With little economic data on the calendar, and the Fed speakers back-loaded at the Chicago Fed conference later in the week, there is time to reflect on other questions (unless, of course, the Israel/Syria back-and-forth turns into something more than the last couple of jabs have produced).
It is interesting to me that analysts and journalists truly enjoy finding comparisons between present situations and actors, except when the comparisons suggest unpleasant conclusions. This is at a time when there are really no comparable periods in history to compare to, at least with respect to major global policy initiatives!
I read comparisons between Shinzo Abe’s pressure on the Bank of Japan and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s campaign to resurrect the American economy with ever-greater monetary policy shocks. Somewhere, I saw an analyst ask “isn’t Abe taking note of the failure of U.S. monetary policy to goose the economy?” But the comparison is not apt because the two men, and the two economies, face very different challenges. Abe doesn’t need to increase consumer spending and reinvigorate the economy with monetary policy. While that might be nice, the main goal of Japanese monetary policy now is to raise the price level and the rate of inflation. They are using exactly the right tool to do so: lots of monetary easing. On the other hand, Bernanke is trying to kick-start the real economy with a monetary tool, while at least in principle avoiding an inflationary outcome. That’s like trying to hammer a nail with a fish. It might work, but it’s the wrong tool for the job. So the comparison doesn’t work: one man knows how to use his tools, the other does not.
Here is another useless comparison: “Bond Buyers See No 1994 as Bernanke Clarity Tops Greenspan.” The myth that transparency really helps markets in the long run is sort of silly: is there any sign that the crises caused by monetary policy have become less frequent since the Greenspan glasnost than they were before? I know that’s the belief, because the Fed has told us that’s the way it is. But my scorecard tells a sorry tale of bubbles and crashes since the early 1990s. It isn’t a lack of transparency that causes routs. It’s leverage, and negative gamma. Mortgage hedgers are more active now than they were in 1994, and they have larger books. Hedge funds are orders of magnitude larger. And Wall Street is smaller, and is able to provide less liquidity – partly because they are more levered (which they think is okay because of “Fed transparency”), and partly because the government doesn’t want them to take bets with the leverage they have (which, since they’re paying for failures under the current system, isn’t wholly absurd).
So will the next bond selloff not be as bad as in 1994, because the Fed will give more warning? Remember that no matter how transparent the Fed is, there is still a transition point. Somehow, the market goes from a state of thinking there will be no tightening of policy, to a state of thinking that there will be a tightening of policy. That requires a re-pricing, whether it occurs because the Fed signaled it in a speech or a statement, or because they signaled it by doing Matched Sales for the SOMA account with Fed funds already trading above target (as was the old way of telling us something had changed). There is no way to go from “not knowing” to “knowing” without a moment of realization. And when that phase change ultimately occurs, the greater leverage inherent in the market and the diminished role of market makers will cause the selloff (in my view) to very likely be more dramatic than in 1994.
One place where we cannot prevent comparisons – nor should we want to – is in the asset markets. Stocks are doing well, despite absurd valuations, because most other markets are either more-absurdly valued (e.g., Treasury bonds) or have horrible momentum that means they’re not popular right now (e.g., commodities). I have no doubt that equity performance over the next 10 years will be very uninspiring, because equity markets that start from this level of valuation never produce inspiring returns. But when people ask me what the trigger will be for a selloff, I have to shrug. There have been plenty of “reasons” for that to happen. But I think the ultimate reason is probably this: equities are perceived as the “only game in town.” I have read several articles recently that echo this one: “Bond Fund Managers are Loading Up on Stocks.” When there is some other asset class, or some other world market, that starts doing appreciably better, perhaps investors will decide to allocate away. Unfortunately, the candidates for that market are pretty few, given the general level of valuations. Could it be commodities, which is one of the few genuinely cheap markets? Or perhaps real estate, which is still only fair value but has some pretty striking momentum? I don’t know – but I am also not sitting around waiting for a “trigger event.” There may well be a selloff without such a trigger.
For a change, fixed-income is where all of the excitement is. For more than a month (since March 5th, the S&P has closed no lower than 1540 and no higher than 1570, plus or minus a couple of nickels: a month-long range of less than 2%. What’s really amazing about that is that on seven of those twenty-three trading days, the range of the day was more than half of the month’s entire closing range. In two of the last four trading days, the intraday range was two-thirds of that for the entire month!
Meanwhile, the 10-year Treasury rate has gone from 1.90% to 2.06%, down to 1.71%, and ending today at 1.75%. The closing range in point terms of the current 10-year note was 99-16 to 102-19, or a bit more than 3% (and it was obviously more than that for the long bond). It has been a long time since bonds were more volatile than stocks over a period as long as a month.
Most of that volatility in nominal rates has been on the real interest rate side. The range in closing 10-year TIPS yields is -0.52% to -0.76%, or 24bps, compared to 35bps for the nominal yield. That’s more volatility than the real yield should be displaying at this level of rates, and it has moved TIPS from being slightly cheap a month ago to somewhat rich. Our Fisher yield decomposition model, which had been neutral on TIPS and breakevens since mid-February, is now modestly short TIPS (and still flat breakevens). Moreover, the leverage applied by our long-inflation-biased “smart beta” model is only 2/3 of the neutral leverage, so conservatism is the watchword at the moment.
The rally in TIPS and nominal yields owes much, I am sure, to the somewhat feeble data we have seen over the last week. The Employment data, in particular, were very disappointing, especially to that group of people who expected profligate monetary policy easing to create economic growth. It will surprise no regular reader of this column that I am not shocked to see a lack of growth response to aggressive monetary policy easing – as I take pains to remind readers, monetary policy is not supposed to affect growth, except in the presence of money illusion. It is therefore something less than a news flash that growth is responding more to tiny changes in government spending (albeit temporarily) than to massive changes in monetary aggregates.
To be sure, even monetary aggregates have been drooping lately…at least, the ones that matter. M2 has been lurching along in the mid-6% growth rate year-on-year, and flat over the last quarter (see chart, source Federal Reserve). That’s only slightly above the average growth rate in M2 since 1981 – although, to be fair, the average core inflation over the same time period has been about 3.1%, so core inflation is still well below where we would expect it to get to if this rate of monetary growth continues.
Growth in commercial bank credit growth, also, has retreated to only 4.1% year-over-year after spending most of the past year above 5%. It too is still right around the long-term average real growth in commercial bank credit (see chart, source Federal Reserve, Enduring Investments), but last year it had been edging towards the mid-2000s standard.
So these are positive developments from the standpoint of future inflation, but it is far too early to call victory on that front. I expect the rise in M2 to re-accelerate in fairly short order; but in any event it is important to remember that the Fed is not the only game in town and not the only central bank that is pursuing easy-money policies. Indeed, last week the biggest news was that the Bank of Japan pledged to double its monetary base, its holdings of JGBs, and its holdings of ETFs and JREITs over a period of only two years.
This policy will almost surely produce the result the Japanese policymakers have been shamelessly vocal about seeking: higher inflation, in a short period of time. At the end of the day, the inflation that Japan gets in the near-term will depend on what their domestic money velocities and multipliers do, but they will surely get higher inflation eventually just as the Fed’s policies have produced inflation even with declining multipliers and velocity. To my mind, the Japanese inflation swaps market – which according to Bloomberg is at 1.26% for 5 years and 1.01% for 10 years – seems to be cheap!
But the Japanese policy will certainly not stop at the water’s edge. Around 2/3 of our domestic inflation is sourced from global factors, and the monetary policy of a major trading partner is a significant global factor. The behavior of the Yen and industry response to changing competitive pressures from Japan will determine how much of the BOJ’s inflation remains domestic and how much is exported, but it would be surprising indeed if the result was entirely contained within the borders of Japan. The Yen has responded sharply to the policy changes at the BOJ (see chart, source Bloomberg), but in my opinion it has very much further to go. In fact, the only reason we may not get back to mid-1980s levels is that the Fed’s policy is similarly aggressive – the only difference at the moment is that the Fed is giving lip service to the notion that they intend to hold down inflation in the long run. (I don’t believe them.)
None of the above has much, if anything, to do with North Korea, or Cyprus, or Slovenia, or Portugal. All of those countries still are potential wild cards, and all of them (it needs hardly be said) constitute downside risk. The White House is seemingly satisfied to wait to see if North Korea really will launch a nuclear-tipped missile; this means that the entire distribution of potential outcomes is compressed so that there is a very high likelihood of nothing bad happening, and a very small chance of something really, really bad happening. How do you trade that? The answer is that you use options. Implied volatilities are under pressure again because the recent tight range makes it difficult to eat the time decay of long-vol positions. But as for me, I’m delighted to pay insurance premiums for insurance that turns out to be unnecessary, especially when that premium is low. I don’t have any long equity positions, but if I did then I’d be protecting them with cheap put options.
It’s hard for me to truly grasp the reality of a world in which the downgrade of the British Empire’s credit (late on Friday) was the third most-important story, but so it is.
The UK was dropped from AAA to AA1 (one notch, but an important one) by Moody’s on Friday, and sterling dropped to the worst level against the dollar since 2010. In the grand scheme of things the drop to $1.51 was not critical, and the cable is still almost in the range it has held for the last few years, but some technicians are sure to see the breakdown as an ugly technical development (see chart, source Bloomberg).
But, fortunately for Britain, the Italians were drawing global attention to themselves and the Euro. As ballots were counted in the election to establish the balance of power in that nation, global markets careened up and down depending on the latest tallies. Ultimately, it appeared that a split government was in the offing, with a general repudiation of the politicians which have been party to austerity measures. The party of Berlusconi, who ran opposing the austerity measures, combined with the “Five Star Movement” party of Grillo, who advocates suspending interest payments on Italian debt and holding a referendum on Italian membership in the Euro, would represent an outright majority in the Senate although the lower house ends up in the hands of Bersani because of a “bonus premium” that guarantees the winning coalition will have a majority.
In the end, the reason the Italian election matters more than the downgrade of the UK isn’t because the election raises questions about whether Italy is committed to austerity; it’s that the election raises questions about whether Italy is committed to the Euro. This isn’t Greece. With a $2 trillion economy, Italy is the third largest member of the Eurozone, behind Germany ($3.4T) and France ($2.6T). It is the size of the other four PIIGS combined. And they’ve also issued a lot of inflation-linked bonds, by the way, so look carefully if you own an inflation-linked bond fund that invests in non-US bonds, just so you know.
Now, Italy isn’t going to default any time soon. They’re going to have another election, and in the lead-up to that one there will be more concern and angst. But then the leaders will use that as a bargaining chip, etc. etc.. We’re a long way from a default or exit of Italy from the Euro. But we’re probably not as far from fear of default or exit.
Still, the immediate uncertainty is past. The markets will calm back down reasonably quickly (which doesn’t mean they’ll rally, being overpriced to begin with). Each successive fire drill will cause a shorter and less-intense period of instability in Europe, until eventually the crisis completely passes, or one episode turns out to be qualitatively different and the whole thing breaks down.
And speaking of episodic crises brings us to fiscal cliff redux. The U.S. will hit the sequester barrier in a few days, with almost no chance that it will be averted. The Republicans seem comfortable that this isn’t such a big deal, and that if it turns out they are right then the scare tactic they feel is being used against them will be defanged. The Democrats seem to believe (and intent on making sure everyone else believes) that any cut in expenditures is tantamount to the End of Days. I don’t think the market ought to react very seriously to it, because we’re only talking 0.25% of GDP, but that all depends on how much hyperventilating we get from the media.
Still, it’s an interesting story because if it turns out that the budget can be cut by 2% (albeit 2% from baseline, which is still an increase over last year) without the economy going into the loo, then we’ve moved the goalposts for future negotiations. And if both sides can understand that, then cutting spending (even real spending!) by 2% per year will slowly get the budget back on a course that, while not sustainable, at least doesn’t lead to immediate immolation.
I am not sure how stocks will react to all of this (have I mentioned they seem expensive?), but I know that all three stories should be bond-bullish. The 10-year yield made it all the way back to 1.87% today after peeking over 2% several times the last few weeks. I think there is further upside to bonds for now, and that may mean that breakevens can also retreat some from near all-time highs. If I am right, then selling 10yr notes if they approach 1.65% or buying 10-year BEI near 2.40% represent better placement for the long term trades, which I expect to be higher in yield and in breakevens over 2013.
It seemed like last month I was focusing on the bigger picture a lot more than I have been recently. This is a function of the calendar, in that all of the important data tends to be clustered towards the end of the month, but also of the opportunity. When economists and investors are on-the-ball, they shouldn’t be blindsided by something as obvious as the fact that the sharp change in tax rates and withholding schedules at the end of the year, and the intentional direction of economic activity into Q4 in preference to Q1, was bound to cause an apparent acceleration in late Q4, and a deceleration in Q1. The fact that many economists and investors seemed to be taking the end-of-year data at face value indicated a potential opportunity.
January Consumer Confidence is a case-in-point. It was expected to decline slightly, to 65.1, and instead dropped to 58.6 – quite a sharp drop from the prior month (see chart, source Bloomberg), especially since December’s figure was revised upward slightly. The overall level of Consumer Confidence sits at a lower level than any in 2012. Not to belabor the point, but this is entirely to be expected. However, as the upcoming data displays a zag to the data’s December zig, expect the market mood to change. It has not yet changed, to be sure. The stock market put in yet another new high, and bonds another low, so the market mood remains bulletproof for now.
In addition to the headline Confidence number, I always look at the “Jobs Hard to Get” subcomponent, which rose to 37.7 from 36.1. That represents the sharpest rise (higher indicates that more respondents are calling jobs “hard to get,” and so is a sign of economic languor rather than vigor) since the first half of last year. The level of this index tends to correlate reasonably well with the Unemployment Rate, and employment conditions generally. This leads me to suspect that tomorrow’s ADP report (Consensus: 165k from 215k in Dec) is likely to be softer than expectations. It bears observing, however, that even the 37.7 “Jobs Hard to Get” number is lower (that is, stronger) than it was for all of 2012 up until November. Accordingly, I’d expect a rise in Friday’s Unemployment Rate, but I wouldn’t be shocked if we didn’t see one.
The other important piece of data was the S&P Case-Shiller Home Price Index, released for November. The index rose 5.52% y/y ended in November, the highest rate of increase since 2006 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Now, this isn’t surprising because we’ve already had lots of other home price data for November and December, such as the Existing Home Sales and New Home Sales median price indices. But here is why you should care. Some observers have taken to dismissing the striking rise in these indices that we have so far seen; some have suggested that the home sales numbers are showing rising prices because the composition of the homes that are being sold is changing because of the paucity of credit available to lower-income (smaller home) borrowers. While using median prices, rather than mean prices, will tend to lessen this problem somewhat, it is a plausible hypothesis.
But the S&PCSSHPI is designed to be a constant-quality index, and the index is calculated on the basis of repeat sales of the same homes. Thus, it doesn’t suffer from the composition-of-sales bias that the Existing and New Home Sales data might have – and it also shows that home price increases are accelerating. Home prices, in short, really are rising at a faster pace than at any time since 2006, and at 3.6% above core inflation (3.8% if you also exclude shelter from core inflation). As we’ve been saying for months, there is very little risk that core inflation is going to fall appreciably any time soon, when 40% of it (housing) is seeing an accelerating rate of inflation.
On Wednesday, in addition to the aforementioned ADP, we’ll get the advance release of Q4 GDP (Consensus: 1.1%, 2.1% Personal Consumption). I suspect that this is likely to be exceeded, although doing the GDP math for the advance report (which involves a fair number of estimates) is a bit beyond my art. If it really comes in as weak as 1.1%, then this coupled with a weak ADP could give the bond bulls some cover. If instead the GDP figure is a surprise on the high side, then given the current state of market emotion I’d expect investors to latch onto the (old news) Q4 GDP data and ignore the news from January.
But the key event of the day is the announcement of the FOMC’s decision around 2:15ET. There is not likely to be much of note to come from the FOMC statement, which ought to be largely unchanged. With all of the uncertainty surrounding the year-end data and the fiscal cliff/debt ceiling debates still ahead, the Committee will not be rocking the boat in January.
 I just felt like abbreviating since the Standard & Poors/Case-Shiller Home Price Index is ridiculously long, and I was curious whether the abbreviation helped. It doesn’t, unless you’re tweeting.
If only we could dwell permanently in January, looking at December 2012 economic data, the U.S. would be a warm and sunny place. Today’s Durable Goods number came in above expectations, although with revisions the ex-transportation figure was only slightly above forecasts. Again, though, this is a report for December, when incomes were higher due to the tax anticipation.
The December data is mostly finished, however, and now the January data begins to be reported. That starts with Consumer Confidence (Consensus: 64.0 from 65.1) on Tuesday. It can’t happen soon enough for the bond market. The 10-year Treasury note touched 2% today, for the first time since last April; 10-year TIPS got above -0.60% for the first time since August (although, to be fair, 11bps of that is due to the roll, since the old 10-year TIPS are still at -0.69% which wouldn’t even be the highest yield this month).
It is impressive to see the bond market selling off even though the Federal Reserve continues to buy. Partly, this may be because investors are fearful that the strong data will cause the Fed to stop buying, whereupon we all know we don’t want to be overlong. That is unlikely to happen, certainly at this week’s meeting. It is no mystery that December’s numbers were pumped up by large distributions being made in 2012 over 2013, and the Fed would want to see (a) more strength than was evident even in December and (b) that strength maintained for a little while at least! And, of course, while the fiscal cliff can has been kicked down the road a couple of months, there is also still a debt ceiling debate that must be had in the next month or two. It seems unlikely that the Fed would stop buying Treasuries while those uncertainties still loom.
Over the last 18 months, the 10-year note has come up to the 2% level a number of times. Usually, that level has been pierced by 3-4bps before the market reversed again, but on two occasions yields went as high as 2.40%.
I think the top in bonds (lows in yield) have been reached, but I don’t think the market will break to higher yields just yet. As I noted last week, I really don’t want to be short bonds headed into the next week-plus of data.
Now, looking at a long-term chart the current set-up in 10-year yields is interesting. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) is of monthly closing levels in 10-year yields, with the y-axis drawn with logarithmic scale. For years, I’ve always drawn the channel shown on the chart, such that it contained the entire bull market until the breakout around the time of the 2008 crisis.
A more common, but I think arguably less-correct way, is to draw the y-axis with a normal linear scale. In this case, the most-recent low actually makes a rare 6-point support trendline on the monthly closes. The channel is no longer truly a channel (the lines are not quite parallel), and the channel doesn’t include the two 1980-1984 spikes, but it’s a much prettier picture.
In either case, there is nothing to suggest that the secular downtrend in rates has yet become an uptrend. Someday, it will, because trees don’t grow to the sky, and I wouldn’t want to wait until 3.50% to start re-positioning (much less, the 4% implied by the log chart). But I don’t think that day is here yet.
Now, while most people are still not afraid of inflation – which is the most-likely reason for nominal interest rates to eventually normalize – inflation swaps continue to rise. The 10-year inflation swap rate reached 2.80% today, about 10bps from the post-Lehman highs (see Chart, source Enduring Investments). Some people, evidently, are starting to be concerned.
Incidentally, some might be tempted to attribute today’s inflation market rally the rise in unleaded gasoline futures. Unleaded rallied on news that Hess Corp (HES) is closing its NJ oil refining facility and its U.S. terminal network. However, this did not seem to translate into the inflation markets, as it often does – normally, the inflation swaps curve would flatten as the gasoline move has more relevance for a shorter inflation horizon, but today the front of the curve if anything underperformed after carry is taken into consideration. The rise in inflation swap quotes is deeper than this.
The S&P managed to hit the seemingly-important 1,500 level today, before fading to close unchanged. The market took heart early from the print of Initial Claims at 330k. This is of course good news, although some blame may be due to the holiday-shortened week (the BLS had to estimate claims for some states, including California, which were unable to submit their figures in time) and the still-volatile seasonal pattern. Traditionally, this is the week I start paying attention to ‘Claims, but each subsequent number matters more than the last. I’d love to hear that the post-holiday layoffs weren’t as significant as they usually are, implying that more ‘seasonal’ workers are being retained. I’m skeptical of it, though, until we see a few more weeks of such evidence or confirmation in the survey numbers.
This is a good time to remember that economic data aren’t “right” or “wrong”; they are experiments, like taking the heights of five random motorists and trying to guess the average height of the people who drive on a particular freeway. We never know the true underlying state of the economy, or the true underlying trend rate of any particular economic datum. We come into an economic release with a null hypothesis, and that hypothesis may either be rejected or not rejected (economic data can never really confirm your hypothesis, but they can support your hypothesis). It is for this reason that I ignore the first few Initial Claims figures of the new year. The error bars on them are so wide that it is almost impossible to reject any halfway-rational null hypothesis. Once we have seen a couple more Claims figures in this range, or gotten support for the notion of an improving job market from Consumer Confidence figures (for example), it will be easier to reject the null hypothesis that the economy is still bumping along in a nearly-jobless recovery.
Also today, the TIPS auction produced strong results despite the fact that the market never priced in a ‘concession’ for the size. At 1:00ET, the bid in the market was -0.62%, but the U.S. Treasury sold $15bln at a lower yield (higher price) of -0.63%. Moving $15bln in size without hitting the bid is a fair sign of hunger in the inflation market.
And why shouldn’t there be hunger? If you think the economy is heating up, you can’t really short bonds unless you want to sell them and hope the Fed is just about done buying. But the Fisher equation says:
(1+n)=(1+r)(1+i)(1+p), which we usually simplify to say
Nominal rates = real rates + expected inflation
If the Fed is holding nominal rates constant, and investors are expecting inflation to rise as growth heats up (note: I am not changing my view that these are unrelated…I’m merely observing how investors behave in the market), then TIPS ought to stay comparatively well-bid because investors will buy breakevens as the bearish trade, rather than selling Treasuries in a Quixotic attempt to outlast the Fed. I think breakevens and inflation swaps, which remain near the highest levels since 2006 (in the 10-year sector) and near the highest levels since there have been TIPS, are going to remain pretty well bid.
The last data of the week are the New Home Sales (Consensus: 385k from 377k) from December. The forecast is for the highest level of sales in several years, and the biggest hurdle seems to be that inventories of homes remain very low.
One quick observation about home prices and “inflation expectations” that is interesting. Pollster Rasmussen reported today that 29% of Americans expect their home’s value to rise over the next year. While this is close to the highest levels the survey has recorded (it was only started in April 2010), it is strikingly low considering that both new and existing home sales prices are up at a double-digit pace over the last year, and even the slower-moving Case-Shiller index has home prices up at over twice the rate of core inflation (4.31% as of October, the last available data, with next week’s release expected to be 5.6%). The point simply being this: the Federal Reserve relies mightily on the assumption that inflation cannot really get started when inflation expectations are well-anchored. But nowhere are inflation expectations better anchored, probably, than in home prices – and yet, home prices are rising at something not far away from the peak rates of a couple of years ago.
That’s something to think about. Maybe it’s time that the Fed dropped the whole notion of anchored inflation expectations, which no one has ever demonstrated since there are no good measures of consumer inflation expectations. The idea of an inflation-expectations anchor was developed to explain why inflation did not accelerate in the 1990s even while the economy did, causing previously-estimated models to breakdown. There are other explanations that don’t require positing an anchor that cannot be measured (for example, the private/public debt ratio plays an important role in my company’s models), but the imaginations of the academic community became…well…anchored to the idea. It’s time to drop that anchor…at least until we develop a way to measure those expectations, and then to test the idea.
It is hard to be the top dog.
Today, despite another low-volume session (incredibly, NYSE Composite volume is already 1.5 billion shares behind 2012’s volume-to-date), investors were looking forward to a slew of earnings announcements. By and large, companies hit or exceeded the hurdles set for them, as they typically do.
Apple (AAPL), which released fiscal Q1 earnings after the close, was among those that exceeded expectations. Sales rose 18%, although falling marginally short of expectations, and the company posted a $13.81/share profit compared with expectations for $13.53/share. Apple guided Q2 revenue estimates downward, and the stock was pummeled more than 6% after the close.
What’s amazing to me is that investors were not satisfied. Bloomberg gaped that “Apple Inc. posted no profit growth and the slowest increase in sales in 14 quarters…” This is a very large company. How long did people think that the firm could grow at “only” 18%? The same story also suggested the reason for the disappointing reaction: “The results reinforce concern that Apple’s growth is being hurt by higher production costs…”
No, its growth is being hurt because it’s a very large company. (Review the beginning of my January 15th post, where I link the research on the performance of the stock market’s “top dog”.)
Now, Apple is a wonderful, wonderful company. I want to be like Apple. I want my daughter to marry someone like Apple. It only has an 11.7 trailing P/E, and a yield of 2.06%. There’s much to like. But it’s huge. Like Microsoft before it, it is going to transition to a period of large-industrial-concern growth (MSFT has a 10.7 multiple and a 3.33% yield). The difference between MSFT and AAPL is that the former has an almost unassailable position in some of its markets. The latter, while a very cool company, has unassailable positions in … perhaps the iPod, to the extent that market isn’t cannibalized by the smartphone market. On the other hand, MSFT is a ruthless, uncreative company that has historically put out buggy products (although version 275 of Excel seems to crash less). AAPL is an ultra-cool, creative company that is in ‘what have you done for me lately’ product markets. I am not saying that I would do a long-short on MSFT-AAPL, and I’m not even saying that AAPL needs to trade lower from these levels. I’m merely pointing out that the dividend growth model contemplates a transition to lower long-run growth, and AAPL is going to have lower long-term growth eventually. That shouldn’t be surprising. Its main problem as an investment was that it was far too expensive for a company in transition, and moreover that transition was almost assured once it became such a huge company. Gravity isn’t just a good idea, Icarus: it’s the law.
The good news is that if AAPL is on its way to becoming IBM (without the gray-costumed drones of the 1984 advertisements, of course), it may have fallen far enough. IBM trades at a 13.4 P/E and a 1.66% dividend yield. Even Icarus bounced once he’d fallen for a while.
Thursday’s main economic data will be Initial Claims (Consensus: 355k from 335k). It is getting late enough in January that it is starting to make sense to pay attention to Claims again; however, as always with a weekly figure it will take a few weeks to let the average settle out.
More important, to me, is the auction of the new 10-year TIPS. This is not a re-opening, but rather a January-2023 maturity. The Treasury will be auctioning $15bln of the security, and I believe the auction will go well. The WI is pricing at roughly a 10-11bp pick-up from the current 10-year. That looks like too much, and I would expect that investors who own the current 10-year TIPS would be eager to add 11bps for six months of maturity (and pick up a slightly closer-to-the-money deflation floor in the process). Add to this the fact that the 10-year sector is fairly cheap on the curve generally, and you have the ingredients for a pretty good auction even if the absolute levels of yield are heinous and the breakevens are relatively wide by recent standards.
According to Bloomberg, investors are the most optimistic on stocks they have been in 3½ years. As is normal, investors mistake a sense of optimism about the economy for a sense of optimism on equities. As is normal, investors are reaching this peak of optimism as the stock market achieves its highest nominal level in five years, and among the highest valuation multiples in … hey!…about five years. What a coincidence! (Incidentally, while we calculate our long-term valuation metrics ourselves this page is a pretty good source for a quick-and-dirty view of valuations. I don’t have any relationship to the company and this is the only page on the site that I’ve used so I am not endorsing any other page!)
Now, while I am probably as optimistic on the economy as I have been in the past few years, I’m still less-optimistic than the crowd since I think the crowd hasn’t yet assimilated the fact that the little growth spurt at the end of Q4 owes quite a lot to the movement of dividends and incomes into Q4 from Q1, and thus the first quarter of this year will probably look rather poor.
In fact, while I am clearly negative long-term on the prospects for nominal Treasury bonds, that’s my investment view. My trading view is that at 1.84%, Treasury bond yields are probably going to go lower before they go higher. That’s partly because the present yields incorporate a lot of enthusiasm about growth – enthusiasm I think will be dashed once the January numbers begin to be reported in earnest. But the trading view is also because the Fed is buying virtually all of the net supply the Treasury is supplying to the market, with no sign that project is ending. I have no illusions that buying 10-year Treasuries at 1.84% and holding to maturity will be an awful investment. But if I was a short-term swing trader, I’d play for the next 20bps to be lower, not higher, in yield.
With respect to January data, incidentally, here is what we have so far (outside of Initial Claims, which as I have pointed out previously are all over the map at this time of year):
|Release for January||
|NAHB Housing Mkt Index||
|Philadelphia Fed Index||
|Richmond Fed Mfg Index||
For the most part, these are not just misses but big misses. I wonder how long it will take for investors to notice? Initial Claims on Thursday could get attention as the numbers start to converge on the actual condition of the underlying economy, but the first big January datum is the January 29th release of Consumer Confidence, which is currently expected to rise slightly from December. That is followed by ADP on January 30th (but any weakness there will likely be tempered by the advance release of Q4 GDP on the same day), the Chicago PMI on the 31st, and the ISM PMI and Unemployment on February 1st. Regardless of what happens over the next few days, I don’t want to be short bonds headed into that gauntlet next week.
I said the January data were big misses “for the most part,” because the NAHB miss wasn’t really a big miss. Housing is even strong enough now to resist downside surprises. As an aside, although it is a December number, the median price of existing home sales rose 10.89% year-on-year. Adjusted for the level of core inflation (so that we’re looking at the real rise in existing home prices), this is the fastest rise in history except for several months in 2005 – see the chart, (source Enduring Investments).
As for stocks, the fact that investors are as bullish as they have been in a third of a decade is sad but not terribly surprising (although this is a survey of Bloomberg users, which supposedly are much more astute since they have to come up with the 1700 clams per month for the service). On a related note, I was recently reading an article, called “I Saw The Movie,” in the January issue of Financial Advisor Magazine. In the article, the author compares the fear that some investors have of the stock market to the (irrational) fear of going into the water after watching Jaws. The author notes that “If your balance in 2011 resembled your balance in early 2008, you lost three years – but you didn’t lose any money, unless you sold out of panic…the vast majority of big losers were those who sold at the ebb of fall of ’08 to the spring of ’09 and parked their boats in the shallows of rock-bottom savings accounts.”
This, it occurs to me, is the real toll that the Fed’s QE has had on the investor class. It taught the wrong lesson. The lesson that has been taught is that you should hold on through all things, good and bad, and things will be okay. It is true that with hindsight, those who sold with the market finally at fair value (but no cheaper) in March of ’09 missed a rollicking rally all the way back to similar levels of overvaluation. But the real lesson should have been that most investors shouldn’t have been overweight in equities in 2008 or in 2007, based on market valuations. In the absence of manipulation of asset prices through the “portfolio balance channel” (see my discussion of this phenomenon in my recent article “A Relatively Good Deal Doesn’t Mean It’s A Good Deal”), those who sold in March of 2009 would have missed an average market return rather than the 21% per annum the market actually delivered since then. So the problem isn’t that they got out in 2009, but that they got in (or stayed in) in 2007 and 2008, and then got out in 2009. Investors who heeded the overvaluation of the market at, say, year-end 1998 and never got back in have earned a compounded return of 2.54% in T-Bills, 7.39% in TIPS, 5.64% in commodities, or 5.77% in the Lehman/Barclays Agg (nominal bonds) compared with 2.94% in stocks.
And that return is based on the pumped-up valuations that still exist in stocks today.
Investors, and their advisors for the most part, haven’t learned the right lessons yet, which is why patient investors are still having to wait to get back into equities even though the Federal Reserve is working very hard to force them back into the market via the portfolio balance channel.
The right lesson is this: investing for the long term is mostly about valuations, and very little about the economic cycle, the news cycle, or the lunar cycle. And two of those three we can’t predict, anyway. Yes, there is a tactical element of trading, but most investors should be (a) rebalancing on a regular basis, (b) paying attention to basic rudiments of asset valuation so as to adjust – mainly at the margin – their basic asset mix, and (c) turning off the television.
The latest fiscal cliff follies are redolent of that old proverb:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Geithner – one of the worst, if not the worst, Treasury Secretaries in history, I am pretty sure – said in an interview on CNBC that the Administration would “absolutely” send the country off the fiscal cliff if the rates on the top 2% of Americans don’t go up.
Now, I’ve heard lots of numbers bandied about, and decided I wanted to get the source data directly. The latest information i can find from the IRS is from tax year 2009, but it is instructive. According to the IRS, in 2009 there were 104,164,970 tax returns filed. The number with adjusted gross income above $200,000 was 3,912,980, or about 3.8% of all returns. They don’t break it down any more than that, so let’s call those successful people “the rich” and work from there.
Those 4 million returns covered $1.626 trillion in modified taxable income (32% of the total taxable income) and produced $429bln in tax (45% of the total tax generated). Now, let’s suppose that the top tax rate rose from 35% to 39.6% in tax, and for grins we’ll pretend that taxpayers are completely indifferent about this and so they do nothing to try and reduce taxable income (by, say, buying municipal bonds rather than corporate bonds). You might think that the tax take will rise by $74.8bln (4.6% * 1.626 trillion). But you’d be wrong, because the increase wouldn’t affect all of the taxable income paid by high-earners, but only that income that is taxed at the top marginal rate. In 2009, only $485bln in income was taxed at that rate, so a 4.6% increase in the marginal rate would only raise $22.3bln per year, or around $250-300bln over the next 10 years.
Now, over the last year the deficit has been about $1.1 trillion, so if I understand Geithner correctly, the Administration is willing to push the country over the cliff about an issue that amounts to 2% of the deficit, and would increase aggregate revenues by only 1%.
It’s one thing to argue for the philosophical point, but to say that you’re willing to put a hole in the bottom of the boat because you don’t like the seat you were offered…it seems a bit irrational.
What might be even more irrational is the sudden optimism that is breaking out all over Capitol Hill, about how great the economy will be if the fiscal cliff can just be averted. Today a Republican Senator being interviewed on CNBC said “The economy is ready to explode. There’s no doubt about that,” echoing what President Obama had said just a couple of days ago.
Do they mean implode, perhaps?
There is certainly no sign whatsoever that “the economy is ready to explode” ecstatically if the fiscal cliff is averted. Indeed, I think part of the reason we’re likely to go over the cliff is that the President wants to be able to blame the poor growth for the next few years on the Republicans in the same way he spent the last four years blaming the previous President. And the Republicans, since the Administration has offered no spending cuts and has dismissed entitlement reform altogether, don’t really have a choice unless they want to completely capitulate – at least with the fiscal cliff, some spending will be cut. Since, if austerity is enforced, there will be no way to test the counterfactual, it makes sense to build up how great it would have been. But the point I want to make is that to proffer such a claim only makes tactical sense if no deal is in the offing…because if a deal is struck, then we’ll quickly find out that the economy isn’t going to explode higher at all, and those statements will be exposed as completely moronic.
We will on Friday find out how much the economy is not exploding – surely, because of the impending cliff – when Payrolls (Consensus: 85k vs 171k) and Unemployment (Consensus: 7.9%) are announced. These figures will be impacted by Hurricane Sandy, so it will be difficult to interpret them. Or, perhaps I should add cynically that this uncertainty will make it even easier for politicians to claim whatever the heck they want!
With 10-year yields already at four-month lows (1.59%) and the bullish seasonal pattern having run its course, I think the risk is for higher bond yields both tomorrow and going forward. Now, the 1.82% level has mostly contained any selloff since April, but I think we will be headed in that direction. Equities have downside risk in my view after this recent rally (an even more impressive rally when you consider that Apple was dragging on the index!); I think there is far too much optimism about an imminent resolution to the fiscal cliff, and I don’t think we’ll see any resolution until after the new year.
Today there was a glimmer of good news today from the economic front. The national PMI (formerly known as NAPM, now ISM) rose to 51.5 from 49.6 last month. Expectations had been weak, especially since Friday’s Chicago Purchasing Manager’s report printed a contractionary 49.7, the lowest reading since 2009 (see Chart, source Bloomberg).
That wasn’t the only bad news last week. On that side of the ledger you have to also put Thursday’s Durable Goods report, which was awful. The headline was -13.2%, which made headlines since it was the worst since a single -14.3% print in January 2009. But that is obviously significantly due to aircraft. Ex-transportation, though, the number was also weak, at -1.6% coupled with a downward revision of -0.9% to July’s report. That’s three consecutive negative months, which hasn’t happened since late 2008. New orders, ex-transportation, have now declined on a year/year basis. The chart below (Source Bloomberg) shows that declining core Durables Orders doesn’t usually happen, except at the margin, outside of recessions. The recessions of the early 1980s, the early 1990s, and the two of the 2000s are all clearly visible on the chart.
Now, -1.1% is still marginal, and there have been cases where such a print didn’t happen in the context of a recession (such as in 1998). But the next two months bring difficult comparisons, since September of 2011 was +1.9% and October 2011 was +2.0%. It will be pretty easy for this indicator to drop another few percentage points, and if it does then it will be hard to argue we are not beginning another recession.
Perhaps the inkling of this result is the reason that bond yields and breakevens have both recently been soft. Readers of this column know that growth doesn’t cause inflation nor recession cause disinflation, but 95% of investors still believe that. This creates, in my view, a wonderful opportunity to buy inflation insurance at a time when by rights it should be egregiously priced. When we look back at this period, right after the Fed began open-ended QE promising to continue until inflation rose or unemployment (or the republic) fell, I can assure you that everyone will remember that ‘everyone knew’ what would happen. Certainly, our clients will think so, and will wonder why we didn’t.
Personally, I think Dr. Bernanke must be looking at the retracement in breakevens and the developing view that inflation is no threat and saying to himself “I can’t believe they bought it!”
As an example of that credulity, Bloomberg reported today that “TIPS Show Inflation Alarm Fading as Options Give Fed Time.” In this article, the journalist noted that “Demand to protect against higher long-term bond yields over the next six months has been static since Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke announced a third round of quantitative easing…” I thought it might be helpful here to point out that even if you think the Fed is going to fail to keep inflation down, buying puts on bonds is probably not the right way to play that view. Buying puts on nominal bonds is a direct bet that the Fed will fail to keep longer interest rates down. Since the Fed has both explicitly and implicitly pledged to do so, and is currently buying long-term Treasuries (and now mortgages) in a direct effort to lower long-term rates, investors who buy puts on nominal bonds are simply going head-to-head with the Fed. As Dennis Gartman pointed out to a gathering at an inflation conference last Thursday (at which I also spoke), “the Fed’s margin account is second in size only to God’s,” and it doesn’t make sense to bet against them directly.
However, while the Fed may succeed in markets there is certainly no guarantee that the Fed will succeed in the macroeconomy. History is replete with examples of Fed mistakes, and yet many investors seem to have forgotten this history. It seems to me that investors today think “don’t fight the Fed” means the Fed will actually succeed in the macroeconomic effects of what they are trying to do. But that’s not what “don’t fight the Fed” means. It means: don’t sell what the Fed is buying, don’t buy what the Fed is trying to push lower. Don’t bet on higher rates when the Fed is pledging to hold them down forever with actual purchases in the cash bond market. It isn’t, in short, surprising that options are ‘giving the Fed time;’ it’s just that many more people are willing to bet the Fed is going to succeed in keeping rates down, than are willing to bet their huge margin account will be tapped out.
But that doesn’t mean you have to bet that the Fed is going to be able to avoid the usual macroeconomic effects of loose money. When the Fed says “we intend to keep rates low,” they can put effect to that intention. But when the Fed says “we intend to keep inflation low,” they have no way to cause this to happen absent pursuing a tight monetary policy, which they most assuredly are not…and even then, they’re not actively transacting in inflation but in asset markets. If inflation follows profligate monetary policy much as night follows day, then the way you invest for that possibility is to buy inflation, not to sell nominal rates. That is, be long breakevens, or inflation swaps, or inflation options.
How quickly to do this? Honestly, I am amazed that we still have the opportunity to do it, so perhaps this means there is no hurry. A weak Employment report this week may give another opportunity, and as recessionary signs accumulate then inflation expectations (not to say inflation itself) may decline. The re-developing European debacle might give us a chance to buy inflation cheap. We may in fact have months to put on long inflation trades.
But maybe not, too. And I would hate to have to explain to clients, or my spouse, why I had nothing on when “everyone saw this coming.” The regret function suggests to me that this is a prime case for averaging into inflation protection, if you haven’t yet begun to.
 Of course I am using the ‘royal we’ here: our company has been loudly clanging the gong on this for a while and no one will think we didn’t see it coming.