June 17—In this episode, Chief Investment Officer Tony Roth welcomes Abby Joseph Cohen, advisory director and senior investment strategist at Goldman Sachs. Known as the “prophet of Wall Street,” Abby has been named one of Barron’s 100 Most Influential Women in U.S. Finance for 2020. Abby discusses with Tony the critical and evolving issues around health policy, consumer behavior, markets, and global relations in this unprecedented pandemic era.
Abby Joseph Cohen, Advisory Director and Senior Investment Strategist, Goldman Sachs
Please listen to important disclosures at the end of the podcast.
Wilmington WealthWise with Tony Roth
Episode 11: Back to the Future-A Conversation with Abby Joseph Cohen, the Prophet of Wall Street
Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer, Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc
Abby Joseph Cohen, Advisory Director, Senior Investment Strategist, Goldman Sachs
Tony Roth: Welcome to Wilmington WealthWise, the podcast dedicated to financial literacy, where we take complex ideas from the investment world and make them accessible to everyone. I’m your host Tony Roth, chief investment officer of Wilmington Trust.
Our very special guest today is Abby Joseph Cohen, advisory director and senior investment strategist at Goldman Sachs. She’s been called the “Prophet of Wall Street” and was named to Barron’s 100 Most Influential Women in U.S. Finance for 2020. Abby, we’re honored to have you here with us today. Welcome.
Abby Joseph Cohen: Tony, thank you very much, and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to speak with everyone who’s listening in.
Tony Roth: I know, Abby, as you like to say, we want to first start by satisfying the lawyers. So, please keep in mind, everybody, that Abby’s insights should not be interpreted as investment recommendations. I also want to remind you that WealthWise is nonpartisan and we take no political position one way or the other and I’m sure Abby feels the same.
So, Abby, let’s start with the landscape from a COVID-19 perspective. I know that you have a particular interest in the health care environment. You’ve published pieces on the U.S. health care system, and I know that you’re particularly plugged into a community of health care experts in New York City. How are you seeing and what are you hearing in terms of our progress in combating the disease and the outlook? So, how are you seeing the overall environment from the health care perspective?
Abby Joseph Cohen: Tony, I think you’re absolutely right to start with a discussion of COVID, because clearly that has been the overriding factor for investors and for people over the last several months. One of the things that does disturb me, quite frankly, is when we discuss the data on a nationwide basis. My area, the New York City Greater Metropolitan area, was among the first afflicted and hardest hit and we, fortunately, are now seeing a dramatic improvement in the data. And that’s great for us, but it is distorting the nationwide statistics.
So, while the numbers of new cases are going down and the number of deaths going down substantially in the New York area, it’s distorting the nationwide data in which we’re seeing many states in which, in fact, the number of new cases is rising. And this, of course, is very disturbing, not because of the numbers of cases, but clearly the impact on people and the fact that in any number of cities around the country there is now concern about the capacity in hospitals, ICUs, and of course, the availability of specialty equipment, like ventilators and dialysis machines.
Tony Roth: So, we saw, for example, last week, to your point, Abby, that 20 states and Puerto Rico had their worst weeks yet in terms of the total number of new infections detected. Texas had a record high for hospitalizations. Now, I know that the actual number of tests that are being run is larger, but in many of these states we’re actually seeing the positive rate come back either at level to past weeks or even in higher numbers in some cases. And I think that it’s sometimes a bit dangerous where we get positive news on some of the therapy efforts that have been undertaken, because it seems to perhaps encourage people to let their guard down when we’re far from out of the woods. So, what do you see happening in terms of the idea of maybe this is part of the first wave or maybe there’s going to be a bigger second wave?
Abby Joseph Cohen: Tony, as you noted before, I’ve had the good fortune to be involved with one of the leading medical research facilities in the United States and this is Weill Cornell Medicine, which is a part of New York Presbyterian Hospital. And I’ve had the opportunity to look at some of the information closely that is available from the public health experts who are working there who are also working in concert with a number of other institutions around the world, including Oxford University. And one of the concerns I think that the specialists is expressing—are expressing is that we haven’t seen, in fact, the end of the first wave yet, that there are a number of places in the United States and, very importantly, around the world that are still being hammered by a very large number of new cases.
And so, for example, if we look in places like India or Latin America or other places in the southern hemisphere, the disease is a very long way away from being even at the end of the first wave. This has consequences for us as well, because until there is a vaccine or a natural herd immunity of 60% to 70%, the public health experts believe that the risks will remain. And so, while that is the case, the possibility of a second wave is a very significant one, particularly as we see the relaxation of the social distancing and the masks.
One of the things that has really struck me has been the following. While we like to talk about the potential for antiviral medication as treatment and the latest report that there is a steroid that has been on the market for years that may be helpful for patients who are on ventilators, the single most important recommendation being made by all the public health experts is to wear a mask, cover your face in some manner, and to keep your social distance. That seems to be, while it’s very old school and those recommendations have been around not just in the case of COVID but in many other pandemics over the decades, that seems to be the best strategy for most people right now.
Tony Roth: It sounds like from your comments, Abby, that what you really believe is going to happen over coming months or even calendar quarters here in the U.S. is that we’re going to be on a bit of a rollercoaster in terms of different areas of the country sort of opening, maybe having to pull back on the openings as we see—we can get into the semantics of first wave versus second wave—but essentially as we see ebbs and flows of the disease hitting different communities around the country.
Abby Joseph Cohen: Tony, yes, I think you’ve captured that correctly.
Tony Roth: If you think about that as our health care backdrop, let’s talk about the economic outlook. Chairman Powell of the Fed has come out on behalf of the Fed and expressed essentially a projection of about a 6.5% drop in GDP for 2020, followed by a gain in 2021 of maybe 5%, and then a more of a normalization towards 3.5% in 2022. Do you—do those numbers strike you as realistic, optimistic? How did you react to those particular numbers?
Abby Joseph Cohen: I think the pattern of those numbers is probably correct. And I very much liked your categorization of the health situation, but also the economic situation as being a rollercoaster. And the economists at Goldman are very much in line with what the Fed is saying, is that we have probably seen the worst decline in the economy already with regard to employment, income, GDP, and so on.
And so, while we might have slight disagreements in terms of, well, is GDP going down 5% or 6% or 7% this year, I think most of us agree that there will be a recovery in 2021. And interestingly, my Goldman Sachs colleagues tend to be a little bit at the upper end of the kind of snapback we’re going to see.
We have to, however, remember that even with a very significant snapback, we’re not going to be where we were. The unemployment rate will still be quite high. We don’t expect to get anywhere close to where we were prior to the pandemic. So, for example, the unemployment rate could easily touch, you know, close to 10% and it’s going to take a year or two or longer to get much below 7%. And we also take a look at things like personal income.
The interesting thing here, of course, is that with the programs that were put in place by the Congress and signed into law by the president, there was a great deal of income substitution and income payback, if you will, in terms of many people receiving unemployment benefits, which not only replaced their income, but exceeded the income that they might have earned previously. And it’s one of the reasons that we have seen a nice snapback in retail spending.
One of the questions that we have is what will policy look like come the summer? Keep in mind that at the end of the June the current Protection Program, the PPP, ends. We don’t yet know whether it will be extended. In July, states around the U.S. will enter their new fiscal years. Many of them are now in financial duress and we don’t know what they’re going to need to cut employment and spending. And at the end of July, that extra $600 a week that was included in the unemployment benefit will disappear.
And so, we’re going to be watching very carefully to see what the Congress and the president do in the next few weeks and couple of months to replace and/or adjust these particular programs, because if they don’t do something, the outcome for the second half of this year and 2021 could change very significantly from what many people are now expecting.
Tony Roth: To that point, Abby, one of the concerns that we’ve been discussing and evaluating within our Economics team here at Wilmington Trust is specifically whether or not we will have perhaps a second wave of unemployment, probably not as large as the initial wave. But nonetheless, when the PPP runs out and companies are no longer incented or required to keep their employees on the payroll in order to have these so-called loans become grants, we could see a wave of unemployment at that point. So, that’s something that we’re quite worried about in addition to the negative impact on retail spending when that unemployment you’ve talked about runs out as well.
Abby Joseph Cohen: And one thing to keep in mind is that the people who might lose their jobs over the next two, three, four months are not necessarily the people who are currently on furlough. Many of the people currently on furlough are in service jobs, things like restaurants, retail, and so on, and they may be able to come back to work to some degree. The people that—who may lose their jobs going forward may be employees of state and local governments and also other companies who have decided that they just cannot see getting back to prior levels of activity within the next period of time.
Tony Roth: So, before we get to the market, I want to—do want to ask you one more question about the trajectory of the economy as it relates to the Fed overall program. The Fed has really undertaken a lot of different unprecedented actions that range from the expectation of zero interest rates through a number of years to the expansion of the availability of capital for banks and the requirements of capital that banks need to hold in order to create more lending on the part of banks to the Fed wading into the corporate bond market and buying bonds themselves.
When you think about all of those actions in their totality, do you see any ultimate problems ensuing, whether it be inflation or whether you see other distortions in the financial system or problems in the financial system as a result of the medicine that we had to take to get us through this period?
Abby Joseph Cohen: I’m one of those people, Tony, who believes that the Fed has done the right thing. Now that does not mean that every single action they’ve taken will prove to have been exactly appropriate. But, for them to have moved quickly and decisively accomplished several things. First of all, it calmed the financial markets, which were in danger of seizing up. And if the financial markets don’t work, there can be no recovery of any sort. And I think that they’ve also through various programs that were first initiated during the global financial crisis 2008 and 2009, they recognized that they had mechanisms at their disposal to get into the markets, calm things down, and make sure that liquidity got to the companies within the overall economy. And the focus has been companies of various sizes and I think that’s very, very important.
Will this ultimately trigger inflation? I think that if it does it is a long-term problem, not a short-term problem. This is a Fed that, like many other central banks, has a goal of about 2% inflation and we’re probably running at about 1%. So, I’m not terribly concerned about inflation in the short-to-intermediate term. The Fed has indicated that they think that interest rates will stay roughly where they are for the next couple of years. So, I don’t think the concern is inflation.
What I would be watching for as a macroeconomist are potential signs of disinflation and deflation. And by that I don’t necessarily mean swings in things like the stock market, but rather looking at personal income levels. Right now, personal income, as we’ve discussed a few moments ago, has been held steady or in some cases boosted through the unemployment benefits programs. But we’ll be watching carefully to see what happens to wages once the economy stabilizes. We certainly hope that wages will be calm and will gradually move higher. That’s always an indication of an economy that is recovering and beginning to expand again.
Tony Roth: One of the things that we’ve noted, Abby, is savings rates have moved up significantly and a lot of households have utilized cash to pay off credit cards. So, certainly the propensity to spend has dropped. Notwithstanding a recent increase in retail sales, there’s still an underlying concern, sort of mentality of hunkering down on the part of many families across the country.
So, pivoting to the markets, given the very structurally disturbed economy that we’re living within now is the market being just too optimistic? Is there—is the big disconnect between economic fundamentals with a time horizon of a year or so and the level of equity markets and the multiple that we see, does it make any sense to you?
Abby Joseph Cohen: Well, let’s start with the following, which is these markets are extremely volatile. So, we can have a conversation today, Tony, about current valuation levels and by the time people listen to this podcast, the valuation levels could be entirely different. So, let’s be humble in that regard.
But right now, we are looking at a stock market that has retraced almost all of its losses and as a consequence we see a P/E and other valuation metrics that basically say the market is at fair value based upon economic and profit expectations for year-end 2021. And that might be correct. However, we don’t know about the intervening valleys and the intervening aggravations that we will all be going through.
And so, from that standpoint it’s really quite interesting to see that investors are willing to look over those valleys and say the Fed has this. We believe the Fed will provide whatever liquidity is needed. We believe that companies will come to the fore and that things will be okay.
That might be correct in aggregate. Here are some of my concerns. First of all, a good deal of the recovery in shares has been related to some stocks, not all. We know, for example, that technology stocks have performed extremely well and maybe that is appropriate given the changes we’re seeing in the economy. But we also know that there are some industries that will lag in terms of their recovery and we need to be more careful when we think about whether those stocks are appropriately valued, number one.
Number two, there will likely be a difference as the nation emerges from this terrible period in terms of how large companies do and how small companies do. So, for example, larger companies may be able to adjust to some of the new requirements with regard to health protections or the new needs with regard to digitization. Maybe they’ll be able to do that more nimbly and can afford it more easily than smaller companies.
So, there are quite a number of things to think about when we look at the stock market. As always, the stock market is a discounting device. It’s looking into the future rather than trying to price the current picture. The current picture, while it’s getting better, is still not very good. So, clearly you have to believe that things will be improving, if not steadily, but things will be improving on this rollercoaster path and will be notably better by the end of 2021, to think that the market is appropriately priced right now.
Tony Roth: And I really like, Abby, the way that you’ve described for us the market as looking into the future. That’s what it means to say that the market is a discounting mechanism, because when we think about the idea that the market is fairly valued for the end of 2021, that sort of implies the market as a glass-half-full discounting tool rather than a glass-half-empty discounting tool. And what I mean by that is even that outcome still requires some assumptions around the outcome of the COVID situation, like that we get a vaccine, for example.
We’re nowhere close to the herd immunity that you’re describing of 60% to 70% to be able to get on with our lives without the vaccines. So, not only does everything have to go right from a reopening standpoint in order to understand where the market’s going, but we also need to get that vaccine. And if we don’t, I think that probably entails a very different kind of appropriate valuation level for the markets.
Abby Joseph Cohen: We’re also assuming that our policymakers in Washington and around the country continue to make good decisions about supporting economic growth. We mentioned earlier, Tony, some of the challenges coming up this summer as the initial relief programs fade out and we don’t yet know whether they’ll be reinstituted or at what level. In addition, there are some long-term structural issues that need to be addressed in the economy.
There’s been a great deal of discussion, for example, about inequality and the whole question about mobility. Is the educational system, for example, sufficiently robust as it has been in prior generations so that young children have an opportunity to do better? That’s one aspect. The other aspect is whether we are investing sufficiently not just in people through education, but are we investing sufficiently in a nation in things like infrastructure?
Mr. Trump early in his administration did have conversations with the Democrats about a significant infrastructure plan and maybe we will see something like that. We could certainly use it. It’s not just the crumbling roads that we see in some of our major cities. It’s also the absence of adequate broadband in many rural communities.
What we have discovered over the last few months is that there are some areas of the country that are having a very difficult time because they can’t get on Zoom calls and they can’t have jobs that are linked to the internet and broadband. For example, in rural communities access is only about 60%, as opposed to in excess of 95% in more urban America, and that is an infrastructure need that we need to address.
Tony Roth: On the point of education, I’ve always been a subscriber to the idea that education is absolutely vital in order to increase over time productivity in the economy. As digital increasingly becomes how we engage with one another and how our society functions, we need to be able to retrain people. So, education is critical. It’s also critical from an equality standpoint. Those ideas really resonate with me personally.
Abby Joseph Cohen: Thank you for saying retraining, because we are now in a 21st century economy in which you don’t train for just one job. You need to be continually retrained as job requirements change and as whole industries are converted into different types of technology and processes.
Tony Roth: I want to go there in one moment, actually, and talk about the sort of new economy and the impact of digital as one of the major structural changes from COVID that we’ll be living with really for the rest of our lives. But, before I do, I just wanted to go back to one point, Abby, which is so important, I think. You’ve mentioned it a couple times now, which is the need to re-prime the pump from a fiscal standpoint in terms of these programs that are running out. Without taking a political view here, just talking about the economy, I take it then that you believe that they should be re-primed and that we don’t need to worry right now about the total size of the debt that that may imply in terms of the number of incremental trillions of dollars. I mean is there a point at which you get to a conclusion, hey, this is just getting too big and too unhealthy to maintain over the long-term? Or are we not even close to that point yet?
Abby Joseph Cohen: When I speak with my Goldman Sachs colleagues who have the responsibility of putting together forecasts and so on, the basic assumption is that there will be some re-priming of the pump, but not to the same degree, that an awful lot was done early on. Basically, the amount of fiscal stimulus that was applied was roughly equal to about 80% of the estimated loss of GDP. And so, going forward as the economy looks better, but still not where it was, the amount of stimulus needed will be smaller. Perhaps it will be targeted to infrastructure, for example. But we do think there is a need for some more.
With regard to the budget deficit, it is, of course, at unprecedented levels, both in terms of dollar amount, but also as a percentage of GDP. And this is something that we always watch and always look at, but from a long-term standpoint. We believe that in the current year, you know, the deficit will easily exceed $2 trillion, excuse me, $4 trillion. I beg your pardon. And in 2021 will exceed $2.4 trillion.
We are hopeful that it will gradually recede. But there are two ways for the deficit to come down. One is adjustment in government spending and intake (i.e., taxes and other forms of revenue). The other is for the economy to grow. And I think the single most important metric is not necessarily the dollar amount. It’s the dollar amount as a percentage of GDP. How big is the economy? Can we grow our way out of this problem? That would be a very gradual, gradual approach.
But, let’s keep in mind that the deficit was deteriorating even before the pandemic. During the first two years of the Trump administration, there was a very significant increase in the budget deficit, both in terms of dollars and as a percentage of GDP, in large part because of the tax cuts. And we have to recognize that we were moving in the wrong direction.
There’s also the long-term issue and the long-term issue has to do with the aging of the Baby Boomers. As they get older, earn less, pay less in taxes, they will also be taking in more in so-called entitlement spending, particularly Medicare. Social Security is a lesser issue.
So, as a nation we have to always keep this in mind. But here’s my bottom line on it. This is not the year to worry about it. When the economy gets its sea legs back, that’s the point at which we need to start addressing a variety of issues as it relates to the budget deficit.
Tony Roth: The last topic, which we were just talking about, that I really want to explore with you in a bit of depth is the critical change that we’ve all experienced that’s been in a sense accelerated I suppose around how we live our lives through technology We’re seeing it in the workplace. We’re seeing it through our families when we Zoom with each other. We’re seeing it how we interact with our medical providers in many cases.
Could you tell us about how important this change is in your mind, Abby? And relatedly from an investing standpoint, do you see that as being a really important focus in how we build portfolios and invest going forward?
Abby Joseph Cohen: Tony, that is such an important question and I’m going to start by agreeing with you and then to make a comment that may strike people as very odd. Okay. Here’s the point that is very clear and that is, yes, we have seen an acceleration in trends that were underway anyway, things like tele-health, education, distance learning, use of video conferencing and so on. And clearly what has happened to the world in recent months has accelerated that. Thus far, it is to the relative advantage of those families and companies and industries that are best positioned to be able to afford doing things this way, the ones that can afford the social distancing, the ones that can afford to put in place technology, and so on.
The comment I’d like to make which may strike you as very odd is that the pandemic may also help us as a nation overall kick start, kick start the innovation that was beginning to flag. One of the things that I’ve looked at and have written about has been the decline in the urgency that our nation has attached to investing in basic science and research. It peaked as a percentage of GDP and it peaked as a percentage of our federal budget in the 1960s. Since then, we have been spending less and less as a nation on science and basic research and, dare I say it, also science education, particularly at the elementary and high school levels.
And one of the things that distresses me is that as a nation we used to be number one in this category. We spent more as a percentage of our GDP for basic science and research than any other nation. We obviously spent much more in terms of dollars as well.
We’re no longer number one in this category. Depending upon which metric you look at, we’re sort of number 15. That’s not where we should be. We should be much higher ranked. And one of the things that I’m trying to keep in mind as a potential positive is whether the current period of incredible duress and distress will help kick start a reengagement with science and a reengagement with our nation’s investment in this very important set of activities.
Tony Roth: One always hopes out of the crucible of crisis, whether it be equality, whether it be talking about creating educational opportunity in general, whether it be talking about creating access to the digital world really, you know, one hopes that out of this painful making lemonade out of the lemons, out of this period, we’re going to make progress in some of these very critical structural challenges that we’ve sort of accumulated over the years.
Abby, with the trend that we’ve talked about around the economy becoming far more digital and it’s impacting how we live, how we consume, how we interact as a society, where do you see opportunities for investors to take those trends into account in building their portfolios?
Abby Joseph Cohen: My colleagues in the Goldman Sachs Investment Research department have written recently in a way that I find very interesting, which is the market has already spoken in this regard. You know, technology stocks have grown to be about 25% of the S&P 500, which by the way is a much larger percentage than is the case in any other country; helps explain in part why the U.S. stock market has outperformed any number of others. And we also see that much of the profit growth that is expected over the next 12 to 18 months or so will be coming from technology stocks.
That being the case, we’re looking as investors at those securities, which are still reasonably priced based upon their fundamentals of earnings, margins, and cash flow, and those that have a leg up in terms of the ongoing digitization. My colleagues are also looking at companies in other industries that are taking good advantage of this kind of technological change, but also some others. They’ve been focusing in on the so-called ESG investing, where they think a lot of the focus on, you know, looking at these other characteristics of environmental impact, societal impact, and governance are critically important.
We also see, for example, a sharp differentiation within the market based upon strength of balance sheets. Not a surprise. Those companies that have strong balance sheets, have their own cash flow, and so on have outperformed others in the marketplace.
The interesting exception has developed just over the last two or three weeks where we’re seeing some of the weaker companies beginning to outperform. Now, some people might refer to these as value stocks and in many cases they are. They offer good value for the level of stock price. In other cases, there’s a reason why some of these securities are selling at fairly low P/E ratios or price-to-book ratios and that is because there’s concern about the sustainability of their earnings or whether their book value is appropriately stated.
So, it becomes as is often the expression, it is a market of stocks rather than a stock market, particularly when the aggregate suggests we are already at fair value. So, it really behooves investors to think through the specific securities and companies that they want to be associated with.
Tony Roth: Well, thank you so much, Abby. We could go on and on. There’s just so much to discuss right now.
So, as I always do, let me just summarize for folks what I see as the three key takeaways from today’s conversation. First, I think I would say is that we’re currently not out of the woods from a medical standpoint, from a public health standpoint on COVID. It’s very important to remain focused on the social distancing, on the masks, and the fact that the economy is going to be on, like the market, a rollercoaster, where we’re going to see different parts of the country opening and shutting over the next call it two to six months as we grind our way through this public health care crisis. That will surely result in many more people joining the unemployed ranks, and we’ll see a lot of trouble for businesses in the country. So, that’s the first thing I would say.
Second is the critical importance of the support that we’ve received from the government already, from the federal government, and the continuation of that support. The direct support that we’ve received in the form of what I think of as the cash transfers from the government to small businesses and to employees in order to keep people afloat during this period of time, even if it’s not as large as what we’ve already received, still needs to continue or people won’t be able to make it to the other side of this crisis.
And then lastly, in the criteria that we look at as investors when we look at companies to invest in, really trying to focus on companies that have positioned themselves well, whether they’re within the technology sector or whether they’re not technically within the technology sector but they utilize technology or other criteria around strong balance sheets, strong governance, a focus on society and the environment will enable them to be successful and incorporating those values into portfolios overall really is, we believe, a blueprint for a successful investment strategy and were, I think, very much in line with what Abby has articulated there.
So, with that, Abby, I’d like to thank you again so much for your astute insights and for joining us today.
Abby Joseph Cohen: My pleasure. Thank you.
Tony Roth: And finally, I would like to invite all of our listeners to send their feedback and suggestions for future podcast topics to firstname.lastname@example.org. And I would like to encourage everybody to go wilmingtontrust.com for a roundup of all of our intellectual capital around the current environment. You’ll find blog posts, media contributions, commentary on markets, the economy, and independent global health perspectives. Thank you all for listening today.
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