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.

April Recap: Narrative Changes

Stocks rose a fraction of a percent, gold fell 1%, and the bond index fell 1% in April, continuing the very choppy sideways price movement we’ve experienced this year.   The month ended just below middle of the price range we’ve seen since the market top on January 26th.

Over the past few weeks, earnings have been spectacular, growing over 20% on an annual basis.  Unfortunately, stock prices have not reacted well to this great news.  Earnings season appears to have a ‘sell the news’ feel to it.  This could support the notion that stocks were priced to perfection going into reporting season.    The decline in prices and increase in earnings has reduced the market P/E (Price to Earnings) multiple, which could allow stocks to rise back to January levels.   Tax Reform has accounted for about 1/2 of the earnings growth.  There are two issues going forward.  One is that continuing

to grow at that pace will be difficult since we cannot cut taxes every year (and the tax changes to individuals are front loaded—the reductions we have seen will fade in the coming years). Secondly, earnings’ growth slowing, even from 20% to maybe 12%, can be seen as a negative: “slowing earnings growth”.   Surprising positive economic data because of tax reform needs to show up immediately, otherwise, the ‘hope’ baked into stock prices may be removed in the coming months.

Through the month of April, the narrative of ‘global synchronized growth’ has changed as European economic data has come in softer than expected and the US economy has pressed on.  So now we see the US as a main driver of global growth.  In the very short term, this narrative change has given the US Dollar a boost up.   Over the past few months, ‘dollar short’ and ‘rates higher’ have been very popular trades and have begun to unravel.   A stronger dollar will do harm to future US corporate earnings, make $-denominated emerging market debt more difficult to pay back, and serve as a headwind to ex-US assets (emerging, Asian and European stocks and bonds).  And slower growth will not support higher rates for longer term bonds.

The change in the growth narrative/data has been substantial enough for the Federal Reserve to remove from its FOMC Statement, “The economic outlook has strengthened in recent months.”   Often the Fed will change a word or two in certain sentences.  They could have change it from ‘strengthened’ to ‘remains strong’ or ‘continues to expand’.  Instead they dropped it altogether.   This is influencing perceptions of how many times more this year the Fed will raise short term rates.  In the WSJ today the front-page headline, “Fed is On Course for Rate Increases”.  Given the boldness of this headline, its odd to see in the article an inference that even if inflation was stronger, the Fed wont raise rates more than already indicated, which is twice more this year.  There is a dichotomy in the Fed’s statement: taking out the growth story but keeping to the idea that rising inflation is OK, or even good.  Last time I checked, slowing growth and rising interest rates weren’t a good combination: stagflation.   The Fed needs to review the difference between ‘cost-push’, and ‘demand-pull’ inflation.

AAII sentiment for the week ending May 2 came out this morning and Bullishness declined, and Bearishness increased.  This is as expected given that stocks were down over those survey days.  Bullishness isn’t quite as low as I’d like to see for a good bottom, but if stocks can undercut February’s lows, we should see Sentiment get negative enough to support a rally in stock prices going into the late Spring.

Adam Waszkowski, CFA

“Good” Inflation: Rising rates and falling stocks

Over the past week, the Dow fell by 4%, more than halving its ytd gains through Friday 1/19 (all time high).   Bonds continued the decline started in mid-December, bringing losses during the current ‘bond rout’ to -5.7% year to date.  That is a one week decline in the Dow of 4% and a four-week decline in long-bond prices of 5.7%.  Balanced investors have seen stocks gain and bonds lose, putting most investors (moderately conservative to moderately aggressive) at a mild gain or loss so far this year.  Generally, diversification across asset classes reduces volatility when bonds go up, stocks generally are weaker and vice versa.    When the classes move together differentiation across risk profiles diminishes.  Stocks remain in a strong uptrend and given the substantial gains over the past few months, equity centric investors should be able to take this in stride (or they shouldn’t be equity-centric) as 4% is a small blip in a strong multi-quarter uptrend awash in investor optimism, all-time low cash levels, all-time high exposure to stocks and financial assets and expectations of higher wages, earnings and GDP growth.   In this light, a rebound, or ‘buy the dip’ would not be surprising.  The new feature though is that volatility has returned.

The ‘bond rout spilling into equities’ explaination has to do with relative attractiveness.  If rates keep rising, bond prices are hurt, while becoming more attractive (due to higher yields) to equity investors, putting pressure on equity prices.  At some point, earning safe interest attracts enough investors from stocks to weaken stock prices.  The S&P 500 dividend yield is now 1.8%, similar to what can be found offered on 18 month CD.

Rate have climbed due to rising inflation expectations.  Inflation is expected to, finally, exceed the 2% goal set by the Federal Reserve ‘in the coming months’.  Current thinking is that a tight labor market is pushing AHE (average hourly earnings, +2.9% Jan ’18 vs Jan ’17), combined with more take home pay (via tax reform), will result in more spending from consumers and investment from business.  This will take time but markets have already priced it all in.  Just like the stock market has priced in exceptional earnings growth to match its exceptional valuations.  The chart below shows us that we’ve been in a tightening labor market for years without being able to hold above 2.0% inflation but briefly.

infl vs unemplmnt

Given the new feedback loop between stocks and bonds, perhaps we shouldn’t be so excited about inflation, even if its ‘good’.  On the bright side, the past few years has seen 3.25% as a top in 30yr bond yields and perhaps a decline in rates near term may help both bond holders and stock investors alike.