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Excuse me, have you seen the Budget Deficit?

The Days Ahead: Earnings season starts up. Financials and Energy stocks should be good.

One Minute Summary: The Fed published the minutes from its March meeting. They think growth will accelerate later on this year and made the usual cautionary noises about inflation. The bond market ignored it. Bonds were also unfazed by the inflation report (see below). Markets were also not terribly surprised by the CBO report, which calculated that the 10-year cumulative deficit will rise 32%. Most economists had worked that one out.

The market was mesmerized by tweet storms. Some historians went back to the Cuban missile crisis to see what happened there (a 7% drop then recovery) or with the NATO bombings in Yugoslavia in 1999 (the market rose 12%). The placatory remarks from President Xi Jinping helped. Stocks rose 3.2% through close on Thursday. It was a good week for most sectors except utilities and REITs, which tend to be rate-sensitive.

U.S. small cap, Emerging Markets and International are all ahead of the S&P 500 year to date. Russia had a bad week, down 14%...which happens if you get hit with sanctions. Russian stocks are only 3% and 2% of the Emerging Markets equity and bond indices (we don't use Emerging Markets bonds).

There has been no direction to the market for over a month. Some of this is because of a news cycle that's more noise than signal. Earnings season starts soon and it will be good. Expect big numbers across the board and especially energy. No changes to our portfolios.

1.     How’s the CBO doing? Pity the staff at the Congressional Budget Office. They have a hard-earned reputation for non-partisan work but had to rush through an analysis of the tax cuts in December 2017, days before the bill was passed. Their best estimate at the time was that the bill would add some $1.4 trillion to the deficit over 10 years.

But it's actually quite a bit worse. This time last year, the CBO report said that the 10-year projected deficits would be $9,422bn (here, page 89). Fast-forward to December and it was, well, if you go and cut taxes, it will add $1,454bn to that number.

Last week, they had a chance to run the numbers again and it's $3,000bn more than this time last year. So, now instead of the 10-year deficit being $9.4 trillion, it’s going to be $12.4 trillion, Oh, and debt held by the public (which is all the federal debt except that owned by trust funds like Social Security, Medicare and Retirement funds) will grow from 75% of GDP to 95%.

Anyway, here’s the chart of budget deficits as a percent of GDP to 2028, heading up to 5% of GDP from a 50-year average of 3%. In fact, the deficit has only been over 5% of GDP five times since 1946 and four of those were in the depths of the 2007-2009 recession.

Why are deficits growing? Well, it comes down to lower revenue from corporate taxes of course which are permanent, and lower income taxes up to 2026, after which they jump because they expire in 2025. And it’s also because of mundane things like higher interest rates on the higher deficit.

Does it matter? You tend to get three answers:

1.     No. We owe it to ourselves. See Japan etc.

2.     Heck, yes. No family budget can go on spending like that.

3.     It's complicated.

 There were an awful lot of people who were on the side of #2 but they've gone to ground/retired recently. Answer #1 can be true if you have a nation of savers and don't rely on outsiders to finance your debt. As for #3, the CBO puts it best:

 “Such high and rising debt would have significant negative consequences, both for the economy and for the federal budget”

We've had deficit panics in the past. But then we had higher growth and higher inflation (which reduces the real cost and value of debt). Today we have neither of those. Put it all together and we would say this is another reason to expect low growth for many years.

2.     Do we have an inflation problem? Not yet. We had two major inflation reports, Producer (PPI) and Consumer (CPI) prices. The headline numbers were 3.0 % and 2.4%. On the CPI side, we’d note that there’s a “base effect” especially in three areas. First, in energy. This time last year, prices for gasoline and energy were flat or down. But oil is now 26% higher than a year ago (lucky California drivers are paying 30% more than 18 months ago), so energy prices are up 7% but from a low base. Second, cell phone prices dropped sharply last year (we wrote about it) but now they've stopped dropping. Third, medical care expenses rose from a year ago when the ACA had negotiated lower hospital costs. Those too have started to rise. Together these three are around 15% of the index.

Here’s the chart with the cell phone expenses at the bottom now rising.

Take some of these base effects out and we’re looking at core CPI at 2.1%, which is unchanged. Over on the wages side there is no real movement either. Any increase is in more purchasing power not increased wages. Remember the BLS puts you down for a wage increase if your wages don't change but prices fall.

So we remain in the camp that inflation won't really take much hold although the Fed will talk about it.

Bottom Line: We don't think business and consumer confidence is running very high. Stocks are going to react and overreact to very bit of news. Look for what CEOs say in earnings calls. We feel we’re well positioned for a rough few weeks.

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