The Fed Paves the Way for Running a “High-Pressure Economy” (Along with Higher Inflation)

Since the beginning of last year (see my February 4, 2015 commentary “U.S. Inflationary Pressures Remain Muted” and my March 1, 2016 Forbes commentary “Why Federal Reserve Tightening Is Still A Distant Event“), I have consistently asserted that the Fed’s ultimate tightening schedule would be slower than expected–from both the perspective of the Fed’s original intentions, as well as those of the fed funds futures market. Indeed, the most consistent theme since the beginning of the 2008-09 global financial crisis has been this: The tepid recovery in global financial conditions and global economic growth has consistently forced the Fed to ease more than expected; and since the “tapering” of the Fed’s quantitative easing policy at the end of 2013, to tighten less than expected. E.g. the October 2008 Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of America’s top economists predicted the fed funds rate to rebound to 4.0% by late 2010. Subsequent forecasts were similarly early.

According to the CME Fed Watch, the probability of a 25 bps Fed rate hike on December 14 is now over 70%. I expect the December 14 hike to occur as the Fed has been prepping the market for one 25 bps hike for months; however–similar to what I asserted last year–I do not believe this rate hike will signal the beginning of a new rate hike cycle. Rather, the timing of the Fed’s third rate hike will again be data-dependent (more on that below). Fed funds futures currently peg the Fed’s third rate hike to not occur until more than a year from now, i,e. at the December 13, 2017 FOMC meeting. This is the most likely timing for the third rate hike, for the following reasons:

1. U.S. households remain in “deleveraging” mode. Haunted by the 2008-09 global financial crisis, record amounts of student loans outstanding (currently at $1.3 trillion), and a shorter runway to retirement age and lower income prospects, U.S. consumer spending growth since the bottom of the 2008-09 global financial crisis has been relatively tepid (see Figure 1 below), despite ongoing improvements in the U.S. labor market;

Fig1PCE.png

2. The developed world & China are still mired by deflationary pressures. While the Fed had not been shy about hiking rates ahead of other central banks in previous tightening cycles, the fact that all of the world’s major central banks–with the exception of the Fed–are still in major easing cycles means the Fed has no choice but to halt after its December 14, 2016 hike. Even the Bank of England–which was expected to be the first major central bank to hike rates–was forced to reverse its stance and renew its quantitative easing policy as UK policymakers succumbs to the rise of populism. In a world still mired by deflationary pressures, the U.S. could easily succumb to another deflationary cycle if the Fed prematurely adopts a hawkish stance;

3. The Fed is no longer in denial and finally recognizes the uniqueness of the 2008-09 deleveraging cycle that is still with us today. In a June 3, 2016 speech (titled “Reflections on the Current Monetary Policy Environment“), Chicago Fed President Charles Evans asserted why this isn’t a normal recovery cycle and because of that, argued why the Fed should foster a “high-pressure” economy (characterized by a tight labor market and sustained inflation above 2%) in order to ward off downside risks in both economic growth and inflation. Quoting President Evans: “I view risk-management issues to be of great importance today. As I noted earlier, I still see the risks as weighted to the downside for both my growth and inflation outlooks … So I still judge that risk-management arguments continue to favor providing more accommodation than usual to deliver an extra boost to aggregate demand … One can advance risk-management arguments further and come up with a reasonable case for holding off increasing the funds rate for much longer, namely, until core inflation actually gets to 2 percent on a sustainable basis.

President Evans’ speech was followed by similar dovish sentiment expressed by Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo in a September 9, 2016 CNBC interview, Fed Governor Lael Brainard in a September 12, 2016 speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, as well as the September 2016 FOMC minutes. Finally, Fed Chair Janet Yellen explored the potential benefits of running a “high-pressure economy” after a deep recession in her October 14, 2016 speech at a recent conference sponsored by the Boston Fed. Quoting Chair Yellen:

If we assume that hysteresis is in fact present to some degree after deep recessions, the natural next question is to ask whether it might be possible to reverse these adverse supply-side effects by temporarily running a “high-pressure economy,” with robust aggregate demand and a tight labor market. One can certainly identify plausible ways in which this might occur. Increased business sales would almost certainly raise the productive capacity of the economy by encouraging additional capital spending, especially if accompanied by reduced uncertainty about future prospects. In addition, a tight labor market might draw in potential workers who would otherwise sit on the sidelines and encourage job-to-job transitions that could also lead to more-efficient–and, hence, more-productive–job matches. Finally, albeit more speculatively, strong demand could potentially yield significant productivity gains by, among other things, prompting higher levels of research and development spending and increasing the incentives to start new, innovative businesses.

Bottom line: The Fed continues to back off from committing to an official tightening schedule. After the December 14, 2016 rate hike, probability suggests the next rate hike to not occur until the December 13, 2017 FOMC meeting. Until the year-over-year PCE core rate rises to and maintains a rate of 2.0% or over, the Fed will not recommit to a new rate hike cycle. This also paves the way for higher U.S. inflation; as such, clients should continue to underweight U.S. long-duration Treasuries and overweight gold.

Strengthening the Global Banking System’s Weakest Link

As I discussed in my most recent newsletter (please email me to request a copy) and in my February 19, 2016 Forbes column (“Shares Of Global Banks Are Too Cheap To Ignore“), I remain constructive on shares of U.S. financial companies, despite (or even because of) their recent underperformance. More specifically, I asserted that much of the current fears (e.g. impact of rising energy-related defaults and ongoing litigation costs & financial penalties related to conduct leading up to the 2008-09 global financial crisis) surrounding U.S. and global financial stocks are overblown.

I also asserted that share prices of global financial companies in 2016 will mostly be driven by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, as a significant portion of U.S. banks’ revenues is driven by “net interest income,” i.e. the traditional role of banks’ borrowing short and lending long. In Wells Fargo’s case, net interest income makes up more than 50% of the firm’s revenue. If the Fed embarks on a renewed hiking campaign and the U.S. yield curve flattens, then U.S. banks’ margins will be hit, which in turn will depress their share prices.

Fortunately, the U.S. yield curve is still very far away from flattening. E.g. As of this writing, the spread between the 10- and the 1-year Treasury rate stands at 1.27%. Just as important, the CME Fed Watch indicator does not suggest a rate hike until the FOMC’s December 21, 2016 meeting at the earliest. Moreover–despite the recent underperformance of U.S./global financial stocks–credit risk for the global financial sector remains relatively and historically low; in fact, as computed by S&P Global Market Intelligence, the implied credit risk within the global financial sector is actually the lowest out of all ten major S&P global sectors.

As financial history and the experience of the 2008-09 global financial crisis have demonstrated, however, the global financial system is only as strong as its weakest links; and it is these “weakest links” that investors have recently focused on. More specifically, the slow pace of general and banking reforms within the Euro Zone, particularly the relatively high level of nonperforming loans in the Italian banking sector, is raising the specter of counter-party risks and resulting in a flight of capital away from Italian/European financial stocks (e.g. UniCredit is down 37% YTD, Intesa down 26%, and Banco Popolare down 38%), and to a lesser extent, U.S. financial stocks.

Figure 1: Italian Banks Have Relatively High NPL Ratios (as of June 2015)

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The Italian banking system is saddled with about 360 billion euros of NPLs, making up about one-third of the Euro Zone’s total NPLs (although 50% of it has already been provisioned). With Italian banking stocks down nearly 20% YTD (and down 25% over the last 12 months), Italian policymakers are now being forced to act to shore up the country’s bank balance sheets through sales of NPLs, equity raises, and accelerating the write-off of NPLs. An effort in January to encourage sales of NPLs by providing government-backed guarantees gained little traction (and unfortunately attracted investors’ attention to Italian banks’ NPL problem), as Italian policymakers could not agree on how the plan would be implemented, especially in light of European rules that explicitly ban state aid to failing companies.

So far this week, Italian policymakers–working in conjunction with banks, pension funds, and insurers–have drawn up plans for a 5 billion euro bailout fund (dubbed “Atlante”) to purchase NPLs and/or to inject capital into ailing banks. Investors’ initial responses have ranged from skeptical to condescending, given the relatively small size of the fund and the lack of details surrounding its implementation. Bottom line: Italian/European policymakers, in conjunction with the private sector, will need to work harder to create a more comprehensive and workable solution to reduce NPLs in the Italian banking system. Until this happens, the current rally in U.S./global financial stocks from their early February lows will remain precarious.

U.S. Consumer Spending Yet to Overheat: Fed to Pause

According to the CME Fed Watch, the chance of a Fed rate hike this Wednesday is virtually zero. The reasons for the Fed to “stand pat” have been well recited but here they are again: 1) ongoing, elevated global systemic/slowdown risks due to the recent decline in global financial stocks, a Chinese economic slowdown, and chronically low oil prices resulting in fears of higher corporate defaults, 2) despite a recent pick-up in the U.S. core inflation rate (the 12-month change in the January core CPI is at 2.2%), the Fed’s preferred measure of core inflation, i.e. the 12-month change in the core PCE, remains tolerable at 1.7%, and 3) Since the late 1990s, the world’s developed economies have mostly grappled (unsuccessfully) with the specter of deflation; e.g. over the last 3 years, the Bank of Japan expanded its monetary base by 173%, and yet, the country is still struggling to achieve its target inflation rate of 2% (Japan’s January core CPI was flat year-over-year). As such, the Fed should err on the side of caution and back off from its recent rate hike campaign.

As of today, the CME Fed Watch is suggesting 50/50 odds of a 25 basis point rate hike at the Fed’s June 15 meeting. Historically, the Fed has only hiked when the odds rise to more than 60/40, and I believe this is the case here. Many things could change from now to June 15; however, given: 1) lingering fears over a Chinese slowdown and the loss of Chinese FOREX reserves, and 2) the fact that core PCE readings have not yet registered a +2.0% reading (I need the year-over-year change in the core PCE to sustain a level of over +2.0% for many months before I am convinced that inflation is a problem), I remain of the opinion that the next rate hike will mostly likely occur at the FOMC’s September 21 meeting.

Finally–despite an ongoing rise in U.S. employment levels (see Figure 1 below)–both U.S. wage growth (see Figure 2 below) and consumer spending growth (See Figure 3 below) remain anemic. Note that both U.S. wage growth and consumer spending growth do not “turn on a dime”; this means that–until or unless we witness a sustained rise in both U.S. wage and consumer spending growth–the Fed should err on the side of caution and back off on its rate hike campaign. At the earliest, this will mean a 25 basis point hike at the FOMC’s September 21 meeting.

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Figure 2: Nominal Wage Growth Remains Below Target Despite Year-end 2015 Push

 

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Our 2016 Outlook on U.S. Treasuries: 2.5% on the 10-Year

In our June 28 global macro newsletter (please email me for a copy), I upgraded our outlook on U.S. Treasuries when the 10-year Treasury yield closed at 2.49%. We believed the 10-year was too high given the ongoing deflationary pressures stemming from the European sovereign debt crisis, the Chinese economic slowdown, and lower commodity prices. I subsequently downgraded U.S. Treasuries in our August 30 newsletter–when the 10-year Treasury yield closed at 2.19% (after dipping to as low as 2.00% during the August 24 global equity market correction)–as I believed global deflationary pressures were in the process of peaking. At the time, I noted that: 1) Chinese disposable income was still growing at high single-digits, 2) the Chinese CPI for the monthly of July sat at 1.6% year-over-year, and 3) fears over a further, deeper-than-expected devaluation of the Chinese yuan against the US$ was unfounded, as Chinese policymakers still have political incentive to support the country’s currency, along with the firepower to do so (as of today, China’s FOREX reserves stands at $3.43 trillion, while its November 2015 trade surplus is still near a record high at $54 billion). This means any further deflationary pressures from the Chinese economy were dissipating.

Combined with the Greek government’s 11th hour deal with the European Commission (i.e. Germany and France), fears over a more catastrophic financial market dislocation was adverted. This means that U.S. Treasury yields should rise further in the coming months. In our August 30 newsletter, I slapped a target yield of 2.50% for the 10-year Treasury over the next six months.

10yeartreasury

For 2016, I am reiterating our 2.50% yield target for the 10-year Treasury. We model our 10-year Treasury yield expectations with the following “building blocks” model:

10-year Treasury Yield = expected 10-year U.S. inflation + expected U.S. real GDP growth + global central bank purchases (including U.S. QE) + geopolitical premium

While both energy and base metal prices have either broken or are approaching their December 2008-March 2009 lows, I am of the opinion that U.S. inflation will be higher next year as the combination of a tighter U.S. job market, rising U.S. housing prices, and higher healthcare costs overwhelm the deflationary effects of lower commodity prices on the U.S. consumer economy (of which the CPI is based on).

As the markets price in higher U.S. inflation and a more hawkish Fed policy next year, I expect the 10-year Treasury yield to rise to 2.5% sometime in the next several months. For now, I remain bearish on U.S. Treasuries, but may shift to a more bullish stance should: 1) the Chinese economic slowdown runs deeper-than-expected, 2) the U.S. stock market continues to weaken, or 3) the Fed adopts a more dovish-than-expected bias post the December 16 FOMC meeting.

The Re-leveraging of Corporate America – Part II

We last discussed the increasing leverage in U.S. corporate balance sheets in our April 1, 2015 commentary (“The Re-leveraging of Corporate America and the U.S. Stock Market“), when we asserted that the combination of historically high U.S. stock market valuations, extremely high participation in the U.S. stock market by hedge fund managers (from a contrarian standpoint), and near-record high corporate leverage makes the U.S. stock market highly vulnerable to a major correction over the next several months.

At the time, we noted that U.S. corporate debt issuance averaged $650 billion a year during the 2012-2014 time frame, or 40% higher than the 2009-2011 period. Moreover, U.S. corporate debt issuance was on track to hit a record high in 2015, buoyed by the ongoing surge in M&A activity, sponsor-backed IPOs (companies tend to be highly leveraged upon a private equity sponsor exit), along with record share buybacks and the pressure to increase dividends. At the time, we noted that U.S. corporate debt issuance was on track to hit $1 trillion this year.

Since April 1, U.S. corporate debt issuance has continued to increase, although the pace has slowed down since concerns about the Greek debt crisis and the Chinese economic slowdown materialized this summer. Moreover–with energy and metals prices still underperforming–high-yield issuance has slowed down dramatically, although investment-grade issuance has continued to plough ahead. Nonetheless, U.S. corporate issuance has already set a record high this year, with nearly $800 billion of debt issued on a YTD basis (as of last Friday). At the current rate, U.S. corporate debt issuance could still hit $900 billion this year given the still-substantial pipeline of debt issuance driven by the recent frenzy of M&A activity.

Figure 1: U.S. Corporate Debt Issuance at Record Highs ($ billions)

uscorporatedebtissuanceNov2015

Moreover, U.S. net cash levels–that of Apple notwithstanding–have been crumbling under ever-increasing dividend yields, corporate buybacks, and M&A activity. Figure 2 below shows the substantial increase of debt/EBITDA ratios in Goldman’s universe coverage–especially since 2011–while companies with positive net cash levels are down by about one-third in the same time frame.

Figure 2: Rising Corporate Leverage While Cash Levels Continue to Decline

uscorporateleveragevscashDespite the August correction, we believe U.S. stocks remain overvalued. Combined with increasing and near-record high corporate leverage levels, this leaves U.S. stocks in a highly vulnerable position. With the Fed poised to begin a new rate hike cycle at the December 16 FOMC meeting , we believe there is a strong likelihood of a more substantial (15%-20%) correction in the S&P 500 from peak to trough sometime in 2016.

Leading Indicators Suggest Lower U.S. Treasury Rates

In two of our most recent commentaries (April 10, 2015: “Our Leading Indicators Still Suggest Lower Asset Prices” and March 12, 2015: “The Weakening of the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index Suggests Lower Asset Prices“), we discussed why Goldman Sachs’ Global Leading Indicator was giving highly misleading leading signals on the global economy given its over-reliance on components such as the Baltic Dry Index and commodity prices–both of which could be highly impacted by idiosyncratic factors such as supply disruptions or technological substitutions. Indeed, Goldman itself has been highly transparent and critical over the last six months about the distortions created by an oversupply of dry bulk shipping capacity and an impending wall of additional supply of industrial metals, such as copper and iron ore.

Indeed–because of these distortions–Goldman’s GLI has been highly volatile over the last six months. Last month’s GLI suggested the global economy was “contracting” from January-March 2015–which in retrospect, does not make much sense. Meanwhile, our own studies had suggested that global economic growth was still on par to hit 3.5% in 2015–while our earlier studies suggested U.S. economic growth could hit as much as 3.0%–with energy-importing countries such as India projected to accelerate to as much as 7%-8% GDP growth.

Because again of such idiosyncratic factors, Goldman’s GLI this month suggests the global economy is now moving into “expansion” mode. January data was revised and now suggests the global economy was merely “contracting” that month, with February-March barely in contraction phases. None of these make sense. The latest upbeat data is due to: rising base metals prices, a bounce in the AU$ and the CA$, and a bounce in the highly volatile Baltic Dry Index. Copper’s latest rise was arguably due to Chinese short-covering–Chinese property starts/fixed asset investments remain weak, although we are optimistic that both Chinese commercial and residential inventories are re-balancing.

Our own studies suggest the global economy has been slowing down significantly since the 2nd half of last year; more importantly, the negative momentum has not abated much (despite the re-acceleration of Western European economic growth). Specifically, we utilize a global leading indicator (called the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index, or CBGDI) where we aggregate and equal-weight the OECD leading indicators for 29 major countries, including non-OECD (but globally significant) members such as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. The OECD’s Composite Leading Indicators possess a better statistical track record as a leading indicator of global asset prices and economic growth. Instead of relying on the prices of commodities or commodity currencies, the OECD meticulously constructs a Composite Leading Indicator for each country that it monitors by quantifying country-specific components including: 1) housing permits issued, 2) orders & inventory turnover, 3) stock prices, 4) interest rates & interest rate spreads, 5) changes in manufacturing employment, 6) consumer confidence, 7) monetary aggregates, 8) retail sales, 9) industrial & manufacturing production, and 10) passenger car registrations, among others. Each of the OECD’s country-specific leading indicator is fully customized depending on the particular factors driving a country’s economic growth.

The CBGDI has historically led or tracked the MSCI All-Country World Index and WTI crude oil prices since November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Historically, the rate of change (i.e. the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI has led WTI crude oil prices by three months with an R-squared of 30%, while leading the MSCI All-Country World Index slightly, with an R-squared of over 40% (naturally as stock prices is typically one component of the OECD leading indicators).

Since we last discussed the CBGDI on April 10, the 2nd derivative of the CBGDI has gotten weaker. It also extended its decline below the 1st derivative, which in the past has led to a slowdown or even a major downturn in the global economy, including a downturn in global asset prices. Figure 1 below is a monthly chart showing the year-over-year % change in the CBGDI, along with the rate of change (2nd derivative) of the CBGDI, versus the year-over-year % change in WTI crude oil prices and the MSCI All-Country World Index from January 1994 to May 2015. All four indicators are smoothed on a three-month moving average basis:

OECDleadingindicators

The CBGDI has also led the U.S. 10-year Treasury rate on most occasions over the last 20 years. Whenever the 2nd derivative declines to near the zero line (and continues down), U.S. 10-year Treasury rates have declined 86% of the time over the next 3, 6, and 12 months. Yes, we did enjoy a secular bull market in the U.S. long bond over the last 20 years, but 86% upside frequency is still a very good track record during a secular bull market. The track record is especially attractive considering that: 1) when this indicator was wrong, the worst outcome was a 27 bps rise (over 3 months beginning December 2004); 2) when this indicator was dead on, the best outcome was a highly-profitable, and highly-asymmetric, 168 bps decline in the U.S. long bond (over 12 months beginning December 2007).

10yeartreastudy

As of this writing, the U.S. 10-year rate is trading at 2.18%, which is 14 basis points higher than the average 10-year rate of 2.04% during March 2015, when the 2nd derivative of the CBGDI essentially touched the zero line. As we discussed in past newsletters (and will further elaborate this weekend), we do not believe the ECB has lost control of the Euro Zone’s sovereign bond market. Combined with the ongoing BOJ easing, both central banks are still projected to purchase another $1 trillion of sovereign bonds over the next 12 months. With the U.S. federal budget deficit still near its lowest level over the last six years–and with the People’s Central Bank of China proactively lowering interest rates–I do not believe the U.S. 10-year Treasury rate has any room to move higher from current levels. As such, we are advocating a long position in long-dated U.S. Treasuries; our Absolute Return Liquidity strategy now has a sizable position in the long-dated Treasury ETF, TLT.