NEW$ & VIEW$ (3 FEBRUARY 2014)

Slow Income Growth Lurks as Threat to Consumer Spending A slowdown in U.S. income growth could short-circuit the surge in consumer spending that propelled the economic recovery in recent months.

As the holiday shopping season wrapped up, personal consumption rose a seasonally adjusted 0.4% in December from a month earlier, the Commerce Department said Friday. With a 0.6% increase in November, the final two months of 2013 marked the strongest consecutive gains since early 2012.

The upturn came while incomes were flat during the month. Real disposable income, which accounts for taxes and inflation, advanced just 0.7% during 2013. That was the weakest growth since the recession ended in 2009. (…)

Across 2013, the Commerce Department’s broad measure of spending on everything from haircuts to refrigerators was up 3.1% from the prior year. That was the weakest annual increase since 2009 and below the 4.1% growth seen in 2012.

But the pace of spending was substantially stronger in the final six months of last year. Economic growth in the second half of 2013 represented the best finish to a year in a decade. Consumer spending, which makes up more than two-thirds of the nation’s gross domestic product, was the primary driver. (…)

The personal saving rate fell to 3.9% in December from 4.3% in November. (…)

Friday’s report showed subdued inflation across the economy. The price index for personal consumption expenditures—the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge—rose 1.1% in December from a year earlier. While the strongest since August, the figure remains well below the central bank’s 2% inflation target. (…)

A separate Labor Department report Friday said employment costs in the last three months of 2013 were 2% higher than a year ago. Annual cost increases typically exceeded 3% before the 2007-09 downturn wiped out millions of jobs. (…) (Chart and table from Haver Analytics)

Try to see anything positive from the table. I suspect that spending data for the last few months of 2013 will be revised lower in coming months. In any event, the income side is desperately weak.imageLast 3 months of 2013:

  • Personal Income: +0.1%
  • Disposable Income: –0.2%
  • Real Disposable Income: –0.3%
  • Consumption Expenditures: +1.1%
  • Real Expenditures: +0.9%

Bloomberg Orange Book comments from retailers about January performances were mostly negative and suggest future weakness. Wal-Mart pared its sales forecast based on curtailment of the food stamp benefit program and other specialty apparel retailers issued statements of concern. (BloombergBriefs)

Makes you wonder about this Bloomberg article: Global Earnings Are Poised to Accelerate in 2014 as U.S. Consumers Spend More

Meanwhile:

China’s Manufacturing Activity Slows

The official manufacturing PMI fell to 50.5 in January, from 51.0 in December, the federation said. The January PMI was in line with the median forecast by economists in a Wall Street Journal poll. (…)

The new orders subindex dropped to 50.9 in January from 52.0 in December, and the subindex measuring new export orders declined to 49.3 from 49.8, the statement said.

The employment subindex dropped to 48.2 from 48.7, while the output subindex fell to 53.0 from 53.9. Mr. Zhang said the fall in the new orders subindex shows weakness in domestic demand.

The subindex measuring the operation of large firms of the official PMI, heavily weighted towards larger state-owned enterprises, dropped to 51.4 from 52.0, while the one measuring smaller firms fell to 47.1 from 47.7. (…)

The HSBC China Manufacturing PMI, which is tilted toward smaller companies, fell to a final reading of 49.5 in January from 50.5 in December, HSBC said Thursday.

In another sign of slower momentum among factory owners, profit at major Chinese industrial enterprises grew at a slower pace, expanding by 6% in December from the same month a year earlier to 942.53 billion yuan ($155.6 billion), a reduction from November’s 9.7% increase, official data released earlier in the week showed

Moscow casts doubt over Russian growth
GDP rose 1.3% in 2013 just missing government forecasts

Gross domestic product increased by 1.3 per cent in 2013, narrowly missing the government’s most recent forecast of 1.4 per cent, the Federal Statistics Service in its preliminary GDP estimate said on Friday. (…)

The economy ministry said while the economy was past its lowest point, it was unclear whether it could grow by 2.5 per cent this year as forecast earlier. Most banks and independent economists are more pessimistic than the government and estimate growth this year to stay well below 2 per cent. (…)

“In the first quarter, we expect growth on a level around 1 per cent. In the second quarter, growth will be higher, probably somewhere around 2 per cent or 1.5 per cent,” Andrei Klepach, Mr Ulyukayev’s deputy, said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies. “We can stick to our forecast of 2.5 per cent, although it is possible, if you take the current trends, that growth might be lower.”

However, the decline of the rouble, which has fallen to its lowest against the dollar in five years amid the recent emerging markets currency jitters, could alter that calculation, as a weaker currency makes its exports more competitive.

“In our view, a lower rouble rate is better for economic growth,” said Mr Klepach. “But it would be worse for both growth and inflation if there were bigger volatility.”

In a survey published last week, MNI, an affiliate of Deutsche, said the weakening rouble was helping Russian businesses and respondents were the most positive on exchange rate conditions in January since the survey began last March.

Materially Slower Spending Growth by Emerging Market Countries Will Be Felt

Emerging market economies are of increasing importance to mature economies, such as the US. For example, the share of US merchandise exports shipped to emerging markets has risen from 2003’s 44% to 2013’s prospective 55% of US merchandise exports. During the first 11 months of 2013, US exports to emerging markets grew by 4.6% annually, which compared most favorably to the -0.5% dip by exports to advanced economies.

image

The faster growth of US exports to emerging markets is consistent with 2013’s much faster 4.7% growth of the emerging market economies compared to the accompanying 1.3% growth of advanced economies. Moreover, this phenomenon is hardly new according to how the emerging markets outran mature economies for a 14th straight year in 2013. Since year-end 1999, the average annualized rates of real economic growth were 6.1% for the emerging markets and a sluggish 1.8% for the advanced economies. By contrast, during the 14-years-ended 1999, the 3.7% average annual growth rate of the emerging markets was much closer to the comparably measured 3.1% growth of the advanced economies. (Figure 1.)

imageEmerging markets are acutely sensitive to industrial commodity prices
Emerging market economies can suffer to the degree major central banks succeed at curbing product price inflation. Though it’s difficult to separate the chain of causation, the 0.74 correlation between the growth of Moody’s industrial metals price index and emerging market country economic growth is much stronger than the price index’s 0.28 correlation with the growth of advanced economies. In fact, the 0.74 correlation of emerging market country growth and the base metals price index is far stronger than the 0.19 correlation between the growth rates of emerging market and advanced economies.
According to the above approach, the percent change of Moody’s industrial metals price index is relative to the price index’s average of the previous three years. The recent industrial metals price index trailed its average of the previous three years by -8%. (Figure 2.)

The latest decline by industrial metals prices suggests that the emerging market economies will grow by less than the 5.1%, which the IMF recently projected for 2014. When the aforementioned version of the percent change for the industrial metals price index is above its 8.3% median of the last 34 years, the median yearly increase by emerging market economic growth is 5.9%. By contrast, when the base metals price index grows by less than 8.3% annually, the median annual increase for emerging market growth drops to 3.7%. (Moody’s)

As U.S. debates oil exports, long-term prices slump below $80 Long-term U.S. oil prices have slumped to record discounts versus Europe’s benchmark Brent, with some contracts dropping below $80 in a dramatic downturn that may intensify producers’ calls to ease a crude export ban.

imageOil for delivery in December 2016 has tumbled $3.50 a barrel in the first two weeks of the year, trading at just $79.45 on Friday afternoon, its lowest price since 2009. That is an unusually abrupt move for longer-dated contracts that are typically much less volatile than prompt crude. For most of last year, the contract traded in a narrow range on either side of $84 a barrel.

The shift in prices on either side of the Atlantic is even more dramatic further down the curve, with December 2019 U.S. crude now trading at a record discount versus the equivalent European Brent contract. The spread has doubled this month to nearly $15 a barrel, data show.

The drop in so-called “long-dated” U.S. oil futures extends a broad decline that has pushed prices as much as $15 lower in two years. It also coincided with an abrupt drop in near-term futures, which fell by nearly $9 a barrel in the opening weeks of 2014 amid signs of improving supply from Libya.

But while immediate prices have rebounded swiftly thanks to strong demand amid frigid winter weather and new pipelines that may drain Midwest stockpiles, longer-term contracts have not.

The unusual speed, severity and persistence of the decline has mystified many in the oil industry. Brokers, analysts and bankers have offered a range of possible explanations: a big one-off options trade in the Brent market; new-year hedging by U.S. oil producers; liquidation by bespoke fund investors; or even long-term speculation on a deepening domestic glut.

Regardless of the trigger, however, it may be cause for growing alarm for crude oil producers, who are increasingly concerned that falling prices will crimp profit margins if U.S. export constraints are not eased. Producers say this would hand over some of their rightful profits to refiners who can freely export gasoline and diesel at world prices. (…)

EARNINGS WATCH

Amid all the EM turmoil and the barometers of all kinds, let’s pause for a moment to take a look at the main ingredient, half way into the earnings season.

  • Factset provides its usual good rundown:

With 50% of the companies in the S&P 500 reporting actual results, the percentages of companies reporting earnings and sales above estimates are above the four-year averages.

imageOverall, 251 companies have reported earnings to date for the fourth quarter. Of these 251 companies, 74% have reported actual EPS above the mean EPS estimate and 26% have reported actual EPS below the mean EPS estimate. The percentage of companies reporting EPS above the mean EPS estimate is
above the 1-year (71%) average and the 4-year (73%) average.

In aggregate, companies are reporting earnings that are 3.6% above expectations. This surprise percentage is above the 1-year (3.3%) average but below the 4-year (5.8%) average.

The blended earnings growth rate for the fourth quarter is 7.9% this week, above last week’s blended earnings growth rate of 6.3%. Upside earnings surprises reported by companies in multiple sectors were responsible for the increase in the overall earnings growth rate this week. Eight of the ten sectors recorded an increase in earnings growth rates during the week, led by the Materials sector.

The Financials sector has the highest earnings growth rate (23.7%) of all ten sectors. It is also the largest contributor to earnings growth for the entire index. If the Financials sector is excluded, the earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 falls to 4.9%.

In terms of revenues, 67% of companies have reported actual sales above estimated sales and 33% have reported actual sales below estimated sales. The percentage of companies reporting sales above estimates is above the average percentage recorded over the last four quarters (54%) and above the average percentage recorded over the previous four years (59%).

In aggregate, companies are reporting sales that are 0.1% below expectations. This percentage is below the 1-year (0.4%) average and below the 4-year (0.6%) average.

The blended revenue growth rate for Q4 2013 is 0.8%, above the growth rate of 0.3% at the end of the quarter (December 31). Eight of the ten sectors are reporting revenue growth for the quarter, led by the Health Care and Information Technology sectors. The Financials sector is reporting the lowest revenue growth for the quarter.

At this point in time, 54 companies in the index have issued EPS guidance for the first quarter. Of these 54 companies, 44 have issued negative EPS guidance and 10 have issued positive EPS guidance. Thus, the percentage of companies issuing negative EPS guidance to date for the first quarter is 81% (44 out of 54). This percentage is above the 5-year average of 64%, but slightly below the percentage at this same point in time for Q4 2013 (84%).

image

For Q1 2014, analysts are expecting earnings growth of 2.2%. However, earnings growth is projected to improve in each subsequent quarter for the remainder of the year. For Q2 2014, Q3 2014, and Q4 2014, analysts are predicting earnings growth rates of 8.5%, 12.4%, and 11.9%. For all of 2014, the projected earnings growth rate is 9.6%.

Note that the 2.2% growth rate expected for Q1’14 is down from 4.3% on Dec. 31. The 9.6% growth rate for all of 2014 is down from 10.6% on Dec. 31.

Pointing up Data can vary depending on which aggregator one uses. Factset’s reports are the most complete but the official data still come from S&P.

  • Half way into the season, S&P’s tally shows a 69% beat rate and a 20% miss rate.

Importantly, Q4’13 estimates rose from $28.77 On Jan. 23 to $29.23 on Jan. 30. S&P also detailed the impact of two large pension adjustments at AT&T and Verizon: their gains added $0.94 to the Q4’13 operating EPS while they cost the Index $1.26 in Q4’12. Taking these out, just for growth calculation, Q4’14 EPS would be up 16% YoY if the remaining 250 companies meet estimates, up from +12.2% in Q3 and +3.7% in Q2. The economic acceleration is thus translating into faster profit growth and still rising margins.

We should keep in mind, however, that easy comparisons account for a big part of the strong earnings growth. Comparisons are particularly easy for three companies – Bank of America, Verizon, and Travelers. Exclude these three companies and total earnings growth for the S&P 500 companies that have reported drops to +6% from +12.0%.

Nonetheless, Zack acknowledges that if remaining companies meet estimates

Total earnings in Q4 would be up +9.6% on +0.7% higher revenues and 79 basis points higher margins. This is a much better earnings growth picture at this stage of the reporting cycle than we have seen in recent quarters. In fact, +9.6% growth is the highest quarterly earnings growth rate of 2013.

Zacks provides another useful peek at earnings trends with actual dollar earnings instead of per share earnings.

image

Trailing 12m EPS are now seen reaching $108.28 after Q4’13 (+5.9% QoQ) and $110.64 after Q1’14, assuming Q1 estimates of $28.13 (+9.2%) are met. They have been shaved 0.6% in the last week.

  • The Rule of 20 P/E barometer, a far more useful barometer than the January barometer, has retreated back into the “lower risk” area at 18.2x, down from 19.7x in December 2013. This is the third time in this bull market that the Rule of 20 P/E (actual P/E on trailing EPS + inflation) has refused to cross the “20 fair value” line after a rising run, a rare phenomenon that last occurred in the early 1960s. image

In all the media frenzy about the recent equity markets setbacks, the U.S. earnings trend should take center stage. Rising earnings remain the main fuel for bull markets, over and above QEs of all kinds. Notice the sharp uptrend yellow line in the chart above. This line plots where the fair value of the S&P 500 Index based on the Rule of 20. In effect, it is derived from multiplying trailing 12m EPS by (20 minus inflation) or 18.3 at present using core CPI. It is the difference between the yellow line and the actual S&P 500 Index (blue line) that is measured by the thick black line (actual P/E + inflation).

Deep undervaluation is reached when the thick black line, the Rule of 20 barometer, is below 17.5 (historical lows around 15). Extrapolating 3 months down with trailing EPS at $110.64, the Rule of 20 P/E would be 17.8x if the Index remains at 1782 and inflation is stable at 1.7%. This would dictate a fair value of 2025 on the Index, +13.6% from current levels. On the other side, a decline in the Rule of 20 P/E to the 15-16x range would take the Index down 11-17% to 1470-1580. Taking the mid-point downside risk of 14%, the upside/downside is nearly identical, not a compelling risk/reward ratio to increase equity exposure just yet.

The S&P 500 Index is now sitting on its 100 day m.a.. It has held there four times since June 2013. The 200 day m.a. is at 1705 and is still rising. At 1700, the Rule of 20 P/E would be 17.1x. At that point, upside to fair value would be 19% and downside to the 15.5x level would be 10%. Unless the economic picture, or inflation, change markedly between now and the end of April, I consider the 200 day m.a. to be the worst case scenario in the market turmoil.

Eurozone Bank Earnings Weigh On Stocks

Banks saw the heaviest losses, with poorly-received updates from Lloyds Banking Group andJulius Baer dragging on the sector.

Data showing a faster-than-expected expansion in euro-zone manufacturing in January did little to lighten the mood, as investors focused on the latest disappointments in a downbeat earnings season.

SENTIMENT WATCH

Not since the early summer of that year has the S&P 500 experienced a standard correction of at least 10 per cent. This type of pullback, like a gardener pruning roses in late winter in order to encourage healthy growth in the spring, is what many professional investors would like to see this year.Red rose (…)

Surprised smile Alhambra Investment Partners this week said not only has margin debt hit a record, there has been a massive rise in overall leverage. (…) The firm estimates that total margin debt usage last year jumped by an almost incomprehensible $123bn, while cash balances declined by $19bn. “This $142bn leveraged bet on stocks surpasses any 12-month period in history.” (…)

A torrent of margin calls and larger ETF outflows can easily feed on itself and may well prompt a far stronger corrective slide in stocks than investors expect. Wilted rose

 Ghost Trader’s Almanac -  every down January on the S&P 500 since 1938, without exception, has preceded a new or extended bear market, a 10% correction, or a flat year.

  • Fingers crossed Most Expect Stock Turmoil to Pass A spate of bumpy, uncertain trading has knocked the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 5.3% from its Dec. 31 record. It is threatening to hang around for a while, many money managers say. The big question is how much worse it could get. The widespread belief is, not much.

    Get used to it.

    A spate of bumpy, uncertain trading has knocked the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 5.3% from its Dec. 31 record. It is threatening to hang around for a while, many money managers say. The big question is how much worse it could get.

There is just about everything in this last WSJ piece…and just about nothing with any substance.

ANOTHER BAROMETER…

If you are of the statistical type, you should buy the Stock Trader’s Almanac and drown yourself in numbers and, often, stupidity. Here’s the Decennial Cycle from Lance Roberts, to help you keep the faith ;

There is another piece of historical statistical data that supports the idea of a market “melt up” before the next big correction in 2016 which is the decennial cycle. 

The decennial cycle, or decennial pattern as it is sometimes referred to, is an important one. It takes into account the stock market performance in years ending in 1,2,3 etc. In other words, since we just finished up 2013 that was the third year of this decade. This is shown in the table below.

decennial-cycle-011414

This year, 2014, represents the fourth year of the current decade and has a decent track record. The markets have been positive 12 out of 18 times in the 4th year of the decade with an average return for the Dow Jones Industrial Average since 1835 of 5.08%. Therefore, there is a 66% probability that the end will end positively; however, that does not exclude the possibility of a sharp dip somewhere along the way.

Open-mouthed smile However, looking ahead to 2015 is where things get interesting.  The decennial pattern is certainly suggesting that we take advantage of any major correction in 2014 to do some buying ahead of 2015.  As shown in the chart above, there is a very high probability (83%) that the 5th year of the decade will be positive with an average historical return of 21.47%. 

The return of the positive years is also quite amazing with 10 out of the 15 positive 5th years (66%) rising 20% or more.  However, 2015 will also likely mark the peak of the cyclical bull market as economic tailwinds fade and the reality of an excessively stretched valuation and price metrics become a major issue.

As you will notice, returns in the 6th and 7th years (2016-17) become substantially worse with a potential of negative return years rising.  The chart below shows the win/loss ratio of each year of the decennial cycle.

Decennial-cycle-011414-2

AND MORE ON THE JANUARY BAROMETER

OK, this will be the end of it. Promise. But I thought it was relevant and, I must admit, a little interesting. Cyniconomics introduces the “JAJO EFFECT”:

Our argument begins with four observations (we’ll get to theories in a moment):

  1. Market sentiment often changes during the earnings reporting season – in which most of the action occurs in the first month of the quarter – and these sentiment shifts tend to persist.
  2. Individual investors tend to pay extra attention to their positions early in a quarter, reacting to the past quarter’s results and then looking ahead to the next performance period.
  3. Professional money managers often refine their strategies prior to client reviews or board meetings, which typically occur after results for the prior quarter become available.
  4. Investors (individuals and professionals) are even more likely to rethink strategy in January, partly because it marks a new annual reporting period but also because it tends to be a time for planning and reflection. (How are you doing on those resolutions, by the way?)

These observations are admittedly vague, but we suspect they’re relevant to stock performance. They suggest that the first month of a quarter may set the market’s tone in subsequent months. In the context of today’s markets, they tie into a few questions you may be asking about early 2014 volatility:  Is January’s market drop merely noise on the way to another string of all-time highs, or is there more to it than that? For instance, doesn’t it seem a little ominous that we stumbled out of the gates this year despite sentiment being rampantly bullish? Does this tell us to be cautious going forward?

If you happen to read the Stock Trader’s Almanac, you’ll connect our questions to the “January barometer” (…). The Almanac’s founder, Yale Hirsch, coined the term in 1972 when he presented research showing that January’s return is a decent predictor of full-year returns. He concluded: “As January goes, so goes the year.”

We’ll take a closer look at the January barometer below, while testing two variations drawn from the observations above.

“Downsizing” the January barometer

First, we doubt that any carryover of January’s performance is likely to persist for an entire calendar year. Based on the idea that quarterly reporting cycles may have something to do with these types of anomalies, it doesn’t seem right to think that January’s events should still be relevant near the year’s end.  The first month of a quarter may offer clues about the next quarter or two, but probably not three or four quarters later after investors have shifted focus to subsequent corporate earnings and investment performance reports.

In fact, even without quarterly reporting cycles, you may still question why January would continue to be a “barometer” by the third or fourth quarter.  You may expect to find lower correlations of January returns with the year’s second half than with the first half, and this is exactly what we see:

jajo effect 1

Note that the 33% correlation for the “downsized” January barometer is very high for these types of relationships. It’s comfortably significant based on traditional tests (the F-stat is 8.2).  By comparison, the correlation of January’s return with the 11 months from February to December is still high at 28% but less significant (the F-stat falls to 5.1).

Here’s a scatter plot and trendline for the year-by-year results:

jajo effect 2

The chart shows that 54% of the years with negative January returns included negative returns from February to June (13 of 24), while only 9% of the years with positive January returns were followed by negative February to June returns (8 of 60). In other words, the probability of a down market between February and June was six times higher after a down market in January.

Do years or quarters hold the key to the calendar?

Second, we considered whether April, July and October also qualify as barometers, based on our speculation that the January barometer is partly explained by quarterly phenomena.

In particular, we calculated correlations with subsequent returns for all 12 months to see if the beginning-of-quarter months stand out:

jajo effect 3

Needless to say, the correlations fit the hypothesis, with the four highest belonging to January, April, July and October. The odds of this happening in a purely random market are nearly 500 to 1. Call it the “JAJO effect.”

(…) If stocks don’t recover strongly by month’s end – say, back to the S&P 500′s 2013 close of 1848.36 – the odds favor continued weakness. As January goes, so goes the first half of the year.

 M&A — Best Start to Year Since 2011

Companies and funds inked $228.2 billion worth of acquisitions this month, the highest volume of activity since 2011, according to Thomson Reuters. (…)

Deal making volume is up 85% from January 2013 when all three indexes wrapped up January with gains between 4% and 6%. Yet all that could change quickly, and a big start to the year doesn’t necessarily translate into a big year for M&A.

By mid-February 2013, it looked like M&A was back in a big way — $40 billion worth of deals were announced on one day that month. Despite a 30% plus pop in stock indexes in 2013, M&A activity ended the year far below the pre-crisis peak years.

Still a big difference so far in 2014 is that overall deal making has been wide and deep — crossing industries and regions. Many of the big deals have been corporations buying up other corporations, and the stock market has mostly applauded buyers for making deals. (…)

The winning banks so far? Morgan Stanley takes the top spot for announced global M&A. Credit Suisse is right behind Morgan Stanley. The bank served as an adviser to Lenovo on both of its $2 billion plus bids for U.S. companies in the past two weeks – Motorola Mobility and IBM‘s low-end server business.  Behind them: Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and then Citi. J.P. Morgan, typically a powerhouse deal maker, is in the 10th spot.

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (29 JANUARY 2014)

SOFT PATCH WATCH

U.S. Durable Orders Tumble 4.3%, Suggesting Business Caution

Demand for big-ticket manufactured goods tumbled last month, a sign of caution among businesses despite sturdier economic growth

New orders for durable goods fell 4.3% in December from a month earlier, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had a median forecast that durable-goods orders would rise by 1.5% in December.

The decline, the biggest since July, was driven by a sharp drop in demand for civilian aircraft. Excluding the volatile transportation sector, durable-goods orders fell 1.6%—itself the biggest decline since March. (…)

The overall drop in orders was broad-based, with most major categories posting declines. Orders for autos fell by the most since August 2011, and demand for computers and electronic also declined sharply.

Orders for nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft—a proxy for business spending on equipment—declined 1.3% in December, reversing some of November’s 2.6% increase. (…)

Pointing up Nondefense capital goods ex-aircraft are up 0.7% in Q4, a 2.8% annualized rate. They rose 5.1% for all of 2013, but that was really because of a poor second half in 2012. As this chart from Doug Short reveals, core durables have displayed very little momentum in 2013.

Click to View

SPEAKING OF CARS

In reporting its results, Ford said that in the current quarter it would produce 14,000 fewer vehicles in North America than in the same period a year ago.

A Cooling of Americans’ Love Affair With Cars

An aging population and a shift away from car ownership will make it difficult for the U.S. auto industry to sell as many cars as it once did.

(…) The challenge, though, will be maintaining that level with a confluence of demographic headwinds hitting.

The population is significantly older, and growing much more slowly, than it did during the auto industry’s heyday. In 1970, the U.S. median age was 28 and the population aged 16 and over—broadly, those of driving age—had grown at 1.7% annually over the prior five years. Today, the median age is 38, with the driving-age population growing 1% annually.

At the same time, young people’s interest in cars seems to be waning. In 1995, 87% of the population aged 20 to 24 had a driver’s license, according to the Federal Highway Administration. By 2011 that had fallen to 80%.

A recent analysis by industry watcher IHS and French think tank Futuribles suggests a likely culprit: a trend toward more urban living. Cities offer alternatives to driving for getting around and owning a car there can be an outright, and expensive, nuisance. (…)

There has been a marked decline in the time Americans spend behind the wheel. And the further the recession slips into the past, the more this change looks driven by demographics rather than just economic distress.

In 2012, according to an analysis of census data by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, 9.2% of U.S. households didn’t have a car, compared with 8.7% in 2007. In the 12-month period ended in November, vehicles logged 2.97 trillion miles on American roads, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That comes to 12,045 miles per person aged 16 and over—nearly a 20-year low. (…)

December Shipment Volumes

imageFreight volumes in North America plummeted 6.2 percent from November to December, making this the largest monthly drop in 2013 and the third straight monthly decline. December shipment levels were 3.2 percent lower than in December 2012 and 1.8 percent lower than 2011. Despite the fact that there were fewer shipments in 2013, other indicators, such as the American Trucking Association’s Truck Tonnage Index, have shown that loads have been getting heavier. This matches well with anecdotal evidence from LTL carriers that they are carrying fuller loads. And since the Cass Freight Index does not capture a representative picture of the small parcel sector of the industry, the steep downward freight movement in December was somewhat offset by the increase in small package shipping for the holidays.

TRUCKIN’ & TRAININ’: Interesting to see how trucking rates have gone up while rail container rates have been flat for 3 years.

Truckload pricing trend data

Intermodal price trends

CHINA: CEBM’s review of January industrial activity shows that economic activity remains weak, but that further MoM weakening was not observed.

U.S. Home Prices Rise U.S. home prices continued to rise solidly in November, according to according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price report.

The home price index covering 10 major U.S. cities increased 13.8% in the year ended in November, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price report. The 20-city price index increased 13.7%, close to the 13.8% advance expected by economists.

The two indexes indicate home prices are back to levels seen in mid-2004. (Chart from Haver Analytics)

Turkey Gets Aggressive on Rates

Turkey’s central bank unveiled emergency interest-rate increases in a move that outstripped market expectations and sent the lira roaring back, in a test case for other emerging markets battling plunging currencies.

The central bank more than doubled its benchmark one-week lending rate for banks to 10% from 4.5%. At the same time, in an apparent effort to quell volatility and get banks to hold money longer, it shifted its primary lending to the weekly rate from its overnight rate of 7.75%, which it raised even higher.

The effective difference for most lending—2.25%—is a major move for any central bank, though not as large as it initially appeared. (…)

The Turkish rate hike, which pushed the overnight rate to 12%, followed a surprising increase in India on Tuesday, as Delhi moved to dampen rising prices even as the South Asian giant faces its slowest growth in a decade.

Argentina’s central bank has also pushed up rates in recent days, and in South Africa, which faces a similar mix of weakening growth and high inflation, rate setters were under pressure to follow suit at their meeting Wednesday.

On Monday, the Bank of Russia shifted the ruble’s trading band higher, in response to selling pressure on the Russian currency. (…)

High five “The reality is that Turkey needs capital flows every day. The rate hike makes more difficult for people to go short the lira, but this doesn’t mean necessarily people are coming in,” said Francesc Balcells, an emerging-market portfolio manager with Pacific Investment Management Co., which manages a total of $1.97 trillion.

Europe Banks Show Signs of Healing

Italy’s second-largest bank by assets, Intesa Sanpaolo ISP.MI +0.86% SpA, said that it has fully repaid a €36 billion ($49 billion) loan it took from the European Central Bank during the heat of the Continent’s financial crisis. The bank moved faster than expected to pay back loans that don’t come due until the end of the year.

Elsewhere, Europe’s banks have recently entered a stepped-up cleanup phase. (…)

In Italy, Banco Popolare BP.MI -1.21% SC on Friday joined several other banks there that plan to sell more shares this year. The lender said Friday that it would raise €1.5 billion by giving its investors the right to buy shares at a discount. (…)

European banks have raised about €25 billion of new capital in recent months in advance of the ECB exams, according to Morgan Stanley MS +0.53% analyst Huw van Steenis. (…)

Some bank executives privately said they are worried that the stress-test process itself could reignite the Continent’s financial crisis if unexpected problems are uncovered. The chairman of one of Europe’s largest banks said his company is refusing to make unsecured loans to other European banks because of concerns about the industry’s health. (…)

Big Oil’s Costs Soar

Chevron, Exxon and Shell spent more than $120 billion in 2013 to boost their oil and gas output. But the three oil giants have little to show for all their big spending.

Oil and gas production are down despite combined capital expenses of a half-trillion dollars in the past five years. (…)

Plans under way to pump oil using man-made islands in the Caspian Sea could cost a consortium that includes Exxon and Shell $40 billion, up from the original budget of $10 billion. The price tag for a natural-gas project in Australia, called Gorgon and jointly owned by the three companies, has ballooned 45% to $54 billion. Shell is spending at least $10 billion on untested technology to build a natural-gas plant on a large boat so the company can tap a remote field, according to people who have worked on the project.

(…) Chevron, Exxon and Shell are digging even deeper into their pockets, putting their usually reliable profit margins in jeopardy. Exxon is borrowing more, dipping into its cash pile and buying back fewer shares to help the Irving, Texas, company cover capital costs.

Exxon has said such costs would hit about $41 billion last year, up 51% from $27.1 billion in 2009. (…)

Costly Quest

Oil-industry experts say it will be difficult for the oil giants to spend less because they need to replenish the oil and gas they are pumping—and must keep up with rivals in the world-wide exploration race.

“If you don’t spend, you’re going to shrink,” says Dan Pickering, co-president of Tudor, Pickering Holt & Co., an investment bank in Houston that specializes in the energy industry. Unfortunately for the oil giants, though, “I don’t think there’s any way these projects are more profitable than their legacy production,” he adds. (…)

EARNINGS WATCH

 

Earnings Beat Rate Strong Early, But A Long Way To Go

With few companies reporting early, the beat rate jumped as high as 70% before falling back down to 58% on January 15th.  Since then we’ve seen it stabilize and solid beat rates late in the week of the 17th have taken us to a range around 65% since the Martin Luther King Day long weekend.

As of this morning, 66% of firms reporting have beaten their consensus EPS estimates, which is better than the last two fourth quarter reporting periods (61% in 2012 and 60% in 2011).  Since the start of the current bull market in early 2009, the average quarter has had a beat rate of 62%.  If the current quarter continues at this pace, we will log the highest EPS beat rate since this reporting period in 2010.  But keep in mind that less than 300 names have reported.  With over 80% of the market waiting in the wings, this earnings season is far from over.

Thumbs down Thumbs up DOW THEORY SELL SIGNAL? (From Jeffrey Saut, Chief Investment Strategist, Raymond James)

(…) All of those Bear Boos were reflected in this email from one of our financial advisors:

Hey Jeff, I know you have heard of the Dow Theory buy and sell signals. We are now in a Dow Theory sell signal, meaning the D-J Transport Average (TRAN/7258.72) made a new high unconfirmed by the D-J Industrials. We’ve been in a Dow Theory buy signal environment for the past two years and now that has reversed. These signals are not short term and only happen at major stock market turns. For instance, we had Dow Theory sell signals 4 times between October of 2007 and February of 2008, which was a precursor to the 2008 carnage. What happened on Thursday/Friday of this week also confirms the bearish Elliott wave pattern.

“Nonsense,” was my response. First, all we have seen is what’s termed an “upside non-confirmation” with the Trannies making a new high while the Industrials did not. That is NOT a Dow Theory “sell signal,” it is as stated an upside non-confirmation. To get a Dow Theory “sell signal” would require the INDU to close below its June 2012 low of 14659.56 with a close by the Trannies below their respective June 2012 low of 6173.86, at least by my method of interpreting Dow Theory.

Second, there were not four Dow Theory “sell signals” between October 2007 and February 2008. There was, however, a Dow Theory “sell signal” occurring in November 2007 that I wrote about at the time. Third, there have been numerous Dow Theory “buy signals” since 2009, not just over the last two years. Fourth, Dow Theory also has a lot to do with valuations, and valuations are not expensive with the S&P 500 trading at 14.7x the S&P’s bottom up earnings estimate for 2014. And fifth, I studied Elliott wave theory decades ago and found it to be pretty worthless.

Canon to Return Some Production to Japan

Canon is stepping up efforts to take advantage of a weak yen by moving some of its production back home, in a move that could signal a shift in momentum of the Japanese manufacturing sector.

First, “Abenomics is working well … thus leading us to believe the foreign currency rate won’t fluctuate widely from the current levels at least for next several years,” Mr. Tanaka said.

Second, Mr. Tanaka said, a gap between labor costs in Japan and other Asian nations, where Canon has production bases, has narrowed. Rising wages outside Japan, as well as advanced factory automation technology the company has introduced at home, have contributed to the narrowing of those costs.

Canon said it expects to increase domestic output to 50% by 2015, from 43% in the latest business year ended December. About 60% of Canon’s production came from domestic factories between 2005 and 2009 but has fallen to below 50% since 2011.

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (27 JANUARY 2014)

Emerging markets turmoil intensifies
Turkish central bank calls emergency meeting to tackle falling lira

The emerging markets sell-off intensified on Monday with stocks heading for their worst day in almost six months even before Latin American bourses opened, and currencies weakened further until the Turkish central bank prompted speculation it might raise rates by calling an emergency meeting. (…)

The FTSE Emerging Markets index was 1.4 per cent down in early afternoon London trading on Monday – and is more than 6.2 per cent weaker for the year. Hong Kong’s stock market fell 2.1 per cent, Taiwan’s tumbled 1.6 per cent and Indonesia’s dropped 2.6 per cent. (…)

U.S. Markets Tumble as Fear Spreads

U.S. stocks tumbled Friday to their biggest loss in more than seven months, extending a global selloff that investors fear signals turmoil to come as financial markets adjust to a pullback in central-bank stimulus.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 318.24 points, or 2%, to 15879.11. The Stoxx Europe 600 lost 2.39%, and Germany’s DAX, down 2.48%, had its sharpest fall in months. The Nikkei also fell 1.94%.

While those drops were dramatic, much of the pain of investors’ readjustment is landing on developing economies, from Brazil and India to Thailand and South Africa. (…)

Friday’s swoon was notable for its breadth—nearly all major equity markets were in the red. In foreign-exchange markets, the selloff began with currencies such as the South African rand and Turkish lira that have been viewed as vulnerable because of sluggish domestic growth. But it soon spread to currencies of countries with relatively solid fundamentals, such as Mexico’s peso and South Korea’s won. Currencies also slid in Eastern Europe. (…)

WHAT NOW?

When equity markets foray into not-so-cheap territory, investors get nervous and edgy, ready to jump ship at the first alarm bell, justified or not. Even more so if the Fed is off the gas pedal. Argentina, South Africa and Turkey cannot wag the U.S. economic dog, but they can wag its financial dog for a while. Here’s Ben Hunt’s take on this latest EM rout:

For 20+ years there has been a coherent growth story around Emerging Markets, where the label “Emerging Market” had real meaning within a common knowledge perspective. Today .. not so much. Today the story is that it was easy money from the Fed that drove global growth, EM or otherwise. Today the story is that Emerging Markets are just the levered beneficiaries or victims of Fed monetary policy, no different than anyone else.

In my note, (It Was Barzini All Along), I’m not asking whether the growth rate in this EM country or that EM country will meet expectations, or whether the currency in this EM country or that EM country will come under more or less pressure. I’m asking if the WHY of EM growth and currency valuation has changed. The WHY is the dominant Narrative of a market, the set of tectonic plates on which investment terra firma rests. When any WHY is questioned and challenged – as it certainly is in the case of EM markets today – you get a tremor. But if the WHY changes you get an earthquake.

What are the investments that such an earthquake would challenge? You don’t want to be short the yen if this earthquake hits. You don’t want to be long growth or anything that’s geared to global growth, like energy or commodities. You don’t want to be overweight equities and underweight bonds. You don’t want to be overweight Europe. There .. did I cover one of your favorite investment themes? Bet I did. You can run from EM’s with US equities, but with S&P 500 earnings driven by non-US revenues you cannot hide. If you think that your dividend-paying large-cap US equities are immune to what happens in China and Brazil and Turkey .. well, good luck with that. My point is not to sell everything and run for the hills. My point is that your risk antennae should be quivering, too.

The U.S. “investment terra firma”, for now, is in Q4 earnings:

EARNINGS WATCH

Factset gives us a good rundown after the first quarter:

Overall, 123 companies have reported earnings to date for the third quarter. Of these 123 companies, 68% have reported actual EPS above the mean EPS estimate and 32% have reported actual EPS below the mean EPS estimate. The percentage of companies reporting EPS above the mean EPS estimate is below the 1-year (71%) average and the 4-year (73%) average.

Note that S&P’s tally shows 66% beats and 24% misses.

In aggregate, companies are reporting earnings that are 2.7% above expectations. This surprise percentage is below the 1-year (3.3%) average and the 4-year (5.8%) average. Companies in the Information Technology (+6.6%) are reporting the largest upside aggregate differences between actual earnings and estimated earnings. On the other hand, companies in the Industrials (+0.7%) sector are reporting the smallest upside aggregate differences between actual earnings and estimated earnings.

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In terms of revenues, 67% of companies have reported actual sales above estimated sales and 33% have reported actual sales below estimated sales. The percentage of companies reporting sales above estimates is above the average percentage recorded over the last four quarters (54%) and above the average percentage recorded over the previous four years (59%).

In aggregate, companies are reporting sales that are 0.7% above expectations. This percentage is above the 1-year (0.4%) average and above the 4-year (0.6%) average.

The blended earnings growth rate for Q4 2013 of 6.4% is slightly above the estimate of 6.3% at the end of the quarter (December 31). Four of the  sectors have recorded an increase in earnings growth during this time frame, led by the Information Technology (to 5.9% from 3.3%) sector. Five of the ten sectors have seen a decline in earnings growth since the end of the quarter, led by the Energy (to -10.9% from -8.0%) and Consumer Discretionary (to 3.7% from 6.2%) sectors.

The Financials sector has the highest earnings growth rate (23.5%) of all ten sectors. It is also the largest contributor to earnings growth for the entire index. If the Financials sector is excluded, the earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 falls to 3.1%.

Other than Energy and Consumer Discretionary, the earnings season is going pretty smooth so far.

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In fact, earnings estimates for Q4’13 have been rising in recent weeks from their low point of $28.14 on Jan. 9 to their current $28.77, a not insignificant 2.2% creep up. As a result, trailing 12 months EPS would reach $107.82 after Q4.

But there is this new variable:

Multinationals Start Warning on Q1 Currency Impacts

As currencies in emerging markets tumbled this week, Procter & Gamble Co. and Stanley Black & Decker Inc. warned investors Friday their earnings could take a hit. (…)

Procter & Gamble’s cautioned investors that foreign-exchange swings in the fourth quarter shaved 11 cents a share off earnings, which came in at $1.18 a share. And there’s not much, the company can do to offset the damage, said Jon Moeller, chief financial officer, according to a transcript of a conference call provided by FactSet.

(…) And though the company is still looking for ways to hedge financially, much of its currency woes stem from countries like Egypt, Venezuela, Argentina and Ukraine, “where there really isn’t a financial hedging option.” And even in countries where hedging is possible, “the cost of forward hedging gets pretty prohibitive.” (…)

Stanley Black & Decker CFO Donald Allan said currencies, including the Canadian dollar, Brazilian real and Argentine peso, dragged down earnings and would continue to do so this year. While the euro showed strength over the course of 2013, he said the Canadian dollar fell 11% against the dollar last year, the real lost 15% and the peso plunged 40%.

“We saw about $60 million of negative currency effects in 2013, primarily in the back half of the year,” Mr. Allen said on a conference call. “We would expect a very similar number to occur in the first half of the 2014, which would equate to about a 30-cent negative to in [earnings per share].”

The toolmaker reiterated its guidance for earnings of 2014 earnings of $5.18 to $5.38.

That said, Factset finds little panic among companies, so far:

Q1 Guidance: At this point in time, 25 companies in the index have issued EPS guidance for the first quarter. Of these 25 companies, 18 have issued negative EPS guidance and 7 have issued positive EPS guidance. Thus, the
percentage of companies issuing negative EPS guidance to date for the first quarter is 72% (18 out of 25). This percentage is above the 5-year average of 64%, but below the percentage at this same point in time for Q4 2013 (86%).

Nine of the 18 companies with negative guidance are in IT, 5 in Consumer Disc. and 3 in Health Care.

Analysts are paring down their expectations for Q1 however:

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Using S&P numbers, Q1’14 estimates are now $28.30, down 0.6% from their level of 2 weeks ago. Trailing 12-month EPS would thus reach $110.35, up 2.3% from their expected Q4’13 level. Full year 2014 estimates have been shaved 0.3% to $121.09, up 12.3% YoY.

For the third time since 2009, the S&P 500 Index failed to cross the “20” line on the Rule of 20 barometer. If it were to retreat to the 15-16 Rule of 20 P/E range like it did in 2010 and 2012, the S&P 500 Index would decline to between 1435 (another -20%) and 1540 (-14%), assuming inflation is 1.7%. Given the current state of the world economy (good in the U.S., better in Europe and OK in China), it seems doubtful that we would revisit such deep undervaluation territory. Central banks would no doubt intervene and keep the financial heroin plentiful.

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Given that trailing earnings remain in an uptrend and that inflation is stable, my sense is that the still rising 200-day (1700) moving average will hold the rout to another 5%. The Rule of 20 P/E would then be 17.5, right in the middle of the 15 (deep undervalue) and the 20 (fair value) range. In both the 2010 and 2012 corrections, the Rule of 20 Fair Index Value (yellow line on chart) was declining as inflation picked up temporarily, conditions not currently present.

Also consider that for most global investors, the U.S. must currently be seen as the only trustworthy terra firma from economic, financial and political points of view.

That said, volatility and caution will likely remain for a while. Furthermore, as Lance Roberts’ chart shows, investors are highly leveraged at this time, pretty dangerous if the rout continues.  image

I see no rush to step back in following my Jan. 13 post TAPERING…EQUITIES.

Moody’s Affirms France Rating

The ratings firm, which rates France Aa1, said it kept the negative outlook due to continuing reduced competitiveness in the nation’s economy, as well as the risk of further deterioration in the financial strength of the government.

“Although the French government has introduced or announced a number of measures intended to address these competitiveness and growth issues, the implementation and efficacy of these policy initiatives are complicated by the persistence of long-standing rigidities in labor, goods and services markets as well as the social and political tensions the government is facing,” Moody’s said. (…)

France’s fiscal policy flexibility is limited, which, together with the policy challenges noted above, imply a continued risk of missing fiscal targets,” the firm added. (…)

Markit adds that France official data overstate the reality:

image[A recent Markit] analysis suggests France official GDP data may have overstated growth in the French economy since 2012.

A divergence between the PMI and GDP has been evident since the third quarter of 2012. (…) Up to the third quarter of 2013 (the latest available data point), GDP has risen 0.3%. This growth has helped bring the French economy to within 0.2% of its precrisis peak reached in the first quarter of 2008.

However, the PMI has painted a far weaker picture of the French economy. The composite PMI, which is a GDP-weighted average of the PMI surveys’ manufacturing and services output measures, has been below 50 (thereby signalling falling output) in every month since March 2012 with the exceptions of September and October 2013. Furthermore, the rates of decline signalled by the PMI have been strong over much of this period – exceeding those seen in the prior survey history with the exception of the height of the financial crisis in 2008-9.

Importantly, much of this discrepancy can be accounted for by the fact that PMIs only cover private sector activity. The output of the government sector, which accounts for 25% of GDP, has grown 2.1%
since the second quarter of 2012. Excluding the government sector, GDP is in fact 0.2% lower than the second quarter of 2012 and still some 3.2% below its pre-crisis peak. Stripping out government spend brings the GDP data more into line with the PMI. (…)

The recent (weaker) trends signalled by the PMI survey are confirmed by INSEE’s own surveys of manufacturing and services. (…) Chart 4, which plots the INSEE survey results against growth of non-government GDP, adds confirmation to the PMI message that the official data may have overstated growth in recent quarters. (…)

The PMI exhibits a much higher correlation with official data than both INSEE and Banque de France surveys, whether we look at manufacturing, services or a weighted combination of the two sectors. The track record of the surveys therefore adds weight to the suggestion that the GDP data have been overstating the health of the economy since mid-2012.

imageThe possible overstatement of economic growth by the official data and Banque de France surveys is also something which is indicated by the employment data. Chart 7 shows that a clear divergence between the
official data on output and employment has become evident. Between mid-2012 and mid-2013, nongovernment GDP was flat but private sector
employment dropped by 153k (0.9%). To put this in context, the fall in employment was the steepest seen over such a period in recent history (since 1999) with the exception of the height of the 2008-9 financial crisis.

Rather than concluding that the French economy has undergone a period of rapid productivity growth, it is possible that the fall in employment over this period is another indication that GDP data have overstated output. To investigate this more closely, we look at the survey data on employment. Here we can see that the survey that has corresponded most closely with the upbeat GDP data over the past two years – namely the Banque de France survey – appears to have overstated employment growth.

Importantly, the PMI survey data on employment have not diverged from the official data. The PMI has in fact exhibited a correlation of some 89% with private sector employment excluding agriculture since the survey data were first available in 1998, outperforming the INSEE and Banque de France surveys. (…)

European banks have 84 billion euro capital shortfall, OECD estimates: report

European banks have a combined capital shortfall of about 84 billion euros ($115 billion), German weekly WirtschaftsWoche reported, citing a new study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

French bank Credit Agricole has the deepest capital shortfall at 31.5 billion euros, while Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank have gaps of 19 billion and 7.7 billion respectively, the magazine reported in a pre-release of its Monday publication. (…)

Confused smile STRANGE QUOTES

Marc Faber: What I recommend to clients and what I do with my own portfolio aren’t always the same. (…) About 20% of my net worth is in gold. I don’t even value it in my portfolio. What goes down, I don’t value. (…) I recommend the Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners ETF [GDXJ], although I don’t own it. I own physical gold because the old system will implode. Those who own paper assets are doomed. (Barron’s)

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (23 JANUARY 2014)

EMPLOYMENT SUPPLY/DEMAND (Cont’d)

Lance Roberts points out the jump in the Quits/Layoffs ratio which also suggests un tight supply/demand balance.

“Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by employees. Quits are procyclical, rising with an improving economy and falling with a faltering economy. Layoffs and discharges are generally involuntary separations initiated by an employer and are countercyclical, moving in the opposite direction of quits. The ratio of the number of quits to the number of layoffs and discharges provides insight into churn in the labor market over the business cycle.

 
Boost for Spain as unemployment dips
Latest sign pointing to a nascent economic recovery

The number of unemployed people in Spain dropped slightly in the final quarter of last year, the first such fall in a decade and the latest in a series of broadly encouraging signs that point towards a nascent economic recovery in the country.

The data, contained in a labour market survey released on Thursday, are likely to bolster confidence in the Spanish economy at a time when investors are piling into the country’s sovereign debt and other assets on a scale not seen since the start of the crisis.

S Korea records fastest growth in 3 years
Robust domestic demand powers strong growth

Gross domestic product rose by 3.9 per cent in the last three months of 2013 from a year earlier, broadly in line with economists’ forecasts. In a break from the trend of recent years, the contribution to growth of domestic demand – or total purchases of goods and services – outstripped that of exports, the Bank of Korea said on Thursday.

However, confidence in South Korea is tightly linked to exports, which account for more than half of GDP, and economists said the improved domestic demand was based on growing faith in the strength of the global recovery, with South Korean exports growing 4.3 per cent last year. (…)

Companies’ investment in machinery and transport equipment fell heavily over most of the past two years, reflecting nervousness among manufacturers about overseas demand. But it rose by an annual 9.9 per cent in the fourth quarter, and this rebound was set to continue into the new year, said Kwon Young-sun, an economist at Nomura. (…)

Dollar sinks below 90¢ as Poloz ‘declares open season on loonie’

(…) Yesterday, it plunged below 91 cents U.S. after the Bank of Canada released its rate decision and monetary policy report that, over all, suggests interest rates aren’t going anywhere at any time soon because of its focus on stubbornly low inflation.

Pointing up Coupled with that was a line in the report that warned the currency “remains strong and will continue to pose competitiveness challenges for Canada’s non-commodity exports” even with its stunning loss over the past year.

“Until today, the Bank of Canada had been careful not to open talk down the loonie,” chief economist Douglas Porter of BMO Nesbitt Burns said late yesterday in a research note titled “BoC declares open season on loonie.”

“They effectively gave sellers the green light in today’s monetary policy report by stating that even with the big drop in recent weeks, it remained high and would still ‘pose a competitiveness challenge for Canada’s non-commodity exports,” he added. (…)

Some observers also believe that this is a deliberate move by Canadian policy makers to devalue the currency in a bid to boost the country’s exports, as a weaker loonie lowers the cost of Canadian goods in the United States.

The Bank of Canada denies any such thing, but everyone agrees that Mr. Poloz, while not driving down the dollar, is pleased with the outcome. (…)

THE BoC DOES NOT NEED TO CUT RATES
 

In Canada, low inflation and disappointing job creation have prompted many to ask whether the Bank of Canada (BoC) will need to ease in 2014. At this writing the OIS market is putting the odds of a rate cut by September at 33%. The question is legitimate, but we think the depreciation of the Canadian dollar is doing the job for the Bank.

An old rule of thumb was that a 10% depreciation of the Canadian dollar would add 1.5% to GDP over time. That was when the penetration of
Canadian exports in the U.S. market was stronger. Our share of U.S. imports has been declining since even before the last recession. Moreover, Canadian manufacturing capacity has shrunk as producers have restructured their operations in the wake of the Great Recession. So that rule of thumb is surely too optimistic by now.

Yet even if the impact of the exchange rate on the economy were only a third of what it used to be, the 9.5% drop in the effective exchange rate since January 2013, if sustained, would over time add 0.4% to GDP. As
today’s Hot Chart shows, that is probably as large a boost to the economy as would be expected from a BoC rate cut of 50 to 75 basis points. (NBF)

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Rouhani outlines growth plan for Iran
President calls for greater engagement with rest of the world

Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, on Thursday predicted that his country had the potential to be one of the world’s top 10 economies in the next three decades if sanctions were lifted and economic ties normalised.

In an upbeat and conciliatory speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Rouhani reiterated that developing nuclear weapons “has no place in Iran‘s security strategy” and forecast that ties with Europe would be “normalised” as the interim nuclear agreement is implemented.

Mr Rouhani said he intended to remove “all political and economic impediments to growth” in Iran and that one of his priorities was “constructive engagement with the world”. (…)

For its part, Iran intends to “reopen trade, industrial and economic relations with all of our neighbours”, he said, naming Turkey, Iraq, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. (…)

Iran’s economy shrank more than 5 per cent in the last fiscal year as international sanctions imposed in response to the country’s nuclear programme took their toll. (…)

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who is due to address the forum later on Thursday, described the speech as a continuation of “the Iranian campaign of deception”.

In a long post on his Facebook page he warned: “The international community mustn’t fall for this deception once again, and it must prevent Iran from being capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons.” (…)

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL?

Chart from Citi Research (via ZeroHedge)

BUYBACKS BACK PRICE GAINS

Investing in the 100 stocks with the highest buyback ratios had a 49 percent total return for 2013. The S&P 500 Index gained 32 percent, and the CDX High Yield Index returned about 14 percent, including the 5 percent coupon. (BloombergBriefs)

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EARNINGS WATCH

Bespoke give us its tally of all NYSE companies:

Earnings and Revenue Beat Rates Decent So Far

Of the 121 companies that have released earnings since the Q4 2013 reporting period began, 68% have beaten bottom-line EPS estimates.  As you can see, 68% would be a strong reading if it holds. Keep in mind that it’s still very early, though.  More than 1,000 companies are set to report over the next few weeks, so the beat rate could fluctuate a lot.

Top-line sales numbers have been a little less rosy than the more-easily manipulated bottom-line numbers.  As shown in the second chart below, 57% of companies have beaten revenue estimates so far this season.  While this isn’t a stellar reading, it is better than all but one of the earnings seasons we’ve had since the start of 2012. 


CFOs Warn Investors on Impact of Expired R&D Tax Credit

Companies are flagging investors they may face higher tax rates this year because the U.S. tax credit they use to offset some research and development expenses expired at the end of last year.

As first quarter conference calls get going, companies ranging from Johnson & Johnson to Textron Inc. are providing detailed information about the missing credit. While chief financial officers widely expect Congress to reinstate the credit, companies cannot factor in the tax credit into their financial results unless it is current law.

Companies, including Johnson & Johnson, are warning the lapsed tax credit for research and development could boost their tax rate.

The impact for many companies could be significant. Because the credit was retroactively extended for 2012 at the beginning of 2013, many companies recognized five quarters of tax credits in the first quarter of last year, but will recognize zero in the first quarter of 2014. (…)

While the credit often expires and is retroactively enacted, Congress has only once allowed it to lapse completely in 33 years. Some companies are confident enough to continue giving financial guidance with the assumption it will be extended, while others are hedging their bets. (…)

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (22 JANUARY 2014)

COLD PATCH = SOFT PATCH COMING?

Chain store sales continue very weak, partly because of the weather. Whatever the reason, that may exacerbate the inventory problem at retail and lead to a soft patch in the spring as reorder rates are cut.

Frigid weather pulled chain-store sales steeply lower in the January 18 week, down 1.9 percent on ICSC-Goldman’s same-store sales index for a year-on-year rate of only plus 0.9 percent which is the lowest reading of the whole recovery. The report warns that cold weather in the ongoing week is likely to depress readings in this report for next week.

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IMF Raises Global Growth Outlook

The IMF raised its 2014 global growth forecast to 3.7%, up 0.1 percentage point from its last outlook in October. (…)

The U.S. leads the recovery. The IMF raised its forecast for U.S. economic growth this year by 0.2 percentage point to 2.8%, though it downgraded its 2015 outlook by 0.4 percentage point to 3% amid the fights in Congress over the federal balance sheet and spending. (…)

For Europe, however, officials warned that rising risks of falling prices threaten to stall the anemic recovery. Although the fund raised its growth forecast for the U.K., Germany and Spain, Mr. Blanchard said, “Southern Europe continues to be the more worrisome part of the world economy.”

Exports are strengthening in the Southern euro-zone countries. But demand is slack, with weakness among banks and businesses. More budget tightening is needed as well, the IMF said, and unemployment remains at dangerously high levels, especially among youth. (…)

For Japan, the IMF raised its growth forecast for the year by 0.4 percentage point to 1.7%. It said Japan’s government will continue to face the challenge of trimming its budget enough to reassure investors, while not slowing the recovery.

The fund also raised the growth forecast for the world’s No. 2 economy, China, by 0.3 percentage point to 7.5%. Mr. Blanchard said, however, that China’s need to contain escalating risks in the financial sector without excessively slowing growth will be a major challenge “and a delicate balancing act.”

with weak economic policies are likely to be most affected, he said. (…)

INFLATION/DEFLATION

 

Late Tuesday, a panel created by Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan advised the central bank to make significantly lower consumer prices the central target of its monetary policy.

The Consumer-price index is currently hovering near 10%, compared with about 6% for wholesale prices. The panel suggested the central bank aim to reduce CPI to 8% by 2015 and 6% within two years before adopting a target range around a 4% anchor.

Surprised smile Inflation Jumps in Australia Australian consumer prices rose 0.8% in the December quarter and climbed 2.7% from a year earlier, numbers that were significantly higher than expected.

Core inflation, which attempts to strip out extraordinary events such as extreme weather or new taxes, rose by an average of 0.9% in the quarter from the preceding one, compared with the 0.6% expected by 15 economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal. Core inflation climbed 2.6% in the fourth quarter from a year earlier.

Aussies Stunned By Inflation Surprise Australia’s central bank can no longer assume the country’s inflation outlook will remain pleasantly benign, a revelation that will dramatically complicate the setting of interest rates in 2014.

(…)So how is it that a weak economy like Australia, which is weighed by a severe slowdown in mining investment, low confidence and weak commodity prices, can have an inflation problem?

There are a few contributing factors.

The first is the fall in the Australian dollar. The Aussie was the worst-performing major currency over the last 12 months, falling around 17% against the U.S. dollar. Drops of that magnitude must be reflected in higher import prices at some point. Tradable, or imported inflation, rose 0.7% in the fourth quarter from the third, building on a 1.2% rise in the third quarter from the second. (…)

The second component of the inflation riddle in Australia is homegrown. So-called non-tradable inflation, or that generated by goods and services produced locally, has been running hot for years. Some economists call it a structural problem, fearing it will take a long time to be weeded out of the consumer price index.

Non-tradable inflation rose 0.8% in the fourth quarter, adding to a long string of elevated results that date back over years.

Adam Boyton, the chief economist at Deutsche Bank, based in Sydney, says rising government charges are at the heart of the domestic inflation problem. What he terms as “government inflation” is running at annual rate of 5.7%. Inflation elsewhere in the economy is running at just 1.8%.

The list of government price hikes is long and range from environmental taxes to electricity, water and sewerage costs, coupled with higher levies on alcohol and tobacco. (…)

Floating Notes Debut in U.S as More Cash Chases Fewer Securities

The U.S. Treasury Department’s floating-rate notes may generate strong investor demand given a scarcity of money-market securities and a looming debt limit that’s accelerating a decline in bill supply.

Floaters would be the Treasury’s first new security in 17 years. Details of the inaugural sale of the two-year notes Jan. 29 will be announced tomorrow even as legislation on the nation’s borrowing limit causes the Treasury to scale back on bill sales and as dealers reduce activity in the repurchase agreement market.

WHATEVER IT TAKES

Italian Bad Loans Hit Record High – Up 23% YoY

(…) Having risen at a stunning 23% year-over-year – its fastest in 2 years, Italian gross non-performing loans (EUR149.6 billion) as a proportion of total lending rose to 7.8% in November (up from 6.1% a year earlier). As the Italian Banking Association admits in a statement today, deposits are declining (-1.9% YoY) and bonds sold to clients (-9.4% YoY) as Italy’s bank clients with bad loans have more than doubled since 2008.

Italian bad loans continue to soar – entirely ignored by the nation’s bond market participants (why worry!?)

EARNINGS WATCH

While just eight companies have provided outlooks for their first-quarter profits so far, the six that had disappointing outlooks saw shares fall an average of 3.1%, according to FactSet, a steeper drop than usual. Over the past five years, companies’ stock prices have lost an average of 0.8% after providing disappointing forecasts. (WSJ)

Ed Yardeni:

It’s not over yet, but this is turning out to be a very unusual earnings season. During each of the previous three earnings seasons last year, analysts lowered their estimates as the season approached. That set up investors to be pleasantly surprised as actual earnings turned out to be a bit better than expected.

So far, there has been no similar curve ball. Instead, during the week of 1/16, the blended actual/estimate for Q4 fell to a new low for the weekly series. The current projected growth rate for the quarter is just 6.6% y/y.

Verizon Dials Up a Big Pension Boost

Verizon Communications Inc.’s earnings got a big lift Tuesday from a change it made in its pension accounting a few years ago, and some other companies could see similar gains in the days to come.

Verizon recorded a $6 billion pretax gain in its fourth-quarter earnings for “severance, pension and benefit” credits – largely due to a gain from “mark-to-market” accounting for its pension plan, the method to which Verizon switched in 2011. After taxes, that amounted to $3.7 billion, or $1.29 a share – the biggest contributor to Verizon’s fourth-quarter earnings of $1.76 a share under official accounting rules.

That was a major turnaround from the fourth quarter of 2012, when Verizon reported a severance, pension and benefit loss of $7.2 billion pretax, or $1.55 a share after taxes, that weighed down its earnings.

Verizon is one of a handful of big companies that have made an optional switch to mark-to-market accounting, to make the results of their pension plans easier for investors to understand. They follow market prices for their pension assets, and they no longer “smooth” the impact of pension gains and losses into their earnings over a period of years.

Those companies recognize the impact of their switch through a fourth-quarter adjustment to their earnings each year, to account for the difference between their expectations for their pension plans’ performance and the year’s actual results. For 2011 and 2012, that meant losses, largely because interest rates were falling – that increased the current value of pension obligations, which affected the plans’ expenses.

But with some rates rising in 2013, and the stock market turning in a particularly strong performance for the year, the value of pension obligations fell, benefitting Verizon and other mark-to-market companies. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that accounting observers expected some of them to report significant fourth-quarter gains. (…)

Among the other companies that could see similar fourth-quarter gains in coming days: AT&T Inc., which reports earnings on Jan. 28, and Kellogg Co., which reports on Feb. 6. Both have made the mark-to-market switch; AT&T reported a $10 billion mark-to-market loss in the fourth quarter of 2012, while Kellogg reported a $401 million loss in that period. (…)

Poor Start to European Earnings

Europe’s first earnings season of the year is off to a rough start, with a number of typically reliable blue-chip companies surprising markets with profit warnings and other bad news.

In recent days, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Deutsche Bank AG, SAP AG, Unilever PLC and Alstom SA all warned about slowing profit at the tail end of last year or lower expectations for the near future. Executives have cited an array of industry-specific reasons. (…)

German business-software supplier SAP said Tuesday that it would take longer than expected to get to its 35% operating-profit margin target. It forecast €5.8 billion to €6 billion ($7.8 billion to $8.1 billion) in operating profit this year, below analysts’ expectations.

Alstom, a French maker of natural-gas turbines and high-speed trains, said its operating profit margins will fall in this fiscal year and next, having previously said the margins would improve, as its cash flow turns negative. Chief Executive Patrick Kron has recommended the company pay no dividend this year.

Over the weekend, Deutsche Bank warned that it would set aside a bigger chunk of money to absorb loan losses and said revenue from trading bonds and currencies fell.

And on Friday, Shell stunned investors by saying profit for the fourth quarter would be sharply lower than in previous periods, partly because of higher costs and lower production.

While challenges are different for each company, one weak spot has been that European economic growth continues to be sluggish. (…)

That has lowered expectations among executives. Unilever Chief Executive Paul Polman said having merely a “stable business” in Europe these days “is pretty good.”

The Anglo-Dutch consumer-products group said Tuesday that competition in developed markets and uncertainty in emerging economies would hold back growth during the year ahead.

Emerging markets are another challenge for European companies, many of which have diversified aggressively into developing economies amid flagging sales during the economic crisis at home. Today, growth in the biggest emerging markets—Brazil, Russia, India and China—isn’t accelerating as it has in previous years. (…)

RISING INEQUALITIES…

Two-Track Future Imperils Global Growth

Will wealth and income disparities become defining issues for the coming decade?

Concentrated cash pile puts recovery in hands of the few
A third of non-financial companies sits on $2.8tn hoard
 

(…) About a third of the world’s biggest non-financial companies are sitting on most of a $2.8tn gross cash pile, according to a study by advisory firm Deloitte, with the polarisation between hoarders and spenders widening since the financial crisis.

This will have a big influence on whether 2014 will bring a revival in capital expenditure or dealmaking, warned Iain Macmillan, head of mergers and acquisitions at Deloitte. “Looking ahead, the wave of cash that many are expecting will depend on the decisions of a few, rather than the many,” he said.

Of the non-financial members of the S&P Global 1200 index, just 32 per cent of companies held 82 per cent of the aggregate cash pile, the highest level since at least 2000. With nearly $150bn in its coffers, Apple alone was sitting on about 5 per of the total at the end of its fiscal year.

Such concentration has increased since 2007 when companies that held more than $2.5bn in cash or “near cash” items – not including debt – accounted for 76 per cent of the aggregate cash pile in 2007.

The study focused on gross cash holdings rather than subtracting their debt in an effort to simplify comparisons over time and identify how much money companies have to hand.

The study comes amid increasing investor calls for companies to step up capital spending. An influential survey of fund managers conducted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch released on Tuesday showed a record 58 per cent of investors polled want companies’ cash piles spent on capex.

A record 67 per cent said companies were “underinvesting” and less than a third of asset managers surveyed want companies to return more money to shareholders – the usual complaint of investors. (…)

Deloitte’s study reveals though that hoarding cash has hit companies’ share prices and revenue growth in recent years, as companies with low cash balances have done better on both measures than companies with large cash reserves.

Mr Macmillan at Deloitte said: “Small cash holding companies which have been more aggressive in their pursuit of growth have seen their revenue growth and share price performance outperform their richer counterparts.” (…)

Corporate cash may not all flow back with recovery

(…) According to Thomson Reuters data, companies around the world held almost $7 trillion of cash and equivalents on their balance sheets at the end of 2013 – more than twice the level of 10 years ago. Capital expenditure relative to sales is at a 22-year low and some strategists reckon the typical age of fixed assets and equipment has been stretched to as much as 14 years from pre-crisis norms of about 9 years. (…)

Examining quarterly Duke University survey responses from some 550 chief financial officers over the past two years, the paper said companies are far less sensitive to interest rate changes than investment theory suggests and CFOs cite ample cash and historically low rates among the reasons for that.

Less than a third of firms said moves of up to 200 basis points in key borrowing rates up or down would affect their investment plans at all.

So what would get companies to hoard or invest these days? The two most commonly chosen drivers in the survey cited in the paper were “ability to maintain margins” and the “cost of health care.” (…)

And now there:

The rally against the Valley
Showdown between tech companies and protesters in San Francisco

(…) Ostensibly a dispute about the hundreds of commuter shuttles that transport tech workers down to Silicon Valley – and how little they pay to park – the battle of the buses actually centres on complaints that the community has not shared in the spoils of the tech boom.

Speaker after speaker declared the coaches a symbol of “filthy rich corporations that could afford to pay more”, “class warfare” and “manifest destiny”. Earlier in the day a bus for Facebook employees and one heading to Google were blockaded in the latest in a series of irate protests, one of which led to a bus window being smashed.

The committee room, complete with the flags and blonde wood panelling of a courtroom, was shaken by cheers for anyone who criticised “Big Tech” with an anger which has in the past been reserved for Wall Street.

As young technology workers prefer to live in San Francisco rather than the suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley, rents have risen more than 20 per cent and evictions are up almost 40 per cent since 2010.(…)

The transportation board voted in favour of the tech companies, legalising the ferrying of almost 35,000 workers in private buses to and from public bus stops. Google said it was “excited” to work with them on the pilot programme towards a “shared goal of efficient transportation”.

But the board said the buses – with their blacked-out windows and teched-up interiors – were the “physical manifestation of a lot of larger issues” that they were not able to solve.

And there:

Vatican’s “Monsignor 500″ Re-Arrested Amid Money Laundering Allegations

Monsignor Nunzio Scarano – dubbed “Monsignor 500″ after his favorite bank-notewho is already on trial for allegedly plotting to smuggle 20 million euros from Switzerland to Italy, was arrested Tuesday in a separate case for allegedly using his Vatican accounts to launder a further 7 million euros. As AP reports, police said they seized 6.5 million euros in real estate and bank accounts Tuesday, including Scarano’s luxurious Salerno apartment, filled with gilt-framed oil paintings, ceramic vases and other fancy antiques. A local priest was also placed under house arrest and a notary public was suspended for alleged involvement in the money-laundering plot. Police said in all, 52 people were under investigation. Have no fear though, for his lawyer, “has good faith that the money came from legitimate donations.”

Via AP,

Scarano’s lawyer, Silverio Sica, said his client merely took donations from people he thought were acting in good faith to fund a home for the terminally ill. He conceded, however, that Scarano used the money to pay off a mortgage. (…)

GOOD SHOT: (From FT)

The Davos World Economic Forum 2014

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (20 JANUARY 2014)

China’s Economic Growth Slows to 7.7%

China’s economic growth slowed slightly in the fourth quarter, complicating the challenge for the country’s leaders as they seek to reshape the world’s No. 2 economy.

In the fourth quarter of 2013, China’s economy grew 7.7% from a year ago, slower than the 7.8% it posted in the third quarter, according to data released Monday by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. That translates into 7.4% growth on a quarter-to-quarter annualized basis, the way most major economies report growth. China doesn’t release a similar figure.

Investment, which accounts for about half of China’s economic output, was a major drag on growth in the fourth quarter, a result of monetary authorities making credit more expensive. Fixed-asset investment expanded 19.6% on-year in 2013, down from 19.9% from the first 11 months of the year, indicating slowing capital spending, according toANZ Bank. (…)

The economy was growing more slowly in December than at the beginning of the final quarter of the year.

Louis Kuijs, an economist at RBS in Hong Kong, points out that industrial production grew 9.7% on-year in December versus 10.3% in October. And export growth slowed in December after a strong showing in November. That could point to a slow start to 2014, unless other drivers like exports or local demand pick up above expectations.

One area of brightness in the fourth quarter was retail sales, which grew 13.6% on-year in December, almost the same pace of growth as November. (…)

Sarcastic smile  See anything strange in this CLSA chart? How about 7 straight quarters of stable growth.

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China’s Central Bank Providing Short-Term Cash to Lenders

In a rare accommodative measure, the state-run People’s Bank of China is providing short-term cash to the country’s biggest lenders, in a move seen as a bid to avoid a liquidity crisis near the Lunar New Year holiday.

The PBOC said it will inject further liquidity into the system via reverse purchase agreements, a form of short-term loans to banks, when it conducts its twice-a-week open market operation on Tuesday.

It said the moves are intended to maintain the stability of China’s money market ahead of the weeklong Spring Festival that kicks off on Jan. 31. (…)

The central bank’s apparent reassurance came after China’s financial system showed fresh signs of stress on Monday, with short-term borrowing costs for banks soaring on heavy holiday-induced demand for cash and rising worries over the vast shadow-banking sector.

The benchmark cost of short-term loans between banks, the weighted average of the seven-day repurchase agreement rate, rose to 6.59% on Monday, from 5.17% Friday and 4.35% Thursday. The current level marks the rate’s highest since Dec. 23, when it hit 8.94%.

The surging rates in the money markets also hammered stocks, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite falling below the key level of 2000 to 1991.25, its weakest in almost six months and down 5.9% this year, the worst performer in Asia. (…)

Housing Starts and Building Permits Decline

Housing Starts and Building Permits for the month of December both showed month/month declines but were still up compared to last year.  Relative to expectations, though, Housing Starts exceeded forecasts (999K vs. 985K), while Building Permits missed forecasts (986K vs. 1014K).

 

U.S. LABOR SUPPLY/DEMAND

The NFIB detailed report for December shows that employment was likely stronger than what the last NFP reported:

Overall, it appears that owners hired more workers on balance in December than their hiring plans indicated in November, a favorable development (apparently undetected by BLS).

Note the recent  spike in the marginal increase in employment per firm, bumping against its historical highs.image

Coming wage pressures?

Two percent reported reduced worker compensation and 17 percent reported raising compensation, yielding seasonally adjusted net 19 percent reporting higher worker compensation (up 5 points), the best reading since 2007. A net seasonally adjusted 13 percent plan to raise compensation in the coming months, down 1 point from November. Overall, the compensation picture remained at the better end of experience in this recovery, but historically weak for periods of economic growth and recovery.

Margins pressures?

With a net 19 percent raising compensation but a net negative 1 percent raising selling prices, profits will continue to be under pressure. Higher compensation costs are not being passed on to customers, but there will be more pressure to do so as Obamacare begins to impact small businesses in 2014.

Pointing up 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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EARNINGS WATCH

We now have 52 S&P 500 companies’ Q4 results in, 19 of which are financials.

  • Of the 53 companies in the S&P 500 that have posted earnings for the latest quarter, 57% have topped analysts’ average earnings estimate, according to FactSet.
  • Out of the 52 companies in the gauge that have posted fourth-quarter results so far, 62 percent have exceeded analysts’ profit estimates, and 63 percent have topped revenue projections, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

S&P’s own official tally shows a 52% beat rate and a 35% miss rate. Financials beat in 58% of cases while only 48% of non-financials beat (39% missed), so far.

Zacks has the best analysis:

The 2013 Q4 earnings season ramps up in the coming days, but we have results from 52 S&P 500 members already, as of Friday January 17th. And even though the early going has been Finance weighted, the overall picture emerging from the results thus far isn’t very inspiring.

The earnings reports thus far may not offer a representative sample for the S&P 500 as a whole. But we do have a good enough sample for the Finance sector as the 19 Finance sector companies that have reported already account for 47.5% of the sector’s total market capitalization and contribute more than 50% of the sector’s total Q4 earnings. (…)

Total earnings for the 19 Finance sector companies that have reported already are up +14.2% on -1% lower revenues. The earnings beat ratio is 63.2%, while only 36.8% of the companies have come out with positive top-line surprises.

Pointing up This looks good enough performance, but is actually weaker than what we had seen from these same banks in recent quarters. Not only are the earnings and revenue growth rates for the companies below what they achieved in Q3 and the 4-quarter average, but the beat ratios are weaker as well. The insurance industry, the sector’s largest industry behind the large banks, has still to report results and could potentially turnaround this growth and surprise picture for the sector.

We haven’t seen that many reports from companies outside of the Finance sector. But the few that we have seen don’t inspire much confidence. Hard to characterize any other way what we have seen from the likes of Intel (INTC), CSX Corp. (CSX), UPS (UPS) and even GE (GE). But it’s still relatively early and we will know more in the coming days.

The lack of positive surprises is ‘surprising’ following the sharp drop in Q4 estimates in the run up to the start of the reporting season.

The composite picture for Q4 – combining the results for the 52 companies that have reported already with the 448 still to come – is for earnings growth of +7.1% on +1.5% higher revenues and 50 basis points higher margins. The actual Q4 growth rally will most likely be higher than this, a function of management’s well refined expectations management skills.

Easy comparisons, particularly for the Finance sector, account for a big part of the Q4 growth. Total earnings for the Finance sector are expected to be up +25.0%. Outside of Finance, total earnings growth drops to +3.4%.

Profits Show Banks Back From the Brink

Large U.S. banks are finally emerging from the wreckage of the financial crisis, on the back of rising profits, a recovering economy and drastic cost cutting.

(…) As a group, the six earned $76 billion in 2013. That is $6 billion shy of the collective all-time high achieved in 2006, a year U.S. housing prices peaked amid a torrid economic expansion. (…)

One way for banks to improve their standing with investors is to cut compensation, jobs and business lines. This past week, Goldman Sachs announced its 2013 payroll was 3% lower than 2012′s, while Bank of America disclosed it eliminated 25,000 positions during the year. J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley both are in the process of exiting from the business of storing physical commodities.

Banks still face numerous headwinds, including high legal costs as regulators and investigators work through a backlog of industry activity and scrutinize everything from overseas hiring to potential manipulation of currency and interest-rate benchmarks. Higher borrowing costs are reducing homeowners’ demand for mortgages, a major profit center for some banks during the early half of 2013, and several firms reported fourth-quarter trading declines in fixed-income, currencies and commodities trading.

Despite the many challenges, big banks are beginning to find ways to boost revenue. The six largest banks posted a 4% revenue gain during 2013.

Smaller banks are recovering, as well. Earnings reports are still being released, but, together, all 6,900 commercial banks in the U.S. are on pace to match or exceed the industry’s all-time earnings peak of $145.2 billion in 2006, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. (…)

Another factor fueling earnings growth is a dramatic reduction in the reserves banks have set aside for future loan losses, as fewer U.S. borrowers default. J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo freed up $15 billion in loan-loss reserves during 2013, including $3.7 billion in the fourth quarter. That money goes directly to the bottom line, boosting profits. The releases made up 16% of these banks’ pretax income for that final quarter. (…)

A closely watched investment-performance ratio called return on equity is well below levels achieved a decade ago. What pushed ratios lower were hundreds of billions of dollars of additional capital raised to protect the institutions from future problems and comply with new regulatory guidelines.

Goldman’s return on equity, which hit a peak of 33% in 2006, fell to 11% in 2013. The ratio was even lower for J.P. Morgan and Bank of America.

Banks are scrambling to make changes as a way of improving returns. The six biggest banks have reduced their workforces by more than 44,000 positions in the past year, while J.P. Morgan told investors it was done with an aggressive branch expansion and would no longer add to its network of 5,600 locations. Goldman Sachs’s 2013 pay reduction brings compensation expenses down to 36.9% of total revenue, the lowest percentage since 2009.

Banks will have to show they can earn money from lending and other businesses, as opposed to releasing reserves, said Fitch Ratings analyst Justin Fuller. Lending for the biggest banks was up 2% on the year, but there were limited signs that slim margins on those loans had begun to widen or at least stabilize.

Light bulb But if capex strengthen, loan demand will rise. Higher volume with the current steep yield curve = higher profits…

SENTIMENT WATCH

VOX POPULI (Gallup)

Half of Americans say investing $1,000 in the stock market right now would be a bad idea, even though the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Standard & Poor’s 500 index have recently hit record highs. Forty-six percent of Americans say investing $1,000 in the stock market would be a good idea. Trend: Americans' Views on Investing in the Stock Market

In January 2000, when the Dow was at a then-record high of 11,500, Americans were much more likely to say investing in the stock market was a good idea than they are today. A record-high 67% of Americans that month said investing was a good idea.

After the onset of the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the percentage of Americans who believed investing in the markets was a bad idea swelled to 62%. While that percentage has dropped, Americans’ confidence in buying stocks has clearly not returned to levels seen during the heady days of the early 2000s.

Stock Ownership Among Americans Still Near Record Low

Fifty-four percent of Americans now say they own stock, little changed from the 52% who said so last April — which was the lowest in Gallup’s 16-year trend of asking this question in its current format. Stock ownership is far lower than it was during the dot-com boom of 2000, when 67% said they owned stock — a record high. While staying above 60% for much of the 2000s, the ownership percentage fell into the 50% range as the Great Recession took hold and has not yet rebounded. Despite economic booms and busts, however, a majority of Americans have maintained an investment in the markets in the past 15 years. Trend: Americans' Ownership of Stocks

Although fewer Americans now own stocks, those who do, not surprisingly, are much more likely than non-owners to believe investing in the market is a good idea, 59% to 30%.

Bottom Line: The Dow is 5,000 points higher today than it was in 2000, but confidence in the markets is much lower, as is participation.

VOX DEI: Bearish Bond Belief At 20-Year Extremes

Jeff Gundlach recently warned that the trade that could inflict the most pain to the most people is a significant move down in yields (and potential bull flattening to the yield curve). (…) despite this, investors remain entirely enamored with stocks and, as the following chart shows, Treasury Bond sentiment now stands at 20-year extremes of bearishness.

Citi: “Time For Yields To Correct Lower”

The end of 2013 saw bond yields at their highs and the US equity markets making higher highs. This came as the Federal Reserve started to finally slow down its asset purchases and, as Citi’s Tom Fitzpatrick suggest, has now seemingly turned a corner in its so called “emergency” policy. That now leaves room for the market/economy to determine the proper rate of interest; and, he notes, given the patchy economic recovery, the fragile level of confidence and the low levels of inflation, Citi questions whether asset prices belong where they are today. As the Fed’s stimulus program appears to have “peaked” Citi warned investors yesterday to be cautious with the Equity markets; and recent price action across the Treasury curve suggests lower yields can be seen and US 10 year yields are in danger of retesting the 2.40% area.

US economic surprise index

General economic surprises look like they are now approaching a peak again. Only twice over the past 7 years have we been above current levels and they were short lived.

We should note that this index is naturally mean reverting as expectations rise with better than expected data and vice versa. A fall back below zero if seen may be quite important. (…)

High five  There is a lot more to Citi’s technical analysis, all mostly pointing to lower rates ahead. But before you get too technical, go back up and re-read the piece on the NFIB report.

Just kidding Up and Down Wall Street

Another sign of froth in European sovereign debt is described by Peter Tchir, a credit-market veteran who heads TF Market Advisors: Spain’s bonds due 2023 yield 3.68%, just a hair above the 3.60% from Apple‘s (AAPL) bond due 2023 issued in its then-record $17 billion offering to fund its share buyback. He admits the comparison is well, apples to oranges.

“One is denominated in euros, the other in dollars. One is a sovereign nation with devoted citizens, the other is Spain. One has so much cash on hand that trying to convince them to do something with that cash hoard has become the ultimate hedge-fund pastime. The other would have trouble rubbing two pesetas together, even if it hadn’t moved to the euro. Fifty percent of the world’s population under the age of 25 already owns or wants to own a device made by Apple. That is still a little behind the 57% in Spain who want a job (assuming some of the unemployed youth actually want jobs).”

GOLD

Physical Gold Shortage Goes Mainstream

As BNN reports, veteran trader Tres Knippa, pointing to recent futures data, says “there may not be enough gold to go around if everyone with a futures contract insists on taking delivery of physical bullion.” As he goes on to explain to a disquieted anchor, “the underlying story here is that the people acquiring physical gold continue to do that. And that’s what is important,” noting large investors like hedge fund manager Kyle Bass are taking delivery of the gold they’re buying. Knippa’s parting advice, buy physical gold; avoid paper.

One of the problems…

That won’t end well…

BUT, WILL THIS END WELL?

IMF warns on threat of income inequality

Lagarde raises stability concerns

(…) “Business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum should remember that in far too many countries the benefits of growth are being enjoyed by far too few people. This is not a recipe for stability and sustainability,” she told the Financial Times. (…)

The message is hitting home. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, is coming to Switzerland with the message that Japanese companies must raise wages, while the government of David Cameron, his UK counterpart who is also attending the forum, called for a large inflation-busting rise in the British minimum wage last week.

In U.S., 67% Dissatisfied With Income, Wealth Distribution

Two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed in the U.S. This includes three-fourths of Democrats and 54% of Republicans.

Satisfaction With Income and Wealth Distribution in the U.S., January 2014

The same poll updated a long-time Gallup trend, finding that 54% of Americans are satisfied, and 45% dissatisfied, with the opportunity for an American “to get ahead by working hard.” This measure has remained roughly constant over the past three years, but Americans are much less optimistic about economic opportunity now than before the recession and financial crisis of 2008 unfolded. Prior to that, at least two in three Americans were satisfied, including a high of 77% in 2002.

Satisfaction With Americans' Opportunities to Get Ahead by Working Hard, 2001-2014 Trend

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (13 JANUARY 2014)

DRIVING BLIND (Cont’d)

 

U.S. Hiring Slowdown Blurs Growth View

American employers added a disappointing 74,000 jobs in December, a tally at odds with recent signs that the economy is gaining traction and moving beyond the supports put in place after the recession.

The downbeat readings were partly attributed to distortions caused by bad weather, and many economists warned that the report may prove to be a fluke. Employers, too, are reporting a mixed take on the economy and their labor needs.

Government payrolls declined by 13,000 in December, and health care—usually a steady source of job growth—declined by 1,000. Construction jobs, which are often weather-dependent, declined by 16,000. Manufacturing payrolls expanded just 9,000.

Meanwhile, last month’s most significant job gains were in sectors that traditionally aren’t high-paying, such as retail, which added 55,000 positions. The temporary-help sector increased by 40,000.

One piece of good news in Friday’s report was a substantially revised increase in November’s tally, to 241,000 new jobs from 203,000.

Where Jobs Were Added

Weather or not? JP Morgan is rather cold about it (charts from WSJ):

The big question is how much of the disappointment was weather distortion. The 16,000 decline in construction payrolls is an obvious candidate as a casualty of cold weather in the survey week. Another clue comes from the 273,000 who reported themselves as employed but not at work due to bad weather, about 100,000 more than an average December. Caution should be taken in simply adding this 100,000 to the nonfarm payroll number, as the nonfarm number counts people as employed so long as they were paid, whether or not they were at work.

Our educated guess is weather may have taken 50,000 off payrolls. It’s hard to see how the weather — or anything else — was to blame for the 25,000 decrease in employment of accountants. Another outlier was health care employment, down 6,000 and the first monthly decline in over a decade, undoubtedly a data point that will enter the civic discussion on health care reform.

Weak personal income:

The weak payroll number was accompanied by a shorter work week and little change in hourly pay. The workweek fell by six minutes to 34.4 hours in December. Hourly pay for all employees increased only 2 cents, or 0.1%, to $24.17, less than the 0.2% gain forecasted.

The combination of weak net new jobs, fewer hours and very small pay raises suggests wages and salaries hardly grew last month. Since “wages and salaries” is the largest component of personal income, the household sector probably didn’t see much income growth in December. And the gain was even less when inflation is taken into account.

BloombergBriefs explains further:

A negative in the report was the underlying trend in average hourly wages, which slowed to a 0.1 percent month-over-month gain and 1.8 percent on a year-ago basis. Using data on hours worked and earnings, one can craft a labor income proxy that is up 1.8 percent, well below its
20-year average of 3 percent.

This is critical with respect to the growth outlook in the current quarter. During the past two quarters the growth picture has improved, due in part due to an increase in inventory accumulation. Given the increase in hourly wages and the labor income proxy, households may need to pull
back on spending in the first three months of the year, which increases the risk of a noticeable negative inventory adjustment in the first quarter.

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Fed Unlikely To Alter Course

Friday’s disappointing jobs report is likely to curb the Fed’s recent enthusiasm about the U.S. economic recovery, but it seems unlikely to convince officials they should alter the policy course Bernanke laid out.

That is even though the economy averaged monthly job gains of 182,000 positions last year. That is roughly the same as the 183,000-a-month pace of 2012 and 2011 average of 175,000. Is employment actually accelerating other than through the unemployment rate lens? The WSJ gets to the point:

(…) The report exacerbated another conundrum for officials.

The jobless rate, at 6.7% at year-end, is falling largely because people are leaving the labor force, reducing the numbers of people counted as unemployed.

Because the decline is being driven by unusual labor-force flows—aging workers retiring, the lure of government disability payments, discouraged workers and other factors—the jobless rate is a perplexing indicator of job-market slack and vigor.

Yet Fed officials have tied their fortunes to this mast, linking interest-rate decisions to unemployment-rate movements. Since late 2012, the Fed has said it wouldn’t raise short-term interest rates until after the jobless rate gets to 6.5% or lower. In December, officials softened the link, saying they would keep rates near zero “well past” the point when the jobless rate falls to 6.5%.

Most officials didn’t expect that threshold to be crossed until the second half of this year. At the current rate, it could be reached by February.

The jobless-rate movement and the Fed’s rhetoric create uncertainty about when rate increases will start. Short-term interest rates have been pinned near zero since December 2008, and officials have tried to assure the public they will stay low to encourage borrowing, investment, spending and growth.

Now, the public has more questions to consider: What does the Fed mean by “well past” the 6.5% threshold? Is that a year? A few months? How does it relate to the wind-down of the bond-buying program? What does it depend upon?

It will be Ms. Yellen’s job to answer the questions. Mr. Bernanke’s last day in office is Jan. 31.

To Tell the Truth 2000-2002.jpgRemember the To Tell The Truth game show?

  • Supply/demand #1: Oversupply

The total number of jobs in the U.S. hit a peak of about 138 million in January 2008, one month after the start of the most recent recession.

In the ensuing downturn, nearly nine million jobs disappeared through early 2010, when the labor market started turning around.

Job gains accelerated in 2011 and have remained fairly steady since, edging up a bit each year.

To date, almost 8 million jobs have returned, leaving a gap just shy of 1 million, which is likely to be closed this year. But that doesn’t account for changes in the population.

If the population keeps growing at that same rate, and the U.S. continues to add jobs near 2013’s pace, then the total number of nonfarm jobs in the U.S. won’t get back to where they should be until 2019. If the pace picks up in 2014 and beyond — say to 250,000 a month — the gap will narrow sooner, in 2017.

That said, the U.S. economy hasn’t added an average 250,000 jobs or more a month since 1999.

  • Supply/demand #2: Shortage

BlackRock: Jobs Report Shows Unemployment Is Structural

BlackRock fixed-income chief Rick Rieder says this morning’s disappointing December jobs report underscores the structural nature of an unemployment situation that’s beyond the control of the Federal Reserve.

“My view on unemployment is structural – you can’t fix it with quantitative easing,” Rieder tells Barron’s today. He said the disappointing number of jobs added can’t all be blamed on bad December weather, and that the labor force participation rate keeps dropping. “It means you have an economy that’s growing faster, and you don’t need people because of technology…. You’ve got all this economic data that’s strong but you don’t need people to do it.” (…)

  • Supply/demand #3: Dunno!

(…) imageAt least some of the decline in participation reflects demographic factors, including the Baby Boom generation moving into retirement age and younger people staying in school longer. But the participation rate for people age 25 to 54, which shouldn’t be affected much by such factors, has fallen to 80.7%, from 83.1% at the end of 2007.

Here’s the optimistic view…

This suggests the pool of people available for employment is substantially higher than the unemployment rate implies. So even if job growth does, as most economists expect, rev back up, it will be a while before companies need to pay up to attract workers. Indeed, average hourly earnings were up just 1.77% in December versus a year earlier, the slowest gain in more than a year. The net result is inflation may be even more subdued in the years to come than the Fed has forecast.

…but that optimism assumes that the drop-outs are simply waiting to drop back in, a view not shared by the Liscio Report (via Barron’s):

(…) But our friends at the Liscio Report, Doug Henwood and Philippa Dunne, find a rather different story, especially among younger groups: The vast majority of folks not in the labor force don’t want a job, even if one is available. That’s what they tell BLS survey takers anyway.

Data going back to 1994 show a steady uptrend in the percentage of young (16 to 24-year-old) and prime-age (25 to 54) Americans not in the labor force, with parallel rises in the number not wanting to work. Among younger ones, the percentage staying in school has remained around 1%, with no discernible trend, notwithstanding anecdotes of kids going to grad school while employment opportunities are scarce. Meanwhile, the overall share out of the labor force because they’re discouraged, have family responsibilities, transportation problems, illness, or a disability has stayed flat at around 1% since the BLS started asking this question in the current form in 1994, they add.

And, notwithstanding anecdotes of retiring boomers, the 55- to 64-year-olds were the only group in which the percentage not in the labor force and not wanting a job fell from 1994 to 2013. Perhaps they’ve got to keep working to support their kids, who aren’t? Annoyed

While there was some improvement in December, the number of those not in the labor force is surprising, to put it mildly — up some 2.9 million in the past year and up 10.4 million, or 13%, since July 2009, when the recovery officially began. The number of these folks who want jobs is down 600,000 in the past year, despite a 332,000 rise last month.

Pointing up “What is interesting,” Philippa observes, is that the number who wanted jobs “was climbing from late 2007 until the summer of 2012, when it hit 6.9 million. Since then, it’s been falling, and is down to 6.1 million, or minus 12%.”

Maybe there are a few millions there:

cat

I don't know smile For Yellen’s sake! Would the true supply/demand equation please stand up.

This is not trivial. We are all part of this extraordinary experiment by central bankers. History suggests that such massive liquefaction tends to fuel inflation but there are no sign of that in OECD countries. In fact, the JCB is fighting deflation while the ECB is pretty worried about it. In the U.S., the Fed has pegged its monetary policy on the unemployment rate but it is realizing that its peg is anchored in moving sands.

Actual employment growth is stable at a sluggish level but the unemployment rate is dropping like a rock. Could labour supply be much lower than generally thought? What is the U.S. real NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment)? Truth is, nobody really knows.

But here’s what we know, first from David Rosenberg:

While it is true that employment is still lower today than it was at the 2007 peak, in some sense this is an unfair comparison. Many of those jobs created in the last cycle were artificial in the sense that they were created by an obvious unsustainable credit bubble. The good news is that non-financial employment has now recouped 95% of the recession job loss and is now literally two months away (390k) from attaining a new all-time high.  (…) it is becoming increasingly apparent that this withdrawal from the jobs market is becoming increasingly structural. (…)

With the pool of available labour already shrinking to five-year lows and every measure of labour demand on the rise, one can reasonably expect wages to rise discernably in coming years, unless, that is, you believe that the laws of supply and demand apply to every market save for the labour market. Let’s get real. By hook or by crook, wages are going up in 2014 (minimum wages for sure and this trend is going global). (…)

With this in mind, the most fascinating statistic in the recent weeks was not ISM or nonfarm payrolls, but the number of times the Beige Book commented on wage pressures. Try 26. That’s not insignificant. (…)

As I sifted through the Beige Book to see which areas of the economy were posting upward wage pressures and growing skilled labour shortages I could see a large swath – Technology, Construction, Transportation Services, Restaurants, Durable Goods Manufacturing. (…)

Now this from yours truly:

Minimum wages are going up significantly in 2014 in states like California (+12.5%), Colorado (+12.5%), Connecticut  (+5.5%), New Jersey (+13.8%), New York (+10.3%). These five states account for 25% of the U.S. population and 28% of its GDP. Obama intends to push for a 39% hike in the federal minimum wage to $10.10. In effect, many wages for low-skill jobs are tied to minimum wages.

The irony is that minimum wages affect non-skilled jobs which are clearly in excess supply currently. As we move up the skill spectrum, evidence of labour shortages is mounting in many industries and wages are rising.

Small businesses create the most jobs in the U.S. The November 2013 NFIB report stated that

Fifty-one percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 44 percent (86 percent of those trying to hire or hiring) reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions. This is the highest level of hiring activity since October, 2007.

Twenty-three percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period (up 2 points), a positive signal for the unemployment rate and the highest reading since January, 2008.

  • Unfilled job openings are almost back to historical peaks if we exclude the two recent bubbles.

image image

  • Employers have been more willing to hire full time employees:

image

  • Quit rates have accelerated lately, indicating a greater willingness to change jobs. People generally decide to change employers because they are offered better salaries.

image 

  • Hence, average hourly wages have been accelerating during the last 12 months.

image

Nothing terribly scary at this point but the present complacency about labour costs and inflation is dangerous. Wages were rising by 1.5% in 2012 and they finished 2013 at +2.2%. Meanwhile, inflation decelerated from 2.0% in 2012 to 1.2% at the end of 2013 as did real final sales from +2.8% at the end of 2012 to +1.8% in Q313. What’s going to happen if the U.S. economy accelerates like more and more economists are now predicting.

Certainly, the economy can accelerate without cost-push inflation if there is as much slack as most believe. But is there really as much slack? Recent evidence suggests that there is less than meets the eyes. If that is true, investors will soon start to worry about rising corporate costs and interest rates.

All this so late in the bull market!

Punch Time to join the Fed and start tapering…your equity exposure.

Meanwhile,

Subprime Auto Lenders to Ease Standards Further: Moody’s

(…) Originations of subprime loans have increased to their highest levels since the financial crisis, with quarterly volume reaching $40.3 billion in the second quarter of last year, up from a recent low of $14.9 billion in late 2009 and the most since the second quarter of 2007, according to Equifax. Subprime auto loan volume was $39.8 billion in the third quarter.

Cheaper financing for lenders increases the difference between their costs and the rates they charge to consumers. In the third quarter, those rates averaged 9.64% and 14.25% for new and used cars, respectively, Moody’s said. High rates give lenders “room” to make weaker loans because of the cushion that the thicker profits provide against losses, the firm said. (…)

Lenders may cut standards more to grab market share as the pace of auto sales slow and the number of subprime borrowers stops expanding, the rating firm said.

Examples of weaker lending include larger amounts and longer loan terms, Moody’s said. The average term for subprime loans rose to 60.9 months from 59.9 months in the third quarter from a year earlier, it said. (…)

Why This European Is Bullish on America The billionaire founder of Ineos says the shale revolution is making the U.S. a world-beater again. It would be ‘unbeatable’ with a lower corporate tax rate.

(…) Seven or eight years ago in his industry, “people were shutting things down” in America “because it wasn’t competitive. Now it’s become immensely competitive.” (…)

On the contrary, Europe has “the most expensive energy in the world.” The Continent has been very slow to move on shale gas, and the U.K. has only lately, and somewhat reluctantly, started to embrace fracking. (…)

“There’s lots of shale gas around” in the U.K. and elsewhere, Mr. Ratcliffe says. But “in Texas there are 280,000 active shale wells at the moment. . . . And I think a million wells in the United States” as a whole. By contrast, “I think we have one, at the most two, in the U.K., and I don’t think there are any in France.” The French made fracking illegal in 2011, and the country’s highest court upheld the ban in October. (…)

Social protections in Europe make it much more expensive to shut down underperforming plants. Many Europeans will say, “Yes, that’s the idea. To protect jobs.” (…)

But Mr. Ratcliffe argues that European-style social protections lead to under-investment that ultimately benefits no one. (…)

By contrast, he says, in America “you’d just shut it down.” Which is why, he adds, “in America all our assets are good assets, they all make money.” That may sound like a European social democrat’s nightmare, but Mr. Ratcliffe takes a longer view, explaining that if the lost money had instead been invested in new capacity, the company would be healthier, employees’ jobs more secure and better-paying because the plant would be profitable. This logic is unlikely to persuade Europe’s trade unions, but Mr. Ratcliffe says that the difficulty and expense of restructuring is one of the things holding back Europe—and its workers.

(…)  Mr. Ratcliffe’s “only gripe” about the U.S.—”you have to have a gripe,” he says—is that America “has the highest corporate tax rates in the world: “They’re too high in my view, nearly 40%. And that’s a pity because in most other parts of the world corporate tax rates are about 25%.”

(…) If you weren’t paying all that tax, what you’d do is, you’d invest more. And we’d probably spend the money better than the government would.”

His suggestion for Washington on corporate taxes: “I think they should bring that down to about 30% or so. Then they’d be unbeatable. For investment, they’d be unbeatable, the United States.”

Light bulb Total joins UK’s pursuit of shale boom 
Oil group will be first major to explore British deposits

(…) The deal, to be announced on Monday, will be seen as a big vote of confidence in the UK’s fledgling shale industry. The coalition has made the exploitation of Britain’s unconventional gas reserves a top priority, offering tax breaks to shale developers and promising big benefits to communities that host shale drillers. (…)

George Osborne, chancellor, has argued that shale has “huge potential” to broaden Britain’s energy mix, create thousands of jobs and keep energy bills low. (…)

A boom in North American production from shale means natural gas in the US is now three to four times cheaper than in Europe. Cheap gas has driven down household energy costs for US consumers and sparked a manufacturing renaissance.

The coalition says Britain could potentially enjoy a similar bounty. It points to recent estimates that there could be as much as 1,300tn cubic feet of shale gas lying under just 11 English counties in the north and Midlands. Even if just one-10th of that is ultimately extracted, it would be the equivalent of 51 years’ gas supply for the UK. (…)

Italy’s November Industrial Output Rises

Italian industrial production rose for the third consecutive month in November, increasing by 0.3% compared with October in seasonally-adjusted terms, national statistics institute Istat said Monday.

Italy’s industrial production rose 0.7% in October compared with September, suggesting industry is on course to lift the country’s gross domestic product into expansionary territory in the fourth quarter.

Output rose 1.4% compared with November 2012 in workday-adjusted terms, the first annualized rise in two years, Istat said.

EARNINGS WATCH

The Q4 earnings season gets serious this week with bank results starting on Tuesday. So far, 24 S&P 500 companies have reported Q4 earnings. The beat rate is 54% and the miss rate 37% (S&P).

Still early but not a great start. Early in Q3, the beat rate was closer to 60%. Thomson Reuters’ data shows that preseason beat rate is typically 67%.

Historically, when a higher-than-average percentage of companies beat their estimates in the preseason, more companies than average beat their estimates throughout the full earnings season 70% of the time, and vice versa.

Q4 estimates continue to trickle down. They are now seen by S&P at $28.14 ($107.19 for all of 2103), rising to $28.48 in Q1 which would bring the trailing 12m total to $109.90. Full year 2014 is now estimated at $121.45, +13.3%. This would beat the 2013 advance of 10.7%. Margins just keep on rising!

SENTIMENT WATCH

Goldman Downgrades US Equities To “Underweight”, Sees Risk Of 10% Drawdown (via ZeroHedge)

S&P 500 valuation is lofty by almost any measure, both for the aggregate market (15.9x) as well as the median stock (16.8x). We believe S&P 500 trades close to fair value and the forward path will depend on profit growth rather than P/E expansion. However, many clients argue that the P/E multiple will continue to rise in 2014 with 17x or 18x often cited, with some investors arguing for 20x. We explore valuation using various approaches. We conclude that further P/E expansion will be difficult to achieve. Of course, it is possible. It is just not probable based on history.

The current valuation of the S&P 500 is lofty by almost any measure, both for the aggregate market as well as the median stock: (1) The P/E ratio; (2) the current P/E expansion cycle; (3) EV/Sales; (4) EV/EBITDA; (5) Free Cash Flow yield; (6) Price/Book as well as the ROE and P/B relationship; and compared with the levels of (6) inflation; (7) nominal 10-year Treasury yields; and (8) real interest rates. Furthermore, the cyclically-adjusted P/E ratio suggests the S&P 500 is currently 30% overvalued in terms of (9) Operating EPS and (10) about 45% overvalued using As Reported earnings.

We downgrade the US equity market to underweight relative to other equity markets over 3 months following strong performance. Our broader asset allocation is unchanged and so are almost all our forecasts. Since our last GOAL report, we have rolled our oil forecast forward in time to lower levels along our longstanding profile of declining prices. We have also lowered the near-term forecast for equities in Asia ex-Japan slightly. Near-term risks have declined as the US fiscal and monetary outlook has become clearer.

Our allocation is still unchanged. We remain overweight equities over both 3 and 12 months and balance this with an underweight in cash over 3 months and an underweight in commodities and government bonds over 12 months. The longer-term outlook for equities remains strong in our view. We expect good performance over the next few years as economic growth improves, driving strong earnings growth and a decline in risk premia. We expect earnings growth to take over from multiple expansion as a driver of returns, and the decline in risk premia to largely be offset by a rise in underlying government bond yields.

Over 3 months our conviction in equities is now much lower as the run-up in prices leaves less room for unexpected events.Still, we remain overweight, as near-term risks have also declined and as we are in the middle of the period in which we expect growth in the US and Europe to shift higher.

Regionally, we downgrade the US to underweight over 3 months bringing it in line with our 12-month underweight. After last year’s strong performance the US market’s high valuations and margins leaves it with less room for performance than other markets, in our view. Our US strategists have also noted the risk of a 10% drawdown in 2014 following a large and low volatility rally in 2013 that may create a more attractive entry point later this year.

And this:

Ghost “Equity sentiment is, unsurprisingly, very bullish and Barron’s annual mid-December poll of buy- and sell-side strategists revealed near unanimity in terms of economically bullish sector views,” notes BCA Research in a note titled, “U.S. Equity Froth Watch.” Similarly, Citi strategists’ sentiment measure finds that “euphoria” has topped the 2008 highs and is back to 2001 levels. At the same time, the negativity toward bonds is nearly universal. (Barron’s)

But: Stock Bargains Not Hard to Find, JPMorgan Says

(…) Lee notes that by simply dividing the S&P 500 into equal groups leaves 125 stocks that have an average P/E of 11.8 times forward earnings, with a range of 8x to 13x. Not only are these stocks cheaper than the market, they’re not lacking for growth either, Lee says. The average member of this group should grow by about 11%, far lower than the most expensive stocks’ 20% growth rate, but at less than half the valuation.

“In other words,” Lee writes, “there remains a substantial portion of the market offering double-digit growth for a mere 11.8x P/E.”

Lee screened for stocks with low P/Es, positive net income growth, that had Overweight ratings by JPMorgan analysts and upside to analyst target prices. He found 19 (…)

GOOD QUOTES

Barron’s Randall Forsyth:

But truth to tell, the governor’s staff might not actually have been to blame. They may only have been taking active steps to stem the exodus from the Garden State’s sky-high taxes and housing costs. According to surveys by both United Van Lines and Allied Van Lines, New Jersey was at or near the top of states of outbound movers in 2013. And U.S. census data for 2011 showed 216,000 leaving the Garden State and 146,000 moving in, with New York the No. 1 destination. So, blocking access to the GW Bridge may simply have been a misguided effort to stanch the outflow.

Or the whole episode could have been the result of a simple misunderstanding on the part of the staff. According to one market wag, the governor’s actual order was to “close the fridge.”

Open-mouthed smile LAST, BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST, our third granddaughter, Pascale, will see the world today!

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (9 JANUARY 2014)

Yellen Eyes Turnover as U.S. Workers Leave Jobs

More Americans are voluntarily quitting their jobs as they become increasingly confident about business conditions — a trend that Janet Yellen, the next Federal Reserve chairman, is monitoring.

Almost 2.4 million U.S. workers resigned in October, a 15 percent increase from a year earlier, based on seasonally adjusted data from the Department of Labor. These employees represent 56 percent of total separations, the 13th consecutive month above 50 percent and highest since April 2008. November figures are scheduled to be released Jan. 17. (…)

The quits ratio is highly correlated with how Americans feel about the job market and is especially helpful because it separates behavior from intentions, showing “what people are doing, not what they say they’ll do,” Colas said. “Voluntarily leaving one’s position requires a fundamental level of confidence in the economy and in one’s own personal financial story.” The ratio in November 2006, about a year before the recession began, was 58 percent.

The share of Americans who say business conditions are “good” minus the share who say they are “bad” rose in December to the highest in almost six years: minus 3 percentage points, up from minus 4.2 points the prior month, based on data from the Conference Board, a New York research group.

Job seekers also are more optimistic about the hiring environment. Sixty-three percent of callers to a job-search-advice help line Dec. 26-27 said they believed they could find new employment in less than six months, up from 55 percent a year ago, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a human-resources consulting company. (…)

U.S. December planned layoffs plunge to lowest since 2000: Challenger

The number of planned layoffs at U.S. firms plunged by 32 percent in December to the lowest monthly total in more than 13 years, a report on Thursday showed.

Employers announced 30,623 layoffs last month, down from 45,314 in November, according to the report from consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

The last time employers announced fewer job cuts was June of 2000, when 17,241 planned layoffs were recorded.

The figures come a day ahead of the closely-watched U.S. non-farm payrolls report, which is forecast to show the economy added 196,000 jobs in December. (…)

The December figure fell 6 percent from a year earlier, when planned layoffs totaled 32,556, and marked the third straight month that announced workforce reductions dropped year over year. (…)

U.S. Consumer Credit Growth Eases

The Federal Reserve Board reported that consumer credit outstanding increased by $12.3 billion (6.1% y/y) during November following an unrevised $18.2 billion October gain. The latest monthly gain was the weakest since April.

Usage of non-revolving credit increased $11.9 billion (8.2% y/y) in November. Revolving credit outstanding gained $4.3 billion (1.0% y/y) in November.

Auto Markit Eurozone Sector PMI: Automobiles & auto parts posts its best quarterly performance since Q1 2011

Despite recent growth being high in the context of historical survey data, automobiles & auto parts still maintains some forward momentum heading into the New Year. New orders increased sharply and to the greatest degree in three years in December, leading to a substantial build-up of outstanding business. Job creation, which has until now been muted relative to the trends in output and new business, therefore looks set to pick up.

image

 

German Industrial Output Rises First Time in Three Months

Output, adjusted for seasonal swings, increased 1.9 percent from October, when it fell 1.2 percent, the Economy Ministry in Berlin said today. Economists predicted a gain of 1.5 percent, according to the median of 32 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey. Production climbed 3.5 percent from a year earlier when adjusted for working days.

German Orders Surge Back But Domestic Orders Lag

German orders rose by 2.1% in November, rebounding from a 2.1% drop in October. The headline trend shows solid growth with three-month growth at a 12.7% annual rate, up from a 6.2% annual rate over six-months and a 6.8% annual rate over 12-months. The strength is led by foreign demand.

Foreign orders rose by 2.2% in November from a 2.2% drop in October but also logged a 6.3% increase in September. As a result, foreign orders are rising at a 27.1% annual rate over three-months, up from a 12.8% annual rate over six-months, and a 9% annual rate over 12-months.

In contrast, domestic orders rose by 1.9% in November, unwinding a 1.9% drop in October. However, domestic orders also fell by 0.9% in September. As a result, the trend for domestic orders is poor. It is not just weaker than foreign orders – it is poor. Domestic orders are falling at a 3.8% annual rate over three-months following a 1.9% annual rate drop over six-months and a 3.9% annual rate gain over 12-months. The domestic sector is in a clear deceleration and contraction.

China’s 2013 Vehicle Sales Rose 14%

The CAAM said sales of both passenger and commercial vehicles totaled a record 21.98 million units, up 14% from a year earlier, the fastest pace since 2010. Passenger vehicles led the way, with sales up 16% to 17.93 million units.

Sales gain in December quickened due in part to local consumers’ habit of spending ahead of the Lunar New Year, which falls in the end of January this year. Auto makers shipped 2.13 million vehicles to dealers, up 18% from a year earlier. Among the total, sales of passenger vehicles were 1.78 million units, up 22% on year.

Even as China’s economy displayed clear signs of a slowdown, consumers bought new vehicles, motivated by some cities’ pending restrictions on car purchases to alleviate traffic congestion and air pollution. Within hours after the northern city of Tianjin announced a cutback on new license plates last month, thousands of residents rushed to buy cars. Some used gold necklaces as collateral, said local media.

CAAM said it expects gains to continue this year, though at a slower pace. The association projected a rise of 8%-10% for the overall auto market, to about 24 million units, and as much as an 11% gain for passenger vehicles, to nearly 20 million units.

“China’s auto market is still at the period of rapid expansion and growth has gradually shifted to small-sized cities where demand is significant,” said Shi Jianhua, deputy secretary-general at the CAAM.

China Consumer Inflation Eases

The consumer-price index rose 2.5% in December from a year earlier, slower than the 3.0% year-over-year rise in November, the National Bureau of Statistics said Thursday.

In the December price data, food remained the key contributor to higher prices, rising 4.1% year on year in December. But that was down from the 5.9% rise the previous month. Nonfood prices were up 1.7% in December, compared with November’s 1.6% gain.

But in a continued sign of weak domestic demand, prices at the factory level fell once again, declining for the 22nd consecutive month. They were down 1.4% in December, falling at the same rate as in November.

Stripped of food prices, inflation edged up to 1.7% YoY from 1.6% in November.

OECD Inflation Rate Rises

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said Thursday the annual rate of inflation in its 34 developed-country members rose to 1.5% from 1.3% in October, while in the Group of 20 leading industrial and developing nations it increased to 2.9% from 2.8%.

The November pickup followed three months of falling inflation rates, but there are indications that it will prove temporary. Figures already released for December showed a renewed drop in inflation in two of the world’s largest economies, with the euro zone recording a decline to 0.8% from 0.9%, and China recording a fall to 2.5% from 3.0%.

Key Passages in Fed Minutes: Consensus on QE, Focus on Bubbles

Federal Reserve officials were largely in agreement on the decision to begin winding down an $85 billion-per-month bond-buying program. As they looked to 2014, they began to focus more on the risk of bubbles and financial excess.

    • Some … expressed concern about the potential for an unintended tightening of financial conditions if a reduction in the pace of asset purchases was misinterpreted as signaling that the Committee was likely to withdraw policy accommodation more quickly than had been anticipated.
    • Several [Fed officials] commented on the rise in forward price-to-earnings ratios for some small cap stocks, the increased level of equity repurchases, or the rise in margin credit.

Pointing up Something the Fed might be facing sooner than later:

Bank dilemma Time for Carney to consider raising rates

When your predictions are confounded, do you carry on regardless? Or do you stop, think and consider changing course? Such is the remarkable recovery in the UK economy since the first quarter of last year that the Bank of England is now facing this acute dilemma.

Just five months ago, the bank’s new governor pledged that the BoE would not consider tightening monetary policy until unemployment fell to 7 per cent so long as inflationary pressures remained in check. (…)

The question is what the BoE should now do. Worst would be to show guidance was entirely a sham by redefining the unemployment threshold, reducing it to 6.5 per cent. Carrying on regardless of the data is no way to run monetary policy. Instead, the BoE should be true to its word and undertake a thorough consideration of a rate rise alongside its quarterly forecasts in its February inflation report. (…)

EARNINGS WATCH

I have been posting about swinging pension charges in recent months. Most companies determine their full year charge at year-end which impacts their Q4 results.

Pendulum Swings for Pension Charges

Rising interest rates and a banner year for stocks could lift reported earnings at some large companies that have made an arcane but significant change to the way their pension plans are valued.

Rising rates and a banner year for stocks could lift earnings at some large companies that have made an arcane but significant change to the way their pension plans are valued.

Companies including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. could show stronger results than some expect when they report fourth-quarter earnings in coming weeks. They and about 30 other companies in the past few years switched to “mark-to-market” pension accounting to make it easier for investors to gauge plan performance.

With the switch, pension gains and losses flow into earnings sooner than under the old rules, which are still in effect and allow companies to smooth out the impact over several years. Companies that switch to valuing assets at up-to-date market prices may incur more volatility in their earnings, but it offers a more current picture of a pension plan’s health and its contribution to the bottom line.

In 2011 and 2012, that change hurt the companies’ earnings, largely because interest rates were falling at the time. But for 2013, it may be a big help to them, accounting experts said, a factor of the year’s surge in interest rates and strong stock-market performance.

“It’s going to account for a huge rise in operating earnings” at the affected companies, said Dan Mahoney, director of research at accounting-research firm CFRA.

Wall Street analysts tend not to include pension results in their earnings estimates, focusing instead on a company’s underlying businesses. That makes it hard for investors to know what the impact of the change will be. Some companies may not see a big impact at all, because of variations from company to company in how they’ve applied mark-to-market changes. (…)

Some mark-to-market companies with fiscal years ended in September have reported pension gains. Chemical maker Ashland Inc. had a $498 million pretax mark-to-market pension gain in its September-end fourth quarter, versus a $493 million pension loss in its fiscal 2012 fourth quarter. That made up about 40% of the Covington, Ky., company’s $1.24 billion in operating income for fiscal 2013. (…)

Not all mark-to-market companies will see gains. Some such companies record adjustments only if their pension gains or losses exceed a minimum “corridor.” As a result, Honeywell International Inc. says it doesn’t foresee a significant mark-to-market adjustment for 2013, and United Parcel Service Inc. has made similar comments in the past.

Moody’s adds: US Corporate Pension Funded Ratios Post Massive Increase in 2013

At year-end 2013, we estimate pension funding levels for our 50 largest rated US corporate issuers increased by 19 percentage points to 94% of pension obligations, compared with a year earlier. In dollar terms, this equates to $250 billion of decreased underfundings for these same issuers. We expect this reduction to be replicated across our entire rated universe. These improved funding levels will result in lower calls on cash, a credit positive.

Big Six U.S. Banks’ 2013 Profit Thwarted by Legal Costs

Combined profit at the six largest U.S. banks jumped last year to the highest level since 2006, even as the firms allocated more than $18 billion to deal with claims they broke laws or cheated investors.

A stock-market rally, cost cuts and a decline in bad loans boosted the group’s net income 21 percent to $74.1 billion, according to analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That’s second only to 2006, when the firms reaped $84.6 billion at the peak of the U.S. housing bubble. The record would have been topped were it not for litigation and other legal expenses. (…)

The six banks’ combined litigation and legal expenses in the nine months rose 76 percent from a year earlier to $18.7 billion, higher than any annual amount since at least 2008. The costs increased at all the firms except Wells Fargo, where they fell 1.2 percent to $413 million, and Morgan Stanley (MS), which reported a 14 percent decline to $211 million. (…)

Legal costs that averaged $500 million a quarter could be $1 billion to $2 billion for a few years, Dimon told analysts in an Oct. 11 conference call. The firm is spending also $2 billion to improve compliance by the end of 2014, he said last month. (…)

VALUATION EXPANSION?

This is one of the main narratives at present, now that earnings multiples have expanded so much. The other popular narrative is the acceleration of the U.S. economy which would result in accelerating earnings, etc., etc… Here’s Liz Ann Sonders, Senior Vice President, Chief Investment Strategist, Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

It’s also possible valuations could continue to expand even if earnings growth doesn’t meet expectations. There is a direct link between valuation and the yield curve. A steep curve (long rates much higher than short rates); which we have at present and are likely to maintain; suggests better growth and easy monetary policy. This environment typically co-exists with rising valuation.

Low inflation is also supportive of higher multiples. Why? Earnings are simply more valuable when inflation is low; just like our earnings as workers are worth more when inflation is taking less of a bite out of them.

Lastly, as noted in BCA’s 2014 outlook report: In a liquidity trap, where interest rates reach the zero boundary, the linkage between monetary policy and the real economy is asset markets: zero short rates act to subsidize corporate profits, drive up asset prices and encourage risk-taking. Over time, higher asset values begin to stimulate stronger consumption and investment demand—the so-called “wealth effect.” We could be at the very early stages of a broad transition from strengthening asset values to better spending power by businesses and consumers. Global capital spending has begun to show signs of a rebound; while US consumers are beginning to borrow and spend again.

A few remarks on the above arguments:

imageThe yield curve can steepen if short-term rates decline or if long-term rates rise. The impact on equities can be very different. My sense is that the curve, which by the way is presently very steep by historical norms (chart from RBC Capital), could steepen some more for a short while but only through rising long-term yields. This is not conducive to much positive valuation expansion, especially if accompanied by rising inflation expectations which, normally, follow economic acceleration.

The next chart plots 10Y Treasury yields against the S&P 500 Index earnings yield (1/P/E). The relationship between the two is pretty obvious unless you only look at the last Fed-manipulated 5 years. Rising rates are not positive for P/E ratios.

image

Low inflation is indeed supportive of higher multiples as the Rule of 20 clearly shows. What is important for market dynamics is not the actual static level of inflation but the trend. Nirvana is when the economy (i.e. profits) accelerate while inflation remains stable or even declines. Can we reasonable expect nirvana in 2014?

The wealth effect was in fact Bernanke’s gambit all along. And it worked. But only for the top 20% of the U.S. population. What is needed now is employment growth. Can we get that without triggering higher inflation?

Miss Sonders reminds us that

This bull market is now the sixth longest in S&P 500 history (of 26 total bull markets). As of year end 2013, it’s run for 1,758 days, with the longest ending in 2000 at 4,494 days. It is the fourth strongest in history; up over 173% cumulatively as of year-end 2013.

Emerging Market Currencies Suffer as Dollar Rises

The South African rand sank to a fresh five-year low Thursday, as a rise in the dollar, fueled by strong U.S. jobs data, kept emerging market currencies under pressure.

The Turkish lira also suffered, closing in on its all-time low against the dollar reached earlier in the week. The rand and the lira are widely considered to be among the most vulnerable emerging market currencies, as both South Africa and Turkey are reliant on foreign investment flows to fund their wide current account deficits.

 
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