The Fed is Asleep at the Wheel

Not since the late 1970s has the Fed blundered to such an overwhelming extent. Jerome Powell and company are completely asleep at the wheel. Inflation is out of control – there is not other way to state it. Although CPI rose about 7% last year, the reality is that actual inflation – the inflation that affects people in their everyday lives – housing, food, gasoline – is at insane levels. The government’s solution is to try to pump another $2 trillion into the economy. This will only exacerbate and intensify the already dangerous inflation situation we face.

The Fed should have begun raising interest rates at least a year ago. We can forgive the Fed back in the late 1970s because they had not faced a similar situation in the past, so at least it was the first time for them. Powell and company do not have that excuse, or any good excuse.

When Paul Volker came into the Fed under the Reagan Administration, he was forced to aggressively raise interest rates, and to keep them elevated (as high as 19%) for a sustained period of time, which led to the 1981 – 82 deep U.S. recession that cost millions of jobs. People lost their homes. The impact was the greatest on the lowest income earners.

Because the Fed has allowed inflation to run out of control for far too long, the only way to get it back under control is to take aggressive action, including cutting cash injections into the economy through bond purchases, which they have already begun, and jumping interest rates. The proposed slow, steady rate raising cycle they are currently planning will not be effective. Inflation is now like a highly contagious virus (like Omicron), that has already spread, infecting the entire global economy. Half measures will not be enough to stop the spread. Only through aggressive rate raising over a sustained period of time will the Fed have any chance of stopping inflation from rising to a point where it crushes the economy. The longer they wait, the more aggressive they will need to be to stop it, and the more damage their rate increases will do to the economy, and to you and me.

The U.S. economy is like the Titanic; not that it is doomed to sink, but it is like a big ship with a small rudder – if you want to turn it, you have to start turning early. Like the Titanic’s crew, which waited far too long to start turning once they saw the iceberg, the Fed has waited far too long to start raising interest rates to turn the U.S. economy away from recession. Make no mistake, we are headed straight for a recession. The only question now is; how deep will it be and how long will it last?

The recession that followed the massive rate increases that Volker put in place lasted about 2 years, and was once of the deepest in U.S. history. Given the extreme bubbles that we currently see in virtually every asset class – stocks, bonds, precious metals, real estate, commodities, art, collectibles – you name it, and the size of the economy and global integration we have experienced as compared to the early 1980s, I think it is safe to say that the coming recession will be one of the worst ever experienced in the history of the world.

Had the Fed begun raising rates a year ago, I think it would have been possible to have a soft landing, meaning a relatively manageable and mild recession. I don’t see any way this is possible now, given the extreme levels of inflation. The Fed plans to raise rates for the first time next month. It is likely that they will only raise by one-quarter of a point. This, again, if far too little, far too late. The sooner the Fed realizes how badly they have blundered, the sooner, we can hope, that they will wake up and pursue a much more aggressive rate raising strategy. The longer they wait, the more we all suffer.

The days of employers taking their employees for granted are over!

Employers will learn (the hard way) that employees are driving the bus. For the first time in decades, employees are no longer at the mercy of employers that have enjoyed substantial leverage over their employers, such that they can force employees to take on additional responsibilities without compensation. One examples is where companies hire several employees for a specific job title, and then cut back on their employee count for that job title, distributing the work of those employees who are terminated to the remaining employees without any additional compensation. In the past, employees have no real recourse – they either sucked it up and did the extra work, or they had to quit.

With the work remote movement, employees now have options they did not have just a few years ago. I am a big believer in finding silver linings to clouds, and if there is one big positive coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the remote work movement. Now, employees are not tied to their home market. Rather than having to find a job in their immediate geographic area, or alternatively having to relocate at great expense, employees can literally look for jobs anywhere in the world. This is particularly powerful for employees with highly specific skills, and those that work in smaller markets, like Santa Barbara, California, where I live and where there are very limited work opportunities.

Now that employees have new opportunities to find new jobs, if they are unhappy with their current employment, employers will not be successful at forcing employees to take on additional responsibilities without compensation. Employees can and will say no. Employers no longer have the threat of termination to coerce employees into submission. While some employers, particularly large corporations, may have to learn their lesson the hard way, meaning that they will have to have a sizable number of employees quit their jobs before they realize they can no longer force employees to do this additional work without compensation, all companies now face this new reality.

One other related change that employers face, and that will force them to rework how they treat employees, is the end to underpayment of employees. All too often, especially with large employers, and especially in smaller markets, employers underpay employees. In the past, they have gotten away with this, because employees had few alternatives, so they just accepted it. Today, and again due to the remote work movement opening up new opportunities, employees will not sit by and accept being underpaid. This is a huge issue with employees that are hired by a company when they are younger and have less experience, and then they remain with the same company for many years, increasing their skills, expertise, and experience. Often their compensation does not reflect those skills, expertise and experience. In the past, these employees have accepted that they are being underpaid because it would have been too difficult, or impossible, to find a position that pays what they are worth. Today, with remote work opportunities, employees are far less likely to sit by and continue to work for less compensation than they deserve.

Smart employers will recognize and embrace these changes, and will treat their employees appropriately. For example, employers who want to retain their top employees will evaluate those employees each year, including researching what an equivalent employee would cost, should they need to replace that employee with an equivalent worker. The smart employer will adjust each employee’s pay, each year, or at least periodically, so that the employee is earning what they are actually work. In essence, they employer will treat the employee as if they are rehiring them at the market rate, at each evaluation point, (each year or at least periodically).

Gone are the days when these companies can continue to underpay people, taking advantage of the difficulties employees face with finding new employment. If employers fail to incorporate these new periodic evaluations and compensation adjustments, they will be doing the same research, to find a replacement employee, because their top employees will quit. Smart employers will have their HR departments continually gathering critical employee compensation data, including benefits and perks. By adjusting employee compensation to market levels periodically, employers will demonstrate their appreciation for their employees, and will have a much greater chance of retaining talent. Companies that fail to do this are going to lose their best employees to the competition.

The pendulum has definitely swung strongly back towards the employee in terms of the power to negotiate. Employees are going to get what they want, including remote work flexibility and schedule flexibility, and they are going to get compensated appropriately for the work they do. Employers that fail to recognize this new reality are going to suffer the consequences, which include losing their best talent to their competitors.

Employers Who Force Workers Back to the Office Will Regret Their Actions

For the past 16 months, millions of employees have been working remotely. With the stock market at all-time highs, and economic activity, including employment gains, GDP growth, and virtually every other metric one could think of, improving at a rapid pace, there can be no argument that these employees are not every bit as productive, if not more so, than they were when they were required to work in an office setting.

Scores of companies, and especially larger firms, are gearing up to force their employees to go back to the office. Many are claiming that the vast majority of their employees want to go back. This position is not supported by the many surveys that these very companies have taken of their employees, or by the many independent surveys of workers that have been undertaken. The consensus from the data, in general, shows that about one-third of workers would like to work remotely full time, about one-third would prefer a hybrid schedule, and about one-third prefer to work in the office full time.

Despite this data, again, many companies are claiming that the overwhelming majority of their employees want to go back to the office full time. While the specific desires of employees may vary somewhat by company, it is safe to say that their are literally millions of employees across the U.S. that would prefer to work remotely.

It is difficult to understand the reasoning of companies that intend to force employees to go back to the office. Almost every company, large or small, has some type of diversity and inclusion policy. Within the survey data, groups targeted by these policies, namely minorities and LGBTQ+, overwhelming favor remote work because they believe that working remotely reduces the likelihood that they will experience discrimination, but rather will be judged solely by the quality of their work.

Beyond diversity and inclusion, if we just focus on the almighty dollar, there are compelling reasons that any company should want to allow remote work. Most companies have a substantial portion of their cost structures tied-up in real estate. Lease expense, electricity, parking, cleaning, staffing, management, HR issues, insurance, and more. All of these expenses could be reduced substantially, or completely eliminated through remote work.

Most companies also have a policy addressing their carbon footprint and climate change. If a company truly wants to make a positive impact on the environment, there are few more effective ways they could accomplish this, then by allowing employees to work from home, rather than driving to and from work every day, burning gasoline sitting in traffic, polluting the atmosphere. Dry cleaning is another serious contributor to environmental damage that could be avoided. The reduction in electricity used at offices, the cleaning products used, people driving to lunch every day…. all of these could be reduced or eliminated with remote work.

Reducing our dependence on foreign oil is another huge benefit of remote work. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year, sending money to oil producing countries. Military expenditures are in the hundred of billions, even if we are not involved in a war. Wars are obviously even more expensive, not only in dollar terms, but in human lives. The U.S. could easily become self-sufficient with regard to energy if workers were not forced to drive to work every day.

These same companies also claim they care about their employees. There is no better way to improve the quality of life of an employee, than to provide them with more flexibility as to their work schedule. More time with family, more personal time to pursue hobbies, freedom to live wherever they like, the reduction of expenses for cars, gasoline, dry cleaning, housing, and the like so that employees have more money… the list goes on.

There can be no doubt that remote work provides substantial benefits, to companies, workers, society as a whole, and to the environment. Regardless of whether or not companies agree to offer remote work options, remote work is here to stay. Employees, and especially younger workers, will demand these options. If they are not allowed to work remote at their current employer, they will quit and go to a competitor that will allow them to work remotely. Over time, all companies will be forced to offer remote work options, whether they want to or not. Those companies that embrace remote work earlier will have a strong competitive advantage, as they will be able to attract the most talented workers who desire remote work options. Those companies that resist remote work will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage, as they will lose highly talented workers to their competitors who offer remote work options. Publicly-traded companies will see their financial performance suffer, and ultimately will see their stock prices underperform. Executive managers, and especially CEOs who refuse to embrace remote work will find themselves facing early retirement, as boards of directors replace them with younger CEOs who understand the benefits of remote work.

Rising Interest Rates Are a Serious Concern

The recent jump in the 10-year treasury rate is concerning for several reasons. First, it is an indication that demand for U.S. debt is weakening. This makes sense because we keep selling trillions of dollars of new, additional debt to fund the massive, repeated rounds of stimulus. Since the U.S. government does not have the money to fund the stimulus, they have to sell bonds to raise that money. The national debt is at crisis levels. It was already at crisis levels before Covid-19, and now it is its own pandemic. We cannot simply look at the U.S. debt in a vacuum. We depend on other countries and people and institutions in those countries to buy our debt. If they decide they will no longer take the risk of buying our debt, we will not be able to service our debt, and we will default. At the least, if demand continues to weaken, we will be forced to offer increasing interest rates on our debt to entice investors to purchase our bonds.

The second issue, which Powell discussed today, is inflation. Rates will go up one way or another, either because investors sell bonds because they know rates will increase, or because the Fed begins raising rates to combat inflation, or some combination of the two. Rising rates will help slow inflation, but the cost is more expensive borrowing, which translates to less economic activity. It will be very difficult for the Fed to control the rise in rates, balancing on the one hand curtailing inflation, and on the other, avoiding a recession.

A third negative consequence of rising rates in the impact this will have on real estate. I have seen many studies on the real estate market, and there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation between rising interest rates and falling real estate prices. However, mortgage rates a priced off of the 10-year treasury rate. One of the key drivers of the boom we have had in real estate since the financial crisis has been historically low mortgage rates. If that driver goes away – if mortgage rates are no longer historically low – it stands to reason that the real estate market will, at minimum, cool off a bit, and possibly could go into a prolonged decline.

Many investors today have never known anything other than a bull market for stocks, real estate, bonds, precious metals, cryptocurrencies, art, collectibles, and virtually every other asset class. It will be interesting to see how this new generation of investors deals with adversity, should these various markets weaken due to rising interest rates.

Current Conditions Warrant Caution

There are a host of reasons to be cautious at present. Government spending, supported by an avalanche of debt, has propped-up the stock market and the economy, but it cannot continue. As with all borrowings, there must be a lender to provide the loan. After several trillions of dollars of new treasuries issued, one must question who is going to continue to buy new bonds the federal government tries to sell? Following this same reasoning, who is going to continue to buy the debt of the individual state governments?

If we examine the real estate market, it too is supported in large part by debt – buyers borrow from banks to secure mortgages to buy properties. We all remember what can happen to the real estate market when too much debt is accumulated (do you remember 2008?).

If we look at virtually any asset class – stocks, real estate, bonds, art, precious metals, and even cryptocurrencies – all are at or near all-time high prices. Again, we must ask – how can this be sustained?

For markets to continue to move higher from current levels, new money must enter the market. Where will that new money come from? The economy, despite the federal and state governments’ best efforts through borrowing to provide stimulus, there simply is not enough money available to support continued growth for the economy; it’s just too large. Those unemployed receiving unemployment benefits, at some point, will stop receiving those benefits. When that happens, unless they have found jobs, they will no longer be able to pay their bills, spend to support the economy, pay for their mortgages, etc. They certainly will not be purchasing stocks or real estate.

It appears that the current argument for continued growth is that, with the vaccine for the Coronavirus now being distributed widely, that the economy will recover. This is an overly optimistic viewpoint for several reasons. First, even if everyone gets vaccinated, and even if the vaccine is 100% effective against the current strains and any future strains, so that the virus is no longer a detriment to economic growth, thousands and thousands of businesses has failed. Those businesses will never reopen, regardless of any success we have with the vaccine. Second, if we follow the logical progression from the failed businesses, millions of people lost their jobs when these businesses failed (there are at least 14 million people unemployed as a result of Coronavirus right now, and that number grows every week). Without those businesses, there are no jobs available for these unemployed workers, regardless of the vaccine’s effectiveness.

The most important consideration is that there are serious, fundamental challenges to the economy that have been created by the massive borrowing of the federal and state governments. Inflation is a very real probability. Taxes, both at the state level, and at the federal level, will increase (Biden has already stated that he plans to raise taxes). Interest rates have already started creeping up in anticipation of the Fed raising rates to combat inflation. Higher taxes and higher interest rates will reduce borrowing, and will cause refinancing existing debt to be increasingly expensive. All of this – higher taxes and higher costs for debt, will pull money out of the economy, reducing GDP growth, which will likely push the U.S. economy into recession or possibly a depression, depending of the pace of the increases in taxes and interest rates.

With all of this in mind, I recommend caution. Holding significant cash balances is a prudent strategy at this point. Continuing to purchase stocks at ever increasing all-time highs is foolish, and frankly dangerous, especially for those planning to retire within the coming ten years. Keep in mind that the vast majority (almost all) money managers, mutual fund managers, hedge fund managers, and the like, have a mandate to remain 100% invested regardless of how high stock and bond prices may go. This means that the decision to raise cash falls on the investor. In other words, investors cannot depend on their financial advisor, investment or mutual fund manager, to raise cash. It is up to you!