May 26, 2020
The Atlanta Fed’s GDP Now Estimate for Q2 Economic growth is minus 41.9%.
Thirty-nine million people filed Initial Jobless Claims in the past nine weeks. Continuing Jobless Claims (including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) surged to over 31 million individuals.
US home construction fell by 30.2% in April.
The fiscal deficit in April (which is always a surplus month) was minus $738 billion!
Yes, unfortunately, we are in a depression. But that fact is not at all reflected in stocks.
The total market capitalization of equities is now back to 140% of GDP. That level is at the ceiling of the ratio’s history, and it is purely due to unprecedented central bank actions. However, even that eye-popping level is understating things by a great deal because the ratio is calculated using a denominator based on previously reported GDP data, which has since crashed. But it is critical to note that money printing has its limitations even when governments are buying stocks.
Look at a chart comparing the S&P 500 vs. Japanese stocks (EWJ) and China’s shares (CNYA).
As you can see, the S&P 500 is up 34% in the past 5 years, even though the Fed hasn’t yet resorted to buying stocks. For now, it has instead bought everything else, including junk bonds. In contrast, the PBOC and BOJ have purchased everything, including stocks. In the case of Japan, its central bank has been buying equities since 2013, and the Communist/Dictatorship that controls China has commanded the PBOC to support the market since at least 2015. And yet, China’s shares are up a paltry 13%, while Japanese stocks have actually made zero progress throughout the past five years. Meanwhile, both of those country’s indexes are still 50% off of their all-time highs.
The truth is that central bank equity purchases do not at all guarantee there will be a roaring bull market, but they can support stocks even when an economy has become zombified.
Indeed, Mr. Powell is breaking records in his attempt to reflate the market. The balance sheet of the Federal Reserve, which is a proxy for the amount of debt monetization undertaken by the central bank, has skyrocketed by $3.2 trillion (from September 2019 through today) –that is a grand total of only eight months. This compares to a $3.7 trillion increase in Fed money printing from the start of the great recession (in December 2007), through 2018–which is a total of over ten years.
Nevertheless, the bluffing game is over for central banks, as they can no longer pretend there is a pathway to normalcy. Perhaps this is what the gold market has been sniffing out over the past 20 years. The precious metal has soared by over 500% since 2000, while the S&P 500 has merely doubled in the past two decades. The fact that gold has trounced the S&P proves that the faith in fiat currencies is collapsing, and the Wuhan virus has expedited this process.
The current illusion of stock market prosperity has three predicates. The first is that there will be a robust reopening of the economy as the virus dissipates in the context of imminent therapies and vaccines. The second is that inflation is far off in the future, which will enable the Fed to control the level of long-term interest rates much more easily. And, the third is that central banks will have no interest in letting up on the monetary throttle for a very long time. The second and third conditions are indeed far off in the future. However, whether or not we have a successful reopening of the economy depends entirely on the progression of the virus; and that verdict will be known in the very near future.
This begs the question: even though the predicted economic depression has arrived, where do markets go from here? We should all understand that in the longer term, a viable economy cannot be engendered through the process of diluting the purchasing power of a currency and falsifying asset prices. But what will happen to stocks while we wait for stagflation to run intractable? To help answer that question, we must monitor the number of new Wuhan virus infections and deaths.
The hope is for a viable treatment and/or a vaccine by the fall. On the subject of vaccines, it should be noted that Moderna Pharmaceutical made positive comments about finding an effective and safe vaccine on May 18, which sent the Dow up 900 points. However, it is very disturbing that Moderna only partially released results of an interim Phase 1 trial without any specific data on neutralizing antibody counts; and then conveniently announced a $1.34 billion stock offering the following day. If the company’s confidence in the vaccine was robust, then why not wait a few more weeks until the Phase 1 trial data could be fully released, with peer-reviewed status, and then make the secondary offering at a much higher price?
It also should be noted that the Wuhan virus is a coronavirus. The common cold is also a type of coronavirus, and so is SARS and MERS. These differ from the influenza virus, and there has never been a vaccine approved for any coronavirus…ever. In addition, vaccines normally take years to develop in order to ensure both their safety and efficacy. Nevertheless, President Trump wants one ready to disseminate in just a few months’ timeframe. The President’s “operation warp speed” is seeking 100 million vaccine doses by November. But a vaccine not only must not harm people, it also cannot give them a false sense of protection. Despite all this, Moderna has amazingly created its mRNA-1273 vaccine within just two months from the first breakout of this novel virus.
In any event, the economy is now in the reopening phase, and it is imperative to analyze the capacity levels within the leisure and hospitality sector to determine how consumers are responding to being let out of lockdown. For example, airlines breakeven at 75% capacity but are currently flying at just around 28%, with bookings plunging by 95%. According to the WSJ, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it took three years before airline capacity recovered; eight years before the average fare got back to what it was in 2000, and it was six years before airlines turned profitable once again. Looking at hotels, occupancy on the island of Oahu, for example, during the week ending April 6 was down 90%. Turning to the foodservice industry, regulators are requiring restaurants to open at between 25%-50% capacity; but they need around an 80% capacity level to breakeven.
Analyzing the rate of change with this data will be critical to determine how to correctly allocate the portfolio according to the appropriate economic cycle. Our IDEC Model currently has the portfolio positioned in 25% stocks, 15% gold, and 10% TIPs. Our 50% cash hoard is being used to generate income right now until we can determine the quality of the reopening. Much more will be known during June, and I will analyze how the 20 components of the IDEC Model react to it and then take the appropriate action.