June 10, 2022
By Steve Blumenthal
“This was the greatest closing panel in the 18-year history of my conferences. Even better than the closing panel food fight between Lacy Hunt, Neil Furguson and Richard Fisher in 2019.”
– John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics and CMG’s Chief Economist and Co-Portfolio Manager
Great it was! Grab a seat. This week’s letter is a good one: a short review of the SIC closing panel, which included Felix Zulauf, Bill White, Tom Hoenig, and John Mauldin, courtesy of Mauldin himself.
Top of mind for me: inflation is going to ebb and flow, but will likely be with us for a number of years. Fiscal and monetary responses to the debt and entitlement challenges will be more printing and even greater debt monetization. How governments respond will impact asset prices in the investment world in which we swim. Best to swim with the current.
Inflation (stagflation) is the current concern, and it’s largely the result of poor decisions. We’ve borrowed too much and have made promises (Medicare, social security, and pension benefits) that we probably can’t keep. The big picture is we sit at the end of a long-term debt super cycle. The last time the debt cycle peaked was in the 1930s. Many of us weren’t alive back then, but there are hundreds of examples throughout history that we can study. Most times, leaders have chosen to print their way out (in one form or another). History shows us those periods did not end well. Inflation and war were common outcomes. Unfortunately, we appear to be on the same path today.
The challenges are not just in the US. Conditions are actually worse in many of the world’s developed markets. The face-off is between the deflationary forces of debt (and aging demographics) and the medicine (new money creation) our legislators and central bankers are injecting into the system. Read the warning label carefully and you see the biggest side effect is inflation. That defines our current state.
My view is that your job and my job as the stewards of capital is to grow and defend our wealth. How and where we decide to allocate our capital is important in terms of improving the financial state of our own families, and using our resources to make the world a better place. Thus, we must think about the global financial markets as a complex system. What are the inputs— monetary and fiscal policy, tax policy, geopolitics, trade, valuations, interest rates, currencies—and what do the push-pull of these factors mean in terms of global capital flows? Where do we sit in the debt cycle? And what this means in terms of how we position our capital. This is why I enjoy the Mauldin Economics Strategic Investment Conference so much. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers cover all this and more.
I watched the closing panel live and rewatched it several times since then. I’ve played the audio file while on my way to and from the office. I’ve gone back to listen to other presenters with that final panel in mind (unlimited access to the talks is one of the great values of subscribing to the conference).
The outlook is challenging economically; it is challenging for bond investors (due to inflation and rising interest rates), and overpriced cap-weighted equity index investing in general. But from an investment perspective, there is a reason for optimism. I’ll share my thoughts on investment positioning and opportunity with you next week. For now, grab that coffee and find your favorite chair. John’s summary is next.
If you are not signed up to receive the free weekly On My Radar letter,
you can sign up here.
Felix Zulauf, William White, Tom Hoenig and John Mauldin
From John’s Thoughts from the Frontline
My last four letters featured highlights from the Strategic Investment Conference. I told you they would build toward a conclusion that might not be obvious. Today we’ll lift that final curtain.
Some of it is good news. Innovation will continue, technology will evolve, living standards will improve in many ways as the 2020s unfold. We had several sessions focused on technology and the future, which I have not written about. Positive things will happen in the background but our attention will be on a less pleasant foreground. News media rarely headline the amazing new technologies that will improve our lives. They focus on the negatives and crisis because that is what we humans read and they get paid by the number of clicks. Sad but true.
In the final panel, we talked about what’s coming. No surprise, much depends on what the Federal Reserve and other central banks do. Trying to control the inflation that arose from their own past choices, they will try to tighten policy without going too far. Their history of making such “soft landings” is not impressive.
But the challenge is more than monetary. Fiscal authorities (legislatures and governmental authorities) had a hand in creating all this, too, and they must be part of any solution. Their history isn’t reassuring, either.
I have written before that we’ve reached a point where all the options are bad, but some are worse than others. People talk about the Fed scoring an economic “soft landing,” tightening just enough to control inflation, but not setting off a deep recession.
That would be nice. The chance that all the necessary pieces will line up that way? Somewhere between slim and none, and as my dad used to say, “Slim left town.” And while my memory isn’t perfect, I don’t believe any speaker at the conference believed in the possibility of a soft landing. And even if we get one, we have serious problems that predate this inflation. They haven’t gone anywhere.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s see what the SIC experts predict.
I like to say conferences are my personal art form. I enjoy finding the right mix of speakers and arranging them into a thought-provoking agenda. The SIC closing panel is my artwork’s final touch. I assemble a “dream team” with different perspectives, not knowing exactly where it will go. Then I add a moderator and myself so someone can light the fuse. It’s always a fabulous ending to a fabulous event.
This year’s dream team was Tom Hoenig, former Kansas City Fed president; Bill White, former chief economist at the Bank of International Settlements; and Felix Zulauf, ace money manager and longtime Barron’s roundtable member, your humble analyst, with David Bahnsen ably moderating. The summary you’re about to read doesn’t capture the actual intensity and informative value of the final panel.
The discussion quickly went to one critical question—perhaps the critical question: How hard will the Fed fight inflation? Everything hinges on it. I hope and believe Jerome Powell will keep pushing until inflation drops below 3%. I don’t know how long that will take, and I fully expect the Fed will break some things trying to get there. That’s going to hurt but a 1970s rerun would be even worse. We have no good choices left.
That led to some follow-on questions: Will the Fed keep tightening, and what if it stops too soon? Here Tom Hoenig has a lot to say because he actually sat at the FOMC table for 20 years, through multiple crises. He’s seen how those discussions go. He knows many of the players and how they think. Here was his initial answer:
“I think that the FED will push until unemployment starts to rise too sharply in their opinion. If the unemployment rate starts to rise to 5% or more, I think that they will back off.
“Now, I hope that if they find themselves in that circumstance, they will pause and not reengage in quantitative easing or lower interest rates just to get us out of the slowdown that is inevitable, given where we’re starting from with 8%‒8.5% inflation almost. And I think if you look at Powell’s spring 2019 actions, when the market threw a liquidity tantrum in the reverse repo market and so forth, his inclination will be to step in. It will take a lot of discipline on his part and on the FOMC’s part to say, ‘Wait a minute, we may pause, but we’re not going to stop. We’re going to pause in terms of raising interest rates, but we’re not going to reduce them and we’re going to have to get through this. And yes, unemployment’s going to be higher.’
“But if he doesn’t do that and he starts to back away, then we’re going to have the 1970s all over again. Start, stop, inflation goes up, then comes down, unemployment rises, therefore they back off. That’s what you want to avoid and that’s the danger going forward.”
A lot to unpack there. Tom noted the inevitable tension in the Fed’s mandate. It is supposed to pursue both price stability and full employment. The unemployment rate stands at 3.6% right now. If 5% is what the Fed considers too high, they still have room to act. (There are plenty of job openings, although this week’s ADT numbers showed small businesses significantly reducing their new hires, and some actually laying off workers.)
The Fed can put a damper on growth and see if inflation responds. That seems to be the plan right now. But if growth declines enough to create 5% unemployment, what do you think markets will be doing? It won’t be pretty. Between politicians yelling about lost jobs and investors upset about falling asset prices, the Fed will get heavy pressure to change course.
Tom Hoenig, having been there, pointed out the Fed has intermediate options. It can pause tightening without actually changing direction. That might be a reasonable choice, too. He said the danger comes if they look reactive. They can’t get into a start/stop pattern. They need to stamp out inflation first, then deal with the damage later. Whether they will do it that way remains to be seen.
Felix Zulauf was more pessimistic. He thinks the Powell Fed is quite different from the Volcker Fed, and not just because of the personalities. It’s a different situation and a different financial zeitgeist. He doesn’t think the Fed, or any other central bank can get away with imposing the kind of pain Volcker did and will stop as soon as this year.
Then Bill White, in his quiet, studious way, dropped the real bombshell.
“Back into Deflation”
David Bahnsen mentioned to Bill White that the Fed would be looking not only at unemployment and the stock market, but also the credit markets for signals. Bill agreed and noted the banks are weaker than many think. Then he said this:
“My real worry on the downside is that it may be that the fragilities are so great at the moment that a moderate degree of tightening will in fact spark a downturn of such a magnitude that even if the Fed does back off, that there’s not much that can be done about it, that will have a downward momentum… that we really won’t be able to handle.”
Whoa. During Bill White’s tenure at the BIS, he was remarkably correct in his analysis. He often went against the common narrative, one of the reasons he is my favorite central banker. He’s never shied away from telling it like it is.
We’re all (correctly) worried about inflation getting out of hand and what to do about it. Bill said, very matter-of-factly, our escape hatch may already be closed. The “fragilities” prevent us from making that soft landing. Relatively mild tightening will “solve” the inflation problem by sending the economy into deflation instead.
Bill then elaborated on what will happen when the Fed hits these fragilities. It will back off and then…
“All that does is generate another asset price boom, and another upward surge in inflation. And then eventually they have to turn to it. It is just making the underlying fundamentals worse and then things collapse and it’s even worse.
“So at this juncture, I think I’m really worried about [future] debt deflation and sooner rather than later. And I don’t think we’re prepared for it. We’re not prepared for it in terms of public psychology, and we’re not prepared for it in terms of the facilities that we’ve got, not just in the US, but perhaps more importantly, worldwide to deal with the degree of debt restructuring that’s got to come out of a deep debt deflation problem.
“We don’t have either the administrative means, or for that matter, we don’t have any principles about sovereign restructuring to guide restructuring.”
He said that so calmly, I suspect the audience wasn’t sufficiently terrified. The only thing worse than out-of-control inflation is out-of-control debt deflation, and Bill is worried about it “sooner rather than later.” That should leave you shaking in your boots. Let me explain why.
Inflation isn’t great but it has a silver lining: It favors debtors by letting them repay their loans with cheaper money. A few years of moderate inflation might have helped everyone reduce their leverage. Far better not to have accrued so much debt in the first place, but it’s where we are.
Deflation does the opposite, making debt repayment harder. That would be a guaranteed global crisis. Many overextended debtors (especially emerging market corporations with dollar-denominated debt) would be unable to pay—probably including some governments. Then what? Bill White—one of a handful on our planet who will have the answer if one exists—says we aren’t ready for it.
Yes, we have a system for individual and corporate bankruptcies. It works but slowly. Exponentially increasing its case load will be a problem. We don’t have a good system for handling sovereign defaults. Are we going to foreclose on China? Italy? Brazil? That won’t go well.
Then there’s Washington—the biggest debtor of all, when you count the obligations like Social Security and Medicare. Inflation just increases the size of the obligations for these entitlement programs. I was actually surprised to see how much my Social Security check increased last year and we haven’t even gotten into this year’s big inflation.
Felix Zulauf observed that already-staggering government debts will probably get bigger.
“I think monetary policy has reached the point where it is not effective anymore in stimulating the economy to a very large extent, or to the extent it used to be in the past. And therefore, we are at the point where fiscal policy takes over. What you see as a result of that is that we will run larger deficits over the next couple of years than in the past.
“You will also see that the government share of GDP will continue to rise. Yours in the US was in the low 20%. It’s now in the upper 30%. In Europe, the EU is at 54%. France is at 64%, the government share of the economy. And the government is the least effective part and least productive part of the economy. In a sense, all the others, the private sector, has to support that economy.
“The private sector’s percentage is shrinking while the government sector’s is growing. And that creates structural problems that eventually will be financed over the printing press in a way. That’s the way we are going, I believe.”
This is the box we’re in. Stopping inflation will create unemployment and other pain, such as falling stock markets and a potential credit crisis, to which governments will have to respond. That will add to already high and growing debts. As Felix says, government spending is both the least productive part of the economy and a growing share of the economy.
Last week the Congressional Budget Office released new debt projections, the first since July 2021. They now expect federal debt will be 110% of GDP by 2032. [Frankly, that is ludicrous. We are already at 129% according to usdebtclock.org.]
That calculation involves a bunch of assumptions, one of which is that real GDP growth will average 1.7% over the next 10 years, with no recessions. CBO also presumes PCE inflation will average 2.1%. They also assume away much of the real world. These seem like overly optimistic expectations, so there’s every reason to think reality will be far worse.
This also assumes Congress and the White House don’t aggravate the situation. That is also unlikely, no matter which party is in charge. There is no constituency for fiscal sanity in the US. The parties are simply irresponsible in different ways.
See that big jump in 2020? That was all the COVID spending, some of which helped spark the current inflation. But from the politician’s perspective, the reaction is, “Hey, we got away with it.” They’ll do it again in the next major crisis, and there’s a good chance we will have one before the 2020s end.
That’s a depressing outlook, I know. But we also know the Earth will keep rotating, and the clock won’t stop. We won’t be able to hide indefinitely. At some point, we’ll have to face these problems and resolve them. That will be what I’ve called “The Great Reset” (not the WEF version).
And to a great extent, the final panelists each saw a similar “finale” coming. They differed on some details, but none saw it being pleasant or easy.
We are going to rationalize all this: the debt, the entitlements, the other government spending, the overvalued assets, all of it. I believe part of the answer will involve rationalizing our tax system. I think we’ll have to supplement the income tax with a value-added tax. It will hurt, yes. But we as a country need to learn that government and its benefits aren’t free. If we want those services, we have to pay for them fairly and quickly and stop passing the buck to future generations.
We’re going to learn a very hard lesson about balancing budgets. We either have to deeply cut entitlements, to which I assign 0% probability (except for tinkering around the margins), or we have to raise taxes to a point that balances the budget. That can’t be done with income and corporate taxes, though they will certainly rise. It can only be accomplished with a VAT, which will somehow have to be designed to not inflict too much pain on the bottom portion of the economy. I think this is possible, but it will only happen in the middle of a crisis of severe proportions.
And that was my closing point:
“We’re going to come to the edge of the abyss and we’re going to look over it and go, ‘Oh my God, we’re all going to die. What are we going to do?’ And then like Winston Churchill said, after we’ve tried everything else, Americans will finally do the right thing.
“It will be uncomfortable. We’re going to hate it. It’s going to be worse than castor oil, but we’ll get through it. Our lives will go on. We’ll still have family. We’re going to live longer. We’re going to be healthier. We’re going to have more cool toys. So, I don’t feel too sorry for us in the future.”
The saddest part is that the coming pain was avoidable. We had alternatives. Collectively, we didn’t choose them, and now we’ll pay the price. But we will get through it and find something better on the other side. Using George Friedman’s concept, we might call it “the Storm before the Calm.” I expect this storm in the mid-to-late 2020s, leading to a boom and renewed growth in the 2030s.
And for the astute investor? There are going to be opportunities all along the way.
That concludes John’s remarks.
I have watched and re-watched a number of the conference panels with the most attention given to the closing session. As I began organizing my notes, I decided that it would be best to share what John wrote. After all, who better than John? It is not often that you get two former central bankers Bill White and Tom Hoenig, one of the greatest investors of our time Felix Zulauf, and perhaps the most widely followed newsletter writer in the business, my friend John Mauldin. A grand finale indeed.
If you are a CMG client, I’m working on a summary packet where I’ll share with you my personal notes in bullet point format. Stay tuned.
Trade Signals: The Equity and Fixed Income Indicators Point Down
June 9, 2022
Notable this week:
The U.S. equity markets continued to sell off today (Thursday, June 9, 2022), with the S&P 500 Index falling around 2.4% and the Nasdaq closing 2.75% lower. I added the following chart after Wednesday’s close. The 50-month moving average sits at 3,458.80, which is the first downside target in my view. The February 2020 pre-pandemic monthly closing high was 3,200. That sits 32.5% below the early January 2022 high of 4,818. That, to me, is a more probable target.
The green box marks what I call the “Fed Pivot Zone.” I could be wrong, but I think the stress will be too much to bear, and Powel Pivots again. That will trigger another ‘risk on’ run if I’m right. From there, we’ll see. Slowing growth, a tick-up in unemployment, and slowing inflation may provide the Fed with enough cover to act. However, more printing will lead to another wave of inflation, and as I’ll be writing in this Friday’s On My Radar, the likely path out of our debt and entitlement trap is to put it on the government’s balance sheet. Inflation remains the noose around the Fed’s necks.
Bear markets are marked by periods of lower highs and lower lows. That appears to be the current state of play. The immediate test ahead is the May daily closing low of 3,900. Keep those hedges in place.
The Dashboard follows next. More red than green.
Click HERE to see the Dashboard of Indicators and all the updated charts in Wednesday’s Trade Signals post.
Not a recommendation for you to buy or sell any security. For information purposes only. Please talk with your advisor about needs, goals, time horizon, and risk tolerances.
If you are not signed up to receive the free weekly On My Radar letter,
you can sign up here.
Personal Note – A Masterpiece
I just looked at my weather app and see some rain in the weekend forecast. That won’t help my golf game, but I am approaching the weekend on a high note. A few weeks ago, I joined my friends from E3 Wealth in Texas at Whispering Pines, and earlier this week I was invited to play at Aronimink Golf Club. Golf Digest ranks both courses in their 100 Greatest Courses Ranking.
From Golf Digest:
After Donald Ross completed his design in 1928, he proclaimed, “I intended to make this my masterpiece.” That didn’t keep club members from bringing in William Gordon in the 1950s to eliminate out-of-play fairway bunkers and move other bunkers closer to greens. The course was later revamped by Dick Wilson, George Fazio and Robert Trent Jones. It took seven years for Ron Prichard, a designer specializing in course restoration, to rebuild the course into something close to the original Ross design as evidenced by old aerial photos. But more recently, the club had architect Gil Hanse, who resides nearby, restore the course once again, more in keeping with Ross’ original blueprints.
I noticed the changes and was blown away. Back to the “original blueprints.” A masterpiece indeed. (Special hat tip to good friend Chuck and our host Steve P.) What a wonderful day it was!
Susan is in Princeton this weekend at the girls club soccer regional tournament. The winner advances to the national championship in Seattle. If they lose, it’s time for a break. Coach Sue is all about the win. Go Penn Fusion!
I’ll be doing some work around the house and spending some time at Stonewall. The lawn needs some attention and the short game needs some love.
More fun is on deck for next week. In viewing Golf Digest’s rankings of the top 100 golf courses, I noticed Essex Country Club sits at number 79. I’m flying to Boston next Wednesday and playing Essex. Then, on Thursday, I’ll be searching for my good friend who will be controlling the crowd at hole number 10 at The Country Club. TCC is the host of this year’s U.S. Open and day one is next Thursday. I know… poor Steve. I’m checking in lucky, happy, and extremely grateful.
Wishing you a great week,
Stephen B. Blumenthal
Executive Chairman & CIO
CMG Capital Management Group, Inc.
If you are not signed up to receive the free weekly On My Radar letter,
you can sign up here.
Forbes Book – On My Radar, Navigating Stock Market Cycles. Stephen Blumenthal gives investors a game plan and the advice they need to develop a risk-minded and opportunity-based investment approach. It is about how to grow and defend your wealth. You can learn more here.
Stephen Blumenthal founded CMG Capital Management Group in 1992 and serves today as its Executive Chairman and CIO. Steve authors a free weekly e-letter entitled, “On My Radar.” Steve shares his views on macroeconomic research, valuations, portfolio construction, asset allocation and risk management.
Follow Steve on Twitter @SBlumenthalCMG and LinkedIn.
IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE INFORMATION
This document is prepared by CMG Capital Management Group, Inc. (“CMG”) and is circulated for informational and educational purposes only. There is no consideration given to the specific investment needs, objectives, or tolerances of any of the recipients. Additionally, CMG’s actual investment positions may, and often will, vary from its conclusions discussed herein based on any number of factors, such as client investment restrictions, portfolio rebalancing, and transaction costs, among others. Recipients should consult their own advisors, including tax advisors, before making any investment decision. This material is for informational and educational purposes only and is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to buy the securities or other instruments mentioned. This material does not constitute a personal recommendation or take into account the particular investment objectives, financial situations, or needs of individual investors which are necessary considerations before making any investment decision. Investors should consider whether any advice or recommendation in this research is suitable for their particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional advice, including legal, tax, accounting, investment, or other advice.
Investing involves risk. Past performance does not guarantee or indicate future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy, or product (including the investments and/or investment strategies recommended or undertaken by CMG), or any non-investment related content, made reference to directly or indirectly in this commentary will be profitable, equal any corresponding indicated historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation or prove successful. Due to various factors, including changing market conditions and/or applicable laws, the content may no longer be reflective of current opinions or positions. Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained in this commentary serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, personalized investment advice from CMG. Please remember to contact CMG, in writing, if there are any changes in your personal/financial situation or investment objectives for the purpose of reviewing/evaluating/revising our previous recommendations and/or services, or if you would like to impose, add, or to modify any reasonable restrictions to our investment advisory services. Unless, and until, you notify us, in writing, to the contrary, we shall continue to provide services as we do currently. CMG is neither a law firm, nor a certified public accounting firm, and no portion of the commentary content should be construed as legal or accounting advice.
No portion of the content should be construed as an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. References to specific securities, investment programs or funds are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as recommendations to purchase or sell such securities.
This presentation does not discuss, directly or indirectly, the amount of the profits or losses realized or unrealized, by any CMG client from any specific funds or securities. Please note: In the event that CMG references performance results for an actual CMG portfolio, the results are reported net of advisory fees and inclusive of dividends. The performance referenced is that as determined and/or provided directly by the referenced funds and/or publishers, has not been independently verified, and does not reflect the performance of any specific CMG client. CMG clients may have experienced materially different performance based upon various factors during the corresponding time periods. See in links provided citing limitations of hypothetical back-tested information. Past performance cannot predict or guarantee future performance. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Please talk to your advisor.
Information herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but we do not warrant its accuracy. This document is general communication and is provided for informational and/or educational purposes only. None of the content should be viewed as a suggestion that you take or refrain from taking any action nor as a recommendation for any specific investment product, strategy, or other such purposes.
In a rising interest rate environment, the value of fixed-income securities generally declines, and conversely, in a falling interest rate environment, the value of fixed-income securities generally increases. High-yield securities may be subject to heightened market, interest rate, or credit risk and should not be purchased solely because of the stated yield. Ratings are measured on a scale that ranges from AAA or Aaa (highest) to D or C (lowest). Investment-grade investments are those rated from highest down to BBB- or Baa3.
NOT FDIC INSURED. MAY LOSE VALUE. NO BANK GUARANTEE.
Certain information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable, but we cannot guarantee its accuracy or completeness.
In the event that there has been a change in an individual’s investment objective or financial situation, he/she is encouraged to consult with his/her investment professional.
Written Disclosure Statement. CMG is an SEC-registered investment adviser located in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Stephen B. Blumenthal is CMG’s founder and CEO. Please note: The above views are those of CMG and its CEO, Stephen Blumenthal, and do not reflect those of any sub-advisor that CMG may engage to manage any CMG strategy, or exclusively determines any internal strategy employed by CMG. A copy of CMG’s current written disclosure statement discussing advisory services and fees is available upon request or via CMG’s internet web site at www.cmgwealth.com/disclosures. CMG is committed to protecting your personal information. Click here to review CMG’s privacy policies.