NEW$ & VIEW$ (21 NOVEMBER 2013)

Sales Brighten Holiday Mood

The government’s main gauge of retail sales, encompassing spending on everything from cars to drinks at bars, rose a healthy 0.4% from September, despite the partial government shutdown that sent consumer confidence tumbling early in the month. Sales climbed in most categories, with gains in big-ticket items as well as daily purchases such as groceries. (…)

Wednesday’s report showed some clear pockets of strength: Sales of cars rose at the fastest pace since the early summer. Sales in electronics and appliance stores also rose robustly. Stores selling sporting goods, books, and music items saw business grow at the fastest pace in more than a year.

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High five Let’s not get carried away. Car sales have been slowing sequentially lately and are near their past cyclical peaks if we consider the early 2000s sales levels abnormally high (internet and housing bubbles, mortgage refis) (next 2 charts from CalculatedRisk):

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Meanwhile, core sales ex-cars remain on the weak side as this Doug Short chart shows:

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Consumer Prices Ease Amid Lower Fuel Costs

The consumer-price index rose only 1% in October from the same month last year, the smallest 12-month increase since October 2009, the Labor Department said Wednesday. Core prices, which exclude volatile food and energy costs, rose 1.7% from a year ago, similar to the modest gains seen in recent months. The Fed targets an annual inflation rate of 2%.

Prices fell 0.1% last month from September, the first drop since April. Core prices increased 0.1%.

Last month, the overall decrease reflected gasoline prices, which were down 2.9% for the month. (Chart from Haver Analytics)

High five Let’s not get carried away. Core inflation remains surprisingly resilient given the weakness of the economy and the large output gap. On a YoY basis, core CPI is stuck within 1.6% and 1.8% and the Cleveland Fed median CPI just won’t slip below 2.0%. Looking at monthly trends, core CPI has slowed to 0.1% over the last 3 months from 0.2% in the previous 3 months. Yet, the median CPI only slowed to 0.1% MoM last month after a long string of 0.2% monthly gains. The inflation jury is still out.

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Pointing up No Renaissance for U.S. Factory Workers as Pay Stagnates

(…) The average hourly wage in U.S. manufacturing was $24.56 in October, 1.9 percent more than the $24.10 for all wage earners. In May 2009, the premium for factory jobs was 3.9 percent. Weighing on wages are two-tier compensation systems under which employees starting out earn less than their more experienced peers did, and factory-job growth in the South.

Since the U.S. recession ended in June 2009, for example, Tennessee has added more than 18,000 manufacturing jobs, while New Jersey lost 17,000. Factory workers in Tennessee earned an average of $54,758 annually in 2012, almost 10 percent less than national levels and trailing the $76,038 of their New Jersey counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (…)

Some of the states where factory jobs are growing the fastest are among the least unionized. In 2012, 4.6 percent of South Carolina workers were represented by unions, as did 6.8 percent of Texans, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. New York, the most-unionized, was at 24.9 percent.

Assembly workers at Boeing’s nonunion plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, earn an average of $17 an hour, compared with $27.65 for the more-experienced Machinists-represented workforce at the company’s wide-body jet plant in Everett, Washington, said Bryan Corliss, a union spokesman. (…)

In Michigan, which leads the U.S. with 119,200 factory jobs added since June 2009, automakers are paying lower wage rates to new hires under the United Auto Workers’ 2007 contracts. New UAW workers were originally paidas little as $14.78 when the contract was ratified in 2011, which is about half the $28 an hour for legacy workers. Wages for some of those lower-paid employees have since risen to about $19 an hour and the legacy rate hasn’t increased. (…)

General Electric Co. says it has added about 2,500 production jobs since 2010 at its home-appliance plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Under an accord with the union local, new hires make $14 an hour assembling refrigerators and washing machines, compared with a starting wage of about $22 for those who began before 2005. While CEO Jeffrey Immelt has said GE could have sent work on new products to China, it instead invested $1 billion in its appliance business in the U.S. after the agreement was reached.

The company is also moving work to lower-wage states. In Fort Edward, New York, GE plans to dismiss about 175 employees earning an average of $29.03 an hour and shift production of electrical capacitors to Clearwater, Florida. Workers there can earn about $12 an hour, according to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, which represents the New York employees. (…)

Existing Home Sales Fall 3.2%

Sales of previously owned homes slipped for the second consecutive month in October, the latest sign that increased interest rates are cooling the housing recovery.

Existing-home sales declined 3.2% in October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.12 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday. The results marked the slowest sales pace since June.

The federal government shutdown last month pushed some transactions into November, Realtors economist Lawrence Yun said. The Realtors group reported that 13% of closings in October were delayed either because buyers couldn’t obtain a government-backed loan or the Internal Revenue Service couldn’t verify income.

The number of homes for sale declined 1.8% from a month earlier to 2.13 million at the end of October. The inventory level represents a five-month supply at the current sales pace. Economists consider a six-month supply a healthy level.

Americans Recover Home Equity at Record Pace

The number of Americans who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth fell at the fastest pace on record in the third quarter as prices rose, a sign supply shortages may ease as more owners are able to sell.

The percentage of homes with mortgages that had negative equity dropped to 21 percent from 23.8 percent in the second quarter, according to a report today from Seattle-based Zillow Inc. The share of owners with at least 20 percent equity climbed to 60.8 percent from 58.1 percent, making it easier for them to list properties and buy a new place. (…)

Fingers crossed“The pent-up demand from people who now have enough equity to sell their homes will help next year,” said Lawler, president of Lawler Economic & Housing Consulting LLC in Leesburg, Virginia. “We’ll see the effect during the spring selling season. Not a lot of people put their homes on the market during the holidays.” (…)

About 10.8 million homeowners were underwater on their mortgages in the third quarter, down from 12.2 million in the second quarter, Zillow said. About 20 million people had negative equity or less than 20 percent equity, down from 21.5 million in the prior three months. Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Orlando, Florida, led major metropolitan areas with the highest rates of borrowers with less than 20 percent equity. (…)

DRIVING BLIND, TOWARDS THE WALL

Fed Casts About for Bond-Buy Endgame

Federal Reserve officials, mindful of a still-fragile economy, are laboring to devise a strategy to avoid another round of market turmoil when they pull back on one of their signature easy-money programs.

Minutes of the Oct. 29-30 policy meeting, released Wednesday, showed officials continued to look toward ending the bond-buying program “in coming months.” But they spent hours game-planning how to handle unexpected developments and tailoring a message to the public to soften the impact of the program’s end. (…)

Fed officials are hoping their policies will play out like this: The economy will improve enough in the months ahead to justify pulling back on the program, which has been in place since last year and has boosted the central bank’s bondholdings to more than $3.5 trillion. After the program ends, they will continue to hold short-term interest rates near zero as the unemployment rate—which was 7.3% last month—slowly declines over the next few years. (…)

One scenario getting increased attention at the Fed: What if the job market doesn’t improve according to plan and the bond program becomes ineffective for addressing the economy’s woes? The minutes showed their solution might be to replace the program with some other form of monetary stimulus. That could include a stronger commitment to keep short-term interest rates low far into the future, a communications strategy known as “forward guidance.”

Top Fed officials have been signaling in recent weeks that their emphasis is shifting away from the controversial bond-buying program and toward these verbal commitments to keep rates down. (…)

Punch The reality is that, do what you want, say what you want, market rates are market rates.

Millennials Wary of Borrowing, Struggling With Debt Management

Young people are becoming warier of borrowing — but they’re also getting worse at paying bills.

(…) Total debt among young adults actually dropped in the last decade to the lowest level in 15 years, separate government data show, with fewer young adults carrying credit-card balances and one in five not having any debt at all.

And yet, Millennials appear to be running into more trouble when paying their bills — whether on credit cards, auto loans, or student loans.

Millennial borrowers are late on debt payments roughly as much as older Gen-X borrowers, Experian’s data show. Millennials also use a high share of their potential borrowing capacity on cards, just like Gen-Xers, meaning they’re as likely to max out on cards.

Since Millennials tend to have fewer assets than Gen-Xers and other generations, as well as shorter credit histories, they end up with the worst average credit score — 628 — of any demographic group.

Pointing upMillennials have “the worst credit habits,” and are “struggling the most with debt management,” Experian said in a report.

(…) A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently suggested high student-loan balances may have encouraged young adults to reduce their credit-card balances between 2005 and 2012.

Other young adults may be less willing to take risksin a weak economy, whether by splurging on furniture for a new apartment, moving geographically or starting businesses — things that often require debt.

What Experian’s data suggest is that the Millennials who are in fact borrowing are struggling to do so responsibly, at least partly because of the nation’s 7.3% jobless rate, sub-3% growth and $1 trillion student-loan tab — all things that are weighing disproportionately on young people, especially those without college degrees.

As the Journal reported last week, the share of student-loan balances that were 90 or more days overdue in the third quarter rose to 11.8% from 10.9%, even as late payments on other debts dropped. While the incidence of late payments on Millennials’ overall debts isn’t alarming yet, it’s big enough to drag down their credit scores, Experian said. (…)

Thumbs up Thumbs down TIME TO BE SENTIMENTAL?

In December 2010, I wrote INVESTOR SENTIMENT SURVEYS: DON’T BE TOO SENTIMENTAL!, warning people not to give much weight to bullish sentiment readings:

I have analyzed 30 years of data plotting the II bull-bear % difference against the DJ Total Stock Market Index of 5000 US stocks. Extreme readings are above +/-25%. However, I have easily identified 11 periods when the “contrary” indicator rose to cross the extreme +30% level which were followed by strongly rising markets. Obviously not useful on that side of the ledger. (…)

Overall, never mind the extreme positives, they are essentially useless. The extreme negatives (bullish) are few but generally very good although some require patience and staying power.

My analysis was based on relative bullishness, bulls minus bears like in the chart below, but Barclays here takes another angle looking at the absolute level of bears:

According to the US Investors’ Intelligence Survey there are currently 40% more bulls than bears. At the end of August, the same survey indicated just 13.4% more bulls that bears. Global equities have rallied by 9% since then. Other measures also confirm this bullish hue, but none have displayed anything close to the relationship that the Investors’ Intelligence Survey has had recently with forward returns.

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Here’s the more interesting part:

Closer examination reveals that the reading on “bearishness” has a better contrarian relationship with subsequent forward returns. Currently only 16% of respondents describe themselves as “bears”. Since the beginning of 2009, when there have been less than 18% bears, the market has been lower six months later on each occasion. Given that the period since 2009 has been a strong bull market, sentiment extremes have provided a good “call” on the market.

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GOOD READ: ASSESSING THE PARTY’S DECISIONS

CLSA’s Andy Rothman is one of the most astute analyst living in China:

China’s leaders have issued strong statements in support of private enterprise and the rights of migrant workers and farmers which, if implemented effectively, will facilitate continued economic growth and social stability.  By announcing relaxation of the one-child policy and the abolishment of ‘re-education through labor’, the Party acknowledged it needs to curb human rights abuses and re-establish trust.  The creation of new groups to coordinate economic and national security policy signal that Xi Jinping has quickly consolidated his power as Party chief, raising the odds that the decisions announced Friday will be implemented quickly.

The brief, initial communique issued when the Party Plenum closed last Tuesday was dense, obtuse and packed with outdated political slogans.  But the more detailed ‘decision document’ published Friday was, for a Communist Party report, unusually clear, particularly in its support for private enterprise and markets.

Strong support for entrepreneurs

The most important signal from the Party leadership was strong support for the private sector and markets. Private firms already account for 80% of urban employment and 90% of new job creation, as well as two-thirds of investment in China, so improving the operating environment for entrepreneurs is key to our relatively positive outlook for the country’s economic future.  Friday’s document did not disappoint in this respect.

Although the Party still cannot rise to the challenge of actually using the Chinese characters for ‘private’ sector’, continuing to refer to it as ‘non-public’, they did pledge to ‘unwaveringly encourage, support and guide the development of the non-public economy’, and declared that ‘property rights in the non-public economy may equally [with the state sector] not be violated.’

In Friday’s document, the Party said it would ‘reduce central government management over micro-level matters to the broadest extent’, called for an end to ‘excessive government intervention’, and said that ‘resource allocation [should be] based on market principles, market prices and market competition.’  The world’s largest Communist Party declared that ‘property rights are the core of ownership systems’, and called for ‘fair competition, free consumer choice, autonomous consumption, [and] free circulation of products and production factors.’  The document also says China will ‘accelerate pricing reform of natural resources’ to ‘completely reflect market supply and demand’, as well as the costs of environmental damage.

The Party also pledged to reduce red tape and administrative hurdles to doing business.  Zhang Mao, the head of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, explained that ‘registering a business will become much more convenient in the near future.’  And Miao Wei, minister for industry and information technology, announced that implementation of the plenum decision would lead his agency to eliminate at least 30% of administrative approval procedures by the end of 2015.

Friday’s document called for better protection of intellectual property rights, as well as the ‘lawful rights and interests of investors, especially small and mid-sized investors.’  The Party said it would create a ‘marketized withdrawal system where the fittest survive’, and a better bankruptcy process.

Party leaders did say that public ownership would remain ‘dominant’, but they clearly didn’t mean it.  Repeating this language, especially in light of the fact that private firms are already dominant, is, in our view, just a rhetorical bone thrown to officials whose political or financial fortunes are tied to state-owned enterprises. (…)

 

The Party did, however, raise the share of SOE income that has to be paid into the national security fund to 30% by 2020, up from 10-20% now.

In what may be a warning that serious SOE reform is likely down the road, the Party did call for the elimination of ‘all sorts of sector monopolies, and an end to ‘preferential policies . . . local protection . . . monopolies and unfair competition.’

Hukou reform coming

If the most important message from the plenum is renewed support for the private sector, a close second is the decision to reform the hukou, or household registration system.  This is important because there are more than 230m urban residents without an urban hukou, accounting for one-third of the entire urban population.

According to the official news agency, Xinhua, ‘Friday’s document promised to gradually allow eligible rural migrants to become official city residents, accelerate reform in the hukou system to fully remove restrictions in towns and small cities, gradually ease restriction in mid-sized cities, setting reasonable conditions for settling in big cities while strictly controlling the population in megacities.’ (…)

Hukou reform will be expensive, but the Party has no choice but to provide migrant workers and their families with equal access to education, health care and other urban social services.  In cases where local governments cannot afford these services, the central government will transfer the necessary funds.  Hukou reform will be rolled out gradually, and in our view:

Will reduce the risk of social instability from the 234m people living in cities who face de jure discrimination on a daily basis, particularly in eligibility for social services.

May increase the supply of migrant workers in cities at a time when the overall labour force is shrinking.

Should improve consumption by strengthening the social safety net for migrants, which will increase transfer payments and reduce precautionary savings.

Should result in higher productivity in manufacturing and construction by reducing worker turnover, and by creating a better-educated workforce. (…)

The one-child policy will be relaxed by ‘implementation of a policy where it is permitted to have two children if either a husband or a wife is an only child,’ a change from the current rules which require both the husband and wife to be only-children in order to qualify to have a second child.

Wang Peian, the deputy director of the national health and family planning committee, said that the Party will allow each province to decide when to switch to the new policy, but Friday’s announcement, in our view, spells the rapid end of the one-child policy.

Wang Feng, one of China’s leading demographers, told us over the weekend that Friday’s announcement was a ‘decisive turning point.’  But he also reminded us that in a May CLSA U report, he explained why ending the one-child policy is likely to result in a temporary uptick in the number of births, but is unlikely to change the longer-term trend towards a lower fertility rate.  The current fertility rate of 1.5 could drop even lower in the future, closer to Japan and South Korea’s 1.3, as the pressures of modern life lead Chinese couples to have smaller families. (…)

Xi consolidates power

The plenum decided to create two new groups within the government, a National Security Council and the Leading Small Group for the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform.  This signals that Party chief Xi Jinping has quickly and effectively consolidated his political power, far beyond, apparently, what his predecessor Hu Jintao was able to achieve.  This bodes well for Xi’s ability to implement the reform decisions announced Friday. (…)

 

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