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A Possible Paradigm Shift in Economic Thinking; China and 5G; Cannabis in Maine (and More!)

Like many, watching the Notre Dame fire raging was both mesmerizing and deeply sad. If nothing else, it feels as if it warrants acknowledgment. Fortunately, no lives were lost. We are also aware that the Mueller report will be released after these Notes are drafted but before they are published. We could be proven wrong but expect that the report will not impact the financial markets in the short term. 

Current news that comes with heavy emotional overtones almost always overshadows developments that may have great implications for future policy decisions and markets. This week we identify some developments that are likely to continue shaping markets: one potential shift in economic thinking (i.e., whether recessions are inevitable); the importance of 5G in connection with China, and where Maine stands in the rapid rise of the cannabis industry. We also offer some lifestyle-oriented notes on various topics that we think you will enjoy.

  • Are Recessions Inevitable? Economic theory teaches that economies go through cycles of growth and contraction and that recessions are natural and unavoidable. But consider that Australia has not experienced a recession in close to 27 years. It has been called the "Australian Economic Miracle". What can we learn from Australia? If you accept, as some do, that either miscalculations by central banks (i.e., the Federal Reserve in the U.S.) or government regulatory failures are the proximate causes of almost all recessions in modern times, then you might still say that recessions are inevitable but only because of the likelihood of policy failures over long periods of time. Banker Jamie Dimon, for one, thinks the US economic expansion "could go on for years".

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Happy Bull Market Anniversary, Fed Two-Step, Home Planning (and more)

It’s official. At ten years, the US. stock bull market is the longest in our history. Does a slowing economy present a credible threat to stock investors? Both Washington and Wall Street have eyes on the Fed, which will have a major say. We get into all this and more and appreciate your interest. Feel free to forward to anyone who might be interested.

  • Slowing U.S. Economy: Economists generally expect the U.S. economy to grow around 2 percent in 2019. Ruchir Sharma, the Morgan Stanley chief global strategist, makes a compelling case for why this growth rate is both sufficient and not that far off long term growth rates. Charles Evans, the Chicago Fed President, says the chances of a recession are low.

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Fed Leaves Rates Unchanged As Economy Slows (and More!)

The Fed chose to leave short term rates unchanged at the FOMC meeting this week, announcing that it did not foresee more rate hikes this year. The decision and announcement reinforce that the Fed is increasingly wary of current risks and is signaling that it will keep its foot off the interest rate brake indefinitely. Apart from the Fed and the economy, we encourage you to check out some interesting planning notes (e.g. Roth IRAs and retirement) and lifestyle notes relating to health and happiness as it relates to location. 

  • Why the Fed Turned Dovish: Nouriel Roubini, the widely followed NYU economics professor,  offers his insights into why the Fed has abandoned, at least temporarily, its plan to hike short term rates higher.

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China Trade Deal; Deficit Debate, Charitable Gifts, Cell Phone, Habits and (and More!)

While trade negotiations with China hog the headlines, there is more to explore, including an emerging national debate over the significance of the U.S. deficit. We also encourage our readers to plan any charitable giving earlier in the year in order to maximize potential tax benefits.

  • China Trade Deal Close? Numerous sources report that a trade agreement with China is close to done. The agreement will reduce tariffs imposed by both countries, enabling the U.S. to export more goods to China. Whether it will ultimately lead to meaningful structural reform on China’s part will take time to evaluate. The New York Times and Goldman Sachs provide detailed assessments. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit has dramatically increased, and data mounts that the trade wars are hurting the U.S. economy.

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Tax Refunds, Grit, China Trade Conflict (and More!)

With both stocks and bonds doing well for now and the China trade negotiations seemingly making progress, we will begin with several non-investment or economic notes and then circle back to the markets and economy toward the end. Tax refunds are a hot topic for starters.

  • Taxpayers Surprised: The initial returns (pun intended) are in on the new tax law changes, and many taxpayers have been unpleasantly surprised with the average tax refund down 8.4%. What some of  these taxpayers may have overlooked is that they may have already benefited from lower withholding throughout 2018.

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Earnings Beat Expectations to Date and Deciphering the Fed (and More)

We attributed the strong January stock rally to a bounce back from the December over-selling that occurred in the equity markets and to the Fed declaring its intention to pause future rate hikes, a stock friendly re-messaging. Earnings season is on us and will be a key driver in near term stock market performance. To date, fourth quarter earnings reports have not been stellar but are largely beating expectations. We also want to revisit the Fed decision to pause rate hikes in the context of an astute question recently asked by a client.

  • Earnings Beating Expectations: We know that over time stock returns correlate closely with corporate earnings, adjusting for inflation. The current situation appears to be a period when exceeding expectations matters as much or more than objective earnings. It’s as if investors are exhaling, noting that earnings may not be great but are better than feared. This NYT article illustrates the dynamic.

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Muddy Waters and A One-Handed Economist

Summarizing the current state of affairs, it would simply be that the economy and earnings continue to grow but at a slower rate in the face of various risks. Whether that makes the glass half full or half empty may be partially a matter of longer-term perspective or even temperament. At times like this, when the investing and economic waters are muddy, I do know that I sympathize with President Truman, who was quoted as pleading for a “... one-handed Economist. All my economists say on one hand..., then but on the other….”  Investing is ultimately the art of weighing our perception of rewards against risks. For now, our mantra is to proceed but with caution.

  • IMF Trims 2019 Global Growth Forecasts: Last October, the International Money Fund (“IMF”) reduced its global growth estimates for 2019 and 2020, based on U.S. and China trade war fears. Recently, the IMF again cut its forecasts to 3.5% growth in 2019 and 3.6% for 2020. Reports like these provide us with a temperament test of sorts. If you have a minute, read this article and see if it leaves you feeling more positive or negative. 

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Positive Fed and China Trade Talk News Propels Stock Markets to Strong 2019 Start

Two important developments have boosted stock markets in the new year. First, the Fed has adopted a more dovish tone relative to additional rate increases in 2019. Second, negotiations between the U.S. and China have apparently been successful in narrowing the trade differences. The relief felt by equity investors is palpable. Perceived risk may have fallen but lurks near the surface of investing waters. Caution is warranted. 

  • Powell’s Do-Over: Fed Chairman Powell softened his tone on future rate increases in a recent speech, realizing that the Fed needs to project more flexibility. With inflation in check, we see no reason why the Fed needs to engineer a recession with unnecessary rate hikes at a sensitive time.

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Positive Economic Fundamentals vs. Negative Investor Emotions

Concerns about the slowing global economy and increasing short term interest rates are valid. However, the fear that likely drove the substantial December stock sell-off appears disproportional to the actual risks to the economy and earnings. Slower economic growth does not equate to a near term recession. What might have been a relatively mild correction was unquestionably exacerbated by a general sense of Washington instability. The massive gain in the U.S. stock market, this past Wednesday, may reflect the perception that the market is oversold, but it is too soon to have any degree of conviction. Given the market volatility and the holidays, the notes this week are few in number and market focused.

  • Economy Is Strong. Leadership Is Shaky: This NYT article makes the case that leadership missteps are part of the problem. We agree. The global and U.S. economies are slowing but do not appear to be imminent danger of going into a recession.

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The Flipping Yield Curve, Recessions, Healthcare (and More!)

In these notes, we reward those of you who have been clamoring for more on the yield curve. Ok, that’s a lame attempt at economic humor - it’s entirely possible that no one has ever clamored for more on the yield curve. But the yield curve is back in the news and is quite important to understanding financial markets and potentially recessions, so we dig into it again. Since reading about the yield curve can be a slog, in a word, we’ll reward our readers by taking a break from talking about China and trade. The news on that topic tends to go up and down by the week, and I expect that we’ll return to it soon as it’s a market mover.

  • Back to the Yield Curve Future: An inverted yield curve, meaning that short term interest rates have moved higher than long term rates, has been a reasonably reliable predictor of a coming recession. Within the last week, the 2 Year Note yield edged higher than the 5 Year Note yield, causing some consternation. As I write this, the yield on a 2 Year Treasury Note is the same as the yield on a 5 Year Treasury Note at 2.77%. We believe, however, that the appropriate yield curve comparison is the 3 Month Treasury Bill rate at @2.4% to the 10 Year Treasury yield at @2.9%, still a healthy positive slope. This San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank paper explains why.

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