In the News

Has the Fed Already Gone Too Far?

January 14, 2019

It is crucial for investors to understand that the Federal Reserve has not yet turned dovish and the Fed “Put” it not yet in place. Wall Street sometimes hears what it desperately needs, but that does not make it fact. While Jerome Powell has moved incrementally towards the dovish side of the ledger in the past few weeks, the Fed is still firmly in hawkish territory. If, however, Mr. Powell was actively reducing the Fed Funds Rate (FFR) and expanding the balance sheet, then we would have a dovish Fed. However, by just indicating that the FOMC might be close to finishing its rate hiking campaign, while still selling nearly $50 billion of bonds every month from its balance sheet, the Fed is still tightening monetary policy–and in a big way.

However, “The Fed is now dovish, so it’s a good time to buy stocks” mantra from Wall Street is a dangerous one indeed. This argument is false on two fronts. First, as already mentioned, Jerome Powell is still tightening monetary policy through its reverse QE process. Second, the fact that the Fed may be cutting rates soon doesn’t mean the stock market automatically goes up. The Fed began cutting rates in September of 2007 and reached 0% by December of 2008. Was it a good time to buy stocks during that time? No, it was a very dumb idea that cost you half of your investable assets. The market actually peaked around the same time the Fed began cutting rates and didn’t bottom until March 2009, three months after interest rates hit 0%.

Wall Street is gladly overlooking the current global economic crash—not slow down—and that means EPS for the S&P 500 going forward will be well short of the 7% currently predicted. In fact, we are most likely undergoing an earnings recession worse than what occurred during 2014-2016; especially when you factor in the fall in oil prices that will hurt the earnings of energy companies. Only, this time around there won’t be another once-in-a-generation tax cut to bail out stocks and the economy. Just the end of QE on a global basis pushing the financial world over a cliff.

Here’s another salient point. The Fed pushed the economy over the edge in 2008 when it raised rates 17 times from 2004-2006, taking the FFR from 1%-5.25%. In this current rate hiking cycle, the Fed has raised rates 9 times but also has already sold off about a half trillion dollars from its balance sheet. A reduction of this size in the balance sheet, which is a gigantic destruction of liquidity from the financial system, is something never before done or even attempted. And, the Fed continues to burn cash even though the business cycle has clearly rolled over. Add to this the fact that total non-financial debt in the US has surged from $33.3T (231% of GDP) at the start of the Great Recession in December of 2007, to $51.3T (249% of GDP) as of Q3 2018 and you can understand why this economy cannot handle higher rates…not with an extra $18 trillion it has to service on top of what it could not bear a decade ago.

The GDP level of today is the most unstable and fragile ever. This is because today’s GDP is more reliant on asset bubbles and free money than at any other time in history. Now that rates have risen, liquidity has been removed, and the stock market is rolling over, GDP should begin to fall.

My 20-point Inflation/Deflation and Economic Cycle model predicts the Fed has already tightened enough to bring on a recession, and history has proven that is where stocks can lose 50% or more of their value. Eventually, Jerome Powell will come to grips that these massive and unprecedented debt levels cannot sustain higher rates and QT at the same time. He will then start cutting rates and return to QE, but that is when most of the damage to the market occurs.

My model will monitor the incoming data to see if I’m correct in the preceding assumptions. And if so, there will be perhaps the best shorting opportunity yet coming up very soon. This is because the perma-bulls and shills on financial TV have caused the majority of investors to already price in a favorable conclusion to the trade war.  And, have also convinced them that the Fed put is back in place. But the trade war has become a red herring, and the Fed’s damage to the economy has most likely already been done. In reality, the destruction caused by central banks occurred a long time ago when they eviscerated markets in favor of perpetual bubbles. Yes, central banks have indeed already gone way too far!

Michael Pento is the President and Founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies, produces the weekly podcast called, “The Mid-week Reality Check” and Author of the book “The Coming Bond Market Collapse.”

 

Some Predictions for 2019

January 7, 2019

Bond Yields Continue to Fall in First Half of Year

The epoch bond bubble continues to build and become a dagger over the worldwide economy and markets. Wall Street Shills are fond of claiming that global bond yields remain at historically low levels due to central bank manipulations, but this argument is no longer tenable. It was once true, but QE on a net global basis has now gone negative. And the data shows the amount of U.S. publicly traded debt relative to GDP is much greater today than it was prior to the start of the Great Recession—even after adjusted for the size of the Fed’s balance sheet–in other words, taking into account all the debt the Fed has purchased and is still rolling over.

The amount of publicly traded debt in the U.S. has soared to 58% of GDP. This is up from 29% in 2007 when the U.S. 10-year Note was yielding 5%. The Fed is now selling $50b of bonds each month, with an extra $7.8T in publicly traded debt that it doesn’t own; and that equates to nearly 2x the amount of debt compared to GDP than what existed just prior to the Great Recession. This debt must now be absorbed by the private market and at a fair market price, instead of just purchased mindlessly by the Fed…and yet yields are still falling. This means investors are piling into sovereign debt for safety ahead of the global economic crisis even though they understand that debt is, for the most part, insolvent.

Recession Begins Prior to Year’s End

The yield curve continues to invert and presages a recession that begins in late 2019. Meanwhile, the nucleus of the next credit crisis (the leveraged loan and junk bond markets) implode; as corporations need to roll over more than $800 billion of debt at much higher interest rates this year.

My Inflation/Deflation and Economic Cycle Model has 20 components. 19 out of 20 indicators are indicating we are about to enter into a recession. Only initial unemployment claims remain at a positive level. I believe GDP growth in Q1 2019 will have a one handle in front of it because the 2nd derivatives of growth and inflation are slowing significantly. Therefore, we are headed into sector 1 of my Inflation/Deflation and Growth Spectrum; where assets are falling sharply as the economy is deflating.

Trade War Truce

The Main Stream Financial Media will continue to obsess over Trump’s twitter account to find out if some U.S. trade delegation met with someone in China and had a nice conversation. And, if President Trump announces that General Tso’s chicken is his favorite meal.

Trump will end the trade war soon and claim that it was the biggest and greatest deal in human history. Hence, my prediction: the tariffs against China are lifted in Q1 2019. This is what all the perma-bulls are waiting for. But that isn’t going to bail out the market. A trade deal with Mexico was reached back on August 27th, but that didn’t stop its stock market from crashing 20%.

Debt and Deficits Soar Globally

Sovereign debt skyrockets at an even faster pace than the breakneck speed witnessed since the Great Recession. In this same vein, in the U.S. the federal budget deficit surged to a record for the month of November to reach a negative $204.9 billion. The Treasury Department says that the deficit for November was $66.4 billion higher than November of ’17. For the first 2 months of this fiscal year, the deficit totaled $305.4 billion, up 51.4% from the same period last year. Deficits this high outside of a recession are both highly unusual and dangerous.

My Prediction: the U.S. deficit for fiscal 2019 breaches far above $1 trillion; and this type of fiscal profligacy is replete throughout Asia, Europe and in emerging markets. Indeed, there isn’t a shred of prudence found pretty much anywhere in the world.

This massive increase of $70 trillion in debt since 2007, which adds up to $250 trillion globally, must now rely on the support of investors instead of the mindless and price insensitive purchases of central banks. Therefore, the potential for a 2012 European-style debt crisis occurring on a global basis is likely in 2019.

Equity Markets Go into Freefall

The U.S. stock market takes its most significant leg down since 2008 in the first half of the year. The economic data and earnings reports will be extremely negative in comparison to the first half of 2018. For instance, Q2 of last year reported GDP growth of 4.2%. However, it is very likely that Q1 of this year will have GDP growth of just around 1% and Q2 could come in negative.

The total value of the market could drop by 25% and still be at a valuation level that is equal to 100% of GDP. And that assumes GDP doesn’t drop. But at 100% of GDP the market would still be, historically speaking, about twice as overvalued as it was from 1974-1990. Hence, I predict the worst of the stock market is still very much in front of us. The Fed will continue its $50 billion per month of reverse QE—at least until the stock market drops another 20% from here. And, the ECB is now out of its massive €80 billion per month QE program. Therefore, despite the fact that the Fed goes on hold with further rate hikes, asset prices remain in peril–at least until the Fed is actually cutting interest rates and ends Quantitative Tightening.

D.C. Chaos

And finally, 2019 will be marked by a conflagration in our government. The year will be marred by budget showdowns and shutdowns, debt ceiling brinksmanship and indictments from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. Those hoping for cooperation between Democrats and Republicans on things such as a massive debt-funding infrastructure spending package to save the economy will be greatly disappointed. The cacophony between Democrats and Trump adds to the dysfunction in D.C. and puts added pressure on the market.

Concluding Prediction

The global bond bubble continues to slam into the reality of the end of central bank support. That is the salient issue concerning economies and markets worldwide. Household net worth (think real estate and equity portfolios) as a percent of GDP reached over 525% at the start of Q3 last year. According to Forbes, the average for that figure is 380% going back to 1951. The sad fact is that the “health” of the global economy (however uneven and biased against the lower and middle classes) has become completely reliant upon the perpetual state of these unprecedented asset bubbles. Therefore, as they implode they are taking the global economy down with it.

This process will only intensify throughout 20109. As former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan said recently, “run for cover”…he’s finally got it right.

Investors Still too Bullish

It’s been a wild ride on Wall Street lately. Major averages had hit their highs in late September. But if this sell-off continues, it will be Wall Street’s worst year since the financial crisis and the worst December since the Great Depression! This should have been enough to shake investor confidence. But judging from the data in the chart below, compiled by my friend Kevin Duffy of Bearing Asset Management and using data from Charles Schwab, we see that investors on both the retail and institutional level have a near-record low level of cash. They are anything but scared of this market.

This data was compiled on November 30, 2018, when cash levels registered just 11.2%. That was not up much from the low reading of 10.3% held on September 30th. The retail investors is, relatively speaking, all in.

And, analysts aren’t pulling in their horns either.

According to FactSet: Overall, there are 11,136 ratings on stocks in the S&P 500. Of these ratings from Wall Street analysts, 53.9% are Buy ratings, 40.8% are Hold, and just 5.3% are Sell ratings. Yet, with the mounting weight of evidence in favor of a sharp slowdown in global growth, it has not dissuaded analysts from still having ebullient forecast for earnings growth next year. Analysts are projecting S&P 500 EPS estimates for the Calendar year 2019, according to FactSet, to grow at 8.3% with revenue growth of 5.5%.

The global economy is showing signs of cracking now that QE has gone from $180 billion per month in 2017, to a negative number in 2019. That has sent the Emerging Markets into chaos and help lead European and Japanese economies into contraction.

And now China, which has been responsible for 1/3rd of global growth coming out of the Great Recession, is entering into a recession. Of course, having the government force an increase of debt to the tune of 2,000 percent since the year 2000 guarantees a crash of historic proportions. In fact, the government in Beijing is so concerned about the current debacle that it has banned the gathering of private economic data.

According to the South China Morning Post, China’s central government has ordered authorities in the Guangdong province – China’s main manufacturing hub–to stop producing a regional purchasing managers’ index. This means the province will not release the purchasing managers’ index (PMI) data for both October or November. Instead, all future purchasing managers’ indexes will be produced in-house by the National Bureau of Statistics.

It is evident that Beijing is trying to suppress the dissemination of economic data because its economy is growing at a much slower rate than what the communist party will admit to…that is, if it is growing at all. This is hindering its position in negotiations with the United States in the trade war. And it also reiterates the complete lack of transparency in the Chinese markets and the desire on the part of the Chinese government to keep the world in the dark about the true state of its economy.

Perhaps December’s continued debacle in global markets and economies was enough to begin pushing U.S. investors toward the exit–we will monitor this dynamic closely. However, history shows that it is a multi-month process to move investors’ psyche from euphoria to panic. This dynamic is still in its infancy.

Michael Pento is the President and Founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies, produces the weekly podcast called, “The Mid-week Reality Check” and Author of the book “The Coming Bond Market Collapse.”

Stock Buy-Backs Go Bust

The perfect storm of zero percent interest rates that existed concurrently with a debt-disabled economy lured executives at major corporations into a decade-long stock buyback program. The Fed pumped money into the economy thru its various Quantitative Easing programs to force interest rates near zero percent, with the expectation corporations would borrow money at the lowest rates in history and then invest in their businesses in the form of Property Plant and Equipment (capital goods). This in turn would expand productivity and help foster a low-inflation and strong growth environment.

But many corporate executives found a much more enticing path to take in the form of EPS manipulation. That is, they boosted both their companies share price and, consequently, their own compensation, by simply buying back shares of their own stock.

For the most part, companies have used debt to finance these earnings-boosting share purchases. Stock buybacks have been at a record pace this year.

This is a short-term positive for shareholders because it bids up the stock price in the market; just as it also reduces the shares outstanding. This process boosts the EPS calculation and increases cash flows as fewer dividends are paid to outside shareholders. As an added bonus, it also provides for a nice tax write-off.

Wall Street is easily fooled into thinking valuations are in line using the traditional PE ratio calculation. But this metric becomes hugely distorted by share repurchases that boost that EPS number. Other metrics that are not as easily manipulated, such as the price-to-sales ratio and the total market cap-to-GDP ratio, have been screaming the overvaluation of this market in record capacity.

Traditionally speaking, a company decides to buy back shares when they believe their stock is undervalued. But from 2008-2010–a time when stocks were trading at fire-sale prices, companies bought back very few shares. However, it was only after Wall Street became confident that the Fed’s printing presses were going to stay on for years that share purchases went into overdrive—even though the underlying economic growth was anemic.

The truth is the volume of debt-sponsored share buybacks over the past few years is putting many companies at an extreme level of risk.  According to Bianco Research, 14% of S&P 500 companies must now issue new debt just to pay the interest on existing debt. In other words, these Zombie companies are actually Ponzi schemes that can only continue operations in a near zero-percent interest rate environment; and if the credit markets remain liquid. But, both of those conditions are rapidly moving in the wrong direction.

Share buybacks have a metric known as the Return on Investment or “ROI,” which tracks post-buyback stock prices to measure the effectiveness of corporate repurchases. The fact is that corporate executives have a miserable track record when it comes to their ROI on share repurchase programs.

One such example of this is Chi­potle. According to Fortune Magazine, the company spent heavily on share repurchases in the first quarter of 2016, at the height of their E Coli scare. Subsequently, these shares have crashed, giving the company an ROI of minus 23%.

Then there is General Electric. Between 2015 and 2017, GE repurchased $40 billion of shares at prices between $20 and $32—its share price sits around $6 today. The company has destroyed about $30 billion of shareholders’ money. It lost more on its share repurchase programs during those three years than it made in operations—and by a substantial margin. But GE is just one of several hundred big companies who have thrown good money away on bad share buybacks.

Big Tech icons Apple, Alphabet, Cisco, Microsoft, and Oracle, have bought back $115 billion of stock in the first three quarters of 2018. But now these share prices are headed down. In fact, IBM has lost 20% of its value this year alone. The company bought back $50 billion of its stock between 2011 and 2016 and ended the second quarter with $11.9 billion of cash on hand; but its debt totaled $45.5 billion. In other words, these companies are destroying their balance sheets for a short-term boost in stock prices that has now gone into reverse.

When overleveraged companies are faced with soaring debt service payments, the results are never good. Indeed, as the global economy continues to deteriorate, look for the rate of bankruptcies and unemployment claims to skyrocket.

Corporate America has leveraged itself to the hilt to buy back shares. Once again, with impeccably bad timing. These companies will now have to raise capital to strengthen their balance sheets just as interest rates are rising and the recession of 2019 unfolds.

Then, these same companies who bought back their shares at the highs will soon have to pull those same shares out of retirement and sell them back to the public at much lower prices. Thus, diluting the shares outstanding and lowering EPS counts yet again…Wall Street never learns.

Michael Pento is the President and Founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies, produces the weekly podcast called, “The Mid-week Reality Check” and Author of the book “The Coming Bond Market Collapse.”