James M. Meyer, CFA, Principal and CIO, Tower Bridge Advisors
Stocks finished mixed in a relatively quiet session the day after the Fed decided not to begin reducing its bond buying program.
If you never put a lid on the cookie jar, eventually your kids, and probably your dog, will get fat and sick. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic every time you have chills or a fever, half the time there will be no benefit and eventually your body will develop a resistance to the antibiotics. If the Fed keeps dropping $85 billion every month out of helicopters, stock and bond prices will go up in the short run but eventually we will all have to face a set of unintended consequences.
With that said, I don’t want to overstate any reaction to the Fed’s decision to keep its full bond buying program in place. Another couple of months of buying $85 billion per month instead of $70-75 billion won’t make a big difference. Stocks and bonds reacted Wednesday afternoon and that’s about it for the reaction. However, buying $85 billion of bonds every month is rather similar to persistently giving a strong antibiotic, whether it is needed or not. There may not be immediate harm but there will almost certainly be unintended consequences the longer the process persists. How long is too long? No one knows yet. But with the Fed’s balance sheet closing in on $4 trillion and the fact that soon it will own 40% of all government debt maturing five years out or longer, the problems in the future unwinding what it has created are only going to get more difficult if the Fed doesn’t stop adding to its balance sheet soon.
I understand that the government could shut down in October for a few weeks and that Republican conservatives might create a similar debt ceiling crisis to the one it created two years ago. But the Fed isn’t going to solve that problem with an extra $10 billion in bond purchases. In fact, the Fed isn’t going to solve those problems at all. I get the possibility that the Fed was concerned that real interest rates were getting too high and wanted to scare the bond vigilantes with a surprise. It get the possibility of delaying the start of tapering until the Fed knows who the next Chairman might be to make sure he or she is on board with the game plan. So I am willing to give the Fed a couple of months grace period. But with that said, QE is a much more effective crisis policy than a policy designed to maintain economic growth. Flooding the economy with money doesn’t create demand. Certainly, recipients will gladly take the money but the choice of spending it or investing it depends on market conditions. Given the very slow velocity of money both before and during QE, the market has said rather loudly that it would rather invest than spend. That means investors benefit with much stimulation of economic growth or job creation. Here once again is an example of misguided policy whose unintended consequence is to widen the gap between the wealthy and middle classes.
We are almost certainly not going to see economic data over the next 1-3 months that is going to move the needle enough by itself to change forward outlooks. Indeed, our economy has been adding about 180,000 jobs per month for almost four years and the pace has remained remarkably consistent if you look at a three or six month moving average. Jobless claims are back to pre-recession levels. Existing home sales, which are about 15x new home sales, are booming. So are car sales. Ladies and gentlemen, we are not in a sick economy and everyone who voted to maintain the status quo yesterday should know that. And those who were unsure yesterday are likely to still be unsure next month or next quarter. Economics is never an exact science and there isn’t a formula that will determine tomorrow’s rate of growth. Federal Reserve forecasts of future growth have been persistently too high since the recovery began. Every subsequent forecast adjustment has been downward, including the adjustment announced on Wednesday. Yet forecasts of job creation and unemployment rates have been pretty accurate. The missing ingredient has been weaker than expected productivity, a function of weaker than expected investment. Tax policy, regulatory policy, fiscal policy and uncertainty created by a dysfunctional government all contribute to lack of investment spending.
With that all said, the Fed didn’t move and that leaves us with the question, “What now?” First of all, there is no need to change any economic or earnings projections. There is no need to change outlooks for Europe or China. Interest costs might be marginally less but the economic impact will be negligible. Obviously, throwing more money at financial assets raises asset prices. The impact of Wednesday’s surprise was felt Wednesday afternoon. There isn’t likely to be much follow through. Again, does anyone really believe that a change of $10 billion in Fed bond purchases would move any needle by a whole lot? I certainly don’t. Just as so many government programs in recent years (e.g. first time home buyer credits or cash for clunkers) pulled benefits forward without creating long term value, Wednesday’s decision created a pop in asset prices that probably simply borrow from future gains. No more or no less.
The true facts are that this economy is what it is, an economy growing about 2% per year, despite significant headwinds created by fiscal policy and Congressional gridlock. The headwinds may be a bit less next year as we anniversary the payroll tax increase but housing growth rates will decline next year and one can’t count on the trickle down impact of a 15-25% growth in stock prices to continue indefinitely. As noted, the Fed has persistently forecasted future growth that was too high. As Fed Chairman Bernanke noted yesterday, the fly in the ointment has been weak gains in productivity. With capacity utilization below 80% and incentives to invest virtually non-existent, one shouldn’t expect productivity to improve until investment spending accelerates. Certainly the uncertainty the Fed created this week surrounding monetary policy won’t help in that regard.
The bottom line is that my near term economic and stock market outlook don’t change. By near term, I mean through 2014. I don’t even see a storm that is likely to hit in 2015 at this time, but no crystal ball is that clear looking two years out. Eventually, and that means within five years, as the Fed does exit and interest rates return to normal levels, there will be problems. Big ones. Government debt service costs are going to skyrocket. That will not only cause further cuts in government spending and entitlements.
Let me make one point very clear. Nothing has been done about entitlements to date because Congress wasn’t forced to act. When debt service costs rise by $200-400 billion per year, it will be forced to act. Market forces can overwhelm politics. Just look back to 2008. When Congress is forced to act, it will raise the starting age and/or means test Social Security more than it does today and it will cost shift Medicare so that recipients must pay some of the costs. Congress won’t do this because it is the right thing to do or because it is good politically. It will do this because it will be left with no other option. Again, it will happen this decade and the timing will be directly tied to the sharp increase in costs to service our Federal debt. Parenthetically, every developed nation plus China will face the same dilemma; how do you offset rising debt service costs. The responses may differ but the problem is widespread.
That storm is at least 2-3 years away. It may be 4-5 years away. But it isn’t 10 years out. Problems ultimately get solved when markets force them to be solved. Look at the health of U.S. banks today. Markets forced that. Markets made railroads efficient after the Penn Central bankruptcy. Mini-mills saved the steel industry. Japan and German car makers forced the U.S. Big Three to enter the 21st century. The good news is that crisis not only forces change, it forces change for the good because that is the only path to survival. Politicians almost always lack the courage to make changes ahead of crisis. That point transcends both borders and political parties. It takes crisis to force change.
Futures point to a flat opening.
The views expressed above are those of Jim Meyer and Tower Bridge Advisors and are not intended as investment advice.
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