February 4, 2018

by Steve Stofka

We tell ourselves stories. Here’s one. The stock market fell over 2% on Friday so I sold everything. Here’s another story. After the stock market fell 2+% on Friday, the SP500 is up only 21% since 2/2/2017. Wait a second. 21%! What was the yearly gain just a few days earlier? 24%! Yikes! How did the market go up that much? Magic beans.

Here’s another story. Did you know that there has been a rout in the bond market? Yep, that’s how one pundit described it. A rout. Let’s look at a broad bond composite like the Vanguard ETF BND, which is down 4% since early September, five months ago.  The stock market can go down that much in a few days. Bonds stabilize a portfolio.

Two stories. Story #1. The Recession in 2008-2009 produced a gap between actual GDP and potential GDP that persists to this day. To try to close that gap, the Federal Reserve had to keep interest rates near zero for almost eight years and is only gradually raising interest rates in small increments.

Story #2. The Great Recession was an overcorrection in a return to normal. The GDP gap was closed by 2014. Here’s a chart to tell that story. It’s GDP since 1981. I have marked the linear trends. The first one is from 1981 through 1994. The second trend is an uptick in growth from 1995 to the present.


What do these competing narratives mean? For two years the economy has been growing at trend. Should the Federal Reserve have started withdrawing stimulus sometime in 2015, instead of waiting till 2017? Perhaps chair Janet Yellen and other members were worried that the economy might not sustain the growth trend. A do-nothing incompetent Congress could not agree on fiscal policy to stimulate the economy.  The extraordinary monetary tools of the Federal Reserve were the only resort for a limping economy during the post-Recession period.

Ms. Yellen’s last day as Fed chair was Friday. She served four years as vice-Chair, then four years as chair. During her tenure, she was the most powerful woman in the history of this country. She was even-tempered in a politically contentious environment. She kept her cool when  testifying before the Senate Finance Committee.  A tip of the hat to Ms. Yellen.



Vanguard recently released a comparison of their funds to the performance of all funds.


Holding Pattern

September 20, 2015

The big news this week was the decision by the Fed to not raise interest rates this month.  Big mistake.  The Fed’s decision signaled a lack of confidence in the global economy.  Are we to believe that the continuing strength of the American economy is so weak that it can not weather even a 1/4% interest rate increase?

Message received.  When the news was announced on Thursday, the initial reaction was good.  Yaay!  no rate increase.  Then, the reality sunk in.  Does the Fed know something that the rest of us don’t? The buyers went to the back of the bus.  The sellers started driving the bus.  Pessimism wiped out the gains in the early part of the week and ended the week down 7/10%.  When in doubt, traders get out.

There are many aspects of the labor market.  The Fed crafts a composite of over 20 factors, called the Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI).  The latest reading was released on September 9th, a week before this month’s Fed meeting.  This may have contributed to the caution in the Fed’s decision making.  The overall labor market has still not fully recovered from the downturn this past spring.


Will your job become automated?  In this fast morphing economy, the demand for a particular skill set can change quickly.  Younger people, whether working or still in school, need to focus on developing transferable skills.   Here’s a list of the nine criteria that some researchers determined were important to keeping a job from being automated: “social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, assisting and caring for others, originality, fine arts, finger dexterity, manual dexterity and the need to work in a cramped work space.”

When the first Boomers were born at the end of World War II, 16% of the workforce was employed in agriculture.  Millions of agricultural jobs have been lost in the past 70 years. Now it is less than 2%. (USDA source)

Computerization has led to the loss of millions of clerical and accounting jobs in the back offices of businesses throughout this country. Despite those job losses of the past 25 years, there are almost twice as many professional and business employees now as there were in 1990 (Source )

In contrast, construction employment is about the same as it was 20 years ago – an example of an industry that boomed and busted in the past two decades.  Despite that lack of growth, construction employment is still almost twice what it was in the go-go years of the 1960s. (Source)

Despite all these job losses due to automation and more efficient production methods, there are 350% more people working now (140 million) than there were at the end of WW2 (40 million). (Source)

Those who get left behind are those who have a narrow set of skills.

Labor Market Analysis

Each August the Federal Reserve hosts an economic summit for central bankers, economists and academics.  In 2014, Fed chair woman Janet Yellen commented on several aspects of the labor market:

Labor force participation peaked in early 2000, so its decline began well before the Great Recession. A portion of that decline clearly relates to the aging of the baby boom generation. But the pace of decline accelerated with the recession. As an accounting matter, the drop in the participation rate since 2008 can be attributed to increases in four factors: retirement, disability, school enrollment, and other reasons, including worker discouragement.

As Yellen noted, some changes were structural, some cyclical:
Over the past several years, wage inflation, as measured by several different indexes, has averaged about 2 percent, and there has been little evidence of any broad-based acceleration in either wages or compensation. Indeed, in real terms, wages have been about flat, growing less than labor productivity.

Ms. Yellen agrees that the headline unemployment rate, the U-3 rate, does not reflect current labor market conditions:  “the recent behavior of both nominal and real wages point to weaker labor market conditions than would be indicated by the current unemployment rate.

Since unemployment peaked at 25% during the Great Depression in the 1930s there has been an ongoing debate about unemployment during recessions.  Why don’t employees simply offer to work for less when the economy starts slowing down? Yellen offered some insights [my comments in brackets below]:

the sluggish pace of nominal [current dollars] and real [inflation-adjusted] wage growth in recent years may reflect the phenomenon of ‘pent-up wage deflation.’ The evidence suggests that many firms faced significant constraints in lowering compensation during the recession and the earlier part of the recovery because of ‘downward nominal wage rigidity’–namely, an inability or unwillingness on the part of firms to cut nominal wages. To the extent that firms faced limits in reducing real and nominal wages when the labor market was exceptionally weak, they may find that now they do not need to raise wages to attract qualified workers. As a result, wages might rise relatively slowly as the labor market strengthens. If pent-up wage deflation is holding down wage growth, the current very moderate wage growth could be a misleading signal of the degree of remaining slack. Further, wages could begin to rise at a noticeably more rapid pace once pent-up wage deflation has been absorbed.”

Earnings, Revenues and Retail Sales

April 20, 2014

You’re on a date with me, the pickin’s have been lush
And yet before this evenin’ is over you might give me the brush

Luck Be a Lady
from the play Guys and Dolls

Easy money

In opening remarks Tuesday at a Federal Reserve conference in Atlanta, Janet Yellen, head of the Fed, made the case that ongoing weakness in the global economy warranted support from central banks and that she did not anticipate full employment in the U.S. for another two years.  The Fed reported that the economies in all 12 Fed districts improved in March as consumers ventured out of their winter burrows. The stock market rose in each of the four trading days this week, but has still not risen to the level it opened at on Friday, April 11th, when the market dropped 2%.  Disappointing earnings reports restrained enthusiasm sparked by the prospect of continued easy monetary policy from the Fed.



On Tuesday, discount broker Charles Schwab reported a 58% increase in first quarter profits.  Trading volume was the highest in its history as many individual investors returned to the stock market.

In the tech sector, Intel and IBM reported declining revenues of 1% and 4% respectively.  The stock price of both companies is about the same as it was two years ago.  Intel is trying to transition from its traditional dominance in PC chips as sales of PCs continue to slow.  IBM is undergoing a similar transition from hardware – particularly mainframes – to business software.

Since early 2012, the Technology SPDR ETF,  a broad basket of tech stocks, is up almost 50%.  For an investor who does not have the time to research trends in a particular sector, particularly one as dynamic as the technology sector, buying a representative basket of the sector may be the safer choice.

American Express reported a first quarter drop in revenue of 4%, attributing most of the decline to small business and corporate spending.

Google reported an 8% drop in first quarter revenue from the fourth quarter.  Year over year, revenue rose 10% but investors have realized that the days of 20 – 40% annual revenue gains are probably over.  Since early March, the company’s stock has dropped 12%.

W.W. Grainger sells supplies, parts, equipment and tools to businesses.  Since 2009 revenues have risen almost 50% but sales growth has been meager since the middle of last year.  A few weeks ago, I noted the lack of growth in maintenance and repair employment.  Grainger’s lack of revenue growth and declining spending by businesses at American Express are disturbing indicators that there is a lack of confidence and investment in growth.

The industrial and financial megalith General Electric reported a year over year revenue increase of 2.2% but the company’s revenues have been fairly flat for four years and the stock price is almost 20% below its mid 2007 level.  GE is gradually shedding its financial businesses in order to focus on what it does best – making stuff, big stuff and small stuff.  With a dividend yield of 3.4%, this stock may be worth a more in depth look for investors who buy individual stocks and think that the company can make the transition.  As a side note:  in 2013, GE managed to defer $3.3 billion, or 85%, of its income tax liability, which will no doubt get some attention in the coming election cycle.  What won’t be mentioned is that GE paid over $8 billion in 2011 and 2012.


Retail Sales and Household Debt

Retail sales were up a strong 1.1% in March, the most in two years.  Auto sales were particularly strong. Household debt is at the same level as it was in the 1st quarter of 2007 but has been slowly rising in the past year.  The years from the mid 1980s to the mid 2000s is often called the Great Moderation by many economists but the period is marked by an immoderate 8.6% annual growth rate in household debt.  Since the onset of the financial crisis and recession, households have jumped off that runaway train yet today’s levels still reflect a 34 year annualized growth rate of 7%.

With meager growth in personal income, it is unlikely that consumers can afford to rise to those heady and unsustainable growth rates in debt.  However, the percent of income needed to service that debt is at 34 year lows.  Growing consumer confidence and willingness to take on more debt may pull the economy out of the current lackluster growth.


Margin Debt

A link on this blog is to the excellent work that Doug Short does.  In case you missed it, here are some graphs he presented on margin debt reported by the NY Stock Exchange, or the amount of money that investors have borrowed against their stock holdings.

I am not sure how reliable this indicator is.  Selling as margin debt starts to drop and buying as it starts rising again has mixed results.  The strategy would have kept a hypothetical investor out of the market during the market downturn in the early 2000s, back into the market in late 2003, out of the market in early 2008, and back into the market in July 2009.  So far, the timing looks great.  Since then, however, the rise and fall in margin debt has signaled some fake outs, so that an investor would have sold during a temporary market disruption, only to buy in later at a higher level.

Oddly enough, the last buy signal in February 2012 coincided with the Golden Cross in late January 2012.  The Golden Cross occurs when the 50 day moving average crosses above the 200 day moving average.