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.

 
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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.

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (29 JANUARY 2014)

SOFT PATCH WATCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPEAKING OF CARS

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

A Cooling of Americans’ Love Affair With Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December Shipment Volumes

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

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

Truckload pricing trend data

Intermodal price trends

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

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

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

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

Turkey Gets Aggressive on Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe Banks Show Signs of Healing

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

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

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

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

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

Big Oil’s Costs Soar

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

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

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

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

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

Costly Quest

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

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

EARNINGS WATCH

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canon to Return Some Production to Japan

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

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

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

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

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (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. (…)

 
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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.

image

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

image

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

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (14 JANUARY 2014)

SMALL BIZ OPTIMISM BETTER

The December NFIB report just came out today. You will read about the overall results elsewhere. I am more interested in the details.

image

NFIB’s December survey did provide some positive signals, with the best
job creation figure since 2007 and a large increase in the percent of owners reporting actual capital outlays in recent months. The jump of 9
percentage points in December over November suggests that most of the
increase in spending came very late in the year. Expectations for real sales growth and for business conditions over the next six months improved substantially over November readings as well.

NFIB owners increased employment by an average of 0.24 workers per
firm in December (seasonally adjusted), the best reading since February 2006. Forty-eight (48) percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 38 percent reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions. This is not just a “skills” issue, but one of poor attitudes, work habits, timeliness, appearance and expectations, especially among the applicants for lower skill jobs.

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Twenty-three (23) percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period (unchanged), a positive signal for the unemployment rate and the highest reading since January 2008. Fourteen (14) percent reported using temporary workers, up 1 point from November. Job creation plans fell 1 point, falling to a net 8 percent, but maintaining the improved level of plans recorded last month. Overall, it appears that owners hired more workers on balance in December than their hiring plans indicated in November, a favorable development.

Last Friday’s NFP report showed no signs of that.

  • Wages are on the rise:

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

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Boy “Daddy, is this a margin squeeze above?”

  • While inventories are too high:

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January retail sales are off to a slow start. Weekly chain store sales have dropped significantly in the past 2 weeks even though the 4-week m.a. remains at its recent peak levels. Weather or not, the goods are still on the shelves.

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  • SMALL BIZ CAPITAL SPENDING

The frequency of reported capital outlays over the past 6 months
surprisingly gained 9 percentage points in December, a remarkable increase. Sixty-four (64) percent reported outlays, the highest level since early 2005. The percent of owners planning capital outlays in the next 3 to 6 months rose 2 points to 26 percent. Ten (10) percent characterized the current period as a good time to expand facilities. Of those who said it was a bad time to expand (61 percent), 31 percent still blamed the political environment, suggesting that at least for these owners, Washington is preventing their spending on expansion. The net percent of owners expecting better business conditions in six months was a net negative 11 percent, 9 points better than November but still dismal.

Euro-Zone Factory Output Jumps Industrial production rose at the fastest pace in 3½ years, an indication that the euro-zone economy likely grew for the third straight quarter.

The European Union’s statistics agency said industrial output in November was 1.8% higher than in October, and 3% higher than the year-earlier month.

Figures for October were revised higher, and Eurostat now estimates that output fell 0.8% during the month, having previously calculated they fell 1.1%.

The rise in output compared with the month earlier was the largest since May 2010, when output jumped 2%. When compared with the year-earlier period, the increase was the largest since August 2011, when output surged 5.5%.

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The increase in industrial production was spread across much of the euro zone, with Germany recording a 2.4% rise, France a 1.4% increase, Spain a 1% rise and Italy a more modest 0.3% increase.

The rise was also spread across a number of different industries, led by manufacturers of capital goods, and including makers of intermediate and nondurable consumer goods. Manufacture of durable consumer goods fell 0.8%, however, an indication that households haven’t yet become confident enough about their prospects to make large purchases, such as of household appliances and cars.

For the 3 months ended in November, IP is up 0.8%, the same as for the three previous months. Capital Goods are notably strong: +1.2% last 3 months after +2.4% the previous 3 months.

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Spain GDP growth fastest in six years
Caution urged as economy starts to emerge from gloom

Luis de Guindos, the economy minister, told parliament on Monday that gross domestic product rose 0.3 per cent in the three months to December, a marked increase from the 0.1 per rise in output in the third quarter. (…)


There was more good news from Spain’s long-suffering services sector, which in December grew at its fastest pace in more than six years. Surveys of business and consumer confidence also showed striking leaps at the end of last year, suggesting that companies and households alike are starting to sense that a turnround is at hand.

Taken in conjunction, the data lend strength to the argument that Spain is experiencing the early stages of a classic recovery cycle, with falling wages leading to a rise in competitiveness, followed by a surge in exports that allows companies to invest in new plant and machinery, new hiring and – eventually – a rise in domestic demand and government tax revenue. Spanish exports have been on a tear for the past two years, and business investment started rising in early 2013. (…)

The consumer side of the Spanish ledger remains weak, however.

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Despite Slowdown, Employers in China Gave Bigger Raises Employers in China gave more-and bigger- raises last year on average than those elsewhere in Asia, a fresh sign that the country’s job market remains resilient despite slowing economic growth.

According to a survey by recruitment firm Hays, two-thirds of employers in China said they gave their workers raises during the last round of reviews of 6% or more—more than any other country surveyed. A majority, or 54%, of said they gave raises of between 6% and 10%, while 12% said they gave raises of more than 10%. Only 5% of employers in China said they gave no raises at all.

In contrast, in Asia as a whole, just 22% of employers said they gave raises between 6% and 10%, while only 7% said they doled out more than 10%. Across the region, paltry raises were common. In Hong Kong and Singapore, the survey notes, the majority of employers gave raises between 3% and 6%. And in Japan, despite the economic stimulus measures dubbed the Abenomics in 2013, 80% of employees received raises of 3% or less.

The survey featured 2,600 companies in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia in professional sectors like  sales, marketing, engineering, human resources and accountancy & finance.

Chinese workers can also take heart in the fact that employers in China said they also plan to continue their generosity. For the next review, 58% of employers in China said they intend to give their staff a raise between 6%-10%, compared with less than a quarter of employers across Asia, the survey showed. (…) 

M&AAnimal spirits
Has the dealmaking cycle started to turn?

The burst of M&A activity announced on Monday – almost $100bn in total, including Suntory’s $16bn takeover of Beam Inc, Google’s $3.2bn purchase of Nest Labs and Charter’s $61bn move on Time Warner Cable – is enough for many bankers to declare that corporate animal spirits are back and the dealmaking cycle has finally started to turn, with activity taking place across all sectors and all regions.

“This is not just ‘animal spirits’, this is good, old-fashioned competition. If my competitor is growing, I need to grow. Yes, 2014 is different,” said Frank Aquila of law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. “Unlike the past three years when we have had a few big deals early in the year followed by disappointing levels of M&A activity, this year there is a high level of confidence that the global economy is growing and business confidence is the key ingredient to getting deals done.” (…)

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (13 JANUARY 2014)

DRIVING BLIND (Cont’d)

 

U.S. Hiring Slowdown Blurs Growth View

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

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

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

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

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

Where Jobs Were Added

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

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

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

Weak personal income:

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

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

BloombergBriefs explains further:

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

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

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Fed Unlikely To Alter Course

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

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

(…) The report exacerbated another conundrum for officials.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Supply/demand #1: Oversupply

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Supply/demand #2: Shortage

BlackRock: Jobs Report Shows Unemployment Is Structural

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

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

  • Supply/demand #3: Dunno!

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

Here’s the optimistic view…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe there are a few millions there:

cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now this from yours truly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this so late in the bull market!

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

Meanwhile,

Subprime Auto Lenders to Ease Standards Further: Moody’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy’s November Industrial Output Rises

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

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

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

EARNINGS WATCH

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

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

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

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

SENTIMENT WATCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

But: Stock Bargains Not Hard to Find, JPMorgan Says

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

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

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

GOOD QUOTES

Barron’s Randall Forsyth:

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

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

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

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (10 JANUARY 2014)

China Data Suggest Tepid Pickup in West

Exports in December were up just 4.3% compared with the same month a year earlier, down from a much stronger 12.7% year-over-year rise in November, according to customs data released on Friday. (…)

The poor export growth may in part be due to more than trade flows. China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange said in December it was tightening supervision of trade financing to stop speculative “hot money” flows from being disguised as trade. That likely dragged down an already weak growth number, Ms. Sun said Friday.

Official data showed a jump in December 2012 that many economists attributed to capital flows misreported as trade.

By contrast, the latest import figures were strong, beating forecasts with an 8.3% year-over-year rise in December, up from 5.3% in November. They were boosted by high raw-material shipments. China brought in 6.33 million barrels a day of crude oil in December, a record, and copper, iron ore and plastic imports were up strongly, too. That could indicate that companies are building up inventories again after running them down earlier in the year, said Shuang Ding, an economist at Citigroup,  but he cautioned that the trend may not last long.

However:

CALIFORNIA BOOMING State Controller John Chiang today released his monthly report covering California’s cash balance, receipts and disbursements in December 2013. Revenues for the month totaled $10.6 billion, surpassing estimates in the state budget by $2.3 billion, or 27.7 percent.

California ended the 2013 calendar year with a burst of tax receipts as the economic recovery continued to boost jobs, incomes, profits, and spending. Revenues flowing into the State’s General Fund coffers totaled $10.6 billion, beating estimates contained in the 2013-14 Budget Act by a hefty $2.3 billion, or 27.7%.

As we noted in our analysis of November’s revenues which, at first glance, appeared to fall short of projections, approximately $400 million of December’s $2.3 billion of unanticipated revenues were actually generated in the month of November but were not deposited into the General Fund and booked into the State’s official ledger until the first week of December.  We attribute this timing anomaly to “Black Friday” weekend falling at the end of November, which impacted the timing of retail sales collections and when they were recorded in the state ledger.

Even when this anomaly is factored-out, December’s revenue numbers alone are still impressive. Retail sales tax receipts surged past estimates by over $700 million, a jump assisted by an improvement in the job market, last year’s 30% swell in stock prices, and strong rebound in housing-related holiday shopping. The growing popularity of online shopping and the agreement of online retailers to now collect California sales taxes also helped boost results.

Personal income taxes exceeded expectations by a large margin of $987 million in December. Estimated taxes were very high, bolstered by capital gains and the desire by taxpayers to make payments by year-end to add to their 2013 federal income tax deduction. Rounding out California’s three major tax sources, corporate tax receipts were better than expected by $189 million during December.

Low-End Retailers Had a Rough Holiday

Retailers such as Family Dollar and Sears had a rough holiday period as their lower-income customers remain under pressure.

Family Dollar Stores Inc. on Thursday lowered its full-year profit forecast and reversed course on strategy. It pledged to cut prices more deeply to win back shoppers, saying its economically challenged customers are under more pressure than ever.

Meanwhile, Sears Holding Corp. said sales at its Sears and K-Mart chains fell deeply from a year earlier, reflecting weakness in its customer base as well as strategic missteps by executives trying to reshape its business. Sears shares plunged 14% in after hours trading.

The company said sales over roughly the past two months, excluding recently opened or closed stores, fell 7.4%. Sales were dragged down by a 9.2% drop in its domestic Sears stores and a 5.7% decline at Kmart with weakness in traditionally strong areas such as tools and home appliances. (…)

Even retailers that target consumers in the middle market have struggled this holiday. Gap Inc., which had been clocking strong sales gains for much of last year, said Thursday that comparable-store sales increased a scant 1% in November and December. L Brands Inc., owner of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, said December same-store sales rose just 2% and lowered its earnings guidance for the fourth quarter. (…)

Thomson Reuters rounds it up:

Excluding the drug stores, the Thomson Reuters Same Store Sales Index registered a 2.4% comp for December, beating its 1.9% final estimate. The 2.4% result is an improvement over November’s 1.2% result. Including the Drug Store sector, SSS growth rises to 3.8%, above its final estimate of 2.7%. The late Thanksgiving this year pushed revenue from CyberMonday and other post-Thanksgiving sales into December, helping to offset some of the reduction in sales from the shortened holiday shopping season.

Every apparel retailer in the index missed its SSS estimate with the exception of Stein Mart, as consumers avoided malls during the holiday shopping season, increasingly preferring to shop online. Retailers responded with discounts and promotions to lure customers, while settling for lower margins in the process.

Pointing up Our Thomson Reuters Quarterly Same Store Sales Index, which consists of 75 retailers, is expected to post 1.7% growth for Q4 (vs. 1.6% in Q4 2012). This is below the 3.0% healthy mark.

Banks Cut as Mortgage Boom Ends

A sharp slowdown in mortgage refinancing is forcing banks to cut jobs, fight harder for a smaller pool of home-purchase loans and employ new tactics to drum up business.

A sharp slowdown in mortgage refinancing is forcing banks to cut jobs, fight harder for a smaller pool of home-purchase loans and employ new tactics to drum up business.

The end of a three-decade period of falling mortgage rates has slammed the brakes on a huge wave of refinancing by U.S. households. The drop-off has deprived lenders of a key source of income at a time when the growth in loans for home purchases remains weak.

The Mortgage Bankers Association next week plans to cut its 2014 forecast for loan originations, which include loans for home purchases and refinancing. The current forecast of $1.2 trillion would represent the lowest level in 14 years. The trade group Wednesday reported that mortgage applications in the two weeks ending Jan. 3 touched a 13-year low. (…)

In the third quarter, mortgage-banking income, which includes fees from making new loans and processing payments on existing loans, tumbled by 45% at 10 big banks tracked by industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance. (…)

Draghi Says ECB Ready to Act

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi pledged “decisive action” if needed to safeguard the euro-zone recovery, as it kept its key lending rate at a record low 0.25%.

The European Central Bank surprised markets with an emphatic assurance that it would respond aggressively if inflation weakens to dangerously low levels, as officials sought to spur the fragile euro-zone recovery.

President Mario Draghi‘s pledge Thursday to deploy “further decisive action” if needed to counter threats stands in contrast to the Federal Reserve, which deployed its stimulus measures sooner and is now slowly winding them down amid signs of more robust U.S. growth.

France’s industrial output surged by 1.3% in November (-0.5% in October), against expectations for a 0.4% rise. EU’s IP could be turning positive YoY:image

OIL
 
Slower China oil demand to test exporters
Crude imports grew by the least in almost a decade in 2013

(…) Last year imports averaged 5.64m barrels a day, an increase of 216,880 b/d, or just under 4 per cent from 2012, according to customs data released on Friday. That was the lowest annual growth since 2005 and a fraction of the record increase in 2010, when import growth topped 700,000 b/d. (…)

But China’s economic growth is beginning to slow, while the focus on energy-intensive manufacturing is also fading.

China also has moved from being a net importer of diesel – a key industrial fuel – to a regular exporter. As a result the need to build new refineries, which encourage more imports, has also become less urgent. (…)Site Meter

Oil Breaking Down

Oil has now given up all of its December gains since the calendar moved into 2014.  As shown below, another dip today has caused the commodity to “break down” below its lows from last November, leaving it just above the $90 level.

Now, that’s WTI which suffers from the surge in U.S. domestic production. Brent, the key crude for U.S. prices is holding its own:

Ghost SENTIMENT WATCH

Prospect of US bond market showdown rises
Pace of recovery brings forward expectations of tightening

Bond traders are bringing forward their expectations of when the Federal Reserve will start to tighten policy, leading to a jump in short-term US borrowing costs.

Recent economic data have pointed to a gathering American recovery, and could result in a showdown between policy makers and the Treasury market.

Ian McAvity:

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Lance Roberts:

One argument that I hear made consistently is that retail investors are just now beginning to jump into the market. The chart below shows the percentage of stocks, bonds and cash owned by individual investors according to the American Association of Individual Investor’s survey. As you can see, equity ownership and near record low levels of cash suggest that the individual investor is “all in.”

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(…) professional investors are just plain “giddy” about the market.

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Of course, with investors fully committed to stocks it is not surprising to see margin debt as a percentage of the S&P 500 at record levels also. It is important to notice that sharp spikes in this ratio have always coincided with market corrections of which some have been much worse than others.

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We sure need everything (profits, jobs, interest rates, inflation) to be right…Fingers crossed

 
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