Why It's Different This Time

The other day I completed a survey for my brokerage company, and one of the questions they asked was, "Is the current crisis worse than the 2008 financial crisis?" A couple of months ago, when our state and region were mostly in lockdown, I would have answered with a resounding and unhesitating, "Yes!"

Now I'm not so sure. Admittedly, I don't live in one of those states where the virus is now spiking, and things here are close to back to normal, so maybe my vantage point is too subjective. Nevertheless, I would have to say this crisis is far from as bad as the previous one, which may explain why the stock market has behaved the way it has, namely prices are off only a little from where they began the crisis, with only that short, sharp drop in February and March.

One reason, of course, is that the economy, as a whole, has rebounded strongly over the past couple of months as most of the country has reopened, at least to some degree, even as millions of people continue to work remotely. But the main reason is that that the lessons we learned from 2008 have been brought to bear in this crisis, namely that the government and the Federal Reserve have thrown much more money and resources at the problem than they did 12 years ago, which has mitigated the damage to a great degree.

As we've seen in the second-quarter earnings reports released so far by the big banks, the measures taken after 2008 to make sure they've built up enough capital to withstand another global crisis have paid off. Other than Wells Fargo (WFC) ā€“ which is still in the Fed penalty box, forbidden to grow assets ā€“ which reported a big loss, the other big banks reported flat Goldman Sachs (GS) or reduced JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Citigroup (C), and Bank of America (BAC) earnings compared to a year ago. It could have been a lot worse. Who would have thought they'd be able to pull that off three or four months ago? Let's give the Dodd-Frank Act and Fed capital requirements the props they deserve. Continue reading "Why It's Different This Time"

The Financial Cohort and COVID-19 Dynamics

COVID-19 ushered in the real possibility of widespread loan defaults, liquidity issues, ballooning credit card debt (as banks hold the liability), and stressed mortgages. To exacerbate these COVID-19 impacts, a delicate balance between interest rates, Federal Reserve actions, potential yield curve inversion, and liquidity must be reached. The customer side of the business continues to be worrisome as the duration of this crisis continues to drag on with no signs of slowing. A segment of the consumer base is faced with lost wages and the real possibility of not being able to meet their financial obligations (i.e., car payments, mortgage payments, etc.), which will unquestionably have a negative impact on revenue and earnings for banks. The financial cohort is in a difficult space as the broader economic backdrop continues to dictate whether these stocks can appreciate higher. The initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the market capitalizations of many large banks to be cut by ~50%. Some of the largest banking institutions such as Citi (C), Goldman Sachs (GS), JPMorgan (JPM), and Bank of America (BAC) were sold off in the most aggressive manner since the Financial Crisis a decade earlier. As COVID-19 continues to drag in both spread and duration, share buybacks have now been halted, and dividend payouts arrested. The stability of dividend payouts is now in question as uncertainty continues to cloud this sector. Moving forward, how durable are the major financial names at these depressed levels, are the banks investable in light of the COVID-19 backdrop?

Recent Federal Reserve Stress Tests

The Federal Reserve put new restrictions on the banking sector after the results from the annual stress test found that several banks could get too close to minimum capital levels in potential scenarios tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. The largest banking institutions will be required to suspend share buybacks and arrest dividend payments at their current level for Q3 of 2020. For the first time in the 10 year history of these stress tests, banks are now required to resubmit their payout plans again later this year. This move is indicative of the unique and unprecedented landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic. Continue reading "The Financial Cohort and COVID-19 Dynamics"

Fed Chairman Powell Resuscitates Financial Cohort

The market-wide sell-off in the fourth quarter of 2018 was largely induced by the Federal Reserve and its alleged commitment to sequential interest rate increases into 2019. This was largely viewed as reckless and misguided while turning a blind eye to broader economic data-driven decision making about further interest rate hikes. The stock indices responded to the sequential interest rate hike stance with overwhelming negative sentiment, logging double-digit declines across the broader markets. Many market observers were questioning the Federal Reserveā€™s aggressive stance as companies issued weakness in ancillary economic metrics (slowing global growth, strong U.S. dollar, trade war, government shutdown, weak housing numbers, retail weakness, auto sluggishness, and oil decline) as an indication that cracks in the economic cycle were materializing. The strong labor market and record low unemployment served as a basis to rationalize increasing rates to tame inflation however these aforementioned economic headwinds appeared to cause the Federal Reserve to pivot in its aggressive stance. As Chairman Jerome Powell began to issue a softer stance on future interest rate hikes, January saw very healthy stock market gains after being decimated for months prior. On January 30th, Jerome Powell issued language that the markets were craving to levitate higher as he left interest rates unchanged and exercised caution and patience as a path forward. Using data-driven decision making as a path forward was cheered by market participants as the broader indices popped for healthy gains on top of the already robust gains throughout January.

Financial Cohort Squeezed

The financial cohort was stuck in a precarious situation in the latter half of 2018. On the one hand, a rising interest rate environment would provide boosts to bottom line revenue as a function of the increased rates on their deposit base. Banks had domestic and global economic expansion tailwinds at their back while posting accelerating revenue growth, increasing dividend payouts, engaging in a record number of share buybacks, benefiting from tax reform and deregulation. Augmenting this positive backdrop was a record number of IPOs, a record number of global merger and acquisitions along with consulting fees regarding mergers and acquisitions and trading around market volatility. All of these elements ostensibly provided an ideal confluence that boded well for the financial sector. JP Morgan (JPM), Citi (C), Wells Fargo (WFC), Goldman Sachs (GS) and Bank of America (BAC) seemed to be poised to continue to benefit from the favorable economic backdrop. Despite all these elements, 2018 was terrible for the financials which performed horribly, especially during the fourth quarter as rapid rate hikes were in the cards. Continue reading "Fed Chairman Powell Resuscitates Financial Cohort"