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.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (28 JANUARY 2014)

Calm Returns to Emerging Markets Efforts by emerging-market central banks to counter a vicious market selloff in recent days brought a measure of calm.

The Turkish lira held on to the large gains it made Monday, after the country’s central bank announced a previously unscheduled interest-rate decision for late Tuesday, with the dollar pinned just under 2.27 against the lira, well below the near-2.39 peak it hit Monday.

Bank Gov. Erdem Basci said Tuesday he will “not refrain from permanent policy tightening,” which appears to reaffirm the market’s clear expectation for aggressive rate rises to support the currency at the coming rates announcement, scheduled for midnight local time.

An unexpected 0.25-percentage-point rate rise by India’s central bank has also lent support to battered emerging-market currencies, which have been dented by drab economic news from China, concerns over the effects of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s pullback from monetary stimulus, and a long list of geopolitical stresses including those in Turkey, Argentina, South Africa and Ukraine.

Italy Grabs Record Low 2-Year Funding Costs

At Tuesday’s auction, the Italian treasury sold €2.5 billion euros ($3.42 billion) in December 2015-dated zero coupon notes, or CTZ, and a further €1.25 billion euros in September 2018-dated inflation-index bonds, or BTPei, the Bank of Italy said. The amounts sold were at the upper end of the treasury’s respective target ranges.

The yield on the CTZ was 1.031%. Italy’s previous lowest funding cost in this maturity segment was 1.113%, in May 2013.

Fears had surfaced that ongoing emerging-market turmoil could spill into to the euro zone’s relatively weak sovereign debt markets as the single currency area tentatively emerges from recession. But these auction results suggest the risks to the euro zone can remain contained.

 Italian Retail Sales Offer Very Slow Progress

Retail sales for Italy in November were flat, marking their best performance since August when sales also were flat. The last increase in Italian retail sales came in May 2013 with a 0.1% rise. Retail sales dropped by 1.2% over 12 months, they fell at a 1.5% annual rate over six months and they fell at an even faster, 1.7% rate, over three months. (…)

Real retail sales excluding autos are flat in November, but they had risen by 0.1% in October. Retail sales are down by 1.9% over 12 months and they are falling at a faster, 2.6% annual rate, over six months. However, over three months, real retail sales are declining at only a 0.9% annual rate. (…)

SOFT PATCH WATCH

 

(…) Last week, the flash January factory survey by data provider Markit said some respondents stated “extreme weather conditions in January had temporarily disrupted output levels.” So, too, the Kansas City Fed said its survey of area manufacturers showed production declined slightly this month because of weather.

Store chains are also feeling the freeze.

“It was a slow period for sales over the past week with some bouts of abnormal seasonal weather curbing the consumers’ appetite to shop,” the International Council of Shopping Centers said.

Consumer spending may also take a hit because households are paying more for natural gas to heat their homes.

“Weather was mentioned 21 times in the latest beige book, almost always in a negative context, the most in any winter month Beige Book since at least 2011,” wrote John Canally, investment strategist at LPL Financial, after looking at the book.

Besides store sales and manufacturing, other activity that could be hurt by weather include home building and car sales (who wants to drive a shiny new car off the lot during a snow storm).

As one positive for growth: higher demand for heat is probably lifting utility output this month.

The end result is that when January data roll out in February, the weak tone may cause some economists to trim their tracking of first-quarter GDP growth. (…)

  • FYI, updated to last Saturday:

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Economists polled by Bloomberg anticipate the economy grew 3.2 percent during the final three months of the year, a bit softer than the 4.1 percent gain in the third quarter, which was overwhelmingly the result of a $115.7 billion inventory build. While optimists may claim the fourth quarter was still strong, the data may not provide an accurate depiction of underlying conditions.

First, there’s little doubt the strong economic reports for November were
payback for the sharp, albeit temporary, weakness in October caused by
the shutdown of the U.S. government. Second, with December data coming in softer than Street expectations, recent issues such as the mass layoff announcements by Wal-Mart, Macy’s, JC Penney, Target and Intel, as well as deterioration in China’s industrial sector and currency
issues in the emerging markets, the accumulation of negatives could end up being too much weight for the sluggish recovery to bear.

The Chicago Fed’s National Activity Index decreased to 0.16 in December
from the 0.69 posting in November. Similarly, The Conference Board’s index of leading economic indicators (LEI) inched up 0.1 percent in December following a 0.8 percent spike in November. The LEI is known for predicting turning points in the economy. And the Conference Board’s coincident-to- lagging indicator ratio continues its downward descent.

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Meanwhile, meaningful housing data have been bleak – new home sales
tumbled 7 percent in November – essentially unchanged from mid-year 2013 levels. From an economist’s standpoint, new home sales matter more than their existing home counterpart since they require building materials, new durable goods (washers, dryers, refrigerators, etc.) and employ specialty trade contractors such as plumbers, landscapers,
electricians and other tradesmen.

Similarly, the MBA Purchases Index fell 3.6 percent during the week ended Jan. 17, and is off 15.2 percent from year ago levels. This gauge has been mired in weak territory for years now with no sign of improvement. (…)

 

Sales of newly built homes fell 7% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 414,000 in December from 445,000 in November, the Commerce Department said Monday. November’s figure was revised down by 19,000.

December sales came in below the 455,000 annual pace forecast by economists and were at their lowest level since the summer, when rising mortgage rates undermined demand.

It was not just weather related as Haver Analytics points out:

Poor weather crimped sales by more than one-third m/m in the Northeast to 21,000 (-27.6% y/y). Sales also fell 8.8% (+5.1% y/y) to 103,000 in the West while sales were off 7.3% (+4.1 y/y) in the South to 230,000, the second month of sharp decline.

Royal Philips NV and Siemens AG, two of Europe’s biggest industrial groups by revenue, reported Tuesday robust results for the three months to end-December but cautioned that business conditions remain tough, partly because of the euro’s strength against major currencies.

The cautious outlook from the Dutch and German companies follows similar downbeat forecasts from other blue-chip European companies to have reported in the past two weeks, some of them issuing profit warnings.

The year will start a bit slow,” Philips Chief Executive Frans van Houten said.

At Siemens, orders at its power-generation equipment division fell in Europe, the Americas, and Asia in the quarter. The Germany company’s main European competitors in the sector, Alstom SA of France and ABB Ltd. of Switzerland, warned on their earnings prospects last week. (,,,)

Fingers crossed States Weigh Plans for Revenue Windfalls Governors across the U.S. are proposing tax cuts, increases in school spending and college-tuition freezes as growing revenue and mounting surpluses have states putting the recession behind them.

(…) The strengthening in tax revenue started in late 2012 as higher-income residents in many states took increased capital gains among other steps to avoid rising federal tax rates on certain income. Those tax payments spilled over into 2013, and further fuel for collections came from a record stock market and improving economy. State tax revenue nationally climbed 6.7% in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013, Moody’s Analytics says. (…)

Some states already have responded to rising tax collections by increasing spending on education and other programs, or cutting taxes. (…)

Economists warn the surge in tax revenue already is showing signs of slowing. Some of the strength has been fueled by people shifting income for tax purposes, making the gains more about timing than growth. New York, for example, forecasts income-tax receipts will grow 3% in the fiscal year starting this April after projecting a 6.5% rise in the current fiscal year. And rising collections spurred in part by profits from a record stock market leave some states such as New Jersey and California subject to sharp swings in revenue from income taxes. (…)

Can we now reasonably hope that state employment has bottomed out?

FRED Graph

 

FRED Graph

 

President to Hike Minimum Wage for Federal Contractors

President Barack Obama plans to act unilaterally to raise the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors, asserting his executive powers before the State of the Union address.

The executive order would raise the minimum wage for workers on new federal contracts to $10.10 an hour, according to a fact sheet from a White House official. It said Mr. Obama would announce the new policy in his speech Tuesday, which is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and hasn’t been raised since July 2009. About 16,000 federal employees were paid at or below minimum wage in 2012, according to the Labor Department. The agency doesn’t specify how many employees were government contractors.

Mr. Obama’s executive policy change is the opening salvo in a broader, election-year push by Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for all eligible workers.

SENTIMENT WATCH

 

The “January indicator” says that if the stock market falls in January, it usually falls for the remainder of the year. So far, January has been a disaster for stocks. (…)

High five Wait, wait! Mike Lombardi, in the above post, reproduced in many other blogs today, writes that “it usually falls for the remainder of the year”. Ever thought what “usually” really means? Mark Hulbert shows you the stats since 1880:

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Voilà! Now you know that “usually” means anything above 50% of the time. Hulbert continues where Lombardi did not:

A follower of the January Indicator in 2009 and 2010 would have missed out on two years of double-digit gains if one were to have used the occasion of a “down” January to get out of the market.

Another example that it is usually best to check the facts out. Here “usually” means “generally”, at a minimum, “always” if you really care.

 

BANKING

 

Loan-Loss Reserves Shrink

At the end of September, about 6,500 U.S. banks had set aside loan-loss reserves of just 1.83% of their roughly $7.80 trillion in loans, according to data provider SNL Financial.

That cushion has been shrinking since 2010, and banks are on pace to have ended 2013 with reserves amounting to about 1.66% of total loans, based on fourth-quarter reports from eight of the country’s largest banks provided to The Wall Street Journal by SNL.

That would be the lowest proportion of such reserves since 1.74% in mid-2008, a few months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

By contrast, reserves hit a near-term peak of 3.24% at the end of 2010 as banks grappled with troubled loans in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Total bank loans outstanding, however, still are below prerecession levels of $7.91 trillion at the end of 2007. (…)

U.S. Banks Prune Branches

Bank branch closures in the U.S. last year hit the highest level on record so far, a sign that sweeping technological advances in mobile and electronic banking are paying off for lenders but leaving some customers behind.

U.S. banks cut a net 1,487 branch locations last year, according to SNL Financial, the most since the research firm began collecting the data in 2002.

Branch numbers have been on a steady decline since 2009 and reached a total of 96,339 at the middle of last year, the lowest since 2006, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (17 JANUARY 2014)

Philly Fed Stronger Than Expected

Following on the heels of yesterday’s stronger than expected Empire Manufacturing report, today’s release of the Philly Fed Manufacturing report for January also came in stronger than expected.  While economists were looking for the headline index to come in at a level of 8.7, the actual reading was slightly higher at 9.4, which was three 3 points higher than the reading for December.

As shown, the majority (5) of components increased this month, while just three declined.  The biggest increases this month came from Number of Employees and Unfilled Orders.  The fact that Number of Employees increased seems to provide more evidence that last Friday’s employment report was an outlier.  On the downside, the biggest declines were seen in Inventories, Average Workweek, and New Orders.  Believe it or not , the 35.6 decline in the Inventories index was the largest month to month drop in the history of the survey (since 1980).  While that drop is large for one month, it takes that index back to levels seen as recently as April.

Homebuilder Sentiment Slips

Homebuilder sentiment for the month of January slipped from a revised reading of 57 down to 56 (expectations were for 58).  While sentiment slipped, it is important to note that any reading above 50 indicates optimism among homebuilders.

The table to the right breaks out this month’s report by components and region.  As shown, Present Sales, Future Sales, and Traffic all declined this month, with the biggest drop coming in traffic.  (…)

The chart below shows the historical levels of the NAHB Sentiment survey going back to 1985 with recessions highlighted in gray.  The current level of 56 is down slightly from the post-recession high of 58 reached in August.  While the index has seen a remarkable improvement since the lows from the recession, optimism still has some work to do on the upside before getting back to the highs from the prior expansion.

INFLATION WATCH

So while everybody is talking deflation risk:

  • Core CPI rose at a 1.8% annualized rate in Nov-Dec. and is up 1.7% YoY.
  • Same with the Cleveland Fed’s 16% trimmed-mean Consumer Price Index .
  • The median CPI has accelerated from +0.1% MoM in October to +0.2% in November and to +0.3% in December. The median CPI is up 2.1% YoY in December, unchanged for 6 months.

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The WSJ recently polled economists on a number of items. The tilt towards faster growth is clear:image

Even more interesting is that the WSJ did not bother to enquire about inflation and interest rates. Bernanke really did a fine job!

Shopping Spree Ends in Retail Stocks

A disappointing holiday shopping season has investors dialing back expectations for retail stocks after last year’s big runup in the sector.

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Stores Confront New World With Less Foot Traffic

A long-term change in shopper habits has reduced store traffic—perhaps permanently—and shifted pricing power away from malls and big-box retailers.

(…) Retailers got only about half the holiday traffic in 2013 as they did just three years earlier, according to ShopperTrak, which uses a network of 60,000 shopper-counting devices to track visits at malls and large retailers across the country. The data firm tracked declines of 28.2% in 2011, 16.3% in 2012 and 14.6% in 2013.

Online sales increased by more than double the rate of brick-and-mortar sales this holiday season. Shoppers don’t seem to be using physical stores to browse as much, either. Instead, they seem to be figuring out what they want online then making targeted trips to pick it up from retailers that offer the best price. While shoppers visited an average five stores per mall trip in 2007, today they only visit three, ShopperTrak’s data shows. (…)

On Wednesday, J.C. Penney said it planned to close 33 underperforming stores and trim 2,000 positions to focus on locations that generate the strongest profits.

Such closings could accelerate: Leases for big retailers typically last between 10 and 25 years, meaning many were negotiated before e-commerce really took off.

Only 44 million square feet of retail space opened in the 54 largest U.S. markets last year, down 87% from 325 million in 2006, according to CoStar Group, Inc., a real-estate research firm. (…)

NMHC Survey: Apartment Market Conditions Softer in Q4 (CalculatedRisk)

Apartment market conditions weakened a bit in January compared with three months earlier. The market tightness (41), sales volume (41) and debt financing (42) indexes were all a little below the breakeven level of 50, although the equity financing index rebounded to 50. (…)

Although markets are a little looser than in October, this is largely seasonal; overall markets remain fairly tight.

“New supply is finally starting to arrive at levels that will more closely match overall demand. In a few markets, we are seeing completions a little higher than absorptions, but this is likely to be short term in nature. Fundamentally, demand for apartment homes should be strong for the rest of the decade (and beyond) – provided only that the economy remains on track.”

CORPORATE DELEVERAGING

From SocGen via ZeroHedge:

US corporates do indeed hold lots of cash, which is currently at record levels, but they also hold record levels of debt. Net debt (so discounting those massive cash piles) is 15% above the levels seen in 2008/09. The idea that corporates are paying down debt is simply not seen in the numbers.

Don’t forget that corporate cash is heavily concentrated in just a few companies.

SHELL WOES

 

Shell Warns On Profit

The company said profit would be significantly weaker partly because of higher exploration costs. The warning is rare for an oil major, and marks an inauspicious start to energy earnings reports.

The oil major said it expects to post fourth-quarter earnings of $2.2 billion on a current-cost-of-supplies basis—a figure that factors out the impact of inventories, making it equivalent to the net profit reported by U.S. oil companies—down from $7.3 billion a year earlier. Full-year earnings on a CCS basis are expected to be about $16.8 billion, down from $27.2 billion last year.

Shell blames refining woes for warning Oil group issues first profits warning in 10 years

And the wrap up:

Shell warns of ‘significant’ profit miss

Royal Dutch Shell issued a “significant” profit warning on Friday, detailing across-the-board problems and the extent of the challenges facing the oil major’s new boss Ben van Beurden, who took over two weeks ago.

Now you know! Winking smile

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (15 JANUARY 2014)

Consumers Spent Solidly in December

Just kidding This is the WSJ’s headline today. Below is the reality:

U.S. Retail Sales Post Moderate Year-End Increase

Retail spending increased 0.2% (4.1% y/y) during December after a 0.4% November gain, revised down from 0.7%. For all of last year retail sales increased 4.3%, the weakest increase of the economic recovery.

A 1.8% reduction (+5.9% y/y) in sales of motor vehicles & parts held back the increase in overall December sales. Nonauto retail sales rose 0.7% (3.7% y/y) after a 0.1% November uptick. Nonauto sales rose 3.4% during all of 2013, also the weakest gain of the recovery.

Higher sales of food & beverages led last month’s sales with a 2.0% gain (4.2% y/y) following two months of slippage. Clothing & accessory sales increased 1.8% (5.2% y/y) after a 0.5% November dip and gasoline service station sales rose 1.6% (0.6% y/y), after two months of decline. Sales of nonstore retailers showed continued strength with a 1.4% jump (9.9% y/y) following a 1.6% November gain. Furniture store sales dropped 0.4% (+4.5% y/y) after a 0.2% decline and building materials & garden equipment store sales slipped 0.4% (+2.1% y/y), down for the third month in the last five.

Not easy to get a clear measure of retail sales given the calendar quirks and bad weather. It is best to look at average sales growth for November and December.

  • Total retail sales: +0.3% (Nov.-Dec. avg) vs +0.5% in October.
  • Autos and Parts:  +0.1% vs +1.0%.
  • Non Autos ex Gas and Building Supplies: +0.5% vs +0.6%

Surprised smile Total sales for the October through December 2013 period were up 1.0% YoY.

Note that these figures are subject to big revisions. November’s surprising 0.7% original gain was revised down to 0.4%.

Pointing up U.S. Business Inventories Increase Slows

Total business inventories increased 0.4% in November (4.0% y/y), the slowest increase in three months. This inventory rise accompanied a 0.8% jump (4.0% y/y) in business sales after October’s 0.5% increase. As a result, the inventory-to-sales ratio remained at 1.29, where it’s been since April.

Pointing up In the retail sector, inventories advanced 0.8% (7.3% y/y) in November, including a 1.3% jump (13.7% y/y) in motor vehicles. Inventories excluding autos rose 0.6% (4.4% y/y).

Sad smile Taking the 3 months to November, retail inventories rose 2.9% sequentially while sales advanced only 0.7%. Ex-Autos: +1.3% vs +0.5%.

As I have been warning, there is clearly an inventory problem entering Q114. If you don’t believe me, read this:

Auto AutoNation CEO Calls U.S. Vehicle Inventories Too High

AutoNation Chief Executive Mike Jackson says new-car supplies in the U.S. are rising rapidly, putting pressure on auto companies as they try to avoid a profit-sapping price war.

(…) U.S. dealers have about $100 billion worth of unsold cars and trucks sitting on their lots, Mr. Jackson said. That level is striking given that car makers have pledged not to overstock dealers the way they did in the run-up to the financial crisis and the auto-sales collapse of 2008-2009, Mr. Jackson said. Auto makers book revenue when a car is shipped, not when it is sold at the dealership.

At the end of 2013, auto dealers had 3.45 million cars and trucks in stock, enough to last 63 days at the current selling rate, according to research firm Autodata Corp. A 60-day supply of cars is typically considered as healthy by the industry.

High five But Mr. Jackson said the inventory levels are much higher than that—closer to 90 to 120 days of supply—if cars sold to fleets are excluded from the selling rate. (…)

AutoNation’s Mr. Jackson said discounts are starting to rise across the industry already, even if they aren’t as obvious to consumers.

Among them are “stair-step programs” where car companies give money directly to dealers in exchange for hitting monthly sales targets.

“What worries me is if the industry was as disciplined as it says it is we would have stopped before 3.5 million” vehicles at dealerships, Mr. Jackson said. He sees about a 50-50 chance the industry will resort to an all-out discount war.

“What I’m saying is you’re on the edge of a slippery slope and even sliding down it a bit,” he said. “It’s a risk.”

Auto Makers Dare to Boost Output

A string of new factories in the region will start cranking out a million or more cars over the next several years.

A large increase in production capacity poses a serious risk for auto makers. They reap strong profits if their factories are running near 100% of capacity, but their losses mount rapidly if the utilization rate falls below 80%. (…)

Some auto makers are already concerned about overcapacity.

“The last thing we need is to get bricks-and-mortar capacity increased,” Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Chrysler Group LLC and Fiat SpA, said this week. Building new plants isn’t the only trend to watch, he added, because increasing the use of automated production lines can boost output at existing factories. (…)

Magna warns 2014 sales likely below analysts’ estimates

Canadian auto-parts giant Magna International Inc. is forecasting 2014 sales that are below analysts’ estimates.

Aurora, Ont.-based Magna said on Wednesday in its financial outlook that it anticipates total sales of between $33.8-billion (U.S.) and $35.5-billion in 2014, lower than the consensus analysts’ estimate of $35.8-billion.

Jobs Deal Collapses in Senate

(…) After more than a week of talks, lawmakers failed to reach agreement to revive benefits for the roughly 1.4 million people who have lost aid since last month. Senate Democrats rejected the latest proposal from a group of eight Republicans, while GOP lawmakers dismissed an overture from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) to allow votes on a handful of Republican amendments.

The law that expired in December dates from the financial crisis and provided federal aid to supplement the 26 weeks of unemployment benefits provided by most states, giving up to 47 weeks of additional payments. The latest proposals from both Democrats and Republicans would scale that back to a maximum of 31 weeks. (…)

Several lawmakers said they hope to continue negotiations, but the Senate isn’t expected to return to the issue until late January after next week’s congressional recess. The Senate is shifting its focus on Wednesday to consider the short-term stopgap spending bill to prevent a partial government shutdown and the $1.012 trillion bill to fund the federal government through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. (…)

HOUSING WATCH

From Raymond James:

  • California’s November existing single-family home sales fell 3.4%, on a seasonally-adjusted basis relative to October as rising home prices and higher mortgage rates reduced affordability. Closed sales stood at the lowest level since July 2010, falling to an annual run rate of 387,520 units (down 12.0% y/y). We note on a sequential basis, sales fell for the fourth consecutive month in November and have now declined on a year-over-year basis in ten of the last eleven months. California’s non-seasonally-adjusted pending home sales index (PHSI) fell 9.4% y/y (versus -10.4% y/y in October), and declined 13.6% m/m as Golden State buyers’ sensitivity to interest rate swings becomes increasingly apparent.
  • Florida existing home sales fell 1.2% y/y in November, the first negative y/y comp since March 2012 and down from a +6.5% y/y comp in October. Sequentially, sales decreased 11.3% from October, fueled by the combined increase in prices and mortgage rates outpacing household income growth. According to November data from RealtyTrac, 62.7% of Florida homes sold were all-cash transactions, the highest level of any state and well ahead of the next closest state (Georgia, 51.3%).

German GDP Disappoints

German economic growth failed to gain momentum in the fourth quarter of 2013, but economists predict stronger growth this year

Germany’s gross domestic product expanded 0.4% in 2013, following growth of 0.7% in 2012, the Federal Statistics Office said on Wednesday. The economy grew 0.5% when taking account of the number of working days each year.

Based on the full-year figures, GDP increased around 0.25% in the three months through December—about the same rate as the third quarter—according to the statistics office, which is due to publish fourth-quarter national accounts in mid-February.

Productivity crisis haunts global economy
Report shows most countries failed to improve overall efficiency

A productivity crisis is stalking the global economy with most countries failing last year to improve their overall efficiency for the first time in decades.

In a sign that innovation might be stalling in the face of weak demand, the Conference Board, a think-tank, said a “dramatic” result of the 2013 figures was a decline in the world’s ability to turn labour and capital resources into goods and services.

Productivity growth is the most important ingredient for raising prosperity in rich and poor countries alike. If overall productivity growth disappears in the years ahead, it will dash hopes that rich countries can improve their population’s living standards and that emerging economies can catch up with the advanced world.

The Conference Board said: “This stalling appears to be the result of slowing demand in recent years, which caused a drop in productive use of resources that is possibly related to a combination of market rigidities and stagnating innovation.”

The failure of overall efficiency – known to economists as total factor productivity – to grow in 2013 results from slower economic growth in emerging economies alongside continued rapid increases in capital used and labour inputs. Labour productivity growth also slowed for the third consecutive year.

The decline in total factor productivity continues a trend of recent years in which the remarkable rise in the efficiency of emerging markets has slowed and in advanced economies it has declined. (…)

The Conference Board’s annual analysis of productivity uses the latest data to estimate economic growth in all countries, the increase in hours worked and the deployment of additional capital to estimate the efficiency of individual economies.

Globally, it found that labour productivity growth declined from 1.8 per cent in 2012 to 1.7 per cent in 2013, having been as high as 3.9 per cent in 2010. Total factor productivity dipped 0.1 per cent.

For the US it found that productivity gains of the early years of the crisis continued to be elusive in 2013, with labour productivity growth stable at 0.9 per cent in 2013.

The US trends were, however, better than those in Europe, which has seen extremely weak productivity growth alongside relatively muted unemployment in most large economies with the exception of Spain, where joblessness soared. Labour productivity grew 0.4 per cent in 2013, having fallen 0.1 per cent in 2012.

Mr van Ark said Europe’s problem in achieving more efficiency from its labour force stemmed from structural rigidities.(…)

Emerging economies saw rates of growth of productivity fall from extraordinarily rapid rates, even though the rate of growth at 3.3 per cent was still much higher than in advanced economies.

For China, the Conference Board said that, while “the statistical information for the latest years is sketchy, the indications are that sustained investment growth in China has not been accompanied by the efficiency gains (measured by total factor productivity growth) similar to those of the previous decade”. (…)

World Bank warns of emerging market risk
Capital flows could fall 80% if central banks move too abruptly

An abrupt unwinding of central bank support for advanced world economies could cause capital flows to emerging markets to contract by as much as 80 per cent, inflicting significant economic damage and throwing some countries into crises, the World Bank has warned.

Capital flows into emerging markets are influenced more by global than domestic forces, leaving them vulnerable to disorderly changes in policy by the US Federal Reserve, concludes a study by World Bank economists.

SENTIMENT WATCH

 

The Year-Two Curse

In a world full of January barometers, Super Bowl indicators and sell-in-May-and-go mantras, Jeffrey Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial, thinks he’s found an indicator that actually works: the “year-two curse.”

“Year two” refers to the second year of a presidential cycle, which is what we’re in right now. Per the chart below, courtesy of LPL, the middle of the year tends to be fairly volatile for investors.

“The start of the second quarter to the end of the third quarter of year two has consistently marked the biggest peak-to-trough decline of any year of the four-year presidential term,” Mr. Kleintop wrote in a note to clients.Since 1960, nine of the 13 presidential terms have suffered from the dreaded curse, as the S&P 500 fell in the second and third quarters of those years, he says. (…)

Still, Mr. Kleintop maintains a relatively bullish stance about the rest of the year. “We may again see some seasonal weakness, but there is no need to fear the curse,” he says. “In fact, the curse may be a blessing for some, allowing those who have been awaiting a long-overdue pullback a chance to buy. It is important to keep in mind that history shows that, on average, year two posts a solid gain for stocks, and the year-two curse is reversed by the end of the year.”

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (10 JANUARY 2014)

China Data Suggest Tepid Pickup in West

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

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

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

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

However:

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

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

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

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

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

Low-End Retailers Had a Rough Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

Thomson Reuters rounds it up:

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

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

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

Banks Cut as Mortgage Boom Ends

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

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

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

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

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

Draghi Says ECB Ready to Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil Breaking Down

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

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

Ghost SENTIMENT WATCH

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

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

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

Ian McAvity:

image

image

Lance Roberts:

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

Click to View

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

Click to View

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

Click to View

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

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (8 JANUARY 2014)

Companies in U.S. Added 238,000 Jobs in December, ADP Says

The 238,000 increase in employment was the biggest since November 2012 and followed a revised 229,000 gain in November that was stronger than initially estimated, according to the ADP Research Institute in Roseland, New Jersey. The December tally exceeded the most optimistic forecast in a Bloomberg survey in which the median projection called for a 200,000 advance.

Discounts drive U.S. holiday retail growth: ShopperTrak

Promotions and discounts offered by U.S. retailers drove a 2.7 percent rise in holiday season sales despite six fewer days and a cold snap that kept shoppers from stores, retail industry tracker ShopperTrak said. (…)

U.S. online retail spending rose 10 percent to $46.5 billion in the November-December 2013 holiday season, according to comScore (SCOR.O). This was below the 14 percent growth that the data firm had forecast.

ShopperTrak said shoppers spent $265.9 billion during the latest holiday period. The increase was slightly ahead of the 2.4 percent jump it had forecast in September.

ShopperTrak had forecast a 1.4 percent decline in shopper traffic.

Both retail sales and foot traffic rose 2.5 percent in the 2012 holiday season. (…)

ShopperTrak estimated on Wednesday that U.S. retail sales would rise 2.8 percent in the first quarter of 2014, while shopper traffic would fall 9 percent.

Growth Picture Brightens as Exports Hit Record

A booming U.S. energy sector and rising overseas demand brightened the nation’s trade picture in November, sharply boosting estimates for economic growth in late 2013 and raising hopes for a stronger expansion this year.

U.S. exports rose to their highest level on record in November, a seasonally adjusted $194.86 billion, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. A drop in imports narrowed the trade gap to $34.25 billion, the smallest since late 2009.

Pointing up The trade figures led many economists to sharply raise their forecasts for economic growth in the final quarter. Morgan Stanley economists raised their estimate to an annualized 3.3% from an earlier forecast of a 2.4% pace. Macroeconomic Advisers boosted its fourth-quarter projection to a 3.5% rate from 2.6%.

Fourth-quarter growth at that pace, following a 4.1% annualized increase in the third quarter, would mark the fastest half-year growth stretch since the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012.

The falling U.S. trade deficit in large part reflects rising domestic energy production. U.S. crude output has increased about 64% from five years ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At the same time, the U.S.’s thirst for petroleum fuels has stalled as vehicles become more efficient. As a result, refiners are shipping increasing quantities of diesel, gasoline and jet fuel to Europe and Latin America.

Petroleum exports, not adjusted for inflation, rose to the highest level on record in November while imports fell to the lowest level since November 2010.

If recent trade trends continue, Mr. Bryson said net exports could add one percentage point to the pace of GDP growth in the fourth quarter. That would be the biggest contribution since the final quarter of 2010.

Rising domestic energy production also helps in other ways, by creating jobs, keeping a lid on gasoline costs and lowering production costs for energy-intensive firms. As a result, consumers have more to spend elsewhere and businesses are more competitive internationally. (…)

U.S. exports are up 5.2% from a year earlier, led by rising sales to China, Mexico and Canada. U.S. exports to China from January through November rose 8.7% compared with the same period a year earlier. Exports to Canada, the nation’s largest trading partner, were up 2.5% in the same period. (…)

US inflation expectations hit 4-month high
Sales of Treasury inflation protected securities rise

Inflation expectations, as measured by the difference between yields on 10-year nominal Treasury notes and Treasury inflation protected securities (Tips), have risen to 2.25 per cent from a low of around 2.10 a month ago.

Aging Boomers to Boost Demand for Apartments, Condos and Townhouses

 

(…) As the boomers get older, many will move out of the houses where they raised families and move into cozier apartments, condominiums and townhouses (known as multifamily units in industry argot). A normal transition for individuals, but a huge shift in the country’s housing demand.

Based on demographic trends, the country should see a stronger rebound in multifamily construction than in single-family construction, Kansas City Fed senior economist Jordan Rappaport wrote in the most recent issue of the bank’s Economic Review. (Though he also notes slowing U.S. population growth “will put significant downward pressure on both single-family and multifamily construction.”)

Construction of multifamily buildings is expected to pick up strongly by early 2014, and single-family-home construction should regain strength by early 2015. “The longer term outlook is especially positive for multifamily construction, reflecting the aging of the baby boomers and an associated shift in demand from single-family to multifamily housing. By the end of the decade, multifamily construction is likely to peak at a level nearly two-thirds higher than its highest annual level during the 1990s and 2000s,” Mr. Rappaport wrote.

In contrast, when construction of single-family homes peaks at the end of the decade or beginning of the 2020s, he wrote, it’ll be “at a level comparable to what prevailed just prior to the housing boom.” (…)

“More generally,” Mr. Rappaport wrote, “the projected shift from single-family to multifamily living will likely have many large, long-lasting effects on the U.S. economy. It will put downward pressure on single-family relative to multifamily house prices. It will shift consumer demand away from goods and services that complement large indoor space and a backyard toward goods and services more oriented toward living in an apartment. Similarly, the possible shift toward city living may dampen demand for automobiles, highways, and gasoline but increase demand for restaurants, city parks, and high-quality public transit. Households, firms, and governments that correctly anticipate these changes are likely to especially benefit.”

Euro-Zone Retail Sales Surge

A surprise jump in retail sales across the euro zone boosts hopes that consumers may aid the hoped-for recovery.

The European Union’s statistics agency Wednesday said retail sales rose by 1.4% from October and were 1.6% higher than in November 2012. That was the largest rise in a single month since November 2001, and a major surprise. Nine economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal last week had expected sales to rise by just 0.1%.

image

The pickup was spread across the currency area, with sales up 1.5% in low-unemployment Germany, but up an even stronger 2.1% in France, where the unemployment rate is much higher and the economy weaker.

The rise in sales was also broadly based across different products, with sales of food and drink up 1.1% from October, while sales of other items were up 1.9%.

The surge in sales during November follows a long period of weakness, with sales having fallen in September and October. Consumer spending rose by just 0.1% on the quarter in the three months to September, having increased by a slightly less feeble 0.2% in the three months to June.

High five Let’s not get carried away. Sales often rebound after two weak months. Taking the last 3 months to November, totals sales rose only 0.4% or 1.6% annualized, only slightly better than the 0.8% annualized gain in the previous 3 months. Core sales did a little better with  annualized gains of 3.6% and 0.4% for the same respective periods. The most recent numbers can be revised, however.image

Markit’s Retail PMI for December was not conducive to much hoopla!

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.

Record-Low Core Inflation May Soon Push ECB to Ease Policy (Bloomberg Briefs)image

Meanwhile:

image

 

Auto U.K. Car Sales Top Pre-Crisis Levels

U.K. registrations of new cars rose 11% in 2013 to their highest level since before the 2008 financial crisis, reflecting the country’s relatively strong economic recovery in contrast with the rest of Europe, where car demand has revived only recently from a prolonged slump.

The outlook is nonetheless for more sedate growth in the U.K. this year and next as the impact of pent-up demand for new cars fades, the U.K. Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, or SMMT, said on Tuesday.

Much of the increase in sales last year stemmed from the generous provision of cheap financing from the car manufacturers.

The SMMT said registrations, which mirror sales, rose to 2.26 million vehicles from 2.04 million in 2012, with registrations in December jumping 24% to 152,918, a 22nd consecutive monthly rise.

As a result, the U.K. has entrenched its position as Europe’s biggest car market after Germany and ahead of France. Germany registrations of new cars fell 4.2% to 2.95 million in 2013, despite a 5.4% gain in December. French registrations fell 5.7% last year to 1.79 million cars, although they rose 9.4% in December. The German and French data were released by the countries’ auto-making associations last week. (…)

Eurozone periphery borrowing costs fall
Yields in Spain, Portugal and Greece down after Irish bond sale

(…) The strength of demand for eurozone “periphery” debt reflected increased investor appetite for higher-yielding government bonds as well as rising confidence in the creditworthiness of eurozone economies. It improved significantly the chances of Portugal following Ireland’s example and exiting its bailout programme later this year – and of Greece also soon being able to tap international debt markets. (…)

EARNINGS WATCH

Currency Swings Hit Earnings Currency swings are still taking a toll on corporate earnings despite efforts to manage the risk. Large U.S. multinational companies reported about $4.2 billion in hits to earnings and revenue in Q3, driven mostly by swings in the Brazilian real, Japanese yen, Indian rupee and Australian dollar, CFOJ’s Emily Chasan reports. The real declined 10% against the U.S. dollar during the quarter, while the rupee hit a record low.

A total of 205 companies said currency moves had negatively affected their results in the third quarter of 2013, according to FiREapps, a foreign exchange risk-management company. “More companies are trying to manage risk…but companies are still seeing highly uncorrelated moves [against the dollar] based on swings in one currency,” said FiREapps CEO Wolfgang Koester. Companies have spent much of the year insulating themselves against big moves in the euro or the yen, but swings in the Australian dollar, rupee and real dominated discussions because they were often surprises, Mr. Koester said.

Only 78 companies quantified the impact of currencies, which translated to about 3 cents a share on average. The total was up slightly from the second quarter when 95 companies reported a total impact of $4.1 billion.

On an industry basis, car makers suddenly started disclosing more currency moves during the quarter, with 16 companies mentioning their results had been affected. Ford, for example, warned last month of the potential impact from an expected Venezuelan currency devaluation in 2014.

Thumbs down A Flurry of Downgrades Kick Off the New Year

 

Wall Street analysts have gotten back to work in the new year with a flurry of ratings changes, and they have been more bearish than bullish.  As shown in the first chart below, there have been 226 total ratings changes over the first four trading days of 2014, which is the highest reading seen since the bull market began in 2009.  We have seen 134 analyst downgrades since the start of the year, which is also the highest level seen over the first four trading days since 2009.  

In percentage terms, 2014 is starting with fewer downgrades than in 2011 or 2012 (62.7% and 60.0% respectively vs. 59.2% in 2014), but these years both had very quiet starts in terms of the total number of ratings changes.  

Record-Setting Cold Hits Eastern U.S.

A record-setting cold snap in the Midwest enveloped the eastern half of the country Tuesday, with brutally cold temperatures recorded from the deep South up to New England.

Pointing up Is China About to Let the Yuan Rise? Don’t Bank on It  China’s central bankers are beginning to think the country’s huge pile of reserves – which is still growing as authorities intervene to keep the yuan from rising too fast — is excessive. Curbing its growth could even help the economy’s transition from an export-led model to one based on domestic consumption. But the top leadership’s fear of social unrest means things are unlikely to change soon.

(…) In an effort to hold down the value of its currency and keep Chinese exports competitive, the PBOC wades into markets, buying up foreign exchange and pumping out yuan on a massive scale. The PBOC probably bought $73 billion dollars of foreign exchange in October, the most in three years, and a similar amount in November, according to Capital Economics.

Even before that, official figures showed China’s reserves had hit a record $3.66 trillion by the end of the third quarter, the bulk of it invested in U.S. dollar securities like Treasury bonds. Policymakers are beginning to wonder if that hoard is too big.

Sitting on $4 trillion might not seem like a bad position to be in, but it can make a mess of domestic monetary policy if those reserves result from the central bank’s attempts to deal with capital inflows.

To prevent the yuan from appreciating, the PBOC buys up foreign exchange using newly created domestic currency. But that can fuel domestic inflation, so the central bank “sterilizes” the new money by selling central bank bills to domestic financial institutions. That leaves these institutions with less cash for lending, pushing up domestic interest rates (and ultimately leaving the central bank with a loss on its balance sheet).

Interest rates in China already are significantly higher than in many other countries, making it a tempting target for speculative “hot money” flows, which tend to find a way in despite the country’s capital controls.

“Monetary policy gets into a conundrum,” said Louis Kuijs, an economist at RBS. “If the central bank is intervening because there are huge capital inflows, the domestic interest rate in the market will go up. The more that interest rate goes up, the more capital will be attracted. It becomes difficult for the central bank to manage.”

Yi Gang, head of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange and guardian of the treasure trove, thinks the reserves are so large they’re becoming more of a burden than an asset. In an interview last month, he told financial magazine Caixin that a further build-up would bring “fewer and fewer benefits coupled with higher and higher costs.”

Those costs include not just losses on sterilization operations but also the impact of a huge export sector on the environment, he said.

But Mr. Yi does not make the decisions, any more than his boss, PBOC Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan, has the final say on interest rates. Monetary policy in China is too big a deal to be left to the central bank; the State Council, headed by Premier Li Keqiang, has to sign off on its decisions.

The technocrats at the PBOC, financial professionals who have as much faith in markets as anyone in China’s government, might want to dial back foreign-exchange intervention. But the top leaders are leery of any move that could pose a risk to employment. If factories go out of business and jobless migrants flood the streets of Guangdong, a market-determined exchange rate will be little comfort.

To be sure, China is allowing the yuan to appreciate — just not by much. The yuan has risen nearly 13% against the U.S. dollar since authorities relaxed the currency peg in June 2010, including 3% appreciation last year. But that’s far less than it would likely rise if the market were allowed to operate freely.

Never mind that a cheap currency makes it more expensive for Chinese households and businesses to buy things from the outside world, depressing standards of living and hampering the transition to a consumer society that China’s leaders ostensibly want. The policy amounts to forced saving on a huge scale — even as the officials who manage those savings say they already have more than enough for any contingency.

Some experts think the pace of China’s FX accumulation will even increase. Capital Economics says the PBOC could amass another $500 billion over the next year. That’s what they think it will take to keep the yuan from rising to more than 5.90 to the dollar, compared with 6.10 now.

“The PBOC will have to choose between allowing significant currency appreciation and continuing to accumulate foreign assets,” Mark Williams, the firm’s chief Asia economist, wrote in a research note Monday. “We expect policymakers to opt primarily for the latter.”

Emerging Markets See Selloff

The declines come amid concerns about faltering economies and political unrest.

Investors are bailing out of emerging markets from Turkey and Brazil to Thailand and Indonesia, extending a selloff that began last year, amid concerns about faltering economies and political unrest.

The MSCI Emerging Markets Index, a gauge of stocks in 21 developing markets, slipped 3.1% in the first four trading days of 2014, building on a 5% loss in 2013. This compares with double-digit-percentage rallies in stock markets in the U.S., Japan and Europe last year.

Indonesia’s currency on Tuesday hit its lowest level against the dollar since the financial crisis in Asia trading. Meanwhile, the Turkish lira plumbed record lows against the greenback this week. (…)

In the first three trading days of the year, investors yanked $1.2 billion from the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF, VFEM.LN +0.07% the biggest emerging-markets exchange-traded fund listed in the U.S., according to data provider IndexUniverse. That is among the biggest year-to-date outflows among all ETFs. Shares of the ETF itself are down 4.2% in 2014.

Last year, money managers pulled $6 billion from emerging-market stocks, the most since 2011, according to data tracker EPFR Global. Outflows from bond markets totaled $13.1 billion, the biggest since the financial crisis of 2008. (…)

The stocks in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index on average are trading at 10.2 times next year’s earnings, compared with a P/E of 15.2 for the S&P 500, FactSet noted. (…)

In the Philippines, an inflation reading on Tuesday reached a two-year high and provided another sell signal to currency traders given officials and economists had expected the impact from the typhoon in November to be mild on inflation. The Philippine peso has weakened 1% against the dollar since the start of the year. (…)

Mohamed El-Erian
Do not bet on a broad emerging market recovery

(…) To shed more light on what happened in 2013 and what is likely to occur in 2014, we need to look at three factors that many had assumed were relics of the “old EM”.

First, and after several years of large inflows, emerging markets suffered a dramatic dislocation in technical conditions in the second quarter of 2013.

The trigger was Fed talk of “tapering” the unconventional support the US central bank provides to markets. The resulting price and liquidity disruptions were amplified by structural weaknesses associated with a narrow EM dedicated investor base and skittish cross-over investors. Simply put, “tourist dollars” fleeing emerging markets could not be compensated for quickly enough by “locals”.

Second, 2013 saw stumbles on the part of EM corporate leaders and policy makers. Perhaps overconfident due to all the talk of an emerging market age – itself encouraged by the extent to which the emerging world had economically and financially outperformed advanced countries after the 2008 global financial crisis – they underestimated exogenous technical shocks, overestimated their resilience, and under-delivered on the needed responses at both corporate and sovereign levels. Pending elections also damped enthusiasm for policy changes.

Finally, the extent of internal policy incoherence was accentuated by the currency depreciations caused by the sudden midyear reversal in cross-border capital flows. Companies scrambled to deal with their foreign exchange mismatches while central bank interest rate policies were torn between battling currency-induced inflation and countering declining economic growth.

Absent a major hiccup in the global economy – due, for example, to a policy mistake on the part of G3 central banks and/or a market accident as some asset prices are quite disconnected from fundamentals – the influence of these three factors is likely to diminish in 2014. This would alleviate pressure on emerging market assets at a time when their valuations have become more attractive on both a relative and absolute basis.

Yet the answer is not for investors to rush and position their portfolios for an emerging market recovery that is broad in scope and large in scale. Instead, they should differentiate by favouring companies commanding premium profitability and benefiting from healthy long-run consumer growth dynamics, residing in countries with strong balance sheets and a high degree of policy flexibility, and benefiting from a rising dedicated investor base.

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (31 DECEMBER 2013)

Smile Small Businesses Anticipate Breakout Year Ahead

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

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

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

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

U.S. Pending Home Sales Inch Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee cup  Investors Brace as Coffee Declines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold Temperatures Heat Up Prices for Natural Gas

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

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

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

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

Spain retail sales jump 1.9 percent in November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EARNINGS WATCH

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…things are really getting better!

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

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

Factset on cash flows and capex:

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

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

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

image_thumb[1]

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

Gavyn Davies The three big macro questions for 2014

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

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

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

2. Will China bring excess credit growth under control?

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

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

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

3. Will the ECB confront the zero lower bound?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENTIMENT WATCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Will QE3 end in 2014? Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call me   HAPPY AND HEALTHY 2014 TO ALL!

 

NEW$ & VIEW$ (26 DECEMBER 2013)

Signs Point to Stronger Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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U.S. Consumer Spending Up 0.5% in November

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

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

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

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

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

Nerd smile What’s wrong with this chart?

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

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

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Meanwhile, Christmas sales are fuzzy:

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

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But Online Sales Jumped 37% During Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming back to the slow income growth trends:

 

Mortgage Applications Drop to 13-Year Low

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

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

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

BTW, FYI:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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