The production value of radio commercials can be nearly as comical as the quality of messages that your favorite Aunt posts to Facebook. I should know. I was a national talk radio personality during the rise and fall of the so-called New Economy (circa 1998-2005). ¬†The network created “spots” with minimum wage or unpaid voice-over talent; meanwhile, the entire budget for a 30-second gem was less than the amount of spare change in the program manager’s hip pocket.
As a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) as well as a money manager, financial talk radio was something that I did for enjoyment. Naturally, it didn’t hurt that my participation encouraged listeners to request my asset management services. After all, few people get paid significant amounts for speaking their mind over the airwaves.
Why am I thinking about this while stocks are experiencing their worst 2-day rout since the fall of 2011? For one thing, a mortgage company here in California has been raking in the “refi” dough with an extremely irritating tagline, “Thanks Mr. Fed!” All I can think about when I hear the rate-oriented advertisement on the radio are the thousands upon thousands of folks who believe there’s a guy out there who is handing out free money. (Oh wait a minute… isn’t that Helicopter Ben?) Yet Bernanke seems to be saying that his central bank is gearing up to call it quits. (Thanks Mr. Fed?)
Secondly, the ad warns that rock-bottom rates won’t be around forever. Underneath the Fed exit strategy of “tapering,” however, the economy needs to show continued improvement. I find myself wondering how this is going to come to fruition, especially since we do not have an economy that exhibits “self-sustaining” features.
Let’s examine the circumstances more closely. Real estate (e.g., home demand, prices, etc.) and market-based securities (i.e., capital appreciation across most asset classes along the risk spectrum) are/were improving… that much is true. “Mr. Fed” has successfully inflated the wealth of households that have been able to take advantage of the quantitative easing policy. Yet without artificially suppressed interest rates, real estate-related demand will dwindle and profit-takers will cash in on market gains. In fact, they already appear to be cashing in on those gains as I type!
Chairman Bernanke may have made a good faith effort to provide greater clarity on the future of the bond-buying program. On the other hand, he must know that the economy is not likely to improve on its own. Corporate revenue has been shrinking, manufacturing growth has been struggling, labor force participation is straddling 34-year lows and consumers have less disposable income. ¬†With a seemingly endless recession in Europe and a troubling slowdown in China, as well as a “wealth effect” that is likely to diminish alongside higher 10-year yields, it is difficult to imagine that the Fed views the economy as near sustaining itself.
If it sounds like I am calling for an end to a bull market for stocks, I am not. My expectation is that economic data over the coming months will be poor. Additionally, corporate guidance for future revenue and earnings will be disappointing. It follows that the Fed will ultimately be forced to put its plan for tapering on hold.
Need more proof? The Fed has inflation targets as well as employment targets. The present course of inflation-protected securities is showing a greater fear of deflation over inflation. Specifically, the iShares TIPS Bond Fund (TIP) is falling rapidly relative to the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond Fund (IEF). The Fed is extremely unlikely to abandon bond buying with deflation taking root.
In essence, this is the moment to prepare your “wish list.” What ETFs do you wish you would have acquired back in November/December… back when the Fed first discussed buying $85 billion per month in government and quasi-government bonds? Investments like PowerShares Small Cap Health Care (PSCH), PowerShares Pharmaceuticals (PJP), iShares DJ Aerospace (ITA), UBS E-TRACS Alerian MLP (MLPI), Guggenheim S&P Small Cap Value (RZV) and Market Vectors Retail (RTH) all merit consideration; each has an element of built-in defense for economic and/or rate uncertainty; RTH has 50% in consumer non-cyclicals (staples).
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