“When we unleash the dogs of war, we must go where they take us.”
Dowager Countess of Grantham
Starting off one of these monthly discussions with a title about the weather should be indicative that this piece will perhaps be more disjointed than usual, but that is how the world and markets look to me at present. And there is very little in the way of rational explanation for why the things that are happening are happening. My friend Larry Jeddeloh, of The Institutional Strategist, would argue that this country has been on a credit cycle rather than a business cycle for more than fifteen years now. Growth in the economy is tied to the price and availability of credit. But the cost of high yield debt is rising as spreads blow out, so having lots of cheap credit available is not doing much to grow the economy. Put another way, those who need to be able to borrow to either sustain or grow their business, can’t. A friend in the investment banking business told me yesterday about a charter school that has been trying to refinance a debt package for several years now, and has not been able to (thank you, Dodd-Frank). So once again we find ourselves in a situation where those who don’t need the money can easily borrow, and those who need it, are having difficulty obtaining it. We see this in another area, where consumers, rather than spend and take on more debt, have pulled back.
Why? We truly are in a moment of deflation on the one hand (think fuel and energy costs) and the hints of inflation on the other (think food, property taxes, and prescription drug costs on the other). And the debt overload, especially public debt, has reached a point where something has to be done other than kicking the can down the road, or other major crisis. I would argue we are on the cusp of that crisis now, where illiquidity and an inability to refinance, is increasingly a problem in the capital markets. And we see that, where the business models of businesses such as energy-related master limited partnerships, premised on always being able to refinance or raise more equity, face issues.
I was reading through some old articles recently, and came across the transcript in Hermes, the Columbia Business School publication, of a seminar held in May 1985 there. The speakers were Warren Buffett, James Rogers, Jr., and Donald Kurtz. As is often the case, sifting through the older Buffett can be rewarding albeit frustrating when you realize he saw something way before its time. One of the things Buffett said then was that, based on his observations of our political system, “ … there is a small but not insignificant probability that we will lose fiscal control at some point.” His point was that given a choice, politicians will always opt for an implicit tax rather than an explicit tax. If expenditures should determine the level of explicit taxes, than taxes should cover expenditures. Instead, we have built in implicit taxation, expecting inflation to cover things without the citizens realizing it (just as you are not supposed to notice how much smaller the contents are with the packaging changes in food products – dramatically increasing your food budget).
The easier way to think of this is that politicians will always do what allows them to keep doing what they like, which is to stay in office. Hence, the bias ends up being to debase the currency through the printing presses. So you say, what’s the problem? We have more deflation than inflation at this point?
And the problem is, if you look at history, especially Weimar Germany, you see that you had bouts of severe inflation and sharp deflationary periods – things did not move in a straight line.
Now we have had many years of a bull market in stocks and other assets, which was supposed to create wealth, which would than drive increases in consumption. The wealth aspect happened, especially for the top 5%, but the consumption did not necessarily follow, especially for those lower on the economic ladder. So now we see stock and asset prices not rising, and the unspoken fear is – is recession coming?
My take on it, is that we have been in a huge jobless recovery for most of the country, that the energy patch and those industries related to it (and the banks that lent money) are now beyond entering recession, and that those effects will continue to ripple through the rest of the economy. Already we see that, with earnings estimates for the S&P 500 continuing to drift lower. So for most of you, again, my suggestion is to pay attention to what your investment time horizons and risk tolerances are.
Moving totally down a different path, I would like to suggest that an article in the February 28, 2016 New York Sunday Times Magazine entitled “Stocks & Bots” is well worth a read. The focus of the article is about the extent to which automation will eliminate jobs in the financial services industry going forward. We are not talking about clerks and order entry positions. That revolution has already taken place, with computerized trading over the last twenty years cutting by way of example, the number of employees buying and selling stock over the phone from 600 to 4 at one of the major investment banking firms. No, we are talking about the next level of change, where the analysts start getting replaced by search programs and algorithms. And it then moves on from there to the people who provide financial advice. Will the Millennials seek financial advice from programs rather than stock brokers? Will the demand grow exponentially for cheaper investment products?
I think the answer to these questions is yes, the Millennials will do things very differently in terms of utilizing financial services, and the profit margins of many of today’s investment products, such as mutual funds, will be driven much lower in the not too distant future. Anecdotally, when one has a year in the markets like 2015 and the beginning of 2016, many investment firms would push down the bonus levels and payments from the highest paid to take care of the lower ranks of employees. I was not surprised however to hear that one of the largest asset managers in the world, based in Boston, had its senior employees elect to keep the bonuses high at the “partner” levels and not take care of the next levels down this past year. They could see the handwriting on the wall.
All of which brings me back to the weather. Probably suggesting that one should read a politically incorrect writer like Mark Twain is anathema to many today, but I do so love his speech on the New England weather. For a preview for those so inclined, “The lightning there is peculiar; it is so convincing that, when it strikes a thing it doesn’t leave enough of that thing behind for you tell whether – Well, you’d think it was something valuable, and a Congressman had been there.”
At a future point I will come back for a discussion of Mr. Twain’s essay “On the Decay of the Art of Lying” which might be essential reading as this year’s elections take shape.
Edward A. Studzinski