Tag Archives: recession

Oil, Markets, Volatility

Guest post by Contributing Editor, David R. Kotok, Cumberland Advisors.

Oil, Markets, VolatilitySharply lower oil prices have occasioned a huge discussion about their impact. We see it play out daily in newspapers, on TV and radio, at websites, on blogs, and in market letters. The range of forecasts runs from one extreme to another.

On one side, pundits predict a recession resulting from a US energy sector meltdown that leads to credit defaults in energy-related high-yield debt. They predict trouble in those states which have had high growth from the US energy renaissance. These bearish views also note the failures of Russian businesses to pay foreign-denominated debt held by European banks. And they point to sovereign debt risks like Venezuela.  These experts then envision the geopolitical risk to extend to cross-border wars and other ugly outcomes.

Geopolitical high-oil-price risk has morphed to geopolitical low-oil-price risk. That’s the negative extreme case.

The positive forecasts regarding oil are also abundant. American’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) drops robustly due to energy-price ripple effects of $50 oil. We are still in the early stages of seeing these results in US inflation indicators. There is a lot more to come as the lower energy price impacts a broad array of products and service-sector costs.

A big change in the US trade balance reflects the reduced imported oil price. We are also seeing that appear in the current account deficit plunge. In fact, both of those formerly strongly negative indicators are reaching new lows. They are the smallest deficits we have seen in 15 years. Action Economics expects that the current account deficit in the first quarter of 2015 will be below $80 billion. That is an incredible number when we think about gross flows history.

Remember that the current account deficit is an accounting identity with the capital account surplus.  Net $80 billion goes out of the US and turns around and comes back.  These are very small numbers in an economy of $18 trillion in size.

Think about what it means to have a capital account surplus of $80 billion, driven by a current account deficit of $80 billion. That means that the neutral balancing flows into the United States because of transactional and investment activity are now small. Therefore the momentum of US financial markets is driven by the foreign choices that are directing additional money flows into the US.

In the end the equations must balance. When there is an imbalance, it affects asset prices. In the present case, those asset prices are denominated in US dollars. They are desired by the rest of the world.  They are real estate, bonds, stocks, or any other asset that is priced in dollars and that the world wants to accumulate. In the US, where the size of our economy is approaching $18 trillion, the once-feared current account deficit has become a rounding error.

How bad can the energy-price hit be to the United States? There are all kinds of estimates. Capital Economics says that the decline in the oil price (they used a $40 price change, from $110 to $70 per barrel) will “reduce overall spending on petroleum-related liquids by non-oil-producing businesses and households by a total of $280 billion per year (from $770 billion to $490 billion).” Note that the present oil price is $20 a barrel lower than their estimated run rate.

That is a massive change and very stimulative to the US non-energy sector. The amount involved is more than double the 2% payroll-tax-cut amount of recent years. In fact it adds up to about 3/4 of the revised US federal budget deficit estimate in the fiscal year ending in 2015.

Let me repeat. That estimate from Capital Economics is based on an average price of $70 a barrel in the US for all of 2015. The current price of oil is lower. Some forecasts estimate that the oil price is going much lower. We doubt that but the level of the oil price is no longer the key issue.  It is the duration of the lower price level that matters.  We do not know how long the price will fall, but there is some thought developing that it will hover around $55 to $60 for a while (average for 2015).

There is certainly a negative impact to the oil sector. Capital spending slows when the oil price falls. We already see that process unfolding. It is apparent in the anecdotes as a drilling rig gets canceled or postponed, a project gets delayed, or something else goes on hold.

How big is the negative number? Capital Economics says, “The impact on the wider economy will be modest. Investment in mining structures is $146 billion, with investment in mining equipment an additional $26 billion. Altogether investment in mining accounts for 7.7% of total business investment, but only 1% of GDP.”

At Cumberland we agree. The projections are obvious: energy capital expenditures will decline; the US renaissance in oil will slow, and development and exploration will be curtailed. But the scale of the negative is far outweighed by the scale of the positive.

Let’s go farther. Fundstrat Global Advisors, a global advisory source with good data, suggests that lower oil will add about $350 billion in developing-nation purchasing power. That estimate was based on a 28% oil price decline starting with a $110 base. The final number is unknown. But today’s numbers reveal declines of almost 50%.  Think about a $350 billion to $500 billion boost to the developing countries in North America, Europe, and Asia. Note these are not emerging-market estimates but developing-country estimates.

It seems to us that another focal point is what is happening to the oil-producing countries. In this case Wells Fargo Securities has developed some fiscal breakeven oil prices for countries that are prominent oil producers. Essentially, Kuwait is the only one with a positive fiscal breakeven if the oil price is under $60 per barrel. Let’s take a look at Wells Fargo’s list. The most damaged country in fiscal breakeven is Iran. They need a price well over $100 in order to get to some budgetary stability. Next is Nigeria. Venezuela is next. Under $100 but over $60 are Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Let’s think about this oil battle in a geopolitical context. BCA Research defines it as a “regional proxy war.” They identify the antagonists as Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is that simple when it comes to oil. Saudis use oil as a weapon, and they intend to weaken their most significant enemy on the other side of the water in their neighborhood. But the outcome also pressures a bunch of other bad guys, including Russia, to achieve some resolution of the situation in Ukraine.

There are victims in the oil patch: energy stocks, exploration and production, and related energy construction and engineering. Anything that is tied to oil price in the energy patch is subject to economic weakness because of the downward price pressure. On the other hand, volumes are enhanced and remain intact. If anything, one can expect consumption to rise because the prices have fallen. Favoring volume-oriented energy consumption investment rather than price-sensitive energy investment is a transition that investing agents need to consider. At Cumberland, we are underweight energy stock ETFs. We sold last autumn and have not bought back.  We favor volume oriented exposures, including certain MLPs.

We believe that the US economic growth rate is going to improve. In 2015, it will record GDP rate of change levels above 3.5%. Evidence suggests that the US economy will finally resume classic longer term trend rates above 3%. It will do so in the context of very low interest and inflation rates, a gradual but ongoing improvement in labor markets, and the powerful influences of a strengthening US dollar and a tightening US budget deficit. The American fiscal condition is good and improving rapidly. The American monetary condition is stabilizing. The American banking system has already been through a crisis and now seems to be adequately protected and reserved.

Our view is bullish for the US economy and stock market. We have held to that position through volatility, and we expect more volatility. When interest rates, growth rates, and trends are normalized, volatilities are normalized. They are now more normal than those that were distorted and dampened by the ongoing zero interest rate policy of the last six years.

Volatility restoration is not a negative market item. It is a normalizing item. We may wind up seeing the VIX and the stock market rise at the same time. Volatility is bidirectional.

We remain nearly fully invested in our US ETF portfolios. We expect more volatility in conjunction with an upward trend in the US stock market.

High volatility means adjustments must be made, and sometimes they require fast action. This positive outlook could change at any time. So Cumberland clients can expect to see changes in their accounts when information and analysis suggest that we move quickly.

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Cumberland Advisors is not affiliated with FOLIOfn or The Portfolioist.

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Handcuff Volunteers and the Rally of 2013

The S&P500 is up by 26% for the year-to-date, despite the fact that employment growth is anemic, the labor participation rate is at its lowest point in thirty five years, and inflation-adjusted GDP growth is experiencing a long-term slowing (see chart below).  GDP turns negative in recessions—this is the definition of a recession—but has historically recovered much faster than we have seen in the post 2008 years. Continue reading

Real Household Incomes: How Goes the Recovery?

Doug Short has written a great article on median U.S. household income through time.  He shows that the median household income in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, has fallen by 7.2% since 2000 and is 7.9% below the peak reached near the start of 2008, as we entered the last recession.  How do we reconcile this with the notion of an economic recovery? Continue reading

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The State of the Economy

Availability of timely data is at the core of effective financial and economic analysis.  The Federal Reserve Economic Database (FRED) provides a vast array of economic time series via an intuitive graphical interface.  If you want to get a read on the U.S. economy, FRED is an outstanding resource.  The ability to quickly create customized charts makes it quick and easy to examine a wide range of data.  In this article, I am going to show a number of these charts, while  exploring the overall economic U.S. economic picture. Continue reading

Why Bond Yields Scare Me More Than Friday the 13th

Stock investors generally don’t have much to fear on Friday the 13th. Historically, Friday the 13th is a relatively calm day for stocks. Jason Zweig, who writes The Wall Street Journal’s Intelligent Investor column, says it’s usually a good day for investors and says superstition about trading on this supposedly unlucky day is one of the market’s “dumbest myths.”

Bond yields, however, are seriously worrying to Geoff Considine.  Here’s why. Continue reading

Housing Prices and the Economy: Is There Any Good News?

New data shows that housing prices are not improving.

Nationally, prices have now dropped 34.4% from their peak in 2006.  Prices are now the lowest they have been since the end of 2002, according to the Case/Shiller index.  Robert Shiller, co-creator of the index and long-term researcher on housing prices, warns that risks remain and that we may be seeing a broad shift in consumers’ beliefs with regard to the desirability and risks of owning a house.  In fact, Shiller speculates that it may take decades for suburban single-family housing prices to recover.

A chart of the 20-city composite of U.S. house prices tells the story (below):

(Case/Shiller 20-City U.S. Home Price Index, Seasonally Adjusted. Source: Standard and Poors.)

Nationally, home prices more than doubled from 2000-2006.  From mid-2006 to mid-2009, prices dropped as dramatically as they rose during the boom.  We experienced a slight bounce from mid-2009 to mid-2010, but prices started to decline again in 2010 and are now at their lowest point in a decade.

Implications of Weak Housing Values

Beyond the obvious impacts on homeowners’ net worth, what are the implications of weak housing values for the economy?

First, for many Americans, their houses represent most of their net worth.  What’s more, less wealthy households tend to have a higher percentage of their net worth in home equity.  A continued decline in house prices tends to increase wealth inequality, as well as reducing household net worth as a whole.  Given that fewer and fewer Americans have traditional employer-sponsored pension plans, reductions in household net worth translate directly into fewer financial resources available to fund retirement and other long-term liabilities.

Second, we have the wealth effect.  People tend to feel wealthier when the paper value of their assets is higher, and they tend to spend more.  This may be an especially powerful driver of consumption when homeowners can easily use home equity loans to fund purchases of consumer goods.  A number of studies have found that wealth in the form of home equity is a larger driver of consumer spending than other forms of wealth.

Third, we have the manifestation of de-leveraging among individual investors.  People who lose their homes to foreclosure are not likely to purchase new homes.  In addition, baby boomers who are saddled with mortgages they cannot really afford are likely to sell their homes to get out from under the risks that such leverage (e.g. mortgaged) creates.  Gary Shilling recently outlined this scenario.  With a smaller pool of ready buyers, this de-leveraging across the residential real estate market is a deflationary force.

Is There Any Good News?

Yes, some. Buying a house is looking more and more attractive relative to renting.  With low interest rates and lower prices, the cost of purchasing a house is lower than it has been over most of the last ten years.  Ken Johnson, a professor who studies real estate, and the buy-vs.-rent problem in particular, concludes that buying looks like a better bet than renting.  On the other hand, it is hardly surprising that potential home buyers, and especially first-time buyers, will be very wary of borrowing large sums of money to purchase an asset that may be hard to sell (liquidity risk) and that has the potential to drop as much as we have seen housing prices fall in recent years.

On the other hand, the implications of the most recent Case/Shiller numbers are not very positive.  The best that can be said is that housing prices have shifted from a dramatic free fall to a slower downward drift.  It is hard to tell whether this persistent declined in housing prices is a symptom or a cause of an ongoing economic malaise.  For wealthier Americans, the massive upswing in the stock market has offset declines in housing values.  For less-well-off Americans, the continued erosion of net worth suggests it will be a very slow recovery in terms of personal wealth and in terms of a sustained recovery in consumer spending, which has historically depended on the “wealth effect.”

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Standing at the Close of 2011

This has been a chaotic year in the financial world.  In this latest article, I will take a look at what happened in 2011 and give my personal views on where things are going for 2012.

Many Happy Returns?

The biggest news of the year would have to be Europe.  As I write this, the EAFE index of international developed-market stocks has returned -12% for the trailing 1-year period and an annualized -4.7% per year over the last five years.  The EAFE index has a 15-year annualized return of 3.3% per year.

The S&P 500 Index has delivered 2.8% for the trailing 1-year and stands at almost exactly 0% total annualized returns (including dividends) for the trailing three years.  On the other hand, Continue reading