December 5, 5:00 pm EST

I was away from the markets yesterday, on a big down day.  With markets closed today to honor the 41st President, let’s take a look at what happened on Tuesday.

Why the ugly and persistent plunge in stocks?

Many of the reasons that have been attributed to the two stock market corrections this year, bubbled up again yesterday. But as we’ve discussed, the stock declines this year appear to have had everything to do with Saudi capital flows–and less to do with all of the hand-wringing issues you hear and read in the financial media.  Same can be said for yesterday.

When prospects rise that Saudi assets may be threatened by sanctions(or seizures in the case earlier this year, related to the Crown Prince’s corruption crackdown) indiscriminate and aggressive selling of U.S. assets hit immediately (likely led by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which has assets over half a trillion dollars).

We had it again yesterday.  Stocks had a big gap up on Monday on movement on U.S./China trade. It was after the close on Monday that the news hit that the CIA would brief the special Senate committee on Tuesday.  Stocks immediately started moving lower. The Dow futures were down 250 points by midnight.  And then of course, yesterday, when news hit that the briefing was underway (just after noon), the bottom immediately fell out of stocks. A little more than half an hour later, U.S. Senators were standing in front of cameras telling the world that the Crown Prince was involved in the murder and that Congress should invoke the Magnitsky Act.  This law authorizes the government to sanction human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the U.S.

That sounds ominous for the Crown Prince.
But the Magnitsky Act comes in the form of a request from Congress, and the President has the discretion to act or not (but must decide within 120 days).

With that, I suspect this was nothing more than grandstanding.  Trump will not (can not) act for the reasons we discussed last month.

From a security standpoint, Saudi Arabia is a critical alliance in the fight to defeat ISIS and check of Iran. Maybe more importantly, pushing Saudi Arabia toward an alignment with China and Russia in the long game would be a grave danger for the U.S.
Taking action against the Crown Prince would jeopardize both.
So, as I said last month, Trump has been leveraging the Saudi crisis to get oil prices lower. And he’s gotten it – to the tune of a 35% decline in oil prices. And to this point, it appears Trump has settled on the sanctions that have already been levied already on Saudi individuals involved in the Khashoggi murder (which don’t include the Crown Prince).

If he sanctioned the Saudi government over this, oil prices would probably explode and stocks would crash (not really an option).

We’ll see how stocks react tomorrow after a day of reflection.  I suspect Tuesday created another buying opportunity.

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September 5, 5:00 pm EST

Yesterday we talked about the case for breaking up Amazon, on the day it crossed the trillion-dollar valuation threshold.  Today the stock was down 2%.

Also today, Facebook and Twitter executives visited Capitol Hill for a Congressional grilling.

If you listened to Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony in April, and today’s grilling of Jack Dorsey (Twitter) and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), it’s clear that they have created monsters that they can’t manage.  These tech giants have gotten too big, too powerful, and too dangerous to the economy (and society).

All have emerged and dominated, thanks in large part to regulatory advantage – operating under the guise of an “internet business.”   And it all went unchecked for too long.  These are monopolies in the making.  But, as we know, Trump is on it.

As we discussed yesterday, Amazon has to, and will be, broken up.  As for Facebook, Google, Twitter, Uber:  the regulatory screws are tightening.  Those businesses won’t look the same when it’s over. But it’s complicated. The higher the cost of compliance, the smaller the chances that there will ever be another Facebook or challenger.  That goes for many of the tech giants.

With that in mind, regulation actually strengthens the moat for these companies.

That would argue that they may ultimately go the way of public utilities (in the case of Facebook, Google and Twitter).

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June 27, 5:00 pm EST

We’ve talked about the case for a shakeout in Amazon. It was up big today on news that it would be buying a big online pharmacy.

That worked to curtail the slide in the stock (for now).  But it only exacerbates the building regulatory scrutiny and the President’s wrath against Amazon’s developing monopoly and power (much of which has been garnered overtime from the unfair advantages Amazon has enjoyed from operating as an internet company).

If there’s one thing we know about Trump as a President, he’s done what he says he’s going to do.  And he’s had plenty of verbal threats directed squarely at Amazon.  We can only assume that he will carry out the offensive he’s been promising — against a company that has crushed industries by price wars.

On a similar note, let’s talk about China.  As we’ve discussed quite a bit, China’s rapid economic ascent in the world came through currency manipulation.  They held their currency down, to underprice the world on exports.  And as the world stood by and watched (and bought lots of stuff from them), they became the world’s second largest economy, and the accumulated the largest war chest of foreign currency reserves.

China is to the world, as Amazon is to corporate America.  And Trump is attempting to deal with them both head on.

Interestingly, China is quietly fighting back, via the currency.  The go to tool in China is currency devaluation.

That’s what they’ve been doing over the past three months.  And that has accelerated in just the past 10 days – they’ve devalued by almost 4% against the dollar.  This is something to watch closely.  A big one-off devaluation out of China would be a geopolitical cage rattling.
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December 2, 2017, 4:00 pm EST

It looks like we’ll get tax cuts approved before year end!  And that will give us two of the four pillars of Trumponomics underway in the first year of the new administration.

What a difference four months makes.

Remember, we entered the year with prospects of a big corporate tax cut, a huge infrastructure spend, deregulation and incentives to bring trillions of U.S. corporate money home.

By this summer, the ability to execute on these policies, given the political gridlock and mudslinging, was beginning to look questionable.

The game changer was the hurricanes.

In my note on August 29th, I said: “I think it’s fair to say the optimism toward the President, the administration and Washington policy making has been waning with the lack of policy execution.  And from the optics of it all, sentiment couldn’t go much lower. ​But in markets, turning points (bottoms and tops) in the prevailing trend are often triggered by a catalyst (big trend changes, by some sort of intervention).

With that, the hurricane will likely have little negative impact on overall growth, but it may do something positive for policy making (maybe a turning point).

Given the mess of the political landscape, and an economy that remains vulnerable and in need of fiscal stimulus and structural reform, the crisis in Texas might serve as a needed catalyst: 1) to offer an opportunity for Trump to show leadership in a time of crisis, an opportunity to earn support and approval, and 2) to engage support for rebuilding, not just in Texas but throughout the U.S. (i.e. the much needed economic catalyst of infrastructure spend)…

National crises tend to be unifying.  And in the face of national crisis, the barriers to get government spending going get broken down.

So, as we discussed last week, it may be the hurricanes that become the excuse for lawmakers to stamp more spending projects which can ultimately become that big infrastructure spend.  And the easing of social tensions and political gridlock on policy making would all be highly positive for the global economic outlook.”

​Of course that was followed by the big hurricane in Florida, and then in Puerto Rico.  All told, the damages are north of $250 billion.

Congress has approved, to this point, about $60 billion in aid for hurricanes and wildfires (as far as I can track).  And that number will likely go much higher — well into nine figure territory (probably more like a quarter of a trillion dollars).  For Katrina, the ultimate federal aid disbursed was $120 billion.

On that momentum the first tranche of aid passed back in September, Trump went right to tax cuts. Three months later, and tax cuts are coming.

So, quickly, the policy execution pendulum has swung.  This should pop growth nicely next year (and in Q4), which we desperately need to break out of the post-crisis rut of weak demand, slow growth and low inflation.

What about the $20 trillion debt load the media loves to talk about?  It’s a big number.  So is the size of our economy – about $19 trillion.  Sovereign debt isn’t about the absolute number. It’s about the size of debt relative to the size of the economy.  With that, it’s about our ability to service that debt at sustainable interest rates.  The choice of austerity in this environment, where the economy is fragile and growth has been sluggish for the better part of ten years, would send the U.S. economy back into recession (as it did in Europe). And the outlook for re-emerging would be grim.  That would make our debt/gdp far inferior to current levels — and our ability to service the debt, far inferior.

On the other hand, with fiscal stimulus underway, don’t underestimate the value of confidence in the outlook (“animal spirits) to drive economic growth higher than the number crunchers in Washington can imagine (the same one’s that couldn’t project the credit bubble, and didn’t project the sluggish 10 years that have followed).

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November 30, 2017, 4:00 pm EST

The Dow is now up 23% on the year. The index that measures the broader market, the S&P 500, is up 18%. This is more than double the performance of the long run compounded average growth rate for the stock market.

People continue to be surprised that policy execution is improving, and that tax cuts are actually coming. And they speculate on whether or not the stock market already has it all priced in. I think the steady rise in stocks is telling them it’s not.

As I’ve said, we remain in an ultra-low interest rate world, where incentives continue to push money into stocks (as the best alternative). And in ultra-low rate environments, historically, the multiple on stocks (the P/E) runs north of 20. It’s 18 right now, on the consensus estimate on next year’s earnings. So on a valuation basis, there’s room. This doesn’t take into account a corporate tax cut that will take the rate from 35% to 20%. That goes right to the bottom line for companies (earnings go UP). When earnings go up, the multiple stocks trade for goes down (stocks get cheaper).

Citibank thinks each 1% cut in corporate taxes will add roughly $2 in S&P 500 earnings. And Citibank says the effective tax rate across the S&P 500 is more like 27%. So a cut to 20% would mean a seven percentage point reduction. This would put next year’s S&P 500 earnings in the mid-$150s, which would put the multiple at 16 to 17 times next year’s earnings.

And don’t forget, we’re getting fiscal stimulus for a reason: to pop economic growth, which has been in a rut (post-crisis), running well south of the 3% long run average growth rate for the economy. The prospects for better growth, means prospects for better earnings. The outlook for better earnings, on a better economy, should also put downward pressure on valuations, making stocks more attractively valued.

In my January 2 note, I said: “there will be profound differences in the world this year, with the inauguration of a new, pro-growth U.S. president, at a time where the world desperately needs growth.” I think it’s safe to say that is playing out—albeit maybe slower and messier than expected.

I also said: “The element that economists and analysts can’t predict, and can’t quantify, is the return of ‘animal spirits.’ This is what has been destroyed over the past decade, driven primarily by the fear of indebtedness (which is typical of a debt crisis) and mistrust of the system. All along the way, throughout the recovery period, and throughout a tripling of the stock market off of the bottom, people have continually been waiting for another shoe to drop. The breaking of this emotional mindset appears to finally be underway. And that gives way to a return of animal spirits, which haven’t been calibrated in all of the forecasts for 2017 and beyond.”


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BR caricatureAs we’ve discussed, we’re in a world where the baton has been passed from a central bank driven economy (post-financial crisis) to a fiscal and public policy driven economy (Trumponomics).One of the pillars of the Trump plan is deregulation.  On that note, there’s been plenty of carnage across industries since the financial crisis, but no area has been crushed more and been crushed more by regulation more than Wall Street. And under the Trump administration, those regulations look like they are going to be slashed.Dodd-Frank and the fiduciary rule are bubbling up toward the top of the administrations confrontation list. With a former Goldman president heading the economic team for the President and a former Goldman guy running Treasury, I suspect they will give proprietary risk taking back to banks. The bank’s trading businesses will be back on-line and it will be restoring a huge profit engine.

Those that oppose it warn that it will lead to another financial crisis.  On that note, I want to revisit my take from earlier this year on the cause of the crisis that almost destroyed the global economy.

With all of the complexities of the housing bubble and the subsequent global financial crisis, it can seem like a web of deceit.  But it all boils down to one simple actor.  It wasn’t Wall Street.  It wasn’t hedge funds.  It wasn’t mortgage brokers.  These entities were operating, in large part, from the natural force of economics: incentives. 

It wasn’t even the government’s initiative to promote home ownership that led to the proliferation of mortgages being given to those that couldn’t afford them.

So who was the culprit?  

It was the ratings agencies

Housing prices were driven sky high by the availability of mortgages. Mortgages were made easily available because the demand to invest in mortgages, to fund those mortgages, was sky high.  

But what drove that demand to such high levels?  

When the mortgages were combined together in a package (securitized as a mix of good mortgages, and a lot of bad/higher yielding mortgages), they were bought, hand over fist, by the massive multi-trillion dollar pension industry, banks and insurance companies.  Yes, the guys that are managing your pension funds, deposit accounts and insurance policies were gobbling up these mortgage securities as fast as they could, but ONLY because the ratings agencies were stamping them all with a top AAA rating.  Who would encourage such a thing?  Congress.  In 1984 they passed a law making it okay for banks, pension funds and insurance companies to buy/treat high rated secondary mortgages like they would U.S. Treasuries.

So as investment managers, in the business of building the best performing risk-adjusted portfolio possible, and in direct competition with their peers, they couldn’t afford NOT to buy these securities.  They came with the safest ratings, and with juicy returns. If you don’t buy these, you’re fired. 

To put it all very simply, if these securities were not AAA rated, the pension funds would not have touched them (certainly not to the extent). With that, if the there’s no appetite to fund the mortgages (no money chasing it), then the ultra-easy lending practices never happen, and housing prices never skyrocket on unwarranted and unsustainable demand. The housing bubble doesn’t build, doesn’t bust, and the financial crisis doesn’t happen. 

That begs the question: Why did the ratings agencies give a top rating to a security that should have received a lower rating, if not much lower?  

First, it’s important to understand that the ratings agencies get paid on the products they rate BY the institutions that create them.  That’s right. That’s their revenue model.  And only a group of these agencies are endorsed by the government, so that, in many cases, regulatory compliance on a financial product requires a rating from one of these endorsed agencies.”

Keep this in mind as the fear mongering over the talk of repeal of rework of Dodd Frank heats up.

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February 28, 2017, 4:30pm EST                                                                                Invest Alongside Billionaires For $297/Qtr

Markets are quiet as we head into President Trump’s address to Congress tonight.  As we’ve discussed over the past week or so, the markets seem to have run the course on the outlook of fiscal stimulus and regulatory reform within an environment of a gradual rise in interest rates.

That “expectation” backdrop seems to be pretty well priced in.  Now, it’s a matter of detail and timing, and that puts the new President squarely in focus for tonight.

We’ve already heard from his Treasury Secretary last week that tax reform wouldn’t be coming until August-ish.  And he said we shouldn’t expect that big growth bump from Trumponomics until 2018.  That’s been the first real downward management of the expectations that have been set over the past three months.

What hasn’t been discussed much is the big infrastructure spend, which is really at the core of the pro-growth policies of the Trump administration.  For years, the Fed has been begging Congress for help in stabilizing the economy and stimulating growth in it — from the FISCAL side.

Given the wounds of the debt crisis, it was politically unpalatable for Congress.  They ignored the calls.  And as a result, just six months ago we (and the rest of the world) were dangerously close to slipping back into crisis. Only this time, the central banks would not have had the ammunition to fight it.

So now we have Congress with the will and position to act.  It’s a matter of detailing a plan and getting it moving.  Of the many positive things that could come from tonight’s speech by President Trump, details and timeline on fiscal stimulus would be the biggest and most meaningful.

The bickering about deficits and debt will continue, but a big stimulus package will happen — it has to happen. A government spending led growth pop is, at this stage, the only chance we have of returning to a sustainable path of growth and ultimately reducing the debt load down the line, which now is about 100% of GDP.  A move back to 80% of GDP would make the U.S. debt load, relative to the rest of the world, a non-issue.

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February 13, 2017, 4:00pm EST

Today we heard from Janet Yellen in the first part of her semi-annual testimony to Congress.  She gave prepared remarks to the Senate today and took questions.  Tomorrow it will be the House.  The prepared statement will be the same, with maybe a few different questions.

Remember, just four months ago, the most important actor in the global economy was the Fed.  Central banks were in control (as they have been for the better part of 10 years), with the Fed leading the way.

The Fed was the ultimate puppet master.  By keeping rates ultra-low and standing ready to act against anything that might destabilize the global economy and threaten to kill the dangerously slow recovery, they (along with the help other major central banks) restored confidence, and created the stability and incentives to drive hiring, investing and spending — which created economic recovery.

When Greece bubbled up again, when oil threatened to shake the financial system, when China’s slowdown created uncertainty, central banks were quick to step in with more easing, bigger QE, promises of low rates for a very long time, etc..  And in some cases, they outright intervened, like when the ECB averted disaster in Italy and Spain by promising to buy unlimited amounts of Italian and Spanish government bonds to stop speculators from inciting a bond market collapse and a collapse of the euro and European Union.

This dynamic of central bank activism has changed.  The Fed, and central bank intervention in general, is no longer the only game in town. We have fiscal stimulus coming and structural change underway that has the chance to finally mend the decade long slump of the global economy.  That’s why today’s speech by the Fed Chair was no longer the biggest event of the week — not even the day.

The scripts has flipped. Where the Fed had been driver of recovery, they now have become the threat to recovery. So the interest in Fedwatching today is only to the extent that they may screw things up.

Moving too fast on interest rate hikes has the potential weaken or even undo the gains that stand to come from the pro-growth policies efforts from the new administration.

Remember, the Fed told us in December that they projected THREE hikes this year.  But keep in mind, they projected FOUR in December of 2015, for 2016, and we only got one. And that was only AFTER the election, and the swing in sentiment regarding the prospects of pro-growth policies.

Remember, Bernanke himself has criticized the Fed for stalling momentum in the recovery by showing too much tightening (i.e. over optimism) in their forecasts.  And he argued that the Fed should give the economy some room to run and sustain momentum, fighting inflation from behind.

On that note, the Fed has now witnessed the bumpy path that the new administration is dealing with, and will be traveling, in implementing policy.  I would think they would be less aggressive now in their view on rate hikes UNTIL they see evidence of policy execution, and a lot more evidence in the data.  Let’s hope that’s the case.

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January 30, 2017, 4:00pm EST                                                Invest Alongside Billionaires For $297/Qtr

The Trump agenda continues to dominate the market focus as we entered the second week of Trumponomics.

To this point the market focus has been on the pro-growth agenda.  With that, stocks have been higher, yields have been higher, the dollar has been higher, and global commodities have been broadly rising. Meanwhile, gold (the fear trade) has been falling and the VIX has been falling, toward ultra-low levels.  The VIX, like gold, is a good market indicator of uncertainty and/or fear.

Let’s talk about the VIX…

The VIX measures the implied volatility of options on the S&P 500. This is a key component in the price investors pay for downside protection on their portfolios.

So what is implied volatility?  Implied volatility measures both actual volatility and the options market maker community’s expectations (or perception of certainty) about future volatility.  When market makers feel confident about the stability in markets, implied vol is lower, which makes the price of options cheaper.  When they aren’t confident in stability, implied vol goes up, which makes the price of an option go up.  To compensate those that are taking the other side of your trade, for the lack of predictability, you pay a premium.

With that in mind, on Friday, the VIX traded to the lowest levels since the days before the failure of Lehman Brothers. That indicates that the market had (or has) become a believer that pro-growth policies, combined with ultra-easy central bank policies have created a buffer against the downside in stocks.  But that perception of downside risk is changing today, with the more vocal uprising against Trump social policies.  You can see the spike (in the far right of the chart) today…

jan30 vix

So as big money managers were closing the week last Friday, looking at Dow 20,000+ and a VIX sliding toward levels not too far from pre-crisis levels, buying downside protection was dirt cheap. This morning, they’re paying quite a bit more for that protection.

With that said, this pop in the VIX and the Dow trading off by more than 100 points today gets a lot of attention.  But is there justification to think that market turbulence will begin to reflect the turbulence and division in public opinion toward Trump policies?  Just gauging the extent of the market reaction from the VIX today, it’s unlikely.  The chart below is the longer term view of the VIX.

jan30 vix long term

My observations: The VIX has had a small bounce from very, very low levels.  On an absolute basis, vol is still very cheap.  When there is real fear in the air, real uncertainty about the future, you can see from the spikes in the longer term chart above, the premium for the unknown gets priced in quickly and aggressively.  Given that there has been virtually no risk premium priced into the market for any falter in the Trump Presidency, or the execution of Trump policies, the moves today have been very modest. And gold (as I write) is barely changed on the day.

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January 23, 2017, 4:30pm EST

The new President Trump has wasted no time on carrying out his plan on trade.  He met with 12 major U.S. company leaders today and told them that they would pay to build outside of the U.S., but (importantly) they would save to build here.  And he wrote an executive order to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and one to renegotiate NAFTA.

There are plenty of people that have focused on the risks and the dangers with the Trump trade policies. Meanwhile, those most directly affected aren’t quite as draconian on the outlook — quite the opposite.  The executives that have walked out of Trump Tower, and now the White House have largely been optimistic. The same is said for trade partners.  Whether they mean it or not, they understand the value of doing business with the U.S. consumer.

As I’ve said, there are clear opportunities for win-wins – especially in a world that must rebalance trade to avoid more cycles of the booms and busts, like the boom-bust we experienced over the past two decades.  The administration has the leverage of power (with a Republican Congress), but they also have the leverage of rewards.  Despite what the media tells us, behind closed doors the new administration seems to negotiate by carrot rather than stick.  Trump comes to meetings bearing gifts, and that creates buy-in.

When you bring American CEOs in and tell them that you’re going to give them a 20 percentage point tax cut, you’re going to slash the regulation burden (by “75%” as he said today), you’re going to give them a 30+ percentage point tax cut on repatriating offshore money,  and your going to launch a trillion dollar infrastructure spend, all in an effort to juice the economy to a 4%+ growth rate, they’re going to be very excited — even if you tell them they can no longer access the cheapest production in the world.

In the end, they’d rather have a hot economy to sell into, than a stagnant economy, even if it comes with a higher cost of production.  And we may find that, in the end, the after-tax profit margins of these big U.S. corporates may be better given all of these incentives, even if they make things here. Better revenues, and maybe better margins to go with it.

Remember, the optimism of U.S. small business owners made the biggest jump since 1980 on the prospects of growth-friendly Trump policies.   GDP equals Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports. Ultra easy monetary policies have made borrowing cheap, saving expensive and created the economic stability necessary to get hiring over the past several years.  That has all kept consumption going.

The “build it here” policies are a recipe for capital investment to finally ramp up.  Add to that, a big government infrastructure spend, and we’re getting the pieces of the puzzle in place to see much better economic growth. A hotter U.S. economy will mean a hotter global economy. With that, I suspect net exports will ultimately pick up as well, with a healthier, more sustainable global economy.

On that note, if we look at the USD/Mexican Peso exchange rate as a gauge of trade partner health, we’ve seen the peso hit hard through the campaigning period under the protectionist fears of a Trump administration.  Interestingly, since the inauguration, the peso has been strengthening, even as President Trump signed an executive order today to renegotiate NAFTA. The message behind that usually means: the U.S. does better, Mexico does better.

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