U.S. Unemployment Rate Drops To Historical Average in January

Since the political party in power will always try to spin economic data postively, while the opposing party tries to convince you the country is still in the doldrums, sometimes it’s nice to put metrics like the U.S. unemployment rate in perspective by showing historical data without political interference. Accordingly, below is a chart of the unemployment rate over the last 40 years. As you can see we are back down to “average” today (the 40-year mean is the red line), so things are neither great nor terrible. That’s surely not what you’ll hear as the mid-term elections get into full swing this year, but that’s yet another reason why politics and investment strategies shouldn’t be mixed. Investing is far more dependent on reality than politics.

40Year-US-UE-Rate-1975-2014

Part Time Workers, Consumer Spending, And The Affordable Care Act

Don’t worry, no political arguments will be made here. That is not worth the effort for the author or the readers of this blog. However, since we are focused on stock picking as investors, it is a valuable exercise to dig into the data and determine if there will be a material impact on U.S. corporate profits because of the Affordable Care Act. After all, if consumers’ pockets are squeezed from fewer hours worked each week and/or the need to start buying health insurance for the first time, that would definitely impact the sales and earnings of the companies we are invested in. And that could hurt our portfolios.

Since the September jobs report came out this week I decided to take a look and see if the trend than many people fear as a result of the new healthcare law — employers shifting full-time workers to part-time status in order to be exempt from being required to provide them with health insurance — has actually started to take hold. Many people have already argued one way or the other, but most of them have political motivations and rely on a small subset of anecdotal reporting without actually looking at the numbers and reporting the truth.

The good news for our investment portfolio is that this trend has yet to materialize. It certainly could in the future, so we should continue to monitor the situation, but so far so good. Last month there were 27, 335,000 part-time workers, out of a total employed pool of 144,303,000. That comes out to 18.6% of all employed people working part-time (defined as less than 35 hours per week). That compares with 26,893,000 part-time employees during the same month last year, which equated to 19.1% of the 142,974,000 employed persons. Interestingly, part-time workers are actually going down in both absolute terms and relative to full-time workers. These numbers will fluctuate month-to-month, but it clearly has not happened as of yet.

The other potential problem with the Affordable Care Act, and more specifically the requirement that everyone buy health insurance, is that discretionary consumer spending could fall as more of one’s after-tax income goes towards insurance and is not spent on discretionary items. We should remember of course that consumer spending counts the same in the GDP calculation regardless of whether or not we buy insurance or other things, so there is no overall economic impact. But, we should expect to see consumers allocate their funds differently, which could impact specific areas of the economy (vacationing, for instance).

But just how much of an impact will this have? Will it be large enough to materially hurt the earnings of many public companies? To gauge the overall potential for that we need to dig into more numbers.

About 15% of the U.S. population does not have health insurance. Let’s assume 100% compliance with the Affordable Care Act (either via the purchase of insurance or the payment of the penalty for not doing so). Let’s further assume that the net negative financial impact of such compliance comes to 5% of one’s income (not an unfair assumption based on insurance premiums). That means that approximately 0.75% of consumer spending (5% x 15%) would be reallocated to healthcare and away from other areas. While that is not a big shift, it would be real.

However, the analysis can’t end there. We can’t simply conclude that approximately 1% of non-healthcare consumer spending will be lost due to the new law. Why not? Because that would assume that every American earns the same income. In reality, those impacted by the Affordable Care Act (the uninsured), are skewed towards lower and middle income folks. Most wealthier people get health insurance through their full-time jobs and will continue to do so.

Now, the bottom 50% of Americans only make 15% of the income earned nationwide. If we factor that point into the equation, then the overall impact on consumer spending goes from quite small (0.75% per year) to fairly immaterial. In fact, it comes out to something around 0.2% of overall consumer spending per year if we assume that the average uninsured person falls into the 25th percentile of total income.

So what is my conclusion from all of this? Well, I own a lot of shares in consumer-related companies both personally and for my clients, and I am not concerned about the Affordable Care Act taking a meaningful bite out of the profits that those companies are going to generate in the future.

CBO Projects U.S. Budget Problem Solved For Now

It’s amazing what some tax hikes coupled with spending cuts can do for a $1.1 trillion annual budget deficit (just kidding… actually, it’s pretty logical). The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the leading group of nonpartisan budget number-crunchers, now projects that the U.S. federal budget deficit will shrink by an astounding 41% this year, from $1.087 trillion to $642 billion. The reason? Tax receipts are rising faster than expected. Couple that with budget cuts and the result is a huge dent in the annual funding gap for the federal government.

Even more important than a one-year annual decline is the trend CBO sees for the next decade. Here is a chart of their annual deficit projections through 2023:

deficitsbillions

As you can see, the deficit hits bottom in 2015, so this (falling deficits) is not a one-time 2013 event. Now, you may look at the rest of that chart and conclude that the good times will be short-lived, as the deficit climbs back to about $900 billion by 2022. If you are just looking at the absolute numbers alone, that would be concerning. However, we need to remember that the deficit as a percentage of GDP is what matters. Somebody making a $1 million a year, for instance, can afford a $10,000 per month mortgage payment. Somebody making $50,000 a year cannot. The ability to carry debt and service it adequately depends on how much money you have to work with, making the absolute numbers meaningless without context.

So what do the above numbers look like if we look at the deficit as a percentage of annual U.S. GDP? Here is that chart:

deficitspctgdp

The key number here is the last bar, which shows that the average deficit over the last 40 years (1973-2012) has been 3.1% of GDP. All of the sudden those later years don’t look so scary, even though from 2015 to 2022 the deficit nearly doubles on percentage terms.

Now, it is certainly true that if we do nothing to adjust the long-term Social Security or Medicare payments we are scheduled to make, then the deficit will become a huge problem again down the road. However, it is very important to understand from an investing perspective (and possibly from a political one as well), that over the next decade we really will not have a debt problem as long as current law remains in effect and the CBO’s baseline assumptions about the economy are close to accurate. Although plenty of people hated the tax hikes and/or the budget cuts that took effect this year, they are doing wonders for our debt problem. Personally, I’ll take longer term gains with shorter term pains anytime, if the alternative is the exact opposite.

Why 6.5% Unemployment Is The Fed’s Magic Number

Today Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve announced that they would keep the fed funds interest rate near zero as long as the unemployment rate remained above 6.5%. Why pick that number? They did not say for sure in their press release, but I can take an educated guess. Over the last 40 years, the unemployment rate has averaged exactly 6.5% in the United States. So Bernanke and Co. are going to keep rates ultra-low as long as unemployment is above-average.

I would also point out that the 6.5% level as the long-term average is important to keep in mind as we envision what a “normal” U.S. economy looks like. Some people may mistakenly think that 4-5% is typical or common just because we got down to those levels during the dot-com and housing bubbles. That is definitely not the case. A normalized economy is 3% GDP growth (vs 2.7% last quarter) and UE at 6.5% (vs 7.7% last month). So while we are not quite at a normalized level of economic growth and employment right now, we are not as far away as many (especially in the political arena) would have you believe. Perhaps that explains why corporate profits are slated to reach a record high this year, surpassing the prior record attained just last year.

Would Going Over The Fiscal Cliff Really Be That Bad?

Easily the most frustrating thing about being a long-term investor nowadays is how short-term focused Wall Street has become in recent years (or more accurately, the last two decades). Quarterly earnings reports and whether companies slightly beat or slightly miss estimates made by a bunch of number-crunchers in New York result in huge share price volatility. Owners of real businesses would be the first to tell you that small quarter-to-quarterly fluctuations in sales and profits are far less important than the long-term strength, viability, and competitive position of their companies.

Political leaders have the same problem; they are obsessed with the short term because they are up for reelection so frequently. If you listen to the media, or your elected representatives, you would think going over the fiscal cliff would be absolute catastrophe. But is that actually true? Well, it depends on whether you care about the short term or long term outlook for the finances of the United States.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the non-partisan fiscal accountant for Congress, projects that the U.S. would fall into a mild recession if we went over the fiscal cliff, and that the unemployment rate would rise from 8% to 9% in 2013 as a result. In 2014, the economy would return to growth, much like we have today. That is the short-term impact. And yes, that is a bad outcome for politicians currently holding office.

But what about the long-term view? Are there any positive effects that might make it worth it to have a short, mild economic downturn in 2013? This is a question the media and politicians rarely speak about. For instance, did you know that without any actions to blunt the impact of going over the fiscal cliff, the U.S. budget deficit ($1.1 trillion in fiscal year 2012) would fall 43% from 2012 to 2013. In 2014 it would fall another 40%. In 2015 it would fall another 45% (all figures are current CBO estimates). At that point, the U.S. federal budget would essentially be balanced. The deficit problem would vanish within three years, and that is if we do absolutely nothing! Congress could actually accomplish something important by not passing a single piece of legislation!

One could easily argue that the best long-term outcome for the U.S. economy would be to have a balanced budget within three years, even if it meant taking some short-term pain in 2013 as tax rates reset to Bill Clinton-era levels. But nobody is taking a longer term view. Everyone is acting as if they are on Wall Street and care only about the immediate future. There is absolutely no chance that our country’s leaders do nothing and balance the budget, even though they would all agree that $1 trillion annual deficits are unsustainable and are easily the biggest problem the U.S. faces in the intermediate term.

Instead, we should expect that politicians will opt to extend most of the Bush tax cuts and postpone or eliminate most of the planned spending cuts. Such a plan would do nothing to reduce our deficits and sets us up for much bigger problems a few years down the road. What people don’t seem to understand is that the debt crisis that will arise from $1 trillion annual deficits year after year is many times worse than the relatively mild 2013 recession that inaction on the fiscal cliff would cause. Don’t believe that? Just ask Greece or Spain, where unemployment rates are over 25%.

A Challenging Global Outlook for the Next 50 Years

The above is never something I would venture to take a stab at, but GMO’s Jeremy Grantham has made a name for himself by making bold predictions about the future. His latest quarterly letter, entitled “On the Road to Zero Growth” is one of his best, in my opinion. A highly recommended read if you are interested in a 16-page article characterized by a lot of economic jargon. Granted, it makes a lot of sense and was written by someone who has been right an awful lot over his multi-decade investment career. Just thought I would share the link. Enjoy!

Consumer Debt Paydown Crimps GDP Growth

It’s election season so both candidates would love for you to think that the POTUS has a lot of control over economic growth, but this week we got a report that sheds light on one of the major reasons the U. S. economy is growing at around 2%, down from its long-term average of around 3% per year. The New York Federal Reserve reported that credit card debt balances last quarter dropped a $672 billion, a level not seen since 2002. It also marks a 22.4% decline from the peak we saw in the fourth quarter of 2008.

So how exactly has this de-leveraging trend negatively impacted GDP growth? Well, consumer spending represents about 70% of GDP, so a drop in credit card balances of $200 billion over the last few years represents a lot of money that was sent off to pay bills, not spent on goods and services. Toss in another $100 billion of spending that would normally be incremental over that time period due to overall growth in the underlying economy, and you can see that about $300 billion of consumer spending has been absent from the system, compared to what would have been normal.

With annual U.S. GDP at around $15 trillion, this consumer credit card de-leveraging represents about 2% of GDP growth lost. Over 3-4 years, that comes out to about 0.5% GDP impact per year. In a world where GDP growth has dropped a full percentage point from its long-term normalized level, consumer debt repayments account for a major portion of that slowdown. You aren’t likely to hear much about that on the campaign trail, but politicians rarely deal with facts and truths when it comes to hot-button issues like the economy.

Let’s Face It, Given All That Has Happened Lately, A Market Correction Makes Sense

In a few short days I leave town for a two-week vacation (interesting timing I know, but it has been planned for months and therefore not market-related) but before I leave these volatile markets behind for some refreshing time away I think a few comments are in order. As I write this the Dow is down 400 points to below 11,500 and the S&P 500 index has now dropped 11% from its 2011 high. In the days of computer-driven trading stock market moves are more pronounced and happen faster than ever before, so it is important to keep things in perspective.

First, given everything that has happened in Europe this year, coupled with our own ugly debt ceiling political debate in Washington DC, it is completely reasonable to have a stock market correction. I would even go a step further and say it was a bit odd that the market held up so well prior to last week’s debt ceiling dealings. Historically the U.S. stock market has corrected (by 10% or more) about once per year. The last one we had was a 17% drop in 2010 during the initial Greece debt woes. That we have another one now in 2011 is not only predictable based on history, but especially when we factor in everything going on lately financially, economically, and politically. Let’s keep the market swoon of the last week or two in context.

From an economic standpoint, investors need to realize we really are in a new paradigm. The U.S. economy was goosed up by debt, both at the consumer level (credit bubble) and at the government level (tax cuts along with increased spending). As a result, we have to see both groups de-lever their balance sheets. Consumers are reducing debt and saving more, and many don’t have jobs. The government is now beginning to cut back as well. Consumer spending represents 70% of U.S. GDP and government spending, at $3.6 trillion per year, makes up another 25%. Corporations are the only bright spot in today’s landscape, with record earnings and stellar balance sheets, but their spending is only the remaining 5% of GDP. With both consumers and government agencies cutting back, a slowing economy and lackluster job growth are all but assured.

So are we headed back into a late 2008, early 2009 situation for both the economy and financial markets? While anything is possible, we probably should not make such an assumption. A slowing economy (say, 1-2% GDP growth) is far better than what we had at the depths of the financial crisis with 700,000 jobs being lost per month, negative GDP of several percentage points, and runs on the country’s largest banks. The 2008-2009 time period did not reflect a normal recession (which would last 6-9 months and be relatively mild). It was far worse this time and those events typically only happen once per generation, not once every few years.

The best case scenario short term is that the markets calm down and we meander along with 1-2% growth. Not good, but not horrific either. Could we slip back into a garden-variety recession due to government cutbacks, 9% unemployment, and a deteriorating economy in Europe? Sure, but that would likely result in a more typical 20% stock market decline over several quarters, not a 50-60% drubbing. And keep in mind we are already down 11% in a few short trading sessions.

What does this mean for the stock market longer term? Well, believe it or not, there are reasons for optimism once investors calm down and we really get a sense of what we are dealing with. With slow economic growth interest rates are going to stay near all-time lows. Buyers of government bonds today are accepting 2.5% per year in interest for a 10-year bond. Savings accounts pay 1% if you are lucky. The S&P 500 stock index pays a 2% dividend and many stocks pay 3% or more. Given the financial backdrop for U.S. corporations relative to the U.S. government, which do you think is a better investment; lending the government money for 10 years at 2.5% or buying McDonalds stock and collecting a 2.9% annual dividend? Investment capital will find its way to the best opportunities and even with slow growth along with the possibility of a double-dip recession, U.S. stocks will look attractive relative to other asset classes.

As a result, I think there are reasons to believe the current market correction is going to wind up being much more normal than the 2008-2009 period. With interest rates and government finances where they are, equity prices can easily justify a 12-14 P/E ratio. Maybe stock market players before the last week or two were just hoping we could escape all of this unscathed, despite the fact that market history shows that is rarely the case. In any event, while I am looking forward to spending some time away from the markets, I am not overly concerned about this week’s market action, especially in the context of global events lately. My hope is that by the time I return markets have calmed down and we can revisit how to play the upcoming 2012 presidential election cycle, even though that thought alone makes me want to take far more than two weeks off. 🙂

 

Earnings Growth Does Not Predict Stock Market Returns

Lots of readers are writing in to question my assertion that the stock market does not track corporate profits or GDP. They seem upset to learn that if you can correctly predict GDP growth or earnings growth in the short term that you can’t also predict the direction and magnitude of the market’s moves. The key here is that the market prices in certain expectations about the future ahead of time and then readjusts prices based on how the future plays out relative to those expectations. We cannot simply infer that, say, over the next year GDP will grow 3%, leading to earnings growth of 8%, and therefore the market will rise 8%. Markets are more complicated than that!

Here is an illustration I came up with to back up these claims (raw data compiled by NYU from Standard and Poor’s and Bloomberg). As you can see, correctly predicting S&P 500 earnings growth (grouped along the x-axis) for any given year does not help predict the market’s return (plotted along the y-axis) during that same year. In fact, the market does better when earnings are declining, relative to how it fares when earnings are growing by double digits. In the near future I will try and compile data that shows which figures actually have predictive value.