Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Retirement Investing and Kitchen Table Economics

By Dennis Miller

What is it about retirement that causes confident, successful businessmen and women to lose that edge when they invest their own life savings? Many otherwise dynamic people become virtually impotent in the face of retirement investing. I have many friends who were very effective in business—folks who made sound decisions affecting how millions upon millions of dollars were spent. They would gather the facts, make a plan, and make the right call with confidence. Why was it so taxing for these same friends to manage their personal retirement accounts?


I’m a staunch advocate for gathering around the kitchen table to hash out problems and pass on life lessons. It’s where we gathered as a family to open our mail, pay the bills, and teach (and worry about) our children. I might even say that everything we needed to teach our family about economics, we taught at that kitchen table.

The secret is there is no secret. Investment gurus, stockbrokers, and talking heads like to use fancy words to dazzle. Many would have you believe their university or Wall Street pedigrees give them investing powers outside of your reach. Though many do have a little more knowledge or a little more experience, there is no need to be intimidated by the mystique.

Why? Because you already know most of what you need to know. The underlying principles for protecting and growing wealth during retirement are the same principles that allowed you to make and save that money in the first place.

When former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan would talk to Congress, many bright people would look at each other and think, “What the hell did he say?” If folks like Greenspan are so darn smart, why couldn’t they predict or prevent the Internet or real estate boom and bust? Why can’t they speak plainly? Don’t let anyone’s “elite” status overshadow your own common sense.

For the last few years, the Federal Reserve has been printing a 100 year supply of money annually. No one needs a PhD in economics to grasp the potential for high inflation. A little knowledge of history and a bit of common sense will tell you where we’re headed.

The key to using kitchen-table economics in retirement is to apply the same fact finding and research skills that made you successful in business. If you are uncomfortable making an investment decision, continue to educate yourself until you are. Of course, it’s sensible to take in input and ideas from experts. Just don’t get caught thinking they have any magic bullets.

If you ask four people to define “rich,” you would likely get four different answers. As we move into retirement, the definition tends to be more practical and realistic. “Rich” is enough money to live comfortably without countless hours of financial worry. It’s also a feeling of pride in the lifetime of work that built your nest egg and an appreciation for each and every trip you get around the sun.

How much do you have; how much do you need to earn to supplement your retirement income; and, how can you invest safely to reach that goal? Retirement investing is no more complicated than that. Simply put, it’s living within your means and protecting what you have.

If I could shout one piece of encouragement to retirees, it would be: Don’t let the fear of losing money immobilize you! Doing nothing can be just as dangerous as risking too much on a speculative or even downright foolish investment.

You may recall the old adage about the banker who never made a loan because he was afraid he might lose money. When the bank went out of business, he claimed it wasn’t his fault. After all, he never made a bad loan during his tenure.

To make your retirement money last, you have to take on some risk. There are, however, proven ways to limit that risk to manageable doses: sector, geographical, and political diversification, trailing stop losses—the list goes on. Good investors will lose money from time to time and learn from their mistakes. You just need to learn and make the right judgment call more often than not.

Don’t fret when others brag about how well they’re doing. Each year financial newsletters, mutual funds, and investment managers like to boast about how much money they’ve made their clients. Accountability is a good thing; we’re certainly proud of our own track record.

Though, when I see the list of top-performing funds ranked by the amount of annual return, my first questions are: How much did they risk to get there? Have they performed that well consistently? How much of those profits were eaten in fees?

Some mutual funds occasionally produce nice gains for their shareholders. I, however, would put my money on the well educated grandfather investing from his kitchen table in Iowa any day of the week. Why? A recent report indicated that 78% of all US domestic equity funds were outperformed by their benchmarks during the past three years. Large caps were worse, with 86% of falling short of their benchmarks.
Benchmarks are the indices in the sectors funds specialize in, respectively. In short, there are countless statistics indicating that you can invest just as well as a fund manager.

Those numbers should embolden you, not frighten you. I shared them to keep things in perspective. There is no magic wizardry, secret code, or special knowledge. All investors gather facts, make an evaluation, and then allocate some money based on what they think the future will bring. Those are skills that can be honed through education and experience by smart folks sitting at their kitchen tables or in their home offices.

I’m happy to report that the most frequent comment we receive is that our newsletter explains investments in plain English. There’s a reason for that: the investments well suited for a conservative investor’s retirement portfolio are not that complicated.

You can overcome retirement impotence. The best way to build your confidence is to learn ways to invest safely. We think teaching our premium subscribers about protective mechanisms like asset allocation, diversification, position limits, trailing stop losses, and internationalization is just as important as the individual picks in the Money Forever portfolio. If you’d like to learn more too, sign up for a no-risk trial subscription today by clicking here.

The article Kitchen Table Economics was originally published at Millers Money



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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Obama’s Secret Pipeline

By Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist

Isn’t it odd that an 800 mile pipeline that runs across environmentally sensitive land has been permitted without any mention in the media? Not a word about it from President Obama either.

Obama’s Secret Pipeline will be built over land that’s much more sensitive than that of the Keystone XL pipeline, which gets nothing but front page coverage. It will actually be 17% (six inches) larger in diameter than Keystone XL (36 inches) and it will transport natural gas, not oil.

Bill 138

The Senate of Alaska, the state in which the pipeline will be built, has just passed Bill 138, which makes the state a partner of three of the world’s largest oil companies, including one that has a horrible environmental track record on U.S. soil. In a nutshell, Alaska’s government is now partners with BP, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips.

Only one more signature is required—Governor Sean Parnell’s—and it’s expected that he will sign the deal.

Not Even the US Government Wants US Dollars

For more than 100 years, the U.S. government has been receiving a royalty and tax revenue paid on the amount of oil or natural gas produced on American soil—a fee that is paid in U.S. dollars. Bill 138 has changed this forever.

Instead of Alaska receiving its dues in U.S. dollars, the state legislature has decreed through Bill 138 that the state will be paid “in kind.” In other words, the state will be getting its share of royalty and tax revenue in natural gas instead of U.S. dollars.

For the record, this is the first time ever that a US state has entered into a partnership like this. Essentially, Alaska is now a 25% equity partner with BP, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips—which also requires the state to cough up cold, hard cash to build the entire project, including the 800 mile long, 42 inch wide pipeline.

Overall, the project is currently estimated to cost north of U.S. $50 billion, and we expect that when all the capital expense overruns and government inefficiencies are accounted for, the whole project will come in at more than U.S. $75 billion, using the total costs of similar projects for comparison.

But it will be 2015 before the final negotiations and the specific details of the partnership are agreed on, and remember, the devil is in the details. Who do you think will get the better end of the deal—a bunch of government bureaucrats with zero oil and gas experience, or the world’s top oil and gas producing companies? I know whom I’m betting on.

Which leads us to the point of this weekly missive.

And the Winner of Obama’s Secret Pipeline Is…

We already know which company will be building and operating Obama’s Secret Pipeline. The company I’m talking about has a lower price to earnings (P/E) ratio and a better yield than all of its peers. That’s good, because shareholders get paid a monthly yield for owning the stock while sitting back and watching the share price rise as well.

The Ultimate Oil Toll Booth

Think of it this way: this company charges the world’s most powerful oil and gas producers for every barrel of oil that passes through its “road network,” and now it can also charge the state of Alaska. Regardless of the price of oil or natural gas, this company gets its fee.

It’s a low-risk way to benefit from a high risk enterprise. This company is a current Buy in our Casey Energy Dividends portfolio. The Energy team is currently working hard on the upcoming issue, which will in detail cover the company that’s bound to gain big from Obama’s Secret Pipeline.

I know you haven’t heard about this pipeline yet, but you will soon enough.

That’s what we do here at the Energy Division of Casey Research: We’re the first to uncover breakthrough stories, and the first to uncover the best energy investment opportunities in the world. Doug Casey and I just got back from a whirlwind European tour, where we visited many of Europe’s most promising energy projects.

Here’s a picture of Doug Casey and me at Europe’s largest onshore drill site. This drill rig is 15 stories high and uses about 16,000 liters of diesel a day to turn the drills—which Doug and I are holding in this picture. As a side note, just the crank shaft that we’re holding costs U.S. $2 million—this rig is expensive and gigantic.


For you to get a better perspective on the true size of Europe’s largest onshore drill rig, here is a picture of Doug Casey and me with our friends Frank Holmes, Frank Giustra, and Matt Smith.

(From far left to right: Frank Holmes, Doug Casey, Marin Katusa, Frank Giustra, Matt Smith)

 

Do Your Portfolio a Favor and Try Out the Casey Energy Report

Doug Casey and I have done all the hard work for you. The current issue of the Casey Energy Report is a compilation of our Europe trip, including in-depth descriptions of our site visits and a new recommendation with a hugely promising project in an out-of-the-way European country that we personally checked out. The company is backed by mining giant Frank Giustra, and you bet he knows what he’s doing.

The Casey Energy Report comes with a free one year subscription to Casey Energy Dividends (a $79 value), including, of course, the upcoming May issue with our “Obama’s Secret Pipeline” pick.

There’s no risk in trying it: You have 90 days to find out if it’s right for you—love it or cancel for a full refund. You don’t have to travel 300+ days a year (as we do) to discover the best energy investments in the world—we do it for you.

If you don’t like the Casey Energy Report or don’t make any money within your first three months, just cancel within that time for a full, prompt refund. Even if you miss the cutoff, you can cancel anytime for a prorated refund on the unused part of your subscription. Click here to get started.

The article Obama’s Secret Pipeline was originally published at Casey Research



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Monday, April 28, 2014

What High Frequency Trading Firms Don't Want You to Know

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Can Natural Gas Prices Move Higher From Here?

Natural gas futures in the June contract finished down 10 points this week to close around 4.65 as I’m recommending a long position in this contract placing my stop loss below the 10 day low which stands at 4.50 risking around 15 points or $1,500 per contract as the trend is still higher in my opinion as the risk reward situation is highly in your favor as we enter the demand season of summer. Natural gas prices have been in a bull market for quite some time and if you read some of my previous blogs several months back when prices were in the low $3 I was recommending if you have deep pockets and a longer term horizon to buy natural gas as prices were extremely cheap due to the fact of large supplies, however we had an extremely cold winter which reduced supplies dramatically and I do think natural gas prices will be sharply higher from today’s level in the next year as prices have bottomed out in my opinion. As a trader I focus on today and tomorrow only so when I can buy a natural gas contract and risk 1,500 I will take that trade even if I don’t believe the trade. Natural gas prices are trading above their 20 and 100 day moving average telling you that the trend is higher after we consolidated in the month March after the big run up in early winter as prices seem to be resuming back up to the upside so play this market to the upside using my stop loss and proper risk management.
TREND: HIGHER
CHART STRUCTURE: OUTSTANDING

What High Frequency Trading Firms Don't Want You to Know

Gold futures in the June contract settled higher for the 2nd consecutive trading session cracking $1,300 an ounce after hitting new recent lows yesterday before the Ukrainian situation was stirred up once again this could be a problem for months to come as gold is held major support 1,280 currently I’m not recommending a position in this market as the trends choppy but keep an eye on this chart and wait for better chart structure to develop. Gold futures are trading above their 20 and 100 day moving average telling you that the trend is higher despite the fact that we are right near recent lows as the market remains choppy but with the stock market rallying recently investors sought no reasonable gold but the money flow came back into this market as political tensions are heating up. If your bullish the gold market my recommendation would be to buy a futures contract at today’s price of 1,300 while placing your stop below yesterday’s low of 1,264 risking around $3600 but the true breakout will not occur until prices break the April 14th high of 1331.
TREND: SIDEWAYS
CHART STRUCTURE: POOR

Coffee futures in the July contract are ending the week on a sour note finishing down around 500 points to close around 209.70 while still trading above its 20 and 100 day moving average hitting new contract highs earlier in the week settling down about 500 points for the trading week in New York. I’ve been recommending a long position in coffee however the chart structure is very poor at this time and this trade is only for people with deep pockets and large trading accounts as its extremely volatile with high risk but I do believe that prices are headed higher and on any further weakness I would take advantage and get long the futures or a bull call option spread as the crop in central Brazil was absolutely devastated and I’m still hearing reports from some of my contacts down in Brazil that higher prices are coming as we will see an estimate on how many bags will actually be produced in the coming weeks and they are telling me that production is much lower than what currently is anticipated so only time will tell but I do believe prices are headed higher. TREND: HIGHER
CHART STRUCTURE: TERRIBLE

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The Cost of Code Red

By John Mauldin


(It is especially important to read the opening quotes this week. They set up the theme in the proper context.)

 “There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”
– Ludwig von Mises
“No very deep knowledge of economics is usually needed for grasping the immediate effects of a measure; but the task of economics is to foretell the remoter effects, and so to allow us to avoid such acts as attempt to remedy a present ill by sowing the seeds of a much greater ill for the future.”
– Ludwig von Mises
“[Central banks are at] serious risk of exhausting the policy room for manoeuver over time.”
– Jaime Caruana, General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements
“The gap between the models in the world of monetary policymaking is now wider than at any time since the 1930s.”
– Benjamin Friedman, William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy, Harvard

To listen to most of the heads of the world’s central banks, things are going along swimmingly. The dogmatic majority exude a great deal of confidence in their ability to manage their economies through whatever crisis may present itself. (Raghuram Rajan, the sober minded head of the Reserve Bank of India, is a notable exception.)

However, there is reason to believe that there have been major policy mistakes made by central banks – and will be more of them – that will lead to dislocations in the markets – all types of markets. And it’s not just the usual anti-central bank curmudgeon types (among whose number I have been counted, quite justifiably) who are worried. Sources within the central bank community are worried, too, which should give thoughtful observers of the market cause for concern.

Too often we as investors (and economists) are like the generals who are always fighting the last war. We look at bank balance sheets (except those of Europe and China), corporate balance sheets, sovereign bond spreads and yields, and say it isn’t likely that we will repeat this mistakes which led to 2008. And I smile and say, “You are absolutely right; we are not going to repeat those mistakes. We learned our lessons. Now we are going to make entirely new mistakes.” And while the root cause of the problems, then and now, may be the same – central bank policy – the outcome will be somewhat different. But a crisis by any other name will still be uncomfortable.

If you look at some of the recent statements from the Bank for International Settlements, you should come away with a view much more cautious than the optimistic one that is bandied about in the media today. In fact, to listen to the former chief economist of the BIS, we should all be quite worried.

I am of course referring to Bill White, who is one of my personal intellectual heroes. I hope to get to meet him someday. We have discussed some of his other papers, written in conjunction with the Dallas Federal Reserve, in past letters. He was clearly warning about imbalances and potential bubbles in 2007 and has generally been one of the most prescient observers of the global economy. The prestigious Swiss business newspaper Finanz und Wirtschaft did a far reaching interview with him a few weeks ago, and I’ve taken the liberty to excerpt pieces that I think are very important. The excerpts run a few pages, but this is really essential reading. (The article is by Mehr zum Thema, and you can read the full piece here.)

Speculative Bubbles

The headline for the interview is “I see speculative bubbles like in 2007.” As the interviewer rolls out the key questions, White warns of grave adverse effects of ultra loose monetary policy:

William White is worried. The former chief economist of the Bank for International Settlements is highly skeptical of the ultra-loose monetary policy that most central banks are still pursuing. “It all feels like 2007, with equity markets overvalued and spreads in the bond markets extremely thin,” he warns.

Mr. White, all the major central banks have been running expansive monetary policies for more than five years now. Have you ever experienced anything like this?

The honest truth is no one has ever seen anything like this. Not even during the Great Depression in the Thirties has monetary policy been this loose. And if you look at the details of what these central banks are doing, it’s all very experimental. They are making it up as they go along. I am very worried about any kind of policies that have that nature.

But didn’t the extreme circumstances after the collapse of Lehman Brothers warrant these extreme measures?

Yes, absolutely. After Lehman, many markets just seized up. Central bankers rightly tried to maintain the basic functioning of the system. That was good crisis management. But in my career I have always distinguished between crisis prevention, crisis management, and crisis resolution. Today, the Fed still acts as if it was in crisis management. But we’re six years past that. They are essentially doing more than what they did right in the beginning. There is something fundamentally wrong with that. Plus, the Fed has moved to a completely different motivation. From the attempt to get the markets going again, they suddenly and explicitly started to inflate asset prices again. The aim is to make people feel richer, make them spend more, and have it all trickle down to get the economy going again. Frankly, I don’t think it works, and I think this is extremely dangerous.

So, the first quantitative easing in November 2008 was warranted?

Absolutely.

But they should have stopped these kinds of policies long ago?

Yes. But here’s the problem. When you talk about crisis resolution, it’s about attacking the fundamental problems that got you into the trouble in the first place. And the fundamental problem we are still facing is excessive debt. Not excessive public debt, mind you, but excessive debt in the private and public sectors. To resolve that, you need restructurings and write-offs. That’s government policy, not central bank policy. Central banks can’t rescue insolvent institutions. All around the western world, and I include Japan, governments have resolutely failed to see that they bear the responsibility to deal with the underlying problems. With the ultraloose monetary policy, governments have no incentive to act. But if we don’t deal with this now, we will be in worse shape than before.

But wouldn’t large-scale debt write-offs hurt the banking sector again?

Absolutely. But you see, we have a lot of zombie companies and banks out there. That’s a particular worry in Europe, where the banking sector is just a continuous story of denial, denial and denial. With interest rates so low, banks just keep ever-greening everything, pretending all the money is still there. But the more you do that, the more you keep the zombies alive, they pull down the healthy parts of the economy. When you have made bad investments, and the money is gone, it’s much better to write it off and get fifty percent than to pretend it’s still there and end up getting nothing. So yes, we need more debt reduction and more recapitalization of the banking system. This is called facing up to reality.

Where do you see the most acute negative effects of this monetary policy?

The first thing I would worry about are asset prices. Every asset price you could think of is in very odd territory. Equity prices are extremely high if you at valuation measures such as Tobin’s Q or a Shiller-type normalized P/E. Risk-free bond rates are at enormously low levels, spreads are very low, you have all these funny things like covenant-lite loans again. It all looks and feels like 2007.

And frankly, I think it’s worse than 2007, because then it was a problem of the developed economies. But in the past five years, all the emerging economies have imported our ultra low policy rates and have seen their debt levels rise. The emerging economies have morphed from being a part of the solution to being a part of the problem.

Do you see outright bubbles in financial markets?

Yes, I do. Investors try to attribute the rising stock markets to good fundamentals. But I don’t buy that. People are caught up in the momentum of all the liquidity that is provided by the central banks. This is a liquidity-driven thing, not based on fundamentals.

So are we mostly seeing what the Fed has been doing since 1987 – provide liquidity and pump markets up again?

Absolutely. We just saw the last chapter of that long history. This is the last of a whole series of bubbles that have been blown. In the past, monetary policy has always succeeded in pulling up the economy. But each time, the Fed had to act more vigorously to achieve its results. So, logically, at a certain point, it won’t work anymore. Then we’ll be in big trouble. And we will have wasted many years in which we could have been following better policies that would have maintained growth in much more sustainable ways. Now, to make you feel better, I said the same in 1998, and I was way too early.

What about the moral hazard of all this?

The fact of the matter is that if you have had 25 years of central bank and government bailout whenever there was a problem, and the bankers come to appreciate that fact, then we are back in a world where the banks get all the profits, while the government socializes all the losses. Then it just gets worse and worse. So, in terms of curbing the financial system, my own sense is that all of the stuff that has been done until now, while very useful, Basel III and all that, is not going to be sufficient to deal with the moral hazard problem. I would have liked to see a return to limited banking, a return to private ownership, a return to people going to prison when they do bad things. Moral hazard is a real issue.

Do you have any indication that the Yellen Fed will be different than the Greenspan and Bernanke Fed?

Not really. The one person in the FOMC that was kicking up a real fuss about asset bubbles was Governor Jeremy Stein. Unfortunately, he has gone back to Harvard.

The markets seem to assume that the tapering will run very smoothly, though. Volatility, as measured by the Vix index, is low.

Don’t forget that the Vix was at [a] record low in 2007. All that liquidity raises the asset prices and lowers the cost of insurance. I see at least three possible scenarios how this will all work out. One is: Maybe all this monetary stuff will work perfectly. I don’t think this is likely, but I could be wrong. I have been wrong so many times before. So if it works, the long bond rates can go up slowly and smoothly, and the financial system will adapt nicely. But even against the backdrop of strengthening growth, we could still see a disorderly reaction in financial markets, which would then feed back to destroy the economic recovery.

How?

We are such a long way away from normal long term interest rates. Normal would be perhaps around four percent. Markets have a tendency to rush to the end point immediately. They overshoot. Keynes said in late Thirties that the long bond market could fluctuate at the wrong levels for decades. If fears of inflation suddenly re-appear, this can move interest rates quickly. Plus, there are other possible accidents. What about the fact that maybe most of the collateral you need for normal trading is all tied up now? What about the fact that the big investment dealers have got inventories that are 20 percent of what they were in 2007? When things start to move, the inventory for the market makers might not be there. That’s a particular worry in fields like corporate bonds, which can be quite illiquid to begin with. I’ve met so many people who are in the markets, thinking they are absolutely brilliantly smart, thinking they can get out in the right time. The problem is, they all think that. And when everyone races for the exit at the same time, we will have big problems. I’m not saying all of this will happen, but reasonable people should think about what could go wrong, even against a backdrop of faster growth.

And what is the third scenario?

The strengthening growth might be a mirage. And if it does not materialize, all those elevated prices will be way out of line of fundamentals.

Which of the major central banks runs the highest risk of something going seriously wrong?

At the moment what I am most worried about is Japan. I know there is an expression that the Japanese bond market is called the widowmaker. People have bet against it and lost money. The reason I worry now is that they are much further down the line even than the Americans. What is Abenomics really? As far as I see it, they print the money and tell people that there will be high inflation. But I don’t think it will work. The Japanese consumer will say prices are going up, but my wages won’t. Because they haven’t for years. So I am confronted with a real wage loss, and I have to hunker down. At the same time, financial markets might suddenly not want to hold Japanese Government Bonds anymore with a perspective of 2 percent inflation. This will end up being a double whammy, and Japan will just drop back into deflation. And now happens what Professor Peter Bernholz wrote in his latest book. Now we have a stagnating Japanese economy, tax revenues dropping like a stone, the deficit already at eight percent of GDP, debt at more than 200 percent and counting. I have no difficulty in seeing this thing tipping overnight into hyperinflation. If you go back into history, a lot of hyperinflations started with deflation.

Many people have warned of inflation in the past five years, but nothing has materialized. Isn’t the fear of inflation simply overblown?

One reason we don’t see inflation is because monetary policy is not working. The signals are not getting through. Consumers and corporates are not responding to the signals. We still have a disinflationary gap. There has been a huge increase in base money, but it has not translated into an increase in broader aggregates. And in Europe, the money supply is still shrinking. My worry is that at some point, people will look at this situation and lose confidence that stability will be maintained. If they do and they do start to fear inflation, that change in expectations can have very rapid effects.

More from the BIS

The Bank for International Settlements is known as the “central bankers’ central bank.” It hosts a meeting once a month for all the major central bankers to get together for an extravagant dinner and candid conversation. Surprisingly, there has been no tell-all book about these meetings by some retiring central banker. They take the code of “omertà” (embed) seriously.

Jaime Caruana, the General Manager of the BIS, recently stated that monetary institutions (central banks) are at “serious risk of exhausting the policy room for manoeuver over time.” He followed that statement with a very serious speech at the Harvard Kennedy School two weeks ago. Here is the abstract of the speech (emphasis mine):

This speech contrasts two explanatory views of what he characterizes as “the sluggish and uneven recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008-09.” One view points to a persistent shortfall of demand and the other to the specificities of a financial cycle-induced recession – the “shortfall of demand” vs. the “balance sheet” view. The speech summarizes each diagnosis [and]… then reviews evidence bearing on the two views and contrasts the policy prescriptions to be inferred from each view. The speech concludes that the balance sheet view provides a better overarching explanation of events. In terms of policy, the implication is that there has been too much emphasis since the crisis on stimulating demand and not enough on balance sheet repair and structural reforms to boost productivity. Looking forward, policy frameworks need to ensure that policies are more symmetrical over the financial cycle, so as to avoid the risks of entrenching instability and eventually running out of policy ammunition.

Coming from the head of the BIS, the statement I have highlighted is quite remarkable. He is basically saying (along with his predecessor, William White) that quantitative easing as it is currently practiced is highly problematical. We wasted the past five years by avoiding balance sheet repair and trying to stimulate demand. His analysis perfectly mirrors the one Jonathan Tepper and I laid out in our book Code Red.

How Does the Economy Adjust to Asset Purchases?

In 2011 the Bank of England gave us a paper outlining what they expected to be the consequences of quantitative easing. Note that in the chart below they predict exactly what we have seen. Real (inflation-adjusted) asset prices rise in the initial phase. Nominal demand rises slowly, and there is a lagging effect on real GDP. But note what happens when a central bank begins to flatten out its asset purchases or what is called “broad money” in the graph: real asset prices begin to fall rather precipitously, and consumer price levels rise. I must confess that I look at the graph and scratch my head and go, “I can understand why you might want the first phase, but what in the name of the wide, wide world of sports are you going to do for policy adjustment in the second phase?” Clearly the central bankers thought this QE thing was a good idea, but from my seat in the back of the plane it seems like they are expecting a rather bumpy ride at some point in the future.



Let’s go to the quote in the BoE paper that explains this graph (emphasis mine):

The overall effect of asset purchases on the macroeconomy can be broken down into two stages: an initial ‘impact’ phase and an ‘adjustment’ phase, during which the stimulus from asset purchases works through the economy, as illustrated in Chart 1. As discussed above, in the impact phase, asset purchases change the composition of the portfolios held by the private sector, increasing holdings of broad money and decreasing those of medium and long-term gilts. But because gilts [gilts is the English term for bonds] and money are imperfect substitutes, this creates an initial imbalance. As asset portfolios are rebalanced, asset prices are bid up until equilibrium in money and asset markets is restored. This is reinforced by the signalling channel and the other effects of asset purchases already discussed, which may also act to raise asset prices. Through lower borrowing costs and higher wealth, asset prices then raise demand, which acts to push up the consumer price level.

[Quick note: I think Lacy Hunt thoroughly devastated the notion that there is a wealth effect and that rising asset prices affect demand in last week’s Outside the Box. Lacy gives us the results of numerous studies which show the theory to be wrong. Nevertheless, many economists and central bankers cling to the wealth effect like shipwrecked sailors to a piece of wood on a stormy sea. Now back to the BoE.]

In the adjustment phase, rising consumer and asset prices raise the demand for money balances and the supply of long-term assets. So the initial imbalance in money and asset markets shrinks, and real asset prices begin to fall back. The boost to demand therefore diminishes and the price level continues to increase but by smaller amounts. The whole process continues until the price level has risen sufficiently to restore real money balances, real asset prices and real output to their equilibrium levels. Thus, from a position of deficient demand, asset purchases should accelerate the return of the economy to equilibrium.

This is the theory under which central banks of the world are operating. Look at this rather cool chart prepared by my team (and specifically Worth Wray). The Fed (with a few notable exceptions on the FOMC) has been openly concerned about deflationary trends. They are purposely trying to induce a higher target inflation. The problem is, the inflation is only showing up in stock prices – and not just in large cap equity markets but in all assets around the world that price off of the supposedly “risk-free” rate of return.



I hope you get the main idea, because understanding this dynamic is absolutely critical for navigating what the Chairman of the South African Reserve Bank, Gill Marcus, is calling the next phase of the global financial crisis. Every asset price (yes, even and especially in emerging markets) that has been driven higher by unnaturally low interest rates, quantitative easing, and forward guidance must eventually fall back to earth as real interest rates eventually normalize.

Trickle-Down Monetary Policy

For all intents and purposes we have adopted a trickle-down monetary policy, one which manifestly does not work and has served only to enrich financial institutions and the already wealthy. Now I admit that I benefit from that, but it’s a false type of enrichment, since it has come at the expense of the general economy, which is where true wealth is created. I would rather have my business and investments based on something more stably productive, thank you very much.

Monetary policies implemented by central banks around the world are beginning to diverge in a major way. And don’t look now, but that sort of divergence almost always spells disaster for all or part of the global economy. Which is why Indian Central Bank Governor Rajan is pounding the table for more coordinated policies. He can see what is going to happen to cross-border capital flows and doesn’t appreciate being caught in the middle of the field of fire with hardly more than a small pistol to defend himself. And the central banks even smaller than his are bringing only a knife to the gunfight.



The Fed & BoE Are Heading for the Exits…

In the United States, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen is clearly signaling her interest – if not outright intent – to turn the Fed’s steady $10 billion “tapering” of its $55 billion/month quantitative easing program into a more formal exit strategy. The Fed is still actively expanding its balance sheet, but by a smaller amount after every FOMC meeting (so far)… and global markets are already nervously anticipating any move to sell QE-era assets or explicitly raise rates. Just like China’s slowdown (which we have written about extensively), the Fed’s eventual exit will be a global event with major implications for the rest of the world. And US rate normalization could drastically disrupt cross-border real interest rate differentials and trigger the strongest wave of emerging-market balance of payments crises since the 1930s.

In the United Kingdom, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney is carefully broadcasting his intent to hike rates before selling QE-era assets. According to his view, financial markets tend to respond rather mechanically to rate hikes, but unwinding the BoE’s bloated balance sheet could trigger a series of unintended and potentially destructive consequences. Delaying those asset sales indefinitely and leaning on rate targeting once more allows him to guide the BoE toward tightening without giving up the ability to rapidly reverse course if financial markets freeze. Then again, Carney may be making a massive, credibility-cracking mistake.



While the BoJ & ECB Are Just Getting Started

In Japan, Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda is resisting the equity market’s call for additional asset purchases as the Abe administration implements its national sales tax increase – precisely the same mistake that triggered Japan’s 1997 recession. As I have written repeatedly, Japan is the most leveraged government in the world, with a government debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 240%. Against the backdrop of a roughly $6 trillion economy, Japan needs to inflate away something like 150% to 200% of its current debt-to-GDP… that’s roughly $9 trillion to $12 trillion in today’s dollars.

Think about that for a moment. At some point I need to do a whole letter on this, but I seriously believe the Bank of Japan will print something on the order of $8 trillion (give or take) over the next six to ten years. In relative terms, this is the equivalent of the US Federal Reserve printing $32 trillion. To think this will have no impact on the world is simply to ignore how capital flows work. Japan is a seriously large economy with a seriously powerful central bank. This is not Greece or Argentina. This is going to do some damage.

I have no idea whether Japan’s BANG! moment is just around the corner or still several years off, but rest assured that Governor Kuroda and his colleagues at the Bank of Japan will respond to economic weakness with more… and more… and more easing over the coming years.

In the euro area, European Central Bank Chairman Mario Draghi – with unexpected support from his two voting colleagues from the German Bundesbank – is finally signaling that more quantitative easing may be on the way to lower painfully high exchange rates that constrain competitiveness and to raise worryingly low inflation rates that can precipitate a debt crisis by steepening debt-growth trajectories. This QE will be disguised under the rubric of fighting inflation, and all sorts of other euphemisms will be applied to it, but at the end of the day, Europe will have joined in an outright global currency war.

I don’t expect the Japanese and Europeans to engage in modest quantitative easing. Both central banks are getting ready to hit the panic button in response to too low inflation, steepening debt trajectories, and inconveniently strong exchange rates.

While the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Swiss National Bank, Bank of England, and Bank of Japan have collectively grown their balance sheets to roughly $9 trillion today, the next wave of asset purchases could more than double that balance in relatively quick order.

This is what I mean by Code Red: frantic pounding on the central bank panic button that invites tit-for-tat retaliation around the world and especially by emerging-market central banks, leading to a DOUBLING of the assets shown in the chart below and a race to the bottom, as the “guardians” of the world’s primary currencies become their executioners.



The opportunity for a significant policy mistake from a major central bank is higher today than ever. I share Bill White’s concern about Japan. I worry about China and seriously hope they can keep their deleveraging and rebalancing under control, although I doubt that many parts of the world are ready for a China that only grows at 3 to 4% for the next five years. That will cause a serious adjustment in many business and government models.

It is time to hit the send button, but let me close with the point that was made graphically in the Bank of England’s chart back in the middle of the letter. Once central bank asset purchases cease, the BoE expects real asset prices to fall… a lot. You will notice that there is no scale on the vertical axis and no timeline along the bottom of the chart. No one really knows the timing. My friend Doug Kass has an interview (subscribers only) in Barron’s this week, talking about how to handle what he sees as a bubble.

“Sell in May and go away” might be a very good adage to remember.

Amsterdam, Brussels, Geneva, San Diego, Rome, and Tuscany

I leave Tuesday night for Amsterdam to speak on Thursday afternoon for VBA Beleggingsprofessionals. There will be a debate-style format around the theme of “Are there any safe havens left in this volatile world?” I plan to write my letter from Amsterdam on Friday and then play tourist on Saturday in that delightful city full of wonderful museums. Then, if all goes well, I will rent a car and take a leisurely drive to Brussels through the countryside, something I have always wanted to do. I may try to get lost, at least for a few hours. Who knows what you might stumble on?

I will be speaking Monday night in Brussels for my good friend Geert Wellens of Econopolis Wealth Management before we fly to Geneva for another speech with his firm, and of course there will be the usual meetings with clients and friends. I find Geneva the most irrationally expensive city I travel to, and the current exchange rates don’t suggest I will find anything different this time.

I come back for a few days before heading to San Diego and my Strategic Investment Conference, cosponsored with Altegris. I have spent time with each of the speakers over the last few weeks, going over their topics, and I have to tell you, I am like a kid in a candy store, about as excited as I can get. This is going to be one incredible conference. You really want to make an effort to get there, but if you can’t, be sure to listen to the audio CDs.  You can get a discounted rate by purchasing prior to the conference.

The Dallas weather may be an analogy for the current economic environment. To look out my window is to see nothing but blue sky with puffy little clouds, and the temperature is perfect. My good friend and business partner Darrell Cain will be arriving in a little bit for a late lunch. We’ll go somewhere and sit outside and then move on to an early Dallas Mavericks game against the San Antonio Spurs. Contrary to expectations, the Mavs actually trounced the Spurs down in San Antonio last week. Of course the local fans would like to see that trend continue, but I would not encourage my readers to place any bets on the Mavericks’ winning the current playoff series.

I live only a few blocks from American Airlines Center, and so normally on such a beautiful day we would leisurely walk to the game. But the local weather aficionados are warning us that while we are at the game tornadoes and hail may appear, along with the attendant severe thunderstorms. That kind of thing can happen in Texas. Then again, it could all blow south of here. That sort of thing also happens.

So when I warn people of an impending potential central bank policy mistake, which would be the economic equivalent of tornadoes and hail storms, I also have to acknowledge that the whole thing could blow away and miss us entirely. I think someone once said that the role of economists is to make weathermen look good. Recently, 67 out of 67 economists said they expect interest rates to rise this year. We’ll review that prediction at the end of the year.

I’ve been interrupted while trying to finish this letter by daughter Tiffani, who is frantically trying to figure out how to buy tickets to get us to Italy (Tuscany) for the first part of June for a little vacation (along with a few friends who will be visiting). I am going to take advantage of being in Rome at the end of that trip, in order to spend a few days with my friend Christian Menegatti, the managing director of research for Roubini Global Economics. We will spend June 16-17  visiting with local businessmen, economists, central bankers, and politicians. Or that’s the plan. If you’d like to be part of that visit, drop me a note.

Finally I should note that my Canadian partners, Nicola Wealth Management, are opening a new office in Toronto. They will be having a special event there on May 8. If you’re in the area, you may want to check it out.

Have a great week, and make sure you take a little time to enjoy life. Avoid tornadoes.

Your hoping for a major upset analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Mauldin Economics





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Friday, April 25, 2014

Not All Debt Is Created Equal

By Dennis Miller

Optimal diversification: We all want it. Diversification is, after all, the holy grail of portfolio management. Our senior research analyst Andrey Dashkov has said that many times before, and he echoes that refrain in his editorial guest spot below.

A brief note before I hand over the reins to Andrey. The last time the market tanked, many of my friends suffered huge losses. They all thought their portfolios were well diversified. Many held several mutual funds and thought their plans were foolproof. Sad to say, those funds dropped in tandem with the rapidly falling market. Our readers need not suffer a similar fate.

Enter Andrey, who’s here to explain what optimal diversification is and to share concrete tools for implementing it in your own portfolio.

Take it away, Andrey…


Floating-Rate Funds Bolster Diversification

By Andrey Dashkov
Floating rate funds as an investment class are a good diversifier for a portfolio that includes stocks, bonds, and other types of investments. Here’s a bit of data to back that claim.

The chart below shows the correlation of floating rate benchmark to various subsets of the debt universe.
As a reminder, correlation is a measure of how two assets move in relation to each other. This relationship is usually measured by a correlation coefficient that ranges from -1 to +1. A coefficient of +1 says the two securities or asset types move in lockstep. A coefficient of -1 means they move in opposite directions. When one goes up, the other goes down. A correlation coefficient of 0 means they aren’t related at all and move independently.

Why Correlation Matters

 

Correlation matters because it helps to diversify your portfolio. If all securities in a portfolio are perfectly correlated and move in the same direction, we are, strictly speaking, screwed or elated. They’ll all move up or down together. When they win, they win big; and when they fall, they fall spectacularly. The risk is enormous.

Our goal is to create a portfolio where securities are not totally correlated. If one goes up or down, the others won’t do the same thing. This helps keep the whole portfolio afloat.

As Dennis mentioned, diversification is the holy grail of portfolio management. We based our Bulletproof strategy on it precisely because it provides safety under any economic scenario. If inflation hits, some stocks will go up, while others will go down or not react at all.

You want to hold stocks that behave differently. Our mantra is to avoid catastrophic losses in any investment under any scenario, and the Bulletproof strategy optimizes our odds of doing just that.

When “Weak” is Preferable

 

Now, a correlation coefficient may be calculated between stocks or whole investment classes. Stocks, various types of bonds, commodities—they all move in some relationship to one another. The relationship may be positive, negative, strong, weak, or nonexistent. To diversify successfully and make our portfolio robust, we need weak relationships. They make it more likely that if one group of investments moves, the others won’t, thereby keeping our whole portfolio afloat.

Now, back to our chart. It shows the correlation between investment types in relation to floating-rate funds of the sort we introduced into the Money Forever portfolio in January. For corporate high yield debt, for example, the correlation is +0.74. This means that in the past there was a strong likelihood that when the corporate high yield sector moved up or down, the floating rate sector moved in the same direction. You have to remember that correlation describes past events and can change over time. However, it’s a useful tool to look at how closely related investment types are.


I want to make three points with this chart:
  • Floating-rate loans are closely connected to high-yield bonds. The debt itself is similar in nature: credit ratings of the companies issuing high-yield notes or borrowing at floating rates are close; both are risky (although floating-rate debt is less so, and recoveries in case of a default are higher).

    Floating-rate funds as an investment class are not as good a diversifier for a high-yield portfolio. They can, on the other hand, provide protection against rising interest rates. When they go up, the price of floating-rate instruments remains the same, while traditional debt instruments lose value to make up for the increase in yield.
  • Notice that the correlation to the stock market is +0.44. If history is a guide, a falling market will have less effect on our floating-rate investment fund.
  • The chart shows that floating-rate funds serve as an excellent diversifier for a portfolio that’s reasonably mixed and represents the overall US aggregate bond market. The correlation is close to zero: -0.03. This means that movements of the overall US bond market do not coincide with the movements of the floating rate universe.

    Imagine two people walking down a street, when one (the overall debt market) turns left, the other (floating rate funds) would stop, grab a quick pizza, get a message from his friend, catch a cab, and drive away. No relationship at all… at least, not in the observed time period. This is the diversification we’re looking for.
Floating rate funds provide a terrific diversification opportunity for our portfolio. This gives us safety, and that is the key takeaway.

Our Bulletproof income portfolio offers a number of options for diversification above and beyond what’s mentioned here. You can learn all about our Bulletproof Income – and the other reasons it’s such an important one for seniors and savers – here.

The article Not All Debt Is Created Equal was originally published at Millers Money


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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Rise of the Trading Machines…. HFT vs. Me, You and John Carter

Today our trading partner John Carter of Simpler Trading poses this important question to us. Do we have the tools to trade in the face of high frequency trading and the “Rise of the High Frequency Trading Machines”.

It’s no secret that all us [that’s me, you and John] are at a huge disadvantage 100% of the time compared to the high frequency traders, the HFT. So what do we do to trade against the HFT, where do we start?

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Hoisington Investment Management Quarterly Review and Outlook, First Quarter 2014

By John Mauldin


In today’s Outside the Box, Lacy Hunt and Van Hoisington of Hoisington Investment have the temerity to point out that since the Great Recession officially ended in 2009, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has been consistently overoptimistic in its projections of U.S. growth. They simply expected QE to be more stimulative than it has been, to the tune of about 6% over the past four years – a total of about $1 trillion that never materialized.

Given that dismal track record, our authors ask why we should believe the Fed’s prediction of 2.9% real GDP growth for 2014 and 3.4% for 2015 – particularly with QE being tapered into nonexistence. A big part of the reason the Fed has been so steadily wrong, say Lacy and Van, is its overreliance on the so-called “wealth effect,” which posits that an increase in consumer wealth – through higher stock prices or home values, for instance – will lead to increased consumer spending.

The wealth effect has been both a justification for quantitative easing and a root cause of consistent overly optimistic growth expectations by the FOMC. The research cited below suggests that the concept of a wealth effect is in fact deeply flawed. It is unfortunate that the FOMC has relied on this flawed concept to experiment with over $3 trillion in asset purchases and continues to use it as the basis for what we believe are overly optimistic growth expectations.

The effect isn’t completely absent, say the authors, but their research suggests that it may five to ten times weaker than the Fed assumes. Go figure.

Hoisington Investment Management Company (www.Hoisingtonmgt.com) is a registered investment advisor specializing in fixed-income portfolios for large institutional clients. Located in Austin, Texas, the firm has over $5 billion under management and is the sub-adviser of the Wasatch-Hoisington U.S. Treasury Fund (WHOSX).

It is been a busy day for me here in Dallas. Besides nonstop meetings and conversations and my usual reading, I had the privilege of going to the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve and watching President Richard Fisher make loans to a group of budding entrepreneurs to build lemonade stands. It is part of a fabulous organization called Lemonade Day. The basic concept is to enable young children to learn about entrepreneurship and capitalism by helping them launch a lemonade stand. Youth who register are taught 14 lessons from their entrepreneurial workbook, with either a parent, teacher, youth organization leader, or other adult mentor supervising. At the conclusions of the lessons, they are prepared to open their first business… a lemonade stand. Local businesses and banks volunteer to empower these kids by making them a $50 loan and helping them set up their business. By the time they come to talk with the “banker,” they have a business plan and a set of goals as to what they will do with them profits they make. Watching these kids respond to adults asking them about their plans brings joy to your heart.

On May 4, in some 35 cities across the country, 200,000 young people will be building lemonade stands and trying to turn a profit. If you drive by a lemonade stand, stop and support America’s future entrepreneurs. If you are in one of those 35 cities (click here to find out), make a point to find a few lemonade stands and support America’s future. And if you don’t have a lemonade stand in your city, consider following in the footsteps of local heroes (and my good friends) Reid Walker and Robert Alpert, who decided to launch Lemonade Day here in Dallas. This should be a spring ritual in every city in the country.

Buoyed by the kids and their enthusiasm, I then went to dinner with Richard Fisher and Woody Brock and a few other associates of Ray Hunt, who hosted us for a fabulous and thought-provoking session, talking economics, geopolitics, and even a little politics. There was an interesting mix of pessimism and optimism in the room about the future of our country, but there was not a person who was not concerned with the direction in which we are headed. Gerald Turner, the president of SMU, talked to us about how fiscally conservative and socially liberal his students are. That kind of mirrors my own children. The world is changing faster, both technologically and demographically, than many of us in the Boomer generation are comfortable with. But we’d better get used to it.

It’s been a tumultuous last few days, and tomorrow morning I have to leave early for San Francisco to do a video shoot with my partners at Altegris, before going right back to the airport and flying home to speak to a local group of investment advisers and brokers brought together by Peak Capital Management. It is late and time to hit the send button, because the alarm clock will go off early. Have a great week
Your wondering where all the time goes analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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Hoisington Investment Management – Quarterly Review and Outlook, First Quarter 2014

 

Optimism at the FOMC

 

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has continuously been overly optimistic regarding its expectations for economic growth in the United States since the last recession ended in 2009. If their annual forecasts had been realized over the past four years, then at the end of 2013 the U.S. economy should have been approximately $1 trillion, or 6%, larger. The preponderance of research suggests that the FOMC has been incorrect in its presumption of the effectiveness of quantitative easing (QE) on boosting economic growth. This faulty track record calls into question their latest prediction of 2.9% real GDP growth for 2014 and 3.4% for 2015.

A major reason for the FOMC’s overly optimistic forecast for economic growth and its incorrect view of the effectiveness of quantitative easing is the reliance on the so-called “wealth effect”, described as a change in consumer wealth which results in a change in consumer spending. In an opinion column for The Washington Post on November 5, 2010, then FOMC chairman Ben Bernanke wrote, “...higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.” Former FOMC chairman Alan Greenspan in a CNBC interview on Feb. 15, 2013 said, “The stock market is the key player in the game of economic growth.” This year, in the January 20 issue of Time Magazine, the current FOMC chair, Janet Yellen said, “And part of the [economic stimulus] comes through higher house and stock prices, which causes people with homes and stocks to spend more, which causes jobs to be created throughout the economy and income to go up throughout the economy.”

FOMC leaders may feel justified in taking such a position based upon the FRB/US, a large- scale econometric model. In part of this model, employed by the FOMC in their decision making, household consumption behavior is expressed as a function of total wealth as well as other variables. The model predicts that an increase in wealth of one dollar will boost consumer spending by five to ten cents (see page 8-9 “Housing Wealth and Consumption” by Matteo Iacoviello, International Finance Discussion Papers, #1027, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, August 2011). Even at the lower end of their model's range this wealth effect, if it were valid, would be a powerful factor in spurring economic growth.

After examining much of the latest scholarly research, and conducting in house research on the link between household wealth and spending, we found the wealth effect to be much weaker than the FOMC presumes. In fact, it is difficult to document any consistent impact with most of the research pointing to a spending increase of only one cent per one dollar rise in wealth at best. Some studies even indicate that the wealth effect is only an interesting theory and cannot be observed in practice.

The wealth effect has been both a justification for quantitative easing and a root cause of consistent overly optimistic growth expectations by the FOMC. The research cited below suggests that the concept of a wealth effect is in fact deeply flawed. It is unfortunate that the FOMC has relied on this flawed concept to experiment with over $3 trillion in asset purchases and continues to use it as the basis for what we believe are overly optimistic growth expectations.

Consumer Wealth and Consumer Spending

 

Many episodes of rising and falling financial and housing asset wealth have occurred throughout history. The question is whether these periods of wealth changes are associated in a consistent and reliable way with changes in consumer spending. We examined, separately, percent changes in real consumption expenditures per capita against percent changes in the real S&P 500 index (financial wealth) and against percent changes in Robert Shiller’s real home price index (housing wealth). If economic relationships are valid they should work for all time periods, regardless of highly different idiosyncratic conditions, as opposed to an isolated subset of historical experience. As such, we conducted our analysis from 1930 through 2013, the entire time period for which all variables were available.

Financial Wealth. Chart 1 is a scatter diagram of current percent changes in both real per capita personal consumption expenditures (PCE), the preferred measure of spending, and the real S&P 500 stock price index. It is made up of 84 dots, which constitutes a robust sample. Over our sample period, as with most extremely long periods, time will tend to link economic variables to each other; population is a key factor that can cause such an association. By expressing consumption in per capita terms, trending has been reduced, and in turn, an artificially overstated degree of correlation has been avoided.



If financial wealth drives consumer spending, an unambiguous positively sloped line should be evident on this scatter diagram. Larger gains in the S&P 500 would be associated with faster increases in spending; conversely, declines in the S&P 500 would be tied to lower spending. If there was a strong positive correlation, the large gains in stock prices would be associated with strong gains in spending, and they would fall in the upper right quadrant of the graph. In addition, sizeable declines in the S&P would be associated with large decreases in consumer spending, and the dots would fall in the lower left quadrant, resulting in an upward sloping line. For the relationship to be stable and dependable the dots should be packed in an around the trend line. This is clearly not the case. The trend line through the dots is positive, but the observations in the upper left quadrant of the graph and those in the lower right exhibit a negative rather than positive correlation. Furthermore, the dots are not clustered close to the trend line. The goodness of fit (coefficient of determination) of 0.27 is statistically significant; however, the slope of the line is minimally positive. This suggests that an approximate one dollar increase in wealth will boost real per capita PCE by less than one cent, far less than even the lower band of the effect in the Fed’s model.

Theoretically, lagged changes are preferred because when current or coincidental changes in economic variables are correlated the coefficients may be biased due to some other factor not covered by the empirical estimation. Also, lags give households time to adjust to their change in wealth. As such, we correlated the current percent change in real per capita PCE against current changes as well as one and two year lagged changes (expressed as a three-year moving average) in the S&P 500. The lags did not improve the goodness of fit as the coefficient of determination fell to 0.21. An increased dollar of wealth, however, still resulted in a one cent increase in consumption. We then correlated current percent change in real per capita PCE with only lagged changes in the real S&P 500 for the two prior years (expressed as a two year moving average), and the relationship completely fell apart as the goodness of fit fell to a statistically insignificant 0.06.

Housing Wealth. Chart 2 is a second scatter diagram, relating current percent changes in real home prices to current percent changes in real per capita PCE. Once again, the trend line does have a small positive slope, but there are so many observations in the upper left quadrant that the coefficient of determination does not meet robust tests for statistical significance. The dots are even more dispersed from the trend line than in the prior scatter diagram.



As with the analysis on financial wealth, when current changes in consumption were correlated against the lagged changes in home prices (both the three-year moving average and the two-year moving average), the goodness of fit deteriorated significantly and was not statistically significant in either case.

Correlations, or the lack thereof, indicated by these scatter diagrams do not prove causation. Nevertheless, economic theory offers an explanation for the poor correlation. If a person has an appreciated asset and wishes to increase spending, one option is to sell the asset, capture the gain and buy something else.

However, the funds to make the new purchase comes from the buyer of the asset. Thus, when financial assets are sold, money balances increase for the seller but fall for the buyer. The person with an appreciated asset could choose to borrow against that asset. Since new debt is current spending in lieu of future spending, the debt option may only provide a temporary boost to economic activity. To avoid an accentuated business cycle, debt must generate an income stream to repay principal and interest. Otherwise any increase in debt to convert wealth gains into consumer spending may merely add to cyclical volatility without producing any lasting benefit.

Scholarly Research

 

Scholarly research has debated the impact of financial and housing wealth on consumer spending as well. The academic research on financial wealth is relatively consistent; it has very little impact on consumption. In “Financial Wealth Effect: Evidence from Threshold Estimation” (Applied Economic Letters, 2011), Sherif Khalifa, Ousmane Seck and Elwin Tobing found “a threshold income level of almost $130,000, below which the financial wealth effect is insignificant, and above which the effect is 0.004.” This means a one dollar rise in wealth would, in time, boost consumption by less than one-half of a penny. Similarly, in “Wealth Effects Revisited 1975- 2012,” Karl E. Case, John M. Quigley and Robert J. Shiller (Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper #1884, December 2012) write, “The numerical results vary somewhat with different econometric specifications, and so any numerical conclusion must be tentative. We find at best weak evidence of a link between stock market wealth and consumption.” This team looked at quarterly observations during the 17 year period from 1982 through 1999 and the 37-year period from 1975 through the spring quarter of 2012.

The research on housing wealth is more divided. In the same paper referenced above, Karl E. Case, John M. Quigley and Robert J. Shiller write, “In contrast, we do find strong evidence that variations in housing market wealth have important effects upon consumption.” These findings differ from the findings of various other economists. In “The (Mythical?) Housing Wealth Effect” (NBER Working Paper #15075, June 2009), Charles Calomiris, Stanley D. Longhofer and William Miles write, “Models used to guide policy, as well as some empirical studies, suggest that the effect of housing wealth on consumption is large and greater than the wealth effect on consumption from stock holdings. Recent theoretical work, in contrast, argues that changes in housing wealth are offset by changes in housing consumption, meaning that unexpected shocks in housing wealth should have little effect on non housing consumption.”

Furthermore, R. Glenn Hubbard and Anthony Patrick O’Brien (Macroneconomics, Fourth edition, 2013, page 381) provide a highly cogent summary of the aforementioned research by Charles Calomiris, Stanley D. Longhofer and William Miles. They argue that consumers “own houses primarily so they can consume the housing services a home provides. Only consumers who intend to sell their current house and buy a smaller one – for example, ‘empty nesters’ whose children have left home – will benefit from an increase in housing prices. But taking the population as a whole, the number of empty nesters may be smaller than the number of first time home buyers plus the number of homeowners who want to buy larger houses. These two groups are hurt by rising home prices.”

Amir Sufi, Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago, also indicates that the effect of housing wealth is much smaller than assumed in the policy models and earlier empirical research. Dr. Sufi calculates that an increase of one dollar of housing wealth may yield as little as one cent of extra spending (“Will Housing Save the U.S. Economy?”, April 2013, Chicago Booth Economic Outlook event). This is in line with a 2013 study by Sherif Khalifa, Ousmane Seck and Elwin Tobing (“Housing Wealth Effect: Evidence from Threshold Estimation”, The Journal of Housing Economics). These economists found that a threshold income level of $74,046 had a wealth coefficient that rounded to one cent. Income levels between $74,046 and $501,000 had a two cent coefficient, and incomes above $501,000 had a statistically insignificant coefficient.

In total, the majority of the research is seemingly unequivocal in its conclusion. The wealth effect (financial and housing) is barely operative. As such, it is interesting to note its actual impact in 2013.

Where Was the Wealth Effect in 2013?

 

If the wealth effect was as powerful as the FOMC believes, consumer spending should have turned in a stellar performance last year. In 2013 equities and housing posted strong gains. On a yearly average basis, the real S&P 500 stock market index increase was 17.7%, and the real Case Shiller Home Price Index increase was 9.1%. The combined gain of these wealth proxies was 26.8%, the eighth largest in the 84 years of data. The real per capital PCE gain of just 1.2% ranked 58th of 84. The difference between the two was the fifth largest in the 84 cases. Such a huge discrepancy in relative performance in 2013, occurring as it did in the fourth year of an economic expansion, raises serious doubts about the efficacy of the wealth effect (Chart 3).



In econometrics, theoretical propositions must be empirically verifiable. Researchers using numerous statistical procedures examining various sample periods should be able to identify at least some consistent patterns. This is not the case with the wealth effect. Regardless if examining a simple scatter diagram or something far more sophisticated, the wealth effect is weak and inconsistent. The powerful wealth coefficients imbedded in the FRB/US model have not been supported by independent research. To quote Chris Low, Chief Economist of FTN (FTN Financial, Economic Weekly, March 21, 2014), “There may not be a wealth effect at all. If there is a wealth effect, it is very difficult to pin down ...” Since the FOMC began quantitative easing in 2009, its balance sheet has increased more than $3 trillion. This increase may have boosted wealth, but the U.S. economy received no meaningful benefit. Furthermore, the FOMC has no idea what the ultimate outcome of such an increase will be or what a return to a ‘normal’ balance sheet might entail. Given all of this, we do not see any evidence for economic growth as robust at the FOMC predicts.
Without a wealth effect, the stock market is not the “key player” in the economy, and no “virtuous circle” runs through the stock market. We reiterate our view that nominal GDP will rise just 3% this year, down from 3.4% in 2013. M2 growth in the latest twelve months was 5.8%, but velocity should decline by at least 3% and limit nominal GDP to 3% or less.


 

The Flatter Yield Curve: An Opportunity for Treasury Bond Investors

 

The Fed has indicated that the federal funds rate could begin to rise in the next couple of years, and the Treasury market has moderately anticipated this event. Similar to the 2004-2005 federal funds rate cycle, long before the federal funds rate increased short Treasury rates began their ascent (Chart 4). Interestingly, once the federal funds rate did begin to rise in 2004, long Treasury rates fell over the next two years. From May of 2004 until Feb. 2006 the federal funds rate increased by 350 basis point (bps) and the five-year note increased by 80 bps, yet the 30-year bond fell by 84 bps as inflation expectations fell. If the Fed follows through with its forecast and short rates rise, the dampening effect on inflation expectations should again cause long rates to fall. On the other hand, should economic activity continue to moderate then the downward pressure on inflation will continue. The prospect for lower Treasury yields appears favorable.

Van R. Hoisington
Lacy H. Hunt, Ph.D.



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