The Bubble of Average

November 26, 2017

by Steve Stofka

December is the 10-year anniversary of the start of the recession that culminated in the Financial Crisis of 2008. Four years later, an investor finally broke even.

Since that breakeven point in early 2012, the total return of the SP500 has more than doubled.  The rising market and historically low volatility sparks predictions of a bubble and a crash. The Shiller CAPE ratio, an inflation adjusted measure of price-earnings, is not as high as the ratio of the dot-com boom but it is very high.  Stocks are expensive.

Let’s turn to some long-term returns for a different perspective. The 10-year annual return is only 8.13%, almost 2% less than the average for the past 90 years. The 20-year return is even worse – just 7%.

From July 2000 to August 2006 an investor made nothing. As a rule of thumb, savings needed in the next five years should not be invested in the stock market. Both downturns are good examples. The 2000-2006 downturn lasted six years. The 2007-2012 lasted more than four years.

Let’s turn to a 30-year period, 1988 to 2017. The period begins just after the October 1987 meltdown. All the froth has been taken out of the market. The 1990s included the historic run up of the dot-com boom. The 30-year return is above average but not by much – .6%.

The most disturbing truth about these averages is the average or below average returns of these periods.  Investor surveys regularly show that people disregard averages and overestimate future returns.  That fantasy is the true bubble.


Corporate Taxes

Next week the Senate will attempt to pass a tax cut bill. As I noted last week, both the Senate and House bills cut the corporate income tax to 20%. The administration and Republican lawmakers state that this tax cut will help working families the most. They must be too busy to read the analysis of their own Treasury department.

The Department periodically analyzes the distribution of the tax burden on various types of taxpayers. In their latest analysis, they estimate that labor income bears only 19% of the costs of corporate income taxes. Steve Mnuchin, the head of the department, claims that workers bear 2/3rds of the cost of the corporate tax. He uses this fantasy number to support a corporate tax cut.

Who will benefit most from a cut in the corporate income tax? The report states “the top 10 percent of families bears 72.5 percent of the burden” and will be the winners.

Over the decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations, the cost burden of labor has changed only slightly. Economists might argue the finer points, but the distribution is well understood. Mnuchin’s job is to sell the boss’s tax cuts. Facts be damned and full steam ahead.

The Supply Chain Sags

September 11, 2016

Fifteen years ago almost three thousand people lost their lives when the twin towers crumpled from the kamikaze attack of two hijacked airplanes.  Over the fields of rural Pennsylvania that morning, the passengers of a another hijacked plane sacrificed their own lives to rush the hijackers and prevent an attack on Washington.  We honor them and the families who endured the loss of their loved ones.


Purchasing Managers Index

Each month a private company ISM surveys the purchasing managers at companies around the country to assess the supply chain of the economy. Are new orders growing or shrinking since last month?  Is the company hiring or firing?  Are inventories growing or shrinking?  How timely are the company’s suppliers?  Are prices rising or falling? ISM publishes their results each month as a  Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), and it is probably the most influential private survey.

ISM’s August survey was disappointing, especially the manufacturing data.  Two key components of the survey, new orders and employment, contracted in August. Both manufacturing and service industries indicated a slight contraction.

For readers unfamiliar with this survey, I’ll review some of the details The PMI is a type of index called a diffusion index. A value of 50 is like a zero line.  Values above 50 indicate expansion from the previous reading; below 50 shows contraction. ISM compiles an index for the two types of suppliers, goods and services, manufacturing and non-manufacturing.

The CWPI variation

Each month I construct an index I call the Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI) that blends the manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys into a composite. The CWPI gives extra weight to two components, new orders and employment, based on a methodology presented in a 2003 paper by economist Rolando Pelaez.  Over the past two decades, this index has been less volatile than the PMI and a more reliable warning system of recession and recovery, signaling a few months earlier than the PMI.

Weakness in manufacturing is a concern but it is only about 15% of the overall economy.  In the calculation of the CWPI, however, manufacturing is given a 30% weight.  Manufacturing involves a supply chain that produces a ripple effect in so many service industries that benefit from healthy employment in manufacturing. Because there may be some seasonal or other type of volatility in the survey, I smooth the index with a three month moving average.  Sometimes there is a brief dip in both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sides of the data. If the downturn continues, the smoothed data will confirm the contraction in the next month.  This is the key to the start of a recession – a continuing contraction.

History of the CWPI

The contraction in the survey results was slight but the effect is more pronounced in the CWPI calculation. One month’s data does not make a trend but does wave a flag of caution. Let’s take a look at some past data.  In 2006 there was a brief one month downturn. In January 2008, the smoothed and unsmoothed CWPI data showed a contraction in the supply chain, and more important continued to contract. The beginning of the recession was later set by the NBER at December 2007. ( Remember that these recession dates are determined long after the actual date when enough data has been gathered that the NBER feels confident in its determination.)  The PMI index did not indicate contraction on both sides of the economy until October 2008, seven months after the signal from the CWPI.  During that time, from January to October 2008, the SP500 index lost 30% of its value.

The CWPI unsmoothed index showed expansion in June 2009 and the smoothed index confirmed that the following month. The PMI did not show a consistent expansion till August 2009.  The NBER later called the end of the recession in June 2009.

The Current Trend

Despite the weak numbers, the smoothed CWPI continues to show expansion but we can see that there is a definite shift from the wave like pattern that has persisted since the recovery began.

With a longer view we can see that an up and down wave is more typical during recoveries.  A flattening or slow steady decline (red arrows) usually precedes an economic downturn.  The red arrows in the graph below occurred a year before a recession.  The left arrow is the first half of 2000, a year before the start of the 2001 recession.  The two arrows in the middle of the graph point to a flattening in 2006, followed by a near contraction.  A rise in the first part of 2007 faltered and fell before the recession started in December 2007.  The current flattening (right arrow) is about six months long.

New Orders and Employment

Focusing on service sector employment and new orders, we can see the weakness in this year’s data.

With a long view, a smoothed version of this-sub indicator signals weakness before a recession starts and doesn’t shut off till late after a recession’s end.  The smoothed version has been below the 5 year average for seven months in a row.  If history is any guide, a recession in the next year is pretty certain.

The 2007-2009 Recession

 In August 2006 this indicator began consistently signaling key weakness in the service sectors of the economy (big middle rectangle in the graph below). Stock market highs were reached in June 2007 and the recession did not officially begin till December 2007, a full sixteen months after the signal started.  That signal didn’t shut off till the spring of 2010, about eight months after the official end of the recession.

The 2001 Recession, Dot-Com Bust and Iraq War

The recession in 2001 lasted only six months but the downturn in the market lasted three years as equities repriced after the over-investment of the dot-com boom.  The smoothed version of this indicator first turned on in January 2001, two months before the start of the recession in March of that year.   Although, the recession officially ended in November 2001, the signal did not shut off till June 2003 (left rectangle in the graph above).  Note that the market (SP500) hit bottom in September 2002, then nosedived again in the winter.  Weak 4th quarter GDP growth that year fueled doubts about the recovery.  Concerns about the Iraq war added uncertainty to the mix and drove equity prices near that September 2002 bottom.  In April 2003, two months before the signal shut off, the market began an upward trajectory that would last over four years.

No one indicator can serve as a crystal ball into the future, but this is a reliable cautionary tool to add to an investor’s tool box.


Stocks, Interest Rates and Employment

There are 24 branches of the Federal Reserve. This week, presidents of two of those banches indicated that they favored an interest rate hike when the Fed meets later this month (Investor’s Business Daily article).  On Friday, the stock market dropped more than 2% in response.  One of those presidents, Rosengren, is a voting member on the committee (FOMC) that sets interest rates.  I have been in favor of higher interest rates for quite some time so I agree with Rosengren that gradual rate increases are needed. However, Chairwoman Janet Yellen relies on the Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) to gauge the health of the labor market.

Despite an unemployment rate below 5%, this index of about 20 indicators has been lackluster or negative this year.  There are a record number of job openings but employees are not switching jobs as the rate they do in a healthy labor market.  This is the way that the majority of employees increase their earnings so why are employees not pursuing these opportunities?

The Federal Reserve has a twin mandate from Congress: “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” (Source) There is a good case to be made that there are too many weaknesses in the employment data, and that caution is the more prudent stance.  The FOMC meets again in early November, just six weeks after the upcoming September meeting. Although the Labor Report will not be released till three days after the FOMC meeting, the members will have preliminary access to the data, giving them two more months of employment data. Yellen can make a good case that a short six week pause is well worth the wait.

Stuck in the Mud

In 18 months, the SP500 is little changed.  A broad index of bonds (BND) is about the same price it was in January 2015.  The lack of price movement is a bit worrying.  There are several alternative investments which investors may include in their portfolio allocation.  Since January 2015, commodities (DBC)  have lost 15%, gold (GLD) has gained a meager 1%, emerging markets (VWO) are down 5%, and real estate (VNQ) is literally unchanged.  A bright note: international bonds (BNDX) have gained almost 6% in that time and pay about 1.5%.  1994 was the last time several non-correlated assets hit the pause button.  The following six years were good for both stocks and bonds.  What will happen this time?  Stay tuned.

Timing Models

May 22, 2016

Long term moving averages can confirm the shifting trends of market sentiment and market watchers customarily watch for crossings of two averages.  The 50 week (1 year) average of the SP500 index just crossed below the 100 week (2 year) average, indicating a  broad and sustained lack of confidence.  Falling oil prices since mid-2014 have led to severe earnings declines at some of the large oil companies in the SP500.  The index is selling for about the same price as the two year average.

What to do?  These crossings or junctions can mark a period of some good buying opportunities – unless they’re not – and that’s the rub with indicators like this one.  Downward crossings typically occur after there has already been a 5 – 15% decline from a recent high.  If an investor sells some stocks at that time, they wind up selling at an interim low, and regret  their action when the market rises shortly thereafter.  They should have bought instead of sold.  AAAARGHHH, a false positive!  Twice in the 1980s, the sentiment shift was less than a year long and an investor who did act lost 10 – 20% as the market climbed after several months.

Conversely, after a 10-15% decline, some investors do buy more stocks, figuring that the excess optimism, or “fluff,” has been shaken out of the market.  Then comes that sinking feeling as the market continues to decline, and decline, and decline.  In April 2001 and July 2008, the 50 week average crossed below the 100 week average.  Investors who lightened up on stocks at those times saved themselves some pain and a lot of money as the broader market continued to lose another 30% or so.

There are not one but two problems with timing models: timing both the exit from and entry back into the market.  Over several decades the majority of active fund managers – professionals who study markets – did not get it right.  They underperformed a broad index like the SP500 because the index is actually a composite of the buying and selling decisions of millions of market participants.  John Bogle, the founder of the now gigantic Vanguard Funds, made exactly this point in his dissertation in the 1950s.  A half century later, this “wacky idea” of index investing has taken over much of the industry.

Consistently successful timing is very difficult and has tax consequences in some accounts.  Investors are encouraged to focus instead on their investment allocation to match their tolerance for risk and volatility, and to consider any prospective income that they might need from a portfolio.

Since 1960, the average annual price gain of the SP500 index has been 6.7%.  Add in an average yield (dividend) of 3% and the total return is almost 10% that an investor gains by doing nothing, a formidable hurdle for any timing model.

Within an allocation model, though, is the idea that an investor might shift a small portion of a portfolio from stocks to bonds and back in response to market signals.  In several previous articles I have looked at a Case-Shiller CAPE10 model (here, here, here, and here) as well as another crossing model using the 50 day and 200 day moving averages, dramatically named the Golden Cross and Death Cross (here, here, and here.)  As already mentioned, we want to avoid some of the false signals of crossing averages.

Instead of a crossing, we can simply use a change in direction of both averages.  When not just one, but both, long term averages turn down, we would move a portion of money from stocks to bonds, and in the opposite direction when both averages turned up.

Over the course of several decades, this strategy has been suprisingly successful.  The market sometimes experiences a decade when prices may be volatile but are essentially flat.  From 2000 – 2012 the SP500 index went up and down but was the same price at the beginning and end of that 12 year period.  1967 to 1977 was another such period, a stagnant period when an investor’s money would be better put to use in the bond market rather than the stock market.

In recent decades, this long term weekly model would have favored stocks from 1982 to March 2001 while the market gained 850%, an annual price gain of 11%.  The model would have shifted money back to stocks in August 2003 at a price about 25% less than the exit price in March 2001. In March 2008, the model would have favored an exit from stocks to bonds.  The stock market at that time was about the same price that it had been 7 years earlier in March 2001.  The model captured a 30% gain while the index went nowhere.

In the 1967 – 1977 period, the model did signal several entries and exits that produced a cumulative 8% price loss over the decade but the model favored the bond market for half of that period when bonds were earning 8% per year, a net gain.

In almost two years, the SP500 has changed little; the yield is less than 2%, far lower than the 3% average of the past 50 years.  However, the broader bond market has also changed little in that time and is paying just a little over 2%.  There are simply periods when strategies and alternatives have little effect. Although the 50 week average crossed below the 100 week average earlier this month, they are essentially horizontal.  The 100 week average is still rising, but barely so, a time of drift and inertia.  In hindsight, we may say it was the calm before a) the storm (1974), or b) the surge (1995). Usually the calm doesn’t last more than two years so we can expect some clear direction by the end of the summer.


It’s the economy, stupid!

One of the myths of Presidential politics is that Presidents have a lot to do with the strength or weakness of the economy, a superhero narrative carefully cultivated by the two dominant parties.  Here’s a comparison of GDP growth during Democratic and Republican administrations. The Dems have it up on the Reps since 1928, chiefly because the comparison starts near the beginning of the Great Depression when the Reps held the Presidency.

For several reasons, GDP data is unreliable during the Depression and WW2 years.  First, the GDP concept wasn’t formalized till just before the start of WW2 so data collection was new, primitive and after the fact.  Secondly, this 14 year period includes an extraordinary amount of government spending which warped the very concept of GDP.  The WPA program that put so many to work during the depression years was a whopping 7% of GDP (Source), like spending $2 trillion dollars, or half the Federal budget, in today’s economy.

The Federal Reserve begins their GDP data series after WW2 when data collection was much improved. If you’re a Dem voter, don’t mention this unreliable data.  Just tell friends, family and co-workers that the Dems have averaged 4% GDP growth since 1927; the Reps only 1.7%.  If you’re a Republican voter, exclude the 20 year period from 1928 to 1947 and begin when the Federal Reserve trusts the data. Starting from 1947,  Republicans have presided over economies with 2.75% annual growth during 36 Presidential years.  During the 30 years Dems have held the Presidency, there has been a slighly greater growth rate of 3.1%.

In short, economic growth is about the same no matter which party holds the Presidency.  Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone till after the election is over.  Legislation by the House and Senate has a much greater impact on the economy.


Small Business

“If America is going to dominate the world again, the country has to fix the spirit of free enterprise. Small-business startups are in serious decline.”

“Gallup finds that one-quarter of Americans say they’ve considered becoming business owners but decided not to. ”

These foreboding quotes are from a recent Gallup poll.  Small businesses employ more than 50% of employees and are responsible for the majority of job growth yet many politicians and most voters pay little attention to the concerns of small business owners.  The giant corporations get most of the press, praise and anger.  Could the lack of small business growth be responsible for the lackadaisical growth of the entire economy during this recovery?  As the population  continues to age, growth will be critical to fund the dedication of community resources to both the old and young.

The BLS routinely tracks the Employment-Population Ratio, which is the percentage of people over 16 who are working, currently 60%.  But this ratio does not fully capture the total tax pressures on working people since it excludes those under 16, who require a great deal of community resources.  When we track the number of workers as a percent of the total population, we see a long term decline.  As this ratio declines, the per-worker burdens rise for it is their taxes that must support programs for those who are not working, the young and the old.

Regulatory burdens hamper many small businesses. A recent incident with a Denver brewery highlights the sometimes arbitrary rulemaking that business owners encounter.  Agencies protest that their mission is to ensure public safety.  An unelected manager or small committee in a department of a state or local agency may be the one who decides what is the public safety.  As the rules become more onerous and capricious, fewer people want to chance their savings, their livelihood to start a small business.  As fewer businesses start up, tax revenues decline and the debate grows ever hotter: “more taxes from those with money” vs “less generous social programs.”  Policy changes happen at a glacial pace, further exacerbating the problems until there is some crisis and then the changes are instituted in a haphazard fashion. Since we are unlikely to change this familiar pattern, the issues, anger and contentiousness of this election season are likely to increase in the next decade.  Keep your seat belts buckled.

Home Sweet Asset

April 3, 2016

Normally we do not include the value of our home in our portfolio.  A few weeks ago I suggested an alternative: including a home value based on it’s imputed cash flows.  Let’s look again at the implied income and expense flows from owning a home as a way of building a budget.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau take that flow approach, called Owner Equivalent Rent (OER), when constructing the CPI, and homeowners are well advised to adopt this perspective.  Why?

1) By regarding the house as an asset generating flows, it may provide some emotional detachment from the house, a sometimes difficult chore when a couple has lived in the home a long time, perhaps raised a family, etc.

2) It focuses a homeowner on the monthly income and rent expense connected with their home ownership.  It asks a homeowner to visualize themselves separately as asset owner and home renter. It is easy for homeowners to think of a mortgage free home as an almost free place to live. It’s not.

3) Provides realistic budgeting for older people on fixed incomes.  Some financial planners recommend spending no more than 25% of income on housing in order to leave room for rising medical expenses.  Some use a 33% figure if most of the income is net and not taxed.  For this article, I’ll compromise and use 30% as a recommended housing share of the budget.

A fully paid for home that would rent for $2000 is an investment that generates an implied $1400 in income per month, using a 70% net multiplier as I did in my previous post. Our net expense of $600 a month includes home insurance, property taxes, maintenance and minor repairs, as well as an allowance for periodic repairs like a new roof, and capital improvements.

Using the 30% rule, some people might think that their housing expense was within prudent budget guidelines as long as their income was more than $2000 a month.  $600 / $2000 is 30%.

However, let’s separate the roles involved in home ownership.  The renter pays $2000 a month, implying that this renter needs $6700 a month in income to stay within the recommended 30% share of the budget for housing expense.  The owner receives $1400 in net income a month, leaving a balance of $5300 in income needed to stay within the 30% budget recommendation. $6700 – $1400 = $5300.  Some readers may be scratching their heads.  Using the first method – actual expenses – a homeowner would need only $2000 per month income to stay within recommended guidelines.  Using the second method of separating the owner and renter roles, a homeowner would need $5300 a month income. A huge difference!

Let’s say that a couple is getting $5000 a month from Social Security, pension and other investment income.  Using the second method, this couple is $300 below the prudent budget recommendation of 30% for housing expense.  That couple may make no changes but now they understand that they have chosen to spend a bit more on their housing needs each month.  If – or when – rising medical expenses prompt them to revisit their budget choices, they can do so in the full understanding that their housing expenses have been over the recommended budget share.

This second method may prompt us to look anew at our choices.  Depending on our needs and changing circumstances, do we want to spend $2000 a month for a house to live in?  Perhaps we no longer need as much space.  Perhaps we could get a suitable apartment or townhome for $1400?  Should we move?  Perhaps yes, perhaps no.  Separating the dual roles of owner and renter involved in owning a home, we can make ourselves more aware of the implied cost of our decision to stay in the house.  A house may be a treasure house of memories but it is also an asset.  Assets must generate cash flows which cover living expenses that grow with the passage of time.


The Thrivers and Strugglers

“Bravo to MacKenzie. When she was born, she chose married, white, well-educated parents who live in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood with great public schools.”

In a recent report published by the Federal Reserve Bank at St. Louis, the authors found that four demographic characteristics were the chief factors for financial wealth and security:  1) age; 2) birth year; 3) education; 4) race/ethnicity.

While it is no surpise that our wealth grows as we age, readers might be puzzled to learn that the year of our birth has an important influence on our accumulation of wealth.  Those who came of age during the depression had a harder time building wealth than those who reached adulthood in the 1980s.

Ingenuity, dedication, persistence and effort are determinants of wealth but we should not forget that the leading causes of wealth accumulation in a large population are mostly accidental.  It is a humbling realization that should make all of us hate statistics!  We want to believe that success is all due to our hard work, genius and determination.



March’s job gains of 215K met expectations, while the unemployment rate ticked up a notch, an encouraging sign.  Those on the margins are feeling more confident about finding a job and have started actively searching for work.  The number of discouraged workers has declined 20% in the past 12 months.

Employers continue to add construction jobs, but as a percent of the workforce there is more healing still to be done.

The y-o-y growth in the core workforce, aged 25-54, continues to edge up toward 1.5%, a healthly level it last cleared in  the spring of last year.

The Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) maintained by the Federal Reserve is a composite of about 20 employment indicators that the Fed uses to gauge the overall strength and direction of the labor market.  The March reading won’t be available for a couple of weeks, but the February reading was -2.4%.

Inflation is below the Fed’s 2% target, wage gains have been minimal, and although employment gains remain relatively strong, there is little evidence to compel Chairwoman Yellen and the rate setting committee (FOMC) to maintain a hard line on raising interest rates in the coming months.  I’m sure Ms. Yellen would like to get Fed Funds rate to at least a .5% (.62% actual) level so that the Fed has some ability to lower them again if the economy shows signs of weakening.  Earlier this year the goal was to have at least a 1% rate by the end of 2016 but the data has lessened the urgency in reaching that goal.

ISM will release the rest of their Purchasing Manager’s Index next week and I will update the CWPI in my next blog.  I will be looking for an uptick in new orders and employment.  Manufacturing lost almost 30,000 jobs this past month – most of that loss in durable goods.  Let’s see if the services sector can offset that weakness.


Company Earnings

Quarterly earnings season is soon upon us and Fact Set reports that earnings for the first quarter are estimated to be down almost 10% from this quarter a year ago.  The ten year chart of forward earnings estimates and the price of the SP500 indicates that prices overestimated earnings growth and has traded in a range for the past year.  March’s closing price was still below the close of February 2015.  Falling oil prices have taken a shark bite out of earnings for the big oil giants like Exxon and Chevron and this has dragged down earnings growth for the entire SP500 index.

Political Promises

February 28, 2016

Heaven on Earth

The tax and spending policies proposed by Presidential contender Bernie Sanders were “vetted” by economist Gerald Friedman.  David and Christina Romer review Friedman’s assumptions and methodology,  finding the former unrealistic and the latter flawed. Christina Romer was former chair of the Council of Ecomic Advisors during the Obama administration.

Friedman assumes that Sanders’ income redistribution policies will spur a lot of demand in the next decade, 37% more than the Congressional Budget forecasts.  Real GDP will grow by 5.3% per year (page 7), erasing the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Friedman also thinks that the productive capacity of this country is far below its optimum.  Therefore, all that extra demand will not lead to increased inflation, which would naturally put a brake on economic growth.  Employment will increase by 26% from the 2007 peak and, magically, all that extra demand for workers will not cause an increase in wages and inflation.

On page 8, the authors provide some historical context:  “Growth above 5% has certainly happened for a few years, such as coming out of the severe 1982 recession. But what Friedman is predicting is 5.3% growth for 10 years straight. The only time in our history when growth averaged over 5% for a decade was during the recovery from the Great Depression and the years of World War II.”

While GDP growth averaged over 5% during the decade after WW2, it was erratic growth spurred on by the inability of many families to buy many household items during the war.  It included one recession as well as phenomenal growth of 13% in 1950, and is unlikely to be replicated.

But we want to believe, don’t we?


Labor Force Health Report

Yes, we’re busy so who has time to look at a lot of data to understand whether the world will implode tomorrow?  As an indicator, the health of the labor market is pretty good.  To take the temperature of the labor market we can look at the ratio of active job seekers to job openings.  At an ideal level of 100%, seekers = openings.  In the real world, there are always more job seekers than job openings.  When the percentage of seekers to openings is 200%, it is almost certainly a recession.  The economy rarely produces levels below 150%, which means that there are 3 job seekers for every 2 job openings.

Looks pretty good on a historical basis, doesn’t it?


Women in the Workforce

Fact Check: Women make less than men.  In 2013, the BLS published a survey comparing the full time wages of men and women in the general population and by race.  In 2012, median weekly earnings for women were 81% of men’s.  Black and Hispanic women were higher, at 90% and 88%, but this may be due to the fact that Black and Hispanic men make less than white men.

Education levels have changed dramatically.  In 1970, only 11% of women had a college degree.  In 2012, 38% did, just slightly below the 40% average for the U.S.  A 2010 BLS study found that, in 2009, median weekly earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees were 1.8 times the average amount earned by those with a high school diploma.  (They are comparing a median to an average to reduce the effect of especially high incomes).

What the BLS notes is that “the comparisons of earnings in this report are on a broad level and do not control for many factors that may be important in explaining earnings differences.”  We will never hear that on the campaign trail.  Academic caveats do not get voters fired up to go out and vote.  If a candidate is running on a platform of fixing income disparity (Democrats), we will hear quoted the report with the most disparity.  Candidates running who claim little disparity (Republicans) will quote a paper whose statistical assumptions minimize income differences.

A more distressing trend is that older women are having to work longer.  8% of women worked beyond retirement age in 1992.  The percentage has almost doubled to 14%.  The BLS estimates that, in ten years, 20% of women will be working past retirement age.


Oil Rig Count

Almost half of the oil and gas rigs in the U.S. are located in Texas.  The 60% reduction in Texas rigs reflects the decline in total rigs throughout the U.S., according to Baker Hughes.  Rigs pumping oil account for 3/4 of the rigs shut down.

The oil “glut” is only about 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, less than 2% of the 2016 daily demand of 96 million gallons barrels estimated by the IEA.  Fewer rigs reduce downward price pressures and lately we have seen crude prices rise into the mid-$30s. With a long time horizon of several years or more, a diversified mutual fund or ETF like XLE, VDE or VGENX would likely provide an investor with some dividend income and capital gains. Could prices go lower?  Of course. After falling more than 40% in 2008, the SP500 stood at 900 at the end of December.   Investors who bought at those depressed levels might have felt foolish when the index dropped another 25% in the following months.  Those “fools” have more than doubled their investment in the past 7 years, averaging annual gains greater than 12%.


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.


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?


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.

A Bull In A China Shop

August 16, 2015

The big news this week was China’s decision to devalue its currency, the yuan, by 3.5% in two days.  At week’s end, the yuan was about 3% less than what it was at the start of the week.

The decline in value came abruptly in  a market that moves in hundredths of a percent, called basis points, each day.  Since the beginning of the year, the euro has lost more than 8% against the dollar but it has done so in little teeny tiny moves.

What prompted China’s central bank to make this devaluation?  China expected a small drop in exports in July, but 8% was far more than expected. (Bloomberg )  The timing of the devaluation couldn’t be worse.  Emerging markets in southeast Asia have had sluggish growth in the past year and depend on exports.  The devaluation of the Yuan makes Chinese exports more competitive.  Vietnam and Malaysia devalued their currencies this week to maintain a competitive edge with China.

Emerging markets have had a rough ride this year.  A popular Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF is down 18% from its high in April.  However, today’s price level is barely below the price in mid-December.

While the SP500 has gone nowhere for the past nine months, emerging markets went on a tear in the beginning of the year, rising about 20% before falling back.  Talking about the SP500…

Dow Jones Death Cross alert!!! This past week the 50 day moving average of the Dow Jones Index crossed below the 200 day average.  The sky is falling.  Run for the hills.  The rhetoric does get a bit dramatic.  Should an investor disregard this signal as so much hocus-pocus?  Brett Arends at MarketWatch suggests that this “indicator” is hogwash. Yes and no.  The Dow Jones is a narrow index composed of just 30 stocks (CNN Money on component performance YTD).  Although it is meant to capture the essentials of the U.S. market, its narrowness makes it an unreliable indicator in some environments.  The oil giants Chevron and Exxon have dropped 23% and 15% respectively, dragging the index down.  There has still not been a death cross in the broader SP500 index.

To investors now over 60, the equity markets of the past 15 years have told a sobering message.  Investors need to either pay some attention or pay someone to pay some attention.  The SP500 stock market index has only recently recovered the inflation adjusted value that it had in 2000.

In nominal, or current, dollars, recoveries from major price declines can often take seven years.  Past recovery periods were 1968 – 1972, 1973 – 1980, 2000 – 2007, and 2007 to early 2013.

Long term trending indicators may be able to help an investor avoid some – emphasize some – of the pain.  For the casual investor, a death cross is a signal to pay a bit more attention to the market on a weekly basis.  All death crosses are not created equal.  Some death crosses are wonderful buying opportunities.  In July 2010, after a two month drop of almost 20%, the 50 day average of the SP500 dropped below the 200 day average, a death cross.  Good time to buy.  Why?  Because it is a death cross coming after a sharp recent drop in price.  The same type of death cross occurred in August 2011 after a steep drop in stock price in late July after the “budget battle” between Obama and Boehner went unresolved.  Good buying opportunity.

In December 2007, a death cross was not a good buying opportunity?  Why?  Because it came after six months of the market seesawing with indecision and no net change in price.  That indicates that there is a shifting sentiment, a lack of confidence among investors.

Some mid-term to long-term strategists use a weekly chart which measures the price at the end of each week, that price that short term traders feel comfortable with as they head into the weekend.  In a bullish or positive market the 12 week, or 3 month, price average stays above the 50 week, or one year, average.  As indecision creeps in the two averages will get close.  Finally, the 50 week average will top out, either gaining nothing or losing just a tiny bit as the 12 week average crosses below.  We’re not there.  We may get there.  Who knows?

Once that weekly cross happens, a long term investor might look at a daily chart.  What is a good rule(s) of thumb to determine whether a death cross is a good buying opportunity, a negative signal, or a palms up, who knows what the heck is going on, signal?

1) Has there been a decline of 15 – 20% (high price to low price) in the past 2 – 3 months? Is today’s price several percent below the 50 day average? Then it is probably a good buying opportunity as I noted above.  It is not always clear cut.  In September 2000, the SP500 began a 12% slide in price that would mark the beginning of a downturn lasting several years.  In mid-October 2000 a death cross occurred.  Was that a large enough slide in price to present a good buying opportunity?  Not really.  The price that day was almost the same as the 50 day average.  The recent drop in price had contributed to the death cross but a longer term re-evaluation of value was also taking place that would cut the SP500 index by 45% toward the end of 2002.

2) If there has been no substantial decline in the past few months, look at the closing price on the day of the death cross.  How many months can you go back to find the same price level and how many times has that price level been tested?  If just a few months, then this is an indeterminate period of indecision that may resolve itself.  Prices may move either higher or lower depending on the resolution.  But, if you can go back six to nine months of price flipping and flopping, then it is a bit more serious.  There may be a spreading questioning of value, a re-positioning of asset balances.  Does it mean sell tomorrow?  No.  It means pay attention.

After several years of declining prices in the years from 2000 – early 2003, the market had a Golden Cross (50 day average rises above 200 day) in May of 2003.  A death cross occurred more than a year later, in August 2004, at the 1095 price level.  That day’s price was close to the 50 day and 200 day average and so was not a standout buying opportunity. The market had first crossed above that price level in December 2003, then retested that level three times on market declines only to rise again.  Might it have been worth waiting a few weeks to check the market’s short term sentiment and see if that price level would hold again?  Probably. As it turned out, the market continued to rise for three more years.

These are not ironclad rules but act as guidelines to help an investor gauge the underlying mood of the market to make more informed investing decisions.

China, Oil, Treasuries and Stuff

August 2, 2015

An exciting and unnerving ride this past week as the Chinese market fell 8% on Monday and finished out the week about 10% down (Guardian here  and analysis here).  If trading had not been halted in a number of companies, the damage could have been much worse.  In the past year the Shanghai Composite has shot up 150% as individual investors piled into the market with both their own savings and borrowed money. Despite the loss of 14% for the entire month of July, investors in the Shanghai index are still up 13% for the year.

Let’s turn to the U.S. where the SP500 index has gained 6% since the downturn in October 2014.  Below is a chart of SPY, an ETF that tracks the SP500 index.  MACD is a common technical indicator that follows market trends.  The most common setting is to compare 12-day and 26-day price averages (the MA in MACD) and measure the convergence and divergence (the C and D in MACD)  Comparisons of longer time periods can clarify overall trends in sideways markets like we have experienced this year.  The chart below compares the 30-day and 72-day averages (blue line). The red line is a signal line, a 15-day average of the blue line.  The market seems to be at the end of a mildly positive cycle  that has been in place for nine months.

We may see a renewed move upwards but the near zero reading of the past few weeks indicates the uncertainty in the market.  Earlier this year, the price of long term bonds went down (yields went up) in anticipation of rate increases from the Federal Reserve. Counteracting that trend in the past month, long-term bond yields have gone down (U.S. Treasury) as investors bid up treasuries in the hopes that the Fed will delay raising rates till after September.

On July 22, the price of of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil broke below $50 (NYMEX). Two previous times this year the price has come close to the psychologically important $50 mark only to rise back up.  Now traders are concerned that the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) short term estimates of oil reserves and rig counts may not be accurate.  “When in doubt, get out” has been a recent refrain.

Let’s  go up in our time balloon to see why the breaking of this price point has some traders worried.  The last time WTI broke $50 was in the 2008 meltdown.

China’s growth is slowing.  Europe is idling in neutral.  Forecasts for global economic growth are subdued = low demand and this is why commodity prices are at ten year lows. Positive economic growth in the U.S.  may be the only bright spot in this global forecast.

Keynes, Income, Spending

July 12, 2015

In the past few weeks, I have looked at savings and investment as forms of spending shifted in time.  Now let’s examine the idea of income.  We earn money, spend most of it, and hopefully save a little of it.

In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes proposed an income expenditure model to explain business cycles. (More here) Although Keynes’ model was mathematically simple by today’s standards, it showed an interlocking relationship between employment, interest rates and money.  Keynes popularized his ideas in lectures, debates and magazine articles.  Although he died shortly after World War 2, financial institutions and economic policies still bear his mark.  It was he who first proposed and then co-developed the framework for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

One of Keynes many seminal insights was that one person’s income is another person’s spending.  If I decide to save $5 by not buying a latte at the neighborhood coffee shop, I am in effect putting my $5 in a savings account at my local bank.  But the coffee shop owner has $5 less in income.  $5 less in income is $5 less profit, keeping all else the same.  The owner of the coffee shop must go to the local bank and take $5 out of their savings account to make up for the lost income.  There is no net savings when a person decides to not spend money and we see the relationship between savings and profit; namely, savings = profit.

We are now ready to develop that insight of Keynes, that income = spending.  As we discussed in previous weeks, the amount that we don’t spend on current consumption is savings.  Savings = spending, either yesterday’s spending, i.e. an investment in someone’s debt, or tomorrow’s spending, i.e. an investment in someone’s future profits, or savings.  When we spend for tomorrow, we are effectively moving our savings into the future.  Likewise, when we spend for yesterday, we move our savings into the past to replace the savings that someone else did not have at the time they borrowed the money.

All of these categories – income, spending, saving, investment – are all forms of spending shifted in time.  Next week we’ll look at the GDP accounting identity and the government component of that equation.



The manufacturing sector stumbled during the harsh winter and strengthening dollar.  The service sectors fell somewhat but remained strong.  In June, the manufacturing sector regained strength, helping offset a slight slackening in the service economy.  The composite index remains strong in a several month growth trough.

Some are of the opinion that the stock market can be overvalued or undervalued.  In my opinion, liquid markets are usually fairly valued.  Expectations of buyers and sellers change, causing a recalculation of future growth and a change in valuations.  Comparing an index like the SP500 to a valuation model can help identify periods of investor optimism and pessimism.

I built a model based on a 930 average price of the SP500 in the 3rd quarter of 1997.  At the end of 2014, the 10 year total return of the SP500 was 7.67% (Source) which I used as a base growth rate modified by the change in growth shown by the CWPI index.  The CWPI measures a number of factors of economic growth but measures profits indirectly as a function of that economic growth.  Profit growth may outpace or lag behind economic growth and investors try to anticipate those varying growth rates when they value a company’s stock.

Until mid-2013, the SP500 lagged behind the model, indicating a degree of pessimism.  In 2013, the SP500 gained 30% and it is in that year that we see the crossover of investor sentiment from pessimism to optimism.  In the first six months of this year, the SP500 has changed little and we see the index drifting back toward the model, which was only 4% less than the closing price of the SP500 index at the end of June.

In hindsight, we can identify periods when investors were too exuberant and miscalculated future growth.  But we can only do so because in that future, profits and growth were not as hoped for.  That is the problem with futures.  We never know which one we are going to get.

Wage Growth Rings

June 14, 2015

The broader stock market has been on a continuous upswing since November 2012 when the weekly close of the SP500 index briefly broke below the 48 week average.  The past six months is one of those periods when investors seem undecided.  Even though the market is above its 24 week average, a positive sign, it closed at the same level that it was just before Christmas.  Earlier this week came the news that Greece might avoid default on its June payment to the ECB and the market surged upwards. At the end of the week, news that talks had broken down caused a small wave of selling on Friday morning. Investor reaction to what, in perspective, is a relatively small event, indicates an underlying nervousness in the market.

As the SP500 began a broad upswing in late 2012, the bond market began a downswing.  A broad aggregate of bonds, AGG, fell about 5% over the following ten months before rising up again to those late 2012 levels this January.  In the past five months, this bond index has declined almost 4% as investors anticipate higher rates. A writer at Bloomberg notes a worrisome trend of concentrated ownership of corporate bonds.

Retail sales in May showed strong gains across many sectors in the economy. As the chart shows, growth below 2.5% is weak, indicating some pressures in household budgets that could be a precursor to recession.  Current year-over-year growth in retail sales excluding food and gas is up almost 5% – a healthy sign of a growing economy.


Wage Growth

“Since 2009, when the great monetary experiment began, global bond markets have increased in value by about $17 trillion. Global equity markets have increased by about $40 trillion. The average worker has seen wages increase by about $722 billion, which means about 2% of the benefit of QE (quantitative easing) went to workers. The rest went to asset prices.” (Source)

A cross section of a tree shows a historical pattern of rainfall, temperature and volcanic activity.  Wage and salary income across a population can provide a similar historical picture of the economic climate of a people.  The recovery from the recent recession has been marked by slow growth in wage and salary income relative to the growth rates of previous recoveries.

Economists find it difficult to reach a consensus to explain the muted growth.  A WSJ blog summarized a number of explanations.  I have noted several of these in past blogs.  They include:

Slack in the job market.  However, the labor dept reports that the number of job openings is at a 15 year high. (BLS Report)

Some economists point to the large number of involuntary part timers, those who want a full time job but can’t find one, as an indication of slack in the labor market.

The number of people quitting their jobs for another job is improving but is still weak by historical standards.

Sluggish productivity growth. Multi-factorial productivity growth estimates by the labor dept show that productivity gains in the past 15 years are chiefly from capital investment, not labor productivity.  Capital productivity during the recovery has been slow but labor productivity has been terrible, according to multi-factorial productivity assessments by the BLS.  As the century turned, we applauded the transition toward a more service oriented economy.  Less pollution from manufacturing industries, we told ourselves.  “The service sector is less cyclic,” economists reminded us.  It is much more difficult to wrest productivity gains from many service sector jobs. The cutting of a lawn, the making of a latte – there is a minimum threshold of time to do these things.

The sticky wages theory: namely, that companies withhold raises during the recovery because they couldn’t cut wages during the recession.

Let’s compare income growth to retail sales growth, using the data for retail sales less  food and gas whose prices are more volatile.  Periods when both growth rates decline set the stage for recessions.  Periods when both rates increase mark recoveries.

Simultaneous declines in 2011 and 2012 prompted stock market corrections.  The upswing of the past two years has contributed to the rising stock market.