Labor Market: Myths vs. Reality

Neil-DuttaThe following excerpt has been provided by Mr. Neil Dutta, Head of Economics at Renaissance Macro Research.

Myth #1: America is a nation of part-timers
Here is what is true: Over the last four months, part-time employment has expanded by 8.9% at an annual rate while full-time employment has risen at just a 0.5% annual rate. What is not true is that rising part-time work represents a new structural phenomenon in the U.S. labor market.

8.20.13_Dutta_RenMac_LaborMarketConsider the following points: part-time employment represents one-fifth of total household employment. A quick inspection of this series screams cyclical NOT structural. That is, the series rises during recessions and falls as the recovery gains traction. The Household Survey is notoriously volatile, so it makes sense to analyze longer-term trends. Over the last year, all of the increase in part-time employment has been for non-economic reasons (child care, vacation, schooling, training, etc.)

Why has this subject generated so much attention? Simple. The Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, there is little survey evidence that firms plan to materially alter worker hours because of the health law. A survey of firms across the New York Fed District found that only 12% of respondents refrained from hiring or shifted full-time workers into part-time; that compares to 7% that made minimal changes to their workforce. So, the ACA is having marginal impact, but it is overwhelmed by business cycle dynamics.

Myth #2: Job gains are all low wage
Earlier this month USA Today ran with the following headline, “Many new jobs are part-time and low-paying”. This is a true statement. Many of the jobs being created are low-paying and that may or may not be something to worry about. What is not true, however, is that this is a new development and unique only to this recovery.

8.20.13_Dutta_RenMac_LaborMarket_2The two sectors that get the most attention are retail trade and leisure & hospitality. So, we went back five economic cycles and looked at the composition of employment growth from the payroll trough to peak. Here is what we found: retail trade and leisure & hospitality employment, typically accounts for one-fourth of the job creation. In this cycle, 28.2% of the new jobs are in these categories. That compares to 28.4% in the 2003-07 recover, 23.4% in the 90s, 28.5% in the 80s, and 23.7% in the 70s.

More broadly, the narrative misses the fact the wages typically lag in employment recoveries. While the labor market continues to recover in a relative sense, there is still plenty of slack. What is important is that these unemployed workers here value. Otherwise, they would not be able to exert downward pressure on the wages of those working and the newly employed. That tells us the labor stack is cyclical not structural. As the labor recovery ensues and the slack is absorbed, wages will begin to rise. When growth bears fret about low-wage work, a more apt translation at this stage is: it is still early in the jobs recovery.

8.20.13_Dutta_RenMac_LaborMarket_3

The views expressed above are those of Neil Dutta and are not intended as investment advice.

Should I Sell My Fixed Income?

Jeff RauppJeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

Now that we’re able to look back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s pretty easy to pick on the mistakes that investors made during the financial crisis of 2008. For instance, as equity markets sold off, emotion took over, and many investors that entered the crisis with a well balanced portfolio abandoned their plan and made wholesale changes to fixed income or, even worse, cash. At the time, it seemed like a rational reaction—Wall Street institutions that had existed for decades were insolvent, and each day seemed to bring a new, ineffective government program to stabilize the credit markets, along with yet another triple-digit loss in the stock market.

7.18.13_Raupp_FixedIncomeWe know now that what had started as an economic slowdown and then recession extended into a full-fledged market panic, where investors sold indiscriminately of price. In the years that followed, those that kept their heads recovered and reached new highs with their investments; those that joined the panic are, in many cases, still hoping to recover their 2008 losses.

Today, many investors are considering a question that could very much have the same negative long-term consequences, namely, “Should I abandon fixed income altogether?”

The question comes up after interest rates spiked in reaction to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s May testimony in which he outlined a scenario where, with the right economic growth in place, the Fed could start lowering the level of bond purchases they’re making as part of the quantitative easing (QE) program. Over a two month period, the yield on the 10-year Treasury jumped from 1.6% to 2.8% and at -2.3%, the Barclay’s Aggregate Index had its worst quarterly return since the second quarter of 2004 when it fell 2.4%.

To answer the question, first let’s look at the downside potential. It’s been a long time since we went through an extended rising rate environment. As our research indicates, from 1945 to 1981 the yield on the 10-year Treasury rose from 1.5% to over 14%. Over that 36-year period, the return an investor in the 10-year Treasury received was actually a positive 2.8%, with 75% of the calendar years in that period having positive returns. The worst one-year loss, 5.0%, was in 1969, and the worst multi-year losing streak happened twice—1955-1956 and 1958-1959 (1957 was a strong year and the five-year period 1955-1959 was close to flat). Compared to a stock market bubble, the downside on fixed income is extremely tame.

7.18.13_Raupp_FixedIncome_1Secondly, you have to think about the role fixed income plays in your portfolio. In heavy stock market sell-offs, fixed income is often the only asset class with positive returns and therefore can act as a hedge against market volatility. Since 1945, there has only been one year (1969) where both stocks and bonds had negative returns. In today’s world, a global flight to safety results in demand for high quality fixed income, driving yields down and bond prices higher. No other asset class plays the low volatility hedging role quite as well. Responding to the threat of low rates by greatly increasing equity, or even alternative exposure, can prove disastrous if markets crater.

Finally, fixed income comes in many varieties. At any given point in time, there are areas of fixed income that provide opportunity and/or protection. By broadening your universe beyond simple treasuries to take advantage of these you can get a better end result.

Let’s be clear, core, investment-grade fixed income doesn’t provide a great investment opportunity right now. With yields still at low levels and likely to rise in the coming five to ten years, we’ll likely see muted returns at best with fits and starts of performance along the way. Inflation is currently in check below 2%, but if we started to see it flare up, investors, especially those with longer horizons, would need to consider the impact rising prices would have on their purchasing power. But even in an adverse environment, fixed income still plays an important role in portfolios.

Winds of Change

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

The winds of change have begun to blow through Washington, D.C. carrying with them whispers that the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States is contemplating a more immediate slowing of the unprecedented stimulus measures it has employed since the financial crisis than many analysts anticipate, which could have broad implications across the global landscape. Several signals have been offered by the American Central Bank in the past few weeks to prepare the marketplace for the impending reduction of their involvement, highlighting the delicate nature of this endeavor.

The Institution faces a daunting challenge in trying to scale back a program that has largely been credited with fueling a dramatic rise in asset prices, without interrupting the current rally in equity markets.  Although the U.S. economy has shown itself to be growing at a moderate pace, a measure of uncertainty lingers within investors as to whether this growth is robust enough to compensate for the paring back of the Bank’s historically unprecedented accommodative monetary policies.

As the depths of the ‘Great Recession’ threatened to pull the global economy into depression, the U.S. Central Bank undertook a herculean effort to bring the country back from the precipice of disaster. The tangible result of these efforts has been a deluge of liquidity forced upon the marketplace, which has given birth to a tremendous rally in share prices of companies listed around the globe, and helped to repair much of the damage inflicted by the crisis. The dramatic expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, since the inception of these programs, has culminated in the most recent iteration of these efforts—an open-ended program of quantitative easing, comprised of the purchase of $45 billion per month in longer dated U.S. Treasury debt and $40 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertaken in September of last year, that has brought the aggregate amount of assets acquired by the Bank to more than $3 trillion.

5.17.13_Pressier_WindsOfChange

The chart above depicts the increase in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet (white line) versus the S&P 500 Index (yellow line).

As the economic recovery has gained momentum in the United States, with notable improvements seen in both the labor and housing markets, concern has been voiced that the flood of liquidity flowing from Washington should be tapered, lest it potentially result in the creation of artificial asset bubbles, which in turn could present risks to price stability.

The first broach of the possibility of the Fed varying the additions it is making to its balance sheet came in a press release from the Federal Open Market Committee on May 1 which stated that, “The Committee is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes.” This statement was followed by the May 11th publication of an article authored by Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal, who is widely considered to be a de facto mouthpiece for the Central Bank, “officials say they plan to reduce the amount of bonds they buy in careful and potentially halting steps, varying their purchases as their confidence about the job market and inflation evolves. The timing on when to start is still being debated” (Wall Street Journal). Comments issued on Thursday by the President of the San Francisco Fed, John William’s, referred once again to the possibility of the Central Bank’s program being scaled back, potentially sooner than many market participants anticipate, “It’s clear that the labor market has improved since September.  We could reduce somewhat the pace of our securities purchases, perhaps as early as this summer” (Bloomberg News).

Though the Fed has stated that it will continue its accommodative monetary policies until the unemployment rate in the United States has been reduced from its current rate of 7.5% to a target of 6.5%, it appears that the pace of this accommodation may change in the near term.  While the consensus among market participants is for this gradual reduction in quantitative easing to begin sometime this year, no one is sure of the scale or the exact timing.  As the Central Bank has played such an integral role in helping to engineer the current rally in equities, it will be imperative to closely monitor the deftness with which they handle the extrication of their involvement.

Sequestration Begins

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

Sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that were agreed to as part of the debt ceiling compromise in the summer of 2011, came into effect on Friday, March 1. The Budget Control Act of 2011 established the bi-partisan “super committee” to produce deficit reduction legislation. As incentive for the super committee to agree to deficit reduction legislation, if Congress failed to act than the across the board spending cuts (sequestration), totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years, would come into effect on January 2, 2013. The start date was delayed two months as part of the fiscal cliff deal. The cuts are split 50/50 between defense (which was supposed to get the Republicans to act) and domestic discretionary spending (which was supposed to get the Democrats to act).

As expected, Congress and the Administration have not been able to agree on serious deficit reduction so we now face the automatic budget cuts. The public does not seem to be as focused on sequestration as they were on the fiscal cliff. In a recent poll from The Hill, only 36% of likely voters know what the sequester is. The spending cuts are broad based, as the chart below from Strategas Research Partners shows; however, it will take some time for the cuts to come into effect.

3.4.13_Magnotta_Sequestration

Source: Strategas Research Partners, LLC

The drag on GDP growth from the sequester is estimated to be around -0.5% this year. This is not enough drag to push us into a recession if consensus estimates for 2013 growth are correct at 2-2.5%, but the effect is not negligible. The largest hit to GDP growth will likely be in the second quarter once a majority of the spending cuts have begun to take effect. If and when voters begin to feel the impact, there may be pressure on Washington to delay or eliminate the cuts.

We also face the expiration of the continuing resolution that funds the government on March 27, which, if not addressed, could result in a government shutdown. This could be a catalyst for another short-term fix. As typical in politics, whichever party is shouldering the most blame will be more likely to compromise to get a deal done.

The idea of real tax and entitlement reform that promotes growth and puts us on a long-term, sustainable fiscal path seems highly unlikely in this environment. Our elected leaders appear to lack the tenacity to make tough decisions. Sadly, kicking the can down the road is the path of least resistance and often the one that leads to reelection.

Bottom line: Fiscal policy in the U.S. will remain a risk throughout 2013. The spending cuts from the sequester alone are not enough to derail the economic recovery. However, tepid growth is likely to persist, especially in the first half of the year, as disposable incomes have fallen due to the expiration of the payroll tax cut. An accommodative Fed and an improving housing market are positives for growth.

The Optimism for an Economy with a 7.8% Unemployment Rate

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Brinker Capital

Currently, the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.8%, an improvement from the 8.5% a year ago and the 10% from the recent peak in October 2009. Still, compared to the consistent sub 6% rates we were used to seeing from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, it is hard to feel good about this current state of employment and what this means for the health of the economy. There are those that argue that the “real” unemployment number is even worse (due to discouraged works exiting the equation and poor measurement methodology etc.). While it’s hard to show optimism for our economy, that is what I aim to do here.

A meaningful place to start is to define what an economy is. By its simplest definition an economy is a measure of the value of the goods and services the people of an area produce. Increase your number of people, increase the amount each person can produce, or produce more valuable stuff and the economy should grow. As you trade and cross-invest between economies, you can make further optimizations. In the short run, economies go through cycles and go by the whims of politicians, the media, central banks and consumer confidence. Still at its core, the economy is just a measure of what the people of a country are able to produce.

More Efficient Per EmployeeThe clear point here is that unemployment represents a failure to produce all we could. However, even with that fact, looking at GDP (expressed in 2005 dollars) we stood at $13.3 trillion at the end of 2011 (the highest year end number ever) and have seen continued growth such that 2012 will be even higher. So we have managed to become more efficient with what each employed person produces. This is the equivalent of a factory using fewer workers but producing more. If the real unemployment rate is actually higher than the 7.8% stated, that means we did it with even fewer workers. This seems like a good thing, right?

What makes the unemployment statistic different from a company having unused equipment is, of course, that people are not computers who can have their software updated over a lunch hour to be instantly redeployed to a new task. The fact is that many of those who are presently unemployed are trained for jobs that are no longer available. Also, people suffer when they are not able to work. There is no spin I can put on that other than to say things will get better given the time to retrain and redeploy. However, is this true?

A challenge to the idea of time healing this employment wound is the fear that technology efficiencies will replace more jobs such that even if the real GDP grows, maybe not all of us will get to be a part of it. Professor Andrew McAfee in a June 2012 TED Talk “Are droids taking our jobs?” echoes this sentiment when he references that in his expected lifetime, he believes we will see a “transition to an economy that is very productive but just does not need that many human workers.” He even notes that in the future an algorithm will be able to do writing tasks so a computer could author this blog. Basically, he sees no current job that we do as safe as these technologies accelerate.

This, however, does not mean that McAfee is pessimistic about our future employment. He is in fact quite optimist. He believes that these new technologies of efficiency represent the opportunity “to make a mockery of all that came before us”. (A phrase originally used by historian Ian Morris when he was speaking of the industrial revolution). What the industrial revolution did to magnify the productivity of our muscles, he feels the technology revolution is going to do to the productivity of our minds. To say differently, he expects we should expect an acceleration in our ability to innovate as technology improves.

A more skeptical reader would be right to ask that if innovation is accelerating, why are we still in the aftermath of the great recession? Thankfully Mr. McAfee is not alone in this technology optimism and has an economist among his group with an explanation. Joe Davis, Vanguard’s chief economist, in a December 2012 speech titled “Better days are in store” notes that the growth of industrial revolutions do not proceed in straight lines. The steam revolution of the late 1770s led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the 1830s. The telephone revolution beginning in 1876 led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the late 1920s with the Great Depression. In both cases Dr. Davis argues these tough times caused businesses to go through the required creative destruction to survive and took these technologies to a major inflection point of further growth. Today, we are in that inflection point of the microprocessor revolution that began in the 1970s. If history is any guide, this is the economic hiccup that will cause us to get to new technology heights.

Unused Human CapitalSo where does this leave us? Over the past five years, the U.S. has learned to do more with less, has additional unused human capital to deploy, and the efficiencies afforded to us by technology are likely to accelerate. While the near term may be messy, there is an undeniable potential for us to be so much greater and “make a mockery of all that came before us”. While the details of this future and what an economic blog of 2063 will read like are unknown, there does seem to be rational reasons for great optimism. With that let me say, Happy New Year!

Is Europe on the Mend?

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

We have spent so much time focusing on the U.S. fiscal cliff that the concerns regarding Europe seemed to have been pushed to the sideline. On the positive side there has been progress in Europe. Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, can take some credit for the progress. The Financial Times even named him their Person of the Year.

The €1 trillion Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) put in place in late 2011 helped fund the banking system. In July, Draghi pledged to “do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” His words were followed up by the ECB’s open-ended sovereign bond buying program called Outright Money Transactions (OMTs) designed to keep yields on Eurozone sovereign bonds in check. The next step could be establishing the ECB as the direct supervisor of the region’s banks.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

These actions have brought down borrowing costs for problem countries such as Italy and Spain, helping to change the trajectory of the crisis and prevent an economic collapse. Yields on 10-Year Italian and Spanish bonds have fallen over 200 basis points to 4.4% and 5.2%, respectively. The Euro has also strengthened versus the U.S. dollar since July, from a low of 1.21 $/€ to 1.32 $/€ today.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

I wonder how long this lull in volatility in the region can continue in the face of a weak growth in the region. Seven Eurozone countries fell into recession in 2012 — Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Slovenia and Finland. The Greek economy experienced its 17th consecutive quarter of contraction, while Portugal completed its second year of recession. There remains a stark difference in the economic performance of Germany and the rest of the Eurozone. Unemployment rates are at very high levels and continue to increase. Youth unemployment is above 50% in both Greece and Spain, a recipe for social unrest.

The ECB’s actions have bought time for the Eurozone economies to get their sovereign debt problems under control. However, continued austerity measures implemented in an attempt to repair the debt crisis have only served to further weaken growth in the region and exacerbate the situation by pushing debt to GDP ratios even higher. While some confidence has been restored to the markets, policymakers should attempt to implement more pro-growth measures to pull the region out of recession.

12.28.12_Magnotta_Europe_ChartCombo

Europe’s equity markets have rebounded nicely in 2012, leading global equity markets on a relative basis since the second quarter; the rally helped by the ECB’s actions. I remain concerned that the ECB’s measures, while improving confidence, do not address the underlying problems of weak to negative economic growth combined with deleveraging. Weak growth in the region should weigh on corporate earnings and keep a ceiling on equity valuations. The deleveraging process takes years to work through. Because the situation remains fragile, we are likely still prone to event risk and periods of increased volatility in the region.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet