Posts tagged Geopolitics & Markets
Longtime readers of our research and commentary know that we spend quite a bit of time dwelling on the economic metric of productivity. Our reason for that is straightforward: in the long run, productivity is the only way for an economy to grow in a way that improves living standards. Curiously, the quarterly report on productivity issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics generally fails to grab the kind of headlines the financial media readily accord to unemployment, inflation or GDP growth. So there is an excellent chance that today’s release showing a drop of 0.1 percent in productivity growth for Q4 2017 (and a downward revision for the Q3 number) didn’t show up in your daily news digest. And while one quarter’s worth of data does not a trend make, the anemic Q4 reading fits in with a larger question that bedevils economists; namely, whether all the innovation bubbling around in the world’s high tech labs will ever percolate up to deliver a new wave of faster growth.
Diminishing Returns or Calm Before the Wave?
The chart below shows the growth rate of US productivity over the past twenty years. A burst of relatively high productivity in the late 1990s and early 2000s faded into mediocrity as the decade wore on. After the distortions (trough and recovery) of the 2007-09 recession, the subsequent pattern has for the most part even failed to live up to that mid-2000s mediocrity.
There are two main schools of thought out there about why productivity growth has been so lackluster for the past 15 years. The first we could call the “secular stagnation” view, which is the idea that we have settled into a permanently lower rate of growth than that of the heyday of 25 years or so following the Second World War. The second school of thought is the “catch-up” argument, which says that scientific innovations need time before their charms fully work their way into the real economy. Readers of our annual market outlooks may recall that we closely examined the secular stagnation argument back in early 2016, while the catch-up philosophy occupies several pages of the 2018 outlook we published last week.
The most persuasive evidence made by the catch-up crowd is that both previous productivity waves – that of the late ‘90s – early 00s shown in the above chart and the longer “scale wave” that ran from the late 1940s to the late 1960s – happened years after the invention of the scientific innovations that powered them. Most economists ascribe a significant impact to the products of the Information Age – hardware, software and network communications – in explaining the late 1990s wave. But those products started to show up in business offices back in the early 1980s – it took time for them to make an actual impact. According to this logic, it should not be surprising that the potentially momentous implications of artificial intelligence, deep machine learning, quantum computing and the like have yet to show that they make a real difference when it comes to economic growth.
Productivity and Inflation
The economic implications of productivity tend to be longer term rather than immediate – that is probably why they don’t merit much coverage on the evening news when the BLS numbers come out. After all, the economy is not going to stop growing tomorrow; nor will millions of jobs disappear in one day if another productivity wave comes along with the potential to make all sorts of service sector jobs redundant (a point we make in our 2018 outlook if you’re interested). The lack of immediacy can make productivity debates seem more like armchair theory than like practical analysis.
But productivity (or its lack) does have a lot to do with a headline number very much in the front and center of the daily discourse: inflation. What the BLS is reporting in the chart above is labor productivity: in other words, the relationship between how much stuff the economy produces and how much it costs to pay for the labor that produces that stuff. If compensation (wages and salaries) goes up, while economic output goes up by a smaller amount, then effectively you have more money chasing fewer goods and services – which is also the textbook definition of inflation.
In fact, the BLS notes in its Q4 productivity release that higher compensation was indeed the driving factor behind this quarter’s lower productivity number. Bear in mind that unemployment is currently hovering around the 4 percent level (this is being written before the latest jobs report due out Friday morning), and anecdotal evidence of upward wage pressures is building. An upward trend in unit labor costs (the ratio between compensation and productivity) has the potential to catalyze inflationary pressures.
Keep all this in mind as we watch the 10-year Treasury inch ever closer towards 3 percent. As we noted in our annual outlook, it makes sense to watch the bond market to understand where stocks might be going. And anything related to inflation bears close monitoring to understand what might be happening in the bond market.
And the band plays on. Some random convergence of factors could conceivably interrupt and reverse today’s upward push in the S&P 500 before the benchmark index ends with its seventh straight record close…but those would likely be bad odds to take. Yesterday was the 30 year anniversary of 1987’s Black Monday, when stocks tanked by more than 20 percent in a single day. Financial pundits, with not much better to do, spent much of the day in college dorm-style bull sessions with each other, speculating about whether 10/19/87 could ever happen again. It certainly didn’t happen yesterday, even though lower overnight futures injected a frisson of excitement into the morning chatter that dissipated as the afternoon yielded a predictable recovery and small gain for share prices.
We feel for those journalists – it’s tough being a financial commentator these days! Nothing ever happens except for the market shrugging off any potentially disruptive event, while displaying brief spasms of ecstasy whenever the subject of tax cuts percolates to the top of the daily news feed. Now the chatter is homing in on what may well be the only remaining story of any note (from the market’s perspective) before the end of the year: the identity of the new Fed chair when Janet Yellen’s term ends next January. A decision is supposedly forthcoming in the next couple weeks (the incumbent administration suggests it will be before November 3). Our sense is that, regardless of who among the short-listed candidates is tapped, the impact on markets will likely be negligible.
If It Ain’t Broke…
There are two issues at stake here: first, who the winning candidate will be, and second, how that candidate would actually govern once ensconced in the Eccles Building. There are currently five names under consideration. On a spectrum from dove to hawk they read as follows: current Fed governor Jerome (Jay) Powell, current Fed chair Janet Yellen, former Fed governor Kevin Warsh, Stanford University economist John Taylor, and current Trump advisor Gary Cohn. Let’s say right off the top that we see next to no chance that Cohn will draw the winning ticket; among insiders close to the decision process, his name appears to still be in the mix for cosmetic reasons only.
That leaves four. Two, Powell and Yellen herself, reliably fall into the camp of “stay the course” – their votes on FOMC policy decisions, after all, are publicly documented and widely known. Speculation this week has Powell as the overall front-runner with considerable support both from the administration’s inner circle and among both Republican and Democratic senators who will be involved in the confirmation process. There would be a rational logic for Trump to ultimately thumbs-up Powell: in so doing, he would be making the safest choice for business as usual, while still getting to theatrically crow to his base that he dumped the Obama-era Fed head.
…Don’t Fix It
Just because Powell’s star seems ascendant this week, though, does not mean that the two more hawkish choices of Warsh or Taylor are out of the picture. This is not an administration known for predictably rational decision making. So what happens then? Speculation is particularly focused on John Taylor, the Stanford professor whose “Taylor rule” – a mathematical formulation of the responsiveness of interest rates to inflation and other economic inputs – suggests that rates should currently be higher than they are. Would a Taylor Fed necessarily mean a dramatic acceleration of rate hikes and attendant balance sheet normalization?
Perhaps not. It’s worth remembering that a Taylor Fed would be looking at the same data as the Yellen Fed, and that data include inflation readings, the danger-zone indicators of which are conspicuously absent. The Taylor rule is not immune to the inflation conundrum with which the Fed’s other analytical models have struggled. It’s also worth remembering that the Fed chair still has to take into account the positions of the other FOMC voting members. Whoever the new chair is, he or she will not be any less interested in building consensus towards unanimous decisions than past chairs. That’s how stable monetary policy is conducted.
The global economy is largely in sync with low to moderate growth, decently functioning labor markets and modest levels of inflation. That’s the real context in which stock prices can keep drifting up with no sizable upside headwinds. We think it is unlikely that, come 2018, a new Fed will be tempted to push their luck with policies that could choke off the growth before its time. For these reasons we think it unlikely that the identity of the new Fed chair will stand in the way of a business-as-usual mood in the market that, barring something currently unforeseen, could carry into and through the upcoming holiday season.
Gentle reader, please indulge us our seeming obsession with the subject of inflation. Yes, we know that other macro metrics matter as well, but inflation is both the big mystery – as we discussed in last week’s column – and arguably the heavy hand pushing and pulling the market to and fro. Today we focus more on this “actionable” aspect of inflation. Or, to perhaps be more precise, we focus on the curious case of a market with the stars of an imagined reflationary surge sparkling in its eyes – in the very same week when yet another month’s reading informs us that a pick-up in inflation is nowhere to be seen in the real world.
Not Dead Yet
It really doesn’t take much, even after all this time. The so-called “reflation-infrastructure trade,” which financial pundits necessarily rebranded as the “Trump trade,” died an unofficial death back in the first couple months of the year. That’s about the time when the US dollar swooned at the feet of a soaring euro and Aussie dollar, and value stocks in sectors like financials and energy ceded the high ground to their growth counterparts in tech.
But 2017 is, if nothing else, the year of endless lives, whether it be multiple attempts to repeal and replace healthcare policy or the renewed insistence that hypergrowth-fueled inflation is just around the corner. “The Trump Trade Is Back!” screamed Bloomberg News on Wednesday, joined by a chorus of like headlines from Yahoo! Finance, Business Insider and others. Once again financial institutions and resource companies were the market darlings. Bond yields perked up. Even the beleaguered dollar took a victory lap or two. Mr. Market was ready to party like it’s late 2016.
A Framework of an Outline of a Plan
The catalyst for this week’s effervescence, of course, was the release on Wednesday of a tax reform framework. It wasn’t really a plan, because plans generally contain details about specific sources of revenues and costs over a defined time frame, grounded in plausible assumptions. The major assumption made by the authors of this framework is that it will somehow deliver anywhere from 3 to 6 percent (depending on whom in the administration you care to believe) in long-term sustainable growth.
Now, given that we have not experienced real GDP growth of that caliber for many decades, it would be reasonable to believe that a boost of that magnitude would beget more inflation, hence higher interest rates, hence the improved fortunes of banks and oil drillers and the like. Unfortunately for the credibility of the proposal’s framers, the plausibility of sustained growth at those levels is vanishingly low. The Fed’s median estimate of US long-term growth potential is 1.8 percent. Earlier this year the Congressional Budget Office estimated that if all the fiscal stimulus measures proposed at one time or another by the new administration (tax reform, infrastructure spend and all the rest) were successfully implemented, it could add one tenth of one percent to long term growth. So the Fed’s 1.8 percent would become 1.9 percent, hardly reason to break out the Veuve Cliquot.
Back in the Real World
Meanwhile Friday morning delivered yet another Debbie Downer data point to the market’s Pollyanna. The personal consumption expenditure (PCE) index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, came in for the month of August below consensus expectations at 0.1 percent. That translates to a 1.3 percent year-on-year gain, matching its lowest level for the past five years and well below the Fed’s elusive 2 percent target. We imagine this reality will likely show up again soon enough in the bond and currency markets (which also were the first to ditch the Trump trade back in February). But the stock market is a different animal. Is there enough wishful thinking to keep the reflation trade alive long enough to get through the tricky month of October and into the usually festive holiday trade mindset? Perhaps there is – money has to go somewhere, after all. At some point, though, reality bites back.
Over the past few months, we’ve had a number of conversations with clients that go something like this:
Client: Wow, these are crazy times, huh? Politics! Never seen anything like this!
Us: Yep, they sure are crazy times.
Client: So, why does the stock market keep going up? When should I be worried?
In today’s commentary we will address this concern, and explain why we believe that, whatever one thinks of the political dynamics playing out here at home or abroad, it probably is not a good idea to transpose these sentiments onto a view of portfolio allocation. Political risk is a real thing. But history has shown there to be very little causal relationship between momentous political events and movements in risk asset markets. Any market environment, whether bull or bear, is affected by tens of thousands of variables every day, many of which have little correlation with each other, and very few of which are easy to pinpoint and ascribe to prime mover status. We offer up a case study in support of this claim: the US stock market in the early 1970s that encompassed the Nixon Watergate scandal.
That Dreary Seventies Market
President Nixon resigned from office in August, 1974, shortly after it became clear that Congress was preparing to commence impeachment proceedings in the wake of the revelations about the Watergate crimes and attempted cover-up by the administration. As the chart below shows, the S&P 500 fell quite a bit during the month of August 1974, as well as before and after the Nixon resignation. But the chart also shows that there was a lot else going on at the same time.
The Nixon resignation remains to date the most consequential political scandal in modern American history. It had an earth-shaking effect on the political culture in Washington, leading to far-reaching attempts by lawmakers to restore the integrity of the systems and institutions the scandal had tarnished. As far as markets were concerned, though, Watergate was far down the list of events giving investors headaches. Following a historically unprecedented period of economic growth and rise in living standards over the prior two decades, the first five years of the 1970s witnessed two wrenchingly painful recessions, spiraling inflation and a gut-punch to household budgets in the form of OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo. The freefall in stocks that took place in 1973 and 1974, if it is to be tied to any specific catalyst, flows from the real dollars-and-cents impact of the embargo and the recession. Watergate, as important as it was as a political event, was little more than a blip on a radar screen already filled with bad news.
Tweets Come and Go, Markets Carry On
Which brings us back to today’s daily carnival of the bizarre from the banks of the Potomac Drainage Basin. While the tweets fly and the heads of the high priests of conventional wisdom explode, the economy…well, just chugs along at more or less the same pace it has for the past several years. Today’s initial Q2 GDP reading (2.6 percent, slightly below expectations) sets us up for another year of growth averaging somewhere around 2 percent. The labor market is healthy, there is neither hyperinflation nor deflation, and corporate earnings growth is trending close to double digits. No major world economy appears in imminent danger of a lurch to negative growth.
Yes, stock prices are expensive by most reasonable valuation measures. And yes, there is not much in the way of sector leadership momentum. But until and unless we see compelling signs of a shift away from this uncannily stable macro context, we see little evidence that Washington shenanigans will have much of an impact on stocks. At some point, those tens of thousands of global variables at play will deliver up a different set of considerations and necessitate new strategic thinking. Trying to time the precise market impact, as always, is a fool’s errand.
Investors tend to be predisposed to a “follow the leader” mentality -- to latch onto a narrative that purports to explain why company ABC or sector XYZ is running out ahead of the pack. Unfortunately for those in search of a leadership theme on the cusp of the summer of ’17, there really isn’t one anymore. There was one until last week: the mega cap stocks led by Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet (Google) and Apple took the helm back in the first quarter as the “reflation trade,” the previous narrative, faltered. The chart below shows the ascendance of these FAGA stocks when financials, the reflation trade’s leader, turned south in March (represented by XLF, the SPDR ETF). The chart also shows the carnage of June 8, when those high flying mega caps suddenly got pummeled on an otherwise nondescript trading day. They have continued to struggle in the days since.
The fizzling out of the reflation trade (or the “Trump bump” in the vulgate) as a leadership theme is easy to understand. The financial sector led that narrative, along with materials, industrials and (for a while late last year) energy. The premise was that a burst of pro-growth fiscal policy, headlined by tax reform, deregulation and a massive infrastructure stimulus would unleash an inflationary tsunami. Financial institutions would benefit from improved net interest margins, while industrial producers and resource firms would ride the infrastructure bandwagon. That premise, never particularly strong in a reality-based sense to begin with, looked increasingly like a bad bet as the legislative degree of difficulty presented itself to a team of political novices. Financials and other reflation-theme names topped out in early March and the broader market drifted for a spell.
FAGA (the aforementioned mega cap stocks) and their fellow travelers in the tech sector picked up where the Trump trade left off. What was the narrative driving this leadership rotation? Little, in our opinion, other than a general go-to argument that these enterprises are part of an elite cohort able to deliver consistently fast top-line growth in a world of modest economic prospects. The FAGA trade is sort of a lazy, modern take on the “Nifty Fifty” of days yore: in the absence of any other overarching narrative, go with the brand-name leaders of the day. And what, exactly, was the catalyst for that mass exodus from FAGA on June 8? Again, nothing that is glaringly obvious. Pundits put forth the “crowded trade” theme, which may be as good a reason as any. But they are not especially overvalued; Apple still trades at a P/E discount to the broader market, and the P/E premia of the other three FAGA names to the S&P 500 are well below their highs for the past five years.
Whatever the reasons were for bailing from tech on June 8, it is by now evident that it was not a one-day event; the sector has underperformed in the days since, as the above chart illustrates. The question now turns to the prospects for the broader market absent another leadership story. Candidates for such a story are rather scarce. The many ills plaguing the retail sector again came into sharp relief this week when supermarket chain Kroger’s radically cut its earnings outlook and saw its stock price get beaten down more than 18 percent. Healthcare waxes and wanes amid a fog of fundamental, sector-specific uncertainties. Financials face the headwinds of lower than expected inflation and the attendant opinion by many that the Fed was mistaken to move ahead with its rate cut this week.
The antidote for the confusion is TINA – There Is No Alternative. Forget the Trump trade, or tech stocks, or any other leadership narrative. It’s enough, this argument goes, to stay in the market when there are no compelling reasons to get out. As long as there is growth, however modest, and as long as there are central banks with the means to limit the downside, there should be no need to start building up the cash position. That logic has served investors well to now. But watch those narrowing spreads between short and intermediate term bonds. They don’t necessarily signal anything in terms of a major market shift. But they are not moving in the right direction.