Stocks, bonds and precious metals plummeted again today as Wall Street reacted with continuing, unencumbered knee jerks to soaring inflation.
It appears there’s widespread distrust and a self-fulfilling fear among investors about how forceful the Federal Reserve will be as it tries to put the evil genie back in the bottle.
The S&P 500 is now officially in a bear market, down nearly 22% since it hit its most recent high on January 3rd.
Matt Phillips writes that these market moves highlight the deeply uncertain outlook after more than a decade of growth for stocks and gold and low bond yields that made borrowing more affordable than ever for investors and consumers alike.
So affordable, in fact, that U.S. consumers’ collective personal debt has risen to over $23 trillion – about $69,800 per citizen.
The S&P 500 benchmark index closed down 3.9% on the day. The Nasdaq composite index fell 4.7%. The yield on 10-year Treasuries climbed 0.22 points to 3.39%.
Plus, bitcoin is down another 14%+ over the past 24 hours, and rates on the 30-year fixed mortgage hit 6.13%.
Spiking prices are overshadowing the Fed’s policy meeting tomorrow and Wednesday, where the Federal Open Market Committee will almost certainly hike interest rates by at least another half a percentage point.
Inflation is driving prices upward at the highest level in over 40 years, leaving the Fed with little wiggle room to cut interest rates in the face of dizzying markets — as it has done repeatedly in recent years, most recently in 2019.
For now, the markets will have to figure out how to live without the support of the Fed.
By Dave Allen for Discount Gold & Silver
On yesterday’s Financial Survival podcast/radio program, I observed that getting the price of oil down is really the whole ballgame when it comes to how, why and when the Federal Reserve plans to bring down inflation.
And if it doesn't go down – substantially – then the Fed will only go harder and faster on rate hikes to try to scale back demand – ill-advised as that may end up being.
Whatever the case, that level of unwarranted monetary tightening will mean markets further spiraling downward and sending the economy into a recession sooner – and possibly deeper – than we think.
Crack spreads — vernacular for oil refiners’ profits — have soared this year as gasoline demand outstrips supply.
They measure the difference between the cost of crude oil and the prices of refined products like gasoline — and are a key contributor to both profits at oil refineries and also prices at the pump.
Matt Phillips of Axios believes crack spreads will see more pressure as the Biden administration does everything in its power to push gas prices lower before November’s mid-term elections.
Already, stocks of the major oil refiners got hammered on Wednesday, heading into yesterday’s meeting between Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and top industry executives.
Marathon Oil fell 7%, Phillips 66 and Conoco Phillips both dropped 6%, while Chevron and Exxon both fell about 4%.
President Biden publicly is urging an increase in U.S. refinery production, saying bluntly, "I'm calling on the industry to refine more oil into gasoline and to bring down gas prices."
But earlier this year, as crack spreads soared, so did the share prices of major American refining companies, which are up a whopping 38% since January – even as the S&P 500 index has entered bear territory.
While surging profit margins for the makers of gasoline open the industry up to charges of price gouging, industry officials claim that they’re producing as much gas as they can right now.
Industry capacity utilization is running at 94% these days – the highest since 2018 when it hit 97%.
But a recent government report also showed that overall refining capacity has fallen in the last two years.
In fact, it’s now back down to where it was in 2014, meaning that supply will remain hurt even if refineries were to run at 100%.
So, with little chance of bringing new sources of gasoline – domestic or imported – online anytime soon, the administration's best chance to lower prices at the pump in the near term will have to come from leaning on OPEC+ to drill more oil or on refiners to accept smaller profit margins.
That, I predict, will become a growing source of agita for investors in oil companies – and other industries.
The Federal Reserve’s dual mandate is to promote stable prices and maximize employment. Today, we take a look at how current events are affecting those policy mandates.
Early Pandemic Layoffs Driving Today’s Labor Shortages
One only has to recall the infancy of the pandemic to see why employers in a broad range of industries are struggling with historic labor shortages.
Decisions made in 2020 to cut staff appear to be a root cause of many 2022 frustrations, according to Courtenay Brown and Neil Irwin of Axios.
The industries hardest hit at the pandemic's onset — restaurants, hotels and airlines — are now those seeing a boom in demand.
Even with higher pay, though, they're struggling to replace the workers they laid off back then – some of whom have moved to other industries where the pay is comparable or higher and working conditions are better.
The worker shortage has pushed businesses to raise wages rapidly, which has, in turn, kept inflation elevated.
On the other hand, this dynamic has been more subdued in Europe.
Before anyone had time to fully explain June's inflation numbers, the growls had already begun on trading desks and research shops:
Maybe in two weeks the Fed will raise interest rates by a full percentage point — the most at a single meeting in its modern history.
This increasingly likely scenario shows the jam the Fed has gotten itself into, with Fed officials seeking to express to the country a whatever-it-takes attitude. Neil Irwin and Courtenay Brown say that’s put them in a corner.
It’s a precarious situation where high inflation reports demand a mounting series of interest rate hikes and other policy moves that end with reduced consumer and business spending and a cratering economy.
Just last month, a high May inflation reading drove Fed leaders to make a last-minute shift to raise interest rates by 75 basis points, not the 50-point increase they had been signaling.
Well, here we go again. Wednesday's BLS report showed a 9.1% rise in the Consumer Price Index over the last year — and perhaps more significantly, the uptick of monthly core inflation to 0.7% in June.
And yesterday’s Producer Price Index, which essentially reflects wholesale prices charged to retailers, was even higher – at 11.3%.
It was a "major league disappointment," as Fed governor Christopher Waller said in a speech afterwards. The stock markets agreed.
The reports set off alarm bells throughout the financial world that recent history would repeat itself and, by day's end, the CME futures markets would almost fully price in a one-percentage-point rate hike at the end of the month.
In one of his lesser-known songs, “Easy Money,” legendary singer-songwriter Billy Joel writes:
I want the easy, easy money
I could get lucky, things could go right
I want the easy, easy money
Maybe just this time, maybe tonight.
Things aren’t so easy these days for the too big to fail banks whose financial shenanigans are coming home to roost.
Profits at mega Wall Street banks took a nosedive in the 2nd quarter, as "easy money" policies that made the pandemic era a boom time in lower Manhattan come to a close.
The latest earnings reports show that Goldman Sachs and Bank of America earned smaller profits than a year earlier. Ditto for Wells Fargo, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley.
Free money on Wall Street — a side effect of the “emergency” monetary policies the Fed implemented to keep the pandemic from imploding the economy — has been winding down over the last few months.
The Fed started cutting interest rates in March 2020 – slashing them to virtually 0% and began printing trillions of dollars and pumping them into financial markets, if not the economy as a whole.
And as Matt Phillips points out, that turbocharged Wall Street – driving public stock offerings and corporate bond sales, advising and financing big mergers and acquisitions, and operating hyperactive trading desks.
Bank stocks themselves surged, too. A year after the stock market hit bottom in March 2020, Morgan Stanley was up 200%, Goldman Sachs was up 150%, while Bank of America and Citigroup had doubled.
The S&P 500 grew by a measly 75% over that same time.
Fast forward to 2022: interest rates have begun to take off, rapidly changing the conditions in financial markets and slowing down business in the New Normal.
High rates have been crushing stock prices as of late and pushing the S&P 500 into bear territory, and now, companies are getting antsy about what new business to write in a down economy.
The business of managing new corporate bond sales is also sagging as interest rates rise – with companies not wanting to borrow at the new, outrageously high rates (2-3%!).
And, as Phillips notes, higher borrowing costs – which the Fed is using to try to ease inflation – also increase the risk of recession and the losses on loans that normally occur during downturns.
So, banks are socking away billions in reserves just in case things get ugly, which hurts their earnings.
But it's not all bad on Wall Street. In fact, volatility can be good for bank trading desks that make the right calls. Trading was a bright spot for Goldman and Citi this last quarter.
Higher interest rates can also boost the money that banks make by charging interest – Bank of America, for one, did just that.
But overall, higher interest rates in the months ahead mean tighter margins for big banks – with stagnant dividend payments, less share buybacks and more circumspect credit for the rest of us.
Could It Get Worse?
I’ve always been fascinated by trucks – big trucks; the ones with 18 wheels – and the men and women who drive them.
My first full-time job offer out of college way back in the day was from the American Trucking Association. That I declined that position to take one with another DC nonprofit didn’t negate my lifelong fascination.
One of my fondest memories of that era is my casual friendship with a guy who worked for National Geographic during the week and drove 500-1,000 miles roundtrip on weekends as an independent truck driver.
When he retired from National Geo, he drove a lot more miles every week in his big truck to support his true love (well, actually, true loves – if you count his lovely wife!).
When I read over a year ago about the nation’s big shortage of truck drivers, I worried about people like my old friend, not to mention its impact on our economy, with already messed-up supply chains.
More Truckers Than Ever
But today, more than 18 months later, Axios’ Emily Peck asks, what trucker shortage?
She writes that employers have managed to find and hire over 115,000 new truckers since the depths of the pandemic in 2020.
At the height of the supply chain crisis, which is still ongoing, transportation companies pointed to a shortage of truckers as a contributing factor.
Truckers and their advocates were quick to point out that low pay, poor working conditions and high turnover were driving the growing problem.
Now, Peck says the shortage is getting better, even possibly over – pointing to a report from transportation market research group ACT, which notes, "The driver supply flipped from shortage to surplus in early 2022."
The surge in hiring, according to Peck, comes as big wage increases and demand for trucks to deliver all the goods we've been buying are bringing loads of new drivers to the profession.
Plus, she adds, some of the health constraints of the pandemic have begun to fade away.
Now that federal stimulus checks are a thing of the past and prices are surging, driving a truck – in an industry with wage growth that’s outpacing inflation – looks unusually appealing.
Andrzej Tomczyk of too big to fail Goldman Sachs said employers "have been trying to hire like crazy ever since the pandemic-induced demand surge led to relative capacity constraints in the industry. So, it’s likely a reflection of some catch-up coming online."
Over 20,000 more long-haul truckers got jobs in May, the largest monthly addition of new truckers since 1997 – when the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking.
In fact, long-haul trucking employment is now 2% above pre-pandemic levels. And average weekly earnings were about 11% higher in May, compared to a year ago, for drivers in freight trucking.
According to BLS, the average weekly earnings of truck drivers have increased about 33% from January 2018 to May 2022, to $1,215 – which equates to $63,000 a year.
Many veteran and independent long-haul drivers earn a lot more. Recently, more drivers have bought their own truck and, according to Peck, are taking advantage of surging "spot prices" (live market rates) for hauling.
"A lot of people who wouldn't normally be a truck driver" became truck drivers, observed Kenny Vieth, president of ACT.
As the chart above shows, there are now a new millennium high of 1.1 million general freight truck drivers – up 28% from about 860,000 at the depths of the Great Recession.
I want to take a break in the self/home defense series and chat a bit about recent economic developments, including gold.
So the Feds tossed another 75 basis point hike on us this week. That was totally expected. They have to look like they’re doing something to combat the worst inflation in 40 years.
But in this world, in the year 2022, nothing is as it seems. Nothing is as it should be. See, on one hand they’re hiking rates into a slow economy, which is a recipe for disaster. But on the other hand, the one they hide behind their back, they’re buying up about 320 million dollars worth of assets per day.
Why is that? Remember a couple weeks back, where the ECB put out a news blurb that literally caught me so off guard, I had to rethink a lot of things? That blurb said that the ECB would use “unlimited” resources to keep the debt market intact.
The European Central Bank will unveil an unlimited bond-buying tool next week to help markets better adjust to steeper and faster interest-rate increases than previously thought, economists surveyed by Bloomberg say.
Debate is flourishing on Wall Street and at Main Street kitchen tables over the Federal Reserve's fight to lower inflation and how high unemployment will jump as a result.
On the one hand, Fed policymakers believe its rate hikes will eventually drive down strong demand in the economy without causing too much pain in the job market – in other words, a soft landing.
On the other hand, influential economists like Larry Summers say the Fed's ideal outcome hasn't materialized before, and there's no reason to think it will now.
The fight is being debated in various academic papers, but the real stakes for workers and their families are high.
Courtenay Brown and Neil Irwin write today that the issue “is not whether unemployment rises, but by how much as the Fed tightens.”
They believe the crux of the debate is the inverse relationship between unfilled job openings and the unemployment rate.
Other things being equal, as job vacancies rise, unemployment falls and vice versa.
As of May, job openings trended lower but remained near their highest levels ever at 11.3 million.
Plus, the headline unemployment rate is holding near a half-century low (remember, the headline rate is significantly underreported).
The result is an unprecedented 1.9 job openings for each unemployed worker.