The White House as Animal House

Why has the stock market been going bonkers, even as interest rates have begun to rise?

CNBC sums it up in two words: “animal spirits.” Wall Street types aren’t talking about the ghosts of dead puppies when they use the term “animal spirits.” It’s a reference to human exuberance based on expectations.

The term was a concoction of John Maynard Keynes, the guy who has been revered by liberals everywhere because of his notion that government spending is good for the economy. Of course it’s not — when government spends, we pay — but politicians, journalists, academics and even many economists who should know better like to be called neo-Keynesians, so they follow along.

Coming up with the term “animal spirits” to describe human behavior is perhaps Mr. Keynes’ second worst offense.

Any time an alleged expert makes a reference to “animal spirits,” he or she gets quoted, since it sounds like deep thinking to most journalists and at least it’s more colorful than saying “consumers are feeling more confident about the economy, because their employers are no longer being regulated into bankruptcy.”

Used in a sentence: John Canally, chief economic str

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Trump’s Not Reagan or Obama

Donald Trump is not Ronald Reagan. That should be obvious, but many optimistic conservatives are drawing parallels and predicting economic nirvana over the next four years.

That’s unlikely to happen, but, conversely, the incoming president is not Barack Obama, either. The Obama presidency has been disastrous on many fronts, creating economic stagnation, a doubling of the national debt, and foreign policy disasters, such as the lifting of sanctions against Iran and Cuba in return for pretty much nothing.trump

We’re not about to join the media in bashing the president elect for choosing cabinet members that do not share U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s ideological views, but we’re also concerned that the stock market’s post-election surge is yet another case of irrational exuberance.

Stocks were already overpriced before the election, yet the market was up 5.4% for the month of November. That’s not going to continue for four more years.

Stephen Moore, a senior economic advisor to the Trump campaign, is not surprisingly among those comparing Trump with Reagan. As he wrote in RealClear Policy, “After the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, the U.S. Economy experienced one of its greatest booms in history. The growth rate averaged nearly 4 percent for seven years 1982–89. And the stock market rose from less than 1,000 on the Dow to more than 10,000 over the next two decades. This was a period of wealth and job creation that the nation and middle class had seldom seen before. All the liberal critics wrongly said it could not and would not happen.

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The Apolitical Fed and the “Big, Fat, Ugly Bubble”

“ … nothing at the Fed is political.”                                                     Neil Kashkari, new head of the Minneapolis Fed

The Federal Reserve Board was designed to be a nonpartisan entity, existing solely for the benefit of the American economy. Apparently, there is a flaw in the design.

During the first debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Mr. Trump accused the Federal Reserve Board of keeping interest rates near zero to help Democrats in November, while creating a “big, fat, ugly bubble” that will pop after the election when the central bank raises rates.

According to Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist for Morgan Stanley, “This riff has some truth to it.”djia

“Since the Fed began aggressive monetary easing in 2008,” Sharma wrote on Zero Hedge, “my calculations show that nearly 60% of stock market gains have come on those days, once every six weeks, that the Federal Open Market Committee announces its policy decisions.

“Put another way, the S&P 500 index has gained 699 points since January 2008, and 422 of those points came on the 70 Fed announcement days. The average gain on announcement days was 0.49%, or roughly 50 times higher than the average gain of 0.01% on other days.”

It must be a coincidence that gains are 50 times higher on days when the FOMC announces policy decisions.

Sharma’s conclusions are further supported by this chart from Showrealhist.com, which shows an inflation-adjusted Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Note the upward surge that began when the Fed began QE in 2008.

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Hard Landing

The Federal Reserve Board’s Open Market Committee met last week for the first time since raising interest rates in December and then published its usual policy statement full of mush.

It could have been written by Russia’s politburo.  It’s loaded with statements like this one: “The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.”

In other words, if we’re not already in a recession, we’re pretty close to one, so the Fed is not going to raise rates to normal levels anytime soon. 20160128_policyerror_0

We’ll spare you the rest of the policy statement, which can be summed up as follows: “Blah, blah, blah.”  If the Fed were being honest, here’s what the latest policy statement would have said:

Well, that was a disaster.

We’ve been hearing for years that it was time to raise interest rates.  Virtually every economist on the planet, not to mention all of the journalists who think they understand the economy, had been predicting that the Fed would raise interest rates in December. 

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In China, People Are Disappearing, but Problems Aren’t

President Obama has to be at least a little bit jealous of the power yielded by China’s leaders.  He may use executive orders to get his way, but he has yet to follow the lead of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In the U.S., we control the stock market by allowing the Federal Reserve Board to buy trillions of dollars’ worth of bonds and lower interest rates to zero.

China goes a bit further.  It not only duplicates the U.S. approach of using quantitative easing to manipulate its stock market and currency; when the market fails to obey orders and go only in the upward direction, the government makes people disappear. China

“In all, executives from 34 companies have disappeared, with only some reappearing,” according to The Wall Street Journal’s L. Gordon Crovitz. “Among those was Guo Guangchang, chairman of the Fosun Group, who is known as China’s Warren Buffett. His interests include Cirque du Soleil, Club Med and the former Chase Manhattan Plaza in downtown Manhattan. Brokers and hedge-fund managers are also among the mysteriously missing.”

We suspect that the potential of disappearing creates an even more effective performance incentive than a Wall Street bonus, but China’s leaders don’t stop there.

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The Stock Market Needs “Seasonal Adjustment”

How many jobs did the U.S. economy generate in December?

The correct answer is:

  1. 292,000
  2. 281,000
  3. 11,000
  4. None of the above

David Stockman wrote on his “Contra Corner” blog: “According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), the US economy generated a miniscule 11,000 jobs in the month of December. Yet notwithstanding the fact that almost nobody works outdoors any more, the BLS fiction writers added 281,000 to their headline number to cover the ‘seasonal adjustment.’”

When we checked the jobs report, the BLS claimed that the economy generated 292,000 jobs in December (after seasonal adjustment), not 281,000.  We couldn’t verify Stockman’s claim that the actual figure should be 11,000, but searching the term “seasonal” turned up a whopping 41 hits in a single news release.  So Stockman’s numbers may not be 100% accurate, but he’s clearly on to something.

The BLS press release noted, “The effect of such seasonal variation can be very large.” But large enough to use a multiplier of 25+?

Stockman wrote that an upward revision for December is typical as an adjustment to account for cold weather, but December 2015 was an exceptionally warm month.  Santa arrived in shorts and sunglasses. 

Stockman isn’t the only pundit who viewed the jobs report with skepticism.  Noting that the BLS also upwardly revised job numbers for October and November by 50,000 per month (a nice, round number), Paul Craig Roberts added that, “Apparently, the equity market did not believe the report.”

Even if you accept the BLS numbers, Roberts wrote that, “About half of the alleged new jobs—142,000—went to the 55 years old and over age group. This age group consists primarily of retirees who have found it necessary to supplement their retirement income and of those near retirement who are working in order to compensate for the lack of interest on their savings due to the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy. These are part-time, lowly paid jobs without benefits.

“Americans of prime working age, 25 years old to 54 year old, only received 16,000 or 5% o

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An IOU World

Investment performance made most investors a bit grumpy by the end of 2015, given that virtually every asset closed the year down a bit.  During 2016, grumpiness is giving way to fear.

Here’s how the year began:

  • On the first trading day of the year, China’s Shanghai index fell 7% intraday. Traders fled, triggering circuit breakers after China reported a fifth consecutive month of weak manufacturing data.
  • Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran in response to the storming of its embassy in Tehran. Bahrain also cut ties with Iran. Oil prices rallied on the news, but stock prices fell.
  • Bad news in China plus bad news in the Middle East equals bad news everywhere and a sharp selloff in equity markets. European markets dropped more than 2% across the board, Dow futures were down nearly 300, and S&P futures were trading down more than 1.6%. Global Debt

Things have only gotten worse since then.  By the time the market closed on Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 911 points – a drop of more than 5% in just four days.  That’s the worst four-day percentage loss to start a year on record, according to FactSet stats that go back to 1897.  The Nasdaq index, meanwhile, was down more than 6%, its worst start since 2000. 

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Happy New Year: Meh.

Well, it’s a brave new world for us cynics. Somehow, we all survived another year, but it wasn’t easy.

It was a good year for terrorists (Paris, San Bernardino), despots (hello Cuba, Syria, Iran, et al.) and hackers (any repercussions from China’s hacking of government records, federal employees sharing classified documents on unsecure servers, etc.?).

It was a bad year for investors.  Or, if not bad, not so good.  Heck, even Warren Buffett lost money, although he can afford a nick more than the rest of us. 2015

It would be generous to say that stocks ended the year “sideways,” as the year was volatile and the beginning was much more forgiving than the end.  Overall, though, the year was as flat as Twiggy in Nebraska.  As The New York Times put it:

“Name a financial asset — any financial asset.  How did it do in 2015?

“The answer, in all likelihood: Meh.

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Taper Tantrum Two

Call it Taper Tantrum Two.

Two of the 12 members of the Federal Open Market Committee suggested on Thursday that it’s time to raise interest rates, causing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop 254 points.

To get a better idea of how ludicrous this is, consider the following:

  • The two hawks represent a sixth of the board. The hawks will need to more than triple their numbers to represent a majority.
  • Stock ChartThe two Fed members were speaking at a Cato Institute event called, “Rethinking Monetary Policy.” The event was not called, “Seven More Years of ZIRP,” “Zero Everlasting” or “Bring on QE4.”  Why would anyone be surprised that they spoke in favor of a rate hike?
  • One of the two, St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard, is an alternate member of the FOMC and has long been advocating for a rate hike. This is the guy who caused the Dow to drop 100 points when he suggested in June 2014 that interest rates might be hiked in the first quarter of 2015.  We tried to determine the role of an alternate member, but the Federal Reserve Board’s description is about as clear as a Fed policy statement.  The page says there are 12 members of the FOMC, but lists 10, as well as four alternates.  So how do they come up with 12?  These are the people who are managing our economy.

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High-Frequency Trading Losing Frequency

The publication of Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys early in 2014 brought high-frequency trading (HFT) to the attention of many investors for the first time.

Lewis was quoted on “60 Minutes” saying that HFT rigs the stock market against the small investor. Media made it known that the FBI – the folks who investigate drug dealers and organized crime – was investigating HFT.

Wenning Advice had posted frequently about the practice as early as 2011, warning about the distortion that high-frequency trading causes to market fundamentals, the predatory nature of high-frequency trading, the inequity of high-frequency trading, and the risk that high-frequency trading creates for all of us.  We even pointed out that “Satan is a high-frequency trader.”

But what’s happened to HFT since 2014?  And what happened to the FBI’s investigation of the practice?

HFT has not gone away. But it’s not what it used to be.

We noted in 2011 that HFT accounted for 73% of all equity trading in the U.S., up from 30% four years earlier, based on research from TABB Group.

Rosenblatt Securities estimated that HFT trading volume fell from about 3.25 billion shares a day in 2009 to 1.6 billion shares in 2012. And TABB Group estimated that HFT revenues from U.S. equity trading declined from about $7.2 billion in 2009 to $1.3 billion in 2014. 

HFT Today

So what happened?  Was Lewis’ book outdated even before it was published?  Did the FBI catch the bad guys?  Are new regulations keeping traders honest?

First, it’s important to note that HFT is still alive and well.  Even if it has a smaller share of the U.S. equities market, there are other countries and other securities to trade in. While HFT in U.S. equities may have dropped off, Read more