When in Doubt, Blame the Weather

Ryan Dressel Ryan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

The 2013-2014 winter has been nothing short of a worse-case scenario for the eastern half of the U.S. In Chicago, temperatures fell below zero an astounding 22 times (the Chicago record for a winter is 25), and let’s not forget the combined 67 inches of snow. In Atlanta, the city literally came to a halt during what became known as “Icepocalypse.” In Philadelphia, we’ve seen a total of 58 inches of snow (third highest on record) including 11 different snow storms dropping one inch or more.[1]

Source: TheAtlantic.com

Source: TheAtlantic.com

Those three locales give you a pretty good idea of just how wide spread the wrath of winter is this year. While it is difficult to measure the exact impact of the weather on the economy, we can conclude that economic activity will certainly lag in January, February and March. Despite the fact that most economic indices account for seasonal effects, they do not account for outlier years like this one. Weather has been blamed for poor economic reports ranging from job growth, to new housing starts, to manufacturing—but is it justified?

A 2010 study by the American Meteorological Society determined which U.S. states are most sensitive to extreme weather variability as it relates to economic output.[2]

Dressel_Weather_2.21.14_1The research concluded that the location with the most sensitive industries had the largest total economic effect. For example, agriculture is the most sensitive on an absolute basis, but the fact that agriculture makes up such a small percentage of most states’ Gross State Product (GSP) means that extreme weather has a small total effect on sensitivity. Conversely, manufacturing, financial services, and real estate have a large relative sensitivity because of their GSP impact. As you can see on the map, the states where these industries have a significant economic impact, translates in higher sensitivity to extreme weather.

The severity of winter in the states colored red and yellow justifies the weather-related hype, while the ones in blue can be ignored for economic purposes. If you include the effects of the Government shutdown, we’ve had four consecutive months of cloudy data that we can’t put into clear context!

[1] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
[2] U.S. Economic Sensitivity to Weather Variability. Jeffrey K. Lazo, Megan Lawson, Peter Larsen, Donald Waldman. December 28, 2010.

Why Care About Housing Reform

QuintStuart Quint, Sr. Investment Manager & International Strategist, Brinker Capital

Housing is a major component of the U.S. economy and the largest source of wealth for many Americans. Despite the recent rebound, home prices in the U.S. have declined a cumulative -16% since 2006. That masks significant declines in Sunbelt markets hit by the housing bubble collapse (FL -37%, AZ -32%, CA -26%, NV -45%).
(Freddie Mac. September 2013)

Roughly 50% of the stock of housing in the U.S. is financed by mortgage debt. Consequently, the availability and cost of mortgage debt has a direct relationship on the value of housing. Indeed, the 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the downturn in housing as the financial system had sharply cut mortgage credit. The downturn in home prices also damaged consumer confidence for the two-thirds of Americans who owned their home. Many homeowners saw their savings reduced and consequently cut back on their consumption. Additionally, the housing downturn left nearly one out of five Americans underwater on their mortgage debt, (i.e. the resale value of their home in the current market would be less than the mortgage debt they owed). This resulted in higher credit losses for banks, which in turn reduced credit availability across the board.

One reason for sub-par economic growth following the 2008 financial crisis stems from the sub-par recovery in housing. Housing accounts for one out of every six dollars of economic output. (National Association of Home Builders)

9.27.13_QuintAdditionally, the housing downturn has impacted the job market. Approximately 2.5 million lost jobs between 2006 and 2013 were lost because of the housing downturn. Residential construction accounts for 1.5 million jobs including the financial sector and real estate. Housing-related employment amounts to as many as one out of every twelve jobs in the U.S. economy. (Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 6 and The Bipartisan Policy Center)

The issue of how to finance the largest asset for many Americans is of critical importance to future growth prospects for the U.S. economy.

Morning Comment from Tower Bridge Advisors

pic-meyerJames M. Meyer, CFA, Principal and CIO, Tower Bridge Advisors

Stocks finished mixed in a relatively quiet session the day after the Fed decided not to begin reducing its bond buying program.

If you never put a lid on the cookie jar, eventually your kids, and probably your dog, will get fat and sick. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic every time you have chills or a fever, half the time there will be no benefit and eventually your body will develop a resistance to the antibiotics. If the Fed keeps dropping $85 billion every month out of helicopters, stock and bond prices will go up in the short run but eventually we will all have to face a set of unintended consequences.

9.20.13_TowerBridge_ComentaryWith that said, I don’t want to overstate any reaction to the Fed’s decision to keep its full bond buying program in place. Another couple of months of buying $85 billion per month instead of $70-75 billion won’t make a big difference. Stocks and bonds reacted Wednesday afternoon and that’s about it for the reaction. However, buying $85 billion of bonds every month is rather similar to persistently giving a strong antibiotic, whether it is needed or not. There may not be immediate harm but there will almost certainly be unintended consequences the longer the process persists. How long is too long? No one knows yet. But with the Fed’s balance sheet closing in on $4 trillion and the fact that soon it will own 40% of all government debt maturing five years out or longer, the problems in the future unwinding what it has created are only going to get more difficult if the Fed doesn’t stop adding to its balance sheet soon.

I understand that the government could shut down in October for a few weeks and that Republican conservatives might create a similar debt ceiling crisis to the one it created two years ago. But the Fed isn’t going to solve that problem with an extra $10 billion in bond purchases. In fact, the Fed isn’t going to solve those problems at all. I get the possibility that the Fed was concerned that real interest rates were getting too high and wanted to scare the bond vigilantes with a surprise. It get the possibility of delaying the start of tapering until the Fed knows who the next Chairman might be to make sure he or she is on board with the game plan. So I am willing to give the Fed a couple of months grace period. But with that said, QE is a much more effective crisis policy than a policy designed to maintain economic growth. Flooding the economy with money doesn’t create demand. Certainly, recipients will gladly take the money but the choice of spending it or investing it depends on market conditions. Given the very slow velocity of money both before and during QE, the market has said rather loudly that it would rather invest than spend. That means investors benefit with much stimulation of economic growth or job creation. Here once again is an example of misguided policy whose unintended consequence is to widen the gap between the wealthy and middle classes.

9.20.13_TowerBridge_Comentary_1We are almost certainly not going to see economic data over the next 1-3 months that is going to move the needle enough by itself to change forward outlooks. Indeed, our economy has been adding about 180,000 jobs per month for almost four years and the pace has remained remarkably consistent if you look at a three or six month moving average. Jobless claims are back to pre-recession levels. Existing home sales, which are about 15x new home sales, are booming. So are car sales. Ladies and gentlemen, we are not in a sick economy and everyone who voted to maintain the status quo yesterday should know that. And those who were unsure yesterday are likely to still be unsure next month or next quarter. Economics is never an exact science and there isn’t a formula that will determine tomorrow’s rate of growth. Federal Reserve forecasts of future growth have been persistently too high since the recovery began. Every subsequent forecast adjustment has been downward, including the adjustment announced on Wednesday. Yet forecasts of job creation and unemployment rates have been pretty accurate. The missing ingredient has been weaker than expected productivity, a function of weaker than expected investment. Tax policy, regulatory policy, fiscal policy and uncertainty created by a dysfunctional government all contribute to lack of investment spending.

With that all said, the Fed didn’t move and that leaves us with the question, “What now?” First of all, there is no need to change any economic or earnings projections. There is no need to change outlooks for Europe or China. Interest costs might be marginally less but the economic impact will be negligible. Obviously, throwing more money at financial assets raises asset prices. The impact of Wednesday’s surprise was felt Wednesday afternoon. There isn’t likely to be much follow through. Again, does anyone really believe that a change of $10 billion in Fed bond purchases would move any needle by a whole lot? I certainly don’t. Just as so many government programs in recent years (e.g. first time home buyer credits or cash for clunkers) pulled benefits forward without creating long term value, Wednesday’s decision created a pop in asset prices that probably simply borrow from future gains. No more or no less.

The true facts are that this economy is what it is, an economy growing about 2% per year, despite significant headwinds created by fiscal policy and Congressional gridlock. The headwinds may be a bit less next year as we anniversary the payroll tax increase but housing growth rates will decline next year and one can’t count on the trickle down impact of a 15-25% growth in stock prices to continue indefinitely. As noted, the Fed has persistently forecasted future growth that was too high. As Fed Chairman Bernanke noted yesterday, the fly in the ointment has been weak gains in productivity. With capacity utilization below 80% and incentives to invest virtually non-existent, one shouldn’t expect productivity to improve until investment spending accelerates. Certainly the uncertainty the Fed created this week surrounding monetary policy won’t help in that regard.

The bottom line is that my near term economic and stock market outlook don’t change. By near term, I mean through 2014. I don’t even see a storm that is likely to hit in 2015 at this time, but no crystal ball is that clear looking two years out. Eventually, and that means within five years, as the Fed does exit and interest rates return to normal levels, there will be problems. Big ones. Government debt service costs are going to skyrocket. That will not only cause further cuts in government spending and entitlements.

9.20.13_TowerBridge_Comentary_2Let me make one point very clear. Nothing has been done about entitlements to date because Congress wasn’t forced to act. When debt service costs rise by $200-400 billion per year, it will be forced to act. Market forces can overwhelm politics. Just look back to 2008. When Congress is forced to act, it will raise the starting age and/or means test Social Security more than it does today and it will cost shift Medicare so that recipients must pay some of the costs. Congress won’t do this because it is the right thing to do or because it is good politically. It will do this because it will be left with no other option. Again, it will happen this decade and the timing will be directly tied to the sharp increase in costs to service our Federal debt. Parenthetically, every developed nation plus China will face the same dilemma; how do you offset rising debt service costs. The responses may differ but the problem is widespread.

That storm is at least 2-3 years away. It may be 4-5 years away. But it isn’t 10 years out. Problems ultimately get solved when markets force them to be solved. Look at the health of U.S. banks today. Markets forced that. Markets made railroads efficient after the Penn Central bankruptcy. Mini-mills saved the steel industry. Japan and German car makers forced the U.S. Big Three to enter the 21st century. The good news is that crisis not only forces change, it forces change for the good because that is the only path to survival. Politicians almost always lack the courage to make changes ahead of crisis. That point transcends both borders and political parties. It takes crisis to force change.

Futures point to a flat opening.

The views expressed above are those of Jim Meyer and Tower Bridge Advisors and are not intended as investment advice.

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The Optimism for an Economy with a 7.8% Unemployment Rate

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Brinker Capital

Currently, the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.8%, an improvement from the 8.5% a year ago and the 10% from the recent peak in October 2009. Still, compared to the consistent sub 6% rates we were used to seeing from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, it is hard to feel good about this current state of employment and what this means for the health of the economy. There are those that argue that the “real” unemployment number is even worse (due to discouraged works exiting the equation and poor measurement methodology etc.). While it’s hard to show optimism for our economy, that is what I aim to do here.

A meaningful place to start is to define what an economy is. By its simplest definition an economy is a measure of the value of the goods and services the people of an area produce. Increase your number of people, increase the amount each person can produce, or produce more valuable stuff and the economy should grow. As you trade and cross-invest between economies, you can make further optimizations. In the short run, economies go through cycles and go by the whims of politicians, the media, central banks and consumer confidence. Still at its core, the economy is just a measure of what the people of a country are able to produce.

More Efficient Per EmployeeThe clear point here is that unemployment represents a failure to produce all we could. However, even with that fact, looking at GDP (expressed in 2005 dollars) we stood at $13.3 trillion at the end of 2011 (the highest year end number ever) and have seen continued growth such that 2012 will be even higher. So we have managed to become more efficient with what each employed person produces. This is the equivalent of a factory using fewer workers but producing more. If the real unemployment rate is actually higher than the 7.8% stated, that means we did it with even fewer workers. This seems like a good thing, right?

What makes the unemployment statistic different from a company having unused equipment is, of course, that people are not computers who can have their software updated over a lunch hour to be instantly redeployed to a new task. The fact is that many of those who are presently unemployed are trained for jobs that are no longer available. Also, people suffer when they are not able to work. There is no spin I can put on that other than to say things will get better given the time to retrain and redeploy. However, is this true?

A challenge to the idea of time healing this employment wound is the fear that technology efficiencies will replace more jobs such that even if the real GDP grows, maybe not all of us will get to be a part of it. Professor Andrew McAfee in a June 2012 TED Talk “Are droids taking our jobs?” echoes this sentiment when he references that in his expected lifetime, he believes we will see a “transition to an economy that is very productive but just does not need that many human workers.” He even notes that in the future an algorithm will be able to do writing tasks so a computer could author this blog. Basically, he sees no current job that we do as safe as these technologies accelerate.

This, however, does not mean that McAfee is pessimistic about our future employment. He is in fact quite optimist. He believes that these new technologies of efficiency represent the opportunity “to make a mockery of all that came before us”. (A phrase originally used by historian Ian Morris when he was speaking of the industrial revolution). What the industrial revolution did to magnify the productivity of our muscles, he feels the technology revolution is going to do to the productivity of our minds. To say differently, he expects we should expect an acceleration in our ability to innovate as technology improves.

A more skeptical reader would be right to ask that if innovation is accelerating, why are we still in the aftermath of the great recession? Thankfully Mr. McAfee is not alone in this technology optimism and has an economist among his group with an explanation. Joe Davis, Vanguard’s chief economist, in a December 2012 speech titled “Better days are in store” notes that the growth of industrial revolutions do not proceed in straight lines. The steam revolution of the late 1770s led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the 1830s. The telephone revolution beginning in 1876 led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the late 1920s with the Great Depression. In both cases Dr. Davis argues these tough times caused businesses to go through the required creative destruction to survive and took these technologies to a major inflection point of further growth. Today, we are in that inflection point of the microprocessor revolution that began in the 1970s. If history is any guide, this is the economic hiccup that will cause us to get to new technology heights.

Unused Human CapitalSo where does this leave us? Over the past five years, the U.S. has learned to do more with less, has additional unused human capital to deploy, and the efficiencies afforded to us by technology are likely to accelerate. While the near term may be messy, there is an undeniable potential for us to be so much greater and “make a mockery of all that came before us”. While the details of this future and what an economic blog of 2063 will read like are unknown, there does seem to be rational reasons for great optimism. With that let me say, Happy New Year!