Tuesday, December 17, 2013 – The Year in Financial Review
The Year in Financial Review
by Sinclair Noe
They say you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re coming from, so today on the Review, we’ll review some of the financial milestones of 2013.
You may recall that 12 months ago, we were headed over the fiscal cliff. The fiscal cliff really started in 2001 with the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, also known as the Bush tax cuts; after various extensions, they were set to expire at the end of 2012. And they did. In the end, Congress did not approve an extension of most of the tax cuts until late on New Year’s Day. Because all the Bush tax cuts had technically expired, Republicans could say they had not violated their No New Taxes pledge. The marginal rate on incomes over $400k increased, plus cap gains, and qualified dividends for high-income taxpayers, plus some estate tax changes, and the holiday on the payroll tax ended; just to be sure everybody felt some pain.
President Obama signed the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 on January 2. The ATRA is usually described as a tax increase although technically it might be a tax cut. The confusion arises because there were so many expiring provisions at the end of 2012. ATRA could be described as either a $618 billion tax increase, relative to maintenance of all of the provisions that had been in place – that is, relative to so-called “current policy”; or a $4 trillion tax cut, relative to the actual law.
It was an inauspicious start to the new year.
Wall Street found comfort in the resolution of the fiscal cliff, and of course the never-ending flow of free money from Quantitative Easing. Equity traders partied like it was 1999. Stock funds took in some $134 billion in the first ten months of this year. The Dow Industrial Average started the new year at 13,100, and never looked back. There were a few minor pullbacks but no significant corrections; just a string of record highs for the Dow, the S&P 500, and even the Nasdaq Comp hit the highest levels in 13 years. Milk and cookies indeed.
Turns out, the stock market wasn’t dead,it just needed some juice from the Fed. The Federal Reserve had a major role in propping up Wall Street. The Fed’s balance sheet grew by more than $1 trillion just since the start of the year, and not stands slightly north of 25% of GDP. Overlay a chart of the Fed’s balance sheet with a chart of the S&P 500; carrots and peas; Fred and Ginger.
Bond markets had been absolutely giddy with QE. The yield on the 10-year note touched 1.39% back in the summer of 2012. Heading into the summer of 2013, Ben Bernanke sent up a trial balloon that the Fed had actually thought about how they might exit QE; not that they had any plans to exit; not that there was anything in reality; just a little contemplation. The bond market freaked, and threw a taper tantrum. In the process, conservative income investors were shocked to learn that bond funds can lose value. Who knew? And that is how the 30 year bond bull died.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Japan had been catatonic for 2 decades until Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe somehow got a hold of the Federal Reserve’s playbook; but something was lost in translation. Instead of just applying enough stimulus to prop up the banks, Abe tripled the stimulus, and kicked in fiscal reform and structural reform. He tied a sack of bricks around the yen and tossed it in deep waters. The results were predictable; a smidge of inflation replaced deflation; the Japanese economy will expand about 2% for the year, and Japanese stocks are on pace for more than a 50% gain this year.
Who knew? Certainly not Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, who unfortunately became famous for their worst work – the sarcastically titled book: “This Time Is Different”. Not exactly. Turns out there was a miscalculation with the Excel spreadsheets and there isn’t a real precise line where the ratio of debt to GDP becomes malignant. Simple error by a couple of academic wonks, except their theories had served as a template for economic reforms around the globe, with less than satisfactory results. If you followed the Rogoff-Reinhart Rule, you would have tightened the belt in the face of an economic slowdown; think Greece, Spain, Portugal, and to some extent, the US. The result in the Eurozone was narrowing credit spreads and scary spikes in unemployment; that eventually forced ECB chief Mario Draghi to announce “the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes.”
The Draghi Put sounded good, except to the Germans, and even after the Rogoff-Reinhart spreadsheet blunder became clear, Draghi still hasn’t used the OMT, Outright Monetary Transactions, he promised back in 2012, and Euro-austerity has lead to even higher debt to GDP ratios in the most indebted Euro nations, and the ECB and IMF have denounced austerity, but they still haven’t dared to experiment as boldly as the Japanese.
Meanwhile. the BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa were clobbered. In November, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the rich world’s number-crunching club, lowered its global growth forecast for 2014 by nearly half a point, to 2.7%, because of the slowdown in emerging-market economies. The European Central Bank warned: “Any sharper or more disruptive adjustment in emerging market economies needs to be closely monitored, given the potential for stronger and more persistent euro area impacts.” Their fast growth compensated for the developed world’s stagnation and their currency reserves funded Western debt. The thirst of emerging market consumers for goods helped tide over Western companies, while their low production costs drove global trade.
Developing economies weren’t prepared for a downturn in global trade. The prospect of costlier capital, courtesy of the Fed’s taper talk, dried up the flow of hot money that never seemed to find its way to Main Street but did filter to emerging markets. A disinflationary environment also clobbered commodities, and many of the emerging markets rely on natural resources. Investors withdrew from emerging market equities, debt, currencies, and everything else. According to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the total value of commodity index-related instruments purchased by institutional investors rose from an estimated $15 billion in 2003 to at least $200 billion by mid-2008. And then the cycle turned; 2013 marks the third year of a downturn in commodity prices. At some point, the cycle will turn again.
And through it all, the United States has emerged as the cleanest shirt in the dirty clothes hamper. The Fed’s QE might not have spread the wealth; actually it just concentrated the wealth, but that’s not to say it didn’t have some impact. The housing market bounced back; not all the way to the highs at the peak, but it helped. Global real estate deals are now back to late 2007 levels. The world population keeps growing, and the institutional buyers can’t buy everything; even though they tried. That lead to an increase in rents. If, or when rates move even higher, it will likely dampen the enthusiasm for real estate. Look for a slightly calmer market in 2014.
The high price of oil pushed drivers to switch to more fuel efficient cars. The hybrid Prius is the top-seller in California and the Tesla outsold Audi and Jaguar. GM turned a profit, and completed the terms of its bailout. The US keeps coming up with new technologies, such as 3D printing and robotics. And we’ve become masters at spying on the rest of the world.
The US is now in its fifth year of economic expansion and economic growth is surpassing some of the emerging markets, which is back to that cleanest shirt theory. One of the big surprises for the US economy has been energy production. Domestic crude oil production is up 18% form one year ago; up 56% from 2007; nat gas production is up 28% from 2007. Oil imports have been dropping and exports of refined petroleum products has increased.
So everything was on track for economic recovery, until the politicians in Washington decided to shut down government. Remember the fiscal cliff deal that started the year? Turns out it was just a stopgap measure, and when it came time to work out a longer-term deal, well, what can I tell you; we’ve got the best politicians money can buy; which is to say that Congress is a train wreck waiting to happen, and it happened in October. The 16 day shutdown came with a price tag of $24 billion, with nothing to show for it but really bad political theater.
And then that was followed by the biggest municipal bankruptcy in US history. Detroit is on the skids. The BK process is still underway, and there are implications. We have seen an unelected emergency manager take over the governance of a major city. A coup. How will it turn out? I don’t know but if this is going to be a template for other struggling cities, it could get ugly.
And finally, perhaps the most important financial development came from a source we didn’t even know a year ago; a modest priest from the slums of Buenos Aires; Pope Francis, the new spiritual leader of more than 1.2 billion Catholics – it is a very large contingent. The new Pope published an apostolic exhortation in late November. Pope Francis called for renewal of the Roman Catholic Church and attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny”, urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality. Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the “idolatry of money” and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare”. He also called on rich people to share their wealth. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” Francis wrote in the document issued on Tuesday. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?”
I think this, more than anything else, has changed the financial dialogue as we head into the new year.