Money for Nothing: from QE to QT

During the crisis, central banks lowered interest rates dramatically during the stock market crash.  The Fed Funds Rate went from 5.25% July 2007 to 3.0% March 2008 (when Bear Stearns failed, most people remember Lehman, which failed in September).   That summer Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae failed and the FFR was lowered to 2% and then 1% in September and finally 0% was the official rate in December 2008.  All the while financial asset prices kept falling and the economy was hemorrhaging.  Soon after hitting 0% as the cost of money to the banking system, the Federal Reserve started Quantitative Easing, where the Federal Reserve would buy mortgage backed securities (as well as other tax-payer insured instruments) to provide ‘liquidity’ to the markets.   The stated goal was to increase the prices of assets (stocks, real estate, bonds) so that the “wealth effect” would spur people to spend money rather than save it.  Given the anemic pace of economic expansion, the primary effect QE has had has been to push up stock prices well beyond normal valuations.

While the US has ceased QE, raised interest rates off the 0% mark, and laid out a plan to shrink its balance sheet (taking liquidity away from the market); the European and Japanese central banks continue to buy assets. The Europeans buy corporate bonds and the Japanese buy everything including equities.  The ECB has expressed a desire to cease its purchases (stopping new liquidity into the market) starting in 2018, but have not committed to a schedule.  The chart above combines all the central bank’s asset purchases and projections into 2019 overlaid with global equities.  On the chart below, notice how the EM (emerging markets withdrew liquidity late 2015 to 2017—emerging market stock indices (EEM) fell 39% from Sept 2014 through Jan 2016).  Additionally we can observe the effect central bank purchases have had on interest rate spreads, giving investors the most meager additional interest for taking on additional risk.

The chart shows the Fed’s net reductions in liquidity and the Swiss, Japanese and Europeans declining levels of new liquidity to the marketplace.   Given that adding liquidity boosted asset prices, as additional liquidity slows and possibly reverses, it is not unreasonable to assume markets will become much more volatile as we approach that time.  We will likely see the effects of Quantitative Tightening (QT) beginning in, and throughout 2018.  One way to counteract this, would be for private investors to save/invest rather than spend this difference (approx. $1.2 trillion), but a reduction in consumer spending would bring its own problems.

central bank purchases 2019

 

What is a SMA?

Also known as a SMA (“Separately Managed Account”), is a single investment account comprised of individual stocks, bonds, cash or other securities, tailored to achieve specific investment objectives.

Your portfolio manager oversees the investments according to your specific investment objectives and in an investment style with which you are comfortable.  Put simply, a SMA is for demanding investors who:
  • Seek the comfort of professional investment guidance and a heightened level of personal service
  • Still want to take an active role in their financial life
  • Desire the flexibility to invest in different strategies or styles, while seeking the liquidity and potential tax benefits that come from owning individual securities in separate accounts, versus mutual funds
  • May want a single fee to cover ALL account costs, including trading costs and performance reporting.
  • Low-cost, transparency and 24/7 online access

For those with more than $100,000 a SMA may be the smart way to manage portfolio assets, due to lower costs, greater tax efficiency and transparency.

Why the growth in Cash Balance Plans?

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) is long and hard to read, but it played a crucial role in establishing cash balance plans as a viable and legally recognized retirement savings option. Before 2006, cash balance plans faced frequent legal challenges. Those bringing the suits argued that cash balance plans violated established rules for benefit accrual and discriminated against older workers. The rulings on these cases were inconsistent, and many business owners were reluctant to risk establishing a plan that just didn’t have firm legal footing.

The Pension Protection Act ended this uncertainty about the legality of cash balance plans. The legislation set specific requirements for cash balance plans, including:

  • A vesting requirement: Any employee who has worked for their company for at least three years must be 100% vested in their accrued benefits from employer contributions.
  • A change in the calculation of lump sum payments: Participants in a cash balance plan can usually choose to receive a lump sum upon retirement or upon the termination of employment instead of receiving their money as a lifetime annuity. Before 2006, some plans used one interest rate to calculate out the anticipated account balance upon retirement, but, when participants opted to receive an earlier lump sum, the plan called for using a different interest rate to discount the anticipated retirement balance back to the date of the lump sum payment. This could lead to discrepancies between the hypothetical balance of the account (as determined by employer contributions and accumulated interest credits) and the actual lump sum payout, an effect known as “whipsaw”. The PPA eliminated the whipsaw effect by allowing the lump sum payout to simply equal the hypothetical account balance.
  • Clarification on age discrimination claims: A cash balance plan does not violate age discrimination legislation if the account balance of an older employee is compared with that of a similarly situated younger employee (i.e. with the same length of employment, pay, job title, date of hire, and work history), and the older employee’s balance is equal to or greater than the younger employee’s.

There are, of course, many other points included in this lengthy piece of legislation, but the takeaway is this: the Pension Protection Act of 2006 removed the legal uncertainty surrounding cash balance plans and made them a much more appealing option for small business owners.

The number of cash balance plans in America more than tripled after the implementation of the PPA. Additional regulations in 2010 and 2014 made these hybrid plans an even better option, and we anticipate that their popularity will continue to grow. There are thousands of high-earning business owners out there who can reap huge, tax-crushing benefits from implementing cash balance plan – they just have to know about them first.

 

How 401k Plans Work

In 1978, Congress decided that Americans needed a bit of encouragement to save more money for retirement. They thought that if they gave people a way to save for retirement while at the same time lowering their state and dederal taxes, they might just take advantage of it. The Tax Reform Act was passed. Part of it authorized the creation of a tax-deferred savings plan for employees. The plan got its name from its section number and paragraph in the Internal Revenue Code — section 401, paragraph (k).

Ted Benna, who was a benefits consultant, actually came up with the first version of this plan. His plan was officially accepted by the IRS and proposed regulations were issued in 1981. In 1982, taxpayers were able to take advantage of this new plan for the first time. It took almost 10 years, but final regulations were eventually published in 1991.­

When people talk about 401(k) plans, you often hear about advantages like:

  • Free money from your employer
  • Lower taxable income
  • Savings and earnings that accumulate without you having to remember to make deposits
  • The opportunity to retire and not have to worry about money anymore

Does this sound too good to be true? It isn’t. It’s what you can gain from investing in your company’s 401(k) plan. The 401(k) is one of the most popular retirement plans around.

Although retirement plans may be the farthest thing from your mind, think about how much of a difference 10 years can make in the investing world. You’ll learn about that difference in this article. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, it makes a lot of sense to participate in it as soon as possible. If you start early, maybe when you’re 25 or so, you can very likely have a million or two (or more) in your account by the time you retire.

401(k) plans are part of a family of retirement plans known as defined contribution plans. Other defined contribution plans include profit sharing plans, IRAs and Simple IRAs, SEPs, and money purchase plans. They are called “defined contribution plans” because the amount that is contributed is defined either by the employee (a.k.a. the participant) or the employer.

For more information, please contact us.

Oberservations and Outlook July 2017

Selected Index Returns 2nd Quarter/ Year to Date
Dow Jones Industrials    3.95%/ 9.35%          S&P 500   3.09%/9.34%         MSCI Europe   7.37%/15.36%

Small Cap (Russell 2000)   2.46%/4.99%     Emerging Mkts  6.27%/18.43%     High Yld Bonds   1.37%/15.3%

US Aggregate Bond 1.45%/2.27%   US Treasury 20+Yr   4.18%/5.66%    DJ/UBS Commodity -3%/-5.26%

2017 and its second quarter continue to be kind to financial assets, with both stocks, bonds and gold all climbing year to date.    European and Emerging Market equities have been the strongest this year, rising smartly after falling by 10% during the second half of 2016.  Emerging Market equity funds are back to a price area that stretches back to 2009!

Bonds continue to vacillate in an upward trend since mid-December. The commodity index is down primarily due to oil, as agriculture and base metals are essentially flat on the year after a recent climb.

Correlations between stocks and bonds have increased recently, with equities being flat over the past 6 weeks as bond prices have declined over the last two weeks.   While this phenomenon is negative for investors, equities appear to remain well inside their uptrend while bonds (and gold) appear to be near medium-term support levels.  We may see both stocks, bonds, and gold again climb concurrently reflecting a continuation of the year to date behavior.

What has been driving stock prices?  Growing earnings, low interest rates, lack of inflation, and ‘moderate’ GDP growth are the most common reasons to explain how prices have gotten to these levels.  Earnings have been on the rise since the end of the ‘earnings recession’ that lasted from June 2014 through March 2016.   After a decline of some 14% we’re now growing again, even robustly, given the low base from the previous year.  Earnings are still one or two quarters away from hitting new all-time highs, yet the S&P500 is roughly 20% higher than in early 2015.  The chart below gives us a visual of what prices rising faster than earnings looks like. Anytime the ratio is moving up indicates prices climbing faster than earnings.

shiller cape 6 30 2017Source: www.multpl.com

By this metric (and there are many others) stocks are valued at a level only exceeded by the roaring ‘20s and the dot-com era.  Can earnings continue to grow to support valuations?  The continued lack of wage growth and continued generationally low labor participation rate are headwinds to growth in consumer spending.  Consumer credit growth has slowed dramatically over the past six months and without wage or credit growth it’s difficult to see how the consumer will spend more to support ‘moderate’ GDP growth.  Low interest rates, or the comparison of low rates to dividend and earnings yield have provided much support over the past several years to the reasoning behind bidding up stocks faster than their earnings growth.

Interest rates bottomed one year ago at 1.3% (10-year treasury) and then ran up to 2.6%, mid-range since 2010 and the upper range of rates since late 2013.  The jury is out still on whether this marks the end of the bond bull market that has lasted since 1981.  The problem is that if consumers and businesses must increase their interest expense, there is that much less left to expand their consumption and investment.   Low rates had been a key enabler of more borrowing, leading to more consumption, and higher profits.  Now, in some areas, analysts are saying that higher rates are ALSO good for stocks because it represents growth expectations.  Frankly we’ve been ‘expecting’ growth now for several years, and the only positive representation of growth (GDP) we have seen is due to a willful under-reporting of inflation.   Gains in expenses in housing, healthcare, and education have far outstripped the general inflation rate.  At the same time, official statisticians tell us our TVs, cell phones, and other tech devices are far cheaper, because we ‘get more’ for our money.  This is called hedonic adjustments.  Look this up and you will understand why one’s personal experience with the cost of living doesn’t mesh with the official inflation statistics.

It seems the main reasons we are given for buoyant stock prices appear tapped out or stretched.  The thing is, it’s been like this for a few years now.  So then, what really is driving prices?  Some of it has to do with FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out.  No one wants to get left behind as prices rise, even if said prices already appear expensive.   As fundamentals have deteriorated over the past few years what is causing or who could be that marginal buyer who always seems to have more money to put towards financial assets? Perhaps this chart has something to do with it.

Central-Bank-Balance-Sheets-Versus-MSCI-World-Index

As central banks have purchased outstanding bonds (and equities in the cases of Japan, Switzerland and Israel among others) the cash or liquidity provided has found its way back into the equity markets.  Additional effects have been to put a bid under bonds, increasing prices and lowering rates.  What many investors in the U.S. don’t realize is that the European and Japanese central banks continue to this day putting approximately $400 billion per month into the financial markets.  If this is the true reason behind stock and bond price levels today, any cessation, slowing or even anticipation of slowing will likely have negative effects on asset prices.  The chart below shows where the U.S. Fed ended its QE efforts while Japan and Europe picked up all the slack and then some.  The astute observer can see where the Fed tapered, while the ECB was not adding liquidity, from 2014 to 2015.  From mid-2014 to early 2016, the Vanguard FTSE Europe ETF dropped by 29%.

central bank buying 4 2017

Beyond central bank liquidity creation there is also the concept of growth in the private sector.  Here too we see that a phenomenal amount of debt must be created to sustain growth.   New debt creation in China dwarfs the rest of the world.  China has put up high growth numbers the past several years, more than 7% annually.

private sector debt creation qe

Going forward it will be crucial to watch for central banks’ behavior as to ending current ‘QE’ policies.  Japan is still committed to a 0% 10yr bond rate, yet the ECB has begun to state that its bond buying won’t last forever, and is likely to slow by mid-2018.  The U.S. Fed has indicated continued tightening via rate hikes (likely one more this year) and to begin to let ‘roll off’ maturing bonds.  The roll-off will take liquidity from the markets.  It will start small and gradually increase in 2019 and thereafter.  These cessation tactics are done under the current understanding that financial conditions are ‘easy’.  Put another way, the banks will start to slow new liquidity and then drain liquidity as long as financial conditions, which include stock market levels, don’t get to difficult.   What exactly is the Fed’s downside tolerance is unknown.  What is knowable, is that the decision-making process takes months to be put into effect and by that time, markets could move down and growth could halt.

Near Term vs Long Term

The concepts of credit creation and central bank balance sheets and their respective monetary policies are will have impacts on asset prices over the longer term.   Year over year earnings growth forecasts, specific companies’ ‘beats’ or ‘misses’ and monthly data on inflation, job growth, and wages all have short term impacts on the stock market.  Currently, earnings are expected to grow robustly, official inflation is subdued and official unemployment are all in the “very good” range.  Combine that with the Fear Of Missing Out concept and that should help keep the markets up and even higher for a while longer.  The problem is that simply because we want markets to move higher doesn’t mean they will.  At some point paying 30x earnings will seem too expensive and the markets will lose some marginal buyers and some will become sellers, for whatever reason.   Based on current valuation metrics and the business cycle, we know that equity returns over the next several years will be very low.  If rates go up, and/or credit (the ability to pay) worsens for individuals and businesses bond funds will likely suffer as well.  Over the long term, avoiding large losses or drawdowns, even while lagging the market on the upside, can have a dramatic positive impact over a full market cycle.

What Can Be Done

If one suspects returns will be lackluster, and prices volatile, should one endure it?  The solution is at once simple and difficult at the same time given our cultural of equity ownership and the media’s constant focus on one asset class: equities.

Diversifying amongst the other 6 asset classes is a start.  Most advice revolves around two classes, stocks and bonds.  If one truly wants to buy low and sell high, one must identify the other areas that are “low”, increase exposure there, and reduce exposure to “high” asset classes.  Not only does this smooth out volatility but can increase long term returns.   Given the outlook for more volatility in stock and bond prices; very low prices (historically and relative to other assets) in precious metals, agriculture and oil; there should be many opportunities to take advantage of short term swings to benefit and move some ‘eggs’ from the equity side into other, non- and lower-correlated asset classes that are currently much lower in price.

Easier said than done, yes.  This is exactly why investors should seek out Investment Advisors willing to do this difficult work and that have a strategy to deal with changing markets.  For more information on how I am doing this for my clients, please contact me.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

This commentary is not intended as investment advice or an investment recommendation. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Price and yield are subject to daily change and as of the specified date. Information provided is solely the opinion or our investment managers at the time of writing. Nothing in the commentary should be construed as a solicitation to buy or sell securities. Information provided has been prepared from sources deemed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed by NAMCO and may not be a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision.  Liquid securities, such as those held within managed portfolios, can fall in value. Naples Asset Management Company, LLC is an SEC Registered Investment Adviser. For more information, please contact us at awaszkowski@namcoa.com.