Sometimes, I’m tempted to write “same as last time.” This is one of those times.
Three months ago, in ‘Memorandum #110, we wrote:
Most of the economic and market trends we’ve been discussing for the past few years remain in place.
Russia’s action in the Ukraine/Crimea may have long-term implications, particularly for Europe, but the near-term economic implications are modest. It remains to be seen whether this gets added to our long-term worry list or not.
Japan’s version of “Quantitative Easing,” after helping its market last year, is now running out of gas. A few days ago, Japan raised its consumption tax; the last time they did that, it triggered a recession. We remain baffled by the logic Japan is following; i.e., attempting to spur growth via government spending, which requires an increase in taxes and borrowing to achieve. We are not optimistic about the outcome.
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Various countries in Europe continue to flirt with recession or default. Sovereign bond rates remain very low, and the European Central Bank’s commitment to do “whatever it takes” has not been tested. Very little has changed in Europe.
The Chinese economy and other “emerging” countries continue to slow. China continues to try to unwind a credit binge in a controlled manner, which is working so far. Dramatic currency shifts in Turkey and other emerging markets, which started when the Fed started “tapering,” have subsided. It isn’t clear if continued tapering will create other dislocations and shifts going forward.
In the U.S., we continue on a slow growth path. Our government continues to squeeze employers, resulting in only modest gains in employment. The U.S. Federal Reserve is proceeding with tapering of its buying of U.S. Treasury and mortgage bonds. The bond market responded to the change in direction last summer by upping interest rates in long bonds. Since then, long rates have fluctuated in a range consistent with contained inflation and continued slow growth in the economy. Short rates remain near zero, driving individual and pension investors elsewhere.
Stocks rose last year to a level consistent with current earnings levels and very modest inflation. Company earnings have actually been aided by management reluctance to build plants or hire people in the face of slow economic growth and added regulations. (Have you noticed that corporate annual reports are twice as thick as they used to be, but with no additional information?) Currently, we see no relief from these pressures.
A few new items:
In Europe, Banco Espirito Santo, the largest bank in Portugal, has defaulted on interest payments on its bonds. Europe has not solved its problems.
In the U.S., for at least the fourth consecutive year, estimates of real GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth, which exceeded 3% prior to the beginning of the year, have been reduced to 2% or less by midyear (now). The U.S. continues on a slow path.
During the second quarter, stock prices rose nicely to levels that we consider full value, so we’ve begun selective pruning of our holdings. We do consider it healthy that individual stocks are now responding to both good and bad news.