Posts filed under ‘economy’

Bernanke: Santa Claus or Grinch?

Santa - Grinch

I’ve written plenty about my thoughts on the Fed (see Fed Fatigue) and all the blathering from the media talking heads. Debates about the timing and probability of a Fed “taper” decision came to a crescendo in the recent week. As is often the case, the exact opposite of what the pundits expected actually happened. It was not a huge surprise the Federal Reserve initiated a $10 billion tapering of its $85 billion monthly bond buying program, but going into this week’s announcement, the betting money was putting their dollars on the status quo.

With the holiday season upon us, investors must determine whether the tapered QE1/QE2/QE3 gifts delivered by Bernanke are a cause for concern. So the key question is, will this Santa Claus rally prance into 2014, or will the Grinch use the taper as an excuse to steal this multi-year bull market gift away?

Regardless of your viewpoint, what we did learn from this week’s Fed announcement is that this initial move by the Fed will be a baby step, reducing mortgage-backed and Treasury security purchases by a measly $5 billion each. I say that tongue in cheek because the total global bond market has been estimated at about $80,000,000,000,000 (that’s $80 trillion).

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the Fed gets way too much credit (blame) for their impact on interest rates (see Interest Rates: Perception vs Reality). Interest rates even before this announcement were as high/higher than when QE1 was instituted. What’s more, if the Fed has such artificial influence over interest rates, then why do Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland all have lower 10-year yields than the U.S.? Maybe their central banks are just more powerful than our Fed? Unlikely.

Dow 128,000 in 2053

Readers of Investing Caffeine know I have followed the lead of investing greats like Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch, who believe trying to time the markets is a waste of your time. In a recent Lynch interview, earlier this month, Charlie Rose asked for Lynch’s opinion regarding the stock market, given the current record high levels. Here’s what he had to say:

“I think the market is fairly priced on what is happening right now. You have to say to yourself, is five years from now, 10 years from now, corporate profits are growing about 7 or 8% a year. That means they double, including dividends, about every 10 years, quadruple every 20, go up 8-fold every 40. That’s the kind of numbers you are interested in. The 10-year bond today is a little over 2%. So I think the stock market is the best place to be for the next 10, 20, 30 years. The next two years? No idea. I’ve never known what the next two years are going to bring.”

READ MORE ABOUT PETER LYNCH HERE

Guessing is Fun but Fruitless

I freely admit it. I’m a stock-a-holic and member of S.A. (Stock-a-holic’s Anonymous). I enjoy debating the future direction of the economy and financial markets, not only because it is fun, but also because without these topics my blog would likely go extinct. The reality of the situation is that my hobby of thinking and writing about the financial markets has no direct impact on my investment decisions for me or my clients.

There is no question that stocks go down during recessions, and an average investor will likely live through at least another half-dozen recessions in their lifetime. Unfortunately, speculators have learned firsthand about the dangers of trading based on economic and/or political headlines during volatile cycles. That doesn’t mean everyone should buy and do nothing. If done properly, it can be quite advantageous to periodically rebalance your portfolio through the use of various valuation and macro metrics as a means to objectively protect/enhance your portfolio’s performance. For example, cutting exposure to cyclical and debt-laden companies going into an economic downturn is probably wise. Reducing long-term Treasury positions during a period of near-record low interest rates (see Confessions of a Bond Hater) as the economy strengthens is also likely a shrewd move.

As we have seen over the last five years, the net result of investor portfolio shuffling has been a lot of pain. The acts of panic-selling caused damaging losses for numerous reasons, including a combination of agonizing transactions costs; increased inflation-decaying cash positions; burdensome taxes; and a mass migration into low-yielding bonds. After major indexes have virtually tripled from the 2009 lows, many investors are now left with the gut-wrenching decision of whether to get back into stocks as the markets reach new highs.

As the bulls continue to point to the scores of gifts still lying under the Christmas tree, the bears are left hoping that new Fed Grinch Yellen will come and steal all the presents, trees, and food from the planned 2014 economic feast. There are still six trading days left in the year, so Santa Bernanke cannot finish wrapping up his +30% S&P 500 total return gift quite yet. Nevertheless, ever since the initial taper announcement, stocks have moved higher and Bernanke has equity investors singing “Joy to the World!

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

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December 22, 2013 at 1:45 am Leave a comment

Perception vs. Reality: Interest Rates & the Economy

Magic Bottle

There is a difference between perception and reality, especially as it relates to the Federal Reserve, the economy, and interest rates.

Perception: The common perception reflects a belief that Quantitative Easing (QE) – the Federal Reserve’s bond buying program – has artificially stimulated the economy and financial markets through lower interest rates. The widespread thinking follows that an end to tapering of QE will lead to a crash in the economy and financial markets.

Reality: As the chart below indicates, interest rates have risen during each round of QE (i.e., QE1/QE2/QE3) and fallen after the completion of each series of bond buying (currently at a pace of $85 billion per month in purchases). That’s right, the Federal Reserve has actually failed on its intent to lower interest rates. In fact, the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note stands at 2.94% today, while at the time QE1 started five years ago, on December 16, 2008, the 10-year rate was dramatically lower (~2.13%). Sure, the argument can be made that rates declined in anticipation of the program’s initiation, but if that is indeed the case, the recent rate spike of the 10-year Treasury Note to the 3.0% level should reverse itself once tapering begins (i.e., interest rates should decline). Wow, I can hardly wait for the stimulative effects of tapering to start!

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Fact or Fiction? QE Helps Economy

Taken from a slightly different angle, if you consider the impact of the Federal Reserve’s actions on the actual economy, arguably there are only loose connections. More specifically, if you look at the jobs picture, there is virtually NO correlation between QE activity and job creation (see unemployment claims chart below). There have been small upward blips along the QE1/QE2/QE3 path, but since the beginning of 2009, the declining trend in unemployment claims looks like a black diamond ski slope.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Moreover, if you look at a broad spectrum of economic charts since QE1 began, including data on capital spending, bank loans, corporate profits, vehicle sales, and other key figures related to the economy, the conclusion is the same – there is no discernible connection between the economic recovery and the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing initiatives.

I know many investors are highly skeptical of the stock market’s rebound, but is it possible that fundamental economic laws of supply and demand, in concert with efficient capital markets, could have something to do with the economic recovery? Booms and busts throughout history have come as a result of excesses and scarcities – in many cases assisted by undue amounts of fear and greed. We experienced these phenomena most recently with the tech and housing bubbles in the early and middle parts of last decade. Given the natural adjustments of supply and demand, coupled with the psychological scars and wounds from the last financial crisis, there is no clear evidence of a new bubble about to burst.

While it’s my personal view that many government initiatives, including QE, have had little impact on the economy, the Federal Reserve does have the ability to indirectly increase business and consumer confidence. Ben Bernanke clearly made this positive impact during the financial crisis through his creative implementation of unprecedented programs (TARP, TALF, QE, Twist, etc.). The imminent tapering and eventual conclusion of QE may result in a short-term hit to confidence, but the economy is standing on a much stronger economic foundation today. Making Ben Bernanke a scapegoat for rising interest rates is easy to do, but in actuality, an improving economy on stronger footing will likely have a larger bearing on the future direction of interest rates relative to any upcoming Fed actions.

Doubters remain plentiful, but the show still goes on. Not only are banks and individuals sitting on much sturdier and healthier balance sheets, but corporations are running lean operations that are reporting record profit margins while sitting on trillions of dollars in cash. In addition, with jobs on a slow but steady path to recovery, confidence at the CEO and consumer levels is also on the rise.

Despite all the negative perceptions surrounding the Fed’s pending tapering, reality dictates the impact from QE’s wind-down will likely to be more muted than anticipated. The mitigation of monetary easing is more a sign of sustainable economic strength than a sign of looming economic collapse. If this reality becomes the common perception, markets are likely to move higher.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is the information to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

 

September 7, 2013 at 10:07 pm 2 comments

QE: The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread*

Sliced Bread4

Quantitative easing (QE), or the Federal Reserve’s bond buying program, has been a spectacular success. Arguably, the greatest innovation since sliced bread. Don’t believe me? I mean, if you listen to many of the experts, strategists, economists, and blogosphere pundits, the magical elixir of QE can be the only explanation rationalizing the multi-year economic recovery and stock market boom. Don’t believe me? Well, apparently many of the bearish pros make sure to credit QE for all our financial/economic positives. For example…

  • QE is the reason the stock market is near all-time record highs.
  • QE created seven million jobs in the U.S. over the last four years.
  • QE turned around the housing market.
  • QE turned around the auto market.
  • QE weakened the U.S. dollar, resulting in flourishing exports.
  • QE has lowered borrowing rates, thereby cleansing consumer balance sheets through deleveraging.
  • QE is the reason Facebook Inc. (FB) hired 1,323 employees over the last year.
  • QE is the reason Google Inc. (GOOG) has spent $7.8 billion on R&D over the last year.
  • QE explains why McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) plans to open more than 1,400 stores this year.
  • QE explains why Warren Buffett and 3G capital paid $28 billion to buy Heinz.
  • QE is the reason Elon Musk and Tesla Motors (TSLA) invented the model S electric vehicle.
  • QE exhibits why Target Corp. (TGT) is expanding outside the U.S. into Canada.
  • QE is the reason why S&P 500 companies are expected to pay $300 billion in dividends this year.
  • QE is the reason why S&P 500 companies were buying back shares at a $400 billion clip this year.
  • QE is the basis for corporations spending billions on efficiency enhancing cloud-based services.
  • QE led to a record number of new FDA drug approvals last year.
  • QE has caused a natural gas production boom in numerous shale regions.

Wow…the list goes on and on! Heck, I even hear QE can take the corrosion off of a rusted car battery. Given how incredible this QE stuff is, why even consider tapering QE? Financial markets have been volatile on the heels of tapering the 3rd iteration of quantitative easing (QE3), but why slow QE3, when the FED could add more awesomeness with  QE4, QE10, QE 100, and QE 1,000?

All of this QE talk is so wonderful, but unfortunately, according to all the bearish pundits, QE has created an artificial sugar high, thus creating an asset bubble that is going to end in a disastrous cratering of financial markets. 

I know it’s entirely possible that QE may have absolutely nothing to do with the financial market recovery (other than a bid under Treasury & mortgage backed security prices), and also has no bearing on why I buy or sell stocks, but I guess I will need to hide in a cave when QE3 tapering begins. Although the end of dividends, share buybacks, housing/auto recoveries, acquisitions, expansion, innovation, etc., caused by QE tapering sure does not sound like a cheery outcome, at least I still have a loaf of sliced bread to make a sandwich.

*DISCLOSURE: For those readers not familiar with my writing style, I have been known to use a healthy dose of sarcasm. Call me if you want a deeper explanation.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE II : Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) and GOOG, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in FB, TSLA, MCD, BRKA, TGT, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page

August 24, 2013 at 11:40 pm 4 comments

Jobs and the DMV Economy

Line of People

If you have ever gone to get your driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)…you may still be waiting in line? It’s a painful but often a mandatory process, and in many ways the experience feels a lot like the economic recovery we currently have been living through over the last four years. Steady progress is being made, but in general, people hardly notice the economy moving forward.

My geographic neighbor and blogger here in Orange County, California (Bill McBride – Calculated Risk) has some excellent visuals that compare our sluggish DMV economy with previous economic cycles dating back to 1948:

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

As you can see from the chart above, the current economic recovery (red-line), as measured by job losses, is the slowest comeback in more than a half-century. Basically, over a two year period, the U.S. lost about nine million jobs, and during the following three years the economy regained approximately seven million of those jobs – still digging out of the hole. Last Friday’s June jobs report was welcomed, as it showed net jobs of +195,000 were added during the month, and importantly the previous two months were revised higher by another +70,000 jobs. These data points combined with last month’s Fed’s QE3 tapering comments by Ben Bernanke help explain why the continued rout in 10 year Treasury rates has continued in recent weeks, propelling the benchmark rate to 2.71% – almost double the 1.39% rate hit last year amidst continued European financial market concerns.

As with most recessions or crashes, the bursting of the bubble (i.e., damage) occurs much faster than the inflation (i.e., recovery), and McBride’s time series clearly shows this fact:

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

While pessimists point to the anemic pace of the current recovery, the glass half-full people (myself included) appreciate that the sluggish rebound is likely to last longer than prior recoveries. There are two other key dynamics underlying the reported employment figures:

  • Continued Contraction in Government Workers: Excessive government debt and deficits have led to continued job losses – state and local job losses appear to be stabilizing but federal cuts are ongoing.
  • Decline in the Labor Force Participation Rate:  Discouraged workers and aging Baby Boomer demographics have artificially lowered the short-term unemployment figures because fewer people are looking for work. If economic expansion accelerates, the participation contraction trend is likely to reverse.

Skepticism Reigns Supreme

Regardless of the jobs picture and multi-year expansion, investors and business managers alike remain skeptical about the sustainability of the economic recovery. Anecdotally I encounter this sentiment every day, but there are other data points that bolster my assertion. Despite the stock market more than doubling in value from the lows of 2009, CNBC viewer ratings are the weakest in about 20 years (see Value Walk) and investments in the stock market are the lowest in 15 years (see Gallup poll chart below):

Source: Gallup

Source: Gallup

Why such skepticism? Academic research in behavioral finance highlights innate flaws in human decision-making processes. For example, humans on average weigh losses twice as much as gains as economist and Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast and Slow (see Investing Caffeine article: Decision Making on Freeways and in Parking Lots). Stated differently, the losses from 2008-2009 are still too fresh in the minds of Americans. Until the losses are forgotten, and/or the regret of missing gains becomes too strong, many investors and managers will fearfully remain on the sideline.

The speed of our economic recovery is as excruciatingly agonizing, and so is waiting in line at the DMV. The act of waiting can be horrific, but obtaining a driver’s license is required for driving and investing is necessary for retirement. If you don’t want to go to investing jail, then you better get in the investing line now before job growth accelerates, because you don’t want to be sent to the back of the line where you will have to wait longer.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

July 6, 2013 at 10:41 pm Leave a comment

Fed Fatigue Setting In

Girl child

Uncle…uncle! There you have it – I have finally cried “uncle” because I cannot take it anymore. I don’t think I can listen to another panel or read another story debating about the timing of Fed “tapering”, or heaven forbid the Fed actually “tighten” the Federal Funds rate (i.e., increasing the targeted rate for inter-bank lending). Type in the words “Bernanke” and “tapering” into Google and you will get back more than 41,000,000 results. The build up to the 600-word FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) statement was almost deafening, so much so that live coverage of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was available at your fingertips:

Source: Yahoo! Finance

Source: Yahoo! Finance

Like a toddler (or a California-based, investment blog writer) going to the doctor’s office to receive an inoculation, the anxiety and mental anguish caused in anticipation of the event is often more painful than the actual injection. As I highlighted in a previous Investing Caffeine article, the 1994 interest rate cycle wasn’t Armageddon for equity markets, and the same can be said for the rate hikes from 1.0% to 5.25% in the 2004-20006 period (see chart below). Even if QE3 ends in mid-2014 and the new Federal Reserve Chairman (thank you President Obama) raises rates in 2015, this scenario would not be the first (or last) time the Federal Reserve has tightened monetary policy.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Short Memories – What Have You Done for Me Lately?

People are quick to point out the one-day -350 Dow point loss earlier this week, but many of them forget about the +3,000 point moon shot in the Dow Jones Industrial index that occurred in six short months (November 2012 – May 2013). The same foggy recollection principle applies to interest rates. The recent rout in 10-year Treasury prices is easily recalled as rates have jumped from 1.5% to 2.5% over the last year, however amnesia often sets in for others if you ask them where rates were a few years ago. It’s easy to forget that 30-year fixed rate mortgages exceeded 5% and the 10-year reached 4% just three short years ago.

Bernanke: The Center of the Universe?

Does Ben Bernanke deserve credit for implementing extraordinary measures during extraordinary times during the 2008-09 financial crisis? Absolutely. But should every man, women, and child wait with bated breath to see if a word change or tonal adjustment is made in the eight annual FOMC meetings?

Like the public judging Ben Bernanke, my Sidoxia clients probably give me too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things don’t. I love how Bernanke gets blamed/credited for the generational low interest rates caused by his money printing ways and QE punch bowl tactics. Last I checked, the interest rate downtrend has been firmly in place over the last three decades, well before Bernanke came into the Fed and worked his monetary magic. How much credit/blame are we forgetting to give former Federal Reserve Chairmen Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, and other government policy-makers? Regardless of what happens economically for the remainder of 2013, Bernanke will do whatever he can to solidify his legacy in the waning sunset months of his term.

Another forgotten fact I like to point out: There is more than one central banker living on this planet. If you haven’t been asleep over the last few decades, our financial markets have increasingly become globally interconnected with the assistance of technology. I know our 10-year Treasury rates are hovering around 2.50%, and our egotistical patriotism leads us to hail Bernanke as a monetary god, but don’t any other central bankers or government officials around the world deserve any recognition for achieving yields even lower than ours? Here’s a partial list (June 22, 2013 – Financial Times):

  • Japan – 0.86%
  • Germany – 1.67%
  • Canada – 2.33%
  • U.K. – 2.31%
  • France – 2.27%
  • Sweden – 2.15%
  • Austria – 2.09%
  • Switzerland – 0.92%
  • Netherlands – 2.07%

Although it may be fun to look at Ben Bernanke as our country’s financial Superman who is there to save the day, there are a lot more important factors to consider than the 47 words added and 19 subtracted from the latest FOMC statement. If investing was as easy as following central bank monetary policy, everyone would be continually jet setting to their private islands. Rather than wasting your time listening to speculative blathering about direction of Fed monetary policy, why not focus on finding solid investment ideas and putting a long-term investment plan in place. Now please excuse me – Fed fatigue has set in and I need to take a nap.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) and GOOG,  but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

June 22, 2013 at 11:08 am 3 comments

1994 Bond Repeat or 2013 Stock Defeat?

Question

Interest rates are moving higher, bond prices are collapsing, and fear regarding a stock market plunge is palpable. Sound like a recent news headline or is this a description of a 1994 financial market story? For those with a foggy, double-decade-old memory, here is a summary of the 1994 economic environment:

  • The economy registered its 34th month of expansion and the stock market was on a record 40-month advance
  • The Federal Reserve embarked on its multi-hike, rate-tightening monetary policy
  • The 10-year Treasury note exhibited an almost 2.5% jump in yields
  • Inflation was low with a threat of rising inflation lurking in the background
  • An upward sloping yield curve encouraged speculative bond carry-trade activity (borrow short, invest long)
  • Globalization and technology sped up the pace of price volatility

Many of these listed items resemble factors experienced today, but bond losses in 1994 were much larger than the losses of 2013 – at least so far. At the time, Fortune magazine called the 1994 bond collapse the worst bond market loss in history, with losses estimated at upwards of $1.5 trillion. The rout started with what might have appeared as a harmless 0.25% increase in the Federal Funds rate (the rate that banks lend to each other) from 3% to 3.25% in February 1994. By the time 1994 came to a close, acting Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had jacked up this main monetary tool by 2.5%.

Rising rates may have acted as the flame for bond losses, but extensive use of derivatives and leverage acted as the gasoline. For example, over-extended Eurobond positions bought on margin by famed hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt of Steinhardt Partners lead to losses of about-30% (or approximately $1.5 billion). Renowned partner of Omega Partners, Leon Cooperman, took a similar beating. Cooperman’s $3 billion fund cratered -24% during the first half of 1994. Insurance company bond portfolios were hit hard too, as collective losses for the industry exceeded $20 billion, or more than the claims paid for Hurricane Andrew’s damage. Let’s not forget the largest casualty of this era – the public collapse of Orange County, California. Poor derivatives trades led to $1.7 billion in losses and ultimately forced the county into bankruptcy.

There are plenty of other examples, but suffice it to say, the pain felt by other bond investors was widespread as a massive number of margin calls caused a snowball of bond liquidations. The speed of the decline was intensified as bond holders began selling short and using derivatives to hedge their portfolios, accelerating price declines.

Just as the accommodative interest rate punch bowl was eventually removed by Greenspan, so too is Ben Bernanke (current Fed Chairman) threatening to do today. Even if Bernanke unleashes a cold-turkey tapering of the $85 billion per month in bond-purchases, massive losses in bond values won’t necessarily mean catastrophe for stock values. For evidence, one needs to look no further than this 1994-1995 chart of the stock market:

Source: Ciovaccocapital.com

Source: Ciovaccocapital.com

Volatility for stocks definitely increased in 1994 with the S&P 500 index correcting about -10% early in the year. But as you can see, by the end of the year the market was off to the races, tripling in value over the next five years. Volatility has been the norm for the current bull market rally as well. Despite the more than doubling in stock prices since early 2009, we have experienced two -20% corrections and one -10% pullback.

What’s more, the onset of potential tapering is completely consistent with core economic principles. Capitalism is built on free trading markets, not artificial intervention. Extraordinary times required extraordinary measures, but the probabilities of a massive financial Armageddon have been severely diminished. As a result, the unprecedented scale of quantitative easing (QE) will eventually become more harmful than beneficial. The moral of the story is that volatility is always a normal occurrence in the equity markets, therefore any significant stock pullback associated with potential bond tapering (or fed fund rate hikes) shouldn’t be viewed as the end of the world, nor should a temporary weakening in stock prices be viewed as the end to the bull market in stocks.

Why have stocks historically provided higher returns than bonds? The short answer is that stocks are riskier than bonds. The price for these higher long-term returns is volatility, and if investors can’t handle volatility, then they shouldn’t be investing in stocks.

If you are an investor that thinks they can time the market, you wouldn’t be wasting your time reading this article. Rather, you’d be spending time on your personal island while drinking coconut drinks with umbrellas (see Market Timing Treadmill).

Although there are some distinct similarities between the economic backdrop of 1994 and 2013, there are quite a few differences also. For starters, the economy was growing at a much healthier clip then (+4.1% GDP growth), which stoked inflationary fears in the mind of Greenspan. Moreover, unemployment was quite low (5.5% by year-end vs. 7.6% today) and the Fed did not communicate forward looking Fed policy back then.

It’s unclear if the recent 50 basis point ascent in 10-year Treasury rates was just an appetizer for what’s to come, but simple mathematics indicate there is really only one direction left for interest rates to go…higher. If history repeats itself, it will likely be bond investors choking on higher rates (not stock investors). For the sake of optimistic bond speculators, I hope Ben Bernanke knows the Heimlich maneuver. Studying history may help bond bulls avoid indigestion.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

June 8, 2013 at 11:14 pm Leave a comment

What’s Going on with This Crazy Market?!

The massive rally of the stock market since March 2009 has been perplexing for many, but the state of confusion has reached new heights as the stock market has surged another +2.0% in May, surpassing the Dow 15,000 index milestone and hovering near all-time record highs. Over the last few weeks, the volume of questions and tone of disbelief emanating from my social circles has become deafening. Here are some of the questions and comments I’ve received lately:

 “Wade, why in the heck is the market up so much?”; “This market makes absolutely no sense!”; “Why should I buy at the peak when I can buy at the bottom?”; “With all this bad news, when is the stock market going to go down?”; “You must be shorting (betting against) this market, right?”

With the stock market up about +14% in 2013, as measured by the S&P 500 index (on top of another +13% increase in 2012), absent bystandershave frustratingly watched stock prices rise about +150% from the 2009 lows. Those investors who appropriately controlled risk in their diversified portfolios and did not panic in 2008-2009, have been handsomely rewarded for their patience. Those individuals who have had their money stuffed under the mattress in savings accounts, money markets, CDs, and low-yielding bonds have continued to watch inflation eat away their wealth. If the investing bystanders make no changes to their portfolios, inflationary and interest risks could outweigh the unlikely potential of Armageddon. Overly nervous investors will have to wait generations for the paltry 0.2% bank rates to equalize the equity market returns earned thus far.

For years I have been listening to the skeptics calling for a purported artificially-inflated stock market to crash. When prices continued to more than double over the last few years, the doubters blamed Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve as the instigators. The bears continue to point fingers at the Federal Reserve for spiking the financial punch bowl with unnaturally low interest rates (through Quantitative Easing bond purchases), thereby laying the foundation for a looming, inevitable market crash. So far, the boogeyman is still hiding.

If all the concerns about the Benghazi tragedy, IRS conservative targeting, and Federal Reserve bond “tapering” are warranted, then it begs the question, “How can the Dow Jones and other indexes be setting new all-time highs?” In short, here are a few reasons:

I.) Record Profits:
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

 

You hear a lot of noise on TV and read a lot of blathering in newspapers/blogs, but what you don’t hear much about is how corporate profits have about tripled since the year 2000 (see red line in chart above), and how the profit recovery from the recent recession has been the strongest in 55 years (Scott Grannis). The profit collapse during the Great Recession was closely chronicled in nail-biting detail, but a boring profit recovery story sells a lot less media advertising, and therefore gets swept under the rug.

II.) Reasonable Prices (Comparing Apples & Oranges):

Historical PE Ratios

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

The Price-Earnings ratio (P/E) is a general barometer of stock price levels, and as you can see from the chart above (Ed Yardeni), current stock price levels are near the historical average of 13.7x – not at frothy levels experienced during the late-1990s and early 2000s.

Comparing Apples & Oranges:

Apples vs Oranges

At the most basic level of analysis, investors are like farmers who choose between apples (stocks) and oranges (bonds). On the investment farm, growers are generally going to pick the fruit that generates the largest harvest and provide the best return. Stocks (apples) have historically offered the best prices and yielded the best harvests over longer periods of time, but unfortunately stocks (apples) also have wild swings in annual production compared to the historically steady crop of bonds (oranges). The disastrous apple crop of 2008-2009 led a massive group of farmers to flood into buying a stable supply of oranges (bonds). Unfortunately the price of growing oranges (i.e., buying bonds) has grown to the highest levels in a generation, with crop yields (interest rates) also at a generational low. Even though I strongly believe apples (stocks) currently offer a better long-term profit potential, I continue to remind every farmer (investor) that their own personal situation is unique, and therefore they should not be overly concentrated in either apples (stocks) or oranges (bonds).

Earnings Yield vs Bond Yields

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Regardless, you can see from the chart above (Dr. Ed’s Blog), the red line (stocks) is yielding substantially more than the blue line (bonds) – around 7% vs. 2%. The key for every investor is to discover an optimal balance of apples (stocks) and oranges (bonds) that meets personal objectives and constraints.

III.) Skepticism (Market Climbs a Wall of Worry):

Stock Fund Flows

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Although corporate profits are strong, and equity prices are reasonably priced, investors have been withdrawing hundreds of billions of dollars from equity funds (negative blue lines in chart above - Calafia Beach Pundit). While the panic of 2008-2009 has been extinguished from average investors’ psyches, the Recession in Europe, slowing growth in China, Washington gridlock, and the fresh memories of the U.S. financial crisis have created a palpable, nervous skepticism. Most recently, investors were bombarded with the mantra of “Selling in May, and Going Away” – so far that advice hasn’t worked so well. To buttress my point about this underlying skepticism, one need not look any further than a recent CNBC segment titled, “The Most Confusing Market Ever” (see video below):

CNBC Most Confusing Market Ever?

Source: CNBC

CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO

It’s clear that investors remain skittish, but as legendary investor Sir John Templeton so aptly stated, “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grow on skepticism, mature on optimism and die on euphoria.” The sentiment pendulum has been swinging in the right direction (see previous Investing Caffeine article), but when money flows sustainably into equities and optimism/euphoria rules the day, then I will become much more fearful.

Being a successful investor or a farmer is a tough job. I’ll stop growing apples when my overly optimistic customers beg for more apples, and yields on oranges also improve. In the meantime, investors need to remember that no matter how confusing the market is, don’t put all your oranges (bonds) or apples (stocks) in one basket (portfolio) because the financial markets do not need to get any crazier than they are already.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

June 3, 2013 at 10:51 am Leave a comment

No Free Lunch, No Free Sushi

Sushi Rolls

Everybody loves a free lunch, myself included, and many in Japan would like free sushi too. Despite the short term boost in Japanese exports and Nikkei stock prices, there are no long-term free lunches (or free sushi) when it comes to global financial markets. Following in the footsteps of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) has embarked on an ambitious plan of doubling its monetary base in two years and increasing inflation to a 2% annual rate – a feat that has not been achieved in more than two decades. By the BOJ’s estimate, it will take a $1.4 trillion injection into economy to achieve this goal by the end of 2014.

Lunch is tasty right now, as evidenced by a tasty appetizer of +3.5 % Japanese first quarter GDP and this year’s +46% spike in the value of the Nikkei. Japan is hopeful that its mix of monetary, fiscal, and structural policies will spur demand and increase the appetite for Japanese exports, however, we know fresh sushi can turn stale quickly.

Quantitative easing (QE) and monetary stimulus from central banks around the globe have been hailed as a panacea for sluggish global growth – most recently in Japan. Commentators often oversimplify the benefits of money printing without acknowledging the pitfalls. Basic economics and the laws of supply & demand eventually prevail no matter the fiscal or monetary policy implemented. Nonetheless, there can be temporary disconnects between current equity prices and exchange rates, before underlying fundamentals ultimately drive true intrinsic values.

Impassioned critics of the Federal Reserve and its Chairman Ben Bernanke would have you believe the money supply is exploding, and hyperinflation is just around the corner. It’s difficult to quarrel with the trillions of dollars created by the Fed’s printing presses via QE1/QE2/QE3, but the fact remains that money supply growth has continued at a steady growth rate – not exploding (see Calafia Beach Pundit chart below).

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Why no explosion in the money supply? Simply, the trillions of dollars printed by the Fed have sat idly in bank vaults as reserves. Once nervous consumers stop hoarding trillions in cash held in savings deposit accounts (see chart below) and banks begin lending at a healthier clip, then money supply growth will accelerate. By definition, money supply growth in excess of demand for goods and services (i.e., GDP) is the main cause of inflation.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Although inflationary pressure has not reared its ugly head yet, there are plenty of precursors indicating inflation may be on its way. The unemployment rate continues to tick downwards (7.5% in Aril) and the much anticipating housing recovery is gaining steam. Inflationary fear has manifested itself in part through the heightened number of conversations surrounding the Fed “tapering” its $85 billion per month bond purchasing program.

We’ve enjoyed a sustained period of low price level growth, however the Goldilocks period of little-to-no inflation cannot last forever. The differences between current prices and true value can exist for years, and as a result there are many different strategies attempted to capture profits. Like the gambling masses frequenting casinos, speculators can beat the odds in the short-run, but the house always wins in the long-run – hence the ever-increasing size and number of casinos. While a small number of professionals understand how to shift the unbalanced odds into their favor, most lose their shirt. On Wall Street, that is certainly the case. Studies show speculating day traders persistently lose about 80% of the time. Long-term investors are uniquely positioned to exploit these value disparities, if they have a disciplined process with the ability to patiently value assets.

Even though the Japanese economy and stock market have rebounded handsomely in the short-run, there is never a free lunch over the long-term. Unchecked policies of money printing, deficits, and debt expansion won’t lead to boundless prosperity. Eventually a spate of irresponsible actions will result in inflation, defaults, recessions, and/or higher unemployment rates. Unsustainable monetary and fiscal stimulus may lead to a tasty free lunch now, but if investors overstay their welcome, the sushi may turn bad and the speculators will be left paying the hefty tab.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

May 18, 2013 at 11:14 pm 1 comment

Sidoxia Debuts Video & Goes to the Movies

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Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary February 1, 2013 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

The red carpet was rolled out for the stock market in January with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising +5.8% and the S&P 500 index up an equally impressive +5.0% (a little higher rate than the 0.0001% being earned in bank accounts). Movie stars are also strutting their stuff down the red carpet this time of the year as they collect shiny statues at ritzy award shows like the Golden Globes and Oscars. Given the vast volumes of honors bestowed, we thought what better time to put on our tuxes and create our own 2013 nominations for the economy and financial markets. If you are unhappy with our selections, you are welcome to cast your own votes in the comments section below.

By award category, here are Sidoxia’s 2013 selections: 

Best Drama (Government Shutdown & Debt Ceiling): Washington D.C. has provided no shortage of drama, and the upcoming blockbusters of Shutdown & Debt Ceiling are worthy of its Best Drama nomination. If Congressional Democrats and Republicans don’t vote in favor of a new “Continuing Resolution” by March 27th, then our United States government will come to a grinding halt. At issue is Republican’s desire for additional government spending cuts to lower our deficit, which is likely to exceed $1 trillion for the fifth consecutive year. If you like more heart pumping drama, the Senate has just passed a Debt Ceiling extension through May 18th…mark those calendars! 

Best Horror Film (Sequestration): Most people have already seen the scary prequel, The Fiscal Cliff, but the sequel Sequestration deserves the horror film honors of 2013. This upcoming blood-filled movie about broad, automatic, across-the-board government cost cuts will make any casual movie-watcher scream in terror. The $1.2 trillion in spending cuts (over 10 years) are so gory, many viewers may voluntarily leave the theater early. If you are waiting for the release, Sequestration is coming to a theater near you on March 1st, unless Congress, in an unlikely scenario, cancels the launch.

Best Director (Ben Bernanke): Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s film, entitled, The U.S. Economy, had a massive budget of about $16 trillion dollars, based on estimates of last year’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Nevertheless, Bernanke managed to do whatever it took (including trillions of dollars in bond buying) to prevent the economic movie studio from collapsing into bankruptcy. While many movie-goers were critical of his directorial debut, inflation has remained subdued thus far, and he has promised to continue his stimulative monetary policies (i.e., keep interest rates low) until the national unemployment rate falls below 6.5% or inflation rises above 2.5%. 

Best Foreign Film (China): Americans are not the only people who produce movies globally. A certain country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people also makes movies too…China. In the most recently completed 4th quarter, China’s economy experienced blockbuster growth in the form of +7.9% GDP expansion. This was the fastest pace achieved by China in two whole years. To put this metric into perspective, compare China’s heroic growth to the bomb created by the U.S. economy, which registered a disappointing -0.1% contraction at the economic box office. China’s popularity should bring in business all around the globe.  

Best Special Effects (Japan): After coming out with a series of continuous flops, Japan recently launched some fresh new special effects in the form of a $116 billion emergency stimulus package. The country also has plans to superficially enhance the visual portrayal of its economy by implementing its own faux money-printing program modeled after our country’s quantitative easing actions (i.e., the Federal Reserve stimulus). As a result of these initiatives, the Japanese Nikkei index – their equivalent of our Dow Jones Industrial index – has risen by +29% in less than 3 months to a level of 11,138.66 (click here for chart). But don’t get too excited. This same Nikkei index peaked at 38,957 in 1989, a far cry from its current level. 

Best Action Film (Icahn vs. Ackman): This surprisingly entertaining action film features a senile 76-year-old corporate raider and a white-haired, 46-year-old Harvard grad. The investment foes I am referring to are the elder Carl Icahn, Chairman of Icahn Enterprises, and junior Bill Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management. In addition to terms such as crybaby, loser, and liar, the 27-minute verbal spat (view more here) between Icahn (his net worth equal to about $15 billion) and Ackman (net worth approaching $1 billion) includes some NC-17 profanity. The clash of these investment titans stems from a decade-old lawsuit, in addition to a recent disagreement over a controversial short position in Herbalife Ltd. (HLF), a nutritional multi-level marketing firm. 

Best Documentary (Europe): As with a lot of reality-based films, many don’t receive a lot of attention. So too has been the commentary regarding the eurozone, which has been relatively peaceful compared to last spring. Despite the comparative media silence, European unemployment reached a new high of 11.8% late last year. This European documentary is not one you should ignore. European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi just stated, “The risks surrounding the outlook for the euro area remain on the downside.”  

Best Original Song (National Anthem): We won’t read anything politically into Beyonce’s lip-synced rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the presidential inauguration, but she is still worthy of the Sidoxia nomination because music we hear in the movies is also recorded. I’m certain her rapping husband Jay-Z agrees whole-heartedly with this viewpoint.

Best Motion Picture (Sidoxia Video): It may only be three minutes long, but as my grandmother told me, “Great things come in small packages.” I may be a little biased, but judge for yourself by watching Sidoxia’s Oscar-worthy motion picture debut:

 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HLF, Japanese ETFs,  or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

February 2, 2013 at 1:10 am Leave a comment

Risk of “Double-Rip” on the Rise

Ripped Money

Okay, you heard it here first. I’m officially anointing my first new 2013 economic term of the year: “Double-Rip!” No, the biggest risk of 2013 is not a “double-dip” (the risk of the economy falling back into recession), but instead, the larger risk is of a double-rip – a sustained expansion of GDP after multiple quarters of recovery. I know, this sounds like heresy, given we’ve had to listen to perma-bears like Nouriel Roubini, Peter Schiff, John Mauldin, Mohamed El-Erian, Bill Gross, et al shovel their consistently wrong pessimism for the last 14 quarters. However, those readers who have followed me for the last four years of this bull market know where I’ve stood relative to these unwavering doomsday-ers. Rather than endlessly rehash the erroneous gospel spewed by this cautious clan, you can decide for yourself how accurate they’ve been by reviewing the links below and named links above:

Roubini calling for double-dip in 2012 

Roubini calling for double-dip in 2011

Roubini calling for double-dip in 2010

Roubini calling for double-dip in 2009

If we switch from past to present, Bill Gross has already dug himself into a deep hole just two weeks into the year by tweeting equity markets will return less than 5% in 2013. Hmmm, I wonder if he’d predict the same thing now that the market is up about +4.5% during the first 18 days of the year?

Why Double-Rip Over Double-Dip?

Racing Car

How can stocks rip if economic growth is so sluggish? If forced to equate our private sector to a car, opinions would vary widely. We could probably agree the U.S. economy is no Ferrari. Faster growing countries like China, which recently reported 4th quarter growth of +7.9% (up from +7.4% in 3rd quarter), have lapped us complacent, right-lane driving Americans in recent years. But speed alone should not be investors’ only key objective. If speed was the number one priority, the only places investors would be placing their money would be in countries like Rwanda, Turkmenistan, and Libya (see Business Insider article). However, freedom, rule of law, and entrepreneurial spirit are other important investment factors to be considered. The U.S. market is more like a Toyota Camry – not very flashy, but it will reliably get you from point A to point B in an efficient and safe manner.

Beyond lackluster economic growth, corporate profit growth has slowed remarkably. In fact, with about 10% of the S&P 500 index companies reporting 4th quarter earnings thus far, earnings growth is expected to rise a measly 2.5% from a year ago (from a previous estimate of 3.0% growth). With this being the case, how can stock prices go up? Shrewd investors understand the stock market is a discounting mechanism of future fundamentals, and therefore stocks will move in advance of future growth. It makes sense that before a turn in the economy, the brakes will often be activated before accelerating into another fast moving straight-away.

In addition, valuation acts like shock absorbers. With generational low interest rates and a below-average forward 12-month P/E (Price-Earnings) ratio of 13x’s, this stock market car can absorb a significant amount of fundamental challenges. The oft quoted message that “In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine,” from value icon Benjamin Graham holds as true today as it did a century ago. The recent market advance may be attributed to the voters, but long-term movements are ultimately tied to the sustainable scales of sales, earnings, and cash flows.

If that’s the case, how can someone be optimistic in the face of the slowing growth challenges of this year? What 2013 will not have is the drag of election uncertainty, the fiscal cliff, Superstorm Sandy, and an end-of-the-world Mayan calendar concern. This is setting the stage for improved fundamentals as we progress deeper into the year. Certainly there will be other puts and takes, but the absence of these factors should provide some wind under the economy’s sails.

What’s more, history shows us that indeed stock prices can go up quite dramatically (more than +325% during the 1990s) when consensus earnings forecasts continually get trimmed. We have seen this same dynamic since mid-2012 – earnings forecasts have come down and stock prices have gone up. Strategist Ed Yardeni captures this point beautifully in a recent post on his Dr. Ed’s Blog (see charts below).

CLICK TO ENLARGE Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

CLICK TO ENLARGE – Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

What Will Make Me Bearish?

Am I a perma-bull, incessantly wearing rose-colored glasses that I refuse to take off? I’ll let you come to your own conclusion. When I see a combination of the following, I will become bearish:

#1. I see the trillions of dollars parked in near-0% cash start coming outside to play.

#2. See Pimco’s  Bill Gross and Mohammed El-Erian on CNBC fewer than 10 times per week.

#3. See money flow stop flooding into sub-3% bonds (Scott Grannis) and actually reverse. 

#4. Observe a sustained reversal in hemorrhaging of equity investments (Scott Grannis).

#5. Yield curve flattens dramatically or inverts.

#6.  Nouriel and his bear buds become bullish and call for a “triple-rip” turn in the equity markets.

#7. Smarter, more-experienced investors than I, á la Warren Buffett, become more cautious.  I arrogantly believe that will occur in conjunction with some of the previously listed items.

Despite my firm beliefs, it is evident the bears won’t go down without a fight. If you are getting tired of drinking the double-dip Kool-Aid, then perhaps it’s time to expand your bullish horizons. If not, just wait 12 months after a market rally, and buy yourself a fresh copy of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. There you can locate and learn about a new definition…double-rip!

Read Also: Double-Dip Guesses are “Probably Wrong”

New Normal is Old Normal 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Fiat, Toyota,  or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

January 19, 2013 at 11:01 pm 7 comments

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