@theMarket: Cross Currents Confuse Investors
You would think that with a $1.9 trillion spending package, an increasing rate of coronavirus vaccinations, and a potential $3 trillion infrastructure package waiting in the wings, the market would be at record highs. That it is not should tell you something about the indecision plaguing investors.
When good news fails to impress, it usually means stocks (or at least some stocks) are headed lower. That should come as little surprise to readers. I advised investors to raise cash last month in preparation for what I see as a buying opportunity this month. The challenge — when do you put that cash back to work?
No one can call a bottom in stocks, so last week, I did advise readers to begin investing that cash "on down days." We have had a number of those this week. We have also seen stocks spike higher with little warning, so timing demands attention and patience. It is why I advise a simply buy-and-hold strategy for most readers, most of the time.
If you simply look at the S&P 500 Index, there appears to be little damage thus far to the averages. We are simply in a 100-point trading range. However, Nasdaq and the small-cap Russell 2000 Indexes are a different story.
Right now, we are in the worst technology selloff in six months. The NASDAQ 100 fell over 10 percent this month while small caps just fell to their 200-day moving average (before bouncing yesterday and today}. That makes sense, since what goes up must come down, or so the saying goes.
Both of those averages have outperformed considerably in the past. The Russell 2000 Index, for example, gained more than 40 percent over the last half year. NASDAQ, as you probably know, has been outperforming everything for years now.
Things changed the moment interest rates began to rise in February. It is one reason I advised caution back then, especially in those high-flying stocks that the Robin Hood traders and others had bid up to insane prices. Many of those companies were what investors considered "new age" stocks (think electric vehicles, solar, or 5G}, or "stay-at-home" stocks like the FANG names and other companies in the same space.
Rising interest rates, as I have explained, have a tendency to hurt earnings in these companies, which were already priced to perfection. At first, investors simply sold those winners and rolled the money into what is now called the reopening trades — airlines, hotels, restaurants, cruise lines, industrials, materials, etc. At the beginning of this quarter, valuations were reasonable, since the timetable for a resumption in economic activity was uncertain at best.
However, since then, here in the U.S., the accelerated pace of vaccinations, plus $1.9 trillion in government spending (thanks to the Biden Administration}, gave investors the confidence to pile into these "value" areas. Afterall, it is thought that they would benefit the most from the imminent explosion of economic growth, something which was suddenly thought to be just around the corner.
Inflation worries, and a potential third wave of virus cases, however, has recently put a damper on these expectations. Inflation is rising and no one knows just how high it will go. Higher inflation could damage earnings across the board, but more harm in some sectors than others. If you then throw in the possibility of a third wave of virus cases, the market suddenly has doubts of how sustainable the reopening trade might be. But the problem is that investors have already bid up many of these value stocks to prices that are higher than they were before the pandemic began.
Europe, which has proven to be a 2–3-week leading indicator for virus cases in our own country, is now shutting down again. The difference this time, in my opinion, could be that our efforts to provide vaccinations for our population are in full swing, while Europe struggles to establish an effective program. Just yesterday, President Biden has doubled his forecast (to 200 from 100 million} for vaccinations available by the end of May.
All of the above uncertainty is what I believe is behind the radical behavior we are witnessing this month in the stock market. This too shall pass. I am hoping by the second week in April we will have put all this indecision behind us. In the meantime, take advantage of any pullbacks to move into areas I have already recommended in the beginning of the year such as industrials, materials, financials, and energy among other commodities as well as small caps.
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The Retired Investor: Cannabis Catalysts Coming Soon
Last week, a bipartisan slate of U.S. Senate co-sponsors introduced the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (the SAFE Act) that would allow the cannabis industry to tap the federal banking system. If passed, this could be a game changer for marijuana companies.
The SAFE Act has already been passed by the House back in September 2019 but was never brought up for a hearing, much less a vote in the Senate.
The bill's author, Congressman Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat, has introduced several versions of this bill many times over the last eight years. During that time, the legalization of marijuana has moved from a pie-in-the-sky hope of a few legislators to something that may actually have the votes to pass.
Forty-seven states have already legalized either recreational or medical marijuana (as well as the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories). That should have been pressure enough to overcome lawmakers' resistance and yet, the legal status remains the same. Cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug that makes it illegal on the federal level; as such, most cannabis companies are excluded from utilizing banking accounts. They have to operate on a cash-only basis.
At the same time, the banking sector, as well as numerous public companies that might want to enter the cannabis space, are precluded from doing so in fear that they will run into problems with federal insurers and the federal government.
The cash-only model hamstrings marijuana companies that would like to borrow in order to expand but can't because bank loans are unavailable. It is both frustrating and somewhat ludicrous to many that this U.S. sector, which is valued at $17 billion, remains a cash business. It has also developed into a public safety issue since cash-laden tills of cannabis companies are prime targets for robberies and burglaries.
During the pandemic, a large number of states deemed the cannabis industry an essential business due to medical marijuana prescriptions. That also presents a public health concern, since more and more of these medical marijuana companies are dealing with increased demand. Many of them need access to the banking system to insure the continued flow of product to their patients.
In any case, in order for the SAFE Act to pass in the Senate, a minimum of 60 votes would be needed. At last count, advocates believe they have 59 votes, which would be more than enough momentum to at least field a Senate committee hearing. After that, the bill could be moved to the full Senate for a vote within the next month.
In the meantime, the New York State Legislature is expected to vote on its own Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, any day now. Passage would legalize recreational marijuana, as well as provide $350 million in tax revenue per year. This could be another large boost in revenue for several marijuana companies. The market for recreational pot could become a multibillion-dollar industry in the state. Some forecasters expect sales to grow as high as $7 billion throughout the next four years.
And while investors focus on the U.S., don't forget that Mexico has already passed legislation in their lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, this month. The bill will now go to the Senate before being sent to President Andres Lopez Obrador, who already supports passage. The legislation is expected to be approved by their Senate any day now. Mexico, with 130 million people, would represent the largest marijuana market in the world by population.
With all this good news on the legislative font, it appears to me that we are on the cusp of a major series of catalysts that should benefit the cannabis industry and propel the stock prices of several well-positioned and profitable marijuana companies here in North America.
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@theMarket: Rising Rates Create Headwinds for Stocks
The saga of rising interest rates in the long end of the U.S. Treasury market continued this week. Investors, fearing runaway inflation, sold both bonds and stocks. Will the selling continue, or Is this a buying opportunity?
It depends upon which asset class we are talking about. Yields on the 10, 20, and 30-year U.S. Treasury Bonds, I believe, will continue to rise. How far? It is possible that the benchmark "Tens" could finish the year at 2 percent. In the short-term, however, I expect yields to fall a bit on profit-taking.
Last week, I warned readers that the rise in rates was not over. I expected yields on the U.S. Ten Year Treasury Bond to hit the 1.70 percent level or higher. Currently, they are yielding 1.75 percent, which is a fairly steep move in less than a week. It is the speed of the ascent in yields that is most spooking equity investors.
But where is the Fed in all of this? The simple answer is that the Federal Reserve Bank controls short-term interest rates, while long term rates are determined by the buying and selling of you and me. But it goes further than that.
Investors have been conditioned over many years to expect the Fed to be pre-emptive in guiding monetary policy. If, for example, the FOMC board members believe inflation might be getting out of hand in the future, they will nudge rates higher now to head off that danger.
Not this time. The Fed, and its Chairman Jerome Powell, want inflation to rise and plan to wait until that happens before reacting. This is a new concept for market participants.
For the first time in a long time, the Fed is making employment its priority and not Wall Street. The real unemployment rate in this country is thought to be about 9 percent, depending on what data you look at. The Fed wants to let the economy grow until that number drops dramatically. If that means the economy grows "hot" and inflation rises for a quarter or two to achieve that goal, so be it.
The Fed believes that any sustained, long term rise in the inflation rate will only become a problem if wages start to rise and rise substantially. Consider that back in 2019, when the unemployment rate was as low as 3.5 percent (the lowest since 1969), the inflation rate was only 1.81 percent, despite wage growth of 4.6 percent. Given the still high rate of unemployment, it is hard to imagine that wage growth and any potential inflation it might cause will occur any time soon.
But what about the record rise in commodity prices, like food and energy? Isn't that inflationary? The Fed considers these price movements short-term aberrations. Consider the oil price, which can fluctuate by as much as 4-5 percent in a day. On Thursday, for example, crude fell 7 percent. The Fed is concerned with the long-term trends, while you, me, and Wall Street are focused on today, tomorrow, and at the latest, next week.
But who is to say that if the Fed waits to react to a 2.5 percent-3.5 percent uptick in the inflation rate, they will be able to put the genie back in the bottle? Can we trust the Fed to let the economy grow hot enough to employ America's workers without unleashing a new and damaging multi-year trend of inflation? The market seems to doubt that.
I advised investors to raise some cash in highflyers, mostly in the new tech area, in February because I believed this month would be volatile at best. That is proving to be the case. Over the next few weeks, readers should start putting that cash back to work on the market's down days.
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The Retired Investor: Food Scarcity in a Nation of Obesity
Thirty-three percent of adults are obese, while ten percent of households with children are facing a food crisis. This is happening together, at the same time, in the same place — America. How can this be?
During the height of the pandemic, if you recall, the media featured long lines of hungry Americans queuing up at food banks and other community centers for food to feed their families. That was a shocking sight to me. In the supposed wealthiest country in the world, where Americans usually throw away more food than they eat, there are people going hungry? I thought it must be caused by supply chain problems, not the scarcity of food.
Digging deeper, I discovered that millions of Americans have been facing food insecurity well before the coronavirus. The pandemic simply made a bad situation worse and food scarcity strikes hardest at the most vulnerable populations. Black families, for example, are twice as likely as white to have inadequate access to healthy food.
But first, we need to understand the definition of food scarcity or food insecurity, since both terms are being used to define the same thing. The term refers to the lack of access to enough good, healthy, and culturally appropriate food. From an economic perspective, it is defined as the inability to afford that same healthy food for all family members.
Let me be clear, however, food insecurity and hunger are not the same concept, even though they may be somewhat related. Food insecurity is socio-economic, which means its roots are both financial and cultural. Hunger is physiological, meaning physical. It is a physical sensation that might be a consequence of food scarcity or insecurity, but not always. We usually measure food scarcity at the household level and hunger at the individual level.
Back in the day, my family was considered "poor" (lower income would be the politically correct handle in today's world), but we were never hungry. Although, I suspect that there may have been times that my mother went without to feed us kids, but I couldn't prove it. Thank God, however, for the little backyard summer garden we had (although eating tomato sandwiches for lunch several times a week was a bit much).
Today's food security (or insecurity) is our society's attempt to move the discussion of food policy beyond simple hunger. It is an effort to capture the reality of individuals and families who struggle to get enough good quality food on the table. Food scarcity and obesity, believe it or not, have much in common.
Obesity is defined as having excess body fat. Adults 35 years of age and older with a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 30 are considered obese. Former President Donald Trump, for example, falls onto that category. Where food scarcity and the problem of obesity meet most often is around the meaning of "good and healthy" foods.
The lifestyle of the obese and the poor coincide in a number of areas. Poorer working families (especially single parent households), for example, have neither the money, nor the time to plan meals and supervise their family's food intake. Skipping breakfast, eating out at cheap, fast food joints, consuming highly processed and calorie-rich foods, snacking in front of the television, and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages are regular occurrences for families working to put food on the table. Those same eating habits are also commonly found among obese families and individuals.
Given that background, it should not surprise us that one out of every six American children are at risk of food scarcity and suffer from obesity as well. Food insecurity is influenced by any number of factors including income, employment, race/ethnicity and disability. It can be long-term or temporary.
For years, I have written about the growing income inequality in this country. Unfortunately, both the private and public sectors have ignored that issue. The onset of the pandemic only made a bad situation much worse. The huge rise in unemployment, the long-term trend of sinking real wages in the service industries, coupled with the shrinking safety net of both private health care and social programs have resulted in problems only one of which is food scarcity.
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@theMarket: Tech Stocks Rise From the Dead
The large cap technology sector bounced back this week as bond yields fell. It is a see-saw market filled with several cross-currents. But if you want to know where stocks are going, keep your eyes focused on the U.S. Ten-Year Bond yield.
In my last column, I explained how rising bond yields are like kryptonite to the continued performance of what I call "super tech stocks." Over the last two weeks, the NASDAQ 100, for example, experienced a 10 percent-plus down draft, as bond yields rose to 1.60 percent from 1.25 percent. Investors sold FANG stocks, and technology shares in new-era sectors, like solar and electric vehicles, and bought old economy stocks, like in energy, financials, and cyclicals.
This week, that trade reversed somewhat as bond yields stopped rising, drifted lower, and seem to be stabilizing around 1.50 percent -- until Friday. While the S&P and Dow Indexes pulled back a little in response, NASDAQ dropped 1.5 percent. The question is whether the rate rise in yields is coming to an end, or will we see yet another backup in yields as investors become even more concerned over future inflation.
There is no reason why the yield on the "Ten Year" couldn't rise further, in my opinion, maybe as high as 1.80 percent to even 2 percent later in the year. After all, that was where yields were on the Ten Year just before the pandemic. What could drive yields higher? Inflation concerns.
I believe the Federal Reserve Bank Committee is expecting the inflation rate to hit their long-term target of 2 percent in the next few months. Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, has already said they would be willing (and happy) to see that happen. That would be a textbook and natural occurrence in any recovering economy. But what the Fed expects, and what the markets are prepared for, may be two different things.
"As long as yields rise gradually, and not all at once," say the experts, then investors can and will adjust accordingly. That remains to be seen. In this world of instant price reactions and compressed time periods, I am not so sure "gradual" is in the dictionary of today's traders. To them, a 25-30 basis point rise in yields could mean the end of the world. I fear a mad exit for the door could occur all at once at some point. It is a possibility, so be on guard.
The good news is that the $1.9 trillion American Relief Bill passed in what amounted to a one-party rescue of the American people. Not one Republican voted for the rescue plan, despite the fact that between 65-80 percent of Americans approved of the plan. The ink was barely dry on President Biden's signature, however, before investor attention turned to the passing of a future infrastructure package.
Unlike the relief package, which was passed through the budget reconciliation process, an infrastructure bill of real substance would require bi-partisan support. If that turns out to be a non-starter, President Biden could still provide some money ($300 billion or so), but nothing like the $2 trillion that would be needed to really address the nation's decrepit highways, bridges, seaports, and airports.
An infrastructure bill would actually provide a needed stimulus to grow the economy, while providing a real need that is long overdue. But it would also take longer to thread its way throughout the economy and would require a year or two before we would really see the impact in the data.
In any case, the prospect of such a bill will be enough to occupy investors' attention over the next few months. I suspect "infrastructure plays" will be bid up in anticipation of this potential government spending program. This happened four years ago, you may recall, when the Trump Administration announced their intentions to pass similar legislation. We all know that effort hit a brick wall, despite a Republican-held Congress and White House.
Today, with countries like China breathing down our necks, the U.S. is falling further and further behind in so many areas. We fiddle in bitter partisan politics, while the rest of the world plows ahead. A substantial infrastructure program would be a first step in stemming our economic slide.
In any case, we have two weeks left of volatility, so use the time to employ any excess cash you may have on down days. I expect stocks to regain their luster in April, so hang in there.
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