By Jack Rivkin
If one was fortunate enough to avoid the noise of the first three months of the year, one could point to a flat equity market for the year-to-date (YTD) with the 10-year treasury yield declining from 2.24% to 1.91% as the yield curve flattened. Most were not fortunate enough to avoid the noise and the liquidity trap that led to some selling at the wrong time and not much buying. The poor macro guys were making all kinds of bets, while the hedge funds tried to make the most of the dispersion amongst individual securities.
We have written about greater volatility and greater dispersion as a characteristic of a slow growth economy, which produces increased differentiation of earnings performance and a generally slower growth in overall equity performance. We believe this condition will be with us for some time to come as the global economy works its way through industrial overcapacity and the recession produced in the global industrial sector. In the meantime, service sectors around the world and disruptive information technology have been the primary source of jobs. Ultimately, IT will change the mix of talent needed. That is already showing up in the JOLTS reports with quits and job openings at high levels. While one can see the dispersion in individual stocks, we also see dispersion in the pace and the drivers of economic growth in both developed and developing markets. It is worth looking at the dispersion by industry within the US, and we have included a table showing what has happened YTD in the energy sector featuring the 10 best and worst performers YTD.
The US is, in our view, rightfully, on a path back toward normality led by Fed action without much fiscal help. Odds are if the economy continues to produce job growth and, ultimately, wage increases, we will see additional increases in the Fed funds rate this year (See Altegris Perspectives, "What to Expect in 2016 (And Beyond)" for some specific forecasts made as the year began on Fed rate hikes, oil prices, the markets, and a few other variables).
There are two variables at work, which would appear to be affecting the timing and magnitude of the Fed funds rate increases. One of them is bogus in my view, but the other one is a bit more troubling. The bogus element is the excuse of what is happening outside the US as a reason to both delay and reduce the likely Fed funds rate increases for this year. The second variable, which has not been made explicit, but, in my view, is a driver of the move away from being data-driven, has to do with the elections in November. The noise coming from both major parties - to the extent we still have two major parties - has, as a part of their message, been looking to what has really gone on at the Fed with finger-pointing blame for the rate of growth perceived to be lower than it should have been; and making sure that the next president makes it "right."
There has always been a political consideration that the Fed has been required to acknowledge, even in Paul Volcker's day. However, with the rhetoric coming from the candidates, I believe the Fed is taking a very cautious approach with a willingness to err on the side of not doing anything that could, in hindsight, be viewed as disrupting the growth path we are on. This likely means fewer increases than were originally anticipated this year and later in the year, unless the employment data forces the Fed's hand. Our expectation as expressed in our Perspectives piece was for two increases this year. That is now appearing to be the general view (which likely means it's wrong). If the general view proves to be wrong, I would think we would see more than two increases as opposed to a reduction. As I said in the Perspectives piece, the second half of the year may be very different from the first half - and that's without the Cushing quake.
As long as we are dealing with unspoken strategies, one could take this even further into the world of strategic interlinkage of actions with an unexpected outcome: The lack of a Fed funds rate increase has had a negative impact on the dollar and along with some elements on the supply/demand front, has been a factor in pushing the WTI (Cushing) oil price up from a low of $26.68/barrel on January 20 to around $40/bbl now, while the spread has narrowed with Brent, which hit a low of $28.58/bbl on January 13 and is at the same price as WTI now. The $11/bbl increase in Brent is a huge benefit to Russia, which is pumping out a recent high of over 10.3 million barrels of oil a day. At the same time, the ruble has declined over the last two years relative to the dollar by 50% making every dollar received worth twice as much to the economy and reserves than it might otherwise. The sudden withdrawal of the Russian military's support of the Syrian government, "mission accomplished" combined with noises about reaching some type of settlement desired by many of the significant Middle East oil producers seems coincident with the interesting move of oil prices off their lows. We will see how long these prices hold, but every day is a huge benefit to Mr. Putin, and some belief or hinted commitment that oil prices may stay a bit higher is reason enough to move toward being a part of a cease-fire and potential settlement. This is not a benefit to the US economy away from the oil and gas industry. It simply reinforces our view that growth will be slow and profit dispersion will be significant, and things happen in this world that are more complex than the pundits think. It continues to require a relook at allocations and a realistic view of what kind of returns one can expect from the traditional liquid markets overall for some time to come.
The dispersion will lead to moments in time when the value proposition is overwhelmingly positive. Those are the most difficult times to make the buy decisions as opposed to selling at the bottom. We have written and "webinared" before about the illiquidity premium that is available and may be necessary to achieve one's financial goals, as well as the increasing value of pattern recognition as Moore's Law continues to increase the ability of those who know how to use the technology to the benefit of their clients. We will continue to see these unusual volatile moves as we work our way through this long low return environment. It is a different investing environment.
In the short term, I still believe we need to PAY ATTENTION to the employment reports as a major factor for the Fed, the economy and most likely, the elections. We will be getting the March report this coming Friday.
As one can see from the table of historical seasonally-adjusted and not seasonally-adjusted employment numbers, February, March and April typically make up for the actual declines in the employment rolls in January. However, this January's decline - larger than many of the previous Januaries - along with the numbers of late last year, seem to indicate a changing pattern that is not necessarily being picked up in the seasonally-adjusted numbers. If the make-up actually occurs in February through April, the seasonally-adjusted numbers could be explosive.
This will make for interesting media responses. Of more importance will be what is actually happening to wage and weekly payroll increases and what that means for total wages, including additions to the payrolls. This does get pretty technical, and the changing pattern could lead to just the opposite of what I am describing. The wage numbers will be of more importance to the Fed and will likely become the topic that could drive the Fed's decisions on timing and magnitude of funds rate increases against the backdrop of an adversarial political environment. The confusion that comes with these seasonally-adjusted numbers will add to the volatility and uncertainty about what the Fed will actually do.
To some extent it is noise; to another extent it is a signal, reinforcing the view that we are in a different, slow growth environment that will call for some real decisions on asset allocations and the choices of strategies to meet one's goals. We can help with some of those solutions. They are not blanket solutions that apply to all investors, but instead do require some real understanding of what an investor or her advisor is trying to achieve over a specific time frame.