Posts tagged ‘fiscal cliff’

Lily Pad Jumping & Term Paper Cramming

LilyPad-Homework

Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary December 3, 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

Over the last year, investors’ concerns have jumped around like a frog moving from one lily pad to the next. From the debt ceiling debate to the European financial crisis, and then from the presidential election to now the “fiscal cliff.” With the election behind us (Obama winning 332 electoral votes vs 206 for Romney; and Obama 50.8% of the popular vote vs 47.5% for Romney), the frog’s bulging eyes are squarely focused on the fiscal cliff. For the uninformed frogs that have been swimming underwater, the fiscal cliff is the roughly $600 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that are scheduled to be triggered by the end of this year, if Congress cannot come to some type of agreement (for more fiscal cliff information see videos here). The mathematical consequences are clear: Congress + No Deal = Recession.

While political brinksmanship and theater are nothing new, the explosive amount of data is something new. In our mobile world of 6 billion cell phones (more than the number of toothbrushes on our planet) and trillions of text messages sent annually, nobody can escape the avalanche of global data. Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Twitter, and millions of blogs (including this one) didn’t exist 15 years ago, therefore fiscal boogeymen like obscure Greek debt negotiations and Chinese PMI figures wouldn’t have scared pre-internet generations underneath their beds like today’s investors. The fact of the matter is our country has triumphed over plenty of significant issues (many of them scarier than today’s headlines), including wars, assassinations, currency crises, banking crises, double digit inflation, SARS, mad cow disease, flash crashes, Ponzi schemes, and a whole lot more.

Although today’s jumpy investors may worry about the lily pads of a double-dip recession in the US, a financial meltdown in Europe, and/or a hard landing in China, fiscal frogs will undoubtedly be worried about different lily pads (concerns) twelve months from now. This may not be an insightful observation for day traders, but for the other 99% of investors, taking a longer term view of the daily news cycle may prove beneficial. 

Fiscal Cliff Term Paper Due on Friday December 21st

Jolt-NoDoz

As a college student, chugging Jolt Cola, in combination with a couple dosages of NoDoz, was part of the routine procrastination process the day before a term paper was due. Apparently Congress has also earned a PhD in procrastination, judging by the last minute conclusion of the debt ceiling negotiations last summer. There are only a few more weeks until politicians break for the Christmas holiday break, therefore I am setting an Investing Caffeine mandated fiscal cliff due date of December 21st. Could Congress turn in its term paper early? Anything is possible, but unfortunately turning in the assignment early is highly unlikely, especially when politically bashing your opponent is perceived as a better re-election tactic compared to bipartisan negotiation. 

A higher probability scenario involves Americans stuck listening to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell on a daily basis as these politicians finger-point and call the other side obstructionists. While I’m not alone in believing a deal will ultimately get done before Christmas, how credible and substantive the announcement will be depends on whether the politicians seriously face entitlement and tax reforms. Regardless, any deal announced by Investing Caffeine’s December 21st due date will likely be received well by the market, as long as a framework for entitlement and tax reform is laid out for 2013. 

Frog News Bites

Source: Photobucket

Source: Photobucket

GDP Revised Higher: Despite all the gloom and uncertainties, the barometer of the economy’s health (i.e., Real Gross Domestic Product), was revised higher to 2.7% growth for the third quarter (from 2.0%). Nominal growth, a related measurement that includes inflation, reached a five-year high of 5.55%. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which caused upwards of $50 billion in damage, fourth quarter GDP numbers are likely to be artificially depressed. The silver lining, however, is first quarter 2013 figures may get an economic boost from reconstruction efforts.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Housing Recovery Continues: Buoyed by record low interest rates (30-yr fixed mortgages < 3.5%), housing sales and prices continue on an upward trajectory. New home sales came in at 368,000 in October, below expectations, but sales are still up around +20% from 2011 (Calculated Risk).

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

Confidence Still Low but Climbing: The recently reported consumer confidence figures reached the highest level in more than four years, but as Scott Grannis highlights, this is nothing to write home about. These current confidence levels match where we were during the 1990-91 and 1980-82 recessions.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Car Sales Picking Up: Fiscal cliff discussions haven’t discouraged consumers from buying cars. As you can see from the chart below, car and truck sales reached 14.3 million annualized units in October. November sales are expected to rise about +13% on a year-over-year basis, reaching approximately 15.3 million units.

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

CIA Chief Fired in Sex Scandal: If you didn’t get enough of the Lindsay Lohan bar brawl dirt in New York, never fear, there was plenty of salacious details emanating from Washington DC this month. A complicated web of Florida socialites, a biographer, email chains, and a bare-chested FBI agent led to the firing of CIA director David Petraeus.

Source: The Financial Times

Source: The Financial Times

Death to Twinkies: After lining stomachs with golden cream-filled cakes for more than 80+ years, Hostess Brands was forced to halt production of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho Hos. Negotiations with union bakers crumbled, which led to Hostess Brands’ Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidation proceedings. My financial brain understands, but my sweet tooth is still grieving (see also Twinkie Investing).

Source: Photobucket

Source: Photobucket

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 positions in FB, Twitter 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.

December 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm Leave a comment

Fiscal & Political Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses a mixture of toxic drugs designed to destroy cancer cells, so patients can recover to a healthy state. Similarly, our government system combines a mixture of toxic politicians designed to destroy our nation’s problems, so Americans can benefit from a healthy, expanding economy. In the long run, history teaches us that despite painful periods of political battles, beneficial results are eventually achieved.

Unfortunately, in the short run, political side effects relating to our country’s legislative process can result in extremely unpleasant outcomes, just like experienced during chemotherapy treatment (including nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and fatigue). Politically, we are going through a comparably repulsive period. The good news is, regardless of your political persuasion, a major source of contention is now behind us in the rearview mirror (i.e., the presidential elections) and we can temporarily recover from the barrage of venomous super PAC commercials that have temporarily halted.

Regrettably, the looming “Fiscal Cliff” poses larger consequences than election outcomes, if these out-of-control economic issues are not credibly resolved (see Fiscal Cliff: Repeat or Dead Meat?). Most Americans realize a responsible mixture of real spending cuts coupled with limited tax hikes, like proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission is a great starting blueprint to hammer out a deal. For the time being, I’m happy to hear both Republicans and Democrats are playing nicely in the sandbox. Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner has signaled he is willing “to put (tax) revenue on the table” and President Obama has said he is “open to compromise.” So what’s all the worry then? We already know that $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts kick in seven weeks from now, which has the real potential of spinning our economy into another recession if Congress doesn’t act.

You don’t need to go far back in history to see what the effects could be from continued gridlock or a lackluster agreement that kicks the can down the curb. For starters, last year’s initially unsuccessful debt ceiling negotiations resulted in a swift kick in the pants for stocks, as investors watched the S&P 500 index crater -18% within three short weeks. If the $600 billion impact of the Fiscal Cliff and sequestration actually occur, many pundits are predicting up to a -4% hit to GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which makes it virtually certain the economy will slip back into recession.

This game of political chicken can last only for so long. Congressional approval ratings are near record lows, and if inaction continues, voters will ultimately take powers into their own hands and vote out apathetic politicians.

Preparing for the Melt-Up

Would I be surprised to see a market pullback in the coming weeks and months? The short answer: NO. While I may be cynical about the short-term probabilities of a bipartisan “grand bargain” because brinksmanship will likely win in the coming weeks, as both sides jockey for negotiating leverage, I am also keenly aware of the melt-up risk that few investors are currently talking about. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to see the amount of pessimism that has built up over recent years. If you don’t believe me, you can just look at the following charts to get the gist:

i) A half of a trillion dollars has been pulled out of the equity markets by nervous investors, despite the market more than doubling from its 2009 lows.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

ii) Panicked bond buying has caused the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note to evaporate by about -90% since its peak more than 30 years ago.

10-Year Treasury Yield (Source: Yahoo! Finance)

iii) Fear insurance has been gobbled up by worrywarts as witnessed by gold prices sky-rocketing more than 500% in a little more than a decade.

Historical gold prices (Source: InvestmentTools.com)

A grand bargain doesn’t guarantee a return to the stock market circa the 1990s, but in an environment where trillions of dollars have been stuffed under the mattresses of corporations and individuals, earning next to nothing, it won’t take much to ignite the animal spirits of investors. Changing the perception of a market that sees the glass as -90% empty to the view of a glass 10% full, could lead to a happier 2013 for equity investors. However, if no Fiscal Cliff agreement is made, locating me may be a challenge – I suggest you try me in my bunker.

While our fiscal and political health conditions have reached crisis levels in recent years, there are reasons to be optimistic, now that a hotly contested presidential election has concluded and discussions move forward on a Fiscal Cliff solution. Chemotherapy involves a toxic and destructive regiment of harsh medicines, but in certain situations, like the present political environment, investors need to survive the unpleasant side effects before economic health and prosperity can be gained.

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 positions in any 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.

November 11, 2012 at 11:39 pm 5 comments

Conquering the Political & Economic Hurricanes

Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary November 1, 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the East Coast, negatively impacting an estimated 60 million people and leaving more than 8 million people literally in the dark, without power. The hurricane may have been downgraded to a “superstorm” but the 90+ mile per hour winds and waves reaching up to 40 feet high created devastating economic impacts. How large were these impacts you may ask? This big swirly cloud that slammed into the Atlantic coastline shut down about ¼ of our economy; led to about 15,000 canceled flights; is expected to cut our nation’s
Q4 output by up to -1.5% in GDP (Gross Domestic Product); and closed our financial markets for two days (the longest weather related closure of the New York Stock Exchange since 1888).  Although the damage has been distressing for millions, about 5 million kids I think were okay with missing school on Monday (I’m going out on a limb with that guess).

Besides a superstorm-hurricane offered to us by Mother Nature, our country is about to undergo a new political hurricane next week with our nation’s presidential elections. Many polls show a statistical dead heat among the two candidates (Mitt Romney and Barack Obama), but political pundits point to the key battleground state of Ohio as the key determinant of the overall election results (Obama currently appears to have a slight lead in several polls). Some wildcard issues that could throw a wrench in an incumbent victory include a potential apathetic turnout by the Democratic voter base (hurt worse by “Superstorm Sandy”); worsening employment figures reported four days before the election; or perhaps a political gaffe. None of these polls are set in stone, and the situation remains rather fluid (no Sandy pun intended).

Regardless, whatever the political outcome, history shows us that the victor’s political affiliation has little correlation with the results in the financial markets. Ed Yardeni illustrated this point recently with the following chart:

Source: Yardeni.com

What many people seem to overlook is that there are many other variables besides political affiliation that can and will impact future financial market performance including, Congressional control that may be dominated or split by the opposing political party; monetary policy set by the Federal Reserve Bank; or uncontrollable globalization influences. As emerging market countries continue to outpace our economic growth, our country’s power and persuasion will naturally diminish due to the “law of large numbers”. In other words, as the largest, most powerful economic country in the world, the mathematical gravity hinders our country’s ability to grow rapidly.

Despite the economic and political challenges our country faces, we continue to move in the right direction, albeit at a very slow historical pace. As you can see from Ed Yardeni’s chart below, our recovery from the recent recession (bottom red line) is the worst recovery in more than 50 years. On the bright side, the freshly reported Q3 GDP figures came in at a +2.0% GDP rate – uninspiring, but an improvement from Q2, and better than Wall Street consensus forecasts.

Source: Yardeni.com

The growth has been considerably weak, yet the U.S. has still recorded 13 consecutive quarters of positive growth. Not bad considering Europe is in recession and countries like Spain are Greece are suffering unemployment rates of about 25%.

In order to maintain or accelerate economic growth, most Americans understand the Fiscal Cliff (~$700 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax hikes) needs to get resolved immediately. Failure to face this urgent challenge could have dire consequences, so voting for politicians who understand the immediacy of this problem is important.

Moving into Seasonally Strong Period

Selling in May, and going away for six months has not been a profitable strategy this year, as measured by the S&P 500 index. Furthermore, investors have also survived the historically scary performance months of September and October. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but historically the months of November through April tend to be rewarding periods.

Blowing against this positive seasonal trend have been lifeless earnings. In fact, corporate profits and revenue growth have slowed to a trickle in Q3, thanks to lackluster results from companies like Caterpillar (CAT); General Electric (GE); 3M Company (MMM); United Technologies (UTX); McDonalds (MCD); and others. Denying the global slowdown is difficult, but there are signs of stabilization and fortunately financial markets look forward and not backward.

Overshadowing some of that recent slowing growth has been the positive development in the housing market. As one can see in the chart below, housing starts are up significantly at +60% from early last year, but history tells us there is still plenty of room to move higher.

Source: Calafia Beach Report

Year-to-date stock performance has been nothing short of spectacular either. Although stocks were down about -2% in October, the S&P 500 index remains up +12% through October, and that excludes about +2% in dividends. If you look at the overall asset classes in the chart below, real estate is the winning segment this year with U.S. stocks not far behind. Commodities have fared the worst and the fixed income asset class showed modest gains relative to global equities.

Source: Hays Advisory Blog

Within U.S. stocks, the largest of large stocks (“Megacaps”) have enjoyed the best results. This trend is not surprising given the significant uncertainties investors are reviewing (e.g., elections, Fiscal Cliff, Europe, etc.).

Source: Calafia Beach Report

The recent Hurricane Sandy turned superstorm caused enormous damage to our country, and the political and economic hurricanes we have experienced over the last few years have yet to be conquered. The good news, in all these cases (physical and financial), is that the clouds are in the process of lifting; the worst damage should be behind us; our outlook will be more certain; and we can now begin focusing on the rebuilding process.

Like Washington, individual investors cannot afford to ignore their own personal Fiscal Cliffs. In a future entitlement-pressured world, investors need to proactively develop an investment plan, because ignoring your investments by kicking the can down the road only does more harm than good. I’m confident that, regardless of the election results next week, cooler heads will eventually prevail, and Democrats and Republicans can work together to solve our country’s Fiscal Cliff problems. Superstorm Sandy will not be the last natural disaster our country faces, but like investing, the more prepared one is for these unforeseen events, the better you will be equipped to conquer your financial future.

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 positions in CAT, MMM, GE, UTX, MCD, 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. 

November 3, 2012 at 10:01 am 2 comments

USA Inc.: Buy, Hold or Sell?

If the U.S. was a company, would you buy, hold, or sell the stock? A voluminous report put out last year by Mary Meeker sought to answer that very question. Since we’re in the thick of the presidential elections, why not review the important financial state of our great nation.

For those of you who may not know who she is, Mary Meeker is the well-known partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who is also affectionately known as the “Queen of Internet.” Apparently, beyond her renowned expertise in analyzing and valuing tech companies and start-ups, she also has the knack of dissecting government statistics and distilling wonky numbers down to understandable terms for the masses. “Distilling” may be a generous term, given the massive size of her 460-page report, USA Inc., but nevertheless, I am going to attempt to synthesize this gargantuan report even further.

As a visual learner, I think some key cherry-picked slides from her report will help put our multi-trillion debts and deficits in context, so here goes…

The Scope of the Problem

If one spends a few hundred billion dollars here, and a few hundred billion dollars there, before you know it, a trillion dollars will have piled up. Currently our government has run $1 trillion+ budget deficits for three years, and the estimated deficit is for another trillion dollar deficit this fiscal year. If you have ever wondered how many football fields it takes to fill with a trillion dollars of cash, then today is your lucky day. The answer: 217 football fields.

Financial Statements: The Health Thermometer

In order to determine the relative health of USA Inc., Meeker created financial statements for our country, starting with the income statement. As you can see from the chart below, unfortunately USA Inc.’s expenses have been significantly larger than its revenues, creating a “discouraging” trend of negative cash flows (deficits). An entity that takes in $2.2 trillion in revenue and spends $3.5 trillion, cannot sustainably continue this trend for long, before significant financial problems arise. The largest contributing factor to our country’s losses (deficits) has been the exploding costs of entitlements, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

As the pie chart shows, the major categories of entitlements comprise a whopping 58% of USA Inc.’s 2010 total expenditures.

Trillion dollar deficits have been the norm over the last three years.

Why Entitlement Spending is a Problem

Why are entitlements such a massive problem? The plain and simple answer to why entitlements are a major issue is that government expenditures are growing too fast. You can’t have expenses growing significantly faster than revenues for 45 years and expect to be in happy financial place.

Another reason for the abysmal spending record is due to politicians horrendous forecasting abilities. Future promises are made by politicians to garner votes today, and when they make overly rosy estimates about the costs of those promises, future generations are left holding the underfunded bag. Meeker points out that when Medicare was instituted in 1966, total future spending  of $110 billion turned out to be about 10x more expensive (see chart below) than originally planned…ouch!

No Defense for Defense

Trillion dollar deficits and debts can’t be solely blamed on entitlements, but $700 billion in annual defense expenditures is not exactly chump change. The inopportune timing of the financial crisis in 2008-2009 didn’t help either, while two unfunded wars were being fought. Even if you strip out the wars, defense spending is still obscenely high. Given our poor state of financial affairs, we cannot afford to be the globe’s babysitter (see Impoverished Global Babysitter). Legacy Cold War spending on obsolete ground warfare needs to be reprioritized to 21st Century threats (i.e. focus on unmanned drones and coordinated intelligence). When a government spends more than the top 25 countries combined (see chart below), that country can certainly find some defense fat to trim.

Demographic Headwinds

The out-of-control gluttonous government spending is a threat to our national security, and although I wish I could say time alone will heal our fiscal wounds, unfortunately the opposite is true. Time is our enemy because the ticking demographic time bomb is about to explode, unless government acts to solve our spending problems. For starters, Americans are living longer, which means entitlement spending has accelerated faster than revenues collected, and life expectancy consistently continues to rise. As you can see below, life expectancy has outpaced Social Security age adjustments by +23% over a 74 year period.

Another self inflicted problem contributing to our colossal health care costs is the obesity epidemic. Over an 18 year period, the rate of obesity more than doubled to 32%. Individuals can and should shoulder more of the burden for these belt-busting costs, and government should spend more on prevention and education in this area. Bad drivers pay higher premiums for their auto insurance, so why not have bad eaters pay higher premiums? Genetics certainly can play a role in obesity, but so to do eating habits. The same accountability principle should be applied to smokers who overly burden our healthcare system too.

The USA spends more on healthcare than all OECD countries combined and 3x the OECD per capita average, yet as you can see from the chart below, the USA is not getting a life expectancy bang for its buck. The argument that the U.S. has the best healthcare in the world may be true in some instances, but the overall data doesn’t support that assertion.

The Rubber Hits the Road

The problem is easy to identify: Government spending going out the door is running faster than the revenues coming in via taxes. The solution is easy to identify too: Politicians need to cut spending, increase taxes, and/or do a combination of the two options. Like dieting, the solutions are easy to identify but difficult to execute.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit – Scott Grannis

Almost everyone wants the government to spend less, but at the same time nobody wants their benefits cut. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Citing two different studies, Meeker shows how 80% of Americans want a balanced budget as a national priority, but only 12% are willing to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security.

The rubber will hit the road in the next few months when politicians in a post-presidential election period will be forced to face these difficult “Fiscal Cliff” choices – $700 billion+ in tax hikes and spending increases that  jeopardize the current recovery and our fiscal future.

Source: PIMCO

As market maven Mary Meeker recognizes, our fiscal situation is quite “discouraging”. With that said, although USA Inc. may have earned a current “Sell” rating, Meeker acknowledges that our country can become a positive turnaround situation. If voters actively push politicians to making difficult but necessary financial decisions to lower deficits and debt, investors around the globe will be ready to “Buy” USA Inc.’s stock.

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 positions 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.

 

 

 

October 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm 1 comment

Autumn, Elections and Replacement Refs

Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary October 1, 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.

As September has come to a close, the grand finale of our annual seasons has commenced… autumn. How do we know autumn is here? Well, for starters, the leaves are changing colors; the weather is about to cool; and the NFL replacement referees are watching Sunday football games from their couches.

While 2012 is split into quarters, football games and investment seasons are also divided into four quarters. Right now, the economic fourth quarter has just started and the home team is winning. As we can see from the stock market scoreboard, the S&P 500 index is up +15% this year (+6% in Q3) and the NASDAQ index has catapulted +20% through September (+6% also in Q3). The U.S. home team is winning, but a fumble, blocked kick, or interception could mean the difference between an exciting win and a devastating loss.

Another game divided into four parts is the game of presidential politics. However, presidential elections are divided into four years – not four quarters. Five weeks from now, we’ll find out if our Commander in Chief Obama will get to lead our team for another game lasting four years, or whether backup quarterback Mit Romney will be called into the game. The fans are getting restless due to anemic growth and lingering joblessness, but for now, the coach is keeping the president in the starting lineup. Both President Obama and Governor Romney will take some head-to-head practice snaps against each other in the first of three scheduled presidential debates beginning this week.

Bernanke Changes Rules

The New York Jets have Tim Tebow for their secret weapon (1 for 1 yesterday!), and the United States economy has Ben Bernanke. Although our home team may be winning, it has required some monetary rule-changing policies to be instituted by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to keep our team in the lead. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Bernake instituted QE3 (3rd round of quantitative easing), which is an open-ended mortgage buying program designed to lower home buying interest rates and stimulate the economy (see Helicopter Ben to QE3 Rescue). The short-term benefits of the $40 billion monthly bond buying binge are relatively clear (lower borrowing costs for homebuyers), but the longer-term costs of inflation are stewing patiently on the backburner.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

As you can see from the chart above, August median home prices are up +10% for existing single-family homes over the last year. Housing affordability is at extremely attractive levels, and although the bank loan purse strings are tight, a modest loosening is beginning to unfold.

Economy Playing Injured

Our starters may still be playing, but many are injured, just like the jobless are limping through the employment market. Encouragingly, although unemployment remains stubbornly high, the number of people collecting unemployment checks is a lot lower (-1.25 million fewer than a year ago). Not great news, but at least we are hobbling in the right direction (see chart below).

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

Time for Fiscal Cliff Hail Mary?

If a team is losing at the end of a game, a “Hail Mary” pass might be necessary. We are quickly nearing this fiscal Armageddon situation as the approximately $700 billion “fiscal cliff” (a painful combo of spending cuts and tax hikes) kicks in at the end of the year (see PIMCO chart below via The Reformed Broker).

Running trillion dollar deficits in perpetuity is not a sustainable strategy, so for most people, a combination of spending cuts and/or tax hikes makes sense to narrow the gap (see chart below). Last year’s recommendations from the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission, which were ignored, are not a bad place to start. What happens in the lame-duck session of Congress (after the elections) will  dramatically impact the score of the current economic game, and decide who wins and who loses.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

Heated debates continue on how the gap between expenses and revenues will be narrowed, but regardless, Democrats will continue to push for capital gains tax hikes on the rich (see tax chart below); and the Republicans will push to cut spending on entitlements, including untenable programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

The game is not quite over, but the fourth quarter promises to be a bloody battle. So while the replacement refs may be back at home, the experienced returning refs have been known to blow calls too. Let’s just hope that autumn, the season of bounteous fecundity, ends up being a continued trend of sweet market success, rather than a political period of botched opportunities.

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 positions 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.

 

October 1, 2012 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

Fiscal Cliff: Will a 1937 Repeat = 2013 Dead Meat?

Source: StockCharts.com

The presidential election is upon us and markets around the globe are beginning to factor in the results. More importantly, in my view, will be the post-election results of the “fiscal cliff” discussions, which will determine whether $600 billion in automated spending cuts and tax increases will be triggered. Similar dynamics in 1937 existed when President FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) felt pressure to balance the budget after his 1933 New Deal stimulus package began to rack up deficits and lose steam.

What’s Similar Today

Just as there is pressure to cut spending today by Republicans and “Tea-Party” Congressmen, so too there was pressure for FDR and the Federal Reserve in 1937 to unwind fiscal and monetary stimulus. At the time, FDR thought self-sustaining growth had been restored and there was a belief that the deficits would become a drag on expansion and a source of future inflation. What’s more, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, believed that continued economic growth was dependent on business confidence, which in turn was dependent on creating a balanced budget. History has a way of repeating itself, which explains why the issues faced in 1937 are eerily similar to today’s discussions.

The Results

FDR was successful in dramatically reducing spending and significantly increasing taxes. Specifically, federal spending was reduced by -17% over two years and FDR’s introduction of a Social Security payroll tax contributed to federal revenues increasing by a whopping +72% over a similar timeframe. The good news was the federal deficit fell from -5.5% of GDP to -0.5%. The bad news was the economy went into a tail-spinning recession; the Dow crashed approximately -50%; and the unemployment rate burst higher by about +3.3% to +12.5%.

Source: New York Times

Source: Blue Mass Group

What’s Different This Time?

For starters, one difference between 1937 and 2012 is the level of unemployment. In 1937, unemployment was +14.3%, and today it is +8.1%. Objectively, today there could be higher percentage of the population “under-employed,” but nonetheless the job market was in worse shape back then and labor unions had much more power.

Another major difference is the stance carried by the Fed. Today, Ben Bernanke and the Fed have made it crystal clear they are in no hurry to take away any of the monetary stimulus (see Hekicopter Ben QE3 article), until we have experienced a long-lasting, sustainable recovery. Back in early 1937, the Fed increased banks’ reserve requirements twice, doubling the requirement in less than a year, thereby contracting monetary supply drastically.

Furthermore, we live in a much more globalized world. Today, central banks and governments around the world are doing their part to keep growth alive. Emerging markets are large enough now to move the needle and impact the growth of developed markets. For example, China, the #2 global superpower, continues to cut interest rates and has recently implemented a $158 billion infrastructure spending program.

Net-Net

Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, everyone generally agrees that job creation is an important common objective, which is consistent with growing our economy. The disagreement between parties stems from the differing opinions on what are the best ways of creating jobs. From my perch, the frame of the debate should be premised on what policies and incentives should be structured to increase competitiveness. Without competitiveness there are no jobs. At the end of the day, money and capital are agnostic. Cold hard cash migrates to the countries in which it is treated best. And where the money goes is where the jobs go.

There is no single silver bullet to solve the competiveness concerns of the United States. Like baseball (since playoffs are quickly approaching), winning is not based solely on hitting, pitching, defense, or base-running. All of these facets and others are required to win. The same principles apply to our country’s competitiveness.

In order to be a competitive leader in the 21st century, here are few necessary areas in which we must excel:

Education: Chicago school unions have been in the news, and I have no problems with unions, if accountability can be structured in. Unfortunately, however, it is clear to me that for now our system is broken (a must see: Waiting for Superman). We cannot compete in the 21st century with an illiterate, uneducated workforce. Our colleges and universities are still top-notch, but as Bill Gates has stated, our elementary schools and high schools are “obsolete”.

Entitlements: Social safety nets like Social Security and Medicare are critical, but unsustainable promises that explode our debt and deficits will not make us more competitive. Politicians may gain votes by making promises in the short-run, but when those promises can’t be delivered in the medium-run or long-run, then those votes will disappear quickly. The sworn guarantees made to the 76 million Baby Boomers now entering retirement are a disaster waiting to happen. Benefits need to be reduced and or criteria need to be adjusted (i.e., means-testing, increase age requirements). The problems are clear as day, so Americans cannot walk away from this sobering reality.

Strategic Government Investment: – Government played a role in building our country’s railways, highways, and our military – a few strategic areas of our economy that have made our nation great. Thoughtful investments into areas like energy infrastructure (e.g., smart grid), internet infrastructure (e.g., higher speed super highway), and healthcare (e.g., human genome research) are a few examples of how jobs can be created while simultaneously increasing our global competitiveness. The great thing about strategic government investments is that government does NOT have to do all the heavy lifting. Rather than write all the checks and do all the job creation from Washington, government can implement these investments and create these jobs by providing incentives for the private sector. Strategic public-private partnerships can generate win-win results for government, businesses, and job seekers. If, however, you’re convinced that our government is more efficient than the private sector, then I highly encourage you to go visit your local DMV, post office, or VA to better appreciate the growth-sucking bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Taxes / Regulations / Laws: Taxes come from profits, and businesses create profits. In order to have a strong and competitive government, we need strong and competitive businesses. Higher taxes, excessive regulations, and burdensome laws will not create stronger and more competitive businesses. I acknowledge that reckless neglect and consumer exploitation will not work either, but reasonable protections for consumers and businesses can be instituted without multi-thousand page regulations. Reducing ridiculous subsidies and loopholes, while tightening tax collection processes and punishing tax dodgers makes perfect sense…so why not do it?

Politics are sharply polarized at both ends of the spectrum, but no matter who wins, our problems are not going away. We may or may not have a new president of the United States this November, but perhaps more important than the elections themselves will be the outcome of the “fiscal cliff” legislation (or lack thereof). If we want to maintain our economic power as the strongest in the world, solving this “fiscal cliff” is the key to improving our competiveness. Avoiding a messy 1937 (and 2011) political repeat will prevent us from becoming dead meat.

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 positions 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.

 

September 23, 2012 at 10:55 pm Leave a comment

Helicopter Ben to QE3 Rescue

Faster than a speedy credit default swap, more powerful than a federal funds interest rate cut, and able to leap a tall Mario Draghi in a single bound, look…it’s Helicopter Ben! How did Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke become a monetary superhero with such a cool nickname as Helicopter Ben (a.k.a. “HB”)? Bernanke, a former Princeton University professor, has widely been known to be a diligent student of the Great Depression, and his aviation nickname stems from a 2002 speech in which he referenced dropping money from a helicopter to combat deflation. While investors may worry about HB’s ability to fight the inflation thugs, there should be no questions about his willingness to implement accommodative, deflation-fighting monetary policies.

Chairman Bernanke may not epitomize your ideal superhero, however this slightly past middle-aged bearded and balding man has helped mastermind some of the most creative and aggressive monetary rescue efforts our country and globe has seen in the history of man (and woman). This week’s money-printing QE3 announcement solidified Bernanke’s historic capital saturating ranking.

Since Helicopter Ben’s heroic appointment as Federal Reserve Chairman in 2006 by George W. Bush, Bernanke has instituted numerous monetary gadgets in hopes of meeting the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate, which is i) to achieve low inflation and ii) to strive for maximum employment. Arguably, given the anemic growth here in the U.S.; the recession in Europe; and slowing growth in the emerging markets (i.e., China, Brazil, India, etc.), slack in the economy and static labor wages have largely kept inflation in check. With the first part of the dual mandate met, Bernanke has had no problem putting his monetary superpowers to work.

As referenced earlier, Bernanke’s bazooka launch of QE3, an open ended MBS (Mortgage Back Securities) bond binging program, will add $40 billion of newly purchased assets to the Fed’s balance sheet on a monthly basis until the labor market improves “substantially” (whatever that means). What’s more, in addition to the indefinite QE3, Bernanke has promised to keep the federal funds rate near zero “at least through mid-2015,” even for a “considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.”

HB’s Track Record

Throughout superhero history, Superman, Spider-man, and Batman have used a wide-array of superhuman powers, extraordinary gadgets, and superior intellect to conquer evil-doers and injustices across the globe. Bernanke has also forcefully put his unrivaled money-printing talents to work in an attempt to cure the financial ills of the world. Here’s a quick multi-year overview of how Bernanke has put his unique talents to print trillions of dollars and keep interest rates suppressed:

Rate Cuts (September 2007 – December 2008): Before “quantitative easing” was a part of our common vernacular, the Fed relied on more traditional monetary policies, such as federal funds rate targeting, conducted through purchases and sales of open market securities. Few investors recall, but before HB’s fed funds rate cut rampage of 10 consecutive reductions in 2007 and 2008 (the fed funds rate went from 5.25% to effectively 0%), Bernanke actually increased rates three times in 2006.

Crisis Actions (2007 – 2009): Love him or hate him, Bernanke has been a brave and busy soul in dealing with the massive proportions of the global financial crisis. If you don’t believe me, just check out the Financial Crisis Timeline listed at the St. Louis Federal Reserve. Many investors don’t remember, but Bernanke helped orchestrate some of the largest and most unprecedented corporate actions in our history, including the $30 billion loan to JPMorgan Chase (JPM) in the Bear Stearns takeover; the $182 billion bailout of AIG; the conversion of Morgan Stanley (MS) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) into bank holding companies; and the loan/asset-purchase support to Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac (FMCC). These actions represented just the tip of the iceberg, if you also consider the deluge of liquidity actions taken by the Fed Chairman.

HB Creates Acronym Soup

In order to provide a flavor of the vastness in emergency programs launched since the crisis, here is an alphabet soup of program acronyms into which the Fed poured hundreds of billions of dollars:

  • Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF)
  • Term Auction Facility (TAF)
  • Money Market Investor Funding Facility (MMIFF)
  • Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF)
  • Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF)
  • Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Fund Liquidity Facility (AMLF)
  • Temporary Reciprocal Currency Arrangements (Swap lines)
  • Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF)

Plenty of acronyms to go around, but these juicy programs have garnered most of investors’ attention:

QE1 (November 2008 – March 2010): In hopes of lowering interest rates for borrowers and stimulating the economy, HB spearheaded the Fed’s multi-step, $1 trillion+ buying program  of MBS (mortgage backed securities) and Treasuries.

QE2 (November 2010 – June 2011): Since the Fed felt QE1 didn’t pack enough monetary punch to keep the economy growing at a fast enough clip, the FOMC (Federal Open Market committee) announced its decision to expand its holdings of securities in November 2010. The Committee maintained its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings and to also purchase a further $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011 (an equivalent pace of about $75 billion per month).

Operation Twist (September 2011 – December 2012): What started out as a $400 billion short-term debt for longer-term debt swap program in September 2011, expanded to a $667 billion program in June 2012. With short-term rates excessively low, Bernanke came up with this Operation Twist scheme previously used in the early 1960s. Designed to flatten the yield curve (bring down long-term interest rates) to stimulate economic activity, Bernanke thought this program was worth another go-around. Unlike quantitative easing, Operation Twist does not expand the Fed’s balance sheet – the program merely swaps short-term securities for long-term securities. Currently, the program is forecasted to conclude at the end of this year.

The Verdict on HB

So what’s my verdict on the continuous number of unprecedented actions that Helicopter Ben and the Fed have taken? Well for starters, I have to give Mr. Bernanke an “A-” on his overall handling of the financial crisis. Had his extreme actions not been taken, the pain and agony experienced by all would likely be significantly worse, and the financial hole a lot deeper.

With that said, am I happy about the announcement of QE3 and the explosion in the Fed’s money printing activities? The short answer is “NO”. It’s difficult to support a program with questionable short-run interest rate benefits, when the menacing inflationary pressures are likely to outweigh the advantages. The larger problem in my mind is the massive fiscal problem we are experiencing (over $16 trillion in debt and endless trillion dollar deficits). More importantly, this bloated fiscal position is creating an overarching, nagging crisis of confidence. A resolution to the so-called “fiscal cliff,” or the automated $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts, is likely to have a more positive impact on confidence than a 0.05% – 0.25% reduction in mortgage rates from QE3. Once adequate and sustained growth returns, and inflation rears its ugly head, how quickly Helicopter Ben tightens policy will be his key test.

Until then, Bernanke will probably continue flying around while gloating in his QE3 cape, hoping his quantitative easing program will raise general confidence. Unfortunately, his more recent monetary policies appear to be creating diminishing returns. Even before QE3’s implementation, Helicopter Ben has witnessed his policies expand the Fed’s balance sheet from less than $900 billion at the beginning of the recession to almost $3 trillion today. Despite these gargantuan efforts, growth and confidence have been crawling forward at only a modest pace.

No matter the outcome of QE3, as long as Ben Bernanke remains Federal Reserve Chairman, and growth remains sluggish, you can stay confident this financial man of steel will continue dumping money into the system from his helicopter. If Bernanke wants to create a true legendary superhero ending to this story, the kryptonite-like effects of inflation need to be avoided. This means, less money-printing and more convincing of Congress to take action on our out-of-control debt and deficits. Now, that’s a comic book I’d pay to read.

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 positions in JPM, AIG, MS, GS, FNMA, FMCC,  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.

September 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm 1 comment

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