The Retired Investor: Beware the Delta Variant
Airplanes are full, parkways are bumper to bumper, and restaurants are packed. The summer is in full swing, and for many, the coronavirus is a thing of the past. Let's hope it stays that way.
The last thing I want to do is spoil the re-opening party. Afterall, we deserve to feel good, go out, meet family and friends without a mask, even chance a hug now and then. The one fly in all of our ointments may be the onset of an extremely contagious, and virulent coronavirus mutation dubbed the "delta variant."
You have probably read about this super bug and its devastating impact on the population of India. It was first detected in that country in December 2020. To this point, it has spawned at least a dozen mutations. Some strains are vastly more contagious and lethal (as well as vaccine-resistant) than others. The virus effectively doubles the risk of a victim's hospitalization, and most delta-related cases occur in the under-50 age group. That unfortunately accounts for many who have yet to be vaccinated.
Since last December, the delta varient has spread throughout Southeast Asia, hopped over to Europe, and now has entered the U.S., where 10 percent of new cases have been identified as such. In the U.K., the number of cases is doubling every 11 days. In Ireland, the delta variant accounts for 50 percent of new cases.
The danger of spreading is so great that the United Kingdom has delayed the re-opening of their economy by at least another month. That delay will hopefully give the British government more time to get as many people vaccinated as possible. And therein lies the good news. The present vaccines appear to be effective (but not entirely) against this variant as well.
Most political leaders, including President Biden, understand that we are now in a numbers game to vaccinate as many people as possible before the spread of this mutation overwhelms hospitals, decimates the labor force, and damages the re-opening of the economy.
The good news for the U.S. is that more than half of all Americans are at least partially vaccinated (45 percent are fully vaccinated), and COVID cases are falling. It is the main reason why the country is resuming its pre-pandemic behaviors. In some states like New York and Massachusetts, 70 percent of the populations have been vaccinated.
Overall, 319 million doses of vaccine have been administered thus far in the U.S., but the rate of vaccination is dropping. The CDC data indicates from 3.3 million vaccinations a day two months ago to a little more than 1 million/day today. At this rate (assuming the vaccination rate does not decline further), it will take another five months before we reach 75 percent of the total population, which is the minimum number to attain for herd immunity. Folks, with the delta strain nipping at our heels, we are running out of time.
It is no surprise that the vaccination holdouts are split roughly along politically partisan lines. In at least 482 U.S. counties, less than 25 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Many of these counties are in rural red states, and/or low-income areas.
But the holdouts come in all shapes and sizes. My niece and her family refuses to get vaccinated. She "heard" the vaccines may jeopardize her chances of childbearing. A neighbor, as a matter of course, does not believe in any kind of vaccination, while a local dental hygienist refuses because she just doesn't like needles.
In the recent past, virus-related surges in Europe and other countries, have acted as an early-warning signal for what could be in store for the U.S. in the next few weeks. I have noticed that in the past week, President Biden, his Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Jerome Powell, and a slew of medical experts have expressed their concerns over the spread of the delta variant within the U.S
Most businesses and consumers seem to be ignoring these foreign red flags. Certainly, the stock market doesn't appear to care, or see the delta variant as a "clear and present danger." I hope I am wrong in sounding the alarm. The last thing the economy needs at this point is to experience a roll-back of our newly won gains.
|Write a comment - 0 Comments|
The Retired Investor: Chlorine, Cars and the Supply Chain Challenge
Supply chain shortages are showing up across the nation. Some items, such as chlorine for America's pools and used cars, just illustrate a lesson we need to learn.
The chlorine shortages illustrate why supply chains are so important and how fragile they can be when faced with something as devastating as the pandemic. Last year, when lockdowns kept most Americans hunkered in their homes, an enormous home improvement wave swept through the country. Demand for home offices on the inside, and new recreational improvements on the outside, skyrocketed.
Gazebos, firepits, and swimming pools were just some of the items that consumers decided would make life bearable under a lockdown. New pool construction and upgrades were a savior to the pool industry, which saw their sales jump 20 percent or more. Roughly 66 percent of the 5.2 million in ground, residential pools in the U.S. use traditional chlorine systems. The last thing new and old pool owners were expecting was a chlorine supply shortage.
All it took was a fire at one chemical plant in Louisiana to drive prices of chlorine pool tablets into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, this facility accounted for a large share of domestic chlorine pool tab production, and there are few remaining sources of supply within the U.S. And as with so many other products in the global supply chain, China is the only significant foreign supplier.
Importing products from China is beset by a variety of problems ranging from bottlenecks in ports, China's own virus outbreaks, and the various economic sanctions and tariffs imposed by the U.S. We are paying a price, and a steep one at that, for our past and present policies of bashing China (and other nations) rather than investing in our own abilities to compete.
The scarcity of new and used automobiles in the U.S. is far a far more serious issue than chlorine, but its cause is just another example of how supply chain disruptions can ultimately impact consumers in unexpected ways. Semiconductors, for example, are used in so many products that they are considered indispensable to the world's economic health. As most readers are aware, there is at present a global semiconductor shortage. For today's gadget-filled automobile that has posed a real problem.
The pandemic is once-again the culprit behind the shortages. Demand by shut-in consumers seeking electronic equipment for home offices, and for chip-heavy gadgets for home entertainment exploded. The companies that build and sell these devices reacted by sending a wave of semiconductor orders through the supply chain all at once. At the same time, many of these global chip makers were being forced to shut down due to their own coronavirus threat. As a result, those U.S. orders quickly overwhelmed the few chip foundries that manufacture most of the world's computer chips.
Automobile manufacturers were caught flat-footed by the semiconductor shortage. The electronic goods manufacturers had quickly gobbled up most of the relatively lean, worldwide inventory of chips. By the time they got around to realizing there was a shortage, it was too late. The production of many new models had to be halted, since many models just couldn't be completed without vital semiconductor components. New car production became a trade-off and dealerships found that their supply of new cars was being rationed.
At the same time, consumer demand began picking up. One reason is that the U.S. passenger auto stock is aging. The average age of America's vehicles is now approaching 13 years old. Consumers shopping for new cars realize there are few to be had and the waiting list is in months, not weeks, long. The result has been a growing shortage of new cars. That has led to a record increase in used car prices. The subsequent rise in used and new auto prices was so strong that it accounted for one-third of April's overall rise in consumer prices.
Cars and chlorine are just two examples of the present supply change imbalances. There are lessons to be learned from this predicament. For one, the world's economies are a lot more vulnerable to catastrophes than anyone imagined. Second, global supply chains are just that — global. Whether we like it or not, we need and depend on the products other nations sell us, and they need ours.
The next calamity may be weather-related, or another virus (like the bird flu resurgence in China today); who knows? Whatever it is, we are dependent on each other if we hope to survive it. The sooner we wake up to that fact, the better off we will be.
|Write a comment - 0 Comments|
@theMarket: Inflation Is Running 'Hot'
May's Consumer Price Index (CPI) jumped the most since 2009. That follows a similar gain over the past three months that has brought the total increase to 6.9 percent on an annualized pace.
That is the largest gain in 13 years.
Excluding the notoriously volatile food and energy components, however, the "core" CPI rose by 0.7 percent, which was still larger than the forecast of 0.5 percent. Readers might scratch their head when looking at those numbers, since excluding food and energy makes little sense to us, who are faced with weekly rises in both commodities.
The difference is that the price of chicken or a $3 gallon of gas might reverse at a moment's notice while core component prices are stickier and longer lasting. The underlying cause of these price gains are easy to explain. The economy is re-opening, sparking a rush of consumer demand. At the same time, there are shortages of materials caused by shipping bottlenecks that are leading to higher input costs, including rising wages.
Government stimulus checks and pent-up demand by consumers has led to growing back orders and below-normal inventories of goods. The used car and truck market, for example, is red hot and accounted for fully one-third of the overall increase in the CPI. Consumer product companies, from fast food restaurants to women's clothing stores (and a slew of other enterprises) are ratcheting up prices as demand continues to rise.
As if to underscore this trend, initial jobless claims fell for the sixth straight week to a new, pandemic-era low. More job gains in the weeks and months ahead may fuel this rising tide of consumer demand, and spending. But will it fuel even higher inflation?
Market pundits had predicted if inflation ran hot, investors would get even more anxious that the Fed might tighten, in which case, the markets would tumble, but they did just the opposite. A look under the hood of the core CPI number reveals inflation was not as "hot" as it first appeared. If you subtract the price increase in used cars, which the market considers transitory, the core rate was actually lower than analysts expected.
That gave the Fed's "inflation will be transitory" argument more credence among nervous bond investors. The so-called bond vigilantes responded by driving interest rates lower.
The benchmark U.S. Ten-Year Treasury Bond fell to under 1.50 percent.
The S&P 500 Index had been attempting to break to new highs every other day this week, only to fall back in defeat by the end of each session. The CPI announcement was the catalyst it needed to finally break out of its range to a new, all-time high. The other averages followed suit but failed to make new highs.
Lower interest rates should continue to act as support for the equity markets overall. We are entering the summer doldrums at this point, which should mean a slower tempo to the markets. I expect equities to continue their "two steps forward, one step backward" sort of advance.
The S&P 500 should climb higher (maybe another 40 points or so) through the beginning of next week. The Fed's FOMC meeting is scheduled for mid-week, so investors will be keen to listen for any clues of future monetary policy from Central Bank Chairman Jerome Powell.
|Write a comment - 0 Comments|
The Retired Investor: Want equality? Start With Better Jobs
Jobs. They are the primary focus of the Federal Reserve Bank, the Biden administration, the Republican opposition, and most U.S. corporations. Supposedly, with all this high-powered attention, we still can't find enough workers to fill all the positions available. Has anyone questioned why?
One important reason might be that 60 percent of jobs in the U.S. are considered "mediocre" or "of poor quality," according to a recent Gallup survey. If you combine those findings with the fact that many workers in the service economy are poorly compensated, the problem begins to come into clearer focus.
If you listen to the free market critics, generous Federal unemployment checks are the root cause of the problem. These simpletons argue that these higher benefits have discouraged workers from returning to their former jobs. They ignore the obvious, which is that if the "government dole" is preferable to the offered wage, then that wage must be far too low. It is myths like these, as well as the historical focus on the number of jobs gained or lost without paying attention to the quality of employment, which obscures the truth.
American companies, especially in the service sector, have spent the last thirty-plus years cutting wages and benefits in the name of reducing costs and improving profit margins. Global competition and lower wages abroad (especially in China) have been blamed for this development. That trend has reversed in a big way, but here in the U.S. we act like it is still a fact.
Our treatment of the American worker, especially the lower-income, service worker, needs to change. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found that only one-third of low-income workers received fringe benefits like health insurance and retirement benefits. An even smaller number received paid sick leave. Is it any wonder that only 28 percent of the lowest quintile workers claimed to have a "good" job?
Remember all the fuss when the Biden Administration tried to raise the minimum wage earlier this year? No dice. Here's another myth: the federal minimum wage is meant to be a living wage. At the going rate ($7.25 per hour), a family of four is living well below the poverty line. The reality is that about half of America's working population earns less than a living wage.
Is it any wonder we have exploding rates of crime among our youth?
Parents, who just want to feed themselves and their children, are forced to work, sometimes two jobs, away from home until the early hours. That leaves their kids alone and unsupervised for much of the day and night. We all know this but choose to look the other way or worse, use the race card as an explanation. Shame on us!
But simply paying workers more is not the answer, although it certainly helps. Creating an entirely new culture around the job is the challenge we face. Not only must we, as a nation, provide higher pay and better benefits, but also a workplace culture that improves the overall lives of our employees. To me, a quality job is one that makes a person feel valued and respected with a voice in their workplace. I see it as an opportunity to shape my work life, while contributing to the goals of an organization.
If this sounds schmaltzy to you, or a job description above your pay grade, consider this: Jobs that do not meet employees' needs have a higher-than-average turnover rate, poorer employee productivity, and a lower-quality consumer experience. Amid the competition to hire workers in today's post-pandemic environment, I believe workers at all levels are seeking more than just a sign-on bonus, or a bump up over a minimum wage level.
Otherwise, chances are your new hire will consider their position as "just a job," as opposed to "a career." As such, these disengaged employees cost businesses an average of $350 billion every year in productivity, or $2,246 per disengaged employee. In a tight labor market, with traditional hiring habits of "only money counts," a high turnover of employees is a given.
The cost of replacing an employee can range from one-half to two times the employee's annual salary.
The pandemic has changed quite a few things, some temporary and others permanent.
The American worker took it on the chin during the last year and a half. Millions were unemployed, while many that did show up to work were faced with constant danger to their health and safety. Essential workers in health care, early childhood education, food production and delivery, as well as countless minimum wage workers not only showed up, but delivered in our time of need.
Many others managed to work from home, delivering to their employer extra hours, higher productivity, and lower expenses for the same, or lesser wages. Going forward, there is no need for America's workers to justify their worth. That's been proven, in my opinion.
No, the ball is squarely in the employers' court. American workers have experienced deteriorating wages and working conditions over the last few decades. As a result, fundamental pillars of our democracy have been eroded. Economic stability and opportunity have decreased dramatically, while inequality has risen to historical levels. The present polarization of this country is no accident. Our workers need and deserve better jobs with higher wages and a radical change in the quality of the workplace.
|Write a comment - 0 Comments|
@theMarket: A Churn at the Top
It was a sleepy week in the markets for the major averages. Stocks flirted with the old highs, only to fall back by the end of the week. Energy and a few meme stocks occupied most of the attention.
Crude oil spiked higher, nearing almost $70 a barrel (bbl.), pulling energy stocks along with it. Energy traders were heartened by the latest OPEC meeting. The cartel expects demand to outstrip supply by more than a million barrels a day for the foreseeable future. As a result, the members intend to gradually increase production as the global economy gathers steam. Most analysts expect oil to breach $70/bbl. before taking a break.
Certain stocks such as AMC and GameStop, which have been dubbed "meme" stocks by the Reddit crowd of retail traders, had an unbelievable week of gains. AMC, the nation's largest theater chain, for example, saw its stock gain by more than 100 percent in one day. The price rise finally slowed and then reversed after the company announced two consecutive stock offerings over three days.
There is no fundamental reason to justify this kind of price movements. I witnessed the same thing during the Dot.Com boom (and bust) back in the beginning of this century. For those who can ride the bull, I applaud you. I just hope you are lucky enough to exit before you get trampled. Buyers beware.
Investors are also watching the infrastructure negotiations between the two political parties. The horse trading is getting intense. Reports that President Biden might be willing to revise his proposal to increase the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 21 percent cheered markets. That tax hike has been a major roadblock in winning Republican support for his infrastructure plan.
The Washington Post reported that Biden might consider a minimum corporate tax rate of 15 percent instead. On the surface, that might seem to be a tax cut from the present 21 percent rate. However, few corporations pay the going rate (although politicians like to pretend they do). The actual tax, after all the credits and loopholes in the tax law, usually results in a payment that is a substantial discount to the stated tax rate. Some large corporations pay no tax at all.
Another indication that the U.S. Central Bank sees further signs of economic recovery is that the Fed announced it was preparing to sell its $13 billion corporate bond and ETF portfolio (called the Secondary Market Corporate Credit facility, which it established during the pandemic). Officials made it clear that this was a separate move and should not be considered as a move toward tightening monetary policy.
May's Non-Farm Payroll employment report for May 2021, which was announced on June 4, was the second monthly disappointment in a row. New hires came in at 559,000 jobs. That was far lower than the 675,000 expected, but bad news proved to be good news for the financial markets. Stocks rallied since markets are keenly focused on the "tapering" conversation.
Some Federal Reserve Bank members continue to talk openly about the need to start tapering purchases of fixed income assets. Yet, other "doves" on the FOMC board remain convinced that we need several more months of data before beginning that process. The weak employment numbers give credence to those Fed officials who want to go slow.
Continued, easy monetary policy means interest rates should remain low, which is good for equity assets. And so the stock market rallied on the Non-Farm Payroll "bad" news. At this point, traders are expecting to hear more about tapering from Fed officials after their mid-June FOMC meeting with a possible announcement on when tapering will begin around the Fed's annual Jackson Hole conference in August.
Equity markets, I believe, will continue to be a battle between bulls and bears. While summers are usually a slow period in the markets, I suspect this year we could see further turbulence and possibly further gains. That could keep the pros close to the terminals, since we are quite close to historical highs on the S&P 500 Index. A break above them (at 4,238) would give the bulls clear sailing to 4,300. The question is what new piece of news could trigger that breakout?
The crypto currency market, on the other hand, remains subdued. Bitcoin continues to trade in a range between $33,500-$38,000. Technicians seem to be biding their time before making a move. Many believe Bitcoin must either break decisively below $33,000 to sell it, or above $40,000 for new purchases.
In the commodities corner, copper, gold, and silver took it on the chin this week after the U.S. dollar bounced off three-week lows, while oil continued to rally. Volatility like this is the name of the game when investing in crypto currencies, commodities, and commodity stocks. There is a saying "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," so invest accordingly.
|Write a comment - 0 Comments|