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Posts Tagged ‘US economy’

If China sneezes…

July 19, 2013 Leave a comment

…the world gets a cold.

I’ve read some version of this notion off and on in the financial media for the last week. Which reminds me of decades past where folks would speculate that if the US didn’t do well economically then the rest of the world wouldn’t either. We seem to be getting a new version of that with China now.

Don’t let it fool you. China continues to contribute nicely to global growth and that’ll help prop equity prices. From MarketMinder this week:

“…slower growth” is something of a misnomer. Yes, if China hits the full-year target, in percentage terms, growth will be slower than 2012’s 7.8%. But in dollar terms, it will accelerate—a $339 billion increase, compared with 2012’s $327 billion rise. Should China match the target for the next few years, the dollar-based gains get bigger and bigger—and higher than the dollar gains seen when the growth rate exceeded 10%. The slower growth rate isn’t a sign of weakness. It just means China’s growing off a much bigger base. In fact, China could miss the target and still add significant value to the global economy and be a key source of revenue for developed-world companies—what ultimately matters for stocks.”  – Cracks in the China?

American Prosperity

December 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Check out Guy Sorman’s latest article in City Journal: A Brief History of American Prosperity.

It will both soothe those fearing the demise of the US economy and inform of the dynamic American economic past.

The Stupidity of the Big Company/Small Company Argument

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Lately, there’s been a torrent of popular press refuting the notion that small business “drives” the US economy. This is sheer nonsense.

The only way to get a big company is for a small one to get big. Huge companies don’t just materialize out of thin air. (Occasionally there are spin-offs, but these are comparatively rare.) Of course big companies have more profits and do more hiring—they’re, well, a lot bigger. But no company starts out huge; they start small. You have to have lots and lots and lots of small companies come and go, with access to capital, hiring and firing, to get just one Facebook or Microsoft or FedEx, or Caterpillar, and so on.

The reason this is so important is because we need constant renewal of our big companies, they aren’t at all static in place or size—take a look at what was in the Fortune 500 just 20 years ago versus today…vastly different! Small companies become big companies and big companies falter or shrink (hello, Kodak?), and those are the things that drive growth, innovation, productivity, and jobs. Not a stagnant pool of big companies that expand and contract like an accordion with growth/recession.

Nurturing the real job creators – John Bunzel

Would a Euro Recession Sink the US Too?

November 25, 2011 Leave a comment

With much hubbub about what a European recession might do to the US , particularly since exports are a significant portion of the economy, the analysts at Fisher Investments took a peek at US export exposure to the region (see below).

It’s pretty clear that—while there of course would be additional knock on effects to a recession in a region as big as the eurozone—the US is not headed for automatic economic doom as a result of its trade there. As of June, US exports to Italy were a little over 1% of total exports; Spain is even less, coming in at roughly 0.7% of total exports; even Germany (the healthiest of the bunch) is well under 4%.

Presented by Fisher Investments: US Exports to European Nations as a % of Total Exports

LEI is Telling the Tale

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment

US Leading Economic Indicators rose sharply, well more than expected in October. Why’s that important? Remember, just a few weeks ago, how recession not only seemed a foregone conclusion, but some experts even believed we were already in one? Through history, LEI generally needs to turn significantly negative in order to get a recession. That’s not where we are today.

Leading economic indicators for the US year over year % change vs. NBER recession

Graphic from Fisher Investments - Leading Economic Indicators Index - US

Stocks and GDP Aren’t the Same

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

 

Remember, stock investors should care greatly about the overall direction of the economy. But economic growth as measured by GDP is different than investing in the future profits of a company.

 

 

This blog has made this point often, but it can’t be repeated enough.


 

Bernanke: Ready for His Close Up

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Today’s first ever FOMC Chair press conference is certainly the start of something new—but having nothing to do with economic or monetary policy. That I could see watching from Fisher Investments HQ, virtually nothing interesting or heretofore unknown was said. It was all very…political. Bernanke was well spoken, he was empathetic, he was balanced, he was sensible. He was all the things you look for in a politician’s speech.

So what we have here is not so much a new era of improved communication between the Fed and the public, but more like a politicization of the Fed—Big Ben is now an inch closer to being the head of the US economy in the public’s eyes—in some ways almost more than the president. Think of what an evolution that is: just 30 years ago the Fed was barely thought of at all for macro economics, now Bernanke is speaking to everything from inflation to manufacturing to the Japanese earthquake. Said another way, people believe he is in charge, and—gulp—has some mighty control over what the US economy does and is. In reality he mostly sets monetary policy and governs the banks—a vital part, but just a part, of the economy. Ben now seems less interested in saying what is true or what he really thinks than he is in saying things that he believes will be good for the market, good for the economy, will instill confidence in the system, confidence in him, etc. Oh, and also he will talk and behave in ways that preserve his job and ego (recall that this is an appointed post by the president).

The Fed Chairmanship is now—as of today—more of a public figure-headed institution than ever before. Time will tell what that means—the Fed is one of the most evolutionary public financial entities in all market history, and they’ve never been static in their policy or function.

Don’t let S&P Spook You

April 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Maybe the most amazing thing about S&P’s announcement on the US fiscal situation is that anyone got riled up about it. Here is a good primer on the report, if you haven’t seen it firsthand. We’ve seen many similar declarations—and years ago—from 60 Minutes to The Wall Street Journal.

That I can see, the report didn’t include any new information other than S&P’s own opinion on the matter. S&P cites a relatively large deficit, rising debt, political gridlock—these have been known to bond investors for a long time, yet yields remain tame and government bond auctions are far oversubscribed. Notably, Treasury yields were down yesterday (4/18/2011), and the dollar was stronger (an ironic twist on the whole “risk on/risk off” situation I’ve before noted on this blog as nonsense).

S&P highlights entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) as “the main source of long-term fiscal pressure.” But entitlements are not the equivalent of debt and can be changed by Congress. Government debt could reach troublesome levels at some point, no doubt, but not in a timeframe that matters to stocks near term. This, and eventual similar reports from other ratings agencies (they tend to move together), could even hasten the political response by enabling politicians to use the AAA rating as a rallying cry to push through unpopular measures like entitlement and other spending cuts…and possibly higher taxes (gulp).

Either way, stay cool: this report’s gusto shouldn’t sink stocks longer-term.

China is Selling US Debt, and Yields are Going…Lower!?

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment

With the ebullient bond buying going on (near record low yields on Treasuries, record bond issuance for corporations, record low yields for long-terminvestment grade bonds), an interesting story has fallen through the cracks:

China Doubles Korea Bond Holdings as U.S. Debt Sold

 

What!? Remember, just months ago, the financial world perpetually bemoaned Chinese ownership of US debt? And how, if the Chinese decided to start selling, it would be chaos for said US debt? Yields would spike, prices would plummet! And then the world would implode on itself. Or something.

Well, why isn’t it happening? One , China doesn’t hold as much US debt as you might think. In the neighborhood of 10%, which is big but not ridiculous. Actually the US —its citizens, its institutions—own way more…as in well over a third. Second, the sovereign bond market is one of the largest, deepest global markets in the world. There are many, many forces at work at any given time. Simply, there are other demand factors that are overwhelming Chinese US debt sales.

If China decided to dump all its US securities at once, of course that would bring big disturbance. But in reality, as China diversifies its holdings and works—in baby steps—to open its capital markets and un-restrict its currency, we’re much more likely to see this kind of measured action. It’s so benign it barely hits the popular media’s radar.

As is so often the case, “We worried about it, but nothing happened” never makes a good headline. This is a prime example.

Fisher Investments Analyst’s Book Review: The Rational Optimist

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment
I was in Austin, Texas recently and met with a client who is a retired French literature professor. After a lively afternoon discussing markets, economics, and geopolitics, the conversation turned to French modernism and Albert Camus. I quipped that Camus was a master author, but his philosophical writing is better than his fiction. Her eyes lit up, she sat up, and spoke through a wide smile, “Yes! Yes. The Myth of Sisyphus. Brilliant! Excellent! Oh!”That’s a lot of enthusiasm for a book about suicide! Well, that’s not fully true. The point of Sisyphus (a longstanding work of the modernist pantheon) is to start with the apparent meaninglessness and absurdity of life, but actually conclude with hope as the only rational response. Indeed, it’s in our nature to hope—to see a way forward, even be overconfident in our ability to achieve a brighter future. And it has been! Humanity’s traversed an accelerating upward trajectory for a long time, albeit with bumps along the way.

But we tend to be hopeful about ourselves, not the world at large. We worry about the world and its future. That’s probably for many reasons but this effect’s been pronounced over the last decade, as it was in the ‘70s. Optimism is the four-letter word of our time. The perfect antidote? Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist. This is the best investing book of the last several years—bar none. A sweeping account of human history through evolutionary and economic lenses, this book is a devastating, fact-driven, often empirical, cogent argument against today’s de facto media dourness. Ridley uses economics and evolutionary psychology to chart the upward trajectory of human civilization with astonishing acuity and insight.

Yet, this book rarely mentions investing at all. I went on Amazon recently and noticed it ranked #2 in the category of Early Civilization and Civilization & Culture books, and #1 in Technology and Futurology, but wasn’t listed in the economics or investing categories that I could see. This is status quo, to my view. The best investing books and ideas are rarely explicitly about those topics. Economics and investing are too narrow—married to their metaphors of equilibrium, market efficiency, supply and demand, bizarre calculations, and so on. Their practitioners cannot usually see these are useful—but limited—metaphors for describing the world. Mistaking these things for real observations about the world, they regard equilibrium, for instance, not as an abstract Platonic ideal, but a real thing. Thus, many spend their time seeking precision and depth in a field founded upon abstraction, as if economics were a physical science. I’ve never been a big Paul Krugman fan (the Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist), but he’s dead right when he says economic theory is best used as a “scaffolding” for positing a point of view that can eventually be stripped away to baser elements of an argument.

Additionally, intellectuals writing economics books—as a group—don’t tend to be optimists. It isn’t becoming of them to be cheery (the rare times they are, look out…a bear market’s likely afoot). If they didn’t have warnings to the populace about stuff, why listen at all? (The recent popularity of Nouriel Roubini’s persona “Dr. Doom” is case in point.) Tiresias never had good news; seers generally have foreboding tidings. Yet, to view history broadly (especially market history) warrants a good dose of optimism.

As a staunch optimist, yes, Mr. Ridley is very biased. He’s a freewheeling, no-apologies capitalist. He believes capitalism is as natural as natural selection. He thinks humans’ natural overconfidence in themselves and capitalism are intertwined and symbiotic because capitalism is all about the pursuit of individual goals and not those of the elite. And while his rhetoric is highly compelling (in the opening chapters he bludgeons us with statistic after statistic of positive things in the world), one could easily argue he’s being myopically optimistic just as pessimists will be myopically pessimistic. It’s not until the end of the book that he balances his argument and acknowledges—almost in an obligatory way—much of the world is still a heinous place with big challenges ahead of it.

But at the very least, I encourage everyone to balance today’s thrum of pessimism and get a dose of optimism with this book. The part I have trouble with is that it doesn’t give pessimism its due. Worry, fear, and the preparation and adaptation they spur in us is a very necessary thing for the progress of mankind. Personally, I want folks overreacting to bird flu, the ozone layer, potential terrorism, etc. It makes us prepare and anticipate—often negating problems before they happen or expand. It’s just not a good baseline perspective for long-term investing.

Economics as Historical Lens

One of the main shortcomings of history is its lack of economic perspective. We have books aplenty about wars and revolutions, and scads of biographies about famous leaders, but little of real quality about the economic forces that truly shaped much of history. That’s mostly because we like narratives about people, not abstract, impersonal forces. (Though, Jarred Diamond’s attempt with Guns, Germs, and Steel is an often flawed but noble attempt to highlight those faceless forces.)

In a way, this book is a recapitulation of Adam Smith—both his Wealth of Nations and the less touted but equally tremendous The Theory of Moral Sentiments—with updated scientific language. Ridley’s crucial point: Economists and pundits who preach doom tend to ignore the most salient feature of life—adaptation. Which is also a baseline ingredient of capitalism. The human race is a collective problem solving machine. As individuals and as a society, we tend to figure stuff out and move forward. Which is a big reason why Malthusian arguments about food supply and energy constraints have never held. Sages and economists through the ages agree that the only thing that’s constant is change and dynamism. It’s therefore insane to extrapolate today’s situations and potential problems into the far future—the world will adapt and change. This is where Ridley is most convincing, and a point that, admittedly, requires some faith in order to be optimistic. There’s no explicit guarantee we’ll adapt through time, but I’d bet on it.

Ridley makes some excellent economic observations about adaptation and progress through history. For instance, birth rates tend to go down with developed, highly productive nations, helping solve future population problems. He provocatively explains energy development and the Industrial Revolution’s onslaught of efficiency effectively eradicated slavery through much of the globe—making slavery unprofitable and unneeded relative to steam engines, etc. But instead of going the route, as many do, of then worrying about how we’ll fight over fossil fuels in the future, he observes that the most likely outcome is we’ll figure out even better ways to harness and access energy, and as that happens our potential for even more prosperity also increases.

Ideas, Mating

Through all this, Ridley offers an interesting critique of science and the nature of innovation. He sees science as an appendage to the intellectual community where the real innovation and invention come from the mixing of ideas and technologies in the world at large. Ridley believes in trial and error as more powerful than hypothesis and testing. He predicates this on the observation that new discoveries tend to come from the private sector and via immediate needs, not the Academy or government. (Ask any major pharmaceutical company how they create new life-saving drugs, and you’ll quickly realize just how haphazardly new discoveries are often made.)

The basis for this view of progress is technology. Ridley describes technology as a “mash up” of existing things (piggybacking off of Brian Arthur’s excellent book, The Nature of Technology). Technologies are what create productivity, and therefore wealth. This is facilitated by idea exchange and self-interest (here’s where Adam Smith pops in), and by the economic “technology” of exchange for mutual benefit and division of labor (trade)—what human communities and their mechanisms of exchange (like markets) are designed to do. Which, to Ridley’s view, is the reason cities will naturally overtake rural areas—they bring us in to closer proximity and thus facilitate more exchange. In other words, the freer and more capitalistic the society and the more we’re interconnected, the more innovation we can have. Thus prosperity and higher standards of living ensue in a positive feedback loop. This feature can and has accelerated through time.

This is a form of evolution—but out of the biological realm and into human civilization/culture (Marvin Minsky observed this with his idea of “memes” decades ago). Ideas, just as much as machines, are a form of technology and are dependent on reciprocity, exchange, and community to create wealth. Interconnection is the key. Without trade, innovation can’t happen because there’s no incentive for it.

These are not new arguments, but remain provocative because synergy doesn’t come naturally to us—we tend to be very skeptical of it even though we behave in accord with it daily. We tend to be more comfortable with the idea of life as zero sum—dividing up a finite pie instead of making a bigger one. People think of trade and capitalism as selfishness because it’s not natural think in terms of mutual benefit—most of life on earth has been about the struggle for scarce resources. This is especially true since capitalism rewards value creation as a core value versus egalitarianism. But nothing’s been more effective at wealth creation through time.

The Nature of Hope

James Hillman, perhaps the greatest living thinker in the field of depth psychology, is harshly critical of hope. He views it an illusion. He says hope creates expectation, which can only lead to disappointment. We should live without the future and stay in the present.

That isn’t possible. We humans think forward, we expect, we build, we accomplish, and we transfer those ideals to the next generation. And with those innate drives, we hope. Hope isn’t an illusion, it’s the motivator—and it is undying. The will to survive and thrive, to move forward, this is a big part of what it means to be a person. It’s inherent and irreducible and even if it subsides for awhile (as it has communally these last years, at least in economic terms) it won’t go away.

And that reason alone is why—above all the economist-speak about incentive, laissez faire, self-interest, profit; above all the hyperbolic political talk about fairness, independence, and freedom; above all the psychology clap-trap of loss aversion, biases, and behavior—beyond all those things, hope propels the world and its economies onward, especially where capitalism allows it to flourish. Today is no different.

Long-term investors simply must on some level believe in that. To stake your future on investment in any form (that is, on the future prosperity of the world), but particularly equities, you must on some level believe that the world will grow, that wealth will continue to be created, that higher standards of living will prevail. To be otherwise is against our nature. As Camus says, “The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of theFisher Investments editorial staff.
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