Connecting The Dots

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by Brad Houle, CFA
Executive Vice President

Last week’s Fed announcement had something for everyone. The Fed removed the word “patient” from its forecast for increasing interest rates. This is an acknowledgement that the economic recovery is well underway and the strong employment data month-after-month is a confirmation of this fact. Taken in a vacuum, this change in the Fed’s message could be construed as being “hawkish” meaning that the Fed is in a hurry to raise interest rates to keep the economy from overheating. However, the Fed also dropped its own interest rate forecast which could be construed as being “dovish” meaning that the Fed is reluctant to raise interest rates. As a result, there was a strong rally in both the bond and stock markets which is what we mean by something for everyone.

The Fed’s interest rate forecast or “Dot Plot” is a relatively new construct from the Fed. There has been a concerted effort to communicate more openly with the markets by the Fed. This endeavor was successful in the Bernanke-era Fed and has also been continued by the Yellen-era Fed. It is pejoratively called “open mouth policy” because what the Fed communicates to the market is ultimately as important as what the Fed actually does.

In the “Dot Plot” each Fed Governor posts their interest rate forecast on a chart which is then released with the minutes of the Fed meetings. Each dot is only one person’s opinion; however, the dots when taken in context, gives investors an idea of what the Fed Governors are thinking. Ultimately, these individuals have the ability to influence when short-term interest rates actually rise. Historically, when short-term interest rates have risen, longer-term interest rates have also climbed. Our research partner Bloomberg has done a good job illustrating what the Fed is trying to communicate with the “Dot Plot.”

Blog chart

The blue line above represents an average of the Fed Governor’s forecasts for the next three years. These forecasts range from .625 percent for short-term interest rates by the end of 2015 to 3.125 percent by the end of 2017. The red line depicts what the market is discounting for interest rates over the next three years. The market discounts a number of different circumstances – both the Fed raising interest rates and not raising interest rates. This Federal Reserve forecast is assuming that rates are going to be raised. There has been much hand-wringing over when the Fed will actually act. Ultimately, when the Fed actually raises rates is unimportant. The important thing is that the economic growth is robust enough that rates should rise to keep the economy from overheating.

Our Takeaway for the Week:

  • We think short-term interest rates are going to rise. This is good news in that the economy is healthy enough that the Fed should act to keep it from overheating

Disclosures

Come Together

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by Ralph Cole, CFA
Executive Vice President of Research

Late last year we had a great chart that showed the Fed’s own expectations for tightening were ahead of the markets’ expectations for Fed tightening. We explained that as those two outlooks moved toward one another there would be volatility. On this past Wednesday, we experienced the positive aspect of that volatility.

Fed officials concluded two days of meetings in Washington and issued a statement regarding the economy and interest rates. While many were focused on the language used by the Fed, we were more focused on the Fed governors’ expectations for short-term interest rates in the coming year and the lowering of the theoretical “full employment rate”.

As part of Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meetings, each of the Fed Governors plots what they expect the Fed Funds rate to be at the end of 2015, 2016 and 2017. This chart has been referred to as “The Dot Chart”. The median expectations of the governors for Fed Funds at the end of 2015 actually came down from 1.125 percent to .625 percent. This means that the Fed Governors still expect to raise rates in 2015 (which we expect as well), but just not as quickly as they previously expected. This is more in line with what the market was hoping for; thus it was met with both a stock and bond market rally.

Untold Stories

Unemployment has been one of the most controversial topics of this economic expansion. The unemployment rate steadily moved down from 10 percent in 2009 to 5.5 percent in February. This rapid decline stood at odds with what many people felt they were experiencing in their own lives, and what was anecdotally highlighted in the media as well. What makes this more than a theoretical conversation is the unemployment rate’s effect on wages.

The most recent Federal Reserve study on employment came to the conclusion that the “full employment rate” for the U.S. economy was approximately 5.4 percent. The belief being that at 5.4 percent unemployment wages would start to rise or even accelerate. In the Fed’s statement today, they lowered the theoretical full employment rate for the United States to between 5.0 percent and 5.2 percent. Because we have not seen wages increase up to this point, they concluded that a lower level of employment would be needed to begin to pressure wages higher. This conclusion fits perfectly with the expectations of Fed Governors that the Fed Funds rate would not be increasing as much as previously expected. One company of note is Target, which announced this Thursday that they would be increasing wages for employees to at least $9/hour in April.

Takeaways for the Week:

  • The Fed continues to signal that they will be raising rates later this year, but at a pace that agrees with the markets’ assessment of our economic situation
  • Future Fed meetings and communications will cause increased volatility in the market

Disclosures

One Thing Leads to Another

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Shawn-00397_cmykby Shawn Narancich, CFA
Executive Vice President of Research

Too Much of a Good Thing?

As Europe begins to make a down payment on its one trillion euro quantitative easing program, the U.S. dollar’s rapid gains have become parabolic and begun to take a dent out of investors’ U.S. stock portfolios. A strong currency is commonly cited for its endearing qualities of reducing inflation and attracting investment, but with the trade-weighted dollar up almost 25 percent since last summer, more and more companies are watching their bottom lines suffer as foreign profits get translated into fewer dollars. We would observe that when an asset’s orderly gains begin to rise at an accelerating rate, the asset is beginning to resemble a bubble, regardless of whether it is tech stocks in early 2000 or the dollar at present.

Bidding Adieu to ZIRP

Because the U.S. economy continues to outpace those of other developed nations at a time when the Fed is preparing to raise interest rates, we aren’t calling for a top on the dollar, but we do believe it is due for a breather. What we would conjecture is that the best of the greenback’s gains may have already been realized, acknowledging that while the Fed’s mandate to promote full employment is being realized, it is in danger of falling short of its other goal, that of maintaining stable prices (defined roughly as two percent inflation). We envision lift-off from the Fed’s zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) later this year, but with inflation increasingly subdued at the imported goods level in addition to that caused by lower oil prices, the Fed is unlikely to tighten as aggressively as the dollar would imply.

Skate to Where the Puck Will Be

We observe in bemused fashion the financial press waxing bearish about the supposed lack of storage capacity for U.S. oil production. Yes, storage builds have occurred at the Cushing, Oklahoma delivery site for the commonly quoted West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil contract, as an unusually large amount of refining capacity has been temporarily idled for seasonal maintenance and one northern California refinery is offline because of the United Steelworkers’ refinery strike. This too shall pass. With gasoline refining margins now surpassing the robust level of $30/barrel (thanks to strong demand stimulated by low pump prices and discounted WTI oil), refiners are heavily incented to return idled capacity as soon as possible.

Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Are oil prices at a bottom today? Markets tend to overcorrect on the way up and do the same thing on the way down, so although fundamentals of the oil market don’t appear to support $45/barrel oil for any substantial length of time, the price of oil could go lower in the next month or two. But we don’t manage client portfolios with a one or two month time horizon and what we will say is that this cycle is playing out just like we would expect. U.S. drilling activity has plummeted in response to low oil prices, down 42 percent since September, while demand for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel hasn’t been this robust in years. By our estimation, faster demand growth and U.S. production that we believe is set to begin declining are the key ingredients to a recipe for higher prices in the second half of this year. Being overweight energy stocks has not felt good lately, but we are confident that the bearish headlines on oil herald something much more constructive for energy investors.

Our Takeaways from the Week

  • Increasingly heady dollar gains are beginning to negatively impact U.S. stock prices
  • The most recent declines in oil appear long in the tooth

Back in Time

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by Jason Norris, CFA
Executive Vice President of Research

In the last few weeks we have received several questions regarding the headlines coming out of Washington that may have major implications to some sectors of the market (although none of the questions were regarding Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress).

The FCC issued a statement that they are going to enact Title II of the 1934 Telecom Act (yes, 1934) to apply to broadband internet. This basically would regulate internet access, as well as any deals companies may make to transmit data (i.e., if Netflix were to strike a deal with Comcast, this would have to be blessed by the FCC). We haven’t seen the specific details of the act since the actual 300 page order has not been released. I had the good fortune of meeting with top managers of Verizon, Comcast and Charter Communications earlier this week and they addressed the topic. While the carriers have not been engaging in practices the FCC is trying to stop, this new regulation will introduce increased uncertainty. Network service providers have essentially had an open playing field as to what to invest in based on market dynamics. This proposed increase in regulation may present a lot of obstacles and conjecture. The consensus view is that new regulation would have a negative impact on innovation and investment longer-term. Also, the issue would be heavily litigated as well. The belief is that net neutrality needs to come through Congress, not the FCC. The DC Court of Appeals has previously overturned the FCC’s attempt to regulate in 2010 and 2014.

The winners of this move will likely be companies that drive a lot of data over the internet, i.e. Netflix and Hulu. Google is a wild card because they drive a lot of data transmission (YouTube) and they are expanding into telecom services (Google Fiber). Thus Google will see both the positive and negative sides of this proposed regulation. Apparently, Google execs had mentioned to President Obama that they are against net neutrality. The potential losers of the act would be the cable and telecom companies and their equipment suppliers if capital spending is slowed. However, the market didn’t bat an eye due to the amount of guesswork remaining before any implementation occurs.

You Keep Me Hangin’ On

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was before the Supreme Court again this week as challengers of the law asked the justices to find the subsidies (tax credits) the IRS is approving unconstitutional. The law states that only customers on a State-run exchange will get a tax credit; however, the IRS has been giving tax credits to all customers on both Federal and State exchanges. The majority of newly insured customers are on Federal exchanges and are receiving credits from the IRS, which would mean their insurance costs could increase meaningfully if this aspect of the ACA is overturned.

After the arguments were made on Wednesday, most legal analysts were unable to get a “read” from the justices on which way were they were leaning. The expectation is that the four “progressive” justices will vote in favor of the government, and the more “conservative” justices, Scalia, Thomas and Alito, will likely vote in favor of the plaintiff. The last challenge to the ACA was in 2012 where Chief Justice Roberts voted in favor of the act, so he could be the swing vote again. However, Justice Kennedy gave the defense a bit of hope due to his questioning of States’ Rights. The essential question is this: if the Federal government mandated the States to set up their exchanges to get its citizens subsidies, would that result in undue “coercion”? Thus maintaining the subsidies for the Federal exchanges may be allowed. It was an interesting line of questioning, and one that moved the HMO and hospital stocks this past week. The HMOs and hospitals will continue to be beneficiaries of the ACA due to the increased number of insured customers, but the HMOs will have less of a benefit since ACA policies dictate a lower profit margin.

Our Takeaways for the Week: 

  • Net neutrality will not be solved for some time due to the legal challenges at play
  • The current dispute of the ACA presents possible winners and losers in the healthcare sector

Disclosures