Tag Archives: Brian Pretti

Q4 Economic and Investment Outlook

Although it may not seem like it, in the second quarter of this year the U.S. economy passed into the beginning of its seventh year of expansion. In the 158 years that the National Bureau of Economic Research (the arbiters of “official” U.S. economic cycles) has been keeping records, ours is now the fifth-longest economic cycle, at 75 months. For fun, when did the longest cycles occur, and what circumstances characterized them? Is there anything we can learn from historical perspective about what may lie ahead for the current cycle?

The first cycle longer than the current, by only five months, is the 1938-1945 U.S. economic expansion cycle. Of course, this was the immediate post-Depression recovery cycle. What preceded this cycle, from 1933-1937, was the bulk of FDR’s New Deal spending program, a program that certainly rebuilt confidence and paved the way for a U.S. manufacturing boom as war on European and Japanese lands destroyed their respective manufacturing capabilities for a time. More than anything, the war-related destruction of the industrial base of Japan and Europe was the growth accelerant of the post-Depression U.S. economy.

In historically sequential order, the U.S. economy grew for 106 months between 1961 and 1970. What two occurrences surrounded this economic expansion that were unique in the clarity of hindsight? A quick diversion. In 1946, the first bank credit card was issued by the Bank of Brooklyn, called the “Charge-It” card. Much like American Express today, the balance needed to be paid in full monthly. We saw the same thing when the Diners Club Card became popular in the 1950s. But in 1958, both American Express and Bank of America issued credit cards to their customers broadly. We witnessed the beginning of the modern day credit culture in the U.S. economic and financial system. A support to the follow-on 1961-1970 economic expansion? Without question.

Once again in the 1960s, the influence of a major war on the U.S. economy was also apparent. Lyndon Johnson’s “guns and butter” program increased federal spending meaningfully, elongating the U.S. expansion of the time.

The remaining two extended historical U.S. economic cycles of magnitude (1982-1990, at 92 months, and 1991-2001, at 120 months) both occurred under the longest bull market cycle for bonds in our lifetime. Of course, a bull market for bonds means interest rates are declining. In November 1982, the 10-year Treasury sported a yield of 10.5%. By November 2001, that number was 4.3%. Declining interest rates from the early 1980s to the present constitute one of the greatest bond bull markets in U.S. history. The “credit cycle” spawned by two decades of continually lower interest rates very much underpinned these elongated growth cycles. The question being, at the generational lows in interest rates that we now see, will this bull run be repeated?

So fast-forward to today. What has been present in the current cycle that is anomalistic? Pretty simple. Never in any U.S. economic cycle has federal debt doubled, but it has in the current cycle. Never before has the Federal Reserve “printed” more than $3.5 trillion and injected it into U.S. financial markets, until the last seven years. Collectively, the U.S. economy and financial markets were treated to more than $11 trillion of additional stimulus, a number that totals more than 70% of current annual U.S. GDP. No wonder the current economic cycle is pushing historical extremes in terms of longevity. But what lies ahead?

As we know, the U.S. Fed has stopped printing money. Maybe not so coincidentally, in recent months macroeconomic indicators have softened noticeably. This is happening across the globe, not just in the U.S. As we look forward, what we believe most important to U.S. economic outcomes is what happens outside of the U.S. proper.

Specifically, China is a key watch point. It is the second-largest economy in the world and is undergoing not only economic slowing, but the very beginning of the free floating of its currency, as we discussed last month. This is causing the relative value of its currency to decline against global currencies. This means China can “buy less” of what the global economy has to sell. For the emerging market countries, China is their largest trading partner. If China slows, they slow. The largest export market for Europe is not the U.S., it’s China. As China slows, the Euro economy will feel it. For the U.S., China is also important in being an end market for many companies, crossing industries from Caterpillar to Apple.

In the 2003-2007 cycle, it was the U.S. economy that transmitted weakness to the greater global economy. In the current cycle, it’s exactly the opposite. It is weakness from outside the U.S. that is our greatest economic watch point as we move on to the end of the year. You may remember in past editions we have mentioned the Atlanta FED GDP Now model as being quite the good indicator of macroeconomic U.S. tone. For the third quarter, the model recently dropped from 1.7% estimated growth to 0.9%. Why? Weakness in net exports. Is weakness in the non-U.S. global economy the real reason the Fed did not raise interest rates in September?

Interest Rates

As you are fully aware, the Fed again declined to raise interest rates at its meeting last month, making it now 60 Fed meetings in a row since 2009 that the Fed has passed on raising rates. Over the 2009-to-present cycle, the financial markets have responded very positively in post-Fed meeting environments where the Fed has either voted to print money (aka “Quantitative Easing”) or voted to keep short-term interest rates near zero. Not this time. Markets swooned with the again seemingly positive news of no rate increases. Very much something completely different in terms of market behavior in the current cycle. Why?

We need to think about the possibility that investors are now seeing the Fed, and really global central bankers, as to a large degree trapped. Trapped in the web of intended and unintended consequences of their actions. As we have argued for the past year, the Fed’s greatest single risk is being caught at the zero bound (0% interest rates) when the next U.S./global recession hits. With declining global growth evident as of late, this is a heightened concern, and that specific risk is growing. Is this what the markets are worried about?

It’s a very good bet that the Fed is worried about and reacting to the recent economic slowing in China along with Chinese currency weakness relative to the U.S. dollar. Not only are many large U.S. multi-national companies meaningful exporters to China, but a rising dollar relative to the Chinese renminbi is about the last thing these global behemoths want to see. As the dollar rises, all else being equal, it makes U.S. goods “more expensive” in the global marketplace. A poster child for this problem is Caterpillar. Just a few weeks ago, it reported its 33rd straight month of declining world sales. After releasing that report, it announced that 10,000 would be laid off in the next few years.

As we have explained in past writings, if the Fed raises interest rates, it would be the only central bank on Earth to do so. Academically, rising interest rates support a higher currency relative to those countries not raising rates. So the question becomes, if the Fed raises rates will it actually further hurt U.S. economic growth prospects globally by sparking a higher dollar? The folks at Caterpillar may already have the answer.

Finally, we should all be aware that debt burdens globally remain very high. Governments globally have borrowed, and continue to borrow, profusely in the current cycle. U.S. federal debt has more than doubled since 2009, and, again, we will hit yet a U.S. government debt ceiling in December. Do you really think the politicians will actually cap runaway debt growth? We’ll answer as soon as we stop laughing. As interest rates ultimately trend up, so will the continuing interest costs of debt-burdened governments globally. The Fed is more than fully aware of this fact.

In conjunction with all of this wonderful news, as we have addressed in prior writings, another pressing issue is the level of dollar-denominated debt that exists outside of the U.S.. As the Fed lowered rates to near zero in 2008, many emerging market countries took advantage of low borrowing costs by borrowing in U.S. dollars. As the dollar now climbs against the respective currencies of these non-dollar entities, their debt burdens grow in absolute terms in tandem with the rise in the dollar. Message being? As the Fed raises rates, it increases the debt burden of all non-U.S. entities that have borrowed in dollars. It is estimated that an additional $7 trillion in new dollar-denominated debt has been borrowed by non-U.S. entities in the last seven years. Fed decisions now affect global borrowers, not just those in the U.S.. So did the Fed pass on raising rates in September out of concern for the U.S. economy, or issues specific to global borrowers and the slowing international economies? For investors, has the Fed introduced a heightened level of uncertainty in their decision-making?

Prior to the recent September Fed meeting, Fed members had been leading investors to believe the process of increasing interest rates in the U.S. was to begin. So in one very real sense, the decision to pass left the investment world confused. Investors covet certainty. Hence a bit of financial market turbulence in the aftermath of the decision. Is the Fed worried about the U.S. economy? The global economy? The impact of a rate decision on relative currency values? Is the Fed worried about the emerging economies and their very high level of dollar-denominated debt? Because Fed members never clearly answer any of these questions, they have now left investors confused and concerned.

What this tells us is that, from a behavioral standpoint, the days of expecting a positive Pavlovian financial market response to the supposedly good news of a U.S. Fed refusing to raise interest rates are over. Keeping rates near zero is no longer good enough to support a positive market sentiment. In contrast, a Fed further refusing to raise interest rates is a concern. Let’s face it, there is no easy way out for global central bankers in the aftermath of their unprecedented money printing and interest rate suppression experiment. This, we believe, is exactly what the markets are now trying to discount.

The U.S. Stock Market

We are all fully aware that increased price volatility has characterized the U.S. stock market for the last few months. It should be no surprise as the U.S. equity market had gone close to 4 years without having experienced even a 10% correction, the third-longest period in market history. In one sense, it’s simply time, but we believe the key question for equity investors right now is whether the recent noticeable slowing in global economic trajectory ultimately results in recession. Why is this important? According to the playbook of historical experience, stock market corrections that occur in non-recessionary environments tend to be shorter and less violent than corrections that take place within the context of actual economic recession. Corrections in non-recessionary environments have been on average contained to the 10-20% range. Corrective stock price periods associated with recession have been worse, many associated with 30-40% price declines known as bear markets.

We can see exactly this in the following graph. We are looking at the Dow Jones Global Index. This is a composite of the top 350 companies on planet Earth. If the fortunes of these companies do not represent and reflect the rhythm of the global economy, we do not know what does. The blue bars marked in the chart are the periods covering the last two U.S. recessions, which were accompanied by downturns in major developed economies globally. As we’ve stated many a time, economies globally are more linked than ever before. We live in an interdependent global world. Let’s have a closer look.

If we turn the clock back to late 1997, an emerging markets currency crisis caused a 10%-plus correction in global stock prices but no recession. The markets continued higher after that correction. In late 1998, the blowup at Long Term Capital Management (a hedge fund management firm implosion that caused a $3.6 billion bailout among 16 financial institutions under the supervision of the Fed) really shook the global markets, causing a 20% price correction, but no recession, as the markets continued higher into the early 2000 peak. From the peak of stock prices in early 2000 to the first quarter of 2001, prices corrected just more than 20% but then declined yet another 20% that year as the U.S. did indeed enter recession. The ultimate peak to trough price decline into the 2003 bottom registered 50%, quite the bear market. Again, this correction was accompanied by recession.

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The experience from 2003 to early 2008 is similar. We saw 10% corrections in 2004 and 2006, neither of which were accompanied by recession. The markets continued higher after these two corrective interludes. Late 2007 into the first quarter of 2008 witnessed just shy of a 20% correction, but being accompanied by recession meant the peak-to-trough price decline of 2007-2009 totaled considerably more than 50%.

We again see similar activity in the current environment. In 2010, we saw a 10% correction and no recession. In 2011, we experienced a 20% correction. Scary, but no recession meant higher stock prices were to come.

So we now find ourselves at yet another of these corrective junctures, and the key question remains unanswered. Will this corrective period for stock prices be accompanied by recession? We believe this question needs to be answered from the standpoint of the global economy, not the U.S. economy singularly. For now, the jury is out, but we know evidence of economic slowing outside of the U.S. is gathering force.

As you may be aware, another U.S. quarterly earnings reporting season is upon us. Although the earnings results themselves will be important, what will be most meaningful is guidance regarding 2016, as markets look ahead, not backward. We’ll especially be interested in what the major multinationals have to say about their respective outlooks, as this will be a key factor in assessing where markets may be moving from here.

The Defining Issue for Financial Markets

For anyone who has spent time on the open sea, especially in a small craft, you know the sea can be quite the moody mistress. Some days, the gale winds are howling. Some days the sea is as smooth as glass. The financial markets are quite similar.

In late August, the U.S. equity market experienced its first 10% price correction in four years. That ended the third longest period in the history of the market without a 10% correction, so in one sense it was long overdue. But, because the U.S. stock market has been as smooth as glass for years now, it feels as if typhoon winds are blowing.

Cycles define the markets’ very existence. Unfortunately, cycles also define human decision making within the context of financial markets.

Let’s focus on one theme we believe will be enduring and come to characterize financial market outcomes over the next six to 12 months. That theme is currency.

In past missives, we have discussed the importance of global currency movements to real world economic and financial market outcomes. The issue of currency lies at the heart of the recent uptick in financial market “swell” activity. Specifically, the recent correction in U.S. equities began as China supposedly “devalued” its currency, the renminbi, relative to the U.S. dollar.

Before we can look at why relative global currency movements are so important, we need to take a step back. It’s simply a fact that individual country economies display different character. They do not grow, or contract, at the same rates. Some have advantages of low-cost labor. Some have the advantage of cheap access to raw materials. Etc. No two are exactly alike.

Historically, when individual countries felt the need to stimulate (not enough growth) or cool down (too much inflation) their economies, they could raise or lower country-specific interest rates. In essence, they could change the cost of money. Interest rates have been the traditional pressure relief valves between various global economies. Hence, decades-long investor obsession with words and actions of central banks such as the U.S. Fed.

Yet we have maintained for some time now that we exist in an economic and financial market cycle unlike any we have seen before. Why? Because there has never been a period in the lifetime of any investor alive today where interest rates in major, developed economies have been set near academic zero for more than half a decade at least. (In Japan, this has been true for multiple decades.) The near-zero rates means that the historical relief valve has broken. It has been replaced by the only relief valve left to individual countries — relative currency movements.

This brings us back to the apparent cause of the present financial market squall — the supposed Chinese currency devaluation that began several weeks ago. Let’s look at the facts and what is to come.

For some time now, China has wanted its renminbi to be recognized as a currency of global importance — a reserve currency much like the dollar, euro and yen. For that to happen in the eyes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China would need to de-link its currency from the U.S. dollar and allow it to float freely (level to be determined by the market, not by a government or central bank). The IMF was to make a decision on renminbi inclusion in the recognized basket of important global currencies in September. In mid-August, the IMF announced this decision would be put off for one more year as China had more “work to do with its currency.” Implied message? China would need to allow its currency to float freely. One week later, China took the step that media reports continue to sensationalize, characterizing China’s action as intentionally devaluing its currency.

In linking the renminbi to the dollar for many years now, China has “controlled” its value via outright manipulation, in a very tight band against the dollar. The devaluation Wall Street has recently focused on is nothing more than China allowing the band in which the renminbi trades against the dollar to widen. With any asset whose value has been fixed, or manipulated, for so long, once the fix is broken, price volatility is a virtual guarantee. This is exactly what has occurred.

China loosened the band by about 4% over the last month, which we believe is the very beginning of China allowing its currency to float freely. This will occur in steps. This is the beginning, not the end, of this process. There is more to come, and we believe this will be a very important investment theme over the next six to 12 months.

What most of the media has failed to mention is that, before the loosening, the renminbi was up 10% against most global currencies this year. Now, it’s still up more than 5%, while over the last 12 months the euro has fallen 30% against the U.S. dollar. Not 4%, 30%, and remarkably enough the lights still go on in Europe. Over the last 2 1/2 years, the yen has fallen 35% against the U.S. dollar. Although it may seem hard to believe, the sun still comes up every morning in Japan. What we are looking at in China is economic and financial market evolution. Evolution that will bring change and, we assure you, not the end of the world.

Financial market squalls very often occur when the markets are attempting to “price in” meaningful change, which is where we find ourselves right now.

What heightens current period investor angst is the weight and magnitude of the Chinese economy, second largest on planet Earth behind the U.S. With a devalued currency, China can theoretically buy less of foreign goods. All else being equal, a cheaper currency means less global buying power. This is important in that, at least over the last few decades, China has been the largest purchaser and user of global commodities and industrial materials. Many a commodity price has collapsed over the last year. Although few may realize this, Europe’s largest trading partner is not the U.S., it’s China. European investors are none too happy about recent relative currency movements.

Relative global currency movements are not without consequence, but they do not spell death and destruction.

A final component in the current market volatility is uncertainty about whether the U.S. Fed will raise interest rates for the first time in more than half a decade. Seriously, would a .25% short-term interest rate vaporize the U.S. economy? Of course not, but if the Fed is the only central bank on Earth possibly raising rates again that creates a unique currency situation. Academically, when a country raises its interest rates in isolation, it makes its currency stronger and more attractive globally. A stronger dollar and weaker Chinese renminbi academically means China can buy less U.S.-made goods. Just ask Caterpillar and John Deere how that has been working out for them lately. Similarly, with a recent drop in Apple’s stock price, are investors jumping to the conclusion that Apple’s sales in China will fall off of the proverbial cliff? No more new iPhone sales in China? Really?

The issue of relative global currency movements is real and meaningful. The change has been occurring for some time now, especially with respect to the euro and the yen. Now it’s the Chinese currency that is the provocateur of global investor angst. Make no mistake about it, China is at the beginning of its loosening of the currency band, not the end. This means relative currency movements will continue to be very important to investment outcomes.

We expect a stronger dollar. That’s virtually intuitive. But a stronger dollar is a double-edged sword — not a major positive for the near-term global economic competitiveness of the U.S., but a huge positive for attracting global capital (drawn to strong currencies). We have seen exactly this in real estate and, to a point, in “blue chip” U.S. equities priced in dollars, for years now.

In addition to a higher dollar, we fully expect a lower Chinese renminbi against the dollar. If we had to guess, at least another 10% drop in the renminbi over next 12 months. Again, the price volatility we are seeing right now is the markets attempting to price in this currency development, much as it priced in the falling euro and yen during years gone by. Therefore, sector and asset class selectivity becomes paramount, as does continuing macro risk control.

Much like a sailor away far too long at sea, the shoreline beckons. We simply need to remember that there is a “price” for being free, and for now that “price” is increased volatility. Without question, relative global currency movements will continue to exert meaningful influence over investment outcomes.

These are the global financial market seas in which we find ourselves.

Are We Entering a Bear Market?

We promise, when we wrote our monthly discussion a few weeks back titled, “At the Margin,” we had absolutely no magical insight into the price correction U.S. stocks experienced last week and this, one of the more noticeable in quite some time. You may remember our early August discussion heavily detailed the frailties of human decision-making regarding investments, with particular light being cast on emotional crowd behavior. Greed and fear are two of the most emotionally dominant drivers of decision-making, and two of the greatest enemies of investors. We’ve learned after decades of experience in the financial markets that controlling our emotions is the most important personal exercise for investment decision-making. Having said this, we thought it was important to look at the bigger picture in light of the downward movement in the U.S. and global stock markets over the last several trading days.

Although it’s never fun to experience a price correction, we need to remember that price corrections are normal in financial markets. What is abnormal are markets that go straight up without corrections — or markets that go straight down, for that matter. With all major U.S. equity markets off 10% or more as of this writing, one of the longest periods in market history without a 10% correction has ended. The last time we experienced one was in 2011. The steep correction that has taken place in the last week in U.S. equity markets appears to be a combination of emotional selling and forced selling because of margin calls, as the fundamentals of the markets have not drastically changed in the past week.

Let’s step back for a second.

Is this the beginning of a bear market in US stocks? No one knows. For now, there is not enough “weight of the evidence” to suggest this, but we’re keeping score. Although few probably realize this, about a month ago 20% of the S&P 500 stocks had already fallen 20% from their highs, well before the recent correction in the major indexes. The fact is that a “stealth correction” has already been occurring for some time now. If you own the stocks that have corrected in this manner, you are fully aware. What happened in recent days is that a lot of the “winners” of this year sold off. Historically, market corrections have been nearer an end than a beginning once the leaders finally correct. We will be watching market character closely in the weeks ahead.

It has been so long since we have experienced any type of even semi-meaningful correction in the U.S. equity markets that we have been convinced, when it finally arrived, it would feel like a bear market and emotions would be highly charged. Sound familiar?

Is there plenty to worry about in financial markets and global economies today? You had better believe it, but there has been plenty to worry about for years now in the aftermath of the Great Recession. U.S. corporations and households are a lot healthier today than was the case a number of years ago. Perhaps ironically, it’s the government sector where we find balance sheets impaired. It’s a good thing we can’t buy share ownership in global governments.

The worries will never stop; there is always something to worry about with the flood of data tied to financial markets and global economies. The key is assessing the magnitude of the reality of these worry points and how they may affect real world economic outcomes.

For now, no one knows where the markets will travel with any day-to-day precision. We have been expecting a correction for some time now, although having it happen in just a few days feels like quite the dramatic event. That sense of “free falling” over a short time is never comfortable. We instinctively act to stop the feeling by any means possible; it’s just who we are.

We believe it is imperative to do two things as we move ahead – 1) keep our emotions in check while thinking objectively and 2) assess forward market character on a continuing and intensive basis. As we have stated many a time in our communications to you, risk management is the key to successful investment outcomes over time. We know emotions have recently run higher than has been the case for some time now, and because of this it feels the risks of being invested in the equity markets are greater. If the weight of the evidence tells us this for-now-short-term correction is to become something much deeper, we will not hesitate to take protective action. The key in investing is not pinpointing the market peak prior to a correction nor nailing an exact interim market bottom before a rally. The key is avoiding large bear market drawdowns and participating in favorable market environments to the greatest extent possible.

Stocks: The Many Faces of Volatility

The current year has been characterized by increasing daily volatility in financial asset prices. This is occurring in bonds as well as stocks. In fact, through the first six months of this year, the major equity markets have been trading within a narrow price band, back and forth, back and forth. Enough to induce seasickness among the investment community.

The S&P 500 ended 2014 at 2058. On June 30, 2015, the S&P closed at 2063. In other words, the S&P spent six months going up all of five points, or 0.2%. Yet if we look at the daily change in the S&P price, the S&P actually traveled 1,544 points, daily closing price to daily closing price, in the first six months of the year. Dramamine, anyone?

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Price volatility seems to have increased, but point-to-point percentage price moves have actually been very small. When looked at within the context of an entire bull market cycle, a 3.5% price move in either direction is close to a rounding error. This is the face of volatility we have experienced over the first half of 2015. Not quite as scary as is portrayed in the media, right?

In one sense, what we have really experienced this year is what is termed a “sideways correction.”

Financial markets can correct in any number of ways. We usually think of a correction in prices as a meaningful drop. That is certainly one form of a correction, and never much fun. Markets can also correct in sideways fashion. In a sideways correction, the markets go back and forth, often waiting for fundamentals of the economy and corporate earnings to catch up with prices that have already moved. The markets are digesting prior gains. Time for a “time out.”

At least so far, this is what appears to be occurring this year. Make no mistake about it, sideways corrections heighten the perception of price volatility. That’s why it is so important to step away from the day to day and look at longer-term market character. A key danger for investors is allowing day-to-day price volatility to influence emotions, and heightened emotions to influence investment decision making.

Two issues we do believe to be very important at this stage of the market cycle are safety and liquidity. We live in a world where central banks are openly debasing their currencies, where government balance sheets are deteriorating, where governments (to greater or lesser degrees) are increasing the hunt for taxes and where cash left in certain banking systems is being charged a fee (negative interest rates) just to sit. None of these actions is friendly to capital, which is why we see so much global capital on the move.

It’s simply seeking safety and liquidity. Is that too much to ask?

To understand where the money may go, it’s important to look at the size and character of major global asset classes. In the chart below, we look at real estate and bond (credit) and stock markets. We’ve additionally shown the global money supply and gold.

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One of the key takeaways from this data is that the global credit/bond market is about 2.5 times as large as the global equity market. We have expressed our longer-term concern over bonds, especially government bonds. After 35 years of a bull market in bonds, will we have another 35 years of such good fortune? Not a chance. With interest rates at generational lows, the 35-year bond bull market isn’t in the final innings; it’s already in extra innings, thanks to the money printing antics of global central banks. So as we think ahead, we need to contemplate a very important question. What happens to this $160 trillion-plus investment in the global bond market when the 35-year bond bull market breathes its last and the downside begins?

One answer is that some of this capital will go to what is termed “money heaven.” It will never be seen again; it will simply be lost. Another possible outcome is that the money reallocates to an alternative asset class. Could 5% of the total bond market move to gold? Probably not, as this is a sum larger than total global gold holdings. Will it move to real estate? Potentially, but real estate is already the largest asset class in nominal dollar size globally. Could it reallocate to stocks? This is another potential outcome. Think about pension funds that are not only underfunded but have specific rate-of-return mandates. Can they stand there and watch their bond holdings decline? Never. They will be forced to sell bonds and reallocate the proceeds. The question is where. Other large institutional investors face the same issue. Equities may be a key repository in a world where global capital is seeking safety and liquidity. Again, only a potential outcome.

We simply need to watch the movement of global capital and how that is expressed in the forward price of these key global asset classes. Watching where the S&P ultimately moves out of this currently tight trading range seen this year will be very important. It will be a signal as to where global capital is moving at the margin among the major global assets classes.

Checking our emotions at the door is essential. Not getting caught up or emotionally influenced in the up and down of day-to-day price movement is essential. Putting price volatility and market movement into much broader perspective allows us to step back and see the larger global picture of capital movement.

These are the important issues, not where the S&P closes tomorrow, or the next day. Or, for that matter, the day after that.

Bonds Away: Market Faces Major Shift

As we are sure you are aware, the financial markets have had a bit of a tough time going anywhere this year. The S&P 500 has been caught in a 6% trading band all year, capped on the upside by a 3% gain and on the downside by a 3% loss. It has been a back-and-forth flurry. We’ve seen a bit of the same in the bond market. After rising 3.5% in the first month of the year, the 10-year Treasury bond has given away its entire year-to-date gain and then some as of mid-June. 2015 stands in relative contrast to largely upward stock and bond market movement over the past three years. What’s different this year, and what are the risks to investment outcomes ahead?

As we have discussed in recent notes, the probabilities are very high that the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this year. We have suggested that the markets are attempting to “price in” the first interest rate increase in close to a decade. We believe this is part of the story in why markets have acted as they have in 2015.

But there is a much larger longer-term issue facing investors lurking well beyond the short-term Fed interest rate increase to come. Bond yields (interest rates) rest at generational lows and prices at generational highs — levels never seen before by today’s investors. Let’s set the stage a bit, because the origins of this secular issue reach back more than three decades.

It may seem hard to remember, but in September 981, the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond hit a monthly peak of 15.32%. At the time, Fed Chairman Paul Volcker was conquering long-simmering inflationary pressures in the U.S. economy by raising interest rates to levels no one had ever seen. Thirty-one years later, in July 2012, that same yield on 10-year Treasury bonds stood at 1.53%, a 90% decline in coupon yield, as Fed Chairman Bernanke was attempting to slay the perception of deflation with the lowest level of interest rates investors had ever experienced. This 1981-present period encompasses one of the greatest bond bull markets in U.S. history, and certainly over our lifetimes. Prices of existing bonds rise when interest rates fall, and vice versa. So from 1981 through the present, bond investors have been rewarded with coupon yield (continuing cash flow) and rising prices (price appreciation via continually lower interest rates). Remember, this is what has already happened.

As always, what is important to investors is not what happened yesterday, but rather what they believe will happen tomorrow. And although this is not about to occur instantaneously, the longer-term direction of interest rates globally has only one road to travel – up. The key questions ultimately being, how fast and how high?

This is important for a number of reasons. First, for decades bond investments have been a “safe haven” destination for investors during periods of equity market and general economic turmoil. That may no longer be the case as we look ahead. In fact, with interest rates at generational lows and prices at all-time highs, forward bond market price risk has never been higher. An asset class that has always been considered safe is no longer, regardless of what happens to stock prices.

We need to remember that so much of what has occurred in the current market cycle has been built on “confidence” in central bankers globally. Central bankers control very short-term interest rates (think money market fund rates). Yes, quantitative easing allowed these central banks to print money and buy longer-maturity bonds, influencing longer-term yields for a time. That’s over for now in the U.S., although it is still occurring in Japan and Europe. So it is very important to note that, over the last five months, we have witnessed the 10-year U.S. Treasury yields move from 1.67% to close to 2.4%, and the Fed has not lifted a finger. In Germany, the yield on a 10-year German Government Bund was roughly .05% a month ago. As of this writing, it has risen to 1%. That’s a 20-fold increase in the 10-year interest rate inside of a month’s time.

For a global market that has risen at least in part on the back of confidence in central bankers, this type of volatility we have seen in longer-term global bond yields as of late implies investors may be concerned central bankers are starting to “lose control” of their respective bond markets. Put another way? Investors may be starting to lose confidence in central bank policies being supportive of bond investments — not a positive in a cycle where this buildup of confidence has been such a meaningful support to financial asset prices.

You may remember that what caused then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker to drive interest rates up in the late 1970s was embedded inflationary expectations on the part of investors and the public at large. Volcker needed to break that inflationary mindset. Once inflationary expectations take hold in any system, they are very hard to reverse. A huge advantage for central bankers being able to “print money” in very large magnitude in the current cycle has been that inflationary expectations have remained subdued. In fact, consumer price indexes (CPI) as measured by government statistics have been very low in recent years.

When central bankers started to print money, many were worried this currency debasement would lead to rampant inflation. Again, that has not happened. We have studied historical inflationary cycles and have not been surprised at outcomes in the current cycle in the least. For the heightened levels of inflation to sustainably take hold, wage inflation must be present. Of course, in the current cycle, continued labor market pressures have resulted in the lowest wage growth of any cycle in recent memory. But is this about to change at the margin? The chart below shows us wage growth may be on the cusp of rising to levels we have not yet seen in the current cycle on the upside. Good for the economy, but not so good for keeping inflationary pressures as subdued as has been the case since 2009.

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You may be old enough to remember that bond investments suffered meaningfully in the late 1970s as inflationary pressures rose unabated. We are not expecting a replay of that environment, but the potential for rising inflationary expectations in a generational low-interest-rate environment is not a positive for what many consider “safe” bond investments. Quite the opposite.

As we have discussed previously, total debt outstanding globally has grown very meaningfully since 2009. In this cycle, it is the governments that have been the credit expansion provocateurs via the issuance of bonds. In the U.S. alone, government debt has more than doubled from $8 trillion to more than $18.5 trillion since 2009. We have seen like circumstances in Japan, China and part of Europe. Globally, government debt has grown close to $40 trillion since 2009. It is investors and in part central banks that have purchased these bonds. What has allowed this to occur without consequence so far has been the fact that central banks have held interest rates at artificially low levels.

Although debt levels have surged, interest cost in 2014 was not much higher than we saw in 2007, 2008 and 2011. Of course, this was accomplished by the U.S. Fed dropping interest rates to zero. The U.S. has been able to issue one-year Treasury bonds at a cost of 0.1% for a number of years. 0% interest rates in many global markets have allowed governments to borrow more both to pay off old loans and finance continued expanding deficits. In late 2007, the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries was 4-5%. In mid-2012, it briefly dropped below 1.5%.

So here is the issue to be faced in the U.S., and we can assure you that conceptually identical circumstances exist in Japan, China and Europe. At the moment, the total cost of U.S. Government debt outstanding is approximately 2.2%. This number comes directly from the U.S. Treasury website and is documented monthly. At that level of debt cost, the U.S. paid approximately $500 billion in interest last year. In a rising-interest-rate environment, this number goes up. At just 4%, our interest costs alone would approach $1 trillion — at 6%, probably $1.4 trillion in interest-only costs. It’s no wonder the Fed has been so reluctant to raise rates. Conceptually, as interest rates move higher, government balance sheets globally will deteriorate in quality (higher interest costs). Bond investors need to be fully aware of and monitoring this set of circumstances. Remember, we have not even discussed the enormity of off-balance-sheet government liabilities/commitments such as Social Security costs and exponential Medicare funding to come. Again, governments globally face very similar debt and social cost spirals. The “quality” of their balance sheets will be tested somewhere ahead.

Our final issue of current consideration for bond investors is one of global investment concentration risk. Just what has happened to all of the debt issued by governments and corporations (using the proceeds to repurchase stock) in the current cycle? It has ended up in bond investment pools. It has been purchased by investment funds, pension funds, the retail public, etc. Don Coxe of Coxe Advisors (long-tenured on Wall Street and an analyst we respect) recently reported that 70% of total bonds outstanding on planet Earth are held by 20 investment companies. Think the very large bond houses like PIMCO, Blackrock, etc. These pools are incredibly large in terms of dollar magnitude. You can see the punchline coming, can’t you?

If these large pools ever needed to (or were instructed to by their investors) sell to preserve capital, sell to whom becomes the question? These are behemoth holders that need a behemoth buyer. And as is typical of human behavior, it’s a very high probability a number of these funds would be looking to sell or lighten up at exactly the same time. Wall Street runs in herds. The massive concentration risk in global bond holdings is a key watch point for bond investors that we believe is underappreciated.

Is the world coming to an end for bond investors? Not at all. What is most important is to understand that, in the current market cycle, bonds are not the safe haven investments they have traditionally been in cycles of the last three-plus decades. Quite the opposite. Investment risk in current bond investments is real and must be managed. Most investors in today’s market have no experience in managing through a bond bear market. That will change before the current cycle has ended. As always, having a plan of action for anticipated market outcomes (whether they ever materialize) is the key to overall investment risk management.