The Next Chairman of The Federal Reserve Is…

Andy RosenbergerAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

In the study of various sciences such as physics, biology, or even economics, we often create models to help us better understand the world around us.  These models often start out simple and usually only account for a few variables at a time.  For example, when solving a physics problem, we may assume that friction doesn’t influence the movement of an object.  That may be an okay assumption if you were calculating the movement of an ice skater along the ice, but ignoring friction could have a devastating impact when discussing vehicle safety or sending a spaceship to the moon.  So too is the case with investments.  As investors, we often create models to try and explain the economic world around us.  For example, to explain the price of a stock or asset class, we may look to the future earnings power and discount rates to calculate a fair value.  But too often these models fail.  Just as many came to believe in the efficient market hypothesis theory, the 2008 financial crisis proved to be a wake-up call that the world of sociology and investor behavior is more complicated than even the most sophisticated models of today.

Since the failure of many traditional valuation models, many investors have shifted from a bottom-up-only view of the world to one that incorporates a more top-down approach.  Thanks in part to massive amounts of liquidity in the form of Quantitative Easing, Fed-watching has become a main source of the new top-down approach.  Unfortunately, leadership at the Federal Reserve remains in question and a seat change may be afoot again.  During an interview on June 18 with Charlie Rose, President Obama stated, “He’s [Ben Bernanke] already stayed a lot longer than he wanted, or he was supposed to.” The statement was a clear signal that new leadership will begin February 1 of next year.

Source: Zeorehedge.com via Paddy Power

Source: Zeorehedge.com via Paddy Power

Over the past month, the search for a new Fed Chairman has narrowed to an apparently short list of two candidates: Larry Summers and the current Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen.  While many influential members of the economic community were quick to vocally support Yellen, the pendulum of consensus now appears to be forming around Larry Summers.  In fact, the nomination has garnered so much momentum in the financial community, that Paddy Power, a United Kingdom-based gambling site, is taking wagers on the outcome.  The current odds are fascinating, with Larry Summers a 1:2 favorite over Janet Yellen, with 2:1 (against) odds.  Amazingly, as charted by Zero Hedge, in less than a month’s time, Summers has moved from having an outside chance to being the favorite.  If you’re skeptical of foreign-based online gambling websites, even reputable sources such as Bloomberg put the odds of a Summers nomination at 60%[1].

What does this mean for investors?  Whereas the investing community largely expects a Yellen nomination to represent a continuation of the current monetary policy as directed under Chairman Bernanke, a Summers nomination is far more uncertain.  However, I’ll quote from one of our trusted research providers, 13D Research:

We have read everything that Summers has written in recent years and we suspect his views coincide very closely with that of President Obama. What makes this all so interesting is that Summers is a vocal supporter of fiscal expansion. It is highly possible that if he is nominated and confirmed by the Senate that he will push for a form of Overt Monetary Finance…Today’s Financial Times carries an article on Summers that quoted remarks he made about the effectiveness of quantitative easing at a conference last April. “QE in my view is less efficacious for the real economy than most people suppose…If QE won’t have a large effect on demand, it will not have a large effect on inflation either.” Summers also gave a highly optimistic outlook for the U.S. economy. “I think the market is underestimating the pace at which the Fed will alter its current course and the consequences of that for interest rates.” This means a radical change in the markets’ expectations. The article also emphasized the following: “People who have discussed policy with him say Mr. Summers regards fiscal policy as a more effective tool than monetary policy.” What has been lacking at the Fed is a strong personality and intellectual leadership. Summers is brash, intelligent and self-confident, traits which may enable him to take charge of the FOMC. A regime change of this order of magnitude would be a game changer of the highest order, impacting inflation, economic growth, wages, gold, and the U.S. dollar….

8.13.13_Rosenberger_NextFedChairman_1The jury is still out as to who will ultimately be the next Fed Chairman and what their policies will be.  Similarly, given that Summers represents a shift away from the status quo, his recent surge in garnering the nomination may partially be why markets have decided to take a breather.  After all, markets prefer predictability and quantitative easing has been a major tailwind for investor confidence.  Thus, we wouldn’t be surprised to see higher market volatility as investors adjust their models and conceptual frameworks to reflect the possibility of a new Federal Reserve paradigm led by Larry Summers.


[1] Bloomberg, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-08-12/the-fed-race-heats-up.html

News Out of Japan

Andy RosenbergerAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

The recent sell-off in Japan has many investors concerned that “Abenomics” may be little more than smoke and mirrors than the start of a cyclical, or even more importantly secular, rally. While the Japanese equity market can be volatile, especially given the monstrous 80%+ rally since November of last year, continuing macroeconomic evidence does suggest that the economy is improving. ISI Research has done a nice job tracking the macro data out of Japan. In one of their recent pieces, they make the argument that during the last week of May, 14 out of 17 data points showed signs of the economy improving. See chart below.

Signs of Strength Signs of Weakness
1. Construction Orders 1. DPI Per Household
2. Employment 2. Household Expenditures
3. Housing Starts 3. Dept. Store Sales
4. Industrial Production
5. Insured Employees
6. Job Ratio
7. Job Offers Ratio
8. Mffg PMI
9. Public Works Starts
10. Retail Sales
11. Retail Stores
12. Small Business Confidence
13. Vehicle Exports
14. Vehicle Production  Source: ISI Research

Moreover, their proprietary Economic Diffusion Index has climbed to record territory. The recent pullback in the market can be a hard pill to swallow for those just waking up to the Japanese story. Yet, we must also consider that a 15% pullback in the context of a nearly 85% run in the equity market still leaves markets up 57% from where it was just six months ago.

Consequences Remain from Quantitative Easing

Andy RosenbergerAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Brinker Capital

Despite the now numerous iterations of quantitative easing, the full effects of large-scale asset purchases aren’t fully understood by market participants or policy makers. After four years of experimenting in this new Petri dish, markets understand how liquidity is created, but not where that liquidity ultimately flows to. Arguably, as evidence by P/E multiple expansion, new highs on the major indices, high yield credit spread at all-time lows, and a still sluggish economy, many believe that much of this liquidity has found its way into risky assets as opposed to the broader economy.

If we take a step back for a moment, there are three potential adverse consequences from quantitative easing (QE):

  1. Future inflation
  2. Negative political and/or sovereign perceptions
  3. Asset bubbles

To date, two out of those three adverse consequences haven’t been a problem. On the inflation front, TIPS breakeven rates are range bound, precious metal prices are falling, and lagging measures of inflation via governmental statistics are tempered. Similarly, although there have been some negative headlines surrounding the risks of QE, by no means are these rumblings excessive or prohibitive to policy continuation. However, what may present an issue is the persistence of increasing asset valuations.

5.23.13_Rosenberg_QEWhile many members of the Fed believe higher asset prices create a “wealth effect”, two recent bubbles suggest that the last thing policymakers need on their plate is another asset bubble. Finding the delicate balance between boosting wealth and not creating a new bubble suggests that the Fed will ultimately need to pullback on quantitative easing should price trends continue at their current pace. Thus, in a circular reference type of thought process, I worry that the regulator to higher equity prices may ultimately be higher equity prices in and of themselves. Said a bit differently, higher asset prices has the potential to cause concern for the Fed, resulting in a tapering off of quantitative easing, ultimately translating to a pullback in equity prices. Hence, higher equity prices may ultimately be the reason that central banks have to ease off of the pedal. Thus, in a “reflexivity” sort of way, rapidly rising asset prices may be bad for assets in the back of 2013 or 2014.

In today’s market environment, the name of the investing game is investing alongside the Fed. Naturally, one can then understand why the Federal Reserve “tapering” their quantitative easing is such a big deal. When the rules of the game change, it takes time for markets to understand the paradigm shift and transition from the easy liquidity from central banks. Our belief is that the Fed is well aware that it greatly influences markets and thus will try to make this transition as smooth as possible without pushing markets into bubble territory.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Andy RosenbergerAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Brinker Capital

History is littered with examples of “unintended consequences” – a term referring to the fact that decision makers (and more importantly, policymakers) tend to make decisions that later have unforeseen outcomes.  I was reminded of such a fact this weekend as my wife and I launched into our annual (and seemingly unending) springtime yard cleanup.   In addition to the mulching, planting, trimming, and other routine undertakings associated with yard maintenance, every year, we spend more time and money than I care to admit trying to rid our yard of the dreaded English Ivy.  As any other homeowner with a similar problem can sympathize with, there is no amount of weed killer, weed-whacking or online product remedies that seem to tackle the problem.  Our English Ivy problem is the unintended consequence of the prior homeowners’ decision to turn their yard into an “English Garden”.

On a much grander scale, unintended consequences pop up everywhere.  Most go unnoticed by the broader public.  As one such example, The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article titled “U.S. Ethanol Mandate Puts Squeeze on Oil Refiners”.  The article highlighted that consumers could see higher prices at the pump due to government enacted mandates that force refiners to purchase market-based ethanol credits.  The original idea was that increasing the amount of ethanol used in gasoline would make gasoline cleaner burning and be better for the environment.  However, since the policy was enacted, two unforeseen issues have unfolded.  First, prices for these ethanol-based credits have skyrocketed in the past few months.  The higher ethanol credit prices mean that refiners will be forced to pass along higher prices for gasoline to the end consumer.  Second, automakers are suggesting that cars and trucks aren’t well equipped to burn the new gasoline blend.  As a result, we have a policy that was intended to produce cleaner burning gasoline which ultimately turned into higher gas prices for a product which most cars aren’t able to use.

consequencesThe reality is that the vast majority of consumers will never be informed of policy misstep.  Only industry experts and select individuals with knowledge of the matter will truly understand the costs involved.  Sometimes; however, unintended consequences have a much more visible impact on the broader economy.  That’s been the case over the past two weeks as policymakers have tried to tackle the banking problems in Cyprus.  If we rewind to last year, Greece was the conversation of topic.  Ultimately, policymakers decided that private sector bond holders should bear the brunt of the losses on Greek debt.  Fast forward to today and we have insolvent Cyprus banks.  Why?  Because Cyprus banks, which were one of the largest holders of Greek debt, were forced to write-down their assets.  So while at the time the policy of having private sector investors take the loss on Greek debt seemed like a good idea, ultimately the unintended consequence was that it would later result in Cyprus banks becoming woefully undercapitalized.

The European Union’s response to the Cyprus banking issue was subsequently just as perplexing.  As initially proposed, depositors, regardless of their size, would be taxed to cover the insolvency of the local banks.  Ultimately, while the policy was later reversed to preserve deposits below €100,000, the sanctity of small deposits suddenly disappeared.  Most market pundits will agree that Cyprus is too small and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things to bring down the European economy.  I worry, however, that the unintended consequence of Europe’s policy response will make depositors in other peripheral countries a bit more anxious when it comes to where they store their money for safekeeping.  After all, one of the tenants within economics is that if two investments have equal return, investors will choose the one with lesser risk.  With interest rates near 0% across the developed world, wouldn’t it make the most sense for depositors to store their wealth in a place with little chance of future default?  While we often like to believe that these matters are completely thought through and weighed carefully by policymakers, unfortunately, this most recent policy decision appears to driven more for domestic political purposes as opposed to European “Union” driven.

Decoding the G7 Statement

Andy RosenbergerAndy Rosenberger, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

Earlier this week, members of the seven richest countries met for the official G7 conference. Center to the assembly were discussions surrounding the recent actions by Japan to stimulate their economy through currency devaluation and higher inflation targets. Investors, hungry for a green light by the G7 that Japanese policies are warranted, were disappointed and confused as conflicting statements were issued. The official statement read:

“We, the G7 Ministers and Governors, reaffirm our longstanding commitment to market determined exchange rates and to consult closely in regard to actions in foreign exchange markets. We reaffirm that our fiscal and monetary policies have been and will remain oriented towards meeting our respective domestic objectives using domestic instruments, and that we will not target exchange rates. We are agreed that excessive volatility and disorderly movements in exchange rates can have adverse implications for economic and financial stability. We will continue to consult closely on exchange markets and cooperate as appropriate.”

Confused by the statement? You weren’t alone. The statement, although obscure, was initially seen by the market as a green light. Specifically, market participants focused on the following sentence:

“We reaffirm that our fiscal and monetary policies have been and will remain oriented towards meeting our respective domestic objectives using domestic instruments…”

However, only hours later, an unnamed “official” was quoted in a Reuters article as saying:

“The G7 statement signaled concern about excess moves in the yen.” and “The G7 is concerned about unilateral guidance on the yen. Japan will be in the spotlight at the G20 in Moscow this weekend.”

G7

The unnamed “official” was enough to stop the yen’s depreciation; at least temporarily. Investors’ eyes will now turn to the G20 meeting this weekend for further clarification. However, the reality of all of this is that it’s more noise than news.

Japan has started down a path with which there’s no turning back. Too many failed stimulus attempts have been one of the major reasons as to why Japan hasn’t been able to escape its two-decade long deflationary spiral. Reversing course now would be disastrous for the Japanese economy, and more importantly, Japan’s newly elected Prime Minster Shinzo Abe. Prime Minster Abe has only months to establish his Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) credibility before another round of elections determine the party’s fate. Turning back now would surely cost the party its ruling power. Ultimately, it seems hard to believe that newly elected officials would side with six members from other countries over that of the voters and ultimately their political careers.

Economic Outlook and Monetary Policy

Andy Rosenberger, Brinker Capital

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a speech by Charles Plosser, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.  Mr. Plosser’s remarks were credited by many in the press as the reason for that afternoon’s sell-off in the markets, which resulted in a -1.04% decline on the S&P 500.  Although not currently a voting member of the FOMC, as President of a regional Federal Reserve branch, his opinions and influence are important to monetary policy decisions.

While Mr. Plosser still believes that growth will be 2% in 2012 and 3% in 2013 and 2014, the financial press was principally focused on his comments that quantitative easing is not effective at helping the broader economy.  His belief is that too little focus is placed on the potential future costs of printing money and that the Fed actions carry with them ‘significant risks’ with ‘meager’ benefits.  Honestly, I was somewhat surprised by the frank comments from Mr. Plosser.  After all, it’s not all that often Federal Reserve officials are completely candid with their outlook (can you remember the last time the Fed called for a recession?).  Nonetheless, the straightforward opinion was a nice change from the normally overoptimistic Federal Reserve comments.

During the Q&A session, I was able to sneak a question in for the President.  Specifically, I asked if Mr. Plosser could comment on the channels in which Quantitative Easing (QE) is effective (through lowering rates, depreciating the dollar, and increasing asset prices).  Covertly though, my intention was to get his view on QEs ability to increase equity prices.  Similar to his comments regarding the cost and benefits of QE, his frank answer was that quantitative easing should not increase the value of asset prices.  Mr. Plosser’s explanation was that asset prices are simply a discounted value of future cash flows.  Although QE lowers the rates at which equities are discounted, he had a strong view that “quantitative easing does not create wealth.”  My guess is that Mr. Bernanke and Wall Street would disagree with Mr. Plosser here.  Time will tell who is ultimately correct.

Source: Brinker Capital and FactSet

To read Mr. Plosser’s speech, please click here.

Did Chairman Bernanke Seal the Reelection of Barack Obama?

Andy Rosenberger, Brinker Capital

Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan wasted no time in criticizing the Federal Reserve’s newest measure to stimulate the U.S. economy through additional monetary policy, otherwise known as Quantitative Easing (QE3). Within hours of the Fed announcement, Mitt Romney likened the need for more easing to failed Obama policies while Paul Ryan later said it represented “sugar-high economics”. The two fiscally minded candidates are understandably frustrated with the new measures by the Fed.

According to intrade.com, a market-based prediction market whereby speculators can gamble real money on the outcome of future events, the probability of President Obama’s reelection jumped significantly after the announcement by the Fed. The spike in reelection odds is the largest since the death of Osama bin Laden in May of last year.

According to intrade.com, President Obama now has over a 66% chance of winning the election this November, an increase of over 5% since the QE3 announcement. With such a dramatic move in reelection odds, the news of new quantitative easing is certainly a blow to the Romney campaign and a major reason why Mitt Romney has publicly said he would not reappoint Chairman Bernanke if given the chance.

Chart Source: www.intrade.com, 9/17/12

Insights: Fixed Income Scenario Analysis with Tom Wilson and Andy Rosenberger of Brinker Capital

Tom Wilson, Senior Investment Manager and Andy Rosenberger, Senior Investment Manager, discuss fixed income investments and the potential impact that interest rates would have on these investments.