US bond returns are now negative over the past 2 years. The last time that happened was 1981. While there will likely be bumps along the way, I don’t think it will take another 37 years before we see another negative rolling 2 year return, do you? If not, it’s a good time to be thinking about how to immunize your portfolio.
Almost every prior stock market crash was caused, or at least exacerbated, by market illiquidity.
As you can see in the chart below, the FED’s recent activity of unwinding their balance sheet by selling a small fraction of their QE accumulated holdings coincided with the most recent 12% stock market consolidation (not the sole reason for the correction mind you). It is important stock investors understand the correlation between the FED removing liquidity and lower stock prices. When you combine this balance sheet activity with a simultaneous push higher in interest rates we are entering into uncharted territory knowing just how the market will react.
Regardless, the current consolidation in the SP500 has a clearly defined upper and lower boundary, 2670 & 2530 respectively, making it a much easier task to manage whatever happens. Above I add exposure, below I decrease.
“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.” - John Maynard Keynes
“Inflation is when you pay fifteen dollars for the ten-dollar haircut you used to get for five dollars when you had hair.” ― Sam Ewing
We all understand the destructive effects of inflation has over time but what happens when inflation is as low as it has been over the past 20 years? What you say, inflation has not been low? Your personal experiences says otherwise? Our Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) begs to differ. Prices on average over the past 20 years has been 55.6% which works out to be an annualized rate of ~2.02%. One of the lowest 20 year periods …. Ever. So who’s right?
The problem as we uncover when peeling back the onion, is how the BLS calculates its numbers. To avoid going down that rat hole into a hornets nest, it’s safe to say that inflation is the sum of the prices of things that are rising and the rest that are rising more. Unfortunately, as it works out, the things that you want are rising while the things you need are the things that are rising more. This has never been so apparent than in the most recent 20-year data presented in the chart below.
One scrutinizing the chart may point out that food and beverage prices (a need) have been rising at an “average” rate. The devil is in the details here too. Looking under the hood you will see the things that are healthier (unprocessed and natural foods) are rising at a much faster rate than things like fast food. Oh and while I do have some millennial readers, no, cellphone service is NOT a thing you need.
The strength of the global economy is one reason why the stock market has started 2018 in a buoyant mood (with the Dow passing 25,000). At some point, in any expansion, businesses find it harder to recruit workers or get the materials they need; these bottlenecks cause wages and prices to rise. Central banks then start to tighten monetary policy, a process that can eventually turn the market (and the economy) down (recession). For years the US has been in a deflationary environment in spite of the FED’s ongoing attempts to do everything possible to create inflation but that looks like 2018 may signal a change.
Because commodities rise in an inflationary environment, following their price can be very profitable for investors in the back-end of the business cycle. The $CRB index is a basket of 19 liquid and highly diverse individual commodities is about the best proxy I have found which can help determine the direction of commodity prices. Taking a look at the chart of $CRB we see the index has been in a severe downtrend from 2014-2016 and after bottoming has consolidated sideways for 2 years. But it looks like it may soon change as it is attempting to breakout to the upside. The consolidation is forming an inverse head and shoulders bottom pattern which projects, if it breaks out and confirms, to the 2015 highs, almost 30% higher.
I have learned the hard way that commodities are a fickle group and are not as reliable as stocks are when looking at charts and attempting to interpret what is next. As such I prefer to get additional confirmation before committing investment capital. What better confirmation than looking at the biggest market of all, bonds and see what, if anything, they are saying. You may be asking what do bonds have to do with commodities. The common thread is inflation so checking in on TIPS (Treasury inflation protected securities) makes a lot of sense.
In the chart of TIPS below you can see that they, like the $CRB index are knocking on the door looking as if they want to break out to the upside. The cup and handle continuation pattern that has formed points to a target move of 5% higher (don’t scoff, that’s a big move for bonds)
Whether we see inflation or not will only be known later in time. With both commodity prices and TIP bonds looking as if they want to go higher, is a signal the markets believe inflation may not be too far around the corner. As with all pattern breakouts, you should never invest unless the pattern triggers and confirms, which neither the $CRB or TIPS have yet done. Until then, it will pay to watch these two closely in the coming weeks/months for investment opportunities. 2018 may be shaping up to be a great year for inflation hedged investments
Automation may wipe out 1/3 of America’s workforce
In a new study that is optimistic about automation yet stark in its appraisal of the challenge ahead, McKinsey says massive government intervention will be required to hold societies together against the ravages of labor disruption over the next 13 years. Up to 800 million people—including a third of the work force in the U.S. and Germany—will be made jobless by 2030, the study says.
The bottom line: The economy of most countries will eventually replace the lost jobs, the study says, but many of the unemployed will need considerable help to shift to new work, and salaries could continue to flatline. "It's a Marshall Plan size of task," Michael Chui, lead author of the McKinsey report.
In the eight-month study, the McKinsey Global Institute, the firm's think tank, found that almost half of those thrown out of work—375 million people, comprising 14% of the global work force—will have to find entirely new occupations, since their old one will either no longer exist or need far fewer workers. Chinese will have the highest such absolute numbers—100 million people changing occupations, or 12% of the country's 2030 work force.
- Up to 30% of the hours worked globally may be automated by 2030.
- The transition compares to the U.S. shift from a largely agricultural to an industrial-services economy in the early 1900s forward. But this time, it's not young people leaving farms, but mid-career workers who need new skills. "There are few precedents in which societies have successfully retrained such large numbers of people," the report says, and that is the key question: how do you retrain people in their 30s, 40s and 50s for entirely new professions?
- Just as they are now, wages may still not be sufficient for a middle-class standard of living. But "a healthy consumer class is essential for both economic growth and social stability," the report says. The U.S. should therefore consider income supplement programs, to establish a bottom-line standard of living.
- Whether the transition to a far more automated society goes smoothly rests almost entirely "on the choices we make," Chui said. For example, wages can be exacerbated or improved. Chui recommended "more investment in infrastructure, and that those workers be paid a middle wage."
- Do not attempt to slow the rollout of AI and robotization, the report urged, but instead accelerate it, because a slowdown "would curtail the contributions that these technologies make to business dynamism and economic growth."