What Hides Below

November 3, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Think the days of packaging subprime loans together is gone? Nope. They are called asset-backed securities, or ABS. The 60-day delinquency rate on subprime loans is now higher than it was during the financial crisis (Richter, 2019). The dollar amount of 90-day delinquencies has grown more than 60% above the high delinquencies during the financial crisis. Recently Santander U.S.A. was called out for the poor underwriting practices of its subprime loans. In this case, Santander must buy back loans that go into early default because of fraud and poor standards.

Credit card delinquencies issued by small banks have more than doubled since Mr. Trump took office (Boston, Rembert, 2019). Did a more relaxed regulatory environment encourage these banks to take on more risk to boost profits?

In the last century, geologists have developed new measuring and analytical tools to better understand the structure of the Earth. GPS technology can now detect movements of the earth’s crust as little as ¼” (USGS, n.d.). The same can’t be said for human foolishness. During the past half-century, financial analysts and academics have developed an amazing array of statistical and analytical tools to understand and measure risk. Despite that sophistication, the Federal Reserve has mismanaged interest rate policy (Hartcher, 2006). Government regulators have misunderstood risks in the banking and securities markets.

Earthquake threats happen deep underground. I suspect that the same is true about financial risks. To gain a competitive advantage, companies try to hide their strategies and the details of their financial products. On the last pages of quarterly and annual reports, we find a lot of mysterious details in the notes. After the Arthur Anderson accounting scandal in 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed to bring greater transparency and accountability to financial reporting. Six years later, the financial crisis demonstrated that there was a lot of risk still hiding in dark corners.

The financial crisis exposed a lot of malfeasance and foolishness. Some folks think that investors are now more alert. After the crisis, corporate board members and regulators are more active and aware of risk exposures. Are those risks behind us? I doubt it. Believing in the power of their risk models, underwriters, bankers and traders become victims of their own overconfidence (Lewis, 2015).

Each decade California experiences a quake that is more than 6.0 on the Richter scale. Following the quake come the warnings that California will split away from the North American continent. Still waiting. The recession was due to arrive eight years ago. We did experience a mini-recession in 2015-16, but it wasn’t labeled a recession. The slowdown wasn’t slow enough and long enough. Eventually we will have a recession, and all those people who predicted a recession in 2011 and subsequent years will claim they were right. In many areas of life, being right is all about timing. Few of us are that kind of right.

The data demonstrates the difficulty of financial fortune telling. The Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns shows the returns and rank of ten asset classes over the past two decades (Callan, 2019). An asset class that does well one year doesn’t fare as well the following year. An investor who can read the past doesn’t need to read the future. Does an investor need to diversify among all ten asset classes?  Many investors can achieve some reasonable balance between risk and reward with four to six index funds and leave their ouija boards in the closet.



Boston, C. and Rembert, E. (2019, October 28). Consumer Cracks Emerge as Banks Say Everything Looks Fine. Bloomberg. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-28/consumer-cracks-emerge-as-banks-say-everything-looks-fine

Callan. (2019). Periodic Table of Investment Returns. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.callan.com/periodic-table/

Hartcher, P. (2006). Bubble man: Alan Greenspan & the missing 7 trillion dollars. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Lewis, M. (2015). The Big Short. New York: Penguin Books.

Richter, W. (2019, October 25, 2019). Subprime auto loans blow up. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://wolfstreet.com/2019/10/25/subprime-auto-loans-blow-up-60-day-delinquencies-shoot-past-financial-crisis-peak

Szeglat, M. (n.d.) Photo of lava flow at Kalapana, HI, U.S. [Photo]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/NysO5Rdn7Mc

USGS. (n.d.). About GPS. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://earthquake.usgs.gov/monitoring/gps/about.php

The Unemployment Delinquency Cycle

June 4, 2017

I’m scratching my head. No, it’s not dandruff. The BLS released their estimate of job gains in May and it was 100,000 less than the ADP estimate of private payroll growth. We’d all like to see these two monthly estimates track each other closely, which they tend to do. In an economy with 146 million workers, a 100,000 jobs is only 7/100ths of a percent, but this discrepancy comes just two months after a HYUUUGE spread of 200,000 job gains in the March estimates.

A simple solution to multiple surveys? I average them. The result is 191,000 job gains in May, close to that healthy growth threshold of 200,000. In the chart below I’ve shown the average of the two estimates for the past five years and highlighted the downward trend of the peaks. Reasons include a decline in oil and gas industry jobs, and a natural feature of a mature recovery.


We saw the same pattern of declining job gains from the early part of 2006 through late 2007 before the average dipped below zero. Boosted by a hot housing market in the early part of the decade, construction employment began to cool in 2006.


Some areas of the country are particularly hot. Denver’s 2.1% unemployment rate is absurdly low as is the state’s rate of 2.3%. Both are at historic lows, less than the go-go years of the dot-com boom. Colorado’s rate is the lowest among the 50 states (BLS). While income inequality has been rising in other hot metro areas like San Francisco, it has fallen in the Denver metro area.

There is a downside to strong growth. Back in “ye olden days,” like the 1970s and 1980s, I was introduced to a rule of thumb. It stuck with me because it seemed too simple. Here’s the rule: whenever the unemployment rate gets below 5% in an area, the price of some key component of  the economy is rising much faster than its long term average.   Lower unemployment leads to a mispricing of some asset.

Let’s turn to the other component of this credit cycle: loan delinquency.  The institutions who loan money expect that a certain percentage of borrowers will default. Lenders include the cost of those defaults when they calculate interest rates and loan service fees. The non-defaulting borrowers pay for the defaulters. During recessions, the delinquency rate on consumer loans usually rises above 4%. When unemployment is low and growth is strong, the delinquency rate goes below 3%.  Lower delinquency leads to a mispricing of credit risk.

Let’s review these two mispricings. The price of an asset is a price on some future flow of use or income that will come from the asset.  The interest rate on a loan is the price of money and the price of risk.  Let’s put these two mispricing together and we have another rule of thumb: as the difference, or spread, between the unemployment rate and the delinquency rate on consumer loans gets closer to zero, the more likely that the economy is overheating. A rising spread indicates a coming recession because unemployment responds faster than the delinquency rate to economic decline and increases at a faster rate. The spread changes direction and grows.


Here’s the process. As the unemployment rate decreases, lending terms and loan criteria become more favorable. When we buy stuff on credit, we commit a portion of our future income stream to a creditor. When an economy begins to decline and unemployment increases, some income streams become a trickle or stop altogether. A loan payment is missed, then another, and those in more fragile economic circumstances default on their loans.

As the delinquency rate rises, lending policies begin to tighten again, making it more difficult to qualify for loans. Many businesses depend on the flow of credit, so this tightening causes a decline in sales, which causes businesses to lay off a few more people, which further increases both the unemployment rate and the delinquency rate. This reinforces the downward trend.

The NBER is the official arbiter of the beginning and end of recessions but often doesn’t set these dates until several years later.  This change in the direction of the spread is a timely indicator of trouble ahead. An understanding of the credit cycle is crucial to an understanding of the business cycle, which influences the prices of our non-cash assets.

Next week I’ll take a look at the cycle of asset pricing.