The data has started to arrive.
Tuesday’s Employment report (gosh, it seems strange to write that) was weaker-than-expected with Payrolls +148k versus expectations for +180k. As I wrote back at the beginning of August, something in the realm of 200k is about as good as you’re going to get, so we’re not very short of that…we’re just very far short of what the consensus seems to expect we’re eventually going to get. No doubt, 148k isn’t 200k, and the six-month average of 163k is the lowest of the year. But it is also not a calamity, on the growth front.
And yet, 10-year interest rates are 50bps below the highs of early September. (Real yields are actually down 60bps, which means inflation expectations have risen slightly during that period). Interest rates are down because everyone knows that the trajectory of policy, with Yellen as likely to be the next Chairman of the Fed, is going to be “lower for longer.” But why? This goes back to the observation that growth is not far short of the best that it is likely to get. The only point of “lower for longer” is to support asset markets – housing, equity, and the bond market whence our nation’s interest burden is determined – and it seems to be doing this quite well. The alternate theory is that the Fed still fears deflation, despite all evidence (and copious theory) that the risk arrow is pointing in the other direction. In neither case does the Federal Reserve come out looking particularly on top of things, but more and more we are expecting that from Washington whether the officials are elected or appointed.
I really thought at one point that the bond market was going to be where the profligate monetary policy was going to first come unglued, but I am now wondering if it isn’t that denizen of hair-trigger shooters, the foreign exchange markets. The dollar index is plumbing the lows of the last two years, although it remains considerably above the lows of 2008 and 2011. As the chart below shows, the dollar has actually left behind the commodity markets where, as we know, investors suffer from the delusion that growth is more important for the nominal price of commodities than is the overall price level. Weak-ish growth means that commodities are only weakly above its August lows, although the buck is quite a bit lower since then.
I don’t think we can learn much right now watching stocks, where investors are simply playing Icarus. We all know where it leads, but any words of warning are laughed off as they soar with Fed-induced wings. Of course they’ll turn away in time!
I think housing is interesting. Having gotten back barely to fair, or maybe just a smidge cheap, compared to incomes, housing is expensive once again. But it isn’t in bubble territory yet, at least in the sense that when it cracks it could cause the carnage it did once before.
Bonds are on tenuous footing. With the consensus currently in place that the Fed might keep QE in place more or less forever, there are a lot of ways to disappoint the status quo: Fed speakers might suddenly try to start sounding stern again and imply that QE might not last forever; inflation might continue to tick higher and make obvious the unsustainability of the current course; or growth numbers might surprise to the high side.
The barbarians are already overrunning the dollar, and I suspect only the fact that Japanese monetary policy is far worse is keeping the descent slow. But people plugged into the supply and demand for currency are probably most likely to understand what happens when too much is supplied (hint: it’s the same thing that happens to the price of corn when too much corn is supplied). For a while, monetary authorities have been chasing each other to see which could be the least respectable, but it now seems that Japan wins that race and the US is likely to place.
As the chart above shows, reasons for increasing exposure to broad-based commodity indices (especially those that do not overweight energy, as the GSCI does) continue to accumulate.
There is much more data to come, of course, but to me it seems the battle lines have been more or less drawn in this fashion.
Now, now, children! Stop fighting! This is unbecoming!
It is apparent now that the disagreements in the FOMC – while nothing new – are becoming more significant and the hurly-burly is spilling into the public eye. It is somewhat amazing to me that the Fed is allowing this argument to be conducted in public (traditionally, all remarks by Fed officials are first vetted by the Chairman’s office). Today Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher actually questioned the Fed’s credibility! This article is worth reading, and not just for the part where Fisher says that Yellen is “dead wrong on policy.” It’s also fascinating that Fisher attributed the decision to delay the taper to “a perceived ‘tenderness’” in the housing recovery.
Below is a chart (source: Enduring Investments) of the ratio of median existing home sale prices to median household income. If this is “tenderness” in a recovery, it only shows a lack of knowledge of history: this is the second highest ratio of home prices to income we have since this particular data begins…and the first highest ratio sunk the global economy for a half-decade and counting.
On the other side of the fence were the New York Fed’s Bill Dudley and the Atlanta Fed’s Dennis Lockhart, who lamented that (Dudley) there has been no pickup in the economy’s “forward momentum” and asked (Lockhart) “Is America losing its economic mojo?” These questions, and the result of these questions during the recent FOMC meeting, illustrate two points. First, that the bar for removing never-before-seen levels of monetary accommodation has been raised so high that doves believe it is appropriate to keep the foot on the accelerator until growth is drastically above-average. As I illustrated back at the beginning of August, it is unreasonable to expect more than about 200,000 new jobs per month to be created by the economy. Repairing all of the damage is simply going to take time. We would all love to see 5% growth, but is the Fed’s job really to make sure that happens, or to try and manage the downside (or, as I personally believe, to merely manage the price level)?
The second point that the Fisher/Dudley/Lockhart comments illustrate is that the doves at the Fed are clearly in control. The hawks were completely unable even to get a marginal tapering, although the Fed had clearly indicated previously that such a taper was likely to happen.
It is a Dudley/Bernanke/Yellen Fed (and they have allies too!), and anyone who thinks that the Fed is abruptly going to find religion once CPI peeks above 2% is fighting against all historical indications. One need only consider the fact that the post-FOMC meeting statement pointed out a “tightening of financial conditions observed in recent months,” a clear reference to the rapid rise in interest rates that accompanied the initial talk about tapering. But if the Fed begged off on the taper partly because of the tightening of financial conditions, that is the rise in interest rates that was caused by an expectation that the taper would stop, then the argument circular, isn’t it? It’s impossible for them to stop, since any indication that they were going to stop is obviously going to cause interest rates to rise, which would be a tightening of financial conditions, which would keep them from stopping… Does anyone seriously think that a core inflation print of 2.1% would change that?
To the extent that cutting from 20 cups of coffee per day to 19 cups of coffee per day could be called a “bold step,” wouldn’t the best time to take such a “bold step” with monetary policy be when the equity markets are at their highs and real estate markets back above their long-term value anchors?
And yet, the initial enthusiasm for the stock market for the continuation of QE seems to have faded rapidly. The entire post-FOMC rally that caused such joy around the offices of CNBC last Wednesday has been erased. Interestingly, the initial spike in commodities prices has also been erased, which is more curious since commodities prices don’t depend on growth as much as they do on inflation. And 10-year inflation expectations are back around 2.25%, basically the highest level they have seen since the Q2 swoon (see chart, source Bloomberg). So, as usual, I am flummoxed by the behavior of commodities.
I know that there is a great deal of confidence in some quarters that the Federal Reserve can keep its foot on the gas until such time as inflation actually rises to a level that concerns them. I cannot imagine the reason for such confidence when the drivers of the car are such committed doves. There are multiple problems undermining my confidence in such a possibility. There is the “Wesbury hypothesis” that the Fed will adjust its definition of what worries them about inflation – a hypothesis which, after this month’s FOMC meeting, should be even more compelling. There is the fact that there is no evidence I am aware of that the Fed was able to easily restrain inflation after it came unglued in any prior episode (and no one knows where and when and how it will come unglued). And finally, it isn’t clear to me how the Fed would go about restraining inflation anyway, given the overabundance of excess reserves and the fact that those reserves insulate any inflation process against the tender ministrations of the central bank.
One thing seems to be sure. The food fight at the Fed is not likely to end soon, and together with the dysfunction on Capitol Hill is raises the very real question of whether anything economically helpful is going to be accomplished in Washington DC this year.
Here are my post-Employment tweets. You can follow me @inflation_guy.
- Pretty weak NFP number since the payrolls figure (169k) plus revisions (-74k) is way worse than forecast. Decline in rate irrelevant.
- Actually think Fed spent so much time talking about starting taper that they may do it anyway, but have an excuse now to delay.
- Nothing like a weak NFP number to help the beleaguered bond market. Bounce may temporary but in Sep you don’t wanna fade rallies.
- I don’t watch it much, but avg hrly earns at 2.2% is highest since brief pop to 2.3% in mid-2011. Y do people hate TIPS here?
So 10-year note yields broke above 3% overnight, the highest level since 2011. More importantly, 10-year real yields had been approaching 1% (reaching 0.93% overnight) as fear-of-taper has investors quite reasonably fleeing fixed-income.
I said above that I don’t look much at average hourly earnings. This is because the evidence is that wages follow prices, rather than prices following wages in a mythical “wage-push” inflation. Moreover, we can intuit that this is the case because if wages led inflation, we would really like inflation since we would tend to see our wages increase before inflation did…we would be doing better all the time, rather than worse. In fact, we know intuitively that is wrong.
With that giant caveat, it is worth pointing out that average hourly earnings are above median CPI (which right now is a better measure of the central tendency of inflation because of the large one-off effects in medical care) by the most they have been since 2011 (see chart below, source Bloomberg).
The unemployment rate declined, but only because the Participation Rate plumbed a new post-Carter low at 63.2%. You have to go back to July 1978 to find participation rates this low, and back then there were a lot fewer women in the workforce.
All in all, this is a pretty ugly employment report, but the FOMC has carefully lined up its doves and even gotten a few hawks to say that tapering ought to begin this month. I suspect it is still likely that they start down that path, but probably the first steps are fairly small. Still, given how far rates have risen and the possibility that this will lead to some “taper: off” talk, and given the strong seasonal tendency for rates to decline in September and early October, I would not want to fade a bond market rally.
Yes, I understand that it is an absolute blast to be long stocks when they are ripping higher. Everyone has fun, everyone feels wealthy, and all it took was for the Fed to defer a statement on the taper plan for at least a couple of months. For equity folks, that was equivalent to sounding the “all clear” signal to keep the party going for another couple of months. Add to that great news the fact that the ISM manufacturing index unexpectedly leapt today to two-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg, below), and you have the possibility of good growth, with a supportive Fed. It isn’t that surprising that in the short term the equity folks are happy and the bond folks are a bit concerned.
But the worst threat to stocks isn’t the taper, it isn’t an incipient slowdown in China, and it isn’t the fact that margins appear to be compressing. It’s that they will, some day, face competition for investment dollars from interest rates, commodities, real estate, and all of those other things that haven’t been exciting to invest in for a while.
Ten-year interest rates at 2.70% are not an exciting investment, but they are definitely more exciting than 1.60% rates were. However, you don’t really need to think about whether marginal investment dollars will flow to bonds since rates are 110bps higher now. You know that, no matter what the yield, more investment dollars are going to be flowing to fixed income going forward.
How do we know this? We know it because the Fed isn’t going to be buying $85bln per month, at some point in the not-too-distant future. So we know that, even if the Fed doesn’t sell, the bond market will be soaking up another $85bln of investment dollars compared to what it has been doing during QE3. And those dollars will need to come from somewhere. After all, this is just the ‘portfolio balance channel’ in reverse. The Fed pushed risky markets higher by buying all the safe stuff, so as to force investors to move out the risk spectrum. By taking away the “safe” alternatives, in other words, the Fed substituted for “animal spirits” in the market. (I discussed and illustrated this back in January.)
The opposite also occurs, though. When the Fed steps out, some investors will buy those “safer” investments at the higher yields where those markets clear. Those investors will be coming out of stocks, mainly. By substituting for animal spirits, the Fed pushed the stock market higher when investors didn’t feel much like pushing it there. And, once they start to taper that policy, they need investors with real animal spirits to step in and take risky positions in stocks because they want to.
The head-scratcher for me is, why would I want to take a risky position in stocks now, when interest rates and in particular real interest rates, are higher…if I didn’t want to take that position before? Does growth suddenly look that much better?
I ought to reiterate here that I still think a bond rally is due, despite today’s shellacking in a fairly illiquid-seeming market. I will change that view if 10-year yields rise another 5-10bps, however. I frankly think that while Bernanke likely wants to take the first step towards tapering while he is still Chairman – since it’s the polite thing to do to take the riskiest step of unwinding his policy before the next Chairman is forced to do it – I doubt he wants to get so far down the tapering road that the next Chairman feels locked in to a certain course of policy. So I suspect we will not see as much tapering this year as the market expects. Investors clearly thought we would get some indication about tapering at this meeting, and we didn’t. Bond folks know we will, eventually. Equity folks also know we will, but they all think they can get out as soon as the Fed gives the signal.
The problem, of course, is that some investors won’t wait for the explicit signal. To be fair, it has been a losing trade to be early on the Fed taper story, but that just means the ultimate comeuppance is going to be worse.
There is a ton of data due out on Friday, but my attention will not be on the Payrolls figure (Consensus: 185k). It is perhaps frightening to think about this, but Payrolls in the neighborhood of 200k is about all that we can expect. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the BLS Nonfarm Payrolls statistics along with a 24-month moving average. Ignore the swings from month to month. Instead, notice that in the expansion in the mid-2000s the 2-year average never got above 200k, and even in the robust expansion of the late 1990s the average was only about 250k (and we’re not about to have a robust expansion any time soon!). So, whether you like it or not, 200k per month is about all you’re going to get.
The Unemployment Rate is expected to decline back to 7.5% after rising to 7.6% last month. And again, here, the rate of decline in the Unemployment Rate is about as fast as you’re going to get it (see chart below, source Bloomberg). In fact, if anything the decline in the ‘Rate is slightly faster than in recoveries past, although as has been well documented the unemployment rate is much higher if you discount the increased prevalence in this recovery of part-time work.
So, on growth the sad truth is that we have been waiting for economic improvement, but none is coming. This is about as good as it is likely to get, economically speaking (at least, in terms of the pace of improvement, though with time this will pull the Unemployment Rate gradually lower).
Indeed, much faster growth would likely incline the Fed to taper faster, and even to consider additional tightening measures. And much slower growth would probably dampen the rather ebullient earnings estimates of the sell-side analysts. The dividend yield is less than 2% with inflation-linked bonds paying around 0.5%. So I won’t be looking at the numbers very closely. We are already in the sweet spot. What I am going to be looking for, tomorrow and going forward, is any sign that investors are getting a sour taste.
It was an interesting week. Considerable volatility in the foreign exchange markets (the dollar fell 5.5 handles from 105.50 yen to 95 yen before bouncing to 97.5 yen at week’s end) and a slide in several foreign equity markets (chiefly the Nikkei, -6.5%, but also the UK -2.6%, Italy -3.0%, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey -9%, etc) impacted the U.S. bourse at the margin but not severely. On Monday, a weak ISM helped push US stocks lower and bonds higher; but on Friday an as-expected Employment report led to a massive equity rally and sharp losses on bonds with the 10-year yield reaching a new high for the move.
The reaction from bonds isn’t terribly surprising. Bond funds are seeing near-record outflows as everyone knows that yields would not be near these levels without Fed backing, and no one wants to be the last one out. Any fear that “taper” is going to happen soon was going to send yields higher, and as I wrote on May 29th there is some risk for much higher yields.
The equity reaction on Friday is a little more confusing. Sure, the airwaves were full of news of the “better than expected” payrolls, although the combination of the May positive surprise (+12k) and the revisions to the prior two months (-12k) puts the Jobs number precisely on the consensus estimates while the Unemployment Rate rise slightly due to a rise in the participation rate. To be sure, there is nothing in the number to force the Fed to consider a “taper” with any kind of urgency, but considering that Bernanke and Dudley have already signaled that no taper is imminent, this is hardly news: the data on Friday was almost exactly as-expected.
Going forward, the market continues to face the same hurdles: higher rates mean more competition for investment dollars and will pressure equity prices. Lower unemployment implies that the current ratio of real wage growth relative to gross margins – which reflects the great power of capital right now relative to labor, with margins at record highs while real wages stagnate – will begin to shift back in favor of wages and away from capital. Higher rates also imply higher money velocity and hence, higher inflation. (See chart, source Bloomberg.)
If 5-year rates went to, say, 2%, and M2 velocity rose to 1.732 as the regression suggests, it would represent a 12.9% rise in money velocity. If M2 merely ticks along at the current (high, but not as high as it was) rate of 6.6% growth year-on-year, and GDP grows at an optimistic 4% rate, then it implies inflation of roughly 15.7% (1.129 * 1.066 / 1.04).
There are a lot of “ifs” in that statement, and I want to make clear that I am not forecasting 15.7% inflation over the next year, or even the next two years combined. But the point is that the risks are not insignificant. It isn’t a rise of core CPI to 2.5% by year-end that is the potential problem, although stocks might not take that well. It is a rise above that, which causes rates to rise, which causes velocity to accelerate further, etcetera in a spiral that the Fed is powerless to do anything about since it must first remove $1.9 trillion in excess reserves from the banking system…
And in that sort of inflationary environment, equities would be roundly trashed. A reader asked me to expound further on my prior observations about equities and inflation, and this seems like the right place to do it. However, so as to limit the length of this article, I am posting that further discussion/article separately here.
Here are my post-Employment tweets, summarized and expanded on:
- Employment Report: Unemp Rate up to 7.923% from 7.849% – the consumer confidence report was the hint that’d happen.
- Always hard to look at the January Payrolls report especially. In addition to rockin seasonals, you get prior yr revisions.
- Avg Hourly Earnings +2.1% y/y, faster than any time in 2012. Wages lag inflation so this will be higher than this at year-end.
- …the bad news is that aggregate inflation will be higher as well.
- So after the benchmark revisions, avg 2011 payrolls gain was 153k. For 2012: 156k. Today: 157k. Nice stimulus.
- Nearly 5 years after the recession started, “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” still near the highs.
Here is the BLS chart on the “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” series.
And here is a chart (Source: BLS, Bloomberg) showing the trailing 12-months deficit (represented positive) versus Payrolls. You can see why there’s some reason to think the massive spending (blue line) curtailed further job losses in the recession, although it’s important to remember that we don’t know the counterfactual…that is, what would have happened in the absence of spending.
The graph does not imply that if the government had not run a huge deficit that we would have had continuing job losses, even though that is the tale our elected representatives would like you to believe. Indeed, look at the next chart, which shows the level of the deficit versus the 12-month acceleration/deceleration in job growth, lagged 12 months.
If there seems to be a correlation between big deficits and job market acceleration, it comes mainly from the big swings associated with the teeth of the crisis when the causality may have been going either direction. Take out that big “S” and you have similar jobs growth with huge government and with small government (and you can see that same fact on the prior chart).
It was a pretty quiet day today, so instead of writing about the fairly boring market action (although AAPL broke below $500 for a few minutes and TIPS continued their recent bounce) I wrote a book report about the book How the Trading Floor Really Works. However, because people have requested that I separate obviously unrelated posts, you can find that review here.
There is one chart I would like to share – sort of a holdover from last week that I never got around to. It shows the unemployment rate (white line) against Initial Unemployment Claims (yellow line) for the last couple of cycles. (Source: Bloomberg)
So, do you think the job market is improving? You’re right! Does the job market still suck? You betcha!
There is also something different going on here, beyond the usual year-end seasonal adjustment tomfoolery. The decline in Initial Claims typically happens when the economy has stopped getting worse, and the current level is consistent with an economy that is turning jobs over at roughly the normal pace. We’re not creating lots more unemployed. But the slow decline in the Unemployment Rate is a sign that we’re not absorbing the existing unemployed through new growth of existing enterprises, or creation of new enterprises, as is typical in recoveries. I don’t think it should come as an absolute shock that in this business-unfriendly climate, businesses are reticent to expand, even if production as a whole is expanding.
After 2012 ended with more than the usual amount of whimpering (although not from investors, who saw gains in equity as well as bond markets), 2013 has begun with a bang.
The fiscal cliff has become more of a fiscal slope, with tax increases on high-earners in the form of higher marginal rates, and on all other earners in the form of the expiration of withholding tax cuts. (Hence, the ‘middle class’ that was supposedly protected in this deal is apparently defined as the jobless.) The spending cuts were delayed for two months, so that the impact of these tax increases – as well as tax increases associated with the implementation of Obamacare – is the only part of the “fiscal cliff” that will be immediately felt.
However, in two months there will be another showdown over spending and the debt ceiling, with more uncertainty for investors and consumers.
Now, it may be that this works out to be clever. If the economy continues to gain strength, then it will be easier to cut spending in two months than it is now. And, if the economy is really booming as much as some say, the budget cutting should be aggressive (since, after all, if we can’t balance the budget during boom times, when can it be balanced?). Color me skeptical on this point, although as I said in my wrap-up comment last year I think 2013 will be a better year in terms of growth than 2012 was.
It is certainly beginning that way; or, rather, I suppose 2012 ended with some momentum. The December ADP figures showed a 215k increase in payroll jobs, and an upward revision to November’s data. The 215k number was above expectations, and the highest figure since the spring. Be a bit cautious in extrapolating that surprise to tomorrow, however, as the data suggest there has been insufficient seasonal adjustment in December for the last few years. (December usually sees lots of hiring, and January lots of firing; by adjusting for this tendency we should eliminate this tendency from the data. However, the absolute scale of the hirings/firings at this time of year is so large that seasonal adjustment is very difficult. The BLS tends to be more successful at it than ADP, so all else being equal I would be wary of the possibility that tomorrow’s Payrolls data (Consensus: 153k) falls short of the newly-raised expectations…the consensus of the 15 economists on Bloomberg who updated their forecasts today after ADP is 180k, rather than 153k.
Nevertheless, the economy is indeed expanding. I would even say that it is expanding faster than I would have hoped a couple of months ago. (That isn’t to say that the current pace is torrid, but rather that I am a congenital sourpuss, a consequence of being a bond guy who wants my money back rather than an equity guy who dreams of sugarplums).
The rotten part, from investors’ perspective, is that the stock market and the corporate bond market have already priced in great growth results, and bond markets haven’t yet. That’s how you get both bonds and stocks doing well in 2012, after all.
The question for buyers of the equity market is, how much better can companies do? The chart below (Source: Federal Reserve Z.1) shows that as of Q3, after-tax corporate profits stood at a post-war record of 12.6%. This was actually an increase over levels that were already lofty.
To be sure, this ratio can fall without corporate profits themselves declining – if, going forward, national income expands at a rate faster than profits, then this ratio will decline. Question: do you think that the market would react well to earnings growth of 1% when the economy is growing at, say, 3%? Me either.
On the fixed-income side of the ledger, interest rates have done some important technical work recently. Ten-year nominal bond yields have risen 30bps in the last month, and the 1.91% rate on 10-year Treasuries is the highest since May. Even more interesting is the fact that this movement in nominal rates has come completely from a rise in real yields (recall that nominal yields equal, approximately, the sum of real yields and a priori inflation expectations), which have also risen 30bps over the last month. Ten-year real yields (TIPS) are now the highest they have been since August, at -0.61%. Moreover, this is the first time that 10-year real yields have risen at least 30bps from a prior yield low since October 2011 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
The fact that inflation breakeven expectations, while near the highs of the last few years, have not risen further in this fixed-income selloff suggests that the selloff is being driven more by growth expectations (which most directly impact real yields) than by inflation fears. That seems consistent with the anecdotal chatter. It seems that investors, for now, are comfortable with long-term breakeven inflation around 2.5% and inflation swaps (a purer measure of inflation expectations) around 2.75% at the 10-year point. There are sellers there, for now. The discontinuity will likely be abrupt, when it happens, but at the current rates TIPS have plenty of room to weaken further and provide the majority of the nominal-yield increase.
I still think there will be an abrupt discontinuity, although the Fed continues to be very confident (as the FOMC minutes released today showed) that inflation expectations are “well-anchored.” They are until they aren’t, I guess. For their sake, I hope the anchor drags along, rather than simply snapping off.
The following are my post-Payrolls tweets (@inflation_guy), along with some charts and added thoughts.
- Payrolls number close, expected 85k was actually 146k but 49k of downward revisions. Amazingly good guesses given Sandy.
- Unemployment Rate drops to 7.746% from 7.876% (so really 0.1 drop not 0.2 drop), due to sharp particip drop to 63.6 from 63.8
- Not a particularly good report; haven’t had >200k jobs since March, after these revisions. But chatterverse will say it’s bullish stocks
- Goods producing jobs -22k; service-providing +169k. Retail trade +53, allaying some fears that weak Xmas season could hurt #s.
- Here’s some good news: Aggregate weekly hours rose to a new post-2008 high of 104.1, which is higher than it was in 2000. [Note: chart below]
- “Not in labor force” rose again: second highest total ever. Not in labor force, want a job now also rose. This is “shadow unemployment.” [Note: charts below]
- The chatterverse will say it’s a good report, but in my view it isn’t good enough, and we’ll quickly turn to fiscal cliff again.
As noted, this isn’t a great report. It continues the theme of tepid recovery, but without the people leaving the labor force the unemployment rate would be much higher. The chart below (source: BLS via Bloomberg) shows the “not in labor force” numbers going back decades.
Now, the thing is that I’m not sure this is a temporary phenomenon – some of these people are leaving the labor force because they’re giving up, but some of them are leaving the labor force because they’re retiring, or retiring early. We would be expecting some rise in this number anyway, due to the fact that Baby Boomers are starting to retire. So I think the chart below (same source) is a better view of the part of this rise that’s truly disturbing. It shows the category “not in labor force, but want a job now.” These are people who are not counted in the labor force because they’re not looking for a job, but if someone called and offered them a job they’d take it. Presumably, when the job market starts visibly recovering, these people will start to look again.
Finally, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the economy is still stumbling, but at least it’s stumbling forward. The chart below (same source) shows the aggregate weekly hours worked by production or nonsupervisory employees (2002=100).
As I say above, this isn’t a great report, and it isn’t a bad report – in my view, it’s good enough so that the CNBC talking heads can tell everyone to buy but not so good that it will re-direct the narrative from the fiscal cliff. And it certainly isn’t good enough to claim that there’s any evidence the economy is “ready to explode” once the fiscal cliff is resolved.
On Wednesday, I was trapped listening to CNBC because I was at one of our major consulting clients’ offices and it was on. I was struck by, and thought I would share, their insightful advice about what to do if the market has a ‘scary October.’ Their advice, phrased a number of different ways at a number of different times during the day, was to “average in,” and “take the opportunity to buy low.” So: respond to weakness in stocks by buying.
It would reasonable to consider whether that is solid advice – after all, it is much better to buy lower prices and multiples than higher prices and multiples – except for the fact that it’s the same advice they give when the market is rallying: buy. In fact, if one were to buy every time CNBC said to buy, and sell every time CNBC said to sell, over the last 15 years, I am pretty sure you’d be about 2500% long.
In this case, I don’t fault the advice itself, just the track record of the advisor. If the market actually declines an appreciable amount (2.5% off the highs does not, I think, qualify), then it makes sense to buy. Stocks are, after all, real assets. They don’t tend to perform well in inflationary periods, because of the initial shift in valuation multiples as inflation moves from low and stable to higher levels, but once valuations have adjusted, they do just fine. So far, valuations have not in fact adjusted, and remain high; so also do gross margins and corporate earnings as a percentage of GDP (which is currently near the highest levels of the last 60 years). I would buy equities after a ‘scary October,’ but not unless it’s a lot scarier than it is right now.
Stocks are doing poorly despite the suddenly whiz-bang employment picture. Today’s 339,000 print on Initial Unemployment Claims (versus a consensus of 370k) was the best since January 2008 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Now, unfortunately, this number can’t be taken at face value. Unlike with the Employment report, all that you need to massage a weekly Claims number is for the government workers in a state to work a bit slower processing unemployment claims that week. As it happened, the BLS noted in the report that one state was responsible for most of the drop, which is not what you’d expect to see if the ranks of the jobless were suddenly thinning due to economic growth. It looks like one state (the BLS won’t say which one, but it must have been a big one; I’m guessing California, where some gas stations were closed last week and gasoline prices shot to near $6/gallon in some places, but I am not sure why the BLS wouldn’t tell which state since they typically do).
But, again, I must admonish readers to remember that the reported numbers are not as important as whatever is actually happening in the economy. If the numbers are not a good reflection of that, the man on the street will know it. They certainly know it in this case.
Now, there is certainly a possibility that employment has suddenly accelerated. But I don’t consider that a very likely possibility, since employment (as we are incessantly reminded near turns in the economy) tends to lag the business cycle rather than lead it. We haven’t seen a sudden surge in Durable Goods or purchasing managers’ reports, and seasonally-adjusted gasoline demand is the lowest it has been since 2008 (see the busy chart below, source Bloomberg, that plots the DOE Motor Gasoline Implied Demand by calendar date for the last five years. The white line represents 2012).
Total trucking miles are also at the lowest level, not the highest, since 2009 (see chart, source ATA and Bloomberg).
And, in case that’s partly a response to high gasoline prices, here are US Freight Carloads from the Association of American Railroads (with the 52-week moving average, in red. Source: AAR and Bloomberg).
That, and not the weekly Claims numbers, are what Americans feel. While consumer confidence may improve simply if things don’t get worse, that’s not the same as the way confidence will improve if ever activity – not just stock prices – starts to actually improve.
Europe continues to be the biggest threat to the global growth dynamic, but last night’s S&P downgrade of Spain two notches (from BBB+ to BBB-) was ignored by the market. Spanish yields actually declined. This is the way it should be, because we all know ratings are fairly useless generally but especially for sovereigns. As I have written previously, the only circumstance in which sovereign ratings make any sense is in fact in countries like Spain that may be unable to pay their debt because they cannot print their own currency. In any country that can print, it is impossible for there to be a forced bankruptcy; ergo, the rating of such sovereigns (such as the US) must be trying to measure not the ability to pay (which is absolute) but the willingness to pay rather than to default – even if to do so requires inflating, that isn’t a default. But if ratings have to measure willingness, they’re completely messed up. We have no way to evaluate willingness to pay. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that ratings only matter these days I think because of the risk of ratings triggers, such as when investors can only hold ‘investment grade’ paper and so need to sell bonds if they’re downgraded below that level. And I suspect this isn’t a big problem with Spain, as most conscious investors probably concluded months ago that this is not an ‘investment grade’ credit.
The election and earnings season remain the foci for the month of October. (And inflation traders also look forward to the 30-year TIPS auction, next week, which has started to put mild downward pressure on BEI already). There are plenty of other global issues still in play, but I’d expect stocks to continue to drift lower under the growing pressure of end-of-year selling to lock in lower tax rates, a weak earnings season, and increasing signs that the global slowdown is real. Will it get ‘scary’? I doubt it will get scary enough to buy.