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The Next Big Thing

As humans, we are constantly looking towards “the next big thing.” Children look forward to Christmas Day when they find presents under the tree. College students look forward to the end of the semester and being one step closer to closing the door on homework and exams. Adults constantly think about the next big life event such as buying homes, marriage, starting a family, retirement, or just trying to make it to the weekend after a long workweek. The human nature of “the next big thing” has created the yearly phenomenon of the New Year’s resolution.

Have you ever wondered where this tradition started? Why did we become so caught up with big or important goals or accomplishments of “next year I am finally going to get in shape” or “this is the year will be the year I finally start my own business”? The tradition is said to have begun 4,000 years ago with the ancient Babylonians. People would hold massive celebrations to honor the new year which began in March when crops were planted, and new life would begin to grow. Oftentimes this would be the time that the Babylonians would crown a new king which is an interesting analogy as we head into election year 2024 in the United States. Likewise, Ancient Romans believed in a similar practice and that their god Janus (how January got its name) would look backward to the previous year and make predictions about “big things” in the coming year.

Thousands of years later, we follow a similar practice of looking at our biggest accomplishments of the past year and setting new bigger, or higher goals for the coming year. In last month’s article, we evaluated the ups and downs of the U.S. economy by addressing interest rates, recession concerns, consumer spending, geopolitical issues, and bitcoin adoption among others. Looking at 2024, we see some New Year’s resolutions on the brink for the U.S. but not your typical “I want to lose 10 pounds” or “I want to finally get out of debt,” even though the U.S. government should definitely work on that second one. We expect some New Year’s resolutions within the U.S. regarding economic stability during election year madness and the public likely has some resolutions about the growing credit card burden in light of rising inflation and interest rates post-COVID-19 pandemic. We also expect a few big companies to have an IPO on their New Year resolution list and investors will be keeping a watchful high to see if they can hit these goals.

We Need to Keep the Economy Calm During the Election Year Madness

High on the New Year’s wish list for 2024 for many in the United States is to maintain a relatively stable economy during what is sure to be a volatile election year with more ballot histrionics and chicanery. Regardless of political beliefs, it is easy to see that polarization between political parties is paramount, which may only breed volatility in the economy and financial markets. People typically keep a watchful eye on the factors driving the economy during elections as sometimes changes in power or just the thought of a change in power can create uncertainty or confidence that shifts the trajectory of the economy one way other the other.

U.S. Bank recently published an analysis examining how elections have historically affected the U.S. stock market. Their analysis showed that while election years can bring added volatility to the market, there was no evidence suggesting a meaningful long-term impact on the market. U.S. Bank showed in the figure below how political party control has historically impacted the value of the S&P500 specifically during the first 3 months following an election.

However, individual sectors can swing more widely than overall markets depending on the key campaign issues during an election year such as energy, infrastructure, defense, health care, and trade or tax policy. Key issues going into the 2024 race are likely to be inflation, climate change, foreign policy, student loan forgiveness, and reproductive rights. U.S. Bank also concluded that the individual drivers such as economic growth, interest rates, and inflation are still the most critical factors for investors to consider. Each political candidate is likely considering these market-moving factors as they position their “big things” for their 2024 election runs.

This Year I Want to Get Out of Credit Card Debt

Those plastic shiny cards in Americans’ pockets may be seeing a little less action in the coming year. Credit card debt levels reached an all-time high of over $1 trillion in 2023 as consumers resort to spending on credit to maintain their standard of living in the face of the rising costs of almost everything. Interestingly, Statista reported in a recent survey that people’s #1 priority going into 2024 was saving more which means swiping less. The average unpaid debt among consumers is around $7,000 and the double-digit interest rate accruals on those debt levels do not bode well for consumer saving or spending.

Source: Statista

While the Federal Reserve is celebrating inflation heading towards its 2% target, some people forget that the inflation number is a year-over-year metric. This fact means while year-over-year inflation numbers have come down, they are being compared to high single-digit inflation numbers from the previous year. Let’s look at the specific costs of a few items. A loaf of bread in March 2020 just before the pandemic began was around $1.37 and a gallon of milk was $3.25 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Currently, the price of bread is $2.00 per loaf and the price of a gallon of milk is $4.00 meaning there have been “big time” increases of  46% and 23%, respectively, in the price of these staples in just 3 years. On the other hand, the median household income in the United States has only grown around 9% since 2020 suggesting that wage increases have not kept up with consumer price inflation. That’s a “big deal” and this mounting credit card debt and higher interest rates will make it very difficult for most consumers to dig out the debt hole that has been created. Applying the first “big rule” of getting out of the hole is to stop digging, many consumers will cut up their credit cards and pursue more frugal lifestyles.

This is the Year We Go Public

In 2023, there were the fewest number of IPOs in recent history with only 153 companies going public compared to 181 in 2022 and 1,035 in 2021. Some of the biggest IPOs for 2023 were AI chipmaker Arm Holdings PLC [NASDAQ: ARM], which IPO’d on September 14 at a $54.5 billion valuation. The next biggest was Kenvue [NYSE: KVUE], Johnson & Johnson’s spinoff of its consumer healthcare division (Band-Aid, Tylenol, etc.) which IPO’d on May 4, at a valuation of $41 billion. In third place was the popular shoe brand, Birkenstock [NYSE: BIRK], IPO’d on October 11, at a valuation of $7.5 billion.

Looking ahead, 2024 is shaping up to be a “big year” for the IPO market.  Topping the list of “next big thing” is Stripe, an Irish e-commerce company valued at $50 billion as the most valuable privately held “technology” concern in the world. Batting second is AI company, Databricks, planning to go public with at a $43 billion valuation. Next in line is the popular social media service, Reddit, planning to go public with at a $15 billion monetization of its more than 50 million daily users.

Buzz due to a recent report from Bloomberg has also ensued around a possible public offering for Elon Musk’s Starlink which provides satellite internet to users around the world. The service has brought high-speed internet to people in even the most remote areas of the country to connect electronically with the rest of the world. Musk released a statement in November saying that Starlink had achieved break-even cash flow but denied reports that the company would be spun out separately from Space X and go public in 2024. Space X, including the Starlink satellite business, is truly the “next big thing.”  Space X’s 2023 market share of global satellite launches is estimated at 80% and it has an estimated valuation of $150 billion. While Musk seems to have already “hit the moon” with SpaceX, some are wondering what he will do next and if a Starlink IPO will be the next chain in his legacy.

Bitcoin Spot ETF Approval

Speaking of “big launches”, Reuters reported that up to seven applicants for a spot Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) only have a few days to finalize their filings to meet a looming deadline set by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  The SEC has set a deadline for spot Bitcoin ETF applicants to file final S-1 amendments by Dec. 29, 2023. The SEC reportedly told applicants in meetings that it will only approve “cash only” redemptions of ETF shares and will disallow in-kind redemption of ETF shares.  Further, the SEC also reportedly wants Bitcoin ETF filers to name the authorized participants (AP) in their filings.  APs are effectively market makers and risk takers in the creation and redemption of ETF shares.  APs acquire the underlying bitcoin that backs the ETF shares created and, likewise, sell the underlying bitcoin for ETF share redemptions. Any issuer that doesn’t meet the Dec. 29 deadline will not be part of a first wave of potential spot Bitcoin ETF approvals in early January.

The SEC approval of one or more bitcoin spot ETFs is expected to markedly increase institutional and retail investor demand for bitcoin as well as accelerate the bitcoin adoption curve. Bitcoin experts predict this will result in much higher prices for Bitcoin over time.

Bitcoin is currently trading at $42k and has been by far the leading asset class for 2023 with a 154% year-to-date return.

Our New Year’s Resolution

As we sing Auld Lang Syne into the New Year, we at Servant Financial remain committed to maintaining broadly diversified global investment portfolios tailored for each client’s risk tolerance and station in life. Further, we will make it our New Year’s Resolution to stay on top of the “next big thing” that could either adversely or positively impact the achievement of your long-term investment goals and objectives.  That “big thing” could be inflation or deflationary concerns that suggest positioning towards greater real asset exposures or lightening up. Alternatively, it could be sensible, yet unconventional portfolio allocations to more volatile asset classes, like bitcoin and gold miners, as anti-fragility plays on the bankrupt fiat money system. Hopefully, the end of 2023 will bring you great joy and satisfaction in some of your biggest life accomplishments for the year and the turn of the year brings you thoughts of resolutions that have you aiming higher or asking yourself what’s “ the next big thing” in your life.  May prosperity, good health, and well-being be your constant companion in the New Year.

Got Questions?

In the December 2022 newsletter, we featured “12 Investment Themes of Christmas” where we presented important forward-looking finance considerations for the approaching new year. We discussed economic themes surrounding interest rate trends, inflation, recession predictions, consumer spending, cryptocurrencies, and farmland among other topics. We thought a review of 2023 in the form of queries would be a good springboard for our themes for 2024 – a few questions before the quest for answers if you will.

 1. Are Fed Hikes Finished?

In a bold move to address decades-high inflation, the Federal Reserve added 1% to its benchmark federal funds rate by way of four 0.25% hikes, bringing its target rate to a new range of 5.25% to 5.5%.  However, the Fed has held its target rate steady since its last hike in July. These four increases follow a series of seven interest rate hikes in 2022 with the target rate ending 2022 at 4.25% to 4.5% up from 0.0% to 0.25% in March 2022.

The Fed appears to be done and will await the lagged effect of its aggressive hiking campaign.  It is commonly believed that monetary policy works with “long and variable lags” (Milton Friedman dictum) of up to 18 months after a rate increase.  Fed Chair Powell has made it clear that the Fed will retain rates at current high levels for an indeterminate period. Powell also left open the possibility of more rate hikes after the Fed’s mid-November meeting. The Fed will render its next interest rate decision in mid-December with the bond market expecting the Fed to remain on hold at this meeting.

The Fed’s commitment to addressing the challenges posed by inflation has been digested by the bond market with the market consensus of a first-rate cut pushed out until June 2024.  This is consistent with the Fed Reserve Board’s most recent dot plot for a median Fed Funds Rate of 5.1% for 2024.  But can we be certain that Fed hikes are finished?

2. Has Inflation Been Tamed?

The Fed’s aggressive interest rate hikes appear to be having a positive impact. Recent data reveals a notable drop in the inflation rate with the October 2023 headline Consumer Price Index (CPI) showing a 3.3% drop year over year. The headline CPI for 2023 currently sits at 3.2% with core CPI (less volatile food and energy) at 4.0%. This marks a significant improvement compared to the 6.5% headline inflation rate in 2022 but remains well above the Fed’s 2% inflation target. The slowing inflationary trend is great news for consumers and businesses. Lower inflation rates mean that the prices of goods and services are increasing at a slower pace, allowing consumers to make their hard-earned money go further.

While there are still challenges in the housing market with rising costs and slowing sales, the overall outlook suggests an optimistic shift toward lower inflation and eventually more affordable housing costs.  If the Fed has achieved its goal of a soft economic landing with CPI heading towards its 2% inflation target, then homebuyers can expect lower mortgage payments as the Fed interest rate cuts begin.  The Fed Reserve Board’s most recent dot plot for median headline PCE inflation (Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure) was forecasted at 2.5% and Core PCE of 2.6% for 2024.  But can we reasonably expect that inflation has been tamed by the Fed absent some sort of economic fallout?

3. Is A Recession Inevitable? 

Despite earlier concerns about a possible 2023 recession, the economic landscape has shown incredible signs of resilience and improvement despite the Fed’s rapid hiking campaign. Economic indicators such as unemployment rates and GDP growth are fundamental measures of a country’s economic health. The unemployment rate, which stood at 3.7% in 2022, has increased only slightly to 3.9% in 2023. This trend of modest softening of employment is consistent with the Fed Reserve board’s most recent dot plot for a median unemployment rate of 4.1% for 2024.  Fortunately, the GDP growth rate on the other hand has surged from 2.1% annual run rate to 4.9% in the third quarter of 2023. This strong GDP growth suggests an economy more resilient than Fed expectations with increased job opportunities and improved consumer spending.

The Fed Reserve Board’s most recent dot plot calls for median 2023 GDP growth of 2.1% and GDP growth slowing to 1.5% for 2024.

Amazingly, the Fed dot plots for interest rate policy, inflation, employment, and GDP growth are all telling a synchronous tale of a Goldilocks economy – warm enough with steady economic growth to prevent a recession; however, growth is not so hot as to cause inflationary pressures and force additional Fed rate hikes.  Is it possible the Fed porridge gets too cold, and a recession is inevitable or too hot and the Fed has to institute further rate hikes to cool its stew?

4. Is the U.S. Dollar Set To Rise?

The US Dollar Index has held relatively steady since the end of 2022 and currently sits at 104.20. Despite a small dip to 100 in July, the dollar continues to reflect the strength, resilience, and reliability of the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy’s resilient performance, coupled with the US Dollar Index holding its ground, underscores the Dollar’s status as a safe-haven asset. This is particularly notable in the global context where other major economies like China, Japan, UK and Europe are grappling with more pressing economic challenges such as recessionary conditions (China, Europe) and persistent inflation (Japan, UK).  When a formerly synchronous global economy moves into economic and geopolitical disharmony, does the world’s reserve currency rise in value.

Source: MarketWatch

5. Will Consumers Keep Spending?

According to the latest data, consumer spending growth has risen 4.9% in 2023 following a 9% increase in 2022. This is likely attributed to rising wages and the largesse of COVID-era government spending programs. As these government programs are phased out, particularly the moratorium on student loan debt repayments, more and more people are taking on unnecessary debts and overspending, especially with very high interest rate credit cards. People are making luxury purchases, spending money on traveling, purchasing new cars and clothes, etc. In September of 2023, the total amount of U.S. credit card debt broke $1 trillion for the first time in history. This immense growth in consumer debt raises alarms about financial stability on both individual and systemic levels. More and more consumers will potentially face immense financial strain if the employment picture softens considerably or if illness impacts a household breadwinner. With Black Friday and Cyber Monday here, we’re about to see firsthand whether consumers will keep spending.

6. Perpetual Labor Shortages?

The labor shortage challenges identified last year persist into the current economic landscape. Industries across the board are struggling to find enough skilled workers to meet their business demands. This mismatch between demand and supply can stall economic growth, decrease productivity, and delay production and services. The worker shortage persists in all industries except for goods manufacturing, retail, construction, and transportation. There are currently 9.6 million job openings in the U.S. with only 6.1 million unemployed persons. Even if every unemployed person were to become employed, there would still be an insufficient workforce to meet the demands of employers. This is especially true for the financial services industry where only 42% of the existing job vacancies would be filled if all experienced and qualified professionals (in finance) joined the workforce. The shortage remains a critical problem for many industries and finding an effective solution is proving to be extremely challenging. Have we entered an era of perpetual labor shortages? If so, what does the mean for the inflation picture?

7. Is the Russian-Ukrainian War Really Ending?

The two-year old conflict between Russia and Ukraine, currently deemed a stalemate, has prompted the U.S. and its allies to signal the necessity of negotiating a peace deal. The prolonged nature of the conflict has decimated Ukraine’s national resources, particularly its military personnel, with reports indicating a disastrous shortage of soldiers. The U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) recent announcement on November 3, 2023, reveals an increased commitment to supporting Ukraine with equipment, but who will operate them? The DOD is supplying Ukraine with additional military vehicles and gear, $125 million for immediate battlefield needs, and $300 million through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) to enhance Ukraine’s air defenses. This brings the total U.S. financial support for Ukraine to a staggering $44.8 billion which highlights a sustained and costly effort to support Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression.

Sadly, new evidence is emerging that a peace deal was achievable at the beginning of the war. At a recent meeting with the African delegation, Putin showed the draft of an outline of a preliminary agreement signed by the Ukrainian delegation at Istanbul in April 2022. The peace deal provided for Russia to pull back to pre-war lines if Ukraine would agree not to join NATO (but Ukraine could receive security guarantees from the West).

Recently, there have been notable shifts in the pricing of key natural resources, such as softening in oil, gas, and agricultural commodities. This signals a potential easing of tensions and the removal of the market risk premium as the end of the war may be in sight.  But if the same foolhardy political leadership prevails that rejected the potential peace deal in the early stages of Russia’s “police action” in Ukraine, how can we be fully confident the Russia-Ukraine war is really ending?

8. Will Energy Disinflation Continue?

Surprisingly, natural gas prices for home utilities have decreased by 20.8% since 2022. Gasoline prices at the pump have also declined with the average price per gallon dropping to $3.41 from $3.95 in December 2022. Gas prices are primarily dropping due to lower demand from drivers (less overall driving) and cheaper blends of gas (lower production costs mean lower costs at the pump).  In the context of the U.S. economy, declining gas prices may signal a period of lower economic activity or a slowdown. Gas prices are expected to drop even more throughout the winter and into 2024 ahead of the summer driving season. This disinflationary pulse in consumer energy prices signifies ongoing adjustments in the supply-demand equilibrium and could have broader implications for consumers’ standards of living.  A key question for consumers in 2024 is will this energy disinflationary trend continue and offset inflation pressures on household budgets elsewhere.

9. Are Bitcoin and Other Blockchain-based Businesses Institutionally Investable?

On November 2, 2023, FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, once a billionaire and a prominent figure in the worlds of crypto and politics, was convicted of one of the largest financial frauds in history. A Manhattan federal court jury found him guilty on all seven counts affirming that he had stolen $8 billion from users of his now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange. This verdict comes almost a year after FTX filed for bankruptcy which wiped out Bankman-Fried’s $26 billion net worth. This conviction is a substantial win for the U.S. Justice Department with Bankman-Fried facing a potential maximum sentence of 110 years.

With the start of the FTX case, the price of all cryptocurrencies experienced a significant downturn due to shaken confidence in the crypto market and its many charismatic, entrepreneurial founders. However, proven, transparent blockchain-based business models are starting to rebound with Bitcoin emerging as a top-performing asset class for 2023.   Year-to-date through November 17, 2023, bitcoin had gained 67% compared to gains of 26% for midstream energy (Alerian MLP Index), the second-best asset class, and 19% for the S&P 500, third-best asset class.

U.S. regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have awoken from their slumber and are now taking a more proactive regulatory stance.  After seemingly being asleep at the wheel, the SEC has been taking highly visible actions against bad actors like Sam Bankman-Fried and the CEO and founder of Binance, Changpeng Zhao. Zhao has recently stepped down from Binance after pleading guilty to violating U.S. anti-money-laundering legislation. He faces a $50 million fine and a potential prison term. In addition, Binance has agreed to pay a $4.3 billion settlement. Bankman-Fried and Zhao’s cases are part of a broader crackdown on crypto-related financial crimes and display the increased regulatory enforcement actions in the digital asset industry.

Proactive regulation and legislative clarity are welcomed by many of the leading crypto players like Coinbase, the largest U.S. cryptocurrency exchange platform, and Grayscale Investments, the world’s largest crypto asset manage based on assets under management and the sponsor of Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC).  The expectation of increased legislative and regulatory clarity from Congress, the SEC, and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in the near future has encouraged several brand-name, highly credible institutions, like BlackRock and Fidelity, to step into the digital asset space.  The CFTC has determined that bitcoin is a commodity and the SEC and IRS have not publicly challenged that determination. We believe that legislative and regulatory actions in 2024 may emphatically answer the question, “Are bitcoin and other blockchain-base businesses institutionally investable?”

10. Will Student Loans Be Forgiven?

After the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down his unilateral attempt to “forgive” at least $400 billion in student loans, President Biden has diligently sought  a work-around to this reprimand from the highest court in the land. In October 2023, roughly 3.6 million Americans received a nice Christmas present from President Biden with potentially $127 billion of their student loan debt being forgiven. President Biden announced the plan earlier this year which brought joy and relief for some students and criticism and scrutiny from many other students and taxpayers(some of whom had already paid off their student loan debts). By alleviating a substantial portion of student debt, the plan aims to ease the financial burden on millions of Americans, providing them with increased financial flexibility and potentially curry their favor in the 2024 Presidential election. Based on annual income, students may qualify for student loan relief of up to $20,000.

 

The move has sparked considerable debate, drawing attention to questions of fiscal responsibility and the long-term impact on the country’s financial health and inflation rates. This also begs the question of where the money for this forgiveness will come from as the US government already faces $33.7 trillion of debt. The current iteration of student loan forgiveness rests on the Biden Education Department’s claims it has the authority to expand income-driven repayment under the Higher Education Act.  This directive is subject to Congressional legislative oversight and/or Supreme Court challenge and begs the question, “Will Students Loans Be Forgiven?”

11. Will Farmland Continue To Be the Star Of the Show?

Farmland stole the mic the last few years as an emerging institutional asset class. Its low volatility and historical negative correlation with traditional assets and positive correlation with inflation had investors lining up to find their slice of farmland heaven. As a result of the increased interest, strong commodity prices, and global food demand, the value of farmland rose throughout the United States 15-25% in just a two-year period from 2020 to 2022. However, that growth had some wondering if it would continue through 2023. In August 2023 the USDA reported farmland valued appreciated 8.1% from 2022 to 2023 but we are starting to see some signs that transactions may slow in the new year. Growing input prices made planting commodities more expensive while commodity prices have declined from peaks in 2021 and 2022. While net farm income is projected to back off from a peak in 2022, it is still projected to remain modestly above the 20-year averages for net farm income and net cash farm income. Even if U.S. farmland leaves the podium as one of the top performing asset classes in 2024, it will always have a seat at the table because of U.S. agriculture’s vital role in making sure the 8.1 billion mouths across the world are fed.

12. How Should a Diversified Portfolio Change?

At Servant Financial, our role is to help you plot the course in these uncertain times. We understand that recent inflationary trends, costly patterns of increased geopolitical conflict, and increased economic and market volatility may cause investor unease.   The basic investment principle of portfolio diversification has more often than not proven its character in the past and we expect it will continue to do so in the future.  That’s why we are asking the questions now on behalf of our clients so we can continuously assess the risk-reward opportunity set now available.  Last month’s featured article, “Got Gold?” established our foundational thinking that the traditional 60/40 (equities and bonds) portfolio allocation will struggle in an era characterized by economic uncertainties, inflation, and geopolitical unrest.  Our task in the ensuing weeks and months is to live these foregoing twelve questions towards some range of likely outcomes and a capstone result that answers the question, “how should a diversified portfolio change?”

 

 

 

 

Got Gold?

Hedge fund investor and billionaire Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates once retorted “If you don’t own gold, you know neither history nor economics.” Gold interest began spiking again during the COVID-19 pandemic as investors flocked to real assets to hold their money in while equities were flopping. As the S&P 500, NASDAQ, and Dow Jones have started on a downward trend once again, gold has again been experiencing gains in value. Hopefully, most readers can answer yes when asked “Got Gold?”  Servant Financial clients can assuredly answer affirmatively as outlined at the close of this article.

Despite Dalio’s admonition, gold holders, or gold bugs as they are affectionally called, are in the minority of U.S. investors. The Gold IRA Guide conducted a survey in 2020 to reveal the opinions of Americans surrounding gold and silver ownership. 1,500 Americans were surveyed between the ages of 18 and 65+. The survey revealed that 89% answered “no” when asked “Got Gold?”  Only 10.8% of respondents owned either just gold (4.3%) or both gold and silver (6.5%). Some respondents just owned silver (5.1%), suggesting a combined 84% of Americans owned neither gold nor silver at that time.

An updated survey by Gold IRA Guide in May 2022 of 2,500 American households found that almost 4 out of 5 reported having done nothing with their investment portfolio or retirement accounts to hedge against generationally high inflation.  Consumer Price Inflation (CPI) was reported above 8% for all items in both March and April of 2022.  Frankly, I think this is a sad commentary on institutional money management because it is very likely that many of these survey respondents were working with trusted investment advisors.  Unfortunately, a large majority of money management firms have apparently not “studied history or economics.”  Lemming-like, many institutional money managers are beholden to the traditional 60/40 stock and bond regime that has worked so well for the last 3 decades since the start of the 1990s.

Ray Dalio has also stated that “There are two main drivers of asset class returns – inflation and growth.”  We know from history that growth has been the dominant driver since the 1990s aided by a secular decline in inflation and interest rates.  Unfortunately, over the next 30-plus years, our elected geniuses in Washington and their co-conspirators at the Federal Reserve mistook that secular trend for permanence and repeatedly doubled down on the mantra “deficits don’t matter.” While most American households cannot feasibly operate under a budget deficit, the U.S. government seems to think they can. Washington elites ignored “history and economics” by spending and printing without limitation.  It’s as if they were seeing the world through Morgan Wallen Whiskey Glasses:

Line ’em up, line ’em up, line ’em up, line ’em up

Knock ’em back, knock ’em back, knock ’em back, knock ’em back

Fill ’em up, fill ’em up, fill ’em up, fill ’em up

‘Cause (INFLATION) ain’t ever coming back.

However, it is now increasingly apparent that we are entering a secular period in history where inflation trumps growth as the primary driver of asset class returns.  Safe passage through this new secular inflationary period requires polishing up on the history of gold cycles.  The chart below from Octavio Costa at Crescat Capital provides a nice overview of gold’s price history since the 1970s.  It’s important to note on this timeline that in August 1971 President Nixon closed the “gold window” which prevented foreign governments from redeeming their dollars for gold.  Up until this point, gold had served as an important governor on U.S. spending and printing.

History shows that when gold was the primary monetary unit before the adoption of gold-backed fiat currencies, gold also served as a governor of war.  Would-be aggressors were limited in financing war against their neighbors by the amount of gold stored in their treasuries and the amount of gold booty or other resources they could recover from their conquests. The same goes for pirates and naval conquests.

For those readers interested in digging a little deeper into gold, we’ve found that the most comprehensive analysis of gold markets available is entitled “In Gold We Trust”, prepared annually by Incrementum.  Incrementum published their 417-page, 17th edition earlier in 2023 entitled Showdown | In Gold We Trust report 2023 (hyperlinked to YouTube summary presentation of the report).

Incrementum presciently entitled their May 2023 edition “Showdown.”  The report summarizes the four important Showdowns that they expected to play out over the next year or more:

  1. West Versus East Geopolitics
  2. Competing Currencies (BRIC+ Currency Bloc)
  3. Failing Monetary Policies
  4. Price of Gold (gold price advances have been tame relative to Incrementum’s cycle view)

Obviously, Incrementum was aware of the Russia-Ukraine “showdown” at the time of publication but likely could not have anticipated another violent “showdown” in the Middle East.  Sadly, the inhumanity of humanity intervened again in recorded history with another Middle Eastern war on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 (also known as the Fourth Arab–Israeli War).  That war began on 6 October 1973, when an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria jointly launched a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Following the outbreak of hostilities, both the United States and the Soviet Union initiated massive resupply efforts for their allies (Israel and the Arab states respectively) during the war which led to a confrontation between the two nuclear-armed superpowers.

Source: Bloomberg, SpringTide

Incrementum included a thoughtful, far-reaching interview with former Credit Suisse economist Zoltan Pozsar.  Pozsar is a Hungarian-American economist known for his analysis of the global shadow banking system.  He published a widely read December 2022 analysis while at Credit Suisse entitled “War and Commodity Encumbrance”.

Pozsar has since started his own macroeconomic advisory firm specializing in funding and interest rate markets called Ex Uno Plures.  The firm’s name (“out of one, many” in Latin) is the antonym of E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”), the motto on the Great Seal of the United States and dollar bill.  The firm’s raison d’être and the main thesis of the War and Commodity Encumbrance whitepaper is that “for generations, investors have been operating in a unipolar macroeconomic environment, where the U.S. dollar reigned supreme globally and where E Pluribus Unum was the perfect motto to describe what became known as the global dollar cycle. However, the conflict between the U.S. and China is set to reshape the global monetary order centered around the U.S. dollar. De-dollarization, the re-monetization of gold, the invoicing of a growing number of commodities and goods in renminbi, and the proliferation of CBDCs (Central Bank Digital Currencies) will challenge the US dollar’s hegemony (“out of one, many”).”

Incrementum’s headline quote from the Pozsar interview reads, “Two percent inflation and going back to the old world, I don’t think it stands a snowball’s chance in hell. Low inflation is over and we’re not going back.”

Here are some of Pozsar’s specific recommendations from the interview for adapting to the New World Order as he sees it (emphasis added):

  • We are moving into a multipolar reserve-currency world where the dollar will be challenged by the renminbi and the euro for reserve currency status.
  • These currencies, especially the renminbi, would not necessarily be used as a reserve currency, but rather to settle trade. Gold could play an increased role here. (Pozsar notes that since 2016-17, the renminbi has been convertible to gold on the Shanghai and Hong Kong Gold Exchanges.)
  • The Chinese are using swap lines to settle international trade accounts. This is a fundamentally different approach from the dollar reserve framework and would mean that trade can occur in renminbi without nations needing to hold vast reserves of the currency.
  • The various crises that today’s financial market participants have witnessed were solved by throwing money at whatever problem arose. The current inflation problem is different.
  • This situation is also vastly different from the late 1970s when Paul Volcker curbed inflation by prolonged high-interest rates. Chronic underinvestment in the resource sector and labor issues will cause inflation to remain sticky.
  • The traditional 60/40 portfolio allocation will struggle in this environment. Pozsar recommends a 20/40/20/20 (cash, stocks, bonds, and commodities) allocation.

Commenting further on the commodities allocation Pozsar echoed the words of Dalio on “gold, inflation and growth”:

“Within that commodities basket, I think gold is going to have a very special meaning, simply because gold is coming back on the margin as a reserve asset and as a settlement medium for interstate capital flows. I think cash and commodities is a very good mix. I think you can also put, very prominently, some commodity-based equities into that portfolio and also some defensive stocks. Both of these will be value stocks, which are going to benefit from this environment. This is because growth stocks have owned the last decade and value stocks are going to own this decade. I think that’s a pretty healthy mix, but I would be very careful about broad equity exposure, and I would be very careful of growth stocks.”

Servant Financial client portfolios have long held, meaningful allocations to gold.  Below is a summary of gold allocations by client portfolio risk profile:

The chart below provides the performance of a Moderate Risk client portfolio after management fees against a traditional 60/40 global composite portfolio (without management fees) over the past twelve months ended October 20, 2023, and highlights the benefit of holding traditional gold and precious metals and digital gold over this time. (Past performance is not indicative of future performance.)

Moreover, bitcoin broke emphatically through the $34K level on October 24, 2023, and is up some $8,400, or 32%, in the past 30 days after the United States Court of Appeal issued a court mandate this week requiring Grayscale Investment’s application for a spot Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) to be reviewed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  The mandated SEC review could potentially pave the way for the conversion of the Greyscale Bitcoin Trust (BTC) from a trust (trading a week ago at a 12% discount to the net asset value (NAV) of underlying bitcoin held) to a spot ETF trading much closer to NAV. Servant predicted this “Bitcoinalization” as we coined it back in July of this year.

The title of this month’s newsletter is a hat-tip to the highly successful “Got Milk?” ad campaign of the 1990s and early 2000s.  Trends in consumption and investment evolve, affected by the cyclical and episodic nature of humanity and a myriad of factors from health and ethical concerns to technological innovations and geopolitical events. Just as the dairy industry has faced challenges and adapted, the gold investment landscape is also undergoing a transformation and monetary renaissance. The intrinsic value of milk as a household staple of a well-balanced diet is akin to the enduring value that gold brings to a well-diversified investment portfolio.  Just as there have been resurgences in milk consumption through innovation and adaptation, the allure of gold, gold miners, and other scarce stores of monetary value remains. A “Got Gold?” mindset offers investors a timeless refuge, especially in an era characterized by economic uncertainties, inflation, and geopolitical unrest.

 

Blessing for Peace

May those who make riches from violence and war,

Hear in their dreams the cries of the lost.

Excerpt from the poem by John O’Donohue

 

Jeromeggedon and Calamity Janet

“Guess what guys, it’s time to embrace the horror! Look, we’ve got front-row tickets to the end of the earth!” This month’s collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) had many of their well-heeled venture capitalist depositors and customers metaphorically reliving this scene from the 1998 movie, Armageddon. SVB’s downfall had people questioning if we are headed for another epic crisis in the banking system like that experienced in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis punctuated by the failure of Lehman Brothers. On March 8th, SVB announced a $1.8 billion loss on its investments in long-term treasuries prompted by depositors withdrawing funds. Withdrawals soon snowballed as general partners at venture-capital firms began pulling their money out of Silicon Valley Bank and urged their portfolio companies to do the same. Hours later, Moody’s downgraded SVB Financial triggering its stock price to crash sending shockwaves reverberating throughout the banking system. $52 billion in the market value of JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup was lost as panic spread about the safety of banking deposits, particularly deposits over Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance limits of $250,000. Two days after the initial announcement, the FDIC took control of SVB after depositors attempted to withdraw $42 billion. On March 12th, the New York Department of Financial Services regulators announced the 3rd largest bank failure, Signature Bank.  Signature Bank was one of the few banks accepting crypto deposits; some believe this made them an easy regulatory target. SVB’s failure prompted Signature Bank customers to move their depository funds to larger systemically important banks, like JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup, as concern rose surrounding its portfolio which was very similar to SVB’s.  Systemically important is the code for “too big to fail banks” that the Federal government will likely step in and save in a full-blown crisis.

Panic and concerns surrounding the U.S. banking system sent shockwaves from large banks down to your local community bank known for giving out lollipops for new deposits or transactions. $165 billion in losses of market value were experienced among the 10 biggest bank stocks and $108 billion in losses were incurred among small bank stocks according to the Federal Reserve. Concerns began to arise that we were in for another collapse of the banking system as the closure of SVB marked the 2nd largest bank collapse ever and the largest since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.  Many experts wondered aloud whether SVB was analogous to a Lehman moment within the technology sector centered around Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

Image Source: Fox Business

The Downfall of Silicon Valley Bank

So where did SVB go wrong? As the name suggests, Silicon Valley Bank was a preferred bank for many tech start-ups and venture capital firms. The bank saw substantial growth during the pandemic as the technology sector was booming and venture capital money was raining down on VC startups, minting hundreds of Unicorns – VC startups valued at $1 billion or more. SVB invested the flood of deposit funds into treasury bonds, mortgage-backed bonds, and other long-dated assets which provided SVB with a larger interest spread over the interest SVB paid to its depositors in the low-interest rate environment during the pandemic. The Federal Reserve monetary and interest rate policy decisions and long-term guidance encouraged this behavior as Fed Chairman Powell labeled incipient inflation “transitory” in 2021.  But as inflation continued to rise into 2022, the Federal Reserve was ultimately forced to hike interest rates very aggressively.  The yield curve eventually inverted as long-term interest on 10-year treasuries fell below those offered on 2-year treasuries.  Consequently, the long-duration securities that SVB purchased to back its deposits fell substantially in value, something on the order of 25%. In accordance with accounting rules and the regulatory framework for banks, SVB had counted on the fact that they would hold their investments until maturity and did not recognize the mark to market impact of higher interest rates in its financial statements.  These held-to-maturity securities were carried at cost on their balance sheet until they could no longer be “held.”  Sophisticated depositors caught wind of this shadow accounting issue with SVB’s announcement of a $2 billion equity capital raise.  Deposits were rapidly withdrawn causing a forced sale of these long-term securities and creating large realized losses.

SVB had also been facing a general slowdown in the venture capital funding cycle and deposit taking. Venture capital investments are far less attractive when the cost of capital rises with interest rates.  It’s far easier to finance these ventures that do not cash flow for several years, maybe a decade or more, at zero interest rates, but it’s a completely different ballgame with the Federal Funds Rate at 5.0%. Funding across the venture capital space slowed meaningfully and deposits to the preferred depository institution began to shrink massively.  Moreover, these cashflow-burning startup enterprises continued to rapidly withdraw money for payroll and operational expenses. The Federal Reserve’s wild misjudgment on inflation and subsequent unprecedented rapid hiking campaign fomented the destructive conditions for a life-or-death decision between the safety of deposits and SVB’s insolvency, or Jeromeggeden.   The Federal Reserve had effectively financially engineered this textbook run on Silicon Valley Bank by its policies. Many sophisticated investors had long ago concluded that the Fed would keep hiking interest rates until they broke something. Technology-sector concentrated SVB proved to be the weak link and the first domino to fall.

The big question is how many other banks will be caught swimming naked on interest rate risk management now that the banking deposit tide is going out. This banking cycle is a foreseeable consequence of Fed monetary policies. Remember under quantitative easing (QE), the Federal Reserve printed dollar reserves and used those reserves to take U.S. treasuries and other government-backed securities out of private hands. These excess reserves generated by QE are now trapped in the U.S. banking system. Depositors are being rational economic actors and withdrawing bank deposits and buying money market funds that hold U.S. treasuries.  With money market funds yielding 4.3% today, this deposit withdrawal cycle may be largely irreversible.  The Fed should be accelerating its wind-down of its U.S. treasury holdings to soak up the wave of private demand for treasuries.

The Federal Reserve’s Response

The fears around the financial stability of the banking system had investors and consumers alike calling for a slowing of Federal interest rate hikes. Investors and banks alike had already been questioning Chairman Jerome Powell on the timing (too late to start the hiking cycle) and pace (too fast hiking because playing catchup) of their policy decisions. Judgment day came on March 22nd when the Fed announced another 0.25% rate increase making it clear their priority was combating inflation despite growing fears about the stability of the banking system. The rate hike prompted banks to lose further equity value both domestically and in Europe, causing unease that the Fed’s decision could cause additional damage to the already wounded banking system. Mr. Powell said that “depositors should assume that their deposits are safe” as the government plans to impose further regulations on an already heavily regulated industry. This “watch and see what happens” approach was small comfort and hasn’t given bank depositors in non-systematically important banks that warm and fuzzy feeling about the safety of their deposits. Deposit withdrawals at regional and small community banks continued apace.

Will the Large Banks Keep Getting Larger?

The resulting crisis has depositors and banks alike looking to the FDIC and U.S. Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen for guidance. Yellen commented at a Capitol Hill hearing that the FDIC will cover the uninsured deposits (excess of $250,000) of both SVB and Signature bank, yet there is great uncertainty if this policy decision would apply to other bank depositors in the future. Yellen publicly said shortly after the SVB collapse that the FDIC could cover depositors whose funds exceed the $250,000 limit.  However, when questioned if all banks would receive this treatment at the Congressional hearings, Yellen’s response appeared to suggest that small and midsized banks would be left out. The calamity caused by Yellen’s comments was highly disruptive for many smaller banks as it prompted businesses and individuals to contact their local community banks about transferring their depository funds to larger banks that Yellen said would be protected.  This was a surprisingly dismal show of confidence from the U.S. Treasury Secretary who once proclaimed in 2017 as Fed Chairman “I don’t see a financial crisis occurring in our lifetimes.”

From March 8th to March 15th, $110 billion flowed out of small banks into larger banks. Small banks account for just 34% of deposits in the U.S. banking system; however, they account for a substantial portion of commercial real estate loans sitting at 74% of total loan activity. Like the iconic Bailey Building and Loan from It’s a Wonderful Life,  these small community banks lend out deposit funds to Main Street America borrowers for local commercial real estate projects or businesses. If deposits to small banking institutions continue to contract, then this would reduce capital available for commercial real estate lending. Small banks often work with borrowers whose needs are more specialized or whose funding needs are too small in size for the larger banks in America to consider. For example, according to the American Banking Association, a majority of agricultural lending is done by small and mid-sized banks that have deep roots in their rural communities. Farm loans require specialized analysis and training that not many large banks possess. If depositors pull their money from these small institutions, this could affect the availability of capital for agricultural lending, small business lending, and lending to underserved/underbanked communities.

While concerns surrounding the U.S. banking system have merit, the situation Silicon Valley Bank found itself in was somewhat unique. Nationwide, 45% of all deposits in the United States banks are uninsured; however, at SVB almost 94% of their deposits were uninsured. To stem this evolving bank liquidity crisis, the Fed created a new program to administer additional funding called the “Bank Term Funding Program,” (BTFP). Through this program, banks would be loaned funds if they pledge U.S. Treasury securities, mortgage backed securities, and other collateral. The result would be potentially transferring the risk of bank losses from the bank to the federal government. Through BTFP, the Federal Reserve apparently will provide liquidity to the borrowing bank may give loans based on the par value/cost of the securities rather than its depreciated market value.  In other words, they moved the shadow accounting for unrealized losses to the Fed’s balance sheet.

Safety of the US Banking System

Despite ongoing concerns surrounding the stability of the U.S. Banking system and another potential banking crisis similar to 2008, most economists believe that the U.S. Banking system is sound. On a broad scale, U.S. Banks are solvent overall and are not at a high risk of systematic failure or collapse. While rapid interest rate hikes have caused more severe fluctuations in capital flows in higher interest rate sensitive sectors of the economy, like technology and banks concentrated on that sector, we would expect that most large banks have well-risk-managed investment and lending portfolios and show more of diverse depositor base among sectors. Silicon Valley Bank appears to be a unique case of a large bank that did not properly manage the interest rate or duration risk of its investment holdings and Federal regulators were found asleep on the job again. Small community or regional banks may struggle to diversify their portfolio from a geographic standpoint however their focus gives them the ability to lend to a wide array of small businesses such as farms, retail, commercial property, and others. The investment portfolio of these smaller banks is closely watched by bank regulators as they serve such a large percentage of the total loan volume.

Policy actions and statements from the Fed’s Jeromeggedon and Treasury’s Calamity Janet have many Wall Street economists forecasting the U.S. will be in a full-blown recession by the second half of 2023, potentially forcing the Fed to pivot and begin lowering interest rates. Servant Financial client portfolios continue to stay overweight cash and fixed-income securities relative to strategic risk targets. The Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) decision to raise the Fed funds rate by 25 basis points last week shows that the Fed is prioritizing its “stable prices” mandate over financial stability. We believe this policy decision will ultimately lead to increased financial instability while heightening inflation risk.  As such, we are maintaining underweights to equity and credit risk and healthy portfolio allocations to precious metals and other real assets.

Based on the FOMC’s subsequent actions, we plan on adjusting risk allocations once financial instability and recession risks have been fully repriced.  We expect the Fed will be forced to abandon its inflation fight and lower interest rates materially in the coming quarters. For now, we are advising clients to remain the rational actors that all economists expect us to be. For our portion, that means getting paid to wait by holding excess cash in money market funds with better yields from short-term investment-grade bonds. For example, the Fidelity Government Cash Reserve money market fund (FDRXX) yields 4.3% as compared to just 0.7% more in yield (5.0%) for a high-quality bond fund with a 6-year duration.  This short-term positioning greatly reduces the risk of taking a wait-and-see approach to the rapidly evolving macro, policy, and market backdrop.

Keep it simple with money market funds for your liquid savings as well or keep it local if you can.   Consider maintaining savings accounts or bank certificates of deposit (CDs) of 6 to 12 months at multiple local banks in support of your community. CDs, like checking or savings deposits, are only FDIC-insured up to $250,000 but are now offering rates from 4% to 5%. Ultimately, it is important to do business with people you trust and places you know will be there when you need them. Have conversations with your local banker to find out how protected your money is. Shop around, this is a saver’s dream after nearly a decade of near-zero interest rates.

Disclaimer: This is not investment advice and should not be used in the context of forming an investment portfolio. See your investment advisor or talk with Servant Financial today about how these factors affect your portfolio.

 

 

Twelve Themes of Christmas

Contributions made by: John Heneghan & Michael Zhao

 

‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the financial house, not an investor was resting, not even a DC louse. 2022 brought investors increased market volatility and a wide array of risks and uncertainties remain, yet some opportunities may lie hidden under the Christmas tree. From inflation worries to geopolitical risks, we have been on a wild sleigh ride this past year. But whether you landed on the naughty or nice list this year depended on your ability to navigate the economic whiteouts caused by the likes of the Federal Reserve, Vladimir Putin, and Sam Bankman-Fried.

 

Tis’ the Season for Interest Rate Hikes

On the first day of Christmas, Federal Reserve Chairman stuffed my stocking with 7 rapid interest rate hikes. The Fed has been hiking the benchmark Federal Funds Rate at an unprecedented pace to combat high inflation which is causing concern among investors and consumers alike. As the cost of borrowing increases, whether it’s for a mortgage, car loan, or credit card, it impacts the affordability of goods and services for many households.  People tend to hunker down on spending and are less likely to take on new debt, which impacts aggregate consumer spending and business investment. Recently, the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate from 4.25% to 4.5% in its final policy meeting of the year. This marks the seventh consecutive increase in just nine months to the highest benchmark interest rate in 15 years.

The Federal Reserve has signaled its desire to keep interest rates higher through 2023 with the potential of rate easing, not until 2024. As a result of the Fed interest rate hikes, mortgage rates have reached 20-year highs, interest rates for home equity lines of credit are at 14-year highs, and car loan rates are at 11-year highs. Savers, on the other hand, are seeing the best bank deposit and bond yields since 2008. The 10-year U.S. Treasury yield hit a 12-year high in September at 3.93% causing foreign investment to flock to U.S. treasuries and spurring strength in the U.S. Dollar. After several years of low-yielding bond investments, investors are busily re-balancing their investment portfolios so they can much more safely jingle their way to their investment objectives.

Source: Statista

 

Dashing through Inflation

Santa’s pocketbook may be feeling a bit squeezed this gift-giving season as inflation continues to rage at the North Pole, particularly for the basic foodstuffs like milk and cookies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this month that the U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) saw a 7.1% increase year over year during the month of November, down from annual CPI of 7.7% in October and lower than the 7.3% increase forecast by economists. Importantly, the November monthly increase slowed to 0.1% and was driven into positive territory primarily by rising food (0.5%) and housing costs (0.6%). The PCE Prices Index due this Friday is the last consequential data release for the year. Other data this week mostly focuses on the housing market where home sales have slowed down, but actual prices continue to rise. Still rising housing costs are a problem for the Federal Reserve as “shelter” expenses account for the largest share of CPI. Housing cost increases have been slowing down and many economists believe gauges for both home prices and rents will start to show declines in the coming months.  The Fed’s owner’s equivalent rent measurement is a notorious lagging factor and when this statistic rolls over it may take a substantial bite out of headline inflation.  Supply chain backlogs, rising costs, government spending, labor shortages, and increasing demand have all played a part in elevating inflation to its current levels. As a result, these inflation trends have been the principal driver of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive hiking policy which has economists, investors, and consumers appropriately worried that a Fed-induced recessionary winter storm might be brewing as the Fed overshoots on the hawkish side.

 

Baby, it’s Looking like a Recession

Current economic pressure really can’t stay, baby, it’s looking like a recession. Recession fears are rising as investors lose confidence in U.S. economic performance in the face of an unprecedentedly rapid and yet unfinished Fed hiking cycle. Despite relatively strong economic growth in the third quarter of 2022 and a still low unemployment rate of 3.7%, the Federal Reserve has lowered its forecast for next year’s U.S. economic growth in light of its rate hikes and expects the unemployment rate to rise by the end of 2023 as well. Some believe that the current widespread concerns about a recession may help us avoid one, as caution leads to less risk-taking and borrowing, potentially cooling the economy enough to reduce inflation and the need for further interest rate hikes. Lagging inflation statistics remain elevated and central banks globally are continuing to raise interest rates to destroy demand and slow economic growth in the coming year. More real-time inflation measures, like the Cleveland Fed’s “Inflation Nowcasting” measure, show inflation moderating. Inflation Nowcasting’s fourth quarter run-rate CPI is at 3.5% and Core CPI (excluding food and energy) is at 4.7% suggesting the Fed is “fighting the last war” rather than anticipating what will happen next.

 

The U.S. Dollar All the Way

Santa’s reindeer are taking a new launch angle this year along with the U.S. dollar by soaring to new heights in 2022. The US Dollar Index, a measure of the dollar against a basket of other major global currencies, had been on the rise throughout 2022 but started to taper off in late November and December. Other central banks have joined the competitive rate-hiking game and compressed interest rate differentials. The strong dollar is beneficial for American consumers who purchase foreign goods, as it makes them cheaper in U.S. dollar terms. However, it can be an earnings headwind for American businesses that export goods or have multinational business operations such as McDonald’s and Apple. McDonald’s reported that its global revenue fell 3% this past summer due to the strong dollar as the rising costs of Big Macs have foreign consumers turning to other options. The strong dollar is also a reflection of the relative strength of the U.S. economy compared to other advanced economies, such as those in Europe (Euro) and Japan (Yen). Foreign investors flocking to higher and arguably lower-risk U.S. treasury yields only bolsters the dollar further.

U.S. Dollar Index; Source: Google Finance

Eat, Drink, & Spend like Consumers

U.S. consumers found themselves on the nice list in this year of profligate government spending. The US government gave consumers several nice stimulus checks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  While some consumers used these relief funds to pay for day-to-day necessities, others have been able to enjoy new furniture, electronics, and vacations that have them saying “Mele Kalikimaka”.  Economists predict this holiday season may be the last fling of spending toward luxury brands and exotic travel. The current level of consumer spending is projected to dwindle towards the end of next year as recessionary fears manifest and unemployment levels grow as the Fed’s aggressive hiking policy takes hold.

 

It’s Beginning to Look a lot like a Labor Shortage

Santa may be having a bit of trouble finding enough elves to manufacture toys in his workshop this year. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about many changes to people’s lifestyles, and many re-evaluated their lifestyles as they were challenged with their mortality. Across the nation businesses in every sector are feeling the pressure to find enough skilled labor to meet the growing consumer demand for goods and services. In 2021, 47 million workers quit their jobs in what is referred to as the “Great Resignation.” The industries hurting the most are food services, manufacturing, & hospitality. Workers have signaled a desire for better company culture, work-life balance, and compensation. Some believe the labor shortage will work itself out if a recession were to occur.   However, others argue that this is just the beginning of secular labor shortages as declining birth rates in the U.S. and other developed nations have economists worried that we are not restocking the world’s workforce fast enough. Maybe Santa will be nice enough to supply us with some of his highly productive elves to bridge this gap until intelligent robotics develop further.

Source: US Chamber of Commerce

 

How Vladimir Putin Stole Ukraine

At the top of most of the world’s Christmas wish list is for the Russian-Ukrainian conflict to be resolved. Not only did the invasion of Ukraine in February bring about economic disruption but it has brought devastation to the Ukrainian and Russian people. It is estimated that close to 7,000 civilians in Ukraine have lost their lives in the conflict. The power-hungry, Russian Grinch Putin, is committed to overtaking Ukraine for strategic access to important trade routes and resources. Currently, Russia is occupying several major port areas along the Black Sea.  The Ukrainian defense has been putting up a strong fight with the help of $32 billion and growing of financial support from U.S. taxpayers.  Several trade restrictions and sanctions have been put into place to hurt Russia financially.  However, since Russia is the global largest energy supplier of natural gas and oil, these sanctions are only putting more extreme pressure on energy prices worldwide. Ukraine is also a large exporter of agricultural products, and the conflict has caused several production and logistics issues for Ukrainian farmers. Commodity prices have climbed as a result, particularly for wheat. While the conflict today looks unresolvable, maybe Grinch Putin’s heart will grow three sizes and he’ll decide to shower Who-ville with presents instead of artillery.  “Fahoo fores dahoo dores!”

Photo Source: Behance

Source: Wikipedia

 

Making Energy Bills Bright

As the war between Russia and Ukraine rages on, energy bills for people around the world continue to climb. Oil and natural gas prices have soared in 2022 with Europe being hit hardest by the jump given its deep dependence on Russian natural gas. In August, gas futures hit a record high of 350 euros creating immense pressure for European nations to set price limits on natural gas. Household electricity prices from natural gas-fired plants have increased in Europe by 67% in just one year, stopping some Europeans from lighting their Christmas trees this year. The European energy ministers imposed an electricity price cap this week to help lessen the burden on consumers. The United States has also felt the brunt of high energy prices as power prices rose almost 16%, the highest increase in 41 years. Consumers also felt the pressure at the gas pump as the average price of a gallon of gas rose to $4.96. Maybe in 2023, we can be like Santa and his reindeer-powered business model by running more of our economy on renewable energy.

 

Cryptocurrencies Roasting on an Open Fire

Cryptocurrencies roasting on an open fire, Sam Bankman-Fried nipping at your confidence. One of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges and hedge funds, FTX, filed for bankruptcy this November after information was released about its risky holdings and clandestine relationship with its affiliated hedge fund Alameda Research spooked many of its exchange customers. Several exchange customers sought to withdraw their crypto holdings from the FTX exchange, prompting the bankruptcy filing of the company.  It turns out FTX was another Ponzi scheme or con game with apparently none of FTX’s well-healed venture capital investors doing any due diligence or demanding a role in corporate governance. The price of Bitcoin has fallen 65% in the past year with investors losing confidence in an asset class imputatively regulated by the SEC and Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).  The CFTC has defined bitcoin as a commodity, but a turf war has continued with SEC creating regulatory uncertainty and ample opportunities for miscreants.  FTX was a Bermuda-based firm regulated by the Securities Commission of the Bahamas.  The SEC could have required crypto exchange registration and reporting and U.S. domestic incorporation.   Former FTX CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried, has agreed to extradition and will now be answering to the Justice Department and SEC for violations of wire fraud, money laundering, securities fraud, commodities fraud, and conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws. The once shiny wrapped package that was FTX Digital Markets now looks like a lump of coal.  Expect the naming rights for FTX Arena, home of the Miami Heat, to become available soon and most of FTX’s liberal political contributions to be returned to the bankruptcy court. Bernie Madoff will look like a petty thief compared to SBF.

 

Dreaming of Student Loan Forgiveness

About 43 million Americans received a nice Christmas present from President Biden this year, with forgiveness for part of their $1.6 trillion student loan debt. President Biden announced the plan earlier this year sparking both joy for recipients and scrutiny from every other U.S. citizen. The plan would eliminate $10,000 in federal loans for individual borrowers making less than $125,000 per year or couples earning less than $250,000 annually. Pell Grant recipients, which account for 60% of current student debt holders, could receive upwards of $20,000 in forgiveness. However, this largesse begs the question of where the money for this forgiveness will come from as the US government already is $31 trillion in debt.  Biden’s Executive Order faces many legal challenges in Congress and the Supreme Court to overcome and move this profligate effort forward.

 

All I Want for Christmas is Farmland

The bright star on top of the investment tree this year is an asset class that has been at the top of many institutional investors’ Christmas wish lists all year, U.S. farmland. Farmland hasn’t always been seen as an accessible investment option.  However, farmland funds such as Promised Land Opportunity Zone Fund and others have been formed to allow investors access to in this durable, inflation-beneficiary asset class. Iowa State University recently reported farmland values in Iowa were up 17% in 2022 which comes on top of a 29% increase in 2021. Similar stories have been reported throughout the Midwest as strong commodity prices fuel farm incomes and transacted land values. The COVID-19 pandemic had people re-evaluating what is important to our world with basic human needs, like food, at the top of the list. While consumer preferences and social trends may change, people will still need to eat, making farmland one of the most durable asset classes through time. This has many investors saying “All I Want for Christmas is Farmland.”

 

We Wish You a Diversified Portfolio

At Servant Financial, our goal is to help you navigate these turbulent times and help you make the best decisions for your investment portfolio. We understand increased market volatility may be causing investor unease, but it is times like these that the basic investment principle of portfolio diversification proves its mettle.  With inflation still a concern and US treasuries on the rise, we are paying close attention to iShares 0–5-year TIPS Bond ETF, STIP. With low management fees (.03%) and a 30-day SEC yield of 5.84%, its 2.5-year duration could be an ideal addition to a blended debt and equity portfolio.  The principal value of TIPS (upon which the stated interest is paid) is adjusted semiannually as inflation rises, as measured by CPI.  STIP holds a variety of U.S. treasuries with maturities of less than 5 years protecting you against rising interest rates and inflation.  STIP is a core holding of Servant’s risk-based client portfolios.

 

Happy Holiday’s from your friends at Servant Financial and we wish you a globally diversified portfolio.  

Instead of holiday cards or gifts, Servant Financial will be making an annual contribution on behalf of clients and friends to Mercy Home for Boys & Girls.

May this holiday season be a time of rich blessings for you and your family.

Source: Pinterest

Wild Turkey Inflation Run

Equity and bond market investors have a very busy week ahead of them after giving thanks with friends and family this past week.  The Federal Reserve also has its work cut out for them on the inflation front.  Unfortunately, a lackadaisical Fed Reserve has let inflation go on a wild turkey run. The latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) reading for October 2022 came in at a roasting annual increase of 7.7%.  As usual whenever inflation is an issue, it’s typically driven largely by the necessities of human existence.  Energy prices increased most of the CPI measurements at 17.6% followed by food increases of 10.9%.

According to the University of Illinois, 46 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving.  The American Farm Bureau Federation estimated that the average cost of this year’s Thanksgiving holiday meal for ten people increased 20% to $64.05 from the 2021 average of $53.31. America’s collective Thanksgiving spending increased more than $225 million for just the turkey and not counting side dishes (46 million times $4.97 AFB price increase for turkey). U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had previously warned all Americans of a large turkey shortage. Free-market Austrian economists chortled that Secretary Vilsack had neglected to count the docile turkeys at the Federal Reserve and in leadership in the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government.

All kidding continued, let’s talk turkey about inflation. The greatest economic uncertainty and focus for investors seems to be whether the Federal Reserve gaggle is succeeding in reining in inflation or not. Stock market bulls are feeling a little more confident that the Federal Reserve is moving closer to ending its tightening program after “minutes” from the November policy meeting showed “most” of the Fed herd favored slowing the pace of interest rate hikes “soon.” According to the Fed minutes, some turkeys even warned that continued rapid monetary policy tightening increased the risk of instability or dislocations in the financial system.

Most Wall Street experts predict the central bank clucks will raise the benchmark rate by 50-basis points at its upcoming December 13-14 meeting following four consecutive 75-basis point hikes. The most important inflation updates this coming week will be the PCI Prices Index on Thursday and the November Employment Situation on Friday. Investors are also anxious to hear Top Cockster Jerome Powell discuss the US economic outlook during an appearance at the Brookings Institute on Wednesday afternoon. Powell recently crowed that the Fed could shift to smaller rate hikes next month, but, like all two-handed economists, also squawked that rates may need to go higher than policymakers thought would be needed by next year. Stock market bears maintain that the more important issue is how high rates will ultimately need to go and how long the Fed will hold them there.  All of which is of course dependent on how fast inflation comes down. This is the key question being debated among economists, business leaders, investment advisors, and investors.

For their part, the Fed members generally see inflation coming home to roost rather quickly.  The range of Fed member projections from their last dot plot exercise in September, 2022 are as follows – 2022 (5.0% to 6.2%), 2023 (2.4% to 4.1%), and 2024 (2.0% to 3.0%).  This Federal Reserve has lost an incredible amount of market credibility by being stubbornly beholden to its “inflation is transitory” mantra in 2021. It’s prudent for all economic actors, particularly low- and middle-income consumers and workers who arguably suffer the greatest hardships during inflationary periods, to at least consider that the turkeys at the Fed are once again being too optimistic on inflationary trends.  If the moral sense of the global working-class population is that inflation is a secular trend, it may likely become a secular trend. Look for striking workers and protesting citizenry in the U.S. and globally.

I believe it was Founding Father Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death!” fame that also counseled, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.  I know no way of judging the future but by the past.”  Thankfully, the investment professionals at Research Affiliates (RA) have examined inflationary eras of the past in their recent article, “History Lessons: How “Transitory” Is Inflation?” RA examined a meta-analysis of 67 published studies on global inflation and monetary policies.  Their key conclusions from their study were as follows:

  • The US Federal Reserve Bank’s expectation for the speed of reverting to 2% inflation levels remains dangerously optimistic.
  • An inflation jump to 4% is often temporary, but when inflation crosses 8%, it proceeds to higher levels over 70% of the time.
  • Reverting to 3% inflation, which we view as the upper bound for benign inflation, is easy from 4%, hard from 6%, and very hard from 8% or more. Above 8%, reverting to 3% usually takes 6 to 20 years, with the median of over 10 years.
  • Those who expect inflation to fall rapidly in the coming year may well be correct. But history suggests that’s a “best quintile” outcome. Few acknowledge the “worst quintile” possibility in which inflation remains elevated for a decade. Our work suggests that both tails are equally likely, at about 20% odds for each.

As Fed Chair Jerome Powell remembers well because he lived it, the last secular inflationary episode in the United States was in the 1970s and 1980s.  If Shakespeare is right that “What’s past is prologue,” here is a summary of the return performance of various major asset classes in the 20-year inflationary period from 1970 (CPI breached 6% in 1969) to 1986 (CPI declines to 1%) to illuminate the darkness of an unknown investment future.

Source: Data complementary of the TIAA Center for Farmland Research

The best risk-adjusted return profiles from this secular inflationary period were high quality fixed income instruments of varying maturities and farmland. Note that farmland and bonds were negatively correlated over this period so may complement each other rather nicely in a portfolio positioned for secular inflation.  REITs and gold provided similar annual returns but at much higher levels of volatility/standard deviation.

In bowling, three strikes in a row is called a turkey. In economic parlance, that’s the triptophanic effect of the sleepy leadership at the Federal Reserve and in the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government.

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