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The good, the bad, and the ugly

On the surface, conditions in the US look pretty fantastic these days. Prices for lots of goods and services are soaring. Job openings are at record highs. Financial markets are awash in liquidity, and financial market conditions in general are about…



On the surface, conditions in the US look pretty fantastic these days. Prices for lots of goods and services are soaring. Job openings are at record highs. Financial markets are awash in liquidity, and financial market conditions in general are about as good as they have ever been. Debt service burdens for most people are at all-time lows. The stock market is on the cusp of new all-time highs. Corporate profits are booming. Air travel is surging. The economy has recovered just about all it lost to the Covid-19 crisis. Household net worth is at all-time highs in nominal, real and per capita terms. Private sector jobs have recovered almost 70% of what they lost due to the Covid-19 shutdown. Vaccines and natural immunity have all but vanquished Covid-19. Conditions are improving daily, with no near-term end in sight. On the inflation front, expectations currently remain reasonably anchored at around 2.5%.

We are not free of problems or worries, of course. Is Biden of sound mind and body? Is Kamala capable of running the country? Will Congress pass, by the thinest of partisan margins, another round of trillion-dollar spending boondoggles and a permanent and massive expansion of the welfare state? Will the Fed wait too long to reverse its enormous QE efforts? How many of the 10 million workers currently sitting on their hands will want to return to work when emergency unemployment benefits expire in a few months? How long will it take for the Fed to boost short-term rates to a level that once again offers a positive real rate of return? What will happen, in the meantime, with the nearly $5 trillion in savings that have accumulated in the banking system since March 2020? Does the historically low level of real risk-free yields on TIPS suggest that US economic growth will be anemic at best for as far as the eye can see? Are equity valuations dangerously over-priced?

My sense of the news is that several potentially worrisome initiatives are now unlikely to prevail. Thanks to the opposition of the G7, Biden's proposal to unify and raise corporate tax rates to a higher level is dead; instead, the best he can hope for is an agreement to create a new, lower minimum tax rate (15%) that is uniform among developed economies. Even that looks dodgy, however. Senator Manchin appears to be standing firm against nuking the filibuster. Biden's spending plans, which are looking more extreme by the day, are facing growing pushback among the saner elements of his party. 

As for the ugly, the Libertarian-leaning Tax Foundation recent issued a report that says Biden's tax hikes and spending proposals (billed as all-in stimulus) would in fact hurt the economy (the WSJ has more details). I agree: Biden's tax and spend agenda is the last thing this economy needs right now.

The charts that follow flesh out several of these arguments and developments. In the end, I remain near-term bullish but still quite worried about the potential for 1) higher-than-expected inflation down the road and 2) more outrageous and destabilizing fiscal "stimulus" and tax-hike proposals, all of which could end up derailing what for now is looking like a classic boom-type recovery.

Chart #1

Chart #1 illustrates the bizarre developments in the labor market. Many millions of people have returned to work, but there are still millions more on the sidelines. The number of job openings has exploded because employers are unable to find workers who want to work. The obvious culprit is the emergency unemployment benefits which create an enormous incentive for people to remain unemployed until these benefits expire in early September. While this is mostly a temporary problem, it is unnecessarily holding back the recovery and continuing to balloon the deficit. 

Chart #2

Chart #2 has both good and bad news. Good: more companies are looking to increase their hiring than ever before. Bad: There's a huge shortage of willing workers which is stymying efforts by millions of companies to grow. 

Chart #3

Chart #3 illustrates the dramatic improvement in airline passenger traffic. However, the number of people passing through US airports is still about 30% below the prevailing levels at this time in 2019. 

Chart #4

Small businesses employ the lion's share of US workers, so it is concerning that their confidence has sagged from the heady levels of the Trump years, as Chart #4 shows. Undoubtedly several factors are at work: emergency unemployment benefits which pay people not to work, the prospect of rising tax rates on corporate profits and individual incomes, renewed growth in regulatory burdens, and the knowledge—which will not soon fade—that state and local officials can turn off their business at a moment's notice should a new virus surface. 

Chart #5

As Chart #5 shows, the number of private sector jobs today is about 7 million less than where they would have been if the prior trend had continued. Public jobs are more than one million less than they were pre-pandemic. Yet despite these huge job losses, real GDP today is at least as high as it was prior to the Covid shutdowns. That means that the productivity of those who have been working has shot up dramatically, as the economy was forced to find ways to produce more with fewer people. We've seen a revolutionary advance in productivity thanks to Covid. As millions of currently idled workers find there way back into the workforce, that will give GDP growth a significant boost lasting at least through year end.

Chart #6

Chart #6 is quite sobering. Prior to the Great Recession, the labor force (defined as all those of working age who are employed or looking for work) was growing at a rate of about 1.2% per year. Since then, growth in the labor force has been anemic—more so than ever before. I calculate that there are about 19 million fewer in the labor force today than there would have been at the prior trend growth rate. That's a lot of idled human capacity.

Chart #7

Chart #7, Bloomberg's Financial Conditions Index, today is about as high as it has ever been. This all but rules out a near-term recession or even a growth pause. Liquidity is abundant, credit quality is excellent, and nerves have calmed.

Chart #8

Chart #8 shows corporate credit spreads. Today, spreads are about as low as they have ever been, which is a sign that the market is quite optimistic about the outlook for economic growth and corporate profits. One factor contributing to this is the abundance of liquidity and the Fed's pledge that it will not tighten monetary conditions for a long time. Not only does this limit downside economic risk, but it also adds to inflationary pressures down the road, and inflation is something that generally benefits debtors.

Chart #9

Chart #9 is my indispensable tool for judging the likelihood of recession. With the exception of the Covid-19 shutdown/recession, every other recession on this chart was preceded by 1) a flattening or inversion of the Treasury yield curve (red line), and 2) a high and rising real Federal Funds rate. Today the yield curve is steepening, much as it has always done during growth cycles, and the real funds rate is as low as it has ever been. This adds up to an extremely low probability of recession for the foreseeable future.

Very low real yields, such as we have today, are not an unalloyed boon, unfortunately, since they weaken the demand for money (while also actively encouraging borrowing and spending), and thus this can be harbinger of rising inflation if the Fed does not take steps to a) reduce the supply of money by reversing its QE actions and b) boosting short-term interest rates. High and rising inflation would dramatically increase the likelihood of Fed tightening and eventually lead to another painful recession. That risk is not yet imminent, however, but it is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Chart #10

Chart #10 shows an index of non-energy spot commodity prices. Prices have soared, beginning right around the time—in late March—when federal government started pumping trillions of dollars into the economy to offset the effect of shutdowns, and the Fed ended up buying almost all of the debt that was issued, thus massively expanding the money supply. How much of the increase in prices is due to monetary inflation, and how much to the economic recovery and increased demand for goods and services which had suddenly become in short supply? 

Chart #11

I've been featuring Chart #11 often over the past year, since I think it illustrates something that almost all commenters have either ignored or forgotten. The chart shows the percentage of annual income (GDP) that is held in cash or cash equivalents (M2); as such it is a good measure of money demand. As all economists should know by now, the balance between money supply and money demand is of crucial importance. When the supply of money exceeds the demand for it, inflation is the result. The Fed's massive increase in the money supply last year was matched by an equally massive increase in money demand—that's why inflation was low last year. More recently, it looks like money demand is beginning to soften. That makes sense, given the fading of the Covid crisis and the return of confidence. Yet the Fed has done nothing to reverse its massive increase in the money supply. That's why inflation has begun to rise at a troubling rate in recent months (see Charts #9 and 10 in my last post). 

The future course of inflation is of the utmost importance, yet most observers, including the Fed, insist that the recent rise in inflation is transitory—inflation has increased solely because demand has outpaced supply of late and supply eventually will catch up. That's probably true in part, but I think the more important explanation is that the Fed has allowed (and even encouraged) the demand for money to decline without taking offsetting action to either reduce money supply or boost money demand. 

Chart #12

Chart #12 compares the M2 money supply to nominal GDP. For many years they tracked each other closely. But now we've seen an unprecedented surge in M2 that has so far not been matched by a similar pickup in nominal GDP, (both nominal and real GDP today are above their pre-Covid highs, but have not yet exceeded their pre-Covid trend growth rate). In the absence of a concerted attempt by the Fed to reduce the money supply, I would expect to see nominal GDP pick up significantly in future years, with most of the pickup coming in the form of rising prices. There is an awful lot of potential inflationary fuel out there, and it only needs only a return of confidence and a laggard Fed to ignite.

Chart #13

Chart #13 compares the 2-yr annualized growth rate of real GDP (red line) with the real yield of 5-year TIPS. (I've assumed that GDP growth in the current quarter will be an annualized 7%.) Not surprisingly, these two variables tend to track each other. Strong GDP growth is consistent with generally high real rates, and weak growth with low real rates. The current level of real yields is about as low as we have ever seen. I can only think that is because market participants expect the long-term rate of GDP growth to be generally anemic. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Biden's recently proposed budget in fact assumes that despite many trillions of fiscal "stimulus" coupled with rising tax burdens the economy's rate of growth over the next decade will average only 1.7% per year, substantially lower than anemic growth of the Obama years (2009-2017), when growth averaged a little over 2% per year (the weakest recovery on record). 

Chart #14

Chart #14 compares the real Fed funds rate (blue line) to the real yield on 5-yr TIPS (blue line)—the latter being the market's expectation for what the blue line will average over the next 5 years. When the blue line is below the red line, that indicates the market is expecting the Fed to increase its real funds rate target in the future, which is generally the case in normal times. When the blue line is higher than the red line, this is the market saying that the Fed is too tight and is thus likely to have to ease policy in the future. Looks to me like the Fed is plenty easy these days. 

For practical purposes, a very negative real yield on cash and cash equivalents such as we have today (the blue line being a good proxy for cash yields) creates powerful incentives for people to borrow money and spend it. Why? Because borrowing at a negative real rate during a period of rising prices means you don't have to take on much risk in order to make a profit, since the price of most anything you buy will rise while your debt burden—which costs little or nothing to maintain—will shrink. Another way of looking at it: negative real rates strongly discourage people from holding money (i.e., it erodes money demand) and strongly encourage them to spend money. There's an awful lot of money being held these days which is steadily losing purchasing power. If the Fed doesn't reverse its QE efforts, unwanted money will find its way into higher prices.

Chart #15

Chart #15 compares nominal and real yields on 5-yr Treasuries, with the difference between the two (green line) being the market's expectation for the average annual increase in the CPI over the next 5 years. Note the significant pickup in inflation expectations that has occurred since March '20, when the market only expected inflation to average 0.2% per year. That expectation has now jumped to 2.5%. That's not particularly troubling, but it does represent a huge change.

Chart #16

Chart #16 shows the monthly history of the S&P 500 index of equity prices since 1950. As the chart shows, equity prices have increased by an annualized 7% per year over this 70+ year period. Add dividend yields to this, and you get an annualized total rate of return on equities of about 8.5% per year. There's a lot of variability along the way, to be sure, but a buy-and-hold strategy generally pays off handsomely. Note that the 7% trend line shows just about as many above-trend years as below-trend years. If anything, I take this to mean that the equity market today is not necessarily in a "bubble" like it was in the years leading up to 2000. 

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AstraZeneca antibody cocktail fails to prevent Covid-19 symptoms in large trial

AstraZeneca said a late-stage trial failed to provide evidence that the company’s Covid-19 antibody therapy protected people who had contact with an infected person from the disease, a small setback in its efforts to find alternatives to vaccines.



Astra antibody cocktail fails to prevent COVID-19 symptoms in large trial

(Reuters; )

June 15 (Reuters) – AstraZeneca (AZN.L) said on Tuesday a late-stage trial failed to provide evidence that its COVID-19 antibody therapy protected people who had contact with an infected person from the disease, a small setback in its efforts to find alternatives to vaccines.

The study assessed whether the therapy, a cocktail of two types of antibodies, could prevent adults who had been exposed to the virus in the past eight days from developing COVID-19 symptoms.

The therapy, AZD7442, was 33% effective in reducing the risk of people developing symptoms compared with a placebo, but that result was not statistically significant — meaning it might have been due to chance and not the therapy.

The Phase III study, which has not been peer reviewed, included 1,121 participants in the United Kingdom and the United States. The vast majority, though not all, were free of the virus at the start of the trial.

Results for a subset of participants who were not infected to begin with was more encouraging but the primary analysis rested on results from all participants.

FILE PHOTO: A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication together with Trinity College in Dublin, shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus which is the type of virus linked to COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus linked to the Wuhan outbreak, shared with Reuters on February 18, 2020. NEXU Science Communication/via REUTERS

“While this trial did not meet the primary endpoint against symptomatic illness, we are encouraged by the protection seen in the PCR negative participants following treatment with AZD7442,” AstraZeneca Executive Vice President Mene Pangalos said in a statement.

The company is banking on further studies to revive the product’s fortunes. Five more trials are ongoing, testing the antibody cocktail as treatment or in prevention.

The next one will likely be from a larger trial testing the product in people with a weakened immune system due to cancer or an organ transplant, who may not benefit from a vaccine.


AZD7442 belongs to a class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies which mimic natural antibodies produced by the body to fight off infections.

Similar therapies developed by rivals Regeneron (REGN.O) and Eli Lilly (LLY.N) have been approved by U.S. regulators for treating unhospitalised COVID patients.

European regulators have also authorised Regeneron’s therapy and are reviewing those developed by partners GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) and Vir Biotechnology (VIR.O) as well as by Lilly and Celltrion (068270.KS).

Regeneron is also seeking U.S. authorisation for its therapy as a preventative treatment.

But the AstraZeneca results are a small blow for the drug industry as it tries to find more targeted alternatives to COVID-19 inoculations, particularly for people who may not be able to get vaccinated or those who may have an inadequate response to inoculations.

The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker, which has faced a rollercoaster of challenges with the rollout of its COVID-19 vaccine, is also developing new treatments and repurposing existing drugs to fight the virus.

AstraZeneca also said on Tuesday it was in talks with the U.S. government on “next steps” regarding a $205 million deal to supply up to 500,000 doses of AZD7442. Swiss manufacturer Lonza (LONN.S) was contracted to produce AZD7442.

Shares in the company were largely unchanged on the London Stock Exchange.

The full results will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal, the company said.

Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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Former FDA Head Takes on Exec Role at Flagship’s Preemptive Health Initiative

Stephen Hahn, the Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under former President Donald Trump, took on a new role as chief medical officer of a new health security initiative launched by Flagship Pioneering, a life sciences venture firm…



Former FDA Head Takes on Exec Role at Flagship’s Preemptive Health Initiative


Stephen Hahn, the Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under former President Donald Trump, has taken on a new role as chief medical officer of a new health security initiative launched by Flagship Pioneering, a life sciences venture firm that incubates and curates biopharma companies.

First announced Monday, Flagship’s Preemptive Medicine and Health Security initiative aimed at developing products that can help people before they get sick. This division will focus on infectious disease threats and pursue bold treatments for existing diseases, including cancer, obesity, and neurodegeneration. 

In a brief statement, Hahn, who served as commissioner from December 2019 until January 2021, said the importance of investing in innovation and preemptive medications has never been more apparent. 

“In my career I have been a doctor and a researcher foremost and it is an honor to join Flagship Pioneering in its efforts to prioritize innovation, particularly in its Preemptive Medicine and Health Security Initiative. The more we can embrace a “what if …” approach the better we can support and protect the health and well-being of people here in the U.S. and around the world,” Hahn said in a statement. 

During his time at the FDA, Hahn was at the forefront of the government’s effort to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. His office oversaw the regulatory authorization of antivirals, antibody therapeutics and vaccines, as well as diagnostics and other tools to battle the novel coronavirus. 

Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

Hahn bore the brunt of verbal barbs aimed at the FDA by the former president for not rushing to authorize a vaccine for COVID-19 ahead of the November 2020 election. The second vaccine authorized by the FDA for COVID-19 was developed by Moderna, a Flagship company. 

Prior to his confirmation as FDA Commissioner, Hahn, a well-respected oncologist, served as chief medical executive of the vaunted The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Hahn was named deputy president and chief operating officer in 2017. In that role, he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the cancer center, which includes managing more than 21,000 employees and a $5.2 billion operating budget. He was promoted to that position two years after joining MD Anderson as division head, department chair and professor of Radiation Oncology. Prior to MD Anderson, Hahn served as head of the radiation oncology department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Flagship Founder and Chief Executive Officer Noubar Afeyan said the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down economies and caused the deaths of more than 3.8 million people across the world was an important reminder that health security is a top global priority. In addition, the ongoing pandemic brings into “stark focus” the importance of preemptive medications. 

Hahn, who helmed the FDA for three years and before that served as chief medical executive at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, has extensive experience overseeing clinical and administrative programs. Afeyan said the new division would benefit from Hahn’s experience as FDA Commissioner and help steer the Preemptive Medicine and Health Security initiative as it explores Flagship’s “growing number of explorations and companies in this emerging field.”

It is not unusual for former FDA heads to take prominent roles with companies. For example, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s first FDA Commissioner, took a position on the Pfizer Board of Directors weeks after departing his government role. He has also taken positions on other boards since then, including Aetion, FasterCures and Illumina.


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Five U.S. states had coronavirus infections even before first reported cases – study

At least seven people in five U.S. states were infected with the novel coronavirus weeks before those states reported their first cases, a new government study showed.



Five U.S. states had coronavirus infections even before first reported cases – study

(Reuters) – At least seven people in five U.S. states were infected with the novel coronavirus weeks before those states reported their first cases, a new government study showed.

Participants who reported antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were likely exposed to the virus at least several weeks before their sample was taken, as the antibodies do not appear until about two weeks after a person has been infected, the researchers said.

The latest results build on findings from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that suggested the novel coronavirus may have been circulating in the United States last December, well before the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed on Jan. 19, 2020.

A protective face mask lays, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, beside leaves at the lakefront in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., December 6, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon/File Photo

The positive samples came from Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and were part of a study of more than 24,000 blood samples taken for a National Institutes of Health research program between Jan. 2 and March 18, 2020.

Samples from participants in Illinois were collected on Jan. 7 and Massachusetts on Jan. 8, suggesting that the virus was present in those states as early as late December.

“This study allows us to uncover more information about the beginning of the U.S. epidemic,” said Josh Denny, one of the study authors.

The findings were published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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