Outlook for 2018

At this time of year we are usually inundated with projections for the year ahead, from predictions of imminent collapse to expectations of a record year.

We live in a world of uncertainty, where both extremes are possible, but neither is likely.

We are clearly in stage 3 (the final stage) of a bull market. Risk premiums are close to record lows. The yield spread between lowest investment-grade (Baa) bonds and equivalent risk-free Treasuries has crossed to below 2.0 percent, levels last seen prior to the 2008 global financial crisis. The VIX is also close to its record low, suggesting high levels of investor confidence.

Corporate Bond Spreads and VIX

Money supply continues to grow at close to 5.0 percent, reflecting an accommodative stance from the Fed. MZM, or Zero Maturity Money, is basically M1 plus travelers checks and money market funds.

Zero-Maturity Money

Inflationary forces remain subdued, with average hourly wage rates growing at below 2.5 percent per year. A rise above 3.0 percent, which would pressure the Fed to adopt a more restrictive monetary policy, does not appear imminent.

Average Hourly Wage Rates

Tax relief and higher commodity prices are likely to exert upward pressure on inflation in the year ahead. But the Fed’s stated intention of shrinking its balance sheet, with a reduction of $100 billion in the first 12 months, is likely to have an opposite, contractionary effect.

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed gave a bit of a scare, dipping below 1.0 percent towards the end of last year. But data has since been revised and the index now reflects a far healthier outlook.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

A flattening yield curve has also been mooted as a potential threat, with a negative yield curve preceding every recession over the last 50 years.

Yield Differential 10-Year compared to 2-Year and 3-Month Treasuries

A yield differential, between 10-year and either 2-year or 3-month Treasuries, below zero would warn of a recession. When long-term yields fall below short-term yields financial markets stop working efficiently and bank lending tends to contract. Banks, who generally borrow at short-term rates and lend at long-term rates, find their margins are squeezed and become strongly risk-averse. Contracting lending slows the economy and normally leads to recession.

But we are some way from there. If we take the last cycle as an example, the yield curve started flattening in 2005 (when yield differentials fell below 1 percent) but a recession only occurred in 2008. The market could continue to thrive for several years before the impact of a negative yield curve is felt. To exit now would seem premature.

Fed flunks econ 101?

Caroline Baum’s opinion on the Fed’s approach to inflation:

For all the sturm und drang about the Fed debasing the dollar and sowing the seeds of the next great inflation, the public’s demand for money has increased. The increased desire to hold cash and checkable deposits has risen to meet the increased supply. Velocity, or the rate at which money turns over, has plummeted.

The Fed has two choices. It can adopt the Dr. Strangelove approach and learn to stop worrying and live with low inflation and low unemployment. Or it can do something about it, which runs counter to its stated intention to raise the funds rate and reduce the size of its balance sheet.

Option #1 involves learning to live with a low, stable inflation rate about 0.5 percentage point below the Fed’s explicit 2% target.

Not only has the Fed has achieved price stability in objective terms, but it has also fulfilled former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s subjective definition of price stability: a rate of inflation low enough that it is not a factor in business or household decision-making.

Option #2 means taking some additional actions to increase the money supply by lowering interest rates or resuming bond purchases. The Fed is taking the opposite approach. It began its balance sheet normalization this month, allowing $10 billion of securities to mature each month and gradually increasing the amount every quarter. And it has guided markets to expect another 25-basis-point rate increase in December….

The Fed faces a delicate balancing act. Unemployment is low but capacity utilization is also low, indicating an absence of inflationary pressure.

Capacity Utilization

Janet Yellen understandably wants to normalize interest rates ahead of the next recession but she can afford to take her time. The economy is unlikely to tip into recession unless the Fed hikes rates too quickly, causing a monetary contraction.

I believe the Fed chair is relying on the outflow from more than $2 trillion of excess reserves held by banks on deposit with the Fed to offset the contractionary effect of any rate hikes.

Capacity Utilization

If pushed, the Fed could lower the interest rate paid on excess reserves in order to encourage banks to withdraw excess deposits. But so far this hasn’t been necessary. The attraction of higher interest rates in financial markets has been sufficient to encourage a steady outflow from excess reserves, keeping the monetary base (net of reserves) growing at a steady clip of close to 7.5% p.a. despite rate hikes so far.

Capacity Utilization

Makes you wonder why Donald Trump would even consider replacing the Fed chair when she is doing a great job of managing the recovery.

Source: Fed flunks econ 101: understanding inflation – MarketWatch

How long will the bull market last?

US markets are clearly in a bull phase, with the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq making strong gains. A rising Freight Transport Index highlights the broad up-turn in economic activity.

Freight Transport Index

Low corporate bond spreads — lowest investment grade (Baa) minus 10-year Treasury yield — and VIX below 15 both reflect bull market conditions.

Bond Spreads

Real GDP is growing around a modest 2 percent a year. Low figures are likely to continue, with annual change in hours worked (total payroll * average weekly hours) falling to 1.2 percent in September.

Real GDP

Money supply (M1) growth recovered to a balmy 7 percent (p.a.) after a worrying dip below 5 in early 2016.

M1 Money Stock

The Fed may be reluctant to tighten monetary conditions but will be forced to act if inflation starts to accelerate. Annual growth in hourly wage rates turned above 2.5 percent in September, signaling underlying inflationary pressure.

Average Hourly Wage Rate - Annual Growth

Another dip in M1 below 5 percent growth would warn that monetary conditions are tightening. From there, it normally takes 12 months to impact on the broad market indices.

M1 Money Stock and Fed Funds Rate

At this stage it looks like another 2 years of sunshine before the storm. But one false tweet and we could face an early winter.

Australia faces headwinds

Australian wage rate growth, on the other hand, is declining. is in a worse position, with a dramatic fall in investment following the mining boom.

Australia: Wage Price Index

Source: RBA & ABS

As is inflation.

Australia: Inflation

Source: RBA & ABS

Growth in Household Disposable Income and Consumption.

Australia: Household Income and Consumption

Source: RBA & ABS

And Banks return on shareholders equity.

Australia: Banks Return on Equity

Source: RBA & APRA

But not Housing.

Australia: Banks Return on Equity

Source: RBA, ABS, APM, CoreLogic & Residex

At least not yet.

Falling house prices would complete the feedback loop, shrinking household incomes, consumption and banks ROE.

Gold finds support at $1250

The Dollar Index continues to test support at 96.50. The primary trend is down and breach of support is likely, signaling a decline to test the 2016 low at 92/93.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold found support at $1250. A weaker Dollar and rising political uncertainty both favor an up-trend but rising interest rates are expected to weaken demand. Respect of support at $1250 would confirm the up-trend, while breach of $1200 would warn of another decline.

Spot Gold

Inflation surges

Inflation is rising, with CPI climbing steeply above the Fed’s 2% target. But core CPI excluding energy and food remains stable.

Consumer Price Index

Job gains were the lowest since May 2016.

Job Gains

But the unemployment rate fell to a low 4.5%.

Unemployment

Hourly wage rate growth has eased below 2.5%, suggesting that underlying inflationary pressures are contained.

Average Hourly Earnings Growth

The Fed is unlikely to accelerate its normalization of interest rates unless we see a surge in core inflation and/or hourly earnings growth.

Australia’s economic growth is slowing.

Employment and Participation rates are falling.

Australia Employment & Participation Rates

Wage rate growth is slowing.

Australia Wage Rates

Slowing wage rate growth and inflation confirm that the economy is faltering.

Australia Underlying Inflation

The RBA, with one eye on the housing bubble, has indicated its reluctance to cut rates further. Increased infrastructure spending by Federal and State governments seems the only viable alternative.

With the motor industry winding down and apartment construction headed for a cliff, this is becoming increasingly urgent.

US Job Growth, Wage Rates & Inflation

Payrolls jumped by a seasonally adjusted 235,000 jobs in February, setting the Fed on track for another rate rise next week.

US Job Growth

GDP growth is projected to lift in line with employment, wage rates and hours worked. At this stage, the Fed is still attempting to normalize interest rates rather than slow the economy to cool inflationary pressures.

Projected GDP

Wage rate growth remains muted, at close to 2.5 percent, so rate hikes are likely to proceed at a gradual pace.

Hourly Wage Rates and Money Supply

The need to tighten monetary policy is only likely to be seriously considered when wage rate growth [light green] exceeds 3.0 percent [dark green line]. Then you are likely to witness a dip in money supply growth [blue], as in 2000 and 2006, with bearish consequences for stocks.

*The dip in 2010 was a mistake by the Fed, taking its foot off the gas pedal too soon after the 2008 crash.

The Threat of Inflation

From the Trading Diary:

I received a message from a US reader suggesting I should “stay out of politics”.

I would love to stay out of politics. Frankly, I find it tiresome. Unfortunately, politics and the economy are so intertwined as to make the study of one meaningless without consideration of the other. I say “unfortunately” because a lot of the damage done to the economy is caused by the political system.

As for Donald Trump, I am a conservative but do not support him. He is not another Reagan who can lead from the center and inspire his country. If anything he is a polarizing force, more ego-driven than Nixon and just as unpredictable.

I hope I am wrong. Trump has many sound policies and has made some solid appointments to his team. Don’t believe everything you read from a hostile media. They could do a lot of good. Provided they are able to manage the elephant in the lifeboat — the destabilizing side of Trump’s nature.

Now that I have offended at least half of all US readers — slightly less than half if you listen to bleating about the majority vote — let me explain why politics and economics are so intertwined.

Apart from trade wars, which I will discuss at a later date, I see the main threat to the US economy as inflation.

Before I start, let me say that these dangers are not immediate and the present boom is likely to continue for the next 12 to 18 months. But they could quickly materialize, bringing the boom to a premature end, so it is best to keep a weather eye on them.

Inflation

Earlier this week I discussed why the inflation outlook is so important to stock market performance:

From Tim Wallace at The Sydney Morning Herald:

Nine years on from the start of the financial crisis, the US recovery may be overheating, Legal & General Investment Management economist James Carrick has warned.

He has predicted a series of interest rate hikes will tip the US into a 2018 recession.”Every recession in the US has been caused by a tightening of credit conditions,” he said, noting inflation is on the rise and the US Federal Reserve is discussing plans for higher interest rates.

Officials at the Fed have only raised interest rates cautiously, because inflation has not taken off, so they do not believe the Fed needs to take the heat out of the economy.

But economists fear the strong dollar and low global commodity prices have restricted inflation and disguised domestic price rises. Underneath this, they fear the economy is already overheating.

As a result, they expect inflation to pick up sharply this year, forcing more rapid interest rate hikes.

That could cause a recession next year, they say. In their models, the signals are that this could take place in mid-2018.

Harvard scholar Paul Schmelzing points out that inflation is starting to rear its head in both China and Germany, with producer prices rising. This may in part be a result of the falling value of the Yuan and Euro against the Dollar, resulting in higher domestic commodity prices.

The opposite, however, is true for the US, with a rising Dollar lowering import prices and acting as a headwind against inflation.

The consumer price index (CPI) is rising because of higher crude oil prices but core CPI (excluding food & energy) has remained fairly constant, around the 2.0 percent target, over the last five years.

Core CPI and CPI

So why the concern?

Well the Fed is more concerned about underlying inflation, best reflected by hourly wage rates, than the headline CPI figure.

A sharp rise in hourly earnings rates would force the Fed to respond with tighter monetary policy to take the heat out of the economy.

The chart below shows how the Fed slams on the brakes whenever average hourly earning rates grow above 3.0 percent. Each surge in hourly earnings is matched by a dip in the currency growth rate as the Fed tightens the supply of money to slow the economy and reduce inflationary pressure. And tighter monetary normally leads to recession.

Hourly Earnings Growth compared to Currency in Circulation

Two anomalies on the above chart warrant explanation. First, is the sharp upward spike in currency growth in 1999/2000 when the Fed reacted to the LTCM crisis with monetary stimulus despite high inflationary pressures. Second, is the sharp dip in 2010 when the Fed took its foot off the gas pedal too soon after the financial crisis of 2008/2009, mistaking it for a regular recession.

Hourly earnings growth is currently at 2.5 percent, so the Fed has some wiggle room and is only likely to react with tighter monetary policy when the figure reaches 3.0 percent.

Recent rate rises are more about normalizing interest rates — not taming inflation — and are not cause for alarm.

But Paul Schmelzing warns that the combination of a tight labor market and fiscal stimulus could fuel inflation and lead to a bear market in bonds similar to the 1960s.

That is exactly where Donald Trump is headed with a major infrastructure program likely to hit the ground next year. In a tightening labor market, the Fed would be forced to tighten monetary policy, slowing the economy and leading to another bear market in stocks as well as bonds.

Politics is tricky; it cuts both ways. Every time you make a choice, it has unintended consequences.

~ Stone Gossard

Gold weakens as interest rates rise

Interest rates are climbing steeply as the market anticipates more inflationary policies under a Trump presidency. 10-Year Treasury yields broke through 2.0 percent and are testing resistance at 2.50. Penetration of the descending trendline would warn that the long-term primary down-trend is weakening, signaling a test of 3.0 percent. Breakout above 3.0 is still some way off but would signal the end of the almost 30-year secular down-trend in Treasury and bond yields.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Chinese Yuan has fallen sharply in response to rising interest rates, with the Dollar headed for a test of resistance at 7.0 Yuan (USDCNY).

USDCNY

Gold responded to rising interest rate expectations with a test of primary support at $1200. Narrow consolidation is a bearish sign, as is reversal of 13-week Momentum below zero. Breach of primary support would signal a primary down-trend with an immediate target of $1050/ounce.

Spot Gold

In the long-term, higher inflation and a weakening Yuan could both fuel demand for gold as a store of value. But the medium-term outlook is bearish.