inflation, low-productivity world, interest rates will be “dragged down to incredibly low levels,” meaning recession-fighting monetary expansion may be difficult to achieve

–cultural expectations built over the past half century of ever increasing prosperity may prove to be too high.  This would be trouble for, say, pension or social security schemes around the world whose ability to deliver promised benefits assumes the robust real economic growth of the past can be extrapolated into the future.

3.  The ability of governments to create inflation may become increasingly important, as a means of keeping nominal GDP growth above zero during an economic downturn.  Monetary theorists around the globe have assumed that doing so involves only the simple expedient of increasing the money supply.  The past eight years in the US, however, have shown that creating inflation is much easier to theorize about than to do.


His overall conclusion:  the Lawrence Summers idea of secular stagnation–which can be addressed through increased infrastructure spending–is a much cheerier outlook than it appears at first blush.

mutual fund and ETF fund flows

away from active management…

There’s a long-term movement by investors of all stripes away from actively managed mutual funds into index funds and ETFs.  As Morningstar has recently reported, such switching has reached 2008-era levels in recent months.  Surges like this have been the norm during periods of uncertainty.

The mantra of index proponents has long been that investors can’t control performance, but they can control costs.  Therefore, all other things being more or less equal, investors should look for, and buy, the lowest-cost alternative in each category they’re interested in.  That’s virtually always an index fund or an ETF.

Active managers haven’t helped themselves by generally underperforming index products before their (higher) fees.

…but net stock inflows

What I find interesting and encouraging is that stock products overall are receiving net inflows–meaning that the inflows to passive products are higher than the outflows from active ones.

why today is different

Having been an active manager and having generally outperformed, neither of these negative factors for active managers bothered me particularly during my investing career.  One thing has changed in the current environment, though, to the detriment of all active management.

It’s something no one is talking about that I’m aware of.  But it’s a crucial part of the argument in favor of passive investing, in my opinion.

what is an acceptable net return?

It’s the change in investor expectations about what constitutes an acceptable net return.

If we go back to early 2000, the 10-year Treasury bond yield was about 6.5%, and a one-year CD yielded 5.5%.  US stocks had just concluded a second decade of double-digit average annual returns.  So whether your annual net return from bonds was 5.5% or 5.0%, or whether your net return from stocks was 12% or 11%, may not have made that much difference to you.  So you wouldn’t look at costs so critically.

Today, however, the epic decline in interest rates/inflation that fueled a good portion of that strong investment performance is over.  The 10-year Treasury now yields 1.6%.  Expectations for annual stock market returns probably exceed 5%, but are certainly below 10%.  The actual returns on stocks over the past two years have totalled around 12%, or 6% each year.

rising focus on cost control

In the current environment, cost control is a much bigger deal.  If I could have gotten a net return of 6% on an S&P 500 ETF in 2014 and 2015, for example, but have a 4% net from an actively managed mutual fund (half the shortfall due to fees, half to underperformance) that’s a third of my potential return gone.

It seems to me that so long as inflation remains contained–and I can see no reason to think otherwise–we’ll be in the current situation.  Unless/until active managers reduce fees substantially, switching to passive products will likely continue unabated.  And in an environment of falling fees and shrinking assets under management making needed improvements in investment performance will be that much more difficult.


12b-1 fees: what they are


The recent Labor Department determination that all financial advisors making recommendations for individuals’ retirement savings must act as fiduciaries is reviving interest in the topic of mutual fund/ETF fees and expenses.

Being a fiduciary means that the advisor has to place the client’s interest ahead of his own.  It isn’t permissible, for example, for a fiduciary to recommend an investment that is likely to return 5% per year, for selling which he gets a large commission, over a virtually identical one that will return 8%, but which pays a small commission.  For a non-fiduciary, which is what brokers/financial planners are when dealing with non-retirement assets, pushing the low return/high commission alternative is still ok legally.

Personally, I don’t like it that the fiduciary standard doesn’t apply to non-retirement investments.  I also don’t understand why individual investors don’t appear to be worked up about this.  I do understand why the big banks are opposed to fiduciariness, since applying the fiduciary standard to all advice to individuals strikes at the heart of the profits of the traditional “full service” brokerage industry.

12b-1 fees

The 12b-1 part refers to the section of the Investment Company Act of 1940 that governs how an open end mutual fund is allowed to pay for fund distribution and servicing.  It covers things like advertising, sending materials to prospective shareholders or having a call center to answer questions about the fund.

The general idea is that a fund benefits from retaining existing shareholders and adding new ones, so it’s a legitimate use of shareholder money to promote both objectives.

But the most common use of funds under the 12b-1 rule–and the least well understood, in my view–is periodic payments to financial advisors by a fund while clients continue to hold shares.   In the industry, these payments are called “trailing commissions,” or “trailers.”

The SEC doesn’t limit the amount of this fee, although FINRA (the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the investment industry trade group) rules set an effective  cap of 1.0% of fund assets yearly.  My sense is that the most common fee percentage for an equity fund is 0.25% – 0.50%.  The best hard data I can find come from the ICI (Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund trade group), and are from 2003.  At that time, aggregate 12b-1 fees amounted to just under half the total administrative expenses, at 0.43% of assets annually.  The rest were old-fashioned (more clearly understood by customers) sales charges.

why is 12b-1 a current issue?

Historically, disclosure of these fees has been exactly crystal clear.  Try finding information about them on the ICI website, if you don’t believe me.  In fact, I can’t recall having met anyone not involved in selling mutual funds who was aware these fees exist.

So, does a broker/financial planner who advises a client on retirement investments in mutual funds have to make sure the customer understands that 12b-1 fees are being subtracted from NAV on a regular basis?  Once he gets that, does the customer put two and two together and realize he’s subject to these fees on non-retirement investments, too–and has been from day one?

How does he react?

The difficulty I’ve experienced in gathering factual data for this post tells me that fund companies think the reaction will be strongly negative.