“Ya gadda have a praaacess”
– British portfolio managers mimicking their American colleagues
When long ago a former employer sent me to London to join the other Americans, or mostly Americans, building out its U.K. office, my job was to create a process. In institutional asset management, process was the American way. For sales presentations and especially dealing with investment consultants, you needed process charts that showed information flowing this way and that and, ultimately, morphing through its travels on the page into repeatable investment decisions. Those charts proved your legitimacy as an institutional manager—regardless of whether they described your actual decision making, they let the community know that you weren’t just a “bunch of gunslingers.” Essentially, you couldn’t build a business without your process charts.
But British consultants were different. They didn’t care so much about your process as they wanted you to knock them over with flair. They wanted imagination, story-telling, charisma. The process charts in your pitchbook didn’t matter as much as the command in your voice. In London, gunslinging was nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you slung with style.
So it all came down to process versus flair. Along with baseball caps and mismatched accents, the clash of cultures depended on which of the two qualities was deemed most important. And along with the accents, in particular, the contrasting approaches explained mimicry performed by amused Brits when the conference room door was comfortably shut or when the pub was crowded enough that voices didn’t carry. Ya gadda have a praaacess.
So today, I give you what else but a few pieces of process. Not a complete one, not even close, but I’ll share two dashboards that compare current stock market conditions to the conditions that shaped past market cycles. The dashboards can support your portfolio decisions, in my opinion, regardless of whether you’re a process Kool-Aid drinking septic or a flair fancying Anglophile. (For the same approach applied to the economy, see “Here’s a Strong Signal from the Economic Dashboard.”)
If 2018 rings in a bear market, it could look something like the Kennedy Slide of 1962.
That was my conclusion in “Riding the Slide,” published in early September, where I showed that the Kennedy Slide was unique among bear markets of the last eighty years. It was the only bear that wasn’t obviously provoked by rising inflation, tightening monetary policy, deteriorating credit markets or, less commonly, world war or depression.
Moreover, market conditions leading up to the Slide should be familiar—they’re not too far from market conditions since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. In the first year after Kennedy’s election, as in the first year after Trump’s election, inflation seemed under control, interest rates were low, credit spreads were tight, and the economy was growing. And, in both cases, the stock market was booming.
Here’s an updated look at Trump’s stock rally versus the Kennedy rally and subsequent Slide:
As you can see, we’ve now reached the chart’s critical juncture—at this time of the calendar in 1962, the post-election rally was ending, and the Slide was about to begin. Our chart begs the question: Will the similarities continue and lead us into a Trump Slide in early 2018?
Or, with less drama, you might like to hear my Q1 stock market outlook.
We’ve been seeing more and more commentaries discussing bad stuff that can happen when the Fed tightens policy and, as a result, the yield curve flattens. (See, for example, this piece from Citi Research and ZeroHedge.) No doubt, the Fed’s rate hikes will lead to mishaps as they usually do—in both markets and the economy. But most forecasters expect the economy to expand through next year, believing that the Fed and the yield curve aren’t yet restrictive enough to trigger a recession.
We won’t make a full-year 2018 forecast here, but we’ll share one of our “dashboard” charts that supports the consensus view for at least the first half of the year. With one methodological change to a chart we published in August, we’ll look at the following indicators, which together have an excellent track record predicting the business cycle:
In September, we proposed a theory of the Fed and suggested the FOMC will soon worry mostly about financial imbalances without much concern for recession risks. We reached that conclusion by weighing the reputational pitfalls faced by the economists on the committee, but now we’ll add more meat to our argument, using financial flows data released last week.
We’ve created two charts, beginning with a look at cumulative, inflation-adjusted asset gains during the last seven business cycles:
Forget about big hair, Ray-Bans, and Donkey Kong. Don’t even think about Live-Aid, Thriller, and E.T. Above all else, the 1980s were the gravy days of the money supply aggregates.
Beginning in late 1979, the Fed built its policy approach around the aggregates—primarily M1 but occasionally M2, and policy makers also monitored M3 while experimenting with M1B and, later, MZM. But those were just the “official” figures. Economists and pundits debated the Fed’s preferred measures while concocting their own home-brewed variations.
Notably, the Fed allowed interest rates to fluctuate as much as necessary to achieve its money growth targets. Fluctuate they did—rates soared and dipped wildly as a direct result of the Fed’s policy. The world, meanwhile, watched the action as attentively as a Yorkie watches breakfast, studying every wiggle in every M. Missing one wiggle could have meant the difference between exploiting the volatility that the Fed unleashed or being sunk by that same volatility.
And to make sense of it all, the world looked to the most famous economist of his day, Milton Friedman. By converting a large swath of his profession to his strict brand of Monetarism, Friedman more than anyone else had triggered the monetary frenzy.
But then, almost as quickly as the frenzy blew in, it blew right back out. With none of the Ms living up to their billings as economic indicators, the Monetarists drifted from view. Not in five minutes but in five years, give or take a couple, their period of fame was over. Friedman’s reputation as an economics savant fell particularly hard—his highly publicized forecasts proved inaccurate in each year from 1983 to 1986. And the Fed once again redesigned its approach, first deemphasizing and eventually dropping its money growth targets.
But maybe the Monetarists came closer to explaining the economy than their critics allowed?
Maybe the best indicator—I’ll call it “MDuh”—was somehow hidden in plain sight?
We’ve produced some research over the years that we’d love to see the powers-that-be react to, but none more so than our look at financial flows during the QE programs.
By netting all lending by banks and broker-dealers and then comparing it to the Fed’s lending, we stumbled upon a chart that seemed to show exactly what QE does or doesn’t do. But “doesn’t” was the story, and it couldn’t have been clearer or shown a more stimulating pattern. Our Excel click on “Insert, Line” was like stepping from a shady trail to a sunny vista.
Here’s the updated chart, which we dubbed the “argyle effect” and looks even sharper than it did when we first produced it in 2014:
As reported earlier this morning by the Wall Street Journal, President Trump and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin met with Kevin Warsh yesterday to discuss the potential vacancy at the Fed next February.
Warsh already has central banking experience, having sat on the Federal Open Market Committee as a Fed governor from February 2006 until March 2011.
Two and a half years after he resigned from the Fed, he emerged as a vocal critic of FOMC policies, including policies he helped craft. He published an op-ed in the WSJ on November 12, 2013, and it was quite the editorial. As that happened to be the first week of hunting season, we suggested that Warsh had declared open season on his ex-colleagues, and we came up a gimmicky picture to go along with our reporting:
But we also thought his op-ed needed translation. It was written with the polite wording and between-the-lines meanings that you might expect from such an establishment figure. He seemed to be holding back, so we offered our guesses on what he was really trying to say. And with today’s breaking news, we thought we would reprint our translation.
So, if you’re wondering what the current frontrunner as Trump’s choice for the Fed chairmanship really thinks, here are Warsh’s comments on nine topics, followed by our translations.
Pension plan administrators do it. Their actuaries and consultants do it. Professional endowment and foundation investors do it. Financial advisors do it. Private investors may or may not do it, but they probably should.
Even as the Fed’s decision makers are beginning to worry less about recession and more about bubbly stock prices, we’re not yet moved by their attempts to curb the market’s enthusiasm. After all, the fed funds rate sits barely above 1%, which not too long ago qualified as a five-decade low. And other indicators, besides interest rates, aren’t exactly predicting the next bear, either. Inflation is subdued, credit spreads are tight, banks are mostly lending freely and the economy is growing, albeit slowly. It just doesn’t feel as though we’re close to a major market peak.