The Independent Market Observer

2/28/14 – The Future of the U.S. Budget Deficit

February 28, 2014

Add another to the list of “best since 2008” stats (although a better phrase might be “least worst since 2008”). The federal budget deficit for 2013 should come in around $680 billion, down from about $1.1 trillion in 2012.

As a citizen, I can’t help but applaud the drop. We are moving in the right direction. If we consider the deficit as a percentage of the economy as a whole, the improvement is even more substantial, since, in dollar terms, the economy has grown even as the deficit has shrunk. For 2013, the deficit is about 4.1 percent of the economy, down from more than 10 percent at the peak. In 2014, there’s a good chance it may shrink further, to a level below that of economic growth—which means the debt could actually start to shrink as a percentage of the economy. This is exactly where we need to be headed.

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2/27/14 – The Future of Inflation

February 27, 2014

I was meeting with our asset management group this morning, and one of the topics of discussion was a strategy that hedges against inflation using swaps instead of TIPs. This is a fairly esoteric topic, certainly more so than I normally cover here, but it got me thinking about where inflation might be going and why. Is now the time to start thinking about this risk?

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2/26/14 – Taxes Move Back to Center Stage

February 26, 2014

What is most interesting in the news is usually the dog that’s not barking. Economics and finance are pretty much absent from the headlines today. Instead, front-page articles in the major newspapers cover childhood obesity, NSA phone surveillance, the Ukraine, and seed-company data harvesting.

This is a shame, but pretty typical. Usually, the best place to look for what will be important in the future is deeper in the paper. Tomorrow’s front-page stories come from further back, and today they’re focused on taxes.

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2/26/14 – Interview on Bloomberg's Taking Stock

February 26, 2014

Check out Brad’s February 7 interview on Bloomberg Radio’s Taking Stock with hosts Pimm Fox and Carol Massar.


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2/25/14 – An Update on the Housing Market

February 25, 2014

Housing has been doing a back-and-forth over the past couple of days, with a number of stats down. Existing home sales were down 5.1 percent in January, with average home prices falling, and housing starts and homebuilder expectations also showing declines. At the same time, other stats, including price increases, remain very strong. In fact, in 2013, home prices rose the most since 2005. What’s going on?

The big picture here is that we should expect moderation in housing and understand that it’s actually a healthy thing. Within that big picture, we can look at several factors—weather, rising mortgage rates, and lower affordability—to decide whether the expected moderation in the housing recovery is going to turn into something worse.

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2/24/14 - Enjoying the Melt-Up

February 24, 2014

There is a real asymmetry about how we treat market ups and downs. In the past couple of weeks, when the market dropped around 1 percent, I got phone calls from advisors and reporters asking why. How could this happen? Today, when the market is up about 1 percent, no calls at all. According to the Wall Street Journal, we are back at record highs, have erased all the losses so far in 2014, and all is right with the world.

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2/21/14 – Minimum Wages, Corporate Taxes, and Profit Margins

February 21, 2014

As I’ve written many times before, profit margins are at or close to all-time highs. The reasons are many, but among the most significant are low wage growth (which has kept labor costs down), low effective (not face!) tax rates, and low interest rates. The argument that current equity valuations are reasonable implicitly assumes that these conditions will remain constant for the medium-term future, and I have had a problem with that.

So far, of course, I’ve been wrong. But I’m okay with it, because I expect over time to be right, and the trends are starting to indicate that might be happening. This week alone, several events have suggested these factors may become less favorable to business profits.

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2/20/14 – Reader Question: Emerging Markets and U.S. Equities

February 20, 2014

Today’s topic is a particularly good and timely question from a reader:

“Why would economic problems in other countries, especially smaller, emerging markets, cause a drop in the U.S. equities market?”

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2/19/14 – Consumer Spending Trumps All: Minimum Wages and Borrowing

February 19, 2014

We have two interesting things to look at today: a report from the Congressional Budget Office on the effects of a higher minimum wage, and a report that consumer borrowing has ticked up as banks become more willing to lend.

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2/18/14 – Party Like It’s 1929

February 18, 2014

I’ve been getting more “disaster chic” questions recently, and I thought I’d get ahead of what I expect will be the next driver of such concerns. Over the weekend, Mark Hulbert wrote a column about a scary chart that’s making the rounds, showing very real similarities between the way the market behaved before the crash in 1929 and right now.

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2/14/14 – Bad Weather and Good Karma

February 14, 2014

First, a shout-out to my wife, Nora, who’s been stuck with the snow for the past two weeks while I’ve been traveling. She’s done a lot of work and a great job, and I am extremely grateful. Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetheart!

The bad weather has actually been an occasion for good karma. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past couple of years helping neighbors clear snow; it’s just the right thing to do for a lot of reasons. Yesterday, while waiting at the airport, I got a delighted text from Nora that someone had plowed our driveway, and when she and Jackson got home, the job was largely done. That was a wonderful surprise. Karma works, although sometimes it can take a while.

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2/13/14 – Why Growth Will Persist

February 13, 2014

I have written before about the work of Professor Robert Gordon and others, who are projecting much lower growth in the next hundred years than in the past. The rationale, briefly, is that all of the easy gains have been taken. The world will not be electrified again. Agriculture has already been largely mechanized. Labor-saving inventions, like the washing machine, have already fully penetrated the developed nations and are working their way through the emerging markets. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it will be possible to satisfy people’s material needs fully.

With population growth topping out, as it is, and with material needs on their way to being addressed, will growth even be necessary? Imagine a world with a stable population, where everyone has enough material goods—what growth would we need? What would growth even mean in that context? Even if Gordon was right, would it matter?

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2/11/14 – What to Do About Janet Yellen

February 11, 2014

When Janet Yellen testifies to Congress for the first time as chair of the Federal Reserve, she will have a very unusual second chance to make a first impression.

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2/10/14 – The “I Quit” Ad and Other Employment Indicators

February 10, 2014

One of the more interesting ads in a generally disappointing Super Bowl—I know I wasn’t the only one looking forward to a much more exciting confrontation between the number-one offense and the number-one defense—was the puppet-maker who supposedly quit her job on national TV. I have to say, if it was real, it took guts. If the new business doesn’t work out, she may have a hard time going back.

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2/7/14 – Things to Pay Attention to

February 7, 2014

With regard to the title, I am aware of the rule that says never end a sentence with a preposition. But I stand with no less an authority than Winston Churchill in saying that this is the sort of nonsense rule up with which I shall not put. So there.

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2/6/14 – The Assumptions of Growth

February 6, 2014

It is hard to think of two companies that are more different than General Motors and Twitter. One deals in heavy metal, is both an American industrial titan and an icon of business history, is a recovering bankrupt, and is everything to do with manufacturing real assets that last a long time. The other is a new company that deals in the deliberately short and ephemeral, employs relatively few—especially when compared with GM—and is a titan of the new social media era. The fact that both are actually successful American businesses gives a look at the scope of what our economy actually covers.

And, yet, even given their diversity and scope, these companies do have something in common—both have seen their growth prospects come into question, as previous assumptions of strength are proving false.

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2/5/14 – Under the Weather: Snowstorms and Economic Data

February 5, 2014

Recently, the weather has been blamed for poor employment figures, poor car sales, and pretty much every other lackluster economic result. Is this a legitimate explanation or just an excuse?

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Market Thoughts for February 2014 Video

February 5, 2014 

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2/4/14 – What to Do?

February 4, 2014

I had a good talk yesterday with two journalists whom I respect quite a bit, Pimm Fox and Carol Massar of Bloomberg Radio’s Taking Stock. We started off discussing the markets, why things were down, and what might happen, and then they asked an excellent question: what should an investor do, and why?

It was so good a question, in fact, that I didn’t have a good, short answer. So much depends on the investor’s plan, his or her time frame, risk tolerance, and so on and so forth that it’s almost impossible to come up with a succinct response.

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2/3/14 – The End of the World, Again and Again

February 3, 2014

With the market’s recent declines, it’s not surprising that the doomsayers are showing up again. In the past couple of days, I’ve heard from several advisors whose clients have received e-mails or read articles that highlight all of the things going wrong, forecasting the imminent collapse of, well, just about everything. Perhaps you’ve received or seen one of these publications yourself.

Let’s start with the real risks. Stock markets worldwide seem to be in the midst of a correction. Here in the U.S., we appear to face the risk of further declines. This has been reinforced by recent economic news that was somewhat less positive than expected. We could be seeing a stock market correction and a slowdown in the recovery. These are real risks, and they shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. They are, however, normal risks, signifying that the economy has recovered to a more normal place. They are not catastrophic risks.

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