Tony joins BFM for another discussion on the US markets, this time, sending a message to Fed on what needs to be done. What he thinks will Powell do next and why is the Fed buying a lot of ETFs. Plus, a side topic on oil as Saudi called for a larger production cut.
Produced by: Michael Gong
Presented by: Roshan Kanesan, Noelle Lim, Khoo Hsu Chuang
This podcast is originally published by BFM 89.9: The Business Station.
BFM: The Fed chair, Jerome Powell, painted a rather negative view of the economy unless fiscal and monetary policymakers rise to the challenge. But what’s left in the toolbox, though?
TN: There’s quite a lot left, actually. We’ve seen a few trillion dollars spent. What we need to make sure is that that money actually gets out to businesses. So offering lower rates, nobody is really in a mood to borrow unless it’s forgivable. With the mandatory closing of a lot of small and mid-sized businesses, it’s really putting their revenue models in peril. Actually helping those businesses with cash to substitute for revenue, since this was a government shutdown, is really all they can do. But I think the next path is looking to medium-term spending programs like infrastructure. A number of these things that can go from direct cash payments to earned cash so that we can have a more viable economy again.
BFM: Could you elaborate more on some of the fiscal measures that you’re talking about?
TN: For small and mid-sized businesses, we’ve had things like the PPP, the Paycheck Protection Program. What that does is it gives about two and a half months’ worth of expenses to companies so that they can retain their staff and pay for their rent during the downtime. But what’s happened is not a lot of companies have been approved. Of those who’ve been approved, not all have gotten their money, a number of them are still waiting.
For small companies, they run on cash flow. They don’t have three to six months of cash sitting in the bank normally. So while they wait, they’re going bankrupt. They’re having to fire people. At the same time, we’re starting to see more and more large companies announce layoffs over the past two weeks. And so we’ve seen the devastation of a lot of small and mid-sized companies in the US. We’re starting to see that bleed into large corporate layoffs.
Those large companies want to see the expenses associated with those layoffs put into Q2. As we go through Q2, we’re expected to see more and more corporate layoffs, so that all those companies can pack them into their earnings reports for Q2.
BFM: The correction of the last couple of days, the American share market has been a bit of a test, up 30% since the March lows. A lot of billionaire investors like Stan Druckenmiller and Appaloosa management’s David Tepper say that stocks have been the most overvalued for a number of decades. What does that do for your thinking by way of your portfolio? Are you taking some money off the table? Are you getting more cautious? What are you going to do?
TN: The only thing we can really guarantee right now is volatility. And what is happening is they’re trying to find a new pricing level. Until we’ve found that new pricing level, really anything can happen.
What we’re entering right now is a phase where people are realizing that states may stay closed longer than many expected. I actually think you’re going to get a lot of push back from citizens in the U.S. Los Angeles just announced they are going to stay closed for three more months. You’re going to see a lot of unrest there. People are really pushing back because their hopes and dreams of decades of these small and mid-sized businesses are just being devastated as local officials make these decisions. I feel in the next few weeks, we’re going to see more and more people pushing back on those orders because they need to get back to work. They’ve got to run their companies. They’ve got to make some money.
BFM: That’s right. But this is an ongoing chasm between what’s happening on Wall Street, which is essentially a rally and Main Street, which is dying. People are divided over whether the policy response will be to get into the Fed buying equity market instruments on top of the junk ETFs and all the backstopping of the bond market. What’s your stance and what Jerome Powell is going to do next?
TN: They can do that. It’s certainly within their remit to lend money. The ETFs are kind of an indirect way to lend money. It’s radical, but it’s not beyond their capability. Where it looks like the Fed is going is with yield curve control. That means they’re likely to target a rate for the 10-year Treasury, and then they will spend almost unlimited cash to make sure that the rates stay there.
If the Treasury yield curve rises too much and people stop taking out long-term loans for infrastructure projects or for other things, if that rises too much, the Fed will push that yield curve down, let’s say, to a half percent rate so that people can borrow over long terms for cheaper. That’s the way for the Fed to encourage investing. That’s not a direct government fiscal policy, but it’s a way to get the private sector to spend cash. This is really for the larger, private sector companies. It’s a signal to me that the federal government itself is preparing itself to spend a lot more money in terms of fiscal policy, and also encourage the private sector to spend a lot more money on these long-term projects.
BFM: That is a theoretical concept, which hasn’t proved right in the last 10 years, because what corporations have done is that instead use that easy money to buy back shares and to return dividends to shareholders, not to invest for the long term. So that’s to be the problem.
TN: Well, either way, shareholders win, right? Either way, cash is spent or they get it in their return. U.S. equity markets are broadly held among most working Americans. So on some level, if that is done through share buybacks, it will help a broad base of shareholders through those equity prices. Share buybacks sound morally questionable, but either way that money is spent, it helps the broad economy.
BFM: So the U.S. Fed is now buying junk bonds, why ETF for the first time. Why these instruments? What’s the significance of it?
TN: They can’t invest directly in equities. Some of this stuff is a signal that they want to do more in debt markets. They’re too big to help out small companies. They’ve put together this main street lending program as a way to lend to, quote, unquote, small companies. But those small companies are actually pretty big. Most of the corporate entities in the U.S. are actually pretty small. The Fed is trying to alleviate the market of certain risk assets. I believe and hope that banks will lend to small and medium-sized companies. They’re trying to take the risk out of the market and off the balance sheets of banks so that those banks will invest more directly in actual operating companies that need the money and not necessarily the risky, junk bond companies.
BFM: A little bit on oil. Saudi Arabia has called for larger production cuts. Will the whole OPEC plus community back them? Should we expect some pushback? And what does this look like for oil prices?
TN: I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of pushback. We have about three months of crude supply overhang right now. Given that economies are locked down, there’s really no way to burn that off. So the only way to get prices back up to a sustainable level is really to cut off supply. Until the largest producers really slow down their production, and we can burn off some of that supply overhang, we’re not going to see prices rise much.
Demand’s not necessarily coming about quickly. It’s going to be gradual. As demand gradually accelerates and supply declines gradually, hopefully, we’ll meet in the middle somewhere and get a price that’s a little bit more livable for oil producers globally.