Tag Archives: US DEFICITS

ROGER’S “FOLLOW THE MONEY” APRIL ARTICLE – in the prestigious RESTAURANT FINANCE MONITOR

ROGER’S “FOLLOW THE MONEY” – APRIL ISSUE, RESTAURANT FINANCE MONITOR

Inflation is Coming and My Thoughts on Franchising

By Roger Lipton

INFLATION IS COMING

The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank was formed in 1913 to control inflation and manage the economy so as to avoid severe economic cycles. It has clearly failed in terms of controlling inflation, since a 1913 U.S. Dollar is worth about $.02 today.  More recently, since the U.S. went off the gold exchange standard in 1971, the Dollar has declined by about 85%. In terms of controlling business cycles, the U.S. has ad: the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression in the 1930s, World War II, which had to be financed with debt in the ‘40s, inflation running to 12% and the Fed Funds Rate at 18% in the ‘70s, the dotcom bubble and burst of 1999 to 2001, the financial crisis of 2008-09, and the monstrous debt buildup and suppressed interest rates over the last 10 years.

More “money” has been created by the Fed in the last 18 months (adjusted for inflation) than was needed to pay for five years of World War II, and the debt as a percentage of GDP is above where it was in 1945. The M2 money supply in the US has increased by 24% over the last 12 months, the highest within recorded data over 150 years, and 27% most recently.

Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, says there is a need to raise interest rates and reduce the Fed balance sheet, but adds “There will be a time, but not now.” However, the US debt has increased every year since 1957. There was a budget “surplus” in the last three years under President Clinton and the first year under President George W. Bush, amounting to just under $800 billion over four years, but the debt still increased each year due to “off-budget” items. (Only in D.C. can this happen.) Powell has reiterated the Fed’s objective to generate inflation of 2%+, indicating potential rampant inflation can be controlled, but the current financial experiment is unprecedented in time and magnitude. Our bet is that inflation is coming, higher than the Fed expects and it will be difficult to get the genie back in the bottle. Manage your business accordingly.

THE TIMES THEY ARE ‘A CHANGIN’ IN THE FRANCHISE  WORLD

We wrote here last month that almost all of the mature publicly held franchising restaurant chains are hardly growing their U.S. units. We pointed out that, for a number of reasons, the unit level economics are just not attractive enough for franchisees to encourage unit expansion. Needless to say, higher sales would be transformational. The less obvious, and potentially contentious “adjustment” that could help a great deal is a revision of the franchise structure.

When Ray Kroc started franchising McDonald’s more than 60 years ago, the royalty rate was 1.9% By the 1960s, franchisors had started charging 2%-3%, by the 1970s 3%-4%, and 5% seems to be the standard today, plus at least 2% for advertising and other fees.

Some franchisees, at chains such as Dunkin’, Burger King and Jack in the Box are still making decent returns at  the store level because the store leases were signed 10 or 15 years ago and occupancy expenses are lower  than today’s economics would allow. While single unit franchisees who personally manage their stores can still make a living, a multi-unit owner, who  is the best prospect for unit expansion, paying a non-family store manager, is typically fortunate to be making 17-18% store level EBITDA, of which depreciation is not free cash  flow in the long run. Subsequently, rebating 7 points or more out of 17 or 18 points starts to feel like a pretty big load, and there is still local G&A to be carried. Even if store level EBITDA, before royalties, is in the low 20s, rebating over 7 points is a heavy price to pay. Considering the changing economics over the last two to three decades, there are no material operating expenses that are lower as a percentage of sales, certainly not occupancy or labor, and food costs are unpredictable commodities. The biggest single negative trend that nobody would debate is the intensive competition that has become commonplace.

The time has come for lower fees, especially ongoing royalties. We understand that this suggestion will be resisted by existing large chains, most especially those publicly held, because it would be an obvious reduction of the current royalty stream. However, well established franchisors could, and should, absorb more of the additional systemwide needs, such as technology upgrades. “Mid-cap” franchising companies could put some part of the following suggestions in place.

If I were running an early stage franchise company, I would put in place a sliding scale royalty system, charging 2.5-3.0% at a modest sales level, higher if the franchisee does better. Give them a little room to make money if the store doesn’t do quite as well as everybody hopes. If the store clicks, everybody is happy and the 4-5% on the higher sales won’t seem like such a burden. For my multi-unit franchisees, I would charge lower up front fees for additional stores and this is sometimes already being done (whether  admitting it to Wall Street or not). This is logical and appropriate because less franchise support is required as a franchisee builds local infrastructure.

It seems to us that a young franchise company adopting this strategy would have a huge competitive edge and the total royalty stream is likely to build more rapidly using this progressive approach. Profitable franchisees, and a more appropriate sharing of store level profits, considering today’s economic realty, make for a successful system in the long run.

Roger Lipton has followed the restaurant industry for four decades. Founder of money management and investment banking firm, Lipton Financial Services, Inc., he publishes regularly at www.rogerlipton.com.   He can be reached at lfsi@aol.com and 212 600 2266.

SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY UPDATE – THE BEAT GOES ON!! FED CHAIR POWELL’S REMARKS ARE NOT COMFORTING!

SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY UPDATE – THE BEAT GOES ON !! FED CHAIR POWELL’S REMARKS ARE NOT COMFORTING!

As a backdrop, the US deficit in February was announced at $311B, up 32% YTY. Five months into the US government’s fiscal year ending September, the deficit is $1.05 trillion, up 68.3% YTY. Of course, the big spending, to cope with Covid-19, last year started in April, running the deficit in the year ending 9/30/20 to $3.1T. The most recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate for this year was $2.3 trillion (about 11% of GDP), which is higher than ever except in WWII, but that was before the $1.9 trillion Covid-relief bill was passed. This year’s deficit is therefore going to be well in excess of last year’s $3.1T and the Biden administration says a multi-trillion, multi-year infrastructure effort is coming. All this is only possible with the help of our Federal Reserve, which is funding over half of the deficit with fresh currency created by the click of a computer. It is worth noting that foreign buyers of US debt are steadily reducing the percentage of their participation in the US debt auctions. Their holdings of US Treasuries as a percentage of their foreign exchange reserves is also coming down, so perhaps they know something?

Chairman Powell’s remarks, two days ago, were not comforting and not even logical. He doesn’t see a bubble in the capital markets but he has also said that it is very hard to spot a bubble when it is in progress. He obviously doesn’t consider that almost $200B of “blank checks” that have been written in the SPAC market in the last fifteen months, to be leveraged with relatively low cost debt to over a trillion dollars of buying power, is a bubble. He also isn’t concerned that the market value of Bitcoin is about a trillion dollars, which translates into potential purchasing power of goods and services.  Setting aside the speculative activity in Gamestop, he apparently doesn’t view the dozens of tech stocks that are a long way from profitability, each trading for tens of billions of dollars to be a source of concern.  He isn’t concerned that investor margin debt has accelerated recently to a new high, which has almost invariably signaled a recession just ahead.

Chairman Powell suggested that the trillions of dollars of newly minted dollars over the last ten years, as well as the interest rates suppressed to levels close to zero, will not spark uncontrolled inflation because “it has not happened so far”. The metaphor we suggest is snow accumulating on a mountain slope. It is unknown which “flake” will trigger the avalanche, but it is best to have an escape plan.

Chairman Powell discussed how inflation is still firmly “anchored” in a sub two percent level and the Fed objective is to stimulate a level above two percent for an indeterminate time frame, producing “symmetrical” two percent over the long term. First, the inflation rate, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, is debatable, to say the least. The CPI has been “adjusted” a number of times, always resulting in less sensitivity to true consumer spending. Powell is not living in the same world as the rest of us if he really thinks that his cost of living is rising less than 2% per year. On this score, the capital markets are signaling a coming increase, bond prices in particular moving sharply upward, and bond market investors have historically predicted economic trends far better than the Fed.

On the subject of interest rates, the Fed has, with their intervention in capital markets, destroyed current interest rates as (1) an economic indicator and (2) a controlling influence on risk and reward. Interest rates have been described by the legendary monetary historian, James Grant, as the economy’s “pituitary gland”. The pituitary is the “master” gland, secreting hormones that regulate blood pressure and reproduction, affecting vision, the brain, skin and other organs. The Fed has therefore become a doctor evaluating the patient after destroying a crucial diagnostic instrument.

Chairman Powell described how the increases in short term interest rates have been “orderly”, so should not be of concern. The implication is that the inflation to come would also be orderly, and the few current indicator upticks would be “transitory”, in any event. The objective is for inflation to be modestly (our word, not his) above 2% for a while anyway, so it’s all “okay”. We wonder: when inflation hits a 3% rate, will that be “transitory”? At what point, and for how long, does a 3%, 4%, 5% become something other than transitory, and require the Fed to move, or allow the market to move, interest rates higher. Would he be concerned, at that point, that, based on today’s $28 trillion of debt, every point of new interest expense would amount to $280 billion.

It seems to us that Powell becomes more dovish every time he speaks. The interest rate rise is “orderly”. The inflation indicators are “transitory” and “well anchored”. He continues to “not even think about thinking about” raising interest rates or reducing Fed bond purchases. There is no “taper tantrum”, cessation of the increase of the Fed balance sheet,  in the cards and says he would warn the market when that time comes. He doesn’t see any signs of bubbles in the capital markets, so the Fed is sticking with their plan.

Jerome Powell, to be fair, did not create this mess. It is a result of decades of fiscal and monetary mismanagement. There is just no graceful solution. The “Maestro”, Alan Greenspan kicked it off in response to Y2K, the deflation of the dotcom bubble, and two wars, then escaped the consequences.  Bernanke escaped, Yellin escaped, Powell may also escape the “chickens coming home to roost”. These trends take a long time to play out, but the snow keeps accumulating on the mountain. It’s just a question of time.

Roger Lipton

SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY REPORT – GOLD AND THE GOLD MINERS CONTINUE THEIR MOVE, NEW PRICE OBJECTIVES !

SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY REPORT – THE STIMULUS IS MIND BOGGLING – GOLD AND THE GOLD MINERS HAVE JUST BEGUN THEIR MOVE !

The Coronavirus will pass, but the economic ramifications will be far longer lasting.  You don’t get out of a fiscal/monetary hole by continuing to dig. The current health crisis has brought forward, accelerated, and magnified the economic trends that were already in place. The monstrous buildup in debt is important because economic history has clearly shown that the higher the debt burden the bigger the drag on productive growth. This is why “the longest (and falsely promoted as “the strongest”) economic expansion in US history only provided 2.3-2.4% annual real GDP growth from ’10 through ’19. You heard it here first: there is no chance in hell that future growth (after the “dead cat bounce” from current levels) will be higher than 2% or so, likely to be materially  lower, with the new debt burden that the world will be carrying. 

We all know that the Fed balance sheet is exploding, as it finances the monstrous government spending. It is instructive to look at the pattern of growth over the last dozen years, as the supposedly apolitical Fed ignores the conservative side of the Keynes economic equation. John Maynard Keynes suggested, the in the late 1920s and early 1930s that the Fed should provide stimulus in hard times and pull it back in better times, presumably muting potential booms and busts. Unfortunately, economic conditions never seem to get good enough to remove the previous accommodation. Recapping the last dozen years: The Fed Balance sheet was under $1T in early ’08. It grew to about $2.2T by late’08, stayed around that level until mid ’09 when it started moving to about $3T by late ’11. From late ’12 to late ’14 it moved to $4.5T where it stayed until early ’18. The economy apparently never got quite good enough to pull back between ’10 and late ’17. In early ’18 the Fed announced a program of “automatic” reduction, with the implied objective to get back to perhaps $2.5-3.0T. It got back (only) to $3.7T by the end of ’19, but with the economy softening and distortions in the short term “repo” bond market, the Fed backed off and built its asset base to $4.2T, clearly on the way to a new high by mid’20. Which brings us to the current “new world”. Since March 4, 2020, the Fed has taken its balance sheet from $4.2T to $7.0T, and Chairman, Jay Powell, has indicated that he will do “whatever it takes”. We expect it to be $10T or more in a matter of months. People, this does not provide organic, productive, sustainable economic growth. This only provides an addictive high (not so high, in this case), supportive by always increasing doses of fiscal/monetary drugs.

The debt and deficits that require the Fed’s intervention are likewise exploding. The US debt, excluding unfunded entitlements like Social Security, is now over $25T, up from $22.7 at 9/30/19. The operating deficit which was supposed to be about $1.2T for the full year ending 9/30/20 is now expected to be at least $4.0T. The deficit in April alone was $738B. At this junction, after trillions of dollars have already been provided, it is clear that there is much more fiscal/monetary stimulus to come and nobody knows the ultimate magnitude or duration. Most importantly: virtually everyone, fiscal hawks and doves alike, bipartisan in nature, agree that the support must be provided, and we can all worry about the ramifications later.

THE PRICE OBJECTIVE FOR GOLD BULLION

The price of gold has shown a strong long term correlation with the federal US debt. The buildup of the Federal Reserve balance sheet over the last fifteen years has also strongly correlated with the gold price. The above discussion therefore supports a materially  higher price of gold related securities.

We believe that gold has proven itself for thousands of years as a store of value and the ultimate currency. It competes with paper currencies as the supply and demand of one currency (gold) must relate to the supply and demand of (these days) unbacked colored paper. The following chart shows the value of the gold held by the United States, since 1918 (shortly after the Fed was established in 1913), relative to the adjusted monetary base. A chart looks similar on a worldwide basis. You can see that from 1913 until just before the end of WWII, the value of the gold was about 35% of the monetary base. After the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944 whereby the US Dollar was established as the reserve currency, the percentage drifted down. The monetary base was growing steadily, and the US gold backing was declining, but the world was relatively unconcerned during a postwar recovery period. In the late 1960s, however, as US spending for the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society accelerated, US trade and operating deficits became widely anticipated. Over 50% of the US gold was exchanged for dollars within eighteen months prior to August, 1971, when Richard Nixon “closed the gold window”. At that point, our gold amounted to only 6-7 % of the US monetary base. This level is important because we are back to that same level today.

We are not suggesting that the US, or anyone else, will make their paper currency convertible into gold any time soon. It wouldn’t work for long, in any event, because deficits in all major trading countries are larger than ever, and paper currencies would once again be tendered for gold. No country could back their currency with gold, unless they were “balancing their books” or, at the least, that prospect was in sight. We do, however, feel that the value of the gold “in circulation” should have a relationship to the value of alternative currencies. You might be surprised to learn that the country most able to make their currency convertible into gold would be Russia, perhaps our most prominent political adversary and a consistently large buyer of gold.

he chart above indicates that 7% could be 35%, or five times the current price. This  ballpark calculations indicate what we consider to be a rational value of 5-6x the current $1740/oz, or $8700 to $10,440/oz. This ballpark price range objective is at the current time. The monetary base is now rising at about 20% per year with all the money printing to support the economy in the current crisis. Though gold is now moving steadily higher, the monetary base is also rising so the price objective within just the next few years could be well over $10,000/oz.

THE TIMING – FOR GOLD BULLION PRICES

The following two charts provide insight into the possibility of an imminent major upward move. The first chart shows the high correlation of the gold price to the amount of worldwide sovereign negative yielding debt, which peaked at $16-17T in mid ’19 and is now in the low teens. Even in Germany, the strongest European country, the entire yield curve has been negative or close to it. We believe that the amount of negative yielding debt will continue its upward march and could even include some of the US debt, especially based on President Trumps implied blessing just in the last couple of days. The continued upward trend of this indicator could be influential in breaking the gold price out above the previous all-time high of $1911. That, in turn, could ignite the price toward the price objectives noted above.

The second chart shows a nineteen-year price chart of gold. It shows the end of an 11-12-year bull market, ending in 2012, then a 6-7 year “consolidation”. The price has now clearly broken above $1400, the previous high. Chart technicians would say that the longer the base, the bigger the move. It is conceivable that a new bull market has begun that could last for quite a few years. This would tie in to our logic that the price of gold could be 5-6 times higher over a number of years.

There are other charts we could provide that show a long term correlation of the price of gold to the level of US debt. Over the last fifteen years the same sort of correlation has taken place between gold and the buildup of the Federal Reserve balance sheet.

THE GOLD MINING STOCKS

The chart just below shows the gold mining index, XAU, relative to the price of gold bullion. Since 2008, the relative valuation of gold equities to gold bullion has fallen 75% from the prior 25-year average. The ratio of the XAU Index to spot gold averaged 0.25x for a quarter century through 2008. As of 3/31/2020, the ratio was 0.05x.

We believe that the substantial divergence in performance is due to mostly outdated opinions, the justification for which have been corrected over the last 10-12 years. Managements have been improved, balance sheets have been strengthened, operations have been streamlined. Additionally, energy costs, which are 15% or more of mine operating expenses are 60-70% lower today than they were a decade ago. Combined with sharply higher gold prices, results from established miners have been impressive recently and should become even more so.

SUMMARY

The healthcare crisis has accelerated, magnified, and brought forward in time many of the long term fiscal/monetary trends, as well as fundamental developments in our society. We believe that the worldwide economy will stagnate, at best, after the short term sequential bounce from the current situation. Some companies will survive and prosper, many will not. All will change to varying degrees. Profit margins will change, mostly for the worse. From an investment standpoint, we continue to feel that gold mining companies are the single best asset class in terms of reward versus risk. We’ve been joined lately in our conviction relative to gold by legendary investors and portfolio strategists such as David Rosenberg, Jeff Gundlach, Ray Dalio, Jim Roberts, Stanley Drukenmiller, David Einhorn, Stephanie Pomboy, Luke Gromen and others. Long term proponents of gold and gold miners such as John Hathaway Fred Hickey, Bill Fleckenstein and Peter Schiff are more convinced than ever. Though it’s nice to have some “smart money” in our camp, the investment world in general is just beginning to take small positions in this sector. Gold bullion is up about 15% this year at this moment (a safe haven, after all). The miners, which were down for the year a month ago, are now in positive territory and catching up with bullion. In the last six weeks, gold mining stocks have moved about 4x the price change of bullion.  We believe we are still in the first inning of the resumption of the long term bull market for gold related securities.

Roger Lipton

SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY UPDATE – THE DEFICITS AND DEBT – HERE WE GO AGAIN!

SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY UPDATE

The general capital markets were up modestly in July, gold bullion was down 2.3%. The gold mining stocks were down about 3.5%.  Most importantly, our conviction hasn’t changed regarding the long term outlook for our portfolio that is heavily invested in gold mining stocks.

While last month we outlined a group of tangible factors that support our thesis, it could be useful to go back to the biggest single reason that gold will be the surviving “currency”, protecting purchasing power best. The worldwide credit pyramid that has fueled the economic growth over the last forty years must be liquidated. Debts must be paid off, and the numbers are too large for the worldwide economy to grow out of the problem. “Default” will be the result, but refusal to pay is too obvious and makes the politicians look bad. Inflation is the only other solution since the voting public doesn’t understand who caused it. Gold has gone from $250/oz. to $1200/oz. since 2000, starting with the President GW Bush debts to finance the aftermath of 9/11 and then the two wars. Gold doubled from $900 in ’09 and the gold mining stocks quadrupled and more) as the deficit spending ramped up even further under President Obama.

Here we go again: The projected US deficit in the fiscal year ending 9/30/18 is projected to be about $800B, up from $600B last year. However, the cumulative debt in the 10 months ending today ($21.2 trillion) is already one trillion dollars higher than last September and is projected to be higher by $1.2 trillion by 9/30.

Only in governmental accounting can the annual deficits not total the cumulative increase in debt. This is not new. You have no doubt heard from politicians and economists who are concerned about the future deficit spending. Republicans are concerned when Democrats are in power, and now the situation is reversed. However, they don’t talk about the excess debt, on top of the budgeted spending, called other borrowing. Over the last ten years, the cumulative debt increase has exceeded the total of annual deficits by a cool three trillion dollars. People, this is a lot of money. While the annual deficits going forward are projected to be over a trillion dollars annually over the next decade, you can only imagine what the cumulative debt will look like after the other borrowing. We have described the situation in terms of US debts, but enormous potential credit problems also overhang the economies of China, Japan, and the Eurozone, the largest after the USA. What the endgame looks like is unknown, but it won’t be pretty.

Stay healthy. Stay financially flexible.

Roger Lipton