NEW$ & VIEW$ (4 FEBRUARY 2014)

THE BLAME GAME IS ON

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swirlogram solidly in “slowdown” phase…

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

Perplexing PMI

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

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

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

ISI’s Ed Hyman keeps the faith:

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

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

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

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

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

CalculatedRisk quotes WardsAuto’s slighly lower estimate:

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

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

large imageU.S. Construction Spending Growth Moderates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW ABOUT THE BAROMETER BAROMETER?

Winter Weather Worries

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

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

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

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

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

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (31 JANUARY 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

U.S. Starts to Hit Growth Stride

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

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

Growth Story

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

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

Consider these nest 2 items:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Pending Home Sales Hit By Winter Storms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Euro-Zone Inflation Returns to Record Low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENTIMENT WATCH

Individual Investors Head For the Hills

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

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

THE JANUARY BAROMETER (Contn’d) Sleepy smile

January Slump Is Nothing to Fret Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Don.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (30 JANUARY 2014)

BLAME THE FED GAME

Investors Seek Safer Options as Ground Shifts

Just one month into 2014, investors from Illinois to Istanbul are finding the tide going out fast for stocks and other riskier investments.


(…) After years of unprecedented monetary stimulus propping up the world’s financial markets, investors are now confronting the reality of an end to the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program, which, as expected, the central bank reduced by another $10 billion on Wednesday. (…)

Less Room to Maneuver

Some even argue that the long-simmering troubles in emerging markets will draw global investors to U.S. stocks.

But the landscape seems to have shifted from one where unprecedented central-bank stimulus enabled markets to steamroll past issues that might have otherwise spooked investors. (…)

No Respite for Emerging Markets

The pullback from emerging-market currencies showed no signs of a pause, with the Hungarian forint and Russian ruble bearing the brunt of selling pressure.

Meanwhile: Fed Sticks to Script

The Federal Reserve—unfazed by recent selloffs in emerging markets or disappointing U.S. job gains in December—said it would scale back its bond-buying program for the second time in six weeks, pressing ahead with a strategy to wind down the purchases in small and steady steps.

The Fed said it would cut its purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities to $65 billion a month, from $75 billion, and officials suggested they would continue reducing the purchases in $10 billion increments in the months ahead. The first cut, from $85 billion, was announced in December and made in January. (…)

Though they have been watching developments in emerging markets closely, Fed officials made no mention of these trends in the statement released Wednesday after their two-day policy meeting.

U.S. economic growth “picked up” in recent months and was expected to continue at a “moderate pace,” the Fed said. Though job-market indicators were mixed, “on balance” the labor market “showed further improvement,” the Fed said. (…)

“MIND YOUR OWN BIZ”: Citigroup summarizing the Fed statement:

From the viewpoint of domestic US economic conditions the Statement is completely anodyne. From the point of view of EM, the Fed has just said “hasta la vista, baby

FED UP?

Confused smile Confused? Here’s a great read that puts things into their proper perspective: Emerging Markets – Emerging Crisis or Media Hysteria?

Here’s the conclusion but the whole post is well worth reading:

Currently the financial press is working investors into a hysteria surrounding building stress in emerging markets. Stress in emerging markets is nothing new and pops up in specific countries on a yearly basis; however, there is always a risk that country-specific stress can spill over into a global contagion similar to what occurred in 1997-1998. The best way to determine when the risk spills over into something more dangerous is to monitor CDS readings globally as well as the price action in gold. If CDS readings remain muted then we are dealing with country-specific flare ups, but if they spike to levels higher than what has occurred over the last few years and gold surges we need to become more defensive.

With all that said, there is a bright side to the weakness in emerging markets and commodities for developed markets: a disinflationary stimulus similar to what occurred in the late 1990s and, more recently, since 2011…with the caveat that contagion does not result.

Dr. Ed explains the disinflationary stimulus:

The Fed, the Dollar, and Deflation

The woes of emerging economies could temper the Fed’s tapering in coming months by strengthening the dollar, which could push US inflation closer to zero. The JP Morgan Trade-Weighted Dollar Index has been trending higher since mid-2011. A strong dollar tends to depress inflation.

Indeed, the US import price index excluding petroleum has been falling over the past 10 months on a y/y basis through December, when it was down 1.3%. A stronger dollar would be bad news for commodity producers, especially in the emerging economies. When the dollar is rising, commodity prices tend to fall. Weak commodity prices have depressed the currencies of commodity-producers Canada and Australia over the past year.

The latest FOMC statement noted that near-zero inflation could be a problem for the US economy: “The Committee recognizes that inflation persistently below its 2 percent objective could pose risks to economic performance, and it is monitoring inflation developments carefully for evidence that inflation will move back toward its objective over the medium term.”

The emerging markets crisis, strength in the dollar, and weakness in commodity prices could frustrate the Fed’s expectations that inflation will rise back closer to 2%.

WHAT NOW?

The S&P 500 hast retreated 4% and is now right on its 100 day m.a. from which it has bounced back three times since June 2013 and which is still rising. If that fails to hold, the next major support is the 200 day m.a. at 1705, another 4% decline.

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The Rule of 20 P/E is back into undervalue territory but, at 18.2, is not screaming “buy”. At the 200 day m.a., it would be 17.6, right in the middle of the range between “deep undervalue (15) and fair value (20). This is all about shifting sentiment. Let’s wait for the earnings season to end in a couple of weeks. We also might have a better view of a possible soft patch.

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HOUSING WATCH: BEAZER HOMES FEELS THE HOUSING SLOWDOWN IN ITS LAST QUARTER

Total home closings were flat at 1,038 closings, with the average sales price from closings up 19%. New orders dropped 4%.

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The 4-week average of the purchase index is now down about 12% from a year ago. (CalculatedRisk)

Spain’s Economy Picks Up Pace

In its preliminary GDP estimate for the quarter, statistics institute INE said Thursday that Spain’s GDP rose 0.3% in the fourth quarter from the third. This is in line with a previous estimate by the country’s central bank, and statements made by Finance Minister Luis de Guindos.

GDP was down 0.1% in the fourth quarter from the same period of 2012, INE said, with a better contribution from internal demand offset by a smaller contribution from the export sector.

For the whole of 2013, the Spanish economy—the euro zone’s fourth-largest—contracted 1.2%, INE added.

The fourth-quarter reading compares with 0.1% growth in the third quarter from the second, and a 1.1% contraction in the third quarter from the same quarter of 2012.

THE (MIDDLE) CLASS OF 2001 VS THE (NOT SO MIDDLE) CLASS OF 2011

From BloombergBriefs: The latest tax data from the IRS (2011) illustrates the fairly grim reality the American middle class faces.image

And this telling, and warning, chart:

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TRY NOT TO LAUGH!

 

Winking smile  President Obama: If You Like Your Retirement Plan, You Can Keep It Fingers crossed

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (16 JANUARY 2014)

INFLATION WATCH

U.S. Consumer Prices Rise 0.3% in December

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

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

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

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

U.S. Producer Prices Rise 0.4%

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

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

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

Fed’s Beige Book: Job Market Firming Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robots vs humans (BAML)

Euro-Zone Inflation Weakens

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

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

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

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

 

Europe Car Sales Fell in 2013

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

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

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

Russia Faces Stagflation, Central Banker Warns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ITALY IN 3 CHARTS (From FT)

SENTIMENT WATCH 

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

Bulls Are Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (9 JANUARY 2014)

Yellen Eyes Turnover as U.S. Workers Leave Jobs

More Americans are voluntarily quitting their jobs as they become increasingly confident about business conditions — a trend that Janet Yellen, the next Federal Reserve chairman, is monitoring.

Almost 2.4 million U.S. workers resigned in October, a 15 percent increase from a year earlier, based on seasonally adjusted data from the Department of Labor. These employees represent 56 percent of total separations, the 13th consecutive month above 50 percent and highest since April 2008. November figures are scheduled to be released Jan. 17. (…)

The quits ratio is highly correlated with how Americans feel about the job market and is especially helpful because it separates behavior from intentions, showing “what people are doing, not what they say they’ll do,” Colas said. “Voluntarily leaving one’s position requires a fundamental level of confidence in the economy and in one’s own personal financial story.” The ratio in November 2006, about a year before the recession began, was 58 percent.

The share of Americans who say business conditions are “good” minus the share who say they are “bad” rose in December to the highest in almost six years: minus 3 percentage points, up from minus 4.2 points the prior month, based on data from the Conference Board, a New York research group.

Job seekers also are more optimistic about the hiring environment. Sixty-three percent of callers to a job-search-advice help line Dec. 26-27 said they believed they could find new employment in less than six months, up from 55 percent a year ago, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a human-resources consulting company. (…)

U.S. December planned layoffs plunge to lowest since 2000: Challenger

The number of planned layoffs at U.S. firms plunged by 32 percent in December to the lowest monthly total in more than 13 years, a report on Thursday showed.

Employers announced 30,623 layoffs last month, down from 45,314 in November, according to the report from consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

The last time employers announced fewer job cuts was June of 2000, when 17,241 planned layoffs were recorded.

The figures come a day ahead of the closely-watched U.S. non-farm payrolls report, which is forecast to show the economy added 196,000 jobs in December. (…)

The December figure fell 6 percent from a year earlier, when planned layoffs totaled 32,556, and marked the third straight month that announced workforce reductions dropped year over year. (…)

U.S. Consumer Credit Growth Eases

The Federal Reserve Board reported that consumer credit outstanding increased by $12.3 billion (6.1% y/y) during November following an unrevised $18.2 billion October gain. The latest monthly gain was the weakest since April.

Usage of non-revolving credit increased $11.9 billion (8.2% y/y) in November. Revolving credit outstanding gained $4.3 billion (1.0% y/y) in November.

Auto Markit Eurozone Sector PMI: Automobiles & auto parts posts its best quarterly performance since Q1 2011

Despite recent growth being high in the context of historical survey data, automobiles & auto parts still maintains some forward momentum heading into the New Year. New orders increased sharply and to the greatest degree in three years in December, leading to a substantial build-up of outstanding business. Job creation, which has until now been muted relative to the trends in output and new business, therefore looks set to pick up.

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German Industrial Output Rises First Time in Three Months

Output, adjusted for seasonal swings, increased 1.9 percent from October, when it fell 1.2 percent, the Economy Ministry in Berlin said today. Economists predicted a gain of 1.5 percent, according to the median of 32 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey. Production climbed 3.5 percent from a year earlier when adjusted for working days.

German Orders Surge Back But Domestic Orders Lag

German orders rose by 2.1% in November, rebounding from a 2.1% drop in October. The headline trend shows solid growth with three-month growth at a 12.7% annual rate, up from a 6.2% annual rate over six-months and a 6.8% annual rate over 12-months. The strength is led by foreign demand.

Foreign orders rose by 2.2% in November from a 2.2% drop in October but also logged a 6.3% increase in September. As a result, foreign orders are rising at a 27.1% annual rate over three-months, up from a 12.8% annual rate over six-months, and a 9% annual rate over 12-months.

In contrast, domestic orders rose by 1.9% in November, unwinding a 1.9% drop in October. However, domestic orders also fell by 0.9% in September. As a result, the trend for domestic orders is poor. It is not just weaker than foreign orders – it is poor. Domestic orders are falling at a 3.8% annual rate over three-months following a 1.9% annual rate drop over six-months and a 3.9% annual rate gain over 12-months. The domestic sector is in a clear deceleration and contraction.

China’s 2013 Vehicle Sales Rose 14%

The CAAM said sales of both passenger and commercial vehicles totaled a record 21.98 million units, up 14% from a year earlier, the fastest pace since 2010. Passenger vehicles led the way, with sales up 16% to 17.93 million units.

Sales gain in December quickened due in part to local consumers’ habit of spending ahead of the Lunar New Year, which falls in the end of January this year. Auto makers shipped 2.13 million vehicles to dealers, up 18% from a year earlier. Among the total, sales of passenger vehicles were 1.78 million units, up 22% on year.

Even as China’s economy displayed clear signs of a slowdown, consumers bought new vehicles, motivated by some cities’ pending restrictions on car purchases to alleviate traffic congestion and air pollution. Within hours after the northern city of Tianjin announced a cutback on new license plates last month, thousands of residents rushed to buy cars. Some used gold necklaces as collateral, said local media.

CAAM said it expects gains to continue this year, though at a slower pace. The association projected a rise of 8%-10% for the overall auto market, to about 24 million units, and as much as an 11% gain for passenger vehicles, to nearly 20 million units.

“China’s auto market is still at the period of rapid expansion and growth has gradually shifted to small-sized cities where demand is significant,” said Shi Jianhua, deputy secretary-general at the CAAM.

China Consumer Inflation Eases

The consumer-price index rose 2.5% in December from a year earlier, slower than the 3.0% year-over-year rise in November, the National Bureau of Statistics said Thursday.

In the December price data, food remained the key contributor to higher prices, rising 4.1% year on year in December. But that was down from the 5.9% rise the previous month. Nonfood prices were up 1.7% in December, compared with November’s 1.6% gain.

But in a continued sign of weak domestic demand, prices at the factory level fell once again, declining for the 22nd consecutive month. They were down 1.4% in December, falling at the same rate as in November.

Stripped of food prices, inflation edged up to 1.7% YoY from 1.6% in November.

OECD Inflation Rate Rises

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said Thursday the annual rate of inflation in its 34 developed-country members rose to 1.5% from 1.3% in October, while in the Group of 20 leading industrial and developing nations it increased to 2.9% from 2.8%.

The November pickup followed three months of falling inflation rates, but there are indications that it will prove temporary. Figures already released for December showed a renewed drop in inflation in two of the world’s largest economies, with the euro zone recording a decline to 0.8% from 0.9%, and China recording a fall to 2.5% from 3.0%.

Key Passages in Fed Minutes: Consensus on QE, Focus on Bubbles

Federal Reserve officials were largely in agreement on the decision to begin winding down an $85 billion-per-month bond-buying program. As they looked to 2014, they began to focus more on the risk of bubbles and financial excess.

    • Some … expressed concern about the potential for an unintended tightening of financial conditions if a reduction in the pace of asset purchases was misinterpreted as signaling that the Committee was likely to withdraw policy accommodation more quickly than had been anticipated.
    • Several [Fed officials] commented on the rise in forward price-to-earnings ratios for some small cap stocks, the increased level of equity repurchases, or the rise in margin credit.

Pointing up Something the Fed might be facing sooner than later:

Bank dilemma Time for Carney to consider raising rates

When your predictions are confounded, do you carry on regardless? Or do you stop, think and consider changing course? Such is the remarkable recovery in the UK economy since the first quarter of last year that the Bank of England is now facing this acute dilemma.

Just five months ago, the bank’s new governor pledged that the BoE would not consider tightening monetary policy until unemployment fell to 7 per cent so long as inflationary pressures remained in check. (…)

The question is what the BoE should now do. Worst would be to show guidance was entirely a sham by redefining the unemployment threshold, reducing it to 6.5 per cent. Carrying on regardless of the data is no way to run monetary policy. Instead, the BoE should be true to its word and undertake a thorough consideration of a rate rise alongside its quarterly forecasts in its February inflation report. (…)

EARNINGS WATCH

I have been posting about swinging pension charges in recent months. Most companies determine their full year charge at year-end which impacts their Q4 results.

Pendulum Swings for Pension Charges

Rising interest rates and a banner year for stocks could lift reported earnings at some large companies that have made an arcane but significant change to the way their pension plans are valued.

Rising rates and a banner year for stocks could lift earnings at some large companies that have made an arcane but significant change to the way their pension plans are valued.

Companies including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. could show stronger results than some expect when they report fourth-quarter earnings in coming weeks. They and about 30 other companies in the past few years switched to “mark-to-market” pension accounting to make it easier for investors to gauge plan performance.

With the switch, pension gains and losses flow into earnings sooner than under the old rules, which are still in effect and allow companies to smooth out the impact over several years. Companies that switch to valuing assets at up-to-date market prices may incur more volatility in their earnings, but it offers a more current picture of a pension plan’s health and its contribution to the bottom line.

In 2011 and 2012, that change hurt the companies’ earnings, largely because interest rates were falling at the time. But for 2013, it may be a big help to them, accounting experts said, a factor of the year’s surge in interest rates and strong stock-market performance.

“It’s going to account for a huge rise in operating earnings” at the affected companies, said Dan Mahoney, director of research at accounting-research firm CFRA.

Wall Street analysts tend not to include pension results in their earnings estimates, focusing instead on a company’s underlying businesses. That makes it hard for investors to know what the impact of the change will be. Some companies may not see a big impact at all, because of variations from company to company in how they’ve applied mark-to-market changes. (…)

Some mark-to-market companies with fiscal years ended in September have reported pension gains. Chemical maker Ashland Inc. had a $498 million pretax mark-to-market pension gain in its September-end fourth quarter, versus a $493 million pension loss in its fiscal 2012 fourth quarter. That made up about 40% of the Covington, Ky., company’s $1.24 billion in operating income for fiscal 2013. (…)

Not all mark-to-market companies will see gains. Some such companies record adjustments only if their pension gains or losses exceed a minimum “corridor.” As a result, Honeywell International Inc. says it doesn’t foresee a significant mark-to-market adjustment for 2013, and United Parcel Service Inc. has made similar comments in the past.

Moody’s adds: US Corporate Pension Funded Ratios Post Massive Increase in 2013

At year-end 2013, we estimate pension funding levels for our 50 largest rated US corporate issuers increased by 19 percentage points to 94% of pension obligations, compared with a year earlier. In dollar terms, this equates to $250 billion of decreased underfundings for these same issuers. We expect this reduction to be replicated across our entire rated universe. These improved funding levels will result in lower calls on cash, a credit positive.

Big Six U.S. Banks’ 2013 Profit Thwarted by Legal Costs

Combined profit at the six largest U.S. banks jumped last year to the highest level since 2006, even as the firms allocated more than $18 billion to deal with claims they broke laws or cheated investors.

A stock-market rally, cost cuts and a decline in bad loans boosted the group’s net income 21 percent to $74.1 billion, according to analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That’s second only to 2006, when the firms reaped $84.6 billion at the peak of the U.S. housing bubble. The record would have been topped were it not for litigation and other legal expenses. (…)

The six banks’ combined litigation and legal expenses in the nine months rose 76 percent from a year earlier to $18.7 billion, higher than any annual amount since at least 2008. The costs increased at all the firms except Wells Fargo, where they fell 1.2 percent to $413 million, and Morgan Stanley (MS), which reported a 14 percent decline to $211 million. (…)

Legal costs that averaged $500 million a quarter could be $1 billion to $2 billion for a few years, Dimon told analysts in an Oct. 11 conference call. The firm is spending also $2 billion to improve compliance by the end of 2014, he said last month. (…)

VALUATION EXPANSION?

This is one of the main narratives at present, now that earnings multiples have expanded so much. The other popular narrative is the acceleration of the U.S. economy which would result in accelerating earnings, etc., etc… Here’s Liz Ann Sonders, Senior Vice President, Chief Investment Strategist, Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

It’s also possible valuations could continue to expand even if earnings growth doesn’t meet expectations. There is a direct link between valuation and the yield curve. A steep curve (long rates much higher than short rates); which we have at present and are likely to maintain; suggests better growth and easy monetary policy. This environment typically co-exists with rising valuation.

Low inflation is also supportive of higher multiples. Why? Earnings are simply more valuable when inflation is low; just like our earnings as workers are worth more when inflation is taking less of a bite out of them.

Lastly, as noted in BCA’s 2014 outlook report: In a liquidity trap, where interest rates reach the zero boundary, the linkage between monetary policy and the real economy is asset markets: zero short rates act to subsidize corporate profits, drive up asset prices and encourage risk-taking. Over time, higher asset values begin to stimulate stronger consumption and investment demand—the so-called “wealth effect.” We could be at the very early stages of a broad transition from strengthening asset values to better spending power by businesses and consumers. Global capital spending has begun to show signs of a rebound; while US consumers are beginning to borrow and spend again.

A few remarks on the above arguments:

imageThe yield curve can steepen if short-term rates decline or if long-term rates rise. The impact on equities can be very different. My sense is that the curve, which by the way is presently very steep by historical norms (chart from RBC Capital), could steepen some more for a short while but only through rising long-term yields. This is not conducive to much positive valuation expansion, especially if accompanied by rising inflation expectations which, normally, follow economic acceleration.

The next chart plots 10Y Treasury yields against the S&P 500 Index earnings yield (1/P/E). The relationship between the two is pretty obvious unless you only look at the last Fed-manipulated 5 years. Rising rates are not positive for P/E ratios.

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Low inflation is indeed supportive of higher multiples as the Rule of 20 clearly shows. What is important for market dynamics is not the actual static level of inflation but the trend. Nirvana is when the economy (i.e. profits) accelerate while inflation remains stable or even declines. Can we reasonable expect nirvana in 2014?

The wealth effect was in fact Bernanke’s gambit all along. And it worked. But only for the top 20% of the U.S. population. What is needed now is employment growth. Can we get that without triggering higher inflation?

Miss Sonders reminds us that

This bull market is now the sixth longest in S&P 500 history (of 26 total bull markets). As of year end 2013, it’s run for 1,758 days, with the longest ending in 2000 at 4,494 days. It is the fourth strongest in history; up over 173% cumulatively as of year-end 2013.

Emerging Market Currencies Suffer as Dollar Rises

The South African rand sank to a fresh five-year low Thursday, as a rise in the dollar, fueled by strong U.S. jobs data, kept emerging market currencies under pressure.

The Turkish lira also suffered, closing in on its all-time low against the dollar reached earlier in the week. The rand and the lira are widely considered to be among the most vulnerable emerging market currencies, as both South Africa and Turkey are reliant on foreign investment flows to fund their wide current account deficits.

 
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NEW$ & VIEW$ (7 JANUARY 2014)

Weaker Than Expected ISM Services

Monday’s ISM Services report for December came in weaker than expected.  While economists were expecting the headline reading to come in at a level of 54.5, the actual reading was a bit weaker at 53.0.  Taking both the ISM Manufacturing and Non Manufacturing reports and accounting for their size in the overall economy, the combined reading for December fell to 53.5.

Sad smile Slumping new orders and backlog! First contraction in new orders since July 2009.

U.S. Rents Rise as Market Tightens

Nationwide, landlords raised rents by an average of 0.8% to $1,083 a month in the quarter, according to a report to be released Tuesday by Reis Inc., a real-estate research firm. While that is below the previous quarter’s 1% increase, it is above the 0.6% gain seen in 2012′s final quarter. Rents climbed 3.2% for all of 2013.

The vacancy rate, meantime, fell to 4.1% in the fourth quarter from 4.6% in the year-earlier quarter, remaining well below the 8% peak at the end of 2009. (…)

Nearly 42,000 units were completed in the fourth quarter, the most since the fourth quarter of 2003, and about 127,000 for all of 2013, according to Reis. (…)

In 2014, completions should total more than 160,000 apartments, roughly one-third more than the long-term historical average, according to Reis. That could cause the national vacancy rate to rise slightly for the first time since 2009.

CoStar Group, another real-estate research firm, predicts new-apartment supply will peak this year at 220,000, but an additional 350,000 units will hit the nation’s 54 largest markets in 2015 and 2016 combined. (…)

Euro-Zone Inflation Rate Slips

The European Union’s statistics agency Tuesday said a preliminary reading showed consumer prices in the 17 countries that then shared the euro rose by just 0.8% over the 12 months to December, a decline in the annual rate of inflation from 0.9% in November.

After stripping out prices for food and energy, which tend to be more volatile, prices rose by just 0.7% in the 12 months to December—the lowest rate of “core” inflation since records began in January 2001. That suggests that weak domestic demand is becoming an increasingly significant source of disinflationary pressure, adding to the impact from falling world energy prices and the end of a period of administered price rises as governments sought to repair their finances by increasing revenue from sales taxes and charging more for services such as health care. (…)

Separate figures from Eurostat suggested consumer prices are unlikely to rise sharply in coming months. The agency said the price of goods leaving factory gates in November fell for the second straight month, although by just 0.1%.

Slump in Trading Threatens Profit Engine

The trading boom that helped reshape global investment banks over the past decade is sputtering, raising fears that one of Wall Street’s biggest profit engines is in peril.

(…) Executives have warned that lackluster markets could lead to year-over-year declines in fixed-income, commodities and currency trading revenue when banks begin reporting fourth-quarter results next week. That would mark the fourth consecutive drop and the 11th in the past 16 quarters.

Few corners of banks’ trading operations have escaped the slump. A 10-year commodities rally has fizzled, while foreign-exchange trading volume has fallen sharply from its 2008 peak. Since the financial crisis, investors have eschewed exotic fixed-income securities in favor of low-risk government bonds, which are less profitable for banks, and overall trading volumes have dipped.

A rash of new regulations, meanwhile, have prompted Wall Street firms to exit from once-lucrative businesses such as energy trading and storing and transporting physical commodities.

The slump has gone on so long that some observers are beginning to question whether it is part of an ordinary down cycle or a more permanent shift. (…)

FRENCH PMIS DISAPPOINT ONCE MORE

The French Manufacturing PMI fell for the third consecutive month in December to 47.0. It has been stuck below the neutral 50 level for almost two years. On this measure, the French manufacturing sector is the weakest in the Eurozone by some margin. Even the Greek manufacturing PMI improved slightly last month, from 49.2 to 49.6. Official surveys of the French economy paint a somewhat brighter picture. According to a survey by the French statistical agency, Insee, business manager’s perceptions of the overall business climate improved by 2 points to 100 in December, in line with the historic average.

France continues to suffer from declining competitiveness, both in absolute terms and relative to its Eurozone competitors. According to IMF estimates of the real effective exchange rate, the competitiveness of the French manufacturing sector has deteriorated by 12% against Germany since the debt crisis hit in 2010. Over the same period, it has fallen much further against those countries that have experienced deflation. For example, French competitiveness has declined by 28% against Ireland, and by 23% against Greece. Our central view is that France will continue to disappoint through 2014, with growth around zero – the Consensus is looking for something closer to 1%. Risks to our central view are to the downside.

COTW_0106

GOOD READ

Great dollar rally of 2014 as Fukuyama’s History returns in tooth and claw China and Japan are on a quasi-war footing, one misjudgement away from a chain of events that would shatter all economic assumptions (By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard  Tks Fred!)

We enter the year of the all-conquering US dollar. As the global security system unravels – with echoes of 1914 – the premium on the world’s safe-haven currency must rise.

The effect is doubly powerful since the US economy is simultaneously coming back to life. America has shaken off the most drastic fiscal tightening since the Korean War, thanks to quantitative easing. Growth is near “escape velocity” – at least for now – at a time when half of Europe is still trapped in semi-slump and China is trying to cool the world’s most dangerous credit boom.

As the Fed turns off the spigot of dollar liquidity, it will starve the world’s dysfunctional economy of $1 trillion a year of stimulus. This will occur through the quantity of money effect, hitting in a series of hammer blows, regardless of whether interest rates remain at zero. The Fed denies that this is “tightening”, and I have an ocean-front property to sell you in Sichuan.

It is hard to imagine a strategic and economic setting more conducive to a blistering dollar rally, a process that will pick up speed as yields on 10-year US Treasuries break through 3pc. (…)

In case you had forgotten, China has imposed an Air Defence Indentification Zone (ADIC) covering the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands. The purpose of this escalation in the East China Sea is to test US willingness to back its military alliance with Japan, just as Kaiser Wilhelm provoked seemingly petty disputes with France to test Britain’s response before the First World War.

The ploy has been successful. The US has wobbled, wisely or not depending on your point of view. While American airlines comply, Japanese airlines fly through defiantly under orders from Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe has upped the ante by visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine – the burial place of war-time leader Tojo – in a gesture aimed at Beijing.

Asia’s two great powers are on a quasi-war footing already, one misjudgement away from a chain of events that would shatter all economic assumptions. It would leave America facing an invidious choice: either back Japan, or stand aloof and let the security structure of East Asia disintegrate. (…)

The US is stepping back from the Middle East, leaving the region to be engulfed by a Sunni-Shia conflict that resembles Europe’s Thirty Years War, when Lutherans and Catholics battled for supremacy. Sunni allies are being dropped, Shia Iran courted. Even Turkey risks succumbing, replicating Syria’s sectarian fault lines. (…)

In Europe, the EU Project has by now lost so much caste that Ukraine’s leaders dare to tear up an association accord, opting instead for a quick $15bn from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. (…)

So with that caveat let me try to make sense of global economic forces. Bearish as usual, I doubt that we are safely out of the woods, let alone on the start of a fresh boom. How can it be if the global savings rate is still rising, expected to hit a fresh record of 25.5pc this year? There is still a chronic lack of consumption.

As the Fed tightens under a hawkish Janet Yellen, a big chunk of the $4 trillion of foreign capital that has flowed into emerging markets since 2009 will come out again. It is fickle money, late to the party. (…)

Euroland will be hit on two fronts by Fed action. Bond yields will ratchet up, shackled to US Treasuries. Emerging market woes will ricochet into the eurozone. The benefits of US recovery will not leak out as generously as in past cycles. Dario Perkins from Lombard Street Research says the US is now more competitive than at any time since the Second World War. America is poised to meet its own consumption, its industries rebounding on cheap energy. Europe will have to generate its own stimulus this time. Don’t laugh. (…)

Credit to firms is still contracting at a rate of 3.7pc, or 5.2pc in Italy, 5.9pc in Portugal and 13.5pc in Spain. This is not deleveraging. The effects have been displaced onto public debt, made worse by near deflation across the South.

Italy’s debt has risen from 119pc to 133pc of GDP in three years despite a primary surplus, near the danger line for a country with no sovereign currency. For all the talk of reform – Orwellian EMU-speak for austerity – Italy is digging itself deeper into one hole even as it claws itself out of another, its industries relentlessly hollowed out. Much the same goes for Portugal and, increasingly, France. (…)

There is just enough growth on offer this year – the ECB says 1pc – to sustain the illusion of recovery. Those in control think they have licked the crisis, citing Club Med current account surpluses. Victims know this feat is mostly the result of crushing internal demand. They know too that job wastage is eroding skills (hysteresis) and blighting their future. Yet they dare not draw their swords.

It will take politics – not markets – to break this bad equilibrium, the moment when democracies cease to tolerate youth unemployment of 58pc in Greece, 57.4pc in Spain, 41.2pc in Italy and 36.5pc in Portugal.

Unemployment in the eurozone (yellow), US (red) and Japan (light blue)

The European elections in May will be an inflexion point. A eurosceptic landslide by Marine Le Pen’s Front National, Holland’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Cinque Stelle and Britain’s UKIP, among others, will puncture the sense of historic inevitability that drives the EU Project. (…)

Over all else hangs the fate of China. The sino-bubble is galactic. Credit has grown from $9 trillion to $24 trillion since late 2008, as if adding the US and Japanese banking systems combined. The pace of loan growth – 100pc of GDP over five years – is unprecedented in any major economy, eclipsing the great boom-bust dramas of the past century.

The central bank is struggling to deflate this gently, with two spasms of credit stress in the past six months. I doubt it will prove any more adept than the Bank of Japan in 1990, or the Fed in 1928, and again in 2007. This will be a bumpy descent.

China may try to cushion any hard-landing by driving down the yuan. The more that Mr Abe forces down the Japenese yen, the more likely that China will counter with its own devaluation to protect the margins of it manufacturing industry. We may be on the brink of another East Asian currency war, a replay of 1998 but this time on a much bigger scale and with China playing a full part.

If so, this will transmit an a further deflationary shock through the global system, catching the West sleeping with its defences against deflation already run down. The US may be strong enough to cope. For Europe it would be fatal. The denominator effect would push Club Med into a debt compound spiral. Let us give it a 30pc probability. Happy new year.

 
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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!

 
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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

 
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