“Ya gadda have a praaacess”
– British portfolio managers mimicking their American colleagues
When long ago a former employer sent me to London to join the other Americans, or mostly Americans, building out its U.K. office, my job was to create a process. In institutional asset management, process was the American way. For sales presentations and especially dealing with investment consultants, you needed process charts that showed information flowing this way and that and, ultimately, morphing through its travels on the page into repeatable investment decisions. Those charts proved your legitimacy as an institutional manager—regardless of whether they described your actual decision making, they let the community know that you weren’t just a “bunch of gunslingers.” Essentially, you couldn’t build a business without your process charts.
But British consultants were different. They didn’t care so much about your process as they wanted you to knock them over with flair. They wanted imagination, story-telling, charisma. The process charts in your pitchbook didn’t matter as much as the command in your voice. In London, gunslinging was nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you slung with style.
So it all came down to process versus flair. Along with baseball caps and mismatched accents, the clash of cultures depended on which of the two qualities was deemed most important. And along with the accents, in particular, the contrasting approaches explained mimicry performed by amused Brits when the conference room door was comfortably shut or when the pub was crowded enough that voices didn’t carry. Ya gadda have a praaacess.
So today, I give you what else but a few pieces of process. Not a complete one, not even close, but I’ll share two dashboards that compare current stock market conditions to the conditions that shaped past market cycles. The dashboards can support your portfolio decisions, in my opinion, regardless of whether you’re a process Kool-Aid drinking septic or a flair fancying Anglophile. (For the same approach applied to the economy, see “Here’s a Strong Signal from the Economic Dashboard.”)
If 2018 rings in a bear market, it could look something like the Kennedy Slide of 1962.
That was my conclusion in “Riding the Slide,” published in early September, where I showed that the Kennedy Slide was unique among bear markets of the last eighty years. It was the only bear that wasn’t obviously provoked by rising inflation, tightening monetary policy, deteriorating credit markets or, less commonly, world war or depression.
Moreover, market conditions leading up to the Slide should be familiar—they’re not too far from market conditions since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. In the first year after Kennedy’s election, as in the first year after Trump’s election, inflation seemed under control, interest rates were low, credit spreads were tight, and the economy was growing. And, in both cases, the stock market was booming.
Here’s an updated look at Trump’s stock rally versus the Kennedy rally and subsequent Slide:
As you can see, we’ve now reached the chart’s critical juncture—at this time of the calendar in 1962, the post-election rally was ending, and the Slide was about to begin. Our chart begs the question: Will the similarities continue and lead us into a Trump Slide in early 2018?
Or, with less drama, you might like to hear my Q1 stock market outlook.
We’ve been seeing more and more commentaries discussing bad stuff that can happen when the Fed tightens policy and, as a result, the yield curve flattens. (See, for example, this piece from Citi Research and ZeroHedge.) No doubt, the Fed’s rate hikes will lead to mishaps as they usually do—in both markets and the economy. But most forecasters expect the economy to expand through next year, believing that the Fed and the yield curve aren’t yet restrictive enough to trigger a recession.
We won’t make a full-year 2018 forecast here, but we’ll share one of our “dashboard” charts that supports the consensus view for at least the first half of the year. With one methodological change to a chart we published in August, we’ll look at the following indicators, which together have an excellent track record predicting the business cycle:
Even as the Fed’s decision makers are beginning to worry less about recession and more about bubbly stock prices, we’re not yet moved by their attempts to curb the market’s enthusiasm. After all, the fed funds rate sits barely above 1%, which not too long ago qualified as a five-decade low. And other indicators, besides interest rates, aren’t exactly predicting the next bear, either. Inflation is subdued, credit spreads are tight, banks are mostly lending freely and the economy is growing, albeit slowly. It just doesn’t feel as though we’re close to a major market peak.
The world hardly needs another theory of the Fed, especially so soon after its Jackson Hole symposium. But we have a theory, too, and who knows, ours could be as close to the bulls-eye as any of the others. Plus, our theory is easy to explain—it rests on the simple premise that decision makers worry mostly about their reputations. We’ll propose that reputational risks are the primary drivers of central bank policies, and then we’ll use that belief to predict a major policy shift.
It seems every bank, including central banks, publishes a financial conditions index these days. And because financial conditions typically lead the economy, it makes sense to track them. In fact, they might contain even more information than they get credit for. They might offer the elusive “crystal ball” that foretells our economic fortunes.
Sound far-fetched? Spend a few minutes with this week’s pictures and talk, and you’ll be well equipped to judge for yourself. We start with seven of our favorite indicators, shown in the table below: