The 70% Solution
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Cracks in the Wall of Investor Optimism
“Bear market rallies will recur.” The 2022 damage to stocks from rising interest rates is mostly behind us. The next leg down in THE MOTHER OF ALL BEAR MARKETS will be driven by falling corporate profits. Those shortfalls will begin to appear in a couple of months. Consumer prices will rise closer to 6% than 2% in 2022…The 2023 recession is virtually assured.” The 70% Solution - Summer 2022
Bear markets end with widespread capitulation while a chorus of the stock trader’s prayer (God, if you get me out of this mess, I swear I will never buy another stock) spreads through out the land. This year’s decline clearly indicates that sellers have been more aggressive than buyers but individual investors continued to buy every dip. Hundreds of millions of dollars have flooded into mutual and exchange traded funds. Despite the selling, individuals remain heavily committed to stocks. The American Association of Individual Investors survey only shows a small increase in cash holdings from 22% to 24%. Individual investors clearly sold shares into the October bear market rally. However, most investors remain hopeful. At bear market bottoms investor cash positions rise above 40%. That is a strong indication that we are far from a bottom. Not a single investor has called me (or any other adviser I know) and said “just get me out”. They mostly ask if this is a good time to buy.
A year ago most investors and economists believed Fed propaganda that the 7% inflation rate was “transitory”. Inflation was widely expected to drop back near 2% this year. Instead, consumer prices rose at a 12% annualized pace in early 2022. Inflation has slowed since June, but prices will once again end the year about 7% higher than a year earlier.
“The rise in consumer prices during the next few months should also be modest. Deep discounting excess inventories of appliances, computers, and XMAS gifts delivered too late for sale last year have begun. The 70% Solution – October 28, 2022
Investors still expect Fed rate hikes to end soon but confidence is fading. Chairman Powell has made it clear that reducing inflation remains priority number one. Politics dictate that annual inflation must be back around 2% in 2024. That won’t happen without a severe recession or years of stagflation. If the recession is avoided or mild, the CPI will bottom by June. Inflation is then likely to rebound through year end. Hopes for reducing inflation below 2%, avoiding recession in 2023 combined with a 2024 economic recovery are pure fantasy. Although the shrinking work force has kept the labor market tight, rising interest rates and reduced government handouts are taking a toll. Retirement accounts have suffered market losses, while savings of middle income workers have been substantially depleted. According to Vanguard, “hardship” loans and withdrawals from 401K plans in 2022 were more than twice the level of any prior year despite severe penalties.
Chairman Powell recently divided inflation into three categories: housing, goods, and services (ex-housing). The separate impacts are worth reviewing.
- Housing inflation is primarily measured by rents. Residential rents typically lag home prices by about a year. This cycle has been shorter. The three years of soaring rents juxtaposed against falling real (inflation adjusted) incomes has mitigated rental demand. The pace of rent increases have slowed as more renters double up with roommates or relatives. Rents have even fallen in a couple of recent months.
- The prices of goods have generally come down in recent months. Supply chains have been rebuilt while consumers have shifted their spending toward travel and leisure. Consumer electronics that were in short supply a year ago are now being deeply discounted. Appliance sales are down, aggravated by falling home sales. Similarly, dealer mark-ups on new cars are falling while factory incentives are starting to reappear. Used car prices have plunged. Mega retailer Carvana has seen their stock plummet 98% this year as they take losses on massive inventories accumulated at higher prices. Global demand for raw materials plunged as a result of the China reopening. The factors that continue to put upward price pressure on goods like rising wages, tariffs, and ongoing supply chain issues driven by Putin’s war are more than offset by the recent drop in demand at the present time. Despite increased regulations that will increase costs in years to come, oil and gas prices have plunged. The release of millions of barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves when oil was around $100/bbl. high contributed to the decline. Now the Biden administration stands to reap billions in profits for the Treasury refilling the reserve at a deep discount.
- The one area where inflation remains strong is consumer services (excluding rents). The service sector is labor intensive and the US labor shortage continues to push wages up. Shortages of workers in hospitality, medical services, travel and leisure remain acute, even as layoffs in tech and banking rise.
Inflation in the first half of 2023 will be a lot higher than the sub 2% annualized rate we have enjoyed since June, but a lot lower than the 12% rate early in the year. Minimum wage hikes in many states, COLA adjustments to Social Security and government pensions as well as a softening dollar will exert upward pressure on prices in 2023. Despite those increases, reported annual inflation will continue to fall through June as a result of the sharp reduction of inflation in the last half of 2022. The annual rise in the CPI may even fall below 4% in June. That is likely to reverse as the year progresses. A variety of factors including the shrinking work force will aggravate the resurgence of inflation late next year, even as the economy stagnates or shrinks. Political pressures suggest that world trade will continue to shrink and the US Dollar will lose value. Less trade and a weaker dollar will raise import prices. Trade effects are amplified by exchange rate trends.
Inflation would have been even worse in 2022 if the trade weighted US Dollar had not increased at a double-digit pace. Other countries faced with the highest inflation in decades are raising interest rates and selling dollars (and US TBonds) to support their currencies. Soaring infections and hospitalizations will slow the reopening of the Chinese economy, but pent-up demand will soar by summer as covid immunity builds. The recovering Chinese economy will put upward pressure on commodity prices aggravated by decelerating world trade.
THE FED IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
“The recent stock and bond rallies increased the need for more aggressive Fed action.” The 70% Solution August 29, 2022
The bear market rallies in October offset a part of the Feds success in tightening financial conditions (as did the July rally). In both cases, Chairman Powell and other Fed members dashed hopes for an early pivot from rate hikes to rate cuts. Short term rates are still rising, and long-term rates have bottomed. Another bear market rally has ended in tears. It isn’t over.
Over a half century ago Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman taught us that “monetary policy operates with long and variable lags”. Unpredictable external factors like deficits, tariffs and regulations, pandemics and wars can delay or accelerate the impact of monetary policy. Friedman argued that political pressure to keep interest rates low would result in excess money creation that led to booms. Those booms led to inflation a few years later that would have to be quelled with higher rates. Because the lags were “long and variable” it is impossible to aggressively address current conditions without triggering inflation or recession of unpredictable magnitude down the road. To reduce the big swings between boom and bust, Friedman advocated targeting steady money growth rather than big interest rate swings. Certainly sounds familiar.
Recent inflation has created intense political pressure to get the inflation genie back in the bottle before 2024. After expanding money supply at a hyperinflationary 25% rate in 2020, the Fed shrank it at a draconian 10% annual rate in the 12 months ending in October. Freidman must be rolling over in his grave. Long as this letter is, it’s too short to explain all the complicated ramifications. Suffice it to say, the last time money contracted this fast was near the beginning of the Great Depression.
“The Fed is well aware that it has a short window between election years to get inflation under control. It will be hard pressed to stay the course when growth slows and unemployment rises”
The 70% Solution May 29, 2022
Recession on the Way
Reported GDP Q4 is likely to be appear robust compared to the near zero growth in Q1 through Q3. Unfortunately, a big portion of those gains will be the result of inventories outpacing sales. Excess inventories tend to reduce production and growth in subsequent quarters adding to the recession risk.
“the Feds attempt to catch up…will trigger recession in 2023” The 70% Solution January 7, 2022
Last summer few economists shared my recession concerns. The leading economic indicators have been trending lower all year. Recently the yield on TBills rose above the yield on the 10 yr. TBond (yield curve inversion). Curve inversion is the most reliable indicator of impending recession. With that information in hand, the latest Bloomberg and Barron’s surveys now indicate that over 70% of economists expect recession in 2023. Painful as it is to admit, their hindsight is often better than my predictions.
The US labor shortage precludes any near-term big jump in job losses. Growth will also be supported by COLA adjustments to government pensions and Social Security that boosts spending in early 2023. Worker demand for caregivers and medical services as well as leisure and hospitality workers is likely to remain strong in the absence of a severe recession. Other sectors are however showing early signs of stress. Layoffs of highly paid workers in mortgage banking, lending, technology and investment banking are rising. Homebuilding and construction layoffs remain modest as builders rush to complete projects that are already funded. Those layoffs are on the way. The caregiver shortage is a major factor in why labor force is shrinking. Many former two income households have found the entire after-tax paycheck of the lower paid partner goes to caregiver expenses. They are better off staying home. With paychecks for women rising faster than men the proportion of prime working age men staying home has increased by 44% since 1997. Employee quit rates are falling as hiring slows and layoffs rise.
Consumer spending is barely keeping pace with inflation and the investment boom promised by the 2018 tax cuts was never realized. Banks are tightening lending criteria while retirees and other investors face investment losses. The free money that fueled speculation in tech companies has dried up. Europe is entering recession while international tensions preclude a large rise in exports as China reopens. Worst of all the housing sector that directly or indirectly drives about 20% of the US economy. is already in recession. Homes sales are at record lows and prices have started to fall. Bloated as it is, the recent passage of the $1.7 trillion budget for next year doesn’t compare to recent years. Both the Trump and Biden administrations added more than that amount on top of trillion-dollar budgets. Given the political split both between and within political parties, major new spending initiatives are unlikely before 2024 (incumbents -irrespective of party- always spend big in election years). Job losses will increase but unemployment should be lower than prior recessions.
My longstanding 2023 mild recession forecast has gathered a lot of company recently. Should that prove true inflation won’t drop below 4% before the next election. The shocking contraction in the money supply indicates that credit conditions may be tightening faster than they appear. The big rate hikes this year have only begun to be reflected in aggregate interest expense on a record amount of debt (both public and private). As each loan or bond reaches maturity, it must be refinanced. The new rate is likely to be double. triple or quadruple the original one. Those higher costs will cut spending power. The US Government alone refinanced around $7 trillion in debt this year. A year ago, the average financing cost was around 1%. Today’s 4% rates will add another 30 trillion dollars in expense. That needs to come from somewhere. Homeowners that relocate to a home of similar value are likely to see their mortgage interest double. Every business that needs to finance inventory (like auto dealers) or builders with construction loans that borrow at floating rates have seen their interest expense rise even faster. Even if rates were to fall soon, the rate on the new loan is likely to be higher than the rate on the maturing loan. These credit conditions directly impact growth rather than inflation. Rather than reducing inflation, higher rates initially raise business costs pushing inflation even higher. It is only after slowing growth reduces demand that prices recede.
If the recession proves mild consistent with what is suddenly the consensus forecast, inflation may dip briefly below 4% mid-year before stabilizing or even rising in a protracted period of stagflation. If that proves wrong, it will be because the recession is a lot more severe. Either way profit margins will shrink in 2023.
Corporate Profit Margins are Shrinking
“The primary threat to stock prices has shifted from rising interest rates to falling profits”
The 70% Solution – October 7, 2022
Wall Street forecasts for interest rates, growth and inflation were wildly inaccurate in 2022, but they nailed the growth in corporate profits. That success buoyed current confidence. They continue to serve up forecasts of profit growth in 2023. Only a few strategists are willing to consider the possibility of a serious profit squeeze in the new year. Rising labor costs are juxtaposed against consumers that are growing evermore price conscious. For over a decade profit margins have been boosted by global outsourcing that reduced labor costs, falling interest rates, and lower corporate tax rates. The unprecedented Covid handouts to individuals and PPP payments to businesses increased margins further. $125 barrel oil caused increased profits for energy companies that had slashed costs in the pandemic. Those gains offset profit pressures in other sectors this year. Now oil is back below $85 a barrel.
Sales growth is slowing. Businesses with bloated inventories are being forced to discount. Auto manufacturer incentives are appearing as chips become available, production rises and demand slows. Any increase in consumer spending is being consumed by year over year price hikes, despite recent discounts. The recent fall in commodity prices will end by mid-2023 as China reopens unless the recession proves severe raising costs further. Despite recent layoffs and reduced hiring, labor remains in short supply. Wages are still rising. Bank profits usually benefit from rising rates by borrowing short and lending long. The inverted yield curve is shrinking that spread, even as credit losses are starting to rise. The worst bond market decline in history has decimated the value of bond portfolios that banks rely on for capital. These losses aren’t reported until the bank expects to have to sell the bonds. Holding the bonds in portfolio further restricts profitable lending opportunities. Given all those factors, profits margins that were 40% above historical norms in 2022 have nowhere to go but down, even if recession is avoided.
The Mother of all Bear Markets – Part Two
The bear market of 2022 was driven by rising rates. It is unlikely that rates will fall anytime soon, but most of the damage from rates was already behind us at the recent market lows (S&P 3550 – 10yr TBond 4.25%). The bear market rally (that we predicted in October) is over. Stocks are headed for new lows. Despite rate concerns, individual investors remained hopeful all the way down, oblivious to the risk to margins. A former colleague of mine, Tyler Jamieson, was fond of noting that “the primary purpose of Wall St is to take money from the rich and give it to the wealthy”. You are seeing it live as hedge fund managers sell at every opportunity. Shrinking margins dictate the longer downtrend, but the next leg down will be triggered by deterioration of investor optimism. The October rally represented a tipping point. “Buy the Dip” is over and the new trade is “Sell the Rallies”. Rates are not about to fall, but the “rising rate” ship has left port. A sinking tide of falling profits will drive market levels. On only one postwar occasion has a serious bear market ended before the recession began. Investor optimism is being replaced by caution. Capitulation lies ahead. The market will at some point bottom and recover. However, TBills have often outperformed stocks for a decade or more. They are likely to do so again from current levels (S&P 3850).
US STOCKS - “Investors who have stuck it out so far are unlikely to sell until they suffer much larger losses” … A major bear market rally has most likely begun” The 70% Solution October 28, 2022
This year’s expected loss around 20% is only the beginning. The other bear markets leading to recessions (1973-74, 2000-02, 2007-09) all suffered similarly small 18-20% losses in their first year. They continued to fall after that losing about 50% from the bull market peaks. In every case the biggest LOSSES occurred AFTER, not before, the Fed pivoted to lower rates. They all had multiple bear market rallies. In October I advised investors to take advantage of the rally to sell, while recognizing the possibility of a rally as high as S&P 4250. The rally stalled just below S&P 4100, before Powell put the final nail in the rally’s coffin.
“Bank of America recently released a long-term study showing the average bear market loses 37% from peak to trough (S&P 3000 vs the January 4796 peak). We’re about half way there”. The 70% Solution May 29, 2022
“Bear markets that precede recessions decline 47% on average” (B of A) The 70% Solution May 29, 2022
Consistent with those historical averages I expect stocks to fail a retest of the recent lows (S&P 3550), then head lower. Support for another rally is likely as S&P 3000 approaches in early 2023. That would be a typical bear market. That rally should be supported by expectations of a Fed pivot as reported annual inflation falls, growth slow retreats from its Q4 inventory buildup bounce, and the labor market loosens. As recession evidence grows, profits will fall short of expectations. A final profit shortfall driven decline to S&P 2300 would be typical of a bear market that led to a recession. Support at 2300 is reinforced by that level being the 2020 pandemic low. An even steeper decline would not be surprising, but isn’t compelling either.
LATIN AMERICA, SOME ASIAN & JAPAN represent much better values than stocks in the EU or US. However, emerging market stocks may not be as cheap as they appear. What appears as an extraordinary value opportunity in emerging markets is largely driven by depressed Chinese stocks. Other countries are not nearly as cheap. The short-term potential in Chinese stocks is substantial for nimble traders. Just don’t count on it lasting. The political risk is enormous. I will pass on the China opportunity.
US BONDS – For the foreseeable future bonds are trapped in a trading range with 10yr TBonds bounded by the relatively recent highs and low yields (3.5% to 4.25%). High-quality bonds (treasuries, mortgages, municipals and AAA corporates) will follow suit. Rising recession risks mean that high yield (“Junk”) bonds that performed relatively well in 2022, will suffer greater losses in the new year. We used the recent rally to shorten our bond portfolio duration. If we get an opportunity we will begin reinvesting when 10 yr TBond yields rise above 4%. Bonds will almost certainly outperform stocks in the new year benefiting from relatively benign inflation through June. The big risk is an ocean of supply. The Fed is a seller while foreign central banks are dumping US Treasuries to fund currency support operations. All that will be compounded by a deficit driven increase in new government debt.
GOLD AND GOLD MINERS radically outperformed US stocks this year. Gold still suffered small losses in the face of a strong US Dollar and rising interest rates. Now the dollar is headed lower as growth slows and central banks sell. If the dollar merely gives back its 2022 gains gold could be up double digits despite rising short term rates. Unlike a year ago gold and mining stocks are no longer cheap relative to US stocks. The 20% decline in stock prices has leveled the field. If stocks suddenly plunge (triggering margin calls), gold and especially miners could also nose dive as investors sell what they can to raise cash. Tread carefully. If however that plunge happens, BACK UP THE TRUCK. Severe recession is a magic elixir for metals prices as interest rates plunge. We remain (nervously) long, relying primarily on support from the falling dollar. 2023 could be wild ride.
I prayerfully hope you are all having the happiest of holidays. We recognize that this has been challenging year for many, despite our own good fortune. The last few years have been a wild ride. The pandemic, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and soaring inflation haven’t made life easier. We have been polarized by looting criminals (encouraged by many well-meaning progressives) in race triggered riots, as well as criminals raiding the Capitol (encouraged by many well-intentioned populists). Things were challenging enough without the worst market decline in history for a mixed portfolio of stocks and bonds.
Maybe the New Year will bring us closer to Peace on Earth and Good Will toward at least our fellow Americans, if not all of mankind. We are so fortunate to live in a democracy that, despite its flaws, guarantees us the right to change rules we deem unjust via peaceful elections. I have worked hard in the past few years to avoid letting my personal political views distract from providing readers with helpful insight. Believe me, it was an unnatural act. I have been asked (and tempted) to write a purely political letter more than once.
My own prayer this Christmas is that I personally be given the strength to tolerate and respect the superficial (if well intentioned) views that have fueled the political polarization of the last few years. My near-term market outlook remains less than exuberant, but I look forward to some spectacular long-term investing opportunities later in the year at better prices.
Clyde Kendzierski FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS GROUP LLC
FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS GROUP LLC
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This material is intended only for clients and prospective clients of FSG. It has been prepared solely for informational purposes and is not an offer to buy or sell or a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any security or other financial instrument, or to participate in any trading strategy.
This material is intended only for clients and prospective clients of the FSG. It has been prepared solely for informational purposes and is not an This circumstances material and does not objectives provide of persons individually who receive tailored it. The investment strategies advice. 7 and/ or It has investments been prepared discussed in without this regard material to may not be suitable for all investors. No mention of any security or strategy should be taken as personalized investment advice or a specific buy or sell recommendation. Please contact FSG to discuss your specific financial situation and suitability.
S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged, market value-weighted index of 500 stocks generally representative of the broad stock market. Performance results reported herein were achieved in an actual account managed by FSG. This account serves as a model portfolio for FSG’s Diversified Sector Program. This account belongs to Clyde Kendzierski, Managing Director and is not charged advisory fees. Results reflect the net return in this account after expenses including commissions, fund management fees, and redemptions charges, if any, and reflect the reinvestment of dividends and other earnings. Performance returns are presented against the S&P 500 to show material economic and market conditions present during the period of time that FSG’s performance is presented and is not meant to serve as a comparative index. The S&P 500® is an unmanaged capitalization-weighted index of the prices of 500 large-cap common stocks actively traded in the United States. These results have not been audited. However, some results have been independently calculated and verified by an unaffiliated accountant. Where applicable, documentation is available by request.
Most clients utilize our Diversified Sector Program for at least a portion of their portfolio. Individual client strategy blend is determined by client’s age, risk tolerance, goals, and other assets as well as other factors. Increased risk offers the potential, but not the guarantee of higher returns. Investments aligned with this strategy offer the potential for loss. Actual client returns will reflect the deduction of advisory fees as described herein and in FSG’s Form ADV Part 2A. No two accounts will necessarily achieve the exact same returns, as there are factors that are unique to each account. However, whenever possible, every effort is made to transact in client accounts simultaneously with those in the model portfolio, at the same price with the same fees (if any). Reasons that actual returns in individual client accounts may differ from others or the model include:
Addition or withdrawal of client funds - This is especially true for new accounts during the first ninety days after an account is opened. Portfolios are not adjusted instantaneously to correspond with the model. Investments are phased in or out, as opportunities occur during subsequent weeks in an attempt to optimize the benefit to the client. The occasional or periodic withdrawal or addition of funds by the client will distort the allocation within the account between asset classes resulting in performance results that vary from the model accounts.
- Taxable Status of Account Whether funds are held in a taxable or non-taxable account will affect performance. The Diversified Sector Program was created originally for tax-exempt or tax-deferred accounts. However, a version of the same strategy is employed for taxable accounts. The model account for this strategy is an IRA account. Few distinctions with regard to positions are made between taxable and non-taxable accounts.
- Waiver and timing of all or some advisory fees - The actual timing of the deduction of advisory fees in a client account may differ from the timing in the model account. This may create a disparity between the asset allocation and position allocation of the client account versus the model account.
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- Different commission rates - This fee is primarily generated in FSG accounts when trading in ETFs and is charged directly to the client by the brokerage firm. FSG does not participate in these commissions.
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Some restrictions on mutual fund transactions may be imposed by the mutual fund companies. These restrictions are the result of prohibitions regarding short term sales (usually a buy and sell in the same fund within 30 days and typically triggered by the addition or withdrawal of funds in the client account). FSG attempts to avoid these restrictions when possible.
Account size - The proportional effect on performance of fees and expenses accounts of varying size will be lesser or greater than the effect in the model account
In most cases, clients should achieve returns similar to the model portfolio (after adjustment for fees) in accounts over $250,000 that have been established for over 90 days with no additions or withdrawals of funds during the period being measured.
This material is intended only for clients and prospective clients of the FSG. It has been prepared solely for informational purposes and is not an offer to buy or sell or a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any security or other financial instrument, or to participate in any trading strategy.
This material does not provide individually tailored investment advice. It has been prepared without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. The strategies and/or investments discussed in this material may not be suitable for all investors. No mention of any security or strategy should be taken as personalized investment advice or a specific buy or sell recommendation. Please contact FSG to discuss your specific financial situation and suitability.
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