GLOBAL ECONOMICS AND POLITICS
Leo Haviland provides clients with original, provocative, cutting-edge fundamental supply/demand and technical research on major financial marketplaces and trends. He also offers independent consulting and risk management advice.
Haviland’s expertise is macro. He focuses on the intertwining of equity, debt, currency, and commodity arenas, including the political players, regulatory approaches, social factors, and rhetoric that affect them. In a changing and dynamic global economy, Haviland’s mission remains constant – to give timely, value-added marketplace insights and foresights.
Leo Haviland has three decades of experience in the Wall Street trading environment. He has worked for Goldman Sachs, Sempra Energy Trading, and other institutions. In his research and sales career in stock, interest rate, foreign exchange, and commodity battlefields, he has dealt with numerous and diverse financial institutions and individuals. Haviland is a graduate of the University of Chicago (Phi Beta Kappa) and the Cornell Law School.
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The famous military philosopher and analyst Carl von Clausewitz states in “On War” (Book Two, chapter 3; italics in original): “Rather than comparing it [war] to art we could more accurately compare it to commerce, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities; and it is still closer to politics, which in turn may be considered as a kind of commerce on a larger scale.”
OVERVIEW AND CONCLUSION
In late 2012, the Japanese political leadership dramatically unveiled its three “arrows” of easy money, flexible fiscal policy, and structural reform to improve the country’s economic performance. In practice, those Japanese political authorities generally represent major financial (corporate; commercial) interests (“Japan, Inc.”). The Bank of Japan’s policies since late 2012, though nominally independent of political and economic power centers, in practice reflects the goals of Japan’s substantial entrenched economic groups and the political representatives and bureaucrats aligned with them.
Monetary policy of course is not the only factor affecting GDP, inflation, and other intertwined variables. Yet Japan’s ongoing government fiscal deficit, though somewhat helpful for promoting growth and inflation, is not the most noteworthy element in the country’s policy array since end-2012. Moreover, the general government debt burden remains massive and likely will remain so for many years. According to the International Monetary Fund, Japan’s general government gross debt as a percent of GDP was 236.4 percent in 2017 (contrast the G-7 average of 118.6pc that year) and forecast at 236.0pc for 2018 and 234.2pc in 2019, dipping only slightly to 229.6pc by 2023 (“Fiscal Monitor”, April 2018, Table A7; the October 2018 update probably will not change Japan’s government debt as a percent of GDP statistics substantially). And structural reform in Japan, which usually crawls forward slowly, has been unremarkable.
The extremely easy monetary policy arrow embraced by the accommodative Japanese central bank for almost six years is the country’s critical weapon. The central bank chief faithfully and repeatedly proclaims that sustained inflation of two percent is a praiseworthy goal (as essentially do the sermons preached by other leading central banks such as the Federal Reserve Board and the European Central Bank). The Bank of Japan’s ongoing tools to achieve its aims include sustained yield repression and massive quantitative easing (money printing). So far, the Bank of Japan, despite its determination, has not come close to achieving two percent inflation. The consumer price trend in recent months manifests merely minor progress on that front. And although Japan’s quarterly GDP for April-June 2018 may signal enhanced year-on-year economic performance, International Monetary Fund forecasts are not as sunny.
Yet what else has the Bank of Japan (as a representative and reflection of the country’s political and economic generals) really battled to achieve via its remarkably lax monetary strategy? A notion of improved and acceptable economic growth and frequent reference to an iconic two percent “price stability target” do not offer a complete story. Moreover, the enthusiastic declaration of assorted monetary policy plans and tactics does not directly reveal important aspects about the economic (financial; commercial; marketplace) landscape within which the interrelated GDP and inflation goals are targeted and such extraordinary easy money programs are designed and applied.
In practice, what are the intermediate connections (means; methods) to the achievement of the allegedly ultimate ends of satisfactory growth and sufficient inflation? One key approach of the Bank of Japan’s magnificent scheme relates to currency depreciation, the other to stock marketplace appreciation. Japan’s central bank sentinel quietly has aimed to achieve the related objectives of Yen weakness and Japanese stock marketplace strength.
In recent times, Japan deliberately has kept a relatively low profile in foreign exchange, trade, and tariff conflicts. Compare the furious racket nowadays, especially since the advent of the Trump presidency, around the United States and China (and also in regard to the European Union, Mexico/Canada/NAFTA).
Nevertheless, for several years, Japan has waged a trade war (engaged in fierce currency competition) without capturing much international political attention or media coverage. The Bank of Japan (and its political and economic allies) in recent years has fought vigorously to depreciate the Yen (especially on an effective exchange rate basis) and thereby to bolster Japan’s current account surplus. Japan’s overall economic growth relies significantly on its net export situation. The Yen’s substantial retreat and its subsequent stay at a relatively low level and the significant expansion in the country’s current account surplus are glorious triumphs.
Since late 2012, the Bank of Japan also has struggled ferociously to rally the Japanese stock marketplace (boost corporate profits). As of early autumn 2018, this guardian has achieved significant victories in this campaign as well.
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Japan- Financial Archery, Shooting Arrows (10-5-18)
In “Ticket to Ride”, The Beatles sing:
I don’t know why she’s riding so high
She ought to think twice
She ought to do right by me
Before she gets to saying goodbye”.
CONCLUSION AND OVERVIEW
In offering enthusiastic audiences explanations of past, current, and future United States stock marketplace levels and travels, diverse marketplace preachers tell competing tales. Their arguments and conclusions reflect their different marketplace perspectives and methods, including the particular variables they select and arrange. For a majority of devoted visionaries, American corporate profitability is a very important factor.
After-tax US corporate profits soared after reaching a trough in fourth quarter 2015, not long before the S+P 500’s major bottom in first quarter 2016. The noteworthy profit climb since 4Q15 surely encouraged the S+P 500 to jump from its 1Q16 trough.
Yet Trump’s remarkable triumph in November 2016’s Presidential election created (or at least magnified) faith that United States after-tax corporate profits would increase significantly in calendar 2017 and 2018. The S+P 500 galloped 15.2 percent higher from 11/4/16’s 2084 low to 3/1/17’s 2401 elevation. Thus hopes for greater profits probably greatly assisted the S+P 500’s sharp rally.
What is a key tenet (especially in the post-election period) in the gospel promoting a viewpoint of growing American corporate profitability and an entangled bull stock climb? Much centers on hopes that the Republican-controlled Congress will enact noteworthy corporate tax cuts. Related optimism for marketplace earnings (and stock) bulls includes possibilities for repatriation of corporate cash hoards, dramatic boosts in domestic infrastructure spending, and reduced regulatory burdens.
However, current sharp divides on the American political scene (including within the Republican congregation) and widespread lack of confidence in (and hostility toward) the President will make it very difficult for a notable change in the corporate (and individual) tax code to become law. Passage of legislation encouraging earnings repatriation is not assured. Moreover, neither is a monumental infrastructure spending scheme.
In addition, despite the fierce climbs in recent calendar quarters, profit highs for recent full calendar years do not manifest a clear trend toward moving to new heights. Full calendar year profits over the past few years have been about flat.
Disappointment relative to widely-forecast profitability gains may inspire S+P 500 price retreats. In any case, history reveals that several noteworthy bear moves in the S+P 500 have intertwined with noteworthy profitability slumps.
What is too high (too low), high (low), overvalued (undervalued), or reasonable/rational/average/normal (unreasonable, irrational, atypical/abnormal) for stock prices or other economic indicators is a matter of opinion. However, and even though stock valuations can appear very elevated relative for an extended period of time, some marketplace gurus nowadays proclaim that some measures show US stock valuations are on the lofty side.
Also, elevated share buyback levels also have helped to propel US equities higher. There are hints this pattern will not persist.
Current low US stock marketplace volatility, high American consumer confidence, and evidence that financial stress remains below average have reflected (and encouraged) the majestic bull climb in the S+P 500. Observers nevertheless should watch for changes in such measures.
A warning light for S+P 500 bulls is the failure the S+P 500 to motor much above the early March 2017 high. The subsequent record high is 5/16/17’s 2406. If the S+P 500 continues to find ventures much beyond that March 2017 elevation challenging, this arguably will signal that current optimism regarding future corporate profit gains may be ebbing, that the S+P 500 bull trend is tiring, or both.
So the failure of America to enact important corporate tax “reform” (tax cuts) or embark on a glorious infrastructure spending voyage may not greatly diminish future earnings expectations (or even actual levels) or significantly wound the S+P 500. But they might.
In addition, challenges to the bullish trend in US equities may come from the long run upward trend of US government interest rates (note the Fed’s tightening plan). Or, concern about US federal budget deficits (or debt problems elsewhere in the world) may march into view. Hopes for higher (or at least not falling) energy prices likely underpin hopes for higher corporate earnings (and profits) in that key financial sector. But commodities “in general” (and petroleum in particular) have fallen from their 1Q17 highs. Anticipated oil output levels from OPEC and its non-OPEC comrades probably will not significantly reduce still-high OECD industry inventories for at least the next several months. The broad real trade-weighted US dollar established highs in December 2016/January 2017, though it has slipped only modestly since then. Contrary to what many believe, increasing US dollar depreciation may help lead to or confirm weakness in the US stock marketplace.
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Ticket to Ride- US Corporate Profits and S+P 500 Trends (5-17-17)
“And I’ll be taking care of business, every day
Taking care of business, every way”. Taking Care of Business”, by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
CONCLUSION AND OVERVIEW
For a majority of earnest soothsayers, American corporate profitability is an important factor for US stock marketplace levels and travels. Use the S+P 500 as a benchmark for United States equities in general. In second quarter 2015, US after-tax corporate profits peaked (annualized basis). The S+P 500’s record pinnacle occurred alongside this, on 5/20/15 at 2135. It mournfully plummeted about 15.2 percent to its 1812 (1/20/16)/1810 (2/11/16) depth. Despite the S+P 500’s subsequent sharp rally, the current and near-term after-tax corporate profit trend likely will make it challenging for the S+P 500 to ascend much above (or even over) its May 2015 peak during the next several months. History reveals that several noteworthy bear moves in the S+P 500 have intertwined with noteworthy profitability slumps.
To explain past and current United States stock marketplace levels and trends, and in offering prophecies regarding future heights and patterns, diverse wizards tell competing tales. Their arguments and conclusions reflect their different marketplace perspectives and approaches, including the particular variables they select and arrange.
American and other corporations win or lose given amounts of money for all sorts of reasons. Factors influencing earnings and profitability change, as do the relative importance and interconnections of these variables. Long run inflation increases generally increase nominal values in general. Also, central bank policies, tax regimes, wage trends, and productivity (innovation; efficiency) developments influence sales and profits. The altitudes and paths of the US dollar, interest rate yields, and commodity prices also are relevant in various ways and degrees to particular corporations. Unemployment rates, fiscal situations (budget deficits), debt levels and trends (government, corporate, and consumer), regulatory structures, and population growth matter. America is not an island apart from the rest of the world; globalization has increased in recent decades.
Admittedly, the ongoing (extraordinary) very lax monetary policy of the Federal Reserve Board and other central bank guardians such as the European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Japan, and China’s central bank helps underpin equity prices in America and elsewhere. Stock-owning audiences around the globe (particularly the praiseworthy investment community) as well as Wall Street institutions, public corporations, and the financial media friends generally adore massive money printing (quantitative easing) and sustained yield repression. Low interest rate yields for US Treasury securities (and negative yields for many government debt obligations elsewhere) encourage fervent scrambles for acceptable returns elsewhere. These often-alluring territories include stock realms (hunting for dividends and potential capital gain), corporate debt, and commodities. American inflation has been quite modest in recent years. Yet as nominal prices in general (all else equal) tend to rise alongside (or on a lagged basis) a climb in US nominal GDP, so will a nominally priced index such as the S+P 500.
The S+P 500’s retreat beginning in May 2015 interrelated with the preceding bear trends in emerging marketplace stocks and commodities (notably petroleum) and a further bull charge in the broad real trade-weighted dollar (“TWD”). Significantly, the S+P 500 (and stocks of other key advanced nations), emerging marketplace equities (“MXEF”, MSCI Emerging Stock Markets Index, from Morgan Stanley; 1/21/16 at 687), and commodities in general (broad GSCI at 268 on 1/20/16) all attained significant troughs around the same time in first quarter 2016. The US Treasury 10 year note yield low was 2/11/16 at 1.53 percent. The TWD established its recent high alongside these marketplaces in January 2016. This interconnection across assorted marketplaces assisted the rally in the S+P 500 from its January/February lows.
Thus to some extent, the recent weakness in the broad real trade-weighted dollar encouraged the ascent of the S+P 500. In any case, central banks did not want the TWD to ascend by much, if at all, over its January 2016 high. They likewise wanted to arrest stock marketplace declines.
However, suppose the TWD declines further from current levels, perhaps ten percent or more from its January 2016 elevation. Although the first stage of dollar decline has managed to spark and assist a S+P 500 rally, additional sustained depreciation eventually may undermine equity prices. Besides, even if the TWD fall from its January plateau does not reach ten percent, the S+P 500 nevertheless may slide lower. Marketplace history reveals that a weaker dollar does not inevitably (or necessarily) push US stocks upward. And also suppose US interest rates or inflation expectations sustain modest climbs. Rising US Treasury yields can help to lead S+P 500 prices lower. Assume commodities in general manage to hold onto much of their recent gains.
In this environment, further suppose US corporate profits (and those in related regions) continue to remain sluggish (or decline further). Then the S+P 500’s fall from its high probably will be significant, even though the Federal Reserve and its trusty allies will intervene with rhetoric and action to prevent dramatic stock marketplace drops (particularly watch the 20 percent bear market definition threshold).
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Looking Backward, Gazing Forward- US Corporate Profits and Financial Trends (5-3-16)
Many observers point to booming corporate profits as a key reason for the splendid rally in United States stocks since March 2009’s dreary depth. The Federal Reserve’s generous highly accommodative monetary policy since late 2008, highlighted by sustained rock-bottom interest rates (yield repression) and several rounds of spectacular money printing, nevertheless coincides with this climb in corporate profits and the marvelous S+P 500 advance.
Many marketplace clairvoyants, including quite a few regulators, worry little about borrowing levels (and leverage) in the context of the wonderful ascent in American stocks. However, they should.
Soothsayers should examine New York Stock Exchange (NYSE Euronext) margin debt levels alongside the timing of Federal Reserve policy innovation and very important trend change points in the S+P 500. In recent years, pinnacles of NYSE margin debt have occurred close in time to those in US stocks; valleys in that debt roughly have coincided with S+P 500 troughs. Glancing back to the 2000 stock top and the depths of 2002/2003 shows a similar pattern. For the recent bull trend in American since first quarter 2009, underscore the Fed’s policy actions (and a couple
of European Central Bank ones) alongside these turning points in margin debt and American stocks. The most recent statistics (for January 2013) and the probable current margin debt levels are very elevated from the historical perspective. They consequently should concern marketplace watchers, even if many sentinels retain faith that there remains scope for even more margin debt and that lax Fed policies and booming corporate profits will persist.
Anyway, survey NYSE margin debt, Fed actions, and S+P 500 trends together. As in the joyous rally to the highs in US equities in 2007-08, judging from the NYSE margin debt statistics, a fair amount of leverage probably has encouraged the bull move in US equities since the March 2009 lows. That includes the recent S+P 500 spike since June 2012. The friendly Fed and its devoted allies probably deserve a hefty share, though not all, of the credit for these margin borrowing leaps since the equity abyss of first quarter 2009. And especially if US Treasury yields are low, why not search enthusiastically for yield (return) in US stocks?
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Margin Debt, Fed Policy, and Recent American Stock Price Trends (3-18-13)