Trumpflation? Or A Return of Deflation? - Leftback

A few days ago, members of Team Macro Man 2.0 reviewed charts for a variety of US fixed income instruments and predicted here that the steep post-election sell-off was over, and that Mr Bond had in fact carved out a tradable bottom, which would then be followed by a period of mean reversion into the inauguration. We even pointed out some gaps in the charts that might be filled, and at the time of writing, the 10y is yielding 2.37%, well within sight of the first of those targets (2.10-2.20 area).

Despite this market action, the crescendo in the media (mainly from sell side analysts) continues to proclaim the party line, namely that “interest rates are going higher”, and that there is a “great rotation” out of bonds and into equities. So why are some of us at TMM (especially those of us who are fixed income investors by trade or inclination) less than eager to follow this mantra and exit US fixed income for the siren song of growth stocks and reflation vehicles, in the time-honored manner?
The decision whether to do so comes down to one’s philosophical position about one single issue that will dominate US fixed income investing for years to come: inflation forecasting. Many market watchers reacted to the election of President Trump by reaching for inflation protection in all manner of ways (except interestingly in gold, which was sold) and by investing in all kinds of infrastructure plays. The consensus view is that Trump is a builder, and so he will build, and spend, and inflation will result, against the backdrop of a US economy growing more rapidly than anticipated, forcing the Fed to move to hike rates more rapidly than anticipated. The combination of fiscal stimulus and monetary tightening is a scenario that is also generally very positive for the domestic currency.

According to this strong dollar, reflationary view, one should therefore sell vanilla Treasuries and longer duration debt, and buy high yield bonds or TIPS. In equities, one should sell defensive sectors, such as utilities, REITs, health care and staples, avoid other rate-sensitive issues such as telecoms and technology and buy the cyclical sectors, such as the financials, materials, integrated oil stocks, the drillers and industrials. This is the traditional recovery investment playbook (think about 2009, for example).

But what if they gave a recovery and nobody came? The problems with the widely touted reflationary scenario are manifold. Some of them are independent of the party in power and the person in the White House, and even of Dame Janet Yellen in the Eccles building, (“the most powerful woman in the world”). Here we review a number of intrinsic (domestic economy and US politics) and extrinsic (foreign governments, world economy) factors that will cause the US reflationary adventure to first disappoint investors, then stall out, and perhaps even give way to another episode of outright deflation. Some of these ‘flation factors were recently reviewed by macro strategist Cameron Crise of Bloomberg (here and here). Although C.C. points out the danger posed by rising inflation, the question has to be asked: how much is priced in? and is it transitory? (as Dame Janet likes to say, usually in reference to oil or commodity price spikes).

Domestic Factors

1. Infrastructure Programs will be disappointing and delayed in execution.
Many Americans, especially those in the older East Coast cities, see a pressing need to repair the nation’s aging infrastructure. While we would love to see a massive national infrastructure program encompassing rails, roads, airports, bridges and internet access, we think the prospects for such a program are actually dim. The reasons for this are several, but the prime obstacle is the House Republican majority, led by Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis), who represent states that would benefit little from an infrastructure program. In addition, they are closet deflationists, whose political base benefits from low interest rates in any number of ways.

2. The Trump Cabinet is full of vulture capitalists, not social engineers.
It would be exciting to have a President with interesting ideas for rebuilding America, especially if he had a cabinet that was able to put those ideas into practice. A look at the Trump cabinet, however, reveals a group of people who are unlikely to benefit from, or support programs based on American regeneration and reflation. Wilbur Ross, for example, is the very definition of a vulture capitalist, with a long history as a distressed debt, asset stripping and merger specialist. Whether or not one sees value in this, Ross seems unlikely to be a social visionary, and he might prefer slow growth or even frank deflation to reflation (indeed, one can argue this might be healthy for US business after serial bubble financing).

3. Aggregate Demand will continue to be slow – the output gap remains. 
The demographic changes that began in the US around the year 2000 continue to grind inexorably onwards, as the Baby Boomer generation retires, clutching its ill-gotten gains, real estate and stock portfolios  - or else eagerly anticipating decades of life on welfare support from working age Americans. None of this will be changed even slightly by the election of President Trump, and it will ensure that aggregate demand stays modest, and growth averages 2% rather than the 4-5% that characterized previous expansions. Even massive fiscal spending probably would not increase aggregate demand by much, perhaps elevating GDP by 0.5-1% at most. The much-derided “New Normal” of Bill Gross is very much alive and well.

4. Inflation expectations (of the US public and markets) remain modest.
The problem with reflationary investing is that at some point the inflation really has to actually show up, otherwise capital will begin to cycle out of the reflation trades and back into the yield universe of fixed income and defensive equity sectors. A look at real-time indices of US inflation expectations shows that neither the bond markets nor the population are actually expecting much of a bump in inflation, with both 1y and 5y inflation expectations remaining anchored below the Fed’s target of 2%. This is important, because traditionally both markets and everyday Americans have been far more accurate inflation forecasters than the Fed.

5. Wage growth remains slow due to the slack in the US labor market.
One of the reasons people see little inflation ahead is that they are realists, and they are also better real world economists than that old fraud Milton Friedman, who proclaimed to much fanfare that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”. Friedman even won a Nobel Prize for his theories on beating inflation by restricting M2 and other measures of the money supply. However, Milton Friedman never met QE and thus he could never have accounted for its deflationary effects or the co-existence of monetary expansion and low price and wage inflation that has characterized the US economy since the housing bubble burst. The Japanese experience since the 1990s has been analogous.
In fact, the true genius and US economic pragmatist in this case was Paul Volcker, and it was higher interest rates (painfully high in 1982) that finally whipped inflation (“Whip Inflation Now” badges were popular), with an assist from the union-busting strategies of Reagan (and Thatcher) that emasculated organized labor and curtailed collective bargaining agreements in the ensuing decades. This controlled the real culprit for cost-push inflation, i.e. wage inflation. In the US labor market of 2017, a large pool of unemployed and underemployed assures that both hourly wages and hours worked are relatively static, ensuring both low wage growth and low US inflation for the foreseeable future. Believe the 5y5y break-evens!

6. The strong US dollar is already choking off manufacturing industries. 
A lot of rubbish has been written about how access to cheaper raw materials from other markets will make US manufacturing more competitive, but the fact is the stronger dollar raises the price of US-made goods in the rest of the world and eventually leads to a slowdown in new orders to US factories, that will eventually feed through to lower growth and corporate earnings for multinationals and large exporters.

7. Housing and Mortgage Markets are already in the deep freeze.
One of the most obvious consequences of the 10y moving up by 100 bps in the last 2-3 months can already be seen - in the mortgage markets. Mortgage and refinancing applications have plummeted since September, and the value of mortgage-backed securities has also fallen as rates have risen. This will have two effects on the US housing market (unless it reverses promptly). First, failure to gain credit will result in a frozen housing market in the Spring, and second, house prices will inevitably fall. Given that the banks and the Fed have a huge amount of housing-related paper on their portfolios, we think that rates will probably begin to decline once more in 2017. The recent spike in interest rates can be survived by most financial institutions, but another 50-100 bps would cause a lot of pain. Just as a 10y note yielding 4.0% was a great buy in April 2010, we think that a 30y US bond at 3.20-3.25% was a really fantastic buy near the end of 2016.

8. The Fed will not hike more than once in 2017.
It should be obvious from the above that we do not believe that the Fed will hike rates three times in 2017, despite the apparent consensus and intent of the voting members, as indicated by the latest “dot plot” in December. As in prior years, slowing of the US economy in 2017 will see the FOMC scale back their growth projections for the year, along with their plans for interest rate hikes. In fact, if 2017 goes well for the US economy (2.5% GDP), then the next hike will be in December 2017. If the economy stalls out this winter, then there may eventually be no hike at all. Some observers even believe that the next move will not be a hike, but a 25bp rate cut, and that this will occur as part of a strong bull flattener in the yield curve that will drive the 10y yield to new lows of 1%. We remain agnostic.

Extrinsic Factors

1. Chinese Credit Crisis. A trade war with China may lead to deflation. 
It is by no means clear what the true rate of growth is in China at present. The official estimates of 6-7% etc are clearly principally of comedic value. Electricity usage data, etc suggests that China’s GDP may be as low as 2-3%, and this is just one reason why we have seen USDCNY soaring and capital flight becoming a significant problem for PBoC. The Chinese economy also has an enormous overhang of bad debt that threatens to take large sectors of the banking system underwater at some point. Nobody knows what will trigger a major meltdown in Chinese credit, equities (and by extension, most emerging markets), but it is certain to happen at some point. One of the “Black Swans” for 2017-8 is that President Trump sparks a trade war with China that provides the trigger for a Chinese credit crisis, leading to a deep recession in China, a trade freeze across the world and a wave of global deflation that might rival the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.

2. Oil Prices Continue to Fuel Disinflation. 
The OPEC agreement may not hold (“after all, we tend to cheat” observed one major producer). There are also large non-OPEC producers (US, Russia) that make OPEC increasingly less omnipotent. US rig count and production have both continued to rise recently, even as stockpiles of crude and refinery products are close to all-time highs. Added to these fundamental considerations the fact that we are in a strong dollar environment. Speculative episodes may drive the spot price of crude oil higher for a month or two, but clearly, the longer–term pressure on the oil price is such that the risk remains to the down side.
In the US, the oil price is the major determinant of the Producer Price Index and a major input to the CPI.  At least for the next 3-5 years, the declining use of oil by China and the US, combined with ample supply and storage suggest that oil prices are likely to continue to provide disinflationary inputs to the US economy.

3. Another European banking and currency crisis is never far away.
Whether it is BMPS (Banco dei Monte Paschi di Siena) this month, another Italian bank tomorrow, or one of the Portuguese or Spanish lenders next month, we know that there are an awful lot of institutions with a book full of non-performing loans. On any given day, the promise of Draghi’s bazooka (“I can promise, it will be enough”) can keep these problems out of sight and out of mind. At some point, in an unpredictable way, one or more major European banking institutions will become visibly insolvent (perhaps because of a run on deposits), interbank lending will dry up, and counter-party risk will elevate the situation to the level of a banking crisis. The only possible solution to such issues involves bail-outs, bail-ins and the creation of more special facilities by the ECB, effectively expanding the ECB balance sheet even further and placing additional strain on the €.

4. Emerging Market Debt Crises. 
Emerging market debt crises can occur locally at any time. Venezuela provides an obvious example. A more serious situation might arise if Turkey undergoes a full-blown debt crisis. The strategic importance of Turkey, as well as the size and inter-relatedness of its economy would make this a serious regional problem (Greece and MENA are all important trading partners of Turkey). Debt crises might also occur elsewhere in the Middle East if oil prices crash once more, especially in Saudi Arabia. If any emerging market does suffer a serious crisis, a flight to the dollar might create knock-on effects in vulnerable economies in Latin America (Brazil, Argentina) and emerging Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia).

5. Japan sells the yen and buys US Treasuries, keeping US rates low. 
The BoJ has, for 25 years or more, oscillated between the risks posed by deflation and a government bond market meltdown and currency crisis. Yet a major crisis has been largely averted for 15 of the last 25 years, as a succession of prime ministers and central bankers has alternately used QE and under Kuroda, QQE (Abenomics) to attempt to delay and defray the strong deflationary pressures that grip an aging nation in the later (but not final) stages of a demographic disaster of epic proportions. In the latest round of stimulus, the BoJ has pledged to peg the JGB10y rate at or close to zero. As a consequence, Japanese fixed income fund managers, banks, pension funds and even the government itself must search for yield in the rest of the world. One of the most stable investments available is found in the US Treasury market, where yield differentials for 10y notes are currently in excess of 200 bps. This yield-seeking by Japan is just one reason for the strong demand from “indirect bidders” for US government paper, seen in the recent December auctions of 5y, 10y and 30y Treasurys.

This post was written by “Leftback”

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Macro Man
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January 12, 2017 at 6:03 PM ×

@henner can you re-send please? I thought I got everyone but with >150 emails to sift through some slipped through the cracks

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yassa
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January 12, 2017 at 7:11 PM ×

Very interesting post LB.

MM - congrats on BBG gig. Long time reader and very occasional poster, can I be added to your list?

I will email you shortly.

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Nico G
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January 12, 2017 at 9:51 PM ×

Jared Dillian: Buy the Rumor, Sell the News

Was anybody here trading in 2003?

It was the year we invaded Iraq (regrettably). The markets were expecting a decisive victory. During the days and weeks when American troops advanced on Baghdad, the market climbed. As they entered Baghdad and marched on the center of the city, the market traded higher and higher.

Finally, American troops fastened a rope around the neck of Saddam Hussein’s statue and attached the other end to a tank. The world watched on television as the tank backed down and toppled the statue.

And at that very moment—stocks started to fall.

The rumor was that the US would win the war quickly and decisively. The fact or news was that the war itself turned out to be the simplest part—and the 14 years since have been anything but.1

Can you see the parallels with today?

Stage 1: The prospect of war/a Trump presidency is scary: stocks go down.

Stage 2: Once war/the Trump presidency commences, people see the positive aspects of it.

Stage 3: The reality of war/the Trump presidency proves to be far messier than anyone anticipated.2

One could make the argument that Brexit has just entered Stage 3.

This pattern is played out over and over again in financial markets. Year after year after year.


Inauguration Day

I think that Inauguration Day will mark a big turning point in the stock market. Stocks could be headed for a dirtnap.

There is historical precedent: see what happened to stocks after Reagan’s inauguration (Missing graph showing S&P dropping 14% from 132 at inauguration, to 113 in September)

Right now, stocks are pricing in the most pro-business administration since Reagan, or possibly ever. The market is up. Sectors that benefit from deregulation are up even more. Bond yields are up. It’s the Trump trade.

The reality is that Republicans do not have 60 votes in the Senate, so getting things done like tax cuts is going to require some horse trading.

Trump does have leverage—lots of Democrats are up for reelection in the Senate next year, and many of them from states where Trump won big. It should not be hard to peel some of them off.

But that is where the horse trading comes in. Will Trump get the tax rates he wants? Probably not.

Will Trump get a full repeal of Dodd-Frank? Probably not.

What we end up with will definitely be better than what we had before, but in my opinion, the market has every bit of Trump’s proposed agenda priced in.

So just like after US troops pulled down the statue and the reality of governing Iraq set in, once Trump is sworn in, the reality of trying to get this stuff through Congress is going to set in.

In fact, I’d be surprised if the top tick isn’t when Trump says: “I do solemnly swear…”

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johno
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January 12, 2017 at 11:01 PM ×

Another very nice post, LB. Thank you!

W/r/t your 5th point on wages, many are pointing to rising wage pressures in various series. But to take average hourly earnings, for instance, if supervisory/managerial workers are stripped out, the rest (~85% of the working population I believe) don't seem to be seeing any wage inflation. There's really only a squeeze on higher-skilled jobs. Also, looking at all workers on a weekly basis, there isn't any discernible inflation there either ... hours worked/week have been falling.

You raise China as a potential risk, and it's occurred to me that Trump could prove a useful scapegoat for the Chinese leaders. If a slowdown is inevitable (as would seem given the credit bubble), then they should take some pain when Trump takes action. That way they can deflate some of their bubble while comfortably holding onto power. Indeed, they might even strengthen their hold/approval, as happened in Russia.

One big wild card is confidence. The biggest increase in small business confidence in 36 years, for example. Because it's so unprecedented, it's hard to have confidence in peoples' models of its effects. However, it was interesting to see that the Bloomberg consumer confidence series which is updated more regularly than others has turned right down again.

Sitting with SPY short-dated put spreads, my offering to the God of Lessons Never Learned.

Question: Anyone long MXN out there? What catalysts are you looking for? Mexico is just so easy for Trump to score political points on, I just don't see what goes right there, which makes me worry about a peso short.

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river
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January 12, 2017 at 11:44 PM ×

Long time fan of LB.Thanks for your contribution to keep this blog alive

.

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IPA
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January 13, 2017 at 1:42 AM ×

johno,

Mexico is a pinata, no doubt. But I don't want to go long USD/MXN, simple reason is I have no idea how to precisely measure the toll on that currency pair as there are no winners in trade wars. I do however think that transports are a screaming short on possible trade war and cross-border freight volume reduction as a result. Can you imagine our third largest trade partner being in a full-fledged trade war with us? I mean if the wall (or even mentioning of one) was not bad enough for our relations, a NAFTA death and having to scramble to renegotiate all the trade deals will send shockwaves across the market. And we should not forget Canada! Don't get me started on the consequences of that one.

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Rossco
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January 13, 2017 at 5:16 AM ×

Good point on Turkey. For EM tourists I think it is often overlooked.

FWIW my take on China is that the CCP pursues stability at any cost. When backed into a corner they will revert to what they do best, which is employ a ton of people to build stuff. Whether this "stuff" is useful or not isn't remotely relevant.

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Nico G
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January 13, 2017 at 5:57 AM ×

talking about Turkey a 10 year graph on USDTRY is quite something. Is has nearly TRIPLED. This is forex punishment for when a promising EM country goes rogue

in that aspect MXN might still have a long way to reach currency hell but the gut feeling is that the easy short trade is already past us. So one would have to go very technical on initiating a short on some decent retracement of post election losses, etc

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 1:13 PM ×

Nico (and other perma bears) where's your equities crash? Indexes are still back where they were in Dec, and some (Nasdaq, Dax etc) have pushed up to new highs.

Yesterday's huge BTFD showed you were wrong, when are you going to throw in the towel and admit your view is biased?

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abee crombie
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January 13, 2017 at 1:19 PM ×

Nico, I appreciate the Trump/Iraq analogy, of buy the rumor sell the news, but the charts dont add up.

1) April 2003, when the sadaam statue was over turned (quick google search but I think this is the date you/Dillan refer to) the S&P was in a 3 year BEAR market.

2) Also I think Jared's facts are wrong bc April 9th 2003 was probably one of the best places to buy for the next 4-5 years, not sell.

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Rubberpower
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January 13, 2017 at 2:28 PM ×


@Macro Man

I shot you an email last week regarding how to follow you on bloomberg. Can you please let me how to go about that?

Thanks

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James
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January 13, 2017 at 2:31 PM ×

Great read enjoyed the contrarian view, keep it up

James

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 3:06 PM ×

Equities shooting higher and US economic data. Nico's losses mounting... have a good w/e. Next week will likely see new ATHs.

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Macro Man
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January 13, 2017 at 3:11 PM ×

@ Rubberpower, can u resend pls. I thought I added everyone who asked but some may have slipped through the cracks

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 3:21 PM ×

Problem for bears remains relentless corp bond issuance & cash spreads tightening; CDX/derivs can only stray so far from cash. Last 2 days saw $32B of issuance; yday $10B, mostly HY; this a.m. CDX tightening a bit. MTD issuance = $110B w/ ½ month to go

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 3:23 PM ×

Returns since election...
$BAC: +38%
$GS: +36%
$MS: +30%
$JPM: +26%
$WFC: +23%
$C: +21%

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 3:28 PM ×

"Yesterday's huge BTFD showed you were wrong, when are you going to throw in the towel and admit your view is biased?" I hope it's not a 10 handle S&P rally you refer to?

What equity market are you talking about? The ftse has rallied on fx, NQ has put in a nice little rally but all other markets are inthe same range since mid December.

You do realise volume is atrocious? Volume to the sell or buy side is going to shunt this market hard either way.

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 3:31 PM ×

One month is 21 trading days. Past month the #Dow has been in a range of 1.07% (using closing prices). Since 1900, tightest range EVER.

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 3:39 PM ×

@Anons: we're up massively since Trump, and this sideways range is just a continuation pattern for another HUGE move higher. The reason you people lose so much is you indulge in retail behavior of trying to pick tops and imagining that the market is "over-valued", or "too high" or other nonsense. The main equity markets can easily move another 100% higher from here and probably will.

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Macro Man
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January 13, 2017 at 3:44 PM ×

@ Anon 3.31, love that stat, I am nicking it.

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CV
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January 13, 2017 at 3:48 PM ×

Well done LB, I will play up against this next time I do something. This is a very good description of the zeitgeist.

"According to this strong dollar, reflationary view, one should therefore sell vanilla Treasuries and longer duration debt, and buy high yield bonds or TIPS. In equities, one should sell defensive sectors, such as utilities, REITs, health care and staples, avoid other rate-sensitive issues such as telecoms and technology and buy the cyclical sectors, such as the financials, materials, integrated oil stocks, the drillers and industrials. This is the traditional recovery investment playbook (think about 2009, for example)."

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 3:53 PM ×

Interesting and well written piece, many thanks

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Anonymous
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January 13, 2017 at 4:41 PM ×

LB - excellent work, thank you -- we much appreciate your insights and efforts here!

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Nico G
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January 13, 2017 at 5:48 PM ×

abee

it's just the 1,2,3 step program that was worth mentioning, i remember the market shot up the day the war started, which was not exactly intuitive to the layman, and i guess that was Jared's point. Between 2000-2003 bear market and 2009-2017 bull market we agree trends are opposite so expect 1,2,3 programs to be opposite too

1 - limit down at election result
2 - Trump trade into inauguration
3 - Imagination is over, reality begins

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thud
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January 13, 2017 at 6:03 PM ×

@ Anon 3.31... here's another song from the same musical: S&P 500 is on track today to post 65 trading days without a down move of > 1%. Current bull market (since 2009) record is 66. Can't take credit for that; saw it on Bespoke's twitter.

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Error404
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January 13, 2017 at 7:30 PM ×

Excellent post. Thank you.

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Anonymous
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January 14, 2017 at 10:40 AM ×

Good post Leftback, but I do have some nits to pick.

Ryan does lead the House, but McConnell leads the Senate.

Rates had already fallen significantly in 1982. The Fed Funds rate, which peaked at twenty percent in 1980 and 1981 was fifteen percent in early 1982, and fell to 8.5 percent by the end of the year.

The yield on the thirty year peaked at over fifteen percent in mid to late 1981. While 1982 began with the yield still above fourteen percent, it fell almost 400 basis points between June and November of that year.

The current market environment reminds me a lot of early 1973 (yeah, I have been around for a while) - a lot of confidence after an election rejected a progressive candidate, Dow flirting with a major milestone (crossing 1000 after the election, and rallying just about to the inauguration), and a lot of optimism (and complacency) as involvement in Vietnam was winding down. We all remember what happened after that (for those not around then, the Dow fell below 600 twenty months later, and although it popped briefly above 1000 in 1976 and 1981, it was back at 777 in August 1982, when "THE" bull market began).

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Nic
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January 15, 2017 at 8:20 PM ×

Good Stuff LB
Best for 2017
Nic x

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northshore
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January 16, 2017 at 5:26 PM ×

Good piece LB. Demographic impacts will be relentless.

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