How Will a Steepening Yield Curve Impact Markets?

Based on data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the spread between the 10-year and two-year constant maturity Treasury rates increased by 66 basis points – from 0.48 percent in July 2020 to 1.14 percent by February 2021. Due to the Federal Reserve’s open market operations, two-year notes have fallen to near 0 percent, while the 10-year yield has risen higher.

Experienced investors and financial institutions such as the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis would see this change in the slope of the yield curve of the two U.S. Treasury rates and call it a steepening yield curve. This recent widening spread illustrates what a steepening yield curve looks like and how it impacts the economy moving forward.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis attributes the steepening yield curve to fiscal stimulus and the mass adoption of COVID-19 vaccinations. These two factors could be indicative of future economic growth, including stock market earnings and job gains.

The Yield Curve as Predictor

When it comes to the yield curve and employment, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis explains how the two are related.

Employment growth mirrors the spread in the 10-year and two-year Treasury notes. When the yield curve first steepens, employment numbers might be negative. However, because the steepening yield curve projects increased economic growth, employment growth will soon follow a similar positive growth trajectory.

Historically speaking, the association between the yield curve’s increasing spread and future economic growth keeps its positive trajectory movement over time. This association, based on historical data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has been able to project between 18 months and 36 months of positive future economic growth and approximately 30 months of a positive yield spread and employment growth trend.

While the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is uncertain about much inflation will accompany the economic expansion, it is confident that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will  keep short-term interest rates low to contain borrowing costs and help boost strong financial markets through projected positive economic growth going forward.

Widening Yield Curve and Bank Earnings

As the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) explains, banks benefit from a steep yield curve because they engage in maturity transformation. The New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business defines maturity transformation as when banks borrow short-term and lend long-term. This lets banks profit from the mean of the short- and long-term rates, the so-called term premium. Term premium is how much premium long-term government bond holders realistically anticipate they will receive versus a string of short-term bonds that might have differing interest rates. Buyers of long-term bonds receive payment in exchange for the uncertainty of changing short-term interest rates.

A widening yield curve also can impact a bank’s net interest margin. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, net interest margin is what’s left over for the bank after deducting interest expenses from interest income. Donald Kohn explains that if short-term interest rates increase, interest costs accordingly increase to interest income. This would lower net interest margins as well as the bank’s holdings.

Assuming there are no further negative economic headwinds, history tells us there is a reasonable expectation of an economic resurgence from the coronavirus pandemic.

How Will the Projected Commodity Super-Cycle Impact Investors in 2021?

Commodity Super-CycleAs the January 2021 World Bank Pink Sheet documented, prices increased month-over-month from November 2020 to December 2020. Highlights include the price of oil jumping by 15 percent. The cost of fertilizer jumped 2.2 percent, grains increased by 3.8 percent and iron ore jumped by 25 percent. While there’s been no official “commodity super-cycle,” according to economists or financial analysts, the trend certainly shows commodity prices increasing.

2020 caught the world off-guard with the coronavirus pandemic, sending the price of oil negative. According to Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, on April 20, 2020, “the prompt contract price” or how much a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) cost for May 2020 deliveries went negative, falling $50. It eventually rebounded to $45 per barrel in November as vaccine optimism began to take hold.

For other commodities, the story was not as bad, signaling what might be another commodity super-cycle. On Aug. 4, 2020, gold broke the $2,000 mark. With central banks and governments spending to support the economy due to the pandemic, it put pressure on global currencies. For example, with the U.S. dollar index dropping nearly 10 percent from March 2020 to August 2020, precious metals such as gold became a hedge against inflation.

Many would assume that commodities surged in part from the economic damage of COVID-19 but, looking at the data, commodities were seeing a resurgence at the start of 2020 – well before the pandemic negatively impacted the global economy.

With data as recent as March 5, the International Monetary Fund shows how commodities changed before the pandemic, during, and as the recovery is underway for the first two months of 2021. Looking at the IMF’s “Actual Market Prices for Non-Fuel and Fuel Commodities” chart, one can see how commodities bottomed out during the pandemic and are showing signs of significant growth.

One metric ton of wheat was $186.10 in 2018, $163.30 in 2019, $185.50 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $173.80, Q2 was $174.80, Q3 was $183.00, Q4 of 2020 was $210.5. Then the first two months of 2021, one metric ton of wheat was $237.90 and $240.80, respectively.

For metals, one metric ton of copper was $6,529.80 in 2018, $6,010.10 in 2019, $6,174.60 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $5,633.90, Q2 was $5,350.80, Q3 was $6,528.60, Q4 of 2020 was $7,185.0. The first two months of 2021, the price was $7,972.10 and $8,470.90, respectively.

Spot Crude priced per barrel in U.S. dollars was $68.30 in 2018, $61.40 in 2019, $41.30 in 2020. In Q1 of 2020, it was $49.10, Q2 was $30.30, Q3 was $42.00, and Q4 of 2020 was $43.70. Then the first two months of 2021, Spot Crude was $53.50 and $60.50, respectively.

For the Spot Crude figures, the IMF uses the Average Petroleum Spot Price (APSP), which averages equally three crudes: West Texas Intermediate, Dubai, and Brent.

Will China Lead the Globe’s Super-Cycle?

As the United Nations defines it, a super-cycle is when there’s a paradigm shift toward increased demand, lasting at least a decade and up to 35 years “in a wide range of base material prices.” It focuses on “industrial production and urban development of an emerging economy.”

Looking at China could signal what the globe will follow economically. According to Refinitiv, China saw a positive growth of 2.3 percent of its GDP in 2020, compared to the global average of -3.5 percent. As the world emerges from the pandemic, it will undoubtedly consume more commodities. When it comes to 2021 GDP expectations for China, the World Bank expects the country to grow by 8 percent to 9 percent.

Looking forward to 2022, Eikon predicts that China’s GDP will grow by 1.6 percent more than the rest of the world, and 3.1 percent higher than America’s GDP expected growth rate in 2022.

Much like the pandemic was not in anyone’s economic forecast, if the global economy is in a commodity super-cycle, savvy investors will be ahead of the curve if a super-cycle materializes. 

How Will Surging Oil Prices Impact the Economy in 2021?

Now that the Keystone XL pipeline is being shut down and southern parts of the United States are experiencing extremely cold weather, how will increasing oil prices impact the economy as the COVID-19 vaccine is being rolled out?

With West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude closing at $58.22 per barrel on Feb. 11, 2021, and likely higher due to the cold snap in the United States, the price of oil is expected to impact the U.S. and global economy.

Consumer Demand

One of the major impacts of increasing oil prices is the rising price of gasoline. With higher oil prices rippling throughout the economy, understanding how it impacts consumers is one way to see how the economy in 2021 is likely to perform.

As the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco points out, there’s a close correlation in pricing between gasoline and crude oil pricing. They point out that WTI and what American consumers pay for gasoline to fill up their car track each other quite closely — as oil prices increase, so do consumer prices for gasoline.

Historic Price Trends in Relation to Today

When it comes to looking at how oil prices impact inflation, looking at historical prices gives helpful insight. In the 1970s, the price of oil increased tenfold, from $3 in 1973 (pre-oil crisis) to more than $30, due to Middle East tensions in 1978-1979 resulting from the Iranian Revolution, according to The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

However, as time progressed beyond the two oil crises of the 1970s, this correlation became weaker. When the 1980s began, so did the association between oil prices and rising inflation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains this rapid increase in the cost of oil drove the consumer price index (CPI), one way to measure inflation, from 41.20 in the beginning of 1972 to 86.30 as 1980 came to a close. As the BLS illustrates how the 1970s experienced high inflation, it took three times as long (24 years) for the CPI to double between 1941-1971.

With the two Oil Shocks passed, the 1980s and the 1990s ushered in a new divergence of how oil prices ultimately impacted what consumers paid for oil and oil-dependent products. This is illustrated by looking at the impact of the Producer Price Index (PPI), or wholesale cost, versus how consumers ultimately felt, or the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

CPI and PPI Data and Oil Prices

Looking at the CPI, especially in the 1990s, statistics from the EIA show that the price per barrel of crude oil went from $14 to $30 in six months. However, data from the BLS shows that CPI started at 134.6 in January 1991, eventually reaching 137.9 in December 1991.

Later, from 1999 to 2005, the EIA’s data shows the price of a barrel of oil jumped from $16.50 to $50. While the price nearly tripled, the BLS’ CPI jumped from 164.30 in January 1999 to 196.80 in December 2005, an increase of 33.5 over nearly six years.   

Looking at the Producer Price Index (PPI) data, per the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, from 1970 to 2017, the correlation was 0.71. For the CPI, during the same time frame, it was only 0.27. The difference between the CPI and PPI, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, is due to the higher proportion of services provided in the United States, which are less oil-reliant for raw materials.

External Factors

With the expected relief payment of $1,400 per individual and additional money allotted for dependents, coupled with continuing vaccinations and the reopening on the U.S. and global economies, there’s much stimulus expected to provide consumers with a financial cushion. However, with the increased spending by the federal government and pressure on the U.S. dollar, only time will tell how the price of crude oil will impact consumer spending and company earnings.

How Will the Biden Administration’s China Policy Impact Markets?

The Obama and Trump administrations couldn’t have had a more different approach when it came to U.S. relations with China. As the Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS) explains, under the Obama administration, the United States favored a trade and investment approach when dealing with China, while the Trump administration had a national security focus. The ICAS believes the Biden administration will address trade and economic imbalances through a modified approach, including reducing tariffs on imported Chinese goods over time to decrease inflation for American consumers. Another example is maintaining pressure on China to cut government subsidies for competing industries, currency games, and exporting products to the United States at artificially low prices.

While the Obama administration engaged China through trade and investments, it didn’t emphasize engaging the country on the national security side. The Trump administration looked to make American industries independent of Chinese production, especially for rare earth metals, pharmaceutical precursors, etc. With the inauguration of President-elect Biden, the incoming administration is expected to maintain the Trump administration’s quest to give many American industries a fighting chance of survival, albeit how it will be accomplished will likely vary.

The Biden administration is projected to lower tariffs on Chinese imports gradually. This is expected to be done to reduce the tension of the existing trade war. It’s also expected to be done to lower the rate of inflation and help businesses that import input materials from China.

Based on statistics according to the American Action Forum, approximately $57 billion was paid by consumers on an annual basis per 2019 import numbers, due to tariffs instituted by President Trump. This action is likely to increase consumer spending and increase companies’ earnings. However, the Biden administration is still expected to keep other forms of trade pressure on what many believe are unfair trade practices by China.

Biden also is expected to raise the same concerns the Trump administration did regarding Chinese trade and commerce, including China subsidizing its industries, flooding the American market with goods to undercut American producers, and requiring so-called forced technology transfers from U.S. companies.  

However, the trade deficit the U.S. has with China isn’t expected to see much attention. This could negatively impact how much China is ultimately expected to import from the United States.

When it comes to colleges and universities, research-based collaboration, and artistic-based areas, relations are expected to be more friendly. However, when it comes to fighting China’s human rights violations, individuals or business entities might be targeted. Based on Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ proposed Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, there’s an expectation the Biden administration will keep the pressure on China.

Beginning in 2017, Biden began to discuss plans for America and how some of America’s crucial industries could be more self-sufficient and less reliant on China. Examples include pharmaceutical products, medical equipment, and rare earth minerals.

Potential actions the Biden administration could implement against China include sanctions; U.S. government-sponsored legal action against Chinese firms; and becoming more involved in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and similar organizations. This is seen by some as the U.S. becoming more in-step with Europe to better pressure China in WTO and related disputes. It might also include courting America’s allies in reducing or prohibiting Chinese investment of domestic industries to make it more difficult for Chinese firms to obtain cutting-edge technology.

While there is no way to accurately predict how the Biden administration will treat China, there will likely be continued pushback on China. How these actions will ultimately impact trade and the markets will be seen in the near future.

How Would a Second Stimulus Check Impact Markets?

How Would a Second Stimulus Check 2020 Impact Markets?The $1,200 stimulus check sent out to individuals had mixed impacts on our economy, based on academic research, including by the University of California-Davis. For recipients with $3,000 or more in their bank accounts, there was no positive impact on the economy. However, for recipients with bank account balances up to $500, they spent 44.5 percent of their check, on average, within 10 days of receiving the stimulus check.

The first stimulus check was part of the CARES Act, which guided how the checks were issued:

The IRS began with those who filed 2018 and/or 2019 taxes, and looked at their adjusted gross income (AGI) as a starting point.

  • For “eligible individuals,” they received a full $1,200 check if they earned up to $75,000. If they earned between $75,000 and $99,000, the payment would be reduced by $1 for every $20 earned beyond $75,000. If they earned $99,000 or more, they would not be eligible for a stimulus check.
  • For “head of household filers,” they would get a $1,200 check for earnings up to $112,500. For earnings up to $136,500, the payment would be reduced by $1 for every additional $20 earned. If they earned $136,500 or more, they would not be eligible for a stimulus check.
  • For “married couples filing joint returns,” they would get a $1,200 check for earnings up to $150,000. For earnings up to $198,000, the payment would be reduced by $1 for every additional $20 earned. If they earned $198,000 or more, they would not be eligible for a stimulus check.

Depending on the filer, if they had a qualifying child 16 years or younger who they claimed on their tax return, each child could qualify for $500 in additional stimulus funds.

While the language is still subject to change because there’s no legislation passed and signed into law, uncertainty still exists regarding proposals for a second stimulus check/plan.

One proposal includes increasing the payments for dependents to $1,000 from $500. Another proposal includes casting a wider net for dependents – college students and/or older parents who reside in the same household, giving $500 for this category.

A September report by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) shows how consumers across the income distribution levels handled their stimulus checks.  

The NBER study found that once a stimulus payment was received, the typical individual spent $250 per day, compared to $90 a day before stimulus checks were available to recipients. Within 10 days, more than 20 percent of each dollar was spent. However, the report found different activity depending on the respondent’s income level and job security.

The study found that for recipients with checking accounts with more than a $4,000 balance, only 11 cents of stimulus money was spent in the month following receipt of their check. Looking a month out from when a stimulus check was received, those who had more assets were far less likely to spend their check quickly. However, for respondents with bank account balances of less than $100, more than 40 percent of their stimulus check was spent within one month.

These consumer expenditures offer a good indicator of how spending from another stimulus check would impact the economy. As the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show for 2019, there are different spending trends for each quintile or income strata (20 percent per quintile) for different income levels.

During 2019, each quintile increased, with the bottom quintile’s income growing by 6.6 percent, compared to the top quintile’s income growing by 6.7 percent. Quintiles two through four saw increases of income between 3.2 percent and 4.9 percent.

For reference, the 2019 “lower income bounds” are as follows:

  • Second quintile: $22,488
  • Third quintile: $43,432
  • Fourth quintile: $72,234
  • Fifth quintile: $120,729

“Average annual expenditures” for 2019 were $63,036 for “all consumer units,” or 3 percent more than 2018. A consumer unit is defined as either a family, an individual living on his or her own, and/or sharing costs with others or maintaining a residence with other individuals, but retaining the financial means to take care of themselves.

During 2019, while every quintile increased spending, the bottom quintile spent 8.6 percent more, versus the second quintile increasing their spending by 1.3 percent. All quintiles saw growth in spending for food at home, housing, transportation and cash contributions. Except for the second quintile, healthcare expenditures increased. For the food away from home category, the first, third and fifth quintiles increased spending. For apparel and services, the first, third and fourth quintiles saw increased spending.

Based on analysis conducted after stimulus checks were issued to individuals and families, sending out an additional stimulus check to those in the lower to mid-quintiles, along with promoting job growth and a strengthening job market, looks like the best way to help the economy recover. 

How Will the Market Price in Q2 Earnings?

Q2 Earnings 2020The New York Fed Staff Nowcast predicts a negative 14.3 percent (-14.3 percent) growth of real GDP for Q2 of 2020 and a positive 13.2 percent growth of real GDP for Q3 of 2020. Clearly, the Fed is expecting a rebound in the second half of 2020.

This forecast, presented in the July 17, 2020: New York Fed Staff Nowcast, attributes better than expected results for industrial production, capacity utilization, and retail sales data categories, resulting in the upward revision.

For June 2020, the forecast for the Industrial Production Index was 2.48, but the actual figure was 5.41. As the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System defines it, this index gauges the real output in the U.S. economy’s industrial sector on a month-over-month basis as a percentage change.

For June 2020, its Capacity Utilization measure was 3.54, versus the original forecast of 1.84. Coming from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, this measures the percentage of resources consumed by businesses to create goods for all domestic production.

Also for June 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a figure of 7.50, compared to the forecast of 2.17, for the month’s retail sales data, on a month-over-month basis as a percentage change. It looks at the sales from more than 12,000 retailers with paid workers, including food.

While there’s no definitive way to determine how each community, state, or region will be affected, the Brookings Institution did an analysis that provided an interesting insight into how and why certain areas may be more impacted economically than others. It looked at sectors more prone to interruption by COVID-19, resulting in less business, more closures and layoffs. It found that areas reliant on energy and in the southern part of the country were more likely to be negatively impacted.

Brookings found that by looking at 2019 employment figures for these industries, there are approximately 24.2 million jobs that are ripe to be disrupted. Looking to Moody’s, Mark Zandi found that the following five industries are most vulnerable: mining/oil and gas, transportation, employment services, travel arrangements, and leisure and hospitality.

Conversely, Brookings found that more mature manufacturing locales, agricultural centers, and already economically challenged areas are less prone to negative impacts. However, it’s noteworthy that because of the proliferation of technology, which has seen an uptick in computer sales and IT/cybersecurity due to increased remote working and learning, the potential for a rebound will be easier.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has the world in its grip, it’s noteworthy to discuss how past pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks have impacted markets. Over the past 40 years of global epidemics, according to FactSet and Charles Schwab, there have been mixed results when it comes to the impact of disease outbreaks on market performance, using the MSCI World Index as a reference.

In June of 1981 during the HIV/AIDS outbreak, the index fell 0.46 percent during the first month; falling 4.64 percent over the three months after the start of the outbreak, and down 3.25 percent six months after the initial outbreak.

As for the 2006 avian flu outbreak, the index dropped 0.18 percent one month after the start; then the index was up 2.77 percent three months after the outbreak; and up 10.05 percent six months after the outbreak. 

Looking at these figures, it shows that more often than not, these types of events are short to medium term pullbacks, presenting investors with buying opportunities.  

According to Zacks & Nasdaq, Q2 earnings’ projections for the S&P 500 is a negative 43.7 percent, with a drop of 11 percent in revenue. While Q2 is expected to be the worse, Q3 and Q4 are expected to experience smaller, but still noticeable drops in earnings due to the coronavirus. The transportation sector is expected to decline by 152.4 percent; autos is expected to decline by 224.2 percent; and energy is projected to drop by 138.4 percent, on a year-over-year basis.

While these were some serious declines for Q2, the one bright spot was technology. The technology sector declined by only 13.2 percent year-over-year, with a drop of 1.2 percent in revenues. However, it’s noteworthy that, much like technology has seen shallow losses along with the medical sector, it’s projected that in 2021 the technology sector will earn 8.8 percent more while the medical sector is expected to grow its earnings by 12.8 percent in 2021.

The coronavirus is unique in that there’s been mass stay-at-home orders and closures. However, based on past disease outbreaks, the economy and markets generally seem to find a way to balance themselves out.

How Likely Would a Second Coronavirus Wave Negatively Impact the Stock Market?

Second Coronavirus Wave Negatively Impact the Stock MarketAs Johns Hopkins University of Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center revealed a recent increase of coronavirus cases in the Southern and Southwestern United States, the VIX ticked up. With fears of the outbreak curve not flattening, how will this impact markets?

The Volatility Index (VIX) was established by the Chicago Board Options Exchange in 1993 to gauge volatility in the financial markets. Referred to colloquially as the “fear index”, it measures the next 30 days of anticipated volatility for the U.S. Stock Market via S&P 500 options. For reference, during the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, it topped out at 89.53. During periods of relative calm, it’s not unheard of to trade below 10. On March 16 of this year, the VIX reached 82, thus demonstrating how volatile investors expected markets to be due to the uncertainty of the coronavirus.

On February 12, 2020, the Dow reached 29,551.42 and the S&P 500 rose to 3,379.45. But by the end of February, these major indices experienced their greatest fall since 2008, ushering in a market correction.

Coronavirus and its Impact on the Markets

Starting in early March, the COVID-19 pandemic began taking a negative toll on stock markets worldwide, the worst since 2008. On March 9, the Dow fell 2,158 points, or 8.2 percent, during the day’s lows. Other major U.S. markets were not spared – the S&P 500 fell 7.6 percent and the Nasdaq dropped 7.3 percent.

On March 12, the U.S. stock indices dropped more. The S&P 500 fell another 9.5 percent, along with the Dow falling 2,353 points, almost 10 percent lower. For the Dow, it was the worse one-day performance since Oct. 19, 1987’s drop, bringing it back to 2017 levels. While there was hope of a sustained rally beginning on March 13, it was dashed when the Dow Jones fell nearly 13 percent or 2,997.10 points, and the S&P 500 dropped nearly 12 percent on March 16.

Factors Contributing to the Crash

While the stock market crash in 2020 was directly attributable to the coronavirus outbreak worldwide, many experts, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), view the coronavirus as speeding up a global slowdown that was already in the works.

Despite the St. Louis Fed’s data that showed the United States had an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent in late 2019, the nation’s industrial output peaked in 2017, and experts noticed a declining trend at the start of 2018. The IMF also believed the United States-China trade war made global growth more challenging going forward.

There were other concerning factors about economic growth domestically and internationally, causing fear a worldwide recession was beginning. March 2019 saw the U.S. yield curve inverting – which means longer-term debts yield less than shorter-term debts. The ISM Manufacturing Index fell below 50 percent in August 2019, dropping to 48.3 percent in October 2019, and remaining below 50 percent through 2019.

When it comes to rising COVID-19 cases, the state of California saw 4,515 new cases over 24 hours, as reported on June 21. Florida’s reports on June 20 and 21 saw the number of cases increase by 4,049 and 3,494, respectively. Other Southern and Western states, such as Nevada, Missouri, and Utah, reported one-day records in increases of coronavirus cases as well.

With Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and California, among others, showing concerning trends for increased coronavirus infection rates, analysts at Deutsche Bank expressed concern about how the virus may keep spreading. According to the same research, there’s some trepidation on how it may negatively impact economic growth. Depending on the overall hospital capacity to handle a resurgence in severe COVID-19 cases, how well the medical infrastructure responds will influence how the economy functions going forward.

With the number of increasing cases shifting from the Northeast to Southern and Western states, it’s feared that there will be another panic on Wall Street as reopening the economy is postponed, further stunting economic activity.

Research from Jefferies Financial Group found that even though coronavirus cases are increasing, it’s not the only or the biggest worry. Jefferies’ research found that for investors, the biggest concern is how well and how fast the economy bounces back.

Analysts believe that there needs to be more than just action by The Federal Reserve to inspire market confidence. The research found four main concerns, which included the effects of COVID-19:

  • 6.6 percent of respondents said the upcoming election is the most important factor
  • 12.1 percent of respondents said a second wave of COVID-19 is the most important factor
  • 31.1 percent of respondents said The Federal Reserve’s decision is the most important factor
  • 50.2 percent of respondents said the shape of the recovery is the most important factor

As the economy reopens and medical experts become more knowledgeable and better prepared to deal with COVID-19 through therapies and equipment for hospitalizations, it seems that investors will be taking a more holistic investing approach.

Are Dividends Becoming a Luxury During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

According to the futures market, Chicago Mercantile Exchange contracts are forecasting a drop of 27 percent in dividends over 24 months for the S&P 500 index. Dividends are projected to fall to $42.05 in 2021, a drop from 2020’s dividend of $47.55 and 2019’s high of $58.24. Looking forward to 2026, according to CME’s futures contract, the dividend is expected to recover to $56.65. While the latter years are not as likely as what’s up next, it’s worth taking note.

Although these dividend levels have already been announced, the future doesn’t look much brighter. According to Goldman Sachs, Q2 economic growth is expected to drop by 34 percent. Even though the COVID-19 economic crisis is expected to be worse, we can get an idea of how bad by comparing it to the financial crisis of 2008. From 2007 to 2009, the S&P 500 dividend dropped by 25 percent; it took 48 months to recover from this drop. Based on this historical look-back, chances are it’ll take longer to get back to par this time around.

It’s noteworthy to highlight companies that suspended their dividends in April 2020, and when they last suspended their dividends, historically speaking. Dine Brands Global (DIN) initially paused its stock-buyback program. This was followed up with a suspension of its quarterly dividend of 76 cents. Royal Dutch Shell lowered its dividend by two-thirds to 16 cents per share, the first time since 1945. These examples illustrate just how dire the economic situation is for companies around the world.    

Cash Dividends Explained

A cash dividend is money distributed to stockholders according to a corporation’s present earnings or amassed profits. Dividends are declared and issued by a board of directors that determines whether they’ll remain the same, increase or decrease. 

Understanding the Need to Reduce or Cut Dividends

A dividend cut often results in a drop in a company’s stock price since it indicates a weakened financial position. Oftentimes, dividends are cut because earnings are dropping or there’s less money available to pay the dividend, which can be due to increasing debt levels.

The point here is that dividend cuts are a poor sign for a company that is facing financial difficulties due to reduced revenue, with the same overhead still needed to be paid (rent, wages, insurance, debt servicing). While dividends can be cut for short- or long-term reasons, such as buying their own stock back or buying out another company, with the ongoing coronavirus situation the majority of businesses aren’t doing it for positive reasons.

While reducing or removing a dividend from a company’s stock can divert cash for ongoing operations or debt servicing, it also can tell the markets things aren’t going well financially. This is illustrated by looking at AT&T. In December 2000, the company reduced its dividends by 83 percent, lowering it to 3.75 cents, versus the expected 22 cents by shareholders.

One of the first signals that a company can’t pay dividends, or won’t be able to in the near future, is to look at the company’s earnings trend and its payout ratio.

Looking at a Historical Example

During the second half of the 1990s, AT&T’s stock faced more and more competitors as deregulation went into effect. According to the company’s income statements from 1998 to 2000, annual earnings per share dropped by 50 percent.  

This data is according to AT&T’s 10-K, which shows that its yearly earnings dropped from $1.96 in 1998; to $1.74 in 1999; and finally to $0.88 in 2000. With this precipitous decline in earnings and the financial pressure it put on AT&T, a reduction in dividends came next. Based on this data and some analysis, we can explain how the Dividend Payout Ratio works.

Understanding the Dividend Payout Ratio

Using this ratio can help investors gauge how likely a company’s dividend will be cut or removed altogether.

Dividend Payout Ratio = Dividend Payment per Share / Earnings per Share

Looking at AT&T’s 10-Q report for Q3 of 2000, AT&T earned 35 cents per share and gave shareholders a dividend of 22 cents a share. Based on the dividend payout ratio formula, the resulting ratio was 0.63. This ratio means that 63 percent of AT&T’s earnings were given to shareholders via dividends. When companies have challenging earnings seasons, the payout ratio gets closer to 1 because whatever the company earns is eaten up by the dividend. Therefore, the closer the ratio gets to 1, the more likely the dividend will be lowered or suspended.

While there’s no predicting what the economy will do in the future, looking at past trends can give investors insight into what companies will do with their dividends when the economy faces new headwinds.

Will China’s Recent Soybean Purchase Begin Thawing the Trade War?

With the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service announcing a purchase of 204,000 metric tons of U.S. soybeans by private Chinese importers, there are hopes that the trade war is beginning to dissipate.

Seeing that the last significant purchase of U.S. soybeans by China was in June, professional traders see the September acquisitions as a potential weakening of the U.S.-China trade war. With the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service announcing more than 600,000 tons of U.S. soybeans purchased by private Chinese operators on Sept. 13, 16 and 17, there are signs of positive movement between the two nations.

The shipments are expected to leave between October and December from ports in the Pacific Northwest. Looking at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, soybean futures hit monthly highs on Sept. 16. Coupled with November futures contracts well off their lows, this shows renewed promise. The purchase of soybeans is part of China’s gesture of goodwill to buy other agricultural products, such as pork, during ongoing trade negotiations.

These recent developments are important because China increased tariffs on American soybeans by 25 percent in July 2018 in response to the Trump Administration’s tariffs. On Sept. 1, 2019, U.S. soybeans were subject to another 5 percent in import tariffs by China.

The Context of Soybean Sales

Based on data from the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), there was a drop in soy exports from the U.S. to China to $3.1 billion, or 18 percent of U.S. soybean exports for 2018.

The 2018 U.S. soybean export figure to China represents a drop of 75 percent, compared to 2017’s U.S. sales exports of soybeans worth $12.2 billion to China. The large drop in 2018 is also noteworthy against U.S. exports of soybeans to China in 2016 of $10.5 billion. This drop was directly attributable to trade tensions.

It’s important to note that soybeans are America’s biggest agricultural export (16 percent of all agricultural exports) – $20.9 billion annually on average between 2014 and 2018. With China importing more than 50 percent of U.S. soy over the past 60 months, it illustrates why the trade war has been so impactful. In response to the sharp drop in exports to China, 2018 began the quest for U.S. growers of soybeans to counteract the $9.1 billion drop in soy exports to China by finding new buyers in Mexico, the European Union and Egypt.

Similarly, as the Congressional Research Service points out, trade talks are working toward building upon an existing $12.9 billion of U.S. agricultural exports to Japan, as of 2018. Current talks have expectations for an additional $7 billion in U.S. agricultural exports to Japan. Soybeans, along with dairy, wine, beef and pork, are examples of agricultural imports Japan is willing to buy, based on soon-to-be released details from finalized U.S.-Japanese trade talks.  

However, despite maintaining a competitive or even subpar price against competitor nations such as Brazil, it didn’t sway the Chinese to buy more American soy. Much like American farmers and with China’s state-influenced help, there may be long-term, structural changes for future Chinese soybean purchases even if trade tensions subside. However, China also has established new suppliers of soybeans from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia.

While many do expect a trade deal between the United States and China, there could very well be structural and long-lasting changes on how both countries conduct trade for years to come.

How Will Tariff Developments Impact the Stock Market Going Forward?

According to an Aug. 13 press release from the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), there will be a 10 percent tariff levied against $300 billion of Chinese imports effective Sept. 1. The same press release announced a modification, after hearing from the public and business owners, exempting some of the $300 billion in Chinese imports from the 10 percent tariff until Dec. 15.

Items Subject to the 10 Percent Tariff on Sept. 1

Highlights from the USTR’s list include select types of coffee, fruit, vegetables, insects and bees. Along with dairy products, livestock such as sheep, horses and goats are subject to the 10 percent tariff.

Items Subject to the 10 Percent Tariff on Dec. 15

The USTR pointed out that many of the items recently exempted include consumer goods such as computer displays, select shoes and clothes, LED lamps, slide projectors and playing cards. Other items on the list include notebooks, video game systems, toys, snowshoes and parts, fishing rods and reels, paint rollers and microwave ovens.

2019 Forecast

When it comes to industry experts and associations, it looks like there will be limited impacts from the trade spat between the United States and China, coupled with pressure from government shutdown in the beginning of the year. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), 2019 is expected to see an increase in spending between 3.8 percent and 4.4 percent – or more than $3.8 trillion.

Initial figures per the NRF detail that retail sales for 2018 increased by 4.6 percent, outpacing the organization’s growth expectations of 4.5 percent. 2018’s figures are compared to 2017’s of $3.68 trillion in retail sales. 2018’s estimates factor in a 10 percent to 12 percent increase in online sales, which is also expected for 2019. One caveat for these projections by the NRF is that it doesn’t include dining, gas stations or auto dealers. GDP is expected to grow about 2.5 percent over 2019.

The NRF explained that due to lower energy costs, specifically tame retail gas prices and low interest rates, there should be minimal negative consumer impact. However, the NRF cautions that while the retail industry has been able to cushion the 10 percent tariffs, if tariffs increase to 25 percent, it will have a greater impact on consumers’ costs and retailers’ profitability.

Based upon recent developments, business earnings will face greater challenges. According to the United States Trade Representative’s Aug. 23 press release, tariff rates for $250 billion worth of Chinese imports currently subject to a 25 percent tariff rate will increase to 30 percent effective Oct. 1. For the $300 billion in Chinese imports described above, those going into effect Sept. 1 and Dec. 15, instead of being subjected to a 10 percent tariff, each batch will be subject to a 15 percent tariff rate.

With the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasting a drop in the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 by 2020, Daniel Fried explains that there’s no doubt the U.S.-China trade tensions have and will take a toll on the economy. Fried explains how they’ll affect consumer spending and business expenditures:

  • The initial impact is that consumers and businesses will have a lowered purchasing power.
  • The next impact is that businesses will either slow or decide to divert investments elsewhere, such as realigning their supply chains to mitigate the tariff impacts.
  • There’s also concern that while businesses may lose international business, that might be offset by domestic consumption.

With Fried and the CBO projecting the mean income for households will be reduced by $580 by 2020, based on 2019 purchasing power, it’ll certainly make consumers think twice about where and how to allocate their spending. This will likely take a toll on companies’ sales figures and likely future earnings reports.