Friday, August 3, 2012

Employment Survey's Diverge

The Washington Post details:

One is called the payroll survey. It asks mostly large companies and government agencies how many people they employed during the month. This survey produces the number of jobs gained or lost. In July, the payroll survey showed that companies added 172,000 jobs, and federal, state and local governments cut 9,000.
The other is the household survey. Government workers ask whether the adults in a household have a job. Those who don’t are asked whether they’re looking for one. If they are, they’re considered unemployed. If they aren’t, they’re not considered part of the work force and aren’t counted as unemployed. The household survey produces each month’s unemployment rate.

In July, the household survey showed that the number of people who said they are unemployed rose by 45,000. In a work force of155 million, that doesn’t make a big statistical difference. But it was enough to raise the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent in June.

Unlike the payroll survey, the household survey captures farm workers, the self-employed and people who work for new companies. It also does a better job of capturing hiring by small businesses.
But the household survey is more volatile from month to month. The Labor Department surveys just 60,000 households, a small fraction of the more than 100 million U.S. households.
Looking at the data, the household survey was even worse than that. Not only did the number of unemployed rise by 45,000, the number leaving the workforce spiked (resulting in the number employed dropping significantly), resulting in the unemployment rate rising despite the better headline number.

Source: BLS

Friday, July 27, 2012

GDP Expands 1.5% in Q2

Bloomberg details:

The U.S. economy expanded at a slower pace in the second quarter as a softening job market prompted Americans to curb spending.

Gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced, rose at a 1.5 percent annual rate after a revised 2 percent gain in the prior quarter, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News called for a 1.4 percent increase. Household purchases, which account for about 70 percent of the world’s largest economy, grew at the slowest pace in a year.

Consumers are cutting back just as Europe’s debt crisis and looming U.S. tax-policy changes dent confidence, hurting sales at companies from United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) to Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) Cooling growth makes it harder to reduce unemployment, helping explain why Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has said policy makers stand ready with more stimulus if needed.
Looking at the data, we see the declining contribution by consumption, offset in part by a quarter over quarter (small) rise in investment and a less negative impact from government cuts (i.e. addition by the elimination of subtraction). Overall, considering what was going on during Q2 this report isn't awful, but certainly isn't encouraging considering we are now three years out of the recession.

Source: BEA

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Leading Economic Indicators Decline by Most Since Last September

Bloomberg details:

The index of U.S. leading economic indicators fell more than forecast in June, a sign the U.S. economic expansion is slowing.
The Conferences Board’s gauge of the outlook for the next three to six months decreased 0.3 percent after a revised 0.4 percent increase in May, the New York-based group said today. Economists projected the gauge would drop by 0.1 percent, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey.

Source: Conference Board

Monday, July 9, 2012

Consumer Credit Jumps... a Good Thing?

Bloomberg details:

Consumer credit climbed more than forecast in May, led by the biggest jump in credit-card debt in almost five years that may signal Americans are struggling to make ends meet.

The $17.1 billion increase, exceeding the highest estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News and the largest this year, followed a $9.95 billion gain the previous month that was more than previously estimated, the Federal Reserve said today in Washington. Revolving credit, which includes credit card spending, rose by $8 billion, the most since November 2007.
In a "normal" mean-reverting downturn, an increase in consumer borrowing is a good sign as it allows a consumer to maintain their purchase level (even without the current income to pay for it), with the expectation that they can cover their borrowing when their wages "revert" higher in the future.

A quote from someone who believes we are still living in the old world (we may be, I'm just not so certain):
“When the economy’s not doing well, that’s when you want the consumer to spend, and if it means borrowing to do that, then that certainly would be encouraged,” said Millan Mulraine, a senior U.S. strategist at TD Securities in New York, who projected credit would rise by $15 billion.
The concern is that we are now in year 4 year of the muddle through recovery, thus some concern that people are spending money on goods via debt that they may have trouble repaying. Back to Bloomberg:
A pickup in borrowing coincides with a slowdown in hiring and declines in consumer confidence that indicate the job market is failing to spur enough gains in wages to cover expenses. Employers added fewer workers to payrolls than forecast in June while the jobless rate stayed at 8.2 percent.
Regardless, overall nominal debt (even excluding student loans) is once again rising. A bullish sign for the short run. Mixed (in my opinion) for the longer run.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Gaming the System... Disability Edition

In my post outlining the decline in employment (excluding teens), reader Mike pointed out another interesting phenomenon:
One of the stories I read about this month's BLS report dealt with the rise in people on disability. I thought charting this over a few dozen years and several recessions might tell an interesting story.
Unfortunately, the BLS only reports this data going back to 2008, but the most recent data shows an interesting trend. From the looks of it, we have what appears to be a not-so-coincidental mirror image between the decline in those unemployed with the rise in the number of people not working via claims of disability. I know next to nothing about disability, but my guess is individuals whose employment benefits have run out, have been increasingly taken advantage of disability (or tried to) as a replacement.

Source: BLS

Employment (Excluding Teen Hires) Turns Negative

Peter Boockvar provides details of the ugly job report:

June Payrolls totaled 80,000, 20,000 less than expected and well below the ADP whisper. The two prior months were revised down by a net 1000. The private sector added 84,000 jobs (13,000 from goods producing, 71,000 from services) vs expectations of a gain of 106,000. The unemployment rate held steady at 8.2% as the 128,000 increase in the household survey was basically offset by the 156,000 increase in the size of the labor force.
Below is an updated chart of the stagnant unemployment rate and slightly up ticking broader unemployment measure.

Unfortunately, things were even worse than that. When looking at the household survey, we see that the headline measure of unemployment doesn't account for the fact that teen employment (likely low pay part-time workers on summer break) accounted for more than 100% of all new jobs. Excluding teens (the second bracket from the left in the chart below), we can see that negative employment number. In addition, individuals over 20 continue to flee the workforce (more than 150,000 more 20+ year olds were classified as "not in the labor force").

A truly ugly report on first glance.

Source: BLS

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Breaking Down Volatility of the VIX

I had never heard of the VVIX index (the volatility of the stock market's volatility "volatility of VIX") until a week back when Bill Luby from the always insightful 'VIX and More Blog' posted about the recent gap seen between the historical volatility "HV" of the VIX (i.e. the trailing volatility of the VIX index) and the implied volatility "IV" (i.e. what was currently priced in as the forward expected volatility of the VIX index).

To Bill:
Much to my surprise the current 20-day HV is 144, while the current IV is only 98. In other words, the markets expect the VIX to be considerably less volatile in the month ahead than it has been over the course of the last month.
But as we'll see, based on the historical relationship between the VIX and VVIX, the pricing wasn't all that unexpected. Over the previous month, the VIX index had fluctuated between roughly 17 and 26, so (ignoring any opinion of the market for a moment) the reading of 98 was actually right in the heart of where one would expect it based on historical data since the VVIX index 2007 inception.

And this is where things get interesting.

The historical chart shown above makes the assumption that the volatility of the VIX index is lower when the VIX index is lower, which would have been my first guess had I not really thought about it. When I did think about it, that actually makes no sense whatsoever.

  • Volatility is a measure of change in percent terms
  • A change from a low starting value is a much higher percentage change than an equivalent unit change from a high starting value (i.e. a 2 point change from 10 is a 20% move... a 2 point change from 80 is a 2.5% move)
With that understanding, the chart below showing the realized one month change from various VIX starting points shouldn't be too surprising because a 15 point move higher in the VIX from a starting value of 15 is much more likely than a 40 point move higher in the VIX from a starting point of 40.

The interesting thing is that this conflicts with how the VVIX (vol of VIX) has been priced. At low levels of VIX, the VIX is MORE likely to have wide outcomes (in percentage movement) while at high levels the mean reverting characteristic of the VIX has made a move down from high levels much more likely.

A chart attempting to summarize the first two charts is shown below. It shows the realized one-month forward volatility of VIX resulting from various starting VIX and VVIX index values. Interestingly enough, it shows that realized volatility of VIX spikes when the VIX index is low, but only when the market isn't pricing it in.

Potential thoughts from the above to consider further...
  • When the VIX and the implied volatility of the VIX are low, buy options on the VIX (i.e. calls / puts)
  • When the VIX is high and implied vol on the VIX is high, sell calls on the VIX
Source: CBOE

Monday, July 2, 2012

Common Investor Errors...

Early last week, Barry Ritholtz outlined what he believed were the top ten most common investor errors:

Here is my short list:

1. High Fees Are A Drag on Returns
2. Mutual Fund Are Inferior to ETFs
3. Reaching for Yield is Extremely Dangerous
4. Asset Allocation Decisions matter more than stock selection
5. Passive is usually better than Active Management
6. You must understand “The Long Cycle”
7. Behavioral Issues Are Costly
8. Cognitive Errors as well
9. Understand your own risk tolerance
10. Pay Guys Like Me For the Right Reason

While I think this is an interesting / solid list, I don't necessarily agree with a number of them. In his post I responded with the following:
Can we disagree on some of these?

2. Mutual Fund Are Inferior to ETFs: Too broad a statement. Some mutual funds are great (inexpensive, track indices almost exactly, prevent owners from day trading [see your #7] behavorial issues being costly), while many ETFs are very poor (broad tracking error, expensive, leveraged inverse ETFs)

3. Reaching for Yield is Extremely Dangerous: Everything is based on appropriate compensation for the risk an investor takes… 5 years ago an investor sitting in cash received [a 4-5%] risk-free return. 0% [yielding] cash is now return-free risk. An investor “reaching for yield” now may actually now be a risk reduction exercise.

4. Asset Allocation Decisions matter more than stock selection: agree, but by definition asset allocation decisions are “active” decisions, hence….

5. Passive is usually better than Active Management: seems in conflict with #4
Diving right into my point #2 (because ETFs seem to be uniformly praised these days) is that mutual funds are not all inferior to ETFs (stating ETFs are superior is too broad of a statement). This is especially true for sectors / asset classes where the underlying securities are less liquid and the ETF itself trades with minimal volume (volume isn't nearly as important if the underlying securities are liquid... a point for another day). In these instances, it is more likely that the price of the ETF can move significantly from the ETF's net asset value "NAV" (the actual value of its holdings) and the bid/ask spreads widen, both of which can be negative to an investor.

One example can be seen year-to-date with Muni ETF MUB performance relative to that of a muni mutual fund. I am not vouching for the Fidelity fund below (it was the first to come up when I looked for a national muni fund with roughly 7 years of duration).

In addition to the underperformance of MUB, the volatility is 3x higher at 6.8% vs 2.2% due to the widely fluctuating ETF price vs the underlying NAV which hit a 4% premium in February (i.e. someone buying that day paid 4% more than the securities were worth).

Sunday, July 1, 2012

(Almost) All Assets up in the First Half

Despite a volatile second quarter, risk assets (actually all assets with the exception of commodities) performed quite well in the first half. Leading the pack were REITs (up both quarters) on demand for income, a potential inflation hedge, and CHEAP real estate financing.

Source: Yahoo

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More on Corporate Profits

Back in September of last year, I showed this chart outlining that corporate profits as a percent of GDP were approaching a three-standard deviation event. Since that time, the relationships has gotten even more extended hitting an all-time high.

Which brings me to this morning's tweet from PIMCO's Bill Gross:
Simple formula: US profit growth rate = (real GDP x 5) – 10. No “ka-ching” at 2% or less GDP growth.
I appreciate the insight that profits can be thought of as being leveraged to economic growth (hence the wide fluctuations), but struggling to see why nominal profit growth would have a relationship with a real (after inflation) economic growth or why those specific numbers (why 2% real and not 2.5% real?) were used.

Anyhow... I was interested enough to see what this equation looked like using actual data, so I put together the below chart going back 60 years against corporate profits, as well as against my old simple standby of using nominal economic growth (my preferred long-term measure for corporate profits as simple math tells you that corporate profits can't grow faster than the economy over the long term or else they'd be bigger than the economy itself - hence profit growth tends to mean revert relative to nominal growth).

The chart...

What do we see?

Well corporate profits are basically right on trend (a surprise to me), but nominal growth is well below trend and the PIMCO formula (the formula based on 2% real growth) is WAY below trend, indicating corporate profits are significantly above trend (by that record 30% level relative to nominal growth and an off the charts 200% relative to the PIMCO formula).

Seems like the old nominal GDP standby has historically been more reliable, but I will be thinking more about the insight that corporate profits are leveraged to (and in need of) specific levels of economic growth. If anything, this may indicate earnings are potentially more stretched than I previously thought.

For those interested, there was a great piece by GMO on the topic of extended profits a few months back.

Source: BEA

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Leading Indicators Up in May

Marketwatch reports:

The risk of a downturn in the second half of this year is relatively low, the Conference Board said Thursday as it reported that its index of leading economic indicators rose 0.3% in May. "Economic data in general reflect a U.S. economy that is growing modestly, neither losing nor gaining momentum," said Ken Goldstein, economist at the Conference Board.

Update: while leading economic indicators held up in May, first signs of June are UGLY.

Source: Conference Board

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fed's Ugly Forecasts

Over the past two months, the Fed's FOMC has:

  • Reduced forecasts for growth in 2012, 2013, and 2014
  • Increased expectations of unemployment in 2012, 2013, and 2014
  • Reduced inflation expectations (from a level already below the 2% target) in 2012, 2013, and 2014

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Financial vs. Capital Expenditures and Equities

Yesterday, I made a bullish case for equities over the long run (especially when compared to bonds), today I will outline one of the reasons I am a bit concerned over the intermediate time frame.

Meb Faber (via a paper by Mauboussin from Legg Mason) shows a table that outlines:
How companies have spent their cash over the past 25 years. Interesting to note is that they spend on average, about 60% of their total spend on capital expenditures, 20% on M&A, and about 10% each on dividends and executed buybacks. The total amount of spend bounces around a bit but is a fairly consistent 20% of market capitalization. Note that buybacks exceeded dividends in 7 out of the past 10 years
Along with the market cap of these corporations, the table shows (as part of a broader paper outlining the benefits and analysis of each) the amount corporations spent on:
  • Dividends
  • Share buybacks
  • M&A
  • Capital expenditures
I'll simplify things and group the first three as "financial expenditures" (or at least spending that isn't used for organic growth) and compare this figure with capital expenditures.

The first chart I'll show compares historical capital expenditures and financial expenditures, normalized as a percent of GDP. While Meb outlines the averages for each category above, what we see is financial expenditures have been trending higher while capital expenditures (as a percent of GDP) have been trending lower. This despite slower underlying economic growth (i.e. slowing growth of the denominator in the capital expenditure to GDP ratio), in part caused by a slowdown in (you guessed it)... capital expenditures. Some thoughts on why financial expenditures have increased in relative importance include the boom in private equity and financial engineering, the shorter-term focus of investors, and a lack of perceived opportunities to deploy cash on projects. Also note how volatile financial expenditures (mainly buybacks and M&A) have been.

The next chart shows the ratio between the two expenditures (financial expenditures divided by capital expenditures). In the late 1980's / early 1990's the ratio was consistently at or below 0.4 (meaning for every $1 spent on dividends, buybacks, and M&A they spent $2.5 on internal growth opportunities), whereas since the late 1990's the ratio has gone above 1 almost 50% of the time (i.e. corporations are now more interested in financial management then building their business through organic growth).

So what does this mean for an investor? Well, returned cash sounds good, but taking the above ratio and comparing it to the three year forward change in market cap (i.e. the value of corporations three years forward) we see a relatively strong (negative) relationship. Unfortunately (and not too surprising when you think about it), when corporations don't put money back into their businesses, the value of these corporations is negatively impacted (they are essentially liquidating vs reinvesting).

I'll leave with one additional point... this all likely reduces the impact of monetary policy (if a corporation is returning cash even at these low rates, why would they borrow more?).

Source: BEA / Meb Faber

Monday, June 18, 2012

Valuation Matters.... Equity vs Bonds Edition

I've shown that valuation matters numerous times over the years when it comes to long-term equity returns (see here, here, and here for some of my favorite examples). The below post uses the same concept in that it compares valuation (i.e. yields) with forward returns, but in this version we compare the relative performance of equities vs. bonds.

The first chart shows the factor that serves as our starting point for valuation... earnings yield of the S&P composite (i.e. the inverse of the P/E ratio) and the yield of the ten year Treasury bond going back 100 years. What we see is a relationship between the two starting about 50 years ago that was non-existent the previous 50 (and the recent divergence that is the widest in almost 40 years).

But the lack of a relationship from 1912-1962 doesn't mean it the relationship wasn't always important. The next chart outlines the forward ten year return differential (annualized) for each starting point against the starting excess yield (the equity earnings yield less the bond yield). Interesting to note that we can easily see the unwarranted excess return that equities saw over bonds starting in the 1980's (i.e. the equity bubble), that was given back over the past ten or so years.

To summarize the above, the next chart outlines the forward ten year return differential (annualized) for each starting point by "bucket" (note that at current valuations we just made it into the 5-7.5% bucket, hence the yellow highlight). The takeaway is that starting yield differentials matter... a lot. To be more specific, the current 5-7.5% bucket means that for every period over the past 100 years when the yield differential was between 5-7.5%, the average annualized ten year forward return differential was a bit more than 8% (8% over the current 1.5% ten year would be 9.5% absolute returns for equities).

While I refuse to state that returns will be anywhere near this 9.5%, by almost all measures stocks appear cheap on a relative basis to Treasury bonds. Unless earnings collapse back to a "normal" percent of the overall economic pie abruptly (definitely possible, but in my view not likely) or the economic pie contracts abruptly, stocks are going to outperform bonds over the next ten years.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Retail Sales Sluggish

BusinessWeek details:

U.S. retail sales declined in April and May, pulled down by a sharp drop in gas prices. But even after excluding volatile gas sales, consumers barely increased their spending.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that retail sales dipped 0.2 percent in May. That followed a revised 0.2 percent decline April. The back-to-back declines were the first in two years.

The weakness reflected a 2.2 percent plunge in gasoline station sales. Still, excluding gas station sales, retail spending rose just 0.1 percent in May. And it dropped 0.1 percent in April. That left retail spending roughly flat outside of gas sales for the two months, a sign that slower job growth and paltry wage increases may be leading consumers to pull back on spending.
The one thing not mentioned above that I find interesting is that furniture and motor vehicles (i.e. large purchase retail items) are #1 and #2 respectively in terms of strength. Perhaps (though not certain) people are just putting other items on hold as they make these purchases.

Source: Census

Monday, June 11, 2012

The End of the Middle Class

The NY Times details:

The recent economic crisis left the median American family in 2010 with no more wealth than in the early 1990s, erasing almost two decades of accumulated prosperity, the Federal Reserve said Monday.

A hypothetical family richer than half the nation’s families and poorer than the other half had a net worth of $77,300 in 2010, compared with $126,400 in 2007, the Fed said. The crash of housing prices directly accounted for three-quarters of the loss.

Families’ income also continued to decline, a trend that predated the crisis but accelerated over the same period. Median family income fell to $45,800 in 2010 from $49,600 in 2007. All figures were adjusted for inflation.
The chart below outlines median family net worth among different percentiles. While all wealth brackets have witnessed a hit since 2007, the wealthier you are... the less you've likely been impacted in percent terms (they were less levered / more diversified in their investments and are less reliant on income from a job for their wealth). Since 2001, it is even more divergent as the only bracket to have seen an increase in wealth are those in the top 10% decile of all wealth.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Drop the Inflation Concerns

As I've outlined before, wages tend to be the one of the better predictors of inflation (or deflation) out there as wages tend to be very sticky and stable (so when they move, it tends to mean there is a new underlying trend).

So how are wages currently holding up?

Well, earlier this week, the BLS released compensation figures for Q1 and even with negative real interest rates and multiple quantitative easings, there is absolutely no wage inflation in the pipeline. In fact, the year-over-year change in nominal wages came in at just 1.3% at the end of March and 0% over the last six months, the lowest since the crisis and below the rate of inflation.

Even more concerning (to me) is that these figures are as of March, before business sentiment took a turn for the worse on renewed European concerns.

With no inflationary pressure and limited growth potential, a low yielding Treasury bond almost appears justified.

Source: BLS, BEA, Fed

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Dividend vs. Treasury Yields

The dividend yield of the S&P 500 is above that of the ten year Treasury for the first time since the financial crisis. Before that we have to go all the way back to the 1950's to find a time when this was the case.

The kicker... stock dividends have only made up about 45% of total S&P composite stock returns over the past 100 years, while Treasury bond coupon payments have made up north of 96% of Treasury bonds returns over that same period (see below). What this means for an investor is unless you think dividends will be cut and/or capital appreciation will be negative (i.e. corporate America will shrink in terms of nominal value), stocks are poised to outperform.

My take... stocks appear to be very cheap relative to bonds for investors with a long-term investment horizon, while near term investors need to be careful as we seem to be in a world that is likely to have binary outcomes (i.e. either a boom or an absolute collapse).

The remaining 55% of S&P stock returns have been in the form of capital appreciation, which has become increasingly important since the 1950's (see above), as corporations reinvested earnings back into their businesses / bought back shares (vs paying out dividends), while investors evaluated the relative merits of equities relative to bonds (see the much tighter relationship to bonds, which ratcheted up P/E multiples).

Monday, June 4, 2012

Europe's Core / Periphery Imbalances Going Parabolic

George Soros' recent speech on what created the Euro bubble (and how it will need to play out) is making the rounds (although he deleted the speech from his personal site for some reason, a pdf version is here). While I strongly suggest reading the whole thing, a key takeaway is that:
The authorities didn’t understand the nature of the euro crisis; they thought it is a fiscal problem while it is more of a banking problem and a problem of competitiveness.
The result is that the issues have not been addressed and problems have only gotten worse.
The real economy of the eurozone is declining while Germany is still booming. This means that the divergence is getting wider. The political and social dynamics are also working toward disintegration. Public opinion as expressed in recent election results is increasingly opposed to austerity and this trend is likely to grow until the policy is reversed. So something has to give.
Which can be easily seen in a variety of metrics, including unemployment which is shown in the below chart and is simply unbelievable. It shows the current unemployment rate of Spain (currently an unreal 24.3%) divided by Germany's (less than half 2005's level at 5.4%) going back to 2000. It was only 5 years ago that Spanish unemployment was actually lower than Germany's (though that employment coincided with a massive housing bubble in Spain funded by cheap German financing from excess German savings).

Source: Eurostat

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Put Selling as a Replacement For Stocks

The higher that market implied volatility becomes, the more attractive put selling (as a replacement to being long stocks) becomes.

The chart below outlines one such example, this being the put option payoff structure of March 16th, 2013 expiry puts on the ETF SPY. As implied volatility moves higher, the put premium (think of this as the insurance premium you are selling) moves higher (i.e. the payoff structure moves up).

In the example below, the current payoff over the next 10 months of an at the money put is almost 10%, which can be thought of as the "upside" should stocks stay at current levels or move higher, while downside moves in the same 1:1 fashion as owning the underlying SPY ETF (but you are cushioned by that 10%). If you want more cushion in the form of allowance for downside movement, you can sell further out-of-the-money puts (but collect a smaller premium).

A few months back, I outlined that implied volatility was so low that I was replacing some of my long positions with long call options (and short positions with long put options). If volatility moves higher, I will likely be doing the opposite and replacing these long call / put positions with short calls / puts.

Note: the payoff structure in the above chart should be moving down at a crisp 45 degree angle for all of the above put payoffs (the reason they don't is I am being lazy in the number of data points I used to create the chart).

First Quarter GDP Revised Down to 1.9%

Marketwatch details:

The U.S. economy ran into a deeper soft patch in the first quarter than initially estimated, a government report showed on Thursday.

The Commerce Department estimated that the economy grew at a 1.9% pace in the first quarter, slower than the 2.2% rate initially reported.

This is down from a 3.0% growth rate of real gross domestic product, the output of goods and services produced in the U.S., in the fourth quarter.

Source: BEA

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What Happened to the Great Bond Sell-Off?

It's amazing that it was only a bit more than two months ago that I wrote this post defending bonds against what was labeled the "Bond Market Arab Spring". It's also amazing how wrong pundits continue to be as Long Treasuries have now caught up to the S&P 500 year-to-date after the ten year Treasury reached an all-time low.

Source: Yahoo

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Existing Home Sales Rise Across the Board

While the overall level of existing home sales is still well below the bubble peak (4.62 million vs. 7+ million in mid-2005), the trend is positive across housing markets and prices.

Source: Realtor

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

(U.S.) Relative Strength

Despite the recent turmoil, unlike when I showed this chart last August (a time when the dollar was selling off and gold / commodities were roaring), the ETF's showing the least strength are all currency or real assets. I believe this accurately reflect the current (relative) strength of the U.S.

Checking in on Inflation

Marketwatch details:

Inflationary pressures are fading, just as Federal Reserve officials expected. But don’t think that the decline in the inflation rate will automatically lead to further quantitative easing by the Fed.

The consumer price index was flat in April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday. And the CPI is expected to drop by at least 0.2% in May on account of the big drop in gasoline prices.

The CPI has increased 2.3% compared with a year ago, down from a 2.7% year-over-year rate in March and 3.9% last September. By May, the year-over-year rate could slow to 1.8%, below the Fed’s longer run target.
Looking into the details, there isn't much of a pattern, but it looks like most "stuff" we consume (clothes, food, medicine) increased in price at a faster pace than the headline figure, with the exception of alcohol (hence, I'm not complaining).

Source: BLS

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Trade Deficit Blow Out

Remember when we thought the U.S. was going to export our way back to prosperity riding European and emerging market aggregate demand (that wasn't a crazy statement even a year ago... promise)?

BusinessWeek details the reality:
The trade deficit widened more than forecast in March as American demand for crude oil, computers, automobiles and televisions propelled imports to a record.

The gap grew 14 percent to $51.8 billion, the Commerce Department reported in Washington today. The median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News called for an increase to $50 billion. A 5.2 percent jump in imports, the biggest in more than a year, swamped the 2.9 percent gain in exports, which also reached a record.
Change in Trade Balance - Chain-Weighted 2005 $$ (i.e. real change in 2005 dollar valuation)

With the re-emerging crisis in Europe since the March trade balance print (and what will likely be a resulting oversupply of goods coming from emerging Asia), don't expect this trend to slow any time soon.

Source: Census

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stocks for the Long Run?

While the below chart cherry picks one of the best performing fixed income sectors, it is still pretty amazing.

Bonds (defined in this example as the Barclays Capital Long Government / Credit index) have now outperformed stocks (defined as the S&P 500 index) going back to November 1980 (10.7% annualized vs. 10.4% annualized) and has more than doubled the performance of stocks over the past 15 years (239% vs. 108%). Note the chart below is total returns including reinvestment coupon payments and dividends.

Is this likely to continue?

Unless capitalism as we know it ends, the answer is a simple 'no' over the next 15 or 32 (or even 3-5) years. The government / credit index shown above yielded a whopping 13.18% as of November 1980 and the next 32 years were the great bond run that has resulted in the current paltry yield of 3.89% (just 7 bps off its all-time low).

Source: Barclays Capital / S&P

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Consumer is Back... Consumer Credit Positive (Even Excluding Student Loans)

SF Gate details:

Consumer borrowing in the U.S. surged in March by the most in more than a decade on growing demand for educational financing and autos.

Credit rose by $21.4 billion, the biggest gain since November 2001, to $2.54 trillion, Federal Reserve figures showed today in Washington. The advance was paced by a $16.2 billion jump in non-revolving debt, including student and car loans.

Americans may have been trying to get school financing before a possible increase in interest rates takes place on July 1. Rising consumer confidence also means that households are more willing to take on debt to boost spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.
I've been showing the below chart for some time. It shows the year-over-year change in revolving consumer credit, non-revolving consumer (excluding student loans), and student loans. Headline consumer credit has been growing since early last year, but this had been solely due to student loans (not necessarily a bad investment, but it doesn't reflect consumers re-leveraging for goods and services).

Well, as the chart shows, after a strong March where revolving consumer credit (i.e. credit cards) jumped 7.8% month over month and non-revolving (excluding student loans) posted a positive print... the day has arrived in which the consumer is no longer deleveraging in nominal terms (important for all that nominal debt out there).

We'll see if this continues, but the consumer looks like they may be back.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Ugliest Employment Chart You'll See?

Per Felix Salmon:

As Mike Konczal noted this morning, a key indicator of labor recession is still in force: if you’re unemployed, you’re still more likely to drop out of the labor force entirely than you are to find a job.
Let's see how that trend has fared over the longer term.

The chart below shows the ten year rolling change in the number of individuals employed divided by the ten year rolling change of those individuals no longer in the labor force. Any number over 1 means that the marginal person of working age is more likely to have gotten a job ten years later than to be out of the labor force.

In the late 1980's / mid 1990's, this marginal individual was a whopping 8x more likely to have found a job than no longer be looking. Today? 0.35x, which means that the marginal individual of working age (relative to 2002) is 3x more likely to be out of the labor force, than to have found a job.

Source: BLS

Employment Market Continues to Muddle Along

The NY Times details:

The nation’s employers added 115,000 positions on net, after adding 154,000 in March. April’s job growth was less than what economists had been predicting. The unemployment rate ticked down to 8.1 percent in April, from 8.2 percent, but that was because workers dropped out of the labor force.

The share of working-age Americans who are in the labor force, either by working or actively looking for a job, is now at its lowest level since 1981 — when far fewer women were doing paid work.
The first chart shows the unemployment rate from the payroll survey, which shows the headline improvement.

The next chart shows the issue with the calculation. The reason for the improvement in the unemployment rate is due to the continued departure of millions from the labor force (if you're not looking for a job, you're not technically unemployed).

The final chart attempts to account for the declining labor force through a cyclical adjustment. Similar to Shiller's cyclically adjusted P/E ratio, the below normalizes the labor force participation rate through a 10 year rolling average, then assumes the difference in that average and the latest number of participants are unemployed (or in the case of a rising workforce, it reduces the number of unemployed).

What we see is that the labor force was potentially much stronger than headline figures indicate throughout the 1960's - 1990's as the participation rate increased (in no small part due to women entering the labor force), as it took some time for the labor market to accommodate the increase. Since 2000, the reverse has been true as the participation rate has trended down... now at the lowest rate since 1981. Taking the current number of workers and assuming a cyclically adjusted labor force, unemployment is still above 10%.

Which seems more accurate at first glance.

Source: BLS

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

When Leverage Attacks

The real estate market is certainly heating up in the San Francisco, my new city, despite the broader Case Shiller Home Index still hovering near cyclical lows.

How soon we forget.

I will admit, real estate does sound like close to a sure thing with mortgage rates at record lows, potential inflation on the horizon, negative real rates in savings accounts (i.e. zero opportunity cost), and prices as much as 50% or more off. And it may be, but not necessarily when leverage is introduced.

But, first, let's take a look at housing without leverage.

Case Shiller Index (without Leverage)

As last week's post The Power of Momentum outlined, the broad Case Shiller Composite-10 index was stagnant from 1987 to 1997, rocketed between 1997 and 2006, and has tumbled since. However, over this entire period we have seen a healthy increase in the price (a bit more than the rate of inflation... assuming growth using the composite-10 index, a house worth $100,000 in 1987 is now worth a bit less than $250,000)

Case Shiller Index w/ Introduction of Leverage

As James Montier of GMO has pointed out:
Real risk is the risk of permanent loss of capital.
Investments made with borrowed money reduces the range that the investment can move without causing a permanent impairment of capital.
Using the same Case Shiller Composite-10 index data as in the above chart, we introduce leverage using the following rules:
  • 5x leverage (i.e. a 20% down payment... pretty standard, though not so much during the bubble)
  • If prices rise, sell your investment property each year and with the equity gains, buy a more expensive property at 5x leverage
Simplifying Assumptions:
  • Mortgage payments = rental receipts
  • No taxes / transaction fees
Using the same $100,000 house as an example (this time with 20% down), we get the following:

Returns were actually okay from 1987 to 1997, but were dwarfed by the boom seen from 1997 to 2006 as property values, debt to go along with it, and equity SOARED, taking the original $20,000 investment to $3.7 million.

BUT, it all came crashing down. As property values declined, the new outsized level of debt remained, which resulted in all that hard earned equity flipping negative (in the above example) by early 2008. 5x leverage means that when the value of the property turned down just 20%, the entire equity stake was gone.

  • Real estate investment is not riskless, especially when leverage is introduced
  • Down payments of 20% do not prevent bubbles (as the chart above shows, asset appreciation allows an investor to put gains back in the market)
A case can be made (specifically within real estate) that negative equity does not equal permanent impairment. As long as payments continue to be made, an investor is still alive. While this is true, it does completely reduce liquidity (i.e. you can't sell without making the loss permanent) and it require an investor to make mortgage payments that are higher than the current market clearing price for similar properties.

Source: S&P