Dance of Debt

April 9th, 2017

Last week I wrote about the dance of household, corporate and government debt. When the growth of one member of this trinity is flat, the other two increase. Since the financial crisis the federal debt has increased by $10 trillion. Let’s look at the annual interest rate that the Federal government has paid on its marketable debt of Treasuries. This doesn’t include what is called interagency debt where one part of the government borrows from another. Social Security funds is the major example.

In 2016, the Federal government paid $240 billion in interest, an average rate of 1.7% on $14 trillion in publicly held debt. Only during WW2 has the Federal government paid an effective interest rate that is as low as it today. World War 2 was an extraordinary circumstance that justified an enormous debt. Following the war, politicians increased taxes on households and businesses to reduce the debt. Here is a graph of the net interest rate paid by the Federal government since 1940.

InterestRate

In 2008, before the run up in debt, the interest rate on the debt was 4.8%. If we were to pay that rate in 2017, the interest would total $672 billion, more than the defense budget. Even at a measly 3%, the interest would be $420 billion.  That is $180 billion greater than the interest paid in 2016.  That money can’t be spent on households, or highways, or education or scientific research.

The early 1990s were filled with political arguments about the debt because the interest paid each year was crippling so many other programs. Presidential candidate Ross Perot made the debt his central platform and took 20% of the vote, more than any independent candidate since Teddy Roosevelt eighty years earlier. Debt matters. In 1994, Republicans took over Congress after 40 years of Democratic rule on the promise that Republicans would be more fiscally responsible. In the chart below, we can see the interest expense each year as a percent of federal expenses.

PctFedExp

Let’s turn again to corporate debt. As I showed last week, corporate debt has doubled in the past ten years.

CorpDebt2016

In December, the analytics company FactSet reported (PDF) that the net debt to earnings ratio of the SP500 (ex-financials) had set another all time high of 1.88. Debt is almost twice the amount of earnings before interest, taxes, debt and amortization (EBITDA). Some financial reporters (here, for example ) use the debt-to-earnings ratio for the entire SP500, including financial companies. Financial companies were highly leveraged with debt before the crisis. In the aftermath and bailout, deleveraging in the financial industry effectively hides the growth of debt by non-financial companies.

What does that tell us? Unable to grow profits at a rate that will satisfy stockholders, corporations have borrowed money to buy back shares. Profits are divided among fewer shares so that the earnings per share increases and the price to earnings (profit), or P/E ratio, looks lower. Corporations have traded stockholder equity for debt, one of the many incidental results of the Fed’s zero interest rate policy for the past eight years.

Encouraged by low interest rates, corporations have gorged on debt. In 2010, the pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson was able to borrow money at a cheaper rate than the Federal government, a sign of the greater trust that investors had in Johnson and Johnson at that time.

Other financial leverage ratios are flashing caution signals, prompting a subdued comment in the latest Federal Reserve minutes ( PDF ) “some standard measures of valuations [are] above historical norms.” Doesn’t sound too concerning, does it?

Each period of optimistic valuation is marked by a belief in some idea. When the bedrock of that idea cracks, doubts grow then form a chasm which swallows trillions of dollars of marketable value.

The belief could be this: passively managed index funds inevitably outperform actively managed funds. What is the difference? Here’s  a one-page comparison table. In 1991, William Sharpe, creator of the Sharpe ratio used to evaluate stocks, made a simple, short case for the assertion that passive will outperform active.

During the post-crisis recovery, passive funds have clearly outperformed active funds. Investors continue to transfer money from active funds and ETFs into index funds and ETFs. What happens when a smaller pool of active managers make buy and sell decisions on stocks, and an ever larger pool of index funds simply copy those decisions? The decisions of those active managers are leveraged by the index funds. Will this be the bedrock belief that implodes? I have no idea.

Market tensions are a normal state of affairs. What is a market tension? A conflict in pricing and risk that makes investors hesitate as though the market had posed a riddle. Perhaps the easiest way to explain these tensions is to give a few examples.

1. Stocks are overvalued but bond prices are likely to go down as interest rates rise. The latest minutes from the Fed indicated that they will start winding down their portfolio of bonds. What this means is that when a Treasury bond matures, they will no longer buy another bond to replace the maturing bond. That lack of bond purchasing will dampen bond prices. Stocks, bonds or cash? Tension.

2. Are there other alternatives? Gold (GLD) is down 50% from its highs several years ago. Inflation in most of the developing world looks rather tame so there is unlikely to be an upsurge in demand for gold. However, a lot of political unrest in the Eurozone could drive investors into gold as a protection against a decline in the euro. Tension.

3. What about real estate? After a run up in 2014, prices in a broad basket (VNQ) of real estate companies has been flat for two years. A consolidation before another surge? However, there is a lot of debt which will put pressure on profits as interest rates go up. Tension.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, we discovered that financial companies, banks, mortgage brokers and ordinary people resolved market tensions through fraud, a lack of caution, and magical thinking. Investors can only hope that there is enough oversight now, that the memories of the crisis are still fresh enough that plain old good sense will prevail.

During the present seven year recovery there have been four price corrections in the Sp500 (Yardeni PDF). A correction is a drop in price of 10 – 20%. The last one was in the beginning of 2016. Contrast this current bull market with the one in the 2000s, when there was only one correction. That one occurred almost immediately after the bear market ended in the fall of 2002. It was really just a part of the bear market. From early 2003 till the fall of 2007, a period of 4-1/2 years, there was no correction, no relief valve for market tensions.

Despite the four corrections and six mini-corrections (5 – 10%) during this recovery, the inflation adjusted price of the SP500 is 50% higher than the index in the beginning of 2007, near the height of the market.  Inflation adjusted sales per share have stayed rather stable and that can be a key metric in the late stages of a bull market. The current price to sales (P/S) ratio is almost as high as at the peak of the dot com boom in 2000 and that ratio may prove to be the better guide. In a December 2007 report, Hussman Funds sounded a warning based on P/S ratios.  Nine years later, this report will help a reader wanting to understand the valuation cycles of the past sixty years.

Global Portfolio

May 15, 2016

Picture the poor investor who leaves a meeting with their financial advisor followed by a Pig-Pen tangle of scribbled terms. Allocation, diversification, small cap, large cap, foreign and emerging markets, Treasuries, corporate bonds, real estate, and commodities. What happened to simplicity, they wonder?  Paper route or babysitting money went into a savings account which earned interest and the account balance grew while they slept.

For those in retirement, it’s even worse. The savings, or accumulation, phase may be largely over but now the withdrawal phase begins and, of course, there needs to be a withdrawal strategy.  Now there’s a gazillion more terms about withdrawal rates,  maximum drawdowns and recovery rates, life expectancy, inflation and other mumbo jumbo that is more complicated than Donald Trump’s changing interpretations of his proposed tax plans.

Seeking simplicity, an investor might be tempted to put their money in a low cost life strategy fund or a target date fund, both of which put investing on automatic pilot.  These are “fund of funds,” a single fund that invests in different funds in various allocations depending on one’s risk tolerance. There are income funds and growth funds and moderate growth funds within these categories.  For a target date fund, what date should an investor use?  It is starting to get complicated again.

Well, strap yourself into the mind drone because we are about to go global.  Hewitt EnnisKnupp is an institutional consulting group within Aon, the giant financial services company.  In 2014, they estimated the total global investable capital at a little over $100 trillion as of the middle of 2013. Let’s forget the trillion and call it $100.

Could an innocent investor take their cues from the rest of the world and invest their capital in the same percentages?  Let’s look again at the categories presented by the Hewitt group.  The four main categories, ranked in percentages, that jump off the page are:

Developed market bonds (23%),
U.S. Equities (18%),
U.S. Corporate Bonds (15%),
and Developed Market equities (14%).

The world keeps a cushion of investable cash at about 5% so let’s throw that into the mix for a total of 75%.   Notice how many categories of investment there are that make up the other 25% of investable capital!

In the interest of simplification let’s consider only those four primary categories and the cash. Adjusting those percentages so that they total 100% (and a bit of rounding) gives us:

Developed Market bonds 30%,
U.S. Corporate Bonds 20%,
U.S. Equities 25%
Developed Market equities 19%,
Cash 6%.
Notice that this is a stock/bond mix of 44/56, a bit on the conservative side of a neutral 50/50 mix.  Equities make up 44%, bonds and cash make up 56%.

I’ll call this the “World” portfolio and give some Vanguard ETF and Mutual Fund examples.  Symbols that end in ‘X’, except BNDX, are mutual funds. Fidelity and other mutual fund groups will have similar products.

International bonds 30% –  BNDX, and VTABX, VTIBX
U.S. Corporate Bonds 20% – BND and VBTLX, VBMFX
U.S. Equities 25% – VTI and VTSAX, VTSMX
Developed Market equities 19% – VEA and VTMGX, VDVIX

According to Portfolio Visualizer’s free backtesting tool this mix would have produced a total return of 5.41% over the past ten years, and had a maximum drawdown (loss of portfolio value) of about 22% during this period.  For a comparison, an aggressive mix of 94% U.S. equities and 6% cash would have generated 7.06% during the same period, but the drawdown was almost 50% during the financial upheaval of 2007 – 2009.

There have been two financial crises in the past century:  the Great Depression of the 1930s and this latest Great Recession.  If the balanced portfolio above could generate almost 5-1/2% during such a severe crisis, an investor could feel sure that her inital portfolio balance would probably remain intact during a thirty year period of retirement.  During a horrid five year period, from 2006-2010, with an annual withdrawal rate of 5%, the original portfolio balance was preserved, a hallmark of a steady ship in what some might call the perfect storm.

Finally, let’s look at a terrible ten year period, from January 2000 to December 2009, from the peak of the dot com bubble in 2000 to the beaten down prices of late 2009, shortly after the official end of the recession.  This period included two prolonged slumps in stock prices, in which they lost about 50% of their value.  A World portfolio with an initial balance of $100K enabled a 5% withdrawal each year, or $48K over a ten year period, and had a remaining balance of $90K. Using this strategy, one could have withdrawn a moderate to aggressive 5% of the portfolio each year, and survived the worst decade in recent market history with 90% of one’s portfolio balance still intact.

Advisors often recommend a 4% annual withdrawal rate as a conservative or safe rate that preserves one’s savings during the worst of times and this strategy would have done just that during this worst ten year period.  Retirees who need more income than 4% may find the World portfolio a conservative compromise.

{ For those who are interested in a more granular breakdown of sectors within asset classes, check out this 2008 estimate of global investable capital.}

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Productivity

In a recent article, Jim Zarroli with NPR compared productivity growth with the weak growth of only the wages component of employee compensation.  He did leave out an increasingly big chunk of total employee compensation: Federal and State mandated taxes, insurances and benefits.  Since these are mandated costs, the income is not disposable. A term I have never liked for this package of additional costs and benefits is “employer burden.”  The burden is really on the employee as we will see.

In the graph below are two indexes: total compensation per hour and output per hour.  At the end of the last recession in the middle of 2009, the two indexes were the same.  Seven years later, output is slightly higher than total compensation but the discrepancy is rather small compared to the dramatic graph difference shown in the NPR article. As output continues to level and compensation rises more rapidly, we can expect that compensation will again overtake output.

Over the past several decades, employees have voted in the politicians who promised more tax-free insurances and benefits.  While the tax-free aspect of these benefits is an advantage, some employees may think they are freebies.  Payroll stubs produced by more recent software programs enable employers to show the costs of these benefits to employees, who are often surprised at the amount of dollars that are spent on their behalf.  While these benefits are welcome, they don’t pay school tuition, the rising costs of housing or repairs to the family car.

Many voters thought they could have it all because some politicians promised it all: more tax-free insurances and benefits, and higher disposable income.  Total employee compensation, though, must be constrained by productivity growth. In the coming decade, legislators will put forth alternative baskets of total compensation.  More benefits and insurances means less disposable income but a politician can not just say that outright and get re-elected. More disposable income means less insurances and benefits, which will anger other voters.  In short, the political discourse in this country promises to only get more contentious.

Credit Spreads

November 22, 2015

The behavior of bonds, their pricing and their yields (the interest or return on the bond), can seem like a mystery to many casual investors.  As this Money magazine writer notes, the language is backwards.  Yields rise but that’s bad because prices are falling.  Prices rise but that’s bad for new buyers who are getting a low yield on their investment.   The article mentions a little trick to help keep it straight – convert the yield to a P/E ratio, something more familiar to many investors.

In Montana, a “spread” might be a large ranch but on Wall Street the term often refers to the difference in yield between a safe investment like a 10 year Treasury bond and an index of lower rated corporate bonds, or “junk” bonds. Investors want to be paid for the extra risk they are taking.  As investors get more worried about the economy and the growth of profits, they worry about the ability of some companies to pay their debts.  Debts are paid from profits.  Less profit or no profit increases the chance of default.

Some call the spread a “risk premium,” and when that premium is less than 5 – 6%, it indicates a relatively low to moderate sense of worry among investors.  Anything greater than 6% is a note of caution.  In the chart below a rising spread above 6% often signals the coming of stock market swoons.  When I pulled this chart earlier in the week, the rate was 6.19%.  On Friday, the rate was climbing toward 6.3%.

This 2004 paper from the research division of the Federal Reserve gives a bit more depth on credit spreads and their movements.

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Inventory-To-Sales Ratio

In a September blog post I noted the elevated inventory to sales ratio, meaning that manufacturers, merchants and wholesalers had too much product on hand relative to the amount of sales.  There is a bit of lag in this series; September’s figures were released only a week ago.  At 1.38, the ratio continues to climb.

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The Social Security Annuity

In the blog links to the right is an article by Wade Pfau comparing the “annuity” that Social Security provides with those available on the commercial market.  He also analyzes the extra return one can achieve by delaying Social Security until age 70.

Crossroad

September 13, 2015

The SP500 index is very close to crossing below its 25 month average this month, four years after a similar downward crossing in September 2011.  Worries over the economy and political battles over the budget had created a mood of caution during that summer of 2011.  The market immediately rebounded with a 10% gain in October 2011 and has remained above the 25 month average in the four years since.   Previous crossings, however – in November 2000 and January 2008 – have marked the beginnings of multi-year downturns.

These long term crossings are coincident with extended periods of re-assessment of both value and risk.  Sometimes the price recovery after a crossing below the 25 month average is just a few months as in August 1990, and October 1987, or the quick rebound in 2011.  More often the price of the index takes a year or more to recover, as in 1977, 1981, 2000 and 2008.

The downward crossings of 2000 and 2008 preceded extended periods of price weakness.  Recovery after the popping of the dot-com bubble lasted till the fall of 2006.  In January 2008, just over a year after the end of the last recovery, another downward crossing below the 25 month average occurred.  Later on that year, it got really ugly.

As the saying goes, we can’t time the market.  However, we can listen to the market.  For the fourth year in a row the bond market continues to set records.  The issuance of investment grade and higher risk “junk” corporate bonds has totaled $1.2 trillion so far this year.  Ahead of a possible rate hike by the Federal Reserve this month, Wednesday’s single day bond issuance set an all time record. The reason for the high bond issuance is understandable – companies want to take advantage of historically low interest rates.  The demand for this low interest debt is a gauge of the long term expectations of low inflation.

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CWPI

The Purchasing Manager’s Index presents a somewhat contradictory note to the recent volatility in the stock market.  The CWPI, a composite of the manufacturing and services surveys, shows strong growth.  The manufacturing sector has weakened somewhat.  The strong dollar has made U.S. exports more expensive.

On the other hand…the ratio of inventory to sales remains elevated at 1.37, meaning that merchants have 37% more product on hand than sales.  The particularly harsh winter was unexpected and hurt sales, helping to boost inventories.  Five months after the winter ended, there should have been a notable decline in this ratio.

Has some of the strong economic growth gone to inventory build-up?

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Annuity

In  the blog links to the right was an article written by Wade Pfau on the mechanics of income annuities.  Even if you are not considering annuities, this is a good chance to expose yourself to some basic concepts about these financial products.