Political Calculations
Unexpectedly Intriguing!
October 24, 2014

We need you to watch the following video, in which Dave Hax describes how to freehand draw a perfect circle. Once you've seen how, we need you to duplicate his "target" pattern of the three concentric circles on a sheet of paper, making the innermost one as small as you can draw:


After you've drawn your target pattern, fill in the innermost circle to represent the eye of the target.

Then note that when it came to anticipating where stock prices were going this past volatile week, we hit all of our marks within that innermost circle. Again.

But then, it's been an easy week. As easy as drawing a perfect circle by hand.

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October 23, 2014

The unfortunate news of yesterday's Parliament Hill terrorist incident in Ottawa provides the background for a quick study of the impact that such events can have on the U.S. stock market. We classify these kinds of events as noise events, since they have no effect upon the fundamental drivers of stock prices, nor do they have any lasting impact upon stock prices.

But they can have a short term effect, which we'll attempt to quantify. To do that, we'll do an event analysis using the basic timeline that we've been able to put together from reports by The Globe and Mail, International Business Daily and CTV.

What we're looking for specifically in our event analysis is the point in time at which U.S. investors first came to appreciate the full seriousness of the incident, from which we can calculate the subsequent impact upon stock prices. Here, we'll be taking advantage of our previous observations that it only takes investors some two to four minutes to react to news that they were not previously expecting.

We've annotated the chart below showing the value of the S&P 500 stock market index on 22 October 2014 with the major news events documented by our timeline news sources.

S&P 500 on 22 October 2014 - Source: Google Finance

The table below lists the major events indicated by the corresponding letters shown on the chart above.

Timeline of Events for Canada's Parliament Hill Terrorist Incident on 22 October 2014
Event Time Event Description
A 9:52 AM EDT First calls to Ottawa police in connection with the first shooting at Canada's National War Memorial, wounding Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was guarding the Memorial's Cenotaph. The suspect then crossed the street to enter the Parliament Buildings. Reports of dozens of shots follow.
B 10:12 AM EDT Reports of shots fired in the Parliament Buildings.
C 10:18 AM EDT More reports of shots fired. Canadian MPs leave Parliament for safety.
D 10:21 AM EDT Male suspect, Michael Zehef-Bibeau, is reported deceased. Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers is later reported to have shot the assailant outside the MPs' caucus rooms.
E 10:49 AM EDT Rideau Centre shopping mall is reported to have been evacuated.
F 11:00 AM EDT Gunfire is reported near the Château Laurier hotel, near the Parliament Buildings.
G 11:06 AM EDT University of Ottawa is locked down.
H 11:13 AM EDT Château Laurier hotel is locked down. Parliamentary security locks down all Parliament Buildings.
I 11:20 AM EDT An 8-member police SWAT team enter Parliament's Centre Block on the run.
J 11:50 AM EDT Ottawa police confirm there were at least three separate shootings.
K 12:10 PM EDT International Business Daily posts the Globe and Mail's video of the exchange of gunfire between police and at least one suspect in the Parliament Buildings. This is likely the first venue through which U.S. investors were communicated the seriousness of the incident.
L 12:12 PM EDT U.S. markets begin falling in response to the incident (these changes are driven by speculation - not by changes in the fundamental driver of stock prices.)
M 12:19 PM EDT Victims injured in shooting incidents begin arriving at Ottawa Hospital.
N 1:20 PM EDT Corporal Nathan Cirillo is reported to have died.
O 1:44 PM EDT Rideau Centre shopping mall lockdown is lifted.
P 3:45 PM EDT University of Ottawa lockdown is lifted.

The Parliamentary Buildings were still locked down when the market closed on Wednesday, 22 October 2014, with police continuing their investigation of the incident.

We see that it was the reporting of the exchange of gunfire in the Parliament Buildings at 12:10 PM EDT [K] that prompted the reaction in the U.S. stock market, as stock prices began falling as investors immediately adopted a more "safety"-oriented investing strategy - selling off stocks to capture recent gains. From 12:10 PM to the end of trading, the S&P 500 fell from 1946.16 to 1927.11 - a decline of 19.05 points, or just shy of 1% of the S&P 500's index value at the time U.S. investors learned of the seriousness of the event.

That's far less than the potential +/-3% range of the typical "noise" level that we expect for the daily variation in stock price prices that is built into our forecast model. Which is to say "hardly any impact at all." And because it's just noise, even that will quickly fade. Terrorism is the act of the impotent.

There has though been a very real loss. A much finer man than the Islamic terrorist assailant will no longer be among us, a man who died guarding a memorial to those who died in war long before him. And as did they, with honour.

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October 22, 2014

Since we're now outside of the anniversary period of 2013's U.S. debt ceiling crisis, the third and smallest of the major noise events of 2013, we're making the transition back to using our standard baseline model for use in forecasting and explaining changes in current day stock prices. Something that people like Catherine Rampell would not appear to believe is even possible.

Even though the period from 1 October through 17 October is somewhat affected by the echo effect's impact on our mathematical model of how stock prices work, it's pretty small in size. That's certainly true after we substitute the CBOE's dividend futures value for 2014-Q3 (of $9.895 per share) that we were previously using in our projections with S&P's final reported value for the quarter's dividends (of $10.023 per share). This change accounts for the upward shift in the trajectory associated with investors focused on the distant future quarter of 2015-Q3 compared to the version of this chart that we last posted nearly two weeks ago.

Alternative Futures - Standard Baseline Model - Fourth Quarter 2014 - Snapshot on 21 October 2014

What we observe is consistent with stock prices either rebounding to the level that investors focused on 2015-Q3 would set them after having "overcorrected" for the misplaced rally of 8 October 2014, or perhaps more likely, briefly focusing on 2015-Q1, which could have been influenced by the earnings being reported by U.S. companies during the past week.

In both cases, to the dismay of the Rampells of the world, the current state of the U.S. economy carries no weight in the setting of stock prices, as investors are almost invariably looking beyond the present quarter as they make their investment decisions.

In fact, it's really pretty rare for investors to maintain any sort of focus on the current quarter in setting stock prices for any sustained period of time. There are really only two periods during the past six years where we've observed that sort of thing, which occurred when U.S. companies were either slashing their dividends in the current quarter, which played out as the crash from 26 September 2008 through 9 March 2009) or were acting to significantly boost their dividend payments to investors (15 November 2012 through 20 December 2012), where they were raiding the funds set aside to pay dividends in future quarters to beat the clock on the risk of major tax hikes as part of the Fiscal Cliff Crisis.

And since it's the changes in the growth rate of dividends that are directly proportional to the changes subsequently seen in the growth rate of stock prices as they respond to this fundamental signal as investors collectively focus on particular points of time in the future in making their investment decisions, let's take a look at what those expectations specifically are:

Changes in the Growth Rates of Expected Future Trailing Year Dividends per Share with Daily and 20-Day Moving Average of S&P 500 Stock Prices, Through 21 October 2014

Looking forward, here is the level of dividends for the S&P 500 that investors are currently expecting to be paid in each of the following future quarters (according to the CBOE's dividend futures contracts as of 21 October 2014):

  • 2014-Q4: $9.886 per share (*)
  • 2015-Q1: $10.743 per share (*)
  • 2015-Q2: $10.619 per share
  • 2015-Q3: $10.712 per share

(*) All these values are based on dividend futures contracts, which run from the end of the preceding futures contract on the third Friday of the month ending the preceding quarter through the third Friday of the month ending the indicated quarter, and which project the dividends per share that will be paid out over that interval. These values will not match those reported by Standard and Poor for the S&P 500, since they report the dividends paid from the end of the month for one calendar quarter to the end of the next. Because of that difference, and because a lot of companies pay out their largest dividends before the end of the year, look for significant discrepancies between the CBOE's dividend futures and S&P's reported dividends for Q4 and Q1, with lesser adjustments for Q2's and Q3's dividends.

What these values do however tell us is that investors are expecting flat to lower dividend growth once we're in 2015. Which is why stock prices are most likely to head sideways or lower in the absence of an improving economic situation in the future that would prompt companies to boost their dividends in those future quarters.

What's more, the Federal Reserve shares our basic assessment, which we discovered in the reporting on the one topic that could suddenly cause investors to focus on the current quarter of 2014-Q4 in setting today's stock prices:

Mr. Bullard did not say he definitely wanted to extend the bond-buying program. No other Fed official has offered such speculation, and three—Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren, San Francisco Fed President John Williams and Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher—said in recent days they expect to end the purchases at their meeting Oct. 28-29.

The Fed’s policy committee has said recently the bond program would end this month. Barring a really tumultuous final 10 days of October, the panel “will almost certainly make that forecast come true,” analysts at Wrightson ICAP said.

More broadly, Fed officials routinely reject the idea they target stock prices in their policy deliberations. To the extent an equity fall would influence policy makers, it would have be very sharp and threaten to destabilize the financial system and the broader economy.

No comments from Fed officials over recent weeks have suggested officials are overly alarmed about what’s been happening in markets. Mr. Fisher even welcomed the declines as a sign markets are pricing equities in better alignment with the economy’s fundamentals.

WSJ reporter Michael Derby forgot to add the words "going forward" to the end of that last sentence, because those are the economic fundamentals that matter where stock prices are concerned. For people who pay attention to stock prices, the present is only where we live.

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October 21, 2014

Who were the major holders of debt issued by the U.S. federal government as of the end of its 2014 fiscal year?

The preliminary answer of who owns the $17.860 trillion in debt issued by the U.S. federal government as of 30 September 2014 is presented graphically below:

Fiscal Year 2014: To Whom Does the U.S. Government Owe Money?

The data for foreign holdings will be revised over the next six months. We anticipate that the holdings indicated for Belgium will be shifted to other foreign entities, given that nation's role as an international banking center.

Since FY2013

Since the end of the U.S. government's 2013 fiscal year on 30 September 2013, the total public debt outstanding for the U.S. government has increased by $1.086 trillion (or to agree with the units shown on our chart, $1,086 billion). That would mark the sixth time in the last seven years that the national debt of the United States has expanded by more than $1 trillion dollars per year - double the typical half trillion a year increases that were viewed as a major problem prior to Barack Obama's presidency.

Year Over Year Changes in the U.S. National Debt (Total Public Debt Outstanding), Fiscal Years 2000-2014

The $1.086 trillion increase in the total national debt for Fiscal Year 2014 is all the more remarkable because the U.S. Treasury Department just bragged that the federal government's budget deficit for FY2014 was $483 billion.

Oct 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. budget deficit fell by nearly a third to $483 billion in fiscal 2014, the lowest level since 2008, as a quickening economic recovery boosted tax collections and spending grew only modestly, the Treasury Department said.

The deficit, down from $680 billion last year, was the lowest since a $459 billion budget gap in fiscal 2008, which was followed by four straight years of $1 trillion-plus deficits in the wake of the financial crisis.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan hailed the data on Wednesday as a "return to fiscal normalcy" as the 2014 deficit fell to 2.8 percent of gross domestic product. That was the lowest since 2007 and a smaller share of the economy than the annual average for the last 40 years.

Somehow, the U.S. federal government managed to borrow and spend an additional $603 billion, above and beyond the official budget deficit of $483 billion claimed by the Obama administration, in order to cause the national debt to increase by more than one trillion dollars in one year.

How Could That Happen?

Part of the answer lies in the debt ceiling debate during 2013, which ultimately led to the partial federal government shut down for the first 17 days of the 2014 fiscal year, from 1 October 2014 through 17 October 2014.

Here, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew artificially kept the U.S.' total public debt outstanding from increasing above the statutory debt ceiling by shifting around the portion of debt held by U.S. government entities, such as Social Security's Trust Fund and the U.S. Civil Service Retirement Fund - giving them I.O.U.s as he redirected funds intended for them to instead allow the U.S. Treasury to continue rolling over the debt it owes to the public.

The reason the U.S. government had to go through a partial shut down is because those trust funds didn't have enough money to keep the shell game going until the debt ceiling was increased. When it finally was, the U.S. government "owed" some $328 billion to "itself". Which it promptly rushed out to borrow in Fiscal Year 2014.

That's also why the increase in the national debt for FY2013 seems so low. $328 billion of the debt that should have been recorded in that year was actually recorded in FY2014.

That means that the U.S. national debt increased by $758 billion in FY2014, $275 billion more than the official amount of the U.S. Treaury's claimed $483 billion budget deficit.

We're still waiting for the official explanation of that fiscal discrepancy.

Data Sources

Federal Reserve Statistical Release. H.4.1. Factors Affecting Reserve Balances. 1 October 2014. [Online Document]. Accessed 17 October 2014.

U.S. Treasury. Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities. Accessed 17 October 2014.

U.S. Treasury. Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government for Fiscal Year 2014 Through September 30, 2014. [PDF Document].

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October 20, 2014

Since the S&P 500 is behaving so predictably, and because we just visited the topic on Thursday, 16 October 2014, we thought we'd take this opportunity to revisit how the stock prices of the S&P 500 behaved in the third quarter of 2014.

Our first animated chart shows how stock prices behaved with respect to our standard baseline model, in which we incorporate the historic stock prices of one year earlier as the base reference points from which we project stock prices in the near term future:

Alternative Futures of S&P 500 Stock Prices, 2014-Q3, Standard Baseline Model

Since we knew coming into the quarter that our standard baseline model's projections would be skewed off as a result of what we call the echo effect, where the echoes of past noise events show up in our current day projections, we developed our rebaselined model, in which we exchanged the historic stock price data of a year ago for the historic stock data of two years ago - a period of time that was relatively free of the kind of noise events that can throw off our projections of future stock prices.

That simple change produced very good results, as demonstrated in the animated chart of our rebaselined model for the third quarter of 2014:

Alternative Futures of S&P 500 Stock Prices, 2014-Q3, Rebaselined Model

All in all, if you knew how far forward investors were looking in setting today's stock prices, and also when they were shifting their attention from one point of time in the future to another, 2014-Q3 was a pretty predictable quarter.

Speaking of which, let's look under the hood at the fundamental driver of stock prices: the changes in the rates of growth of dividends expected at discrete points of time in the upcoming future:

Change in the Growth Rates of Expected Future Trailing Year Dividends per Share with Daily and 20-Day Moving Average of S&P 500 Stock Prices, through 17 October 2014

Mind the notes in the margin of our expectations chart.

On a final note, we'll observe that the projections of our rebaselined model will begin to skew off from the actual trajectory of stock prices as it will be affected by the echo effect beginning in November, thanks to the two year anniversary of the noise events that resulted from the outcome of the 2012 U.S. election. The cool thing is that we now have the ability to effectively work around that kind of challenge in using our analytical methods, which is really what we demonstrated during the third quarter of 2014.

To find out more, follow the links below....

Previously on Political Calculations

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