Tracking the MSM

Even if you hate the mainstream media, here’s an MSM you can learn from: The Main Street Meter, via the Leuthold Group.

The MSM is the level of consumer confidence, as measured by the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, divided the unemployment rate. And right now, the MSM index is pretty high – and it has been for a while. (You can see the charts and read the article here) Good news, right?

Not exactly. Jim Paulsen, Leuthold’s chief investment strategist, notes that when the MSM index is high, investors tend to be frisky – more motivated by greed than fear. More troubling, though, is that with low unemployment, other troubles start to emerge. Typically, low unemployment is a precursor to inflation and higher interest rates.

The MSM’s highest points since 1960 have been 1968, 2000 and now. While this doesn’t mean that the stock market is going to collapse tomorrow – or even over the next few years, it does mean that the outlook for the next five years or so isn’t terribly good.

A high MSM does indicate that it might be a good time to add inflation-sensitive investments, such as real estate and commodities, to your portfolio. Typical late-cycle stock sectors, such as energy, materials and industrials, might fare well also.

Mr. Paulsen cautions that the MSM is not a good short-term market predictor, something it shares with that other MSM. But for those with the long term in mind, it’s an indicator worth following.

 

The busy season for outlooks

Economists and money managers give forecasts because people ask them to, and this is the time of year when people like me ask people like them for their forecasts.

You have to take all forecasts with a grain, if not a block, of salt. Nevertheless, I got the chance to interview some smart people, such as Will Danoff, manager of Fidelity Contrafund, who’s bullish on the U.S. and technology. And then there’s Jerome Dodson, manager of Parnassus, who has the crazy notion that companies that treat employees well will prosper.

Anyway, here’s their outlooks for 2018, along with Mark Mobius of Franklin Templeton, Robert Doll of Nuveen and Joe Davis of Vanguard.

http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20180106/FREE/180109962/2018-outlook-in-equity-investing-is-mostly-bright?issuedate=20180108&sid=outlook20170108

A change of heart

A Christmas Carol is about a change of heart — in this case, the heart of Ebeneezer Scrooge: 

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  

The spirit of Scrooge — pre-haunting Scrooge — has been alive and well in American business for a good many years. Just as Scrooge rolled up the profits of his lending business while his clerk froze, U.S. companies have only grudgingly doled out wages. The chart, left, shows average weekly wages, adjusted for inflation, the past decade. Annual rate of increase: 0.52%.

At the same time, profits, cash and profitability at major U.S. corporations have been hitting new highs. This isn’t terribly unusual: Companies typically don’t raise wages unless they have to, and they don’t have to until unemployment falls below 5% or so.

Nevertheless, workers’ share of corporate fortunes have been unusually small, especially in light of productivity improvements. Workers have produced more, but received far less of that improvement than in the past. (Keep scrolling past the graph, because I can’t figure out how to decrease the white space that follows).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tax reform bill passed by Congress assumes that corporations will pass on their massive tax savings to workers, and also use that extra money to reinvest in other businesses. Will it work? It depends on who you ask, which means that no one really knows. A few companies have already announced bonuses and cited the tax reform measures as their reason for doing so.

Some, such as Wells Fargo, have waffled on whether the increase was because of the tax bill or not. Others, like AT&T, have also announced layoffs at the same time.

Nevertheless, it’s entirely possible that at least some of corporate tax savings will, indeed, make it to employee salaries, new hires or even new factories. Alas, there aren’t many funds that specialize in employee happiness. But here are a few suggestions on what might make a good investment in light of tax reform:

  • Parnassus (PSRNX). This fund takes the position that companies that treat employees well tend to do well in the long run. It’s not infallible — awful companies prosper sometimes, too — but the fund has gained an average of 10.5% a year the past decade, vs. 8.3% for the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.
  • Financial funds. Tax breaks plus looser regulation generally should benefit banks. SPDR Capital Markets ETF (KCE) is a good low-cost choice, as is iShares U.S. Financial Services ETF (IYG).
  • KKR & Co. LP. The private equity and real estate manager specializes in merge and acquisitions. Should companies use their newfound cash to buy other companies, KKR is a logical beneficiary.

A cynic would observe that companies have long had the ability to give their employees a raise, and have simply decided to keep most of that cash in the CEO suite. A big infusion of cash from the tax bill could simply increase those tendencies. On the other hand, we can all hope for a change of heart — although, as was the case with Scrooge, the proof was in actions, not theory.

 

 

Taxes and the urge to merge

Tax reform, in whatever final shape it takes, is likely to put lots of money into corporate hands. While these companies already have lots of cash — a record $1.8 trillion in nonfinancial companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index — giving them more cash may give them an incentive to actually, you know, spend it. I talk about one likely option in my latest column, here. 

On another topic, the Baby Boom Generation spans the years 1946 to 1964. There’s a big difference between the early Boomers and their younger siblings: If you were born in 1946, you came of age with the Beatles, the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. If you were born in 1964, you grew up with The Clash, gas lines, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. More importantly, older Boomers are more likely to have pensions and more likely to have taken a beating from the past two bear markets. Younger Boomers? They probably don’t have pensions, they face soaring college tuition costs for their children — and some will retire just as the Medicare Trust Fund runs out of money. You can read about it here.

Greetings from Lacunaville

SDSC_0368tarting in January, I’ve been writing full-time for InvestmentNews, doing a monthly column for Money magazine, and studying for the Certified Financial Planner mark. (This, apparently, is also a test of your prowess with a hand-held calculator). And I went to Africa.

The blog, as you may have noticed, has, um, languished. I’m hoping to revive it on a somewhat irregular basis, which, come to think of it, is pretty much its usual schedule.

I’ll be updating my links pages in the next week or so. In the meantime, here are some things to watch for today, as well as some things I’ve found interesting or peculiar.

This week, all eyes are on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment situation report, out at 8:30 a.m. Friday. But the stock market seems to be resigning itself to an interest rate hike, probably in June or July. (A later hike would give the impression of a political motivation, and the Fed generally doesn’t like to do that). The current consensus estimate for new nonfarm jobs is 158,000, according to Bloomberg, with the unemployment rate falling to 5%. (And, yes, the total unemployment rate is still high, but it’s the nonfarm payrolls number that Wall Street watches.)

Wages also seem to be firming up, and it should be interesting to see if traditional summer employers, such as ice cream vendors and lawn mowers, have a hard time finding help this year. All of these would seem to give the green light to the Fed to raise rates.

Of course, we’d be talking about a lordly fed funds rate of 0.5% to 0.75% after a Fed hike, an increase that will be promptly reflected in your credit card bill and eventually in your money market mutual fund account. For those who still watch their money fund account, the average money fund now yields 0.10%, nearly triple its rate at the start of the year.

DSC_0353The stock market typically dislikes interest-rate hikes. Higher rates mean bonds become more competitive with stocks, and increase short-term borrowing rates. On the other hand, higher short-term rates mean that companies will earn somewhat more on their cash, and that savers will earn slightly more on their cash.

The old adage about Fed rate hikes — three steps and a stumble — meant that the stock market takes the first two hikes as a sign that the economy is improving, and rallies. At the third hike, stock investors realize the Fed wants the economy to slow, and stocks sell off. Bear in mind that the adage originated when a normal fed funds rate was 4% to 5%. It would take a stairway, not a few steps, to get us back to the traditional stumble level, assuming the Fed raises rates at a quarter-point a pop.

I’m an optimist, and think that rising earnings are a good thing — in fact, the one thing that the economy desperately needs for sustained growth. Most companies, despite their complaining, have nice profit margins, good balance sheets, and plenty of cash. They might even be surprised to learn that when their employees get raises, they spend more — and even on the products their employers sell.

DSC_0488The one caveat: Stocks aren’t cheap, at least by the price-to-earnings ratio of the Standard and Poor’s 500 stock index. The current PE, based on forward earnings estimates, is 17 — a tad feverish, although nothing like the levels during the technology bubble. Nevertheless, at these levels, it’s a bit like driving a bit too fast on old tires. If the market takes a rate hike really badly, investors could find that both bond and stocks slide off the road. And in that case, having a bit of cash in a money fund might be a good safeguard.

 

The week ahead

Only two things matter in this first week of the new year: China and jobs. And China, frankly, isn’t looking too good.

The market plunged at the open Monday on news that Chinese manufacturing was far worse than Wall Street expected. The Chinese purchasing managers’ index fell to 48.2 last month, vs. 48.6 in November, it’s 10th consecutive decline. When the index is below 50, the manufacturing sector is in recession.

The Chinese stock market took one look at the numbers and promptly plunged 7% before circuit breakers kicked in. Wall Street took a sober look at the Chinese market’s reaction and promptly panicked. The Dow Jones industrial average is down 318 points, or about 1.8%, as I write this.

China takes these things seriously: So seriously that Chinese CEOs are starting to mysteriously disappear. If I were a Chinese CEO today, I’d be hastily packing my bags.

The stalling Chinese economy will weigh heavily on the U.S. market, since so many U.S. companies have been counting on China for increased sales and growth. So today, the stock market will be digesting this news, and discounting stocks across the board.

fredgraphAfter that, Wall Street will spend the rest of the week fretting about jobs. And there are all sorts of indicators to watch in the run up to Friday’s jobs report. (Which, for the record, is expected to show 200,000 new jobs in December, vs. 211,000 in November.)

  • Tuesday is motor vehicle sales, which should show fairly robust growth in what was once the nation’s largest employers. Analysts are expecting fairly robust gains in December, thanks to low gas prices and the prospects of modest raises in 2016. Another factor: The average U.S. auto is more than 11 years old. Cars age better than they used to, but there’s a lot of pent-up demand for new cars.
  • Wednesday is the ADP Employment report, which is a pretty good predictor of how the Friday jobs report will turn out. The consensus on the report, which excludes government jobs, is for 190,000 new jobs in December.
  • Thursday is the volatile weekly unemployment claims report, has ticked up to the highest levels since July, when the numbers flirted with lows unseen since the Nixon administration. Another important report is the Challenger Job Cut Report, which measures mass layoffs. Many companies choose to lay off employees just in time for the holiday season, so it should be an interesting report.

 

Help wanted

You go to your favorite restaurant, only to find that there’s one harried waitress serving 10 tables. Or you take your car into the shop, only to be told that it will take two days to replace the cracked infindibulum because they’re short-handed. Or you arrive two hours early for your flight, only to see a line snaking around the ticket counter and the two employees trying to deal with hundreds of angry passengers.

Lucy and Ethyl wrap chocolates.
Lucy and Ethyl wrap chocolates.

One of the more annoying features of modern life is dealing with companies that simply don’t have enough help. Ever since the Great Recession began in 2007, companies have been pushing workers to work longer and harder, no longer aiming for just-in-time staffing but for just-before-death staffing. And this has helped keep corporate earnings break records year after year since 2009.

But there are some signs that skimping on staff is starting to hurt business as the unemployment rate kisses 5%. Just this morning, the National Federation of Independent Business released its Small Business Optimism index for October, which was unchanged at relatively modest levels from September.

The biggest complaint in the survey was government red tape and taxes, but that’s always the biggest complaint in the survey. More interesting: 55% said they hired or wanted to hire new workers, but 48% said they couldn’t find qualified applicants. When you can’t find qualified applicants, that often means you aren’t paying enough. Most people have a good idea of what their skills are worth.

In October, 21% of small business owners said they raised wages, although that was down two percentage points from September. Sooner or later, however, they will probably have to be more aggressive about raising wages to attract the help they need — or they will become that business that used to be really good and efficient, but just can’t seem to keep up any more.

Some companies are already raising wages, albeit reluctantly. Walmart has launched a new ad campaign touting the increased spending on wages it plans, bringing workers to the princely sum of $9 an hour this year and $10 the next. “A raise in pay raises us all,” the spokesman intones. The company has long been criticized for its low pay.

For investors, higher wage demands may well mean a short-term decrease in earnings, particularly for small-company stocks. On the other hand, money you pay to workers is excluded from taxes. And sooner or later, those workers will have more money to spend at other small (and large) companies. Perhaps a raise in pay does raise us all.