NEW$ & VIEW$ (4 FEBRUARY 2014)

THE BLAME GAME IS ON

The media and analysts are tripping over themselves to explain the recent setback:

  • Growth Fears Hit Stocks European and Asian stocks fell Tuesday, following a sharp selloff the previous day in the U.S., as jitters about global growth continued to weigh on investors.

European and Asian stocks fell Tuesday, following a sharp selloff the previous day in the U.S., as jitters about global growth continued to weigh on investors.

Signs of a sharp slowdown in U.S. manufacturing on Monday reignited concerns about the health of the world’s largest economy, a further worry for investors who have already been spooked by the turmoil in emerging markets over the past two weeks.

Sentiment worsened markedly in Asia, where the Nikkei Stock Average fell 4.2%, leaving it 14% lower in the year to date—currently the worst performer among major global markets. A strengthening of the yen against the dollar after the poor factory data weighed heavily on Japan’s exporters. (…)

Goldman’s Global Leading Indicator’s January reading and the latest revisions to previous months paint a significantly softer picture of global growth placing the global industrial cycle clearly in the ‘Slowdown’ phase. They add, rather ominously, While the initial shift into ‘Slowdown’ (which we first noted in October) had a fairly idiosyncratic flavor, the recent growth deceleration now looks more serious than in previous months. Of course, as we noted yesterday, Jan Hatzius is rapidly bringing his optimistic forecasts back to this slowdown reality.

Swirlogram solidly in “slowdown” phase…

Yesterday’s U.S. ISM shook edgy investors even though Friday’s Markit U.S. PMI was not bad at all. Ed Yardini agrees with me and shows some evidence:

Perplexing PMI

Yesterday’s report was unexpectedly weak, with the overall index plunging from 56.5 during December to 51.3 last month, led by even bigger dives in the production index (from 61.7 to 54.8) and the new orders index (from 64.4 to 51.2).

The chairman of the Institute for Supply Management, which conducts the survey, blamed the weather for some of the weakness in the results. The eastern half of the US is experiencing one of its 10 coldest winters on record, with thousands of local records for cold already tied or broken. So the M-PMI hit an ice patch rather than a soft patch.

I’m not sure that makes sense. Why would orders be down so much just because the weather was bad? More perplexing is that the average of six regional business surveys showed solid gains last month, although they too were mostly hit by the bad weather. Furthermore, Markit reported yesterday that its final M-PMI for the US dipped from 55.0 during December to 53.7 last month. No big deal.

ISI’s Ed Hyman keeps the faith:

We still remain constructive and think US GDP is on 3% trajectory, AND despite EM pass through fears, globally the synchronized expansion remains in place.

The soft patch theme remains quite possible, however. Housing is weaker, retail is slowing and car sales may have seen their best time this cycle.

U.S. Vehicle Sales Continue to Decline as Weather Turns Frigid

Temperatures below zero in some parts of the U.S., and just unseasonably cold elsewhere in the country, took their toll on light vehicle sales last month. Unit motor vehicle sales slipped 1.0% to 15.24 million (SAAR, +0.1% y/y) during January, according to the Autodata Corporation. Sales have fallen 7.1% from the recovery high of 16.41 million in November.

The decline in overall sales was a function of fewer auto purchases, off 4.6% to a 7.30 million annual rate (-6.0% y/y). Sales of imported autos declined 12.3% to 2.17 million (-2.8% y/y). Sales of domestics fell 2.4% to 5.12 million (-7.4% y/y).image

CalculatedRisk quotes WardsAuto’s slighly lower estimate:

Based on an estimate from WardsAuto, light vehicle sales were at a 15.14 million SAAR in January. That is down slightly from January 2013, and down 2.5% from the sales rate last month.

I have been warning that auto sales could well have reached a cyclical peak as we should not expect a repeat of the excesses of the early 2000s.

large imageU.S. Construction Spending Growth Moderates

The value of construction put-in-place ticked 0.1% higher in December (5.3% y/y) following a revised 0.8% November increase, initially reported as 1.0%. For all of last year, growth in construction activity moderated to 5.5% from 8.1% in 2012.

Private sector construction activity jumped 1.0% (8.0% y/y) in December following 1.7% growth in November. Residential building surged another 2.6% (18.3% y/y) as single-family home building activity jumped 3.4% (21.6% y/y). Spending on improvements gained 2.0% (12.0% y/y) while multi-family building rose 0.5%, up by roughly one-quarter y/y. Nonresidential building activity declined 0.7% (-1.7% y/y) following its 2.4% November jump.

Offsetting the private sector gains was a 2.3% decline (-0.7% y/y) in the value of public sector building activity. The shortfall reflected outsized declines in many components but spending on highways & streets surged 1.8% (11.3% y/y). Spending here accounts for 30% of total public sector construction activity.

The U.S. government’s spending on construction tumbled 14.2% to $23.49 billion in 2013, the Commerce Department said Monday. That was the sharpest decline in records dating back to 1993, enough to return spending to 2007 levels.

Washington’s clash over government spending took a bite out of federal expenditures last year. A series of cuts known as the sequester slashed spending by tens of billions of dollars early in the year, until a deal to restore some of the reductions this year.

Spending by state and local governments, which account for a much larger portion of total construction expenditures, fell by 1.6% to $247.69 billion last year. That was more than the 1.2% decline for the category in 2012, but less than the 6.6% drop in 2011.

 
Falling Prices Hurt Firms American companies are struggling with falling prices for some key products amid intense competition and pressure from cost-conscious customers.

Executives from companies as varied as General Electric Co. GE -3.10% , Kimberly-Clark Corp. KMB -3.55% and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.RCL -3.23% said some prices slipped in the last three months of the year—sometimes significantly.

Falling prices for adhesives weighed on Eastman Chemical Co. EMN -2.37% , cheaper packaged coffee dragged on Starbucks Corp. SBUX -3.02%, and “value and discounts” hit McDonald’s Corp. in the fourth quarter in what the fast food chain called a “street fight” for market share. XeroxCorp. XRX -4.06% is eyeing acquisitions that can “help us be more competitive on price pressure. (…)

Not every company reported price drops. 3M Co. said prices increased 1.4% in the fourth quarter, attributing the gain to research gains and adjustments made in emerging markets designed to offset currency devaluation. Harley-Davidson Inc. HOG -0.75% said price increases helped boost motorcycle revenues by 1.4% in the quarter even as shipments fell 1%. Altria Group Inc. MO -3.15% said a 13.2% rise in income for cigarettes and cigars in 2013 came “primarily through higher pricing.”

But the trend is evident in government data. While economic growth in the fourth quarter came in strong, helped by expanding consumer spending, firms aren’t raising prices. For the last two years, the consumer-price index has increased less than 2%, the first time in 15 years it has been that low in consecutive years. And in the year since December 2012, the consumer-price index for goods, excluding food and energy, declined 0.1%. (…)

That said: Chief Executives in U.S. More Confident on Economy, Survey Shows

The Young Presidents’ Organization sentiment index climbed to 63.5 from 60.5 in the previous three months. Readings greater than 50 show the outlook was more positive than negative. (…)

Fifty-two percent of executives surveyed said the economy has improved from six months ago, up from 38 percent who said so in October. Nine percent said the economy will worsen, down from 20 percent last quarter. (…)

Fifty-eight percent of chief executives in the YPO survey expect conditions to improve in the next six months, up from 42 percent in the previous period.

The Dallas-based group’s outlooks for demand, hiring and capital investment also advanced. The gauge of sales expectations for the coming year rose by 2.9 points to 68.7. The employment index climbed to 59.9 from 58.9.

Globally, business confidence grew in most regions. The YPO’s Global Confidence Index also rose to the highest level since April 2012.

The nonprofit service organization’s findings for the U.S. are based on responses from 2,088 global chief executives, including 940 in the U.S., to an electronic survey conducted during the first two weeks of January.

G-20 Inflation Rate Falls The rise in consumer prices slowed across the world’s largest economies in December, fueling concerns that too little inflation, rather than too much, could threaten the global economy’s fragile recovery.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Tuesday said the annual rate of inflation in its 34 developed-country members rose to 1.6% from 1.5% in November, while in the Group of 20 leading industrial and developing nations it fell to 2.9% from 3.0%.(…)

The European Union’s statistics agency Tuesday said producer prices rose 0.2% from November, but were 0.8% lower than in December 2012. Prices had fallen in both October and November, by 0.5% and 0.1%, respectively. Excluding energy, producer prices were flat on the month and fell 0.3% when compared with December 2012. (…)

In addition to the euro zone, inflation rates fell sharply in two of the largest developing economies during December, to 2.5% from 3.0% in China, and to 9.1% from 11.5% in India.

However, inflation rates rose in the U.S., Japan and Brazil.

HOW ABOUT THE BAROMETER BAROMETER?

Winter Weather Worries

Winter weather can negatively impact economic activity and the labor markets as freezing temperatures and mounds of snow keep consumers at home and workers off the job.  But what sort of impact does the weather have on the markets?  Generally speaking, less economic activity and a softer labor market should hurt stocks.  But using data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Temperature Index (NTI), we found that cold weather during the winter months (December, January and February) does not have a meaningful implication for stock market returns.  (…) As shown, that correlation isn’t very robust. 

In months that are abnormally cold, there is a small correlation between the NTI and the S&P 500, but it peaks in December…and December still has positive average returns in chilly months!  The second chart shows that cold weather is also a bad predictor of the next month’s returns.  The correlation between the NTI in a given winter month with cold weather and the month following is actually negative, but still very low.

Devil  I.BERNOBUL, a good friend and an all-star croquignole player, sees verbal inflation and self-serving complacency in this comment from John Mauldin in his Jan. 26 comment:

My friend, all-star analyst, and Business Insider Editor-In-Chief Henry Blodget makes a compelling point: Anyone who thinks we need a ‘catalyst’ for a market crash should brush up on their history… There was no ‘catalyst’ in 1929. Or 1966. Or 1987. Or 2000. Or 2008…”

Blodget’s point is as compelling as his investment recommendations as head of the global Internet research team at Merrill Lynch during the dot-com bubble. The reality is that when equity valuations get on the high side, nervous investors tend to hold on as long as they can, waiting for reasons to sell to show up. These reasons are often not what one would expect at the time but they are enough to shake investors confidence. Once markets begin to waver and the media amplify the fears, the negative momentum feeds on itself. This time, it was the EM problems that started the turn.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (31 JANUARY 2014)

U.S. Banks Loosen Loan Standards Big banks are beginning to loosen their tight grip on lending, creating a new opening for consumer and business borrowing that could underpin a brightening economic outlook.

(…) In both the U.S. and Europe, new reports released Thursday show banks are slowly starting to increase their appetite for risk. The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said banks relaxed the criteria for businesses and consumers to obtain credit during the 18 months leading up to June 30, 2013, while the European Central Bank said fewer banks in the euro zone were reporting tightened lending standards to nonfinancial businesses in the fourth quarter of 2013.

(…)  The comptroller’s report said it would still classify most banks’ standards as “good or satisfactory” but did strike a cautionary tone. (…)

An upturn in bank lending, if taken too far, could also lead to inflation. The Fed has flooded banks with trillions of dollars in cash in its efforts to boost the economy. In theory, the printing of that money would cause consumer price inflation to take off, but it hasn’t, largely because banks haven’t aggressively lent out the money. (…)

John G. Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo & Co., said on a Jan. 14 conference call with analysts that he is “hearing more, when I talk with customers, about their interest in building something, adding something, investing in something.”

Kelly King, chief executive of BB&T Corp., told analysts two days later, “we really believe that we are at a pivotal point in the economy…admittedly that’s substantially intuitive.” (…)

The comptroller’s survey found more banks loosening standards than tightening. The regulator said that in the 18 months leading up to June 30, 2013, its examiners saw more banks offering more attractive loans.

The trend extended to credit-card, auto and large corporate loans but not to residential mortgages and home-equity loans. (…)

The OCC’s findings are consistent with more recent surveys: The Fed’s October survey of senior U.S. loan officers found a growing number loosening standards for commercial and industrial loans, often by narrowing the spread between the interest rate on the loan and the cost of funds to the bank.

The ECB’s quarterly survey, which covered 133 banks, showed that the net percentage of euro-zone banks reporting higher lending standards to nonfinancial businesses was 2% in the fourth quarter, compared with 5% in the third quarter. (…)

 

U.S. Starts to Hit Growth Stride

A potent mix of rising exports, consumer spending and business investment helped the U.S. economy end the year on solid footing.

Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of goods and services churned out by the economy, grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.2% in the fourth quarter, the Commerce Department said. That was less than the third quarter’s 4.1% pace, but overall the final six months of the year delivered the strongest second half since 2003, when the economy was thriving.

Growth Story

A big driver of growth in the fourth quarter was a rise in consumer spending, which grew 3.3%, the fastest pace in three years. Consumer spending accounts for roughly two-thirds of economic activity.

The spike in Q4 consumer spending is very surprising, and suspicious. Let’s se how it gets revised.

Consider these nest 2 items:

(…) For the 14-week period ending Jan. 31, Wal-Mart expects both Wal-Mart U.S. and Sam’s Club same-store sales, without fuel, to be slightly negative, compared with prior guidance. It previously estimated Wal-Mart U.S. guidance for same-store sales to be relatively flat, and Sam’s expected same-store sales to be between flat and 2%.

A number of U.S. retail and restaurant companies have lamented poor winter weather and aggressive discounts, resulting in fewer store visits and lower sales. Many of those companies either lowered their full-year expectations or offered preliminary fourth-quarter targets that missed Wall Street’s expectations.

Wal-Mart warned the sales impact from the reduction in the U.S. government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits that went into effect Nov. 1 was greater than expected. The retailer also said that eight named winter storms resulted in store closures that hurt traffic throughout the quarter.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. warned that it expects fourth-quarter earnings to meet or fall below the low end of its prior forecast, citing government cuts to assistance programs and the harsh winter weather.

Amazon earned $239 million, or 51 cents a share, on sales that were up 20% at $25.59 billion. The 51 cents a share were far below Street consensus of 74 cents, and the $239 million profit on $25 billion in sales illustrates just how thin the company’s margins are.

A year ago, Amazon earned $97 million, or 21 cents a share, on sales of $21.29 billion.

The company also forecast first-quarter sales of $18.2-$19.9 billion; Street consensus was for $19.67 billion. In other words, most of that projection is below Street consensus.

It projected its net in a range of an operating loss of $200 million to an operating profit of $200 million.

Surprised smile AMZN earned $239M in 2013 and projects 2014 between –$200M and +$200M. You can drive a truck in that range. But how about the revenue range for Q1’14:

Net sales grew 20 percent to $25.6 billion in the fourth quarter, versus expectations for just above $26 billion and slowing from the 24 percent of the previous three months.

North American net sales in particular grew 26 percent to $15.3 billion, from 30 percent or more in the past two quarters.

Amazon also forecast revenue growth of between 13 and 24 per cent in the next quarter, compared to the first quarter 2013.

Notwithstanding what that means for AMZN investors, one must be concerned for what that means for U.S. consumer spending. Brick-and-mortar store sales have been pretty weak in Q4 and many thought that online sales would save the day for the economy. Amazon is the largest online retailer, by far, and its growth is slowing fast and its sales visibility is disappearing just as fast.

image

Back to AMZN itself, our own experience at Christmas revealed that Amazon prices were no longer systematically the lowest. We bought many items elsewhere last year, sometimes with a pretty large price gap with Amazon. Also, Amazon customers are now paying sales taxes in just about every states, closing the price gap further. And now this:

To cover rising fuel and transport costs, the company is considering a $20 to $40 increase in the annual $79 fee it charges users of its “Prime” two-day shipping and online media service, considered instrumental to driving online purchases of both goods and digital media.

“Customers like the service, they’re using it a lot more, and so that’s the reason why we’re looking at the increase.” Confused smile

U.S. Pending Home Sales Hit By Winter Storms

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported that December pending sales of single-family homes plunged 8.7% m/m following a 0.3% slip in November, revised from a 0.2 rise. It was the seventh consecutive month of decline.

Home sales fell hard across the country last month. In the Northeast a 10.3% decline (-5.5% y/y) was logged but strength earlier in the year lifted the full year average by 6.2%. Sales out West declined 9.8% (-16.0% y/y) and for the full year fell 4.1%. Sales down South posted an 8.8% (-6.9 y/y) falloff but for all of 2013 were up 5.4%. In the Midwest, December sales were off 6.8% (6.9% y/y) yet surged 10.4% for the year.

Punch Haver’s headline suggests that weather was the main factor but sales were weak across the U.S. and have been weak for since the May taper announcement.

Mortgage Volumes Hit Five Year Low The volume of home mortgages originated during the fourth quarter fell to its lowest level in five years, according to an analysis published Thursday by Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry newsletter.

(…) Volumes tumbled by 19% in the third quarter, fell by another 34% in the fourth quarter, according to the tally. (…)

Overall originations in 2013 stood at nearly $1.9 trillion, down nearly 11% from 2012 but still the second best year for the industry since the mortgage bust deepened in 2008. The Mortgage Bankers Association forecasts originations will fall to $1.1 trillion, the lowest level in 14 years.

The report also showed that the nation’s largest lenders continued to account for a shrinking share of mortgage originations, at around 65.3% of all loans, down from over 90% in 2008.

Euro-Zone Inflation Returns to Record Low

Annual inflation rate falls to a record low in January, a development that will increase pressure on the ECB to act more decisively to head off the threat of falling prices.

The European Union’s statistics agency said Friday consumer prices rose by just 0.7% in the 12 months to January, down from an 0.8% annual rate of inflation in December, and further below the ECB’s target of just under 2.0%.

Excluding energy, prices rose 1.0%, while prices of food, alcohol and tobacco increased 1.7% and prices of services were 1.1% higher.

image

Pointing up Figures also released Friday showed retail sales fell 2.5% in Germany during December. The result was far worse than the unchanged reading expected from a Wall Street Journal poll of experts. In annual terms, retail sales fell 2.4%, the data showed. It was the first annual decline in German sales since June.

Consumer spending also fell in France as households cut purchases of clothes and accessories, although by a more modest 0.1%.

Benchmark Japan inflation rate hits 1.3%
December figure brings Bank of Japan closer to 2% goal

Average core inflation for all of 2013, a measure that excludes the volatile price of fresh food, was 0.4 per cent, according to the interior ministry. (…)

Much of the inflation so far has been the result of the precipitous fall in the yen that took hold in late 2012, making imports more expensive. Energy prices, in particular, have risen sharply: Japan buys virtually all of its oil and gas abroad, and the post-Fukushima shutdown of the country’s nuclear industry has further increased the need for fossil fuels.

So-called “core-core” consumer prices, which strip out the cost of both food and energy, rose by 0.7 per cent in December.

SENTIMENT WATCH

Individual Investors Head For the Hills

(…) In this week’s poll, bullish sentiment declined from 38.12% down to 32.18%.  This represents the fourth weekly decline in the five weeks since bullish sentiment peaked on 12/26/13 at 55.06%.  While bullish sentiment declined, the bearish camp became more crowded rising from 23.76% to 32.76%.  

With this week’s increase, bearish sentiment is now greater than bullish sentiment for the first time since mid-August.  The most interesting aspect about these two periods is what provoked the increase in cautiousness.  Back then it was concerns over Syria that were weighing on investor sentiment.  Fast forwarding to today, the big issue weighing on investors’ minds is now centered on Syria’s neighbor to the North (Turkey).  For such a small area of the world, this region continues to garners a lot of attention.

THE JANUARY BAROMETER (Contn’d) Sleepy smile

January Slump Is Nothing to Fret Over

The old Wall Street adage — as January goes, so goes the rest of the year – needs to be put to rest.

Since 1950, there have been 24 years in which the S&P 500 fell in January, according to Jonathan Krinsky, chief market technician at MKM Partners. While the S&P 500 finished 14 of those years in the red, a look at the performance from February through the end of the year provides evidence to buoy investors. In 13 of those 24 years, stocks rose over the final 11 months.

“All else being equal, a down January is less than 50% predictive that the rest of the year will close lower than where it closed in January,” Mr. Krinsky said. (…)

Long time reader Don M. sent me even better stuff on the January Barometer. Hanlon Investment Management must have had many clients asking about that since they made a thorough analysis of the “phenomenon”. Here it is for your Super Bowl conversation:

(…) What was found is that from 1950 until 1984, years where the month of January saw a positive return were predictive of a positive return for the entire year with approximately 90% probability.  The years with a negative return in January were predictive of a negative return for the year approximately 70% of the time. 

In the intervening time since 1984, market action has caused the predictive power of negative returns in January to fall to around 50%, which is nothing more than chance.  However, positive returns in January have still retained their predictive power for positive returns for the year.

Yet still, there is another group of people who advocate that just the first five trading days of January are predictive of the rest of the year.  We took data from 1950 through 2013 for the S&P 500 Index and then calculated both positive and negative results on a weekly and monthly basis.

For the 64 years from 1950 through 2013, a positive return in January was predictive of a positive return for the year 92.5% of the time.  A positive return during the first five trading days of January was predictive of a positive return for the year 90.0% of the time.  A negative return in January was predictive of a negative return for the year 54.2% of the time-basically not predictive at all.  A negative return during the first five trading days of January was predictive only 50% of the time, amounting to nothing more than a flip of a coin.

But what if we filter the results by requiring both a positive return during the first five trading days of January and a positive return in January for a positive signal?  Conversely, we may require a negative return during the first five trading days of January and a negative return for January to generate a negative signal.   When the first week and the month of January both have positive returns, then the signal is predictive 93.5% of the time for a positive year: a slight improvement over 92.5%.

Even more interesting is that when you require both a negative return in the first week and a negative return in January to give a signal.  Though the number of signals is reduced from 24 to 15, the success ratio improves from 54.2% to 73.3%.  The median and average returns for predicted years are listed in the summary statistics table, along with their respective success percentages, on the following page.  This will give you a something to ponder as we begin 2014.

How about negative first week and positive month? And what’s wrong with the last five days of January? Then insert the result of the Super Bowl. There you go!

Thanks Don.

Investors pull billions from EM stocks Dedicated EM funds hit as equity outflows reach highest since 2011 (Via FT Alphaville)

SocGen’s cross-asset research team believes that when it comes to EM outflows they may have only just begun:

As the team notes on Friday, this is especially so given the Fed doesn’t appear to care about the EM sell-off:

Since cumulative inflows into EM equity funds reached a peak of $220bn in February last year, $60bn of funds have fled elsewhere. Given the exceptionally strong link between EM equity performance and flows, we think it plausible that funds are currently withdrawing double that from EM equity (see chart below). EM bond funds face a similar fate. For reasons discussed in our latest Multi Asset Snapshot (EM assets still at risk – don’t catch the falling knife), we see no early end to EM asset de-rating. Furthermore, the Fed remains assertive on execution of tapering despite recent turmoil within the EM world, which spells more turbulence ahead.

And if it keeps going, balance of payments issues could emerge as a result:

A close look at Global EM funds indicates that all EM markets are suffering outflows Mutual fund and ETF investors in EMs both favour global EM funds. Regional or country specialisation is less common (less than 47% of global EM assets). The implication is that all EM markets face outflows currently, with little discrimination between the countries that are most exposed and those which are more defensive. We think Balance of Payment issues may emerge as an important factor going forward.

Though, what is EM’s loss seems to be Europe’s gain at the moment:

Europe reaps the benefits While current EM volatility is impacting developed markets as well, some of the flows are being redirected toward Europe, notably into Italy, Spain and the UK.

The notable difference with taper tantrum V.2, of course, is that US yields are compressing:

Which might suggest that what the market got really wrong during taper tantrum V.1, was that a reduction in QE would cause a US bond apocalypse. This was a major misreading of the underlying fundamentals and tantamount to some in the market giving away top-quality yield to those who knew better.

Taper at its heart is disinflationary for the US economy, and any yield sell-off makes the relative real returns associated with US bonds more appealing.

That taper V.2 incentivises capital back into the US, at the cost of riskier EM yields, consequently makes a lot of sense.

Though, this will become a problem for the US if the disinflationary pressure gets too big.

 

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.

 

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.

image

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.

image

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:

image

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.

image

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)

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (24 JANUARY 2014)

No Recession In Sight:Conference Board Leading Economic Index Edged Up in December

The index rose to 0.1 percent to 99.4 percent from the previous month’s 99.3 (2004 = 100). This month’s gain was mostly driven by positive contributions from financial components. In the six-month period ending December 2013, the leading economic index increased 3.4 percent (about a 7.0 percent annual rate), much faster than the growth of 1.9 percent (about a 3.9 percent annual rate) during the previous six months. In addition, the strengths among the leading indicators have been more widespread than the weaknesses.

Click to View

Chicago Fed: Economic Growth Moderated in December

Led by declines in employment- and production-related indicators, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) decreased to +0.16 in December from +0.69 in November. Three of the four broad categories of indicators that make up the index decreased from November, although three of the four categories also made positive contributions to the index in December.

The index’s three-month moving average, CFNAI-MA3, edged down to +0.33 in December from +0.36 in November, marking its fourth consecutive reading above zero. December’s CFNAI-MA3 suggests that growth in national economic activity was above its historical trend. The economic growth reflected in this level of the CFNAI-MA3 suggests limited inflationary pressure from economic activity over the coming year.

The CFNAI Diffusion Index ticked down to +0.38 in December from +0.40 in November. Forty-seven of the 85 individual indicators made positive contributions to the CFNAI in December, while 38 made negative contributions. Twenty-seven indicators improved from November to December, while 56 indicators deteriorated and two were unchanged. Of the indicators that improved, seven made negative contributions.

Click to View

HOUSING WATCH

Existing Home Sales Approach a New Normal

Sales increased 1.0% in December, to an annual rate of 4.87 million, below economists’ expectations, and the November sales pace was revised down to 4.82 million.

But the year-end weakness wasn’t enough to stop the year from being the best for resales in years. Sales totaled just over 5 million last year, “the strongest performance since 2006 when sales reached an unsustainably high 6.48 million at the close of the housing boom,” said the National Association of Realtors that compiles the existing home data.

A sales pace of five million homes looks more sustainable. “We lost some momentum toward the end of 2013 from disappointing job growth and limited inventory, but we ended with a year that was close to normal given the size of our population,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist.

CalculatedRisk adds:

The key story in the NAR release this morning was that inventory was only up 1.6% year-over-year in December. The year-over-year inventory increase for November was revised down to 3.0% (from 5.0%).

 

Pointing up All-cash sales jump as “normal” buyers go on strike. RealtyTrac reports:

All-cash purchases accounted for 42.1 percent of all U.S. residential sales in December, up from a revised 38.1 percent in November, and up from 18.0 percent in December 2012.

States where all-cash sales accounted for more than 50 percent of all residential sales in December included Florida (62.5 percent), Wisconsin (59.8 percent), Alabama (55.7 percent), South Carolina (51.3 percent), and Georgia (51.3 percent).

Institutional investor purchases (comprised of entities that purchased at least 10 properties in a year) accounted for 7.9 percent of all U.S. residential sales in December, up from 7.2 percent the previous month and up from 7.8 percent in December 2012.

Metro areas with the highest percentages of institutional investor purchases in December included Jacksonville, Fla., (38.7 percent), Knoxville, Tenn., (31.9 percent), Atlanta (25.2 percent), Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla. (24.9 percent), Cincinnati (19.3 percent), and Las Vegas (18.2 percent).

For all of 2013, institutional investor purchases accounted for 7.3 percent of all U.S. residential property purchases, up from 5.8 percent in 2012 and 5.1 percent in 2011.

 

Not a sign of a healthy market, is it? Meanwhile,

Framing Lumber Prices: Moving on Up

 

 

The faith may well be strong, the means are simply not there:image image

Also: Gundlach Counting Rotting Homes Makes Subprime Bear

 

GE’s Rice Sees Global Growth

General Electric vice chairman John G. Rice said that the global economy “was getting better, not worse,” and that beneath lower growth expectations for emerging markets “there was tremendous underlying demand for infrastructure.”

Investors Flee Developing Countries

Investors dumped currencies in emerging markets, underscoring growing anxiety about the ability of developing nations to prop up their economies as they face uneven growth.

The Argentinian peso tumbled more than 15% against the dollar in early trading as the South American nation’s central bank stepped back from its efforts to protect the currency, forcing the bank to reverse course to stem the slide. The Turkish lira sank to a record low against the dollar for a ninth straight day. The Russian ruble and South African rand hit multiyear lows. (…)

Countries with similar current-account deficits considered especially fragile by investors include Brazil, South Africa, India and Indonesia. But the emerging-markets tumult hasn’t hit the “contagion” stage of across-the-board, fear-driven selling of all emerging economies. Indonesia’s rupiah and India’s rupee, for example, advanced against the dollar Thursday, benefiting from those countries’ efforts to adjust their policies to support their currencies.

And this little nugget:

Art Cashin, who runs UBS’s operations on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, picked up on this in a mid-afternoon note to clients. “China Beige Book has a sentence that translates into English as ‘credit transmission is broken,’ ” he wrote. “That suggests the current credit squeeze may be far more complicated than Lunar New Year drawdowns.” (WSJ)

BOE’s Carney Suggests Falling Unemployment Doesn’t Mean Rates Will Rise Bank of England Gov. Carney said the U.K. central bank will look at a broad range of economic factors when assessing the need for higher interest rates, a sign that officials may be preparing to play down the link between BOE policy and falling unemployment.

imageBoE signals scrapping of forward guidance Carney flags dropping of 7% jobless threshold

(…) Mr Carney made it clear in the interview that there was “no immediate need to increase interest rates” but said the economy was now “in a different place” to the time he introduced guidance. Then, he said, the concern was that the UK economy was stagnating and might contract again: now the concern is that rapid growth might need action by the BoE to make it more sustainable. (…)

Punch If this is not clear guidance, what is? FYI, here’s the situation in the U.S.:

image
 
Google chief warns of IT threat
Range of jobs in danger of being wiped out, says Schmidt

 

(…) Mr Schmidt’s comments follow warnings from some economists that the spread of information technology is starting to have a deeper impact than previous periods of technological change and may have a permanent impact on employment levels.

Google itself, which has 46,000 employees, has placed big bets on automation over some existing forms of human labour, with a series of acquisitions of robot start-ups late last year. Its high-profile work on driverless cars has also led to a race in the automobile industry to create vehicles that can operate without humans, adding to concerns that some classes of manual labour once thought to be beyond the reach of machines might eventually be automated.

Recent advances in artificial intelligence and mobile communications have also fuelled fears that whole classes of clerical and research jobs may also be replaced by machines. While such upheaval has been made up for in the past by new types of work created by advancing technology, some economists have warned that the current pace of change is too fast for employment levels to adapt. (…)

“There is quite a bit of research that middle class jobs that are relatively highly skilled are being automated out,” he said. The auto industry was an example of robots being able to produce higher quality products, he added.

New technologies were creating “lots of part-time work and growth in caring and creative industries . . . [but] the problem is that the middle class jobs are being replaced by service jobs,” the Google chairman said. (…)

Shale Boom Forces Pemex’s Hand

For decades, Mexico’s state oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos, had the best customer an oil company could want: the U.S. But now the U.S. energy boom is curtailing the country’s demand for imported oil, and Pemex is being forced to look farther afield.

For the first time, the company is negotiating to sell its extra-light Olmeca crude oil in Europe, according to Pemex officials. The first shipment will go out in the second half of February to the Cressier refinery in Switzerland, the company said.

The change is one of many in the North American energy landscape affecting Pemex, which also faces competition in exploration and production as Mexico prepares to allow foreign oil companies back into the country for the first time in 75 years. (…)

 

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. (…)

 

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (21 JANUARY 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small firms capex is also brightening:

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

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

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

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So:

Fed on Track For Next Cut In Bond Buys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Declares Drought Emergency

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

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

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

Euro-Zone House Prices Improve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thailand Seen Cutting Rates as Unrest Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Working Population Fell Again in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENTIMENT WATCH

 

Stock Values Worry Analysts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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