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And Asset Bubbles Caused by Central Banks May Burst
7/06/17 11:40 AM

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article by Greg Ip entitled “Why Soaring Assets and Low Unemployment Mean It’s Time to Start Worrying”.  While Mr. Ip stops short of predicting a recession or its timing, he details a list of preconditions for recession, all which exist now. These include a labor market at full strength, frothy asset prices, tightening by central banks, and a pervasive sense of calm, as illustrated by the very low levels of the VIX Index. 

At the same time, the Fed, led by Janet Yellen, continues the narrative that they will normalize interest rates while slowly reducing the Fed balance sheet.   This follows what we believe was an insane monetary experiment beginning with the bursting of the “Housing Bubble” in 2008 and lasting until the present day.  The Fed would have you believe that its policies, after helping the economy avoid an outright collapse, have helped the economy grow at a moderate rate with low inflation.  In our view, the word moderate is a gross overstatement.  We think the better description is “anemic”, because no recovery since the Great Depression has been as slow as this one, even though it’s the second longest in the country’s history.

As the situation now stands, the trailing 12 month (TTM) P/E ratio of the S&P 500 based on GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) earnings stands at just over 24X, which is among the most expensive in history.  A casual observer might think, therefore, that a TTM P/E of 24X means that the stock market is expecting growth to accelerate.  After all, there is no shortage of television commentators and portfolio managers that think we are on the path to an accelerating economy.  All one needs to do is tune into any of the financial news networks to confirm that observation.

We do not agree with that assessment, and to no surprise, neither does the bond market.  One of the most telling indicators of what the bond market “sees” as prospects for economic growth is the spread between 10 year and 30 year US Government Bonds.  The steeper the slope of the yield curve, the more the bond market sees growth, and vice versa.  So for the month ending 6/30/17 the 10 year to 30 year spread closed at 53 basis points.  To find a lower monthly close for that series, one has to go all the way back to December of 2008, just as the effects of the bursting of the “Housing Bubble” were hitting with full force.  So while the stock market “sees” prospects for growth as strong, as evidenced by the 24X TTM P/E, the bond market is just the opposite.  Not only is the yield curve relatively flat, but the absolute level of bond yields are also very low.  It should be also noted that an inversion in the yield curve, should that occur, would be a clear alarm bell as it pertains to the possibility of a recession.  In the past, on the 12 occasions when the yield curve has been this flat, according to Mr. Ip, it went on to invert on 10 of those occasions.

In our view, the Fed, European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BOJ) all recognize that the main result of the massive money printing, and the low to negative interest rates of the last several years have done little more than increase the value of financial assets rather than generating solid economic growth.  We, and others, have said as much for quite some time now.  We also believe the central banks are “between a rock and a hard place”.  They realize the need to not burst the “bubble”, but on the other hand, they do not want to negatively affect the already anemic economic growth rates of their respective economies.  So the Fed continues on the path to “normalization”, speaking of one more rate increase this year and three each in 2018 and 2019.  We agree with the Fed Funds market, which is calling the Fed’s bluff.  The futures market on Fed Funds is priced for one increase this year and only one each in the next two. 

The Fed is, of course, fully aware of the fact that of the thirteen tightening cycles since the Great Depression, ten of those were followed by recession.   So the odds are not good, as we see them.  We think the bond market will prove to be right and the stock market will prove to be wrong.  As we have written in the past, the economy is swimming against a stream of rising debt, unfunded federal, state and local liabilities, low productivity growth, and negative labor force demographics.  At the same time, the booming stock market has been partially fueled both by stock buybacks (that strip equity from shareholders, as in the money stock options are exercised by corporate managements) and “yield chasing” by return starved investors around the world. 

Whether the Fed tightens aggressively,or not, remains to be seen.  But in our view the damage has already been done by its policies and those of the other major central banks.  Years of artificially low interest rates have resulted in mal investment and asset bubbles. When the market does start down in earnest, our view is that the move will be large and rapid.  We believe it will then take considerable time, as in years, for the stock market to get back to highs that were achieved courtesy of "The Central Bank Bubble".

6/01/17 5:00 PM

As the U.S. stock market continues to make new all-time highs it may appear to many investors that valuations no longer matter.  We do not see it that way now, nor have we ever in the past.   We maintain our long held belief that the U.S. stock market is extremely overpriced, relative to past earnings and future earnings prospects.   This overpricing is the direct result of the largest financial experiment in history, i.e., the growth in the Fed’s balance sheet from $800bn. to $4.5tn. and the setting of the overnight Fed Funds rate to near zero from December of 2008 to December of 2015.  Today, eighteen months after the first rate increase in seven years, the daily effective Fed Funds rate typically comes in at a mere 91 bps.  We have repeatedly referred to this period as the “Central Bank Bubble”, as asset values have inflated.

By growing its balance sheet and keeping interest rates low, the Fed reasoned asset prices would be backstopped and stimulated.  The increase in asset prices would create a “wealth effect” as those in our society, fortunate enough to own these assets, would feel wealthier and spend money.  This, in turn, would result in economic growth that would benefit society as a whole, including those at the bottom end of the economic ladder.  The result has not been what the Fed intended, and in fact, has caused some unintended consequences.  The economy has grown at the most anemic rate ever, around 2% per year, when recovering from any recession.  Wealth disparity in our society is at an all-time high.  At the same time, by many different valuation metrics, the stock market is near or in excess of the highest valuations in history.  As of this writing, the trailing 12 month P/E based on generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) is approximately 24.2, a historically very high number when the economy is not in a recession and earnings have already dropped more than prices.

We believe that in the long run, corporate earnings should grow about as fast as the economy.  The stock market, in our view, is imputing a higher growth rate to future earnings than we think is likely, or even possible, for the following reasons:

  1. We believe that the debt outstanding in the US, which consists of federal, state, local, corporate, household, and student loans, has been a major factor in the anemic growth of the past several years.  This number currently stands at $66tn, or about 330% of GDP.   The servicing of this debt diverts resources from otherwise productive uses.  In addition, given the artificially low level of interest rates, the exposure to rising rates is enormous and a major risk that is not, in our view, universally appreciated.  There is also the non-trivial matter of the unwinding of the Fed’s balance sheet.  Selling bonds in the market does not appear to be a consideration as that could cause a stampede out of fixed income markets here and around the world.  We would like to point out that the “running off” of the balance sheet (letting bonds mature) is another “experiment”.  In addition, estimates of the size of the U.S. government’s unfunded liabilities and entitlements range from $80tn. to $150tn.; and that is not even in the above numbers.  (More on this below.)

  2. The ECB, BOJ, and BOE have also adopted “whatever it takes” policies.  They too have greatly expanded their balance sheets and have even “upped the ante” with previously unheard of negative interest rate policies.  Because of the liquidity of currency spot and forward markets, much of that money has come into the U.S. to “chase yield”.  This has further inflated and distorted asset prices in the US.  Also, the world’s second largest economy, China, has inflated a credit bubble with breathtaking speed that, relative to its banking system, is the largest in the world.  All of this further adds fuel to the worldwide credit bubble fire.

  3. The growth rate in GDP is a function of the change in total hours worked and the output per hour.  With the economy at, or near, full employment there is not much room for growth in the total hours worked.  In addition, we are now at the point that the “baby boomers” are retiring at the rate of about 10,000 people per day, while new workers entering the work force number much less than that.  Immigration of skilled workers could potentially help the problem, but thus far we see no rush on the part of the Trump administration to address this meaningfully.

  4. On the productivity side, the alarm was recently sounded by former Fed Chairman Greenspan.  He contends that the growth in entitlements has crowded out savings, which in turn, means less capital flowing into productive assets.  He calls entitlement reform the third rail of US politics as our leaders are afraid to confront the problem head on, for fear of being voted out.  We completely agree. 

Thus, given the level of debt and commensurate interest rate exposure, along with negative population demographics, and the lack of addressing entitlement reform as it relates to long term productivity growth, it is our strong belief that the US economy will not grow at rates that will vindicate current equity market valuations.  We remain committed to the thesis that the experimental Fed policies of the past years have inflated and distorted equity and other asset prices tremendously (while generating “unintended consequences”).

In our view, this time is NOT different.  Ultimately the stock market will reflect an economic reality much different than it does currently.  When that happens, as in past times when bull markets ended, stocks will likely fall much faster than they went up. 

Population Demographics Will Work Against President Trump's Plan
5/01/17 9:00 AM

A major variable in the determination of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is the growth of the labor force.  What a nation produces can be thought of, in simple terms, as the number of hours worked multiplied by the output per hour (productivity).  It is a documented fact that the growth rate of the U.S. labor force is declining and is expected, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to only increase by .5% per year over the coming decade.  This is slower than it has grown in past decades and is due to a combination of many demographic factors, including the relative aging of the population.

President Trump and members of his cabinet have stated that once his agenda items are signed into law, the country will be on its way to 3%-4% growth.  As our viewers know, we have written many times on the anemic sub 2% economic growth of the Obama years.  President Trump intends to reverse the trend of lower growth by 1), Repealing and replacing the ACA (Affordable Care Act), which has thus far been rejected.   2) Shrinking regulations, including Dodd Frank. 3) Lower taxes for individuals and corporations, both large and small. 4) Repatriation of $2 tn. to $ 3tn of corporate cash residing abroad. 5) Implementing a national infrastructure rebuilding plan that will replace many roads, bridges, airports and other major items in desperate need of repair.

What President Trump left out of these 5 “agenda” items is the fact that the only way to double the growth in GDP is to increase population enough that more people enter the labor force.   The increase in the labor force should also coincide with an increase in productivity. Anything that President Trump does that inhibits growth of the part of the population that could become part of the labor force (such as curbing legal immigration) will have a negative effect on the increase in growth that he seeks to achieve.

Please understand that President Trump is expressing his position of doubling the growth rate of GDP with U.S. population demographics as a major road block.  Due to the aging of the “baby boomers”, 10,000 potential labor force participants are retiring every day.  According to the Bureau of the Census, about 5,800 people are added to the U.S. population daily.  That is the net difference between births, deaths, and immigration.  This is hardly the situation that took place in the mid 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when “baby boomers” entered the workforce in great numbers and the economy grew rapidly as a result.  Thus, Presidents Reagan, GWH Bush, and Clinton had relatively great economies in their presidential years, from a growth standpoint. 

President Trump needs to understand that the population demographics are working against him, as never before, with fewer and fewer people entering the workforce.  Policies that he and his cabinet espouse need to reflect the fact that our economy needs more, not less, workers.  Those workers should be as highly skilled as possible, so that the productivity side of the equation is also a tailwind.

Debt Can be Looked Upon in Various Ways
What is the Real Total Debt in the U.S.A.?
4/07/17 10:00 AM


Comstock has been discussing the debt situation in our country for years.  We wrote a “special report” discussing the various forms of debt and explained how the debt is incorporated in “The Cycle of Deflation” (see attachment) as the debt was hindering many speculators and investors just before the dot.com bubble was about ready to collapse.  We warned that the debt was the main reason that the valuations were the highest in history and would eventually break the market.  This was exactly what took place starting in March of 2000 when the stock market crashed and a severe recession began. 

We again warned our viewers about the problems of excessive debt during the housing bubble of 2005 to 2008 when Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve at the time, decided to lower interest rates to 1% in June of 2003.  This caused the largest housing mania of all time.  Banks were virtually pushing money to anyone that wanted a loan to buy a house (whether they could afford it or not.)  Back then--they called these loans “no doc loans”.  These were loans that were made without any documentation whatsoever.

The amazing part of this era was that Greenspan warned stock investors about the “irrational exuberance” that was taking place in the late 1990s as the stock market rose almost every day. The “irrational exuberance” speech drove the market down, but that only scared off investors for just a few days and the stock investors regained the losses almost immediately.  After observing the voracity of the market that could not be held down, Greenspan changed his mind and confessed to being wrong about his warnings just before the real break took place in early 2000.  He also witnessed the housing bubble, and not only did he support the banks making the loans, but actually encouraged the banks to continue making these insane loans. 

This leads us to the old time phrase, “fool us one time, shame on you, fool us twice shame on us.”  When the current debt bubble breaks and the stock market collapses we could say, “Fool us 3 times and we should be banned from trading and investing in the financial markets.”  Unless we can understand why the debt caused the collapse in 1929 (after the roaring 1920’s), in 2000, and 2008, we should be forced to compare the debt to GDP in all of these times to the present.

If you were forced to do this you would look at the debt and be shocked at how much the debt grew over the past two decades.  If you are a Democrat you might compare how much the debt grew under President George W. Bush and use examples of how much it grew during the eight years of his administration. You could make comparisons like the debt grew more under George W. than all past presidents (going back to George Washington).  If you are a Republican, you could make the same comparisons of how much the debt grew under Barack Obama and make the same comparisons (going back again to George Washington).  If you did make these comparisons you would come close to going out of your mind, because it would have to scare you. 

The amazing thing is the fact that you would be making the comparisons erroneously since you would look at the debt doubling under George W. and then doubled again under Barack Obama, and think we are in real trouble.  However, the debt you would be using is strictly the government debt, and get scared as hell when you see the debt is now just about equal to the GDP of the greatest country in the world at about $20 trillion apiece. 

If, on the other hand, you were looking deeper into the debt and could see that the debt has grown much more than the GDP of our country.  In fact, the real debt relative to GDP is actually about 370% of GDP if you include the government debt, the state and local debt, student debt, credit market debt, and the loans made to foreign banks overseas.  The 370% of debt relative to GDP also should include all of the entitlements and other off balance sheet debt that we include now.  These are obligations that have been guaranteed to most of the people in this country such as the entitlement promises of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and government employee pensions.  If you take all of them into consideration the debt to GDP would not be just 370% but closer to another $40 trillion of debt which would take the total debt to over 500% of our GDP.  If that doesn’t scare you nothing will!!

Now that President Donald Trump will probably have as much trouble with his other agenda items as he did with his repeal and replace of healthcare, the market could have real problems.  And when this enormous debt comes to light, we would expect the market to decline sharply.  The only way that the Trump Administration can survive without moving his agenda quickly this year would be to grow the economy close to the rate of 3 to 4 % as he predicted.  But it is very hard to grow nearly that fast with these demographics, retiring baby boomers, fewer immigrants--it is impossible to get corporations to make capital expenditures and productivity to increase without being able to increase the labor force. This is why they are in such a bind!

But Politics, Debt, and Stagflation May Change Things
2/28/17 1:05 AM

The Trump rally, which began during the overnight session the night of November 8th has, in our view, built perfection into prices, which we think were already priced to near perfection.  In the bull case, fundamentals were already improving and President Trump’s proposed cutting of regulations, taxes, and instituting pro-growth fiscal spending, just adds fuel to the fire.  It seems to us that every possible benefit of the doubt is being given to the new administration in an economic and political climate that is unprecedented in our lifetime, and possibly our country’s history.

In addition, there is nothing that says that President Trump will get all he wants from Congress.  The most positive outcome is being discounted by the stock market presently and if there is resistance or delay with his programs, the stock market will suffer. The U.S. will need to raise the debt ceiling in mid-March, and we do not believe the market has focused on that.  With debt and interest rate exposure that are enormous, we do not believe that Republican deficit hawks, that have spent their careers as such, will be so eager to approve spending increases that are not offset by spending cuts.    Additionally, we expect Democratic opposition to the President’s agenda to be fierce.  So the Trump programs which have been treated by the market as a forgone conclusion will, in our view, be much more difficult.

The Fed continues to state that three rate increases are on the table for 2017.  Our view of the matter is that the Fed is walking a tightrope as the $20tn. of US debt is relatively short in duration, with a maturity of just over 5 years, and just under a 2% average coupon.  Thus, there is enormous interest rate exposure in terms of the debt and deficit, for that reason alone, it is likely the Fed will be behind the curve.  The exposure created by the $20tn. of debt (and possibly much more debt under President Trump), along with $100tn. in unfunded liabilities and entitlements, puts the US and the Fed in a very serious bind as each 1% increase in funding cost to the government will add $200bn. to the national debt.  Additionally, as labor markets tighten (with corresponding negative effects on profit margins), the Fed moving gingerly risks an acceleration in inflation.

As our readers know, we are believers that high debt is, in and of itself, a dampening factor on economic growth.  We have also written many times about how the 8 years of close to zero interest rates has caused risk assets to be mispriced.  The European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BOJ) mimicked us, and even upped the ante with negative rates.   And the BOJ purchases of equities, has further inflated the bubble in Japan.  The newest economic superpower, China, is in a credit bubble of its own that is even larger than ours as a percentage of its economy.  While President Trump has referred to China as a currency manipulator, they are doing exactly the opposite.  A weak currency will only exacerbate an already serious capital flight problem.  Therefore, they have been trying to strengthen the Yuan.

There is an argument being made currently by Alan Greenspan, that we are headed from “Stagnation to Stagflation”.  In the beginning of this cycle, profit margins and the stock market should move up as inflation gains momentum.  But it will not continue because what is really going on longer term is a problem with the productivity of the economy.  As our country ages and retires, we will not have an influx of baby boomers entering the workforce like we had in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These population demographics cause a problem with growth in entitlements.  The entitlements crowd out savings which results in less investment in productive assets.  We subscribe to this argument and strongly believe this to be a headwind to growth that will exist unless we get many more workers entering the labor force.  More working immigrants entering the country would ease the situation, but would bring its own additional set of problems.

 On the subject of valuation, our favorite measure is the trailing twelve month Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) P/E of the S&P 500.  With 92% of S&P companies reporting (as of 2/24/17) it appears the trailing twelve month GAAP earnings are just under $96.  That’s a current P/E of 24.7. We don’t believe that a 2% growth environment justifies that valuation.   Furthermore, analyst’s estimates compiled by S&P, project that earnings growth in the next two years will be just under 17% a year.  This is in an economy which has not been able to get above 2% annual growth and stay there.  Even if earnings did grow at that rate, the GAAP P/E in 2 years (at this level of the market) would still be around 18, which is historically expensive.  If the economy and earnings are growing at that rate, one would have to think that interest rates and inflation will rise.  And if GAAP earnings are capitalized at significantly higher interest rates, it will naturally be a problem for stocks.

In summary, it is our view that the market is in the third credit driven bubble of this century.  We believe that the strong move since the election has more to do with hopes and dreams of what could happen rather than the reality of what is likely to happen.  The additional growth that could come as a result of less regulation and lower taxes pales beside the inflation in asset values, especially stocks, due to the policies of the Fed.  In that sense, it doesn’t actually matter all that much who the president is. Debt and demographics are working against us and it will take, in our view, a bear market of epic proportions to correct the excesses in valuation that exist.


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