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.

U.S.S. Obamacare Sails On

In March 2000, I cursed myself as I watched the SP500 cross the 1500 mark for the first time. Almost a year earlier, I had given in to my conservative instincts and paid off the mortgage with some savings. In 1999, my choice had been partially driven by a suspicion that the stock market was a bit overvalued. In 2000, I could see I was wrong; that I just didn’t understand the new economy. Had I invested the money in the stock market, I would have made 15% in less than a year.

When I set the time machine to election day 2016, I see that the index stood at about 2130, 40% higher than the 2000 benchmark. But wait. An asset is only worth what I can trade it for. Year by year, inflation erodes the real value of that asset. When I compare real values (BLS inflation calculator), the SP500 index on election day was almost exactly what it was in March 2000.

As the year 2000 passed into 2001 and the stock market fell from its heights, my decision to invest in real estate exemplified a golden word in investing: diversify.

Since the election, the SP500 has risen about 10%, as investors speculated that Republicans will usher in a new era of de-regulation and lower taxes. By mid-March, banking stocks had shot up over 25%. This past Monday, the 20th, the Freedom Caucus confirmed that they had the “no” votes necessary to block Thursday’s scheduled House vote on the Republican health care bill, AHCA. Banking and financial stocks, thought to be the biggest beneficiaries of less regulation, higher interest rates, and infrastructure spending, lost 5% over several days.

The Freedom Caucus is a group of 30-40 Republican House members who came to office in 2010 on the Tea Party wave. Led by North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows, the Caucus adheres strongly to conservative principles as they define them. They are chiefly responsible for driving out the former House Speaker, John Boehner. While strict adherence to principle – “my way or no way” – worked well as an opposition movement when Obama was President, the Caucus’ unwillingness to compromise is problematic under the current one-party rule. Can Republicans govern?

Paul Ryan, the current Speaker of the House, delayed the vote until Friday. House leadership and the White House tried to come to some compromise that would bring the Freedom Caucus on board without alienating the more moderate Republican members. With no support from Democrats, the additional no votes from the Freedom Caucus meant that Ryan could not muster the majority needed to pass the bill. Shortly before the scheduled vote at 4 PM on Friday, Ryan called off the vote.

The stock market is a herd attempt to predict and price what the world will be like in six months. As events catch up with forecasts, stock prices correct. Passage of the bill was supposed to be a key step toward tax reform if the Republicans want to pass a tax bill using Reconciliation rules, which require only a majority in the Senate.

With more than a half hour left in the trading day, the market had time to sell off 2 – 3%. And? Nothing. Did the bulls and bears cancel each other out in a flurry of trading? Nope. There was no unusual surge of volume in stocks. Either the market had already priced in the defeat of the AHCA, or buyers and sellers were left undecided.

Investors take a “risk off” approach during periods of uncertainty, moving toward gold (GLD) and long dated treasuries (TLT). Both have risen a few percent in the past two weeks but each is short of their January and February highs. Since mid-March, the SP500 (SPY) has lost a few percent. This tells me that investors had already adopted a more cautious stance.

President Trump has indicated that he wants to move on to tax reform and an infrastructure bill as well as the building of some type of defense perimeter on the border with Mexico. Perhaps investors hope that the lack of cohesion among Republicans on the health care bill will not sidetrack them from passage of these other bills.
The defeat of this bill is sure to empower the Freedom Caucus on further legislation. They were a thorn in John Boehner’s side and will no doubt frustrate Paul Ryan as well.

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Existing Home Sales

We had a warm February in most of the country. Realtors reported good foot traffic but, but, but…a lack of affordable housing has turned away many first time home buyers. Home prices have been rising at double the growth in wages. While Feb’s numbers declined from a strong January, YTD existing home sales are more than 5% ahead of last year’s pace.

Regional declines varied: the northeast at -14% and the midwest at -7% led the list. The decline in the west was almost -4% but cities in California and Colorado report the fastest turnaround times from listing to sale. The San Jose region reported an average of 23 days.

Here’s February’s report from the National Assn of Realtors

Oh My Gawd!

November 8, 2015

There is the famous Tarzan yell by Carol Burnett and the iconic “Oh my Gawd” exclamation of Janice Lipman in the long running TV series “Friends.”  That’s what Janice would have said when October’s employment report was released this past Friday.

Highlights:

271,000 jobs gained – maybe. That was almost twice the number of job gains in September (137,000).  Really??!! ADP reported private job gains of 182,000.  Huge difference.  Job gains in government were only 3,000 so let’s use my favorite methodology, average the two and we get 228,000 jobs gained, awfully close to the average of the past twelve months.  Better than average gains in professional business services and construction.  Both of these categories pay well.  Good stuff.

At 34.5 hours, average hours worked per week has declined by 1/10th of an hour in the past year.  The average hourly rate rose 2.5%, faster than headline inflation and giving some hope that workers are finally gaining some pricing power in this recovery.

For some historical perspective, here is a chart of monthly hours worked from 1921 to 1942.  Most of those workers – our parents and grandparents – have passed away.  At the lows of the Great Depression people still worked more hours than we do today.  They were used to hard work.  There were few community resources and social insurance programs to rely on.

The headline unemployment rate fell slightly to 5%.  The widest unemployment rate, or U-6 rate, finally fell below 10% to 9.8%, a rate last seen in May 2008, more than seven years ago.  This rate includes people who are working part time because they can’t find a full time job (involuntary part-timers), and those people who have not actively looked for a job in the past month but do want a job (discouraged job seekers).  Macrotrends has an interactive chart showing the three common unemployment rates on the same chart.

The lack of wage growth during this recovery, coupled with rising home prices, may have made owning a home much less likely for first time buyers.  The historical average of new home buyers is 40%.  The National Assn of Realtors reported that the percentage is now 32%, almost at a 30 year low.

2.5% wage growth looks a bit more promising but the composite LMCI (Labor Market Conditions Index) compiled by the Federal Reserve stood at a perfect neutral reading of 0.0 in September.  The Fed will probably update the LMCI sometime next week.  This index uses more than twenty indicators to give the Fed an in-depth reading of the labor market.

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Bonds and Gold

The strong employment report increased the likelihood that the Fed will raise interest rates at their December meeting and this sent bond prices lower.  A key metric for a bond fund is its duration, which is the ratio of price change in response to a change in interest rates.  Shorter term bond funds have a smaller duration than longer term funds. A short term corporate bond index like Vanguard’s ETF BSV has a duration of 2.7, meaning that the price of the fund will decrease approximately 2.7% in response to a 1% increase in interest rates.  Vanguard’s long term bond ETF BLV has a duration of 14.8, meaning that it will lose about 15% in response to a 1% increase in rates.  In short, BLV is more sensitive than BSV to changes in interest rates. How much more sensitive?  The ratio of the durations – 14.7 / 2.7 = 5.4 meaning that the long term ETF is more than 5 times as sensitive as the short term ETF.

What do we get for this sensitivity, this higher risk exposure?  A higher reward in the form of higher interest rates, or yield.  After a 2.5% drop in the price of long term bond funds this week, BLV pays a yield close to 4% while BSV pays 1.1%.  The reward ratio of 4 / 1.1 = 3.6, less than the risk ratio.   On September 3rd, the reward ratio was much lower, approximately 3.27 / 1.3 = 2.5, or half the risk ratio.

Professional bond fund managers monitor these changing risk-reward ratios on a daily basis.  Retail investors who simply pull the ring for higher interest payments should be aware that not even lollipops at the dentist’s office are free.  Higher interest carries higher risk and duration is that measure of risk.

The prospect of higher interest rates has put gold on a downward trajectory with no parachute since mid-October.  A popular etf  GLD has lost 9% and this week broke below July’s weekly close to reach a yearly low.  Investors in gold last saw this price level in October 2009.  Back then  gold was continuing a multi-year climb that would take its price to nosebleed levels in August 2011, 70% above its current price level.

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CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

Manufacturing is hovering at the neutral 50 mark in the ISM Purchasing Manager’s Index but the rest of the economy is experiencing even greater growth after a two month lull.  No doubt some of this growth is the normal pre-Christmas hiring and stocking of inventories in anticipation of the season.

The CWPI composite of manufacturing and service sector activity has drifted downward but is within a range indicating robust growth.

Employment and New Orders in the non-manufacturing sectors – most of the economy – rose up again to the second best of the recovery.

Economists have struggled to build a mathematical model that portrays and predicts the rather lackluster wage growth of this recovery in a labor market that has been growing pretty strongly for the past few years.

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Social Security

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, passed and signed into law this past week, curtails or eliminates a Social Security claiming strategy that has become popular.  (Yahoo Finance – can pause the video and read the text below the video).  These were used by married couples who were both at full retirement age.  One partner collected spousal benefits while the “file and suspend” partner allowed their Social Security benefits to grow until the maximum at age 70.  On the right hand side of this blog is a link to a $40 per year “calculator” that helps people maximize their SS benefit.

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Tax Cuts Anyone?

Former Senator, Presidential contender and actor Fred Thompson died this past week.  The WSJ ran a 2007 editorial by Thompson arguing that the “Bush tax cuts” that the Republican Congress passed in 2001 and 2003, when he was a Senator, had spurred the economy, causing tax revenues to increase, not decrease, as opponents of the tax cuts claimed.  Like others in the tax cut camp, Thompson looked at a rather small slice of time to support his claim: 2003 -2007.

Had tax cut advocates looked at an earlier slice of time – also small – in the late 1990s they would have seen the opposite effect.  Higher tax rates in the 1990s caused greater economic growth and higher tax revenues to the government, thereby shrinking the deficit entirely and producing a surplus.

Tax cuts decrease revenues.  Tax increases increase revenues.  That tax cuts or increases as enacted have a material effect on the economy has been debated by leading economists around the world for forty years.  At the extremes – a 100% tax rate or a 0% tax rate – these will certainly have an effect on people’s behavior.  What is not so clear is that relatively small changes in tax rates have a discernible impact on revenues.  A hallmark of belief systems is that believers cling to their conclusions and find data to support those conclusions in the hopes that they can use that to help spread their beliefs to others.

The evidence shows that economic growth usually precedes tax revenue changes; that tax policy advocates in either camp have the cart before the horse.  A downturn in GDP growth is followed shortly by a decline in tax revenues.

Thompson’s editorial notes a favorite theme of tax cut advocates – that the “Kennedy” tax cuts, initiated into law in memory of President Kennedy several months after his assassination in November 1963, spurred the economy and increased tax revenues. Revenues did increase in 1964 but the passage of the tax act occurred during that year so there is little likelihood that the tax cuts had that immediate an effect.  Revenues in 1965 did increase but fell in subsequent years.  A small one year data point is all the support needed for the claims of a believer.

The question we might ask ourselves is why do tax policy and religion share some of the same characteristics?

The Big Picture

Or maybe the title of this post should be “The Big Pitcher”.  No, it’s not about a tall baseball pitcher, but the glass pitchers that central banks around the world hold.  What comes out of the pitcher when the central banks start pouring?  Money.  How do they do that?  It’s magic.  Don’t you wish you had a money pitcher?

Jerry forwarded me an article by someone at Matterhorn Asset Management, a Swiss asset management company that invests primarily in metals as a wealth preservation model so they will have a predisposition to a gloomy outlook because investors’ fears will bring more business to the company.  That said, the article presents a 200 year review and outlook on the mechanics of inflation and rather dire long term predictions for the world economy.

Featuring a 150 year chart on the Consumer Price Index and another one of US Debt to GDP ratio, this 6 page article definitely takes a long view of events in the past in making prognostications of the future. 

A comparison of the 19th and early 20th century with the latter part of the 20th century has to be put in a bit more perspective than this article does.  Electricity is something we take for granted but its effect on our lives has been as profound as the discovery of fire and the invention of cooking.  It is an energy that is readily available to most people in developed countries.  This ready source of energy has radically transformed our society, our productive capacity and our demand for products that use this energy.

In the 1920s, the new industry of radio telecommunications kicked off a bubble in the stock market.  Some predicted that we would walk around with communication devices that we wore on our wrists.  Information would be readily available to all with these cheap and portable two way radios.  It would be another 70 years before this dream would become a reality with the internet and the dawning of the cell phone age.  That in turn prompted another stock bubble in the late nineties.

When countries around the world abandoned the gold standard in the past century, they did so because the supply of gold could not keep up with the rapid expansion of production and demand that accompanied the energy and communication age.  How profound has this expansion been?  Several historians have noted that a person living in Boston in 1780 would have felt familiar with most of what surrounded him in that same city in 1900.  Jump ahead another 50 years to 1950 and that same person would be totally disoriented in a city with electricity, flashing lights, automobiles, subways, TVs, radios and the sheer growth in the population of the city.

The gold standard simply could not accommodate this rapid expansion of economic activity.  However, the gold standard put brakes on the centuries old tendency of sovereign countries to print money or debase the currency.  After abandoning the automatic regulatory mechanism of the gold standard, we have found nothing comparable to provide some restraint on central bankers other than a trust in the wisdom and foresight of those like Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  An entire world of billions of people depends on the wisdom of several hundred individuals making decisions at central banks around the world.  It is a daunting and vulnerable position we find ourselves in.

Gold ETFs

The rise in gold prices has prompted a growing popularity in the SPDR Gold Trust ETF (GLD), which buys and holds gold bullion. The IRS regards ownership in this trust as an ownership in a collectible and taxes profits in the trust accordingly.

An investor who holds GLD for a year or more and sells for a profit might expect to pay the 15% long terms capital gains rate. However, the profit is taxed at the 28% collectibles rate. For this reason, an investment in gold bullion is more appropriate in an IRA or other tax advantaged plan.

Another way to play the gold market is to buy Market Vectors Gold Miners (GDX), an ETF that owns shares in gold mining companies. The average cost to produce an ounce of gold is about $850 – $900, so that a gold price above that amount is profit to the mining companies. Because of this leverage, mining company stocks are more volatile than the bullion itself. Long term profits in an ETF like this one would be taxed at the usual 15% long term capital gains rate.