Time to give Powell Truth Serum

This post Time to give Powell Truth Serum appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

The coronavirus has gone… “viral.” At the very least its media coverage has.

You may have therefore missed the news yesterday:

The Federal Reserve concluded its January FOMC meeting. It thereupon announced it is holding interest rates steady.

The federal funds target rate stays sandwiched between 1.50% and 1.75%.

Jerome Powell gave off his usual post-announcement whim-wham. He talked a lot, that is… but did not say much.

Example: A reporter rose before him with a question…

He asked the chairman if he feared withdrawing support for the “repo” market. The stock market may file a vigorous protest if he does, the implication being.

Powell came back at him this way:

In terms of what affects markets, I think many things affect markets. It’s very hard to say with any precision at any time what is affecting markets.

Yet here is the very picture of precision:

IMG 1

Here, once again, the precise union between the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet and the S&P 500.

The two have gone happily arm in arm, linked, since early October.

Yet a Federal Reserve chairman must master the artful dodge, the skill to pretend ignorance of the most elemental facts — even the evidence of his own eyeballs.

Imagine the scene…

You enter a dining room for your evening meal. Jerome Powell is by your side.

You are astounded to discover a behemoth draft horse lounging upon the dining table. Stunned, ruffled, gobsmacked, you solicit comment from your dining mate…

“What horse?” asks he. “I don’t see a horse.”

Do we condemn the chairman? Do we impugn him, belittle him, call him into ridicule?

No. We are actually in deep sympathy with him. What — after all — is this fellow to say?

Is he to concede that the stock market is a house constructed of playing cards… and that he is its foundation?

That it would come heaping down without his determined and continuous support?

An honest answer would take the floor out of a vast fiction — the vast fiction that the stock market goes by itself, that its own pillars hold it up.

Dose him with C11H17N2NaO2S — that is, dose him with sodium pentothal — that is, dose him with truth serum…

And the ensuing geyser of honesty would collapse the Wall Street stock exchanges… as surely as the ancient Israelites collapsed the walls of Jericho.

Here is a brief sample of what Mr. Powell would confess under chemical influence:

That he is a mediocrity, a blank, a preposterous formula…

That he is far out of his depth…

That he is as fit to chair the Federal Reserve’s board of governors as he is to chair a board of barbers…

That he cannot tell you the next quarter’s GDP at the price of his soul…

That his enflamed hemorrhoids torture him ceaselessly…

That he cannot possibly determine the proper interest rate for millions upon millions of independent economic actors…

That he wields far less influence over interest rates than commonly believed…

That the president of the New York Fed smells…

That there is no actual money in monetary policy…

That he clings yet to his boyhood fantasy of becoming a salesman of life insurance…

That his wife’s cooking is a daily source of agony…

That his — no, no — we had better stop here. Some truths must remain dark. That counts double for a man of Mr. Powell’s high station.

Instead, the good chairman will babble what the world wants him to babble. Like this, for example, from yesterday:

The committee judges that the current stance of monetary policy is appropriate to support sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions and inflation returning to the committee’s symmetric 2% objective.

Or this, also from yesterday:

[The] labor market continues to perform well… We see strong job creation, we see low unemployment [and] very importantly we see labor force participation continuing to move up.

And this:

Some of the uncertainties around trade have diminished recently and there are some signs that global growth may be stabilizing after declining since mid-2018.

Does Mr. Powell believe the words issuing from his own mouth? We are far from convinced.

Perhaps it truly is time to fill him with sodium pentathol…

Below, Jim Rickards shows you why the happy talk is simply that, and why the Fed has “never been more divided.” Read on.

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post Time to give Powell Truth Serum appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II

This post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Yesterday we hauled out evidence that interest rates have gone persistently down 500 years running.

And the high interest rates of the mid- to late 20th century?

These may be history’s true aberration, a violent but brief lurch in the chart… like a sudden burst of blood pressure.

Let us here reintroduce the graphic evidence:

IMG 1

Here is an extended picture of downward-trending rates — with the fabulous exception of the mid-to-late 20th century.

As Harvard economics professor Paul Schmelzing reckoned yesterday, as summarized by Willem H. Buiter in Project Syndicate:

Despite temporary stabilizations such as the periods 1550–1640, 1820–1850 or in fact 1950–1980… global… real rates have persistently trended downward over the past five centuries…

Can you therefore expect the downward journey of interest rates to proceed uninterrupted?

We have ransacked the historical data further still… rooted around for clues… and emerged with worrisome findings.

Why worrisome?

Details to follow. Let us first look in on another historical oddity, worrisome in its own way — the present stock market.

A Lull on Wall Street

It was an inconsequential day on Wall Street. The Dow Jones took a very slight slip, down nine points on the day.

The S&P scratched out a single-point gain; the Nasdaq gained 12 points today.

Gold and oil largely loafed, budging barely at all.

Meantime, humanity’s would-be saviors remained huddled at Davos. There they are setting the world to rights and deciding how we must live.

But let us resume our study of time… and money.

For light, we once again resort to the good Professor Schmelzing.

The arc of interest rates bends lower with time, he has established. But as he also establishes… no line bends true across five centuries of history.

Put aside the drastic mid-to-late 20th century reversal. Even the long downturning arc has its squiggles and twists, bent in the great forges of history.

To these we now turn…

“Real Rate Depression Cycles”

Over seven centuries, Schmelzing identifies nine “real rate depression cycles.”

These cycles feature a secular decline of real interest rates, followed by reversals — often sudden and violent reversals.

The first eight rate depression cycles tell fantastic tales…

They often pivoted upon high dramas like the Black Death of the mid-14th century… the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century… and World War II.

IMG 2

The world is currently ensnared within history’s ninth rate depression cycle. This cycle began in the mid-1980s.

Schmelzing says one previous cycle comes closest to this, our own. That is the global “Long Depression” of the 1880s and ’90s.

This “Long Depression” witnessed “low productivity growth, deflationary price dynamics and the rise of global populism and protectionism.”

Need we draw the parallels to today?

It is here where our tale gathers pace… and acquires point.

A Thing of Historic Grandeur

Schmelzing’s research reveals this information:

This present cycle is a thing of historical grandeur, in both endurance and intensity.

Of the entire 700-year record… only one cycle had a greater endurance. That was in the 15th century.

And only one previous cycle — also from the same epoch — exceeded the current cycle’s intensity.

By almost any measure… today’s rate depression cycle is a thing for the ages.

Turn now to this chart. The steep downward slope on the right gives the flavor of its fevered intensity:

IMG 3

Schmelzing’s researches show the real rate for the entire 700-year history is 4.78%.

Meantime, the real rate for the past 200 years averages 2.6%.

Beware “Reversion to the Mean”

And so “relative to both historical benchmarks,” says this fellow, “the current market environment thus remains severely depressed.”

That is, real rates remain well beneath historical averages.

And if the term “reversion to the mean” has anything in it, the world is in for a hard jolt when the mean reverts. Why?

Because when rates do regain their bounce — history shows — they bounce high.

Schmelzing:

The evidence from eight previous “real rate depressions” is that turnarounds from such environments, when they occur, have typically been both quick and sizeable… Most reversals to “real rate stagnation” periods have been rapid, nonlinear and took place on average after 26 years.

Twenty-six years? The present rate depression cycle runs to 36 or 37 years. We must conclude it goes on loaned time. What happens when the loan comes due?:

Within 24 months after hitting their troughs in the rate depression cycle, rates gained on average 315 basis points [3.15%], with two reversals showing real rate appreciations of more than 600 basis points [6%] within two years.

The current rate depression cycle ranges far beyond average.

It is, after all, the second longest on record… and the second most intense.

If the magnitude of the bounceback approximates the magnitude of the cycle it ends… we can therefore expect a fantastic trampolining of rates.

That is, we can likely expect rate appreciations of 6% or more.

What Happens When Rates Rise?

The stock market and the decade-long economic “recovery” center upon ultra-low interest rates. And so we recoil, horrified, at the prospect of a “rapid, nonlinear” rate reversal.

We must next consider its impact on America’s ability to finance its hellacious debt…

A violent rate increase means debt service becomes an impossible burden.

How would America service its $23 trillion debt — a $23 trillion debt that jumps higher by the minute?

Debt service already represents the fastest-growing government expense.

Interest payments will total $460 billion this year, estimates the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO further projects debt service will scale $800 billion by decade’s end.

$800 billion exceeds today’s entire $738 billion defense budget. As it exceeds vastly present Medicare spending ($625 billion) and Medicaid spending ($412 billion).

CBO Doesn’t Account for Possible End to Rate Depression Cycle

But CBO pays no heed to the rate depression cycle. It — in fact — projects no substantial rate increases this decade.

But what if the present rate depression cycle closes… and interest rates go spiraling?

Debt service will likely swamp the entire federal budget.

Financial analyst Daniel Amerman:

If the interest rate on that debt were to rise by even 1%, the annual federal deficit rises by $200 billion. A 2% increase in interest rate levels would up the federal deficit by $400 billion, and if rates were 5% higher, the annual federal deficit rises by a full $1 trillion per year.

Recall, rates rocketed 6% or higher after two previous rate reversals.

Given the near-record intensity of the present rate depression cycle… should we not expect a similar rebound next time?

Hard logic dictates we should.

But what might bring down the curtain on the current cycle?

Unforeseen Catastrophe

Most previous rate depression cycles ended with death, destruction, howling, shrieking.

Examples, again, include the Black Plague, the Thirty Years War and World War II.

Perhaps a shock on their scale will close out the present cycle… for all that we know. Or perhaps some other cause entirely.

Of course, we can find no reason in law or equity why the second-longest, second-most intense rate depression cycle in history… cannot become the longest, most intense rate depression cycle in history.

The cycle could run years yet. Or it could end Friday morning.

The Lord only knows — and He is silent.

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II

This post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Yesterday we hauled out evidence that interest rates have gone persistently down 500 years running.

And the high interest rates of the mid- to late 20th century?

These may be history’s true aberration, a violent but brief lurch in the chart… like a sudden burst of blood pressure.

Let us here reintroduce the graphic evidence:

IMG 1

Here is an extended picture of downward-trending rates — with the fabulous exception of the mid-to-late 20th century.

As Harvard economics professor Paul Schmelzing reckoned yesterday, as summarized by Willem H. Buiter in Project Syndicate:

Despite temporary stabilizations such as the periods 1550–1640, 1820–1850 or in fact 1950–1980… global… real rates have persistently trended downward over the past five centuries…

Can you therefore expect the downward journey of interest rates to proceed uninterrupted?

We have ransacked the historical data further still… rooted around for clues… and emerged with worrisome findings.

Why worrisome?

Details to follow. Let us first look in on another historical oddity, worrisome in its own way — the present stock market.

A Lull on Wall Street

It was an inconsequential day on Wall Street. The Dow Jones took a very slight slip, down nine points on the day.

The S&P scratched out a single-point gain; the Nasdaq gained 12 points today.

Gold and oil largely loafed, budging barely at all.

Meantime, humanity’s would-be saviors remained huddled at Davos. There they are setting the world to rights and deciding how we must live.

But let us resume our study of time… and money.

For light, we once again resort to the good Professor Schmelzing.

The arc of interest rates bends lower with time, he has established. But as he also establishes… no line bends true across five centuries of history.

Put aside the drastic mid-to-late 20th century reversal. Even the long downturning arc has its squiggles and twists, bent in the great forges of history.

To these we now turn…

“Real Rate Depression Cycles”

Over seven centuries, Schmelzing identifies nine “real rate depression cycles.”

These cycles feature a secular decline of real interest rates, followed by reversals — often sudden and violent reversals.

The first eight rate depression cycles tell fantastic tales…

They often pivoted upon high dramas like the Black Death of the mid-14th century… the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century… and World War II.

IMG 2

The world is currently ensnared within history’s ninth rate depression cycle. This cycle began in the mid-1980s.

Schmelzing says one previous cycle comes closest to this, our own. That is the global “Long Depression” of the 1880s and ’90s.

This “Long Depression” witnessed “low productivity growth, deflationary price dynamics and the rise of global populism and protectionism.”

Need we draw the parallels to today?

It is here where our tale gathers pace… and acquires point.

A Thing of Historic Grandeur

Schmelzing’s research reveals this information:

This present cycle is a thing of historical grandeur, in both endurance and intensity.

Of the entire 700-year record… only one cycle had a greater endurance. That was in the 15th century.

And only one previous cycle — also from the same epoch — exceeded the current cycle’s intensity.

By almost any measure… today’s rate depression cycle is a thing for the ages.

Turn now to this chart. The steep downward slope on the right gives the flavor of its fevered intensity:

IMG 3

Schmelzing’s researches show the real rate for the entire 700-year history is 4.78%.

Meantime, the real rate for the past 200 years averages 2.6%.

Beware “Reversion to the Mean”

And so “relative to both historical benchmarks,” says this fellow, “the current market environment thus remains severely depressed.”

That is, real rates remain well beneath historical averages.

And if the term “reversion to the mean” has anything in it, the world is in for a hard jolt when the mean reverts. Why?

Because when rates do regain their bounce — history shows — they bounce high.

Schmelzing:

The evidence from eight previous “real rate depressions” is that turnarounds from such environments, when they occur, have typically been both quick and sizeable… Most reversals to “real rate stagnation” periods have been rapid, nonlinear and took place on average after 26 years.

Twenty-six years? The present rate depression cycle runs to 36 or 37 years. We must conclude it goes on loaned time. What happens when the loan comes due?:

Within 24 months after hitting their troughs in the rate depression cycle, rates gained on average 315 basis points [3.15%], with two reversals showing real rate appreciations of more than 600 basis points [6%] within two years.

The current rate depression cycle ranges far beyond average.

It is, after all, the second longest on record… and the second most intense.

If the magnitude of the bounceback approximates the magnitude of the cycle it ends… we can therefore expect a fantastic trampolining of rates.

That is, we can likely expect rate appreciations of 6% or more.

What Happens When Rates Rise?

The stock market and the decade-long economic “recovery” center upon ultra-low interest rates. And so we recoil, horrified, at the prospect of a “rapid, nonlinear” rate reversal.

We must next consider its impact on America’s ability to finance its hellacious debt…

A violent rate increase means debt service becomes an impossible burden.

How would America service its $23 trillion debt — a $23 trillion debt that jumps higher by the minute?

Debt service already represents the fastest-growing government expense.

Interest payments will total $460 billion this year, estimates the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO further projects debt service will scale $800 billion by decade’s end.

$800 billion exceeds today’s entire $738 billion defense budget. As it exceeds vastly present Medicare spending ($625 billion) and Medicaid spending ($412 billion).

CBO Doesn’t Account for Possible End to Rate Depression Cycle

But CBO pays no heed to the rate depression cycle. It — in fact — projects no substantial rate increases this decade.

But what if the present rate depression cycle closes… and interest rates go spiraling?

Debt service will likely swamp the entire federal budget.

Financial analyst Daniel Amerman:

If the interest rate on that debt were to rise by even 1%, the annual federal deficit rises by $200 billion. A 2% increase in interest rate levels would up the federal deficit by $400 billion, and if rates were 5% higher, the annual federal deficit rises by a full $1 trillion per year.

Recall, rates rocketed 6% or higher after two previous rate reversals.

Given the near-record intensity of the present rate depression cycle… should we not expect a similar rebound next time?

Hard logic dictates we should.

But what might bring down the curtain on the current cycle?

Unforeseen Catastrophe

Most previous rate depression cycles ended with death, destruction, howling, shrieking.

Examples, again, include the Black Plague, the Thirty Years War and World War II.

Perhaps a shock on their scale will close out the present cycle… for all that we know. Or perhaps some other cause entirely.

Of course, we can find no reason in law or equity why the second-longest, second-most intense rate depression cycle in history… cannot become the longest, most intense rate depression cycle in history.

The cycle could run years yet. Or it could end Friday morning.

The Lord only knows — and He is silent.

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post 5,000 Years of Interest Rates, Part II appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

A World Gone Mad

This post A World Gone Mad appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Today we gasp, stagger, reel.

The enormity of it all has finally overmatched our capacities. Consider…

Total global debt presently piles up to 322% of GDP — a record.

Total “developed world” debt piles higher yet — 383% of GDP — another record.

The world’s stock markets combine to $88 trillion, or 100% of global GDP. That is another record yet.

Record upon record upon record has come down… as debt has gone relentlessly up.

And what does the world have to show for the deluge?

Little Bang for the Buck

Real United States GDP growth gutters along under 2%. Fair estimates place European and Japanese 2020 growth under 1%.

Interest rates, meantime, are coming down. And so the supply of “dry powder” available to the central banks is coming down. They will require heaps of it come the next crisis.

Project Syndicate, in summary:

The major developed economies are not only flirting with overvalued financial markets and still relying on a failed monetary-policy strategy, but they are also lacking a growth cushion just when they may need it most.

Direct your attention now to the Bank of England. Specifically, to its balance sheet…

Where’s the Crisis?

As a percentage of GDP…

Not once in three centuries has this balance sheet swollen to today’s preposterous extreme…

Not when England was life and death with Napoleon, not when England was life and death with the kaiser, not when England was life and death with Hitler:

IMG 1

The Bank of England’s balance sheet — again, as a percentage of GDP — presently nears 30%.

It never cleared 20% even when England was absorbing obscene debts to put down Herr Hitler.

Where is today’s Napoleon? Where is today’s kaiser? Indeed… where is today’s Hitler?

Yet the balance sheet indicates England is battling the three at once. And on 1,000 fronts the world across.

We razz our English cousins only because the Bank of England is nearly the oldest central bank going (est.1694) and keeps exquisite records.

It therefore offers a detailed, three-century sketch of central banking’s shifting moods.

Our own Federal Reserve’s history stretches only to 1913. But its compressed history offers a parallel example…

Crisis-Level Balance Sheet

Its balance sheet expanded to perhaps 20% of GDP against the twin calamities of the Great Depression and Second World War.

It then came steadily, inexorably and appropriately down, decade after decade. Pre-financial crisis… that percentage dropped to a stunning 6%.

But then the great quake of ’08 rumbled on through… and shook the walls of Jericho to their very foundations.

The Federal Reserve got out its mason kits and set to patching the damage.

Patching the damage? It built the walls up higher than ever…

By 2014 quantitative easing and the rest of it swelled the balance sheet to 25% of GDP. That, recall, is five full percentage points above its 20th-century crisis peaks.

Mr. Powell’s subsequent quantitative tightening knocked down some of the recent construction.

The balance sheet — as a percentage of GDP — slipped beneath 20% by 2018.

But last year he pulled back the sledgehammers. Then, in September, the short-term money markets began giving out… and Powell rushed in with the supports.

The Fastest Expansion Ever

He has since expanded the balance sheet some $400 billion in a four-month span — over 10%. Not even the financial crisis saw such a violent expansion.

As we have presented before, the visual evidence:

IMG 2

The balance sheet presently nears $4.2 trillion, only slightly beneath its 2015 maximum.

Here then is irony…

“A Magnet for Trouble”

Observe the 2012–14 comments of Carlyle Group partner Jerome Powell — before he was Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell:

I have concerns about more purchases. As others have pointed out, the dealer community is now assuming close to a $4 trillion balance sheet and purchases through the first quarter of 2014. I admit that is a much stronger reaction than I anticipated, and I am uncomfortable with it for a couple of reasons.

First, the question, why stop at $4 trillion? The market in most cases will cheer us for doing more. It will never be enough for the market. Our models will always tell us that we are helping the economy, and I will probably always feel that those benefits are overestimated…. What is to stop us, other than much faster economic growth, which it is probably not in our power to produce?…

[W]hen it is time for us to sell, or even to stop buying, the response could be quite strong; there is every reason to expect a strong response…

Continues the present chairman:

My [next] concern… is the problem of exiting from a near $4 trillion balance sheet… It just seems to me that we seem to be way too confident that exit can be managed smoothly. Markets can be much more dynamic than we appear to think…

I think we are actually at a point of encouraging risk-taking, and that should give us pause…

I kind of think that a large balance sheet might prove to be a magnet for trouble over time… So I tentatively land on a floor system with the smallest possible balance sheet…

“Why stop at $4 trillion?”… “It will never be enough for the market”… “faster economic growth, which it is probably not in our power to produce”… “a large balance sheet might prove to be a magnet for trouble over time”… “I tentatively land on a floor system with the smallest possible balance sheet”…

Again — here is irony.

What Happened to Powell?

Where a fellow stands often depends upon where he sits. And this particular fellow sits in the chairman’s seat at the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve has a certain institutional… perspective.

And so he leans whichever way it slants.

Our co-founder Bill Bonner puts it this way:

“People come to believe whatever they must believe when they must believe it.”

What does Mr. Powell’s 2012–14 self, the conscience tapping naggingly on his shoulder, tell him?

That no enormity is ever enough for the market? Something about a magnet for trouble? A preference for the smallest possible balance sheet perhaps?

But Jerome Powell has come to believe what he must… when he needed to believe it.

We shudder at what he will come to believe come the crisis — or whatever his successor will come to believe.

Meantime, the world runs to record debt, its stock markets run to record highs…

And we are about ready to run for the hills…

Regards,

Brian Maher
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning

The post A World Gone Mad appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

The Fed Is on High Alert

This post The Fed Is on High Alert appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

It’s hard to believe the end of the year is upon us and 2020 is right around the corner.

In many ways, it went by very quickly. For economies and markets, it was a year marked by uncertainty over economic slowdowns, trade wars and a complete pivot in “dark money” policy initiated by the Federal Reserve and subsequently followed by other central banks around the world.

Notably this year, it wasn’t just the major nations that engaged in copycat monetary policy easing. It was a plethora of emerging-market central banks jumping on the same dark money bandwagon.

So as we head into the final FOMC meeting of the year next week, we know one thing for certain: The Fed won’t be cutting rates this time. And it’s recently used some fairly hawkish language.

But reinforcing the dovish outlook it adopted at the start of the year that precipitated three 2019 rate cuts, the Fed remains on high-alert mode.

There are two clear signs why…

First, the Fed keeps creating and dumping money into the front end of the U.S. yield curve through repo operations that it initiated in September.

How healthy is the banking sector overall?

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System recently published their annual Supervision and Regulation Report.

The report measures the financial condition of major U.S. banks, including loan growth and liquidity in the banking system.

Overall, 45% of U.S. banks with more than $100 billion in assets received a supervisory rating of “less than satisfactory.”

That’s not good. As we learned during that crisis, the stability of these large banks is essential to the health of our banking system.

Tellingly, the Federal Reserve report does not say which banks have these less-than-satisfactory ratings.

This should not sit well with hardworking Americans who bailed out many banks during the last crisis in 2008.

When bank lobbyists keep pushing for more deregulation, remember what happened a decade ago with bank bailouts and a market crash.

I would argue that we need more regulation, not less, if banks continue to receive less than a “C” grade on their report cards.

The second indication the Fed is in high-alert mode is because of its language. It continues to note possible risks coming from more economic slowdowns and further strains due to trade wars.

Just this week, President Trump re-slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on Brazil and Argentina, accusing them of devaluing their currencies and thereby hurting U.S. farmers. Though that segue might seem complex and Brazil is supposed to be a friend of the U.S., the takeaway is simple.

The White House reserves the right and the practice of trade war tactics, which will continue to insert uncertainty and thereby hamper investment and economic planning around the world. Not to mention lower overall trade and benefits of the global supply chain.

Last year, when the Fed raised rates in December, the markets greeted the move with disdain. This caused the Fed to do a quick about-face in January.

We could see a similar story unfold next year. If we get a terrible December like we did in 2018 or at the end of 2015, the Fed might be more likely to consider cutting rates in the spring.

Meanwhile, other countries are continuing to cut their rates or otherwise finding ways to inject liquidity into their local markets. This remains particularly true of developing countries.

Regards,

Nomi Prins
for The Daily Reckoning

The post The Fed Is on High Alert appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Expect the Buyback Wave to Continue This Year

This post Expect the Buyback Wave to Continue This Year appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

A crucial theme from last year is continuing into this year — stock buybacks. Last year was a banner year for companies buying back their own shares. A month into 2019, it appears that Wall Street is set to continue that trend.

Last year, U.S. companies announced a whopping $1.1 trillion worth of buyback plans. Armed with extra cash from favorable corporate tax policy enacted in 2017, they enthusiastically bought back their own shares.

But as of mid-December, only about $800 billion of those buybacks had actually occurred. That means there could be another $300 billion of the total 2018 target still waiting to hit the market.

In fact, Wall Street is already gearing up for another banner buyback year. In a recent report, J.P. Morgan strategist Dubravko Lakos-Bujas wrote, “It’s expected that S&P 500 companies will execute some $800 billion in buybacks… in 2019.”

The Wall Street strategist also explained that the quality of 2018 buybacks were high. He revealed that companies were using their cash, rather than borrowed money, to fund buybacks. Using cash toward buybacks is expensive less than using debt.

But why did the wave of buybacks slow down late last year?

The first reason is that companies involved had already purchased stock at a very rapid rate through last September. That was one major reason we saw the market peak around that time, and in fact, hit new records.

The second was that despite trade war fears and uncertainty, companies felt confident enough to go ahead with their buybacks initially. That’s why we saw market players largely shrug off warning signs through the first three quarters of 2018.

But sentiment shifted dramatically during the last quarter of the year, culminating in essentially a bear market by late December. And more reports around the world began to point to slowing economic growth ahead.

A key factor cited for this slowdown was the impact of prolonged trade wars, which could curb real economic activity and create more uncertainty. In turn, growing volatility would keep businesses from planning expansions, or using the cash originally set aside for buybacks.

A third reason for the drop off in buybacks late last year was a record amount of public corporate and consumer debt that had to be repaid or at least serviced regularly. This overhang of debt was weighing on growth expectations. That debt load would become even more expensive if the Fed kept up with its forecasted rate hike activity in December and throughout 2019.

Some analysts even warned that the Fed might go ahead with another four rate hikes this year. That triggered fears on Wall Street that the central bank stimulus game could truly be over.

The reason for the concern is simple: The higher the interest rates, the more expensive it is to borrow and repay existing debt. For more highly leveraged corporations and emerging market countries, this would be an even greater threat. A higher dollar, resulting from more Fed tightening, could cause other currencies to depreciate against the dollar. That would make it harder to repay debt taken out in dollars.

Finally, there was heightened tension in the financial markets due to political uncertainty. With U.S. election results ensuring added battles between Congress (with Democrats taking the majority in the House of Representatives) and the White House, doubt set in over the functionality of the U.S. government going forward.

Those reservations were justified. The government shutdown that kicked off 2019 had a lot to do with shifts in the political balance in Washington.

Geopolitical tensions also rose at the end of 2018, including Brexit in the United Kingdom, street revolts in France, potential recession fears in Italy and growing unrest in South America.

All these factors combined ensured that markets were extremely volatile during the last quarter of 2018, and why it was the worst one for the markets since the Great Depression. It was not conducive to buybacks. Buybacks are supposed to raise the stock price. But strong market headwinds could have largely canceled their effects.

The prudent approach for companies facing such a negative environment was to wait out the problems until the new year.

But Jerome Powell subsequently gave into Wall Street and took a much more dovish position on both rate hikes and balance sheet reductions. That means the coast is clear again to resume the buybacks.

Back in December, some major players announced plans for 2019 buybacks. These include Boeing, which announced an $18 billion repurchase program. It also includes tech giant Facebook, which plans to buy back $9 billion of its own shares, in addition to an existing $15 billion share repurchase program started in 2017.

Also in on the buyback wave is Johnson & Johnson, which announced a $5 billion stock buyback. Others include Lowe’s and Pfizer, which both announced a $10 billion stock buyback program.

These plans are now much more likely to go forward.

Furthermore, many large corporations like Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Home Depot and Walmart didn’t even announce buybacks in 2018.

They could well announce them for 2019. Companies that did announce big buybacks last year, like Apple, could also engage in more, adding a potential $100 billion share repurchases this year to match 2018.

Another indicator for a sizeable 2019 buyback wave is that stock prices are lower now than they were going into the fourth quarter of 2018. That means companies can buy back their shares at cheaper prices. They could buy at a discount, in other words, or at least what they hope will be a discount.

My old Wall Street firm, Goldman Sachs, has already forecast $940 billion worth of buybacks for 2019. They previously had predicted over a trillion dollars’ worth of buybacks for 2018. The number of buybacks for 2018 even exceeded their predictions.

By mid-January, of the S&P 500 companies that reported their fourth-quarter earnings, nearly 70% of them have exceeded Wall Street’s profit expectations. It’s a favorable environment for buybacks.

Yet, it may still take some time for companies to move forward with this year’s buybacks. That’s because we are still in the “black-out” period that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has created.

The period covers the time just before and after companies post earnings results. The sell-off in October coincided with the third quarter earnings season’s “blackout period.” The combination of negative environmental factors plus fewer buybacks drove markets even lower.

Now, once earnings season and the current blackout period is over, Wall Street will be unleashed to buy large blocks of stock for their major corporate clients.

If the Federal Reserve truly holds back on its former interest rate and quantitative tightening plans, as it seems likely to do, expect central bank stimulus to continue to fuel markets.

Of course, buybacks do not come without negative implications. That’s because companies are not using their cash for expansion or to pay workers more, which would generate more buying power in the overall economy. But in the short run at least, they tend to raise the stock price.

Even if Wall Street comes up against headwinds of volatility, slowing economic growth, political strife and trade wars, they can now expect the Fed and other central banks to have their backs.

Buybacks could become a very powerful force once again this year, and keep the ball rolling a while longer.

Regards,

Nomi Prins

The post Expect the Buyback Wave to Continue This Year appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

Three Concerns Hanging Over the Davos Elite

This post Three Concerns Hanging Over the Davos Elite appeared first on Daily Reckoning.

This week, the global elite descended private jets to their version of winter ski-camp – the lifestyles of the rich and powerful version.  The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) five-day annual networking extravaganza kicked off in the upscale ski resort town of Davos, Switzerland.

Every year, the powers-that-be join the WEF, select a theme, uniting some 3000 participants ranging from public office holders to private company executives to the few organizations that truly do help fix the world that they mess up.  This year’s theme is “Globalization 4.0”, or the digital revolution. The idea being, the potential tech take-over of jobs, and what wealthier countries are doing to lesser developed ones in the process.

While the topic might be focused on the future, the present is just as troubling, if not more so, than the future.   Such is the disconnect between real people and corporations.  That’s what the estimated 600,000 Swiss Franc membership to be a part of the WEF constellation gets you as a CEO at the Davos table.

Government leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro and Chinese Vice President, Wang Qishan are in attendance this week. Business leaders like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and JPMorgan Chase CEO, Jamie Dimon will also take part in the festivities.

Yet, even though the various leaders will likely promote their achievements, what’s lurking behind the pristine snowcapped Alps, is a dark foreboding of a less secure world. Nearly every major forecast from around the world is projecting an economic slowdown. As one Bloomberg article reports, “companies are the most bearish since 2016 as economic data falls short of expectations and political risks mount amid an international trade war, U.S. government shutdown and Brexit.”

The list of non-attendees includes U.S. President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and French President, Emmanuel Macron. They are too busy dealing with complex political problems in their own government institutions and domestic home fronts to make the trek.

Below is a breakdown of the three flashpoints that the Davos crowd should be watching in 2019:

Economic Growth Will Slow

Signs of slowing global economic growth are increasing. We’re seeing that in both smaller emerging market countries and larger, more complex ones. Weaker-than-anticipated data from the U.S., China, Japan and Europe are stoking worries about the worldwide outlook for 2019.

Many mainstream outlets are beginning to understand the turmoil ahead. Goldman Sachs, my old firm, is predicting an economic slowdown in the U.S. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has revised downward its 2019 U.S. growth prediction to 2.5% from 2.7% from 2018. It believes that the U.S. will be negatively impacted by the economic slowdowns of American trade partners and that the 2020 slowdown could be even “sharper” as a result.

The IMF also points to pressure from ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China and growing dysfunction between the U.S. and other major trading partners, such as Europe.

Because the world’s economies have become increasingly interdependent, problems in one economy can have widespread consequences. We learned this once before: the collapse of U.S.-based investment bank, Lehman Brothers, triggered a greater international banking crisis in 2008. That sort of connectivity has only grown. The reality is that we may now face even greater threats than forecast so far, which could lead to another financial or credit crisis.

It is likely that China could be ground zero for a global economic slowdown. Recent data out of China indicates that much global GDP and trade activity that should normally be in the first quarter (Q1) of 2019 was pulled forward into Q4 2018 to “beat” the tariff increase.

It’s likely that the same phenomenon could happen in the U.S. If this trend does snowball, you should expect to see rapidly deteriorating economic numbers arriving in the months ahead.

Debt Burdens Will Worsen

No matter how you slice it, public, corporate and individual debt levels around the world are at historical extremes. Household debt figures from the New York Federal Reserve noted that U.S. household debt (which includes mortgage debt, auto debt and credit card debt) was hovering at around $13.5 trillion. That debt has risen for 17 straight quarters.

What is different this time is that current levels are higher than just before the 2008 financial crisis hit.

In addition, global debt reached $247 trillion in the first quarter of 2018. By mid-year, the global debt-to-GDP ratio had exceeded 318%. That means every dollar of growth cost more than three dollars of debt to produce.

After a decade of low interest rates, courtesy of the Fed and other central banks, the total value of non-financial global debt, both public and private, rose by 60% to hit a record high of $182 trillion.

In addition, the quality of that debt has continued to deteriorate. That sets the scene for a riskier environment. Over on Wall Street they are already disguising debt by stuffing smaller riskier, or “leveraged” loans into more complex securities. It’s the same disastrous formula that was applied in the 2008 subprime crisis.

Now, landmark institutions like Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global are finally sounding the alarm on these leveraged loans and the Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs) that Wall Street is creating from them.

CLO issuance in the U.S. has risen by more than 60% since 2016. Unfortunately, it should come as no surprise that Wall Street is now proposing even looser standards on these risky securities. The idea is that the biggest banks on Wall Street can actively repackage risky leveraged loans into dodgy securities while the music is still playing.

If rates do rise, or economic growth deteriorates, so will these loans and the CLOs that contain them, potentially causing a new credit crisis this year. If the music stops, (or investors no longer want to buy the CLOs that Wall Street is selling) look out below.

Corporate Earnings Will Be Lower

With earnings season now underway, we can expect a lot of gaming of results in contrast to earlier reports and projections. What I learned from my time on Wall Street is that this is a standard dance that happens between financial analysts and corporations.

What you should know is that companies will always want to maximize share prices. There are several ways to do that. One way is for companies to buy their own shares, which we saw happen in record numbers recently. This process was aided by the savings from the Trump corporate tax cuts, as well as the artificial stimulus that was provided by the Fed through its easy money strategy.

Another way is to reduce earnings expectations, or fake out the markets. That way, even if earnings do fall, they look better than forecast, which gives shares a pop in response. However, that pop can be followed by a fall because of the lower earnings.

The third way is to simply do well as a business. In a slowing economic environment, however, that becomes harder to do. Plus, it’s even more difficult in today’s environment of geopolitical uncertainty, as a multitude of key elections take place around the world in the coming months.

These three concerns were central in conversation in Davos. Expect global markets to be alert to the comments coming from the Swiss mountain town. Severe dips and further volatility could be ahead if any gloomy rhetoric streams from the Davos gathering.

How Will the Fed React?

Ready to help, is the answer. This month, yet another top Federal Reserve official noted that economic growth could be slowing down. That would mean the Fed should, as Powell indicated, switch from its prior fixed plan of “gradually” raising interest rates to a more “ad-hoc approach.”

Indeed, Federal Reserve Bank of New York President John Williams, used Chairman Powell’s new buzz phrase, “data dependence,” to indicate that the Fed would be watching the economy more. While he didn’t say it explicitly, it has become largely clear that the markets are determining Fed policy.

Based on my own analysis, along with high-level meetings in DC, I see growing reasons to believe the Fed will back off its hawkish policy stance. As we continue to sound the alarm, there are now a myriad of reasons including trade wars, slowing global economic conditions and market volatility.

Traders are now assigning only a 15% chance of another rate hike by June. Just three months ago, those odds were 45%.

Watch for even more market volatility with upward movements coming from increasingly dovish statements released by the Fed and other central banks. Expect added downward outcomes from state of the global economy along with geo-political pressures.

Regards,

Nomi Prins

The post Three Concerns Hanging Over the Davos Elite appeared first on Daily Reckoning.