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Comstock Partners, Inc.
January 03, 2017
But Normalized Interest Rates Will End The Party

The past eight years provided a phenomenal environment for stocks, bonds, and real estate due to the tremendous expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and the resulting eight year zero interest rate policy.  During that eight year period the world became familiar with terms like Quantitative Easing (QE) and Operation Twist as the Fed moved into uncharted waters in both the magnitude and length of its easing programs.  What began as an emergency program to rescue the U.S. and the world from the Global Financial Crisis turned into a longer term attempt to stimulate growth through the inflation of financial assets; the theory being that wealthy people would spend more and that wealth would “trickle down”,  and result in economic growth.  As it turned out, it should also be mentioned, that the Fed alone pretty much carried the economic football as the budget sequester limited the impact of fiscal policy as the U.S. government continues to struggle with debt and deficits.

Several times during the past eight years, sell offs in the stock market were alleviated or reversed as the Fed “rode to the rescue” with more QE and the aforementioned Operation Twist.  So powerful were the effects of the Fed’s activity that other major central banks in Europe and Asia started QE programs of their own.  The ECB and BOJ have “upped the ante” by taking interest rates to negative levels several years out on the yield curve, and in the case of the BOJ, have even resorted to buying equities through the ETF market.  As a result approximately $12tn of sovereign debt in Europe and Japan have negative yields and in addition, the Government Investment Fund of Japan is a top ten shareholder in the majority of the market capitalization of the Japanese stock market.  We don’t know where the Japanese buying of equities stops or possibly reverses, but it is not healthy to have the national government interfere in free markets and substitute public for private capital in the ownership of what should be the nation’s growth engine.

We have discussed many times how ill advised, to put it mildly, the major central bank policies are.  In essence these policies distort the relationship between risk and return that is essential for the efficient pricing of capital.  This causes bad investments to be made and good investments not to be made.   Zero and negative interest rates also push investors into riskier investments than would otherwise be made as they chase yield.   The companies themselves, in the U.S. and increasingly elsewhere, have been on a “feeding frenzy”, buying stock back at extremely inflated levels to the detriment of investing in their businesses.  In many cases, compensation of senior managements is determined by EPS metrics not adjusted for stock buybacks.  Since it is the managements and boards of companies that authorize and execute these programs, an inherent conflict of interest exists as managements ”knock” options “into the money”, thus influencing their own compensation.  With the stock market at or near all-time highs the public is not focused on this, as the “music is still playing”.  But we maintain that the day may come when the focus of politicians and regulators will be how much money was stripped from shareholder’s equity of U.S. companies as stock was bought back at valuations that in more normal times would cause them to want to SELL equity, not buy!

The rally that has taken place since the election of Donald Trump comes at a time that the Fed is (slowly, so far) reversing the zero interest rate policy of the past eight years. In addition, they are not selling the bonds they bought and are holding on their balance sheet, but rather are letting the balance sheet “run off”.  Said another way, this is money printing, i.e., currency debasement, plain and simple.  In our view, the market is betting the Trump promises of tax cuts, deregulation, repatriation, and fiscal stimulus across defense and infrastructure related industries will outweigh the potential negatives of possible trade wars and tariffs, a stronger dollar, inflation, and further rising debt and deficits.  To our way of thinking, and to no surprise to our readers, we believe the market’s positive reaction thus far will be dead wrong.

The damage has been done over the last eight years by the Fed’s ill-conceived and irresponsible zero interest rate policy and unprecedented money printing.  Financial assets have been inflated to at or near the most expensive levels in history.  As the Fed raises rates and tries to normalize, debt will continue to climb, and in our view, Trump or no Trump, we will not grow our way out of the problems that exist.  Whether we have low growth and low inflation, or whether we have stagflation remains to be seen.  But either way, when rates normalize, as they must, the markets will become rational again.  In our view, when that happens, both stock and bond prices will be substantially lower.

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