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Fed still rules the game

The Days Ahead: PCE inflation and housing. Slow corporate calendar.  

 One-Minute Summary The surprise was the Fed’s very dovish move to lower growth forecasts and to say they're done for the year (see below). That sent the 10-Year Treasury down to 2.44% and below the 3-month bill. That’s the “inversion” we and others discussed before (here and here). We’re not sure it’s the recession indicator people say it is but it’s definitely corroborating the slowdown in the economy. For good measure, German and Japanese 10-Year government bonds traded below zero.

Low rates are all well and good but they’re a disaster for financials. No bank can make money borrowing at the Fed Funds window for 2.4% and make a five year commercial loan at 2.3% with a traditional 200bps spread. In Europe, bank depositors get 0% but it costs the bank -0.4% to borrow from the central bank. The worse outcome, here and overseas, is that low rates push up financial assets but kill risk taking by banks (h/t Cameron Crise).

Major indexes were down on the week. We hope it’s all part of a healthy consolidation but when markets make their targeted annual gain in 10 weeks, expect some profit taking.

1.     Has the Fed turned dove?  Yes, in a very big way. Most expected the Fed to confirm its “patient” stance from January. After all the slowdown in January was expected (it was there in the trade and housing numbers back in December) and the seasonal problems with January are well known (they tend to understate growth). So most investors expected “halt until June then one, possibly two hikes”.

No more. The Fed sounded very cautious on growth, spending and investment and noted no change in inflation. Then with the “dot plots” they effectively forecasted that there would be no rate increases for the rest of 2019. Here are the dot plots:

We'll save you squinting and head to the bottom line. In December, the Fed thought the Fed Funds rate would be 2.72% in 2019 and 2.94% in 2020. Those are now down to 2.37% and 2.54%. That implies no more increases in this year and maybe one in 2020.

What's also noteworthy is that they're also saying they're not going to raise Fed Funds, currently at 2.5%, above their long-term neutral rate of 2.79%. That's curious because that's what a central bank would have to do to deliberately slow the economy. We don't have an answer to that.

They also made some changes to the “balance sheet”, which is the stock of Treasuries and Agency (i.e. mortgage) securities from years of QE. These peaked at around $4.3tr in 2016 and dropped by an average of $24bn a month from 2018 to reach $3.7trt this month. You would think the Fed would want to keep running the balance sheet down, after all it was less than $1tr in 2009. But no, they're going to keep reinvesting coupons on Treasuries and Agencies into Treasuries. So the Fed will become a net buyer of Treasuries again this fall.

This whole meeting is a bit of puzzle if only because the Fed seems to have boxed itself in. We see the following possible outcomes

  1. Economy continues to weaken. Rates drift lower. The Fed looks like they're ahead of the game.

  2. Economy bounces back later in the year. Rates steady. Fed has given the cycle a second wind.

  3. Economy comes back strongly. Rates drift upwards. The Fed will have to reverse quickly.

We think the biggest issues around right now, China, Brexit and global growth, will all improve later this year. But for now the Fed is very dovish indeed.

Market reactions were fairly predictable.

  1. 10-Year Treasuries dropped to 2.52%

  2. 2-Year Treasuries to 2.38% (six month ago it was 2.96%)

  3. 3-month bills increased a bit to 2.46%

  4. The front end of the curve inverted more…the 3-month bill now yields more than the 10-Year Treasury

  5. Dollar weaker

  6. Emerging Markets up

  7. U.S. stocks sold off in a classic case of “buy the rumor, sell the news”

  8. Financials were hit (they don't like low rates)

 We had put many of these investments in place a few months ago so we don't feel the need to adjust portfolios.

And because today’s yield curve is one for the grandkids (yes, it's that unusual), here it is: 

The blue one is from Fed day, with a big sinkhole in the middle and well below the yellow line from January. The black line is from a year ago. That’s a normalish yield curve. Since then all the action and gains have been at the front end of the curve.

2.     How’s the German stock market doing? Not well. From mid-2015 to January 2018, it was up 42% in local terms and 60% for a U.S. investor and handily beat the S&P 500 by 7% in 2017. It was all driven by the global synchronized growth and higher rates story. Since its peak, it’s down 21% but has rallied 8% this year.

Why? Germany was caught in the U.S. and China trade, er, talks. The German stock market derives 72% of its sales from outside Germany (S&P 500 around 40%) and exports are 35% of GDP (U.S. is around 12%). The stock market is also very dependent on financial, industrials and autos, which are 52% of the market, compared to 30% for the U.S. The top 10 companies in the German stock market are 40% of the index and the big three autos are 11%. You get the picture, big companies, no tech and very dependent on overseas demand.

The result is Germany is very much unloved right now, which means it’s very cheap

The blue line below is a rough measure of valuation. For the last 15 years, the German market has traded at about a 20% discount to the S&P 500. Today that number is around 28%. The market also yields around 2.7% compared to the S&P 500 at 1.8%. None of these are sure things. We know markets can get cheaper, dividends cut and more bad news can come out. But Germany seems very unloved right now and on a two to three-year horizon, that might not be a bad entry point.  

3.     Unicorns are coming to town. Yes, it’s time for the Lyft, Uber, Pinterest, Slack, Palantir, WeWork, RobinHood (your kids use it), AirBNB and Peloton to enter adulthood and the big bad world of the public company.

  1. There are a few things different from the last time a bunch of IPOs came along.

  2. There are more dual classes of share, which means they won't be in some leading indexes.

  3. They lose money. A lot.

  4. Pricing may be very aggressive. See companies like SNAP (down 60%) and Blue Apron (down 88%).

  5. Some of these companies are already owned by mutual funds and the like as private companies (yes, ‘40 Act funds can own private companies, just not very much) so there may not be a big queue of buyers on day 2.

Still, they'll get some attention.

Bottom Line: So the market got what it was looking for, lower rates, and…sold off. We know the economy is slowing right back to its 2% normal and inflation is slipping lower. We're almost back to the 2-2-2 world we talked about a few years ago. Inflation, growth at around 2% and the 10-Year Treasury  with a 2 handle.  

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Surprising nominee for the Fed. And not a good one.

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC 

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

 Days of Pearly Spencer 

A shot across the Dow

The Days Ahead: Fed meeting.

One-Minute Summary A steady drip of lower but not catastrophic economic numbers helped push the S&P 500 up every day this week. Yes, it’s one of those “bad news is good” things because the Fed is on hold and lower rates make stocks look better. The S&P 500 seems reluctant to broach its September highs but we’re only 4% off the record and up 14% from December.

To us it looks like an asset and technical trade. The asset side is just the relative attraction of equities. To oversimplify, lower rates allow equity discount models to throw off higher valuations. The technicals are just resistance lines for moving averages. We'll leave both to those who know what they’re talking about.

But what we don't see is bullish, confident, “great quarter guys” talk coming from the corporate sector. It’s all a bit wait-and-see if the cycle can keep going. We think it can and see this as the pause that refreshes.

And in an update on the tenth anniversary of the market low, we’d remind investors that the S&P 500 rolling 10-Year return is 16.5%. It hasn't been above 15% since 2001 so the 10-Year numbers are about as good as they get. What can we expect? Somewhere between the rolling 20-year number of 6% and 5-year of 11%.

 1.     How low can rates go? Don’t know. They’re already way below what we thought they would hit in 2019. This week we had a run of weak data, starting with retail sales, lower new home sales and Friday’s industrial production. The 10-Year Treasury tracked lower every day and hit 2.58% on Friday morning.

The yield curve is fully inverted in the belly of the curve with 10-Year Treasuries yielding only 7bp more than 1-Year Treasuries and 15bp more than a Treasury FRN. The latter has no duration risk. The 10-Year Treasury has a duration of around 8. The curve isn't yet the alarming shape it was back in 2007 but here, in the blue line, you can see the kinks in the curve.

We think the following dynamics are at play:

  1. Fed is on hold and there’s talk of only one rise this year. A few weeks ago it was a pause until June and then two.

  2. The ECB talked a grim book last week and announced a new LTRO (a sort of bank lending subsidy). No chance of rate changes there either.

  3. The German and Japanese 3-month bills are at -0.5% and -0.1. The U.S. is at 2.43%. On a relative basis with global money movements, the U.S. trade is a no-brainer.

  4. Brexit and Venezuela creates a fear trade. The U.S. retains haven status

For what it’s worth, rates have declined steadily since the December FOMC meeting. There is much discussion about the level of the  R* rate (the neutral rate where the economy neither expands or contracts). What is clear is that it’s lower than thought a few months ago. And we’ll probably see confirmation of that at next week’s FOMC meeting.

2.     Is there any sign of inflation?  No. The Fed talks about inflation all the time. It’s one of their two mandates: promote maximum employment and stable prices. They do not provide more specifics. Maximum employment could be unemployment of 2% (it’s never 0%) or 4% depending on the cycle and circumstances. The inflation target is usually held to be 2%. It’s relatively easy for the Fed to kill inflation but very hard for them to increase it. But, my, how they have tried. Years of QE, forward guidance and low rates should have stoked the inflation fires. But they haven’t. Not in the U.S. or in any other leading economy. Here’s the long-term trend in U.S. inflation.  

Inflation tends to rise going into a recession. No surprise there as the Fed chokes off any inflation uptick very quickly. But you can see that inflation has barely stayed above 2% since the recession or indeed going back to the 1990s.

The latest inflation measure looks like this:

That’s shows housing at 3.2%, core inflation at 2.1% and, because of soft gas prices, headline inflation at 1.5%. There are still deflationary forces at work…the bottom graph shows things like TVs and cell phone prices falling.

What’s next for inflation? Banks and investments houses pushed TIPS earlier this year on the basis that the Fed would allow higher inflation. That hasn't worked out. Expected inflation was as high as 2.1% in October but slipped to 1.9%. We think there is some risk of wage inflation coming though in the back end of the year. But there’s also the force of a strong dollar and lower import prices if a trade deal comes through. On balance, we don't see much inflationary pressure. Neither does the bond market.

3.     We're not alone in rubbishing the Dow as a lousy indicator of market sentiment, direction or performance. It's price weighted which means that the higher the stock price, the more that stock moves the Dow.

The five most valuable stocks (MSFT, AAPL, JPM, JNJ, XOM) in the Dow are 38% of the index. But the five highest prices are Boeing, United Health, 3M, Goldman Sachs and Home Depot. They’re 12% of the value but 32% of the prices. So, when Boeing tumbled on Tuesday from $450 to $358, it had an oversized influence on the Dow and greatly overstated stock market weakness.

So what does the Dow have going for it? Longevity and the sound bite value of “the Dow fell 400 points” rather than “the S&P 500 rose 0.8%”. But as a market measure? Nothing.

Bottom Line: Expect the news and macro events to keep stocks going. We think one of the big catalysts will be for news out of Europe to stop worsening. Expectations are beaten down. A small respite could help European stocks a lot.

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Lyft’s IPO filing. Yes, it loses gobs of money

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

 

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

 

 

China? What return would you like?

The Days Ahead: Inflation and headline risk on trade and tech 

One-Minute Summary:  Ouch! Those payroll numbers were 20,000, down from back to back months of 300,000 new jobs. If you're Chair Powell, your call on staying patient back in January looks like mighty fine timing.

So is this the economy weakening? Yes. Are the recession bears right? No. There’s a lot of noise in any one-month print and the new jobs number has an over/under deviation of 75,000…so this number may be 95,000 or a loss of 55,000. What we’re looking for is are people worried about job security and will that cycle into declining spending? There is no sign of either. Hey, look, there is no doubt the economy is slower. You can see it in housing, manufacturing and trade. But a full tip into recession? No.

As for wage gains, yes, average hourly earnings increased 0.4% over the month and 3.4% over the year. But if your employer gives you an hourly wage increase at the same time as fewer hours, you're not ahead (although the BLS says you are). And that’s what happened. The average workweek fell.

So there’s something in the numbers for the bears (low numbers) and the bulls (wages) but we’d stay our hand until there are clearer trends. Treasuries rallied. The 10-Year Treasury is at 2.63% compared to 3.2% in November. It’s likely to stay at these lower bands. At the start of the year, we expected the Fed to postpone any further rate hikes until June. But if we get another few months of this, the Fed’s next move may be to cut, not raise.

Stocks were down every day this week. It was mostly a global growth story. Slower in U.S., China and Germany and a very accommodative (bearish) statement from the ECB. This is fine. We think the market was oversold last December and over bought up until a few weeks ago. I mean how many times can the market rally on “hopes for a China trade deal” headline?

1.     Did the trade policy backfire? Well, it ain’t over but if you're looking at the halftime score, then, yes. Here’s the full report. A quick way to look at it is with 2018 and (2017) numbers:

  1. The U.S. ran a $891bn ($807) goods deficit. 

  2. It ran a $271bn ($255bn) service surplus (things like transport, travel and financial services)

  3. And an overall trade deficit of $620bn ($552bn)

 The big changes were:

  1. A much narrower petroleum deficit of $53bn ($61bn) but that used to run over $300bn as recently as 2012

  2. A much bigger deficit of $129bn ($110bn) in technology parts

  3. A deteriorating trade deficit with China at $419bn ($375bn)

There's no real mystery to this. One, last year’s tax cut was equivalent to a fiscal stimulus while at full employment. You do this and demand leaks into imports almost straight away. Two, dollar strength. Three, trade tariffs. We'd argue that the third was probably the least important but it did lead to a big drop in food exports. Anyway, here's the goods part. A rising blue column means the deficit is worsening.

The U.S. started to talk tough on trade in early 2018. There was an immediate improvement as importers of U.S. goods brought forward purchases to avoid tariffs. But since the low in mid-May, the monthly deficit has grown 23%.

We don't know where it’s all going to end. But the U.S. cannot simultaneously enjoy tax cuts + low unemployment + low inflation AND a smaller trade deficit + dollar strength. Something has to give and for now, it’s the trade deficit.

 2.     Are China stocks up and away?   What answer would you like? The headline indexes are up 25% to 30% this year but are still down 10% to 15% from last year. The main reasons are a feeling that the trade talks will go China’s way, that the worst is over and a rally from very low valuations…the China market traded at 10x earnings in December or 35% cheaper than the U.S.

Another reason was the power of the index. MSCI, a leading index provider, announced it would start to increase the weighting of China shares in its Emerging Market Index, which is the benchmark for $1.6tr of assets. It will increase China weight in the index from 7% to 10% and the greater China weight (so include Hong Kong and Taiwan) from 42% to 46%. That means around 40% of all Emerging Markets investors must increase their buying of China stocks. They have no choice in the matter.

This matters very much, because, as we've said many times, while we’re big fans of indexing, it really matters what index you use. Here’s the performance of leading China equity indexes over the last two years.

The returns range from -14% for the Shenzhen Index to +23% for the China 100 index. Why the difference? Well the indexes range from Hong Kong listed but China domiciled Blue Chips, Nasdaq type stocks, small caps, all cap stocks and stocks registered only in China with limited foreign ownership rules. The S&P 500 is towards the top at +16%. But you’ll also note how volatile China stocks can be. The peak to trough drop in most of the China indexes was 47% compared to 20% for the S&P 500.

But the biggest lesson? Choose your index carefully.

Meanwhile, we think some of the rally in China is overdone and so like to have downside protection on our Emerging Markets positions.

3.     Did the equity melt down in December hurt households? Yes. By about $4 trillion.

That's the first decline since 2015 and meant that growth in net worth fell to 0.8% from around 5%. But we’re not concerned.

  1. It’s probably temporary. High net worth households holds a large part of the equity holdings. Their propensity to spend is less than the average household.

  2. We'd note from the same report, that net corporate borrowing was flat for most of 2018. Many commentators only cite the gross number. U.S. corporations are not heavily indebted.

  3. Consumer borrowing (so credit cards and mortgages) is around 130% of compensation, down 1% from last year and from a peak of 170%. U.S. households de-levered post 2008 and stayed that way.

  4. Overall debt grew 4.5% but household debt grew 3% and the Federal Government debt grew at 7.6%. Nominal GDP grew 5.2% and as long as debt grows slower than income, we don't have a problem in the household sector.

The Household Financial Accounts report rarely generates market-moving news. But we like it because it confirms that we’re looking at modest debt growth in the corporate, household, state and local government sectors. The Federal Government is another story.

Bottom Line: Some 442 of the S&P 500 companies are up this year and 305 have outperformed the S&P 500. But, in contrast to 2018, performance of the 10 largest companies accounting for 22% of the index has been way below the S&P 500. We'd wait on the sidelines for now.

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The broken patent system that kept Theranos afloat

--Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

Dexter Gordon - One Flight Up  

Berkshire’s Change and some very good 10 Year Returns

The Days Ahead: Job numbers.  

One-Minute Summary:  Most of the economic data was weak. That includes the ISM Manufacturing, pending and existing home sales and personal income. But these were all very much expected. The Fed’s move back in January (“we’re patient”) looks exactly right. It's not often that expectations and results are so finely tuned. But this time we knew the tax cuts would run out of steam and uncertainty around China, Europe, trade and government shutdowns would lead to lower numbers. Jerome Powell repeated them all in his talks with Congress last week.

Two points. First, slowing, not a recession. A recession is not two quarters of declining GDP. It’s a far more complicated run of data that includes GDP, employment, claims, hours worked and trade sales (full list here). And those are not flashing red. Second, this should keep rates low for a while. The 10-Year Treasury is at 2.75%, only 20bps higher than two years ago.

It’s been a stunning start to the year. In the first two months, the S&P 500 is up 11.5%, small and mid caps up 15%, China up 27% and Europe up 11%. We'd like to see a pause but would remind ourselves that markets do not correct by going sideways. So having some protection in place seems fine.

As 2009 begins to run off the 10-year returns , we’d like to celebrate that the 10-year compound rate of return in stocks is now 16.75% (see below).

That’s a remarkable number that only comes along every couple of decades (h/t Dan Wiener). So, yay. But a year ago, the same number was 9.8%. The big improvement is because the horrendous 2008 year falls off. The lesson? Stay invested, ride through painful downturns and don't trade the headlines.

1. What did Warren Buffet just do?

Change the bar for measuring Berkshire Hathaway. New accounting rules forced his hand.

There are two ways to think of buying Berkshire. One, a portfolio of companies selected by a legendary stock picker. Two, a group of businesses assembled by a legendary manager. For many, it’s the first. So, when you buy Berkshire you get a bunch of great performing stocks. They're here on page 12. It's like the world’s best-known mutual fund. The biggest holding is Apple but the most famous is Coca-Cola where Warren Buffet has made a 19x return. They amount to $170bn of a $497bn company.

The other $327bn is $127bn of cash and $200bn of operating companies managed out of Omaha. Companies like Geico, BNSF (the U.S.’ third largest railroad), Precision Castparts, an aviation parts manufacturer, reinsurance, energy and other. The “other” includes companies in distribution, mobile homes and retailing (see page A-1). Together they make around $24bn, although this popped to $45bn in 2017 due to tax cuts.

One accounting rule change later and losses on the stock portfolio run through the income statement. In 2018, stocks went up, down and up, and Kraft Heinz had a bad year. Berkshire reported a loss of $1.1bn in the first quarter, then a $12bn profit, another $18bn profit, and a $25bn loss in the fourth quarter. Add those together and the company reported $4bn for the year compared to an average of $26bn for the prior five years. Buffet used to tout book value as the way to measure Berkshire. That was fine if you didn't have to account for swings in the portfolio companies. You got a nice steady increase in book value and could ignore market values. Now you can't because they hurt/flatter the income account every quarter.

So what’s the new measure? Share price. Seems simple enough and on that measure Berkshire does just fine. The rolling five-year returns (below) aren't what they were but they still comfortably beat the S&P 500.

We like Berkshire simply because it has solid growth and well managed, conservatively financed businesses that are worth more than their carried cost. Its value is $495bn with cash and stocks. Take those away and it’s earning some $24bn on a market value of $196bn or a PE of around 8. That looks compelling.

2. How’s U.S. growth doing?

Slowing. It's no surprise the U.S. economy eased in late 2018. For the entire time after the 2009 crash, the norm was 2% growth. Yes, there were flurries of higher and lower growth and there were brief times in 2011 and 2014 when the economy contracted. The tax cuts were exciting but merely brought forward purchases. It wasn't until later in the year that people figured out the cuts were mostly for companies and high-end income earners.

So, Q2 growth was 4.2%, slowed to 3.4% and 2.6% for the final quarter. For calendar 2018, the economy grew 2.9%, so above prior years but not by much and, dare we say, not as much as the tax cutters promised. Here’s the chart, with the slowdown in the bubble on the right.  

What were the drivers? On the plus side, defense spending and investment in intellectual property (which is basically capex for tech companies) were very strong and inventories rose. But on the downside, consumer spending grew less (and savings went up), net exports worsened and Federal and state and local government expenses slowed...a lot.

Going into Q1 2019, there are a number of headwinds including a sharp drop off in capital goods, gas prices no longer falling, government employees who almost certainly cut back spending and some seasonal problems which have made the Q1 GDP numbers a problem for the last decade.

So, there’s the slowdown. We knew it was coming. The start to the year is even slower….the Atlanta GDPNow folk have us at 0.3% for Q1. There’s no evidence that the tax cuts have done anything to raise the capacity of the U.S. economy. We're back to the 2% world. That should keep rates low for a while and the Fed on hold…which is good for Treasuries.

Bottom Line: The market feels overbought. Just as the downturn in late 2018 was overdone so too this rebound all feels headline driven. The macro news is moving markets. We'd rather see bullish comments from companies but they’re not in that sort of mood right now.

Please check out our 119 Years of the Dow chart  

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Other:

City seizes pug and sells it on ebay

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

 Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

Mark Ronson

Highs in the Slow Lane

The Days Ahead: First estimate for Q4 GDP

One-Minute Summary:  Man, it was slow this week. The U.S. Treasury market hasn’t seen this low level of volatility since late 2017 and it's at its fourth lowest level since 1988. It’s all because we know the economy is slowing and the Fed on hold. Until either of those expectations shifts, we don't see much reason for a breakout. What news there was, lower capital good orders and home sales, confirmed the slow down. The Fed is making it good for risk assets and equities continue their rise. The S&P 500 is up 11%, Small Caps up 17% and even European stocks, which had a tough 2018, are up 8% to 10%. 

The market is getting used to an earnings slowdown. After growing at 22% in 2018, most expect around 4% to 6% in 2019. That makes the market reasonably priced to us and no portfolio changes.

 1.     How are we going to fight the next downturn? Er…good question. This came up at one of our recent client meetings. So, if the Fed Funds rate is at 2.5% and the deficit at 5% of GDP and growing (thank you tax cuts) what do you do if there’s a recession? Because rates are already low and the deficit grew $1.2 trillion last year. It’s a fair question. Let's start with what happened in the past.

Here’s the last nine recessions from the last 61 years. The current expansion is 127 months old, beating the record of 120 months in the 1990s by a few months. But two points.

 One, the 1990 recession was relatively shallow and quick so the expansion was more like 1982 to 2001 or 212 months (not all agree with this!).

Two, as we've said many times, we've had a not-so-great recovery since 2009. There was nothing like the snap back we saw in earlier recoveries. That suggests a mild recession when it does come (which is not yet).

The average expansion and recession since 1857 is 38 and 17 months. Since the 1940s, it has been 58 and 11 months. And since the 1980s it’s been 95 and 11 months. Generally, expansions are longer and recessions shorter. That may be because the Fed is Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to managing the recessions. The amount the Fed has cut its rate on average is 400bps and, in the case of a sharp recession, as in 1980 and 2008, as much as 550bps (that's the right hand column).

Here’s a long term graph with the Fed Funds rate.

Clearly, with Fed Funds at 2.5%, over there on the right, the Fed cannot cut anything like the amount it has in the past. So what to do?

There’s a lot of debate but we’ll focus on the stuff which we think effects investments.

Monetary Policy

  1. The Fed could go to zero and negative rates. Not great for savers but would probably work.

  2. Quantitative easing again. It worked before and there could be scope for more especially, in equities and private bonds

  3. Targeting interest rates or yield curve targeting. Japan targets the 10 –Year bond at 0%, from which every other rate takes its cue

  4. Inflation targeting: the Fed could raise its inflation target

  5. Macroprudential management: include managing bank capital or mortgage loan ratios

  6. Forward guidance: telling the market the Fed would hold rates down for specific and long periods.

 Fiscal Policy

  1. Project and infrastructure planning. A missed opportunity in 2009 but perhaps next time.

  2. Relaxing lending restrictions.

  3. Easing of employment laws.

  4. Changes in regulation

  5. Distributive tax cuts with time limits, to encourage spending over saving
    Extension of unemployment benefits. Again, worked in 2009.

  6. More borrowing. As we've discussed the U.S. has considerable and unique borrowing rights

  7. Global coordination.

Of course, many of these would require a political will not currently in evidence. Nor is the list remotely complete. Good economists could generate many good ideas in double-quick time. But our point is that despite debt and low rates, policy options abound. We are not at all worried about low rates. We think they’re the norm. We'd prefer not to have the level of deficits but a downturn is very manageable.

We’re not preparing our portfolios for a recession. While possible, it’s unlikely. We like our current Treasury, fixed income and equity allocation.

2.     What did the Fed minutes say? Ha, no, no-one asks that. But it was a slow week for news so more people read them than normal. Also, the Fed delayed publication because Washington had snow, which counted for a big news day.

But what was on people’s minds was whether the “we’re going to be patient” announcement in January was shared by the whole Fed or was just Chair Powell gone rogue.

So, they not only said they were going to be patient but said it 13 times and started to use the word “strong” a lot less. Our takeaways are:  

  1. Inflation for both price and compensation is low

  2. The Fed is well tuned into the equity and credit markets (more than we thought). This means a market slide would trigger more easing.

  3. Shrinking the balance sheet (the opposite of QE) will probably stop….that’s more indications of easier policy.

The market barely moved. We've been a in a range of 2.65% to 2.75% since January after the very big move down from 3.2% in November. We think it will stay around here. By historical standards, rates remain very low in real and nominal terms.

Bottom Line: The broad narrative is unchanged. Some of the best performing stocks in 2019 are those that cratered in 2018. Our own PG&E is one (down 83% in 2018, up 175% in 2019). Exxon, Philip Morris, Haynes, Xerox are some others. The big leaders in 2018, especially the big tech stocks, have lagged the S&P 500. Most of the news will be on lower economic numbers, which is priced into the market, and trade, which is not.  

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Cat ladders

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

 Nouvelle Vague

Everyone take a breather.

The Days Ahead: Shorter week. No major economic news.

One-Minute Summary:  When the Fed announced it would stay patient a few weeks ago, some tired punters thought, “Aha Trump got to them.”  But, the Fed was actually spot on. The economy is weakening (no, not recession). This week we saw a low CPI report at 1.6%, the NFIB (a proxy for small businesses) optimism index plunged, retail sales came in very low and on Friday, industrial production (IP) fell 0.6%. The last one is all about China. As the China index falls, so does the U.S. The business equipment sub-component of IP was down 1.5% and automotive down 15%. That’s all trade war related. The folk over at the Atlanta Fed revised down expected growth for Q4 2018 to 1.5%. It had started at 3.5%.

So growth is slower and one of our favorite Fed Presidents (here she is), reiterated the China, European, Brexit, trade and growth risks and underscored the whole “patient” mode. The 10-Year Treasury traded in a very narrow and bullish range. It’s now 2.67% and yielding only 25bps more than 3-month bills. A year ago, that was 120bps. That’s why we’re in the Treasury FRNs.

Hey, look, it’s all on trade right now. How are the talks going (“great”)? Are there concessions and commitments from the Chinese (probably)? Will the tariffs be delayed (yes)? The market feels a little nervous for sure and most indicators of liquidity are well below 2018 levels. That feels like a market wanting to go up but worried about being caught out. We're still 5% below the ding-dong highs of August but up 11% from the December lows. Again, Small Cap has outperformed by even more and Emerging Markets are up 8%.

For the record, we’d like to see a consolidation. But as we've learned along the way, “rapidly rising or falling markets usually go further than you think, but they do not correct by going sideways.”

There are lots of problems with government shutdowns. One is that the IRS missed 16 days of tax refunds. So far this year, there has been $21bn of tax refunds compared to $29bn at the same time last year. It may continue. The IRS thinks only 10% of taxpayers itemized in 2018 compared to 30% in 2017. It seems fewer people over-withheld so the normal March-April boost in retail sales may not happen (h/t Cap Eco).

 1.     The war on buybacks. It’s a tough life being a S&P 500 CEO.  You know, you go along for years doing things that shareholders like. You announce a share buyback and everyone claps and say’s “Yay, this guy read his Jensen and is returning cash to us in a tax efficient and orderly way”. Actually, they probably stop at “Yay” but you get the picture. And for a while, all was good in the land of investors. Heck, they even built ETFs around it: IPKW and SPYB but please don't buy. But of course, buybacks lost favor, both ETFs went pear shaped and underperformed the S&P 500 by very big amounts.

We're often rude about buybacks because one big problem is “are they buying back stock because they really can't find anything else to invest in or is it just to increase earnings per share without increasing earnings?” By the time you find out, it’s too late. IBM, Foot Locker, Yahoo, Halliburton and many others made very large buybacks and never saw much change in their share price.

This is how they work. The company below, Tweeyelp, makes $50m a year and has 100m shares in issue. It decides to buy some shares. It buys 10m shares for $100m. Now there are fewer shares (90m) with the same earnings. All things being equal (they never are but stick with us), the price is now 11% higher. Yep, that's all it is.

Anyway, people don't like them as much anymore. The 2018 tax cut aimed to increase capex, wages and employment (any day now) but a lot went to share buybacks instead. No surprise really, the same happened with the 2003 Bush tax cuts when buybacks more than doubled in the next two years.

There is a small but growing “buybacks are bad” crowd and it just recruited a new member on Wednesday.

Marco_Rubio___marcorubio____Twitter.jpg

Stocks reacted immediately.

That move was worth about $101bn. Which tells us two things. My, this market is nervous. A small thing like that was enough to upset investors. Two, expect more talk about corporate governance and some rollback on the corporate tax front. It may not happen soon but I suspect there’s more bipartisan agreement than meets the eye. And if this all keeps bad buybacks at bay (there’s a bumper sticker there), then…good.

2.     Is the big increase in the deficit going to be a problem for Treasuries? No. Sure there are some very serious people who think that all debt is bad. Last week the total amount of U.S. public debt reached $22 trillion (here's the debt clock and here’s the Treasury’s more sober view). For those who worry about these things, this was a bad number as it now exceeds U.S. GNP. You would think that if the U.S. keeps running deficits and issuing more Treasuries, that investors would demand ever-higher rates.

You would think but it ain’t necessarily so. In Japan, public debt is 220% and has doubled in the last 20 years. But the yield on the Japanese Government 10-Year bond has fallen from 2% to 0% and it hasn't moved for three years. The debt in the green line and the 10-Year bond in blue.

Now there’s a vigorous debate about all this. On one hand, there’s the “we owe it to ourselves don't worry” school and MMT has found some fans in Congress. On the other, there’s the belief that high government borrowing crowds out other investments and threatens basic freedoms.  

Without getting into the theory, here’s why we like Treasuries right now even though supply is growing:

  1. Compared to other major high credit sovereign borrowers, the U.S. provides a very attractive rate of interest. The 10-Year Treasury is now 2.7% compared to Germany at 0.1%, Switzerland at -0.3% and Japan at 0%.

  2. The Treasury is very good at managing auctions and has come up with a number of innovative ways to sell debt. These include inflation protected and Floating Rate bonds and Cash Management Bonds. There is talk of a 20-year bond (there’s only 10 and 30 year bonds at the long end), zero coupons and bonds indexed to health care or college inflation.

  3. The ratio of public debt to GDP is overstated. The headline number is 104% but really, it’s 74% because Social Security and various government pension funds hold about $6 trillion of the debt (Schedule D on the attached if you're interested). Nearly every commentator omits this point.

  4. Inflation is low. If a risk free bond yields more than inflation, we’re off to a good start.

  5. Demand for risk-free securities remains high. If you’re a bank, insurance company or pension fund, a guaranteed, liquid non-callable investment looks pretty good. Especially with new capital ratios.

  6. Non-financial corporate debt rose to 46% of GDP last year up from 40%. There’s no sign that they're being crowded out.

We could go on. But for now, the easing off of the economy, a patient Fed, tame inflation and low global growth all make Treasuries a very attractive investment. And we’ll argue all day against the debt doomsayers.

Bottom Line Earnings are coming in well. Up around 13% so far. Fewer companies issue guidance these days (a good thing) but those that have tended to guide lower. That’s to be expected. Valuations are fine. We've set the portfolios up for downside.

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How to wreck a pension plan

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

Daniel Hart - Theme

Markets ignore the Whatabouts.

The Days Ahead: Inflation and flash Europe GDP. Government shutdown on Friday?

One-Minute Summary:  One week after the Fed’s “patient” speech and we’re in very quiet markets. Stocks moved within a 0.1% range or about one tenth of what they’d done in the first few weeks of January. The stuff that lingers in the background hasn't changed. An upcoming border/budget dispute, government shutdown, a March 1st deadline on the trade talks, Brexit, slowdown in Europe.

But, as we said last week, the Fed is on hold. For what? Housing, industrials, the ISMs, trade, consumer, GDP. Most of that group has yet to catch up from the government closure so we’re probably not looking at any change for some months. We're encouraged that even Janet Yellen doesn't know where rates are headed.

Meanwhile earnings are positive with good news from retail stocks like Estee Lauder and Ralph Lauren and large companies like Boeing, Apple and Exxon. It seems like 2017 all over again with the S&P 500 up 7%, Small Company up 11%, international and Emerging Markets up 7% and even the Dow Jones Transportation index up 12%. That's the one with highly cyclical stocks like railroads, trucking, barges, airlines and FedEx/UPS giants. If they’re doing well, the rest of the economy may be slow but it’s not anywhere near recession.

 1.     Are we winning the trade war? Well not if you use the trade balance as a guide. So, if you're buying stuff from the U.S. and your government says “right, everything you buy from them will cost you 25% more” or if you're importing stuff from China and your government says, “right everything you buy from them will cost you 25% more”, then you're really going to question how much you want that stuff.

And that’s what’s happened to the goods trade balance in the last 12 months. Food exports from the U.S. fell from $14bn a month to $10bn. Soybeans have undeservedly become a major news item in the last few years. The U.S. used to sell around $3bn a month, with a peak of $4.3bn in 2012. Now it’s $875m. The U.S. used to sell $14bn of autos overseas. That’s now $12.2bn. The overall trade deficit in autos is now $19.7bn, up from $16.3bn.

Trade with China is down. Exports to China fell 32% from a year ago. The bilateral trade deficit will probably come in at around $416bn compared to $375bn in 2017.

It would seem that the current strategy is not working except to push the world to the brink of recession judging by a range of business surveys  (h/t John Kemp). The most important date on the calendar is March 2nd when the U.S. tariffs on $200bn or Chinese goods takes place. We think there will be a deal of some sorts. But we doubt it will solve the thorny issues of IP, tech transfer and services.

The overall November figures were slightly better than previous months but imports were down sharply, reflecting weaker U.S. demand. There is lots of noise in the monthly numbers so nothing definite yet. But we believe trade will drag on growth in Q1 2019. For now, these numbers confirm our decision to lighten exposure to overseas risk assets.

2.     How bad is it? It’s not. It’s tempting in this business to exercise caution. After all, bad news reads well and it’s easier to sound smarter when forecasting recessions, corrections and imminent price drops. But bears don't make money. There are ETFs for those bold enough to call market tops. One that’s been around for a while is the ProShares Short S&P 500 ETF which was launched in 2006 at $138, had a brief time in the sun peaking at $190 in late 2009 and now trades at $30. The press calls but our line of “yes, the news is terrible but investors should stick to their plan and ride this through” is met with an uninterested thank you.

There’s always data to support a recession but it’s usually wrong. One that's in the news recently is the inverted yield curve. This simply measures whether long-term bonds yield less than short-term bonds. Normally any investor is going to demand a higher rate for long term loans. “Lend me money for one year at 3% for one year” seems reasonable. “Lend me money for 10 years at 2%” less so. Because, you know, you might default, lose the piece of paper or just decide not to repay. So, when you get a chart like this, there’s a lot of harrumphing:

This is the 10-Year Treasury yield less the 3-month Treasury yield. One is at 2.7%, the other at 2.5% (bottom) for a difference of 0.2% (the 19.95bps line). Commentators show it with a 10 or 20-year chart and say something like “an inverted yield curve has predicted the last three recessions.”

Well yes, but it didn’t predict the ones in 1953 or 1988 and gave off plenty of false signals in 1959, 1960s, 1979, 1988 and 1994 to 1998. And so on. It may be better than a coin flip, we don't know. But we do know that if you acted on it and came out of the stock market every time it dipped towards zero, you missed some very hefty gains.

So what does it mean this time? Well, we like the Occam Razor principle. Don't make this complicated. It just means that short-term bonds look attractive and will probably remain so if the Fed pauses and the economy ticks along at 2%.

Bottom Line There is nothing wrong with a little market consolidation. You know, take a breather knowing that the Fed is on hold. Analysts have cut earnings estimates by around 4% for 2019 but the market seems fine with that. We'd make no changes having positioned for just this kind of market a few months ago.

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British national bird in China

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

Catch a boat to England…maybe to Spain

The Fed calls the Shots

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The Days Ahead: Economic data back on line, but may not be reliable for a few months.  

One-Minute Summary: January was a good month. Stocks up 8%, small company stocks up 11%, international and Emerging Markets up 6% to 9% and bonds trading in a narrow and bullish range.

More data confirmed that China trade talks weigh on people’s mind. The Chicago PMI index dropped from 65 to 56 in a month. We don't usually talk about this index much but it’s Chicago and Boeing is headquartered in Chicago and Boeing sells a lot of aircraft to China…2,000 in all and 1,000 in the last five years at $350m each. So when we look at the New Orders component of the Chicago PMI and see it at a two-year low, we know how sensitive things are to the trade, er, talks.

The Fed announcement (see below) did more to drive stocks than earnings. Earnings were generally good and are up 12.4% YOY. But the hard comp numbers are coming up as 2018 had all the tax cut benefits so analysts are looking at low and perhaps negative growth for Q1 2019. We're not concerned. The market has priced in the slowdown and it mostly comes from energy and tech stocks.

We're also seeing a bounce back from bombed-out stocks. There are 38 stocks up more than 20% this year but the same stocks were down 25% in 2018. This seems a good sign as the market leadership is broader and investors are not just bidding up tech names. The best sector this year has been Energy, which peaked in 2015 and fell 38% to its December low. It’s up 13% since then.

We're in an easy money phase right now. That won't last too long because the data is going to start improving. The market overdid it on the downside in 2018. It may be overdoing it on the bounce back in 2019.

1.     Jobs: great numbers or what? What. The headline number was 304,000, way above estimates. But the December and November numbers were revised down by 70,000 and the unemployment and underemployment, or U-6, rates (the black line) ticked up. The government shutdown may well account for the jump in the U-6 rate as it reflects discouraged workers who want, but were unable to find, full-time work. Which describes a furloughed government worker quite well.

Analysts pointed out that hourly earnings growth (white line) was weak (here’s a particularly bad offender at Bloomberg). But they're still running at 3.1% and in line with the employment cost index, which counts benefits and salaries and is a much better guide to wages. Overall, this is a solid report but not building any pressures that the Fed needs to worry about.

2.     Did the Fed blink?  Yes. Last December the Fed completed the fourth rate rise for 2018. Even though the government was in shutdown. Even though parts of the economy were rolling over. Even though the China trade problem was front and center. It seemed as if the economy, the labor market and inflation were all where they wanted them. This time, they said they would “be patient [when determining] future adjustments to [rates].” It was the “patient’ part that the market liked.

So what changed their mind? In our view, it was the stock market. Since the last meeting, we saw the market correct by 8% and then rally by 15%. That put a strain on financial conditions and, along with weaker numbers, was enough for the Fed to not just stay its hand but also hint that rate increases are off the table until June.

They also removed the phrase that risks were “roughly balanced” and referenced “global and economic developments”. We'd be careful not to read too much into this, other than to say that if a trade deal was done, government stayed open and Brexit concluded, the Fed would reverse its position very quickly. But for now, we have a return to easy monetary policy.

As if to confirm the Fed remains the only game in town and can outdo China, the government or any other pretender any time it wants, stocks rallied hard and are now up 15% from the December lows. The 10-Year Treasury also rallied to 2.62%. Remember it reached a high of 3.25% last year and is almost back to where it was two years ago.

And the yield curve? Now looks very odd:

The black line is where it was a year ago. It’s steep, as one would expect with a Fed just getting to grips with tightening and tax cuts. The blue line is where it is now after four rate hikes. The front-end (up to one year) is all up but beyond five years, barely changed. This tells us two things:

  1. The place to invest is between three months and one year. You earn 10% less yield with a 3-month bill over a 10-Year Treasury, but with 96% less risk.

  2. The market expects the economy to slow and sees no inflation risk.

 And that’s why we’re still using the Treasury Floaters and the 7-10 year Treasury bonds.

3.     More Aristocrats.  There are 53 companies in the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats index. That’s all the companies that have increased dividends every year for 25 years. S&P just added four more that made the cut: Chubb, People’s United Bank, Caterpillar and United Technologies. This is how the four of them have done since 1994:

It’s a remarkable record. If you bought one stock of each back in 1994, they would have cost $412 and you would have received a $2.12 dividend. They're now worth $5,191 and paying out $41.45 in dividends. And would have outperformed the S&P 500 by around 140%.

Now, we like dividends.  When a company pays a dividend, it’s real cash. There’s an old stock market saying that “dividends are like getting married, share buybacks are like dating”. One is a hard commitment and the other more like “ Yeah, I might when I get around to it”. Share buybacks have three problems:

  1. Management buys stock at market tops

  2. What they announce (wow, great) is more that what they actually do

  3. It’s nearly all tied to management compensation (so some moral hazard, no?)

The Dividend Aristocrats contain few pure growth stocks and almost no tech. They're not all perfect. Franklin Resources, the parent company of Franklin Templeton funds, peaked four years ago and is down 38%. They also tend to be large cap and underperform the wider market in a broad rally. But over time, they've outperformed the S&P 500 by around 2% and we would expect these latest additions to continue the trend.

Bottom Line. Solid earnings but tough if you have any meaningful exposure to China. The Fed changed everything last week. They’ll probably regret sounding quite so accommodative especially if there’s a fix on trade or shutdowns. We'd exercise some caution coming into February. The market is up as much in a month as we expected for the year.

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World’s loneliest duck

UCLA students and Uber

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

Don’t think twice

Another shutdown over…maybe.

The Days Ahead: Jobs numbers and Fed meeting

One-Minute Summary: At the time of writing, equities were in a good mood. Seven out of the last 10 trading days were up and the S&P 500 is up 6.3% this year. That's roughly back to early November levels and up 12% from the miserable December days. Small Cap is up even more…up 15% from the lows.

The White House announced the end of the government shutdown but it was conditional and we could end up with the same problem two weeks from now. In the last nine shutdowns going back to the 1970s, stocks haven’t reacted much. You can barely find them on a graph of the S&P 500. This time stocks have risen around 9% so we’re not expecting a big rally.

We thought markets had over-reacted to recession fears last year. What we’re seeing now is the market retracing some of its losses and preparing for a slow down, a neutral Fed and low rates. It's not a signal that we’re all back to happy 2017 and early 2018 days but more of a measured response to an orderly slow down. There’s no good news from Europe and China and that places the U.S. in front for growth and upside.

Earnings season is going well. They're up 11% for the 100 or so S&P 500 companies that have reported. They might be guiding lower but markets expected that. Last year’s tax cuts were meant to lead to a capex boom, more domestic investment, wage increases and more jobs. That was nonsense. But it led to very large stock buybacks. They won't be around in 2019 but markets expect as much.

U.S. Treasuries have had a good three months with the 10-Year Treasury falling from 3.25% to 2.75%. That's about a 6% return excluding the coupon.

 The three big things on our mind are:

  1. Government: new rapprochement or ongoing divisiveness (not really a question) and a China deal

  2. Fed: on hold for three months, six months or more?

  3. Economy: how much of a slow down?

We think these are all manageable. So we continue to like Treasuries, the U.S. and some protection on risk assets.

1.     How’s’ Europe doing?  Not so good. European stocks had a very strong 2017 but a torrid 2018. The U.K. dominates European stock markets. It’s nearly one third of the all-European index. Germany, Switzerland, France and The Netherlands make up another half. We tend to invest in the Eurozone-only stocks, which excludes the U.K. (handy while Brexit drags on), the Nordic counties and Switzerland. The case for Europe some 12 months ago was:

·       Pickup in activity and global growth

·       Ongoing easy monetary policy from ECB

·       Politics calmed and labor market reforms

·       Relatively cheaper stock markets

·       Brexit would work

Fast forward and we had 1) Italian elections and a huge row with the EU over the budget deficit 2) the “gilets jaunes” or Yellow Vest protests in France which took aim at just about every reform President Macron had in mind 3) trade tensions with the U.S., especially autos at 20% of the index, and 4) banks, another 20% of the index, which struggled with low rates and bad loans.

The ECB announced this week that the outlook had weakened and would keep rates low. But rates are already 0% and the central bank charges negative rates on its deposit accounts. It has stopped buying bonds through the QE program mainly because there are fewer bonds to buy.  So what next? They'll keep reinvesting coupons on the bonds they own and keep the guidance low. They can use the TLTROs, which are incentives for banks to lend.  And they can switch QE back on gain. So, they have plenty of options.

 Meanwhile, we've also seen some slow pickup in inflation and wages:

That lower green line is a sign that wages are increasing and could feed into more consumer growth. We also like the relative value of European stocks. They yield nearly twice as much and trade at a 25% discount to U.S. stocks. According to one respected street analyst, the share count of European stocks was negative late last year. That's a good sign as it means companies are buying back shares and not issuing new equity finance.

We’re somewhat cautious on Europe. Its ties to the U.S. and China are strong so it’s getting caught in a very uncomfortable middle. We're looking at some protection strategies. Watch this space.

2.     Long View on the bond market. There are two important themes in the bond market, which we think investors should know.

 Treasuries. We know that 2017’s tax cuts increased the deficit and that the Fed is drawing down its balance sheet. So that's two important sources of Treasury supply. Right now, U.S. Treasuries are about 40% of the broad bond market indexes. It’s going to rise to around 50%, according to one very respected strategist. More and more bond assets are in ETFs. Those ETFs match an index and must buy Treasuries. They will be a steady source of demand. They have no choice, unless the index compilers re-write the rules.

It’s a weird inversion of normal supply and demand rules. There are other reasons we like Treasuries (low inflation, Fed on hold, relative yield, safe haven etc.) but this index thing is a real force and we wouldn't underestimate its impact.

BBB Bonds. BBB bonds are one notch above junk. They've also grown to be a very large part of the bond market. They were 35% a few years ago and they're now closer to 50%. There are worries that in a recession, many borrowers will be downgraded and tip into junk status. So what, you may ask? I liked it at as a BBB and I like it at BB. But many investors, including our friends the index providers, cannot buy or hold junk bonds. So, yes this is genuine concern. A bunch of bonds that were considered good credit but slip into bad credit means a lot of forced sellers. Which, you know, is usually not good.

But, many of these BBB borrowers are banks with better capital than they ever had. Citibank, Barclays and JP Morgan alone account for 21% of that growth from 35% to 50%.  Another 50% comes from four companies: GM, Ford, AT&T and Verizon. These may not be the greatest companies around but it tells us that “the whole bond market is about to implode” story is very over done. It's not a system wide problem. It's about five companies that have plenty of financial clout.

So, we’re not worrying about non-junk credit and you shouldn't either (h/t Columbia Threadneedle).

3.     Are flash crashes still a thing? Yes. These are unexplained sudden and very large price movements. There are post-hoc diagnostics, which never make much sense other than “stuff happens”. Last week, Jardine Matheson, one of the largest companies on the Singapore stock exchange had an 80% pre-opening drop.

 

It’s a bit difficult to see because, well, being a flash crash, it was all over in minutes. But a mighty, blue chip stock closed the previous evening at $69 and was traded at $10 just before the open. The actual trade loss for one investor was $9m. It doesn't seem as if any ETF or mutual fund was affected and certainly no investments that we held. The Singapore authorities reviewed but did not cancel the trades.

Sure, these things are rare but if you're caught in one, you could be wiped out.

 Bottom Line. Another good week despite the dearth of economic data…mostly because the various agencies were closed. The Treasury market should stay in recent ranges of 2.7%.

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A guide to technical analysis

Your odds of dying from opioids are greater than a car crash

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

How Come - Ronnie Lane  

Farewell Mr. Bogle

The Days Ahead: More earnings. Many government stats aren't available because of the shutdown.  

 One-Minute Summary: Another good week. Year to date, 459 companies in the S&P 500 are up and 50 are down. That’s an even better dispersion than a week ago. Only two companies are down more than 8% and they are Macy’s and the hapless PG&E. Neither is a surprise. Some of the biggest rises are in companies that were hit badly in the last two years and are on a bounce from record lows.

 Which reminds us of financials. They had a good week after earnings from Citibank, JP Morgan and Bank of America. The bar was very low. The market turmoil of the fourth quarter had everyone braced for bad news so when management gave more upbeat forecasts the sector rallied by 6%. Financials have had a rough time in the last 10 years. New regulation, higher capital, low interest rates and fines have taken their toll. As an investment, they peaked in 2007 and have yet to make back their highs. They’ve underperformed for the last five and one-year periods. They’re never going to be exciting investments again but at least some confidence is finally back.

 The market was driven by three things.

One, the Fed again urged patience with rate hikes. What was interesting was that the latest call for waiting came from the most hawkish member of the FOMC, Esther George from the Kansas Fed. Since 2011, she’s been on a crusade to raise rates, so this was a big turnaround.

Two, trade progress. Well sort of. You know how news comes out from the White House. Long on promise. Short on details. Anyway, it seems as if China is nearer to a deal and even committed to bring the U.S. trade surplus to zero. To do that they would have to buy all their aircraft from Boeing, all their soybeans from the U.S., double their auto purchases, use U.S. fabricated semi-conductors, move a lot of plants offshore and the U.S. would have to stop buying cell phones. Could happen.

Three, a very benign bond market with 10-Year Treasuries around their lows for the last 12 months.

It’s one of those markets shrugging off bad news and jumping all over good news. The reverse of three months ago. But the basic themes are stocks holding up, earnings OK and an easier Fed.

1.     Oh, no they didn't.  Yes. Surprisingly, the White House underestimated the economic impact of the government shutdown. No problem calculating 800,000 furloughed workers. That works out at 0.01% of GDP for a two-week shutdown. But we’re at a month now and they forgot to calculate the 4m or so Federal contractors who, while not government employees, are out of work. Here’s the top White House economic advisor saying workers are actually better off because they're not working. Now, I don't know from under what stone crawls the idea that not working improves people’s economic well-being, but suffice to say, no, Kevin, it doesn't work like that.

So what’s the real number? Tricky but here are some things we know:

  1. The 2013 shutdown was 13 days and it cut GDP by 0.3%

  2. Federal government employee compensation, for around 2.8m workers, is around 2.1% of GDP. That’s $420bn.

  3. Around 380,000 of the 800,000 are furloughed without pay. That means they don't get paid for when they're off work. The others will have pay reinstated for the time off.

  4. So about 20% of all workers are without pay, which they'll never get back, which is about $76bn. Another 20% will be paid when it all ends.

  5. Put all that together and we’re looking at a 0.9% decline to GDP

  6. Add in private contractors, government purchases and a multiplier effect and we’re at -1.1%

All those numbers are reductions from trend growth, so that means 1.1% less than what would otherwise have been a 2.5% quarter.

So, what about the actual level of growth?

We know that Q1 GDP has displayed some weird seasonalities since the crisis. For 8 of the last 10 years, Q1 was the weakest quarter of growth for the year, although in 2013, it was later revised up. The first estimate of Q1 GDP is not due until late April but we think we're headed for a negative number. That’s assuming the shutdown has ended because the BEA, which runs the GDP data, is, you guessed...closed. That will put the Fed very much on hold.

 2.     So, consumer confidence holding up? Er,...no. The latest report on consumer confidence took a nosedive and is at its lowest level since the election in October 2016.

The decline was due to…well the University of Michigan said it best, so we’ll hand over to them:

“…to a host of issues including the partial government shutdown, the impact of tariffs, instabilities in financial markets, the global slowdown, and the lack of clarity about monetary policies”

Now, the reason the stock market hasn't freaked out is because:

  1. Sentiment and spending are not the same

  2. The market corrected a lot in 2018 and, as we said at the time, it was probably overdone

  3. Inflation expectations remain low, so the Fed is likely to stay its hand.

Of course, that may all change but for now it’s steady as we go and avert your eyes from the government and political train wreck.

3.     Jack Bogle. Died. The pioneer of index funds. There are plenty of good obituaries, here, here, and here.  The story is well-known by now. How he took a simple concept, just buy all the stocks in the S&P 500 weighted by their size, hold on and don't pay high management fees. Initially it was all a failure. The original S&P 500 fund from 1976 only raised $11m. Today it's $420bn. Back then the average fee for a managed fund was around 1.2% and you had to pay 5% upfront to buy it. So, a $100,000 investment would cost you around $26,000 over 10 years. With Vanguard it now costs $740.

No other person has done as much for personal investing as Mr. Bogle.

Bottom Line. It’s been a great start to the year. But so was 2018, so no counting yet. The S&P 500 is back to October levels so anyone who went to cash back then has missed a 14% bounce.  Small company stocks have done even better and international and Emerging Markets have kept pace with the S&P 500 over the last few weeks. The Treasury market has held up well. And will remain so. The Fed has no real data to work with and so will stay on the sidelines.

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Federal Reserve: student debt hurts housing market

--Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

 Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

Always forever now. The Passengers.

 

18 Lessons from 40 years of investing

When markets correct, it’s worth revisiting why we like stocks.

When you buy an equity, whether a single stock or basket of index stocks, you become an owner in the company. As a shareholder, you receive what’s left after the company pays its employees, suppliers, overhead, debts and loans. These costs tend to stay fixed. Revenues, however, fluctuate.

If revenues go down, because of a recession, competition or less demand, the amount left for shareholders will fall.

If revenues increase, because of higher prices, new products or general growth, the amount left for shareholders will rise.

It’s what makes equities potentially rewarding but frustrating in the short term. Stocks try to anticipate the changes to revenue and earnings. Because these are difficult to forecast, equities tend to overshoot in both directions. Sometimes they rise too fast too quickly. Sometimes the gloom is overdone.

Here’s a long view of the annual returns of the S&P 500 since 1929. These numbers do not include dividends which add somewhere between 1.5% to 2.5% a year.

The average return is 7.1% a year. The average up year is 17.6% and the average down year -14.4%.

Note that real rates of interest don’t seem to correlate well with stocks. Sometimes stocks do well in low real rates (early 1950s) and in high real rates (1980s). And sometimes the other way around as in 1945 and early 1930. It’s the rate of change that probably matters more.

Here are some of our lessons from decades of investing. We don't claim them as all original. Better and smarter men and women have come before us and will follow us. Nor is this list complete but generally we think about these things when markets start to move.

  1. Markets tend to return to the mean over time.

  2. Markets go up by the stairs and come down in the elevators.

  3. Markets do not correct by going sideways.

  4. Every market has excesses.

  5. There are no new eras, so excesses are never permanent.

  6. Everyone buys the most at the top and the least at the bottom.

  7. Fear is stronger than long-term resolve.

  8. Markets are dangerous when they trade on a handful of can't lose names.

  9. Bear markets have three stages: sharp down, a rebound and a drawn-out downtrend.

  10. When all the experts and forecasts agree, something else will happen.

  11. Bull markets are more fun than bear markets.

  12. Never trade on headlines.

  13. Being early and right is the same as being wrong.

  14. Prices change more often than the facts. Don’t confuse the two. (h/t David Ader).

  15. You are either an owner (equity) or a lender (a bond).

  16. There’s no such thing as an alternative investment. Just variations of #15.

  17. It is very rare that drastic market events require immediate action (See#12).

  18. Intelligent people do stupid things, especially if it’s easy to do those things.

Please check out our 119 Years of the Dow chart  

Subscribe here for our investment updates

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

 

 

10 Items to check on your Statement

10 Items to check on your Financial Statement

 Brokerage and investment statements can be tricky to read. This is a quick read. The mantra is check, check, check and ask. It's your money. Here are 10 things to look for:

1.     Mutual Fund Share Classes: There are many! Check the five letter ticker. The last letter is always an "X". What you don't want to see are any “B” or “C” or “R” class shares. They're expensive and probably pay the broker a trail or 12b-1 fee. How can you tell? Well, one clue is that a B, C or R will be the penultimate letter in the ticker just before the “X.” What you do want to see is “A” or “I” in the ticker and, preferably, with “LW” or Load-Waived at the end (e.g. AGTHX.LW). (Note 1) 

If in doubt call and ask “Am I invested in the cheapest available share class?”

2.     ETFs: Most tickers will be three or four letters. There are some with clever ticker names, which are marketing driven and possibly geared more towards traders. So EEM is iShares $32bn Emerging Markets Fund. It carries an expense ratio of 0.7% and has underperformed its index. IEMG is another Emerging Markets ETF from iShares but it costs 0.14% and has outperformed its index. If you have an ETF with a cute name (AMPS, MOO, BLNG, CAFE) just, you know, double-check it.

Some ETFs are ETNs. This means that they invest in derivatives and they will probably incur roll costs. Some ETNs and ETFs will also have “ultra” or “2x” or 3x” which means they're leveraged. We won't touch these and you shouldn't either. Look in your statement under the ETPs (Exchange Traded Products) section.

3.     Tickers: U.S. listed ETF and stock tickers are straightforward. They're usually two to three letters. A lucky few have one. If they have “ADR” after them, they're foreign stocks listed in the USA and will usually end in "F" or "Y", so NSRGY for Nestle in the US. If the ticker has three or less letters, it means the stock is listed on the NYSE. If it has four, it’s listed on NASDAQ. (Note 2). If the ticker ends in a “Q” it means the company is bankrupt so, unless you’re into protracted legal dealings, don’t buy it.

Some tickers have cute names too but they don’t carry the same concerns that we have for ETFs. So, SAM is Boston Beer (from Sam Adams beer), TAP is Coors, Mammoth Energy is TUSK and Nordstrom is JWN, the initials of the founder John W Nordstrom. FIZZ is the National Beverage Corp. The list goes on.

Mutual fund tickers can be tougher. They will have five letters and an “X” at the end (e.g. POAGX). If they're a money market fund, they will have two Xs (e.g. AJLXX). The first letter usually shares the first letter of the fund company’s name. So, Vanguard funds start with a V, Fidelity funds with a F, and so on.

Option tickers are a different animal. The company ticker may not be the same as the regular ticker. Additional letters indicate the strike price and the month of the option. 

4.     And what if it's a bond? Then it won't have a ticker but a CUSIP (pronounced Q-SIP), which is a string of nine numbers and letters. The first four or six numbers identify the bond issuer, so 9128 means it's a U.S. Treasury, 13062 means it's the State of California, 037833 means it’s Apple and so on. The next two identify the actual bond and the last one is an accuracy check system.

5.     Cost Basis: Not all statements have these but you should know where to get them. The cost basis on mutual funds, ETFs and even stocks will change constantly if you have elected to have dividends or capital gains reinvested. You should also ask your broker or financial institution what basis calculation they use. They should ask you at the time of any sale of securities.

6.     Yield: For equities this is simply the latest quarterly dividend multiplied by four, divided by the share price. It’s a current yield and probably won't be the same as you have actually received in the prior twelve months.

For bonds, it’s more complicated. The yield is the annual coupon on the bond but if it’s a premium bond things can get tricky. First check if the price you paid for the bond was more than $100. If it is, you have a “premium” bond. Now you have a choice. For example, a bond that you paid $11,000 for will redeem in 10 years at par so you can either amortize the premium of $100 a year or you can pay income tax along the way and take a capital loss. (Note 3) 

7.     Transactions: In the back of the statement you will find a list of transactions. Some will reflect reinvestment of dividends and capital gains. We're not concerned with those. But look at other transactions for stocks, bonds, ETFs and funds. Transactions are not free. Many brokerage firms charge for a purchase or redemption of a security and even if they don't, you will still incur the cost of a bid/ask spread. Add up all the transactions on your statement and divide it by the market value. If the transactions amount to more than 30% of the market value, you may want to find out why.

 8.     Fees: If you use a broker or adviser, the statement should show the management fees. If it’s a quarterly statement, multiply the amount by four to get an annual rate and divide that by the total market value. Anything over 1% is high.  

 9.     Income: Every line item on your statement should have an income number. Even if it's a stock that pays no dividend, there will typically be a dash (“-“). Income should also be consolidated with your account summary. Check it. It's one of the most important numbers of your investments. Review the maturity dates of your bonds. The capital will usually be reinvested but, again, check. Don't confuse 1) yields with total investment returns or 2) estimated annual income (EAI) or estimated yield (EY). These are only an estimate and will change.

10.     Current Price: All investments should have a current price as of the date of the statement. Some illiquid stocks may have an old price from a prior date and some (and this is bad) will have a n/a, which means it's no longer traded. Also, check the prices of a security you don't recognize against an older statement. If the price hasn't changed much, it may indicate it doesn't trade. (See Note 4) 

Useful websites

Everything you need to know about CUSIPs

Investopedia: Wikipedia for investing. Generally (but not always) good.

Understand option tickers

Notes

1. Also look to see if you are invested in more than one share class of the same fund. This can happen if you have a consolidated or household statement, which combines multiple accounts (e.g. IRA, Roth, Trust, taxable). You want the one with the highest price because that will be the cheapest.

2. If you see something like LON, SWX, MEX, WBO or BATS after the ticker, it means the stock is listed overseas (so London, Switzerland, Mexico or Austria) or on multiple exchanges (BATS is an electronic exchange).

3. Here's where your CPA and the 1099-INT IRS form comes into play. Worst case is that you end up paying full income tax on the fixed income yield and end up with an undeclared capital loss. So, pay attention to those bond prices.

4. A good rule of thumb is that the longer the company name (e.g. Vantage Drilling UTS, INTL STPLD C/O Ord SH & 1%/11/2% Step up SR SECD), the more likely it's an illiquid stock.

Stocks up and Government Closed

The Days Ahead: Europe industrial production and U.S. housing. Earnings start.

 One-Minute Summary: A better week. Year to date, 442 companies in the S&P 500 are up and 63 are down (confusingly, the S&P 500 has more than 500 companies). It’s early days, of course, but the S&P 500 is up 3.6% this year and there’s only been one trading day where the market didn't close higher than its start. If you think that over the last month, we've had the longest government shutdown, the threat of a national emergency, the President threatening the Fed chair, tough trade talk with China and more tariffs on EU products, then the market seems a lot more robust than the gloom of late last year.

The government shutdown will start to affect economic numbers soon.

  1. The January unemployment data, for publication on February 4th, was collected last week. In the last shutdown in 2013 and 1996, claims rocketed up as government employees became eligible for unemployment insurance.

  2. Some economic data is no longer available. It started with the Census Bureau and the trade report last week and looks to continue with the BEA and GDP estimates. It means we’re all flying a bit blind.

  3. The GDP forecast for Q1 2019 is for 2.1% compared to an estimated growth of 2.8% for Q4 2018. One respected analyst thinks that every two weeks of the shutdown reduces GDP by 0.1%. That’s $20bn which seems about right.

So it was good news to read the Fed minutes last week and see it confirmed that they intend to remain patient and watch the data. That takes the odds of an early Fed cut pretty much off the table for March and probably June as well. A lot hangs on whether there will be a trade deal. And the answer very probably, is yes. We know that both sides have an incentive to close a deal. Both economies are hurting and the U.S. deficit is widening the longer this goes on. We have no idea if this will be a token deal (as in the Canada and Mexico deal) or something substantive that addresses thorny issues like intellectual property and market access. But we think something will break to the upside.

1.     Nothing happening with inflation.  We have to remind ourselves that inflation is the other Fed mandate (along with employment) and while the Fed looks at core PCE inflation, the familiar CPI is also important. It drives things like TIPS bonds, social security, pension benefits and some wages. It’s all been a bit of a yawn lately:

The headline number came in at 1.95%, primarily because gas and other energy prices fell by nearly 10% in December. Rent and home ownership costs are running at 3.2%. That’s an especially important line item because at 24%, it’s by far the largest index component. For the next few months, we’re unlikely to see core inflation much above 2.3% (h/t Pantheon Economics) partly because the base effects from a year ago start from a high level. Real wages were up 1.2%, which is not enough to tip the Fed’s hand.

So, all in all, as forecast and not a market mover. Given all the other stuff that's moving markets these days, that’s one less thing.

 2.     Should I stay or should I go? We've been saying for years that wage inflation is barely a factor in the economy. Despite lower labor force participation, employee wage gains seem stuck around 2%, about in line with inflation. There are times when it runs higher, especially in deflation periods which give the illusion of real wage gains, and in tight labor markets. But tight labor markets are difficult to define. In the 1980s, the Fed thought any unemployment rate below 6% was inflationary. In the 1990s that fell to 5.5%. It's currently 4.5%. But we’re still not seeing much wage inflation.

Yet the labor market is healthy and that’s a good thing. More people are quitting their job than at any time since the 1990s. That’s tough if you're an employer but people don't quit unless they feel they can land another job, so it’s a straightforward confidence indicator. Moving employer also generally means higher wages. So for years, job switchers saw higher wage growth than job stayers. Standard career advice to those wanting a pay increase was “change job”. There were other downsides but we’ll keep those for another day. Here’s the difference between the two:

The blue line is the switcher, running consistently above the stayer. But now job stayers’ wages are increasing at their highest rate since 2007. For years, employers kept staff with better work conditions, vacation, benefits, awards, and training. Anything but actually pay more. That seems to be changing and it should be good for confidence. More here.

Bottom Line. There is a lot of bad news priced into markets. The economy is not nearly as weak as the stock market suggests. It’s growing at a slower rate but that is not the same as no growth. It won't take much to reverse sentiment.

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Please start smoking again

 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

Teddy Afro - Anbessa 

Meet the New Year, Same as the Old Year

The Days Ahead: More Fed speakers should echo Powell’s comments. Inflation numbers out.

One-Minute Summary: We're always suspicious of market moves over prolonged holidays. Many traders and investors are away and some markets, like Japan, were only open for three days in nearly two weeks of business.  Europe checks out for nearly 10 days. So “small news makes big impact” or “worst day since last one” are headlines you see a lot. This is what we think is going on:

  1. Economy weaker but not stopped and not near recession.

  2. The inverted yield curve story is overdone but that doesn't stop people talking about it.

  3. Volatility is normal. But if you haven’t seen it in a while it feels awkward.

  4. The government shutdown, impasse and partisanship should not be a major problem.

  5. 2018 was a bad year for multi-asset investors. The only markets not in correction or bear territory are Brazil and India.

  6. Earnings and dividends are both likely to continue to grow 10%. There are no major profit warnings.

  7. U.S. Treasuries have done well but they may be too pessimistic about a recession.

  8. Trade and China are the very big elephants in the room. And will remain so.

1.     The Fed moved the markets again. The last time was in December when the market fell 12% peak to trough. Many thought the weaker signs in the economy, such as trade, industrials, government shutdowns and the general tightening of financial markets, should have meant the Fed passed on its fourth hike of the year. We didn't. It’s not the Fed’s job to bail out the stock market and there were no signs of credit stress.

 But Chairman Powell came through on Friday when he announced that the Fed intends to be patient when coming to further increases and will respond as needed. That was the equivalent of throwing a massive bone to a very hungry market. It means they're going to take into account things like China trade deals, profit warnings, the global economy and any housing softness.

 We're somewhat nervous that one announcement can make such a difference. But markets are feeding off headline risk right now. They were down 7% in the days before Christmas on nothing more than a few throwaway headlines and they're now up 3.5% on not much more than soothing noises. But that’s the way markets play out at this end of the cycle.

 Meanwhile, government bonds have been on a tear and are due for a correction. They’re clearly anticipating a recession but they may have overdone it. That move down in the chart is equivalent to a 5% price gain on a 10-Year Treasury.

2.     How were the jobs numbers?  Great. No, really great. After a disappointing December, the market was all about a slowing economy and employment growth. There was plenty of news to support the view: trade, slower industrial production, and some weaker Fed surveys. But the 315,000 new jobs announced Friday were the best since the launch of the tax cuts last February and the third best in the last five years. Here’s the chart:

By now, you’ll know that we take a rather jaundiced view of the labor market. Sure, the numbers are there but things like labor participation, the underemployed rate (the black line) and part-time work are all not what we would expect. Yes, the nature of the labor force has changed: lower participation by women, marginalized workers and demographics but we'd cork the champagne before declaring it the best jobs market ever. Some points worth looking at:

  1. The labor force grew by 419,000. That’s more than the growth in the population.

  2. The number of employed rose by 142,000 while the number unemployed rose 276,000. We'd suggest that’s a good sign that more people are coming back into the work force.

  3. Average hourly earnings rose by 3.1%. This may be distorted. People out of work in prior months because of hurricanes and California fires will have reentered. Their wages thus came back on stream and changed the underlying trend.

  4. Average weekly hours didn't change.

  5. There was a net loss of jobs for those with a college education and they’re 57% of the workforce and 67% of the over 25-year-old workforce.

This all puts the Fed in a bit of a quandary. They recognize the stressed financial conditions of the last two months and see weaker growth numbers. But they also watch wages very closely. There’s a very clear link between the Fed Funds rate and wage growth (h/t Pantheon):

The Fed won't move for now. But if the wages keep growing, then they’ll probably hike in June.

3.     How important was the announcement by Apple? Not very. The fourth quarter is a big quarter for Apple. They typically realize one third of their annual revenue between September and December. They revised sales down by 8% and margins to 38%, which is exactly what they've been for five years. The problem with Apple in the short term is China, which is 18% of sales, and the iPhone price point and saturation. Even after the price drop, Apple sells at a 20% discount to the market and 50% discount to Microsoft. As in the past, if it falls below 10x, it seems like a very good buy.

 

 Bottom Line. Trade related headlines will keep traders on their toes. We feel confident with the Fed’s obvious patience with the data and willingness to listen to the markets. Any breakthrough on trade will push the market higher very quickly.

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Top apps of 2018

Short selling explained

--Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

 

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

One of these things first - Nick Drake

10 Financial mistakes people make in a divorce

It’s the most stressful of times. People experience loss of self-esteem, weight loss , and anxiety going through a divorce. It's not the best time to be making life changing financial decisions. Divorce attorneys are experts on the legal side but not always on financial issues. Too often, settlements end up with a straight division of assets and that’s when problems begin.

 Here are the 10 most common mistakes people make:

1. 401(k) and IRA beneficiaries. The legally required default beneficiary designation is for the spouse to receive the assets. That means that if you or your spouse never named someone, it defaults to the spouse. That’s what your 401(k) provider, broker or mutual fund company will have on record. Make sure you change these.

 2. Insurance beneficiaries. There is typically not a default life insurance beneficiary. But make sure these are changed or updated, especially the group life insurance policies offered by many employers.

 3. All about the house. It’s tempting to take possession of the marital home especially if you're the one with most custody. But wait. Take a simple division of $500,000 in investments and $500,000 in a house.  

  1. Selling a house will cost at least around 5% of the value, so the realizable value is really more like $475,000 and probably less. The investments, meanwhile, have little or no transaction cost.

  2. Investments, especially stocks, will likely grow more than housing especially over the long term. There are a few exceptions in some tight housing markets but it’s rare for property to rise faster than stocks.

  3. Houses are expensive. Upkeep of a house, taxes, depreciation, insurance, repair and utilities can cost anywhere from 3% to 5% of the value of the house. And that excludes mortgage payments. Don't have too much emotional value tied up in the house. And make sure you don't underestimate upkeep costs.

4. Some investments have more growth potential. Or, put another way, not all investments and assets are equal. A $100,000 investment in Apple is not the same as $100,000 Tesla Model X. Don't confuse the two and don’t be tempted to take what looks easier. Investments held in tax-deferred accounts like 401(k), IRAs, and deferred compensation are generally more tax efficient than those held in taxable accounts. But there are tax consequences when you withdraw, and penalties if you’re under aged 60. So, check with a CPA or Financial Adviser.

5. Valuing public and private stock. Some employers offer stock in retirement plans or as part of a compensation plan. Make sure you receive an independent present and future value of the stock if you give up some of your ownership rights.

6. Ensuring continuation of child support and alimony. The requirement to pay either is only as good as the spouse’s ability to pay. So, take out a life or disability insurance policy on your ex-spouse to maintain payments in case something happens. You may have to pay the premiums to ensure the policy does not lapse.

7. Understanding your debt. Any unsecured debt incurred in a marriage is a shared liability regardless of who holds the debt. So, student debt incurred when single but refinanced when married, becomes a joint debt. Same goes with credit cards. It's best to settle all these before finalization of divorce.

8. Valuing Defined Benefit Plans. These typically pay an employee a guaranteed lifetime income at retirement. They're often offered by state or local governments, union or educational employers but there are plenty of companies that still offer them. You’ll need to calculate the present value of a defined benefit plan. This can be tricky and will depend on when it starts, interest rates, income and age. But, roughly, a plan that pays $2,000 a month in retirement is valued from $200,000, if it starts in 10 years, to $480,000 if it starts immediately. Do not underestimate the value of these plans just because they start in the future.  

 9. Have your QDROs in place. A Qualified Domestic Relations Order or QDRO is a legal document attached to a 401(k), 403(b), 457 or any qualified plan. It orders the plan administrator to pay the non-employee spouse their agreed share of the qualified plan. The payments may not be due for many years so it’s important the new beneficiaries are in place at the time of the divorce. Trying to do them later can be a major headache.

 10. All in the details. Ok, this is a catch all. But remember to update the will, any Power of Attorney documents, Advanced Healthcare Directives, investment accounts, credits cards, bank and mortgage accounts, utilities and phones. Anything where there’s a joint name or ownership. And if you haven’t understood or kept track of all the investments and assets when married, now is the time to start. Don't delay. You are now fully responsible.

 And a final thought. You’ll need a Financial Recovery Plan after a divorce. Your life style will probably need to change. Check your expenses and budget. And start a savings plan. Even if it's  $50 a month. It’s a start and will help you feel in control and that you're building some financial independence.

 Some sites

 Running costs of a home

Finding a financial advisor

Check your Social Security status

Spending habits after divorce

Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

Crikey, what did the Fed say to move the markets?

The Days Ahead: The last of the year’s economic data. Not a week to trade.

One-Minute Summary: Yes, that was nasty. All the fears of the year came through last week. The Fed said it saw slower growth and was not as dovish as people would have liked. No light on the political issues. So that's Brexit, Italy, government shut down, resignations and trade all lurking in the background. A disappointing core inflation report. Lower business activity in some Fed regions.

Yet the market is not on a “fear trade”. For that we would have to see a rush into gold, the Yen, Treasuries and a big spike in the VIX. What’s happening is a correction to a slower growth, normalized rate environment. There is nothing particularly wrong with the U.S. economy. All this would hardly deserve the market pessimism we’re seeing. But if we add the trade and China tensions, then market nerves make more sense.

We'd go further. If we see a trade deal with China, which is almost certainly likely even if the details won't be as impressive as the headlines, and some wage growth, we’ll see a snap back in the market and the economy.

1.     Crikey, what did the Fed say to move the markets? Pretty much what everyone thought a month ago.

Look, the Fed was always going to raise Fed Funds in December. They had four planned for the year and it was going to take serious deflation or deterioration in financial conditions to stop them. A 10% correction in stocks simply did not count. And a good thing too. It’s time the Fed stopped underwriting stocks every time they have a perfectly normal correction. The President’s advice merely hardened their resolve. What Fed Chair want’s to go down doing the bidding of a mercurial economist-in-chief?

The Fed changed two items in the announcement.

First, that the Committee “judges that some” further increases will happen. Last time it was that the Committee “expects further” increases.

Second, they added that they would monitor economic developments…which means nothing more than “look, we know markets have sucked and we’ll keep an eye on it, but we don't need to do anything yet”. 

All fine and pretty innocuous. But then came their economic projections in the famous dot plots. Here they are in December and three months ago:

I know it’s tough to read but the bottom line is that 1) they lowered growth and inflation expectations and 2) they expect two increases in 2018, not three. The Fed said what everyone knew but didn’t want confirmed: the economy is slowing. The bond market’s reaction was entirely logical. Short term rates up, long term rates down. The 10-Year Treasury is now at 2.78%, up 3% over the last month and the yield curve is at its lowest for the cycle.

Stocks wanted a bail out and didn't get one so promptly sold off 2%. It didn't stop there. By week’s end, the S&P 500 was down 7%. But there was a lot of other bad vibes in the air of which we would list as:

  1. Turmoil in the White House

  2. No end to trade tension

  3. Prospect of a government shutdown and

  4. Some stock specific hits at Johnson and Johnson, Xerox and FedEx, the biggest stock in the Dow Jones Transportation index.

All the Fed did was provide the timing.

2.     FedEx on trade: For those interested, here’s the full quote from Fred Smith CEO and founder of FedEx. He should know a thing about trade, politics and its effect on business.

“And I'll just conclude by saying most of the issues that we're dealing with today are induced by bad political choices, making a bad decision about a new tax, creating tremendously difficult situation with Brexit, the immigration crisis in Germany, the mercantilism and state-owned enterprise initiatives in China, the tariffs at the United States put in unilaterally. So you just go down the list and they are all things that have created macroeconomic slowdowns.”

3.     It feels like a bear market. Is it? No. But it sure feels like it.  We asked this question last week but we’re down again. Not to pile it on, but the S&P 500 is down 8.5% this year. That's a weighted average, of course. The average share was down 9% and the median share was down 10%. But this was a year of the market coming in strong, a fall, a slow recovery to peak and two legs down, one in October and one in December. So the drop in the S&P 500 from the all-time high is -15% but the average stock (i.e. not cap weighted) is down 26% from it’s 52-week high. There are only four companies within 3% of their all time high and 65% of the stocks in the S&P 500 are in their own bear market i.e. down more than 20%. No stock is at it’s all time high.

This is not quite a capitulation. We'd need a wider, deeper and longer fall for that to happen. But it does mean some bargains are beginning to appear.  As we've mentioned before, there is no single way to gauge the over or under valuation of the market. If there were, we'd all be following it. But one we like is the earnings yield. This flips the traditional PE (price earnings) measure and tells you how much a company earns, expressed as a yield. It’s not the same as a dividend because a company does not pay out 100% of their earnings. Then you take that number and compare it in real terms. Here’s the chart:

It’s the yellow and black lines we’re interested in. Both have moved sharply upwards, showing the market is around 30% cheaper than a year ago in nominal terms and 40% cheaper in real terms. More, the earnings yield is at its cheapest in nearly 6 years and in real terms in two years.

This doesn't mean jump in with both feet. But there is no way companies will report 30% lower earnings in 2019. In fact it's more like a growth of 8%. For now the market is living on fear and stocks are getting cheaper. That feels uncomfortable but may be a very good set up for 2019.

4.     Is Brexit any better? No.

Bottom Line. Stocks will finish the year at about the 25th percentile of historical performance. That means a 2018 happens 25% of the time. For volatility it's at a 66th percentile, meaning it’s above median but not alarmingly so. As we've said before, 2018 feels bad because 2017 was so good. We had a year of low volatility and high returns followed by somewhat higher volatility and flat returns (source AQR) . Our guess is that in a few years, we’ll barely remember this year. Treasuries did fine. Here’s to a better 2019.

Please check out our 119 Years of the Dow chart  

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 --Christian Thwaites, Brouwer & Janachowski, LLC

Please note that this discussion of our investments and investment strategy (including our research and investment process) represents our investments and investment strategy at the date of this commentary, and is subject to change without notice.  We cannot assure that the type of investments discussed in this commentary will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, nor can we guarantee that such investments will present the best or an attractive risk-adjusted investment in the future. This is for general informational purposes only; references to an individual security should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell that security.  The securities mentioned in this commentary are only several of the successful as well as unsuccessful investments by us, and do not represent all of the securities we have purchased, sold or recommended.  Although we deem reliable the sources of the statistical and other information referred to in this commentary, we cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or numerical data.  Past performance is no indication of future results.

All charts from Factset unless otherwise noted.

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