Adjusting the Carburetor

November 9, 2014

About two thirds of companies in the SP500 had reported earnings for the third quarter. George guessed that positive earnings surprises were somewhat above the normal 70% but as former Presidential contender Herman Cain said, “I don’t have facts to back that up.”  Checking his guess, George went to Fact Set which provides a weekly update summary of earnings reports.  Positive earnings surprises were the highest percentage in over four years. On the other hand, Fact Set was reporting that the forward price earnings ratio of the SP500 was above the 5 and 10 year average.  Einstein famously quipped that the most powerful force in the universe was compound interest.  He might have mentioned an equally powerful force – reversion to the mean.

George updated his spreadsheet with data from Robert Shiller, the Yale economist who had devised the CAPE ratio, an inflation adjusted Price Earnings ratio for the SP500.  When the CAPE was higher than average, as it had been the past two years, price gains over the following five years were likely to be low or negative.  George had added a spreadsheet column to measure the annual percent gain in stock prices five years in the future, then plotted these five year gains against the CAPE ratio.  In the long run of several years, the above average gains in stock prices of the past few years were likely to drift lower or turn negative, bringing their 5 year return to the post-WW2 historical mean of 7%.

But in the post-WW2 period, the stock market had almost always gained in the year after a mid-term election.   It’s like a junction on a hiking trail with many signs and no mileage, George thought.

Monday’s report on auto and truck sales was almost exactly in the middle of the range of expectations.  Promotional sales in August before the introduction of 2015 models had propelled sales upwards in August. Sales in September and October had stayed on trend, a sales curve that was flattening.

Manufacturing data from ISM was strong and continuing to rise, but the market seemed to be in pause mode a day before the elections.  “One more day!” Mabel exclaimed. “We’re being bombarded with political ads.” George reflected on that for a second. “I don’t think I’ve actually seen one ad,” he said.  “We buzz through them when we’re watching a program.”  “Well, sometimes I like to watch the local news live or the weather channel,” Mabel responded.  “It’s become impossible to watch anything live on TV.”  George wondered how many millions would be spent on this election.  How many voters were like he and Mabel, paying little if any attention?  Mabel was a straight ticket voter.  It took her less than ten minutes to vote.  Amendments to the Colorado Constitution – no. “Don’t you even read them?” George had once asked her.  “Nope, they’re all sponsored by special interests,” she had replied.  “What about the marijuana amendment two years ago?” George had asked. “Well, I did vote yes on that one,” Mabel had conceded.  George spent hours researching candidate bios and their positions on the issues.  He would sometimes bring up a name of an independent candidate or a Libertarian candidate to Mabel.  “Why waste your time?” Mabel had asked.  “Whether we like it or not, we’ve got a two party system in this country.  Pick one and vote.  No Independent or Libertarian candidate is going to win.” “Yeh, what about Ross Perot in ’92?” George had asked.  “Cost Bush the election,” Mabel had responded. “No, it didn’t.  Perot took about as many votes from Clinton as he did from Bush,” George had argued.  Where had he read that?  Probably Wikipedia.  “Fine,” Mabel had countered with that tone of voice meaning end of argument.

As they watched election results on Tuesday, George commented that he had been wrong.  “No!” Mabel exclaimed, her hands raised in supplication to the fates.  “Let me write this down,” she said. “Hecklers, always the hecklers,” George shook his head in a mock display of discouragement. “No, really.  I thought the Republicans would gain the Senate but just barely.  Gardner is cleaning Udall’s clock.  Look at Mia Love in Utah.  Methinks there’s a change in the wind, oh forsooth.”

Colorado was a toss-up.  As they turned in for the night, one channel had declared the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bob Beauprez, as the winner in the race.  In the state senate and house, the Democrats held a slim majority that could be overturned but the races were too close to call.  George expected a bump up in the market the next day unless ADP, the private payroll processor, had a disappointing report of private job gains.

Wednesday morning they woke to the news that incumbent Colorado governor John Hickenlooper had squeaked out a win but his rival had still not conceded.  State senate and house races were still undecided and there might be recounts through November. “If this were a baseball or football game, this would be exciting.” George’s banter had little effect with Mabel who was in a rather sour mood. “Look,” he added, the Dems will have a chance to take back the Senate in 2016.  The Republicans will have six or seven Senate seats up for grabs by the Democrats.  It’s the math of Senate elections.”

In addition to gaining the Senate, Republicans had extended their control of the House.  George turned to the ADP report of private job gains – 230,000.  The market had popped up about 1/2% at the open, showing a curious restraint after the previous night’s Republican sweep.  One of their CDs would be due in a few weeks but George knew this was not a good time to bring up the subject of moving some of that really safe money into something else.  Their son Robbie, his wife Gail and their grandson Charlie would be coming over this weekend and that would help brighten up the mood in the house.

The price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil crossed below the $80 mark.  The game was on to control the world market for oil.  Fracking in the U.S. had increased supply, reducing net imports of oil by the U.S.  However, the cost per barrel using fracking methods is more expensive than conventional drilling.  The only way that the Saudis could strengthen their dominance of the market was to drive the price down to a point where fracking was no longer profitable, putting pressure on these suppliers.  At a price below $80, plans to start new wells might be put on hold.  At a sustained price below $80, some suppliers with higher drilling costs might shut down or reduce their output.  Russia, Venezuela and Mexico depended on a higher oil price to fund their governments and social programs.  The lower revenues from oil were exerting a lot of political pressure within these countries.

ISM released their monthly report on the service sectors.  George added the new data to his spreadsheet. He had expected a decline from September’s peak, but the composite of manufacturing and non-manufacturing was as strong as September.

Employment and New Orders were two key factors in the services sector.  For the fourth month in a row, the readings pushed the 60 level, the boundary between strong growth and robust growth.  There had only been two times in 2005 when readings had been this strong.

 On Friday, the BLS released their monthly report of employment gains.  Although net job gains were slightly below expectations, there were gains in most industries, a healthy sign.  As usual, George averaged the BLS estimate and ADP’s estimate.  Subtract the 5000 new jobs in government from the 214,000 reported by the BLS to get private job gains of 209,000.  Average that with the 230,000 jobs estimated by ADP to get 220,000, then add back in the 5000 government jobs. A strong report in a string of strong reports.

George had heard a number of explanations for the swing toward the Republicans. The economy was growing.  Why had voters handed such a decisive hand to the Republicans?  It was a repudiation of Obama’s failed policies.  George noticed that Mabel had not eaten all her nacho chips from the night before. There are rules so he asked politely if he could finish them.  Chipotle’s chips were the best. No, they were Democrats focused on tactics rather than ideas.  No, it was a resounding affirmation of conservative principles by the Amuhrican people. No, it was a throw the bums out election.  No, it was a frustrated electorate that is sick of Washington gridlock and a do-nothing Congress.  No, it was shifting sentiments among age groups and demographic groups. Voters over 60 were a greater percentage of voters in this election while voters under 30 were a smaller percentage.  Asian and Hispanic voters had voted Democratic but with less commanding majorities.  Men swung Republican more than women swung Democratic. Post-election analysis sometimes reminded George of post-Super Bowl analysis.  There was one chart that encapsulated a big problem that Democrats had.  Part-timers couldn’t find full-time jobs.

Each of those 3 million extra involuntary part-timers were counted as one job, regardless of the hours.  A little more than 1 million jobs had been created since the peak of employment in 2007.  Job growth, in short, had been paltry.  A good indicator of job growth was Social Security tax revenue collected each year. In 2006, near the height of the housing boom, the Federal Government had collected $809 billion in Social Security taxes (Treasury data), a 27% increase over the amount collected in 2000, at the height of the dot com boom, just before George Bush took office.  In 2008, the year before Obama took office, the government collect $674 billion.  Six years into Obama’s tenure as President, the government would collect about $755 billion in 2014, a modest increase of 12%.  It was true, Obama had been handed an extremely dysfunctional financial system and a global economy in a death dive.  

Strong wage growth had preceded the past three recessions.  Since this past recession, wage growth had fallen and stayed persistently low, causing discontent among frustrated voters.  Many workers were barely keeping up with inflation.

Voters were like the shade tree mechanics of George’s youth.  To adjust a carburetor, turn the screw this way or that way, trying to find the position where the engine idle sounded the smoothest.  It was a negotiation of sorts between air and gas.  Every two years, voters turned the political adjustment screw and waited to see if it made a difference.

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