NEW$ & VIEW$ (19 DECEMBER 2013)

Fed Slows Bond Buying 

Ben Bernanke gave the U.S. economy a nod of approval just a month before he leaves the Federal Reserve, moving the central bank to begin winding down a bond-buying program meant to boost growth with the recovery on firmer footing.

“Today’s policy actions reflect the [Fed’s] assessment that the economy is continuing to make progress, but that it also has much farther to travel before conditions can be judged normal,” Mr. Bernanke said.

After months of wringing their hands about the implications of less Fed stimulus, investors resoundingly approved of the latest action to begin paring the $85 billion-a-month program. They were cheered in part because the move came with new Fed assurances that short-term interest rates would stay low long after the bond-buying program ends. (…)

The Fed, which launched the latest round of bond buying in September 2012 in a bid to fire up the tepid recovery, will now buy $75 billion a month in mortgage and Treasury bonds as of January, down from $85 billion. That will include $35 billion monthly of mortgage securities and $40 billion of Treasurys, $5 billion less of each. It will look to cut the monthly amount of its purchases in $10 billion increments at subsequent meetings, Mr. Bernanke said.

Although the Fed expects to keep reducing the program “in measured steps” next year, the timing and the course isn’t preset. “Continued progress [in the economy] is by no means certain,” Mr. Bernanke said. “The steps that we take will be data-dependent.”

If the Fed proceeds at the pace he set out, it would complete the bond-buying program toward the end of 2014 with holdings of nearly $4.5 trillion in bonds, loans and other assets, nearly six times as large as the Fed’s total holdings when the financial crisis started in 2008. (…)

The Fed has said it wouldn’t raise short-term rates, which are now near zero, until the jobless rate gets to 6.5% or lower. (…)

In their latest economic projections, also out Wednesday, 12 of 17 Fed officials who participated in the policy meeting said they expected their benchmark short-term rate to be at or below 1% by the end of 2015. Ten of 17 officials expected the rate to be at or below 2% by the end of 2016. (…)

But What About Inflation

Barry Eichengreen Taper in a teapot (The writer is professor of economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley)

(…) But these changes are inconsequential by the standards of the dramatic and unprecedented developments in monetary policy that we have seen since 2008; $10bn of monthly securities purchases are a drop in the bucket for a central bank with a $4tn balance sheet. Even if this month’s $10bn reduction is the first in a series of successive monthly steps in the same direction, it will take many months before the change has discernible impact on the Fed’s financial statement.

Wall Street may have had some trouble figuring this out on Wednesday afternoon, when the Fed’s statement seemingly threw the markets into a tizzy. But given a night’s sleep, stock traders should be able to recognise the Fed’s announcement for the non-event that it is. (…)

The value of this week’s FOMC decision is mainly symbolic. It is a way for the Fed to signal to its detractors that it hears their criticisms of its unconventional monetary policies, and that it shares their desire to return to business as usual. The decision beats back some of the criticism to which the Fed is subject and diminishes prospective threats to its independence. But, at the same time, the central bank has also signalled that it is not prepared to return to normal monetary policy until a normal economy has returned. As Hippocrates would have said, it has at least done no harm.

The Fed’s Shifting Unemployment Guideposts

Dec. 12, 2012. In an effort to bolster confidence, the Fed pledged to keep its interest-rate target low “at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5%” and inflation remained under control.

June 19, 2013. In a press conference, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke qualified the 6.5% target, calling it a “threshold, not a trigger,” at which point the Fed would begin to “look at whether an increase in rates is appropriate.” But then the chairman offered a new guidepost, this one for the central bank’s bond-buying program. “When asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7%,” Mr. Bernanke said. (Unemployment reached that point last month.)

Sep. 18, 2013. A surprise decline in the unemployment rate despite relatively weak economic growth forced Mr. Bernanke to back away from the new 7% target at his very next press conference. “The unemployment rate is not necessarily a great measure, in all circumstances, of the state of the labor market overall,” Mr. Bernanke said, noting the recent decline was primarily the result of people leaving the workforce, not finding jobs. “There is not any magic number that we are shooting for,” he said. “We’re looking for overall improvement in the labor market.”

Dec. 18, 2013. As the fall in the unemployment rate continues to outpace improvement in the broader economy, the Fed decides to sever the link to short-term interest rates almost entirely. “It likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate well past the time that the unemployment rate declines below 6.5%,” the Fed said in its statement following its latest meeting. In his press conference, Mr. Bernanke said the Fed will be looking at other gauges of labor-market health. “So I expect there will be some time past the 6.5% level before all of the other variables we’ll be looking at will line up in a way that will” give the central bank the confidence to raise rates.

Firm, but flexible…

But with the Fed projecting that the output gap will narrow, inflation will edge up, and unemployment will fall in the years ahead, even these more liberal Taylor rules suggest the Fed should be ratcheting up rates faster than it says it will. Indeed, Fed officials’ median projection is for the target rate to have risen to just 1.75% by the end of 2016; typical Taylor rules would prescribe over 3%. (WSJ)

For the record, here are the FOMC projections and how they have “evolved” since June 2013, courtesy of CalculatedRisk:

  • On the projections, GDP was mostly unrevised, the unemployment rate was revised down slightly, and inflation was revised down.

imageProjections of change in real GDP and in inflation are from the fourth quarter of the previous year to the fourth quarter of the year indicated.

  • The unemployment rate was at 7.0% in November.

imageProjections for the unemployment rate are for the average civilian unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of the year indicated.

  • The FOMC believes inflation will stay significantly below target.

image

  • Here is core inflation:

image

Nerd smile  The only “significant changes since June are in the unemployment rate projections. Everything else is somewhat weaker. So much for an “economy that is continuing to make progress”.

Fingers crossed  WARNING: Another Soft Patch Ahead? (Ed Yardeni)

Businesses are building their inventories of merchandise and new homes. That activity boosted real GDP during Q3, and may be doing it again during the current quarter. The question is whether some of this restocking is voluntary or involuntary.

The recent weakness in producer and consumer prices suggests that some of it is attributable to slower-than-expected sales. To move the merchandise, producers and distributors are offering discounts. November’s surge in housing starts may also be outpacing demand, as evidenced by weak mortgage applications.

In other words, the rebound in the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index over the past 10 days might not be sustainable into the start of next year. I’m not turning pessimistic about the outlook for 2014. I am just raising a warning flag given the remarkable increase in inventories recently and weakness in pricing.

I have been warning about this possible inventory cycle. See Ford’s warning below.

U.S. Home Building Hits Highest Level in Nearly 6 Years

U.S. housing starts rose 22.7% from October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,091,000 in November, the highest level in nearly six years, in the latest sign of renewed momentum in the sector’s recovery.

U.S. housing starts rose 22.7% from October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,091,000 in November, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That was higher than the 952,000 forecast by economists and brought the average pace of starts for the past three months to 951,000.

Details of the report showed broad strength for housing. Starts for single-family homes, a bigger and more stable segment of the market, also rose to their highest level in nearly six years.

November building permits, an indicator of future construction, fell slightly to the still-elevated level of 1,007,000. Permits had jumped 6.7% in October.

The report showed home building returning to the brisk pace seen early this year, before the sector’s recovery took a hit from rising interest rates. Builders broke ground on an average 869,000 homes between June and August.

 

 

Mobile homes are also moving:

 

RV Sales Rebound as U.S. Economy Improves

(…) More Americans are taking to the road in recreational vehicles as sales of towable campers approach pre-recession levels and shipments of motorized models gain speed. The total for all new units sold this year is projected to rise about 11 percent from last year to 316,300, Walworth said. Meanwhile, 2014 looks like “another good year,” as sales could top 335,000, the most in six years. (…)

More than four years since the 18-month recession ended in June 2009, sales of these units — with an entry-level price of about $80,000 — are up more than 30 percent from last year, he said, citing data from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, a trade group. Meanwhile, towable units — retailing for as little as $4,000 — have risen 8.5 percent. (…)

It’s useful for investors to monitor this industry because it’s proven to be “fantastic as a leading indicator of overall economic trends,” said Kathryn Thompson, a founder and analyst at Thompson Research Group in Nashville, Tennessee. Sales began to drop as interest rates climbed into 2006; the yield on 10-year Treasuries reached 5.24 percent in June of that year. By December, “the consumer was completely falling apart in the RV industry.”

That slump came one year before the U.S. entered the worst recession in more than 70 years. Now traffic at dealerships nationwide probably will be even better in 2014, Thompson said, adding that “very strong” sales have helped drive towable units near the pre-recession peak. (…)

EARNINGS WATCH

 

FedEx Bolsters Full-Year Forecast

FedEx Corp. said a shorter holiday shipping season stunted growth in its ground division, but the package-delivery company bolstered its full-year guidance and said it expects an improved financial performance next quarter.

Profit rose 14% to $500 million for the company’s fiscal second quarter ended Nov. 30, up from $438 million in the same period a year earlier. Per-share profit totalled $1.57 for the most recent quarter, less than the $1.64 that analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected.

Cyber Monday, one of the year’s busiest online-shopping days, fell on Dec. 2 this holiday season instead of in November, damping expected growth and keeping ground-business profits from reaching as high as analysts had predicted, FedEx said. The company added that its results were affected by costs associated with the expansion of its ground network. (…)

It seems that just about everybody was surprised that Cyber Monday occurred Dec. 2nd this year…But no worry, buybacks will save the year.

FedEx, based in Memphis, Tenn., indicated that it is poised for strong growth in the current quarter. Chief Executive Frederick W. Smith said FedEx’s 22 million shipments on Dec. 16 marked its third-straight record Monday this month.

The company increased its outlook for full-year earnings-per-share growth to a range of 8% to 14% above last year’s adjusted results, up from 7% to 13% previously, in part because of the effects from its share-buyback program announced in October.

Auto  Ford Warns on Earnings Growth

Ford Motor Co. warned on Wednesday its 2014 profits won’t match this year’s results because of higher costs and a currency devaluation. And it said it likely won’t meet operating profit projections of between 8% and 9% of sales by 2015 or 2016. That goal is “at risk” because of the recession in Europe and weaker results in South America. (…)

In the U.S., it blamed competition from Japanese rivals for a decision earlier this month to temporarily idle U.S. factories that build the midsize Fusion and the compact Focus to reduce inventories. The shutdowns came less than four months after Ford expanded Fusion output, citing a shortage of the cars. It also was hurt by warranty costs for Escape engine repairs. (…)

Sounds more like poor production planning leading to excess inventory, just as the Japs are benefitting from their weak Yen. What about GM and Chrysler?

GM executives also say ambitious new product programs will be vital to sustaining profitability in the next few years. “You’ve got to protect your product and you got to protect your cash flow and you have got to invest in the future,” GM CEO Akerson said earlier this week. “That may mean short-term disruptions in other priorities.”

Hmmm…”You’ve got to protect…” Sounds like a warning to me.

(…) However, the recent decline in the value of the Japanese yen against the dollar gives Toyota, Honda and Nissan more latitude to cut prices. All three have aggressive holiday promotions, a sign they want to regain market share lost after the 2011 tsunami and a period of yen strength. (…)

Which leads to

Surprised smile McDonald’s Japan slashes profit forecast by nearly 60%
Battered yen raises costs for the Japanese affiliate of the US fast-food giant

(…) It’s now forecasting net profit of Y5bn, down from Y11.7bn, according to a statement to the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Analysts had been looking for Y9.5bn in profit, according a Bloomberg poll.

The profit warning follows a Nov 7 earnings report that revealed net income had dropped 36 per cent from a year earlier in the third quarter.

Even after the Nov. 7 release, estimates remained 60% too high! Sleepy smile

McDonald’s Corp, which owns 50 per cent of the Japanese fast-food chain, doesn’t break out Japan in its earnings results but calls it is one of six “major markets” alongside the UK, France, China, Australia and the US, which together accounted for 70 per cent of revenues last fiscal year.

Jabil Circuit Warns, Stock Sinks

Shares of Apple Inc. AAPL -0.76% supplier Jabil Circuit Inc. JBL -20.54% fell more than 20% Wednesday after the components maker said an unanticipated drop in demand from a big customer would hurt revenue and profit in the current quarter.

Jabil’s warning raised concerns about sales of Apple’s iPhone 5C, a less-expensive model that Apple released in September. Apple is Jabil’s biggest customer, accounting for 19% of its revenue in the fiscal year ended Aug. 31. Analysts said Jabil produces the plastic cases for the iPhone 5C and the metal exteriors for the iPhone 5S.

THE AMERICAN ENERGY REVOLUTION (Cnt’d)

Cheap Natural Gas Could Put More Money in Americans’ Pockets

A surge in natural-gas production has driven prices down 50% in the last eight years, a stunning development that is reducing Americans’ energy costs, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. By 2020, these savings from low-cost energy could amount to nearly 10% of the average U.S. household’s spending after taxes and paying for necessities, or about $1,200 a year, the report said.

Economists say lower natural-gas prices will help U.S. businesses reduce costs, but there’s an important impact on consumers, too: The average U.S. household devoted about 20% of its total spending last year to energy, both directly (things like electricity and heating) and indirectly (higher costs for goods and services), BCG says. If Americans save more on energy and see lower prices when they buy goods, they might ramp up discretionary spending and propel the sluggish recovery. (…)

Consumer spending, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of the nation’s economic activity, has been resilient this year despite higher taxes and stagnant wages. One possible explanation is lower energy costs. Indeed, BCG says the average American household is already saving more than $700 a year. On Tuesday, the Labor Department said energy prices fell in November, helping muffle overall inflation. Prices at the gasoline pump have also fallen on average from nearly $3.70 in mid-July to below $3.25 as of Monday, according to the Energy Information Administration. (…)

 

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