The Independent Investor: An Economic Game Plan
Now that Congress and the Federal Reserve Bank have fired the first salvo of relief spending, investors are wondering how long the trillions of dollars in aid will take to actually do something to alleviate some of the losses to the economy.
Administration officials believe that the cash payments to Americans should start arriving within the next three weeks. That said, most economists expect the country will fall into recession in the second quarter. That begins next week. No one knows how deep of a decline we will ultimately suffer, but suffice it to say, it will be a shock to most of us.
We can also expect a large, possibly a historical, jump in the unemployment rate; some say by 30 percent or more. If today's unemployment data is any indication (3.28 million new jobless claims) we are in for some bad sledding. Just about every economic statistic that we use to predict the economy should also take a huge hit. My hope is that if you are prepared for these developments, you can take them in stride.
Let's be clear: this is a self-inflicted wound to the economy. The nation needed to shut down, if even partially, to slow the spread of COVID-19. As such, we should bear the brunt of the damage in the second quarter, but we will not be out of the woods. As we enter the third and fourth quarters, expect more weakness, with the best case that by the summer into the fall; we could see a "transition" period.
Hopefully, if all goes well, the virus cases (and deaths) will have peaked by then, at least in the large metropolitan areas. That forecast is a bit "iffy" because it depends on a number of things. How long and how many states ultimately embrace a lock-down, and whether or not the shutdown is effective.
To date, because of the failure of the United States government to effectively respond to the disaster, we still do not know how many people are, or will be infected, or how and with what to treat them. In the midst of this uncertainty, President Trump wants us all to go back to work by Easter. Many health experts believe the president is speaking prematurely. If so, it wouldn't be the first time.
Given the timeline and best-case guesses of the economists and the Federal Reserve Bank, the third quarter should experience negative growth as well. By definition, two negative quarters in a row would qualify 2020 as a recession year. Exactly how negative the third quarter will be is anyone's guess, but the hope is that the losses won't be as bad as the second quarter. The unemployment rate may continue to increase, but then turn around by the fourth quarter as more and more Americans go back to work.
The fourth quarter is when we should expect things to improve. Economists are hoping that by the holidays there will be some reason for consumers to celebrate. By the first quarter of next year, we should see an upward explosion in growth as things get back to what I will call "a new normal."
Readers should be aware that the $2 trillion Federal spending bill that was passed this week is not a stimulus program. It is simply an attempt to partially compensate for the estimated $2.5 trillion in lost growth that the economy will suffer in the coming quarters. Likewise, the central bank's multitrillion-dollar injection of liquidity into the financial sector is not meant to stimulate, but only to provide support.
The question I ask myself is what will the economy look like next year after the pandemic has come and gone? Many on Wall Street expect that the government may pass another huge spending bill that will target economic stimulus. The question to ask is whether Washington can put aside partisan differences long enough to do so. Given the present high-level partisan divide in this country, despite the dangers of this pandemic, I wouldn't hold my breath. Stimulus is different from relief. In an election year, who knows if anything can be passed.
We will also be entering 2021 with a vastly higher deficit. Today, both the one-month and three-month U.S. Treasury bills are yielding below zero returns. In the coming months, it is possible that we will follow the rest of the world into a fixed income environment of zero interest rates across the spectrum of U.S. sovereign debt.
Although interest rates are expected to remain historically low, there is no guarantee that that scenario will play out. It is far too early in this new economic cycle to start making forecasts for next year, but given the number of unknowns we face, I would advise readers to keep an open mind as far as the future. Anything can happen in this new environment, where all the rules and records seem to be coming undone on a daily basis.
The Independent Investor: An Old Dog Learns New Tricks
When I made that decision last Friday, I didn't think it would be a big deal. After all, I have worked at home before (when I was sick or recovering from one of my many surgeries).
But as I am in day four of this self-imposed isolation, I am learning that, at least for me, my work habits are going to need an overhaul.
As a self-confessed workaholic, who loves what he does, even the idea of working from home never attracted me. I love the give-and-take of daily work life in the office. For me, the employees are like an extended family and I miss seeing them. I feed on office life and it feeds on me.
Therefore, when researching the pitfalls of working remotely, I expected to read that the greatest risk in working at home was that you won't work at all, or, if you do, you work at a reduced pace. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the opposite occurred. Without the comings and goings of my office routine, there was no stopwatch to tell me to take a break, drink fluids, eat lunch, exercise or even when to put the computer away.
The interruptions that occurred (and that sometimes irritated me at the office), I now realize, were timely cues to take a break. A colleague needing to talk, or convey information, an assistant asking for clarity, a delivery, a meeting, even a loud noise, or one of the office dogs barking are now all absent. As a result, I work at a frenetic pace.
At first, I worked at the dining room table. Big mistake. At the end of day one my back and shoulders were killing me, and I had a headache from leaning down working on a laptop in a dining chair that sloped backwards. Since I don't really have an office set up, I moved to the kitchen counter the second day. Better, but still left something to be desired. Tomorrow I will experiment with an office chair I had sitting around and hope for the best.
Given that I was so busy yesterday, I forgot to eat lunch. I have also made a habit of working out at the local gym for an hour during the day. Obviously, that isn't happening. I could exercise at home, but so far, I haven't.
Given that I have the software/hardware and telecom equipment at home to access my office, I connect when I wake up, rather than do the things I usually do like exercise, meditate or take the dog for a walk. So yesterday, for example, I worked from 6:30 or so until 6 at night.
And remember I am an investment adviser with worried clients, hysterical markets and a constant stream of new and challenging developments to contend with on an almost hourly basis.
I have already begun to adjust. My seating situation is evolving and like Goldilocks I will certainly keep trying to find the ideal arrangement for my aging body. I have started setting a timer for work activities with an allotted amount of time to get up, walk around, and breathe.
Today, come hell or high water, I will exercise for an hour around lunchtime. As for my hours, well, I will rely on my spouse, and she on me, to keep our working hours more reasonable.
All in all, I am sure that I will adjust to working this way. Others, who are also experimenting with this alternative work style, will be sharing their "tricks of the trade" and before long, who knows, I may actually come to enjoy it.
The Independent Investor: Chances of a 2020 Recession Have Just Sky-Rocketed
The one-two punch of a worldwide pandemic, plus the sudden sharp decline in energy prices have increased the odds that the U.S. economy could fall into a recession as early as this year. The fact that we still do not know the economic damage of the COVID-19, only increases the odds of a prolonged economic downturn.
At this writing, the number of cases and deaths attributed to the pandemic is growing, which is moving both consumers and businesses to dial back their spending on travel, conferences, large events and various work processes. As schools close, more and more parents are stuck at home instead of going into the office. This is also causing increased disruptions in productivity as companies begin to direct some of their work force to stay home. The recent government decision to bar travel from continental Europe doesn't help the economic situation either.
To be sure, none of the economic data so far reveals any impact from these actions. Unemployment still remains at a 30-year low. The economy is still growing moderately and, until recently, the stock market was celebrating record highs. However, all of those statistics are backward-looking.
One way to suss out how bad things may get in the future is to check out the nation's seaports. After all, 90 percent of world shipping goes through their ports, which provides a good read on world trade. The story from the seaport side is not encouraging.
The Los Angeles port saw cargo fall 23 percent in February and officials there see first-quarter volumes dropping 17 percent or more. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are expecting at least 10 out of 180 ship arrivals to cancel. That doesn't sound like much, but they are expecting far more cancellations than that. In Texas, the Port of Corpus Christi, which is the largest source of U.S. oil exports going overseas, is now expecting big cutbacks in their business thanks to the decline in oil prices.
The Federal Reserve Bank was worried enough last week to have instituted a 50-basis point cut in interest rates and has promised to do more if, and when, it is necessary. The threat of recession normally evokes a response from the Fed. It appears that next week, most market participants expect the Fed to initiate yet another interest rate cut and possibly a new round of quantitative easing.
A slower economy and declining energy prices also pose some risks to the nation's corporations. Thanks to low interest rates that have been readily available for corporate borrowers over the last several years, a number of American companies may have borrowed a little too often. The results are that today there are some heavily leveraged companies out there that are up to their eyeballs in debt. If a recession were to begin, investors worry that not all of these companies will have the financial resources to weather a long downturn.
Likewise, lower oil prices pose a risk for many energy companies (and the banks that lend to them). There are about $100 billion in outstanding bank loans to energy producers through lines of credit, which are based on the value of a company's oil and gas reserves. These credit lines are evaluated twice a year.
The last time this was done oil was at $50 a barrel. If oil remains where it is (below $35 a barrel), a lot of oil production, especially among shale producers, won't be worth extracting, which means companies will no longer be able to borrow against production and must immediately repay their loans to the banks.
While we are in the early days, and the dollar and cents hit from the pandemic might not be as serious as many predict, the economic signs from China, indicate the opposite. The early data is breathtakingly bad, even though China, unlike, our own country, responded to the virus threat with quarantines and massive amounts of both economic and monetary stimulus.
Despite more than two months of evidence from countries such as China, Iran, Italy, South Korea and more, Donald Trump chose to downplay the response to this national threat. Only this week, when it is now too late to stem the tide of infection and the subsequent impact on our economy and financial markets, has Trump seemed to realize how badly he has miscalculated. In my opinion, that miscalculation has upped the probability of an imminent recession to an almost certain bet. It is simply a question of how deep and long the recession will be.
The Independent Investor: The Biden Bounce
Super Tuesday surprised many investors. As the smoke cleared and the results came dribbling in, it became apparent that Joe Biden had risen from the dead. Wall Street celebrated by gaining over 4 percent in one day.
The market's performance says a lot about how investor's view the Democratic candidates. Taken as a group, Wall Street was not happy with where the Democratic candidates were heading. Last week, for example, I discussed Bernie Sander's election platform. The price tag alone ($50 trillion over 10 years) was enough to convince most Wall Streeters that the market and economy would be in for some really rough sledding if Bernie were to be elected.
Elizabeth Warren's ideas were in some ways even worse. Her pugilistic attitude surpassed even Sander's stance and has sent the financial markets into a tailspin, at least mentally. Therefore, the primary election results of the 14 states held on Tuesday heartened investors. Sanders trailed Biden overall, while Warren failed to capture a single state. And then, on Thursday, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, leaving the field to just Biden and Sanders.
From a Wall Street perspective "Joe" appears to be the best of a bad bunch. Now, I am speaking in general terms, because there are plenty of investors who love Sanders, Warren, and the liberal cause. That's not to say Biden isn't liberal, he is, but he also is a moderate, and one who would be far more likely to compromise with his opponents across the aisle.
However, from a middle-class point of view, there is no question that Biden is seen as the "voice of the working man." In comparison to his fellow politicians, and especially someone like Donald Trump, he is by no means considered rich. He is also a fiscal conservative, unlike most members of Congress today, as well as the president. That appeals to many in the financial community.
Biden would prefer to work within the existing system, whether we are talking about taxes, health care, the middle-class, or child care. Rather than jettison the entire system and embrace a new vision of economics and finance, Biden simply wants to reorder capitalism without embarking on a fundamental shift into Democratic Socialism.
He opposes universal health care but wants to see Obamacare improved and extended. It was indicative that health care companies were one of the sectors that bounced the most in Tuesday's market. Financials also did well since his suggested capital gains tax and other tax proposals would raise $400 billion and not the trillions of dollars suggested by his rivals. He is no friend of the uber wealthy, but his tax plan would fall far short of Senator Warren's direct tax on the wealthy that she claims would raise $2.75 trillion.
Wall Street also likes his stance on free trade. After several years of bluster and bluff, tariffs and tantrums, Biden's track record on trade is appealing. He is not for or against free trade, he is for renegotiating trade deals, but without the hysterics.
Most of all, Biden represents compromise, rather than confrontation, and after four years of the latter, many investors, in my opinion, would at least given Biden a pass if he won the general election. And while most investors are still convinced that a Trump presidency would be good for their pocketbooks (if not for their sanity), a Biden win would not be the disaster that many feared if the Democrats turned out on top.
The Independent Investor: Can America Afford Sanders' promises?
|The presidential hopeful speaks last week at an outdoor event at Santa Ana Valley High School in California.|
On the eve of yet another Democratic primary, the policies and promises of the front runner, Bernie Sanders, haves suddenly come into focus for many voters. The price tag of his platform could be enormous -- as much as $60 trillion. Are these promises just waiting to be broken?
Last week, I focused on the promises Donald Trump has made and his track record on fulfilling them. He gets at least a "B," although things like his infrastructure projects and restoring manufacturing were big failures.
In Bernie's case, as a big picture guy, he is arguing for a new vision of America's future. His platform lists seven major spending programs (and a bunch of little ones). The price tag for a Green New Deal, universal pre-kindergarten and childcare, tuition-free public colleges and universities and public housing, is estimated to cost about $23 trillion. Universal health care would add anywhere from $22 to $34 trillion.
In addition, a proposal to increase Social Security benefits, an infrastructure program, a federally guaranteed jobs program, etc. could boost that total by several trillion dollars more. This money would be spent over a decade and would fundamentally change the direction and vision of our society.
Bernie's program would double the amount of government spending throughout the next decade and would increase the share of federal spending by 20 percent. It would make Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal look like peanuts, since the price tag of Roosevelt's efforts increased federal spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product by a mere 8 percent.
Of course, in the midst of partisan politics, the actual cost of these ideas could be far higher (or lower). How does Bernie intend to pay for it? Sanders has said $30 trillion in new taxes would come from businesses and the rich. Another $12 trillion from revenue and savings, and a $1.2 trillion cut in defense spending. He also argues that $6.4 trillion would be generated from earnings from his Green Deal program.
The director of the Progressive Policy Institute's Center for Funding, Ben Ritz, concluded that Sanders' numbers would only generate about $29 trillion in taxes and revenues. That would still leave a big short fall and would need to be made up by either borrowing or by taxing the middle class. To put that into perspective, the entire personal income tax over 10 years would amount to the same amount of money. So, what about borrowing the money?
Both bond investors and more and more economists are concluding that raising the money in the debt markets is entirely doable. In fact, it has never been cheaper for the U.S. government to borrow money. U.S. treasuries this week for at least the next few years.
For the last 40 years, interest rates have been in a broad decline, while the national debt has moved in the opposite direction. There was a time when Republicans were supposedly the watch dogs of the budget deficit and government spending, but that is no longer the case. Under Donald Trump, the GOP spends more money than a drunken sailor and no one cares. Democrats don't seem to care either. Deficits have grown and are approaching 5 percent of GDP and hit an all-time low with as little as 1.25 percent on the benchmark 10-year bond. It appears that this trend is here to stay federal debt owned by the public is above 80 percent of GDP this year.
It seems from this perspective that Bernie Sanders' programs could be accomplished simply by issuing U.S. Treasury 100-year bonds every year for the next decade. Of course, Sanders' knows this as well as anyone, but chooses (because the optics are better) to argue he can finance his program by a platform of taxes and revenues. That is nothing new. Every politician in modern history promised the same thing.
The question one must ask is not whether it is affordable, because most Americans tend to live above their means and have no problem going into debt to accomplish that, but whether or not you embrace Sanders' vision of America's future. It is not a question of socialism. That horse has left the barn. Corporate Socialism is the reality of our everyday lives, in my opinion. It is simply a question of what kind of socialism you want to embrace, his or Trump's?