NEW$ & VIEW$ (21 JANUARY 2014)

Pointing up Pointing up Pointing up U.S. bankers voice new optimism as businesses line up for loans Loans to businesses have risen to a record high and bank executives say they are increasingly optimistic about the U.S. economy.

Loans to businesses have risen to a record high and bank executives say they are increasingly optimistic about the U.S. economy.

Increasing demand for bank loans often is a prelude to higher economic growth. With the U.S. government budget crisis fixed for now and Europe showing signs of economic recovery, companies feel more comfortable borrowing to invest in machinery, factories, and buildings.

JPMorgan Chase & Co Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, who has long described himself as “cautiously optimistic” about the economy, recently dropped the modifier “cautiously,” he said on a conference call with investors last week.

“We’re using the word optimistic because we are actually optimistic,” he added.

“The sun and moon and stars are lined up for a very successful year” in the U.S., he said the next day at a conference in San Francisco.

Pointing upI don’t see any weak spots in America,” Dimon said, noting that corporations, small business, the stock market and the U.S. housing market are all showing signs of improving.

Outstanding loans to companies reached an all-time high of $1.61 trillion at the end of last year, topping a record set in late 2008, according to Federal Reserve data released on Friday.

Bankers say that anecdotally, business customers are more hopeful than they had been.

“I am hearing more when I talk with customers about their interest in building something, adding something, investing in something,” Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N) CEO John Stumpf said on a conference call with investors last week. “There is more activity going on.” (…)

“We have seen some moderate strength in the U.S.,” GE Chief Financial Officer Jeff Bornstein said in an interview, even if he cautioned that the company has not yet seen “the breakout broadly across the economy.” (…)

“We see solid demand for loans as we head into 2014” from businesses, particularly large corporations and healthcare companies, along with owners of commercial real estate, Bank of America (BAC.N) CFO Bruce Thompson said on a conference call with analysts on Wednesday. (…)

If you missed yesterday’s New$ & View$ you have missed this from the latest NFIB report which neatly complements the above:

Small firms capex is also brightening:

The frequency of reported capital outlays over the past 6 months surprisingly gained 9 percentage points in December, a remarkable increase. Sixty-four percent reported outlays, the highest level since early 2005.

Of those making expenditures, 43 percent reported spending on new equipment (up 5 points), 26 percent acquired vehicles (up 4 points), and 16 percent improved or expanded facilities (up 1 point). Eight percent acquired new buildings or land for expansion (up 1 point) and 16 percent spent money for new fixtures and furniture (up 6 points).The surge in spending, especially on equipment and fixtures and furniture, is certainly welcome and is hopefully not just an end-of-year event for tax or other purposes. This level of spending is more typical of a growing economy.

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And to confirm what bankers are saying, this chart of weekly loans up-to-date as of Jan. 8, 2014:

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So:

Fed on Track For Next Cut In Bond Buys

The Fed is on track to trim its bond-buying program for the second time in six weeks as a lackluster December jobs report failed to diminish the central bank’s expectations for solid U.S. economic growth this year.

A reduction in the program to $65 billion a month from the current $75 billion could be announced at the end of the Jan. 28-29 meeting, which would be the last meeting for outgoing Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Punch Read this next piece carefully, as it confirms that the U.S. industrial sector is perking up:

US oil demand growth outstrips China
Abundant energy supplies drive US resurgence, IEA report shows

US demand for oil grew by more than China’s last year for the first time since 1999 according to the International Energy Agency, in a startling indication of how abundant energy supplies are driving an economic resurgence in the US.

The IEA – the rich world’s energy club whose forecasts are the gold standard for the energy market – said US oil demand grew by 390,000 barrels a day or 2 per cent last year, reversing years of steady decline. Chinese demand grew by 295,000 b/d, the weakest in at least six years. (…)

“It is clear that the US economy is rebounding very strongly thanks to its energy supplies,” said Antoine Halff, head of oil market research at the IEA.

“Sometimes oil is a lagging indicator, but sometimes it is the opposite and shows that an economy is growing faster than thought,” he added.

Pointing up The IEA said that US demand growth was driven by fuels such as propane, which is used in petrochemical plants, and indicated a pick-up in industrial activity in the US. 

The rapid growth in US consumption has taken many analysts by surprise. As recently as last month the IEA was forecasting US demand would fall in 2014, but it is now forecasting a second consecutive year of growth. 

Pointing up US consumption also appears to be accelerating. The IEA said the latest estimate of 2013 consumption was based on “exceptionally strong US monthly data for October and robust weekly data since then”.

Surging US consumption may reduce pressure on US politicians to lift an effective ban on the export of US crude oil beyond Canada. 

The IEA has been among the most vocal advocates of allowing foreign sales of US oil, arguing that domestic US oil prices would fall sharply, discouraging production, if US producers were denied a foreign outlet for their crude.

But in its monthly report the IEA acknowledged that thanks to fast-growing domestic demand and exports of refined oil products such as diesel, “challenges to [US production] growth are not imminent”.

European oil demand is also showing signs of growth for the first time since the financial crisis and the IEA said that industrialised economies as a whole are likely seeing oil demand rise for the first time since 2010. 

As a result, oil inventories in OECD countries fell by 50m barrels in November, the most since December 2011, pushing stocks 100m barrels beneath their five-year average.

The IEA also raised its estimate for total oil demand in 2014, helping push Brent crude oil prices up almost 1 per cent to just over $107 per barrel.

EU energy costs widen over trade partners
Industry paying up to four times more than in US and Russia

The gap in energy costs between Europe and its leading trading partners is widening, according to an official paper to be released by Brussels that shows industrial electricity prices in the region are more than double those in the US and 20 per cent higher than China’s.

Industrial gas prices are three to four times higher in the EU than comparable US and Russian prices, and 12 per cent higher than in China, says the European Commission paper, based on the most comprehensive official analysis of EU energy prices and costs to date. (…)

“If we paid US energy prices at our EU facilities, our costs would drop by more than $1bn a year,” said Mr Mittal, noting the US shale gas boom and more industry-friendly policies had led to much lower costs for industrial energy users in that country.

Separately, Paolo Scaroni, chief executive of the Italian oil and gas company, Eni, said in a speech at the weekend that lower American energy costs had created a “massive competitive advantage for the US” that was driving investors and businesses to that country at a rapid pace. “This is a real emergency for Europe,” he said. (…)

California Declares Drought Emergency

Governor’s move frees state resources to cope with the growing economic and environmental threat from some of the driest conditions on record.

(…) The economic fallout is beginning to spread. The U.S. Agriculture Department on Wednesday declared parts of 11 mostly Western states to be natural-disaster areas, making farmers in places including California, Arizona and Nevada eligible for low-interest assistance loans.

In California, with its huge economy, the financial impacts are likely to ripple beyond the farmers. Growers in the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, for instance, are expected to fallow 200,000 of their 600,000 acres this year, resulting in job losses in surrounding communities, according to a statement by the agency. Other businesses that stand to suffer include landscapers, nurseries and orchards. (…)

Euro-Zone House Prices Improve

House prices rose at the fastest quarterly pace in over two years in the third quarter of 2013, a sign that the slow economic recovery continued in the second half of last year.

Eurostat said house prices across the 17 country euro zone were 0.6% higher in the third quarter of 2013 compared with the second quarter, and fell 1.3% in annual terms.

The quarterly gain was the strongest since a 1.1% increase in the second quarter of 2011, while the annual drop was the smallest since the fourth quarter of 2011.

In the second quarter of 2013 house prices in the euro zone rose 0.2% from the previous quarter and declined 2.4% in annual terms. (…)

House prices in France also bolstered the gain, rising 1.2% in the third quarter from the second. Although Eurostat doesn’t chart official data for German house prices, the estimate they use is based on European Central Bank statistics that showed house prices in the largest euro-area economy grew around 1.0% over the same period.

In Spain Eurostat said house prices grew 0.8% on the quarter in the third quarter after a 0.8% decline in the second quarter while in the Netherlands house prices grew 0.6% after a 2.0% drop in the second quarter.

Just five of the 17 countries saw house prices fall between July and September last year, according to the data—Italy, Cyprus, Malta, Slovenia and Finland.

Thailand Seen Cutting Rates as Unrest Continues

Thailand’s central bank is expected to cut interest rates at its meeting Wednesday as political unrest continues to engulf the exporter of automobiles and electronics.

Almost daily antigovernment protests, many of them violent, have destabilized the country since late last year. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called elections for Feb. 2 but the opposition says they will boycott the polls, meaning a likely protracted battle.

At the Bank of Thailand’s most recent meeting, as political protests started to gather steam in November, the bank cut rates by 0.25 percentage point to 2.25%. (…)

Even before the instability, the outlook for Thailand’s economy was shaky. Exports, which account for around two-thirds of the economy, have performed poorly, declining 4.1% on the year in November, the latest month for which data are available.

The automobile industry is suffering because of weak demand in other Asian markets. Exports from the nation’s electronics industry, which supplies parts for personal computers—but not the fast-growing smartphone market—also have been disappointing.

The turmoil is taking its toll on the economy. Tourism, which accounts for 7% of national output, has been hard hit as foreign travelers postpone journeys. Plans to build multibillion-dollar infrastructure, including high-speed rail lines, look likely to face delays amid the political gridlock.

The Finance Ministry last week slashed its growth forecast for 2014 to 3.1%, compared with an earlier projection of 3.5% to 4.0%. Failure to push ahead this year with the 2.2 trillion baht ($66.6 billion) infrastructure plan could push growth as low as 2%, the ministry estimated. (…)

Such monetary easing, though, might have little direct effect in the current environment. The previous rate cut failed to filter through into higher bank lending because Thai banks are currently trying to reduce debt exposure.

Thai household debt stands at 80% of gross domestic product, one of the highest ratios in Asia, reflecting years of aggressive lending to finance house purchases and auto loans. A government tax rebate two years ago for first-time car owners also helped boost debt levels. (…)

China’s Working Population Fell Again in 2013

China’s working-age population continued to shrink in 2013, suggesting that labor shortages would further drive up wages in the years to come.

The nation’s working-age population—those between the ages of 16 and 59—was 920 million in 2013, down 2.4 million from a year earlier and accounting for 67.6% of the total population, the National Bureau of Statistics said Monday. The country’s workforce dropped in 2012 for the first time in decades, raising concerns about a shrinking labor force and economic growth prospects.

Last year, the statistics bureau said the population between the ages of 15 and 59 was 937 million in 2012, down 3.45 million from a year earlier, accounting for 69.2% of the total population. The bureau didn’t explain why it began using a different starting age of 16 to measure the working-age population in 2013.

The share of the elderly, or those who are more than 65 years old, was 9.7% in 2013, up from 9.4% in 2012, official data showed.

Labor shortages are still common in several regions throughout the country, and many employers reported an increase of between 10% and 15% in labor costs last year, Ma Jiantang, chief of the National Statistics Bureau, said at a news conference Monday. (…)

But what’s even more significant than the shrinking working-age population was a notable decrease in the labor-participation rate, or the share of the working-age population that is actually working, Professor Li Lilin at Renmin University of China said.

“The labor-participation rate has been dropping, especially among females in the cities,” Ms. Li said.

Rising household income amid decades-long market reforms has made it possible for some who previously would have needed to work to choose to stay at home, she added.

After adjusting for inflation, actual disposable income of Chinese in urban areas grew 7% last year, while the net income of those living in rural areas rose 9.3%, the statistics bureau said. The average monthly salary of the nation’s 268 million migrant workers was 2,609 yuan ($431), up 13.9%, it said. The rise in wages means workers are likely to benefit more from the nation’s economic growth, though rising labor costs are a growing challenge for manufacturers.

SENTIMENT WATCH

 

Stock Values Worry Analysts

(…) Ned Davis Research in Venice, Fla., has reached similar conclusions. Ned Davis, the firm’s founder, published two reports titled “Overweighted, Over-Believed and Overvalued.” He looked at an array of measures including the percentage of U.S. financial assets held in stocks, margin-debt levels and how much money managers and mutual funds have allocated to stocks.

His conclusion: Investors are overexposed to stocks, but they haven’t gone to bubblelike extremes.

Vincent Deluard, a Ned Davis investment strategist, agrees that the P/E based on forecast earnings is above average. Because forecasts are unreliable, he also tracks earnings for the past 12 months, adjusted for inflation, interest rates and economic growth. All these measures yield a similar conclusion.

“We have a market that is getting a little frothy,” Mr. Deluard says. His team expects a pullback of 10% to 20% in the next six months, but perhaps not right away. Then they expect stocks to rise, maybe for years.

“This is not 2008. This is not 2000. This is more like 1998, where you have some of the signs that you see at tops, but not at extremes,” he says. (…)

High five But some people disagree. James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, which oversees $340 billion, notes that P/E ratios in the past have moved even higher than they are today before running into real trouble.

As long as inflation stays moderate and the Federal Reserve doesn’t raise interest rates sharply, he says, the P/E ratio on earnings for the past 12 months can hit the 20s from its current level of around 16 or 17.

High five Yet Mr. Paulsen, too, is worried that 2014 could be a volatile year and that stocks could finish with little or no gain. His concern isn’t valuation; It is that the economy could warm up. Inflation fears could spread, he says, even if actual inflation stays modest. The worries could limit stock gains.

These things are so hard to predict that he and many other money managers are urging clients not to change their holdings or try to time the market.

This is so beautiful. In just a few words, Paulsen says everything we should know, makes all possible forecasts and none at all. And the article concludes saying that things are so uncertain and unpredictable that investors just just freeze sitting on their hands. Disappointed smile

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (8 JANUARY 2014)

Companies in U.S. Added 238,000 Jobs in December, ADP Says

The 238,000 increase in employment was the biggest since November 2012 and followed a revised 229,000 gain in November that was stronger than initially estimated, according to the ADP Research Institute in Roseland, New Jersey. The December tally exceeded the most optimistic forecast in a Bloomberg survey in which the median projection called for a 200,000 advance.

Discounts drive U.S. holiday retail growth: ShopperTrak

Promotions and discounts offered by U.S. retailers drove a 2.7 percent rise in holiday season sales despite six fewer days and a cold snap that kept shoppers from stores, retail industry tracker ShopperTrak said. (…)

U.S. online retail spending rose 10 percent to $46.5 billion in the November-December 2013 holiday season, according to comScore (SCOR.O). This was below the 14 percent growth that the data firm had forecast.

ShopperTrak said shoppers spent $265.9 billion during the latest holiday period. The increase was slightly ahead of the 2.4 percent jump it had forecast in September.

ShopperTrak had forecast a 1.4 percent decline in shopper traffic.

Both retail sales and foot traffic rose 2.5 percent in the 2012 holiday season. (…)

ShopperTrak estimated on Wednesday that U.S. retail sales would rise 2.8 percent in the first quarter of 2014, while shopper traffic would fall 9 percent.

Growth Picture Brightens as Exports Hit Record

A booming U.S. energy sector and rising overseas demand brightened the nation’s trade picture in November, sharply boosting estimates for economic growth in late 2013 and raising hopes for a stronger expansion this year.

U.S. exports rose to their highest level on record in November, a seasonally adjusted $194.86 billion, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. A drop in imports narrowed the trade gap to $34.25 billion, the smallest since late 2009.

Pointing up The trade figures led many economists to sharply raise their forecasts for economic growth in the final quarter. Morgan Stanley economists raised their estimate to an annualized 3.3% from an earlier forecast of a 2.4% pace. Macroeconomic Advisers boosted its fourth-quarter projection to a 3.5% rate from 2.6%.

Fourth-quarter growth at that pace, following a 4.1% annualized increase in the third quarter, would mark the fastest half-year growth stretch since the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012.

The falling U.S. trade deficit in large part reflects rising domestic energy production. U.S. crude output has increased about 64% from five years ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At the same time, the U.S.’s thirst for petroleum fuels has stalled as vehicles become more efficient. As a result, refiners are shipping increasing quantities of diesel, gasoline and jet fuel to Europe and Latin America.

Petroleum exports, not adjusted for inflation, rose to the highest level on record in November while imports fell to the lowest level since November 2010.

If recent trade trends continue, Mr. Bryson said net exports could add one percentage point to the pace of GDP growth in the fourth quarter. That would be the biggest contribution since the final quarter of 2010.

Rising domestic energy production also helps in other ways, by creating jobs, keeping a lid on gasoline costs and lowering production costs for energy-intensive firms. As a result, consumers have more to spend elsewhere and businesses are more competitive internationally. (…)

U.S. exports are up 5.2% from a year earlier, led by rising sales to China, Mexico and Canada. U.S. exports to China from January through November rose 8.7% compared with the same period a year earlier. Exports to Canada, the nation’s largest trading partner, were up 2.5% in the same period. (…)

US inflation expectations hit 4-month high
Sales of Treasury inflation protected securities rise

Inflation expectations, as measured by the difference between yields on 10-year nominal Treasury notes and Treasury inflation protected securities (Tips), have risen to 2.25 per cent from a low of around 2.10 a month ago.

Aging Boomers to Boost Demand for Apartments, Condos and Townhouses

 

(…) As the boomers get older, many will move out of the houses where they raised families and move into cozier apartments, condominiums and townhouses (known as multifamily units in industry argot). A normal transition for individuals, but a huge shift in the country’s housing demand.

Based on demographic trends, the country should see a stronger rebound in multifamily construction than in single-family construction, Kansas City Fed senior economist Jordan Rappaport wrote in the most recent issue of the bank’s Economic Review. (Though he also notes slowing U.S. population growth “will put significant downward pressure on both single-family and multifamily construction.”)

Construction of multifamily buildings is expected to pick up strongly by early 2014, and single-family-home construction should regain strength by early 2015. “The longer term outlook is especially positive for multifamily construction, reflecting the aging of the baby boomers and an associated shift in demand from single-family to multifamily housing. By the end of the decade, multifamily construction is likely to peak at a level nearly two-thirds higher than its highest annual level during the 1990s and 2000s,” Mr. Rappaport wrote.

In contrast, when construction of single-family homes peaks at the end of the decade or beginning of the 2020s, he wrote, it’ll be “at a level comparable to what prevailed just prior to the housing boom.” (…)

“More generally,” Mr. Rappaport wrote, “the projected shift from single-family to multifamily living will likely have many large, long-lasting effects on the U.S. economy. It will put downward pressure on single-family relative to multifamily house prices. It will shift consumer demand away from goods and services that complement large indoor space and a backyard toward goods and services more oriented toward living in an apartment. Similarly, the possible shift toward city living may dampen demand for automobiles, highways, and gasoline but increase demand for restaurants, city parks, and high-quality public transit. Households, firms, and governments that correctly anticipate these changes are likely to especially benefit.”

Euro-Zone Retail Sales Surge

A surprise jump in retail sales across the euro zone boosts hopes that consumers may aid the hoped-for recovery.

The European Union’s statistics agency Wednesday said retail sales rose by 1.4% from October and were 1.6% higher than in November 2012. That was the largest rise in a single month since November 2001, and a major surprise. Nine economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal last week had expected sales to rise by just 0.1%.

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The pickup was spread across the currency area, with sales up 1.5% in low-unemployment Germany, but up an even stronger 2.1% in France, where the unemployment rate is much higher and the economy weaker.

The rise in sales was also broadly based across different products, with sales of food and drink up 1.1% from October, while sales of other items were up 1.9%.

The surge in sales during November follows a long period of weakness, with sales having fallen in September and October. Consumer spending rose by just 0.1% on the quarter in the three months to September, having increased by a slightly less feeble 0.2% in the three months to June.

High five Let’s not get carried away. Sales often rebound after two weak months. Taking the last 3 months to November, totals sales rose only 0.4% or 1.6% annualized, only slightly better than the 0.8% annualized gain in the previous 3 months. Core sales did a little better with  annualized gains of 3.6% and 0.4% for the same respective periods. The most recent numbers can be revised, however.image

Markit’s Retail PMI for December was not conducive to much hoopla!

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.

Record-Low Core Inflation May Soon Push ECB to Ease Policy (Bloomberg Briefs)image

Meanwhile:

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Auto U.K. Car Sales Top Pre-Crisis Levels

U.K. registrations of new cars rose 11% in 2013 to their highest level since before the 2008 financial crisis, reflecting the country’s relatively strong economic recovery in contrast with the rest of Europe, where car demand has revived only recently from a prolonged slump.

The outlook is nonetheless for more sedate growth in the U.K. this year and next as the impact of pent-up demand for new cars fades, the U.K. Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, or SMMT, said on Tuesday.

Much of the increase in sales last year stemmed from the generous provision of cheap financing from the car manufacturers.

The SMMT said registrations, which mirror sales, rose to 2.26 million vehicles from 2.04 million in 2012, with registrations in December jumping 24% to 152,918, a 22nd consecutive monthly rise.

As a result, the U.K. has entrenched its position as Europe’s biggest car market after Germany and ahead of France. Germany registrations of new cars fell 4.2% to 2.95 million in 2013, despite a 5.4% gain in December. French registrations fell 5.7% last year to 1.79 million cars, although they rose 9.4% in December. The German and French data were released by the countries’ auto-making associations last week. (…)

Eurozone periphery borrowing costs fall
Yields in Spain, Portugal and Greece down after Irish bond sale

(…) The strength of demand for eurozone “periphery” debt reflected increased investor appetite for higher-yielding government bonds as well as rising confidence in the creditworthiness of eurozone economies. It improved significantly the chances of Portugal following Ireland’s example and exiting its bailout programme later this year – and of Greece also soon being able to tap international debt markets. (…)

EARNINGS WATCH

Currency Swings Hit Earnings Currency swings are still taking a toll on corporate earnings despite efforts to manage the risk. Large U.S. multinational companies reported about $4.2 billion in hits to earnings and revenue in Q3, driven mostly by swings in the Brazilian real, Japanese yen, Indian rupee and Australian dollar, CFOJ’s Emily Chasan reports. The real declined 10% against the U.S. dollar during the quarter, while the rupee hit a record low.

A total of 205 companies said currency moves had negatively affected their results in the third quarter of 2013, according to FiREapps, a foreign exchange risk-management company. “More companies are trying to manage risk…but companies are still seeing highly uncorrelated moves [against the dollar] based on swings in one currency,” said FiREapps CEO Wolfgang Koester. Companies have spent much of the year insulating themselves against big moves in the euro or the yen, but swings in the Australian dollar, rupee and real dominated discussions because they were often surprises, Mr. Koester said.

Only 78 companies quantified the impact of currencies, which translated to about 3 cents a share on average. The total was up slightly from the second quarter when 95 companies reported a total impact of $4.1 billion.

On an industry basis, car makers suddenly started disclosing more currency moves during the quarter, with 16 companies mentioning their results had been affected. Ford, for example, warned last month of the potential impact from an expected Venezuelan currency devaluation in 2014.

Thumbs down A Flurry of Downgrades Kick Off the New Year

 

Wall Street analysts have gotten back to work in the new year with a flurry of ratings changes, and they have been more bearish than bullish.  As shown in the first chart below, there have been 226 total ratings changes over the first four trading days of 2014, which is the highest reading seen since the bull market began in 2009.  We have seen 134 analyst downgrades since the start of the year, which is also the highest level seen over the first four trading days since 2009.  

In percentage terms, 2014 is starting with fewer downgrades than in 2011 or 2012 (62.7% and 60.0% respectively vs. 59.2% in 2014), but these years both had very quiet starts in terms of the total number of ratings changes.  

Record-Setting Cold Hits Eastern U.S.

A record-setting cold snap in the Midwest enveloped the eastern half of the country Tuesday, with brutally cold temperatures recorded from the deep South up to New England.

Pointing up Is China About to Let the Yuan Rise? Don’t Bank on It  China’s central bankers are beginning to think the country’s huge pile of reserves – which is still growing as authorities intervene to keep the yuan from rising too fast — is excessive. Curbing its growth could even help the economy’s transition from an export-led model to one based on domestic consumption. But the top leadership’s fear of social unrest means things are unlikely to change soon.

(…) In an effort to hold down the value of its currency and keep Chinese exports competitive, the PBOC wades into markets, buying up foreign exchange and pumping out yuan on a massive scale. The PBOC probably bought $73 billion dollars of foreign exchange in October, the most in three years, and a similar amount in November, according to Capital Economics.

Even before that, official figures showed China’s reserves had hit a record $3.66 trillion by the end of the third quarter, the bulk of it invested in U.S. dollar securities like Treasury bonds. Policymakers are beginning to wonder if that hoard is too big.

Sitting on $4 trillion might not seem like a bad position to be in, but it can make a mess of domestic monetary policy if those reserves result from the central bank’s attempts to deal with capital inflows.

To prevent the yuan from appreciating, the PBOC buys up foreign exchange using newly created domestic currency. But that can fuel domestic inflation, so the central bank “sterilizes” the new money by selling central bank bills to domestic financial institutions. That leaves these institutions with less cash for lending, pushing up domestic interest rates (and ultimately leaving the central bank with a loss on its balance sheet).

Interest rates in China already are significantly higher than in many other countries, making it a tempting target for speculative “hot money” flows, which tend to find a way in despite the country’s capital controls.

“Monetary policy gets into a conundrum,” said Louis Kuijs, an economist at RBS. “If the central bank is intervening because there are huge capital inflows, the domestic interest rate in the market will go up. The more that interest rate goes up, the more capital will be attracted. It becomes difficult for the central bank to manage.”

Yi Gang, head of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange and guardian of the treasure trove, thinks the reserves are so large they’re becoming more of a burden than an asset. In an interview last month, he told financial magazine Caixin that a further build-up would bring “fewer and fewer benefits coupled with higher and higher costs.”

Those costs include not just losses on sterilization operations but also the impact of a huge export sector on the environment, he said.

But Mr. Yi does not make the decisions, any more than his boss, PBOC Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan, has the final say on interest rates. Monetary policy in China is too big a deal to be left to the central bank; the State Council, headed by Premier Li Keqiang, has to sign off on its decisions.

The technocrats at the PBOC, financial professionals who have as much faith in markets as anyone in China’s government, might want to dial back foreign-exchange intervention. But the top leaders are leery of any move that could pose a risk to employment. If factories go out of business and jobless migrants flood the streets of Guangdong, a market-determined exchange rate will be little comfort.

To be sure, China is allowing the yuan to appreciate — just not by much. The yuan has risen nearly 13% against the U.S. dollar since authorities relaxed the currency peg in June 2010, including 3% appreciation last year. But that’s far less than it would likely rise if the market were allowed to operate freely.

Never mind that a cheap currency makes it more expensive for Chinese households and businesses to buy things from the outside world, depressing standards of living and hampering the transition to a consumer society that China’s leaders ostensibly want. The policy amounts to forced saving on a huge scale — even as the officials who manage those savings say they already have more than enough for any contingency.

Some experts think the pace of China’s FX accumulation will even increase. Capital Economics says the PBOC could amass another $500 billion over the next year. That’s what they think it will take to keep the yuan from rising to more than 5.90 to the dollar, compared with 6.10 now.

“The PBOC will have to choose between allowing significant currency appreciation and continuing to accumulate foreign assets,” Mark Williams, the firm’s chief Asia economist, wrote in a research note Monday. “We expect policymakers to opt primarily for the latter.”

Emerging Markets See Selloff

The declines come amid concerns about faltering economies and political unrest.

Investors are bailing out of emerging markets from Turkey and Brazil to Thailand and Indonesia, extending a selloff that began last year, amid concerns about faltering economies and political unrest.

The MSCI Emerging Markets Index, a gauge of stocks in 21 developing markets, slipped 3.1% in the first four trading days of 2014, building on a 5% loss in 2013. This compares with double-digit-percentage rallies in stock markets in the U.S., Japan and Europe last year.

Indonesia’s currency on Tuesday hit its lowest level against the dollar since the financial crisis in Asia trading. Meanwhile, the Turkish lira plumbed record lows against the greenback this week. (…)

In the first three trading days of the year, investors yanked $1.2 billion from the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF, VFEM.LN +0.07% the biggest emerging-markets exchange-traded fund listed in the U.S., according to data provider IndexUniverse. That is among the biggest year-to-date outflows among all ETFs. Shares of the ETF itself are down 4.2% in 2014.

Last year, money managers pulled $6 billion from emerging-market stocks, the most since 2011, according to data tracker EPFR Global. Outflows from bond markets totaled $13.1 billion, the biggest since the financial crisis of 2008. (…)

The stocks in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index on average are trading at 10.2 times next year’s earnings, compared with a P/E of 15.2 for the S&P 500, FactSet noted. (…)

In the Philippines, an inflation reading on Tuesday reached a two-year high and provided another sell signal to currency traders given officials and economists had expected the impact from the typhoon in November to be mild on inflation. The Philippine peso has weakened 1% against the dollar since the start of the year. (…)

Mohamed El-Erian
Do not bet on a broad emerging market recovery

(…) To shed more light on what happened in 2013 and what is likely to occur in 2014, we need to look at three factors that many had assumed were relics of the “old EM”.

First, and after several years of large inflows, emerging markets suffered a dramatic dislocation in technical conditions in the second quarter of 2013.

The trigger was Fed talk of “tapering” the unconventional support the US central bank provides to markets. The resulting price and liquidity disruptions were amplified by structural weaknesses associated with a narrow EM dedicated investor base and skittish cross-over investors. Simply put, “tourist dollars” fleeing emerging markets could not be compensated for quickly enough by “locals”.

Second, 2013 saw stumbles on the part of EM corporate leaders and policy makers. Perhaps overconfident due to all the talk of an emerging market age – itself encouraged by the extent to which the emerging world had economically and financially outperformed advanced countries after the 2008 global financial crisis – they underestimated exogenous technical shocks, overestimated their resilience, and under-delivered on the needed responses at both corporate and sovereign levels. Pending elections also damped enthusiasm for policy changes.

Finally, the extent of internal policy incoherence was accentuated by the currency depreciations caused by the sudden midyear reversal in cross-border capital flows. Companies scrambled to deal with their foreign exchange mismatches while central bank interest rate policies were torn between battling currency-induced inflation and countering declining economic growth.

Absent a major hiccup in the global economy – due, for example, to a policy mistake on the part of G3 central banks and/or a market accident as some asset prices are quite disconnected from fundamentals – the influence of these three factors is likely to diminish in 2014. This would alleviate pressure on emerging market assets at a time when their valuations have become more attractive on both a relative and absolute basis.

Yet the answer is not for investors to rush and position their portfolios for an emerging market recovery that is broad in scope and large in scale. Instead, they should differentiate by favouring companies commanding premium profitability and benefiting from healthy long-run consumer growth dynamics, residing in countries with strong balance sheets and a high degree of policy flexibility, and benefiting from a rising dedicated investor base.

 

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!

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (9 DECEMBER 2013)

GREEN FRIDAY

After pretty tame Black Friday and Thanksgiving sales, investors got their Green Friday with an ‘Unambiguously Positive’ Jobs Report accompanied by a relieving 1.1% jump in the S&P 500 Index, the best of all worlds for taper advocates. Good news is good news again!

The media narratives just flowed from that.

Employers Gain Confidence to Hire

U.S. employers are gaining confidence heading into year’s end, hiring at the quickest clip since before Washington’s political dysfunction rattled consumers and businesses this fall.

Payrolls rose by a seasonally adjusted 203,000 in November in sectors ranging from construction to health care, a striking pickup at an uncertain moment for the economy. Moreover, the jobless rate fell to 7% from 7.3%, though its declines in recent months have been driven in part by people leaving the labor force. (…)

U.S. job growth over the past three months now averages 193,000. In September, the average was thought to be 143,000; it has since been revised higher. (…)November’s job gains were more broad-based than in some previous months, suggesting fundamental economic improvements are reaching more parts of the economy.

Economists have worried that the biggest drivers of the nation’s job growth are lower-paying industries like retailers and restaurants. While those industries still represent a big chunk of the job gains, higher-paying sectors like manufacturing also grew in November, adding 27,000 jobs. (…)

It remains that

Nearly one-third of the private-sector job gains in November came from retailers, hotels, restaurants and temporary help agencies.

Retailers added 22,000 workers last month, while restaurants and hotels added 17,000 positions. Temporary help services hired another 16,000.

Lower-paying industries have dominated U.S. job growth for much of the recovery. Over the past year, retailers and temporary-help services have added 323,000 and 219,000 jobs, respectively.

By comparison, manufacturers added only 76,000 jobs.

As we all know, stats can be used to fit any viewpoint: the low month for job growth in 2013 was July at 89k.

  • First 6 months average employment change: +195k.
  • Last 5 months average employment change: +181k. Not enough to call it an ‘Unambiguously Positive’ jobs report. Tapering delayed.

But move July into the first part of the year:

  • First 7 months average employment change: +180k.
  • Last 4 months average employment change: +204k. Here comes the taper!

Never mind that the economy has added 2.3 million jobs over the past year, a pace that has changed little for the past two years in spite of QE1, 2,and 3.

Never mind that

Compared with September, the last reading before the shutdown, the new figures showed 265,000 fewer people working or looking for work, taking the labour market participation rate down from 63.2 per cent to 63 per cent of the adult population.

Declining participation was the main cause of the large fall in the unemployment rate, creating a puzzle and a worry for the Fed. If people are permanently dropping out of the labour force then it suggests there is less spare capacity in the economy.(FT)

Never mind that

Markit’s recent PMI surveys showed that the rate of growth was below that seen in September. Hiring slipped to the lowest for eight months as a result of firms reporting growing unease about the outlook. (Markit)

image

And never mind the important inventory build up revealed by the Q3 GDP, recent car data and clear evidence of enormous surplus retail inventory post Thanksgiving, all suggesting that the recent manufacturing uptrend may be short lived. The U.S. economy, and for that matter Europe’s as well, have been propped up by a production push rather than by a more solid and durable consumer pull.

Real consumer expenditures rose 0.3% MoM in October after edging up 0.1% in September, in spite of a 0.2% advance in real disposable income during the last 2 months. Taking the 4-month period from July, real expenditures are growing at a 1.8% annualized rate, unchanged from the preceding 4-month period. During both periods, real disposable income has grown 2.7% annualized but real labour income growth halved from 1.8% annualized in March-June to 0.9% annualized in July-October.

Consumer demand sustained by government transfer income and a low savings rate is not solid foundation for economic growth, needless to say. It gets even more dangerous when corporate inventories accumulate rapidly, especially during the all important fourth quarter.

Taper or not? Taking liquidity out when things are so fragile would be a big mistake in my view. The Fed won its bet with QE-induced wealth boost for the top 10% but it would be ill-advised to take the punch bowl away before the ordinary people’s party begins.

Fed credibility has already been hurt by all the goofy rhetoric since last May. The only transparency they have achieved is to expose their flaws wide open. When you decide to be more transparent, you better make sure that what you have to show is attractive…otherwise, be a Greenspan and let markets guess for haven’s sake.

To be sure, as BCA Research is quoted in Barron’s (my emphasis),

(…) policy makers are hoping for a cyclical rebound in the participation rate as discouraged workers are drawn back into the labor market. There is no evidence that this is occurring so far.


As a result, BCA thinks the Fed will lower the threshold for forward guidance about increases in the federal-funds target (which has been pinned near 0% to 0.25% since late 2008) until the jobless rate falls to 5% or even 5.5%, instead of the current 6.5%, which could be reached by next October if current trends continue. The Fed’s notion is that the better job market will lure folks on the sideline to start looking for work again, slowing the decline in unemployment, even as more people find positions. But BCA says its clients are increasingly worried that there is less slack in the labor market than presumed and that the Fed is making an inflationary policy mistake.

Much like a rising equity market eventually lures investors into action.

In all what was said and written last Friday, this is what must be most reassuring to Ben Bernanke:

Jonas Prising, president of staffing company Manpower Group, said the official numbers fit with what is happening on the ground. “What we see is a continued improvement in employers’ outlook. Despite what you see and hear about uncertainty, employers are clearly seeing a gradually improving economy,” said Mr Prising, noting that the pick-up in hiring was slow but steady. (WSJ)

TAPER WATCH

This is from Fed’s mouthpiece John Hilsenrath:

Fed Closes In on Bond Exit

Fed officials are closer to winding down their $85 billion-a-month bond-purchase program, possibly as early as December, in the wake of Friday’s encouraging jobs report.

The Fed’s next policy meeting is Dec. 17-18 and a pullback, or tapering, is on the table, though some might want to wait until January or even later to see signs the recent strength in economic growth and hiring will be sustained. On Tuesday, officials go into a “blackout” period in which they stop speaking publicly and begin behind-the-scenes negotiations about what to do at the policy gathering. (…)

The sharp rise in stocks Friday shows that the Fed is having some success reassuring investors that it will maintain easy-money policies for years to come.

(…) the November employment report was the latest in a batch of recent indicators that have boosted their confidence that the economy and markets are in better position to stand with less support from large monthly central bank intervention in credit markets.

Pointing up The economic backdrop looks better now than it did in September. Fingers crossed

Payroll employment growth during the past three months has averaged 193,000 jobs per month, compared with 143,000 during the three months before the September meeting.

Moreover, in September, the White House and Congress were heading into a government shutdown and potential a debt ceiling crisis. Now they appear to be crafting a small government spending agreement for the coming year. The headwinds from federal tax increases and spending cuts this year could wane, possibly setting the stage for stronger economic growth next year.

Still, the jobs report wasn’t greeted as unambiguously good news inside the Fed. One problem was an undertone of distress among households even as the jobless rate falls.

The government’s survey of households showed that a meager 83,000 people became employed between September and November, while the number not in the labor force during that stretch rose by 664,000. The jobless rate fell from 7.2% to 7% during the period effectively because people stopped looking for jobs and removed themselves from the ranks of people counted as unemployed.

“The unemployment rate [drop] probably overstates the improvement in the economy,” Chicago Fed President Charles Evans told reporters Friday.

Another worry among officials, and another reason some officials might wait a bit before moving: Inflation, as measured by the Commerce Department’s personal consumption expenditure price index, was up just 0.7% from a year earlier, well below the Fed’s 2% target. Mr. Evans said he was troubled and puzzled by the very low inflation trend. (…)

Fed December Taper Odds Double in Survey as Jobs Beat Estimate

 

The share of economists predicting the Federal Reserve will reduce bond buying in December doubled after a government report showed back-to-back monthly payroll gains of 200,000 or more for the first time in almost a year. (…)

The payroll report puts the four-month average for gains at 204,000, and the six-month average at 180,000. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, a supporter of record stimulus who votes on policy this year, said in April he wants gains of 200,000 a month for about six months before tapering. Atlanta’s Dennis Lockhart, who doesn’t vote, said several months of gains exceeding 180,000 would make slowing appropriate.

“The 200,000 number hits you right between the eyes,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. in New York. “That’s a number that everyone agrees the labor market is showing good-size gains, and the progress they’re making seems to be sustainable if that marker is met, which it was.”

See! It all boils down to where July stands in the economic calendar.

Credit-Card Debt Hits Three-Year High

U.S. consumers pushed their credit-card debt to a three-year high in October, a possible sign of their willingness to boost spending into the holiday season.

Revolving credit, which largely reflects money owed on credit cards, advanced by a seasonally adjusted $4.33 billion in October, the Federal Reserve said Friday. The expansion pushed total revolving debt to $856.82 billion, the highest level since September 2010.

The expansion marked a reversal from the prior four months when revolving balances either declined or held nearly flat. Consumers’ reluctance to add to credit-card balances was viewed by some economists as a sign of caution.

“Increasingly households are becoming more comfortable with using their plastic, and carrying a balance on it,” said Patrick J. O’Keefe, director of economic research at consulting firm CohnReznick. “The scars of 2007 and 2008 are starting to heal.”

When consumers are willing to carry a credit-card balance, it suggests they are confident they’ll have the future income needed to pay down the debt, he said.

The turnaround came in a month that brought a 16-day government shutdown, which weighed on consumer confidence and left hundreds of thousands of government workers without paychecks for weeks. (That may have been one factor in the increased use of credit cards. The federal workers received back pay after the shutdown.)

Total consumer credit, excluding home loans, rose by $18.19 billion in October, the largest gain since May. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had forecast a $14.8 billion advance. (…)

The Fed report showed non-revolving debt, mostly auto and education loans, increased by $13.85 billion, or a 7.5% annualized jump. Such debt has been trending steadily higher since 2010, reflecting a surge in government-backed student loans and purchases of new autos. (…)

(ZeroHedge)

Fingers crossed  Congress Readies a Year-End Budget Dash

A Congress stymied by partisan divides, blown deadlines and intraparty squabbling gets a late chance to end the year with an elusive budget deal.

In the final week of 2013 that the Senate and House are scheduled to be in Washington at the same time, lawmakers and aides are optimistic that negotiators can reach a budget accord and continue to make progress on a farm bill and other measures.

China Exports Rise More Than Estimated

Overseas shipments rose 12.7 percent from a year earlier, the General Administration of Customs said today in Beijing. That exceeded estimates from 41 of 42 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News. The trade surplus of $33.8 billion was the biggest since January 2009, while imports gained 5.3 percent, compared with a median projection of 7 percent.

The export figures reflect pickups in shipments to the U.S., Europe and South Korea, according to customs data.

China Inflation Stays Benign

 

The November consumer-price index was up 3% from a year ago, slowing down slight from October’s 3.2% pace, the statistics bureau said Monday. That was just below market expectations of a 3.1% rise and well within the government’s target of 3.5% inflation for the year.

Consumer inflation was even less of a worry when looked at on a month-over-month basis: It showed a decline of 0.1% in November, its first such drop since May.

At the factory level, producer prices continued to slide year-over-year, falling 1.4% for the 21st monthly decline in a row, showing continued weakness in domestic demand for raw materials. The decline in November was slightly less than the October’s 1.5%.

Japanese growth revised down
Third-quarter growth hit by weaker business activity

The updated calculation of gross domestic product in the three months to September showed that economic output increased at an annualised rate of 1.1 per cent, compared with an initial estimate of 1.9 per cent announced in November. (…)

The downward revision for the third quarter owed to lower estimates of investment and inventory-building by companies. Consumer spending was revised upward, but not enough to offset the less favourable view of business activity.

Corporate capital investment did not grow at all during the period, the data showed; the initial estimate had suggested a 0.7 per cent expansion. Inventory growth was cut to 0.7 per cent from double that figure in the initial data, while the estimate of private consumption growth was doubled to a still modest 0.8 per cent.

Bundesbank lifts German growth outlook
Central bank forecasts economic expansion of 1.7% in 2014

Germany’s Bundesbank has upgraded its economic projections, saying on Friday that strong demand from consumers would leave the euro area’s largest economy operating at full capacity over the next two years.

The Bundesbank has forecast growth of 1.7 per cent in 2014 and 1.8 per cent the following year. The unemployment rate, which at 5.2 per cent in October is already among the lowest in the currency bloc, is expected to fall further. (…)

The Bundesbank also expected inflation to fall back in 2014 – to 1.3 per cent from 1.6 per cent this year – before climbing to 1.5 per cent. If falls in energy prices were excluded, inflation would register 1.9 per cent next year.

EARNINGS, SENTIMENT WATCH

Notice the positive spin and the bee-sss just about everywhere now.

U.S. stocks could weather grim profit outlooks

The ratio of profit warnings to positive outlooks for the current quarter is shaping up to be the worst since at least 1996, based on Thomson Reuters data.

More warnings may jolt the market next week, but market watchers say this trend could be no more than analysts being too optimistic at the beginning and needing to adjust downward.

“There’s a natural tendency on the part of Wall Street in any given year to be overly optimistic as it relates to the back half of the year … It isn’t so much the companies’ failing, it’s where Wall Street has decided to place the bar,” said Matthew Kaufler, portfolio manager for Clover Value Fund at Federated Investors in Rochester, New York.

So any negative news about earnings may “already be in the stock prices,” he said. Sarcastic smile (…)

Still, estimates for fourth-quarter S&P 500 earnings have fallen sharply since the start of the year when analysts were building in much stronger profit gains for the second half of the year.

Earnings for the quarter are now expected to have increased 7.8 percent from a year ago compared with estimates of 17.6 percent at the start of the year and 10.9 percent at the start of the fourth quarter. (…)

The 11.4 to 1 negative-to-positive ratio of earnings forecasts sets the fourth quarter up as the most negative on record, based on Reuters data.

So far 120 companies have issued outlooks. In a typical quarter, between 130 and 150 S&P 500 companies issue guidance.

In small and mid-cap stocks, the trend appears much less gloomy.

Thomson Reuters data for S&P 400 companies shows 2.2 negative outlooks for every one positive forecast, while data for S&P 600 companies shows a similar ratio.

The S&P 500 technology sector so far leads in negative outlooks with 28, followed by consumer discretionary companies, with 22 warnings for the fourth quarter. (…)

“It appears while the percentage (of warnings) is high, it’s still not really infiltrating to all sectors,” said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital in New York. “Obviously it impacts the individual (stocks), but maybe not the market trend.” (…)

So, this is a stock market, not a market of stocks!

Punch  That said, here’s a surprise for you: analysts estimates have actually gone up in the past 10 days:

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CAPITULATION
 
Hugh HendryA bear capitulates
Hugh Hendry on why equities will rise further

Hugh Hendry is CIO of Eclectica Asset Management

(…) In this environment the actual price of an asset no longer has anything to do with our qualitative perception of reality: valuations are out, liquidity in. In the wacky world created by such monetary fidgeting there is one reason for being long markets and one alone: sovereign nations are printing money and prices are trending. That is it. (…)

So here is how I understand things. You should buy equities if you believe many European banks and their sovereign paymasters are insolvent. You should be long risk assets if you believe China will have lowered its growth rate from 7 per cent to nearer 5 per cent over the course of the next two years. You should be long US equities if you are worried about the failure of Washington to address its fiscal deficits. And you should buy Japanese assets if you fear that Abenomics will fail to restore the fortunes of Japan.

It will all end badly; the mouse will die of course but in the meantime the stock markets look to us much as they did in 1928 or in 1998. In economic terms, America and Europe will remain resilient without booming. But with monetary policy set much too loose it is inevitable we will continue to witness mini-economic cycles that convince investors that economies are escaping stall speed and that policy rates are likely to rise. This happened in May.

The Fed, convinced its QE programme had succeeded in re-distributing global GDP away from China, began signalling its intent to taper. However, the anticipated vigorous American growth never materialised. The Fed had to shock market expectations by removing the immediacy of its tighter policy and stock markets rebounded higher.

So the spectre of tapering will probably continue to haunt markets but stronger growth in one part of the world on the back of easier policy will be countered by even looser policy elsewhere. Market expectations of tighter policy will keep being rescinded and markets, for now, will probably just keep trending.

Lance Roberts today (with a lot more from Hugh Hendry if you care):

(…) The PRIMARY ISSUE here is that there is NO valuation argument
that currently supports asset prices at current levels.

It is simply the function of momentum within the prevailing trend that makes the case for higher prices from here.

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Hmmm…The trend is your friend, hey? With friends like that…

THE U.S. ENERGY GAME CHANGER

I wrote about that in 2012 (Facts & Trends: The U.S. Energy Game Changer). It is now happening big time.

Shale gas boom helps US chemicals exports
America now second cheapest location for chemicals plants

The US chemicals industry is planning a sharp increase in its exports as a result of the cost advantage created by the shale gas boom, putting pressure on higher-cost competitors in Europe and Asia.

The American Chemistry Council, the industry association, predicts in forecasts published this week that US chemicals exports will rise 45 per cent over the next five years, as a result of a wave of investment in new capacity that will be aiming at overseas markets. (…)

The shale revolution has caused a boom in US production of natural gas liquids used as chemical feedstocks such as ethane, and sent their prices tumbling.

US producers also face electricity costs about half their levels in Europe, and natural gas just one-third as high.

The result has been a dramatic reversal from the mid-2000s, when the US was one of the world’s most expensive locations for manufacturing chemicals, to today when it is the second cheapest, bettered only by projects in the Middle East that have tied up feedstock on favourable terms.

International chemicals companies have announced 136 planned or possible investments in the US worth about $91bn, according to the ACC, with half of those projects proposed by non-US companies. (…)

“The US has become the most attractive place in the world to invest in chemical manufacturing.”

DEMOGRAPHICS

We can discuss political and financial philosophies, fiscal policies and monetary policies till the cows come home. But there is one thing that is mighty difficult to argue about: demographics. As Harry Dent says in this interview with John Mauldin, you have to go back 250 years to find a generation with as much impact as the current supersized baby boomer generation. The impact of retiring baby boomers is so powerful that it can totally offset fiscal and monetary policies without anyone noticing. The 20 minutes interview is not as good as I was hoping it might be but still deserves your time.

A team of Kansas City Fed economists just wrote about The Impact of an Aging U.S. Population on State Tax Revenues (http://goo.gl/u5g3j5) with this chart that summarizes the stealth trends underway:

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Here’s another way to deal with an adverse job market:

Saudi deportations gain momentum
Riyadh to expel up to 2m workers

Riyadh has said it wants to forcibly expel as many as 2m of the foreign workers, including hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, Somalis, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who make up around a third of the country’s 30m population.

At home, the exodus of illegal workers is being seen as the kingdom’s most radical labour market experiment yet. With one in four young Saudi males out of work, analysts applaud Riyadh’s determination to tackle the problem, but doubt the crackdown will achieve its objective, as Saudi nationals are unlikely to apply for menial jobs. (…)

Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia and several other countries are struggling to absorb the thousands of unemployed young men now returning, with development officials worrying about the impact on remittances.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s second biggest source of remittances, only behind the US, with outflows of nearly $28bn last year, according to estimates by the World Bank. (…)  Saudi analysts expect the crackdown on illegal workers to reduce remittance flows by nearly a quarter next year, or about $7bn. (…)

The crackdown on African and Asian illegal migrants is meant to complement a government labour market reform known as nitaqat, Arabic for “ranges”. Replacing the failing fixed-quota “Saudisation” system of 1994, nitaqat places a sliding scale of financial penalties and incentives on employers who fail to hire enough Saudi nationals. By draining the pool of cheap expatriate labour, the Saudi government hopes to encourage private sector employers to hire more nationals.

“The nationalisation agenda has been around for 20 years, but what’s changed is that the Arab spring has made private sector jobs for nationals a political priority,” says Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics. “Saudi Arabia has become a laboratory for labour market reform,” he says. (…)

BUY LOW, SELL HIGH

A 700- year chart to prove a point:

Global Financial Data has put together an index of Government Bond yields that uses bonds from each of these centers of economic power over time to trace the course of interest rates over the past seven centuries.  From 1285 to 1600, Italian bonds are used.   Data are available for the Prestiti of Venice from 1285 to 1303 and from 1408 to 1500 while data from 1304 to 1407 use the Consolidated Bonds of Genoa and the Juros of Italy from 1520 to 1598.

General Government Bonds from the Netherlands are used from 1606 to 1699.   Yields from Britain are used from 1700 to 1914, using yields on Million Bank stock (which invested in government securities) from 1700 to 1728 and British Consols from 1729 to 1918.  From 1919 to date, the yield on US 10-year bond is used.

Ralph Dillon of Global Financial Data

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (6 DECEMBER 2013)

Business Stockpiling Fuels 3.6% GDP Rise

The economy grew at a faster pace in the third quarter than first thought, but underlying figures suggest slower growth in the year’s final months.

catGross domestic product, the broadest measure of goods and services produced in the economy, grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.6% from July through September, the Commerce Department said Thursday. The measure was revised up from an earlier 2.8% estimate and marks the strongest growth pace since the first quarter of 2012.

High five The upgrade was nearly entirely the result of businesses boosting their stockpiles. The change in private inventories, as measured in dollars, was the largest in 15 years after adjusting for inflation.

As a result, inventories are likely to build more slowly or decline in the current quarter, slowing overall economic growth. The forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers expects the economy to advance at a 1.4% rate in the fourth quarter. Other economists say the pace could fall below 1%.

Real final sales—GDP excluding the change in inventories—rose just 1.9%, a slowdown from the second quarter. Consumer spending advanced only 1.4%, the weakest gain since the recession ended.

This huge inventory bulge may explain the bullish manufacturing PMIs of the past few months as Lance Roberts writes today:

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I posted on the apparent inventory overhang Wednesday, particularly at car manufacturers but also in retail stores as can be easily seen at any mall near you. Right on cue:

Honda Offers Dealers Incentives

Honda is offering its U.S. dealers big cash incentives to pump up their new-car sales in the final month of the year after its November U.S. sales fell slightly even as the overall market rose nearly 9%.

Honda told dealers on Wednesday it would pay bonuses of $3,000 for every vehicle they sell above their December 2012 sales total, according to dealers briefed by the company. Retailers can use the extra money to drop prices on new vehicles or finance other incentives to persuade customers to buy.

Auto makers often offer similar bonuses to their dealers, but Honda’s new program is noteworthy because the Japanese company typically offers much less in sales incentives than its competitors.

Honda’s program is being rolled out amid signs that other major auto makers in the U.S. also are sweetening rebates and other sales promotions.

Lance Roberts reminds us of the importance of final demand which is at really uncomfortably low levels:

Real final sales in the economy peaked in early 2012 and has since been on the decline despite the ongoing interventions of the Federal Reserve.  The lack of transmission into the real economy is clearly evident.

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Furthermore, as shown in the next chart, consumer spending has continued to weaken since its peak in 2010.  The last couple of quarters has shown a noticeable decline is services related spending as budgets tighten due to lack of income growth as disposable personal incomes declined in the latest report.  The slowdown in dividends, wages and salaries were partially offset by a rise in social welfare and government benefits.  Unfortunately, rising incomes derived from government benefits does not lead to stronger economic growth.

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The latest GDP data are for Q3. The last and most important quarter of the year is off to a slow pace:

Retailers Post Weak November Sales

The nine retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters recorded a 1.2% increase in November same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, versus the 2.3% consensus estimate and the 5.1% increase posted a year ago.

The 1.2% result is the weakest result since September 2009’s 0.7% result.  Off-price retailers continue to outperform the sector, suggesting shoppers still want designer brand names for less. Companies that missed expectations blamed the shorter holiday season, very competitive and difficult environment.

Hopefully, this will help:

U.S. Crude-Oil Glut Spurs Price Drop

The U.S. Gulf Coast—home to the world’s largest concentration of petroleum refineries—is suddenly awash in crude oil. So much high-quality oil is flowing into the area that the price there has dropped sharply.

So much high-quality U.S. oil is flowing into the area that the price of crude there has dropped sharply in the past few weeks and is no longer in sync with global prices.

In fact, some experts believe a U.S. oil glut is coming. “We are moving toward a significant amount of domestic oversupply of light crude,” says Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup.

And the glut on the Gulf Coast is likely to grow. In January, the southern leg ofTransCanada Corp.’s Keystone pipeline is set to begin transporting 700,000 barrels a day of crude from the storage tanks of Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Texas.

The ramifications could be far-reaching, including lower gasoline prices for American drivers, rising profits for refineries and growing political pressure on Congress to allow oil exports. But the glut could also hurt the very companies that helped create it: independent drillers, who have reversed years of declining U.S. energy production but face lower prices for their product.

Globally, the surge in supply and tumbling prices are attracting notice. On Monday, a delegate to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said Saudi Arabia is selling oil to the U.S. for less than it would fetch in Asia. Nonetheless, the Saudis have continued to ship crude to refineries they own in Texas and Louisiana, according to U.S. import data, further driving down prices.

The strongest indication of a glut is the falling price of “Louisiana Light Sweet,” a blend purchased by refiners along the Gulf Coast. Typically, a barrel of Louisiana Light Sweet costs a dollar or two more than a barrel of crude in Europe.

But on Wednesday, a barrel of Louisiana crude fetched $9.46 less than a barrel of comparable-quality crude in England. (…)

Some industry officials argue that U.S. light crude will simply displace more “heavy” imported oil. But many Gulf Coast refineries are set up to turn the more viscous crude into diesel fuel, and converting their facilities to process additional light oil wouldn’t be easy. (…)

San Antonio-based Valero, the nation’s largest oil refiner, all but stopped importing lightweight crude to the Gulf Coast and Memphis a year ago because there was so much U.S. product available, says spokesman Bill Day. It is also shipping crude from Texas and Louisiana all the way up to its refinery in Quebec because the price of Gulf Coast oil is so low. (…)

How about feeding New York City where prices are 17% higher than in Houston, Tx.? (Obama focuses agenda on relieving economic inequality) Winking smileBut this can’t help housing, even with the Fed trying as hard as it can:Neither can this:

While higher mortgage rates have moderated U.S. home sales recently, the potential supply of buyers has also taken a surprising step back. Annual household formations are running well below one-half million recently, compared with a three-decade norm of 1.1 million. This is surprising given that the echo boomers are old enough to leave the familial home by now—unless they simply can’t find work and feel compelled to stay there. (BMO Capital)

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TOUGH TO BE CONSTRUCTIVE ABOUT EUROPE

However you look at it, the pattern is the same: strong and stronger Germany (20% of EU GDP, 16% of EU population), weak and weaker France (16%, 13%) and Italy (12%, 12%).

  • German construction sector growth helps drive economic expansion The construction industry looks set to provide a boost to the German economy in the fourth quarter, according to Markit’s PMI data. The construction PMI – which measures the overall level of business activity in the sector – registered expansion for the seventh successive month in November. Although the headline index dipped slightly from 52.6 in October to 52.1, the average reading in the fourth quarter so far is consistent with the sector’s output rising by some 7% compared to the third quarter.
  • France: Construction sector downturn deepens The downturn in France’s construction sector gathered pace in November. Activity and new orders both fell at sharper rates, while the pace of job shedding quickened. Confidence regarding the year-ahead outlook meanwhile plunged to the lowest in 2013 to date.
  • Italian construction sector set to post contraction in final quarter Italy’s construction sector looks set to remain a drag on GDP in the final quarter of the year, with businesses in the industry having recorded further reductions in total activity levels in both October and November. The latest contraction was the slowest in five months, but nevertheless still solid overall and broad based across the housing, commercial and civil engineering sectors.

German Factory Orders Decline in Sign of Uneven Recovery

Orders, adjusted for seasonal swings and inflation, slid 2.2 percent from September, when they rose a revised 3.1 percent, the Economy Ministry in Berlin said today. Economists forecast a decline of 1 percent, according to the median of 40 estimates in a Bloomberg survey. Orders advanced 1.9 percent from a year ago when adjusted for the number of working days.

Foreign orders fell 2.3 percent in October, while those from within the country dropped 2 percent, today’s report showed. Demand from the euro area declined 1.3 percent.

EURO BANKS NEED MORE WORKOUTS:

(Morgan Stanley)

Red heart Thank You All

I have not been able to personally and directly thank all of you who reacted to my help demand last Tuesday. While it was on a rather minor thing, I am relieved to see that if I ever lost my mind, my readers from across the world will surely help.

Your kind words were also nice to read. I am happy to see I can help some, me being first in line, remain focused, objective and disciplined.

I wish I had advised you to buy bitcoins early this year but you just paid me handsomely with your buddycoins!

Other harmless ways readers can contribute to this absolutely free blog is by clicking on the ads on the sidebar from time to time just to encourage my advertisers to stay with me and/or to use the Amazon search box on the sidebar to reach the Amazon web site before ordering. This will earn News-To-Use a small referral fee. All moneys received are reinvested into research material, less and less of which if free.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (15 NOVEMBER 2013)

Empire State Manufacturing Contracts: General Business Conditions Lowest Since January

The general business conditions index fell four points to -2.2, its first negative reading since May. The new orders index also entered negative territory, falling thirteen points to -5.5, and the shipments index moved below zero with a fourteen-point drop to -0.5. The prices paid index fell five points to 17.1, indicating a slowing of input price increases. The prices received index fell to -4.0; the negative reading was a sign that selling prices had declined—their first retreat in two years. Labor market conditions were also weak, with the index for number of employees falling four points to 0.0, while the average workweek index dropped to -5.3.

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Shoppers Can’t Shake the Blues

 

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. offered little reason for holiday cheer, reporting its third straight quarter of poor sales in the U.S. and painting a gloomy picture for the economic recovery.

The downbeat outlook from the world’s largest retailer was a reminder that even as U.S. stock prices climb to record heights, many Americans remain caught between high joblessness and hits to their paychecks that are limiting their ability to spend, putting a further drag on an already sluggish economy.

Kohl’s Corp., a department-store chain that caters to middle-income customers, also reported weak results Thursday and said it scaled back its inventories ahead of the holidays, signaling a lack of confidence in its ability to boost sales. (…)

Wal-Mart lowered its full-year profit forecast on Thursday and warned sales would be flat through the end of January, after sales fell for a third straight quarter at U.S. stores open at least a year. (…)

Even higher-end retailers experienced softness in the third quarter. Nordstrom Inc. reported late Thursday that its profit fell to $137 million from $146 million a year earlier, as sales at stores open at least a year slipped 0.7%. The company attributed part of the decline to a shift in the timing of its big Anniversary Sale, but also saw some weakness.

“We’ve experienced softness in our full line store sales with third quarter results consistent with recent trends but lower than what we anticipated as we started the year,” Blake Nordstrom, the company’s president said on a conference call with analysts. (…)

On Wednesday, Macy’s Inc. delivered strong sales and an upbeat holiday outlook that sent its stock up more than 9%. But the department-store chain is boosting discounts to draw in shoppers even at the expense of profit margins.

Kohl’s said it plans to ratchet up holiday marketing and discounts to bring more people into its stores after it cut its full-year profit outlook Thursday. The department-store chain reported its third-quarter earnings fell 18% as comparable-store sales dropped 1.6%. (…)

The Bentonville, Ark., retailer could face additional pressure on sales from the expiration of a temporary boost in food-stamp benefits. The expiration on Nov. 1 is expected to leave nearly 48 million Americans with $5 billion less to spend this fiscal year, which ends in September, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The hit follows the end of a payroll tax break that had saved 2% of consumers’ monthly paychecks.

Wal-Mart estimates it rakes in about 18% of total U.S. outlays on food stamps, or about $14 billion of the $80 billion the U.S. Department of Agriculture says was appropriated for food stamps in the year ended in September 2012. (…)

“A reduction in gas prices and grocery deflation will help customers stretch their budgets, but they’re still trying to absorb a 2% payroll tax cut, uncertainty over Washington, and a lack of clarity around personal health care costs that are all headwinds,” Mr. Simon said. (…)

U.S. Worker Productivity Climbs

More productive U.S. workers supported faster economic growth in the third quarter, but slower business investment might limit future gains.

Labor productivity, or output per hours worked, increased at a 1.9% annual rate from July through September, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Second-quarter productivity growth was revised down to a 1.8% pace from a previous reading of 2.3%. Productivity held flat from a year ago because the increase in output was matched by an increase in hours worked.

Meanwhile, unit labor costs, a key gauge of inflationary pressure, declined at a 0.6% annual pace last quarter. From a year earlier, unit labor costs are up 1.9%—running ahead of the increase in consumer prices.

Industrial Output Runs Hard to Stay in Place

Industrial production in September returned to where it was before the recession, based on a Fed index. But certain index components are way above or below that level, providing a telling set of statistics about today’s economy.

September’s industrial-production data, which cover the period just before the government shutdown, seemed encouraging at first glance. The index expanded 0.6% over the prior month, well ahead of predictions and the fastest pace in seven months. But the strength lay entirely in utilities output, which makes up a 10th of the index. The sixth-warmest September on record for the contiguous 48 states followed a summer that was milder than the year-ago period. Actual manufacturing production, which comprises three-quarters of the index, rose by just 0.1%.

U.S. Trade Gap Widens as Exports Slip

The U.S. trade deficit widened 8%, as a fall in U.S. exports in September suggests the global economy is struggling to gain traction quickly enough to offset tepid demand at home. (Chart from Haver Analytics)

Exports fell 0.2% while imports rose 1.2%, causing the trade gap to expand for the third-straight month.

The report suggests exports, after rising earlier in the year, slumped during the summer as demand weakened in Europe, Japan and developing economies. The three-month moving average of exports, a reading of the underlying trend, slipped for the first time since May. (…)

U.S. exports to the EU from January through September fell 2.7%, compared with the same period a year earlier. Exports to the U.K. were down 15.1%, and exports to Germany fell by 4.5%.

The European Union accounts for roughly 17% of the market for U.S. exports.

The U.S. is also seeing lower demand from Japan, whose export-driven economy is struggling amid weak overseas demand. U.S. exports to Japan this year through September were down 7.6% compared to a year earlier.

September’s drop in overall exports was broad-based, with falling demand for American industrial materials as well as consumer and capital goods.

U.S.: Downward revisions to Q3 GDP?

The US goods and services trade deficit widened unexpectedly in September to US$41.8 bn, the worst tally in four months. The deterioration was due to rising imports and declining exports, the latter falling for a third month in a row in real terms. The results are worse than what the BEA had anticipated when it estimated Q3 GDP last week.

As today’s Hot Charts show, the agency estimated a less brutal deterioration in net exports of goods than what actually transpired. And with real exports of goods growing in Q3 at about a third of the pace estimated by the BEA, and real imports of goods growing faster in the quarter than what the agency had anticipated, it seems that trade may
have been a drag on the economy in Q3 rather than a contributor as depicted in last week’s GDP report.

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We now expect a three-tick downgrade to Q3 US GDP growth from 2.8% to 2.5% annualized. Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t end there. September’s weak trade results are also bad for the current quarter. The higher imports probably mean that the Q3 stock build-up was larger than first thought, meaning that there’s perhaps a higher likelihood of
an inventory drawdown (and hence a moderation in production) in the current quarter. If that’s the case, Q4 US GDP growth could be running only at around 1% annualized. (NBF)

Consumer Borrowing Picks Up

Americans stepped up their borrowing in the third quarter, a trend that could boost the economy—but, in a worrying sign, the nation’s student-loan tab also rose.

Household debt outstanding, which includes mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and student loans, rose $127 billion between July and September to $11.28 trillion, the first increase since late last year and the biggest in more than five years, Federal Reserve Bank of New York figures showed Thursday.

Taking on Debt Again

Mortgage balances, the biggest part of household debt, increased by $56 billion amid fewer foreclosures, while Americans bumped up their auto-loan balances by $31 billion.

At the same time, the amount of education loans outstanding, which has increased every quarter since the New York Fed began tracking these figures in 2003, rose $33 billion to surpass $1 trillion for the first time, according to this measure. The share of student-loan balances that were 90 or more days overdue rose to 11.8% from 10.9%, even as late payments on other debts dropped.

Yellen Defends Fed’s Role, Current Path

Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen signaled Thursday that no big changes would come to the central bank under her leadership if she becomes its next chief.

The nominee said at the hearing that the decision about winding down the program depended on how the economy performs. “We have seen meaningful progress in the labor market,” Ms. Yellen said. “What the [Fed] is looking for is signs that we will have growth that’s strong enough to promote continued progress.”

She also repeated the Fed’s message that even after the bond program ends, it will keep short-term interest rates near zero for a long time because the bank doesn’t want to remove its support too fast.

The Fed’s next meeting is Dec. 17-18.

Surprised smile  Cisco CEO: ‘Never Seen’ Such a Falloff in Orders

imageThe Silicon Valley network-equipment giant on Wednesday said revenue rose just 1.8% in its first fiscal quarter, compared with its projection of 3% to 5% growth. Cisco followed up by projecting a decline of 8% to 10% in the current period, an unusually grim forecast for a company seen as a bellwether for corporate technology spending.

John Chambers, Cisco’s chief executive, said orders the company expected to land in October never materialized, particularly in Brazil, Russia, Mexico, India and China. Orders for all emerging markets declined 21%.

“I’ve never seen this before,” Mr. Chambers said.

First-quarter orders in China declined 18%, the company said, with Mexico and India off by the same percentage. Orders were off 30% in Russia and 25% in Brazil.

Euro Zone’s Rebound Feels Like Recession

(…) Gross domestic product in the 17-country euro zone grew only 0.1% last quarter, or 0.4% at an annualized rate, data published on Thursday showed. The rate of growth was down sharply from the second quarter, when policy makers and economists began to hope that the clouds were clearing for the troubled currency bloc. (…)

Even Germany’s economy grew only 0.3% last quarter, or 1.3% annualized, as weak demand in Europe and patchy global growth hit its exports. (…) France and Italy, the bloc’s next-biggest economies after Germany, both suffered small contractions.

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Industrial production down by 0.5% in euro area

IP in the Euro 17 area was down 0.5% MoM in September and for Q3 as a whole. IP of durable consumer goods were –2.6% MoM in September and –4.1% QoQ in Q3.

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EU Inflation Slows to Four-Year Low

The EU’s official statistics agency said Friday consumer prices rose 0.9% in the 12 months to October, a lower annual rate of inflation than the 1.3% recorded in September, and the lowest since October 2009.

Eurostat also confirmed that the annual rate of inflation in the 17 countries that share the euro was 0.7% in October, the lowest level since November 2009.

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Core inflation was +0.8% in October, down from 1.0% in September.

 

Brussels warns Spain and Italy on budgets

France’s ‘limited progress’ on reforms also under spotlight

Brussels has warned Spain and Italy that their budget plans for 2014 may not comply with the EU’s tough new debt and deficit rules, a move that could force both countries to revise their tax and spending programmes before resubmitting them to national parliaments.

The verdicts, the first time the European Commission has issued detailed evaluations of eurozone government budgets, also include a warning to France that its economic reform plan constitutes only “limited progress” towards reforming its slow-growing economy.

Earnings Season Ends

The third quarter earnings season came to an end today now that Wal-Mart (WMT) has released its numbers.  Of the 2,268 companies that reported this season, which started in early October, 58.6% beat earnings estimates.  Below is a chart comparing this quarter’s beat rate to past quarters since 2001.  Since the bull market began in March 2009, this is the second worst earnings beat rate we’ve seen.  Only Q1 of this year was worse. 

(…) the 8-quarter streak of more companies lowering guidance than raising guidance was extended to nine quarters this season, as companies lowering guidance outnumbered companies raising guidance by 4.5 percentage points.  When will companies finally offer up positive outlooks on the future?

China to Ease One-Child Policy

Xinhua said authorities will now allow couples to have two children if one of the parents is an only child. Currently, couples are restricted to one child except in some areas.

Morning MoneyBeat: Nasdaq Nears 4000

The Nasdaq Composite is poised to cross 4000 for the first time in 13 years, an event that is sure to prompt comparisons to the dot-com bubble. It shouldn’t.

(…) The Nasdaq is now dominated by mostly profitable companies. Names such as Pets.com have come and gone, replaced by more mature companies, plenty of which sit on loads of cash and pay hefty dividends. Apple Inc,, Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. are bigger and return much more cash to shareholders now than they did during the go-go days. The index also trades at a far cheaper multiple than it did 14 years ago.

Light bulb  Berkshire Reports New Stake in Exxon Mobil

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway disclosed it had picked up a $3.45 billion stake in Exxon Mobil, a sizable new addition to its roughly $107 billion portfolio of stocks.

The stock was likely picked by Mr. Buffett himself, given the size of the investment.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (5 SEPTEMBER 2013)

Auto U.S. Car Sales Soar to Pre-Slump Level

The U.S. auto industry has shifted into high gear with new-car buyers snapping up vehicles last month at a pace not seen since before the financial crisis.

All told, buyers purchased 1.5 million vehicles last month, up 17% from a year ago, with nearly all major auto makers reporting double-digit sales gains.

August’s sales translated to an annualized pace of 16.09 million vehicles, up from December 2007’s about 16 million. Some 17.4 million vehicles were sold in 2000.

Automotive website TrueCar.com estimates car companies spent an average of $2,477 on sales incentives last month, down 2.6% from a year ago and the lowest level since January.

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Pointing up  The CalculatedRisk chart above shows that car sales are back to their previous 4 cyclical peaks if one accepts that the 1998-2007 levels were boosted by the irrational exuberance that characterized those years and are unlike to repeat anytime soon. However, unlike housing, interest rates on car loans have not risen just yet. But keep in mind that truck sales have jumped lately on the back of an improving housing sector.

(Bespoke Investment)

The WSJ article goes on with these interesting facts on the auto industry:

While the sales pace returned to prerecession levels, the U.S. auto industry looks nothing like its old self. GM, Ford and Chrysler Group LLC are now much leaner. GM employs about 212,000 people in the U.S., about 31,000 fewer than in 2008. Ford’s workforce here is about 171,000, down 42,0000 from five years ago. Before Chrysler was split off from its German partner, Daimler AG, it employed 83,000. Today, its payroll is about 65,000.

That’s nearly 100k (-24%) fewer employees for the same sales volume. 

The three auto makers combined have closed more than two dozen auto-assembly, stamping, engine and transmission plants across the Midwest and in Canada. Health care costs for retired union workers, which once added about $2,000 to the cost of a car, are now born not by the companies but union-controlled trusts. Union wages have also fallen. New hires started at about $14 an hour, half of what veteran workers make.

Detroit auto makers abandoned brands such as Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Mercury. GM and Chrysler dropped more than 2,000 dealers from their sales networks, and all three companies stopped profit-denting practices such as dumping cars into rental car fleets and stuffing dealers with cars and trucks that consumers didn’t want.

As a result, the Detroit Three can now make money at lower sales volumes, and on lower-priced vehicles. A decade ago, all three companies struggled to make money when Americans were buying more than 16 million cars a year regularly. Now they say they can make money with sales below 12 million vehicles a year.

TITLE EXUBERANCE

 

Data Signal Consumer-Spending Rise

Imports rose 1.6% in July from the prior month, aided by strengthening domestic demand for industrial supplies and consumer products, Commerce Department figures showed Wednesday. Exports fell 0.6%, giving up some ground after the surging to a record high in June, though several key U.S. export markets showed signs of firming.

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A quick look at the imports chart reveals precious little hint of a revival. Imports have been flat for 18 months. Now, that is partly due to declining oil imports which the WSJ article omits to mention. Actually, total imports are up 4.5% annualized in the last 3 months but non-petroleum imports are up a meagre 0.8% annualized and only 1.3% Y/Y in July as this Haver Analytics chart shows.

 

Here’s the interesting part from the trade report:

July exports to the European Union rose a non-seasonally adjusted 2.6% from the same period a year earlier, bucking a recent downward trend.

July exports to Brazil of $4.4 billion were the highest on record. Exports to China also rose, reflecting a stabilization in the world’s second-largest economy after a sharp slowdown in growth earlier in the year.

The positive trend in U.S. exports to the E.U. becomes even more significant when we consider that Canadian exports to the E.U. were down some 18% YoY in July. Big market share shifts underway?

CANADIAN HOUSING

From BMO Capital:

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U.S. Economy Grew at Modest to Moderate Pace in July, August

(…) The central bank’s “beige book” report, a summary of conditions in its 12 districts from early July through late August, was largely positive. Eight districts reported moderate growth, while three said growth was modest. The remaining district, Chicago, said economic activity had improved.

Back-to-school shopping helped boost overall consumer spending, particularly in Boston, Kansas City and Dallas. Sales were mixed in New York, and were more modest in the other districts. Activity in the travel and tourism sectors expanded in most areas.

Demand rose in part from stronger car sales and housing-related goods such as furnishings or home-improvement items, the report said. Still, several regions said consumers remain cautious and “highly price-sensitive.” (…)

Wage pressures remained modest overall, with some companies in the New York region reporting more willingness to negotiate salaries. Still, pay rates “have not escalated significantly,” the report said. Rising health-care costs have continued to put upward pressures on overall compensation costs.

Lending activity weakened a bit, the report said, with several districts reporting less-favorable conditions than in the preceding period. Several regions described business lending as largely flat, and Chicago said that the recent interest-rate rises were likely depressing commercial investment. (…)

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Bank of Japan Says Economy Is on Recovery Track

The Bank of Japan on Thursday formally proclaimed that the world’s third-biggest economy is back on a recovery track, a move that could tip the balance in favor of those who support a sales-tax hike from next spring as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe nears a decision on whether to go ahead with the plan.

The upgrade in the central bank’s assessment will likely strengthen speculation that it will hold off on any additional monetary easing for the time being, at least until the sales-tax increase is launched in April. The BOJ’s nine-member policy board Thursday decided to stand pat on monetary policy.

China Record Drop in Credit Growth Puts Momentum at Risk

New yuan loans were probably little changed in August, after aggregate financing, the broadest measure of credit, posted a fourth straight drop in July, the longest streak in 11 years of data.

The moderation in credit after a record first-quarter financing boom stands to cap an economic rebound being driven by a recovery in confidence and Premier Li Keqiang’s support measures, such as faster spending on railways. Overcapacity and pressure to clean up debt loom as challenges, according to JPMorgan, which sees growth slowing to 7.2 percent in 2014 from 7.6 percent this year.

DIGGING FOR YIELD? Make sure you don’t burry yourself.

For the full year, bonds rated CCC or lower have gained 7.1% while AAA debt has lost 5%. It’s only the third time since 1996 low-rated debt has gained while top-rated paper lost value.

America’s ‘Baby Bust’ Starts to Ease The nation’s fertility rate stabilized last year for the first time in five years. That follows four years of big declines during the economic downturn that pushed the rate to the lowest levels on record.

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Demographic Intelligence, a for-profit forecasting firm, projects the so-called total fertility rate—which measures the average number of children born to women over their lifetimes—will rise slightly from 1.89 children per woman in 2012 to 1.90 in 2013. The rate stood at 2.12 in 2007.

Sam Sturgeon, the firm’s president, sees “modest” increases in 2014 and 2015 too, though not enough to reach the 2.1 rate that is considered the level needed to keep the U.S. population stable. When asked, American women still say they want two children—one boy and one girl, Mr. Sturgeon said.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (29 APRIL 2013)

[image]Growth Stays Soft  The U.S. economy perked up in the first quarter, but federal budget cuts and caution by businesses highlighted mounting pressures that could weaken the recovery again in the coming months.

The nation’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of goods and services produced across the economy, expanded at an annualized 2.5% pace in the first three months of the year after growing just 0.4% in the fourth quarter.

First Look at the First Quarter

The Sinister Season  Once again, the economy appears to be slowing in the spring, despite predictions to the contrary.

(…) The spring of 2013 appears to be following the script from 2012, and 2011, and 2010. Do you sense a pattern here? Keen-eyed Stephanie Pomboy, who runs the MacroMavens advisory, does, and it seems to be recurring right on schedule. “Everything from purchasing-manager surveys (both regional and national) to retail sales and employment to durable goods and consumer sentiment has taken a sudden and significant turn for the worse,” she writes. And, just in case it’s déjà vu all over again, she reminds her subscribers that stocks slid 10% in eight weeks last year. (…)

The Standard & Poor’s 500 is up some 16% from its November low, while the breadth of economic indicators (specifically Citigroup’s U.S. Economic Surprise Index, which tracks better-than-expected indicators versus downside surprises) peaked well short of the highs seen in the spring in 2012, 2011, and 2010. And it is rolling over yet again.

What’s more worrisome is that the “cornerstone of the bull case for the economy” — housing — shows signs of sputtering, Pomboy points out. (…) But recent housing indicators contrast with the stocks’ performance. “Existing home sales and single-family starts both disappointed, while new-home sales rose a modest 1.5% on the back of a 6.8% decline in price,” Pomboy writes in her latest note to clients. “At the same time, mortgage applications for home purchase, the best window into noninvestment buying activity, continue to hover just above their crisis lows. While the going story is that the problem is insufficient inventory, the folks in the business of creating said stock aren’t quite so sanguine. The NAHB Index of home-builder sentiment has declined three months in a row, a fact which would be troubling enough were these not three months that seasonally tend to see sentiment rise” (her emphasis).

Will Consumers’ First-Quarter Party Lead to Second-Quarter Hangover?

Markit offers little encouragement:

image(…) even this weaker-than-hoped growth rate exaggerates the true underlying momentum in the economy, as growth of final demand slowed compared with the fourth quarter. (…) just as the weakness of the headline number in the fourth quarter understated the true health of the economy, the upturn in the first quarter exaggerates the pace of recovery. Excluding inventories, growth was just 1.5% compared with 1.9% in the fourth quarter.

The concern is that growth could weaken again in the second quarter as the economy once again sees a ‘spring swoon’. Markit’s flash Manufacturing PMI fell sharply in April, signalling the weakest pace of expansion since last October. The disappointing PMI suggests that the boost to the economy received in the first quarter from the 1.3% increase in manufacturing output may not be repeated in the second quarter. Official data have already pointed to a weakening of the manufacturing sector in March.

The main problem facing the manufacturing sector in the second quarter is slower export sales, after flash PMI surveys indicated a general darkening of the global economic climate in April. This points to a waning of the growth impetus received from foreign demand: exports increased at a rate of 2.9% in the first three months of the year, reversing a 2.8% fall in the fourth quarter.

Things seem to be getting worse

  • Most U.S. PMIs declined recently, the ISM (51.3, down abruptly from 54.2) flirting with the 50 level where it was in November and December 2012. China’s PMI has been hovering just above 50 for 5 consecutive months while the  Eurozone PMI remains deeply negative.

  • Even the PMI Services are getting weaker.

  • Economic surprises have turned negative across the world.

  • Most industrial commodity prices have been weak lately.

  • imagePrice Drop Pinches Steelmakers 

    Steel prices have unexpectedly fallen 5% in the past month, setting off a scramble among steelmakers to maintain prices and market share despite a nationwide steel glut.

(…) In recent weeks, however, things got so bad—with some price offers slipping to as low as $570 a ton on benchmark hot-rolled coil, down from $640 a ton at the beginning of the year—that at least three large steelmakers announced they were suspending these discount programs.

  • ISI Company surveys show signs of peaking

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CHINA

 

Piaget Remains Upbeat on China

Executives at Compagnie Financiere Richemont’s Piaget watch-and-jewelry brand remain upbeat on China’s luxury demand despite a recent hurdle.

(…) “We talk a lot about slowdown and many people say that stores in China are empty, but if you look at stores all over the world, they are full of Chinese who are buying,” said Mr. Leopold-Metzger. (…)

But in recent months, Beijing’s crackdown on gift-giving and showy government displays of wealth has taken a toll on high-end timepiece demand. Swiss watch exports to China, the world’s No. 3 market for Swiss watches, fell nearly 26% in the first three months of the year, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. (…)

French luxury company Hermès InternationalRMS.FR -1.78% SCA recently reported its slowest revenue growth in more than three years due in part due to a watch-sales decline from China, executives said.

China’s April flash MNI was stable at 58.5 (58.2 in March) but ISI’s seasonal adjustment shows that it declined to 52.8 in April.

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But China’s data also point to a weaker rather than a stronger spring. HSBC’s flash PMI fell to 50.5 in April. ISI says freight traffic rose 7.8% YoY in March, down from +9.6% in Jan-Feb combined.

Japan Signals More Stimulus Before Vote

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary says the economy is about to get a new dose of fiscal spending as the Abe administration looks to maintain its momentum heading into elections.

EUROPE

Eurozone economics are also getting worse, if that’s possible. Zerohedge:

(…) As European macro data in the last month has plunged at its fastest rate in 6 years, equity markets have, of course soared back to near multi-year highs (EuroStoxx 600 up 5% in the last week alone). We only hope that the equity markets really do know something different this time – as opposed to the last two times we saw this kind of disconnect. The answer –Draghi’s ‘whatever it takes’ promise is maintaining a 30% illusion of wealth in European equities over their macro reality.

It’s different this time – the disconnect that we have seen twice before in the last 5 years is ‘transitory’

 
 
 

ECB data on bank lending confirm that no change in trend is imminent. Loan demand keeps falling and credit conditions remain tight.

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(Capital Economics)

France needs a scapegoat:

French socialists attack ‘selfish’ Merkel
Leaked document reveals tensions between two countries

(…) “The [European] project is today battered by a marriage of convenience between the Thatcherite leanings of the current British prime minister – who only conceives of a Europe à la carte and of rebates – and the selfish intransigence of Chancellor Merkel, who thinks of nothing but the deposits of German savers, the trade balance recorded by Berlin and her electoral future.” (…)

“French socialists want Europe. What they fight is a Europe of the right and its triptyque: deregulation, deindustrialisation and disintegration,” the document said.

Italy found a saviour:

 

Italy’s Progress Fuels Recovery

Markets applauded political progress in Italy, extending a rally in stocks and allowing Rome to secure the lowest funding cost at a debt auction in over two years.

Italy auctioned €3 billion ($3.91 billion) of five-year bonds and €3 billion of 10-year bonds. The yield on the five-year debt was 2.84%, down from 3.65% at the last debt auction March 27, while the ten-year yield was 3.94%, down from 4.66%. The yields mark the lowest funding costs Italy has achieved at a debt auction since October 2010. Demand was also up strongly compared with the country’s last auction.

The yield on traded 10-year Italian bonds fell 0.08 percentage point to 3.975%, within a whisker of the 3.895% low yield seen last week, according to data from Tradeweb. (…)

Lightning  The weakness in the economy was highlighted Monday by a survey from the national statistics institute Istat showing that Italian manufacturing confidence dropped in April, reversing the positive trend seen in the previous three months, on a worsened outlook for production. The drop reflects a deterioration from an already low level of expectations for new orders and a decline in the general outlook for production, Istat said.

[image]Euro-Zone Firms Lose Confidence

The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said Monday that confidence fell among businesses across the industrial, services, retail and construction sectors. Its business climate indicator fell to minus 0.93 in April from minus 0.75 in March, marking the lowest level since November. (…)

The commission’s survey showed the mood worsening among businesses and consumers as a whole in several countries considered to be among the euro zone’s strongest, such as Germany, France, Austria and Finland, as well as some that have suffered most during its fiscal crisis. Confidence fell in Italy, and plunged in Cyprus.

EARNINGS WATCH

Companies Feel Pinch on Europe Sales

Hiding behind the profit gains of America’s biggest companies is a worrying slowdown in sales growth, reflecting the combined effects of Europe’s malaise, a stronger dollar and sluggish consumer spending.

(…) imageWith earnings reports in from more than half the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, first-quarter revenue for the group is expected to shrink 0.3% from a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters. That would cut short the sales improvement reported at the end of last year and mark the third quarter out of the past four in which revenues have failed to grow by 1% or more. (…)

One big problem for U.S. companies is Europe. Executives weren’t expecting much from the region last quarter. But many found conditions tougher than anticipated. And some of them are increasingly worried that while Southern Europe’s hardest-hit countries may be bottoming out, there is room left for the bigger economies like France and Germany to deteriorate. (…)

The European Union accounts for about a fifth of the global economy, and Deutsche Bank estimates about 17% of the profit and revenue for companies in the S&P 500 comes from Europe. (…)

General Electric Co. watched conditions in Europe fall through its forecasts early this year. Orders had risen at the end of last year. But by the middle of the first quarter, they were down 8% from what GE had expected, finance chief Keith Sherin said.

By the end of the quarter, GE’s revenue from Europe was down 17% from a year earlier. European orders were off 17%, with gas turbines and jet engines about a third, and those for health-care equipment about 5% below. (…)

Companies operating in Europe also are reporting signs of spreading gloom. Advertising giant Omnicom Group Inc.’s  business slowed in Europe’s healthier core in the first quarter, a sign that European companies may be tightening their purse strings.

“Our business is stabilized, I would say, in the south,” John Wren, Omnicom’s CEO, said on an April 18 earnings conference call. “What we saw in the first quarter were setbacks in France and in Germany.”

Return of risky lending practices
Situation is similar to pre-2007 housing market mania

 

(…) A bigger source of worry at the moment is the commercial mortgage-backed securities market, where CMBS vehicles are stuffing themselves with riskier mortgages on buildings such as office blocks, shopping centres and apartment complexes.

Moody’s, the ratings agency, has been raising the alarm. On its calculations, the loan-to-value ratio of commercial mortgages has hit a “tipping point” of 100 per cent. It took 10 years to reach that point after the widespread adoption of CMBS in the 1990s, Moody’s says; it has taken just two years since the resumption of CMBS buying after the crisis to get back there.

The higher leverage in commercial property looks safe, given improving rents and occupancy rates, but interest-only mortgages are back, and Moody’s worries that if interest rates are higher in a few years’ time it simply will not be possible to refinance these mortgages when they come due. That could plunge lots of properties into default – and the investors who clamoured for that little extra yield from CMBS will rue their choice.

Whether it is leveraging up ailing shopping centres or declining PC manufacturers, the risks ought to be clear. But the demand for yield may be too powerful a siren song.

expandBARRON’S COVER

On the Rise  A lost generation? No way! The Millennials are finally poised to start spending, which is good news for the economy and stocks.

(…) Yet the Millennials are far from the slackers the media and popular culture portray — a generation of adult children living at home with Mom and Dad, texting away and refusing to grow up. The evidence suggests that their march up the career ladder hasn’t been aborted so much as a delayed by economic circumstances and personal choice. Once they get going, however, and marrying, starting families, and moving into their high-earning years, their influence could approach that of their baby-boom parents. (…)

FOR ONE THING, THE MILLENNIALS — sometimes called Generation Y, and defined by many demographers as ranging from ages 18 to 37 — make up the largest population cohort the U.S. has ever seen. Eighty-six million strong, it is 7% larger than the baby-boom generation, which came of age in the 1970s and ’80s. And the Millennial population could keep growing to 88.5 million people by 2020, owing to immigration, says demographer Peter Francese, an analyst at the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

This echo-boom generation totals 27% of the U.S. population, less than the 35% the boomers represented at their peak in 1980. When the baby-boom generation drove the economy in the 1990s, growth in gross domestic product averaged 3.4% a year. As the Millennials hit their stride, they could help lift GDP growth to 3% or more, at least a percentage point higher than current levels.

The Millennials already account for an annual $1.3 trillion of consumer spending, or 21% of the total, says Christine Barton, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group, which defines this cohort as ages 18 to 34. As the economy pulls out of an extended period of sluggish growth, helped in part by this rising generation, annual growth in consumer spending is likely to revert to its long-term average of 3.5% to 4% from about 2% now. Likewise, consumer spending on durable goods could rise sharply.

The Millennial generation has already made a big mark on one industry: education. The number of students enrolled in college in the U.S. climbed by 30% from 2000 to 2011, helping to fuel a building boom on campuses across the country. But that’s something many schools could regret in coming years, given the past decade’s sharply declining birth rate.

Owing in part to the Millennials’ surge, apartment demand is strong around the country. Housing could be the next major industry to benefit from their size and maturation, but Wall Street could reap the biggest rewards. The MY ratio, which compares the size of the middle-aged population of 35-to-49-year-olds with that of the young-adult population, ages 20 to 34, explains why.

Middle-aged folks have higher incomes than younger people, and a greater urgency to save for retirement. They invest their savings, which drives up stock prices. When the MY ratio is rising, meaning the older cohort outnumbers the younger, the stock market typically does well. The ratio has been falling since 2000, which has exerted a drag on stock prices.

Alejandra Grindal, a senior international economist at Ned Davis Research, notes the MY ratio will bottom in 2015 and then rise through 2029. It is one of several reasons the firm is bullish on stocks. (…)

Above all, the Millennials are connected — to the Internet and each other. They brought us Facebook and popularized YouTube, Twitter, and phrases like 24/7, which describes how much time they spend on the ‘Net and personal electronic devices. Nielsen estimates that 74% of young adults between the ages of 24 and 34 own smartphones, up from 59% in mid-2011. According to Advertising Age, consumers in their 20s switch between communications platforms and devices 27 times per nonworking hour. (…)

As for those ages 25 to 34, the unemployment rate was 7.4% in March, below the national average of 7.6%, and well below 8.9% in January 2012. Dick Hokenson, an economist who heads ISI Group’s Global Demographics Research team, says 25-to-34-year-olds have recovered almost 75% of the jobs they lost to the recession. “They’re finding jobs; they’re moving out and doing normal things,” he says.

Again, the numbers tell a cautiously hopeful story. Nineteen percent of U.S. men ages 25 to 34 live with their parents, says Mark Mather, a demographer with the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau. But that is up only five percentage points from 2007. The percentage of 25-to-34-year-old women still living at home is 9.7, up from 9% in 2007.

There is almost $1 trillion of student debt outstanding in the U.S. today, which could limit the purchasing power of Millennials. “These people have a mortgage and no house,” Francese says.

But here, too, total figures are misleading. The average student loan among Gen Y-ers is $25,000, and the median loan is nearly $14,000, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Less than 1% of student loans are larger than $100,000. (…)

AS THE MILLENNIALS’ EMPLOYMENT situation improves, more young adults living at home will pack their bags and move out. That could spur an increase in U.S. household formation, which turned negative in 2007-08. Since then, the number of newly created households has recovered to about a million a year, still well below an annual average of 1.5 million since the 1970s, according to Census Bureau data.

Greater financial security could mean an increase in the birth rate, which typically slumps during economic downturns. Francese sees the average birth rate for U.S. women rising to 2.1-2.2 in coming years from a depressed 1.9 recently. (…)

That suggests they will also start buying homes. Pat Tschosik, a consumer strategist at Ned Davis Research, figures there will be more home buyers than sellers in the 12 years ending with 2019, giving the housing market a boost.(…)

THE MILLENNIALS ALSO could have a big impact on Detroit, which saw annual vehicle sales plummet to 10.4 million in 2009 from an average of 17 million a year in the early to mid-2000s. This year sales are likely to recover to 15.3 million, before rising gradually to 17 million in 2017, says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive, formerly a division of J.D. Power & Associates. (…)

THE GOOD NEWS FOR Wall Street is that Millennials know they need to save, and they’re not afraid of stocks, which account for more than 70% of their portfolios, according to Vanguard. They are also poised, along with their Gen X predecessors, to come into some serious money as the boomers age and die. The two younger generations combined could see their wealth grow to $28 trillion in the next five years from $2 trillion now, as they earn more and claim their inheritance, says Christopher Tsai, head of Tsai Capital in New York. (…)

Demographics Behind Smaller Workforce  Americans are leaving the labor force in unprecedented numbers. But the trend has more to do with retiring baby boomers than frustrated job seekers abandoning their searches.

(…) For one thing, the participation rate was falling long before the recession, and that drop would almost certainly have continued even if the downturn had never happened. The main reason is demographics: Americans are much more likely to work between the ages of 25 and 54 than when they are older or younger. But with the baby boomers aging, and many of their children now at least 16 years old but not yet into the prime of their working lives, it is the older and younger ends of the working-age population that are growing most quickly. Adjust for the changing population, and the “missing” workforce shrinks to about 4.3 million.

Moreover, even as young people make up more of the working-age population, they are becoming less likely to work. That is partly the result of rising rates of college attendance and partly of declining rates of employment among high schoolers. Both are long-term trends that were likely accelerated by the recession, as young people went to college in part to avoid the brutal job market, and as employers spurned teenagers for more experienced employees. No doubt many of those teens and 20-somethings would rather be working, but they aren’t sitting idle waiting for the job market to rebound. All but about 350,000 of the missing young people are full-time students.

Lastly, the financial crisis and recession—along with longer-run trends such as improved life expectancy—have led many older Americans to postpone retirement, although a far smaller share of them work than people who are in their prime working ages. That adds about 1.2 million additional older workers to the labor force, offsetting some of the decline among other age groups.

Put it all together, and the labor force is missing about three million workers who aren’t in school or retired. That is still significant: Add those workers to the unemployment rolls and the jobless rate would jump to 9.3%. But it suggests the decline in participation is about more than a weak economy. (…)

BYD to Sell ‘Made in U.S.’ Buses  Chinese car maker BYD is setting up shop in the U.S., with small ambitions but a clear goal: Get the government to subsidize the sales of its American-made electric buses.

BYD spokesman Micheal Austin said the company’s U.S. production facility meets “Buy America” procurement guidelines, enabling its customers to tap federal subsidies that cover up to 80% of the cost of the electric buses they buy. The availability of government aid was one of the main motivations behind BYD’s move to the U.S., he said. (…)

Buy America provisions are designed to ensure that government-sponsored transportation infrastructure projects in the U.S. use products made in the country. When it comes to buses, the rules stipulate that U.S.-made parts should account for more than 60% of the cost of all components. Final assembly must take place in the U.S. (…)

BYD’s Mr. Austin said assembling a bus in the U.S. would cost $100,000 more than doing so in China. He said an electric bus could sell for up to $800,000. “But the economic value of having a plant there far outweighs the costs,” he said, since the buses would qualify for government funding.