NEW$ & VIEW$ (31 DECEMBER 2013)

Smile Small Businesses Anticipate Breakout Year Ahead

(…) Of 937 small-business owners surveyed in December by The Wall Street Journal and Vistage International, 52% said the economy had improved in 2013, up from 36% a year ago. Another 38% said they expect conditions to be even better in 2014, up from 27%.

Three out of four businesses said they expect better sales in 2014, and overall, the small business “confidence index”—based on business owners’ sales expectations, spending and hiring plans—hit an 18-month high of 108.4 in December. All respondents, polled online from Dec. 9 to Dec. 18, had less than $20 million in annual revenue and most had less than 500 employees.

According to the latest data from the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington lobby group, small-business owners in November ranked weak sales below taxes and red tape as their biggest headache, for the first time since June 2008.

In the group’s most recent survey, owner sentiment improved slightly in November but was still dismal compared with pre-2007. (…)

U.S. Pending Home Sales Inch Up

The National Association of Realtors said Monday that its seasonally adjusted index of pending sales of existing homes rose 0.2% in November from the prior month to 101.7. The index of 101.7 is against a benchmark of 100, which is equal to the average level of activity in 2001, the starting point for the index.

The November uptick was the first increase since May when the index hit a six-year high, but it was less than the 1% that economists had forecast.

Pointing up The chart in this next piece may be the most important chart for 2014. I shall discuss this in more details shortly.

Who Wins When Commodities Are Weak? Developed economy central bankers were somewhat lauded before the financial crisis. Recently, though, they’re finding it harder to catch a break.

(…) Still, here’s a nice chart from which they might take some solace.  Compiled by Barclays Research it shows the gap between headline and core consumer price inflation across Group of Seven nations, superimposed on the International Monetary Fund’s global commodities index. As can be seen at a glance, the correlation is fairly good, showing, as Barclays says, the way commodity prices can act as a ‘tax’ on household spending power.

During 2004-08, that tax was averaging a hefty 0.8 percentage points a year in the G7,  quite a drag on consumption (not that that was necessarily a bad thing, looking back, consumption clearly did OK). However, since 2008. it has averaged just 0.1 percentage points providing some rare relief to the western consumer struggling with, fiscal consolidation, weak wage growth and stubbornly high rates of joblessness.

So, what’s the good news for central bankers here? Well, while a deal with Iran inked in late November to ease oil export sanctions clearly isn’t going to live up to its initial billing, at least in terms of lowering energy prices, commodity-price strength generally is still bumping along at what is clearly a rather weak historical level.

And the consequent very subdued inflation outlook in the U.S. and euro area means that central banks there can continue to fight on just one front, and focus on delivering stronger growth and improved labor market conditions.

Of course, weak inflation expectations can tell us other things too, notably that no one expects a great deal of growth, or upward pressure on wages. Moreover, as we can also see from the chart, the current period of commodity price stability is a pretty rare thing. Perhaps neither central bankers or anyone else should get too used to it.

Coffee cup  Investors Brace as Coffee Declines

Prices have tumbled 20% this year, capping the biggest two-year plunge in a decade and highlighting commodity markets’ struggle with a supply deluge.

(…) The sharp fall in coffee prices is the most prominent example of the oversupply situation that has beset many commodity markets, weighing on prices and turning off investors. Mining companies are ramping up production in some copper mines, U.S. farmers just harvested a record corn crop, and oil output in the U.S. is booming. The Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index is down 8.6% year to date.

In the season that ended Sept. 30, global coffee output rose 7.8% to 144.6 million bags, according to the International Coffee Organization. A single bag of coffee weighs about 60 kilograms (about 132 pounds), an industry standard. Some market observers believe production could rise again in 2014. (…)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that global coffee stockpiles will rise 7.5% to 36.3 million bags at the end of this crop year, an indication that supplies are expected to continue to outstrip demand in the next several months. (…)

The global coffee glut has its roots in a price rally more than three years ago. Farmers across the world’s tropical coffee belt poured money into the business, spending more on fertilizer and planting more trees as prices reached a 14-year high above $3 a pound in May 2011.(…)

Americans on Wrong Side of Income Gap Run Out of Means to Cope

As the gap between the rich and poor widened over the last three decades, families at the bottom found ways to deal with the squeeze on earnings. Housewives joined the workforce. Husbands took second jobs and labored longer hours. Homeowners tapped into the rising value of their properties to borrow money to spend.

Those strategies finally may have run their course as women’s participation in the labor force has peaked and the bursting of the house-price bubble has left many Americans underwater on their mortgages.

“We’ve exhausted our coping mechanisms,” said Alan Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey and former chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “They weren’t sustainable.”

The result has been a downsizing of expectations. By almost two to one — 64 percent to 33 percent — Americans say the U.S. no longer offers everyone an equal chance to get ahead, according to the latest Bloomberg National Poll. The lack of faith is especially pronounced among those making less than $50,000 a year, with close to three-quarters in the Dec. 6-9 survey saying the economy is unfair. (…)

The diminished expectations have implications for the economy. Workers are clinging to their jobs as prospects fade for higher-paying employment. Households are socking away more money and charging less on credit cards. And young adults are living with their parents longer rather than venturing out on their own.

In the meantime, record-high stock prices are enriching wealthier Americans, exacerbating polarization and bringing income inequality to the political forefront. (…)

The disparity has widened since the recovery began in mid-2009. The richest 10 percent of Americans earned a larger share of income last year than at any time since 1917, according to Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. Those in the top one-tenth of income distribution made at least $146,000 in 2012, almost 12 times what those in the bottom tenth made, Census Bureau data show.

(…) The median income of men 25 years of age and older with a bachelor’s degree was $56,656 last year, 10 percent less than in 2007 after taking account of inflation, according to Census data.(…)

Those less well-off, meanwhile, are running out of ways to cope. The percentage of working-age women who are in the labor force steadily climbed from a post-World War II low of 32 percent to a peak of 60.3 percent in April 2000, fueling a jump in dual-income households and helping Americans deal with slow wage growth for a while. Since the recession ended, the workforce participation rate for women has been in decline, echoing a longer-running trend among men. November data showed 57 percent of women in the labor force and 69.4 percent of men. (…)

Households turned to stepped-up borrowing to help make ends meet, until that avenue was shut off by the collapse of house prices. About 10.8 million homeowners still owed more money on their mortgages than their properties were worth in the third quarter, according to Seattle-based Zillow Inc.

The fallout has made many Americans less inclined to take risks. The quits rate — the proportion of Americans in the workforce who voluntarily left their jobs — stood at 1.7 percent in October. While that’s up from 1.5 percent a year earlier, it’s below the 2.2 percent average for 2006, the year house prices started falling, government data show.

Millennials — adults aged 18 to 32 — are still slow to set out on their own more than four years after the recession ended, according to an Oct. 18 report by the Pew Research Center in Washington. Just over one in three head their own households, close to a 38-year low set in 2010. (…)

The growing calls for action to reduce income inequality have translated into a national push for a higher minimum wage. Fast-food workers in 100 cities took to the streets Dec. 5 to demand a $15 hourly salary. (…)

Cold Temperatures Heat Up Prices for Natural Gas

2013 by the Numbers: Bitter cold and tight supplies have helped spur a 32% rise in natural-gas futures so far this year, making it the year’s top-performing commodity.

(…) Not only are colder-than-normal temperatures spurring households and businesses to consume more of the heating fuel, the boom in U.S. output is starting to level off as well. These two factors are shrinking stockpiles and lifting prices. The amount of natural gas in U.S. storage declined by a record 285 billion cubic feet from the previous week and stood 7% below the five-year average in the week ended Dec. 13, according to the Energy Information Administration. (…)

Over the first 10 days of December, subzero temperatures in places such as Chicago and Minneapolis helped boost gas-heating demand by 37% from a year ago, the largest such gain in at least 14 years, according to MDA Weather Services, a Gaithersburg, Md., forecaster.

MDA expects below-normal temperatures for much of the nation to continue through the first week of January.

Spain retail sales jump 1.9 percent in November

Spain retail sales rose 1.9 percent year-on-year on a calendar-adjusted basis in November, National Statistics Institute (INE) reported on Monday, after registering a revised fall of 0.3 percent in October.

Retail sales had been falling every month for three years until September, when they rose due to residual effects from the impact of a rise in value-added tax (VAT) in September 2012.

Sales of food, personal items and household items all rose in November compared with the same month last year, and all kinds of retailers, from small chains to large-format stores, saw stronger sales, INE reported.

High five Eurozone retail sales continue to decline in December Surprised smile Ghost

image_thumb[5]Markit’s final batch of eurozone retail PMI® data for 2013 signalled an overall decline in sales for the fourth month running. The rate of decline remained modest but accelerated slightly, reflecting a sharper contraction in France and slower growth in Germany.

The overall decline would have been stronger were it not for a marked easing the rate of contraction in Italy, where the retail PMI hit a 33-month high.

The Markit Eurozone Retail PMI, which tracks month-on-month changes in the value of retail sales, fell back to 47.7 in December, from 48.0 in November. That matched October’s five-month low and indicated a moderate decline in sales. The average reading for the final quarter (47.8) was lower than in Q3 (49.5) but still the second-highest in over two years.

image_thumb[4]Retail sales in Germany rose for the eighth month running in December, but at the weakest rate over this sequence. Meanwhile, the retail downturn in France intensified, as sales fell for the fourth successive month and at the fastest pace since May. Retail sales in France have risen only twice in the past 21 months. Italy continued to post the sharpest decline in sales of the three economies, however, despite seeing a much slower fall in December. The Italian retail PMI remained well below 50.0 but rose to a 33-month high of 45.3, and the gap between it and the German retail PMI was the lowest in nearly three years.

Retail employment in the eurozone declined further in December, reflecting ongoing job shedding in France and Italy. The overall decline across the currency area was the steepest since April. German retailers expanded their workforces for the forty third consecutive month.

EARNINGS WATCH

Perhaps lost among the Holidays celebrations, Thomson Reuters reported on Dec. 20 that

For Q4 2013, there have been 109 negative EPS preannouncements issued by S&P 500 corporations compared to 10 positive EPS preannouncements. By dividing 109 by 10, one arrives at an N/P ratio of 10.9 for the S&P 500 Index. If it persists, this will be the most negative guidance sentiment on record.

Strangely, this is what they reported On Dec. 27:

For Q4 2013, there have been 108 negative EPS preannouncements issued by S&P 500 corporations compared to 11 positive EPS preannouncements.

Hmmm…things are really getting better!

On the other hand, the less volatile Factset’s tally shows no deterioration in negative EPS guidance for Q4 at 94 while positive guidance rose by 1 to 13.

The official S&P estimates for Q4 were shaved another $0.06 last week to $28.35 while 2014 estimates declined 0.3% from $122.42 to $122.11. Accordingly, trailing 12-months EPS should rise 5.1% to $107.40 after Q4’13.

Factset on cash flows and capex:

S&P 500 companies generated $351.3 billion in free cash flow in Q3, the second largest amount in at least ten years. This amounted to 7.2% growth year-over-year, and, as a result of slower growth in fixed capital expenditures (+2.2%), free cash flow (operating cash flow less fixed capital expenditures) grew at a higher rate of 11.3%. Free cash flows were also at their second highest quarterly level ($196.8 billion) in Q3.

S&P 500 fixed capital expenditures (“CapEx”) amounted to $155.0 billion in Q3, an increase of 2.2%. This marks the third consecutive quarter of single-digit, year-over-year growth following a period when growth averaged 18.5% over eleven quarters. Because the Energy sector’s CapEx spending represented over a third of the S&P 500 ex-Financials total, its diminished spending (-1.6% year-over-year) has had a great impact on the overall growth rate.

Despite a moderation in quarterly capital investment, trailing twelve-month fixed capital expenditures grew 6.1% and reached a new high over the ten-year horizon. This helped the trailing twelve-month ratio of CapEx to sales (0.068) hit a 13.7% premium to the ratio’s ten-year average. Overall, elevated spending has been a product of aggressive investment in the Energy sector over two and a half years, but, even when excluding the Energy sector, capital expenditures levels relative to sales were above the ten-year average.

image_thumb[1]

Going forward, however, analysts are projecting that the CapEx growth rate will slide, as the projected growth for the next twelve months of 3.9% is short of that of the trailing twelve-month period. In addition, growth for capital expenditures is expected to continue to slow in 2014 (+1.6%) due, in part, to negative expected growth rates in the Utilities (-3.2%) and Telecommunication Services (-3.0%) sectors.

Gavyn Davies The three big macro questions for 2014

1. When will the Fed start to worry about supply constraints in the US?

(…) The CBO estimates that potential GDP is about 6 percent above the actual level of output. This of course implies that the Fed could afford to delay the initial rise in short rates well beyond the 2015 timescale that the vast majority of FOMC participants now deem likely. The very low and falling rates of inflation in the developed world certainly support this.

But the suspicion that labour force participation, and therefore supply potential, may have been permanently damaged by the recession is gaining ground in some unexpected parts of the Fed, and the unemployment rate is likely to fall below the 6.5 percent threshold well before the end of 2014 (see Tim Duy’s terrific blog on this here)This is the nub of the matter: will Janet Yellen’s Fed want to delay the initial rate rise beyond the end of 2015, and will they be willing to fight the financial markets whenever the latter try to price in earlier rate hikes, as they did in summer 2013? I believe the answer to both these questions is “yes”, but there could be several skirmishes on this front before 2014 is over. Indeed, the first may be happening already.

2. Will China bring excess credit growth under control?

Everyone now agrees that the long run growth rate in China has fallen from the heady days when it exceeded 10 per cent per annum, but there are two very different views about where it is headed next. The optimistic version, exemplified by John Ross’ widely respected blog, is that China has been right to focus on capital investment for several decades, and that this will remain a successful strategy. John points out that, in order to hit the official target of doubling real GDP between 2010 and 2020, growth in the rest of this decade can average as little as 6.9 per cent per annum, which he believes is comfortably within reach, while the economy is simultaneously rebalanced towards consumption. This would constitute a very soft landing from the credit bubble.

The pessimistic view is well represented by Michael Pettis’ writing, which has been warning for several years that the re-entry from the credit bubble would involve a prolonged period of growth in the 5 per cent region at best. Repeated attempts by the authorities to rein in credit growth have had to be relaxed in order to maintain GDP growth at an acceptable rate, suggesting that there is a conflict between the authorities’ objective to allow the market to set interest rates, and the parallel objective to control the credit bubble without a hard landing.

As I argued recently, there is so far no sign that credit growth has dropped below the rate of nominal GDP growth, and the bubble-like increases in housing and land prices are still accelerating. The optimistic camp on China’s GDP has been more right than wrong so far, and a prolonged soft landing still seems to be the best bet, given China’s unique characteristics. But the longer it takes to bring credit under control, the greater the chance of a much harder landing.

3. Will the ECB confront the zero lower bound?

Whether it should be described as secular stagnation or Japanification, the euro area remains mired in a condition of sluggish growth and sub-target inflation that will be worsened by the latest bout of strength in the exchange rate. Mario Draghi said this week that

We are not seeing any deflation at present… but we must take care that we don’t have inflation stuck permanently below one percent and thereby slip into the danger zone.

This does not seem fully consistent with the ECB’s inflation target of “below but close to 2 per cent”. Meanwhile, the Bundesbank has just published a paper which confidently denies that there is any risk of deflation in the euro area, and says that declining unit labour costs in the troubled economies are actually to be welcomed as signs that the necessary internal rebalancing within the currency zone is taking place.

The markets will probably be inclined to accept this, as long as the euro area economy continues to recover. This seems likely in the context of stronger global growth.

But a further rise in the exchange rate could finally force the ECB to confront the zero lower bound on interest rates, as the Fed and others have done in recent years. Mr Draghi has repeatedly shown that he has the ability to navigate the tricky politics that would be involved here, but a pre-emptive strike now seems improbable. In fact, he might need a market crisis to concentrate some minds on the Governing Council.

So there we have the three great issues in global macro, any one of which could take centre stage in the year ahead. For what it is worth, China currently seems to me by far the most worrying.

SENTIMENT WATCH

Goldman’s Top Economist Just Answered The Most Important Questions For 2014 — And Boy Are His Answers Bullish

Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius is out with his top 10 questions for 2014 and his answers to them. Below we quickly summarize them, and provide the answers.

1. Will the economy accelerate to above-trend growth? Yes, because the private sector is picking up, and there’s going to be very little fiscal drag.

2. Will consumer spending improve? Yes, because real incomes will grow, and the savings rate has room to decline.

3. Will capital expenditures rebound? Yes, because nonresidential fixed investment will catch up to consumer demand.

4. Will housing continue to recover? Yes, the housing market is showing renewed momentum.

5. Will labor force participation rate stabilize? Yes, but at a lower level that previously assumed.

6. Will profit margins contract? No, there’s still plenty of slack in the labor market for this to be an issue.

7. Will core inflation stay below the 2% target? Yes.

8. Will QE3 end in 2014? Yes.

9. Will the market point to the first rate hike in 2016? Yes.

10. Will the secular stagnation theme gain more adherents? No. With the deleveraging cycle over, people will believe less in the idea that we’re permanently doomed.

So basically, every answer has a bullish tilt. The economy will be above trend, margins will stay high, the Fed will stay accommodative, and inflation will remain super-low. Wow.

High five But wait, wait, that does not mean  equity markets will keep rising…

David Rosenberg is just as bullish on the economy, with much more meat around the bones, but he also discusses equity markets.

Good read: (http://breakfastwithdave.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx)

Snail U.S. Population Growth Slows to Snail’s Pace

America’s population grew by just 0.72%, or 2,255,154 people, between July 2012 and July 2013, to 316,128,839, the Census said on Monday.

That is the weakest rate of growth since the Great Depression, according to an analysis of Census data by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution.

Separately, the Census also said Monday it expects the population to hit 317.3 million on New Year’s Day 2014, a projected increase of 2,218,622, or 0.7%, from New Year’s Day 2013. (…)

The latest government reports suggest state-to-state migration remains modest. While middle-age and older people appear to be packing their bags more, the young—who move the most—are largely staying put. Demographers are still waiting to see an expected post-recession uptick in births as U.S. women who put off children now decide to have them. (…)

Call me   HAPPY AND HEALTHY 2014 TO ALL!

 

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