NEW$ & VIEW$ (3 FEBRUARY 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile:

China’s Manufacturing Activity Slows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Materially Slower Spending Growth by Emerging Market Countries Will Be Felt

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EARNINGS WATCH

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

  • Factset provides its usual good rundown:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, Zack acknowledges that if remaining companies meet estimates

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

Eurozone Bank Earnings Weigh On Stocks

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

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

SENTIMENT WATCH

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

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

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

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

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

    Get used to it.

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

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

ANOTHER BAROMETER…

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

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

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

decennial-cycle-011414

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

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

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

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

Decennial-cycle-011414-2

AND MORE ON THE JANUARY BAROMETER

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Downsizing” the January barometer

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

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

jajo effect 1

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

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

jajo effect 2

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

Do years or quarters hold the key to the calendar?

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

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

jajo effect 3

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

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

 M&A — Best Start to Year Since 2011

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

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

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

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

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (29 JANUARY 2014)

SOFT PATCH WATCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to View

SPEAKING OF CARS

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

A Cooling of Americans’ Love Affair With Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December Shipment Volumes

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

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

Truckload pricing trend data

Intermodal price trends

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

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

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

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

Turkey Gets Aggressive on Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe Banks Show Signs of Healing

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

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

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

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

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

Big Oil’s Costs Soar

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

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

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

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

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

Costly Quest

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

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

EARNINGS WATCH

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canon to Return Some Production to Japan

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

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

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

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (24 JANUARY 2014)

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

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

Click to View

Chicago Fed: Economic Growth Moderated in December

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

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

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

Click to View

HOUSING WATCH

Existing Home Sales Approach a New Normal

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

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

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

CalculatedRisk adds:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Framing Lumber Prices: Moving on Up

 

 

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

Also: Gundlach Counting Rotting Homes Makes Subprime Bear

 

GE’s Rice Sees Global Growth

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

Investors Flee Developing Countries

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

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

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

And this little nugget:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Shale Boom Forces Pemex’s Hand

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

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

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (21 JANUARY 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small firms capex is also brightening:

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

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

image

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

image

So:

Fed on Track For Next Cut In Bond Buys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Declares Drought Emergency

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

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

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

Euro-Zone House Prices Improve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thailand Seen Cutting Rates as Unrest Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Working Population Fell Again in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENTIMENT WATCH

 

Stock Values Worry Analysts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (13 JANUARY 2014)

DRIVING BLIND (Cont’d)

 

U.S. Hiring Slowdown Blurs Growth View

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

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

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

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

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

Where Jobs Were Added

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

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

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

Weak personal income:

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

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

BloombergBriefs explains further:

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

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

image

 

Fed Unlikely To Alter Course

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

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

(…) The report exacerbated another conundrum for officials.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Supply/demand #1: Oversupply

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Supply/demand #2: Shortage

BlackRock: Jobs Report Shows Unemployment Is Structural

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

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

  • Supply/demand #3: Dunno!

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

Here’s the optimistic view…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe there are a few millions there:

cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now this from yours truly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

image image

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

image

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

image 

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

image

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

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

All this so late in the bull market!

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

Meanwhile,

Subprime Auto Lenders to Ease Standards Further: Moody’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy’s November Industrial Output Rises

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

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

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

EARNINGS WATCH

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

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

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

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

SENTIMENT WATCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

But: Stock Bargains Not Hard to Find, JPMorgan Says

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

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

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

GOOD QUOTES

Barron’s Randall Forsyth:

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

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

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (10 JANUARY 2014)

China Data Suggest Tepid Pickup in West

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

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

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

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

However:

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

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

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

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

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

Low-End Retailers Had a Rough Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

Thomson Reuters rounds it up:

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

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

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

Banks Cut as Mortgage Boom Ends

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

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

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

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

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

Draghi Says ECB Ready to Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil Breaking Down

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

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

Ghost SENTIMENT WATCH

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

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

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

Ian McAvity:

image

image

Lance Roberts:

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

Click to View

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

Click to View

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

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (3 JANUARY 2014)

Global Manufacturing Improves At Fastest Pace Since February 2011

The end of 2013 saw growth of the global manufacturing sector accelerate to a 32-month high. The J.P.Morgan Global Manufacturing PMI™ – a composite index produced by JPMorgan and Markit in association with ISM and IFPSM – rose to 53.3 in December, up from 53.1 in November, to signal expansion for the twelfth month in a row.

imageThe average reading of the headline PMI through 2013 as a whole (51.5) was better than the stagnation signalled over 2012 (PMI: 50.0). The rate
of expansion registered for the final quarter of 2013 was the best since Q2 2011.

Global manufacturing production expanded for the fourteenth straight month in December. Moreover, the pace of increase was the fastest since February 2011, as the growth rate of new orders held broadly steady at November’s 33-month record. New export orders rose for the sixth month running.

Output growth was again led by the G7 developed nations in December, as robust expansions in the US, Japan, Germany, the UK (which registered the highest Output PMI reading of all countries) and Italy
offset the ongoing contraction in France and a sharp growth slowdown in Canada.

Among the larger emerging nations covered by the survey, already muted rates of increase for production eased in China, India and Russia, and remained similarly modest in Brazil and South Korea despite slight  accelerations. Taiwan was a brighter spot, with output growth hitting a 32-month high.

December PMI data signalled an increase in global manufacturing employment for the sixth consecutive month. Although the rate of jobs growth was again only moderate, it was nonetheless the fastest for
almost two-and-a-half years. Payroll numbers were raised in the majority of the nations covered, including the US, Japan, Germany,
the UK, India, Taiwan and South Korea. Job losses were recorded in China, France, Spain, Brazil, Russia, Austria and Greece.

Input price inflation accelerated to a 20-month peak in December, and was slightly above the survey average. Part of the increase in costs was passed on to clients, reflected in the pace of output price inflation reaching a near two-and-a-half year peak.

U.S. Construction Spending Advances Further

The value of construction put-in-place gained 1.0% in November (5.9% y/y) following a little-revised 0.9% October rise. The September increase of 1.4% was revised up substantially from the initially-estimated 0.3% slip.

Private sector construction activity jumped 2.2% (8.6% y/y) in November after no change in October. Residential building surged 1.9% (16.6% y/y) as spending on improvements recovered 2.2% (10.2% y/y). Single-family home building activity gained 1.8% (18.4% y/y) while multi-family building rose 0.9%, up by more than one-third y/y. Nonresidential building activity surged 2.7% (1.0% y/y) paced by an 8.8% gain (37.7% y/y) in multi-retail and a 4.6% rise (11.5% y/y) in office building.

Offsetting these November gains was a 1.8% decline (-0.2% y/y) in the value of public sector building activity. (…)

Surprised smile Euro-Zone Private Lending Plunges

Lending to the private sector in the euro zone plunged in November at the sharpest annual rate since records began over 20 years ago, data from the European Central Bank showed Friday, suggesting that the region will struggle to get its anticipated economic recovery in full gear.

Private sector lending in the euro zone declined by 2.3% on the year, after a 2.2% decline in October, the ECB said. (…)

On the month, lending to households declined by 3 billion euros ($4.1 billion) reversing the €3 billion increase in October, while lending to firms fell by €13 billion, following a €15 billion drop in the previous month. Loans to firms were down by 3.9% on the year. (…)

The ECB’s broad gauge of money supply, or M3, grew by only 1.5% in November in annual terms, above the 1.4% rise in October, while the three-month average grew by 1.7%, after 1.9% in the previous month. The monetary growth data remain well below the ECB’s “reference value” of 4.5%, which it considers consistent with its price stability mandate.

Auto Decline in German car sales accelerated in 2013: KBA

The decline in German car sales accelerated last year, falling below 3 million vehicles for the first time since 2010, reflecting troubles in Europe that have sent auto demand close to a two-decade low.

New car registrations in Germany fell 4.2 percent to 2.95 million last year, the German Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) said, after a decline of 2.9 percent in 2012.

Germany’s premium carmakers BMW (BMWG.DE), Mercedes-Benz (DAIGn.DE) and Audi (NSUG.DE) each lost market share, suffering sales declines of 5.8 percent, 1.4 percent and 5.5 percent respectively. (…)

German mass market brand Opel, owned by General Motors (GM.N), lost 2.9 percent market share last year while Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) sales fell by 4.6 percent in its home market. (…)

Imported volume brands fared worse than their German rivals, with Citroen (PEUP.PA) registrations down 20.6 percent, Chevrolet dropping 17.7 percent and Peugeot down 23.4 percent.

The gainers were South Korean value brands such as Hyundai (005380.KS), which achieved a 0.7 percent increase, and Kia (000270.KS), which boosted sales by 1.6 percent. (…)

Fingers crossed The blow of the overall annual decline was softened by December’s sales figures, with registrations up 5.4 percent on the same month last year, in line with a trend seen in other European countries.

EARNINGS WATCH

 

The Morning Ledger: Rising Rates Buoy Pension Plans

Pension-funding levels surged last year and we could see more gains in 2014. Towers Watson estimates levels last year rose by 16 percentage points to an aggregate 93% for 418 Fortune 1000 companies. That’s still below the 106% reached in 2007, but companies could see triple digits this year if long-term interest rates continue to rise and the stock market remains strong, Alan Glickstein, senior retirement consultant for Towers Watson, tells CFOJ’s Vipal Monga. (…)

Towers Watson said that the discount rate rose to an estimated 4.8% in 2013 from 3.96% in 2012. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 index rose 26% last year, the biggest gain since 1997, which boosted the asset values of the pension funds and helped to further shrink the funding gap. Towers Watson said that pension-plan assets rose an estimated 9% in 2013 to $1.41 trillion, from $1.29 trillion at the end of 2012, while companies cut the amount they contributed to the plans last year by 23% to $48.8 billion.

Heard on the Street’s David Reilly says that the discount rate should keep rising in 2014, even if not briskly as last year. The U.S. economic recovery is gaining strength, and the Fed is tapering its bond purchases. Higher rates should chip away at pensions’ overall liabilities.  “Improvement on both the asset and liability fronts means many companies may be able to begin lowering their pension expense, supporting earnings,” Reilly writes.

Pointing up The report noted that the higher funding levels caused many companies to reduce the amounts they contributed to the plans last year to $48.8 billion. That was 23% less than in 2012.

For example, Ford Motor Co. said in December that the improved environment could help the automaker halve its expected pension contributions to an average annual range between $1 billion to $2 billion over the next three years. That’s down from an earlier outlook of $2 billion to $3 billion.

SENTIMENT WATCH

We are seeing more and more of these thesis “explaining” that markets are expensive but they can carry on. For almost 5 years, most of the “bull” was produced by the bears. Funny how things just never change Crying face. This FT piece tells us all the “uneasy truths”. Well, some of it is not really truth, which is perhaps what makes it uneasy. Sounds like capitulation is very near.

Running with the bulls
Uneasy truths about the US market rally

US stocks may be overpriced and profit margins at a high but even bears say the rally has room to run

(…) Why is there such belief in a long-lived bull market? First, bond yields remain historically low, with 10-year Treasury bills yielding barely 3 per cent. When yields are low it is justifiable to pay a higher multiple for stocks because cheaper credit makes it easier for companies to make profits. Paying more for stocks also seems more palatable when bond yields are low.

Further, there is no evidence that investors are growing overexcited, as they usually do towards the end of a bubble. The American Association of Individual Investors’ weekly poll of its members has long been a reliable contrarian indicator. When large numbers say they are bullish it is generally a good time to sell. When the majority are bearish (the record for this indicator came in the second week of March 2009 when despair was total and the current bull market began) it is a good time to buy. Today, 47 per cent consider themselves bulls and 25 per cent bears, numbers a long way from an extreme of optimism.

However, stocks are unquestionably overpriced. Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price/earnings multiple (Cape), long regarded as a reliable indicator of long-term value, is now at a level at which the market peaked before bear markets several times in the past. However, it remains below the levels it reached during true “bubbles” such as the dotcom mania. The same is true of “Tobin’s q”, which compares share prices with the total replacement value of corporate assets.

Further, profit margins are at a historic high and over time have shown a strong tendency to revert to the historic mean. The combination of high valuations being put on profits benefiting from cyclically high margins suggests markets are overvalued.

Why, then, are brokers calling for rising prices in 2014 or even a melt-up?

First, markets have their own momentum. On all previous occasions when earnings multiples have expanded this far this quickly, research by Morgan Stanley’s Adam Parker shows that they have carried on expanding for at least another year. And while the extent of US stocks’ rise since March 2009 is impressive, the duration of this rally is not unusual. Typically, bull markets carry on for longer. Also, this market has low levels of volatility and has not had a correction in a while. The approaching end of a bull market is generally marked by corrections and rising volatility.

Another reason to believe the bull market could eventually become a bubble lies in the record amounts of cash resting in money market funds, even though these funds pay negligible interest. The bull run is unlikely to peak until some of this money has found its way into stocks.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the role of monetary policy. The Federal Reserve’s programme of “quantitative easing” , in which it has bought mortgage-backed and government bonds in an attempt to force up asset values and push down yields, has had a huge impact on market sentiment.

Although the Fed said in December it would start tapering off its monthly bond purchases, it also says interest rates will stay at virtually zero until well into 2015. The S&P hit a record after the taper announcement. (…)

How can a “melt-up” be averted? Mr Parker of Morgan Stanley suggests that a significant correction would require fear that earnings will come in well below current projections – so the season when companies announce their earnings for the full year, which starts late in January, could be important. But with the US economy exceeding recent forecasts for growth, a serious earnings disappointment seems unlikely without a catalyst from outside the US – such as a big slowdown in China or a renewed crisis in Europe.

Failing these things, it could be left to the Fed itself to do the job by raising rates or removing stimulus faster than the market had expected.

Chris Watling of Longview Economics in London says US equity valuations are undoubtedly “full” – but are no more expensive than when Alan Greenspan, then Fed chairman, tried to talk down the stock market by warning of “irrational exuberance” in December 1996. On that occasion the bull market carried on for three more years and turned into an epic bubble before finally going into reverse.

“They’ll become more expensive,” says Mr Watling. “It’s not until we see tight money that we talk about the end of this valuation uplift in the US.”

This last comment comes from a fellow working at Longview Economics…Winking smile

Ritholtz Chart: Why ‘Wildly Overvalued’ Stocks May Keep Rising

(…) somewhat overvalued U.S. equity prices can continue to rise if price/earning multiples keep expanding.

Further P/E inflation is what BCA (Bank Credit Analyst) is expecting. They point out “a clear link between equity multiples and the yield curve [with] a steeper yield curve indicative of better growth and very easy monetary policy. As such, it often coexists with expanding equity  multiples.”

If we are entering a rising rate environment, a steeper yield curve is a likely stay. BCA notes that “the long end of the curve will be held high by real economic growth and better profitability, while the short end of the curve will be suppressed by the Fed.”

image
 
High five Return of inflation is inevitable
Fund manager Michael Aronstein bets on the lessons of history

Markets are underestimating a coming rout in bond prices, and missing early signs of the return of inflation, according to the US mutual fund manager who has raised more money than any other in the past year. (…)

He and his team pore over price data from hundreds upon hundreds of commodities and manufactured goods, and he highlights proteins – shrimp, beef, chicken – and US lumber among the areas where price spikes are already developing. It is outwards from these pressure points, he says, that the world will finally move from asset price inflation to real consumer price rises.

And as that happens, bonds will tumble and investors will reassess the safety of emerging markets that till now have been fuelled by unprecedentedly cheap money. There are profits to be made buying the companies with pricing power and betting against those without, he says, and from concentrating investment in developed economies and staying cautious beyond.

Party smile Hey! Who invited this Aronstein guy to the party?

OIL AND SHALE OIL

TheTradersWire.com posted this from hedge fund manager Andy Hall earlier this week with the following intro:

Phibro’s (currently Astenback Capital Management) Andy Hall knows a thing or two about the oil market – and even if he doesn’t (and it was all luck), his views are sufficiently respected to influence the industrial groupthink. Which is why for anyone interested in where one of the foremost oil market movers sees oil supply over the next decade, here are his full thoughts from his latest letter to Astenback investors. Of particular note: Hall’s warning to all the shale oil optimists: “According to the DOE data, for Bakken and Eagle Ford the legacy well decline rate has been running at either side of 6.5 per cent per month… Production from new wells has been running at about 90,000 bpd per month per field meaning net growth in production is 25,000 bpd per month. It will become smaller as output grows and that’s why ceteris paribus growth in output for both fields will continue to slow over the coming years. When all the easily drillable sites are exhausted – at the latest sometime shortly after 2020 – production from these two fields will decline.”

Here’s Hall’s very interesting note but FYI, Reuters’ had this piece on Dec. 6: Andy Hall’s fund losses deepen after wrong bet on U.S.-Brent crude

From Astenback Capital Management

The speed with which an interim agreement was reached with Iran was unexpected. Equally unexpected was the immediate relaxation of sanctions relating to access to banking and insurance coverage. This will potentially result in an increase in Iranian exports of perhaps 400,000 bpd. Beyond that it is hard to predict what might happen. The next set of negotiations will certainly be much more difficult. The fundamental differences of view that were papered over in the recent talks need to be fully resolved and that will be extremely difficult to do. Also, Iran’s physical capacity to export much more additional oil is in doubt because its aging oil fields have been starved of investment.

As to Libya, it seems unlikely that things will get better there anytime soon. The unrest and political discontent seems to be worsening. Whilst some oil exports are likely to resume – particularly from the western part of the country (Tripolitania), overall levels of oil exports from Libya in 2014 will be well below those of 2013.

Iraqi exports should rise by about 300,000 bpd in 2014 as new export facilities come into operation. But there is a meaningful risk of interruptions due to the sectarian strife in Iraq that increasingly borders on civil war. Saudi Arabia’s displeasure at the West’s quasi rapprochement with Iran is likely to add fuel to the fire in the Sunni-Shia fight for supremacy throughout the region.

If gains in 2014 of exports from Iran are assumed to offset losses from Libya, potential net additional exports from OPEC would amount to whatever increment materializes from Iraq. Saudi Arabia has been pumping oil at close to its practical (if not hypothetical) maximum capacity of 10.5 million bpd for much of 2013. It could therefore easily accommodate any additional output from Iraq in order to maintain a Brent price of $ 100 – assuming it wants to do so and that it becomes necessary to do so. Still, $ 100 is meaningfully lower than $ 110+ which is where the benchmark grade has on average been trading for the past three years.

So much for OPEC, what about non-OPEC supply? Most forecasters predict this to grow by about 1.4 million bpd with the largest contribution – about 1.1 million bpd – coming from the U.S. and Canada and the balance primarily from Brazil and Kazakhstan. Brazil’s oil production has been forecast to grow every year for the past four or five years and each time it has disappointed. Indeed Petrobras has struggled to prevent output declining. Perhaps 2014 is the year they finally turn things around but also, perhaps not. The Kashagan field in Kazakhstan briefly came on stream last September – almost a decade behind schedule. It was shut down again almost immediately because of technical problems. The assumption is that the consortium of companies operating the field will finally achieve full production in 2014.

Canada’s contribution to supply growth is perhaps the most predictable as it comes from additions to tar sands capacity whose technology is tried and tested. Provided planned production additions come on stream according to schedule in 2014, these should amount to about 200,000 bpd.

Most forecasters expect the U.S. to add 900,000 bpd to oil supplies in 2014, largely driven by the continuing boom in shale oil. That would be lower than the increment seen this year or in 2012 but market sentiment seems to be discounting a surprise to the upside. As mentioned above, many companies have been creating a stir with talk of exciting new prospects beyond Bakken and Eagle Ford which so far have accounted for nearly all the growth in shale oil production. Indeed at first blush there seem to be so many potential prospects it is hard to keep track of them all. Even within the Bakken and Eagle Ford, talk of down-spacing, faster well completions through pad drilling and “super wells” with very high initial rates of production resulting from the use of new completion techniques have created an impression of a cornucopia of unending growth and that impression weighs on forward WTI prices.

But part of what is going on here is the industry’s desire to maintain a level of buzz consistent with rising equity valuations and capital inflows to the sector.

The hot play now is one of the oldest in America; the Permian basin. A handful of companies with large acreage in the region are making very optimistic assessments of their prospects there. These are based on making long term projections based on a few months’ production data from a handful of wells. We wonder whether data gets cherry picked for investor presentations. We hear about the great wells but not about the disappointing ones. Furthermore, many companies are pointing to higher initial rates of production without taking into account the higher depletion rates which go hand in hand with these higher start-up rates. EOG, the biggest and the best of the shale oil players recently asserted that the Permian – a play in which it is actively investing – will be much more difficult to develop than were either the Bakken or Eagle Ford. EOG figures horizontal oil wells in the Permian have productivity little more than a third of those in Eagle Ford. EOG has further stated on various occasions that the rapid growth in shale oil production is already behind us.

In part this is simple math. The DOE recently started publishing short term production forecasts for each of the major shale plays. They project monthly production increments based on rig counts and observed rig productivity (new wells per rig per month multiplied by production per rig) and subtracting from it the decline in production from legacy wells. According to the DOE data, for Bakken and Eagle Ford the legacy well decline rate has been running at either side of 6.5 per cent per month. When these fields were each producing 500,000 bpd that legacy decline therefore amounted to 33,000 bpd per month per field. With both fields now producing 1 million bpd the legacy decline is 65,000 bpd per month. Production from new wells has been running at about 90,000 bpd per month per field meaning net growth in production is 25,000 bpd per month. It will become smaller as output grows and that’s why ceteris paribus growth in output for both fields will continue to slow over the coming years. When all the easily drillable sites are exhausted – at the latest sometime shortly after 2020 – production from these two fields will decline.

Others have made the same analysis. A couple of weeks ago the IEA expressed concern that shale oil euphoria was discouraging investment in longer term projects elsewhere in the world that will be needed to sustain supply when U.S. shale oil production starts to decline.

Decelerating shale oil production growth is also reflected in the forecasts of independent analysts ITG. They have undertaken the most thorough analysis of U.S. shale plays and use a rigorous and granular approach in forecasting future shale and non-shale oil production in the U.S. Of course their forecast like any other is dependent on the underlying assumptions. But ITG can hardly be branded shale oil skeptics – to the contrary. Yet their forecast for U.S. production growth also calls for a dramatic slowing in the rate of growth. Their most recent forecast is for U.S. production excluding Alaska to grow by about 700,000 bpd in 2014. With Alaskan production continuing to decline, that implies growth of under 700,000 bpd in overall U.S. oil production, or 200,000 bpd less than consensus.

The final element of supply is represented by the change in inventory levels. The major OECD countries will end 2013 with oil inventories some 100 million barrels lower than they were at the beginning of the year. That stock drawdown is equivalent to nearly 300,000 bpd of supply that will not be available in 2014. Data outside the OECD countries is notoriously sparse but the evidence strongly suggests there was also massive destocking in China during 2013.

U.S. Warns on Bakken Shale Oil

The federal government issued a rare safety alert on Thursday, warning that crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota may be more flammable than other types of crude.

The warning comes after two federal agencies spent months inspecting Bakken crude, including oil carried in recent train accidents that resulted in explosions. The latest blast occurred earlier this week in Casselton, N.D., 25 miles west of Fargo. (…)

North Dakota statistics shows about three-quarters of Bakken crude produced in the state is shipped out by rail.

Manhattan apartment sales hit record high
Figures boosted as overseas buyers compete with New Yorkers

(…) The number of purchases rose 27 per cent compared with the same period the year before to 3,297, according to new data released on Friday. Although down from 3,837 in the third quarter, this was the highest fourth-quarter tally since records began 25 years ago, according to appraiser Miller Samuel and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

Limited supply has led to buyers often making immediate all-cash offers, participating in bidding wars and making decisions based on floor plans alone, in an echo of the previous property boom. The number of days a property was on the market in the fourth quarter almost halved from the previous year to 95 days.

“Demand from foreign buyers has never been stronger. Those from the Middle East, Russia, South America, China have been on an incredible buying spree and it is these sales that are driving prices,” said Pamela Liebman, chief executive of property broker The Corcoran Group.

The median price of a luxury apartment – usually above $3m – jumped 10 per cent from a year ago to $4.9m. (…)

The pool of homes for sale is shrinking as many owners wait for prices to rise further before they list. The number of homes on the market at the end of December fell 12.3 per cent from a year earlier to 4,164, near all-time lows.

And new supply is limited – developers hit by the financial crisis have only recently revived projects, which are often luxury residences sought by deep-pocketed local and foreign buyers.

The overall median sales price in the fourth quarter rose 2.1 per cent from the previous year to $855,000. The increase was led by condominiums – largely accounting for the new developments that are the preferred choice of international buyers – which had a record median price of $1.3m.

MILLENNIALS SHUN CREDIT

(…) the 80 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 spend around $600 billion annually, but the proportion of that cohort that doesn’t even own a credit card rose from 9 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2012. According to credit-reporting firm Experian, Millennials own an average of 1.6 credit cards, while the 30- to 46-year-olds of Generation X own 2.1, and Baby Boomers 2.7. And they don’t even overload those cards they do carry: the average card balance for 19- to 29-year-olds is $2,682, around half that of older age groups. (…)

Most consumers dialed back on credit during the recession. But consumer credit has been rebounding since—except among Millennials. Student loans are one reason for that divergence. In the past 20 years, the cost of tuition and room and board at both private and public colleges has skyrocketed (60 percent and 83 percent, respectively) to $40,917 and $18,391, according to the College Board.  Outstanding student loan balances were more than $1 trillion in September—up 327 percent in just a single decade–according to the New York Federal Reserve Board. The result: Education loans now account for the second largest chunk of outstanding consumer debt after mortgages. Students who graduated from private colleges in 2012 carried $29,900 in debt, up 24 percent in ten years, and public school graduates weren’t far behind, with $25,000 (up 22 percent). With that kind of luggage to carry around, it’s understandable that young people aren’t crazy about adding to their burdens.

There’s also the fact that it’s simply more difficult for young people to get credit cards than it used to be.  (…) (Credit Suisse)

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (31 DECEMBER 2013)

Smile Small Businesses Anticipate Breakout Year Ahead

(…) Of 937 small-business owners surveyed in December by The Wall Street Journal and Vistage International, 52% said the economy had improved in 2013, up from 36% a year ago. Another 38% said they expect conditions to be even better in 2014, up from 27%.

Three out of four businesses said they expect better sales in 2014, and overall, the small business “confidence index”—based on business owners’ sales expectations, spending and hiring plans—hit an 18-month high of 108.4 in December. All respondents, polled online from Dec. 9 to Dec. 18, had less than $20 million in annual revenue and most had less than 500 employees.

According to the latest data from the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington lobby group, small-business owners in November ranked weak sales below taxes and red tape as their biggest headache, for the first time since June 2008.

In the group’s most recent survey, owner sentiment improved slightly in November but was still dismal compared with pre-2007. (…)

U.S. Pending Home Sales Inch Up

The National Association of Realtors said Monday that its seasonally adjusted index of pending sales of existing homes rose 0.2% in November from the prior month to 101.7. The index of 101.7 is against a benchmark of 100, which is equal to the average level of activity in 2001, the starting point for the index.

The November uptick was the first increase since May when the index hit a six-year high, but it was less than the 1% that economists had forecast.

Pointing up The chart in this next piece may be the most important chart for 2014. I shall discuss this in more details shortly.

Who Wins When Commodities Are Weak? Developed economy central bankers were somewhat lauded before the financial crisis. Recently, though, they’re finding it harder to catch a break.

(…) Still, here’s a nice chart from which they might take some solace.  Compiled by Barclays Research it shows the gap between headline and core consumer price inflation across Group of Seven nations, superimposed on the International Monetary Fund’s global commodities index. As can be seen at a glance, the correlation is fairly good, showing, as Barclays says, the way commodity prices can act as a ‘tax’ on household spending power.

During 2004-08, that tax was averaging a hefty 0.8 percentage points a year in the G7,  quite a drag on consumption (not that that was necessarily a bad thing, looking back, consumption clearly did OK). However, since 2008. it has averaged just 0.1 percentage points providing some rare relief to the western consumer struggling with, fiscal consolidation, weak wage growth and stubbornly high rates of joblessness.

So, what’s the good news for central bankers here? Well, while a deal with Iran inked in late November to ease oil export sanctions clearly isn’t going to live up to its initial billing, at least in terms of lowering energy prices, commodity-price strength generally is still bumping along at what is clearly a rather weak historical level.

And the consequent very subdued inflation outlook in the U.S. and euro area means that central banks there can continue to fight on just one front, and focus on delivering stronger growth and improved labor market conditions.

Of course, weak inflation expectations can tell us other things too, notably that no one expects a great deal of growth, or upward pressure on wages. Moreover, as we can also see from the chart, the current period of commodity price stability is a pretty rare thing. Perhaps neither central bankers or anyone else should get too used to it.

Coffee cup  Investors Brace as Coffee Declines

Prices have tumbled 20% this year, capping the biggest two-year plunge in a decade and highlighting commodity markets’ struggle with a supply deluge.

(…) The sharp fall in coffee prices is the most prominent example of the oversupply situation that has beset many commodity markets, weighing on prices and turning off investors. Mining companies are ramping up production in some copper mines, U.S. farmers just harvested a record corn crop, and oil output in the U.S. is booming. The Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index is down 8.6% year to date.

In the season that ended Sept. 30, global coffee output rose 7.8% to 144.6 million bags, according to the International Coffee Organization. A single bag of coffee weighs about 60 kilograms (about 132 pounds), an industry standard. Some market observers believe production could rise again in 2014. (…)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that global coffee stockpiles will rise 7.5% to 36.3 million bags at the end of this crop year, an indication that supplies are expected to continue to outstrip demand in the next several months. (…)

The global coffee glut has its roots in a price rally more than three years ago. Farmers across the world’s tropical coffee belt poured money into the business, spending more on fertilizer and planting more trees as prices reached a 14-year high above $3 a pound in May 2011.(…)

Americans on Wrong Side of Income Gap Run Out of Means to Cope

As the gap between the rich and poor widened over the last three decades, families at the bottom found ways to deal with the squeeze on earnings. Housewives joined the workforce. Husbands took second jobs and labored longer hours. Homeowners tapped into the rising value of their properties to borrow money to spend.

Those strategies finally may have run their course as women’s participation in the labor force has peaked and the bursting of the house-price bubble has left many Americans underwater on their mortgages.

“We’ve exhausted our coping mechanisms,” said Alan Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey and former chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “They weren’t sustainable.”

The result has been a downsizing of expectations. By almost two to one — 64 percent to 33 percent — Americans say the U.S. no longer offers everyone an equal chance to get ahead, according to the latest Bloomberg National Poll. The lack of faith is especially pronounced among those making less than $50,000 a year, with close to three-quarters in the Dec. 6-9 survey saying the economy is unfair. (…)

The diminished expectations have implications for the economy. Workers are clinging to their jobs as prospects fade for higher-paying employment. Households are socking away more money and charging less on credit cards. And young adults are living with their parents longer rather than venturing out on their own.

In the meantime, record-high stock prices are enriching wealthier Americans, exacerbating polarization and bringing income inequality to the political forefront. (…)

The disparity has widened since the recovery began in mid-2009. The richest 10 percent of Americans earned a larger share of income last year than at any time since 1917, according to Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. Those in the top one-tenth of income distribution made at least $146,000 in 2012, almost 12 times what those in the bottom tenth made, Census Bureau data show.

(…) The median income of men 25 years of age and older with a bachelor’s degree was $56,656 last year, 10 percent less than in 2007 after taking account of inflation, according to Census data.(…)

Those less well-off, meanwhile, are running out of ways to cope. The percentage of working-age women who are in the labor force steadily climbed from a post-World War II low of 32 percent to a peak of 60.3 percent in April 2000, fueling a jump in dual-income households and helping Americans deal with slow wage growth for a while. Since the recession ended, the workforce participation rate for women has been in decline, echoing a longer-running trend among men. November data showed 57 percent of women in the labor force and 69.4 percent of men. (…)

Households turned to stepped-up borrowing to help make ends meet, until that avenue was shut off by the collapse of house prices. About 10.8 million homeowners still owed more money on their mortgages than their properties were worth in the third quarter, according to Seattle-based Zillow Inc.

The fallout has made many Americans less inclined to take risks. The quits rate — the proportion of Americans in the workforce who voluntarily left their jobs — stood at 1.7 percent in October. While that’s up from 1.5 percent a year earlier, it’s below the 2.2 percent average for 2006, the year house prices started falling, government data show.

Millennials — adults aged 18 to 32 — are still slow to set out on their own more than four years after the recession ended, according to an Oct. 18 report by the Pew Research Center in Washington. Just over one in three head their own households, close to a 38-year low set in 2010. (…)

The growing calls for action to reduce income inequality have translated into a national push for a higher minimum wage. Fast-food workers in 100 cities took to the streets Dec. 5 to demand a $15 hourly salary. (…)

Cold Temperatures Heat Up Prices for Natural Gas

2013 by the Numbers: Bitter cold and tight supplies have helped spur a 32% rise in natural-gas futures so far this year, making it the year’s top-performing commodity.

(…) Not only are colder-than-normal temperatures spurring households and businesses to consume more of the heating fuel, the boom in U.S. output is starting to level off as well. These two factors are shrinking stockpiles and lifting prices. The amount of natural gas in U.S. storage declined by a record 285 billion cubic feet from the previous week and stood 7% below the five-year average in the week ended Dec. 13, according to the Energy Information Administration. (…)

Over the first 10 days of December, subzero temperatures in places such as Chicago and Minneapolis helped boost gas-heating demand by 37% from a year ago, the largest such gain in at least 14 years, according to MDA Weather Services, a Gaithersburg, Md., forecaster.

MDA expects below-normal temperatures for much of the nation to continue through the first week of January.

Spain retail sales jump 1.9 percent in November

Spain retail sales rose 1.9 percent year-on-year on a calendar-adjusted basis in November, National Statistics Institute (INE) reported on Monday, after registering a revised fall of 0.3 percent in October.

Retail sales had been falling every month for three years until September, when they rose due to residual effects from the impact of a rise in value-added tax (VAT) in September 2012.

Sales of food, personal items and household items all rose in November compared with the same month last year, and all kinds of retailers, from small chains to large-format stores, saw stronger sales, INE reported.

High five Eurozone retail sales continue to decline in December Surprised smile Ghost

image_thumb[5]Markit’s final batch of eurozone retail PMI® data for 2013 signalled an overall decline in sales for the fourth month running. The rate of decline remained modest but accelerated slightly, reflecting a sharper contraction in France and slower growth in Germany.

The overall decline would have been stronger were it not for a marked easing the rate of contraction in Italy, where the retail PMI hit a 33-month high.

The Markit Eurozone Retail PMI, which tracks month-on-month changes in the value of retail sales, fell back to 47.7 in December, from 48.0 in November. That matched October’s five-month low and indicated a moderate decline in sales. The average reading for the final quarter (47.8) was lower than in Q3 (49.5) but still the second-highest in over two years.

image_thumb[4]Retail sales in Germany rose for the eighth month running in December, but at the weakest rate over this sequence. Meanwhile, the retail downturn in France intensified, as sales fell for the fourth successive month and at the fastest pace since May. Retail sales in France have risen only twice in the past 21 months. Italy continued to post the sharpest decline in sales of the three economies, however, despite seeing a much slower fall in December. The Italian retail PMI remained well below 50.0 but rose to a 33-month high of 45.3, and the gap between it and the German retail PMI was the lowest in nearly three years.

Retail employment in the eurozone declined further in December, reflecting ongoing job shedding in France and Italy. The overall decline across the currency area was the steepest since April. German retailers expanded their workforces for the forty third consecutive month.

EARNINGS WATCH

Perhaps lost among the Holidays celebrations, Thomson Reuters reported on Dec. 20 that

For Q4 2013, there have been 109 negative EPS preannouncements issued by S&P 500 corporations compared to 10 positive EPS preannouncements. By dividing 109 by 10, one arrives at an N/P ratio of 10.9 for the S&P 500 Index. If it persists, this will be the most negative guidance sentiment on record.

Strangely, this is what they reported On Dec. 27:

For Q4 2013, there have been 108 negative EPS preannouncements issued by S&P 500 corporations compared to 11 positive EPS preannouncements.

Hmmm…things are really getting better!

On the other hand, the less volatile Factset’s tally shows no deterioration in negative EPS guidance for Q4 at 94 while positive guidance rose by 1 to 13.

The official S&P estimates for Q4 were shaved another $0.06 last week to $28.35 while 2014 estimates declined 0.3% from $122.42 to $122.11. Accordingly, trailing 12-months EPS should rise 5.1% to $107.40 after Q4’13.

Factset on cash flows and capex:

S&P 500 companies generated $351.3 billion in free cash flow in Q3, the second largest amount in at least ten years. This amounted to 7.2% growth year-over-year, and, as a result of slower growth in fixed capital expenditures (+2.2%), free cash flow (operating cash flow less fixed capital expenditures) grew at a higher rate of 11.3%. Free cash flows were also at their second highest quarterly level ($196.8 billion) in Q3.

S&P 500 fixed capital expenditures (“CapEx”) amounted to $155.0 billion in Q3, an increase of 2.2%. This marks the third consecutive quarter of single-digit, year-over-year growth following a period when growth averaged 18.5% over eleven quarters. Because the Energy sector’s CapEx spending represented over a third of the S&P 500 ex-Financials total, its diminished spending (-1.6% year-over-year) has had a great impact on the overall growth rate.

Despite a moderation in quarterly capital investment, trailing twelve-month fixed capital expenditures grew 6.1% and reached a new high over the ten-year horizon. This helped the trailing twelve-month ratio of CapEx to sales (0.068) hit a 13.7% premium to the ratio’s ten-year average. Overall, elevated spending has been a product of aggressive investment in the Energy sector over two and a half years, but, even when excluding the Energy sector, capital expenditures levels relative to sales were above the ten-year average.

image_thumb[1]

Going forward, however, analysts are projecting that the CapEx growth rate will slide, as the projected growth for the next twelve months of 3.9% is short of that of the trailing twelve-month period. In addition, growth for capital expenditures is expected to continue to slow in 2014 (+1.6%) due, in part, to negative expected growth rates in the Utilities (-3.2%) and Telecommunication Services (-3.0%) sectors.

Gavyn Davies The three big macro questions for 2014

1. When will the Fed start to worry about supply constraints in the US?

(…) The CBO estimates that potential GDP is about 6 percent above the actual level of output. This of course implies that the Fed could afford to delay the initial rise in short rates well beyond the 2015 timescale that the vast majority of FOMC participants now deem likely. The very low and falling rates of inflation in the developed world certainly support this.

But the suspicion that labour force participation, and therefore supply potential, may have been permanently damaged by the recession is gaining ground in some unexpected parts of the Fed, and the unemployment rate is likely to fall below the 6.5 percent threshold well before the end of 2014 (see Tim Duy’s terrific blog on this here)This is the nub of the matter: will Janet Yellen’s Fed want to delay the initial rate rise beyond the end of 2015, and will they be willing to fight the financial markets whenever the latter try to price in earlier rate hikes, as they did in summer 2013? I believe the answer to both these questions is “yes”, but there could be several skirmishes on this front before 2014 is over. Indeed, the first may be happening already.

2. Will China bring excess credit growth under control?

Everyone now agrees that the long run growth rate in China has fallen from the heady days when it exceeded 10 per cent per annum, but there are two very different views about where it is headed next. The optimistic version, exemplified by John Ross’ widely respected blog, is that China has been right to focus on capital investment for several decades, and that this will remain a successful strategy. John points out that, in order to hit the official target of doubling real GDP between 2010 and 2020, growth in the rest of this decade can average as little as 6.9 per cent per annum, which he believes is comfortably within reach, while the economy is simultaneously rebalanced towards consumption. This would constitute a very soft landing from the credit bubble.

The pessimistic view is well represented by Michael Pettis’ writing, which has been warning for several years that the re-entry from the credit bubble would involve a prolonged period of growth in the 5 per cent region at best. Repeated attempts by the authorities to rein in credit growth have had to be relaxed in order to maintain GDP growth at an acceptable rate, suggesting that there is a conflict between the authorities’ objective to allow the market to set interest rates, and the parallel objective to control the credit bubble without a hard landing.

As I argued recently, there is so far no sign that credit growth has dropped below the rate of nominal GDP growth, and the bubble-like increases in housing and land prices are still accelerating. The optimistic camp on China’s GDP has been more right than wrong so far, and a prolonged soft landing still seems to be the best bet, given China’s unique characteristics. But the longer it takes to bring credit under control, the greater the chance of a much harder landing.

3. Will the ECB confront the zero lower bound?

Whether it should be described as secular stagnation or Japanification, the euro area remains mired in a condition of sluggish growth and sub-target inflation that will be worsened by the latest bout of strength in the exchange rate. Mario Draghi said this week that

We are not seeing any deflation at present… but we must take care that we don’t have inflation stuck permanently below one percent and thereby slip into the danger zone.

This does not seem fully consistent with the ECB’s inflation target of “below but close to 2 per cent”. Meanwhile, the Bundesbank has just published a paper which confidently denies that there is any risk of deflation in the euro area, and says that declining unit labour costs in the troubled economies are actually to be welcomed as signs that the necessary internal rebalancing within the currency zone is taking place.

The markets will probably be inclined to accept this, as long as the euro area economy continues to recover. This seems likely in the context of stronger global growth.

But a further rise in the exchange rate could finally force the ECB to confront the zero lower bound on interest rates, as the Fed and others have done in recent years. Mr Draghi has repeatedly shown that he has the ability to navigate the tricky politics that would be involved here, but a pre-emptive strike now seems improbable. In fact, he might need a market crisis to concentrate some minds on the Governing Council.

So there we have the three great issues in global macro, any one of which could take centre stage in the year ahead. For what it is worth, China currently seems to me by far the most worrying.

SENTIMENT WATCH

Goldman’s Top Economist Just Answered The Most Important Questions For 2014 — And Boy Are His Answers Bullish

Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius is out with his top 10 questions for 2014 and his answers to them. Below we quickly summarize them, and provide the answers.

1. Will the economy accelerate to above-trend growth? Yes, because the private sector is picking up, and there’s going to be very little fiscal drag.

2. Will consumer spending improve? Yes, because real incomes will grow, and the savings rate has room to decline.

3. Will capital expenditures rebound? Yes, because nonresidential fixed investment will catch up to consumer demand.

4. Will housing continue to recover? Yes, the housing market is showing renewed momentum.

5. Will labor force participation rate stabilize? Yes, but at a lower level that previously assumed.

6. Will profit margins contract? No, there’s still plenty of slack in the labor market for this to be an issue.

7. Will core inflation stay below the 2% target? Yes.

8. Will QE3 end in 2014? Yes.

9. Will the market point to the first rate hike in 2016? Yes.

10. Will the secular stagnation theme gain more adherents? No. With the deleveraging cycle over, people will believe less in the idea that we’re permanently doomed.

So basically, every answer has a bullish tilt. The economy will be above trend, margins will stay high, the Fed will stay accommodative, and inflation will remain super-low. Wow.

High five But wait, wait, that does not mean  equity markets will keep rising…

David Rosenberg is just as bullish on the economy, with much more meat around the bones, but he also discusses equity markets.

Good read: (http://breakfastwithdave.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx)

Snail U.S. Population Growth Slows to Snail’s Pace

America’s population grew by just 0.72%, or 2,255,154 people, between July 2012 and July 2013, to 316,128,839, the Census said on Monday.

That is the weakest rate of growth since the Great Depression, according to an analysis of Census data by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution.

Separately, the Census also said Monday it expects the population to hit 317.3 million on New Year’s Day 2014, a projected increase of 2,218,622, or 0.7%, from New Year’s Day 2013. (…)

The latest government reports suggest state-to-state migration remains modest. While middle-age and older people appear to be packing their bags more, the young—who move the most—are largely staying put. Demographers are still waiting to see an expected post-recession uptick in births as U.S. women who put off children now decide to have them. (…)

Call me   HAPPY AND HEALTHY 2014 TO ALL!