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The Age Of Easy Money Is Over

The Age Of Easy Money Is Over

Authored by Jeffrey Tucker via The Epoch Times,

What began in 2008 and continued for the better part of 14…

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The Age Of Easy Money Is Over

Authored by Jeffrey Tucker via The Epoch Times,

What began in 2008 and continued for the better part of 14 years appears finally to be coming to an end. The era of cheap money and credit is over.

It’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the implications. It will affect all of business life and personal finances. It will dramatically change financial decisions and also affect the culture. It’s going to amount to a return to good-sense, value investing, and companies that have to actually make a profit the old-fashioned way.

I’m not just talking about layoffs in Big Tech. But those are very real. Amazon is laying off 10,000 workers in management layers—which everyone in corporate America knows are the the most useless people in any business. They got puffed up beyond reasonable size completely due to seemingly infinite resources and forever rising stock valuations based on nothing but inflated reputations.

Such cutbacks are occurring in every major company that reached gargantuan size. Twitter was just the beginning because soon after Facebook (sorry, Meta) announced the same, while many other companies that lived off ad revenue on the internet are experiencing the profitability squeeze as we headed into a solid recession (it will become obvious in months that we are already there).

It also affects real estate, the residential markets of which are already freezing up. And commercial real estate in big cities is similarly affected, particularly offices that are still only half-full. Lacking a buyers’ market, prices will have to come down relative to where they are today, though they are likely to remain inflated over valuations from 2019 due to persistent inflation that is only very gradually calming down.

The huge issue today concerns the rate of return on the safest place to park and move money, namely U.S. debt. For nearly a decade and a half now, short-term interest rates have been negative. This is without precedent. It amounts to the loosest-possible monetary policy. By incentivizing capital to chase anything but safety, and discouraging savings in all forms, finance received a huge boost. But so did everything else, including crypto.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the craze for extreme risk, the who-cares attitude about the pace of business expansion, the magic-beans environment of digital tech, the claims that society has somehow managed to commoditize attention without committing resources, not to mention out-of-control government spending—all of this was propped up by zero-interest rate policies adopted after the last housing market crash.

The innovation perhaps seemed costless at the time. Ben Bernanke came up with the idea. Drive rates to zero to spare the financial system and macroeconomic environment but suppress the normal inflation that would follow through an accounting trick. The Fed would pay a higher than market rate to banks to keep their assets at the Fed, which would lock them away to keep them from creating inflationary pressure. For this great innovation, he was heralded as a genius.

What was the downside? For a while, it seemed like there was none. Savings did not fully collapse beyond their previous level simply because inflation was in check. And yet keeping money in Treasuries was no place for return. So money and capital went on a wild hunt for the whole of the 2010s, times when anything seemed possible both in finance and government. Rates were zero, homes were affordable, and credit was plentiful for everything and everyone.

Every kid could go to any college and rack up six figures of debt learning quasi-Marxist social theory, and porting that over to the workplace where high-flying fancy firms would employ them at high salaries to be clever on Slack and otherwise push woke philosophy. It was in this period that academia was flush with money and no longer had to worry about customers, so it began the great purge of conservative thinkers or anyone who disputed any aspect of the new religion.

So too it went in the corporate world, which came to dismiss old-fashioned concerns like serving customers and stockholders and instead pushed philanthropy and alignment with social and climate justice. It was this environment of infinite plenty that encouraged this simply because the possibilities seemed limitless and there seemed to be no cost at all.

It was precisely during this period of paper-fueled illusion that ESG and DEI were adopted by the best and brightest as central concerns in corporate life, and the experts at the World Economic Forum were on hand to pronounce that balancing the books is not nearly as important as signaling all the right virtues. Media backed up the craze at every step.

All of this was made possible by Bernanke’s scheme. To appreciate how radical it was, we can adjust the federal funds rate by inflation and look back to the end of World War II and see. Rates very rarely went into negative territory except in the 1970s owing to high inflation. But once that problem was fixed, rates rewarded savers and kept economic rationality at the forefront from the 1980s to 1990s. These times were denounced as cowboy capitalism but the truth is that savings were high and value investing was popular. The prosperity of those years was on a firmer footing than anything that followed.

After 2008, all bets were off. We plunged ever further into the abyss of negative rates. The Fed itself ballooned up a balance sheet as never before—effectively stuffing underperforming assets in every closet and filling up the basement too.

Fed funds 1954–2022 adjusted for inflation. (Data: Federal Reserve Economic Data [FRED], St. Louis Fed; Chart: Jeffrey A. Tucker)

It was unsustainable, obviously, and the Fed planned an escape which began in 2019. It did not last thanks to the pandemic response, which called on the Fed to do the unthinkable. It went crazier than before. This time the destination of the new money was different. Instead of cold storage, the new money flooded the streets as hot money to spend right away.

The Bernanke chicken finally came home to roost, 14 years later and following massive damage to economic structures, financial markets, time horizons, and the culture at large. Everything awful had enjoyed a vast financial subsidy: bogus corporate ideological binging, fake credentialing, fashionable socialistic philosophizing, and bad science. Bernanke’s seemingly costless policy created a world unhinged from reality.

After all these years, we now see the cost in intolerable levels of inflation. The Fed needs to put an end to it by driving up real rates above zero. That is going to require far more than what it has done so far. And to really repair the damage will require many years of restoration of balance sheets, a reshuffling of the workforce from fake to real jobs, and a return of sanity in financial markets and corporate culture.

Will Jerome Powell do it? It’s very likely. He doesn’t want his legacy to be the central banker who devastated the dollar’s value. He wants to be remembered as a Paul Volcker who made the hard choices even as the whole world was screaming at him. Wall Street today keeps hoping for some respite from the war on inflation but they are hoping against hope. Powell still has a very long way to go.

Thus does the new era of tight money begin. I can’t think of a better poetic ending to the age of excess than the disgrace of the silly man Sam Bankman-Fried and his merry band of hucksters and druggies who bamboozled the whole of the ruling class into believing that they had some kind of Midas touch to mint money to fund all the causes the hard left sees as holy. FTX died a quick and fabulous death, and with it the dreams of a fully woke pool of infinite funding.

The transition from fantasy to reality is going to be extremely painful, not just financially but psychologically for a whole generation that imagined they could live a life untethered from all norms and rules of the past. The truth is that the dollar-based world has been living a 14-year lie. That truth is going to be a hard pill to swallow, harder to digest than Adderall, more difficult to play than League of Legends, but much more in keeping with a sustainable prosperity in the long run.

Tyler Durden Wed, 11/16/2022 - 17:00

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Stay Ahead of GDP: 3 Charts to Become a Smarter Trader

When concerns of a recession are front and center, investors tend to pay more attention to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) report. The Q4 2022 GDP report…

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When concerns of a recession are front and center, investors tend to pay more attention to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) report. The Q4 2022 GDP report showed the U.S. economy grew by 2.9% in the quarter, and Wall Street wasn't disappointed. The day the report was released, the market closed higher, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average ($DJIA) up 0.61%, the S&P 500 index ($SPX) up 1.1%, and the Nasdaq Composite ($COMPQ) up 1.76%. Consumer Discretionary, Technology, and Energy were the top-performing S&P sectors.

Add to the GDP report strong earnings from Tesla, Inc. (TSLA) and a mega announcement from Chevron Corp. (CVX)—raising dividends and a $75 billion buyback round—and you get a strong day in the stock markets.

Why is the GDP Report Important?

If a country's GDP is growing faster than expected, it could be a positive indication of economic strength. It means that consumer spending, business investment, and exports, among other factors, are going strong. But the GDP is just one indicator, and one indicator doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. It's a good idea to look at other indicators, such as the unemployment rate, inflation, and consumer sentiment, before making a conclusion.

Inflation appears to be cooling, but the labor market continues to be strong. The Fed has stated in many of its previous meetings that it'll be closely watching the labor market. So that'll be a sticky point as we get close to the next Fed meeting. Consumer spending is also strong, according to the GDP report. But that could have been because of increased auto sales and spending on services such as health care, personal care, and utilities. Retail sales released earlier in January indicated that holiday sales were lower.

There's a chance we could see retail sales slowing in Q1 2023 as some households run out of savings that were accumulated during the pandemic. This is something to keep an eye on going forward, as a slowdown in retail sales could mean increases in inventories. And this is something that could decrease economic activity.

Overall, the recent GDP report indicates the U.S. economy is strong, although some economists feel we'll probably see some downside in 2023, though not a recession. But the one drawback of the GDP report is that it's lagging. It comes out after the fact. Wouldn't it be great if you had known this ahead of time so you could position your trades to take advantage of the rally? While there's no way to know with 100% accuracy, there are ways to identify probable events.

3 Ways To Stay Ahead of the Curve

Instead of waiting for three months to get next quarter's GDP report, you can gauge the potential strength or weakness of the overall U.S. economy. Steven Sears, in his book The Indomitable Investor, suggested looking at these charts:

  • Copper prices
  • High-yield corporate bonds
  • Small-cap stocks

Copper: An Economic Indicator

You may not hear much about copper, but it's used in the manufacture of several goods and in construction. Given that manufacturing and construction make up a big chunk of economic activity, the red metal is more important than you may have thought. If you look at the chart of copper futures ($COPPER) you'll see that, in October 2022, the price of copper was trading sideways, but, in November, its price rose and trended quite a bit higher. This would have been an indication of a strengthening economy.

CHART 1: COPPER CONTINUOUS FUTURES CONTRACTS. Copper prices have been rising since November 2022. Chart source: StockCharts.com. For illustrative purposes only.

High-Yield Bonds: Risk On Indicator

The higher the risk, the higher the yield. That's the premise behind high-yield bonds. In short, companies that are leveraged, smaller, or just starting to grow may not have the solid balance sheets that more established companies are likely to have. If the economy slows down, investors are likely to sell the high-yield bonds and pick up the safer U.S. Treasury bonds.

Why the flight to safety? It's because when the economy is sluggish, the companies that issue the high-yield bonds tend to find it difficult to service their debts. When the economy is expanding, the opposite happens—they tend to perform better.

The chart below of the Dow Jones Corporate Bond Index ($DJCB) shows that, since the end of October 2022, the index trended higher. Similar to copper prices, high-yield corporate bond activity was also indicating economic expansion. You'll see similar action in charts of high-yield bond exchange-traded funds (ETFs) such as iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF (HYG) and SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond ETF (JNK).

CHART 2: HIGH-YIELD BONDS TRENDING HIGHER. The Dow Jones Corporate Bond Index ($DJCB) has been trending higher since end of October 2022.Chart source: StockCharts.com. For illustrative purposes only.

Small-Cap Stocks: They're Sensitive

Pull up a chart of the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM) and you'll see similar price action (see chart 3). Since mid-October, small-cap stocks (the Russell 2000 index is made up of 2000 small companies) have been moving higher.

CHART 3: SMALL-CAP STOCKS TRENDING HIGHER. When the economy is expanding, small-cap stocks trend higher.Chart source: StockCharts.com. For illustrative purposes only.

Three's Company

If all three of these indicators are showing strength, you can expect the GDP number to be strong. There are times when the GDP number may not impact the markets, but, when inflation is a problem and the Fed is trying to curb it by raising interest rates, the GDP number tends to impact the markets.

This scenario is likely to play out in 2023, so it would be worth your while to set up a GDP Tracker ChartList. Want a live link to the charts used in this article? They're all right here.


Jayanthi Gopalakrishnan

Director, Site Content

StockCharts.com

 

Disclaimer: This blog is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as financial advice. The ideas and strategies should never be used without first assessing your own personal and financial situation, or without consulting a financial professional.

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Hotels: Occupancy Rate Down 6.2% Compared to Same Week in 2019

From CoStar: STR: MLK Day Leads to Slightly Lower US Weekly Hotel PerformanceWith the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, U.S. hotel performance came in slightly lower than the previous week, according to STR‘s latest data through Jan. 21.Jan. 15-21, 2023 …

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With the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, U.S. hotel performance came in slightly lower than the previous week, according to STR‘s latest data through Jan. 21.

Jan. 15-21, 2023 (percentage change from comparable week in 2019*):

Occupancy: 54.2% (-6.2%)
• Average daily rate (ADR): $140.16 (+11.3%)
• evenue per available room (RevPAR): $75.97 (+4.4%)

*Due to the pandemic impact, STR is measuring recovery against comparable time periods from 2019. Year-over-year comparisons will once again become standard after Q1.
emphasis added
The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four-week average.

Click on graph for larger image.

The red line is for 2023, black is 2020, blue is the median, and dashed light blue is for 2022.  Dashed purple is 2019 (STR is comparing to a strong year for hotels).

The 4-week average of the occupancy rate is below the median rate for the previous 20 years (Blue), but this is the slow season - and some of the early year weakness might be related to the timing of the report.

Note: Y-axis doesn't start at zero to better show the seasonal change.

The 4-week average of the occupancy rate will increase seasonally over the next few months.

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American Express Numbers Show What Still Gets People to Spend Money

American Express stock jumped nearly 12% since earnings dropped.

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American Express stock jumped nearly 12% since earnings dropped.

Even though American Express  (AXP) - Get Free Report earnings announced Friday afternoon fell somewhat short of expectations for the quarter, shares still soared to highs unseen for many months due to a number of strong metrics -- quarterly revenue growth of 17%, plans to raise its dividend by 15% from 52 to 60 cents and an annual revenue that surpassed $50 billion for the first time ever.

At $52.9 billion, the latter is driven primarily by an increase in quarterly member spending. Last year, that number was at $42.4 billion. 

According to American Express Chairman and CEO Stephen J. Squeri, the increase can be attributed to higher numbers of millennials gaining in earning power and using their AmEx above other cards to tap into rewards as many approach milestones like marriage, career advancement, and homeownership.

"Millennial and Gen Z customers continue to be the largest drivers of our growth, representing over 60% of proprietary consumer card acquisitions in the quarter and for the full year," Squeri said in an earnings call discussing the results.

People Are Using Their AmEx Cards a Lot

The $52.9 billion number is up 25% from what was seen last quarter and reflects a number of different factors also having to do with post-pandemic spending.

"We ended 2022 with record revenues, which grew 25% from a year earlier, and earnings per share of $9.85, both well above the guidance that we provided when we introduced our long-term growth plan at the start of last year, despite a mixed economic environment," Squeri said.

AmEx further reported that 12.5 million new members signed up for cards in 2022 while existing members used their cards frequently. Fourth-quarter sales at AmEx's U.S. consumer services and commercial segments rose by a respective 23% and 15%.

But higher expenses also led to falling below analyst expectations. The fourth-quarter income of $1.57 billion, or $2.07 a share, is down from $1.72 billion ($2.18 a share) in the fourth quarter of 2021. FactSet analysts had predicted $2.23 a share.

"I'm not sure what that's really a function of right now -- whether it's a function of the economy or of confusion on where to advertise right now," Squeri told Yahoo Finance in reference to lower spending on the part of small business and digital advertisers. "We're going to watch that, but the consumer is really strong, travel bookings are up over 50% vs pre-pandemic."

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It's a Good Time to Be Tracking Credit Card Companies

Immediately after the earnings dropped, AmEx stock started soaring and was up nearly 12% at $175.24 on Friday afternoon. This is a high unseen in months -- the last peak occurred when, on September 12, shares were at $162.45. 

Whether due to or despite analyst threats of a looming recession, people have been using their credit cards very actively throughout the end of 2022.

When it posted its earnings earlier this week, Mastercard  (MA) - Get Free Report surpassed Wall Street expectations of $5.8 billion and $2.65 per share in fourth-quarter earnings. Visa  (V) - Get Free Report also saw revenue rise 11.8% to $7.94 billion in the same quarter. The numbers also reflect higher numbers of people traveling and using their credit cards in different countries.

"Visa's performance in the first quarter of 2023 reflects stable domestic volumes and transactions and a continued recovery of cross-border travel," outgoing CEO Al Kelly said of the results during a call with financial analysts.

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