Quo Vadis? Worries Mount As Stock Market Gyrates

Published May 13, 2019

William RutherfordThe market began the year with its best start since 1998. After the jarring fourth quarter of 2018, the broad market powered its way to all-time highs. By the end of April, the market had gained 25 percent from its 2018 Q4 bear market low and 545 percent from the March 2009 financial crisis lows.

Gross domestic product (GDP) growth is running at about 3 percent – a significant improvement from the 2 percent of just a year ago.

April saw 265,000 new jobs added; that is a very strong number. Unemployment reached lows not seen since December 1969. There are a record 7.5 million job openings in the U.S.

Inflation remains low, but so do wage gains. The Federal Reserve, under pressure from President Trump to cut interest rates, declined to do so; nevertheless, the market priced in one rate cut for the rest of the year anyway.

The outlook for interest rates remains somewhat cloudy because of White House pressure, but Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will likely keep to the Fed’s established course, at least until the end of the year. That is, of course, unless Powell is forced […]

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S&P 500 Off To Its Best Start Since 1998

Published April 8, 2019

William RutherfordThe last quarter of 2018 was a big disappointment to investors. Beginning in the autumn of the year, the market dropped 18.9%, reaching a bottom on Dec. 24. While not panicking, investors were certainly shaken.

The world economy, including the U.S., appeared to be slowing. To make matters worse, the Federal Reserve, sticking to its script, raised interest rates by a quarter point, extending worries about the economy. The market drop was sharp.

But, as often happens, the market surprises. The first quarter of 2019 was the best since 1998. The S&P index was up 13.1%, the Dow up 11.2% and the Nasdaq up 16.5%. Well, how do you explain such machinations?

In the fall of 2018 it became clear that the global economy was slowing. At the same time, the Federal Reserve believed it was time to raise interest rates. A bit of a back story: after a long time of historically low interest rates, some believed it was time to raise rates; the Fed subscribed to this idea. We have often written here of policy accidents. We have been worried about policy accidents. The Fed, looking at its tea […]

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Playing Ketchup

Published March 11, 2019

William RutherfordBrazilian private equity firm 3G Capital burst into the United States when it bought well-established food companies Burger King in 2010 and H.J. Heinz in 2013. Its method of operation included cutting costs and executing mass layoffs. 3G attracted the attention of other hedge funds and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Together, 3G and Buffett bought U.S. ketchup maker Heinz.

In 2015, with Buffett’s help, Heinz acquired and merged with Kraft Foods to create the world’s fifth-largest food company. It was a classic Buffett buy: an easy-to-understand company with iconic American brands, not unlike other long-term Buffett holdings, such as Coca-Cola and Dairy Queen. 3G and Kraft Heinz next attempted to buy Unilever for $143 billion, but that deal collapsed amid concerns about a cultural clash of the two entities.

On Feb. 22, Kraft Heinz disclosed that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the company’s “accounting policies, procedures and internal controls in procurement.” Kraft Heinz’s share price plunged 27 percent that day; the firm wrote down $15 billion in the value of its Kraft food lines, including Kraft macaroni and cheese, Oscar Mayer hot dogs and other waning brands. […]

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The U.S. Government Shutdown: “Play It Again, Sam?”

Published February 11, 2019

William RutherfordThe U.S. has just completed the longest government shutdown in its history. The shutdown came to an end when President Trump backed down from his demand that the government fund his oft promised wall on the southern border of the U.S.

Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” was to be paid for by Mexico. When that didn’t happen, he demanded that the U.S. government pay for the wall. The price tag is estimated at $5.7 billion. When the House of Representatives refused the funding, the president allowed “non-essential” government services not to be funded – an act that he said he was “proud to own.”

After the economy teetered on the brink, the shutdown ended. Government services resumed. Employees, who had not been paid for a month, are in the process of catching up on the work not done during the stoppage. Among the many consequences, the Federal Reserve had to make interest rate decisions at its January meeting without full details of the economy. The Fed wisely decided not to change rates.

Now negotiations are going on within the government as to whether or not the government will pay for the wall. […]

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How The Glitch Stole Christmas: A Two-Act Drama

Published January 14, 2019

William RutherfordOver the course of the past year, I have written often of the risk of policy accidents. Since September, two significant policy accidents have created havoc in the financial markets.

First and foremost is the tariff war. Although initiated earlier, the tariff war came home to roost in the fourth quarter of 2018, when tariffs began to have their full impact. Once billed “easy to win” by the president, the tariff war is proving anything but easy. As the impact of the trade war on the global economy became visible and economies began to slow, the prices of equities and commodities fell in concert. Money began to flow from these assets, and markets tumbled.

Then the Federal Reserve made good on its promise to raise interest rates. Chairman Powell promised to raise rates until the Fed charts showed that rates were in the “right place.”

And so, beginning in early September, equity markets tumbled into bear market territory, down about 20 percent. The markets went from optimism to pessimism in a matter of weeks. The yield curve suggested a recession was in the offing. Having predicted 13 recessions – and eight […]

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Blinkers Or Bonkers? Policy Mistakes Plague Markets

Published December 10, 2018

William RutherfordI have frequently discussed the danger of policy mistakes in this column. This year has seen a plethora of policy mistakes, and they are now coming home to roost. In spite of a strong economy, with growing GDP, full employment and record consumer confidence, the U.S. equity market suffered big losses in October. Since the market normally looks ahead six to nine months, what did it see?

Not to be outdone, U.S credit markets have suffered their worst year since 2008, as investors shed corporate debt. What brought us to this point? Can the mistakes be rectified?

The first policy mistake was by the Federal Reserve. After record low interest rates for a very long time, the Federal Reserve has been on a rate hike trajectory. Ever cautious, Janet Yellen was on a very slow, deliberate, rate-rising schedule. The market did not question the need to raise rates. However, President Trump decided to replace Yellen, reportedly because she was too short at five feet, two inches.

The president handpicked Jerome Powell as his chairman. Powell had a different idea on rate increases; he wanted more and faster increases. The market absorbed […]

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