Is Jay Your Pal (Powell)?

“Choice without alternative is only a sleight of hand, it is a magician’s force-play during which you believe you have free will, but your fate has already been decided.” – Garth Stein

 

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome (Jay) Powell certainly left no chance for misunderstanding on where he stood on incarcerating our country’s least wanted intruder, inflation. Speaking at a meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on April 25th the estimable chairman offered up these comments. “Getting inflation back to the 2% goal is a critical policy imperative right now. It is absolutely essential to get price stability…”. True to his words the Federal Reserve increased interest rates by ½% on May 4th with some believing that another ¾% may be forthcoming at the conclusion of their next meeting on June 15th. These folks are serious!

The stock market year to date has been an unhappy companion on this journey towards placing the inflation genie back into his jar, closing out the month -12.8% year to date with the 10 Year US Treasury rate having started the year at 1.52% reaching 2.83% at month’s end. Still, if one peels back the veneer of the seeming reality created by those numbers, something VERY interesting is happening beneath the surface.

If the trade weighted value of the US Dollar acts as a thermometer measuring the health of the global economy, the patient has been in a feverish condition most of the year having risen by 9.5% by May 12th. That increase has since diminished to 6.4%. The S&P 500, which was down 5.5% for the month on May 19th, closed the month eking out a +.2% return. Perhaps most interestingly still, the 2 Year US Treasury rate, which had risen to 2.78% by May 3rd finished the month at 2.47%. So, when it comes to the future direction of interest rates, do the financial markets know something that Jay Powell doesn’t know, or at least is not saying? And does this explain the recent recovery in the stock market and the decline in the value of the US Dollar? Stay tuned.

The size of the US federal government debt just passed a nice round number this past month. $30 trillion. In 2021 the US Treasury spent $400 billion paying the interest on that debt at an average interest rate of 1.5%. At current rates that level would be near 3%. If The Fed raises interest rates to sufficient levels to push the country into recession, tax revenues go down appreciably, the deficit widens and the government needs to issue increasing volumes of debt at higher interest rates. Is this REALLY what “uncle” wants? Could “uncle” actually want perhaps a bit of a whiff of inflation to devalue that $30 trillion (and growing) while holding interest rates at levels that “uncle” can afford to pay? Is this “the sleight of hand” that the financial markets are starting to see with the resulting “hawkish” talk of The Fed but “the dovish” walk of the bond market?

Financial market commentators have begun to ask “does the Federal Reserve still love the S&P 500?” remembering fondly those days of yore when every banana peel the stock market would encounter on its journey to steadily higher levels would be met by “the cavalry” of another interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve. Investors should reassure themselves that the answer is most assuredly YES! though not perhaps for the reasons they suspect. An increasing percentage of income taxes are being paid by the wealthier cohort of our fellow citizens and a very large share of their “contributions” are not derived from ordinary income but rather from the realization of capital gains. It is interesting to look at a chart of the rise and fall of tax receipts and the year over year rate of return of the S&P 500. Rest assured. The US Government does care about the stock market.

It has been a challenging year for investors with very little in the way of “safe harbors” to preserve capital with the S&P -12.8% year to date and with interest rates having risen even the bond index (AGG) -9.3%. 60/40 stock/ fixed income investors are looking at losses of approximately 12%. Those losses have narrowed modestly the past several weeks but still investors wonder whether this will get worse and when will the financial markets start to rise rather than fall. The days since May 19th hopefully offer a harbinger of the better days to come with the S&P having risen 6% since then. We’re looking forward to better news in the months that follow!

 

Mark H. Tekamp, June 3, 2022

History Or Mystery?

The mystery of man has no beginning and no end. His intuition and feeling unfold and blend. The Mystery of Man – William Hermanns

 

For investors, the experience of March may have felt a bit like a walk in the park, but readers of the financial press perhaps wondered if it was a book best placed back on the shelf. “Strong Finish Can’t Salvage Tough Quarter for Stocks” opined The Wall Street Journal on the month’s final day with that publication adding, in another article, “Bond Market Suffers Worst Quarter in Decades.” Bank of America cautioned “Stock Surge Is a Bear Market Trap with Curve Inverted.”

Investors may have felt themselves in the need of seeking the ministrations of a chiropractor as the S&P 500 offered an experience realized only for the twelfth time in the more than three-hundred quarters since the conclusion of the Second World War; returns of both plus and minus “double digits”. From January 3rd to the quarter’s lows on March 7th the S&P declined 13% followed by an 11% rise by March 28th. Let us hope that history will repeat itself this next quarter and year as the S&P was positive the following quarter ten of those eleven prior times with average returns of 11% and positive returns in all instances the following year with returns averaging 30%!

And what of that inverted yield curve “B of A” cautioned us about? The Federal Reserve, confronted with inflation numbers three times greater than its cited 2% target, grew the talons of a hawk and shredded the script from which it had only recently invited others to read. On March 16th, the Fed raised interest rates ¼%, its first increase since December 2018 and set expectations for similar increases at each of its remaining six meetings this year cautioning that it would be willing to consider increases of ½% should inflation remain “elevated and persistent”. Interestingly, the fixed income markets responded most dramatically in widening the “spread” between the rates on 90-day treasury bills and 2-year treasury notes to their widest levels since 1994. And so why should we care? Because it is the markets way of communicating its view that inflation is indeed transitory with future inflation expectations rising less than that of longer dated interest rates. Though media pundits are chirping about inverted yield curves, the reality is that inflation adjusted future interest rate levels on 10-year treasury bonds are actually rising. And that, my friends, may also be predicting higher rates of economic growth later this year and may also explain a rising stock market.

Putting together the puzzle pieces of various market returns is certainly an exercise in the interesting. Utility stocks are considered by many to be “bond surrogates” as they are valued more as sources of income rather than growth. With 20-year US treasuries declining 5 ½% for the month one might not have expected utility stocks to rally 10 1/3% for the month. With natural gas prices rising 27 ½% and oil 10% for the month, gold prices rose, a beat of the drum here, 1 ¼%. And with rising geopolitical tensions leading to, one might think, an increasingly risk averse investor population, the world’s best performing stock market for the month and quarter was…Brazil, delivering returns of 15% and 35% respectively.

The S&P 500 returned 3.76% for the month and -4.62% for the quarter with the growth portion 4.45%/-8.56% and the value 3.02%/-0.13%. Small Cap stocks hit the snooze button returning 1.16% for March and -7.54% for the quarter. The stock market party was for US attendees only as foreign developed markets were 0.52% for the month and with those markets underperforming the S&P with a -6.46% for Q1. For 60% equity/40% fixed income investors the quarter delivered a -4.0% return (0.66% in March) as the negative returns on equities -4.75% (+2.4% in March) were, unhappily for investors, married to fixed income’s -3.0% returns in Q1 (-2.0% in March).

 

Mark H. Tekamp, April 6, 2022

You-Pain?

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

 

The war in Europe feels like footsteps not quite reaching the pavement. The March 1st Financial Times headlined “Nike Suspends Online Purchases in Russia” and “Carmaker Ford Suspends Operations in Russia”. The same day’s Wall Street Journal joined in with “The West’s Sanctions Barrage Severs Russia’s Economy from Much of the West”. Interestingly though, the sanctions – at least those imposed to date – appear to be focused primarily upon the financial rather than economic part of Russia’s relationship with those seeking to punish it. The United States now imports more oil from Russia than any other country and that country, with its adversary Ukraine, accounts for 29% of global wheat exports. The loss of life and destruction in Ukraine is both real and tragic but with Russia’s relatively unimpeded access to the global marketplace and the United States and its European allies disclaiming the possibility of intervening directly, the conflict seems likely to remain localized and so its impact upon the US economy may be significantly less than markets are currently discounting, creating the possibility of a positive surprise.

Yahoo Finance was left to wonder in a story on March 2nd that “All in all, the stock market is hanging tough in what has been a turbulent two weeks for humanity.” There certainly is volatility aplenty in virtually all financial markets with gold’s 6% rise for the month acting as a sort of thermometer for the emotional state of global markets. CNN’s Fear & Greed Index has fallen to 17, a measure representing Extreme Fear and a level not seen since March and April of 2020, the onset of the global pandemic. The 10 Year US Treasury rate, which started out the year at 1.52% and reached a peak yield of 2.05% on February 15th, ended the month at 1.83%. Confounding most investors focusing upon news headlines, US mid cap and small cap stocks actually rose in February and the S&P 500 ended the month higher than its closing level on January 27th.

While much of the world has been focused upon war in Europe and the likelihood of the Fed’s raising interest rates, there is something much larger at work impacting our economy and that may be what will most influence financial markets this year. Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 central banks have targeted an inflation rate of 2% which would have allowed them to seek to manage the inflation adjusted rate of interest to below zero, but stubbornly persistent low levels of inflation confounded their attempt to achieve that objective. Now, with inflation levels likely to remain at 4% to 5% levels through the remainder of the year and with 10 Year Treasury Rates at less than 2%, money has rarely been less expensive. With economic demand outstripping supply creating the ability to achieve attractive rates of return through investments in the real economy, it may be time to toss out the old play book because this sure looks like a new world!

Equity markets in February contributed negatively to returns on investor’s portfolios of approximately -2.25% with technology’s -5% return a source of negativity offset by the aforementioned positive returns of small cap and mid cap stocks and Energy’s +6% and +26 ½ % returns year to date. Foreign stocks, which had avoided most of the negative returns of those US markets in January, matched the S&P’s -3% return for the month. Interest rates rose modestly in February resulting in -1% returns for the fixed income portion of portfolios leaving 60/40 portfolios -1.7% for the month and – 5% year to date.

 

Mark H. Tekamp; March 6, 2022

Prometheus Unbound

“Time in its aging course teaches all things.”- Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound

 

There is a narrative that, while not held universally, is being offered with increasing frequency by the mavens of economic and financial market wisdom. The Federal Reserve, widely castigated only several months ago for having allowed the inflation genie to escape, is viewed by some as about to embark upon a serious policy error. In their view, the economy is slowing and too weak to endure the pain of higher interest rates. The stock market, that measure of all things good and true, may riot and force another round of Quantitative Easing next year. Inflation, while currently high, is likely to be transitory and since it’s not being supported by a notable increase in the quantity of money globally is anyway not really inflation in terms of too much money chasing too few goods. This all may prove to be true but being sympathetic to the belief that the markets, like the Greek gods of yore, delight in tormenting humanity through their proffering of the unexpected, perhaps there is another reality unfolding before us and if not yet widely seen is an apparition that will become increasingly apparent to and expressed by the financial markets in the next several months.

Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 the world’s central bankers have been faced with the quandary of the zero bound, their inability to create levels of interest rates of less than 0%. With very low levels of inflation in the years since then the inflation adjusted interest rate, while negative, has been only modestly so, as central bankers have persistently fallen short of achieving their targeted levels of inflation of 2%. What if the upward pressure on prices continues to persist through next year resulting in price increases of 4%? Voila! The world has been given the gift of an effective interest rate reduction of 2%. The positive effects of interest rates now materially below inflation rates, married to a level of economic demand that will not allow the demand for money to deliver a material increase in interest rates for at least the next several quarters, could deliver a magical elixir that the world needs but is not yet aware of its being offered.

480.5%, 362.6%, 248.1%, 246.5% and 126.8%. Those are the ten year returns for the S&P 500 Growth stocks, the S&P 500, the S&P 500 Value stocks, the Russell 2000 (US small cap stocks) and the MSCI EAFE (foreign developed markets). So large cap US stocks (the S&P 500) have outperformed their small cap brethren by 50% and foreign markets by nearly 300%. Believers that every dog, even the mangy beasts inhabiting the space outside of the S&P 500, must have its day, were hearted by the performance of the equity markets at the start of the year. On March16th the Russell 2000 was +17.66%, S&P 500 Value stocks +10.50% and S&P 500 Growth stocks +1.76%. Disappointing proclaimers of portfolio diversification though growth stocks outperformed value by two to one through the remainder of the year with small cap stocks actually declining 2.4%.

December’s market was an interesting close to an interesting year. The S&P 500’s 4.48% return for the month contributed neatly to its 11.03% return for the 4th quarter but where those returns came from was the best part of the story. Utility stocks returned 9.69%, more than half of their 17.69% return for the year. Consumer Staple stocks returned 10.45%, more than 3/5th of their 17.20% 2021 return and Health Care stocks 9.02%, more than a third of their 26.04% 2021 return. The winner of the prize for 2021’s best sector? Energy stocks 53.31% followed by Real Estate’s 46.08%. Perhaps December’s market might best be remembered as a month in which money did not want to exit the market, hence its closing within a whisker of its December 28th all- time high, but lacking a high level of conviction as to where in the market it wanted to be.

So, we close the curtains on 2021. For investors it was a year offering returns very similar to those of 2020’s and those were more than passing fair so many are looking at portfolio returns of 25% to 30% for those two years. 60/40 equity/fixed income investors were looking at 10% returns at the end of the 2nd quarter but the 3rd quarter was modestly negative, so the 4th quarters 3.7% return is what allowed client’s to experience a 12.35% return for the year. Happy New Year!

 

Mark H. Tekamp/January 3, 2021