Archive for February, 2010

Weekly Recap & Outlook – 02.26.10

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Tower Private Advisors


  • Stuck stocks
  • Sovereign concerns continue
  • Economics getting mushy


Prior posts




Fed Hikes Discount Rate . . . so what?

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Trying out a new feature that should give you a preview of what’s at a link without going there.  Try it by hovering your mouse over this.  You can turn off the feature from one of the previews (little gear icon) if you’d like. 

Wall Street Journal:  Rate Rise Stirs Questions

Yahoo! Finance:  Wall Street Down on Fed Discount Rate Hike Move

MarketWatch:  Fed Looks Impatient in Wake of Discount Rate Hike

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve said it had increased the so-called Discount Rate by 25 basis points (0.25%) to 75 basis points.  That’s the rate at which banks borrow from the Federal Reserve if they’re in trouble.  As you might expect, given that connotation it’s rarely used.  The discount rate had always been an overnight loan rate, but when the credit crisis hit, the Federal Reserve extended the term to a maximum of 30 days, and when Bear Stearns blew up, it extended it to 90 days.  Back in November 2009, the Fed announced it would be reducing the term to 28 days beginning January 14, 2010.  Last week, Chairman Bernanke, in testimony to the American Grandstand (i.e. Congress), said that

“before long, we expect to consider a modest increase in the spread between the discount rate and the target federal funds rate.”

There appears to be a trend here (toward normalization), the path of which seems clear, and there is an attempt to prepare markets for the news.  Yet David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors, a very sharp chap, claims it was a surprise.  (You can sign up for his equally-sharp periodic e-mail by clicking here.)  As the small sample of headlines above indicates, the action has raised a number of issues in addition to being a complete shock.

Here’s a look at the Bloomberg terminal’s Top Stories from late last night.

The credit markets have healed–as measured by corporate bond spreads and other measures–so there’s really no need for crisis measures on the monetary policy front.  That seems to have been the goal of this latest move, as the various measures are brought back to pre-crisis level.

So what’s all the worry about? 

Stocks fell because of the fear of higher rates. 

To review, higher rates are bad for stocks because:

  1. The present value of future cashflows is reduced, making company valuations lower
  2. Bonds become marginally more attractive than stocks as an alternative investment as their relative return improves
  3. Higher interest rates slow growth

Studies have shown that stocks perform worse in the rising rate regime.  That is, dividing the regimes like this:  1) the first rate hike occurs; 2) the second rate cut occurs, and looking at the returns of stocks in the two periods produces returns that are far better in regime #2.  Most of those studies look at the Federal Funds rate, which was not affected with this move.  In fact, the Fed went to some lengths to insist that this was not a precursor to a general rate hike–a tightening of monetary policy.

Treasuries (i.e. bonds) fell because higher interest rates make existing bonds worth less.

The dollar rose because higher interest rates mean higher returns on investments in the U.S.  So, again, at the margin, a foreign central bank with foreign currency to recycle just found a marginal improvement in the rate paid on investments in the U.S., for which dollars are required.

The only problem is that this decision doesn’t mean interest rates–an awfully broad term–are going anywhere soon.  The discount rate isn’t the basis for any other loans, whereas the Federal Funds rate is.

Here are the drivers of interest rates (green = lower to no change; black = neutral; red = higher rates):

  • Inflation – not a problem
  • Default/credit risk – coming down
  • Demand for credit – none yet
  • Investment demand - bonds could become a safe-haven if stocks get much choppier
  • Federal Reserve bias – “the modifications are not expected to lead to tighter financial conditions”

We don’t think the Federal Fund rate will be raised for some time for the following reasons:

  1. Inflation will not be a problem for quite a while
  2. There is a lot of slack in the system, both in capital and labor
  3. The recovery is extraordinarily fragile
  4. The unemployment rate is stubbornly high

Market participants generally agree with us as the chart of Fed Fund Futures shows.

In 1993, a Stanford economist, John Taylor devised an equation for setting monetary policy rates.  Not surprisingly, the equation has been called the Taylor Rule.  It looks like this.

What it means is that the benchmark rate should be set as a function of interest rates and slack in the economy, the latter measured as the difference between actual and potential GDP.  That slack is often referred to as the “output gap.”

Now, here’s a look at what the Taylor Rule suggests the current rate should be.

The trend in the Taylor Rule is up, but from a very low level.  It suggests the Fed Funds rate should be a minus (-)1.45%.


Portugal ≠ Greece; Portugal = U.S.

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

BCA Research recently put out a special report from its European Investment Service.  The title was Is Portugal the Next Shoe to Drop?  The service contends that it isn’t, namely because:

“Portugal is nothing like Greece.  It has an impressive deficit reduction record, is not in a debt trap and its deficit-reduction plan appears both reasonable and achievable.”

Thus Portugal ≠ Greece, but a table in the report made me think that Portugal = U.S.

Gross Debt as a % of GDP

Portugal = 83.8%

U.S. = 83.9%

Government Budget Deficit as a % of GDP

Portugal = -9.3%

U.S. = -11.2%

You can see a snapshot of key Portugal financials at this link.

Admittedly, there are lots of other differences between the U.S. and Portugal than these two measures.  The point, here, though, is that sovereign debt issues–and crises there–are likely to be a trouble spot for the next several years.  That amounts to another argument in support of our case that the next great–a secular, or long-term one–bull market in equities won’t arrive until much later in the decade.  Here is an updated look at the other arguments, made by far smarter folks.


Weekly Recap & Outlook – 02.12.10

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Tower Private Advisors


  • Greece and China
  • Doublethink and a mini Orwell primer
  • Lots of economic stuff next week

Prior posts



Uh . . . hello, TARP Watchdog . . . breaker one-nine

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

There was apparently a problem with the timing of the release of a report from the Congressional Oversight Panel of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).  Instead of it being released on February 10, 2009, it was released today.  We’re not, as they say, the sharpest tools in the shed, but we’ve been talking about the potential for commercial real estate to be a problem for quite some time.

To be fair, it would seem that the fourth quarter Asset Quality report from the FDIC gave rise to the report, but the story below shouldn’t be considered news.  The chairman of the committee, Ms.Warren, sounded positively breathless this morning on NPR as she commented on the report.