Client Note March 2021

April 13, 2021

The first quarter was marked by two distinct phases. The first phase was a continuation of markets climb from the late October early November lows which peaked in mid-February. The second phase was characterized by a distinct outperformance in value or cyclical areas of the market. This is the third instance in the past 16 months where we have seen value outperform growth.  Generally, this does not persist for more than a month or two.

The S&P 500 gained 5.5% during the first quarter while the aggregate bond index fell 3.7%.  Oil gained 26%, aiding the energy sector’s gains of 31% and gold fell by 10%    Corporate bond prices fell by 5.4%. Junk bond prices were unchanged.  This is a slightly odd relationship, but indicative of ‘risk-on’ alongside a rise in interest rates.   The gain in the general stock market and decline in bonds (and gold) left most balanced and multi-asset portfolios flat or in the low single digits.  With energy up, bonds and gold down, and seemingly only the largest companies are carrying the general stock indices higher.

Most recently, gold appears to have formed a “double bottom” in late March and has made slight gains. Stocks continue to grind up, but with the largest names leading.  This contrasts with the period from April 2020 to February where micro- and small-cap stocks dramatically outperformed large stocks.  If we do not see a re-rotation into smaller stocks and those outside the major indices may be the prelude to a larger market pause in the coming months.

Bonds too may have realized a bottom in mid-March as prices have been net sideways.  A bit more improvement in prices (rates lower) should begin a nice rally, giving a reprieve to the general investor who have gained in stock prices, but lost some on bonds, especially for the more conservative.

How could or would interest rates actually decline?  Again, we see in the media how ‘everyone’ knows rates are going higher and inflation is at the door due to either ‘cash on the sidelines’ (doesn’t exist), or bank savings, or ‘pent up demand’.  Once ‘everyone’ knows something its more likely the near-term trend is over or soon will be.  We may already see this in gold and bonds, as interest in these areas is low, while SPACSs and cryptocurrency are all the rage currently.

Inflation concerns are due to the recent and quick rise in rates that have its roots in price increases due to supply-chain problems and the Asian/China resurgence and stimulus.  Supply chains issues will be resolved on their own in short order.  High prices attract businesses to produce more/fix problems which lead to lower prices, the essence of a free market.   Very recent news tells us that China’s credit impulse/stimulus has begun to wane.  The past 10 years we have seen two previous large credit cycles in China.  China is a massive buyer of raw materials and we have seen prices in commodities rise the past year driven by easy money from China.  There is about a 3–6-month lag time until we see the impact of a change   in China’s rate of credit creation.   Given that this China credit data is already 4 months old should mean, as recent price action alludes, a decline in interest rates and commodity prices and thusly, inflation expectations.

While stocks look to have another 5-7% upside momentum, the asset classes that have faired worse recently should see gains alongside stocks.  As mentioned in the past Notes, its post July 4 that concerns me the most when we may see a flattening of economic growth and decline in expectations of rapid growth which can weigh on risk assets.

The reason I am concerned about the second half of the year comes from a few places.  Valuations are exceptionally high right now.  Many metrics are above 1999 levels.  This is commonly discounted due to the low interest rates.  If we are elevated over 1999 levels, how much more elevated should we accept? Another element to today’s market is the ever-present Fed liquidity.  Yes, the Fed could continue as long as there is dollar-denominated debt to liquify.   And finally, there is the current expectations that we are entering a new era of high growth.   Its this last item that is most sensitive to changes in short term economic and Covid data.

The high growth thesis stems from stimulus in the pipeline and the observations that inflation is occurring.   Stimulus, or government infrastructure spending will take years to filter through the economy.  Inflation as measured by the CPI varies greatly, while the PCE is smoother (and what the Fed watches).  One can clearly see the past overshoots of the CPI vs. the PCE, and PCE is trending down.  Once supply chain issues are resolved/lessened and Chinas credit impulse fade, its likely CPI will catch down to PCE.

If inflation expectations come down, while job growth and spending data come in cool, beginning in the next few months, we could see forward expectations and valuations come down, pulling ‘risk assets’ with it.  Add in any kind of Covid 4th wave or failure at herd immunity via vaccinations, we could see the most powerful driver of asset prices, optimism, take a hit; and along with it create a more volatile period for stocks.

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.

Client Note December 2020

January 12, 2021

2020, despite a massive pandemic and a severe global recession, central banks, with some fiscal assistance from governments, have managed to keep financial asset prices elevated.  Significant declines in revenues, profits and employment arguably the worst since the 1930’s alongside surging stock index price levels, have conspired to give us the most overvalued market since 1929 or 2000 (some argue “ever”).    How long can this endure?  Depends on when central banks begin to whisper about ‘normalization’.

For 2020, the SP500 gained 18.4%, the aggregate bond index gained 7.5%, and gold gained 26%.  European shares eked out a positive year while the Asian indexes fared very well.  My conservative portfolios gained mid to upper single digits while the average moderate portfolio gained a bit more than 13% on the year.   The pullback in Moderna and precious metals provided a weak end and lackluster start to the year.    The energy sector was the worst sector in the SP500, losing 28% and the tech sector fared the best gaining 48%.  Healthcare and energy are likely to be strong outperformers in 2021.  The addition of TSLA to the SP500 has increased the risk of market volatility. Past observances of new additions to the index show they generally perform worse than prior to their addition.  TSLAs outrageous market value (valued more than the 9 largest global auto makers combined; selling at 28x sales) and the 7th largest company in the index, put the index and any sector it is in at risk of increased volatility.

Gold and gold miners are at risk of starting another correction.  Recent lows at Thanksgiving are being approached.  The rally from late November to January 6 was the largest run up since gold’s consolidation began in August.  However, IF we can hold the longer-term uptrend, upside potential is significant.   Bonds too, are seeing prices under pressure as metals/lumber/agriculture/oil prices’ surge is generating calls of “Inflation!”.   It’s quite early to claim prices are going up due to renewed growth.

Asia came out of the COVID-19 lockdowns much quicker and effectively than western nations.  This re-opening (as a result of very stringent testing/tracing/ and effective lockdowns) allowed those economies to re-stock and re-open driving up demand and prices for raw commodities.   From 2015 to late 2017 base metal prices and oil were moving up quickly.  Cries of inflation were heard then as well.  Inflation never showed up (unless you count 2.1% as INFLATION).  This is due directly to US consumer spending growth, or lack thereof.

Aggregate consumer spending is significantly below trend.    Dig a little deeper and you can see many economic indicators picked up in 2015 through 2017, then rolled over during summer 2018, after the brief impact of tax reform (most of the benefits went to the top where additional money isn’t spent). Current total annual spending was $14.8trillion and growing at 4.2% for the past few years (income at almost the exact same rate).  MOST recently spending has declined the past few months while aggregate income also is declining.  Today we can see the next few months will likely show a spending gap of $1trillion.  A $1trillion gap is almost 7% of total spending and reflects the concurrent GDP output gap and an outright decline in GDP of around 4% year over year.  Looking ahead, the real problem may lie in the US inability to deal with the virus effectively.  Yesterday, an article stated that in Ohio, 50% of nursing home workers are refusing the vaccine.   Layer in low compliance with mask mandates (>70% compliance in order to be effective), and I truly wonder if an end to the virus is, in fact, in the offing.

As a consumer driven economy, the point is, while one can find prices of products higher (or packaging smaller at the same price), we spent a lot less in 2020 and will continue into 2021.  And unless personal spending increases, we should not see a difference in the economy or inflation going forward.  This may bode well for bonds.  TLT the 20-yr treasury bond elf, gained more than 15% in 2020, but has fallen a similar amount off its highs this summer.  Expectations for higher rates may have gotten ahead of itself and we could be near a low in prices.  Layer in the fact that bets against prices are near extremes may indicate the decline in bond prices is nearing an end.

In addition, or perhaps running parallel to the decline in spending is the truly massive amount of people on unemployment insurance.  In 2006, Continuing Claims for unemployment insurance hit a low of 2.35 million.  This began to increase in early 2007 and hit a high of 6.62million in June 2009, after the Great Financial Crisis. By June 2010, this fell to below 4.5million, and continued to decline into October 2018 to 1.65million. Claims remained flat until February 2020.  May 9, 2020 claims hit 24.91million.  And over the past 8 months has receded to only 5.1million.  It was only in November that our current Continuing Claims for Unemployment Insurance fell below the GFR Peak in 2010.  The number and duration of unemployment today has not been seen in the post WWII era.  Fortunately, today, we have unemployment insurance and a Federal Reserve acting to support financial markets (almost perpetually since 2009).

We should not expect any kind of normalization in the economy or improving numbers at least until employment, and thusly spending, improve rapidly.  This is completely dependent upon containing the spread of covid-19.

Due to the length and depth of the declines in spending and employment, the longer-term collateral damage will not be seen until things begin to normalize. Once all the rent and loan deferments, PPP loans, random stimulus checks, and enhanced unemployment benefits disappear we will be able to see the extent of the long -term damage.   Ironically, that knowledge will come at the same time we declare victory over this virus-recession and may be concurrent with a market decline.

In the meantime, let us hope the Fed does not mention ANYthing about tapering the current $120billion per month they are pumping into the financial markets, hoping that the Wealth Effect is more than theory.  So, while prices continue to climb, we will participate and listen intently for any signs the Fed is “confident” enough to reduce the variety of market interventions currently underway.

 

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.

Client Note July 2020

After a brief pause in June, financial markets continued their climb, trying to get to even on the year.  Of the major indexes, only the tech-heavy NASDAQ has managed to make new all-time highs.  The discrepancy across indexes is significant.

Off its all-time high             year to date price return

The Dow:                              -10% (Feb 2020)                                  -7%

S&P 500                                 -4% (Feb 2020)                                 +1%

Russell 2000 (small cap)    -12%   (Jan 2020)                               -10%

NASDAQ                                  -3% (July 2020)                                 +20%

EAFE (Eur/Afr/Far East)      -15%  (Jan 2018)                                 -8%

 

Inside the NASDAQ, the top “6” holdings are Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet A shares and Alphabet B shares.  These 5 stocks make up 44% of the index.  What this means is that only a handful of stocks, in one sector, are keeping the overall indexes up.  One can say, “so goes tech, so goes the markets”.    US mega cap growth/tech has been the only game in town.   More recently tech has weakened against the rest of the market.   If tech loses it dominance without another sector or two to take the reins, equity markets will have a bumpy second half 2020.

Portfolios I manage continue to do very well.  Gold is in the news a lot recently.  Over the past 15 months, gold has dramatically outperformed equity markets, and climbed 65% since November 2018.  The last 15% of that has come in the past two weeks.  Trimming and taking profits is on the schedule for August.   The individual stocks I choose from time to time have become a mixed bag.  IRBT and APRN recently reported significant upside earnings surprises, only to be sold off hard.  I am seeing this in several areasIts feeling like a ‘sell the news’ kind of market.  After a 50% climb since the March lows, its not inconceivable that stocks will take a breather.  Perhaps even give back some as we adapt to living with Covid19.     Clients can probably observe the steps I have taken to reduce exposure and take some profits, so that if/when we get a correction, it should not be too painful.

July 30, 2020 has the potential to be a historic day.   GDP for the second quarter 2020, covering March 30 through June 30 will be released.  Current estimates are to see a contraction in US GDP of -30%.  This would be the worst quarter since Dec 1946 and sets up the worst year since then as well.  While this is widely known to people who follow it, I am sure it will be a shock to some, and widely covered in the financial press.   In addition, all the tech stocks mentioned above will report earnings.  They will all be very profitable, but if this is indeed a ‘sell the news’ market, beware.  Microsoft already reported on July 22, beating estimates, and was sold off by 6%, recovering only a part of that decline this past week.

The economy is not coming back as fast as hoped and is already showing signs of levelling off.  Roughly 10% of our economy has disappeared (hospitality/tourism).   As long as the Fed promises, and CONTINUES to inflate the monetary base, financial markets can remain elevated However, if a small correction gets out of hand, the Fed has little influence in the very short term—and not much new to offer.  .  The real economy however will not come back without greater spending from consumers and businesses—either through earned wages, or stimulus, or loans/credit.

 

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Client Note June 2020

As we close June and the first half of 2020, financial markets continue their rebound from the first quarter’s corona-crash.  In very volatile markets there will be many “best/worst X since Y”.  The close at 3100 on the SP500 reflects the best quarter in the sp500 since 1987, with a gain of 19.9%.  After a 36% decline off the all-time high and subsequent 40% gain, puts the SP500 at -4% year to date and -9% below the all-time highs.  Our average moderate portfolio gained almost 15% for the quarter and is up 4% on the year.  While further upside is possible but in the short term, US equity markets are in a downtrend since June 23.  On a larger time, frame, we have downtrends since June 8 and off the highs on February 19thGetting over 3200 should open the door towards 3400+, but if we lose the 3000 level, my medium-term outlook will change.  Our individual stocks continue to do very well.

International equities continue to sorely lag US equities.  European shares gained 2.5% on the month, and currently sit at -14% year to date.  Japan gained 1% and China ebbed 1.6% on the month and both fall well short of the SP500 at -7% and -9%, respectively, year to date.  Emerging markets were the winner on the month at +6% but also have made far less progress recovering post-crash, coming in at     -11% year to date. We sold the last bits of emerging and international equities towards the end of the month.

In credit markets, treasuries have dominated over all other areas of the bond markets.  The long bond/20-yr treasury ebbed by 2.25% during the month, is flat for the quarter and up a massive 20% for 2020.  Even with equivalent maturities, treasuries are outpacing investment grade and junk bonds by 5% and 17%(!) respectively.  The investment grade corporate bond etf, LQD is up 5.1% ytd, while junk bond etf, JNK is -7.7% ytd.   This disparity is due to the rapid credit deterioration seen during this severe recession.  Given this, and spike in covid19 cases, its unlikely rates will rise appreciably in the near term.  Our long treasury position was reduced late March at slightly higher prices.

Economic data released in June continue to show improvement over the April/May shutdown (naturally).    The pace at which the economy would rebound after reopening is a hot topic.  We are seeing rapid improvement in some areas but the estimates versus data are showing extremely poor forecasting ability by economists in the short term.  I am watching year over year data to see how much rebound we are getting.  If July and August data show similar growth as May and June, we could see 90% of more of the economy back by Labor Day.  The trend of economic recovery is far more important than the level.  Ideally, we will trend higher and higher until full recovery.   At the end of July, we will get the first read on GDP for the second quarter.  The Atlanta Fed current estimate has risen to   -36%. 

Looking forward, the recent spike in virus cases has opened the door to the risk that the re-opening of the economy will be slowed, as we are more likely to see county or regional shutdowns.  Continued support from the Fed and continuation of stimulus programs are critical.  A bit higher in equities may provide some momentum to get to 3400 and Fed intervention can keep rates low.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Client Note May 2020

June 1, 2020

Like April, equity markets started the month of May off slowly, but over the past 10 days, the S&P500 has gained roughly 4.5% on the month putting it at -5.7% year to date.    International equity indices gained a bit more for the month but continue to lag the U.S. by a wide margin.     Bonds were generally flat, with junk bonds moving up alongside stocks, while a small move up in interest rates pushed the long bond (TLT) down slightly on the month.   Gold moved up almost 3% on the month, after being up almost 4% mid-month.  And our individual stocks continue to do well, enabling our average moderate portfolio to add just over 3.5% for May and for year to date returns approaching 4%.

Looking ahead, it appears investors are pricing the market in expectation of a solid second half recovery and near full economic recovery into 2021.  While investors have bid up prices in anticipation, there is a loooong way to go to recover from the sinkhole we are in.   Current earnings estimates for second quarter are expected to drop 35%, reflecting a full year estimate of around $100/share of the SP500. If that occurs and the expected earnings bounce in Q3 and Q4, we have a forward Price to Earnings ratio of 30x, which is extremely expensive.  We will see earnings in mid-July; first read on GDP at the end of July; and all the while we will see employment numbers each week.   On going jobless claims have now exceeded 20 million, reflecting an unemployment rate a bit under 15%.   Economic data will remain dire.  The hope is that employment and spending figures rebound rapidly in the coming weeks. 

As mentioned last month, the expectations and sentiment that direct short term prices are well ahead of actual improvements in employment or spending (declining).  We have made significant progress in flattening the curve with the virus.  We have seen stock prices climb dramatically alongside the hope of a rapid economic recovery. However, we are seeing an even more stretched disparity between current prices and reality on the ground.  This does keep markets at risk of wide price vacillations.

Attaining and holding 3000 on the SP500 does allow for further upside in the markets and while I rotate out of individual stocks that have lost their ‘mojo’ (or take profits), there is another handful I am tracking and may show up in portfolios in the coming days.  In my April Observations and Outlook, with tongue firmly in cheek, I outlined a path for stocks to 4000 if the Fed continues to add liquidity/monetize debt. Since that writing, the Fed has covered a quarter of that quantity.  The rise in the Fed balance sheet has paralleled a rise in equity prices. The Fed continues to plan for and express willingness to continue its balance sheet expansion in pursuit of its stated mandates: full employment and stable prices.

Prices across virtually all asset classes remain constructive considering Fed actions and optimism towards renewed economic vigor.  State re-openings have occurred, and the expectations are for rapid improvement in employment and spending.  There is a nascent uptick in the outperformance of equal-weighted and value indexes versus the general market.  This market characteristic often shows up at the beginning of economic expansions and longer bull markets.  June’s economic data and market price action should give us a great deal of insight into the remainder of the year.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Client Note April 2020

Equity markets moved up strongly in April.  The S&P500 moved up 12%, and currently off 3% from the April 29th intraday high.  Gold jumped early in the month, then flat for a gain of 7% in April.  Long treasury bonds moved up in price by 1% but have been on the wane since April 21st.   Most asset classes have been rangebound (+/-3%) since early to mid-April, reflecting a decrease in market momentum.  The average moderate portfolio gained approximately 9% vs the SP500 gains of 12% in April.  Year to date, through April 30, SP500 is off 9.9% while most portfolios are very close to 0% year to date. 

Economic data continues to come in at extremely negative levels.  Auto sales fell by 45% April 2020 vs April 2019.  China, in February saw a 90% drop.  Current market sentiment is bearish and consumer confidence declined from 101 in February to 71 in April.  This is similar to the decline from February 2007 to June 2008 (the month Fannie and Freddie’s first attempted bailout, after losing 50% of their value that month), which saw a decline of 35%.  This could be another reflection on how this recession is being ‘front-loaded’.   We have seen already how GDP and employment has fallen as much as the entire 2008 Great Financial Crisis, but now expect robust rebound by year end.

In light of all this, equity markets have remained buoyant, after the March decline.  This may further indicate the front-loaded- ‘ness’ of this economic period.  And at the root of it all is the expectation that the economy will rebound strongly in the second half and especially in the 4th quarter of 2020.  While GDP estimates for Q2, which will come out at the end of July, range from -10% to -30% (annualized basis), some estimates for Q4 are as high as +20%.    I believe that we are again priced for perfection.  The past few years saw valuations (price to earnings, price to sales, etc.) elevated with expectations of an acceleration in earnings and wages to justify the then-current prices.  Today a significant economic rebound is priced into the market.   If the economy in late May and June isn’t picking up quickly enough it could put pressure on equity prices.  It depends on re-opening the economy and that depends on subduing the pandemic.

We have seen momentum decline recently and thus increases the potential for volatility in equity markets.  If the S&P500 cannot breakout above 3000 in the near term, we’re likely to remain rangebound vacillating +/- 6%.  Bonds and gold are at a point where they are testing support and have the potential to move several percent as well.  If we are to remain rangebound, my preference would be to reduce risk until there is more confidence in further upside.

On a side note, I have significantly reduced the amount of cable and national news I watch on TV.  It’s the same sad and fearful story we’ve heard the past 6 weeks.  I have noticed I feel better doing this.  A client went back north recently and was surprised/disheartened at the difference in the local news in Naples vs the local news in the tri-state area.  Avoiding the bad news TV and enjoying the good news of spending time with family/projects/hobbies/exercise can be an important factor in getting through this time and being ready to embrace the other side of this crisis.

Stay safe and thank you,

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Observations and Outlook April 2020

Current State of the Markets

After the most precipitous fall in market history and now a 50% bounce-back, investors are trying to figure which way the wind blows.   The NFIB (Natl Federation of Independent Businesses) estimates that half of all small businesses cannot survive the shutdown through June.  Small businesses make up half of all employment.   We are already seeing massively negative numbers in unemployment claims and PMI surveys.  This is expected given our current situation.   IF unemployment is going to 25%, has the market priced this in already, albeit briefly?  Will the several trillion dollars in stimulus and liquidity overpower economic gravity and keep asset prices elevated?  Valuations for stocks had been in the top 2% most expensive of all time, for a couple of years.  If prices stay or climb higher without commensurate wage/economic activity, valuations could surpass recent levels—inflation in assets, deflation in wages.  In the past, these two generally have not gone together, except in the post 2008 era.

In addition, past recessions have seen job losses increase over several periods.  This time, a lot of the economic impact is happening in a short period of time.  Much of the impact is being front-loaded AND is expected to be short-lived.  Estimates are that GDP has contracted as much as all the previous recession.  As we contract further, the risk that we have not done enough stimulus becomes greater, extending the timeframe for recovery which in turn will lower sentiment and expectations for asset prices.

Which is it? Bull or Bear Market?

The terms bull and bear have a long history, dating back to the 18th century during the South Seas Bubble.   Some attribute the attacking postures each animal takes, the bull goring and lifting upward; the bear, swiping its claws downward.  The definitions we use today though are very new, dating only to the 1970’s.  The arbitrary 20% measurement to label a market as a bull market or bear market can be misleading.   We say today that the recent fall was greater than 20%, thus a ‘bear’ market; and now we have seen prices rise more than 20% from the bottom, a ‘bull’ market.  Do these labels help us in determining whether to be invested in stock markets? Do these labels provide any clarity to the nature or outlook for the markets? No, on both questions.   For a far longer time the terms bearish and bullish have been used to describe the nature of the market.  Bear-ish and bull-ish can better describe the character of the market one is in.  A trend can be described with these terms, also the behavior can be better characterized with these terms.  In bearish markets, large daily movements can be seen in the context of a downtrend.  Bearish markets move fast.  Bullish markets are a slower daily grind in an uptrend with a rare day showing more than 1% or 2% move.   Its certainly a subjective interpretation, but the change from a bearish market to a bullish market, in addition to a visible trend change, should also see smaller intraday percentage moves.   While the daily trend has turned up, the daily percentage moves remain elevated.

A Visual of Fed Interventions

Recently, some famous names from the 2008 crash reflected on that period and concluded they should have acted faster and with larger amounts of stimulus.   The Fed certainly has taken that to heart this time around and indeed has acted with vigor.  The first chart below tracks the Fed’s actions overlaid with the S&P500.  Even after the bottom, the Fed continued with QE 1, 2, Operation Twist, and QE 3.

fed actions vs sp500 2008

All the Fed actions, in real time, did nothing to stem the decline in prices.  The S&P 500 Price to Earnings ratio in early 2009 exceeded 100 (trailing 12 months earnings).  In late 2008, we saw 50+, prior to banks recognition of their losses.  Here is another chart, with recent Fed actions overlaid against the S&P 500.

fed actions vs sp500 2020 resized

Looking at these, an honest question is whether the Fed has any influence over equity markets in the short term.

Covid-19 or Global Dollar Funding Issues?

Few remember way back in September 2019 when the US overnight interbank lending rate increased by a factor of 5, rising from the targeted 2.2% to almost 10% (annual rate, intraday) on September 16th.  This caused the Fed to intervene, putting $53billion into interbank lending on an overnight basis.  The overnight lending quickly morphed into multi-day and multi-week repurchases agreements totaling more than $300B in a few weeks.  Previously banks had been lending to each other, overnight, secured with collateral (red line).  The Fed went from no participation in the $1 trillion+ overnight market to more than $350 billion, and then moved from repurchase agreement to outright permanent purchases and began the massive balance sheet expansion we are seeing today.  The Fed balance sheet rose from $3.76T in mid-September 2019, to $4.3 by March 11, and now is $6.4 trillion. Another $1 trillion and the recent expansion will be larger than QE 1, 2 and 3 combined.

The red line secured overnight lending began spring 2018, right after the February 2018 market correction, AND foreign dollar-funding costs (TED spread- orange line) jumped to the highest level since 2009.  The volume of funding increased for several months until banks ran short on capital to use as security, as dictated by liquidity rules in the Volcker Rule.   While demand (red line) had been growing for liquid cash dollars, the amount of collateral used to secure this lending was not enough, and when demand outpaces supply, the price (overnight funding rate—green line) goes up.  But that price was too high, and the Fed intervened, and the total volume of dollar funding continued to increase (red and blue lines together) at an increasing rate.

repos global dollar

We can see how due to the demand for US dollars began to increase in early 2018 (orange line), funding for dollars increased to a point where major banks could not meet demand for dollar liquidity, and the Fed stepped in and took over funding.  There was balance in the supply and demand from November 2019 to the end of February 2020.  From February 26 to March 4, the TED spread (a measure of stress in markets) began to grow rapidly.  The economic contraction stemming from Covid-19 exacerbated the serious issue of dollar funding (less activity means less trade/less dollar flow).  Today the Fed is fighting the dollar crisis AND the loss of over $2trillion in US output/GDP.

Monetary Base and the case for S&P 500 to 4000

For most of the post WW2 era, the growth of the monetary base (all currency and bank reserves) tracked the growth in GDP.  Historically, growth in GDP lined up very well to growth in the S&P 500 over a full business cycle.  During the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) with hundreds of billions of mortgage loans going bad, there was a risk that if all the loans were marked to their true worth that the monetary base would contract, resulting in a deflationary debt spiral.  In our current system all money is created by new credit.  If too many loans go bad, the monetary base declines as money that was lent/created disappears as collateral prices decline, and loans are not paid back.

The solution was for the Fed, for the first time in its history to accept as collateral (and purchase outright) mortgage-backed securities.  As the Fed accepted these securities, it provided cash to banks. Without the burden of non- or poor- performing loan, banks were freed up to lend again.  As this new cash was put into the system it also flowed into risk assets like the stock market.

The chart below clearly shows the relationship between QE and the S&P 500.  New cash found its way into stocks and pushed prices up.  The period after QE3 and the brief ‘balance sheet normalization’ saw the most significant corrections post GFC.  A minor 15% correction after the base stopped expanding in early 2016 followed by a 19% decline late 2018 and now the 30% decline most recently.  Other banks, namely China did keep expanding their monetary base in late 2015 and into 2016.  Then as China’s credit impulse wore off and as mentioned earlier, demand for US dollars kept increasing while the Fed lowered supply, we had the late 2018 market sell off.  The Fed backed off its plan to raise interest rates and cut rates summer 2019.  These actions aided liquidity and stock moved up after both actions.

With each QE period we saw the monetary base and the S&P 500 market capitalization increase.

Change in S&P 500             Change Monetary Base

QE 1              +37%                   +33%                                                                                   QE 2              +12%                  +33%                                                                           QE3/Twist    +53%                  +52%                                                                               2019 Cuts    +34%                 -20%  needed rate cuts were due to MB decline  2020             -15%                       +43%

monetary base

Currently the Fed is trying to increase the monetary base to keep asset prices and liquidity up.  We do not know yet to what degree the current recession will lead to loan losses and other credit destruction.  In addition to loans going south there is the general decline in output as we are locked down.

Through April 8th, the Fed has increased the monetary base by $1.2T, or 35% over late 2019 levels.  $1.2T may be the approximate output lost during the lockdown.  The Fed has expanded its collateral and purchases from treasuries and mortgage backed securities to now include junk bonds, corporate bonds, and other collateralized loans.   Over the past week and going forward the Fed will likely continue to monetize these securities, further expanding the monetary base.  If we see another $2T to the monetary base (Fed balance sheet expansion) that would approximate a 100% change in the MB and potentially impact the S&P500 similarly, going from 2100 in late March to 4000 by end of the year.   In this scenario, one would have to accept a reality of 12% unemployment concurrent with S&P500 at 3500+, and a $2 trillion annual deficit.  The wealth disparity would be substantially more extreme than in recent past.

We are entering a period in US history like no other.  The reaction to the Covid19 virus has put the economy into a self-induced coma.   Current expectations are that monetary and fiscal stimulus will pave over/fill in lost income and liquidity setting the stage for a return to economic growth.  The problem with this thesis is that we do not know how long the shutdown will last and after many small businesses run out of cash and close, how many people will get hired back.   There is substantial risk of extremely poor economic data to persist for several months.   The knock-on effects of a prolonged shutdown are difficult to estimate.  The more unknowns, the longer the shutdown, the worse the global dollar shortage, the more extreme market movements we are likely to see.

 

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

 

 

March Client Note

The collapse in prices is the fastest decline of 20%, off the market highs, ever.   Looking into the immediate future, the economic/unemployment/earnings data will be horrible.  GDP for Q1 will come in at -15%, Q2 may see -20%.  These should be expected given we’ve shut 1/3 of the economy down.  In a ‘normal’ recession, this data accumulates over several weeks and months, not all at once.  Most of the bad data were going to see is going to be front-loaded, and we will see this throughout April and into May.   Over the same 8 weeks, sentiment will change much more rapidly as the light at the end of the tunnel becomes more/less apparent.   Prices of financial assets will react even more quickly.  Those 3 elements (econ data, sentiment, market prices)  work together but at different paces, and appear to contradict at times (like the day the Fed announced all the backstop measures, markets fell—not because stimulus is bad but probably due to the increasing alarm over the virus).

As of March 31st, the SP500 is down 20%; the Dow is off 23%; US small cap stocks -31%; Nasdaq -14%; eurozone stocks -25%; long treasury bond (TLT) +21% and gold +4%.    The average moderate portfolio is down about 9% year to date.

During the quarter, we hedged the equity side of portfolios during the early decline (not changing actual positioning, just owning the hedge then removing it).   The idea is always to buy low/sell high and removing the hedge was akin to buying/gaining exposure at lower prices.   Long treasury bonds have done very well, and we have sold some into strength, locking in some gains.  Technology has been one of the stronger areas and have increased this area substantially.    In addition, we’ve added equity exposure via SP500 etf, IVV, at the 2550 SP500 level.  I plan to add more, once the pullback eases and prices are constructive again.

As it stands now, most portfolios have increased equities compared to the beginning of the quarter, with less exposure to bonds.  Gold still has some potential, but as I’ve mentioned before gains will be more gradual and believe $1700+ is attainable.  The near-term market movements will likely be tied to the general expectations of when the US can get back to work.   The past couple of days’ weakness, I believe, is tied to the extension from April 12 to April 30 of guidelines established to slow the spread of covid19.

My expectations (given the truly massive and quick stimulus) are that we are now in the pullback from the initial bounce in stock prices.  I believe it is likely to see another leg up over the next couple of weeks.   Staying over 2400 on the SP500 is very important.  The combination of several trillion dollars of stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, combined with the concept that the covid19 crisis will end, does set the stage for possibly, a very substantial rally in stocks in the coming months.  Very generally, if there is now (or soon will be) $2-5 trillion (new money) in the financial system and we get back 90% of GDP that has been lost,  prices could go much higher even if fundamentals don’t recover–that’s post-2009 in a nutshell.   Before that we need to turn the corner on the virus.

The past couple months has been a lesson in which is more difficult:  to sell high or buy low?   Buying high and selling low are easy choices.   “Everyone” is doing it and it feels better to be a part of the crowd, ‘getting a piece of the action’ when in bull market; and conversely ‘stopping the pain’ in a bear market.   Believe me, it is much more difficult to lean into the market in early stages than to jump on the bandwagon once most of a move has already occurred.   This is weighed against market outlook and risk tolerance.       The other lesson is basic financial planning:  do you have 2-6 months of living expenses on hand in case of financial disruption?  And is your at-risk money truly a multi-year holding period.    It’s no fun to be forced to sell into a weak market to raise cash for living expenses.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

Yield Curve Inverts (again, and continuing)

Yesterday, and this morning, the yield on the 30-yr Treasury bond made its all-time historic lows.  This is extraordinary, especially given the vast amount of stimulus and low unemployment rate.

However, the news on the teevee seems to be harping on the Yield Curve Inversion regarding the 10-yr and 2-yr treasury rates.   This is old news.   Yield curve inversions have been everywhere over the past several months, yet barely a mention from the mainstream financial press.  What I was expecting when I turned CNBC on late in the day was the never-before-seen rate on the 30-yr going below the Fed Funds effective rate.   Additionally, the classic ‘inverted yield curve’ is when the 10yr treasury rate goes below the Fed Funds rate (which tracks closely to the 90-day t-bll), which almost occurred January 2019 and again in March.   This inversion first took place May 23rd well into the stock market swoon that began on May 1.

Below is a chart of the Fed Funds rate, 2-,5-,7-, 10-, and 30-yr rates.  In a normal environment the curve steepens from low short-term rates to higher long-term rates.  Inflation expectations and time value of money are what drives this structure.  So, when we see longer term rates move below shorter-term rates it is at a minimum, unusual.  Analysts generally agree that when this normal structure changes, that changes in the economy and markets are afoot.

Yield Curve Inverts - Rates below Fed Funds

As you can see, yields have been falling since late summer 2018.  This coincides with many data points (durable goods, autos, housing starts, etc.) that peaked and began to move down, indicating slower growth (still growing but slower and slower).   It was the last rate hike (light blue line) where the structure began to invert, and March 2019 when rates began to invert strongly.   There was very little reporting about the 2-/5-/7-yr rates going below the Fed rate.   The reason behind the lack of attention is that the stock market was doing well.   If stocks are up, any negative news is spun as “investors brush off X”.   Ignoring information that doesn’t agree with what we see or would like to see is a form of confirmation bias.

In 2007 Bernanke raised rates right through the 10-yr yield to slow down the real estate bubble.  Powell has raised rates and ended QE, making effective rise in the Fed rate much higher and faster than past, going against other central banks, leading to a very strong dollar.   Powell’s statement in July and fair economic data today, make a rate cut in September unlikely, despite market rates screaming to lower.

As I have mentioned before in my Observations, while there will be a recession again in the US, when it occurs is difficult to predict.  The last 3 recession were immediately preceded by a re-steepening of the yield curve.  Stay tuned!

Fed Does a 180

Prior to December 1, the Fed had widely broadcast that it intended to raise it benchmark rate 3 more times in 2019.   At the December meeting, they lowered that to 2 times in 2019.  In January after the horrid December stock market fall, the Fed changed once again, removing expectations of further rate increases.

The Fed has claimed to be data-dependent and the major economic data points have been indicating slowing growth for most of 2018, and more so since Q2 2018.   The Fed may have realized it overtightened, having raised the Wu-Xia Federal Funds Shadow Rate (Atlanta FRB) by more than 5%.  This was the fastest rate of increase in almost 40 years.

Now the Fed’s balance sheet normalization plan is being questioned and pundits are calling for an early cessation.   In November 2017 the median targeted estimate for the Fed’s balance sheet was just under $3 trillion.   The balance sheet peaked at $4.5 trillion and is currently a tick under $4T.  At the beginning of 2008 it was $800 billion.

So, from a target Fed Funds rate of 3% and Fed balance sheet of $2.75T, to a ‘normalized’ rate of 2.25% and a Fed balance sheet of $4 trillion.    The last few recessions we have seen the Fed raise rates right into economic weakness, only to cease then ease as the recession begins.   With that kind of track record its no wonder people believe the Fed to either be behind the ball, or the outright cause of recessions.

The irony is that the US may have crossed the Rubicon regarding diminishing returns from cheap credit (low rates) aka velocity of money.   While over the past 40 years we have lowered the cost of credit to induce consumption, each recession we must lower the rate below the previous recession lows.  And while we ramp up credit expansion to boost the economy (borrowing more and spending more today) each time, we are getting less and less growth for each dollar borrowed/spent (velocity continues to decrease).  And when there is low velocity, in order to create growth, exponentially larger amounts of money (credit) are required.

I have seen a few reports discussing the idea that low rates decrease future potential growth.  Essentially low rates fail to attract capital, reducing investment, reducing future productivity gains which reduces overall growth.

We have seen the Fed essentially stop tightening (balance sheet runoff should continue to at least this summer) the next step will be for the Fed to ease again, indicating a recession has begun.