Recently, the US stock market has had the biggest 50 percent increase ever, which happens in the period of just over a few months. Markets look forward to a time of post-crisis investing and have priced in a complete, eventual recovery.
Nevertheless, because earnings will take a while to recover, and because of virus-related concerns many businesses will not return to normal for a long time, the inflows are still speculative.
The probability of a return to earnings has moved back.
Because of all the new programs for liquidity and credit support, more capital is chasing a decreased earnings pie compared to what was discounted earlier in the year.
A lot of individual risk assets are definitely not worth pursuing even though you have a standard 10 year period on a portfolio of investments.
We ‘re moving into a world in which self-sufficiency is more important than productivity in terms of where production goes.
US Trade Representative Peter Navarro puts it:
“Would you rather have cheap, subsidized – illegally subsidized – goods dumped into the Walmart and not have a job and not have your wages go up in 15 years, or would you like to pay a little bit more – not much – a little bit more, have a job, and have your wages going up?”
Pricing self-sufficiency over performance has both advantages and disadvantages. One of the drawbacks is that margins are poor. Earnings are becoming more dependent on sales growth, which is difficult with debt loads ballooning up to.
If you borrow, you borrow not only from a lender but from your future selves. Finally, you’ve got to spend less. Which means investing less, and/or take less for yourself because you’ve got to pay back the money.
Bonds are not desirable at all. Many of those who are not highly speculative in nature yield little in real terms ( i.e., inflation-adjusted terms) and in nominal terms, hardly anything. In terms of nominal terms, US government bonds get you less than 1 percent.
Under the theory, bonds are under the same bucket as currency. We are closer to a lending mechanism than an investment fund that can give you a return on your money, given how small their rates have become.
The top three tranches of Investment-grade corporate bonds yield in terms of projected real returns. The investment-grade / high-yield cut-off point (Baa3-> Ba1) offers just around an inflation-adjusted yield of 2 per cent.
Most of the best long-term investing opportunities currently available in the markets are likely to be in the early stages and private markets, and that is particularly true now that public markets are back to becoming (and being) expensive. Private markets are driven by the same forces but, without the passive flows and usually better performance, there tends to be more distinct.
Some markets are divorced entirely from reality. For example, the stock of Chesapeake Energy (CHK), increased in price 3x on one trading day given the fact that its bonds expiring in January 2025 (11.5 per cent coupon) are selling on the dollar for around five cents.
This appears to blow bubbles in the most volatile areas of the economy, because there is a lot of liquidity and credit in the financial system and not a lot of great opportunities. This money does not appear to go to secure companies where future financial results are fairly well-established, such as Coca-Cola or utilities that could produce 4-5 percent annual returns.
It goes into securities with a wide distribution of potential future outcomes, such as stocks with uncertain shareholder recovery or start-up companies that sell “hot” products or services but whose future market is speculative (not to mention the ability of any particular company to execute on it).
For instance, Nikola (NKLA), an upstart electric carmaker, recently saw its market cap exceeding that of Ford (F), despite no revenues. (Ford is profitably selling around 5-7 million vehicles a year.)
When Hertz (HTZ), a rental car company, filed for bankruptcy on May 26, it continued to increase its stock price by a factor of more than 10x by June 8.
This is clearly ridiculous because its equity is behind $14 billion in car debt, and $6 billion in corporate debt. Once existing common shareholders get something, these commitments must be met in cash or a new ownership claim. It is just the kind of speculative conduct that we’re seeing.
Continued gains by both the stock and corporate bond markets suggest that any financial pressure from individuals , companies, and state and local governments would not be unnecessarily burdensome relative to expectations previously discounted.
Deficiencies in liquidity are necessary to rectify until both the private and public sectors begin to cut back on spending, resulting in a further contraction of market activity.
Labor markets are important to monitor for investors, even if they lag behind economic indicators. (Employers usually slash labor needs after financial stress hits) Central banks often look closely at labor market metrics with full employment mandates at affordable prices ( i.e. avoiding inflation). Which influences the way they make their choices.
On May 16 the number of people seeking state unemployment insurance decreased. That was a good one, denoting a possible labor market bottom. Nonetheless, though down from the record-high 24.9 million in May 9, the 21.1 million jobless gain received was well above that seen in the post-financial crisis era – the then-all-time-high 6.64 million figure in May 2009.
By contrast, the labor market issues associated with the Covid-19 shutdowns make the financial crisis-related stress look low.
It means that consumer spending is only slowly improving. Further delinquencies in mortgage loans are likely to put stress on subprime borrowers.
In addition , the initial state unemployment claims of 2.14 million on May 23 signal another significant decrease in payrolls for the month of May of between 5 and 10 million employees.
Returning job growth would need a rate to be far below one million new claims each week for first-time state unemployment compensation applications.
Both the troubling outlook for debt repayment and the state of flux over the labor market underlines the speculative nature of the latest equity and corporate bond markets rallies.
Financial markets are leading the economy, yielding new highs in some US indices (particularly tech-centric ones) amid a record-high number of recession countries.
Consequently, it would take a while for corporate profits to avoid a deep contraction.
Calendar year pre-tax earnings for the US center peaked in 2014. Accordingly, in the years that have followed, the subsequent underlying earnings success of US businesses may be seen as mediocre.
However though the main annualized pre-tax earnings (of US non-financial corporations) for 2020 were 13.4 percent below the 2014 calendar year record high, the market value of US common stock recently stood at 65 percent above its 2014 year-long average.
Since the corporate earnings slump in 2019, Blue Chip consensus in early May forecast a 16 percent annual decrease in pre-tax income by 2020, followed by a 12.4 percent turnaround in 2021.
This is all speculative on the amounts, of course, but the general idea is that we will see a contraction in earnings in 2020 followed by an expected recovery in 2021.
The main pre-tax earnings suffered contractions leading up to the downturn over a period spanning the 2008 financial crisis – with annual contractions of 6.9 per cent in 2007 and 16.1 per cent in 2008. It was accompanied by annual gains of 7.9% in 2009, and 24.7% in 2010.
US stocks currently sell at a forward P / E multiple of 22.1. That implies a forward return yield of about 4.5 percent, taking that figure ‘s reciprocal (i.e., 1 divided by 22.1).
It contrasts with something like a 12.9x for developed markets (7.8 per cent forward yield), but that also does not take into account the higher risk associated with emerging markets and the disparity in sector mix.
For example, the US has more tech firms than the emerging markets in Europe, Japan, and. Such companies continue to expand faster and their cash flows are more likely to be reached in the future than more stable sectors such as banking, manufacturing and services, earning them a higher multiple.
This allows cumulative earnings represented for one year – as forward P / E does – less applicable to some sectors than others.
China trades at an annual earnings multiple of 12.5x because of a greater proportion of state-owned companies and financial firms.
The same applies to a country like Russia, whose largest public corporations are state-owned and have a history of corruption that undermines confidence in free and fair markets, resulting in lower market-wide multiples – estimated at 7x-8x in this case.
Extremely fast-growing capital drives equity and corporate debt rallies
The amount of currency and reserves in circulation in the US increased to $5.2 trillion by May 2020 from $3.2 trillion in September 2019:
The added amount of global liquidity puts to shame the scale and pace of QE1, QE2, and QE3 (the official quantitative easing programs of the Fed between March 2009 and October 2014).
The Fed has never tried to bring the economy out of recession, like it did during the meltdown of coronavirus.
The Fed can resolve a liquidity crisis – that is, providing bridge loans and other support for credit and liquidity to boost an economy. But it can’t solve a solvency problem where a business can’t perform and remain viable.
Many small businesses face solvency issues. The high-yield default rate for April came in at around 5.4 percent, but by Q1 2021 it could rise to around 13 percent.
Fastest development since 1950-1951 with commercial and industrial loans
The need to cover the liquidity shortfalls associated with Covid-19 is propelling bank business loans at a rate higher than what has been seen in 70 years.
In conjunction with the rapidly rising monetary base metrics, outstanding bank-held commercial and industrial loans soared higher in April to a record $2.96 trillion, up 26.2 per cent year-on-year.
The annual rise in April through bank-held C&I loans was the highest since September 1951’s 29.5 annual average.
For all of 1951, the 15.7 per cent increase in nominal GDP was accompanied by an 8.0 per cent real GDP growth.
Bank-held C&I loans rocked higher at an unprecedented annualized pace of 149.1 per cent from January to April, or the three months ended April.
Before 2020, the former pinnacle for the three-month annualized growth rate of bank-held C&I loans was 48.7 per cent of the three months ended September 1950.
The US recorded annual growth rates of 10.0 percent for nominal GDP for the entire 1950 calendar year, and 8.7 percent for actual GDP.
A forward expectation for US growth would be about 1.5-2.0 percent real and 3.0-4.0 percent nominal, for the sake of comparison.
The large economic growth rates of 1950 and 1951 helped to lower the high US government debt-to – GDP ratios that came about primarily to help fund the Second World War.
Considering how publicly traded US government debt will reach 100 per cent of GDP in the near future, if there is enough support, the US could be inclined towards higher economic growth in the immediate future. But given that US government debt doesn’t deliver benefits that offset its costs, it’s a long-run drag on growth on net.
However, once profits begin to return or rise at the corporate level, most businesses will begin servicing debt that has been incurred in order to maintain sufficient liquidity.
And inflation or not?
Inflation is a major factor in the real economy, and has implications for the financial economy as well.
The common concern is whether all of this new money and credit growth would contribute to inflation.
The short answer is that in the financial economy, it’s inflationary but probably not in the real economy.
Among the more elastic goods , for example among food and basic healthcare, there could be some inflation which we are already seeing to some degree. But the deflationary forces of all the debt can overwhelm any inflationary forces very much simply because they are so big.
In the financial economy, if the money and credit do not go into spending or reserves, then it ends up in financial asset purchases. So, in the financial sense it is inflationary.
But you are actually offsetting the loss of credit in the real economy. If the money and credit are not brought up to offset the loss in demand for products and services, then prices will actually fall.
Due to the foreign currency borrowing the situation is different in emerging markets. What often happens when a shock hits is a decline in the exchange rate between the currency in which they make their income, and the currency (or currencies) in which they borrow. That’s like a huge rise in effective interest rates.
In these situations, the bottom in the currency is found once policymakers set a currency interest rate that balances both the inflation rate and currency depreciation based on the underlying capital flow in and out of the country ( i.e., their balance of payments).
You also have to set an interest rate to shore up poor inflation, which destroys credit growth and triggers a big decline in the economy. When they continue to print, this will normally be transferred to other countries or to hedge-inflation funds, so that their capital does not lose value. That exacerbates the problem with the domestic currency. If the gap between foreign spending, revenue, and debt servicing is never closed, a bad inflation situation can turn into hyperinflation.
In periods of after crisis investing, it is time to worry again about fiscal cliffs
Policymakers in the state and local government face the most challenging budget environment in at least one generation. Some have never had to deal with those circumstances in the budget.
As a whole, financial issues in government tend to get worse over time. Policymakers are always more inclined to spend than not, given that doing so is politically popular, and don’t always pay much attention to how it all gets paid back. So, government finances are going to get worse over time , particularly at the highest level.
The basic economic perspective is that the GDP contraction will be more than twice the magnitude of the 2008 financial crisis. The amount of federal assistance underway remains uncertain. Meanwhile, revenues have dropped by a lot (which one wouldn’t necessarily know when looking at the stock market) and social services spending is accelerating at a record pace across the country.
The risk of an error in US fiscal policy is on the increase.
In addition, this summer, there are a pair of potential fiscal cliffs. Unless handled in a capable manner it will cause the economy in the second half of the year to underperform expectations.
Of example, following the financial crisis of 2008 one of the major policy failures was the premature move to fiscal austerity.
Fiscal policy had been a drag on GDP growth between 2010 and 2014. Expansion from 2009-2020 has been long, but slow. Mostly this was because of pre-existing debt burdens that had not been worked off. (The Fed’s loose policy steps were necessary from 2008 onwards but also meant that the economy would start from a high debt base and deliver a slow recovery.)
The deficit has shot up to about $2 trillion per annum, or about 10 per cent of GDP, which some politicians consider unnerving.
Deficits matter, and in the conventional form of budget cuts and higher tax-taking can never be repaid. (By weakening it, the currency would go through.)
Although lawmakers are not fiscal hawks in comparison to how the deficit matter used to be handled, due to the increasing debt-to – GDP ratio, some are concerned to have another round of fiscal stimulus.
Failure to provide more support to small businesses along with state and local governments, however, will reduce revenue from federal government and push the federal deficit up. Either way the deficit will go up.
Potential fiscal fallout
There will be some potential fiscal cliffs this summer, unless policymakers act on them.
Offset to unemployment
Next, to standard unemployment insurance benefits, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Insurance provides an additional $600 a week. That will expire on July 31.
The problem is that merely expanding the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Benefit as it is currently being set up may not be politically palatable.
Some policymakers have expressed concern that the additional $600 in unemployment insurance benefits creates a disincentive to work.
Approximately two-thirds of workers are currently more unemployed than they were at their jobs. In unemployment, $978 per week (average) compounded to a monthly rate of about $4,200 per month. If that’s on average over a working week of 40 hours, that is $24-$25 / hr. This is higher than other jobs. That’s a little over $50,000 over a year, which would put one in the 61st income percentile based on 2019 data.
If they hold those unemployment benefits, this could hamper the prospect of successful labor allocation. Just like all emergencies, companies are adjusting and may find that they don’t need to rehire a lot of furloughed workers.
Low-skilled employees are the ones hit the hardest. When a disaster occurs, they are usually the first out and the last in on recovery.
The Fed’s Beige Book is a compendium of anecdotal, on-the-ground research published eight times a year about current economic conditions.
The latest version of the Fed reported that many contacts have identified additional labor market problems in a variety of industries. This involves restricted access to child care facilities that hold staff away from their workplaces and places of employment. Out of fear of the virus more staff are calling to stay home. And, as noted, in some situations unemployment payments deter employees from rejoining payrolls.
It is necessary to extend the unemployment benefits in order to avoid this fiscal cliff. One potential alternative to disincentive for jobs is for policymakers to include a lump-sum payment in forward benefits of the remaining $600 until new employment has been obtained.
Extending unemployment benefits should easily avoid the July 31 cliff.
Defense Paycheck Plan
Another cliff marks the termination of the Paycheck Security Plan (PPP).
Such loans shall terminate eight weeks after disbursement.
The first payment round was made in mid-April, and the second round in the first half of May.
Small companies that use these loans to finance their payroll could be placed under renewed pressure by early July. Recently, the use of the PPP has been limited by confusion as to which parts are likely to be entirely or partly forgiven (e.g., whether the funds went to hold workers on payroll) and which would need to be repaid.
The Small Business Administration ( SBA) interpreted the reduction in loan approvals as a sign that demand has been met for the program. Approximately eight weeks of qualifying payroll, deposit, mortgage interest and overall plan operating costs will amount to some $700-$800 billion.
Approximately 70 per cent of PPP demand was met based on that figure. The rest may not be wanted due to different reasons.
Deep state- and local deficits
Additionally, state and local governments face their own fiscal cliff as most approach the new fiscal year quickly.
State and local governments through fiscal year 2022 will have accumulated budget shortfalls of $500 billion (at least) due to the outbreak.
This is a lot as it is about 20 per cent of annual revenue before the Covid-19 crisis broke out. It also doesn’t include the state-level healthcare costs needed to fight the pandemic.
These have been taken up by the federal government, and will need to continue. Without doing so, expenditure will result in more furloughs, layoffs and pullbacks.
Recently the European Central Bank raised its ongoing quantitative easing purchases under its PEPP program – an increase of € 600 billion to € 1.35 trillion in total.
The purchases are scheduled to run through June 2021, as opposed to end 2020. The purchases which were already reported under the ECB’s PEPP program were expected to run out in October at the previous rate.
Traders would have anticipated a lack of central bank buying support as likely to lead to a re-widening of bond spreads as the date draws near (i.e., trade structures that short-sell European government bonds purchased as part of the program).
Due to higher and higher debt burdens, and consequently increased economic fragility, policymakers want to avoid an increase in financing costs. Debt in all three big reserve-currency areas of the world – the US, developed Europe, and Japan – all need to keep interest rates fixed as near as possible to zero (or negative) to prevent the debt from being an problem.
Recently the European Commission proposed a €750 billion budget plan to help the countries of the European Union fund the costs of the crisis. However, the funds are likely to only begin to flow in 2021, which ensures that the burden will remain with the ECB for the rest of 2020.
Policy-makers could prevent this from happening:
– Increase its purchases of assets (as already done)
– Deciding to purchase longer periods with more properties (ditto)
– Increase the tier multiplier of the bank to disburse more money into bank reserves, while the ECB lowers its TLTRO rates more to negative territories
– Lower its deposit rate (unlikely because it is less effective than other measures as banks do not normally pass negative rates on to depositors)
– The reinvestment of PEPP proceeds (i.e. the same as the proceeds from PSPP investments) that would allow the capital key to be deviated from *
(* The capital key indicates how much capital each EU member contributes to the ECB. This is calculated in equal proportion by its population and GDP. If a country has 5% of the EU ‘s population and 10% of its GDP, then its capital key would be equal to 7.5%, the average of those two figures.)
In addition to semi-traditional policy instruments, the ECB could also loosen rules on the types of bonds its willingness to buy, rather than just certain national and corporate bonds meeting a certain quality. Any problem relating to the EU Recovery Fund could be covered by purchasing it from the ECB and riskier corporate bonds could also be bought.
The Gold Shop
Gold is at or near its all-time high when compared to many currencies worldwide.
Gold isn’t a random asset that’s cut off from the rest of the planet. Because of its status as a global reserve asset it is deeply intertwined in monetary economics, as it has been for thousands of years.
Despite the all-time lows in real interest rates in each of the major reserve currencies, it’s not coincidental that it’s at those levels.
The long-run price of gold is proportional to currency and circulating reserves compared with global gold reserves.
Large-scale money printing is a great secular tailwind to the gold price as priced in fiat currency.
Usually the gold market is more choppy than stock and bond markets when taken together because it isn’t a commodity liquid. It’s only around $3 trillion in size relative to global bond markets of about ~$325 tn, and equity markets of about ~$80 t.
Gold is increasingly cheap relative to the fundamentals driving its value for the long term. International gold reserves are rising little from year to year, a relatively steady 1 to 3 percent.
Accordingly, it’s largely fiat currency and reserves that dictate long-run value and that’s been on overdrive to fill in the credit gaps.
You then have debt-like liabilities that are increasingly due – health care, pensions, other unfunded obligations – that can’t be fulfilled without a depreciation of currencies.
The more real rates turn down on a higher amount of debt and the more people start searching for alternative stores to hold their wealth onto demands in non-depreciated money. If one benefits from outflows from a burgeoning pile of financial assets where future cash flows do not support their face values, the inherent market illiquidity can have a material effect on the price.
At some point, all fiat currencies come and go, although they tend to work well for long periods of time so that these points of inflection are seldom reached – decades and sometimes centuries – causing many to underestimate their currency risk and assume that it is never a problem. It is necessary to separate oneself from keeping anything in only one currency.
There is therefore diversification not only with regard to financial assets, but with regard to different currency regimes. There are fiat currency systems, commodity-linked systems, and there are difficult backups.
For reserve managers who still have 65 percent or more in US dollars, that’s probably too much, as it’s high in relation to the USD’s share of global reserves, international debt holdings, global import invoicing, FX turnover and global payments. (Not to mention that the US now accounts for just around 20 % of global economic activity but nevertheless maintains disproportionate influence over global monetary affairs, mainly because of its reputation.)
Yet EUR isn’t attractive; JPY isn’t either. Real rates on all the reserve currencies are small.
Speculative currencies are unstable at much of a scale in emerging markets and not viable storeholds. Things like digital currencies and cryptocurrencies are too unpredictable and have a long way to go until they become viable to large buyers (central banks, large institutions) that matter most in currency markets.
Reserve growth is more likely to go into alternative assets such as gold. With extreme demands for money creation worldwide due to high debt servicing requirements and large drops in income, most monetary policymakers and investors will probably want to diversify away from that. This includes assets that are relatively stable, tried and true over long time periods, and are not the responsibility of anyone.
Central banks have added almost 150 tons of gold to their portfolios so far by 2020, according to the World Gold Council. They added 650 tons in 2019, and 656 tons in 2018, the highest since the 1971 suspension of gold-dollar convertibility.
China, the world’s second-largest economy, probably holds off its books a lot of its gold purchases through an agency called the Foreign Exchange State Administration (SAFE).
The WGC states:
As we noted in our report on the Gold Demand Trends in Q1 2020, the case for gold holding central banks remains solid. In particular, considering the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic … Economic environment-related factors – such as negative interest rates – were overwhelming drivers of these planned purchases. It was reinforced by the position of the gold in times of crisis as a safe haven, as well as its lack of default risk.
Nevertheless a portfolio does not overemphasize gold and other precious metals. It is not the safest long term investment. It is just another form of cash.
Roughly 5 to 10 per cent of a portfolio could be a reasonable range for a passive holding.
Last Thoughts on the Investing Crisis
In the post-crisis investment world (it may still be premature to conclude at the time this is posted), stocks are expensive and safer types of bonds are expensive too.
This threatens the long-run value of money as the world’s major central banks turn on their money production machines to cope with the economic effects of the Covid-19 crisis.
Even if it is not currently obvious, the higher squeeze reserve currencies should decrease once demand has been met and/or defaults and restructurings are picked up.
Once again, fiscal cliffs will become an concern and central governments will have no choice but to keep the rates very small with their intractable debt issues for a very long time.
Investors should look to alternative ways of investing and pay closer attention to their risk in the currency. Not only buying different stocks or buying all stocks and bonds, is diversification. Professional private-market investors (e.g., private equity, venture capital, early-stage investments) would likely see increased demand.
Alternative asset stores such as gold and other precious metals have tailwinds behind them, but shouldn’t be a major part of one’s overall portfolio.
The Federal Reserve has asserted on the monetary policy front that it sees interest rates near zero through at least 2022 and has released new economic projections. That’s a conservative estimate, which isn’t much different from when they said that rates would be at zero through at least 2009.
Eight years later the Fed made an effort to hike interest rates. But it got a meltdown after about 200bps in risk asset markets. The hiking rates in 1937 during the Great Depression were a common mistake.
Central banks pay attention to employment relative to inflation, because in one form or another (depending on the bank) that is the statutory mandate. But the debt relating to profits is not given adequate attention. This is another significant juggling act.
Debt-to-output ratios are now higher and the drag on growth is bigger. Even a 100-bp increase in global interest rates would increase debt servicing requirements by more than a total annual growth in global GDP.
Interest rates will remain low for a very long time, pushing more investors into stocks and other risk assets, and deliberately away from low-yielding cash and secure bonds to help achieve their policy goals.