More Turbulence Is Coming For U.S. Stocks, Economy (SPY)

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July 10, 2017 6:39am NYSE:SPY


From John Mauldin: The way we assess problems depends on our perspective. People can look at the same set of facts and reach quite different conclusions based simply on their circumstances. This is why it’s good at times to get away from your normal environment.

Listen to a wide variety of opinions. Read books outside of your comfort zone. You’ll see things differently when you return.

I had that feeling on returning to the US from Shane’s and my honeymoon in St. Thomas. We’re now officially married, and we thank everyone for the congratulations and kind wishes. I saw a little bit of news while we were there but spent more time just relaxing with my bride and reading books.

Re-entering the news flow was a jolt, and not in a good way. Looking with fresh eyes at the economic numbers and central bankers’ statements convinced me that we will soon be in deep trouble. I now feel certain we will face a major financial crisis, if not later this year, then by the end of 2018 at the latest. Just a few months ago, I thought we could avoid a crisis and muddle through. Now I think we’re past that point. The key decision-makers have (1) done nothing, (2) done the wrong thing, or (3) done the right thing too late.

Having realized this, I’m adjusting my research efforts. I believe a major crisis is coming. The questions now are, how severe will it be, and how will we get through it? With the election of President Trump and a Republican Congress, your naïve analyst was hopeful that we would get significant tax reform, in addition to reform of a healthcare system that is simply devastating to so many people and small businesses. I thought maybe we’d see this administration cutting through some bureaucratic red tape quickly. With such reforms in mind I was hopeful we could avoid a recession even if a crisis developed in China or Europe.

Six months in, the Republican Congress that promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, cannot even agree on the process. For six years they discussed what to do, and you would think they might at least have a clue.

Tax reform? I’ve been talking with several of the Congressional leaders about tax reform, pointing out that without major tax reform this country is in danger of falling into a recession. No tinkering around the edges. Real change requires real change. There is now talk of having a tax bill of some kind ready to discuss in September and possibly pass in November, which, with this Congress, means that the process is likely to drift into next year sans a major push by the leadership. There is no consensus. No less an authority on the actual political process than Newt Gingrich wrote a very sharply worded column this week, declaring, “That legislative schedule is a recipe for disaster.” As Newt points out, if we are going to see any positive economic effect from tax reform, a bill has to be passed soon and implemented. Newt’s column was actually fairly discouraging to me. Knowing him as I do, I can tell you he wasn’t happy to have to write it. While I disagree with him on some of his tax-reform proposals, I agree that we need something significant and soon.

There has been some progress on the bureaucratic and regulatory fronts, but nowhere near what I’d expected. Appointments haven’t been made, and the bureaucracy is still in control of most of the levers of the economy.

I’d love to be wrong. Nothing would make me happier than having to eat all these words. But without significant changes, and soon, the economy will drift sideways and down. While second-quarter GDP growth will come in above 2%, the figure for the first six months of this year will remain below 2%. A host of indicators show a softening of the economy. For instance, , with a glut of more than 7 million previously leased cars clogging the auto market, new-car production is projected to continue to fall. Consumers are financially stretched, and credit card and student loan defaults have begun to rise. While there are bright spots, without major reforms the economy will drift lower, toward stall speed. Any outside shock – and several may be in the offing – could push us into recession.

And then we come to central banks.

Afraid of the Truth

One news item I didn’t miss on St. Thomas – and rather wish I had – was Janet Yellen’s reassurance regarding the likelihood of another financial crisis. Here is the full quote.

Would I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis? You know probably that would be going too far, but I do think we’re much safer, and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes and I don’t believe it will be. [emphasis added]

I disagree with almost every word in those two sentences, but my belief is less important than Chair Yellen’s. If she really believes this, then she is oblivious to major instabilities that still riddle the financial system. That’s not good.

She may be right in that the future financial crisis will not look like the last financial crisis, at least in the United States. We have repealed the law passed under George W. Bush that allowed major banks to lever up 30 to 1. (What were they thinking?) We have required banks to recapitalize and to reduce their market-making activities in the bond market, theoretically reducing their risk of insolvency. And we have put in place all sorts of profitability- and productivity-reducing regulations. While these may be appropriate for larger financial institutions, they are choking the life out of smaller community banks, and thereby reducing the availability of capital to small businesses. Is it any wonder that we are seeing more businesses failing than being launched?

But like generals fighting the last war, central bankers will find that the next financial crisis will be fought on different fronts, with entirely different components and opponents. There is an appalling lack of liquidity and market-making available in the major fixed-income markets, something the banks used to provide, and now by regulatory statute they can’t. Oh, everything is just fine right now, but the moment we hit a speed bump, the liquidity and market-making capability that is left will simply dry up.

In theory, the Fed probably can’t provide liquidity for that type of market, but I will bet you a dollar to 47 doughnuts that they will find some loophole that authorizes them to step in somehow; otherwise there will be a spiral downward in the debt markets. Some markets will spiral up, and some will spiral down. We have once again created all kinds of new debt instruments as investors reach for yield in this low-rate environment, and there will simply be no market liquidity for them in a crisis. A flight to safety will ensure that long-term Treasury rates will plunge to levels that we have not yet seen.

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