Tagged: economics

Interest(ing) Rates

Cathie Wood says don’t do it.

Raise interest rates, that is.  The founder of Ark Investment Management and guru to retail traders of Tech stocks says the Federal Reserve is playing with fire.

Why?  Because growth is fragile and consumer confidence is woeful.  Hike rates, and we plunge into recession.

Illustration 44644519 © Tashatuvango | Dreamstime.com

I enjoy economics almost as much as market structure. I’ve got observations.

What’s the big threat Ms. Woods sees in higher rates? US Gross Domestic Product is 70% consumption – the stuff we buy.  The consumption linchpin is home equity.

As homes increase in value, consumers borrow equity to fuel both the confidence to go out and buy stuff, and the means to consume big-ticket items like cars and appliances.

If interest rates rise, people stop buying and refinancing homes, and the torrent of cash driving consumption shrivels.

I think the Federal Reserve knows it’s going to muzzle the economy. But The Fed will try to rapidly raise interest rates so it can hack them back to zero as the economy slips. Maybe that’ll juice consumption anew, forestalling recession.

The whole concept is jacked. The Fed shouldn’t be manipulating consumer behavior at all, because then it’s artificial.

The Fed touts its dual mandate – stable prices, low unemployment – as an unassailable hieratic purpose. Well, why should the Fed allocate labor and capital? You’d expect that from a despotic politburo, not a free country.

Yet nobody questions it.

Listen to a Fed press conference and all you’ll hear is how many times will you hike rates?  Do you support 25 or 50 basis points?  Is the Fed too late in the curve?  Will higher rates choke off growth?  Will higher rates bring inflation to heel?

In my entire adult life, not one economist at a Fed presser has asked a good question.  

So here’s one.  Why set rates so low in the first place that they discourage savings and promote borrowing and spending? Isn’t that the opposite of sound financial strategy?

Or how about this?  The US Constitution directs Congress to fix exchange rates for our currency and to back it with just weights and measures, which means with gold and silver. Why does the Fed defy the Constitution?

Because, Tim, gold and silver are stupid antiquated notions about money.

Well, it’s the law in black and white, hasn’t been changed. But government has decided its opinions are superior to the law. In many instances. But I digress.

John Maynard Keynes, the father of deficit spending, said, “The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

You can’t suck all the value out of money backed by metal.

How does inflation debauch capitalism? Businesses struggle to deploy labor and capital to produce goods and services at predictable returns. Consumers who trade time for money can’t make ends meet and become state dependents.

Yes, hourly workers are hurt most. Then the government has the audacity to blame capitalism for the growing wealth gap. No, the Fed does it. Rich people can surf the inflation wave. Poor people can’t.

The problem isn’t higher rates. It’s LOW RATES to begin.

Low rates increase the supply of currency faster than output, which means everybody’s money buys less. The money supply the last two years rose from $16-$22 trillion.

The definition of inflation should be “low interest rates,” because the inevitable consequence is more money chasing the same goods instead of getting saved, invested.

If we wanted people to save, we’d reward them for it. Why don’t we? Because the Fed exists – no matter its pronouncements of independence – to keep the federal government and its policies afloat. Which requires CONSUMPTION. Not saving.

Even if it’s contrary to the interests of the citizenry.

What if we lifted rates to 10% and left them there?  A bunch of stuff would go broke.  Probably our government.

Too high a price? If we want money that buys more over time rather than less, that generates a return when you save it so we become less indebted, less dependent, we have to either bankrupt the government or take away its printing press.

Maybe both.

We will never be financially responsible as a society so long as the Federal Reserve uses interest rates to allocate labor and capital, and the government is printing money.

That is the problem to solve. Everything else is a failure to address the problem.

So, will we?  I’d wager all that Fed paper blighting the fruited plain that it’ll continue until nobody wants dollars (we’re helping Russia, in fact).

Or we could instead fix it.  Anyone?

Clear the Room

Winter is coming.

But autumn is mighty fine this year in the Rockies, as my weekend photo from Yampa Street in Steamboat Springs shows.

Winter follows fall and summer. Other things are less predictable, such as economic outcomes and if your Analyst Day will do what you hope (read from last week).

Here, two of my favorite things – monetary policy, market structure – dovetail.

Steamboat Springs. Photo by Tim Quast.

If you want to clear the room at a cocktail party, start talking about either one.  In fact, if you’re trapped talking to somebody you’d rather not, wanting a way out, say, “What’s your view of the fiat-currency construct?”  or “What do you think of Payment for Order Flow?”

I’ve told you before about the daily noon ET CNBC segment Karen calls the “What Do You Think of THIS Stock?” show.  Guests yammer about stocks.

Some weeks ago the host said, “What do you think of Payment for Order Flow?”

Silence.  Some throat-clearing.

Nobody understands it!  These are market professionals. Decades of experience. They don’t know how it works.

Not our topic. But so I don’t leave you hanging, PFOF is as usual with the stock market an obfuscating way to describe something simple.  Retail brokers sell a product called people’s stock trades so those people can trade stocks for free.

This is why you’re brow-beaten to use limit orders at your online brokerage.  Don’t you dare put in a market order! Dangerous!  Not true. Fast Traders, firms wanting to own nothing by day’s end and driving 53% of market volume, eschew limit orders.

They know how the market works. Brokers want you to use limit orders because those get sold. Most market orders don’t.

Pfizer wants everybody to be vaccinated and retail brokers want every trade to be a limit order, because both get paid. Same thing, no difference.

Now, back to the point.  If you tell your corporate story to a thousand investors, why doesn’t your price go up?  Similarly, why can’t we just print, like, ten trillion dollars and hand it out on the street corner and make the economy boom?

Simple. Goods and services require two things:  people and money. Labor and capital. Hand out money and nobody wants a job. Labor becomes scarce and expensive.

And if you hand out money, you’re devaluing the currency.  Money doesn’t go as far as it used to.  You need more to make the same stuff.

The irony is that handing out money destroys the economy.  You can’t make stuff, deliver it, ship it, pack it, load it, unload it, move it – and finally you can’t even buy it because you can’t afford it.

Got it?

The best thing we could do for the economy is put everything on sale.  Not drive prices up and evacuate products from shelves.  But that requires the OPPOSITE action so don’t expect it.

What does market structure have in common with monetary policy?

Too many public companies think you just tell the story to more investors and the stock price goes up.  We’re executing on the business plan. The trouble is too few know.

Wrong.  That’s a controllable, sure.  But it’s not the way the market works. AMC Theaters is a value story.  It was a herculean growth stock in early 2021 and along with Gamestop powered the Russell 2000 Value Index to crushing returns.

I was looking at data for a large-cap value stock yesterday.  The Exchange Traded Fund with the biggest exposure is a momentum growth ETF. It’s humorous to me reading the company’s capital-allocation strategy – balance-sheet flexibility with a focus on returning capital to shareholders – and looking at the 211 ETFs that own it.  It’s even in 2x leveraged bull ETFs (well, the call-options are, anyway).

Your story is a factor.  But vastly outpacing it are your CHARACTERISTICS and the kind of money creating supply, and demand. If you trade $1,500 at a time, and AMZN trades $65,000 at a time, which thing will Blackrock own, and which thing will get traded and arbitraged against options and futures?

Your CFO needs to know that, investor-relations people. And we have that data.

That large-cap I mentioned? We overlaid patterns of Active and Passive money.  Active money figured out by May 2021 that this value company was a growth stock and chased it. They were closet indexers, the Active money. PASSIVE patterns dwarf them.

And when Passive money stopped in September, the stock dropped like a rock.

It wasn’t story. It was supply and demand.

Same with the economy. Flood it with cash, and it’s hard to get that cat back in the bag once you’ve let it out.  You cannot reverse easy monetary policy without harsh consequences, and you can’t shift from momentum to value without deflation.

The good news is when you understand what’s actually going on, you can manage the controllables and measure the non-controllables. Both matter.  Ask us, and we’ll show you.

Do The Math

Anybody ever said to you, “Do the math?”

Yesterday on CNBC’s Squawk Box legendary hedge-fund manager and founder of Omega Advisors Leon Cooperman said the world is crazy.  That’s anthropomorphizing the planet but I agree. He was referring to the math behind negative interest rates, which means paying people to borrow money.  That’s crazy all right, but happening.

He also said, paraphrasing, that if the population of the country grows by 0.5% and productivity increases by 1.5%, that’s 2% economic growth.  Add in 2% inflation and you have 4% “nominal” growth, meaning the numbers add up to that figure.

He said if the S&P 500 trades at 17 times forward earnings, that puts the S&P 500 at roughly 2150, about where it is now, so the market is fully valued but not stretched.

Why should you care in the IR chair? Macro factors are dominating markets, making a grasp on economics a necessary part of the investor-relations job now.

Whether Mr. Cooperman would elaborate similarly or not, I’m going to do some math for you.  Inflation means your money doesn’t go as far as it did – things cost more.  If a widget costs $1 and the next year $1.02, why? Prices rise because the cost of making widgets is increasing.

Making stuff has two basic inputs:  Money and people. Capital and labor.  If you must spend more money to make the same stuff, then unless you can raise prices or reduce the cost of labor, your margins – which is productivity or what economists call the Solow residual – will shrink.

There’s no growth if you’re selling the same number of widgets, even if revenues increase 2%. And if prices rise, there is on the fringe of your widget market some consumer who is now priced out. That’s especially true if to retain margins you cut some labor costs by letting the receptionist go.  One more person now can’t buy widgets.

And so sales slow.

The Federal Reserve is tasked with keeping unemployment low and prices stable (a bad idea but that’s another story). Its strategy is to increase the supply of money, the theory being more money prompts hiring and rising prices are better than falling prices (errant but again for another time).

One simple way to see if that’s occurring is to look at currency in circulation on the Fed’s balance sheet.  There is now $1.5 trillion of currency in circulation, up $82 billion from a year ago.  Our economy is growing at maybe 1.5%.

In 2000, US GDP growth (right ahead of the bursting Internet bubble) was 4.1%.  In 2000, currency in circulation was $589 billion, down $30 billion from 1999 when currency in circulation grew by $100 billion over the previous year. It increased $35 billion in 1998, $31 billion in 1997.

For 2013, 2014 and 2015, currency in circulation grew $74 billion, $80 billion and $97 billion, and since July 31, 2008, before the financial crisis, currency in circulation is up $645 billion, more than total currency circulating in 2000.

Back to economic basics, what happens to the cost of stuff if money doesn’t go as far as it used to?  Prices rise.  Okay, the Fed is achieving that aim. Its plan for remedying the recession was to get prices rising.

But rising prices push some people out of the market for things.  And if to make things you’ve got to put more money to work, then something has to give or productivity declines.

It’s declining.

And if stuff costs more, people who aren’t making more money can’t buy as much stuff.  What you get is weak wages, weak growth, weak productivity. Check, check, check.

Haven’t jobs numbers been solid? We have 320 million people in this country of which 152 million have jobs. If 1% leaves every year for retirement, having kids, going to school and so on, 200,000 jobs each month is 1.5% economic growth at best.

And that’s what we’ve got.

If you want a realistic view of the economy, do the math.  At some point the rising cost of things including stocks and bonds will push some consumers out of the market.  The only head-scratching thing is what math the Fed is doing, because its math is undermining, jobs, economic growth and productivity.  It seems crazy to me.