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MV Weekly Market Flash: Inflation Never?

February 22, 2019

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Just a couple years ago, the notion of “secular stagnation” was a favorite topic of conversation in the tea salons of the chattering classes. Secular stagnation is the idea that structural forces are at play pushing the growth rate of the global economy ever farther away from what we call “historical norms” (which really means “average rates of growth since the end of the Second World War”). Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers was a leading proponent of the secular stagnation theory, pointing to widespread evidence of reduced levels of business investment and subdued consumer demand. Secular stagnation offers a different explanation of economic performance than the usual ups and downs of the business cycle. It suggests that the very idea of “historical norms” is meaningless: the world, and the world’s economy, has changed in profound ways since the 1950s and the 1960s, and there is no point in benchmarking current trends off those prevailing sixty and seventy years ago.

Hit the Mute Button

Secular stagnation lost quite a bit of mojo in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election and the brief infatuation with the “reflation-infrastructure” phenomenon that was supposed to happen when the incoming administration turned on the full force of corporate tax cuts and deregulation. Although the tax windfall did arguably give a momentary sugar high to GDP growth rates, it didn’t have much of a sustained effect on business spending levels. And it had absolutely no effect on inflation. The chart below shows the long term inflation trend (core inflation, excluding food and energy) along with the corresponding ten year Treasury yield. The data go back to 1990.

There are a couple noteworthy things about this chart. The first is that inflation really has been a non-factor in the US economy since the mid-1990s. Core inflation has not risen above three percent since 1996. Through up cycles and down cycles, inflation has been – to use the word that is now embedding itself into the working vocabulary of the Federal Reserve – muted. And of course, in the recovery that began in 2009 core inflation has never even come close to the three percent level it last flirted with at the height of the manic real estate boom of 2006.

The second thing to observe in the above chart is the subduing of long term interest rates. We have talked about this in recent weeks, but here we focus on the 10-year yield as a barometer of inflationary expectations. One plausible reason for the persistence of the low benchmark yield – even after the Fed stopped buying intermediate term bonds as part of its QE programs – is that bond markets bought into the structural nature of muted inflation long before the Fed did. When the FOMC’s January 30 communiqué seemed to make official the Fed’s view of lower-for-longer inflation, one can picture the bond market replying thus: Thanks for telling me what I already know.

Alvin Hansen Gets His Day

And with that, a long-dead economist may finally have his life’s work recognized in formal monetary policy. Alvin Hansen was the originator of the term “secular stagnation,” way back in 1938. That was a grim year. Six years after the peak of the Great Depression, monetary authorities gingerly attempted to tighten policy and prevent the recovering economy from overheating. Things went south quickly, and policymakers realized that the economy was still too fragile to withstand traditional medicine.

Hansen’s secular stagnation theory seemed on the money at the time. Fortunately for the country, if not for Hansen’s own posterity, the theory quickly went out the window when the economy reflated onto a war footing as the Second World War broke out. Now that’s an infrastructure-reflation event! And dormant the theory lay until resurrected by Dr. Summers et al in the mid-2010s. We may still be one or two FOMC meetings away from calling it the dominant interpretation of today’s economy. But barring some genuinely massive exogenous shock to reflate the economy, the pattern of core inflation suggests that “lower for longer” is indeed what the world is going to have to get used to.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: And There It Is, the Powell Put

February 1, 2019

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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There is something almost symmetrical about it all. On December 19 last year the Federal Reserve delivered a hawkish monetary policy statement that sent the stock market into a tailspin. Two days later the US government shut down. Fast forward to January 25 of this year. The US government reopened amid generally upbeat sentiment in asset markets. Several days later, the Fed surprised traders with a decidedly dovish policy statement hinting at a pause, not only in further interest rate hikes but in winding down the central bank’s balance sheet of bonds purchased during the quantitative easing (QE) era of 2008-14. Stocks surged in the aftermath of that announcement and closed out a January for the record books. Hallelujah, exclaims Mr. Market. The Fed put is back and better than ever!

What Exactly Changed?

The January Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) statement was not just a tweak or two away from the December communiqué – no, this was closer to a full-blown U-turn. As much as investors thrilled to the news that the Fed was solidly back in their corner to privatize gains and socialize losses, there was quite a bit of head-scratching over what exactly was so momentously different in the world over this 30 day interval. The FOMC press release seemed to say little about changes in economic growth prospects, with a strong labor market and moderate inflation paving the way for a sustained run of this growth cycle. True, it chose the world “solid” to characterize growth, which may be a slight demotion from “strong” as the adjective of choice in December. And yes, muted inflation affords some leeway to adjust policy if actual data were to come to light. But real (inflation-adjusted) rates are nowhere near recent historical norms, as illustrated in the chart below. 

“Muted inflation” is the Fed’s term to describe the current level – but is it really “muted?” The chart above shows the Consumer Price Index (the blue dotted line) to be squarely within a normal range consistent with growth market cycles in the late 1990s and the mid-2000s. Yet in both of those cycles real rates were much higher, as is clear from the gap between nominal 2-year and 10-year yields (green and crimson respectively) and the CPI. Is the Fed worried that real rates at those levels today would be harmful? If so, there must be some element of fragility to the current economy that wasn’t there before.

Oh, Right. That.

Or, maybe that’s not it at all, as the FOMC press release sort of gives away in the next sentence. “In light of global economic and financial developments…”   Aha, there it is, the language of the 2016 Yellen put reborn as the 2019 Powell put. What, pray tell, could those “financial developments” possibly be? A stock market pullback, blame for which was almost entirely laid at the feet of those two FOMC press releases last September and December? Once again, monetary policy appears to be based principally on ensuring that market forces not be given free enough latitude to inflict actual damage on investment returns.

And maybe that’s fine – perhaps the pace of growth will continue to be slow enough to allow the Fed to ease off the monetary brakes without any collateral damage. If that turns out not to be the case, though, then we foresee some communication challenges ahead. The data continue to suggest the growth cycle has a way to go before petering out. Today’s jobs report was once again robust, with year-on-year wage growth solidifying a trend in the area of 3.2 percent year-on-year. Unfortunately we won’t know about Q4 2018 GDP for some time, as the Bureau of Economic Analysis was impacted by the government shutdown and does not yet have a date for when its analysis will be ready for release.

March is probably safe – the likelihood of a rate hike then is now close to zero. But if Powell has to go back to the market sometime later in the year and ask investors to get their heads around another rate hike – a U-turn from the U-turn, in effect – that would likely be problematic. This Fed still has a learning curve to master when it comes to clarity of communication.

 

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Slowdown, Recession or Recession-Plus?

December 7, 2018

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Financial markets move to the metronome of data, but not only data. Optics and perception also factor into the equation. Experience tells us that perception can quite easily become reality. Thousands of trader-bots are primed on any given day to lurch this way and that, often on the basis of no more than the parsed verbiage of a Fed speech or a “presidential” tweet. Sometimes the waves generated by those bots cross each other and cancel out. Other times they all find themselves going in the same direction and create a tsunami.

When “Buy the Dip” Met “Sell the Rally”

Many of the headline data points continue to suggest that there is little reason to worry. The latest batch of jobs data came out this morning and were not way out of line with expectations – net positive payroll gains and a steady, but not overheated, pace for wage growth. In public statements Fed chair Powell projects confidence about growth prospects heading into next year. But other indicators are flashing yellow, if not necessarily red. Oil prices suggest a tempered demand outlook. Fed funds futures contracts are sharply backing away from the presumption of three rate increases next year and perhaps even a shift back to rate cuts in 2020. The picture for global trade remains as opaque as it has been for much of the year, leading to reductions in 2019 global growth estimates by the IMF.

With that in mind, it seems increasingly plausible that the current volatility in risk asset markets is something different from the other occasional pullbacks of the past few years. This one is more grounded in the perception that an economic slowdown is ahead. Not “tomorrow” ahead or “next January” ahead, but quite plausibly sometime before the calendar closes on 2019. What we’re seeing in this pullback (for the time being, anyway) is a roughly balanced approach to buying the dips at support levels and selling into relief rallies at the resistance thresholds. Having made it through a negative October without the bottom falling out, the animal spirits to propel a sustained upside rally are thus far being kept in check. Perception is running ahead of actual data, as it frequently does.

Pick Your Flavor

None of this means that a slowdown (or worse) is absolutely, definitely in store in the coming months. But if it seems like an increasingly probable outcome, how does one prepare? There is never any shortage of blow-dried heads in the media to tell you that “when the economy does X the market does Y” with “Y” being whatever pet theory its proponent is hawking on the day. The problem is that there is no statistical validity to any kind of pattern one might discern between slow or negative growth in the economy and the direction of stock prices. There simply aren’t enough instances for an observation to be meaningful. The US economy has technically been in recession just five times since 1980 (two of which were arguably one event, the “double-dip” recession of 1980-81). There’s no statistical meaning to a sample size of n=5, just like flipping a coin five times does not give you the same insight that flipping a coin 10,000 times does.


The last three recessions occurred, respectively, in 1990, 2001 and 2008. The chart below shows the trend in real GDP growth and share price movements in the S&P 500 over this period.

Here is what jumps out from the above chart: the pullback in the stock market during the relatively mild recession of 2001 was much more severe than the one that accompanied the deeper recession of 1990. Consider: 2001 barely even made it into the history books as a technical recession (the story of how recessions become official makes for an interesting article in and of itself – stay tuned for our 2019 Annual Outlook this coming January!) Yet the bloodbath in stocks was a sustained bear market over nearly three years. By contrast, the market fell just short of, and never technically went into, a bear market during the 1990 recession. 2001 was closer in terms of damage done to the Big One, the Great Recession of 2008.

Tolstoy’s Economy

Here is where we come back to our favorite hobby horse: inferring useful meaning from past instances is misguided, because each instance has its own miserable set of unique variables, like every unhappy family in “Anna Karenina.” Before the 2001 recession happened, you will recall, the high-flying technology sector crashed in a stunning mess of shiny dot-com valuations. A financial crisis – a crisis born of nosebleed asset valuations – precipitated a minor contraction in the real economy. And of course in 2008 it was another financial crisis, this one deeper and holding practically the entire global credit market in its grasp, that begat the near-depression in the economy that followed.

We think of 2001 and 2008 as “recession-plus,” where the “plus” factor arguably contributes more to the severity of the pullback in risk assets than do the macroeconomic numbers relating to jobs, GDP, prices and sales. It was no fun for investors as those numbers turned south in 1990, but the pain was relatively shallow and short-lived. Not so for the multi-year tribulations of 2001 and 2008.

Now, there is no clear path from where we stand today to either a 1990-esque standalone recession, a more severe situation driven by exogenous factors, or just a simple slowdown in growth. Or even (though less likely) a second wind of the growth cycle driven by a yet-unseen burst of productivity. Nor has perception, while currently trending negative, yet become reality. We imagine those bot-generated waves will collide and cancel out a few more times before the trend becomes more sustainably directional. Meanwhile, planning for alternative scenarios is the priority task at hand.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Four Rate Hikes and an EM Funk

September 7, 2018

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Happy September! Now that the month is upon us, the kids back at school and the weekends filling up with tailgates or trail runs (or both, even better), it’s time to think about that possible rate hike a couple weeks away. Just kidding – we’re not thinking much about a September hike because we think that is well and truly baked into the cake already. We’re thinking more about that possible December hike, the year’s fourth, which is less fully priced into current asset markets but which we see as increasingly likely. Today’s job numbers add a resounding notch to our convictions.

Meet the New Data, Same As the Old Data

Sometimes it can seem like the world is changing in unimaginable ways every day. However, one just has to study macroeconomic trends over the past four-odd years to be reassured that, economically speaking at least, not much ever seems to change at all. We often use the chart below in client discussions to drive this point home: in terms of jobs, prices, sentiment and overall growth – the big headline data points – the story more or less remains the same.

In brief: monthly payroll gains have averaged 215,000 in 2018, including today’s release showing job creation of 201K in August (and also factoring in a downward revision to July’s numbers). Real GDP growth is above-trend, consumer confidence has not been higher for literally the entire millennium, and consumer prices are above the Fed’s 2 percent target for both core and headline readings. This composite view suggests a fundamentally stronger economy than the one we had in between the two recessions of the previous decade. What is inconsistent with this picture of strength is a Fed funds rate staying much longer at 2 percent. It was 2 percent at the end of 2004, on its way to a peak of 5.25 percent by the time that growth cycle peaked. With the caveat that nothing in life is ever certain, including economic data releases, the picture shown in the above chart tells us to plan on that fourth rate hike ringing out the old year come December.

Dollar Dolorosa

As the US rate scenario settles into conventional wisdom, there is plenty of upside room for the dollar (a rising rate environment, all else being equal, is a bullish indicator for the national currency). While the greenback has traded strongly against the euro and other major developed market currencies this year, at $1.15 to €1.00 it is far from its late 2016 peak when it tested euro parity.

Where the dollar’s strength can do much more harm, though, is in emerging markets. Many of those currencies are at decades-long, if not all-time, lows versus the dollar already. The dollar is up 22 percent against the Brazilian real this year, and 12.6 percent versus the Indian rupee. If you hold emerging markets equities in your portfolio you are feeling this pain – when your equity price returns are translated from the local currency back into dollars you are directly exposed to those currency losses. For example, the MSCI Emerging Market index reached an all-time high in local currency terms back in February of this year. But in US dollar terms – shown in the chart below – the index has never recovered its pre-financial crisis peak reached in November 2007.

We’ve communicated our sentiments about emerging markets frequently on these pages – while important as an asset class given the size of these economies (and the wealth therein), emerging markets have underperformed domestic US stocks on both an absolute and risk adjusted basis over a very long time horizon. They enjoyed a sustained period of outperformance during the mid ‘00s in conjunction with the commodities supercycle – and again for about a year following the reversal of the ill-considered “Trump trade” fever after the 2016 election. During that latter growth spurt we elected to sit tight with our underweight position rather than try any fancy tactical footwork. We stand by that decision today.

We have yet to arrive at our conclusions for positioning in 2019, in EM or any other asset class. But from where we sit today the most convincing picture of the global landscape points to a continuation in the US up-cycle, with the attendant implications of a stronger dollar and further downside potential in other markets, particularly emerging ones. That does not necessarily imply blue skies ahead for US assets – there are some complicating factors at home as well, which will be themes for forthcoming commentaries. But we see little out there today arguing for a bigger move into emerging markets.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Soybeans and Sustainable Growth

July 27, 2018

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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They say numbers don’t lie, right? So what to make of the 4.1 percent real growth rate in US gross domestic product (GDP) from the first to the second quarter of the year? We feel quite comfortable in predicting that the narrative of today’s news cycle will be anything but unified. Depending on what news source you turn to for a first take on today’s Bureau of Economic Analysis release, you may be told that this quarterly number is in fact the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars (hi, kids! ask your parents…). Or, alternatively, that 4.1 percent really isn’t 4.1 percent at all, but a fictitious sugar high delivered on a transitory pile of soybeans, never to be seen again.

As usual, the reality is somewhere between delusional happy talk and delusional apocalypse-now talk. Here’s an actual picture of GDP growth over the full cycle of the economic recovery that began in the middle of 2009. We show both the quarter-to-quarter rate of growth and the somewhat smoother year-on-year growth trend.

Something Old, Something New

The best way, in our opinion, to interpret the current trend in GDP growth is to ascribe much of it to factors that have been underway for some time. Consumer spending is by far the largest single component of GDP, accounting for more than 70 percent of the total, and Americans have continued to not disappoint in their purchasing predilections. Fixed private sector investment – both residential and commercial – also reflects continuing confidence by homeowners and businesses alike. The mix will change in any given quarter – nonresidential construction and intellectual property investment were key drivers this quarter while residential investment declined – but the overall trend has stayed positive. This is the “something old” – a continuation of the modest but steady growth that has characterized recent years.

The “something new” shows up in an usual jump in US exports, which grew by 9.3 percent overall and which was dominated by certain categories of goods. Enter the “soybeans” meme. It appears that other countries have been stockpiling various products from the US which they expect to jump in price on account of the new tariff regime. Those bags and bags of soya beans from Iowa really were a second quarter phenomenon, were mostly related to China, and have mostly stopped with the implementation of the first wave of tariffs imposed by Beijing on US products earlier this month.

Something Borrowed

Looking beyond the quirks of any given quarter – and as the above chart shows, these numbers do bounce around considerably – the longer term question is how much of this growth is sustainable. The average annual rate of GDP growth since the second quarter of 2009 has been 2.4 percent. Many economists argue that even that number is too high – remember that for a good chunk of this time much of the growth came courtesy of direct monetary intervention by the Federal Reserve, which is no longer in effect. The fiscal stimulus put in place at the end of last year – windfall tax cuts to US businesses – may have the effect of elevating fixed investment above trend levels for a few more quarters, but that has the longer-term implications of significantly higher deficits and thus borrowing costs. This could be a particularly thorny problem if it converges with a sustained period of higher interest rates as the Fed tries to “normalize” borrowing rates.

Something Blue?

There has not been much in the way of market reaction to today’s GDP release – partly because the number was largely in line with consensus estimates and thus already baked into stock prices. Investment sentiment around GDP appears largely dominated by the “something old” theme – different quarter, same trends – while ascribing little in the way of impactful news to either transitory short term phenomena like soya bean exports or the longer term borrowing implications of the fiscal stimulus. This way of looking at what is arguably the economy’s lead headline number also assumes that the trade tensions are mostly smoke and mirrors and will not metastasize into an all-out hot war (which view got some support this week with a surprisingly docile outcome of trade talks between the US and the EU).

What has some observers feeling blue, even when most data point to continued growth in the economy and with corporate sales and earnings, is that this recovery cycle is already long by historical standards. We have discussed this in other recent commentaries, usually with the caveat that every cycle is different and that recoveries don’t end because they pass some arbitrary calendar milestone. We do not think we are in for some super-long period of above-trend growth. Neither, however, do we see a compelling case for an imminent winding down of this cycle.

Stock prices rise and fall on account of all sorts of influencing factors on any given day. For the time being, at least, the overarching economic narrative does not give us much cause to be feeling blue.

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