News & Views

An Equity Market Correction

Equity markets likely correct 5% to 10% over the next six weeks, if for no other reasons than a bevy of Wall Street strategists seemingly agreed last week that conditions appeared ripe for such a move. No major problem, in my view: it’s been a while since equities digested their sizeable gains. Typically, corrections, providing they don’t accelerate beyond the 10% level or so, prove healthy for long-term equity price appreciation.

Corrections, as they materialize, lead me along a few lines of thinking:

  1. Are the medium- to long-term economic conditions constructive for ongoing equity price appreciation?
  2. What conditions could prevail that amend the correction? and
  3. Might unforeseen or ill-considered phenomena drive a correction beyond the “healthy” 5% to 10% level and deeper into damaging territory?

Medium- to long-term economic conditions remain constructive for ongoing equity price appreciation, in my opinion. Abundant liquidity in combination with ultra-low interest rates and the aforementioned increases in equity prices result in corporate and personal balance sheets that rank among the healthiest in history. The resulting climate for fixed income investing from low interest rates also make equities the most attractive option from a risk-reward basis for investment capital, a relationship we expect to persist for the next 18 months or so. The dislocation of employment over the past year and a half, while terribly painful for tens of millions, results in among the most attractive backdrops for employment prospects ever.

Conditions that could win-out and perpetuate the overall trajectory for equities in 2021 without a correction include:                 

  • Acceleration of a decline COVID-19 cases,
  • Rising consumer sentiment from that drop in COVID-19 cases that propels increasingly positive expectations for Holiday 2021 shopping,
  • Bipartisan support for a sensible Federal budget,
  • A lower-than-feared increase in the corporate tax rate related to that sensible budget
  • Declining logistical challenges to putting sufficient products in inventories and onto shelves for consumers to purchase during their Holiday 2021 shopping,
  • Increasing employment participation related to declining COVID-19 cases and improving consumer confidence and sentiment

Any number of unexpected events or underappreciated issues could lead an equity market correction beyond a healthy level and into destructive territory. The key, in my view, is to focus on those factors with the highest probabilities of occurring. COVID-19 challenges rank chief among these factors. Increased infections, escalating hospitalizations, and mounting mortality rates – to say nothing of the possibility of an “Epsilon” variant developing in response to our ineptitude at controlling the Delta variant – that undermine fundamental economic activity could deepen a correction and turn it into an equity market tailspin. Further increases in Federal spending WITHOUT requisite increases in the amount of goods and services that consumers can purchase, would make a mess of equity values as well The heavy-handedness with which Chinese authorities chose to deal with mounting inequalities in the country and/or an implosion of Chinese property markets that spills over to international capital markets or disrupts recoveries in global semiconductor production also could exact deleterious impacts on equity markets.

The Labor Market Disconnect

The conclusion of a recent missive I read on the jobs situation – more openings than applicants, if you choose to read more interesting things – reminded me of the closing scene of the movie Office Space. The piece I read suggested folks uncomfortable working in bars, restaurants and retail shops, possibly seek employment in more accommodating sectors such as construction, manufacturing or retail trade. If you recall from Office Space, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) opted out of a dead-end but comfy office job after a short-lived life as a white-collar criminal mastermind for the life as a construction worker with his next-door neighbor Lawrence (Deidrich Bader). The relative joy of moving dirt and debris around outside and being able to actually see the fruits of his labors seemingly trumped the disgust-riddled process of shuffling TPS reports from desk to desk in a cubicle-infested, yet air-conditioned climate.

Training and experience differentials be damned, another anomaly in this labor piece really gets at the root of the problem: “retail shops” versus “retail trade.” Not enough folks want to work in the shops anymore while trade apparently experiences more success filling openings. The primary difference: in the shop one must deal with people while, at least the way I understand it, trade involves putting things out for customers to purchase without any requirement to interface with the customer.

People, more specifically the way many of us choose to treat each other, define the essence of the labor market disconnect. That’s my conclusion. Just like Peter Gibbons no longer wanted to deal with his butthole of a boss Bill Lumberg (Gary Cole), almost to the point of blowing up his relationship with way-out-of-his league Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), no one wants to deal with anyone else anymore. For those choosing not to go back to tending bar, serving food, or finding that pair of jeans in the right size, COVID didn’t create their distaste for dealing with the rest of us. Instead, it significantly increased their assessments of the costs of dealing with the rest of us. For some an extra $300 per week might sufficiently compensate them in the form of an enhanced unemployment benefit. For many, however, I fear that they discovered – like Peter Gibbons – that the benefits of not dealing with buttholes and doing something else are far greater than they earlier estimated. Putting on my economists had really quickly, I forecast that the cost of dealing with us in the future will skyrocket far beyond $300 a week if we can’t quit being buttholes.

Smackdown on SPACs

I experienced an interesting confluence of events yesterday. First, The Wall Street Journal ran an article on the smackdown SPACs received over the past few months: the 137 mergers closed as of mid-February lost 25% of their value. Then, yesterday evening at a high school football game, I ended up sitting in front of United Wholesale Mortgage CEO Mat Ishbia, who took his company public via a merger with a Special Purpose Acquisition Corporation, or SPAC.

The first thought that struck me sitting there watching the two teams warm up was, “Huh, Ishibia’s a football fan as well as a basketball guy.” The second, and more important thought for my professional purposes, was that the demands of SPAC investing differ little, if at all, from those of investing in any other security: one still needs to do their fundamental work. Grouping UWM, which offers tangible and substantial sales, earnings, and even dividends, in with many of the other pre-revenue SPACs does both groups of companies significant disservices. As investors sort out the SPAC universe, including UWMC, I anticipate they’ll experience long-term winners and losers, similar to the balance of the universe of investable securities.

I predict that investors doing the old-school analysis on potential addressable markets and sizes, prospective sales into those markets, and projected earnings and cash flows from those sales, will enjoy better outcomes than those who do not. However, as I’ve not completed this work on UWMC, I’ve got no thoughts on its investment merits and therefore, offer no opinion on its shares…

Retirement: Taking The Long View

Detroit Free Press personal finance columnist Susan Tompor authored another thoughtful piece in this morning’s paper. Tompor fears, and rightfully so, I think, that folks approaching retirement may be prone to jump the gun this year in response to news of a possible 6%+ hike in Social Security’s cost of living adjustment (COLA). However, unless near-retirees possess substantial resources beyond Social Security on which to draw on through retirement, it likely will behoove them to take the long view and to keep plugging away at work. First, all Social Security beneficiaries, including those already drawing benefits as well as those yet to initiate benefits, will gain from 2022’s likely outsized COLA adjustment. Second, research from Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff quoted by Tompor estimates that the inflation-adjusted Social Security benefit at age 70 exceeds the age 62 benefit by 76%. Also, wages likely will continue to climb through the balance of 2021 and into 2022, which should lead to higher paychecks. To the downside, higher 2022 taxes almost certainly will act to deflate the purchasing power of those higher benefits and paychecks.