NEW$ & VIEW$ (2 JANUARY 2014)

U.S. Home Prices Continued to Rise in October Housing prices remained on an upward trend in October, but growth may not be as strong in 2014, according to S&P/Case-Shiller.

The home price index covering 10 major U.S. cities increased 13.6% in the year ended in October, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price report. The 20-city price index also increased 13.6%, close to the 13.7% advance expected by economists.

Both increases are the highest since February 2006, the report said. (…)

“Monthly numbers show we are living on borrowed time and the boom is fading,” said David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Both the 10-city and 20-city indexes increased 0.2% in October from September on an unadjusted basis, slower than the 0.7% increase in the previous month.

The seasonally adjusted gain for both composites was 1.0% in October from September, in line with the gains seen in the previous month.

Auto French Car Sales Rose 9.4% in December

French car sales rose 9.4% in December following a 5.7% increase in November, underlining a return to health after the market’s protracted slide to its lowest level in two decades.

French car sales rose 9.4% in December following a 5.7% increase in November, underlining a return to health after the market’s protracted slide to its lowest level in two decades, according to registrations data released Thursday by the French car manufacturers’ association.

French manufacturers Renault and PSA Peugeot-Citroën managed to regain market share from foreign brands, together accounting for 50.6% of the overall market in December, compared with 45.4% a year earlier. Sales in the latter part of last year were given a slight lift by the approach of an increase in value-added tax that became effective Jan. 1, prompting buyers to place orders before the deadline.

Over the full year, car sales in France were down 5.7% compared with 2012, reflecting gloomy consumer sentiment amid a tougher government fiscal policy and worries over unemployment.

SENTIMENT WATCH
 
2014 outlook: Sugar high. ‘Credit Cassandras’ say demand for risky bonds is a sign of frothy markets

(…) To the sceptics, the market is experiencing the kind of frothiness seen before the 2008 financial crisis. This, too, will end in tears, they warn. (…)

Issuance of syndicated leveraged loans – those made to companies that already carry high debt loads – reached $535.2bn in 2013. That is just shy of the $604.2bn sold in 2007, at the height of the last credit bubble. Meanwhile, loans that come with fewer protections for lenders, known as “covenant-lite”, accounted for almost 60 per cent of loans sold in 2013, compared with a 25 per cent share in 2007.

Sales of “payment-in-kind” notes, which give borrowers an option to repay lenders with more debt reached $11.5bn in 2012 – a post-crisis high. (…)

Sales of “junk”, or high-yield, bonds surged to a record in 2013 as companies rushed to refinance and investors snapped up the resulting assets. Issuance of junk bonds rated “triple C” – the lowest designation – jumped to $15.3bn, surpassing the pre-crisis peak. (…)

Others cite reasons for optimism. They note that credit “spreads”, or the additional returns investors demand to hold riskier credit assets, are not yet near the historic lows experienced in the run-up to the 2008 crisis. That suggests investors are differentiating between riskier assets and relatively safe securities, such as US government debt.

In contrast to 2007, the current average junk bond yield of 5.6 per cent is far higher than the yield on offer from the five-year Treasury note, at a difference of about 423 basis points. In June 2007, this spread had narrowed to a record low of 238 bps.

The argument against a bubble forming in the market at the moment is that overall credit remains abundant, enabling companies to roll over their funding, notes Mr Koesterich. “Companies can still raise money, so there is no financing risk.”

But investors who are concerned about the warning signs simmering in the credit markets may not be able to avoid investing in risky asset classes. For many, the pressure of reaching their “bogeys” – the benchmarks used to evaluate returns – is enough to justify the acquisition of riskier credit assets, particularly given the lack of yield on safer investments. (…)

Despite continued strong sales of corporate and government bonds, the central banks’ big purchases mean annual net issuance of financial assets is hovering around $1tn – far lower than the $3tn-$4tn sold in the years before the crisis, according to data compiled by Citigroup.

Pointing up “We are removing a significant number of high-quality bonds from the system and that requires replacement, and that replacement can only be found at a higher spread and that requires higher risk,” says Jason Shoup, a Citi analyst.

Wall Street’s securitisation machine is shifting into gear to help make up for some of the lack of supply. The kind of subprime mortgage-backed securities that played a starring role in the mid-2000s housing boom have largely disappeared. But other “sliced and diced” securities have come back. (…)

De Blasio sets liberal agenda for New York
Mayor warns that city faces crisis of inequality

(…) Mr de Blasio, an underdog when he began his quest to become mayor, was voted in on a promise to pursue more progressive policies such as universal pre-kindergarten education, raising taxes on the wealthy and reducing the income disparities which have swelled under his predecessor. He becomes the first Democrat to lead the city in nearly a quarter of a century. (…)

One of Mr de Blasio’s first challenges will be the high expectations of unions who are pressing to renegotiate contracts that would boost their pay, by up to $7bn, retroactively. Mr de Blasio has also supported higher wages for more workers on city-funded projects.

Much of this is beyond the new mayor’s ability to deliver unilaterally. For example, his proposal to raise taxes on residents making more than $500,000 a year relies on the support both of Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature in far more conservative Albany.

Moreover, Mr de Blasio has to be careful not to erode the city’s tax base by giving more companies and wealthy residents the incentive to move to the suburbs or lower tax domiciles.

A New Way to Make Rational Resolutions

A scientific-based approach can help you better organize your personal goals.

Light bulb “Rationality isn’t about getting rid of emotions, but analyzing them and taking them into consideration when making decisions,”

 

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!

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (26 DECEMBER 2013)

Signs Point to Stronger Economy

A pickup in business investment and robust new-home sales point to an economy on stronger footing as the year winds to a close.

(…) Orders for U.S. durable goods rose 3.5% last month, reversing a decline in October, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. Excluding the volatile transportation category, manufactured-goods orders rose 1.2%, the strongest gain since May.

Meanwhile, Americans continued to purchase new homes at a brisk pace in November, the Commerce Department said in a separate report this week, the latest sign the housing market is regaining traction after a rise in mortgage rates. New-home sales hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 464,000 last month, down only 2.1% from October’s upwardly revised annual rate of 474,000. October and November marked the two strongest months of new-home sales since mid-2008.

The pair of reports showed renewed optimism by businesses and prospective homeowners, two of the biggest drivers of the economy, and led Macroeconomic Advisers to raise its estimate for fourth-quarter growth. It now forecasts gross domestic product to expand at an annualized rate of 2.6% in the final three months of the year, up three-tenths of a percentage point from an earlier estimate.

The overall durable-goods increase was driven by business investment, particularly in civilian aircraft orders, which rose nearly 22%. But a broader measure of business spending on software and equipment rose at a solid pace in November after falling in recent months. Orders for nondefense capital goods, excluding aircraft, increased by 4.5%, its strongest pace since January. That could be a sign businesses stepped up spending after the partial government shutdown in October. (Chart and table from Haver Analytics)

image

 

large image large image

 

U.S. Consumer Spending Up 0.5% in November

Americans stepped up their spending in November, boding well for holiday sales and offering the latest sign the U.S. recovery is gaining momentum.

Personal consumption, reflecting what consumers spend on everything from televisions to health care, climbed 0.5% in November from a month earlier, the fastest pace since June, the Commerce Department said Monday. The gain was driven by a boost in spending on big-ticket items, more than half of which came from automobile and parts buying, and on services.

But tepid income growth could limit future gains. Personal income increased 0.2% in November after falling 0.1% in October. As a result, consumers dipped into their savings to maintain their spending. (…)

cat

The price index for personal consumption expenditures, the Federal Reserve’s preferred gauge for inflation, was flat in November from a month earlier, the second consecutive month prices went unchanged. From a year earlier, prices were up 0.9% in November, after being up 0.7% in October.

Core prices, which exclude volatile food and energy costs, rose 0.1% from October and 1.1% from a year prior.

Nerd smile What’s wrong with this chart?

large image

Personal income gained a disappointing 0.2% (2.3% y/y) after a minimal dip in October. Disposable personal income increased just 0.1% (1.5% y/y), held back by a 0.8% rise (9.0% y/y) in tax payments. Wages & salaries increased 0.4% but the 2.2% year-to-year increase was the weakest since mid-2010.

Real disposable income rose 0.3% during the last 3 months, a very weak 1.2% annualized rate that lead to a very low 0.6% YoY increase in November. Meanwhile, real expenditures rose 1.1%, a 4.5% annualized rate. November real spending was up 2.6% YoY. Americans just keep dissaving to sustain their living standard. For how long?

large image

Meanwhile, Christmas sales are fuzzy:

This chart plots weekly chain store sales which have been in a narrow +2.0-2.3% YoY gain channel since the spring. Weak!

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But Online Sales Jumped 37% During Weekend

(…) After mall-traffic tracker ShopperTrak on Monday reported a 3.1% decline in holiday in-store sales and a 21% plunge in store traffic in the crucial shopping week ended Sunday, additional data again suggest a much brighter picture online. Total online sales from Friday through Sunday surged 37% year-to-year, with mobile traffic representing two-fifths of all online traffic, according to IBM Digital Analytics. Consumers buying from their mobile devices sent mobile sales up 53%, accounting for 21.5% of all online sales, IBM said. (…)

Sad smile With what looks to be a disappointing holiday season, Retail Metrics’ Ken Perkins said Tuesday that fourth-quarter retail sales for the 120 chains it tracks is now expected to rise just an average of 1.9%, the weakest since third-quarter 2009. Profit growth is expected to be just 1.3%, also the weakest since third-quarter 2009, “when retailers were still clawing their way out of the Great Recession.”

Fourth-quarter same-store sales are expected to rise an unimpressive 1.1%.

“It has been a very disappointing holiday season to date for most of retail,” said Mr. Perkins.

Late Surge in Web Buying Blindsides UPS, Retailers A surge in online shopping this holiday season left stores breaking promises to deliver packages by Christmas, suggesting that retailers and shipping companies still haven’t fully figured out consumers’ buying patterns in the Internet era.

(…) E-commerce accounts for about 6% of overall U.S. retail sales, according to the Commerce Department. This holiday season, online purchases will be nearly 14% of sales, estimates the National Retail Federation.

During the last shopping weekend before Christmas, Web sales jumped 37% from the year before, according to IBM Digital Analytics. Market research firm Forrester Research expects online sales to increase 15% this holiday season amid slow mall traffic and weak sales at brick-and-mortar retailers.

Coming back to the slow income growth trends:

 

Mortgage Applications Drop to 13-Year Low

The average number of mortgage applications slipped 6.3% to a 13-year low on a seasonally adjusted basis as interest rates rose from the previous week, the Mortgage Bankers Association said.

Following last week’s 6.1% drop, applications for purchase mortgages were down another 3.5% w/w to the lowest level since February 2012. The purchase index is currently tracking down 11.5% y/y. (…)  Application activity remains below both the recently reported y/y growth in new home sales (+22% in October) and existing home sales (-1.2% in November), led by a declining mix of first-time buyers within both segments. Recent data also suggests mortgage credit availability has tightened slightly more. (…)

The average contract rate on 30-year fixed conforming mortgages increased 2 bp w/w to 4.64%, matching the highest level since September, and is now up 105 bp since bottoming during the week ended May 3. Overall mortgage rates are up 113 bp y/y, as the spread relative to the 10-year Treasury note has now expanded 1 bp y/y to 175 bp.

BTW, FYI:

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Calm returns to China’s money markets Central bank skips open market operations

China Expects 7.6% Growth in 2013 China’s economy will post growth of 7.6% for all of 2013, a top planning official said, indicating that the world’s second-largest economy will exceed Beijing’s 7.5% target but that it also lost momentum in the final months of the year.

(…) China’s economy posted year-over-year growth of 7.8% in the third quarter after expanding at 7.7% in the first quarter and 7.5% in the second quarter amid a still sluggish global economy. A “mini-stimulus” of government investment in rail and subway construction coupled with tax and other business incentives helped boost growth in the July-September period. (…)

Ninja I suspect the Chinese are spying on NTU which revealed the Q4 slowdown on Dec. 18.

Christmas spirit does little for Spain
Subdued domestic demand weighs on the economy

(…) Retail sales are still a quarter lower than they were before Spain slid into economic crisis more than five years ago, and some shop owners say they have seen little change in consumer behaviour so far. (…)

Until now, the recovery has been driven almost exclusively by rising exports, with domestic demand acting as a drag on growth. The surge in shipments to foreign markets was sufficiently strong to lift Spain out of recession in the third quarter this year, and has given companies the confidence to start investing in plants and machinery. But economists warn that Spain will be stuck with anaemic growth at best as long as domestic demand remains as subdued as it is now.

There are some signs of hope. According to the Bank of Spain, the decline in overall household consumption slowed in the third quarter. Spanish retail sales actually rose 2.1 per cent on an annual basis in September, the first such increase in more than three years, but fell back into negative territory the next month. Consumer confidence has risen sharply and car sales – helped by a government subsidy programme – are also up.

Javier Millán-Astray, director-general of Spain’s association of department stores and retail chains, notes that sales on the first big shopping weekend of the holiday season were up 8 per cent compared with last year, and predicts an overall rise in Christmas sales of 6-7 per cent compared with 2012. “We have seen a change in the trend since August. Sales have still been falling but the drops are much smaller than before. And the truth is that the first weekend of the Christmas season was much better than the year before.” (…)

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (23 DECEMBER 2013)

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

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

U.S. Economy Starts to Gain Momentum

ZeroHedge drills down:

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

No boost to retailing from these revisions.

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

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

Another positive sign?

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

Wells Fargo CEO said same 10 days ago.

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

real final sales

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks David, but…

First, let’s set the record straight:

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

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

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

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

Ghost  Gasoline Heats Up in U.S.

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

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

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Pressure builds as retailers near the holiday finish line

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

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

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

But even those with higher incomes are holding back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clock  Shoppers Grab Sweeter Deals in Last-Minute Holiday Dash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could have interesting consequences as JP Morgan explains:

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

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

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

GPSWebNote ImageGPSWebNote Image

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

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

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

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

HOUSING WATCH

FHFA to Delay Increase in Mortgage Fees by Fannie, Freddie

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

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

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

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

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

Pointing up Meanwhile, costs are skyrocketing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pointing up Executives are still very focused on increasing margins!

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

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

Strains Grip China Money Markets

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

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

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

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

Vietnam’s Growth Picks Up

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

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

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

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

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

SENTIMENT WATCH

 

U.S. Economy Begins to Hit Growth Stride

 

Even Skeptics Stick With Stocks

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

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

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

Ageing stocks bull can still pack some power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bull Calls United in Europe as Strategists See 12% Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (20 DECEMBER 2013)

The Fed is actively engaged in a communication blitz to convince investors that tapering is no big deal.

Fed’s Mortgage Role Expands The central bank’s asset purchases are a bigger share of the market as it begins to taper its bond-buying program.

(…) Because bond production has tumbled, the Fed’s share of total mortgage-bond purchases has risen significantly over the past three months.

The Fed bought about 90% of new, eligible mortgage-bond issuance in November, up from roughly two-thirds of such bonds earlier this year, according to data from J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. The Fed’s large role in the mortgage market means that even as it reduces its bond purchases, the market could enjoy considerable support from the central bank in the near term.

Well, we’ll see how things go as the elephant in the room is trying to back up through the front door.

Mortgage rates stood at 4.6% last week for the average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Rates had been as low as 3.6% in May.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, a key driver of trading in mortgage markets, hit a three-month high Thursday at 2.923%. (…)

The Fed’s plan to purchase at least $35 billion in mortgage securities in January compares with market-wide net mortgage-bond issuance of about $18 billion a month in recent months, said Mr. Jozoff. (…)

Despite taking initial steps to reduce its asset purchases, the Fed “will be still expanding our holdings of longer-term securities at a rapid pace,” said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke at a news conference on Wednesday. “We’re not doing less,” Mr. Bernanke said. “I would dispute the idea that we’re not providing a lot of accommodation to the economy.” (…)

Mortgage applications fell to a 13-year low last week, a sign that mortgage volumes could remain low for now. (…)

Even Markit plays the Fed’s tune: Fed tapers as outlook improves, removing one more global economic uncertainty

Something that many overlooked – especially back in May, when talk of taper first appeared – is that the taper is not a tightening policy. It is merely a reduction in the pace at which the central bank is pumping money in to the financial markets. That total, which has been growing at $85bn every month since the Fed embarked on its third wave of Quantitative easing 15 months ago, will instead grow by $75bn per month from January onwards.

Ask any junky what happens during tapering (see Withdrawal Syndrom)

Remember, we are all parts of this huge experiment.

By the way:

 

  • U.S. Existing Home Sales Down 4.3% Sales of previously owned homes slipped to the lowest level in nearly a year in November, signaling that higher mortgage rates are making buyers wary.

Existing-home sales decreased 4.3% from the prior month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.9 million, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. Home sales fell by 1.2% from a year earlier, the first time in 29 months the year-over-year figure declined. (Chart from ZeroHedge)

  • From National Bank Financial:

The US housing market is facing some headwinds as evidenced by existing home sales which, in November, fell to the lowest since late 2012. The slump shouldn’t be entirely surprising considering the decline in
mortgage loans, the latter on pace to contract in Q4 at the fastest pace since 2011. Rising long rates partly explain why mortgage loans are drying up, but bad credit among one important segment of the population can also be having a detrimental effect.

Indeed the youth seem to be finding it difficult to qualify for loans
due to the lack of job opportunities but also due to bad credit. Note the disproportionate increase in student loan delinquencies in recent years.

And as today’s Hot Charts show, that may explain why the homeownership rate among the youth has dropped in recent years at a faster pace than that of any other age segment. So, barring new government measures to help address student debt and delinquencies, it may take longer for the housing market to fully recover from the crash that triggered the Great Recession. That’s one of the reasons why we expect home price inflation in 2014 to moderate somewhat from this year’s hot pace.

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Currently, the U.S. economy is forming just over 400,000 new households per year as of the third quarter of 2013, significantly below the long-term average of just under 1.2 million. Given current population growth, America should be forming roughly 1 million new households each year.

However, the latest recession was so severe that it continues to suppress household formation. One piece of evidence: A growing percentage of young adults aged 18-34 are living with their parents. (…) We believe the “American Dream” of home ownership is intact and note the recent uptick in the home ownership rate as evidence of pent-up demand and an improving outlook for household formation given rising wealth and stronger job creation.

Kiesel just forgot to mention that rising wealth may not be reaching the 18-34 cohort just yet, while rising mortgage rates and restrictive credit scores are.

Philly Fed Weaker Than Expected

Just one day after the Fed announced a $10 billion taper to its monthly asset purchase program, the economic data has not been very good.  Of the five economic indicators released on Thursday, four came in weaker than expected.  One of those indicators was the Philly Fed report.  While economists were expecting the headline reading to come in at a level of 10, the actual reading was 7.0, which represented a slight increase from November’s reading of 6.5.

As shown, four of the nine components declined this month, led lower by Delivery Time and Prices Paid. The decline in Prices Paid should be a good sign for the Fed as it implies that inflation pressures remain contained.  On the upside, we saw the greatest improvement in Average Workweek and Shipments.  All in all, this morning’s report was pretty much neutral, but with a string of weaker than expected economic data just one day after the ‘taper’ was announced, one wonders if anyone at the Fed is beginning to have second thoughts.

High five Slight oversight by Bespoke: New Orders remain strong.

Jobless Claims Highest Since March

Jobless claims came in significantly higher than expected for the second straight week today (379K vs. 334K).  This week’s reading exceeded the spike we saw during the government shutdown and was the highest reading since March.  While the BLS blamed normal seasonal volatility, if the seasonality was so ‘normal’ why was it unexpected?  While last week’s rise was written off as a one off, two weeks is a little more notable.

After the increases of the last two weeks, the four-week moving average rose to 343.5K.  If the elevated levels of the last two weeks continue, it will start showing up more in this figure and that would be troubling especially given the Fed’s timing of the taper yesterday.

Conference Board Leading Economic Index: Fifth Month of Growth
 

The Conference Board LEI for the U.S. increased for the fifth consecutive month in November. Positive contributions from the yield spread, initial claims for unemployment insurance (inverted), and ISM® new orders more than offset negative contributions from consumer expectations for business conditions and building permits. In the six-month period ending November 2013, the leading economic index increased 3.1 percent (about a 6.4 percent annual rate), faster than the growth of 2.0 percent (about a 4.1 percent annual rate) during the previous six months. In addition, the strengths among the leading indicators have become more widespread.

Click to View
 

No recession in sight. Thumbs up

China cash injection fails to calm lenders
Stocks slide as money market rates stay dangerously high

An emergency cash injection by the Chinese central bank failed to calm the country’s lenders as money market rates climbed to dangerously high levels.

Analysts cited a variety of technical factors for the tightness in the Chinese financial system, but the sudden run-up in rates was an uncomfortable echo of a cash crunch that rattled global markets earlier this year.

Concerns focused on the rates at which Chinese banks lend to each other. The seven-day bond repurchase rate, a key gauge of short-term liquidity, was emblematic of their reluctance to part with cash. It averaged 7.6 per cent in morning trading on Friday, its highest since the crunch that hit China in late June. That was up 100 basis points from Thursday and far above the 4.3 per cent level at which it traded just a week ago.

The sharp increase occurred despite the central bank’s highly unusual decision to conduct a “short-term liquidity operation” on Thursday, providing a shot of credit to lenders struggling for cash. In a clear sign of its concern at the stress in financial markets, the People’s Bank of China used its account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, to announce the SLO. According to the central bank’s own rules, it is only supposed to confirm SLOs one month after completing them.

The China Business News, a state-owned financial newspaper, reported that the short-term injection was worth Rmb200bn ($33bn), a large amount. But traders blamed the central bank for letting market conditions deteriorate to the point of needing an emergency injection in the first place. The PBoC steadfastly refused to add liquidity to the market in recent weeks despite the banking system’s regular year-end scramble for cash.

Pointing up Lu Ting, an economist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said China’s financial system was entering a new era and policy makers were struggling to adapt. “The PBoC is faced with some serious challenges . . . and is confused,” he said. “The PBoC finds it much more likely than before to make [operational] mistakes.”

Mr Lu said he was confident that China would avoid a full-fledged repeat of June’s cash crunch because the central bank did not want to see an over-tightening of monetary conditions. Rather, he and other analysts said the PBoC appeared to have misjudged the flow of funds in the economy. (…)

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (6 DECEMBER 2013)

Business Stockpiling Fuels 3.6% GDP Rise

The economy grew at a faster pace in the third quarter than first thought, but underlying figures suggest slower growth in the year’s final months.

catGross domestic product, the broadest measure of goods and services produced in the economy, grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.6% from July through September, the Commerce Department said Thursday. The measure was revised up from an earlier 2.8% estimate and marks the strongest growth pace since the first quarter of 2012.

High five The upgrade was nearly entirely the result of businesses boosting their stockpiles. The change in private inventories, as measured in dollars, was the largest in 15 years after adjusting for inflation.

As a result, inventories are likely to build more slowly or decline in the current quarter, slowing overall economic growth. The forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers expects the economy to advance at a 1.4% rate in the fourth quarter. Other economists say the pace could fall below 1%.

Real final sales—GDP excluding the change in inventories—rose just 1.9%, a slowdown from the second quarter. Consumer spending advanced only 1.4%, the weakest gain since the recession ended.

This huge inventory bulge may explain the bullish manufacturing PMIs of the past few months as Lance Roberts writes today:

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I posted on the apparent inventory overhang Wednesday, particularly at car manufacturers but also in retail stores as can be easily seen at any mall near you. Right on cue:

Honda Offers Dealers Incentives

Honda is offering its U.S. dealers big cash incentives to pump up their new-car sales in the final month of the year after its November U.S. sales fell slightly even as the overall market rose nearly 9%.

Honda told dealers on Wednesday it would pay bonuses of $3,000 for every vehicle they sell above their December 2012 sales total, according to dealers briefed by the company. Retailers can use the extra money to drop prices on new vehicles or finance other incentives to persuade customers to buy.

Auto makers often offer similar bonuses to their dealers, but Honda’s new program is noteworthy because the Japanese company typically offers much less in sales incentives than its competitors.

Honda’s program is being rolled out amid signs that other major auto makers in the U.S. also are sweetening rebates and other sales promotions.

Lance Roberts reminds us of the importance of final demand which is at really uncomfortably low levels:

Real final sales in the economy peaked in early 2012 and has since been on the decline despite the ongoing interventions of the Federal Reserve.  The lack of transmission into the real economy is clearly evident.

image

 

Furthermore, as shown in the next chart, consumer spending has continued to weaken since its peak in 2010.  The last couple of quarters has shown a noticeable decline is services related spending as budgets tighten due to lack of income growth as disposable personal incomes declined in the latest report.  The slowdown in dividends, wages and salaries were partially offset by a rise in social welfare and government benefits.  Unfortunately, rising incomes derived from government benefits does not lead to stronger economic growth.

image

 

The latest GDP data are for Q3. The last and most important quarter of the year is off to a slow pace:

Retailers Post Weak November Sales

The nine retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters recorded a 1.2% increase in November same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, versus the 2.3% consensus estimate and the 5.1% increase posted a year ago.

The 1.2% result is the weakest result since September 2009’s 0.7% result.  Off-price retailers continue to outperform the sector, suggesting shoppers still want designer brand names for less. Companies that missed expectations blamed the shorter holiday season, very competitive and difficult environment.

Hopefully, this will help:

U.S. Crude-Oil Glut Spurs Price Drop

The U.S. Gulf Coast—home to the world’s largest concentration of petroleum refineries—is suddenly awash in crude oil. So much high-quality oil is flowing into the area that the price there has dropped sharply.

So much high-quality U.S. oil is flowing into the area that the price of crude there has dropped sharply in the past few weeks and is no longer in sync with global prices.

In fact, some experts believe a U.S. oil glut is coming. “We are moving toward a significant amount of domestic oversupply of light crude,” says Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup.

And the glut on the Gulf Coast is likely to grow. In January, the southern leg ofTransCanada Corp.’s Keystone pipeline is set to begin transporting 700,000 barrels a day of crude from the storage tanks of Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Texas.

The ramifications could be far-reaching, including lower gasoline prices for American drivers, rising profits for refineries and growing political pressure on Congress to allow oil exports. But the glut could also hurt the very companies that helped create it: independent drillers, who have reversed years of declining U.S. energy production but face lower prices for their product.

Globally, the surge in supply and tumbling prices are attracting notice. On Monday, a delegate to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said Saudi Arabia is selling oil to the U.S. for less than it would fetch in Asia. Nonetheless, the Saudis have continued to ship crude to refineries they own in Texas and Louisiana, according to U.S. import data, further driving down prices.

The strongest indication of a glut is the falling price of “Louisiana Light Sweet,” a blend purchased by refiners along the Gulf Coast. Typically, a barrel of Louisiana Light Sweet costs a dollar or two more than a barrel of crude in Europe.

But on Wednesday, a barrel of Louisiana crude fetched $9.46 less than a barrel of comparable-quality crude in England. (…)

Some industry officials argue that U.S. light crude will simply displace more “heavy” imported oil. But many Gulf Coast refineries are set up to turn the more viscous crude into diesel fuel, and converting their facilities to process additional light oil wouldn’t be easy. (…)

San Antonio-based Valero, the nation’s largest oil refiner, all but stopped importing lightweight crude to the Gulf Coast and Memphis a year ago because there was so much U.S. product available, says spokesman Bill Day. It is also shipping crude from Texas and Louisiana all the way up to its refinery in Quebec because the price of Gulf Coast oil is so low. (…)

How about feeding New York City where prices are 17% higher than in Houston, Tx.? (Obama focuses agenda on relieving economic inequality) Winking smileBut this can’t help housing, even with the Fed trying as hard as it can:Neither can this:

While higher mortgage rates have moderated U.S. home sales recently, the potential supply of buyers has also taken a surprising step back. Annual household formations are running well below one-half million recently, compared with a three-decade norm of 1.1 million. This is surprising given that the echo boomers are old enough to leave the familial home by now—unless they simply can’t find work and feel compelled to stay there. (BMO Capital)

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TOUGH TO BE CONSTRUCTIVE ABOUT EUROPE

However you look at it, the pattern is the same: strong and stronger Germany (20% of EU GDP, 16% of EU population), weak and weaker France (16%, 13%) and Italy (12%, 12%).

  • German construction sector growth helps drive economic expansion The construction industry looks set to provide a boost to the German economy in the fourth quarter, according to Markit’s PMI data. The construction PMI – which measures the overall level of business activity in the sector – registered expansion for the seventh successive month in November. Although the headline index dipped slightly from 52.6 in October to 52.1, the average reading in the fourth quarter so far is consistent with the sector’s output rising by some 7% compared to the third quarter.
  • France: Construction sector downturn deepens The downturn in France’s construction sector gathered pace in November. Activity and new orders both fell at sharper rates, while the pace of job shedding quickened. Confidence regarding the year-ahead outlook meanwhile plunged to the lowest in 2013 to date.
  • Italian construction sector set to post contraction in final quarter Italy’s construction sector looks set to remain a drag on GDP in the final quarter of the year, with businesses in the industry having recorded further reductions in total activity levels in both October and November. The latest contraction was the slowest in five months, but nevertheless still solid overall and broad based across the housing, commercial and civil engineering sectors.

German Factory Orders Decline in Sign of Uneven Recovery

Orders, adjusted for seasonal swings and inflation, slid 2.2 percent from September, when they rose a revised 3.1 percent, the Economy Ministry in Berlin said today. Economists forecast a decline of 1 percent, according to the median of 40 estimates in a Bloomberg survey. Orders advanced 1.9 percent from a year ago when adjusted for the number of working days.

Foreign orders fell 2.3 percent in October, while those from within the country dropped 2 percent, today’s report showed. Demand from the euro area declined 1.3 percent.

EURO BANKS NEED MORE WORKOUTS:

(Morgan Stanley)

Red heart Thank You All

I have not been able to personally and directly thank all of you who reacted to my help demand last Tuesday. While it was on a rather minor thing, I am relieved to see that if I ever lost my mind, my readers from across the world will surely help.

Your kind words were also nice to read. I am happy to see I can help some, me being first in line, remain focused, objective and disciplined.

I wish I had advised you to buy bitcoins early this year but you just paid me handsomely with your buddycoins!

Other harmless ways readers can contribute to this absolutely free blog is by clicking on the ads on the sidebar from time to time just to encourage my advertisers to stay with me and/or to use the Amazon search box on the sidebar to reach the Amazon web site before ordering. This will earn News-To-Use a small referral fee. All moneys received are reinvested into research material, less and less of which if free.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (27 NOVEMBER 2013)

RICHMOND FED SURVEY PERKS BACK UP

Strong new orders, positive employment stats.

The composite index of manufacturing strengthened, climbing to a reading of 13 in November following last month’s reading of 1. The index of shipments improved 18 points, ending at 16, and the index for new orders advanced 15 points compared to a month ago. In addition, the index for the number of employees gained two points, finishing at a reading of 6.

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Vendor lead-time shortened, shaving three points from last month’s index, to settle at 8. The backlog of orders index gained 14 points moving New Orders Indexto a reading of -1. Capacity utilization flattened in November; the index
gained five points, leveling off at 0. Finished goods and raw materials built up at a slightly slower rate this month. Those indexes shed one and three points respectively, with both gauges ending at a reading of 13.

Manufacturing employment edged up this month, moving the index to 6 from 4. The average workweek grew solidly, pushing that index up 13 points to end at a reading of 12. Additionally, average wages grew more quickly, reaching an index of 15 compared to last month’s reading of 9.

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Housing Sector Shows Sign of Strength

Housing permits surged in October to their highest level in more than five years, driven by strong demand for multi-family buildings such as apartments and condos, a sign U.S. home construction could gain traction as the year ends.

Housing permits surged in October to the highest level in more than five years, driven largely by solid demand for multifamily buildings such as apartments and condominiums, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. And prices in most major U.S. cities rose in September, though more slowly than in prior months, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home-price index.

cat

 

High five  Remember that multi-family is very volatile and lumpy. From the Conference Boardès November survey (via the WSJ):

When asked about what type of home, however, consumers who plan to buy in the next six months are more interested in existing houses rather than new ones. During the boom years, the preferences were more evenly split.

 

Fed Reveals New Concerns About Long-Term U.S. Slowdown

Worker productivity, a key component of an economy’s health, has risen at an annual clip of 1 percent during the last four years, as the U.S. has struggled to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. That’s less than half the 2.2 percent average gain since 1983, according to data from the Labor Department in Washington.

“Slower growth in productivity might have become the norm,” the central bankers noted at their Oct. 29-30 meeting, according to the minutes released last week. That’s a switch from past comments by Bernanke that the deceleration probably was temporary and would end as the expansion continued.

A combination of forces may be at work. Chastened by the deep economic slump, corporate executives have reduced spending plans for factories, equipment, research and development. Startup businesses have been held back as would-be entrepreneurs find it harder to get financing from still-cautious lenders. And out-of-work Americans have seen their skills atrophy the longer they’re without jobs. (…)

A lasting decline in the growth of productivity, or nonfarm business output per employee hour, would be bad news for the economy. Its potential — the ability of the U.S. to expand over an extended period without generating inflation — is determined by the sum of growth in the labor force and of productivity. A slowdown in the latter would limit how fast the U.S. can develop in the future.

That, in turn, would have far-reaching implications for policy makers, company executives, working Americans and investors. Fed officials would need to be more alert to inflation risks if growth picked up. Lawmakers would face even more difficulties reducing the budget deficit because tax receipts would be lower. Companies might have to settle for reduced revenue, employees for smaller paychecks and investors for diminished returns as a result of the slower expansion. (…)

Alan Blinder, who co-wrote a book with Yellen and is himself a former Fed vice chairman, says he’s concerned.

“Taking the Alfred E. Neuman view, what we’re experiencing is a give-back of the very surprising productivity gains” seen during the recession, he said, referring to the Mad Magazine character famous for saying “What, me worry?”

Blinder, now a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, said he’s 65 percent convinced this is what’s going on. “The other 35 percent of me is puzzled by how low productivity has been and worried it might continue.” (…)

China set to unravel cotton stockpile
Auction to be closely watched by global markets

 

China is to start selling down its bloated state cotton reserves on Thursday, in an anticipated move that has already caused prices on global markets to unravel.

Chinese state cotton reserves stand at about 10m tons – or half the world total – after a three-year buying binge that lifted international prices. The China National Cotton Reserve Corp is caught in a dilemma, as any attempt to cut its position is likely to further pressure prices and result in steep losses.

Spot cotton prices on ICE have dropped steadily in recent months in anticipation of sales from the Chinese reserves.

Thailand Surprises With Rate Cut

Thailand’s central bank cut interest rates to the lowest in three years, citing a poor economic outlook and political tension that is hurting investor confidence.

The Bank of Thailand cut its benchmark rate by 0.25 percentage point to 2.25%. Nine of 10 economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had expected the bank to hold rates steady.

The bank also slashed its growth estimate for this year to 3% from 3.7%, and cut its 2014 growth target to 4% from 4.8%.

Policy makers were concerned over Thailand’s poor economy, which grew 2.7% in the third quarter from a year earlier, and especially a failure of exports to pick up more strongly, said Paiboon Kittisrikangwan, secretary of the bank’s monetary-policy committee. (…)

Other nations, including India and Indonesia, have been raising rates recently to combat inflation and attract foreign funds at a time when U.S. bond yields have trended higher.

Thailand entered a technical recession earlier this year but was unable to cut rates because of the need to attract capital as U.S. yields rose. These pressures have eased recently as the U.S. Federal Reserve has delayed ending its extraordinary monetary policies, pushing yields somewhat lower. (…)

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (25 NOVEMBER 2013)

Iran nuclear deal pushes oil prices lower Geopolitical tensions expected to ease and supply rise

Brent crude fell $2.29 to $108.76 a barrel and US-traded WTI was down $1.44 to $93.40 in response to the agreement between Iran and six world powers reached at the weekend to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for the easing of sanctions.

However, some analysts warned that Iranian exports are unlikely to jump in the short term because key limitations on sales – including a ban on exports to the EU – will remain in place until a comprehensive deal is reached.

US-led sanctions have reduced Iranian exports from almost 2.5m barrels a day to just 1mb/d over recent years, squeezing crude supplies, while the prospect of an Israeli or US strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities has added a further risk premium to the market. (…)

Within the oil market the focus is growing on a sentence in a copy of the interim agreement posted on an Iranian news website, which says western powers will suspend sanctions on insurance and transportation services.

Fereidun Fesharaki, head of the FACTS Global Energy consultancy, said a relaxation of shipping and insurance sanctions could lead to an increase of between 200,000 and 400,000 b/d in Iranian export immediately. (…)

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Continued Signs of Healing in Labor Market

The job market isn’t healing quickly. But it is healing.

(…) Employers are still hiring close to a million fewer people every month than before the recession, and the pace of hiring has edged up only slowly in recent years. Millions of Americans are still looking for jobs, and millions more have given up looking. (…)

But there are signs that both workers and companies are becoming more confident about the state of the economy. The 3.9 million jobs posted in September is the most since the recession ended nearly four and a half years ago. Perhaps even more significantly, 2.3 million people quit their jobs voluntarily in September, 18.5% more than a year ago. Janet Yellen, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Federal Reserve, has highlighted the rate of voluntary exits as a key measure of confidence — one that until recently had been lagging other measures of economic health.

Things are also looking up for the nation’s 11.3 million job seekers. There were 2.9 unemployed workers for every job opening in September, the best mark of the recovery and the second month in a row where the ratio fell under three to one; in the worst of the jobs crisis, there were nearly seven job seekers for every opening.

HOUSING WATCH

 

Weak October Sales Have Home Builders Fretting About Spring

A monthly survey of builders across the U.S. by John Burns Real Estate Consulting, a housing research and advisory firm, has found that respondents’ sales of new homes declined by 8% in October from the September level and by 6% from a year earlier.

Last month’s result marked the second consecutive month in which the survey yielded a year-over-year decline in sales volumes, the first dips since early 2011.

In addition, the percentage of builders disclosing that they raised prices continued to decline, registering 28% in October in comparison to 32% in September and 64% in July. Of respondents, 12% lowered prices in October, in comparison to 12% in September and none in July. (…)

The Burns survey found that sales volumes increased by 31% in the Northwestern U.S. in October from September. Other regions that notched gains included the Southeast, up 13%; Northern California, up 11%; and the Midwest, up 1%. Decliners included Texas, down 21%; the Southwest, down 16%; Florida, down 15%; the Northeast, down 12%; and Southern California, down 8%.

Hottest Housing Markets Hit Headwinds

Some of the nation’s hottest housing markets over the past year are cooling off as buyers balk at paying higher prices while faced with rising mortgage rates, according to a Wall Street Journal survey of market conditions.

In a number of cities across California, Arizona and Nevada—where price gains have been especially strong in the past year—sales are slowing and supply is rising.

Real-estate agents and economists attribute the current slowdown to rising prices and a jump in mortgage rates, which have made homes less affordable for prospective buyers and a less compelling deal for the investors that have played significant roles buying up cheap foreclosures and other distressed homes over the past two years.

For the 12-month period ending in September, values have climbed by more than 33% in Las Vegas and Sacramento, Calif., and by more than 20% in San Francisco, Phoenix, San Diego, and Orange County, Calif., according to Zillow Inc., the real-estate website.

But lately, those gains have moderated. For the July-to-September quarter, home values in Orange County rose just 1%; in San Diego, 2%; and in San Francisco, 3%. Those were the smallest increases in those markets since prices began to rise in early 2012.

(…) In Southern California, Mr. Wheaton said, “we’re seeing more price reductions than we are price increases.” (…)

Inventories are falling in Texas, the Midwest and the Northeast. Compared with a year ago, listings were down in around half of all markets, with big declines in Denver, where inventories were 26% below year-earlier levels, and Manhattan, where inventories fell by 22%.

Listings were down by 19% in Houston; 18% in Dallas; 14% in New York’s Long Island; and 13% in the northern New Jersey suburbs.

Broadly speaking, however, of the 28 major metro areas tracked in the latest Journal survey, nearly half saw inventories rise on an annual basis in September. That represents the highest share of markets showing a rise in supply in nearly three years, with notable increases in San Francisco, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Sacramento. (…)

As demonstrated in my June 2013 post U.S. Housing A House Of Cards?, real estate is a local business. National stats have little meaning for the actual supply demand equation in Houston, in Sacramento or Boca Raton.

France: The people see red

The scarlet hat has become the symbol of protest against François Hollande’s tax rises

In 1675 a popular revolt exploded in Brittany, the rugged north western region of France that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. It was against taxes imposed by Louis XIV, the Sun King, to finance war against the Dutch. The red-capped protesters were known as Les Bonnets Rouges. Nearly 440 years after the uprising was bloodily suppressed, people in Brittany have donned theirbonnets rouges once more. This time they are fighting a wave of taxes imposed not by a king, but by President François Hollande and his socialist government.

“It is another guerre de Hollande,” exclaims Thierry Merret, a bluff Breton vegetable grower, farming union chief and a leader of the new bonnets rouges.

Their challenge has added to a tide of discontent engulfing Mr Hollande. An Ifop poll this month showed his approval rating slumping to 20 per cent, a low no previous president has plumbed in the poll’s 55-year history.

The bonnet rouge has become a symbol of protest not just against taxes, but also the perceived inability of Mr Hollande to deal with a stuttering economy that has seen unemployment climb to nearly 11 per cent of the workforce. (…)

“The situation is unprecedented,” says Laurent Bouvet, professor of politics at Versailles-Saint-Quentin university. “A year and a half after the election, the left is in a potentially catastrophic situation. There is no capacity for movement on the economy or other questions.”

It is not just the business community that is expressing frustration. The bonnets rouges have brought together farmers, fishermen, traders, shopkeepers and workers.

Note Red: the blood of angry men!
     Black: the dark of ages past!
    Red: a world about to dawn!
                Black: the night that ends at last! Note
 
THERE’S ALSO ITALY:

In September, the seasonally adjusted retail trade index decreased by 0.3 per cent compared with August, with food goods falling 0.2 per cent and non-food goods 0.3 per cent. Year on year, retail sales were down an unadjusted 2.8 per cent. The monthly decline was the steepest for eight months, and on an annual basis it was also the biggest in three months.

In the third quarter, retail sales fell 1.2 per cent compared with the same period last year. The data are not adjusted for consumer price inflation, which stood at 0.9 per cent in September, based on the main index, suggesting that retail sales posted a much worse annual contraction in inflation-adjusted terms.

SENTIMENT WATCH

 

S&P Climbs Past 1800

The run to records continued Friday for stocks, with the S&P 500 closing above 1800 for the first time.

S&P Closes Above 1800, Posts 7th Consecutive Weekly Increase: Longest Streak Since 2007

The S&P 500 has now managed the longest weekly winning streak (7 weeks) since May 2007 (when it managed a 9% gain). Off the recent lows, the current run is an impressive 9.6% (for the S&P) (…).

Embarrassed smile Hugh Hendry Capitulates: “Can’t Look At Himself In The Mirror” As He Throws In The Towel, Turns Bullish

First David Rosenberg, then Jeremy Grantham, and now Hugh Hendry: one after another the bears are throwing in the towel. (…)

“I can no longer say I am bearish. When markets become parabolic, the people who exist within them are trend followers, because the guys who are qualitative have got taken out,” Hendry said.

“I have been prepared to underperform for the fun of being proved right when markets crash. But that could be in three-and-a-half-years’ time.”

“I cannot look at myself in the mirror; everything I have believed in I have had to reject. This environment only makes sense through the prism of trends.”

(…) Finally, Hendry’s “come to Bernanke” moment does not come easily:

The manager acknowledged his changing stance may be viewed by some investors as a ‘top of the market’ signal, but said he is not concerned by the prospect of a crash.

“I may be providing a public utility here, as the last bear to capitulate. You are well within your rights to say ‘sell’. The S&P 500 is up 30% over the past year: I wish I had thought this last year.”

Crashing is the least of my concerns. I can deal with that, but I cannot risk my reputation because we are in this virtuous loop where the market is trending.”

BUBBLE WATCH

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Pulling in the Same Direction. They are a Harbinger for More Stock Market Returns (Hubert Marleau, Palos Management)

Barring financial crises, stock market bull runs need the continuous blessing of four macro drivers. These are: Positive Economic Growth, Sustainable Price Stability, Reasonable Valuation and Accommodative Monetary Policy.

While I recognize that the US stock market is up 150% since the lows of March 2009 without any serious corrections, stock prices could go up more for investors are still selectively and mildly exuberant. A rotation towards equity has just started and it could last for several years.

Since the first quarter of 2009, investors have de-risked their portfolios by adding $1.3 trillion in bonds and selling $255 billion worth of equities. Lately, investors are now allocating somewhere around 20% of their new monies to the stock market. Before the financial crisis as much as 30% to 40% of investors’ capital found its way into stocks. Household balance sheets are much healthier, banks are profitable and settling their wrongdoings, and corporations are loaded with cash. In this context, even if the economy may not be doing as well as one would like a financial crisis is not looming.

Moreover, the four horsemen that choose the direction of the stock market are still bullish.

1) Positive Economic Growth: The level of economic output in the US has been steadily growing without any interruptions for 51 months since it bottomed during the second quarter of 2009. During the period under review, the US economy grew at the annual rate of change of 2.0%. In the past six months, the pace of the economy has accelerated to 2.7%.

2) Price Stability: A steady annual rate of increase in the general price levels between 1% and 3% is considered by the Fed and most seasoned market observers as price stability. Since the third quarter of 2009, the GDP Chain Price Index increased at the annual rate of 1.4%. For the period under review, the lowest quarterly annual rate was 0.6% in the second quarter of 2013 and the highest was 2.6% in the second quarter of 2011. During the third quarter of 2013, GDP Deflator printed a year over year increase of 1.3%. Based on recent developments in commodity prices, wages and output per hour, there is reason to believe that price inflation is going to remain stable for a prolonged period of time. Moreover, the gap between actual and potential output is sufficiently wide to prevent any upward cost pressure.

3) Accommodative Monetary Policy: The rate on Federal Funds has been near zero throughout the period under review. The Zero Rate Policy had three beneficial effects. It kept the level of real interest rate negative, the yield curve positive and the cost of capital below the return on capital. The latter is often called the “Wicksellian Differential”.

While we expect the Fed to start paring down the $85 billion-a-month bond purchase program in the coming months, the monetary authorities will continue to hold short term rates near zero until a higher participation rate and/or a lower unemployment rate firmly takes hold. The Palos Monetary policy index currently stands at 60 indicating that the interest rate stance of the Fed is not about to change. In this connection, the beneficial effect of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) on real rates, yield curve and the Wicksellian spread is maintainable.

4) Reasonable Equity Valuation: The stock market is not necessarily cheap, but it’s not stretched by historical standards. Currently, the median 12-month forward price-to-earnings ratio of 16.0 times is consistent with other periods of earnings growth. Moreover, the spread between corporate bond yields and stock dividend yields at 250 bps are as narrow as they were in the 1950’s. One should also bear in mind that the EPS of the S&P-500 increased 125% from the first quarter of 2009 to the third quarter of 2013 closely matching stock market returns. Year over year, the same EPS is up 9.3% and forecast to increase another 5.1% in 2014.

In conclusion, what is not to like? In tandem, the major drivers are pulling the stock market up. It is not that stock prices will surge ahead over the next few years in a perpetual upward motion. However, stock market returns should continue to beat bond market returns.

Hubert is a good friend of mine, an excellent economist and a good strategist. I am not sure how investors can be “selectively and mildly exuberant” but I know Hubert can’t be only mildly exuberant.

The first chart below plots the S&P 500 Index PE on forward EPS, currently at 15.4x, 28% above its 60-year median of 12x and at the mid-point of the 1 standard deviation channel (10-20x).

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One can make a case for decent valuations here, even more so if the 60-year average of 15x is used instead of the median. Do it at your own risk, however, if you chose to ignore the statistical impact of recent bubble years. As to Hubert’s assertion that “the median 12-month forward price-to-earnings ratio of 16.0 times is consistent with other periods of earnings growth”, it does not verify in the 1991-92 period (profits troughed in mid-1992).

During the 1955-1972 period of prolonged high P/E multiples, earnings remained flat until 1962 before rising steadily through 1966. Inflation was quite volatile between 1955 and 1960, fluctuated narrowly within 1-2% up to 1966, then skyrocketed from 2% to 6.5% by 1970 before coming back to the 3% range by 1972.

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The 1961 to 1966 period most closely resembles the current environment of expected sustained low inflation. Earnings rose strongly and steadily until inflation peaked in late 1966. Equities dropped sharply in 1962 (Bay of Pigs crisis) but skyrocketed during the next 4 years. Throughout that period, forward P/Es fluctuated between 15x and 17x, partly validating Hubert’s comments.

Nevertheless, with forward P/Es, one must deal with the pitfalls associated with earnings forecasts. But even with trailing earnings, absolute valuations never looked really compelling during the 1960s except in late 1966 and in mid-1970 when trailing P/Es reverted back to their 60-year median value of 13.7. Waiting for even median valuation would have meant missing the near doubling in equities between October 1960 and December 1965.

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So Hubert has a point. But I have a better and stronger one. The Rule of 20 worked really well during the 1960’s while using actual trailing earnings and constantly taking account of inflation fluctuations.

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Using the Rule of 20, investors would have sold before the 1962 decline of 24%, bought back aggressively late in 1962, remained reasonably invested as the market rose 67% to December 1965 while flirting with “fair value” (20), suffered the 16% setback of 1966 if they were not mindful of rising inflation, bought aggressively again in the fall of 1966 to enjoy a 30% gain until getting entirely out of equities in mid-1968 just before the ending of the Nifty-fifty stocks era.

Freezing  Some Stock Bulls Tread Lightly

Stock-market strategists, typically a bullish bunch, are taking a cautious approach to the S&P 500.

(…) Forecasts center on gains in the mid-to-high single-digit percentages for the S&P 500 in 2014.

In large part this caution reflects expectations that investor enthusiasm for stocks will be restrained in an environment in which structural challenges continue to hold back the U.S. economy. The result, many strategists said, is that stocks are unlikely to see a continued rise in valuations against earnings growth as they did in 2013.

In addition, bullishness is being muted by a belief that the Fed will in coming months start to pare back the easy-money policies that many said have played a key role in driving stock prices higher this year.

But some strategists said it also reflects a conscious effort to present a tempered outlook.