Growing Government Debt

March 6, 2016

Earlier this year and again last week I suggested that a broad index of energy companies would probably be a good investment for the long term investor.  This week’s inventory report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed that crude oil inventories continued to climb but that demand for gasoline is up a strong 7% over last year.

The latest Baker Hughes rig count showed an 11th week of declines in North America.  Oil rigs are now at levels last seen in early 2008 and gas rigs are at a 70 year low.

In response to demand growth and a steadily declining supply, crude oil prices climbed almost 10% and energy ETFs like XLE and VDE climbed almost 8% this past week.

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Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI)

At the beginning of each month I update an index that is based on the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) using a methodology initially developed by financial economist Roland Pelaez in 2003 as a possible forcasting indicator for recessions.  I modified that to include the dominant non-manufacturing part of the economy, and called this combined index the CWPI, which I have included in my blog for three years.

The PMI is a monthly survey of Purchasing Managers throughout the country that gauges expansion or contraction in several aspects of their business.  The two most important components in the model are employment and new orders.

For the first time since last October, the manufacturing component of the index rose but is still contracting slightly.  Export manufacturers have had to overcome a strong dollar in the past 1-1/2 years, which makes American made products more expensive overseas.  The services sector is still expanding and the composite reading is still strong, indicating that there is little risk of recession in the near term.

Although Friday’s employment report showed strong job gains of 240,000, growth in the employment component of the services sectors is slowing.

Mr. Pelaez has recently published  a peer reviewed recession forecasting tool that I have not reviewed yet but I do look forward to reading his insights. Recessions come infrequently, about once a decade, but a long term investor who can switch out of stocks and into Treasuries to avoid these recessions could theoretically triple their wealth.

A word of caution.  There are several inherent problems with trading models based on infrequent economic events like recessions: 1) backtesting can help one develop a model or trading rule that does little more than fit the historical data;  2) backtesting uses revised economic and financial data.  Unfortunately, we don’t get to make decisions with historically revised data.

A great example of this:  at the June 2008 meeting of the Fed, three months before the financial crisis imploded, the majority of economists at the meeting felt that the economy had skirted a recession.  As more data for the first and second quarters of 2008 showed a definite decline in GDP, the NBER actually marked the start of the recession six months before that meeting, in December 2007.  You want perfect?  Next universe that-a-way.

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Debt Doubts

In December 2009, I mentioned  a comment by Raymond Baer, the chairman of Swiss private bank Julius Baer, who warned: “The world is creating the final big bubble. In five years’ time, we will pay the true price of this crisis.”

That time has come and gone but these things don’t run on a calendar.  As the book “The Big Short” noted, a person has to be right and timely.  Some who bet on the implosion of the housing bubble ran out of money before the bubble burst.

Taking advantage of extremely low interest rates, companies continue to borrow.  Levels of corporate debt are nearly a third of GDP.

Instead of bringing some of its cash profits back into the U.S. and triggering a tax expense, Apple has borrowed money to fund operations and investment.  Banks and investors would rather loan money to Apple than some medium sized business.  How good is that for the long term health of the economy?

To understand the makings of a debt bubble, let’s compare rates of return on investment and debt. Let’s say that a 50/50 balanced portfolio can earn 5.5% per year; 7.5% for stocks, 3.5% for bonds.  If a mortgage can be had for 4%, then it makes sense to NOT pay down the mortgage.  A car lease or loan at a 2% interest rate?  Keep rolling the loan or lease.  A company like Johnson and Johnson can borrow money for 25 years at the same 4%.  Why would they pay down debt?

Debt continues to grow because there is no financial incentive to pay it down.  Some families may pay down debt out of conservative prudence but there is no economic sense in doing so as long as money can be borrowed at a rate that is below what one can earn with the money.

As an example, let’s say that a family is considering paying off the remaining $100K on their mortgage.  They can get a new mortgage for 3.5% – 4%.  If they can earn 5% on that money, why bother paying off the mortgage?  Persistently low interest rates cause families and businesses to make short term decisions that make sense – until they don’t.  Some families will pay off debt as a matter of prudence but the low interest rate environment encourages families and businesses to NOT pay off debt.

In 2009, Raymond Baer was referring to the amount of corporate debt that was being rolled over at the time in order to avoid taking a loss on the loan.  Central banks have helped subsidize that rising corporate debt with low interest rates.  Banks reciprocate by buying government debt.

Global government debt has DOUBLED from $28 trillion in 2007 to almost $56 trillion in 2015 (Global debt clock).  China’s government debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled from 21% in 2007 to an estimated 54% in 2008 (S. China Post)

In the U.S. and Europe, government banking agencies reciprocate by requiring banks to hold little if any reserve collateral for the Federal or central government debt the banks purchase.  It’s a great financial buddy system – until it’s not.  We have never lived in a world where central banks can create so much money with an entry in a ledger.  As long as no one runs for the exits, everything is OK.

Under the Dodd-Frank rules, the Federal Reserve does not rate state and municipal debt with the same safety it accords U.S. Treasury debt.  This forces banks to hold more collateral against the debt, making it less attractive.  The Dodd-Frank test is whether banks can survive for thirty days during a financial crisis.  Since municipal and state bonds don’t trade very frequently, their lack of liquidity makes them more susceptible to downward price pressures in a crisis.  The Fed wants banks to offset that risk.  Cities and states complain that this forces them to pay higher interest rates on their debt and gives them less access to the bond market.  What do governments do when they don’t like the judgment of finance professionals?  Get their legislators to pass laws to override that prudence.  Several bills in both the Senate and House have been proposed.  This is how the world goes to hell.  One step at a time. (WSJ article on municipal debt)

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Bonds Bust ZLB

Howz dat for a headline?!  ZLB means “Zero Lower Bound”, or 0%. Last Monday, the central bank of Japan sold almost $20 billion of 10-year government bonds that paid a negative interest rate.  Buyers are paying the Japanese government a fee to loan the government money.  Bizarro world!  While I don’t know the details, the buyers are probably Japanese banks who “take one for the team” – lose money – to implement a plan that the central bank hopes will combat the threat of deflation.

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