Reaching Consensus

September 22, 2019

by Steve Stofka

In the early 1980s, scientists at NASA raised the alarm that much of the protective ozone layer over Antarctica was missing. Newspapers and TV carried images of the “ozone hole” (Note #1). In 1987, countries around the world enacted the Montreal Protocol and banned the use of aerosols and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There were some arguments and a few AM radio talk show hosts called the ozone hole a scientific hoax. However, most of the world reached consensus. There will always be crackpots who ride backwards on their horse and claim that everyone is lying about what lies ahead.

Compare those days of yesteryear with today. We have a wide array of media and information outlets. People who can’t make change are self-proclaimed experts on climate change. The Decider-in-Chief can’t reach consensus with himself for more than a day. A slight breeze changes his opinion. Intentionally or not, he has become the Anarchist-in-Chief.

The younger generation is quite upset because they will have to live with the consequences of climate change. The fat cats who make their money proclaiming climate change is a hoax will be dead. Next week there’s a climate summit at U.N. headquarters in NYC. A lot of young people demonstrated in cities around the world this past Friday to let the world know that they are concerned. That’s consensus.

What happened to us in the past thirty years? It’s tougher for us to reach consensus about guns, immigration, climate change, women’s rights, and health care to name a few. Let’s turn to a group of people whose job it is to craft a consensus. In a recent Town Hall Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out that the nine justices reach unanimous consensus on 40% of the 70 cases that they decide each year. Only the most contentious cases make it to the Supreme Court. 40% unanimity means they agree on many principles. 25-33% of their cases result in a 5-4 decision. Those are the ones that get all the attention. The nine justices who currently sit on the Court were appointed by five different Presidents over the past 25 years. Despite the changing composition of the Court over the past seventy years, those percentages of unanimous decisions and split decisions have remained the same.

Let’s turn to another issue concerning consensus – money. Specifically, digital money like Bitcoin. Some very smart people believe in the future of Bitcoin and the distributed ledger concept that underlies digital money. In this podcast, a fellow with the moniker of Plan B discusses some of the econometrics and mathematics behind Bitcoin (Note #3). However, I think that pricing Bitcoin like a commodity is a mistake.

I take my cue from Adam Smith, the father of economics, who lived during a time and in a country with commodity-based money like gold and silver. Unlike today, paper money was redeemable in precious metal. However, Smith did not regard gold or silver as money. To Smith, the distinguishing feature of money is that it could be used for nothing else but trade between people. Money’s value depends exclusively on consensus, either by voluntary agreement or by the force of government. Using this reasoning, Bitcoin and other digital currencies are money. They have no other use. We can’t make jewelry with Bitcoin, or fill teeth, or plate dishes as we can with gold and silver. The additional uses for gold and silver give it an anchoring value. Bitcoin has an anchoring value of zero.

When people lose confidence in money, they lose consensus over its value. Previous episodes of a loss of confidence in a country’s money include Zimbabwe in the last decade, Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the sight of people pushing wheelbarrows of money in Germany during the late 1920s.

Like gold, Bitcoin must be mined, a process that takes a lot of electricity and supercomputers but does not give it any value. Ownership in a stock gives the owner a claim on the assets of a company and some legal recourse. Ownership of a digital currency bestows no such rights.

In an age when we cannot reach consensus on ideas like protecting our children at school or the rights a woman has to her own body, we seek consensus with others on more material things like Bitcoin. We seek out information outlets which can provide us with facts shaped to our perspective. When facts don’t fit our model of the way things should be, we bend the facts the way water bends light.

John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, died recently. He was an advocate of investing in the consensus of value about stocks and bonds. Now we call it index investing. That’s all an index is – a consensus of millions of buyers and sellers about the value of a financial instrument. There are several million owners of Bitcoin – a small consensus. There are several thousand million owners of SP500 stocks. That is a very large consensus, and like a large ship, turns slowly in its course. A small ship, on the other hand, can zip and zig and zag. That’s all well if you need to zig and zag. Many casual investors don’t like too much of that, though. They prefer a steadier ship.

I do hope we can move toward a consensus about the bigger issues, but I honestly don’t know how we get there. In 2008, former President Obama called out “Si, se puede!” but quickly lost his super-consensus in Congress. “No, you can’t!” called out the new majority of House Republicans in 2010. We’ve gotten more divisive since then. Journalist Bill Bishop’s 2008 book “The Big Sort” explained what we were doing to ourselves (Note #4). Maybe he has an answer.

In the next year we are going to spend billions of dollars gloving up, getting on our end of the electoral rope and pulling hard. Our first President, George Washington, was reluctant to serve a second term. Hadn’t he given enough already? In our times, each President looks to a second term as a validation of his leadership during his first term. There’s that word again – consensus.

////////////////////////////

Notes:

  1. Images, video of the ozone hole in 1979 and 2018 from NASA.
  2. We the People podcast from the National Constitution Center
  3. Discussion of bitcoin on this podcast
  4. The Big Sort by Bill Bishop

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.

Stock and Housing Valuations

March 1, 2015

There are several popular methods to evaluate stocks.  The P/E ratio is probably the most quoted metric.  This is a stock price divided by its current earnings.  A conservative variation of this popular methodology is Professor Shiller’s Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings (CAPE) ratio.  The basis for this metric is the observation that all data reverts to its mean.  Professor Shiller’s method adjusts the past ten years of reported earnings for inflation, then averages those earnings and divides the current price by that average to get a CAPE ratio.

Any well-regarded valuation method has its detractors. This Economist blog points out objections to the Shiller CAPE ratio. In a 2014 blog I tackled an objection to Shiller’s methodology: a ten year average can include a severe downturn in earnings that does not reflect current conditions. I massaged away the 2008 to 2010 downturn to show that Shiller’s CAPE ratio was little changed by the downturn.

Some object that the CAPE ratio uses reported earnings, which includes depreciation (lowers earnings) and interest (increases or decreases earnings).  Operating earnings exclude these items and more accurately reflect the profits generated by ongoing operations.   Operating earnings may be a valid basis for evaluating a single company and Warren Buffet uses this method, among others, to get a sense of sustainable earnings.

Some prefer to use forward operating earnings, which are estimates of profits for the next twelve months.  These estimates come in two varieties: top down and bottom up.  Top down estimates are calculated by estimating a growth percentage of profits for the coming year and applying that percentage to the sum of current profits.  Bottom up estimates are painstakenly compiled by taking the forward earnings guidance given by each company.  Top down estimates tend to be optimistic and are usually revised downward with the passage of time.

I prefer Shiller’s method as a more realistic approach for a long term investment in a stock index like the SP500.  Successful businesses should be able to generate enough profit in their operating margins to account for depreciation, which is included in reported earnings.

Another valuation method is the flip side of the Price Earnings or P/E ratio – an E/P ratio, or earnings yield.  As of a week ago, the current earnings yield was 5.02%.  This is then compared to the 10 year Treasury rate, 2.13%, as of Feb. 20, 2015.  The difference between the earnings yield of stocks and a risk-free investment like U.S. Treasuries – currently about 3% – is called the risk premium for owning stocks.  Often, this risk premium is quoted in basis points, which are 100ths of a percent.  So 3% = 300 basis points.  In 2007, the risk premium was over 4%.  The average from 2002 – 2006 was about 2% as stocks climbed out of a prolonged slump following the dot com bust and 9-11.  So, using this method, we could say that stock valuations are somewhere in the middle, neither frothy or pessimistic.

************************
Housing

Sales of New Homes remained brisk at just under 1/2 million.  The supply of new homes on the market indicates historically strong demand.

The latest Case-Shiller home price index increased 4.3% year-over-year, below the 4.7% growth curve of the past forty years.  From 1975-2000, home prices increased 5.5% annually.  During the boom years of the 2000s housing prices surged above that growth curve only to fall swiftly in the crash of 2008.  The bust in the housing market has more than taken out the excess, bringing the forty year growth curve to 4.7%.

The home price index does not take into account the larger homes being built over the past two decades.  The median square footage of new homes has grown from 1555 SF in 1975 to 2457 SF in 2013. (Census Bureau data)

A greater percentage of today’s homes include air conditioning, extra bathrooms and other amenities that the homes of forty years ago did not have, skewing the long term effective growth curve even lower.  While some metropolitan areas on both coasts may be overvalued, national averages suggest that housing prices are fairly valued.

***********************

Economic Summary

Twice a year the chair of the Federal Reserve testifies before the Senate Banking Committee.  Chair Janet Yellen’s testimony this past week was a concise distillation of economic trends.  Investors bombarded with an avalanche of articles and blogs may sometimes find it difficult to synthesize all the information they absorb.  Ms. Yellen’s initial summary cuts through the clutter:

The unemployment rate now stands at 5.7 percent, down from just over 6 percent last summer and from 10 percent at its peak in late 2009. The average pace of monthly job gains picked up from about 240,000 per month during the first half of last year to 280,000 per month during the second half, and employment rose 260,000 in January. In addition, long-term unemployment has declined substantially, fewer workers are reporting that they can find only part-time work when they would prefer full-time employment, and the pace of quits–often regarded as a barometer of worker confidence in labor market opportunities–has recovered nearly to its pre-recession level. However, the labor force participation rate is lower than most estimates of its trend, and wage growth remains sluggish, suggesting that some cyclical weakness persists. In short, considerable progress has been achieved in the recovery of the labor market, though room for further improvement remains.

At the same time that the labor market situation has improved, domestic spending and production have been increasing at a solid rate. Real gross domestic product (GDP) is now estimated to have increased at a 3-3/4 percent annual rate during the second half of last year. While GDP growth is not anticipated to be sustained at that pace, it is expected to be strong enough to result in a further gradual decline in the unemployment rate. Consumer spending has been lifted by the improvement in the labor market as well as by the increase in household purchasing power resulting from the sharp drop in oil prices. However, housing construction continues to lag; activity remains well below levels we judge could be supported in the longer run by population growth and the likely rate of household formation.