Greater Depression

EU – 1.3m abortions, 5m births p.a.

DivMarr

Eurostat statistics on abortion reveal that Germany, France, UK, Spain and Italy alone terminate a combined 760,000 fetuses per annum. Across the EU-28 there are 1.25mn terminations. Without getting into a debate on abortion rights, the pure statistical number points to 20.4% of fetuses never make it out of the womb alive. Every. Single. Year. At that rate over 10 years that is 12.5 mn children that could have added to EU population sustainability do not occur but the EU seems to think embarking on mass migration is the only solution to plug the gap. Is it? Ironically child support is one area the EU is happy to cede control to individual Member States.

The fertility rate across the EU-28 is now 1.58 children per woman, flat for the last decade and down from 2.9 in 1964. Demographers suggest that a fertility rate of 2.1 is required in developed world economies to maintain a constant population (in the absence of any migration). The number of live births in the EU-28 peaked in 1964 at 7.8 million. In 2017 this had fallen to 5 million. There was a brief period (2003-2008) when live births in the EU-28 started to rise again, returning to 5.5 million by 2008 but the GFC sent it down again – as economic hardship tends to cause a decrease in births. So are economic incentives too low to cause a rebound?

France has the best incentives for children and the highest birth rate inside the EU at 2.0 up from 1.7 in the 1990s. Germany is around 1.4 drifting from 1.6 in the 1990s. The lives for child rearing French are eased by cheap health care, inexpensive preschools – for infants as young as 6 months old – subsidized at-home care and generous maternity leave. Mothers with three children can take a year off of work – and receive a monthly paycheck of up to €1,000 from the government to stay home. Families get subsidized public transportation and rail travel and holiday vouchers.

In order to stop the declining working population over time, imagine if Europe hypothetically put the onus back on consenting couples to take responsibility for their actions and makes abortions harder to access without compulsory consultation over options? Why not graphically show the entire process to get some sense of reality for both parties? You can gross yourself on this link.

Perhaps, in today’s electronic world, automatically deducting child support from fathers that run from responsibility might make sense? Why should the state pay for others’ lack of accountability? Even if the child is placed in foster care, why not wire child support to foster parents indirectly via the Ministry in charge of its administration? The population crisis is not going away in Europe. Why not provide more incentives to married/same-household couples?

Mathematically speaking the numbers are huge. Imagine if the million-plus fetuses every year had a vote to be raised with foster parents as opposed to being terminated, what they would choose? Consider the €23bn Merkel has spent on mainly economic migrants in the last 2 years being put toward preventing 200,000 abortions in Germany over that period? €115,000 to avert each one might have been better spent. That is a huge sum of money period.

CM is not advocating control over the womb but surely transparency in policy over individual responsibility is not a bad thing with respect to many issues, not just abortion. What level of economic incentives are required to prevent some couples/women choosing to terminate? Surely that plays a part in deciding to terminate. Consultation services with respect to the subject don’t seem too commonplace or at least structured in such a way as to prevent them.

According to Eurostat, since 1964 the divorce rate in EU-28 equivalents has doubled and the marriage rate has halved. For every eight marriages in 1964 there was one divorce, now there is one divorce for every two marriages.

The proportion of births outside of marriage now stands at 40%, from 27% in 2000 to less than 7% in 1964. 8.8 % of the EU-28 population aged 20+ lived in a consensual union (de-facto). In Japan the number of births out of wedlock is 25% according to the MHLW. The dynamics of the traditional nuclear family are fading.

51% of the Swedish population is now single household. 51%! While some is attributed to an aging population, 19 of the EU-28 members has a single household ratio of over 30%. 12 over 35%. By way of comparison, Japan’s single household ratio stands at 34.6% from 27.6% in 2000.

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To further analyse the new ways of living together and to complement the legal aspect, statistics on consensual unions, which take into account those with a ‘marriage-like’ relationship with each other, and are not married to or in a registered partnership with each other, can also be analysed.  Sweden (18.3 %) has the highest rate followed by Estonia (16.4 %), France (14.3 %) and the lowest in Greece (1.7 %), Poland (2.1 %), Malta (2.5 %) and Croatia (2.9 %).

Is employment a factor?  It is mixed. Eurostat reported in Germany, the fertility of non-employed women has increased and that of employed women decreased, while in Spain, the opposite occurred; in Greece, the total fertility rate (TFR) of non employed women fell below that of employed women, changing from a positive differential of about 0.2 average live births.

Is education a factor? Apart from Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland and Norway), Portugal and Malta, in general, women with lower education had higher TFR between 2007 and 2011. Eurostat state the fertility of women across the EU over the same period with a medium level of education dropped by about 9%, while the decrease for women with high or low education was less significant.

Eurostat argues that economic recessions have correlation to falling child birth rates. Apart from the direct impact of economic crises at an individual level, the economic uncertainty that spreads during periods of hardship seem to influence fertility. From this point of view Eurostat believes the duration of a crisis may play an important role and, the duration and the depth of the current recession are unprecedented in some countries. The agency states,

The expected relationship is that negative changes in GDP correspond to negative changes in the TFR, possibly with some delay, thus showing a high positive correlation at particular lags. The correlation with the TFR is relevant in Spain and Latvia without any lag; in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania with one year of lag; and in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Croatia with two years of lag. Taking the overall average across countries, a change in GDP is mostly positively correlated with a change in the TFR within about 19 months.”

Do we cynically argue that stagnant child birth rates aren’t just a factor of societal changes? Perhaps a truer reflection on the higher levels of poverty in the EU since GFC and the harsh realities for a growing number of people behind the growing levels of populism who are suffering greater economic hardship than statisticians are presenting to the political class? Hard decisions must be made before they are made by external factors.

Why discontinue?

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This is a chart of the change in the US Fed balance sheet, a series that has just been discontinued. Is this because the Fed is about to step up its activity and offering wider disclosure on tapering activity might spook markets? Given that 72% of the growth in S&P earnings has been driven by buybacks since 2012, it stands to reason the market is not exactly providing the type of confidence inducing organic lift the index reflects. Bank of America revealed that “net buying of Tech sector in the 1H was entirely buyback-driven.” 

Kind of reminds CM of the day Bernanke’s Fed announced it would no longer report M3 money supply a year before the financial markets headed into the GFC. CM estimated on p.4 of a report several years ago that M3 money supply by 2018 on constant long-term growth rates would turn into around $35 trillion from the $10 trillion at the time it was discontinued.

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Nothing to see here? Throw a deteriorating fixed income market with fewer buyers and corporates that have binged on cheap credit to fuel buybacks, it doesn’t look like the stuff dreams are made of. The chart below shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling since 2011. Earnings (E) are not doing so well. It is by the grace of falling number of traded shares (S) that makes the EPS look flattering.

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We took the liberty of comparing corporate profitability since 1980 and correlating it to what Moody’s Baa rated corporate bond effective 10yr yields. An R-squared of almost 90% was returned.

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Why not use the Aaa spread instead? Well we could do that but looking over the last decade the average corporate debt rating profile looks like this. We have seen a massive deterioration in credit ratings. If we look at the corporate profitability with Baa interest rates over the past decade, correlation climbs even higher.

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We shouldn’t forget that the US Government is also drunk on debt, much of it arriving at a store near you. $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries needs refinancing this year and $8.4tn over the next 3.5 years. Couple that with a Japan & China pulling back on UST purchases and the Fed itself promising to taper (but now hide the results of) its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the relative safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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Discontinuation of series always carries a sense of deep cynicism for its true intention. It is not an onerous data set to cull. Sure we can fossick around and try to find it hidden in the archives of the Fed website but the idea is that they probably don’t want to publicise how much more they intend to flog.

Does Trump have a right to brag about unemployment?

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The Trump vs Obama camps are lighting up over who was responsible for the drop unemployment rates. Looking at the long term decline one could argue that Obama was a key part of the decline and the incremental drops in the rate are Trumps. Here are the raw figures.

In Jan 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Obama had 115.818m people full time employed. In December of 2012 that number was 115.791m. (-270,000). There were 8.046m and 7.943m part time jobs over the same period. Minus 103,000. At the end of his 8 years, there were 124.3m FT jobs and 5.554m PT jobs. All told his FT workforce went up 8.48mn and PT fell 2.492m. So gross employment increased 5.98m.

Trump started at 124.3mn FT and as of May 2018 there are 128.657m FT jobs and 4.948m PT jobs. So he’s increased FT 4.347m and cost PT 606k. Net increase of 3.741mn jobs. So even if you ran the narrative that Obama’s second term was enough to put the “Great Recession to bed”, Trump has achieved 63% of Obama’s employment legacy in only 30% of his first term as president.

The number of people working two or more jobs surged to over 8mn (a record) under BHO as did food stamps (doubled to c.48m before coming down to 43m by his term end). SNAP stands at 40m now. 3mn fewer.

30 million people claim disability and welfare in the US. The Social Security Administration (SSA) highlighted that back pain and musculoskeletal problems are 33.8% of claims for disabled workers, followed by mental illness at 19.2% in 2013. This compares to 8.3% and 9.6% respectively in 1961. Half of claims in the 1960s came from heart attack/stroke and ‘other’ categories which made up only 17% of the 2013 figure.

Yet the truth is that if Americans wanted more of Obama’s successful policies, Hillary was Obama 2.0. No change in policies. Sensible to keep if they wanted the status quo. Ironic that 19 out of 25 states that voted for Trump had poverty levels exceeding the national average. Which means that had the “marry the state” policies of the Obama admin resonated with the poor it would have been a coronation for Hillary. This is a perfect example as to why a hollowed out middle America want to live the American dream rather than queue up for more welfare. God Bless America?

 

GEzus Priced super far?

US Corp prof.pngIt is not rocket science. Generally higher interest rates lead to lower profitability. The chart above shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling. We took the liberty of comparing the profitability since 1980 and correlating it to what Moody’s Baa rated corporate bond effective 10yr yields. An R-squared of almost 90% was returned.

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With the Fed moving toward a tightening cycle, we note that the spreads of Baa 10yrs to the FFR has yet to climb out of its hole. During GFC it peaked at 8.82%. It is now around 3%.

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Why not use the Aaa spread instead? Well we could do that but looking over the last decade the average corporate debt rating profile looks like this. We have seen a massive deterioration in credit ratings. If we look at the corporate profitability with Baa interest rates over the past decade, correlation climbs even higher.

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Corporate America binged on cheap credit over the last decade and given the spreads to Aaa ranked corporate bonds were relatively small, it was a no brainer. In 2015, GE’s then-CEO Jeff Immelt said he was willing to add as much as $20 billion of additional debt to grow, even if it meant lower bond grades. We can see that the spread today is a measly 0.77%. Way off the 3.38% differential at the time of GFC. Still nearly 50% of corporate debt is rated at the nasty end.

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We shouldn’t forget that the US Government is also drunk on debt, much of it arriving at a store near you. $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries needs refinancing this year and $8.4tn over the next 3.5 years. Couple that with a Japan & China pulling back on UST purchases and the Fed itself promising to taper its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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In any event, the 4.64% 10yr Baa corporate bond effective yield is half what it was at the time of GFC. Yet, what will profitability look like when the relative attractiveness of US Treasuries competes with a deteriorating corporate sector in terms of profitability or balance sheet?

Take GE as an example. Apart from all of the horror news of potential dividend cuts, bargain basement divestments and a CEO giving vague timelines on a turnaround in its energy business things do not bode well. Furthermore many overlook the fact that GE has $18.7bn of negative equity. Selling that dog of an insurance business will need to go for pennies in the dollar. There is no premium likely. GE had a AAA rating but lost it in March 2009. Even at AA- the risk is likely to the downside.

Take GE’s interest cover. This supposed financial juggernaut which was at the time of GFC the world’s largest market cap company now trades with a -0.17x interest coverage ratio. In FY2013 it was 13.8x. The ratio of debt to earnings, has surged from 1.5 in 2013 to 3.7 today. It has $42bn in debt due in 2020 for refinancing.

By 2020, what will the interest rate differentials be? There seems to be some blind faith in GE’s new CEO John Flannery’s ability to turn around the company. Yet he is staring at the peak of the aerospace cycle where any slowdown could hurt the spares business not to mention the high fixed cost nature of new engines under development. In a weird way, GE is suffering these terrible ratios at the top of the cycle rather than the bottom. Asset fire sales to patch that gaping hole in the balance sheet. Looks like a $4 stock not a $14 one.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing trends in the US surging

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The Chapter 11 bankruptcy trends in the US have been picking up in the last 4 years. While well off the highs of the months and years of the GFC and years following it, the absolute numbers of filings has exceeded the levels leading up to the crisis in 2007/8.

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Here we put 2006/7/8 alongside 2016/17/18. The average monthly bankruptcy filings were around 355 in 2006 moving to 429 in 2007 and then 718 in 2008. If we looked at the data in the 12 months prior to the quarter leading into Lehman’s collapse, bankruptcies averaged 463/month. The ultimate carnage peaked out at 1,049 in 2009 (1,377 in Apr 2009). For 2016, 2017 and 2018 (annualized) we get 454, 480 and 521 respectively.

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Bankruptcy filings tend to be seasonal and often show peaks in April when tax season coincides with businesses.

However the %-age spike in bankruptcies in 2008 ahead of Lehman’s downfall was 46%. In the latest recorded month from the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) was 81%. This March 2018 spike is the second highest since the GFC hit. April figures will be interesting if we get another lift on that figure. Not even seasonality can explain away the differences. The trends seem clear.

Thinking logically, we are at the end of the generous credit cycle. Interest rates are heading north thanks to a less accommodating Fed. Naturally ‘weaker’ companies will have more trouble in refinancing under such environments. The lowering of corporate taxes would seem to be a boon, but with loss making businesses it becomes harder to exercise tax loss carry forwards.

We’ve already started to see GFC levels of credit card delinquency at the sub-prime end of town. Sub-prime auto loan makers seeking bankruptcy protection have surged too.

Fitch, which rates auto-loan ABS said the 60+ day delinquency rate of subprime auto loans has now risen to 5.8%, up from 5.2% a year ago, and up from 3.8% in February 2014 to the highest rate since Oct 1996, exceeding even GFC levels.

growing number of car loans in the US are being pushed further down the repayment line as much as 84 months. In the new car market the percentage of 73-84-month loans is 33.8%, triple the level of 2009. Even 10% of 2010 model year bangers are being bought on 84 month term loans. The US ended 2016 with c.$1.2 trillion in outstanding auto loan debt, up 9%YoY and 13% above the pre-crisis peak in 2005.

The irony here is that sub-prime auto loan makers expanded lending because new technology allowed these companies to to remotely shut down and repossess vehicles of owners who were late on payments. That game only lasts so long before it forms its own Ponzi scheme.

Throw skittish financial markets, geopolitical instability and the mother of all refinancings coming the US Treasury’s way it is not to hard to see bankruptcies pick up from here.

Waking up to a horror of our own creation

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Some will say I am a pessimist. I’d prefer to be called an optimist with experience. At only age 16 (in 1987) I realized the destructive power financial markets had on the family home. Those memories were etched permanently. We weren’t homeless or singing for our supper but things sure weren’t like they use to be. It taught me much about risk and thinking all points of view rather than blindly following the crowd. That just because you were told something by authority it didn’t mean it was necessarily true. It was to critically assess everthing without question.

In 1999, as an industrials analyst in Europe during the raging tech bubble, we were as popular as a kick in the teeth. We were ignored for being old economy. That our stocks deserved to trade at deep discounts to the ‘new economy’ tech companies, no thanks to our relatively poor asset turnover and tepid growth rates. The truest sign of the impending collapse of the tech bubble actually came from sell-side tech analysts quitting their grossly overpaid investment bank salaries for optically eye-watering stock options at the very tech corporations they rated. So engrossed in the untold riches that awaited them they abandoned their judgement and ended up holding worthless scrip. Just like the people who bought a house at the peak of the bubble telling others at a dinner party how they got in ‘early’ and the boom was ahead of them, not behind.

It was so blindingly obvious that the tech bubble would collapse. Every five seconds a 21 year old with a computer had somehow found some internet miracle for a service we never knew we needed. The IPO gravy train was insane. One of my biggest clients said that he was seeing 5 new IPO opportunities every single day for months on end. Mobile phone retailers like Hikari Tsushin in Japan were trading at such ridiculous valuations that the CEO at the time lost himself in the euphoria and printed gold coin chocolates with ‘Target market cap: Y100 trillion.’ The train wreck was inevitable. Greed was a forgone conclusion.

So the tech bubble collapsed under the weight of reality which started the most reckless central bank policy prescriptions ever. Supposedly learning from the mistakes of the post bubble collapse in Japan, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan turned on the free money spigots. Instead of allowing the free market to adjust and cauterize the systemic imbalances, he threw caution to the wind and poured gasoline on a raging fire. Programs like ‘Keep America Rolling’ which tried to reboot the auto industry meant cheaper and longer lease loans kept sucking consumption forward. That has been the problem. We’ve been living at the expense of the future for nigh on two decades.

Back in 2001, many laughed me out of court for arguing Greenspan would go down in history as one of the most hated central bankers. At the time prevailing sentiment indeed made me look completely stupid. How could I, a stockbroker, know more than Alan Greenspan? It was not a matter of relative educations between me and the Fed Chairman, rather seeing clearly he was playing god with financial markets.  The Congressional Banking Committee hung off his every word like giddy teenagers with a crush on a pop idol. Ron Paul once set on Greenspan during one of the testimonies only to have the rest of the committee turn on him for embarrassing the newly knighted ‘Maestro.’ It was nauseating to watch. Times seemed too good so how dare Paul question a central bank chief who openly said, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

We all remember the horrors of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in September 2008. The nuclear implosions in credit markets had already begun well before this as mortgage defaults screamed. The 7 years of binge investment since the tech bubble collapse meant we never cleansed the wounds. We would undoubtedly be in far better shape had we taken the pain. Yet confusing products like CDOs and CDSs wound their way into the investment portfolios of local country towns in Australia. The punch bowl had duped even local hicks to think they were with the times as any other savvy investor. To turn that on its head, such was the snow job that people who had no business being involved in such investment products were dealing in it.

So Wall St was bailed out by Main St. Yet instead of learning the lessons of the tech bubble collapse and GFC our authorities doubled down on the madness that led to these problems in the first place. Central banks launched QE programs to buy toxic garbage and lower interest rates to get us dragging forward even more consumption. The printing presses were on full speed. Yet what have we bought?

Now we have exchange traded funds (ETFs). Super simple to understand products. While one needed a Field’s Medal in Mathematics to understand the calculations of a CDO or CDS, the ETF is child’s play. Sadly that will only create complacency. We have not really had a chance to see how robots trade in a proper downturn. ETFs follow markets, not lead them. So if the market sells off, the ETF is rapidly trying to keep up. Studies done on ETFs (especially leveraged products) in bear markets shows how they amplify market reactions not mitigate them. So expect to see robots add to the calamity.

Since GFC we’ve had the worst post recession recovery in history. We have asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and property. The Obama Administration doubled the debt pile of the previous 43 presidents in 8 years. Much of it was raised on a short term basis. This year alone, $1.5 trillion must be refinanced.  A total of $8.4 trillion must be refinanced inside the next 4 years. That excludes the funding required for current budget deficits which are growing despite a ‘growing economy’. That excludes the corporate refinancing schedule. Many companies went out of their way to laden the balance sheet in cheap debt. In the process the average corporate credit rating is at its worst levels in a decade. Which means in a market where credit markets are starting to price risk accordingly we also face a Fed openly saying it is tapering its balance sheet and the Chinese and Japanese looking to cut back on US Treasury purchases. Bond spreads like Libor-OIS are already reflecting that pain.

Then there is the tapped out consumer. Unemployment maybe at record lows, yet real wage growth does not appear to be keeping up. The number of people holding down more than one job continues to rebound. The quality of employment is terrible. Poverty continues to remain stubbornly high. There are still three times as many people on food stamps in the US than a decade ago – 41 million people. Public pension unfunded liabilities total $9 trillion. Credit card delinquencies at the sub prime end of town are  back at pre-crisis levels. We could go on and on. Things are terrible out there. Should we be in the least bit surprised that Trump won? Such is the plight of the silent majority, still delinquent after a decade. No wonder Roseanne appeals to so many.

A funny comment was sent by a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, lambasting Trump on his trade policies. He criticized the fact that America had sold its soul for offshoring for decades. Indeed it had but queried that maybe he should be praising Trump for trying to reverse that tide, despite being so late to the party. Where were the other administrations trying to defend America all this time? Stunned silence.

Yet the trends are ominous. If we go back to the tech bubble IPO-a-thon example. We now have crowd funding and crypto currencies. To date we had 190 odd currencies to trade. Of that maybe a handful were liquid – $US, GBP, JPY, $A, Euro etc – yet we are presented with 1,000s of crypto currency choices. Apart from the numerous breaches, blow ups and cyber thefts to date, more and more of these ‘coins’ are awaiting the next fool to gamble away more in the hope of making a quick buck. Cryptos are backed by nothing other than greed. Yet it sort of proves that more believe that they are falling behind enough such they’re prepared to gamble on the biggest lottery in town. One crypto used Wikipedia as a source for its prospectus.

Yet the media remains engrossed on trying to prove whether the president had sex with a porn star a decade ago, genderless bathrooms, bashing the NRA, pushing for laws to curtail free speech, promoting climate change and covering up crime rather than look at reporting on what truly matters – the biggest financial collapse facing us in 90 years.

There is no ‘told you so’ in any of this. The same feelings in the bones of some 30 years ago are back as they were at the time of Greenspan and Lehman. This time can’t be avoided. We have borrowed too much, saved too little and all the while blissfully ignored the warning signs. The faith and confidence in authorities is evaporating. The failed experiment started by Greenspan is coming home to roost. This will be far worse than 1929. Take that to the bank, if it is still in operation because you won’t be concerned about the return on your money but the return of it!

Some interesting reading

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John Mauldin has put together a few interesting pieces over the weekend. Some of the select quotes from Thoughts from the frontline:

Money Velocity (which CM wrote about in 2016):

velocity of money, which is continuing to fall, as it has for almost 20 years…So it is somewhat disturbing to see velocity now at its lowest point since 1949, and at levels associated with the Great Depression.”

Income Disparity:

Note that it is the 95th percentile of workers that has received the bulk of the increase in wages. The bottom 50% is either down or basically flat since 1979. Even the 70th percentile didn’t do all that well.

Budget Deficits:

Over the last half-century, higher deficits have been associated with recessions. After recessions end, the deficit shrinks, and occasionally we get a surplus. That’s not happening this time. Deficits are growing even without a recession…but in the next recession tax revenues will fall, and spending will increase enough to not only swell the annual deficit but also to add north of $2 trillion to the national debt each year. We’re using up our breathing room, and that will be a problem – sooner or later.

Monetary Policy:

Ominously, you can see from Grant’s labels (In the above chart) with arrows that peak yields tended to correspond with crises. If the current breakout persists, it is probably going to get its own label, and I bet we won’t like it.

Nothing to see here?