From Wikipedia: “A comb over or combover is a hairstyle worn by bald or balding men
in which the hair is grown long and combed over the bald area to minimize the evidence of baldness.Sometimes the part is lowered so that more hair can be used to cover the balding area."
Bad comb overs. We’ve all seen them, and there is a very good chance that someone in your immediate family sported one of these unfortunate hairstyles at some point in their life (for me, it was my Grandpa). While some comb overs have enjoyed “reasonable” success in creating the desired effect of creating confusion about the actual existence of male pattern baldness (think Donald Trump), most attempts fail miserably.
It would seem logical then that the relative success or failure of a bad comb over is therefore determined more by two main things:
1. the proximity of a viewer to the comb over and
2. the level of attention and interest paid to the person sporting the comb over
Obviously, the closer the proximity to the disingenuous hair style (and the higher the level of interest) the more the illusion of hair gives way to the bald, sad truth. It’s probably at this very point in the discussion that you start to wonder, “What a very odd thing to talk about. Where exactly are you going with this?” Stay with me – it will make sense in a second!
You see, it is my belief that the ‘recovery’ and the ‘fundamentals’ that have been driving the stock market higher since the end of the crisis in 2009 are in effect, very bad comb overs that can only be seen from a distance. As such, these comb overs are making it very difficult for regular people to see what’s really going on.
To add to the confusion, Wall Street, Central Banks, Financial Reporters on TV and the paper, have all been very active in pushing a narrative that supports the view of a strong recovery and healthy market. It seems like every week someone ‘of influence’ is out there bragging about what a full head of beautiful hair the US economy and stock market. They assure you that given their exclusive access (which is much closer than you or I can get), they can confirm that all is well and growth is present.
For years now, the Federal Reserve has referred to the decline in the unemployment rate as proof positive that the US economy is back on track after the crisis. In May of this year Janet Yellen was quoted as saying “we are close to an unemployment rate that most economists would associate with our full employment goal”.
And if we look at the unemployment rate from across the room, it certainly does look impressive.
But here’s the problem: when you take time to learn HOW the unemployment rate is determined, you will recognize that it too is a ratio, one that measures the number of unemployed people divided by the Labor force. So – as we do a little investigating, and look closely at the labor force participation rate – we see something odd.
What would cause the labor force participation rate to decline to such low levels? To understand that, we need to look more into what this data point measures. As the name suggests, the labor force participation rate is yet ANOTHER ratio that measures the “number of people who are either employed or are actively looking for work” versus the number of total people in the labor pool. One important aspect to note about this rate is that “people who are no longer actively searching for work would not be included in the participation rate”. So, going back and reviewing the rate, we can see that much of the decline in the unemployment rate discussed above has been a function of an unusually large number of people who have left the workforce.
Now when presented with this information some in the “comb over crowd” will suggest that the decline in the labor force participation rate is because of demographics, and therefore the drop is merely a function of baby boomers starting to retire.
Here’s an example from Barrons (link: http://fortune.com/2015/07/02/us-labor-force-participation-drops/)
So, as someone who is motivated to get to the truth of the matter, we take a bit of time to investigate the validity of the story. To accomplish this we go to one of the best macroeconomic sites on the internet: The St. Louis Federal Reserve FRED
When you go here and search the database for “labor force participation rate” – you will find that FRED has already done the hard work for you, and has divided the labor pool into various age categories: 25 to 54, 55 to 64, 16 to 19, etc.
So let’s look at the labor force participation rate of the prime retirement age, 65:
That’s odd, the labor force participation rate for people 65 years and older is INCREASING. It probably explains why we are reading stories like this more often (link: http://www.sacbee.com/site-services/databases/article85405502.html)
Okay, let’s put the 65 year old cohort aside for a moment. What about workers in the 55 and over category, maybe they are the ones leaving the labor pool.
Again, we see a huge increase. So if the overall labor force participation rate is declining, but it’s not coming down from the 55 to 65 age group (where one would expect it to decline given the “baby boomers are retiring” narrative), then where is the labor pool seeing leakage? Let’s take a look at the prime working age, which is the 25 to 55 category:
Hello! There is the source of your labor pool shrinkage and it certainly fits the stories we have been reading since the crisis started. As such, this would seem to confirm that the “strong job market” narrative spun by Janet Yellen and the rest of the members of the Federal Reserve is not exactly accurate.
What we’ve learned here is that when you read reports discussing the ‘strong jobs market’ where the unemployment rate is used as ‘proof’, you can be fairly certain that you are looking at a pretty bad economic comb over.
That was fun! Are there any other comb overs out there? Well if you’ve ever walked around the streets you know there is always more than one bad comb over out there. Let’s take a look at another possible comb over of the ‘economic recovery’ narrative: The US consumer.
The US consumer has long been cited as a key component of economic growth.
Consider these two recent stories -
(PS: did you notice in the quote above they mention an already identified comb over in the labor market?? You will find that comb overs tend to serve as positive feedback loops to other comb overs)
So apparently the significant increase in auto sales we’ve seen since the crisis in 2009 suggests the consumer is back on track financially, and therefore we should expect the US economy to begin firing on all cylinders very soon.
Now, as you can see below, there is no denying that auto sales have been very robust (link: http://www.freep.com/story/money/cars/chrysler/2016/01/05/fca-sales-rose-13-2015-record-year-autos/78268882/)
Not only are the car companies selling more, the transactions per vehicle are increasing significantly as well –
So logically it should follow that the US consumer has indeed recovered from the crisis, and their financial health is back to pre-crisis levels. Maybe all of the bullish news is correct!
Then why do we keep reading stories like this?
Or this – taken from Federal Reserve’s “2014 Report on the Economic Well-Being of US Households” – link: https://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/2014-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201505.pdf
So 66% of Americans have “no savings” and 47% say they couldn’t cover an emergency bill of $400.00 without selling something or borrowing? What? How you can afford to buy a $33,000 vehicle but NOT have enough money to cover an unexpected $400 bill? This sounds very much like a comb over, so let’s investigate!
First – let’s look at how auto sales are happening. Given people have “no savings” and can’t cover an unexpected bill of $400, it makes sense that consumers are finding other ways to finance the purchasing of their vehicles.
Our instincts were correct: what's driving auto sales? A big jump in loans! And there is one loan in particular whose name you might remember from my letters from a few years ago -
One thing I puzzled over for a while was how a consumer who has zero savings and can't absorb a $400 emergency bill is able to swing buying a $33,000 car. Surely the payment on such a vehicle via a typical 4 or 5 year car loan would be rather onerous would it not? A little digging finds the answer to my puzzle -
96 months (that’s EIGHT years!!!) on a "gently used" car?
But yes (sadly) despite the warnings, this is indeed happening
apparently people want a new car more than they worry about their finances - so loans and terms are rising.
Ironically given the low interest rate environment, the securitization of sub prime auto loans has been a very hot commodity of late. Given the demand for these kinds of loans, there is a very similar kind of ‘frenzy’ going on, as loan demand is high, and puts pressure on finance companies to reduce lending standards to borrowers with lower and lower credit scores…. (stop me if you’ve heard this one before).
So, the big driver of auto loans is not the “health’ of the consumer per se, it is the accessibility of credit. But if the consumer is borrowing more, surely they must be MAKING more, right? A simple look at the FRED data on 'real median household income" confirms what we had already assumed: income is not growing, it’s still well below it’s pre-dot.com high. In reality the “strong consumer” is yet another example of a horrible economic comb over.
Okay we will play one more game of “spot the bad comb over” and then I will leave you alone to enjoy the sunshine! One of the most important components that investment managers use to determine the suitability of a particular stock, or a stock market is earnings. Obviously the more profitable a company, the more attractive the company would be to invest in. Conversely, most investors would not be as excited to invest in a company that was losing money year after year.
Here is a fantastic graph of the earnings of the S&P 500 group of companies going back to 1981 (the black line) versus the performance of the S&P 500 (red line). It’s clear that there is a very close correlation between the two inputs: as earnings increase, the market increases – and as earnings decline, so too does the market.
Given the stock market was sitting yesterday at over 2,100 points, within 35 points of the highest level in recorded history, a look at the relationship above might lead a person to assume the EARNINGS on the S&P 500 are rising and approaching “all time record highs” as well. Hmm, could this be an economic comb over?
Let’s investigate! A look at the Factset data
(link here: http://www.factset.com/websitefiles/PDFs/earningsinsight/earningsinsight_6.24.16)
shows that earnings fell from $1400 per share in June 2007 to a low of $875 by June 2009. They then bounced back significantly to approximately $1800 a share in late 2014.
But – one thing to note is that earning referenced here is “earnings PER share” – exciting, another ratio! So let’s dig into this a bit more.
One thing we've discussed before is how many companies are using their cash, or raising debt to buy back their shares. Factset has done an exceptional job of tracking this over the years - here is their latest chart to Q1 2016
as per the report - the magnitude of the buybacks of late are not insignificant levels -
in fact many research reports suggest that the amount of corporate share buybacks could top a whopping $2 trillion dollars since 2009!
and, knowing what we do about ratios, a company buying back shares in an aggressive fashion might be doing a bit of a 'comb over' when it comes to earnings per share growth.
Consider the share count on the S&P 500
Now as with the question we asked above relating to the financing of auto sales, I think it would be helpful if we investigated how these companies are raising funds to buy back their stock. Is the cash coming from profits, it is excess cash? How have they raised almost $2 trillion? The clip above already states that companies were "on pace to spend 95% of their earnings on repurchases and dividends" - but another report tracks debt issuance -
clearly this is beginning to resemble the Mother of all comb overs: Over $2 trillion dollars has been poured into the market by companies in an effort to improve the appearance of their "earnings per share", which in turn makes it 'appear' as though there is organic business growth when in fact there is none (which as we pointed out earlier is the exact definition of a comb over!). So here is what is troubling, over the last 5 or six quarters both revenues AND earnings have been declining.
As per factset:
Earnings declines of this nature are not typical, and should serve as a huge red flag to investors that there may be "danger ahead". Given the exercise we've just gone through in learning how to investigate and identify 'economic comb overs', the last thing we want to do is be caught by an unexpected gust of wind (you know, like an unexpected Brexit vote where the UK leaves the EU) that exposes the secret that the comb overs that the market is so desperately trying to conceal..
which of course is......
(there is NO GROWTH!)