December 9, 2013

Reversion of Profit Margins; Lunacy in the Markets: Best of Kass

Doug Kass of Seabreeze Partners is known for his accurate stock market calls and keen insights into the economy, which he shares with RealMoney Pro readers in his daily trading diary.

Among the posts this past week were entries about the meaning of the payroll report and some Twitter nonsense.

Productivity Data Signal a Mean Reversion in Profit Margins
Year-over-year productivity growth in the third quarter of 2013 was zero compared to +0.2% in the second quarter of 2013. Productivity growth has slowed steadily over the past year, as year-over-year unit labor costs are now +1.9%. With profit margins peaking and unit labor costs accelerating a bit, the profits landscape is growing more challenging.

Third-quarter earnings for the S&P 500 grew by +4%, but the quality of that gain was low, as more than half of the gain was the byproduct of share repurchases, lower effective tax rates, declining interest costs and the banking industry's reserve reversals.

For now (and obviously), the liquidity infusions of quantitative easing has trumped the aforementioned concerns -- or any concerns for that matter.

A Stunning Bull Market or the Height of Lunacy?
Originally published on Thursday, Nov. 14 at 7:50 a.m. EDT.

"Every now and then, markets behave like schoolchildren. They overreact; they run around like crazy. We know we're going to have tapering; we know we are living in an artificial state of excess liquidity right now. And it's happening because the economy is recovering."

-- James Gorman, chairman of Morgan Stanley

Yesterday's market reversal was astonishing to me -- from bottom to top, the S&P futures climbed 28 handles.

I write this because the rumor of a dovish Janet Yellen testimony (released at 4:30 p.m. EST yesterday) was the proximate cause of the reversal, and there was little question that the baton exchange from Helicopter Ben to Whirlybird Janet would be a smooth one, with similar objectives to adhere to the Fed's dual mandate.

Here is Yellen's complete written testimony. In it, she highlights that the same old refrain that unemployment is too high and that the domestic economy is running below potential and needs Fed support.

Her remarks were all consistent with prior Fed comments by Helicopter Ben et al.

Most recognize that Yellen is a meticulous planner, so it is unlikely she will tip her hand meaningfully about monetary policy. But we don't know how well she might deal with unscripted questions this morning.

Some of those questions will be predictable, so she will be prepared. For example, Yellen likely knows that this question will be asked by liberals: "Show me the evidence that quantitative easing is helping others than Wall Street and the wealthy." Or, "Isn't continued QE serving to allow our leaders in Washington to not address fiscal issues?"