economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management

Jobs Friday: December 2021

As a financial advisor and someone who loves the study of economics, “Jobs Friday” is the highlight of my month. It is a signpost of where the economy has been for the past month or two, as well as giving clues about where it is headed in the coming month. Information derived from the Jobs Report posted by the US Dept of Labor is used by the Federal Reserve to judge, manage, and adjust monetary policy. Politicians on both sides use the information to justify and drive fiscal policy.

For this month’s report the expectation was for the economy to have created 550,000 new jobs. One factor going into the jobs report that is a concern is ‘how many people are going to come back into the labor market?’ Currently, economists estimate that nearly 8 million people are still out of the labor force, having left at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in February 2020. (3)

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

Economic Fears and Managing Risks

In the Fall of 2021, the economy continues to slow, and it is having an effect on markets.

I wrote this article originally just before COVID hit… some of the observations were in 2019, as you will see.

In 2019, the economy was already slowing…

It is interesting how the comments in the original article are appropriate for today’s economic environment.

In 2019, incoming ECB President Christine Lagarde stated the US trade war with China had “dented global economic growth.”

“You can’t adjust to the unknown. So, what do you do? You build buffers. You build savings. You wonder what comes next. That’s not propitious to economic development,” said Lagarde.

“It means less investment, less jobs, more unemployment, reduced growth. So of course, it has an impact,” she said. Lagarde led the International Monetary Fund for 8 years prior to moving on to the ECB. (1)

Recent surveys by the NFIB strike a similar note by US businesses that in 2021 are constrained by supply chain delays, increasing prices, and labor difficulties. (2)

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

Negative Yielding Bonds and Risk

Bonds are traditionally used within investment portfolios to reduce equity risk and generate income through the yields they carry. For example, a 10-year bond with a face value of $10,000 with a 5% yield generates $500 in income. Most recently the US 10-year yield was 1.5%.

However, over the past few years central banks in Europe and Japan have experimented with Quantitative Easing and driven rates below zero%. In August 2021, the amount of negative yielding bonds reached over $16.5 trillion. In May 2019 that amount stood at $12 trillion. Yields in Europe continue to fall as the ECB in June indicated its plans to set up a new bond buying program in upcoming meetings. A slow-down in the European economy, spiking energy prices and rising inflation has left businesses and economists frustrated. (1)(2)

What is a negative yielding bond? It is a bond with an inflated value and a yield of less than zero%. An example of a negative yielding bond is one with a face value of $10,000 but a market value $11,000. The purchaser of such a bond literally pays more than the bond worth for the right to own the bond. As bond yields move down the value of a bond increases. As bond yields move up the value of a bond decreases.

As energy prices and inflation has risen, bond yields have quickly moved higher. As a result, the amount of negative yielding debt has decreased, and the value of bonds held by central banks and institutional investors has plummeted.

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

How to Guarantee Retirement?

Several years ago, I read a post on LinkedIn which sounded the alarm bells that the “time is running out” for your retirement account.

I found it offensive and in poor taste, playing on the fears of the public at large. Throughout most of 2021 there has been a palatable undercurrent of fear in the market… on the part of investors, on the part of money managers, on the part of economists… Inflation rocketing higher, talk of asset bubbles left and right, issues around hiring and employment, falling consumer sentiment, and all of these leading to a slowing in the economy

The 5% pullback in September 2021 in the market reinforced that fear for some.

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management, Taxes

Trick or Treat? Revisiting The Potential Downside of Tax Reform for Investors

There is an old story that goes “beware what you wish for…” Things don’t always turn out as expected. In 2017, President Trump proposed and Congress approved a huge tax cut plan… the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The results have been controversial.

Along those lines I watched a fascinating interview of Tom Lee, head of research at Fundstrat, on Bloomberg four years ago. His insight proved very valuable and accurate. (1)

His feeling is that a Tax cut, as it was being discussed, could be negative for investors long term. “There’s two reasons; First, when cutting tax rate you raise the after tax cost of debt. Leverage becomes a problem for a lot of businesses. Second, because you are cutting tax rates you are effectively giving cash to all businesses, even businesses where you want to reduce allocation.“

His observation was that companies that are currently struggling with cash flow will have a temporary life preserver tossed to them, but it will not change the fundamental issues facing a lot of industries. It will distort markets.

In fact, that is exactly what happened. Companies that were not profitable and not healthy continued to borrow and live off of debt instead of reforming their business models.

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management

2021 Inflation and Parallels to the Seventies

My most vivid memory of the Seventies is sitting in the car with my siblings and parents in a mall parking lot the week before Christmas and my mother crying because they couldn’t afford presents and had to file bankruptcy. For a 12 year old it made the challenges of real life… real.

The seventies were a traumatic time for many Americans… the end of the Vietnam war, the political chaos of Watergate and Nixon, the oil embargo, gas rationing throughout the decade, the suffocation of unions, the loss of jobs and industries as Japan and South Korea became exporters. Economic instability was an ever-present cloud.

Moving in waves through the decade, the economy suffered from bouts of inflation and deflation. It made policy decision-making challenging at best… boost the economy to keep it from slowing down, or is the economy running too hot?

When you drill down one sees many similarities between conditions that led to the “stagflation of the 1970s” and the situation we find ourselves in post COVID.

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

“Rising Prices in the Economy”: Inflation Post COVID

In September 2020 Jay Powell announced that the Federal Reserve would adjust how it reacts to inflation, one of its chief mandates, and allow inflation to run hotter for longer. The expectation is that it will be several years before the Fed raises interest rates. Traditionally, elevated rates of inflation indicate the economy is operating at full capacity and may be in danger overheating. Following the COVID recession of 2020 the Fed is trying to create a positive environment for the recovery.

In the Spring of 2021 signs of inflation are abundant. Since the fall of 2020 commodity prices had risen dramatically. Lumber prices had soared as supply constraints limited what was available, especially as housing prices went up and building accelerated. Copper surged to new record highs. Wheat, corn and other food commodities went up as the economy reopened and supply couldn’t keep up with demand.

Among tech businesses a shortage of computer chips affected the building of everything from cars to exercise equipment. “Just in time” supply chains showed increasing strain.

To top things off, a gasoline pipeline was held hostage by a ransomware attack in early May 2021. The result was gasoline shortages and higher prices throughout the east coast US.

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management

The Impact of Financial Euphoria

On a recent rereading of John Kenneth Galbraith’s “A Short History of Financial Euphoria”, he outlines common characteristics from past financial bubbles including the Tulip mania of 1637, the South Seas bubble of 1720, the various booms and busts of 19th century America, the market crash of 1929, and the October 1987 market crash. While the financial instruments vary, the behavior of investors has many elements in common. Bubbles in financial markets have several characteristics in common.

One of the elements Galbraith cites in the financial bubbles he analyzes is the introduction of new financial instruments. Such new instruments offer the “investment opportunity rich in imagined prospects…” (p51) Added to these new instruments is the element of leverage. Leverage allows investors to capture more profit than is normally possible. However, leverage also introduces fragility into the financial system when the value of investments start to fall and leverage needs to be unwound. The unwinding of leverage leads to additional sales and additional losses. The collapse of bubbles has an “inevitable and depressive aftereffect.” (p67) Such a depressive aftereffect is manifested in weakened consumer goods demand, shaken business confidence, a fall in business investment, and a rise in business failures. The bursting of bubbles has a “substantial and ultimately devastating economic effect.” (p89)

Another critical element in the development of bubbles is psychological. “Individuals were dangerously captured by belief in their own financial acumen and intelligence and conveyed this error to others.” (p51) In this aspect, bubbles not only develop from financial innovation but especially because of psychological behaviors and characteristics.

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economy, income, interest rates, retirement, risk management

“Data Dependent” Fed Changes Course and Markets React

In the Fall of 2018, equity markets sold off.

What was the cause?

Widespread view among economists was an expectation of slowing economic growth in 2019 and a Federal Reserve led by Chairman Jay Powell that was expected to continue to raise rates three more times in 2019.

As anxiety and stress built up in November and December, markets dropped. Between October 3 and October 29 the SP500 fell 9.7%. Between October 29 and December 7 the market bounced around rising 6.5% only to give it back and to fall .3%. However, in the weeks before Christmas, December 7 to December 24 the market fell another 10.7%. Showing the rapidness of the decline, on Christmas Eve the SP500 fell 2.6%.

On Bloomberg Surveillance on April 4th, Tom Keene asked Jim Paulson “Was December the mother of all cathartic events? It was so traumatic.” Jim Paulson responded, “I don’t ever remember a December like that ever in my entire career. It was original, and I think it shocked all of us, myself included that this happened in December… But it looks increasingly like the oddity, what was incorrect and inappropriate, was the December swoon… and we may be overdid the selling more than we should have.” (2)

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economy, interest rates, retirement, risk management

Market Risks and the Wall of Worry

For years, one of the biggest issues facing the economy has been excessive debt and leverage. Yet even with these problems, prior to COVID-19 it was commonplace to see headlines in the financial media that read…

“Current Bull Market Continues To Climb A ‘Wall of Worry’” (1)

The “wall of worry” is one of the phrases frequently used to illustrate the resistance or fear of investors to invest in a stock market that had earlier gone down.  Since the Great Recession of 2008 and the financial crisis many investors have worried about the possibility of another financial crisis.

In a 2018 conversation with clients I was asked about a recent stock market pull back and if a problem in the market… could cause another financial crisis. This was an issue that was on many people’s minds these days.

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