NEW$ & VIEW$ (16 JANUARY 2014)

INFLATION WATCH

U.S. Consumer Prices Rise 0.3% in December

The consumer-price index rose a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in December from the prior month, the Labor Department said Thursday. Core prices, which strip out volatile food and energy costs, were up a mild 0.1%.

Compared with a year earlier, overall consumer prices increased 1.5% and core prices were up 1.7%. Energy prices led the monthly gain, with gasoline prices rising 3.1%. (…)

Pointing up A separate report Thursday showed inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings fell 0.5% in December from the prior month.

Real average weekly earnings are unchanged from a year earlier, giving many consumers little additional spending power.

U.S. Producer Prices Rise 0.4%

U.S. wholesale prices climbed in December after falling for most of the fall, but broader trends suggest inflation pressures remain subdued.

The producer-price index, reflecting how much firms pay for everything from paper to trucks, rose a seasonally adjusted 0.4% from November, led by a jump in energy costs, the Labor Department said Wednesday. That followed two consecutive months of declines and marked the biggest increase since June.

Core producer prices, which strip out volatile food and energy costs, increased 0.3%. But almost half of that rise was due to a surge in tobacco prices, which a Labor Department economist attributed to a routine price adjustment by manufacturers that occurs several times a year.

Fed’s Beige Book: Job Market Firming Up

Some regions of the U.S. are confronting labor shortages in construction and other high-skill fields, according to the Federal Reserve’s ‘beige book’ survey of economic conditions.

(…) The Dallas Fed district reported “acute labor shortages” for auditors, engineers, truck drivers and construction workers in late November and December.

The Cleveland Fed said hiring was “sluggish” for most industries, but construction firms were hiring. “Builders reported a scarcity of high-skilled trade workers,” according to the report. “As a result, there is upward pressure on wages, and subcontractors are demanding and getting higher rates.” (…)

“The labor markets showed signs of tightening,” the Minneapolis district reported, with 30% of businesses saying they expect to hire more full-time workers in 2014 versus 18% who expect to have fewer full-time employees.

In the Richmond district, there were “numerous reports of strong labor demand,” though the report also said few businesses offered permanent jobs to seasonal workers and there was high turnover among low-skill workers.

In all, two-thirds of districts reported “small to moderate” increases in hiring, according to the report, and many companies were optimistic as 2014 began. In the New York district, most companies said they kept staffing flat as 2013 came to a close, but “substantially more businesses plan to expand than reduce their workforces in 2014.” (…)

Most areas reported improving real-estate markets, with residential sales, prices and construction on the rise. Two-thirds of districts said commercial property sales and leasing were up, too.

Prices were described as “stable” in about half the districts and most of the rest reported “small increases,” with a couple exceptions. (…)

Eight of the 12 districts reported “small to moderate” increases in wages.

While spending on tourism and leisure was reportedly “mixed” across the country, the manufacturing sector saw “steady growth” and steady employment.

“A manufacturer in the Dallas district said that for the first time since before the recession, his firm had too many jobs to bid on,” according to the report.

No major changes in bank lending volume were reported, though six districts reported “slight to moderate growth,” three saw no change and one— New York—saw a “moderate decline in loan volume.” (…)

Robots vs humans (BAML)

Euro-Zone Inflation Weakens

Eurostat said consumer prices rose 0.3% from November, and were up 0.8% from December 2012. That marks a decline in the annual rate of inflation from 0.9% in November, and brings it further below the rate of close to 2.0% targeted by the ECB.

Eurostat also confirmed that the “core” rate of inflation—which strips out volatile items such as food and energy—fell to 0.7%, its lowest level since records began in 2001.

Lagarde warns of deflation danger IMF chief says ‘ogre’ of falling prices must be fought decisively

No reason for ‘irrational inflationary fears’ – ECB’s Weidmann

 

Europe Car Sales Fell in 2013

European car sales fell for the sixth straight year in 2013, despite a pickup in registrations in the final months of the year that sparked hope of a broader recovery in the region.

The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, known as ACEA, said Thursday that 11.9 million new cars were registered in the European Union last year, a decline of 1.7% compared with the previous year.

A moderate recovery of car sales in the second half of the year gathered pace in December, according to the ACEA data, but wasn’t strong enough to pull the industry into positive territory for the year. In December, new car registrations rose 13% to 906,294 vehicles—the strongest rate in the month of December since 2009 but still one of the lowest showings to date, ACEA said. Registrations also grew in the fourth quarter. (…)

Russia Faces Stagflation, Central Banker Warns

The emerging-market economy ‘can speak of stagflation,’ the Bank of Russia’s first deputy head tells an economic conference.

(…) Russia’s economic growth has been slowing amid dwindling investment, hefty capital outflows, and weak demand and low prices for its commodities exports. Officials repeatedly downgraded forecasts for economic growth last year to 1.4%, a far cry from the average annual pace of about 7% during the early 2000s and well below the medium-term target of 5% set by President Vladimir Putin. Consumer prices grew 6.5% last year, above the 5%-to-6% range the central bank was targeting.

The government acknowledged last year that the slowdown was a result of domestic economic vulnerabilities, such as low labor productivity, and not just a weak global economy, as it had earlier asserted. The economy ministry slashed its growth forecasts for the next two decades. It also warned that the oil-fueled growth that has been a foundation of Mr. Putin’s rule is over and that there is nothing ready to take its place, given the country’s poor investment climate and aging infrastructure.

In a sign of Russia’s waning appeal to foreign investors, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said Wednesday that its investments in Russia fell sharply last year to €1.8 billion ($2.5 billion) from €2.6 billion in 2012. (…)

Japan machinery orders hit five-year high
Data hint at greater corporate capital investment plans

(…) Orders of new machinery by businesses, considered a leading indicator of overall capital investment, surged to a five-year high in November, rising 9.3 per cent to Y882.6bn. The year-on-year increase, which handily beat analysts’ expectations, was the second in two months and the fifth biggest on record. (…)

Brazil raises benchmark rate to 10.5%
World’s most aggressive tightening cycle continues

The central bank raised the Selic rate by 50 basis points to 10.5 per cent on Wednesday, extending the world’s most aggressive tightening cycle. It has raised interest rates by 325 basis points over the past nine months. (…)

At Brazil’s previous interest rate meeting, the central bank changed its statement for the first time in months, signalling the tightening cycle would soon be over.

However, a surge in prices in December took the central bank by surprise, likely forcing a revision to the country’s monetary policy strategy, economists say.

Data from the national statistics agency last week showed consumer prices jumped 0.92 per cent in December, the most since April 2003.

The annual inflation rate for the month – 5.91 per cent – also came in above estimates from all analysts in a Bloomberg survey and far above the country’s official 4.5 per cent target. (…)

ITALY IN 3 CHARTS (From FT)

SENTIMENT WATCH 

Actually, the appropriate headline should be “The Bulls…ers Are Back” Crying face

Bulls Are Back

The stock market’s slow start to the year lasted all of two weeks, as back-to-back rallies pushed the S&P 500 back up to a record high.

(…) In a note to clients, Craig Johnson, Piper Jaffray’s technical strategist, said the market’s primary trend will remain higher in the coming months. He predicts the S&P 500 will jump another 8% and hit 2000 before suffering through a nasty correction around the middle of the year that could take the index back to the 1600-to-1650 range.

Such a drop from his projected peak would take the S&P 500 down as much as 20%, a drop that hasn’t occurred since the summer of 2011.

But have no fear, stock-market bulls. He then sees stocks staging a sharp rally through the end of the year, lifting the S&P 500 to 2100 and capping a 14% gain for the year. “A hop, a drop and a pop in 2014” is how Mr. Johnson predicts it will play out, as rising bond yields will prompt more cash to flow out of bonds and into stocks throughout the year.

“We believe that 2014 will be a good year, but not a great year like 2013,” he said. (…)

Choppy equities require investor focus
End of loose money spells change in market’s inner workings

(…) Whether 2014 is a profitable year will come down to investors relying less on endless liquidity from the Federal Reserve that, like a high tide, has floated all equity boats. Instead they must focus on specific sectors and opportunities such as likely merger and acquisition targets in the coming months. Sarcastic smile (…)

Yeah! Sure! Let’s all do that. Thank you FT.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (27 DECEMBER 2013)

U.S. Holiday Sales Rise 3.5%, SpendingPulse Says

U.S. retail sales rose 3.5 percent during the holiday season this year, helped by deep discounts at malls and purchases of children’s apparel and jewelry, MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse said.

Sales of holiday-related categories, such as clothing, electronics and luxury goods, rose 2.3 percent from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24 compared with a year earlier, the Purchase, New York-based research firm said today. SpendingPulse tracks total U.S. sales at stores and online via all payment forms. (…)

Sales were strongest in jewelry and children’s apparel, while sales of electronics and luxury items excluding jewelry were about the same as the same period last year, SpendingPulse said. Sales of women’s and men’s apparel fell from last year, the researcher said. (…)

Bullishness Jumps to Three-Year High

Individual investors were feeling especially cheery about stocks this holiday week.

The percentage of bullish individuals rose to 55.1%, the highest level in nearly three years, in the week ended Dec. 25, according to the American Association of Individual Investors. That was a jump from the 47.5% of investors who said they were bullish the previous week.

Bespoke provides the charts…

 

…and some caution

While the current level is definitely elevated, it’s by no means without precedent.  As shown below in the chart of the AAIIreading going back to 1987, sentiment has been above the 50% mark many times in the past.

The Blog of HORAN Capital Advisors adds this:

In addition to an elevated bullishness reading, the bull/bear spread has increased 37% and this spread is the highest since AAII reported the spread at 47% for the week of December 23, 2010.

Just a reminder: INVESTOR SENTIMENT SURVEYS: DON’T BE TOO SENTIMENTAL!The bearish reading is more important.

Oh! there is also that:

Twitter Rally Picks Up Steam

Twitter shares have nearly tripled since their initial public offering last month, including an almost 5% gain on Thursday, making the microblogging service’s IPO one of the best performing this year.

Twitter Now Has A Larger Market Capitalization Than 80% Of All S&P 500 Companies

(…) Why the stock has exploded the way it has, nobody knows, and frankly nobody cares: it has entered that mythical zone of raging momentum where things work, until they don’t for whatever reason. But in order to present readers with a sense of where TWTR’s $40 billion market cap, which is greater than 403, or 80%, of all S&P 500 companies, puts in in the context of several companies all of which have a market cap that is lower than Twitter’s, we have shown on the chart below Twitter’s 2014 projected Revenue compared to this same universe of immediately smaller S&P500 companies. Again, just for the sake of perspective. (…)

And that: Copper Prices at Their Highest in 8 Months

But also this:

Treasury Yield Hits 3%

Treasury bond prices fell Thursday, pushing the yield on 10-year notes to 3%, a threshold that may signal a new baseline for higher interest rates.

image
 

Hmmm!

Japan wages halt 17-month decline
Data suggest companies starting to heed calls to pay staff more

(…) Keidanren, the largest and most influential business lobby group, seems willing to recommend that its members prepare for the first increase in base salaries since 2008, when they enter spring negotiations with labour unions. (…)

But three-quarters of total salaries in Japan are paid by small and medium-sized businesses, which are mostly not unionised and where the recovery in profits has not been as strong. (…)

Another factor dragging on wages is the shift in the composition of Japan’s labour force from full-time to part-time workers. The government makes no distinction between the two in its calculations of average earnings per worker, which have fallen almost without interruption since the late 1990s.

And as data for part-timers take longer to calculate, the “encouraging” preliminary wage figures for November could be subject to a downward revision later, said Izumi Devalier, economist at HSBC in Hong Kong.

Other data released on Friday may strengthen policy makers’ confidence that Japan is shaking off 15 years of deflation. Consumer prices excluding fresh food rose 1.2 per cent from a year earlier, reaching a five-year high. Retail sales also increased more than economists expected, marking a fourth straight rise at 4 per cent from a year earlier.

The job-to-applicant ratio touched 1.00 for the first time since October 2007, meaning that there is one job available per applicant.

Ninja  A Metals Mother Lode Sits in Shadows Banks, hedge funds, commodity merchants and others are stashing millions of tons of aluminum, copper, nickel and zinc in a hidden system of warehouses.

Banks, hedge funds, commodity merchants and others are stashing tens of millions of tons of aluminum, copper, nickel and zinc in a hidden system of warehouses that span the globe.

These facilities are known to some in the industry as “shadow warehouses” because they are unregulated and don’t disclose their holdings.

They operate outside the London Metal Exchange system of warehouses, the traditional home for these metals.

As of October, a record seven million to 10 million tons of aluminum were being housed in these facilities, in countries as far apart as Malaysia and the Netherlands, according to estimates from several analysts.

The amount dwarfs the 5.5 million tons of aluminum in the LME-licensed warehouses, based on LME figures as of Tuesday. Just 12 months ago, the figures were about equal.

A similar shift is taking place with other industrial metals, analysts say. (…)

“It’s a real concern for anyone in the industry that metal can be sucked away into a nonreporting location with no expectation or date as to when it’s going to be available again,” said Nick Madden, senior vice president and chief supply-chain officer with Atlanta-based Novelis Inc., an aluminum-products maker that is among the world’s biggest buyers of the metal.

“The risk here is that the metal gets controlled by fewer and fewer hands, whose interests and business model is probably conflicting with that of end users,” he said. (…)

The lack of transparency is making this shadow system increasingly attractive to institutions seeking to profit from information that other buyers and sellers don’t have. Some companies also are seeking a cheaper alternative to the LME warehouses, which can be 10 times as expensive as the unregulated storage, analysts and traders say. (…)

Five companies operate 75% of the LME’s 778 licensed warehouses. All own shadow facilities as well, people familiar with the companies said.

In some instances, a single firm runs licensed and unlicensed warehouses in the same building, with the metal counted by the LME separated from hidden stockpiles by a chain-link fence, said David Wilson, a commodities analyst with Citigroup.

Until 2010, most warehouses were owned by logistics firms like Netherlands-based C. Steinweg Group. But as metal-financing trades became more popular, C. Steinweg was joined by units of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. as well as commodity traders Glencore Xstrata PLC of the U.K. and Switzerland and Trafigura Beheer BV of the Netherlands. (…)

Many metal buyers and producers say they are worried that new rules approved by the LME in November will speed up the flow of metal into shadow warehouses. (…)

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (23 DECEMBER 2013)

Surprised smile Economy Gaining Momentum The U.S. economy grew at a healthy 4.1% annual rate in the third quarter, revised figures showed, boosting hopes that the recovery is shifting into higher gear after years of sluggishness.

Friday’s report showed consumer spending—a key driver of the economy—grew at a 2% annual rate in the summer, instead of the previously estimated 1.4%.

U.S. Economy Starts to Gain Momentum

ZeroHedge drills down:

(…) many are wondering just where this “revised” consumption came from: of the $15 billion revised increase in annualized spending, 60% was for healthcare, and another 27% was due to purchases of gasoline. The third largest upward revision: recreation services. On the flip side, the biggest revision detractors: transportation services and housing and utilities.

No boost to retailing from these revisions.

Meanwhile, profit margins keep defying the naysayers, this time because of lower taxes:

(…) after-tax corporate profits in the third quarter topped 11% of gross domestic product for the first time since the records started in 1947. At the same time, taxes paid by corporations has declined nearly 5% in the third quarter compared with a year earlier.

Another positive sign?

The U.S. economy seems to be getting “a little bit better,” said General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeff Immelt, speaking after an investor meeting this past week. “We’ve seen some improvements in commercial demand for credit,” he said, a positive sign that companies are investing.

Wells Fargo CEO said same 10 days ago.

Is it because companies are finally investing…or because companies must now finance  out of line inventories due to the lack of growth in final demand?

real final sales

 

On the one hand, the official GDP is accelerating beyond any forecasts. On the other hand, final demand is slowing to levels which most of the time just preceded a recession. Go figure! Confused smile

But don’t despair, on the next hand, here’s David Rosenberg painting a “Rosie” scenario for us all (my emphasis):

(…) But things actually are getting better. The Institute for Supply Management figures rarely lie and they are consistent with 3.5% real growth. Federal fiscal policy is set to shift to neutral from radical
restraint and the broad state/local government sector is no longer shedding jobs and is, in fact, spending on infrastructure programs again.

On top of that, manufacturing is on a visible upswing. Net exports will be supported by a firmer tone to the overseas economy. The deceleration to zero productivity growth, which has a direct link to profit margins, will finally incentivize the business sector to invest organically in their own operations with belated positive implications for capex growth.

But the centrepiece of next year’s expected acceleration really boils down to the consumer. It is the most essential sector at more than 70% of GDP. And what drives spending is less the Fed’s quest for a ‘wealth effect,’ which only makes rich people richer, but more organic income, 80% of which comes from working. And, in this sense, the news is improving, and will continue to improve. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face. Freezing

Indeed, all fiscal policy has to do is shift to neutral, and a 1.5-percentage-point drag on growth — the major theme for 2013 — will be alleviated. With that in mind, the two-year budget deal that was just cobbled together by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray at the least takes much of the fiscal stranglehold off the economy’s neck, while at the same time removing pervasive sources of uncertainty over the policy outlook.

Since the pool of available labour is already shrinking to five-year lows and every measure of labour demand on the rise, one can reasonably expect wages to rise discernibly in coming years, unless, that is, you believe the laws of supply and demand apply to every market save for the labour market.

Pointing up Let’s get real: By hook or by crook, wages are going up next year (minimum wages for sure and this trend is going global). With this in mind, the most fascinating statistic this past week was not ISM or nonfarm payrolls, but the number of times the Beige Book commented on wage pressures: 26. That’s not insignificant. Again, when I talked about this at the Thursday night dinner, eyeballs rolled.

There was much discussion about the lacklustre holiday shopping season thus far, with November sales below plan. There was little talk, however, about auto sales hitting a seven-year high in November even with lower incentives. And what’s a greater commitment to the economy — a car or a cardigan?

As I sifted through the Beige Book to see which areas of the economy were posting upward wage pressure and growing skilled labour shortages, I could see it cut a large swath: technology, construction, transportation services, restaurants, durable goods manufacturing.

Of the 115 million people currently working in the private sector, roughly 40 million of them are going to be reaping some benefits in the form of a higher stipend and that is 35% of the jobs pie right there. That isn’t everyone, but it is certainly enough of a critical mass to spin the dial for higher income growth (and spending) in the coming year. Macro surprises are destined to be on the high side — take it from a former bear who knows how to identify stormy clouds. (…)

On the consumer side, the aggregate debt/disposable income ratio has dropped from 125% at the 2007 peak to 100%, where it was a decade ago (down to 95% excluding student loans, an 11-year low). In other words, the entire massive 2002-07 credit expansion has been reversed, and, as such, the household sector is in far better financial position to contribute to economic activity.

On the government side, the U.S. federal deficit, 10% of GDP just four years ago, is below 4% today and on its way to below 3% a year from now, largely on the back of tough spending cuts and a big tax bite.

Then throw in the vast improvement in the balance-of-payments situation, courtesy of the energy revolution. With oil import volumes trimmed 5% over the past year and oil export volumes up a resounding 30%, the petroleum deficit in real terms has been shaved by one-quarter in just the last 12 months. This, in turn, has cut the current account deficit in half to 3% of GDP from the nearby high of 6%. (…)

In a nutshell, I feel like 2014 is going to feel a lot like 2004 and 1994 when the economy surprised to the high side after a prolonged period of unsatisfactory post-recession growth. Reparation of highly leveraged balance sheets delayed, but, in the end, did not derail a vigorous expansion.

High five That by no means guarantees a stellar year for the markets, because, as we saw in 2013 with a softer year for the economy, multiple expansion premised on Fed-induced liquidity can act as a very powerful antidote. Plus, a rising bond-yield environment will at some point provide some competition for the yield delivered by the stock market.

While 1994 and 2004 were hardly disasters, the market generated returns both years that were 10 percentage points lower than they were the prior year even with a more solid footing to the economy — what we gained in terms of growth, we gave up in terms of a less supportive liquidity/monetary policy backdrop.

But make no mistake, the upside for next year from a business or economic perspective as opposed to from a market standpoint is considerable.

Just kidding It is open for debate as to how the stock market will respond, but it is not too difficult to predict where bond yields will be heading (up) since they are, after all, cyclical by nature. Within equities, this means caution on the rate-sensitives and the macro backdrop will augur for growth over value.

Thanks David, but…

First, let’s set the record straight:

  • According to Edmunds.com’s Total Cost of Incentives (TCI) calculations, car incentives on average were flat from a year ago, though some automakers increased their incentives and even others lowered them. One car dealer said that manufacturers are pushing retailers to buy more vehicles, “slipping back into old habits”.
  • The S&P 500 Index peaked at 482 in January 1994, dropped 8% to 444 at the end of June and closed the year at 459. EPS jumped 18% that year while inflation held steady around 2.5%.
  • In 2004, equity markets were essentially flat all year long before spiking 7% during the last 2 months of the year. Profits jumped 24% that year while inflation rose from 1.9% to 3.3%.
  • In both years, equity valuations were in a correction mode coming from Rule of 20 overvalued levels in the previous years.

Second, we should remember that car sales have been propelled by the huge pent up demand that built during the financial crisis. Like everything else, this will taper eventually. The fact remains that car sales have reached the levels of the previous 4 cyclical peaks. Consider that there are fewer people actually working these days, even fewer working full time, that the younger generation is not as keen as we were to own a car and that credit conditions remain very tight for a large “swath” of the population. And just to add a fact often overlooked by economists, car prices are up 8% from 2008 while median household income is unchanged. (Chart from CalculatedRisk)

Third, it may be true that the ISM figures rarely lie but we will shortly find out if recent production strength only served to grow inventories. To be sure, car inventories are currently very high, prompting some manufacturers to cut production plans early in 2014.

Fourth, building an economic scenario based on accelerating wages invites a discussion on inflation and interest rates, both key items for equity valuation and demand. There is no money to be made from economic scenarios, only from financial instruments. Rosie’s scenario may not be as rosy for financial markets if investors become concerned about labour demand exceeding supply. (See Lennar’s comments below).

Ghost  Gasoline Heats Up in U.S.

Futures prices rose 5.9% last week in response to signs of unusually srong demand for the fuel.

Gasoline for January delivery rose 4.3 cents, or 1.6%, to $2.7831 a gallon Friday on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

image

Pressure builds as retailers near the holiday finish line

(…) Thom Blischok, chief retail strategist and a senior executive adviser with Booz & Company’s retail practice in San Francisco, said many U.S. shoppers are holding back this season because they have fewer discretionary dollars.

“Sixty-five percent of (Americans) are survivalists. They are living from paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “Those folks simply don’t have any money to celebrate Christmas.”

People with annual income of $70,000 and up account for 33 percent of U.S. households, but 45 percent of spending, according to U.S. Census data crunched by AlixPartners. That group has seen the most benefit from the improving economy as rising home and stock prices bolster their net worth.

But even those with higher incomes are holding back.

“The era of ‘living large’ is now officially in the rear-view mirror,” said Ryan McConnell, who heads the Futures Company’s US Yankelovich Monitor survey of consumer attitudes and values.

Responses to the 2013 survey suggested that the “hangover effect” of the so-called Great Recession remained prevalent with 61 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement: “I’ll never spend my money as freely as I did before the recession.” (…)

Competing for shoppers led major retailers to significantly ramp up the frequency of their promotions in the first part of December, according to data prepared for Reuters by Market Track, a firm that provides market research for top retailers and manufacturers.

A group of eight major retail chains, including J.C. Penney Co Inc, Wal-Mart Stores Inc  and Best Buy Co Inc, increased the number of circulars they published between December 3 and December 18 nearly 16 percent over the comparable period a year earlier.

Those retailers, which also include Sears and Kmart, Macy’s Inc, Kohl’s Corp and Target Corp, ramped up the online deals even more, increasing the number of promotional emails by 54.5 percent, according to the Market Track data.

The battle for shoppers has also led to the most discount-driven season since the recession, according to analysts and executives.

“There is a quicker turnover of promotions this year, and now several times, within a day,” eBay Enterprise CEO Chris Saridakis said. “It’s an all-out war.”

Clock  Shoppers Grab Sweeter Deals in Last-Minute Holiday Dash

U.S. shoppers flocked to stores during the last weekend before Christmas as retailers piled on steeper, profit-eating discounts to maximize sales in their most important season of the year.

Retailers were offering as much as 75 percent off and keeping stores open around the clock starting Friday. “Super Saturday” was expected to be one of the busiest shopping days of the year, according to Chicago-based researcher ShopperTrak. (…)

Holiday purchases will rise 2.4 percent, the weakest gain since 2009, ShopperTrak has predicted. Sales were up 2 percent to $176.7 billion from the start of the season on Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, said the firm, which will update its figures later today. The National Retail Federation reiterated on Dec. 12 its prediction that total sales will rise 3.9 percent in November and December, more than the 3.5 percent gain a year ago.

Factset concludes with the important stuff for investors: Most S&P 500 Retail Sub-Industries Are Projected to Report a Decline in Earnings in Q4

In terms of year-over-year earnings growth, only five of the thirteen retail sub-industries in the S&P 500 are predicted to report growth in earnings for the fourth quarter. Of these five sub-industries, the
Internet Retail (66.7%) and Automotive Retail (10.3%) sub-industries are expected to see the highest earnings growth. On the other hand, the Food Retail (-20.2%), General Merchandise Stores (-10.6%), and Apparel Retail (-8.8%) sub-industries are expected to see the lowest earnings growth for the quarter.

Overall, there has been little change in the expected earnings growth rates of these thirteen retail subindustries since Black Friday. Only four sub-industries have recorded decreases in expected earnings growth of more than half a percentage point since Black Friday: Drug Retail, Food Retail, General Merchandise, and Hypermarkets & Supercenters. On the hand, no sub-industry has recorded an increase in expected earnings growth of more than half a percentage point since November 29.

These folks are unlikely to be jolly unless Congress acts, again at the last hour:

Tom Porcelli, chief U.S. economist at RBC Capital Markets, estimates that 1.3 million folks will lose their unemployment checks after this week, forcing some to take jobs they previously passed up or join the legions of workforce dropouts. If even half do the latter, the jobless rate could slip to 6.6% in fairly short order. (Barron’s)

This could have interesting consequences as JP Morgan explains:

(…) the potential expiration of federal extended unemployment benefits (formally called Emergency Unemployment Compensation) at the end of this month could push the measured unemployment rate lower.

The state of North Carolina offers a potential testing ground for this thesis. In July, the North Carolina government decided to no longer offer extended benefits, even though the state still met the economic conditions to qualify for this federal program. Since July, the North Carolina unemployment rate has fallen 1.5%-points; in the same period the national unemployment rate has fallen 0.4%-point. (…)

The information from one data point is a long way from statistical certainty, but the limited evidence from North Carolina suggests that the potential expiration of extended benefits will place further downward pressure on the measured unemployment rate. In which case the Fed could soon have some ‘splainin’ to do about what “well past” 6.5% means with respect to their unemployment rate threshold.

GPSWebNote ImageGPSWebNote Image

Rampant Returns Plague E-Retailers Behind the uptick in e-commerce is a secret: As much as a third of all Internet sales gets returned, in part because of easy policies on free shipping. Retailers are trying some new tactics to address the problem.

(…) Retailers are zeroing in on high-frequency returners like Paula Cuneo, a 54-year-old teacher in Ashland, Mass., who recently ordered 10 pairs of corduroy pants in varying sizes and colors on Gap Inc. GPS +0.73% ‘s website, only to return seven of them. Ms. Cuneo is shopping online for Christmas gifts this year, ordering coats and shoes in a range of sizes and colors. She will let her four children choose the items they want—and return the rest.

Ms. Cuneo acknowledged the high costs retailers absorb to take back the clothes she returns, but said retailers’ lenient shipping policies drove her to shop more.

“I feel justified,” she said. “After all, I am the customer.” (…)

HOUSING WATCH

FHFA to Delay Increase in Mortgage Fees by Fannie, Freddie

The incoming director of the regulatory agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac said he would delay an increase in mortgage fees charged by the housing-finance giants.

(…) Upon being sworn in, “I intend to announce that the FHFA will delay implementation” of the loan-fee increases “until such time as I have had the opportunity to evaluate fully the rationale for the plan,” he said in a statement.

The FHFA signaled that it would increase certain fees charged by Fannie and Freddie that are typically passed on to mortgage borrowers on Dec. 9, on the eve of Mr. Watt’s Senate confirmation. (…)

In updates posted to their websites on Monday, Fannie and Freddie showed that fees will rise sharply for many borrowers who don’t have down payments of at least 20% and who have credit scores of 680 to 760. (Under a system devised by Fair Isaac Corp., credit scores range from 300 to a top of 850.) (…)

Surely, the housing market does not need more headwinds. ISI’s homebuilders survey is continuing to plunge, existing house sales have declined sharply, and existing house prices are down -1.6% from their peak.  In addition, ISI’s house price survey has been flat for five months. On the other hand, NAHB’s survey is at a new high, and housing starts surged in November. Inventory accumulation?

Pointing up Meanwhile, costs are skyrocketing:

Lennar noted that while its “aggressive” pricing strategies led to significant margin improvements, labor and construction material costs last quarter were up about 12% from a year ago, and that labor costs were up by “more” than material costs. (CalculatedRisk)

I remain concerned that higher inflation is slowly sneaking in, hidden behind weighted indices while un-weighted measures suggest that prices are being regularly ratcheted up. The median CPI, measured by the Cleveland Fed, is still up 2.0% YoY even though the weighted CPI is down to +1.0% YoY.

Differences between changes in the CPI and the median consumer price
change underscore the impact of the distribution of price movements on our monthly interpretation of inflation. The median price change is a potentially useful indicator of current monetary inflation because it minimizes, in a nonsubjective way, the influence of these transitory relative price movements.

image

Assume there is no abnormal inventory accumulation and that David Rosenberg’s scenario pans out, we might get both demand pull and cost push inflation simultaneously. Far from a rosy scenario. Mrs. Yellen would have her hands full.

Thumbs up Economic Conditions Snapshot, December 2013: McKinsey Global Survey results

As 2013 draws to a close, executives are more optimistic about economic improvements than they have been all year, both at home and in the global economy. They also anticipate that conditions will continue to improve, thanks to the steady (though modest) improvements in the developed world that many expect to see.

imageIn McKinsey’s newest survey on economic conditions, the responses affirm that economic momentum has shifted—and will continue to move—from the developed to the developing world, as we first observed in September. Indeed, executives say the slowdown in emerging markets was one of the biggest business challenges this year, and respondents working in those markets are less sanguine than others about the current state of their home economies.

Respondents from all regions agree, though, on the world economy: for the first time since we began asking in early 2012, a majority of executives say global conditions have improved in the past six months.
Looking ahead to 2014, many executives expect economic progress despite growing concern over asset bubbles and political conflicts—particularly in the United States. Respondents there say that ongoing political disputes and the government shutdown in October have had a
notable impact on business sentiment, despite the less noticeable effect on the country’s recent economic data. Still, at the company level, executives maintain the consistently positive views on workforce size, demand, and profits that they have shared all year. (…)

Amid the shifting expectations for growth that we saw in 2013, executives’ company-level views have held steady and been relatively positive throughout the year. Since March, respondents most often reported that their workforce sizes would stay the same, that demand
for their companies’ products would grow, and that their companies’ profits would increase over the next six months; the latest results are no different.

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Pointing up Executives are still very focused on increasing margins!

Across regions, executives working in developed Asia are the most optimistic—and those in the eurozone are the most pessimistic—about their companies’ prospects. Forty-four percent of those in developed Asia say their workforces will grow in the next six months, while just 7 percent say they will shrink; in contrast, 31 percent of executives in the eurozone expect a decrease in workforce size. Two-thirds of respondents in developed Asia expect demand for their companies’ products and services to increase in the coming months, and they are least likely among their peers in other regions to expect a decrease in company profits.

In their investment decisions, though, executives note a new concern: rising asset prices, which could affect company-level (as well as macroeconomic) growth in the coming year. Of the executives who say their companies are postponing capital investments or M&A decisions they would typically consider good for growth, the largest shares of the year now cite high asset valuations as a reason their companies are waiting.

Strains Grip China Money Markets

Borrowing costs in China’s money market soared again, as the central bank’s recent fund injection failed to appease jittery investors amid a seasonal surge in demand for cash by banks.

Borrowing costs in China’s money market soared again after a brief fall earlier Monday, as the central bank’s recent fund injection failed to appease jittery investors amid a seasonal surge in demand for cash by banks.

The seven-day repurchase-agreement rate, a benchmark measure of the cost that banks charge each other for short-term loans, rose to 9.8%, up from 8.2% Friday and its highest level since it hit 11.62% on June 20, at the peak of China’s summer cash crunch. (…)

The stress in the banking system has spread elsewhere, with stocks in Shanghai falling for a ninth straight day Friday to the weakest level in four months while government bonds dropped, pushing the 10-yield up to near the highest in eight years.

Vietnam’s Growth Picks Up

The country’s gross domestic product grew 5.42% this year, compared with 5.25% in 2012, the government’s General Statistics Office said Monday. Last year’s GDP, the slowest since 1999, was revised up from 5.03%. Inflation was down as well.

The government said on-year growth in the fourth quarter was 6.04%, compared with 5.54% in the third quarter.

Japan forecasts GDP growth of 1.4% for 2014
Planned sales tax increase forecast to hit consumption

The Japanese government forecast on Saturday that real gross domestic product will grow by 1.4 per cent for the fiscal year starting March 2014, slowing from an expected 2.6 per cent growth for the current year as a planned sales tax increase is seen dampening consumption. (…)

The government also forecast that consumer prices will rise by about 1.2 per cent in the 2014 fiscal year, without considering an impact from the sales tax hike. Consumer prices are expected to show a rise of 0.7 per cent in the current fiscal year. The Bank of Japan launched a massive monetary stimulus programme aimed at pushing the inflation rate up to 2.0 per cent in two years, in a bid to wrench the country out of a long phase of deflation.

SENTIMENT WATCH

 

U.S. Economy Begins to Hit Growth Stride

 

Even Skeptics Stick With Stocks

Money managers and analysts say they are beginning to think the Federal Reserve is succeeding in restoring economic growth.

(…) Ned Davis, founder of Ned Davis Research in Venice, Fla., and a skeptic by nature, told clients last week that the economic picture is brightening. “There are still mixed indicators regarding economic growth, but most of our forward-looking indicators are suggesting the economy is accelerating to at least ‘glass-half-full’ growth rates,” he wrote. (…)

Because they now think the economy is on the mend, many money managers share the view that, while 2014 probably won’t match 2013, indexes probably will finish the year with gains. (…)

Ageing stocks bull can still pack some power

(…) While the S&P 500 is unlikely to match the 27 per cent jump it achieved in 2013, the odds favour another strong year for equities. Investors with a long time horizon have little to fear from wading into the market, even after a 168 per cent run-up from the index’s post-financial crisis nadir. (…)

It is no secret that companies have cut their way to profitability growth. They have put off investment, including in wages and hiring; they have slashed their financing costs by issuing record amounts of debt at this year’s rock-bottom interest rates; and they have juiced earnings per share further by buying back and cancelling shares at a pace not seen for five years.

These are trends that will all be slow to reverse. Slack in the economy will keep the lid on what companies have to spend on employees, and the benefits of those low financing costs are locked in for years to come. To the extent that wages and interest rates rise, it will be because the economic outlook is brightening, which will fill in the missing piece of the puzzle: top line revenue growth. (…)

In the historical context, current return on equity for the S&P 500 is not high; at 14.1 per cent during the last quarterly reporting season, it was only 5 basis points above the average since 1990. Profit growth, in other words, is as likely to carry on rising as it is to U-turn. Confused smile

The path of least resistance for equities is still up. There is a whole swath of bond investors who are yet to reassess their overweights in that asset class, who may do so when January’s miserable annual statements land. The diversifying “alternative” investments – hedge fund-like mutual funds and their mutant brethren – remain too expensive to become significant parts of a portfolio for most investors.

The S&P 500’s down years have all, with the exception of 1994, been recession years. Of course, the spectre of 1994 is haunting, since that was precisely when the Federal Reserve last attempted a big reversal of policy and began to raise interest rates to choke off inflation.

There is an asterisk to even the most bullish equity forecast, which is that all bets will be off if the Fed loses control of rates, dragging bond yields higher not just in the US where they might be justified, but also across the world, where they could snuff out a nascent recovery in Europe and cause untold harm in emerging markets.

After the smooth market reaction to the announcement of a slowdown in quantitative easing last week, a disaster scenario looks even more unlikely. And lest we forget, tapering is not tightening, so 2014 is not 1994.

If the S&P 500 closes out the year where it began this week, 2013 will go down as the fifth best year for share price gains since the index was created in 1957. Each of the four occasions when it did better – 1958, 1975, 1995 and 1997 – were followed by an additional year of strong returns, ranging from 8.5 per cent to 26.7 per cent.

Equity markets should maintain their positive momentum as long as the global economy maintains its, and the odds look good. Even in middle age, a bull can pack some power.

Bull Calls United in Europe as Strategists See 12% Gain

Equities will rise 12 percent in 2014, according to the average projection of 18 forecasters tracked by Bloomberg News.Ian Scott of Barclays Plc says the StoxxEurope 600 Index can rally 25 percent because shares are cheap even after a 49 percent gain since 2011. (…)

The average estimate is the most bullish since at least 2010, with no strategist predicting a gain of less than 3.3 percent, and comes even as company analysts reduced income forecasts for an 85th straight week. While more than 2.7 trillion euros ($3.7 trillion) has been restored to European equity values since September 2011, shares would have to gain another 65 percent to match the advance in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index during the last five years.

“You would have lacked credibility being bullish on Europe 18 months ago, although stocks were very cheap and the economy was bottoming,” said Paul Jackson, a strategist at Societe Generale SA inLondon, who predicts a 15 percent jump for the Stoxx 600 next year. “As soon as the market started to do well, suddenly everybody wants to listen. And now not only is everybody listening, but everyone is saying the same thing. The time to worry about the Armageddon scenario is gone.” (…)

Analysts have downgraded earnings estimates on European companies excluding the U.K. for 85 weeks, a record streak, according to Citigroup Inc. data on Bloomberg. Mark Burgess, chief investment officer at Threadneedle Asset Management Ltd., says European earnings will probably disappoint again. (…)

“The region remains beset by relatively poor growth dynamics compared with the rest of the developed world,” Burgess, who helps oversee $140 billion from London, said in e-mailed comments on Dec. 11. “This year’s stock market recovery could easily herald a false dawn. While for the first time in three years we believe Europe is likely to return to positive GDP growth in 2014, earnings growth is likely to be steady rather than dramatic.” (…)

Evans at Deutsche Bank says his team at Europe’s largest bank has become “increasingly convinced” that lending in the region will rebound and will help companies beat estimates in what he calls investors’ “complete loss of confidence in the earnings cycle.”

The ECB said in a quarterly survey released Oct. 30 that banks expect to relax standards on corporate lending this quarter. That’s the first such response since the fourth quarter of 2009 and, if it occurs, would mark the first easing of conditions since the second quarter of 2007. Lenders also plan to simplify access to consumer loans and mortgages, and predicted a rise in loan demand.

Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon on the basis of an accelerating economy and equity momentum.

Time to stay rationale and disciplined. Good luck, and happy holidays! Gift with a bow

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (9 DECEMBER 2013)

GREEN FRIDAY

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

The media narratives just flowed from that.

Employers Gain Confidence to Hire

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

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

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

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

It remains that

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

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

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

By comparison, manufacturers added only 76,000 jobs.

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

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

But move July into the first part of the year:

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

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

Never mind that

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

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

Never mind that

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

TAPER WATCH

This is from Fed’s mouthpiece John Hilsenrath:

Fed Closes In on Bond Exit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fed December Taper Odds Double in Survey as Jobs Beat Estimate

 

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

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

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

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

Credit-Card Debt Hits Three-Year High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ZeroHedge)

Fingers crossed  Congress Readies a Year-End Budget Dash

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

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

China Exports Rise More Than Estimated

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

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

China Inflation Stays Benign

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EARNINGS, SENTIMENT WATCH

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

U.S. stocks could weather grim profit outlooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Hendry is CIO of Eclectica Asset Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image
 

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

THE U.S. ENERGY GAME CHANGER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEMOGRAPHICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUY LOW, SELL HIGH

A 700- year chart to prove a point:

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

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

Ralph Dillon of Global Financial Data

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (24 OCTOBER 2013)

Japan says exports almost flat as shipments to Asia slow down

Japan’s government downgraded its assessment of export performance for the second consecutive month in October on slowing shipments to Asia — suggesting external demand may now contribute less to Japan’s growth than initially anticipated.

The government left its overall assessment unchanged, saying the economy is set to recover at a moderate rate as high corporate profits fuel capital expenditure, which then spurs labor demand.

Domestic demand, boosted by increasing public works and consumer spending, has largely driven Japan’s recovery from recession last year, but signs of weakening exports may mean Japan having to rely even more on domestic demand to continue growing.

“Exports are almost flat,” the government said in its report for October. “Exports are expected to pick up in the future, because overseas economies are stable and because the yen has weakened, but we must be mindful of downside risks to overseas economies.”

That assessment marked a further downgrade from last month, when the government noted recent gains in exports had started to slow.

It was also the first time in three years that the government downgraded exports for two consecutive months.

A decline in export volumes due to lower shipments of cars to the United States, India and Southeast Asian countries prompted the downgrade in October.

The government left unchanged its view that industrial output is slowly increasing and that business investment is showing signs of picking up — mainly among non-manufacturers.

On deflation, the government’s view was unchanged from September, saying Japan is approaching an end to deflation as consumer prices, excluding fresh food and energy, were firming up.

LA area Port Traffic in September

On a rolling 12 month basis, inbound traffic was up 0.4% in September compared to the rolling 12 months ending in August.   Outbound traffic decreased slightly compared to August.

ARCHITECTURE BILLINGS RISE IN SEPTEMBER

Showing a steady increase in the demand for design services, the Architecture Billings Index (ABI) continues to accelerate, as it reached its second highest level of the year. As a leading economic indicator of construction activity, the ABI reflects the approximate nine to twelve month lead time between architecture billings and construction spending.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported the September ABI score was 54.3, up from a mark of 53.8 in August. This score reflects an increase in design services (any score above 50 indicates an increase in billings). The new projects inquiry index was 58.6, down from the reading of 63.0 the previous month.

Bank of Canada Drops Bias to Lift 1% Policy Rate

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz surprised investors by dropping language about the need for future interest rate increases, a move that’s leading to investor speculation about possible rate cuts.

Poloz removed the language, which had been in place for more than a year, citing greater slack in the economy, while keeping his benchmark rate on overnight loans between commercial banks at 1 percent for the 25th consecutive meeting today. The country’s currency and government bond yields fell after the announcement.

The Canadian dollar fell 1 percent to C$1.0385 per U.S. dollar at 4:16 p.m. in Toronto. One dollar buys 96.29 U.S. cents. Government bond yields fell, with the five-year security declining to 1.73 percent from 1.79 percent. (Chart from BMO Capital)

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SENTIMENT WATCH

U.S. Equities: Lift-Off

The short-term resolution to Washington’s folly ignited stocks last week, kicking off what looks to be an equity overshoot phase. Even a soft earnings season is unlikely to derail the budding positive momentum in the broad market: investors may award a ‘free pass’ to the business sector, as uncertainty and modest order book softness is expected given the U.S. government shenanigans.US Equitites - Lift Off

More importantly, lost in the shuffle has been the simultaneous easing in three main reflationary variables.

  • First, the U.S. dollar is drifting lower, reflecting the official nomination of noted policy dove Janet Yellen as the new Fed Chairperson, and the expectation that liquidity settings will remain extremely generous.
  • Second, Treasury yields are moving sideways, digesting this year’s rapid advance. Prospects for another budget battle in the coming months suggest that the Fed may well delay tapering further. Thus, another sudden surge in yields is not imminent.
  • Third, oil prices are easing, reducing a drain on global consumer and business purchasing power, especially in the developing world where weak currencies have exacerbated the impact.

The reflationary push from these three natural economic stabilizers will add to the positive economic momentum that has been slowly but steadily building all year. Our profit model has hooked back up, and capital spending indicators are accelerating, implying that the transition to a self-reinforcing economic expansion remains intact. With reduced fiscal drag next year, growth could surprise on the strong side.

That said:

STRETCHED VALUATIONS

The Rule of 20 valuation barometer is approaching “fair value” which it has not exceeded during his bull market. The risk return ratio is getting unfavourable to investors based on trailing earnings and inflation. Equities do occasionally reach into overvalued territory and sometimes pretty high into it and for extended periods (click on charts to enlarge).

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The Rule of 20 is not a forecasting tool, it is a risk measurement tool enabling investors to objectively measure the potential reward vs the risk of owning equities at any point in time.

Other than the Rule of 20, I also look at some basic absolute valuation parameters on U.S equities. CPMS is a Morningstar software that I have profitably been using since 1985. The charts are not fancy but the data is reliable. The first chart plots Price/Sales for the median U.S. company in the CPMS database (2185 stocks) against net profit margins on the CPMS median.

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The median P/S is at its 20 year peak but so is the median profit margin. The gap between both lines is nearly as wide as it was in 2007, suggesting that expectations are for a continuation of record high margins. In fact, the red dot on the top right corner is the bottom up forecast for margins in 2014, a jump from 8.2% to 10%. Obvious irrational exuberance. Keep in mind that “sales” are barely growing, meaning that the denominator offers little upside to the P/S ratio.

The next chart looks at balance sheet values. It shows Price/Book Value against ROE for the median company in the CPMS universe.

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The median P/B is near its 20 year high but this is not supported by the median ROE, unless you want to buy analyst forecasts for 2014 which see ROEs jumping 200 bps to 12.8% (red dot), a rather heroic achievement in today’s environment. Note that the median ROE has been declining steadily since early 2012!

This is not my definition of “Buy low, sell high”. We are clearly defying gravity here. How lucky to you feel?

EARNINGS WATCH

We now have 181 companies representing 42% of the S&P 500 Index having reported so far. The earnings beat rate is now 61% (56% yesterday) while the revenue beat rate is 28% (unchanged from yesterday) as per RBC Capital’s calculations.

BANKING

Reset Switch: Is the Can Coming to the End of the Road?

From The Institutional Risk Analyst:

We invented an early warning operating bank stress indicator (BSI) in 2004 that was based on what were then the optimistic visions of Basel II and the global economy. (…)

We tracked the comings and goings the U.S. banking industry through the 2008 crisis and subsequent recovery. We started giving speaker presentations on the journey this systemic stress showing how as a whole, the banking industry population today has a stress profile similar to where it was just prior to the 2008 crisis. (…)

Since the beginning of 2013, we’ve seen a number of banks drop from what were steadily improving BSI scores in the A to A+ range back down to F’s. The subset of the population doing this is small but statistically significant enough to warrant us putting the pattern into exception analysis follow up. What reveals so far is that the time has come to recognize asset value degradations.

Some banks look to have carried loans at book value hoping that the economy would improve substantially before rules on revaluation triggered and the clock seems to have run out on the bet. Aggregate 1-4 residential lending on bank balance sheets is still around 14 percent below a beginning of 2008 baseline and current property valuations dictate that the write down process needs to begin recognition. Similar stresses also seem to be manifesting in some banks’ commercial real estate lending books.

(…)  From years of observation, we note that banks typically do their write downs as part of their 4th quarter end of year filings. At the moment we do expect most will survive the pain but do worry a little that the regulatory and counterparty burden on what will be materially weaker institutions could cause secondary effects to a still jittery market. (…)

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (27 SEPTEMBER 2013)

U.S. GDP growth confirmed at 2.5% in Q2

The US economy grew at an annualised pace of 2.5% in the second quarter, in line with the previous estimate but defying analysts’ expectations of a pick up to 2.6%.

There was better news on final sales, which strip out inventories, which grew faster than previously thought, increasing at an annualised rate of 2.1% instead of 1.9%.

Pointing up  Worryingly, it looks like even this relatively modest growth is only being achieved by firms cutting prices. Prices charged for goods and services fell at an annualised rate of 0.1%. That was the first time these prices have fallen since the dark days of early-2009 and points to a general lack of demand growth.

The data therefore look likely to further dissuade policy makers that the economy is ready to withstand any tapering of the Fed asset purchases programme, especially as more up to date indicators such as retail sales, manufacturing output, the flash PMI and durable goods orders all suggest the economy has lost momentum again as we move towards the fourth quarter.

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Pending Sales of Existing Homes in U.S. Decreased 1.6% in August

The index of pending home sales fell 1.6 percent, after a revised 1.4 percent decrease in July that was bigger than initially reported, figures from the National Association of Realtors showed today in Washington. Economists forecast a 1 percent decline in the gauge from the month before, according to a median estimate in a Bloomberg survey.

(Haver Analytics)

Sad smile This is the fourth straight month of declining pending sales and prior months were revised down. Inventory remains low but it has increased in six of the past seven months at rates exceeding historical averages.

Confidence Gap” Widens to Record Levels

For more than a year now, we have been highlighting the growing “confidence gap” among Americans based on income.  While it is common for wealthier people to be more confident than poorer people, the discrepancy in confidence levels continues to be at record levels.  More recently, there has been growing commentary regarding this disparity’s impact on the economy in the form of weak sales from low income retailers like Wal-Mart (WMT), while retailers to the higher end and luxury markets have been holding up much better.

Goldman’s Analyst Index Plunges Most In A Year

Goldman Sachs Analyst Index (GSAI) tracks manufacturing and service sectors based on bottom-up analyst input on a firm by firm basis to generate a real-time indicator of US economic strength akin to the ISM data. After spiking to multi-year highs in August, it has collapsed by the most in a year in September as the New Orders sub-index retraced its outsized gains from August. The sales/shipments index fell, while the employment index stayed flat and below the 50 mark. The underlying composition of the GSAI weakened in September with a few sectors noting lower sales and/or a downgrade in expectations, and on balance sentiment with respect to business conditions seemed a touch weaker since August and employment remained below 50 for the sixth month.

The September GSAI joins other business surveys (stronger Philly Fed, mixed Empire State, and weaker Richmond Fed) in sending a mixed signal about recent business activities.

 
Fingers crossed  Maersk calls bottom of trade cycle

Container shipping line says demand to rise 4-6% over two years

Maersk Line said on Thursday it believed the downturn in trade had bottomed out and predicted demand for global containers would grow by 4-6 per cent in 2014 and 2015, up from recent forecasts of 2-3 per cent for this year.

Maersk is one of the best corporate indicators of global trade as it carries 15 per cent of all seaborne containers. (…)

Each of the last three quarters has seen a small increase in annual growth of container demand as trade between emerging markets has increased. But Mr Stausholm conceded: “Because of more regionalisation and nearshoring, it means there are much lower growth rates for Asia-Europe trade.”

Container shipping is not the only part of the industry to see an increase in trade looming. The Baltic Dry index (…) has climbed over 200 per cent this year as trade has gingerly picked up. (…)

Europe Tops U.S. as Global Growth Locomotive

(…) A 1 percent increase in aggregate demand in Europe’s developed nations gives 33 of 39 international economies a bigger lift in their gross value added, a proxy for gross domestic product, than if the higher demand had occurred in the U.S., Barclays strategists including London-based Jim McCormick said in a Sept. 25 report.

The impact of the European demand rise on the entire world is more than 0.25 percent, three times the U.S. effect. The explanation is that that Europe has a bigger economy with greater trade links and its banks are more exposed globally, McCormick, Barclays’ global head of asset allocation research, told reporters in London yesterday.

Europe’s positive spillovers were calculated using historical relationships between economies. The ripples extend as far as emerging Asian economies and to some in Latin America.

“While it is often believed that the U.S. cycle is a bigger source of global growth shocks, statistics suggest otherwise,” the Barclays report said.

The observation was contained in a study suggesting “the evolution of the European recovery could well be the most important factor for financial markets in the months ahead.”

Among other reasons for that analysis: The euro region’s eight-quarter recession may have hurt asset markets abroad too. Barclays noted that assets typically linked to growth have underperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index by almost 20 percent since Europe’s slump began in the middle of 2011. Since the rebound started this year, growth assets have started to gain against the S&P.

Japan Prices Jump, But it Could be the Peak Market watchers who conclude from Friday’s consumer price data that Japan is speeding out of deflation could be setting themselves up for disappointment in the months ahead.

Economists say the 0.8% jump in core prices, which exclude fresh food, is likely the peak in a three-month rally that politicians have hailed as the beginning of the end to 15 years of falling prices. It was the biggest monthly jump since 2008. (…)

When energy and food are excluded from core CPI – giving “core core CPI” – prices fell for the 56th straight month in August. Economists say that getting prices of everyday expenses like rent and karaoke to rise requires stimulating demand from consumers through higher wages – an unlikely prospect with Japanese companies trying to cut costs instead.

Crying face  Obama and Republicans poles apart on US budget Stand-off over debt ceiling appears intractable

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (6 SEPTEMBER 2013)

ISM Services Index Hits Highest Level Since 2005!

Combining today’s reading in the ISM Services with the ISM Manufacturing report earlier this month and weighting each indicator according to its weight in the overall economy, the overall reading of the ISM Manufacturing and ISM Services index came in at a level of 58.3.  This was tied for the highest reading in this indicator since November 2005.

(…) like the Manufacturing index, both Business Activity and New Orders were both above 60.  The last time both of these components were above 60 in each index was back in February 2011.

Surprised smile Here’s the important chart from BMO Capital:

If history were an infallible guide, we would be calling for 4% GDP growth in Q3. It isn’t, so we’re sticking with an estimate of half this rate (2.0%) based on a few soggy indicators. That said, for the first time this year, we now see some upside risk to our growth profile. It’s a start.

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 August Retail Sales Shy of Hopes

Same-store sales—for the few companies that still report monthly results—came in slightly below expectations, which had been lowered in recent weeks thanks to a number of downbeat forecasts. (…)

Mall traffic remains weak, promotional activity is still high, and apparel retailers in particular are facing difficult comparisons following last year’s strong back-to-school season.

And given that a retailer’s performance during the back-to-school season is typically an indicator of holiday performance, this year’s sluggish August raises concerns about apparel retailers’ prospects for November and December.

The nine retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters reported 2.9% growth in August same-store sales. This compares with analysts’ expectations for 3.2% growth and with 6.5% growth a year earlier.

Many retailers, including the major department stores, have stopped reporting monthly results over the past year, making it more difficult to gauge the performance of the entire industry. (…)

But we have the weekly chain store sales from ICSC:

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U.S. Freight Volumes Increase in August

Shipments rose 1.7 percent from July, supporting the prediction that 2013 will have a peak holiday shipping season, even if it is little more than a bump in volume. Railroad traffic was very strong in August, with carload traffic up 6 percent and intermodal shipments up 6.5 percent. The American Trucking Association’s truck tonnage index fell in July, however the not seasonally adjusted index actually rose 3 percent (latest figures available). August shipments were still lower than in the same month in 2011 and 2012, but the gap has narrowed. On a cumulative basis the number of shipments has risen 5.1 percent since the beginning of the year.

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Emerging market output edges higher in August

The HSBC Emerging Markets Index (EMI), a monthly indicator derived from the PMI™ surveys, recovered from July‟s post-crisis low in August, but signalled only a marginal rise in output across global emerging markets. The EMI rose from 49.5 to 50.7, the third-lowest figure in over four years. That said, it was the first rise in the
headline figure since March.

Manufacturing output was flat in August, as a fractional rise in China was weighed down by declines in other Asian economies and Brazil. Growth of services activity remained weak.

imageOf the four largest emerging economies, China and Russia posted mild increases in output following declines in July. Brazil registered a further marginal drop in activity, while India posted the steepest rate of
decline since March 2009.

Growth of new business resumed following July‟s contraction. The rate of expansion was only marginal, however, with manufacturing new orders little-changed on the month.

Employment declined further in August. The manufacturing workforce shrank for the fourth month running, while service sector staffing declined for the first time in over four years, albeit marginally.

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MORE ON CANADIAN HOUSING

National Bank Financial has one of the best groups of economists on the sell side. Here’s another reason why:

The British magazine “The Economist” recently took another shot at the Canadian housing market. According to an article published for its August 31 issue “Canada’s house prices are bubbly whereas Japan’s are undeservedly flat”. This conclusion is based on a simple comparison of price-to-rent and price-to-income ratios.

In our view, a more thorough analysis of home prices sustainability must also take into account the level of mortgage rates as well as another crucial factor: demographics. As it turns out, Canada has one of the fastest population growth rates in the advanced economies for people
aged 20-44 – the cohort most likely to form households.

As today’s Hot Chart shows, the annual growth in Canada is currently running at 1.2% vs. a 0.3% decline for all advanced economies and a 1.2% drop in Japan.

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ECB Raises GDP Forecast

The ECB slightly upgraded its economic forecast and now expects a contraction in gross domestic product this year of just 0.4%. It shaved 0.1 percentage point from next year’s estimate and now expects GDP growth of 1%.

ECB economists expect inflation to average 1.3% next year, well below the bank’s 2% target, suggesting higher prices aren’t an impediment to additional economic stimulus.

German Exports Unexpectedly Dropped in July

Exports, adjusted for working days and seasonal changes, fell 1.1 percent from June, when they gained 0.6 percent, the Federal Statistics Office in Wiesbaden said today. Economists predicted an increase of 0.7 percent, according to the median forecast of 13 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey. Imports rose 0.5 percent.

Spain industrial output falls for 23rd month in July

Calendar-adjusted output fell 1.4 percent year-on-year in July, data from the National Statistics Institute showed on Friday after a drop of 2.2 percent in June, which was revised down from a preliminary reading for a 1.9 percent contraction.

Japan Government Upgrades Economic Assessment  After 14 long months of “worsening” and “standstills”, Japan’s government finally upgraded its overall economic view on Friday.

Japan’s Cabinet Office deemed July’s coincident composite index—consisting of 11 key economic indicators including industrial output and retail sales—to be “showing improvement” after it rose 0.9 points on month to 106.4, the highest since April 2012. The government defines improvement as being when the index shows “a high likelihood of an economic expansion.” (…)

The indicators that most contributed to the rise were manufacturing-related numbers, such as industrial output and industrial electricity usage, owing to hikes in semiconductor parts production.

According to a Cabinet Office official, even sectors that negatively impacted the coincident index—lagging retails sales—had more to do with bad weather, fewer calendar holidays and earlier-than-usual summer sales schedules rather than consumer mindset. Sales of luxury items such as expensive watches continued to perform well, the official said.

Reuters’s AlphaNow blog remains cautious: JAPAN AT RISK OF A 1997 RE-RUN?

(…) However, a closer look at the details unveils pockets of weakness in terms of the underlying trends—not only are deflationary pressures still brewing, but real wage growth turned negative in the twelve-months to July. This backdrop renders the upcoming decision—expected after the release of the Tankan survey in early October—on the introduction of a VAT increase in April even more contentious. In turn, the looming risk is that we witness a repeat of the mistake made by the Hashimoto administration in 1997. In our view, it is only following concrete signs of a pick-up in wage growth and private demand for credit that fiscal consolidation can be successfully enacted—something Mr Abe should not lose sight of.

Both headline and core—excluding fresh food—CPI measures posted an annual 0.7% increase in July, the highest in five years. However, after stripping out energy costs, CPI was a negative 0.1%. There are, of course, adverse consequences for real earnings, which fell 0.4% in the year to July. Were it not for a large increase in bonuses and overtime pay, the decline in real earnings would have been larger still. In conjunction with July’s declining real exports, these numbers suggest that not only has a weaker yen failed to contain—let alone reduce—Japan’s trade deficit, but it is also giving the economy the wrong kind of inflation. The balance Mr Abe has to strike, between pursuit of growth and fiscal discipline, is getting increasingly finer.

This situation is reminiscent of 1997, when the Hashimoto government proceeded with what proved to be premature fiscal consolidation. Back then, the decision to implement a combination of higher taxes and lower spending was predicated on the belief that the economy could ‘take it’, drawing confidence from a strong GDP report for the previous year. Ironically, we have a similar set of circumstances this time. (…)

Notwithstanding the fragile state of Japanese consumers’ purchasing power, it is predominantly government spending that is helping to sustain aggregate demand—Japan’s private sector is still saving at a rate equal to over 9% of GDP. Until there is clear evidence of growth in private demand for credit, which would act as an offset to fiscal consolidation, a tighter budget will more likely than not arrest Japan’s positive economic momentum.

Moreover, we are not at all convinced that the much-vaunted counterbalancing measures will stem the negative implications higher VAT has for domestic demand, at least in the short term. Any benefit from the introduction of corporate tax cuts and an accelerated depreciation scheme for business investment would be a long time coming, in contrast to the immediate impact of a tax on consumption. In addition, one lesson policymakers ought to have learned by now is that more QE is no direct substitute for fiscal retrenchment, particularly amid a balance sheet recession.

Mr Abe is between a rock and a hard place. Backing off on the VAT rise could be perceived as simply sending the wrong message to investors, both in terms of political credibility and commitment to fiscal discipline. But should a decision to proceed as planned backfire, this would constitute a heavy blow to Abenomics as a whole. A reversal of market sentiment on Japan could provide the catalyst for a broad selloff. The ‘honeymoon’ period for JGBs—which remain largely unaffected by Fed tapering talk—could be tested once again.

One policy option for the government might be to announce some additional targeted fiscal spending measures along with, and as an offset to, the tax increase. Mr Abe would do well to play it safe at this juncture—particularly as the sizes of Japan’s debt and deficit dwarfs those facing Mr Hashimoto in 1997.

Optimism grows for developed economies Government borrowing costs in the US and Europe surge

Treasury Yields Top 3%

Hours ahead of U.S. employment data that could seal the deal for the U.S. Federal Reserve to start pulling back on monetary stimulus this month, ten-year bond yields traded above 3% for the first time in over two years.

image(…) As Treasurys have tottered, yields on 10-year gilts have climbed to over two-year highs over 3%. The yield on the 10-year Bund has risen to 2.02%, the highest level since March 2012. The yield on 10-year Japanese government bonds climbed to a one-month-high Friday

An unwinding of monetary stimulus in the U.S. will also mean fewer dollars flowing into emerging markets. Jitters over Fed tapering have cast the market’s unfriendly gaze over countries with greater dependency on foreign money, such as Turkey and India. Bond markets from Brazil to South Africa have tumbled.

U.S. BANKS CAPITAL RATIOS BACK UP

As the industry’s capital ratios have greatly improved from pre-crisis levels, we expect that eventually the industry’s “beta” will fall due to capital strength, a stronger regulatory framework, and enhanced transparency afforded by processes such as the CCAR. (RBC Capital)

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MORE ON EQUITY VS COPPER CORRELATION

In my Sept. 3 New$ & View$, I disagreed with John Mauldin on the long-term correlation between copper and equity prices:

Something inside me screeched when I read “Unless the long-term correlation has disappeared”. John is younger than me so his “long term” must differ. Here’s my “long term” which does not correlate copper with equity prices very well (sorry, I do not have John’s means to quickly combine both series on the same chart but the time frames are the same).

I may be short on means but not on friends. Terry Orstland (TSO Research) graciously sent me copper prices back to 1970. Here’s the chart combining both series:

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TRAVELLING

Suzanne and I will be travelling in Europe for the next 3 weeks. Posting will continue as much as possible subject to our schedule. Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium. Sounds like a beer tour! Mug

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (30 AUGUST 2013)

This is a long post but I think well worth reading during the long week-end.

 

Second-Quarter GDP Revised Upward

The U.S. economy entered the second half of the year on firmer footing than previously estimated, with stronger growth, an uptick in corporate profits and consumers feeling better amid a rebound in housing.

[image]Strong exports, improved business investment and solid consumer spending helped U.S. gross domestic product grow at a 2.5% rate in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That marked a significant improvement both from the first three months of the year, when the economy grew at a 1.1% annual rate, and from the government’s earlier, preliminary estimate of second-quarter growth of 1.7%. The latest report means U.S. per capita economic output has finally—four years after the end of the recession—returned to the pre-crisis peak it reached in late 2007.

BMO Capital offers a good summary:

The good news is, the U.S. economy grew more than initially expected a month ago. The first stab at the Q2 real GDP on July 31st was 1.7% a.r. Then the trade numbers came out and wow, the view changed and it looked like GDP grew in the neighborhood of 2½% a.r. Then, as the
days went by, more data on inventories and consumer spending caused estimates to be trimmed, leaving consensus and us at around 2.2%-to-2.3% for the second quarter. Now, gentle reader, it looks like we should’ve stuck with the trade data as real GDP did rise 2.5% a.r. in Q2, the largest increase in nearly one year. That and the fact that consumer spending wasn’t revised at all (still 1.8% a.r.) is encouraging. Exports were revised up nicely, and inventories added more to the bottom line.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the huge swing in nonresidential investment in structures (factories, buildings, etc)—initially pegged at 6.8% and is now looking like 16.1%. One should, perhaps, regard this with some skepticism, particularly as private nonresidential construction spending has been soft over the past year. Offsetting all of these pluses was a larger-than-estimated drop in government spending.

But aside from the stronger headline, underlying demand isn’t what I’d describe as … fabulous. It’s alright, but not fab. Final domestic demand (GDP excluding inventories and net exports) was trimmed to +1.9% a.r. from +2.0% but this also takes into account government cutbacks. Private final sales (GDP excluding inventories, net exports  and government) was unchanged at 2.6%, which is not fabulous but still decent.

Doug Short illustrates the difference between “fabulous” and “alright”. Quite a step down from a 3.3% cruising speed to 1.8%.

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The only thing not revised up was consumer spending, 70% of the economy. There, the downshifts were from 5.5% in the late 1990’s to 3-4% in the mid-2000’s to the current 2% pace.

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But that is in spite a real disposable income per capita no longer growing. How long can a 2% spending pace be sustained without income growth?

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In the second half of 2012, consumer spending got support from a sharp drop in gas prices. Ain’t happening just yet.image

Could that help? Saudi Arabia Set to Pump 10.5M Barrels of Crude a Day

Saudi Arabia is set to pump 10.5 million barrels a day of crude in the third quarter, a million bpd increment over the second quarter and its highest quarterly level of production ever, leading U.S. energy consultancy PIRA said. (…)

“This is the tightest physical balance on the world oil market I’ve seen for a long time.” PIRA reported its estimate to clients earlier this week.

Libyan oil output has fallen from 1.4 million bpd to just 250,000 bpd after protesters shut oilfields. (…)

Ross said about 400,000 bpd of the incremental supply would go to feed domestic Saudi power usage during peak summer demand for air conditioning. (…)

U.S. Prepares for Solo Strike Against Syria

The Obama administration laid the groundwork for unilateral military action, a shift officials said reflected the U.K.’s abrupt decision not to participate and concerns Bashar al-Assad was using the delays to disperse military assets.

France ready for Syria strike without UK
Hollande to discuss next move with Obama
 

Hmmm…

This morning:

Consumer Spending in U.S. Increase Less Than Forecast as Income Gains Slow

Consumer purchases, which account for about 70 percent of the economy, rose 0.1 percent after a revised 0.6 percent increase the prior month that was larger than previously estimated, the Commerce Department reported today in Washington.

Sad smile Adjusting consumer spending for inflation, purchases were unchanged in July compared with a 0.2 percent increase the previous month, according to today’s report.

The Commerce Department’s price index tied to spending, a gauge tracked by Federal Reserve policy makers, increased 1.4 percent in July from the same period in 2012. The core price measure, which excludes volatile food and energy categories, rose 1.2 percent from July 2012.

U.S. HOUSING COOLING?

Bidding Wars Continue to Tumble as Housing Market Rebalances

Competition in the US residential real estate market dropped for the fourth consecutive month in July, underscoring the market’s overall trend towards balance. Nationally, the percentage of offers written by Redfin agents that faced multiple bids fell to 63.3 percent in July, down from 68.6 percent in June, and 75.7 percent at the peak in March.image

The slide in competition reflects multiple factors that are beginning to erode sellers’ market dominance across the nation:

Buyer Fatigue: First and foremost, Redfin agents report that buyers in the nation’s most competitive markets are growing weary. (…)

Budgets: The combined effect of rising prices and mortgage rates continues to price buyers out of the market, reducing competition for available inventory. Nationally, the median home price per square foot for single-family homes was up 18.7 percent in July from the year before and average weekly 30-year fixed mortgage rates in July were up about one percentage point from May. For a $250,000 mortgage, this jump in prices and mortgage rates translates to a rise in mortgage payments of more than $300 per month.image

Growing Inventory: Rising prices and mortgage rates are also driving homeowners to list their homes in greater numbers, which is boosting options for buyers. As of June, the number of single-family homes for sale in Redfin markets was up 7.8 percent from March and the national months of supply of inventory grew from 2.7 in May to 3 in June. Some homeowners who were underwater on their mortgages are becoming more confident that their homes can fetch a fair price and are deciding to list. Furthermore, our agents in San Francisco and Chicago report that mortgage rates are also leading homeowners to list. Homeowners, too, want to capitalize on historically low rates and move up before rates increase further. (…)

Further Cooling on Tap for Autumn: Looking forward, we expect that bidding wars will continue to cool slightly during the autumn months. The real estate market was atypically hot during autumn of 2012 because buyers were rushing to lock in low mortgage rates once home prices stabilized. Now that rates are higher, home prices continue to rise, and more inventory is coming available, buyers are likely to battle for homes less often.(…)

EUROTURN?

 

Euro-Zone Adds 15,000 Jobs

The number of people unemployed in the euro zone fell in July for the second month in a row, adding to tentative signs that a modest recovery under way in the currency bloc’s economy is starting to erode its sky-high levels of joblessness.

Eurostat said the annual rate of consumer-price inflation fell to 1.3% in August from 1.6% in July, putting it considerably below the central bank’s target area of a little below 2%.

Sad smile  German Retail Sales Unexpectedly Drop in Sign of Uneven Recovery

German retail sales unexpectedly fell for a second month in July, signaling an uneven recovery in Europe’s largest economy.

Sales adjusted for inflation and seasonal swings dropped 1.4 percent from June, when they declined 0.8 percent, the Federal Statistics Office in Wiesbaden said today. Economists predicted an increase of 0.6 percent, according to the median of 27 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey. Sales climbed 2.3 percent from a year earlier.

These are big drops!

Fingers crossed Eurozone sales rise marginally in August

Retail sales in the eurozone rose for the first time in nearly two years in August, Markit’s retail PMI® data showed. The value of retail sales increased since July, albeit only marginally. Employment at retailers also rose slightly following a 16-month sequence of decline. National differences in sales trends remained, however, as Germany registered further strong growth, France achieved a back-to-back modest rise and Italy posted an ongoing sharp decline.

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Germany’s retail sector continued to drive the overall increase in eurozone retail sales. Sales rose on a monthly basis for the fourth successive survey, the longest sequence of growth in 17 months.
Moreover, the rate of expansion was little-changed from July’s two-and-a-half year high.

Retail sales in France rose for the second month running in August, and at the strongest rate since October 2011. Prior to July, sales had fallen for a survey-record 15-month period.

Italy remained the weak link in the eurozone retail recovery mid-way through Q3. Sales fell for the thirtieth successive month, and the rate of
contraction remained sharp despite easing since July.

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Retail sales in the eurozone continued to decline on an annual basis. That said, the rate of contraction eased to the slowest since October 2011. A further sign of the nascent recovery in the eurozone retail sector was a rise in employment in August. This mainly reflected recruitment at German retailers, while retail employment in France stabilised following a prolonged period of cuts and Italian retailers shed staff at the slowest rate since August 2010.

Pointing up imageAverage purchase prices paid by retailers for new goods rose at a sharper rate in August. By product sector, food & drink again posted the steepest rate of inflation, followed by clothing & footwear. Among the three national retail sectors covered, Germany posted the steepest increase in average input costs. Meanwhile, gross margins across the eurozone retail sector declined at the slowest rate since April 2011.

Note that the retail PMI is barely above 50 and has shown a very high volatility in recent years. The German engine remains fairly sound but the Italian and French engines remain unreliable. See below on France.

DOUCE FRANCE from BloomberBriefs:

President Francois Hollande’s pension reforms will probably fail to eliminate the pension deficit or make the French economy more
competitive. France’s government spends the most in the euro area relative to its GDP and has the third-highest labor costs.

People under the age of 40 will have to work beyond 62 to earn a full
pension. Contributions by both workers and employers will increase by
0.3 percentage point in 2017, though the government will cut other payroll charges in an effort to contain labor costs. The pension system is still likely to have a deficit of 13.6 billion euros in 2020, instead of 20.7 billion euros, even if all the announced measures are adopted, according to the French pension council.

The proportion of population over the age of 65 is forecast to climb to 18
percent next year from 17.1 percent in 2012. France has the third-highest
share of labor costs allocated to employers’ social contributions, according to Eurostat, at 34.2 percent, compared with 21 percent in Spain. The nation is ranked the 21st most competitive economy in the world, compared with sixth for Germany, according to the Global Competitiveness Index.

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The government may be forced to introduce additional spending cuts and
tax increases to meet its commitment to balance the budget by 2017. It is
likely to miss the target of narrowing the deficit to 3.7 percent of GDP this
year from 4.5 percent, having abandoned the original target of 3 percent.
France has failed to balance its budget since 1974, and the shortfall has
averaged 3.9 percent of GDP over the last decade.

image

The government claims two-thirds of its austerity measures will come
from changes to the tax system this year, with 20 billion euros in tax
increases planned, compared with 10 billion euros in spending cuts. Taxes
accounted for 45.9 percent of GDP in 2011, compared with a euro-area
average of 40.8 percent. Public spending in France amounts to 57 percent
of GDP, the highest level in the euro region.

Red heart EPSILON THEORY: CENTRAL BANK COMPETENCE OR LACK THEREOF

U.S. equity markets have done well recently against flattening earnings, stable inflation rates and higher interest rates. Rising investors confidence has translated into absolute P/E ratios that are 10% above their historical mean and Rule of 20 readings that are unfavourable from a risk/reward ratio standpoint.

Earnings expectations for Q3 and Q4 look increasingly vulnerable. Can confidence stay high enough to offset “natural”, more dependable forces?

Ben Hunt’s latest note is highly relevant here:

(…) The shift in perceptions of Fed competence is being driven by opinion leaders’ public statements questioning the Fed’s communication policy. Here’s the critical point from an Epsilon Theory perspective: these public statements are not questioning the content of Fed communications; they are questioning the USE of communications as a policy instrument in and of itself. In exactly the same way that a magician immediately becomes much less impressive once you know how he does his trick, so is the Fed much less impressive once you start focusing on HOW policy is being communicated rather than WHAT policy is being implemented.

For example, this past Saturday Jean-Pierre Landau, a former Deputy Governor of the Bank of France and currently in residence at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, presented a paper at Jackson Hole focused on the systemic risks of the massive liquidity sloshing around courtesy of the world’s central banks. For the most part it’s a typical academic paper in the European mold, finding a solution to systemic risks in even greater supra-national government controls over capital flows, leverage, and risk taking.  But here’s the interesting point:

Pointing upZero interest rates make risk taking cheap; forward guidance makes it free, by eliminating all roll over risk on short term funding positions. … Forward guidance brings the cost of leverage to zero, and creates strong incentives to increase and overextend exposures. This makes financial intermediaries very sensitive to “news”, whatever they are.”

Landau is saying that the very act of forward guidance, while well-intentioned, is counter-productive if your goal is long-term systemic stability. There is an inevitable shock when that forward guidance shifts, and that shock is magnified because you’ve trained the market to rely so heavily on forward guidance, both in its risk-taking behavior (more leverage) and its reaction behavior (more sensitivity to “news”). This argument was picked up by the WSJ (“Did Fed’s Forward Guidance Backfire?”) over the weekend, and it continues to get a lot of play. It’s an argument I’ve made extensively in Epsilon Theory, particularly in “2 Fast 2 Furious.”

Landau’s paper is probably the most public example of this meta-critique of the Fed, but I don’t think it’s been the most powerful. Highly influential opinion leaders such as David Zervos and John Mauldin have recently written in their inimitable styles about the Fed’s use of words and speeches as an attempt at misdirection, as an ultimately misguided effort to hide or sugarcoat actual policy. FOMC members themselves are starting to question the Fed’s reliance on communications as a policy instrument, as evidenced by the minutes released last week. Combine all this with the growing media focus on the “battle” between Yellen and Summers for the Fed Chair – a focus which will create policy disagreements between the candidates in the public’s perception even if no such disagreements exist in reality – and you have a recipe for accelerating weakness in perception of Fed competence.

The shift in perception of non-Fed central bank competence, especially of Emerging Market central banks, is even more pronounced. Actually, “competence” is the wrong word to use here. The growing Narrative is that Emerging Market central banks are powerless, not incompetent. The academic foundation here was made in a paper by Helene Rey of the London Business School, also presented at Jackson Hole, where the nutshell argument is that global financial cycles are creatures of Fed policy … period, end of story. Not only is every other country just along for the ride, but Emerging Markets are kidding themselves if they think that their plight matters one whit to the US and the Fed.

Just as malcontents with the exercise of Fed communication policy may be found within the FOMC itself, you don’t have to look any further than Emerging Market central bankers and finance ministers themselves for outspoken statements protesting their own impotence. Agustin Carstens, Mexico’s equivalent to Ben Bernanke, gave a speech on the “massive carry trade strategies” caused by ZIRP and pleaded for more Fed sensitivity to their capital flow risks. Interesting how the Fed is to blame now that the cash is flowing out, but it was Mexico’s wonderful growth profile to credit when the cash was flowing in. South Africa’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, gave an interview to the FT from Jackson Hole where he bemoaned the “inability to find coherent and cohesive responses across the globe to ensure that we reduce the volatility in currencies in particular, but also in sentiment” now that the Fed is talking about a Taper. Christine Lagarde got into the act, of course, calling on the world to build “further lines of defense” even as she noted that the IMF would (gulp!) have to stand in the breach as the Fed left the field. To paraphrase Job: the Fed gave, and the Fed hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Fed.

I’ll have a LOT more to say about all this in the weeks and months to come, but I thought it would be useful to highlight these shifts in Narrative structure in real-time as I am seeing them. Informational inflection points in the market’s most powerful Narratives are happening right now, and this is what will drive markets for the foreseeable future.

Right on cue:

India’s Central Bank Governor Concedes to Missteps

It is rare for officials to admit that their policies have been less than perfect, but India’s central bank governor Duvvuri Subbarao did just that late Thursday, in his last public speech as head of the Reserve Bank of India.

Mr. Subbarao, whose five-year term as RBI governor ends Sept. 4, said the bank could have done a better job of explaining the intentions behind the various steps it has taken in the last three months to support India’s declining currency.

“There has been criticism that the Reserve Bank’s policy measures have been confusing and betray a lack of resolve to curb exchange-rate volatility,” Mr. Subbarao said at a lecture in Mumbai. He said that the RBI is unequivocally committed to curbing volatility in the rupee. “I admit that we could have communicated the rationale of our measures more effectively,” he added.

Ghost Über-bear Albert Edwards will scare you even more, courtesy of ZeroHedge:

(…) The fabulously entertaining Zero Hedge website keeps running the charts showing that the evolution of bond yields and equity markets this year resembles closely what happened in 1987 (see below). Now we should all take these comparisons with a pinch of salt, but what if…

I remember the 1987 crash well. I was working at Bank America Investment Management as an economist/strategist at the time. Of course, the immediate trigger for the equity crash was the fear of US recession caused by the fear that the US would have to hike rates sharply to defend the dollar. Those fears were triggered by Germany raising rates at a time when the G6 had recently agreed to stabilise the US dollar at the February 1987 Louvre Accord, after two years of sanctioned dollar weakness. Investors got into a tizzy about recession, jumping many steps ahead of the game. But, in the wake of a run-up in US bond yields that year, equities were richly priced and so very vulnerable to recession fears, however unfounded. And then the machines took over. That couldn’t possibly happen again, or could it?

Therein lies one of the key lessons I learnt in my 30 years in the markets. Pointing up It is not just to try to predict what will happen, but to second-guess what the markets fear might happen. Indeed a recession did not ensue and the 1987 crash turned into a tremendous buying opportunity.

Edwards then links with the EM debacle:

But another shoe will surely drop soon. China has gone off the radar in the last month, as the data have firmed, but it is set to return centre stage. Our China economist Wei Yao, thinks “this sudden turn-around is similar to that during Q4 2012, when the multi-quarter deceleration trend reversed shortly after the policy stance shifted to “cautious” easing. But that growth pick-up did not last for more than one quarter.” A continued slowdown in credit growth will strangle the current buoyancy of house price inflation (see charts below), with property sales growth having already peaked. Wei expects the Chinese data to relapse in Q4.

“Many people are writing about a Chinese credit crunch and banking crisis. I disagree. The authorities will have a choice as to whether to accept such a crunch or devalue and launch a new credit cycle to keep the balls in the air once again. Devaluation is the preferred option…..So the (recent) spike in SHIBOR was not a tremor indicating the earthquake of a banking crisis, but a tremor of a forthcoming RMB devaluation.” That will be the biggest domino of all to fall. And, as with the 1987 crash, markets will react to the fear of the devaluation and the deflation it will bring to the west, rather than the event itself. (…)

The emerging markets “story” has once again been exposed as a pyramid of piffle. The EM edifice has come crashing down as their underlying balance of payments weaknesses have been exposed first by the yen’s slide and then by the threat of Fed tightening. China has flipflopped from berating Bernanke for too much QE in 2010 to warning about the negative impact of tapering on emerging markets! It is a mystery to me why anyone, apart from the activists that seem to inhabit western central banks, thinks QE could be the solution to the problems of the global economy. But in temporarily papering over the cracks, they have allowed those cracks to become immeasurably deep crevasses. At the risk of being called a crackpot again, I repeat my forecasts of 450 for the S&P, sub-1% US 10y yields and gold above $10,000. Ghost

Indian Growth Slows to Four-Year Low as Rupee Drop Dims Outlook

Gross domestic product rose 4.4 percent in the three months through June from a year earlier, compared with 4.8 percent in the prior quarter, the Statistics Ministry said in New Delhi today. The median of 44 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey was for a 4.7 percent gain.

Emerging Markets Raise Rates

Indonesia raised its benchmark rate by half a percentage point on Thursday, one day after a half-point increase by Brazil and a week after a rate increase by Turkey. Other developing economies are under mounting pressure to tighten credit to support their weakening currencies. Brazil’s central bank hinted at further increases to come.

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(…) The value of India’s rupee has fallen by a fifth against the U.S. dollar since the beginning of May. The Reserve Bank of India’s initial response was to stop easing monetary policy, holding benchmark interest rates steady in June and July. When the rupee kept falling, the RBI limited the amount of money banks could borrow from it.

Investors saw that as effectively raising interest rates, at a time when India’s economy was growing at its slowest pace in a decade. Bonds and stocks sold off after the RBI’s steps. Yields on both short- and long-term rupee bonds jumped.

Some analysts say the incoming Indian central-bank governor may have no choice but to raise interest rates sharply, much as Fed Chairman Paul Volcker did in the U.S. in the 1980s.

South Africa is in a similar bind. Authorities want to halt declines in its currency, which has lost nearly a quarter of its value against the dollar over the past year but are reluctant to smother already weak growth.

Inflation reached an annual rate of 6.3% in July, but when South African central-bank officials meet to discuss rates again next month, they will be loath to raise rates in an economy struggling to meet forecasts for 2% growth this year, analysts say.

Some investors worry that they could see a repeat of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, or the stampede out of emerging-market currencies a decade later in 2008. But there are reasons to believe it won’t be that bad.

Pointing up Most emerging-market currencies today are allowed to float, so central-bank officials don’t have to defend a fixed exchange rate as they did during the Asian crisis. The government debt levels of countries like Indonesia, India and Brazil aren’t particularly high and are denominated mainly in local currency.

Not just in the U.S.: Elections Complicate Economic Decisions for India,Indonesia Upcoming elections in India and Indonesia, two of the countries hardest hit by the selloff in emerging-market assets, are making it more difficult to make the tough decisions both countries need.

Pointing up  Ft Alphaville has a great post on the EM situation:

From a recent Citi presentation, a chart stressing the potential risk of negative-feedback loops in the options available to those emerging market countries now trying to stem capital outflows and defend their currencies:

The chart makes an important point and is self-explanatory, but it isn’t comprehensive.

Notably excluded is the imposition of capital controls on outflows, which thus far have been mostly resisted with the exception of some limited measures in India. (…)

Also unmentioned is the option to lobby the central banks of developed countries, encouraging them not to tighten policy too quickly. This option appears to have been pursued with some vigour at Jackson Hole last weekend, but probably won’t carry much weight at the next FOMC meeting.

So the immediate options, at least those of a sweeping nature, are unattractive. And the possibility that emerging market central banks and governments will overreact and excessively tighten policy is a singular concern. (…)

But the broader issue is that it remains quite difficult to gauge the severity of the year’s EM currency and asset selloff — and to know whether it is more attributable to an acute market crisis versus a more fundamental economic shift.

Among the various possible causes normally cited are the Fed’s talk of tapering; the unwinding of carry trades; Chinese rebalancing; the pass-through effects of this rebalancing on commodity-exporters (Australia, South Africa, various countries in South America); the end of the commodity super-cycle generally; the limits to growth in countries that procrastinated on necessary structural changes; continued sluggishness by developed-country consumers; and dwindling investor patience with widening current account and budget deficits.

The causes aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and some influence the others in various ways.

It’s also tough to know, at least for the inexpert or non-obsessive follower of international economics, how prepared the affected countries are to handle it.

The current situation — has it reached the level of “crisis” yet? — inevitably will have a similar feel to the crises of the 1990s given the reversal of hot money flows, the threat from speculators attacking various currencies, and even the involvement of some of the same countries. But so much is different, and most of the differences are positive.

As our colleagues David Pilling and Josh Noble wrote in Wednesday’s FT:

Back then, many countries had fixed exchange rates and their companies were heavily exposed to foreign debt. As currencies came under pressure, central banks desperately spent reserves to defend them. When the peg finally broke, currencies collapsed and companies’ foreign-denominated debts soared.

Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea had to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. Partly as a result of now largely discredited IMF austerity packages, they subsequently plunged into deep recession. Indonesia, the worst affected, lost 13.5 per cent of GDP in a single year. Suharto, the dictator, was toppled.

Today the picture is very different. Asian economies have flexible exchange rates, much higher reserves and sounder banking systems. India, for example, has reserves to cover seven months of imports compared with only about three weeks when it had its own “come-to-IMF” moment in 1991.

Nor, this time around, has India’s central bank wasted much firepower on defending the currency. Instead, it has largely allowed the rupee to slide. A weaker currency should boost exports and slow imports, closing the current account deficit automatically.

And so it might, hopefully without much lasting damage. We would also note the still-favourable growth differentials between developed and emerging market countries, which didn’t exist in the 1990s.

Admittedly this doesn’t preclude a new crisis or crises of a different flavour, and do read the full FT piece for the thoughts of more-pessimistic commentators, with careful attention to the points of Ruchir Sharma. Still, for the moment the problems seem at least endurable, if not actively manageable.

And although these countries’ immediate choices are regrettably limited, there is also a more hopeful longer-term story that can be told about this year’s events.

It’s mainly about how (some of) the lessons of the 1990s and the recent developed-world financial crisis have been heeded. In addition to the ability of emerging market currencies to respond to market forces, the relevant Asian countries also better understand the need for multi-lateral coordination and support during crises.

Furthermore, as economists from Standard Chartered explained, it’s likely that investors have become more discerning about the details of countries’ external funding problems. The economists looked at the short-term external debt situations for India, Indonesia, and Thailand — the three countries involved running a current account deficit — and found that “in all three cases the vast majority of the debt due within one year does not come with serious financing risk”.

More broadly, we’ve been especially interested in tracking the continued expansion of local-currency debt and capital markets, where tremendous progress has been made in the last decade and a half, especially in sovereign and corporate bond markets.

They’re important for a few reasons.

Companies in emerging markets find it easier to borrow in their own currencies, and are better able to hedge their debt if they rely on imports denominated in foreign currencies. Currency swings therefore become less threatening. (…)

Emerging market governments with sophisticated capital markets also have less need to build up massive stores of foreign currency reserves, a process that exacerbated the unnatural problem of global imbalances in the decade prior to the crisis of 2008 — when too much capital flowed from developing countries to developed countries rather than the other way round.

And of course, robust local-currency debt and equity markets, when accompanied by sound governance practices, reduce the dependence on foreign bank lenders and lead to a more diversified base of stakeholders. (…)

International trade and capital flows collapsed after the financial crisis of 2008. Within Europe the balkanisation of financial markets has mostly remained in place. But as both Citi’s presentation and a helpful McKinsey report explain in detail, by 2012 capital inflows to emerging markets had returned nearly to their pre-crisis levels.

These inflows returned, however, mainly in the form of foreign direct investment and investments via capital markets rather than bank lending.

Foreign direct investment is already considered to be a more stable kind of inflow. And the progress in developing local-currency capital markets also indicates that the growth in portfolio flows will be less worrying in the future, if certainly not yet.

These were favourable trends. Despite the present slowdown, in time they are likely to resume course given the disproportionately shallower financial markets in developing countries.

Investors in local-currency emerging market debt have been shellacked this year, and clearly the FX markets are spooked. Maybe the selloff will accelerate and new balance of payments crises really are imminent. We don’t know: much depends on policy still being decided, especially given the recent introduction of heightened geopolitical risks. We certainly don’t mean to dismiss the possibility of a terrible outcome, especially for an individual country.

Fingers crossed For now, however, the problems appear both different in nature and smaller in scale, and unlikely to spread uncontrollably. If we’re right about that, then a plausible explanation is that the lessons of the 1990s haven’t gone entirely ignored. And if a number of emerging market countries are about to enter a grinding period of slower growth and structural adjustments, or to experience new financial strains, at least they do so better prepared. (…)

Japan inflation highest in five years
Weaker yen pushes up cost of fuel and electricity

Consumer price inflation in Japan rose to an annual rate of 0.7 per cent in July, its highest level in almost five years, as the effects of a weaker yen pushed up the cost of fuel and electricity.

Excluding fresh food, the all-items index rose by 0.7 per cent from a year earlier and by 0.1 per cent from June.

But excluding the cost of energy from the calculation brings the yearly CPI to minus 0.1 per cent. The prices of items such as housing, furniture, medical care and culture and recreation all fell from a year earlier, while charges for fuel, light and water rose by 6.4 per cent.

Other data released on Friday morning were positive. The jobless rate dropped to 3.8 per cent, from 3.9 per cent in June, while industrial production rose by 1.6 per cent on a yearly basis and 3.2 per cent on the previous month.

Household spending edged up 0.1 per cent from a year earlier, from a 0.4 per cent fall in June.

Signs of Japanese Investment Uptick Investment by Japanese companies has been a laggard in the nation’s economic recovery. But things could be turning, data showed Friday.

Industrial production jumped 3.2% on month in July, reversing a 3.1% downturn in June.

The government was keen to point out that much of the production seems to show companies are spending more on increasing production.

The output of capital goods, which includes machinery, was at its highest level on a seasonally-adjusted basis since May 2012, a Japanese official said. The official also pointed toward big jumps in the output of goods such as steam turbines and equipment used in the plastics industry – tentative signs that companies are investing in increasing capacity. (…)

Other data today added to a sense that companies’ optimism is returning. Japan’s Purchasing Managers’ Index rebounded to 52.2 in August from 50.7 in July. That’s not far off a high of 52.3 in June. New orders, a sign of renewed corporate activity, were strong.

Have a good one!