WHY THE WORLDWIDE BUSINESS CYCLE HAS SLOWED DOWN
The Two Presidential Candidates Don't Have The Answers
8/05/16 2:00 PM
discusses the assumptions we have been using in our commentaries over the past
20 years or more. We have been consistently
reminding our viewers that the debt built up over the years has a major bearing
on the economic health of the U.S. economy, as well as the economic health of
other developed countries, who have also built up significant debt positions. It should be clear to investors that are as
concerned about the debt how these same countries’ GDP slowed down, just like
the U.S. We will also discuss why the plans of the two candidates running for
the Presidency of the U.S. will not begin to solve the debt problems that are
It is clear
to us that the increase in debt in the U.S. is responsible for the slowdown in
the economy that we discussed for many years.
It was made even clearer when the GDP revisions were reduced sharply
downwards this past week. In fact, the
GDP results have been significantly lower in all of the developed countries
than virtually all the U.S. economists have been predicting for the past eight
years (ever since the “Great Recession”).
We are glad
to have recently seen another individual who is also of the same opinion on the
worldwide debt as we are. His name is
Atif Mian and he was interviewed by one of the financial networks recently about
this situation. He is a Princeton
University professor and he wrote a book, entitled “Household Debt &
Business Cycles Worldwide”. He showed
that whenever Household Debt (H/H Debt) rose sharply, it would be followed by a
consumption boom. But debt financed
booms of any kind are not permanent as at some point the debt has to be paid
back. This boom would be followed by a reversal in the trade deficit, as
imports collapse. Countries with an H/H
Debt cycle more correlated with the global debt buildup would be followed for
years with a sharper decline in GDP growth.
past 11 years we have consistently pointed out that the level of H/H Debt
caused the “Great Recession” in the U.S.
We believe the same consequences were also prevalent in virtually every
advanced economy that built up their H/H Debt before the “Great Depression”. It is the result of the fluctuations of
aggregate demand as monies are borrowed and spent. But, once that spending
dries up, something else is needed to substitute for the missing aggregate
demand. When borrowers can’t or won’t
borrow any more the economy slows.
This is a
key cause of the economies’ sub-standard growth since the “Great Recession” of
2008 and 2009. Since then, the Fed tried
to increase demand through monetary policy (with QE 1, 2, and 3 as well as
building up their balance sheet from $500 bn to over $4.5 tn.). The US ZIRP and the European and Japanese
NIRP, that were intended to solve everything by stimulating financial assets
directly and then have a spillover effect to spending and growth, have only
successfully stimulated the former.
People are saving what they can, but growth remains anemic. While debt remains at near record levels, bond
yields are near all-time low levels and stock prices are near all-time highs. Valuations are also not far from all-time
highs. In the meantime corporations are
buying back stock, hand over fist, and in many cases borrowing the money to do
it at the expense of long term capital investment. This is not the formula for a vibrant economy
and financial markets.
that have been able to weaken their currencies have been able to handle these
shocks more effectively than those that haven’t weakened their respective
currencies. But as we have stated many
times in referring to the “Cycle of Deflation” (see attachment), devaluations
and competitive devaluations (as countries attempt to export their deflation to
other countries) are followed by protectionism and tariffs. It appears to us that is exactly the mantra
of candidates Trump and Clinton. The Fed
and financial press have many times used the term “escape velocity”, referring
to an acceleration of growth that would allow the Fed to normalize rates. So far, unfortunately, “escape velocity” is
nowhere to be found. We believe it will
be very difficult to extricate our country from this unprecedented situation.
point of view, neither Trump nor Clinton have articulated policies that will
solve our debt problems. Though Trump
has payed lip service to the size of the $19 tn public debt the protectionist
policies he espouses, we believe, will only slow the economy further and thus
decrease tax revenue while at the same time adding to the debt and
deficit. For her part, Clinton has not
made any mention of the debt as that would be critical of the third Obama term
for which she appears to be running. When viewed from the standpoint of Total
Credit Market Debt and GDP growth (see attachment courtesy of Ned Davis
Research) it is crystal clear to us that as debt has grown at higher rates than
GDP, the economy continues to slow further.
Please note that the Total Credit Market Debt to GDP Ratio, while off
its all- time high, is still in the stratosphere. We believe Trump’s stated tax and trade
policies should drive debt up by a staggering number. Clinton’s giveaways to the middle class (such
as free college tuition) and the continuation of the Obama regulatory morass should
also make our debt problem even worse. And
keep in mind we have not even addressed unfunded liabilities (Social Security, Medicare,
etc.) which are estimated to be between $80 - $200 tn.
we once again state that we are in the “Central Bank Bubble”. The Fed got things rolling with ZIRP and the
Europeans and Japanese upped the ante with NIRP. The Chinese, it should be mentioned, do have
“normal” interest rates. That’s the only
thing that’s normal for their economy and stock market that are not remotely
free. They too are ultra-extended and
sitting on a Mount Everest of debt. The
politicians do not appear to have the answers currently, so in closing we say,
The Central Bank Bubble Is Worse Than The Dot.Com & Housing Bubbles
7/07/16 5:05 PM
our viewers, over and over again, how the Dot.Com Bubble and Housing Bubble
would play out. We are now warning our
viewers that the unwinding of the “Central Bank Bubble” will be worse than
either of the other two bubbles. It
seems like most investors continue to show apathy even with the warnings by us
and quite a few others of the “unintended consequences” of the central banks
doing things that have never been done before.
Those investors are in good company because it appears to us that the
leaders of the major central banks of the world do not have any idea of the “unintended
Think for a
moment about exactly what changes the Federal Reserve took in continuing to
keep the Federal Funds rate at zero or close to zero for approximately the past
8 years. This is called ZIRP (Zero
Interest Rate Policy) and the Fed, or any of the central banks that followed
the Fed’s lead, had any idea of the “unintended consequences” of this policy. However, if you think they took a chance with
ZIRP, just think about the chances our Fed took while building their balance
sheet up from $800 bn. in 2008 to over $4.5 tn presently. They did this by using three Quantitative Easing
(QE) programs and one “operation twist” program. These programs were designed to increase the
Fed’s balance sheet by buying U.S. mortgage bonds and U.S. Treasury notes and bonds.
The other major central banks followed the Fed’s lead and grew their balance
sheets in similar fashion to the Fed.
bank (The Federal Reserve) is now attempting to unwind these extremely risky
policies, while the rest of the world is attempting to copy the same risky
policies that wound up painting the Fed into a corner. We believe the unwinding will be extremely
negative for the U.S. stock market.
consequences” of which we speak have recently taken place for the Bank of Japan
(BOJ) and the European Central Bank. They each discovered this when they
implemented negative interest rate policy (NIRP). It is hard to believe that these powerful
central banks experimented with things never tried before and will probably
wind up burying the economies and countries that they are supposed to be
helping. Now we have long spoke of
currency wars as part of the “Cycle of Deflation”. The countries that have gone to negative
interest rates, in an attempt to weaken their currencies and stimulate their
economies have seen their currencies strengthen, their economies hardly budge
and stock markets fall…exactly the opposite of the intended effect!
the Fed’s unwinding (as they continue to try to do things that have never been
tried before) will again lead to the “unintended consequences” of a significant
bear market and global recession. They
already found out what happens when they stopped each of the QE’s and
“operation twist” as the stock market declined sharply. This time they believe they can stop QE 3 and
at the same time raise the Fed Funds rate.
Again, this has never been tried before and will probably lead to a
major bear market once interest rates are normalized. As we have stated time and time again, the
only things that U.S. QE’s have stimulated have been financial assets, real
estate and certain collectibles. Stock
prices have been driven to near all time highs on both and absolute and
relative valuation basis while U.S. debt has yields that have been driven to all
500 made its peak level in May of 2015 at 2134 and has subsequently had major
declines while the peak has not been penetrated in 10 unsuccessful attempts to
exceed it. This has brought us to having
to drive through all of the technical resistance brought about from these 10
attempts to break through the 2134 peak.
On the downside, we think the “unintended consequences” of this
combination of stopping QE and raising rates will drive the S&P 500
substantially lower than the 1810 trough that took place earlier this
year. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised
to see the market drop at least to the 50% level of the Dot.Com decline in 2000
which would take it to 1067, or the Housing Bubble breaking down by 58% in
2008-2009, which would take the market down to 896. We hope we are wrong, but we believe this is
where the market could reach as the result of the aforementioned central bank
bankers just can’t seem to understand that the problems of the global economy
and stock markets came about from the central bank (especially the Fed’s)
mistakes and interference while they just guess at solutions. The main reason for the increased debt burden
started with the Federal Reserve reducing the Fed Funds Rate to 1% in June of
2003 and keeping it there for a year causing the Housing Bubble. They continued to shut their eyes to the
obvious sub-prime housing loans that were being sold as if they were
valuable. Back then the sub-prime market
was only $1.3 tn while now we have negative interest rate sovereign debt of
close to $12 tn and all time low yield U.S. debt to the tune of $19 tn. The global debt has increased by about $60 tn
since 2007 and there is no way to have a smooth and quick recovery after the
debt has grown so quickly (see attachment).
In summary, remember
that the root cause of the many worldwide economic problems, especially the
slow growth everywhere, is the overwhelming debt incurred by almost every
country. As long as the major central
banks continue to ignore the persistent debt build-up (even encourage it) we
certainly do not see how we can avoid a recession and bear market. The major central banks of the world are now
implementing never tried before experimental policies that have distorted
financial markets to a point that is nearly unrecognizable.
Operating Versus GAAP Earnings
This Time is Not Different
6/02/16 8:15 AM
As we write this month’s comment the S&P 500 stands at 2,099,
1.33% away from its all-time high of 2,134. So we thought this would be a good
time to discuss whether stocks are cheap or expensive relative to historical
norms. When investors consider this question they most frequently analyze stock
prices relative to past and future earnings. We have the privilege of having
written articles on this subject that were published by Barron’s magazine. The
articles are titled “What’s the Real P/E Ratio” and “A Simple Calculation” (see
attachments). In the articles we describe the various and often confusing
ways that Price/Earnings (P/E) ratios are calculated, and which are used
primarily by bulls, and which are used primarily by bears. If you are not
familiar with this topic or need a refresher we urge you to open the
attachments and read these articles. We continue to subscribe to all that we
stated which can be summarized most succinctly as our belief that it is most
correct to use GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) earnings on a
trailing twelve month (TTM) basis when calculating the P/E.
We explain in the attached article that “operating earnings”
exclude write offs, while “GAAP reported earnings” include write offs. That is the main difference, but the
difference that is getting much more important as more and more companies
resort to using “operating earnings” in order to increase their earnings while
bringing down the P/E ratio. As recently
as the early 1990’s GAAP earnings were used exclusively when we started the
entrance into the greatest financial mania of all time. There were so many write offs by companies
making unwise investments and then reversing them, that “operating earnings”,
grew much faster than the companies using GAAP earnings. The write offs that had been unusual (using
write offs as temporary) became common for more and more companies.
So here is some information based on data from S&P’s website
that we believe to be particularly pertinent. With about 97% of the S&P 500
companies having reported first quarter earnings it appears to us that the GAAP
number will be $22.43, give or take a little. When added to the previous three
quarters we get $87.15 a share in earnings. We should add that Operating
Earnings (Non GAAP) look to us to be $99.48, about 14% higher. That
differential is slightly higher than when the market peaked in Q3 2007 and also
higher than when the market peaked in Q1 2000. Recall that the main difference
between Operating and GAAP earnings are that inclusion of extra-ordinary,
non-recurring items in GAAP Earnings. Thus to the extent that extra-ordinary
items exist, Operating Earnings will always be higher than GAAP Earnings. We
also suspect that a good part of this differential (Operating vs. GAAP) is due
to the large volume of stock buybacks (many financed by debt and at excessive
valuations) that we believe have been a major support for the market. When
restricted stock and options that were granted to corporate executives become
vested, the “in the money” amount comes directly out of shareholders
equity. GAAP Earnings capture this while Operating Earnings do not.
So given the above numbers of $87.15 in TTM GAAP Earnings versus a
2,099 close the S&P 500 is selling at a 24 multiple. To put that in
perspective, if you had a business that you worked hard to build that made
$100,000 after taxes and someone walked in off the street and offered you $2.4
million for it you might be inclined to respond “sold to you”! That decision,
of course, might be more complicated and largely be a function of expected growth
rate, but as we see the numbers, 24 is a historically very high multiple for
the stock market in general.
So again from numbers we obtained from S&P here are a few data
points that we believe are enlightening. At the end of 1988 the index was 278,
the P/E was 11.69. The index “took off” from 306 at Q3 1990 and the P/E was
14.08. Those type of P/E’s might be the kind one would therefore view as on the
cheap side, where the market has large potential. On the other side of the
coin, for the several quarters preceding the bursting of the “Dot Com Bubble”
in 2000 the P/E was in the high 20’s to middle 30’s, the highest that we can
document at a top. When the “Housing Bubble” burst, the market dropped from
1527 at end of Q3 2007 and the P/E was 22.19. It had dropped all the way to
1166 (-24%) at end of Q3 2008 and the P/E was 25.38… and THEN the bottom fell
out. The point here is that we are in the ballpark of all time rich valuations
and while it’s impossible to predict the day a bear market begins, history
tells us it is more likely that there is much more downside risk than upside potential.
In our opinion, when this period in stock market history is in the record books
it will prove to have been a major selling opportunity.
History has many examples of “this time is different“ and we
suppose that a big part of the “different” this time is that the economy is
finally ready to take off after a “great job” by the Fed in navigating the
economy out of a crisis (that began almost 8 years ago!) In other words we
finally are about to grow our way out of the low growth/high valuation mess
that we’re in. We fully understand what the bulls are saying or more
accurately, hoping. We and others call this “The Central Bank Bubble”. The Fed did its part by stepping on the gas
to get us out of the recession caused by the bursting of “The Housing Bubble”
(which they and the government were complicit in causing in the first place.) By keeping its foot on the gas for almost 8
years all it did was inflate financial assets and increase wealth
disparity. We continue to believe that “this time is NOT
different” and that in due course “The Central Bank Bubble” will burst.
The Ending of QE
4/28/16 9:05 PM
of QE-3 formed a stock market top formation that presents a very strong technical
resistance that will be DIFFICULT to overcome!!
market swings (based on the S&P 500) have been extremely volatile since the
end of QE-3 in December of 2014. In
fact, ever since QE-1 ended in 2010, QE 2 ended in 2011, Operation Twist
ended in 2012, the market rose slightly and then fell sharply soon afterwards. Now that the Fed ended QE-3 and have started raising rates the stock market has been very volatile and we suspect that the swings will wind up breaking down through the lows of 1812 and 1810 that took place early this year.
(First Attachment—Ending QE and the Markets Reaction).
Attachment—S&P 500 – Ten Market Peaks) These are the same type of stock
market swings that remind us of all the other endings of QE phases. This time the S&P 500 rose into 2015 to
make a record high in May of 2015 at 2135 (rounding out for simplicity). The market has not exceeded that level since
then, even though it has come close numerous times over the past year. In fact,
in 2015 the market rose to 2120 in February, 2115 in March, 2126 in April, 2135 in May, 2130 in June, 2133 in July, 2117 in October, 2115 in
November, and 2002 in December. Also there has been a 2020 peak this April--that's 10 peaks over the past 15 months. That's a lot of peaks to break through, especially when the Fed is trying to tighten and you can see from the first attachment that the market breaks down whenever they just stop loose monetary policy.
made last year were 1867 in August and 1872 in September. The second low in September was interrupted
by a strong move back to 2021 also in September. The lows that were made this year (2016) were
1812 in January and 1810 in February.
These two lows were also interrupted by a sharp move up to 1947 also in
February and the low of 1810 was called the Jamie Dimon low on February 11th. That was because of Dimon’s purchase of his
company stock, JP Morgan, that same day.
The move up since the Feb 11th low has been quite impressive
by rising to 2120 in April and is still pretty close to that peak now (2076
have been watching the stock market rise to new highs without many corrections
over the past seven years. In fact, the
market has not had a significant decline since this bull market started in
March of 2009. Clearly, this seven year
bull market in the U.S. was due to the Fed pumping in enormous amounts of money
into the financial system. Such monetary
policy in the U.S. (and also worldwide) distorted the way money is typically
distributed and inflated the price of stocks, bonds and anything else that
trades, including commercial real estate.
ludicrous monetary stimulation policy was not confined to the U.S. The rest of the world copied the U.S. as well
as Japan, who has been doing a similar monetary policy for the past 27 years
without much success. The Japanese stock
market hasn’t come close to the 39,000 reached by the Nikkei in late 1989. It is now trading around 16,700. The Bank of Japan (BOJ) has been even more
outrageous than our Fed since they have been buying everything imaginable to
keep their economy afloat. Their present
ownership of common stock ETF’s is mind boggling! Their Japanese government and the (BOJ) own
over 10% of over 200 stocks of their most widely traded index, the Nikkei 225.
The BOJ has just recently decided to use negative interest rates to stimulate
their economy and weaken the Yen. The
“unintentional consequences” hit them as the stock market fell and the Yen
rose. Negative interest rates are also
being used by the ECB in order to grow the European economy. As is the case with Japan, we believe their
efforts will fail miserably. In China,
though rates are not negative, the Public Bank of China (PBOC) has “doubled
down” and added huge amounts of renminbi debt over the past seven years. In fact the government debt has grown to 243%
of GDP over the last 7 years.
We have been
extremely critical of all the Central Banks that have been guessing on the
policies they use while hoping everything will work out without even
considering the “unintended consequences” that may occur. Just by studying the first attachment chart
you can see what a difficult time the Fed will have in reversing their
extremely loose monetary policy. Every
time they have tried to reverse it, the stock market drops, and now they are
scared to death of trying to raise rates again after the decline the market
took in January, not long after the first rate hike in December.
In the U.S.
alone the Fed’s balance sheet grew from just over $500 bn in 2009 to $4.5 tn
presently. This drove interest rates
much lower and essentially forced investors (who wanted to get an adequate
return on their money) into risky stock investments, risky bond investments and
even commercial real estate. The Fed
claimed they were saving the U.S. from going through another “Great
Depression”. They could be correct in
that assessment since this crisis is still called the “Great Recession”. What the Fed didn’t tell anyone about is the
fact that they all have been complicit in this crisis.
one of the first institutions that came out being very, very critical of the
Fed since it was so clear to us that what took place to provoke the "Great Recession" was caused by Alan Greenspan. He got it right at first during the dot com era when he stated in 1996 that the worldwide markets reflected "irrational exuberance" but then changed his mind when the stock market continued up and he thought maybe this time it would be different!! When the market finally broke in 2000 he should have realized that the U.S. market was the most overvalued market in its entire history. He didn't and instead in 2003 he lowered interest rates to 1% and kept them there for a year. This started the worst financial crisis and depression since the "Great Depression". As our readers are aware we have comment after comment on our website, Comstockfunds.com , about the Fed and central banks. In fact, we have a “special report” titled “THE CENTRAL BANK BUBBLE”.
believe that if the Fed decides to raise rates at this time, while most other
central banks continue their stimulus plans, the results could be
disastrous. If the Fed does move this
year (which is a high probability), it will drive interest rates higher, the
U.S. dollar higher, and the stock market lower.
If the Fed makes more than one rate hike this year, it will just drive
the rates and U.S. dollar even higher and the stock market much lower. However, if we are correct and the stock
market drops sharply after the first hike, we suspect they will make the first
hike the last hike for the year and maybe forever. In fact, if they really fear the market as
much as we think they do, they could even go back to QE-4. But, in our opinion, if they do the investors
will not continue to be the Fed’s flunkies any longer and the market will still
fall sharply knowing there is no way out of this mess except to tighten.
opinion, once the Fed makes the next rate hike the market will not have a chance
of breaking through the 10 peaks outlined in the second attachment. Those are all peak prices that should hold
with such a weak economic recovery (0.5% GDP for the first quarter), earnings and revenue recessions, and a stock market with very high
valuations (22 times earnings if GAAP earnings are used).
Corporate Buybacks Aren't What They Used To Be
3/31/16 3:30 PM
Engineering” as it applies to a corporate structure usually is defined as the
aggressive use of various techniques to enhance shareholder value by affecting
the balance sheet. Probably none has
received more attention over the last several years as stock buybacks. It seems that not a day goes by that CNBC and
the financial media are reporting that companies have initiated or increased
share buyback authorizations, and there has been a great deal of attention
given over the last many months to whether share repurchases represent a
judicious use of a corporation’s capital.
report we will attempt to shed some light on this topic and also examine what
message the market may be saying about large companies that are doing
buybacks. This is possibly one of the
most important questions facing market participants today since the U.S. has
been in a zero or near zero interest rate environment for 87 months (an
unprecedented amount of time.) During
that time corporations have raised record amounts of long term debt at
historically attractive levels, while at the same time remaining voracious
buyers of their own shares. The major buyback companies as a whole have
outperformed over the last 7 years, since the bottom on 3/9/09. However, this recently has not been the case
as we will illustrate.
Now in this
era where it seems there is an index for any financial asset class that can be
measured there are indexes of companies that are buying back their own
shares. The performance metrics of the
two most popular are reasonably similar so we will focus on just one, the
S&P 500 Buyback Total Return Index (SPBUYUT). This index is calculated by S&P back to
1994 (numbers sourced from Bloomberg), though it appears a more recent creation
since trading volumes and ranges don’t appear until 2013. This index is equal dollar weighted and
rebalanced quarterly. It is a subset of
the S&P 500 consisting of the 100 companies that for the 4 previous
quarters have repurchased the largest percentage of their market capitalizations. We will compare this to the S&P 500 Total
Return Index (SPXT). This index is
capitalization weighted and like SPBUYUT reinvests dividends. It is thus a reasonable “apples to apples’
would argue that returns on financial assets have been inflated by an
experimental and dangerous environment the Fed has created through QE and ZIRP
the numbers tell us that since the market low on 3/9/09, SPXT has returned 252%
while SPBUYUT has returned 374%. A
shorter and more recent time frame, however, tells a somewhat different
story. Since the 3/9/09 market low there
are 29 rolling 4 quarter periods we examined.
Of the 29 periods, there have been five where SPBUYUT
underperformed. There were 2 in 2012 and
the most recent 3 (through this writing on 3/29/16). The largest of the 5 is the last 4 quarter
roll and the underperformance number is 7.02%.
So we believe that the market is starting to punish companies that are the
most voracious buyers of their own stock.
several arguments made by buyback opponents that go as follows:
Buybacks steal from the future by
expending resources that should be used to fund/ensure future growth in
exchange for the short term gratification of a higher stock price that is the
result of the buyback. Worse yet, if
financed with debt, the debt has to be serviced and paid back eventually.
Buybacks do not return money to all
shareholders (as dividends do) but rather only to selling shareholders; (that
are now no longer shareholders)
Corporate managements have an
inherent conflict of interest when, as is typically the case, their
compensation is determined by EPS metrics that are influenced by the buybacks
arguments make sense to many, including us.
It is likely true, however, that when the markets are near the high end
of their all time ranges, most investors either don’t care or overlook these
facts. When the extended bear market
that we see coming arrives in earnest, we believe the finger pointing and
recriminations will arrive with it.
our regular readers know that we believe the U.S. is in a long term
deflationary cycle that is the result of excessive debt (see attached “Cycle of
Deflation”). The debt situation has been
exacerbated for the last 87 months by the “experiment” of QE and ZIRP by the
Fed. Other Central Banks have followed
with their own QE and ZIRP/NIRP. During
this time frame corporations have been large buyers of their own stock with
much of it financed by debt. This most
certainly has been a prop under the market.
But as stated above corporations are doing so to the detriment of long
term investment in the business. While
in the past, indexes of companies doing buybacks have outperformed their market
benchmarks, that has started to change recently. Buybacks done at elevated levels of valuation
will prove to be ill conceived and ill timed (think Devon Energy and Amerada
Hess which recently needed to sell equity at levels far below stock repurchase
levels of the past several years).
Companies doing excessive buybacks will negatively affect future growth
by underinvesting in capital assets; all the worse if financed with debt. Because
of the aforementioned facts and circumstances, yesterday’s stock buyback
winners could prove to be tomorrow’s losers.
We believe that will be the case.
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