What to Expect in 2014 (And Beyond)

This outlook is being written a good 45 days later than when “What to Expect in 2013…” was written over a year ago. It is amazing how much can happen in that short time frame and can influence one’s view of the next year. If I let another 45 days pass I am sure there would be some things that would change. I believe the risks are to the upside on more positive news on the economy but at some point that news could affect Fed action.  Much of what could happen this coming year is influenced by what is going on in the energy sector. Middle East economies, of course, but also inflation, GDP growth, and geopolitical events will affect markets and the US economy specifically. These points will become clear as I spell out some of my expectations. Understand that these expectations follow the Byron Wien formula where I believe there is greater than a 50% chance they happen when the rest of the world may not agree. The “Expectations” are designed to stimulate thought. Some of them can relate directly to the securities markets, but some do not, and this year, a little whimsy. Hopefully, you can figure out which one that is. Let’s begin:

  1. After printing two 4% GDP quarters in 2013 and seeing a 1 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate, there is finally some recognition that, maybe, the Fed’s actions really did produce some stimulus. This could lead to self-sustaining growth in the US economy in 2014 with at least one more 4% print this year. Less noise from the crazies in Washington adds to business confidence and, ultimately, capital expenditures.
  2. Economic growth and job creation become more apparent with forecasts for a decline in the unemployment rate possibly approaching 6% before the end of the year. The Federal Reserve begins making noise about speeding up tapering and hints at reducing the time the Funds rate would remain anchored at its current level. This is in spite of limited evidence, at least early in the year, that the inflation rate is approaching the targeted 2% level. This ultimately has a dampening effect on the markets.
  3. We begin seeing some academic work and, of course, the pundits talking about an acceleration of the technological revolution making the case that low inflation or maybe even some signs of deflation are actually a good thing in this technologically driven environment. The low inflation picture is reinforced at the headline level by energy supplies expanding within the US, in the Middle East from Iraq and, ultimately, Iran. As other countries embrace fracking the potential for even more supply keeps downside pressure on energy prices.
  4. The negative elements on inflation, which are not sufficient to cause major concerns, come via erratic supply in soft commodities from continuation of drought in certain areas combined with weather abnormalities which, more and more, are blamed on climate change. As we get into the latter part of the year, the improving developed market economies combined with growth in Asia put some upward pressure on hard commodities. Investors must make the decision to invest in the extraction companies that have suffered from low prices or directly into the commodities themselves.
  5. The positive change in US trade balances from lower imports of energy combined with rising energy exports adds more than a percentage point to US GDP and reinforces the case for a strong dollar relative to almost every other currency except possibly the Chinese yuan. Asia shows growing signs of a currency war fueled by the impact of further weakening of the Japanese yen beginning to very seriously affect the export trade of its Asian competitors.  While this has a tendency to push up inflation rates in many of the Asian countries, the developed markets benefit from lower prices on many imported goods further softening their inflation rates.
  6. The impact of the currency wars raises questions about the stability of some of the emerging markets, particularly in Asia. There are also concerns about the pace of wage increases in these heretofore attractive locations for outsourcing. Manufacturing and some service corporations begin making different strategic decisions on the best places to locate manufacturing and processing centers.  The decisions are reinforced by a growing belief that technological advances will continue to allow capital to substitute for labor, or at least keep pressure on wages. More business activities find their way back into the developed countries of the world. China moves cautiously in the same direction, taking advantage of its own technological progress. It begins marketing itself as a technological leader as opposed to a low-cost labor market. This is not easy as China, at the same time, continues to push toward a more consumer-oriented society. Incomes have to rise and, politically, the population needs to be kept content. It will not be a smooth year for China.
  7. Coming elections in India point to a possible loss of leadership for the Congress party. Combined with continued economic difficulties and some strife associated with the potential leadership change, the country moves further down the path of being even less attractive for foreign direct investment. It loses another year to the relative growth of its Asian neighbors and finds itself participating in the currency wars as a possible way to salvage elements of growth.
  8. With the exception of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Panama, the rest of Central and South America flounders. The US begins to pay more attention to its southern neighbors. Out of desperation, Argentina reaches a settlement on its outstanding debt and begins a focus on building its energy sector with some help from outside sources. A Menem-like regime change becomes a more likely political outcome.
  9. The changing energy picture outside the Middle East, combined with likely increased production out of Iraq and, ultimately, Iran, result in a change in the relative importance of Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, Israel. This could produce some positive movement in the Palestinian situation, and some changes in the relationships of Saudi Arabia with the rest of the Middle East and possibly Asia as the US becomes an even smaller market for its oil and an export competitor. On the other hand it raises the risk of some turmoil in the region as the power picture changes and attempts are made to preserve the old order in  a possibly military fashion.
  10. The fading newspaper industry surprises the street with its earnings in the early part of the year and benefits from contentious congressional races in the third and fourth quarters as well. The advertising related to Academy Award nominations and ultimately selections reaches new heights in print and social media. Studios advertise some small (but not cheap) movies to extremes to compete with some very high quality films and performances. We actually walked out of a couple of the most highly advertised ones. Aren’t two-page spreads a little extreme? Unfortunately, the correlation between the advertising and the nominations and awards becomes very direct leaving it up to the audiences to hopefully, make their own decisions after the fact. The quality and audience continue to rise for television productions and the associated delivery mechanisms for these performances leaving 3-D sequels and prequels to the movie industry. Can’t wait for “Inside Llewyn Davis Today–in IMax.”

So what does this all mean for the markets? I wish I knew. History says that the kind of equity market we had in the US in 2013 is usually followed by a decent year.  I don’t think it is that simple. We could see some re-allocation by institutions whose US equity portfolios have been pushed above their target percentages. At the same time, if we are beginning to return to a more normal relationship between earnings yields and fixed income yields, traditional debt doesn’t look that attractive. It may mean that markets outside the US are more attractive–maybe Europe and maybe some of the emerging markets if the currency is hedged out. There are some risk elements in the geopolitical situation. I think we will have to look harder for returns this year and the risks are high enough to look for some less correlated investments. I wouldn’t reduce my equity exposure, but I might change the mix.

We’ll have to see if another 45 days sets us up for totally different surprises. If nothing else I hope this has provided some food for thought.

I have some longer term expectations including a carryover from past years which, one of these days, will actually come to pass. I include these as additional repast for the brain. As has been the case since the millennium, the year will likely be more interesting than we anticipated.

  1. Contrary to normally quiet years during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes further steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring more immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service operations.
  3. Moore’s Law, driven primarily by Intel driving down the nanometer scale and introducing other innovations,  continues to march on. The use of Big Data becomes ubiquitous. This produces technological advances that enhance the opportunities in health care, manufacturing, extractive industries, media and services beyond even the imagination of some of the best speculative fiction writers. These advances, on balance, are positive but continue to raise concerns about the environment and quality of life and opportunity for those at the lower end of the economic and educational spectrum.
  4. Breakthroughs in stem cell research particularly led by work coming out of the New York Stem Cell Foundation change the nature of disease management and eradication and move general therapeutic advances away from animal models to direct testing on human cells. Targeted therapeutics driven by DNA analyses tied to narrower classes of patient recipients change the nature of drug and health delivery. It becomes apparent that the US FDA model is slowing the pace of US therapeutics development by the cost and time required to bring solutions to market. Much as financial services regulation was geared to the benefit of larger entities, it becomes clear that therapeutics development has been on the the same path. Change occurs in response to other countries moving more rapidly in bringing solutions to market.
  5. Away from continual ups and downs in financial assets as the world works its way through the hangover from the 2008-2012 financial crises, the general march of human progress is positive. I hope to be around to observe it. Maybe the breakthroughs suggested in the previous expectation will help that.

Could the Labor Statistics be Rigged?

I just posted at comment at Marketplace.org in response to an article written earlier this year regarding data rigging. The conclusion of the article was that data are noisy, but rigging is not the issue. This, of course is all relevant given the Tweeter, Jack Welch‘s comment accusing the “Chicago boys” of manipulating the data. As Joe Nocera points out in his column today, the last accusation of employment data manipulation was by Richard Nixon of the BLS under his own administration when the numbers were more negative than he would have liked. I am not surprised that a former corporate CEO, particularly Jack Welch, would have so quickly jumped to a data manipulation accusation. Most public company CEOs are quite used to data massaging at least once a quarter to satisfy the stock market. I guess they must assume that everyone else does the same to meet objectives other than accuracy. Below is the posted comment to the Marketplace article.

If one looks at the history of revisions of economic data ranging from GDP to Labor Stats there is a pretty consistent picture. When the economy is declining the revisions tend to be negative. At turning points the revisions are noisy. And, in improving economies the revisions are usually positive. This is not always the case, but usually. We are in a slowly improving economy. The ADP employment reports which even Jack Welch, the tweeter, wouldn’t accuse of being rigged, have been better than the numbers from the labor department prior to revisions. The labor situation is quite dynamic—4 million people leave jobs and take jobs every month. The difference between those two represents the increase or decrease in jobs “created.” Take a look at http://bit.ly/NXCmxF, to get some more info on this. Whoever is president for the next four years will get credit for the continued improvement unless the crazies in Washington don’t deal with the Fiscal Cliff. I am optimistic.

The Employment Situation is Quite Dynamic–2 Million quit their jobs in February

The February employment numbers are showing an encouraging trend that began last year. I expect this to continue with some ups and downs. It is supporting one of the surprises in “What Could Happen in 2012 (and beyond).”  Net, net, 227,000 jobs were added in February, and with a half million increase in new job seekers, the unemployment rate stayed at 8.3%. I am not sure everyone understands the components that go into that net number which reflect a very dynamic labor situation in the United States. The net number of new jobs is a result of about 4 million people being hired every month while roughly the same number leave their jobs. What is interesting is the make-up of those numbers. Using the latest available data (December 2011) here are some interesting facts that, if nothing else, will provide some cocktail conversation at your next party (don’t invite me, please):

In December 2011, 4.0+ million people were hired. 3.9 million were separated. Only 1.9- million were actually laid off. 1.9+ million quit, typically to take other jobs, and 330 thousand left for retirement or other personal reasons. At the end of the month there were 3.4 million job openings remaining to be filled.  This is up from 2.9 million in December 2010.

This kind of dynamic goes on every month in the US. If we look at some of the peak numbers prior to the recession, in 2006, average monthly hires were 5.4 million; layoffs were only 1.8 million; other separations were 0.4 million; Quits were a very large 3.0 million. The average number of unfilled jobs at the end of each month was 4.5+ million. Construction employment also peaked in that year averaging 7.7 million. In December 2011, it was 5.5 million.

December 2011 2006 monthly average
Hires 4.0 million 5.4 million
Total Separations 3.9 5.2
Layoffs 1.9 1.8
Other Separations 0.3 0.4
Quits 1.9 3.0
Net Jobs Added 0.227 0.155
Job Openings 3.4 4.5
Construction Employment 5.5 million 7.7 million
Unemployment Rate 8.5% 4.5%

There are many interesting statistics that tell a story of a fairly dynamic labor picture in the US. One of the most worrisome numbers, in my view, is Job Openings. In such a dynamic labor force there will always be substantial unfilled jobs. While geography, timing and Quits play a role, it is an indication that the skill sets don’t match up with the requirements.  Companies find much of their labor requirements from those who already have jobs and skills. It is great for those with the acquired skills who are improving themselves, but, on balance, it raises labor costs and does nothing about those who want jobs who don’t have the appropriate skills. I think corporations will have to fill the training role–and some are. Clearly, our educational system isn’t doing it, although the unemployment rate for those with a college degree is only 4.2%. The military can also fill this role as an important plus for those who do choose to serve. By the way, the unemployment rate for all veterans is 7% while non-veterans are at 8.6%.  Among male veterans/non-veterans it is 7.2% and 9.3% respectively.  I could go on with these little tidbits. For those who are interested just visit www.bls.gov. I find it much more interesting than browsing Facebook. It is tougher working it in to a cocktail conversation, though. Seems to have less impact than talking horoscopes or The Voice.