Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

The Fed Goes Long

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Few investors today would consider investing in long-term Treasury bonds.

The yield curve, which measures the spread between interest rates for short-term and long-term bonds, is not as flat as it has been in recent years, but that’s faint hope for investors.

A 10-year Treasury is still yielding less than 3% interest.  If the Federal Reserve Board achieves its goal of pushing inflation up to 2%, the real interest on a 10-year bond purchased today will be under 1%, payable at maturity.yield-curve-investwithalex

If the Fed overshoots its goal and inflation moves higher, which is highly likely, a 10-year bond would produce a negative yield.  What’s the probability that inflation will remain lower that the current yield on a 10-year Treasury over that entire period?

The U.S. has not had a period when inflation remained below 3% for a 10-year period since the days of the Great Depression.  During the period of recession then slow growth that we’ve experienced since the financial crisis began in 2008, inflation has remained low and the Fed’s focus has been on fighting deflation.  But when the economy improves and normal growth returns, inflation is likely to move significantly higher, as higher inflation is a byproduct of a healthy economy.

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We’re All Debtors Now

Friday, March 7th, 2014

You’ve probably heard that corporate America is swimming in cash.  Something like $4 trillion worth of it.  And once corporate America starts spending it, the economy will boom again, jobs will be created, GNP will soar and the stock market will boom ever higher.

Corporate cash is the good news.  Corporate debt is the bad news.

While cash is at record levels, corporate debt now exceeds the level it was at in 2008 and 2009.  In case your memory is really short, that’s when America was wondering whether its financial system would survive.Corporate Debt

But temper your nostalgia for those bad old days.  When we say “exceeds,” we mean that corporate debt is 35% higher than it was then.

Net debt – what you get when you subtract cash from total debt – has been climbing steadily for American companies since 1998, as the chart shows.  It doesn’t mean corporate America is insolvent (not yet, anyway), but it does have nasty implications for future corporate growth, profitability, unemployment and income growth.

Given all of that cash on hand, some are making heady predictions about accelerating capital expenditures.  Goldman Sachs’ David Kostin predicted that capex spending will grow 9% in 2014, compared with 2% growth in 2013.

He may be right, given the need to replace aging and outmoded equipment, but a prediction is only a prediction.  And more capex spending will mean less cash for paying down corporate debt.

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The Neverending Story

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Why change?

It’s been more than five years since The Federal Reserve Board began its quantitative easing program.  We’ve had QE, QE 2, Operation Twist and the never-ending QE 3.  The Fed’s portfolio of bonds exceeds $4 trillion and it now owns more than a third of all bonds issued by the U.S. government.

The net result of this never-before attempted experiment in easy money policy has been a still slumping job market, growth around 2% vs. a non-QE average of 3.3% and a drop in personal income of 4.7% since the “recovery” began.  At least there hasn’t been any deflation.

Yet new Fed Chair Janet Yellen announced this week that she’s “staying the course,” continuing QE maybe forever.  Although she said she plans to continue tapering, too, she added that the bond buying program is “not on a preset course,” so perhaps The Fed may taper its tapering, creating an untapering by buying even more bonds.

After all, $65 billion a month doesn’t buy what it used to, even with today’s low rate of inflation.

The market reacted positively, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumping nearly 200 points.  Once again, just as it looked like the market was reacting to real business conditions, the Queen of QE proved that the market is still firmly under the Fed’s control.

What Ceiling?

Remember “The Neverending Story?”  The book, which was made into a movie, takes place in a fantasyland, in which a dark entity called “The Nothing” threatens to consume everything.  In the neverending story of QE, “The Nothing” could be The Fed itself, consuming every bond in sight, or the federal government, consuming everything and casting a pall of new regulations that threaten job growth and recovery.

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Solving Our Problems By Executive Order

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Why didn’t he think of this sooner?

President Obama announced during this week’s State of the Union address that he is going to bypass Congress and issue more executive orders during the last three years of his presidency.

You might think that sounds like a dictatorship. After all, our government was formed around a foundation of checks and balances, with Congress and the judicial branch of government keeping the President from acting on his own. He’s not a king, a tyrant or a despot. He’s president of a democratic republic, not a banana republic.Obama

But think about it. We’ve been waiting for years for Congress to handle tough issues like immigration reform, tax reform, Social Security reform, Medicare reform, trade reform and budget reform. Nothing ever happens. When Congress does handle tough issues, we end up with laws that run more than 2,000+ pages long, that no one understands and that bear little resemblance to their original intent.

Do we really want another Affordable Care Act or another Dodd-Frank Consumer Protection Act? Do we really want all of those milquetoast compromises? And what about the billions in pork that have to be added to even the most basic bill before Congress approves it?

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No Records This Month

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Markets go up and markets go down, so maybe it’s not surprising that January’s stock market performance has less exuberance to it than the performance to which we’ve become accustomed.

As of yesterday’s market close, the S&P 500 was down 0.13% year to date, which is not a big deal, especially considering that the S&P 500 Index finished 2013 up 32.4%.  Even with the recent downward trend, the S&P 500 is up 25.35% for the past 12-month period.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has been a bit creakier, down 0.96% year to date, but still up 21.51% for the past year.

It’s doubtful, then, that the markets will break any records this month.  But if you believe the hype, good things are headed our way.  The unemployment rate has slimmed down to 6.7%, gross domestic product (GDP) was revised upward to 3.6% for the third quarter of 2013 and, with Janet Yellen’s appointment to head the Federal Reserve Board, quantitative easing can continue ad nausem.

So why worry?

To begin with, as we explained last week, the falling unemployment rate is an illusion.  The rate dropped only because so many people have stopped looking for work.  The number of non-working Americans exceeds 102 million, which is a record.

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Some Recovery

Friday, January 10th, 2014

The government’s stimulus programs are not working and neither are a growing number of Americans.

In October, we noted that the number of Americans not working exceeded 101 million, setting a record.  But records are made to be broken and the number today is even higher – even while the official unemployment rate continues to drop.

When we wrote in October, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 90,609,000 Americans who are 16 or older were neither working nor looking for work.  Since then, the number has increased to 91,808,000.

LFPR
But that number doesn’t include unemployed Americans who are looking for work, which was 10.4 million in December, bringing the total number of Americans who are not working up to more than 102 million.  That’s an addition of nearly 1 million since October … during what has widely been viewed as a period of economic recovery.

The civilian labor force fell from 155.3 million to 154.9 million in December, bringing the labor participation rate down from 63.0% to a 35-year low of 62.8%.

While the BLS expected 197,000 jobs to be created in December, only 74,000 jobs were created.  That’s a miss of more than 100,000 jobs.  The BLS says inclement weather affected the number of forced part-time jobs being created.  “Forced part-time” jobs are those where a former marketing manager who has been out of work for two years runs out of money and takes a position working the deep fryer at Wendy’s because there are no other options.

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Paper Taper

Friday, December 20th, 2013

So the taper begins in January.  Big deal.

That was the market’s initial reaction anyway.  In fact, the market viewed this week’s announcement as a positive, setting yet another record.  Conversely, when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke first brought up the possibility of a taper in May, he sent the market reeling.  So talking about buying bonds has a greater impact than actually buying bonds.  Who knew?

Some believe the stock market rallied because The Fed made it clear that it will remain accommodative and that interest rates will remain near zero until the apocalypse.  That being the case, though, why did bond yields soar?  Go figure.Taper Impact

The taper announcement is not a big deal, though, because everyone knew it was coming – everyone except for the economists whose job it is to tell us when tapering is coming.  First they guessed wrong that it was coming in October, then they guessed wrong that it wasn’t coming in December.  Keep that in mind when you hear them tell you the economic benefits of more bond buying and more government spending.

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When Common Sense Is Senseless

Friday, December 6th, 2013

What was I thinking?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve preached caution.  Corporate profits were down and unemployment was up.  The economy wasn’t growing, but the federal debt was.  Iran was developing nuclear capabilities while the entire continent of Europe was going bankrupt.  And investors were still shell shocked from the 2008 financial meltdown.

Not a good time to invest in stocks.  Not a good time to invest, period.  Common sense dictated restraint.Bungee Jumping

And the federal government’s answer was to spend as much as possible, while printing more money and buying more bonds than at any time in history.  After record stimulus spending and $4 trillion in bond buying, common sense would suggest high inflation and a sagging stock market; a good time to invest in gold and other hard assets.

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Taperphobia Hits Wall Street

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

A taperphobia epidemic has Wall Street in a panic yet again.  “Taperphobia” is an irrational fear of common sense.  Symptoms include a falling stock market, soaring bond yields and ongoing anxiety attacks.  There is a cure, but it’s expensive – it costs at least $85 billion a month, but that’s enough to cure all of Wall Street and send the stock market soaring.

Taperphobia was discovered by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in May, when he invented a new definition for the word “taper,” using it to describe the gradual slowdown of quantitative easing (another phrase he invented, which translates to “buying bonds forever”).Philly Fed

Symptoms of taperphobia subsided through calm reassurances of ongoing bond buying to eternity, but they returned in October, because most economists had predicted with absolute certainty that tapering would begin then.

It didn’t, so taperphobia subsided again.  But now, thanks to discussions by board members included in minutes of the Federal Reserve Board, many believe that tapering will begin soon.

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The Economy Is Booming – Unless You’re A Consumer

Friday, November 8th, 2013

At least it sounds like good news.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that the economy grew at a rate of 2.84% during the third quarter.  That’s up significantly from recent growth, which has been below 2%.

But if you find a silver lining in today’s economy, it’s sure to be surrounded by a black cloud.  There are a few black clouds in this report:

  • Preliminary numbers are almost always wrong.  Funny how sometimes they’re overly optimistic.
  • In spite of the higher growth rate, consumer spending is at its lowest level since the second quarter of 2011.  In a healthy economy, consumer spending usually drives growth.
  • Fixed investment, an indication of capital spending, dropped from 0.96% in the previous quarter to just 0.63%.
  • Inventory doubled from 0.41% the previous quarter to 0.83% of the 2.8%.  An increase in inventory is an underwhelming sign of economic growth.

Interestingly, government grew 0.04%, in spite of sequestration cuts.  The numbers predate the 16-day government shutdown.

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