January 16, 2012
Dwelling In Uncertainty
As of last week, the combination of evidence we observe continues to be associated with strong recession risk and the likelihood of a "whipsaw trap" in the stock market. We'll respond to new data as it changes, but I expect that the primary window of interest here is about 6-8 weeks. In the event that economic data can produce fairly upbeat readings over that horizon, and the S&P 500 can remain at or about present levels, our estimate of oncoming recession risk would back off fairly quickly. Presently, that outcome would be outside of the norm based on the leading economic measures we track, as well as the overvalued, overbought, overbullish condition of the stock market.
I want to emphasize again that I am neither a cheerleader for recession, nor a table-pounder for recession. It's just that given the data that we presently observe, an oncoming recession remains the most probable outcome. When unseen states of the world have to be inferred from imperfect and noisy observable data, there are a few choices when the evidence isn't 100%. You can either choose a side and pound the table, or you can become comfortable dwelling in uncertainty, and take a position in proportion to the evidence, and the extent to which each possible outcome would affect you.
With most analysts dismissing the likelihood of recession, I have been vocal about ongoing recession concerns not because I want to align myself with one side, but because the investment implications are very asymmetric. A slow but steady stream of modestly good economic news is largely priced in by investors, but a recession and the accompanying earnings disappointments would destroy some critical pillars of hope that investors are relying on to support already rich valuations. We're always open to shifting our investment stance and outlook in response to new evidence, but the "optimistic" evidence that many observers are using to discard recession concerns is generally based on coincident or lagging data.
In the past couple of weeks, we've seen few articles presenting various opposing views to our (and ECRI's) recession concerns. A few of these are about as valuable as what you might fish out of a Cracker Jack box, focusing on the Conference Board LEI (despite its heavy reliance on real M2, which even the Conference Board has decided to discard beginning with the next report), or framing the ECRI's view as if it is driven only by the weekly leading index. Another article presents an index that does in fact turn down during recessions, but with varying lead and lag times, and inconsistent thresholds, so there's no way to define a useful signal except with hindsight.
While I am convinced that the data weigh heavily toward recession risk, there is a well-done and more optimistic piece by Dwaine van Vuuren out of South Africa that is worth reading, particularly for methodological reasons. I appreciate van Vuuren's approach because the investment world desperately needs more analysts who thoughtfully examine long-term data rather than using toy models or tossing opinions off the top of their heads. He constructs a super-composite of nine economic indices, noting that one can only "safely proclaim" recession when the majority of those has turned negative. I agree with that observation, but that's mainly because the particular measures included in the composite (such as the ISM, Chicago Fed and Philly Fed indices) are largely coincident, very short-leading, or short-lagging. Even if one alters the weights on these, it is very difficult to create leading indicators out of coincident ones. My impression is that the implications of that super-composite are likely to shift in fairly short order, possibly as soon as the Conference Board introduces its new version of the LEI, so it will be interesting to see how these measures evolve in the next couple of months.
On a statistical note, the fact that only a few of the indices in the super-composite are currently in recession territory doesn't translate well into the conclusion that recession risk is low*, because of that distinction between leading and coincident indicators. For investors, this is a particularly important issue. The stock market itself is a short-leading indicator of recession, so from an investor's standpoint, coincident or short-lagging recession indicators are not as useful as one would wish. By the time it's safe to proclaim a recession and close the barn door, the horses are already out. This is why investors have to be very sensitive to early measures of recession risk.
[*Geek's note: There's limited information from running a logit model using "recession 4 months from now" as the dependent variable, if the independent variables generally don't lead at that horizon. Also, there's risk in fitting a multivariate logit or probit model with ordinary variables rather than binary flags, because your output will generally be very sensitive to the exact covariance structure of the data, so a model that fits almost perfectly in training data will typically deteriorate rather quickly in out-of-sample data. The other problem with continuous values in probability models is that when you use them in univariate logit/probit estimations, the model amounts to a threshold filter that is highly nonlinear around a single value, producing probability estimates that cluster either at zero or 100%, with abrupt leaps in-between. The practical difficulty is that this can send your signal from about zero chance of recession to near-certainty of recession with the addition of just one or two slightly weaker data points.]
Capturing a syndrome
Recession evidence is best measured by capturing a syndrome of conditions that reflects broad deterioration in both real activity and financial indicators. What's perplexing to me is that the recession concerns we're seeing are evident even in composites of very widely tracked economically-sensitive indicators. For example, the chart below is simply the average of standardized values (mean zero, unit variance) of the following variables: 6 month change in S&P 500, 6 month change in nonfarm payrolls, 12 month change in nonfarm payrolls, 6 month change in average weekly hours worked, ISM Purchasing Managers Index, ISM New Orders Index, OECD Leading Indicator - total world, OECD Leading Indicator - US, ECRI Weekly Leading Index growth, Chicago Fed National Activity Index - 3 month average, real GDP growth (trailing 4 quarter growth, lagged 1 quarter), credit spreads (Baa vs 10-year Treasury), Industrial commodity prices - 12 month and 6 month change, and New building permits 6 month change.
The current average is at levels that have always and only been associated with recession (and at about the same level where most recessions have started), though there was a brief dip nearly approaching these levels in 2002, just after the 2000-2001 recession.
While we prefer to construct discriminator variables (similar to our Recession Warning Composite , which helps to capture interactions and minimize "outlier" effects), we should be reluctant to casually dismiss the downturn we observe in a whole range of economic measures here.
Of course, it's possible that the downturn we've observed to date will quickly reverse to a new growth path, but we should keep in mind that GDP is just the sum of consumption, real investment, government spending, and net exports, and then ask what will drive that reversal. Have the credit strains in Europe been durably addressed? Can European economies presently be expected to expand? Is there now less need for fiscal restraint in the U.S.? Has the overhang of troubled mortgages in the financial system been worked out? Have savings rates rebounded or pressure on household budgets eased? Is consumer demand is sustainably rebounding? Is there pent-up demand for capital goods despite having drawn spending forward due to expiring tax credits last year? Are exports to the rest of the world expected to accelerate? Are profit margins likely to expand from already record levels in order to accommodate growth in corporate profits? Do companies expect demand to be strong enough to commit to large-scale or multi-year investment projects? Not all of these factors have to reverse in order to have a sustained expansion, but the headwinds don't appear light.
My intent isn't to go to battle on the recession side of this debate, but rather to share what I'm looking at, and the concerns I have about continuing economic risks - particularly since the implications for the stock market are lopsided. If we are destined to have a recession, I would prefer for us to correctly anticipate it, but I don't hope for one, and my preference would be not to observe the kind of data we're seeing here at all. Rather than overstating the case or dismissing the risks, we're willing to dwell in uncertainty by acting in proportion to the data we observe and its implications for the financial markets. At present, the data strongly implies recession risk, though with less than 100% certainty. The problem is that with overvalued, overbought, overbullish market conditions, the loss implications for the market in the event of a blindside recession are far more hostile than the possible gains in the event of a recovery that is already anticipated.
As of last week, the Market Climate for stocks was characterized by a continued negative return/risk profile, holding Strategic Growth and Strategic International to a tightly defensive position. As noted above, we are open to a more constructive shift in our investment position particularly if economic data and market internals can hold to reasonably upbeat levels over the next 6-8 weeks, but this would be an unusual outcome given the current condition of the data, so we'll evaluate the evidence as it arrives. In bonds, we continue to see pressures that give a downward bias to interest rates, but those rates are already sufficiently depressed that short yield spikes can easily wipe out weeks of modest gains, as well as a year or more of yield. For that reason, Strategic Total Return continues to carry an average duration of about 3-4 years. The Fund also has about 12% of assets in precious metals shares, where our overall return/risk estimates remain very positive, but volatility could be high in the event that economic expectations shift abruptly, leading us to take a constructive but moderate position in that market.
In honor and remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There's no way to condense Dr. King's insights into a few quotations, or to embrace his wisdom through one or two speeches. But he said that he tried to speak on one particular topic at least once a year, so this seems to be a good place to start.
Loving Your Enemies
"I want to use as a subject from which to preach this morning a very familiar subject, and it is familiar to you because I have preached from this subject twice before to my knowing in this pulpit. I try to make it a, something of a custom or tradition to preach from this passage of Scripture at least once a year, adding new insights that I develop along the way out of new experiences as I give these messages. Although the content is, the basic content is the same, new insights and new experiences naturally make for new illustrations.
"So I want to turn your attention to this subject: "Loving Your Enemies." It's so basic to me because it is a part of my basic philosophical and theological orientation—the whole idea of love, the whole philosophy of love. In the fifth chapter of the gospel as recorded by Saint Matthew, we read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: "Ye have heard that it has been said, 'Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.' But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven."
"Over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn't possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.
"Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn't playing. He realized that it's hard to love your enemies. He realized that it's difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn't playing. We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.
"Now first let us deal with this question, which is the practical question: How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self. And I'm sure that seems strange to you, that I start out telling you this morning that you love your enemies by beginning with a look at self. It seems to me that that is the first and foremost way to come to an adequate discovery to the how of this situation.
"Now, I'm aware of the fact that some people will not like you, not because of something you have done to them, but they just won't like you. But after looking at these things and admitting these things, we must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we've done deep down in the past, some personality attribute that we possess, something that we've done deep down in the past and we've forgotten about it; but it was that something that aroused the hate response within the individual. That is why I say, begin with yourself. There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual.
"This is true in our international struggle. Democracy is the greatest form of government to my mind that man has ever conceived, but the weakness is that we have never touched it. We must face the fact that the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent from Asia and Africa is at bottom a revolt against the imperialism and colonialism perpetuated by Western civilization all these many years.
"And this is what Jesus means when he said: "How is it that you can see the mote in your brother's eye and not see the beam in your own eye?" And this is one of the tragedies of human nature. So we begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us whether in collective life or individual life by looking at ourselves.
"A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points.
"Somehow the "isness" of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls "the image of God," you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God's image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
"Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That's the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It's not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.
"The Greek language, as I've said so often before, is very powerful at this point. It comes to our aid beautifully in giving us the real meaning and depth of the whole philosophy of love. And I think it is quite apropos at this point, for you see the Greek language has three words for love, interestingly enough. It talks about love as eros. That's one word for love. Eros is a sort of, aesthetic love. Plato talks about it a great deal in his dialogues, a sort of yearning of the soul for the realm of the gods. And it's come to us to be a sort of romantic love, though it's a beautiful love. Everybody has experienced eros in all of its beauty when you find some individual that is attractive to you and that you pour out all of your like and your love on that individual. That is eros, you see, and it's a powerful, beautiful love that is given to us through all of the beauty of literature; we read about it.
"Then the Greek language talks about philia, and that's another type of love that's also beautiful. It is a sort of intimate affection between personal friends. And this is the type of love that you have for those persons that you're friendly with, your intimate friends, or people that you call on the telephone and you go by to have dinner with, and your roommate in college and that type of thing. It's a sort of reciprocal love. On this level, you like a person because that person likes you. You love on this level, because you are loved. You love on this level, because there's something about the person you love that is likeable to you. This too is a beautiful love. You can communicate with a person; you have certain things in common; you like to do things together. This is philia.
"The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it's what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you've ever seen.
"And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, "Love your enemy." And it's significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don't like what they do to me. I don't like what they say about me and other people. I don't like their attitudes. I don't like some of the things they're doing. I don't like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy." This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
"Now for the few moments left, let us move from the practical how to the theoretical why. It's not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus' thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that's the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate - that it doesn't cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.
"I think I mentioned before that some time ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn't dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: "I know what I'm going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I'm going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power." And I looked at him right quick and said: "Oh no, don't do that. There'd be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway."
"Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn't it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junk heap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn't have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history.
"Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
"There's another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can't see straight when you hate. You can't walk straight when you hate. You can't stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That's what hate does. You can't see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.
"The way to be integrated with yourself is be sure that you meet every situation of life with an abounding love. Never hate, because it ends up in tragic, neurotic responses. Psychologists and psychiatrists are telling us today that the more we hate, the more we develop guilt feelings and we begin to subconsciously repress or consciously suppress certain emotions, and they all stack up in our subconscious selves and make for tragic, neurotic responses. And may this not be the neuroses of many individuals as they confront life that that is an element of hate there. And modern psychology is calling on us now to love. But long before modern psychology came into being, the world's greatest psychologist who walked around the hills of Galilee told us to love. He looked at men and said: "Love your enemies; don't hate anybody." It's not enough for us to hate your friends because—to to love your friends—because when you start hating anybody, it destroys the very center of your creative response to life and the universe; so love everybody. Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.
"Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That's why Jesus says, "Love your enemies." Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they're mistreating you. Here's the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don't do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can't stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they're mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they'll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That's love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There's something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.
"There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn't the way."
"As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way. Jesus discovered that.
"And our civilization must discover that. Individuals must discover that as they deal with other individuals. There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way. It is an eternal reminder to a generation depending on nuclear and atomic energy, a generation depending on physical violence, that love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.
"So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, "I love you. I would rather die than hate you." And I'm foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God's kingdom."
Some of Dr. King's many memorable words:
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'
"Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.
"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
"Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
"I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
Finally, I want to share one of my Christmas presents with you. My wife Terri asked a remarkable artist - John Kachik - to create a portrait of the three peacemakers that I admire most - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, and Thich Nhat Hanh. I am blessed to know two of them as friends. Decades ago, Dr. King and Thay also became friends. That friendship was born of a common understanding of the interconnectedness of humanity - in Dr. King's words, "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, and what affects one directly affects all indirectly." In 1967, Dr. King nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize, and gave the speech Beyond Vietnam, saying "We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls 'enemy,' for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers." Happy Birthday Dr. King.
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