Q4 2021 – “Can the Federal Reserve ‘Thread the Needle’ With Interest Rates?”

Q4 2021 – “Can the Federal Reserve ‘Thread the Needle’ With Interest Rates?”

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The total return for the S&P 500 was 28.71% in 2021, bringing the 3-year annualized return for 2019-2021 to 26.07%, the eighth highest such compounded return since 1926. As illustrated in our last newsletter, it is rare for this 3-year annualized rate to track above 25% for consecutive years, though not unprecedented. The only past instances were when it occurred in 1955-1956 and when it happened three years in a row from 1997-1999 during the “dot com” technology bubble. Chart 1 shows the market performance in the two years following the other historical instances of 3-year annualized return periods of greater than 25% returns. The record is mixed, but some correction or at least normalization of returns has typically occurred within the following couple of years.

While this data suggests a cautious approach may be warranted, there have been instances of strong returns continuing, albeit at less robust levels. There have also been numerous streaks of positive index total returns of 5 consecutive years or more, including from 1947-1952, 1982-1989, and from 1991-1999. Indeed, the market was up in 16 of 17 years from 1982 through 1999; and in 1990, the only down year in the period, it was down just (3.1%). Moreover, it is rare for 3-year annualized returns to be negative, making the decision to time an exit and subsequent re-entry from/into the equity market highly dubious. The only times this has happened since 1926 were: 1930-1933 during the Great Depression; in 1939 and from 1941-1942 at the outset and during World War II; from 1974-1975 when inflation spiked as a result of the OPEC oil embargo; from 2001-2003 as the tech bubble burst; and 2008-2010 during the financial crisis.

Given these occurrences happened during such noteworthy periods in history, we need to consider the current circumstances more specifically before we become resigned to a correction. In fact, there are numerous reasons to expect the market can continue to rise.

On the positive side, consumer demand is very strong. Chart 2 shows that seasonally adjusted year-over-year U.S. retail sales growth is still significantly higher, and inventories relative to retail sales much lower compared to average levels. The data suggests strong economic activity will continue as inventories are replenished to historical norms relative to sales.

Moreover, personal and non-profit balance sheets (the Federal Reserve combines them in their reports, as distinct from businesses) are as strong as they have ever been on a number of key metrics. The ratio of total assets to liabilities, at above 9 times, is the highest it has ever been.

The positive wealth effect from strong stock market performance has brought financial assets as a percent of total assets close to all-time highs (>70%). Finally, with respect to balance sheet strength, Chart 3 shows that the ratio of assets to disposable personal income (DPI) is at an all-time high of almost 9 times, whereas liabilities to DPI are at close to multi-year lows at just over 1. Such balance sheet strength, coupled with pent up demand suggests that consumer demand is likely to remain strong moving into and throughout 2022.

Other positives for stocks are the historically low real (i.e., adjusted for inflation) interest rates, which make bonds comparatively less attractive than in the past, and the strong cash flows being generated by companies, which has led to higher dividend payments to investors and share buybacks that reduce share counts outstanding and so earnings per share. Our expectations over the last year for higher interest rates have been partially correct; interest rates have indeed moved higher across the maturity curve since the end of last year, but rates have increased more for shorter maturities than longer maturities than we expected, leading to a flatter yield curve (though it has lately begun to steepen again). The prospect of higher interest rates remains, as the Federal Reserve (the Fed) finds itself needing to combat the inflationary effects confronting the economy. We believe the prospect of continued or worsening inflation is the biggest risk to the market and understanding the causes and likely actions by the Fed to combat it is critical.

Inflation can most simply be thought of as rising prices or, alternatively, too much money chasing too few goods and services. These are really two sides of the same coin, and history shows that prices and money supply generally move together. Money supply spiked sharply at the outset of the pandemic and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) predictably followed; both remain well above recent averages. The money supply growth has been a consequence of both extraordinary monetary policy by the Fed and unprecedented levels of fiscal spending by the federal government.

On monetary policy, the Fed lowered overnight lending rates to virtually zero to spur economic growth. Simultaneously, as documented in recent newsletters, the Fed has been aggressively buying both Treasury and mortgage-related securities in the open market, which has the effect of leaving the dollars they purchase the securities with in the economy. The Fed has begun tapering such purchases and plans to complete them sometime in the spring. More significantly, the Fed has also signaled that it will likely increase the Fed Funds rate (i.e., overnight lending rate target) during 2022 to dampen the inflationary pressures in the economy. Not replacing maturing bonds it has bought would also help accomplish that.

Stimulus measures taken by the government to boost the economy and assist people during the pandemic have had a similar effect on money supply, and the additional disposable income has contributed to boosting demand. The last such bill to be enacted was the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It remains to be seen if the “Build Back Better” bill will be passed, and whether it will be further diluted. Beyond that possibility, it is unlikely that another significant spending bill will be passed before this year’s midterm elections. And if the historical trend of the incumbent president’s party losing seats repeats, Democrats could lose their slim majority in at least one legislative chamber, making more outsized fiscal stimulus unlikely through 2024. This also would help to ease inflationary pressures.

The pandemic led to relatively strong increases in demand for goods and a corresponding decline in demand for services, especially for travel and restaurant and other experiential outlets, given the lockdown and peoples’ inclination to stay home for safety. The additional time at home led to greater demand for electronic devices, groceries, goods such as furnishings, and also new homes (if people were going to be spending more time at home, they wanted it to be more comfortable), as well as certain services such as streaming, gaming, and other at-home services. The relative shift to goods presented challenges for the manufacturers of those goods given the COVID-induced worker absences; these occurred at both the final manufacturing businesses and also at the manufacturers of the parts and raw materials that supply them. The most notable and widely reported of these was the impact of constrained semiconductor supplies on the auto industry, which led to significant curtailment of new car production, but other examples abound. Such inflationary pressures for goods continues. Chart 4 shows how CPI sub-categories for goods and food have moved from growing below overall CPI growth most of the past 8 years to above or in-line, whereas categories such as shelter, medical, and services have moved from tracking above to below the overall trend, which is the boldest dark line. (The energy price sub-component is omitted because it would literally be off the high-end of the chart.)

Higher commodity prices have contributed to the inflationary pressures. However, commodity price increases tend to reverse themselves as higher prices induce increased production and so supply, thus bringing prices down given stable demand. This works in reverse, too, as prices that are too low lead to lower investment, supply and eventually higher prices. Of all the commodities, the most important is energy given it is a key input in both the manufacturing and delivery processes for both hard and soft goods. We believe oil market prices will remain firm in the coming years given the underinvestment by the industry over the past number of years, in part because of onerous regulations and other prohibitions, as the current administration (and many governments around the world) attempt to transition the economy towards the use of renewable energy sources. The higher resulting prices for fossil fuels theoretically incentivizes this transition, but also contributes to inflation. However, renewable substitutes are not abundant or reliable enough to meet demand yet, nor is the related electricity-generation and supporting infrastructure. Policies meant to curtail U.S. oil and gas production do not change worldwide demand levels, and increased reliance on OPEC+ nations such as Saudi Arabia and Russia to meet demand represent an economic and national security risk. Plus, the transport of those supplies across the Atlantic Ocean increases greenhouse gas emissions compared to them being produced in the U.S., where emission-related regulations are more stringent.

Beyond energy input prices, the other most significant inflationary cost pressure is labor. Unlike commodities historically, wage increases tend to be stickier as raises are seldom reversed. The labor market has tightened considerably since the beginning of pandemic shock, with the unemployment rate now at 4.2%, approaching pre-pandemic lows, and a historically low labor force participation rate of <62%, levels last seen in the 1970’s. In combination, this suggests the labor market will remain tight in 2022. Chart 5 shows the consequent record high levels of year-over-growth in average private employee weekly earnings, but also that those wage gains have been trailing the inflation rate since last spring.

Ultimately, the key question for the market this year is how effectively the Fed will be able to manage the inflationary impacts described above. There is risk to the stock market on both sides, and the pressure is on for the Fed to “thread the needle” on rates. If the Fed is too lax, inflation will become worse, with longer-dated bond yields moving higher and potentially inhibiting investment and growth. If they move too aggressively to squelch inflation, short-term rates will go up but longer-term rates will remain subdued. Higher rates would be applied to future earnings of companies, thus leading to lower present values (and so stock prices); this would likely be more acute for higher growth stocks with more earnings growth in the future. We believe the Fed will manage the situation prudently and that inflation will remain historically high but manageable. Such a scenario will accrue benefit to the companies we invest in, which we believe have products that are in demand and which should have the ability to increase prices to maintain margins.

While the risks are greater than they have been, we believe KCM’s approach to investing in high quality companies that can succeed throughout economic cycles will accrue benefit to our clients, whom we once again thank for their trust in us to manage their investments.

~ KCM Portfolio Management Team ~

Q3 2021 – “Interest Rates and National Debt Continue to Weigh on Markets”

Q3 2021 – “Interest Rates and National Debt Continue to Weigh on Markets”

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The stock market was essentially flat in the 3rd quarter with the S&P 500 rising just 0.58%; bond returns were slightly negative. The quarter started strong as corporate 2Q earnings reports pleased investors, by and large, with near-record numbers of reporting companies beating expectations, thus prompting positive earnings revisions. However, the market sold off hard in September as economic, political, and geopolitical tensions ramped up, impacting both stocks and bonds.

On the economic front, inflationary fears have gripped the market, which has driven interest rates back up. The 10-year Treasury yield is now almost 1.6%, after a rally from the early part of the 2nd quarter, bottoming at below 1.2% in early August (the all-time low was 0.5% during the summer of 2020). This move in rates is consistent with the expectations laid out in last quarter’s newsletter. The market is beginning to adjust to anticipated lower (but still historically high) levels of accommodation from the Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) on monetary policy and the potential impact of continued debt issuance by the Treasury to fund increased government expenditures.

On the monetary front, the Fed has signaled its willingness to soon taper the $120 billion in monthly bond purchases it has been making ($80 billion in U.S. Treasuries and $40 billion in mortgage related securities), likely before the end of the year. As detailed last quarter, these purchases add liquidity into the financial system because the dollars used to pay for the bonds remains in the economy, spurring economic growth. This effect will cease when tapering occurs, thus eliminating a significant source of demand for bonds, with higher rates possible if other investors do not pick up the slack (interest rates and bond prices are inversely related). The Fed has been clear to differentiate between bond purchase tapering (they will likely start gradually, by reducing the monthly amount by less than 15% initially, hoping to end by the end of next year) and the short-term Federal Funds Rate. The Fed currently does not expect to change its 0-0.25% target before 2023.

Fiscally, Congress is still trying to pass a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, and battling over President Biden’s “social infrastructure” initiative, which is now expected to be $1.5-$2.5 trillion. The market has reacted harshly to the uncertainty over the amount of spending and how it will be paid for, especially with respect to potentially looming higher corporate and capital gains taxes, which could prove a headwind for corporate earnings and consumer spending and so a catalyst for selling securities.

The debt ceiling has become political theater, but we expect it will be extended one way or another before catastrophic impact, following the recent two month extension through December, with attendant risk of political brinksmanship prompting market volatility. It is in this context that the market is weighing the benefits of continuing excess spending by the government through these on-the-table bills against the likelihood that it will be the last out-sized spending bills to pass for a while, as looming mid-term elections will likely preclude another major spending bill from passage.

We acknowledge that these conditions have existed for years, with debt outstanding and the government’s total spending as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rising as interest rates have gone down. But with a now $28 trillion plus of debt, rate increases threaten to crowd out other spending.

Trade tensions between the U.S. and China and China’s escalating actions towards Taiwan has also been a source of pressure on the market. Finally, and perhaps most threateningly for prospective corporate profits, high commodity costs and related supply chain pressures, as the world tries to recover from the pandemic-induced slowdown, have given investors pause about how robust corporate profits are likely to be and what multiple should be paid for them. This tightness is especially acute for energy supplies, including electricity feedstock supplies, which is a particular concern as we move towards the winter in the northern hemisphere. Biden Administration prohibitions and restrictions on drilling activity in the U.S. and OPEC’s recent unwillingness to increase production has also contributed to driving oil and natural gas prices to multi-year highs. Given energy prices are used to make and ship a myriad of products, the inflationary impact of higher commodity prices is clear.

We expect interest rates to continue to move upwards in the coming months, believing that it will take more time for the supply chain issues and commodity markets to normalize, thus keeping upward pressure on prices and reducing the attractiveness of bonds, since the fixed cash flows will be reduced in real (i.e., inflation adjusted) terms. We currently do not expect the Fed to raise the Federal Funds Rate during 2022, however this view could change if employment trends pick up next year.

Though it will likely be the last major spending bills before the mid-term elections, we do expect it to accrue benefit to the economy given their sizes, and we think there is still significant pent-up demand, especially for travel and hospitality, which we have exposure to. But this is offset by the elimination of some of the pandemic-inspired special social safety nets, such as enhanced unemployment benefits. Ultimately, we will be carefully gauging how expected higher prices will impact demand and for how long and whether it might lead to changed purchasing habits that will impact the companies we are invested in.

Putting it all together, we see the potential for higher equity prices in the near-term, but we believe the market will generate lower overall returns next year compared to the past few abnormally high-return years we have enjoyed, and we will be striving to protect recent outsized returns. Graph 3 shows how 3-year period annualized returns are rarely above 20% (the periods where the blue line is above the horizontal black line on the chart); this is where the 2019-2021 period will end up if 4th quarter S&P 500 returns are merely flat. The chart shows how such outsized annualized returns over 3-year periods have frequently been followed by negative return years within 12-24 months, including some of the larger corrections on record.

This makes us more cautious than we were last year entering the 4th quarter and even more biased towards higher quality companies. Ultimately, we believe our long-term focus on companies with strong balance sheets that sell in-demand products and services, and which have the potential to succeed through full economic cycles, should perform well in this anticipated environment. Such companies should be able to better pass on higher costs in the form of higher end prices to customers to maintain margins. We expect the trend of increased share buybacks and dividend payments to investors to continue, perhaps to the detriment of capital spending until prices moderate more, needed inputs are more readily available, and persistent demand coming out of the pandemic is in evidence.

At KCM, we remain vigilant in monitoring the economy and the companies we are invested in on behalf of our clients, whom we thank again for their trust and support. We extend our best wishes for a wonderful upcoming holiday season.

KCM Portfolio Management Team

Q2 2021 – “Another ‘Tantrum’ in 2021 or 2022?”

Q2 2021 – “Another ‘Tantrum’ in 2021 or 2022?”

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In financial history, the term “tantrum” most often refers to the 2013 “taper tantrum”. This period of high volatility occurred when the Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) sent an unexpected signal that it would soon begin shrinking its balance sheet. While viewed as a black mark on Fed policy, as we will discuss below, the impact on the market was minor and short-term in nature.

The 2008-09 recession led to a decline in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), high unemployment, lower home prices, a stock market crash, and a near meltdown of the entire financial system. A collapse in market liquidity, near-zero risk taking by banks, and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers called for quick action. As mapped out by the U.S. Treasury, the Fed and the heads of leading banks, the integral piece of the short- and long-term recovery plan involved the Fed. They would use their balance sheet to buy treasury bonds, mortgage securities, and corporate bonds, as well as inject equity into vital companies. The plan was to restore liquidity and confidence, improve bank balance sheets, and keep interest rates low.

The Fed expanded its balance sheet from $1 trillion in 2008 to $3 trillion in 2013. Looking back, the plan worked and by 2013 the economy had settled into a period of slow but steady GDP growth. The unemployment rate dropped below 6.5%. However, because the numbers were unspectacular, there was considerable debate among investors as to when the Fed would begin to scale back or “taper” its monthly bond purchases. Thus, the table was set for a “taper tantrum”.

Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman at that time, met with Congressional leaders in May 2013. At that meeting he said U.S. economic growth appeared sustainable and it was time to take a step down in the pace of purchases. Because the market had never gone through a “tapering”, much less one that was unexpected, long treasuries were hit hard with the 10-year yield almost doubling.

Emerging market debt experienced pain as well, with some currencies like the Indian Rupee falling 15% or more. Meanwhile, U.S. stocks experienced greater volatility, but ultimately rose sharply for full year 2013 (S&P 500 +28%). Investors correctly assessed that U.S. GDP would improve in 2014 with lower inflation. This started a multi-year run up in the stock market.

Why are we talking about taper tantrum again? There are definitely parallels between the recent deep COVID-19 led recession and the 2008-2009 version. In both cases, central banks and governments pumped money into their economies through various stimulus measures. And in both cases, as the economies recovered, there were concerns about the Fed turning off the tap and the risk of rising inflation.

We saw in 2008/2009 this risk was misplaced as there was a brief down phase followed by new market heights.

We believe the main difference in the COVID-led recovery is the extremely wide difference between the 10-year treasury yield from 2008-2009 and it’s intrinsic value.

Inflation is rising and the 10-year treasury actually is trading with an all-time low real rate of return. This valuation risk could begin to be re-evaluated by the market when the Fed stops buying treasuries and true investors must make up the difference in demand.

At present we would view a meaningful correction in the stock market as a buying opportunity. However, some worry exists if treasury yields were to rise much higher than our current thoughts. We will be monitoring the treasury market carefully as 10-year treasury yields much above 2.00% – 2.25% could force us to become more cautious on equities.

We again thank all our clients for your trust and confidence in KCM to manage your investments, and we are proud and excited to show our continuing commitment to you by introducing the new personnel summarized on the next page.

KCM Portfolio Management Team