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Comstock Partners, Inc.
Why We Remain Bearish
May 16, 2013

It has long been our underlying thesis that the huge amount of household debt accumulated during the housing boom would inhibit consumer spending and economic growth for some time to come, and this is what has been happening over the last few years. The errors recently found in the famous Rogoff-Reinhart (RR) book do not change this view.

Simply put, household debt averaged 77% of disposable personal income (DPI) over the 61-year period since 1952. It crossed over the average line in 1985 and took a sharp upward turn in 2000, eventually peaking at 130% of DPI in 2007. Since that time, consumers have reduced their debt to a level that is now 105% of DPI, still significantly higher than in the past. The result has been a significant slowdown and tepid recovery in consumer spending growth, a process that is far from finished.

The role of household savings is a key element in analyzing both debt and spending. For 41 years between 1951 and 1992 household savings rates as a percent of disposable income were consistently between 7% and 11%. However, as income growth started to slow down, consumers increasingly maintained their old spending habits by going into more debt and reducing their savings rate. This reached an extreme during the prior decade, when the savings rate stayed below 2% from 2005 through 2007, while debt soared. We all know how that ended.

No matter what you hear from the politicians, the media and “the street”, keep in mind that the combination of the household debt, low savings rates and tepid increases in income has been the reason for the deep recession and subsequent below average growth, and will continue to be the reason why economic growth will likely be slow for some time to come.

In the last two years, between the 1st quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2013, real consumer spending has increased by a meager 3.8%----and this was accomplished on an increase of only 1.1% in real disposable income as households reduced their saving rate from 5.1% to 2.6%. It therefore should not have been a surprise that spending looked so weak in March, and it should be no surprise when spending remains subdued in the period ahead. With consumer spending accounting for about 70% of GDP, it is easy to see why this puts a damper on the rest of the economy, particularly in a time of fiscal drag. The Fed is undoubtedly well aware of the outlook as they continue their attempt to try and offset, at least in part, the major headwinds elsewhere in the economy.

None of the above analysis depends on the Rogoff-Reinhart (RR) research, some of which was recently found to be erroneous. First, RR emphasizes mostly government rather than consumer debt. Second, they maintain that when the government debt-to-GDP ratio crosses 90%, economic growth slows down. The idea that there was some specific threshold of government debt-to-GDP that led to slower growth was probably not valid in the first place. In any event, we think that for the near-to-intermediate term, it is the still-high level of household debt that is the key drag on the economy.

As we headed into the spring there was evidence that the already lackluster economy was slowing down even further.  Although the payroll employment report for April touched off a euphoric rise in stocks, the headline belied the underlying trend. While that was a positive surprise over the expected rise of 140,000 jobs, the reported increase of 165,000 for the month was nothing to write home about. It was well below the 1st quarter average of 206,000 per month as well as the 4th quarter average of 209,000. If anything, it looks as if employment increases are decelerating, certainly not a reason for celebration.

In addition to the mediocre employment report there was a lot of other evidence that an already lackluster economy was slowing down further as we headed into the spring. The ISM manufacturing index fell for two consecutive months to its lowest level since December. The ISM non-manufacturing index also declined for two straight months and is now below its 1st quarter average. April vehicle sales slipped to under 15 million units for the first time since October. First quarter GDP grew at a disappointing 2.5% following only 0.3% in the prior quarter. Average GDP growth for the last four quarters has averaged only 1.8%. Real consumer spending has increased only 2% over the past year, and this was accomplished on an exceedingly weak 0.9% rise in real disposable income over the period. Only a sharp drop in the savings rate enabled consumers to reach even that disappointing level.

Furthermore, March core capital goods orders were up only 0.2% following a 4.8% decline in February. The year-over-year gain was 0.3%. The NAHB housing market index for May increased for the first time in four months and remains below the December/January peak. April housing starts dropped to the lowest level since November.  Although the NFIB Small Business Index rose in April, it is only five points above its lowest level for the past year and two points lower than a year earlier.  The index remains lower than at any point prior to 2008. Manufacturing production has declined for the last two months and three of the last four.  The Philadelphia Fed survey fell to minus 5.2, its lowest since February, and showed negative results for new orders, shipments and employment. All in all, despite the optimistic views of the economic pundits, the facts show otherwise.

As for foreign economies, the IMF once again reduced its 2013 global and EU growth forecasts and China reported disappointing results for 1st quarter GDP and exports. This has resulted in a significant drop in commodity prices that is having adverse effects on a number of commodity-oriented emerging and advanced economies.

Although the Fed, so far, has been able to lift stock prices, it has failed to elevate the economy to a point where growth is self-sustaining despite over four years of extremely easy monetary policy. The headwinds from fiscal policy will actually intensify in the months ahead while Washington shows few signs of alleviating the dysfunction that has plagued Congress for the last few years. 

It is also noteworthy that the market is losing the important boost it has received from rapidly rising earnings.  Over the last four quarters earnings are up only 0.4% from the four prior quarters.  Given sluggish U.S. and global economic growth, we think that current estimates of 22% second half earnings growth are highly unrealistic.   Furthermore, the S&P 500 is now selling at 20 times cyclically-smoothed trailing GAAP earnings, at the very high end of the zone that was considered normal prior to the serial bubbles of the last decade and a half.

All in all, we believe that economic growth and corporate earnings will be highly disappointing in coming quarters and that investors will drop the pretense that the Fed can fix everything that ails the economy. Although Bernanke, himself, has been virtually begging for help from fiscal policy, it does not seem likely that he will get it anytime soon.  In our view, the risk of a substantial decline in the market outweighs the limited rewards from current levels.

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