Sweeping changes are taking place at the state level as pension trustees and legislatures push for higher monthly contributions to pension plans, a later retirement age and lower annual cost-of-living adjustments for current and retired workers. Unions (those that don't make Twinkles, in any event), are making the concessions because they can see the future absent shared sacrifice — the termination of defined benefit plans in favour of defined contribution plans. Be that as it may, employee contributions are going up — a de facto tax hike. And this will work directly against any upturn in consumer spending when you consider that the state and local government sector employ nearly 20 million people or 15% of the national job pie. So we will have less government, fewer entitlements and more whisperings that it isn't just the $250,000+ high-income households that are going to experience tax increases and diminished disposable income growth. This is shared sacrifice. To think that the nation could have ever gone to war in Iraq and in Afghanistan under the Bush regime, putting our troops at great risk not to mention the emotional scars on their families, while here at home civilians would be allowed to enjoy tax cuts and a debt-financed consumption binge.... One has to wonder what events could provide positive momentum to GDP growth, push corporate earnings to record highs as the consensus predicts as early as next year, or generate any lasting inflation, for that matter. It's the people that make these pricing decisions. Businesses can only price up to what consumers are willing to pay. It is households that determine whether or not we have inflation, not some bureaucrat in Washington who believes he has control over some printing press.
We remain in the throes of a secular era of disinflation. We also are in a long-term period of sub-par economic growth and below-average returns. This has become so well entrenched that U.S. pension plans now have more exposure to bonds than to stocks, as we highlighted two weeks ago. Look, this is not about being bearish, bullish or agnostic. It's about being realistic and understanding that in our role as market economists, it is necessary to provide our clients with information and analysis that will help them to navigate the portfolio through these stressful times. Our crystal ball says to stick with what works in an uncertain financial and economic climate — in other words, maintain a defensive and income-oriented investment strategy.
Yesterday, we were offered 'hopes and prayers' by Gluskin Sheff's David Rosenberg. However, as he warned then, there are some things to be worried about. From the wide gaps in voting patterns across socio-economic lines and the expectations that populist policies will be the hallmark of Obama's second term to the mixed-to-negative data across employment data, consumer spending indications, housing, and Europe; it appears the market is starting to price in some positive probability of a fiscal cliff and these macro data do nothing to subsidize that reality. While the President does not face the Great Recession of four years ago, he does confront the "Not So Great Recovery" nonetheless.
It is not going to be a new government that necessarily ushers in a whole new era of growth, prosperity and confidence. Even under the revered Ronald Reagan, the period of secular growth and bull market activity took two years to unfold — it didn't happen right away. It took the inflationary excesses to be wrung out of the system and concrete signs that the executive and legislative branches could work together to usher in true fiscal reform — and to get blue Democrats on board with reduced top marginal tax rates. Hope isn't generally a very useful strategy, but there is reason to be hopeful nonetheless. The critical issue is going to be how we get Washington to move back to the middle where it belongs. This requires bipartisanship which in turn requires leadership. Reagan's whole eight-year tenure in the 1980s occurred with the House being in Democrat hands the whole way through. Bill Clinton's second term coincided with both the House and Senate controlled by the Republicans.
It can be done!
With this in mind, the best that can happen is a Reaganesque and Clintonesque return to compromise on the road to fiscal reform. It will be painful. We all know it will be painful.
Tired of idiotic "expert assessments" how the destruction in the aftermath of Sandy is good for the economy and "creates wealth" (just ask these people or these how much wealthier they feel with their house halfway still underwater, or with not a bite to eat)? Then read the following brief summary by David Rosenberg what the real and full impact of Rosie on the US will be: "the surprise for Q4? A negative GDP print."
What is wrong with this market? The S&P 500, instead of grinding higher in the aftermath of QE3 actually hit its peak for the year the day after the policy announcement. Go figure. Maybe economic reality finally caught up with Mr. Market (there is a very fine line between "'resiliency" and "denial" — and keep in mind that the S&P 500 is still up 14% in a year in which profits are now contracting, not just slowing down)... On average, six weeks hence, the S&P 500 was up more than 9% after the policy announcement. It was all so novel! Tech on average was up over 11%, industrials were up 12%... ditto for Consumer Discretionary and Materials. The cyclicals flew off the shelves. But this time around. either Mr. Market is jaded or the laws of diminishing returns are setting in. Six weeks after the unveiling of QE3, the market is down 2%. This hasn't happened before. Every economic-sensitive sector is in the red, and even Financials — the one sector that should benefit from all the "sucking at the Fed teat" — have made no money for anybody!
Much has been said about yesterday's laughable jobs report. Here is a little more, only this time not from some politicized CTRL-C/CTRL-V major who was forced to take out the HP-12C for the first time from their storage closet and pretend they have any idea about finance and economics, but from David Rosenberg.
Global economic fundamentals are awful, bearish divergences are occurring everywhere, investor sentiment is nearing bullish extremes, political risks remain high and last week's market performance can be summed up in four words - 'lack of follow through'. As Gluskin Sheff's David Rosenberg explains, more than two-thirds of the rally points the stock market has enjoyed since the summer-time lows occurred around central bank policy announcements. So the market is really a one-trick pony here, breathing in the fumes of central bank liquidity. What was supposed to happen, as the elites told us, was that the lagging hedge funds were going to throw in the towel and chase this market. Everyone expects this to be a major source of buying power. At the same time, what if the bulls who lucked out this year because they hung onto Ben Bernanke's arm decide to take profits or at the least lock in their gains? CRitically, as Rosie details, QE3 is occurring at a different point in the cycle this time and insomuch as it helps invogorate already rising 'animal spirits' we suspect it has missed the baot.
What the Fed did was actually much more than QE3. Call it QE3-plus... a gift that will now keep on giving. The new normal of bad news being good news is now going to be more fully entrenched for the market and 'housing data' (the most trustworthy of data) - clearly the Fed's preferred transmission mechanism - is now front-and-center in driving volatility. I don't think this latest Fed action does anything more for the economy than the previous rounds did. It's just an added reminder of how screwed up the economy really is and that the U.S. is much closer to resembling Japan of the past two decades than is generally recognized. It would seem as though the Fed's macro models have a massive coefficient for the 'wealth effect' factor. The wealth effect may well stimulate economic activity at the bottom of an inventory or a normal business cycle. But this factor is really irrelevant at the trough of a balance sheet/delivering recession. The economy is suffering from a shortage of aggregate demand. Full stop. It just perpetuates the inequality that is building up in the country, and while this is not a headline maker, it is a real long term risk for the health of the country, from a social stability perspective as well.
Bill Gross may be credited with inventing the term 'the New Normal', although his recommendation to purchase gold above all other asset classes, something which only fringe blogs such as this one have been saying is the best trade (in terms of return, Sharpe Ratio, and the ability to sleep soundly) for the past three and a half years, he is sure to be increasingly ostracized by the establishment, and told to take all his newfangled idioms with him in his exile to less than serious people land. Which takes us to David Rosenberg, who today revisits his own definition of the New Normal. And it, too, is just as applicable as that of the Pimco boss: "The new normal is that the economy doesn't drive markets any more." Short and sweet, although it also is up for debate whether the economy ever drove the markets in the first place. But that would open up a whole new conspiratorial can of worms, and is a discussion best saved for after Ben Bernanke decides to save the "housing market" by buying more hundreds of billions in MBS and lowering mortgage yields further, even though mortgage rates already are at record lows (something that mortgage applications apparently couldn't care less about as we showed last week), while "avoiding" to do everything in his power to boost the S&P, which recently was at 5 year highs, and certainly "avoiding" to listen to Chuck Schumer telling him to do his CTRL+P job, and "get to work" guaranteeing Schumer's donors have another whopper of a bonus season.
Peter Schiff pulled an OccupyWallStreet (remember that whole Occupy movement?) at the Democratic National Convention. What he did, was succeed in exposing some very disturbing prevailing beliefs about the government's role in establishing the 'utility' value of the free market as manifested by corporations, namely that according to a broad cross-section of society, it is the government job to "explicitly outlaw profitability." We wish to remind readers that this has been done on numerous occasions in the past, but most "effectively" in the Soviet Union's centrally planned regime. Until the USSR's failure of course. The premise of eliminating profitability is also quite popular, and even has its own name: nationalization, and its result in a business "manager" who is perfectly ambivalent if the state owned enterprise makes or loses money. After all the wage is determined by a politburo, and is not a function of the profits, or losses, a business may engender. Furthermore, it is probably worth reminding that the primary tenet behind capitalism is the production of goods and services for a profit. Sadly, quite a few of these concepts appear to have not been made clear to not just one or two Americans as the following clip demonstrates.
The dividend theme has hardly run its course. As David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff illustrates in his latest note, the income-starved retiring boomers are being forced to garner income more and more via the equity market where dividends are up more than 8% over the past year. Because of ultra-low interest rates, interest income growth has vanished completely. And here is the great anomaly. Back in the early 1980s, investors bought equities for capital appreciation and they purchased Treasury securities for yield. Today it is the complete opposite.
According to the plethora of long-only managers willing to trot out on the public stage and beg for more commissions, the US has been (and will remain) the cleanest-dirty-shirt in the global risk asset laundry basket; but as David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff points out not only has the S&P 500 hit a new record high in its total return index but it also possesses a rather 'ebullient' valuation premium (2012E P/E) of 13.8x relative to China 9.8x and Europe 11.4x. However, while this is more than enough to slow some investors from backing up the long-truck, Rosie goes on to highlight a very worrisome indicator - that favored by ex-PIMCO's Paul McCulley. The YoY trend in the three-month moving average of core capex orders (which was updated last Friday) has just cracked negative, crushing the hopes of US growth prospects and we assume equity superlatives. However, since the market no longer reflects anything; certainly not the economy, but merely who will ease more when and how, one really can't short much if anything, even if McCulley is 100% spot on.
This is looking more and more like a modem-day depression. After all, last month alone, 85,000 Americans signed on for Social Security disability cheques, which exceeded the 80,000 net new jobs that were created: and a record 46 million Americans or 14.8% of the population (also a record) are in the Food Stamp program (participation averaged 7.9% from 1970 to 2000, by way of contrast) — enrollment has risen an average of over 400,000 per month over the past four years. A record share of 41% pay zero national incomes tax as well (58 million), a share that has doubled over the past two decades. Increasingly, the U.S. is following in the footsteps of Europe of becoming a nation of dependants. Meanwhile, policy stimulus, whether traditional or non-conventional, are still falling well short of generating self-sustaining economic growth.
For many months, if not years, we have been beating the drum on what we believe is the most hushed, but significant story in the metamorphosis of the US labor pool under the New Normal, one which has nothing to with quantity considerations, which can easily be fudged using seasonal and birth death adjustments, and other statistical "smoothing" but with quality of jobs: namely America's transformation to a part-time worker society. Today, one of the very few economists we respect, David Rosenberg, pick up on this theme when he says in his daily letter that "the use of temps is outpacing outright new hirings by a 10-to-1 ratio." And unlike in the old normal, or even as recently as 2011, temp hires are no longer a full-time gateway position: "Moreover, according to a Manpower survey, 30% of temporary staffing this year has led to permanent jobs, down from 45% in 2011.... In today's world, the reliance on temp agencies is akin to "just in time" employment strategies." Everyone's skillset is now a la carte in the form of self-employed mini S-Corps, for reason that Charles Hugh Smith explained perfectly well in "Dear Person Seeking a Job: Why I Can't Hire You." Sadly, that statistic summarizes about everything there is to know about the three years of "recovery" since the recession "ended" some time in 2009.