Posts tagged Us Macroeconomic Data
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.
We will be publishing and distributing our Annual Outlook next week, a 24-page opus reflecting not only our analysis of the quotidian variables likely to be at play in the economy over the coming twelve months, but also a commentary on today’s world in a larger historical context. Meanwhile, we will use the opportunity of this week’s regular commentary to share with you the executive summary from the forthcoming Outlook, to give you an advance look of what you will read in further detail next week.
• “Moderate growth, low inflation, improving labor market”: this would have been a reasonable way to characterize US economic trends in 2013. And in 2014, 2015 and 2016. So it was not exactly an earth-shaking surprise when 2017 delivered…yes, moderate growth, low inflation and a still-improving labor market, if the latter slowed down just a bit in net new job creation. Tracking the macroeconomy has become something akin to watching daily episodes of Seinfeld. Not much of any consequence ever happens, and every now and then some amusing diversion appears to briefly engage one’s attention. Try as we might to unearth some new piece of information suggesting the approaching end of this placid state of affairs, we cannot. The data say what the data say. 2018, for the moment, looks set to deliver more of the same.
• The key difference between 2017 and earlier years in this recovery cycle was that the rest of the developed world came on board. Organic demand and consumer confidence perked up in the Eurozone, Britain managed to at least temporarily forestall a reckoning with the consequences of Brexit, Japan stayed positive while ex-Japan Asia Pacific countries did just fine. China, meanwhile, met its growth benchmarks by initially going back to the tried and true mix of debt-sourced spending on infrastructure and property. Beijing reversed course midyear, though, with a concerted program to reduce borrowing and recommit to economic rebalancing (this coincided with a further consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping). Elsewhere in emerging Asia and beyond, concerns about looming trade wars faded and domestic assets, including long-beleaguered currencies, perked up for a winner of a year. Again – while there are plenty of geopolitical variables that could form into tangible threats at any time – the basic macroeconomic variables appear stable. Markets ignored geopolitics last year, we expect them to do the same in the year ahead.
• Calendar-gazers are filling up the airwaves with the observation that the current recovery – from July 2009 to the present – is one of the longest on record. If we manage to avoid a recession between now and May, the current growth cycle will move ahead of that of 1961-70 as the second-longest, trailing only the ten years of good times from 1991 to 2001. To those nervously ticking off elapsed calendar days we offer two ripostes. First, markets and economies don’t pay attention to calendars, which are entirely a human construct. Second, there are potentially valid reasons why the current uptrend could go on for longer. From 2009 to 2014, arguably the main force behind continued growth was the Fed and its quantitative easing mechanics that flooded the world with money. Only more recently has the growth started to look more traditional – more like actual improvements in business and consumer sentiment begetting a virtuous cycle of increased supply feeding increased demand. If anything, the perky demand trends we see today more resemble those of an early than of a late stage in the cycle. The uniqueness of that multi-year experiment in unorthodox monetary policy may make comparisons with other growth periods less meaningful.
• So if the default assumption is that 2018 will be a year of very few changes to the presiding macroeconomic trends, what alternative scenarios could upend the base case? The key X-factor, we believe, is the one that nobody from Fed governors to that fellow holding court at the end of the bar completely understands; namely, the curious absence of inflation. The inflation rate has fallen short of the Fed’s explicit target of 2 percent throughout the entire recovery to date (when excluding the volatile categories of energy and foodstuffs). This despite the dramatic fall in the unemployment rate from 10 percent at its peak to just 4.1 percent today. The economic models built over the decades following the Second World War baked in the fundamental assumption of a trade-off between inflation and employment: be prepared to sacrifice one in pursuit of the other. That assumption has not held up at all in recent years. But before pronouncing last rites on the Phillips Curve, we again draw your attention to our observation in the previous bullet point: the kind of growth one normally sees early in a recovery cycle may only now be showing up. If so, then a sudden surge of higher than expected inflation would not be entirely implausible.
• The second alternative scenario that could disrupt the smooth sailing of most capital markets asset classes would be, perhaps, the other end of the spectrum from a growth-fueled resurgence of inflation. The Fed intends to raise rates again this year – three times if the stated expectations of the FOMC’s voting members are to be believed – and to begin winding down the balance sheet that grew to $4.5 trillion over the course of the QE years. These intentions reflect a confidence that the economy is fully ready to stand on its own two feet – which confidence, of course, proceeds from those same steady macro trends we described a few bullet points ago. But there is still a chance, and not necessarily a small one, that today’s bubbly sentiment is ephemeral and will dissipate once the crutch of monetary policy is finally and conclusively removed. Specifically, not one of the three structural drivers of long-term growth – population, labor force participation and productivity – are demonstrably stronger now than they were two years ago when we devoted some number of pages in our Annual Outlook to the concept of secular stagnation. There may be less to the current growth uptick than meets the eye. If so, a Fed misstep on the pace of unwinding easy money – too much, too soon – could be the trigger that boots the Goldilocks economy to the exit door.
• What both those alternative scenarios – an unexpected inflation surge and a Fed policy fumble – have in common is the potential to wreak havoc on credit markets. From an asset markets perspective, credit markets hold the key to how virtually any asset class – debt, equity or alternative – will perform. Here’s why. The risk-free rate – in general practice the yield on intermediate / long Treasury notes – is employed in just about every standard asset valuation model. All else being equal, an increase in interest rates has the effect of decreasing the present value of future cash flows. Asset managers will reprice their models if reality outstrips expectations about yields. A likely ripple effect resulting from a Treasury rate repricing would be widened risk spreads (affecting, for example, corporate investment grade and high yield bonds), a pullback in equity prices and a commensurate uptick in volatility. Whether the riskier conditions persist would be situation-specific, but there would very likely be at least some damage done.
• Again, we view these as alternative scenarios to be a more benign base case. Even if one of the other were to come to pass, though, it would not necessarily start the clock on a countdown to the end of this long bull market. For that to occur, we believe one of three events would have to emerge: a full-blown recession (which is different in nature from a periodic surge in inflation), a crisis such as the implosion of the financial system that led to the 2008 crash, or the outbreak of an actual hot war somewhere in the world that significantly involved the US and/or other large powers. The risk of any of these things happening in 2018 is not zero, but we would ascribe a probability of less than 25 percent to any of them.
• US equity valuations are stretched, particularly for the large cap growth segment of the total market that has consistently outperformed over the past several years. Relying on relative valuations alone would potentially lead investors to other areas, like Europe or emerging markets, that still have some catching up to do even after a strong performance in 2017. In the long run valuations matter – there is no coherent way to view a share price as anything other than the present value of a series of future cash flows. In the short run, valuations don’t always matter. Relative geographic performance in 2018 will be subject to other influences, not least of which will be the direction of the US dollar.
• The dollar was one of the big surprise stories of 2017. Long before equity shares in financial institutions or resource companies snapped out of their “reflation-infrastructure trade” myopia, the US currency had done a U-turn from its rapid post-election ascent. The dollar fell by nearly 10 percent against a basket of other major currencies last year, and that soft trend has continued thus far into 2018. Currency strength was a major force driving performance for developed and emerging market equities and debt last year. Whether a reprise of that trade is in store for the year ahead depends – again – on that tricky combination of alternative economic scenarios. If US interest rates rise substantially, with the ECB and the BoJ at the same time proceeding more cautiously, then a stronger dollar would be a rational expectation as investors pursue higher yields. That outcome is not set in stone, however. Major foreign investors – most notably China – may look to diversify their foreign exchange assets if their perception of US risk changes, which would, all else being equal, have a negative effect on the dollar.
• Commodities may stand on the other side of the dollar’s fortunes. A weaker dollar makes commodities more affordable in other currencies; that, along with the return of strong organic demand, may supply a tailwind to a range of energy and industrial commodities. But oil, which has recently surged to its highest levels in three years, remains vulnerable to the prospect of increased shale production in the US. As with currencies, there are many factors at play that could work either for or against key commodity classes.
• In conclusion, we could sum up the essence of our views thus: Things Don’t Change, Until They Do. The benign tailwinds of moderate, steady global growth will not last forever. Neither we nor anyone else can point with certainty to the date when the sea change happens. What we can do is pay close attention to the things that matter more. Farmers know how to sense an approaching storm: the rustle of leaves, slight changes in the sky’s color. In the capital marketplace, those rustling leaves are likely to be found in the bond market, from which a broader asset repricing potentially springs forth. Pay attention to bonds in 2018.
Today is the first day of the last month of 2017, which means that predictions about asset markets in 2018 will be flying about fast and furious over the coming three weeks. As practitioners of the art and science of investment management ourselves, we know that quite a bit of work goes into the analysis that eventually finds expression in the “bonds will do X, stocks will do Y” type of formulations characteristic of these holiday season prognostications. A layperson might be excused, though, for concluding that all the market pros do is dust off last year’s report, or the year before, for that matter, and repackage it with the same observations. “Rates will rise because of the Fed, stocks will rise because of a stable economy and good earnings” worked for 2016 and it worked for 2017. Here’s visual proof: the price appreciation of the S&P 500 and the trend in the 2-year Treasury yield since December 2015:
It wasn’t linear, of course. There was the technical correction in early 2016 when both stocks and rates pulled back. Still, though, investors positioned for rising short term rates and steady gains in large cap domestic stock prices would have had little about which to complain over the past two years. Which, of course, brings us to the point of today’s commentary: is it Groundhog Day again, or does 2018 have something entirely different in store?
At the heart of this curious Groundhog Day phenomenon over the past couple years is the remarkable sameness in the broader macroeconomic environment. “Moderate GDP growth, with a healthy labor market and modest inflation” is a phrase you could have uttered on literally any given day over this period and been right. The only thing measurably different about 2017 was that this “Goldilocks” set of conditions was true not just of the US, but of almost any part of the developed (and much of the emerging as well) global economy. Adding the word “synchronized” to “moderate GDP growth” gives the phrase a distinct 2017 flavor. Thus, the good news for equities disseminated into non-US markets and finally gave investors some measure of reward for diversification.
There is almost nothing in the way of macro data points today suggesting a deviation from this “synchronized moderate growth” mantra. The major question mark, as we have discussed in other commentaries, is whether inflation will ever get in line with what the Fed’s models call for and rise above that elusive 2 percent target. Now, if inflation were to suddenly go pedal-to-the-metal, that could change assumptions about risk assets and blow up the Groundhog Day framework. In particular, an inflationary leap would likely send shockwaves into the middle and longer end of the bond yield curve, where rates have remained complacently low even while short term rates advanced. The 10-year yield is right around 2.4 percent today, almost exactly where it was at the beginning of the year and in fact not far from where it was at the beginning of 2016.
The sideways trajectory of the 10-year, in fact, supplies the explanation as to why stocks could rise so comfortably alongside the jump in short-term rates. While short term rates are closely correlated to the Fed’s monetary policy machinations, longer yields reflect a broader array of assumptions – including, importantly, assumptions about inflation. The flatness of intermediate rates suggests that bond investors expect economic growth to remain moderate, and inflation low. The bond market is not priced for a high inflation environment – which is reasonable, given the scant evidence that such an environment is imminent.
Can Stocks Keep Going?
So far, so good: the economic picture seems supportive of another Groundhog Day. What about stocks? There are still plenty of alternative paths for equities to travel in 2017 (and they are going kind of helter-skelter today on some breaking political news), but a solid double-digit performance would be a reasonable prognosis (the S&P 500 is up just under 20 percent on a total return basis for the year thus far). The current bull market is already the second longest historically, and valuations are stretched. Is there more room to run?
As we write this, the tax bill which has riveted the market’s attention for most of the past two weeks has not formally passed the Senate, nor been reconciled with the earlier House version to a final bill to send to the White House. But the odds of all that coming to pass are quite good. As we have noted before, the market’s obsession with taxes has little or nothing to do with fundamental economic growth. The non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation said as much in the report it released late yesterday on the proposed bill’s likely economic impact: at best, contributing no more than about 0.1 percent to annual GDP growth over the next ten years.
But the market’s interest in the fate of the tax bill has little to do with long-term economics, and much to do with shareholder givebacks. To the extent that the bill results in tangible cash flow benefits for corporations in the next 1-2 years (and the quantification of such benefits remains quite variable), precedent informs us that the vast bulk of such gains would flow right back to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends. Buybacks and dividends don’t help the economy, but they most assuredly do help shareholders. That fact, alone, could supply enough of a tailwind to keep the bulls running long enough to grab the “longest duration” mantle.
Everything’s the Same, Until It Changes
So if you read a bunch of reports over the next couple weeks that sound incredibly similar to what you read a year ago, don’t rush to the judgment that its authors are lazily phoning it in. There remain very good reasons for the Groundhog Day framework for yet another year. Gains in stocks, an increase in short term rates alongside monetary policy moves, and longer term rates tempered by modest inflation are all plausible default-case scenarios.
But never forget that any scenario is just one out of many alternative outcomes. Market forces do not pay heed to the calendar year predilections of the human species. There is no shortage of factors out there that could upend the benign sameness of today’s conditions, and they will continue to demand our vigilance and readiness to adapt.
Like most of our fellow investment practitioners, we subscribe to a variety of daily market digests – those couple paragraphs at the market’s opening and closing bell that purport to tell us what’s up, what’s down and why. A brief summary of these digests over the course of 2017 might go something along the following lines: la la la la TAXES la la la la TAXES la la la…you get the picture. Not corporate earnings, certainly not geopolitics – nothing, it would seem, has the power to capture Mr. Market’s undivided attention quite the same way as potential changes to our tax code.
Well, this week is one of those times where the subject is front and center as Congress attempts to set the process in motion for some kind of tax “reform” before the end of the year. As we write this, more information is coming out about what the legislation may, and may not, ultimately include. We should note that it is far from certain that anything at all will be accomplished within this year. Taxes affect everyone in some way – individual and institution alike – and literally every item on the table will have its share of vocal backers and opponents. Over the coming weeks we will share further insights on these developments; our purpose today, though, is to consider at a more fundamental level the relationship between taxes, economic activity and markets.
Taxes and Growth
One of the central motivations for just about any attempt at tax reform is to stimulate economic growth. There are plenty of competing ideologies about this – and it matters for purposes of the discussion whether we are talking about the short term or the long term. But one reasonable question to ask would be how relevant a factor tax rates have been as an influencer of growth over the long term. The chart below illustrates year-on-year GDP growth in the US since 1950, along with the top marginal (individual) tax rate over the same period.
Top tax rates on wealthy individuals were very high – 91 percent in the 1950s and a bit lower (77 and then 70 percent after 1964) before coming down to 50 percent in the first wave of Reagan-era tax reform in the 1980s. Subsequently they have fluctuated between the high and the low 30s through the successive policies of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. What conclusions could be drawn from the impact of alternative tax regimes on long term economic growth? In our opinion only one; namely, that any correlation between marginal tax rates and growth is very weak, at best. The high rates of GDP growth in the 1950s and 1960s took place neither because of nor in spite of high taxes, but for a whole host of other reasons based on global economic conditions at the time.
The same could be said when considering the economic growth spurt of the 1990s, after the Clinton administration had raised taxes in 1993: the growth happened because of many different variables at play, and taxes were at best a peripheral consideration. It is particularly important to keep this absence of causation or even correlation in mind when we are told by policymakers that any revenue lost from tax rate reduction will pay for itself from higher growth. That’s ideology – but the numbers simply aren’t there to back it up, and not for lack of ample data.
Taxes and Earnings
Individual tax rates are only part of the equation, of course. A big part of the market’s focus this year has been on corporate taxes. The statutory US corporate tax rate of 35 percent is high by world standards, so the argument goes that reducing this rate to something more competitive (with 20 percent being the number floated in the current version of the plan being floated by Congress) would be a powerful catalyst to grow US corporate earnings. How does this claim stack up?
At one level the math is fairly simple. Earnings per share, the most common number to which investors refer to measure the relationship between a company’s profits and its stock price (expressed as the P/E ratio), is an after-tax number. If Company XYZ paid 35 percent of its operating profits to the tax man last year, but this year Uncle Sam only gets 20 percent of those profits, then the other 15 percent is a windfall that goes straight to the bottom line (to be retained for future growth or paid out to shareholders at the discretion of Company XYZ’s management). That growth – all else remaining equal – will make XYZ’s shares seem more reasonably priced, hence, good for investors.
There are two things to bear in mind here. First, that tax windfall happens only once in terms of year-on-year growth comparisons. Once the new rate sets in, XYZ will get no future automatic tailwind from taxes (i.e., EPS growth will then depend on the usual revenue and cost trends that drive value). Second, the potential ongoing benefits from the lower tax rate (e.g. a larger number of economically viable investment projects) will depend on many factors other than the tax rate. It’s not irrelevant: taxes do figure into net present value and weighted average cost of capital, which in turn are common metrics for go / no-go decisions on new projects. But many other variable are also at play.
The other issue with regard to the statutory tax rate is that it is a fairly poor yardstick for what most companies actually pay in taxes. The mind-numbing complexity of the US tax code derives from the many deductions and loopholes and credits and other goodies that influential corporate lobbyists have won for their clients over the years. The influence of these groups is already on display: the US homebuilder industry, for example, has come out vehemently against some of the proposed changes being floated by policymakers. Time will tell how successful any new legislation will be at productively broadening the base (i.e. reducing the loopholes and exclusions).
So what’s the takeaway? There are many miles to go before the proposal coming out today arrives at any kind of legislative certainty. As managers of portfolios invested for long term financial objectives, our views on taxes focus largely on how they impact, or do not impact, key economic drivers over the long term. We will continue to share with you our views as this process continues.
Where’s the inflation? That question has lurked behind most of the major headline stories about macroeconomic trends this year. Jobless rate falls to 4.3 percent. Where’s the inflation? GDP growth revised up to 3 percent. Where’s the inflation? The Fed has an official dual mandate of promoting price stability and the maximum level of employment achievable in a stable price environment. By all available measures, our central bank policymakers would appear to be living up to their mandate in spades. Inflation has remained subdued for pretty much the entire run of the recovery that began in 2009. Over the same time, unemployment has come crashing down from a post-recession high of 10 percent to the gentle undulations of 4 percent and change from month to month. And therein lies the problem, or rather the riddle that neither the Fed nor the rest of us can answer convincingly: why hasn’t a robust jobs recovery reignited inflation?
Math, Models and Markets
Those of us who do not hold Ph.D. degrees in economics from the nation’s most prestigious universities at least have one advantage over those maven economists on the Fed Open Market Committee: we can freely speculate about the perplexing absence of inflation. Here at MVF we have our own views, largely proceeding from the larger issue of long term growth that has been the central subject of our in-depth research for much of the past three years. The catalysts that drive growth over successive business cycles – productivity and labor force participation – have both chronically underperformed for many years. Quite simply, we may have reached a point of diminishing returns on the commercial innovations that powered a historically unique run of growth through the middle and mid-late portion of the last century. Without that growth, we shouldn’t expect wages and prices to do as they did before.
Which is fine for us to say, because – see above – we are not doctorate-level trained economists. But Janet Yellen is, and so are most of her colleagues. And unlike us, they do not have the freedom to brainstorm and speculate about what’s keeping inflation from showing up. All they have are models. Models with months, quarters and years of data providing quantitative insights into the relationship between the labor market and consumer prices. Models written in beautiful mathematical formulations, the legacy of giants who inhabited the “freshwater” (University of Chicago) and “salt water” (MIT and Harvard University) centers of economic research in the years after the Second World War. Models premised on the hyper-rational choices of economic actors, models that do not actively incorporate variables about capital and financial markets but that assume that money is just “there.”
Follow the Dots…Not
The models say that a higher uptrend in inflation is consistent with where the labor market is. Accordingly, the “dot plot” predictions by FOMC members continue to assume one more rate hike this year (most likely December) and three more next year. This despite the fact that the core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) rate that the Fed uses as its inflation gauge remains, at 1.4 percent, well below the Fed’s 2 percent target. Fixed income markets, though, continue to largely ignore FOMC dots (despite some of the usual post-event spasms after Wednesday’s press release). There remain about 100 basis points of difference between what the Fed thinks is a “normal” long term trend for the Fed funds rate (closer to 3 percent) and what the bond market thinks (closer to 2 percent).
In a nutshell, the bond market, and analysts such as ourselves, look at inflation trends and say, why rush? The Fed says, because the models say we have to act. If the models are right, there could be some very nasty shocks in fixed income markets that spill over into risk assets like equities. But for the rest of us, with our parlor game speculations about how the relationship between prices and jobs today may simply not be as statistically robust as it used to be, it is difficult indeed to spot the hard evidence supporting a major bout of inflation on the horizon.