Stormy Seas

December 23, 2018

by Steve Stofka

For the past two months, the stock market’s volatility has doubled from late summer levels. The Fed announced its intent to continue raising interest rates in 2019 at least two times, and the market nosedived in response. It had been expecting a more dovish policy outlook from Chair Jerome Powell.

What does it mean when someone says the Fed is dovish, or hawkish? Congress has given the Fed two mandates: to manage interest rates and the availability of credit to achieve low unemployment and low inflation. That goal should be unattainable. In an economic model called the Phillips curve, unemployment and inflation ride an economic see-saw. One goes up and the other goes down. To rephrase that mandate: the Fed’s job is to keep unemployment as low as possible without causing inflation to rise above a target level, which the Fed has set at 2%.

There are periods when the relationship modeled by the Phillips curve breaks down. During the 1970s, the country experienced both high unemployment and high inflation, a phenomenon called stagflation. During the 2010s, we have experienced the opposite – low inflation and low unemployment, the unattainable goal.

Convinced that low unemployment will inevitably spark higher inflation, the Fed has been raising interest rates for the past two years. The base rate has increased from ¼% to 2-1/2%. The thirty-year average is 3.15%. Using a model called the Taylor Rule, the interest rate should be 4.12% (Note #1).  After being bottle fed low interest rates by the Fed for the past decade, the stock market threw a temper tantrum this past week when the Fed indicated that it might raise interest rates to average over the next year. Average has become unacceptable.


In weighing the two factors, unemployment and inflation, the Fed is dovish when they give greater importance to unemployment in setting interest rates. They are hawkish when they are more concerned with inflation. The Fed predicts that unemployment will gradually decrease to 3.5% this coming year. Unemployment directly affects a small percentage of the population. Inflation affects everyone. The Fed’s current policy stance is warily watching for rising inflation.

The stock market is a prediction machine that not only guesses future profits, but also other people’s guesses of future profits. As the market twists and turns through this tangle of predictions, should the casual investor hide their savings in their mattress?

These past five years may be the last of a bull market in stocks; 2008 – 2012 was the five-year period that marked the end of the last bull period that began in 2003 and ran through most of 2007. Here are some comparisons:

From 2014-2018, a mix of stocks returned 7.7% per year (Note #2). A mix of bonds and cash returned 1.96%. A blend of those two mixes returned 4.91% per year.

From 2008-2012, that same stock mix returned just 2.66% per year. The bond and cash mix returned 5.5%, despite very low interest rates. A blend of the stock and bond mixes returned 5.26%.

For the ten-year period 2008 thru 2017, the stock mix earned 7.7%. The bond and cash mix returned 3.54% and the blend of the two gained 6.35% annually. On a $100 invested in 2008, the stock mix returned $13.5 more than the blend of stocks and bonds. However, the maximum draw down was wrenching – more than 50%. The $100 invested in January 2008 was worth only $49 a year later. Whether they needed the money or not, some people could not sleep well with those kinds of paper losses and sold their stock holdings near the lows.

The blend of stock and bond mixes lost only a quarter of its value in that fourteen-month period from the beginning of 2008 to the market low in the beginning of March 2009. The trade-off between risk and reward is an individual decision that weighs a person’s temperament, their outlook, and the need for to tap their savings in the next few years.

A rough ride in stormy seas tests our mettle. During the market’s rise the past eight years, we might have told ourselves that our stock allocation was fine because we didn’t need the money for at least five years.  If we are not sleeping because we worry what the market will do tomorrow, then we might want to lower our stock allocation. Sleeping well is a test of our portfolio balance.


1. The Atlanta Fed’s Taylor Rule calculator
2. Calculations from Portfolio Visualizer: 30% SP500, 30% small-cap, 20% mid-cap, 20% emerging markets. Bond mix: 70% intermediate term investment grade bonds, 30% cash. The blend of the two was half of each percentage: 15% SP500, 15% small-cap, 10% mid-cap, 10% emerging markets, 35% bonds, 15% cash.


October 25, 2015

Last week we looked at two components of GDP as simple money flows.  In an attempt to understand the severe economic under-performance during the 1930s Depression, John Maynard Keynes proposed a General Theory that studied the influences of monetary policy on the business cycle (History of macoeconomics).  In his study of money flows, Keynes had a fundamental but counterintuitive insight into an aspect of savings that is still debated by economists and policymakers.

Families curtail their spending, or current consumption, for a variety of reasons.  One group of reasons is planned future spending; today’s consumption is shifted into the future.  Saving for college, a new home, a new car, are just some examples of this kind of delayed spending.  The marketplace can not read minds.  All it knows is that a family has cut back their spending.  In “normal” times the number of families delaying spending balances out with those who have delayed spending in the past but are now spending their savings.  However, sometimes people spend far more than they save or save far more than they spend, producing an imbalance in the economy.

When too many people are saving, sales decline and inventories build till sellers and producers notice the lack of demand. To make up for the lack of sales income, businesses go to their bank and withdraw the extra money that families deposited in their savings accounts.  Note that there is no net savings under these circumstances.  Businesses withdraw their savings while families deposit their savings.  After a period of reduced sales, businesses begin laying off employees and ordering fewer goods to balance their inventories to the now reduced sales.  Now those laid off employees withdraw their savings to make up for the lost income and businesses replace their savings by selling inventory without ordering replacement goods.  As resources begin strained, families increasingly tap the several social insurance programs of state and federal governments which act as a communal savings bank,   Having reduced their employees, businesses contribute less to government coffers for social insurance programs.  Governments run deficits.  To fund its growing debt, the Federal government sells its very low risk debt to banks who can buy this AAA debt with few cash reserves, according to the rules set up by the Federal Reserve.  Money is being pumped into the economy.

As the economy continues to weaken, loans and bonds come under pressure.  The value of less credit worthy debt instruments weakens.  On the other side of the ledger are those assets which are claims to future profits – primarily stocks.  Anticipating lower profit growth, the prices of stocks fall.  Liquidity and concern for asset preservation rise as these other assets fall.  Gold and fiat currencies may rise or fall in value depending on the perception of their liquidity.

Until Keynes first proposed the idea of persistent imbalances in an economy, it was thought that imbalances were temporary.  Government intervention was not needed.  A capitalist economy would naturally generate counterbalancing motivations that would auto-correct the economic disparities and eventually reach an equilibrium.  Economists now debate how much government intervention. Few argue anymore for no intervention.  What we take for granted now was at one time a radical idea.

While some economists and policymakers continue to focus on the sovereign debt amount of the U.S. and other developed economies, the money flow from the store of debt, and investor confidence in that flow, is probably more important than the debt itself.  As long as investors trust a country’s ability to service its debt, they will continue to loan the country money at a reasonable interest rate.  While the idea of money flow was not new in the 1930s, Keynes was the first to propose that the aggregate of these flows could have an effect on real economic activity.


Stock market

A very good week for the market, up 2% for the week and over 8% for October.  A surprising earnings report from Microsoft lifted the stock -finally – above its year 2000 price.  China announced a lower interest rate to spur economic activity.  ECB chair Mario Draghi announced more QE to fight deflation in the Eurozone. Moderating home prices and low mortgage rate have boosted existing home sales.

The large cap market, the SP500, is in a re-evaluation phase.  The 10 month average, about 220 days of trading activity, peaked in July at 2067 and if it can hold onto this month’s gains, that average may climb above 2050 at month’s end.

The 10 month relative strength of the SP500 has declined to near zero.  Long term bonds (VBLTX) are slightly below zero, meaning that investors are not committing money to either asset class.  The last time there was a similar situation was in October 2000, as the market faltered after the dot-com run-up.  In the months following, investors swung toward bonds, sending stocks down a third over the next two years.  This time is different, of course, but we will be watching to see if investors indicate a commitment to one asset class or the other in the coming months.