economic cycle

Will Rising Rates Derail the Economy?

© Can Stock Photo / focalpoint

At 228Main.com, we are voracious readers and consumers of information. Nothing happens in a vacuum. We therefore pay attention to the economy, the markets, and our holdings, as well as look for potential opportunities to invest. Recently it was time to sort out what it all might mean.

Rising interest rates, long expected here, have caught our attention. Home mortgage rates are at a seven year high1, and other consumer borrowing rates have increased as well. If we spend more on interest payments, we have less to spend on other goods and services.

We investigated, and learned that total household debt payments actually remain near the lowest point in many decades, although they are rising. But the total debt balances are at record highs, above the level reached before the 2008 credit crisis. What gives?

The answer is in the interest rates. Higher debt levels financed at lower rates have reduced our payments as a percent of income. If loan interest rates continue to rise, however, we will probably see more household income go to payments on debt.

There is another piece of income that doesn’t get spent: our savings rate. When we feel confident about the future and our 401(k)’s and other investments are growing, we tend to save less. When the outlook darkens, we tend to save more.

Our savings rate declined from 6% of disposable income at the end of the last recession to the 3% neighborhood now. Historically, it has been slightly lower at times—but we are probably close to the bottom.

The amount we spend is what is left after debt payments and savings—and one more thing: taxes. Taxes, like the other factors, seem to be at relatively low levels now—not likely to go lower. The 2017 tax reform cut levels sharply.

We believe it is likely that record amounts of debt face rising rates in the years ahead; our savings rate will rise sooner or later; and there is no more room to cut taxes. The net effect of these three things seems likely to eventually reduce consumer spending, which is an important driver of the overall economy.

We do not think we are on the verge of recession. Other indicators point to continued growth. But we are in the middle or later stages of the growth cycle—not the beginning. We are looking at opportunities that fit the times, as always.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else, please email us or call.

1All data from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/. Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Accessed May 22nd, 2018


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

Burning Up Money

© Can Stock Photo / ancientimages

No doubt you probably noticed the turmoil in the stock market over the past several weeks. You might have assumed, if you watched the stock indexes hit a low of more than 10% below their peak, that some particularly ugly piece of news had hit the market.

If so, you would probably be surprised to hear that the biggest news stories leading to the correction were that the economy was booming and unemployment was at record lows. So why were investors panicking at this seemingly positive news? The answer is inflation.

You see, as the economy grows, increasing wealth leads to increasing demand. This means higher prices–or, in economic terms, inflation. This creates a couple of problems for the stock market. In the long term, rising prices make it harder to maintain economic growth and may contribute to an eventual crash. In the short term, both economic growth and inflation increase the pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, making bonds and other interest-driven investments more attractive relative to stocks.

We are deeply skeptical of this short-term rationale. While bond investors may salivate at the prospect of higher interest rates in the future, we think this is short-sighted. Tomorrow’s higher interest bonds may sound attractive, but you would be foolish to buy them if the interest rate is going to be even higher the day after. On February 5th, when the stock market was posting headline-grabbing declines fueled by interest rate paranoia, investors were actually buying up bonds–bonds that stood to lose purchasing power as soon as better, higher interest bonds started being issued!

The longer term concern, that inflation may spell the beginning of the end of the current economic boom, is a bigger threat. We have warned for a long time that the Federal Reserve was likely to wind up overshooting the mark on its 2% inflation rate target. We think this is even more likely now that the government has passed a very stimulus-minded tax package. Cutting taxes during the middle of a boom is likely just throwing gasoline on the fire: it is possible we may see some explosive growth, so in the short run we are excited about the market, but in the long run the economy may just burn out that much faster.

Clients, many of you have been in business with us long enough to remember the roller-coaster years we saw around 2007. The dip at the start of February may potentially be forgotten as the market forges on ahead, but it will not be the last one. The roller coaster is coming back, and although we look forward to the ride we will keep a mindful eye for the day we may need to think about getting off. Call us if you have any questions about the market and the broader economic outlook.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

What’s Your Story?

© gajdamak / www.canstockphoto.com

Thinker Morgan Housel wrote recently about the power of narrative in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The essay focused on the narratives that affect the whole economy, the big-picture themes. The future of the country didn’t change much from 2007 to 2009, but employment, wealth, and the markets all got slammed. What caused it? The central narrative, how we understood our economy, changed dramatically from the peak of the boom to the bottom of the bust.

Investment manias have a story at their core. They may come true or not, but while the story holds sway, real values are driven by the story. Housel summarized it this way: “this is not a story about something happening; something is happening because there’s a story.”

Stories are how we organize and understand the world and our place in it. “Stories create their own kind of truth,” as Housel wrote. We believe the same idea shapes the lives of individuals just as certainly as it shapes economic and societal trends.

At 228 Main, we have stories. About people who save diligently and achieve financial independence. About folks who invest with increasing confidence and less worry over the years. About investors who learn to live with volatility, and hold on through the downturns. (These are stories, not promises or guarantees—you long-time clients know your own realities.)

I would not be able to work with you as effectively without those stories—and more importantly, the narratives of my own life.

I have a story about a vibrant business in the face of steep personal challenges. I have a story about working to age 92. I have a story about new ways of doing business in the 21st century.

These stories have enabled me to thrive while dealing with major issues, live healthier than I have for decades, communicate more effectively with you than ever before, and make plans for the decades ahead while some of my contemporaries coast toward retirement.

It feels to me as if the stories I have crafted in turn have shaped my life. I am not done creating stories; life goes on and things change. We do not know the future. But if we take control of our stories, we may be able to influence our futures. No guarantees.

How about you? What’s your story? Are there aspects of your narrative that we could help you with? Clients, please email us or call if you would like a longer discussion.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The Melting Pot Matures

canstockphoto4480931

A few weeks ago the Nobel Prize Committee announced the latest round of Nobel laureates for 2016. Seven Americans were named to this high honor—and six of the seven were immigrants, born outside of this country.

Immigration is frequently a hot topic during an election year, this one perhaps more than most. On the one side, we are told that immigration is costing us jobs, lowering our wages, and causing more crime. On the other side we are given a moral argument, that we are a nation of immigrants who should welcome others into our melting-pot culture as we have welcomed those who came before.

We set aside the moral side of this debate; while we occasionally dip into moral philosophy, this blog concerns itself chiefly with practical matters of economics. And as a practical matter, there are very good reasons why we should appreciate the value that immigrants bring to our country, above and beyond whatever Nobel prizes they may win.

As a country we are facing a demographic crisis. Since the 1970s, we have been having noticeably fewer children per family than we did previously. As our generation reaches retirement age, record numbers of Americans are leaving the workforce. I still plan on working until I’m 92—but many of my contemporaries have other plans. As we leave, there are more openings left behind than we have children and grandchildren to fill.

This demographic wall creates a major drag on the economy: we want to grow our economy faster, but we simply don’t have enough workers to do it. For the past year we’ve seen the unemployment rate hovering at 5% and below. Even as the economy recovers and we start to add jobs, there’s going to be a very real question as to who will be filling them. The workers simply aren’t there. To some extent this is a regional issue—some of our employment woes could be fixed by having job-seekers move from economically depressed areas to thriving areas where jobs are being created too quickly to fill. But not everyone can uproot their lives for work, and where people cannot or will not relocate, the only alternative is to import workers from elsewhere.

Ours is not the only country facing this demographic crisis. We need only look at Japan, Europe, and other parts of the developed world to see what happens when an aging population is not replaced. Many first world countries have a lower birth rate and lower immigration rate—and, not coincidentally, lower GDP growth. We would do well to learn from their example what not to do.

This is not to say that we endorse open borders or encourage illegal immigration. We are a nation of law. We should have sensible laws that are enforced in a fair and even-handed manner. But to suggest that we should slam the door shut on immigrants is to ignore the economic reality we face. One of the best and surest ways to expand our economy is to add new people to it—and we will need to, if we wish to continue growing at a reasonable rate.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only.

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / junjie

Once upon a time in America, a sitting vice president was investigated for extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy. In a plea bargain deal, he pled no contest to a tax charge and resigned. Although historians judge Spiro Agnew as perhaps the worst vice president in history, he did bequeath us the memorable phrase in our headline.

We begin our essay this way for two reasons. First, although some believe the current times are the worst ever or the most this or the least that, there probably are no new things under the sun. Second, the pervasive rotten mood of the country has reached fairly extreme levels.

As contrarians, we believe the times of greatest danger in the markets are when optimism reigns and it seems like clear sailing ahead. Think 1999.

Conversely, the times of greatest opportunity are when the mood is in the toilet. There was a lot to be negative about in 1974, when Nixon resigned and the Arab Oil Embargo meant there was no gas at the gas station and inflation was heating up. And 1982, when mortgage interest rates hit 15% and businesses paid 20% interest and the economy slipped into a double-dip recession. And 1990, with war in the Mideast and falling house prices and the fallout from a huge financial crisis in the S&L’s…same thing. And 2002, when we were dealing with recession and the aftermath of 9/11 and terrorism.

Following each of those episodes, major gains ensued in the stock market. Why is this pertinent today?

Contrarians have to be delighted with the pervasive pessimism of the public. (Or the nattering nabobs of negativism, if you prefer.) LPL Research strategist Ryan Detrick has documented a variety of sentiment measures that have reached multi-year or multi-decade extremes. Gallup reports the most prolonged negative poll readings for the question of whether the country is on the right track or wrong track. You can learn in any barber shop or café that we are going to hell in a handbasket, just listen.

Warren Buffett stated our view more concisely when he wrote, “Be greedy when others are fearful.” If you would like to know more about how this relates to your situation, call or write.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Slow Burn

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / cafaphotos

We are now in the 7th year of economic expansion and recovery since the last recession. Many commentators insist that after such a long stretch, the next recession must surely be right around the corner. Of course, they’ve been insisting this for the past 7 years–remember the term “double dip”? The recovery didn’t make it a full year before people started predicting its demise, and now here we are seven years later.

Part of the longstanding skepticism surrounding this market cycle is grounded in the weak performance of this expansion. It’s been a long, slow recovery since the recession started in 2008. In a lot of people’s minds, those two things don’t go together. They think, “The recovery is going slowly, so it must not have enough fuel to keep going for very long.” There is a certain intuitive appeal to this way of thinking. We tend to see something moving quickly as having more momentum, so it would take longer to come to a stop.

The economy doesn’t really work in terms of “momentum”, though. Instead, market cycles tend to be driven by sentiment. In a normal expansion phase, optimism feeds into faster and faster growth, eventually creating a bubble. When the bubble finally pops at the height of its exuberance, values plummet and the economy is likely to plunge into recession.

You can think of it in terms of an out of control fire. The bigger it gets, the stronger it gets—but the faster it burns through its fuel. A raging conflagration will consume its fuel and die down to embers faster than a more contained fire.

In this analogy the current economic cycle has been a slow, cautious burn. The fire is burning away quietly but hasn’t really erupted into a general blaze—pessimism is widespread and we haven’t really seen the kind of manic stampede that marked the last days of the previous few expansions.

We never know how much fuel there is left for our “fire.” The expansion must eventually run itself down, but this may be a matter of months or days or years—we can’t be sure. However, we view the slow pace of recovery as an indicator that there may be a good bit of fuel yet untouched.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

The economic forecasts set forth in the presentation may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

2015: Year In Review

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / welcomia

As we think about the year now ending, we would love to say “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That would not be accurate. However, it truly was “the spring of hope, the winter of despair.”

Nobody has ever conveyed the concept of a mixed bag as well as Charles Dickens did in the opening lines of ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ And nothing is more fitting when we think about 2015 in the investment markets.

The parts of the market that appeared to be cheapest at the start of the year mostly got cheaper, and cheaper, all year long. Meanwhile, interest rates remained at seemingly impossibly low levels—expensive bonds remained expensive all year. Natural resources that had been sliding for years continued to slide.

Back in the real economy, new jobs were created each month. Retail sales and most measures of economic activity moved higher through the year. Inflation remained quiet, and consumers paid astonishingly little for gasoline. The low prices for natural resources and energy fed into low input costs for businesses, which helped business profits remain near record levels.

The kinds of excesses that cause the end of the growth cycle were simply not present in 2015. The ‘irrational exuberance’ of investors that usually accompanies major peaks in the market is also scarce.

Our principles remain unchanged, but we are always seeking to improve our strategies and tactics. Avoiding stampedes, owning the orchard for the fruit crop, and seeking the biggest bargains are always going to make sense. Putting these principles into practice is the hard part. The new year will see a continuation of the increased attention to diversification, the search for new sources of portfolio income, and new ways to think about effective portfolio construction.

We are ready to say goodbye to 2015, a year when the S&P 500 crossed the breakeven line more than twenty times. But we do so with the spirit of “the spring of hope,” given what we know about how things work. Please call us with your questions or comments.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. </p>

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.