NEW$ & VIEW$ (20 JANUARY 2014)

China’s Economic Growth Slows to 7.7%

China’s economic growth slowed slightly in the fourth quarter, complicating the challenge for the country’s leaders as they seek to reshape the world’s No. 2 economy.

In the fourth quarter of 2013, China’s economy grew 7.7% from a year ago, slower than the 7.8% it posted in the third quarter, according to data released Monday by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. That translates into 7.4% growth on a quarter-to-quarter annualized basis, the way most major economies report growth. China doesn’t release a similar figure.

Investment, which accounts for about half of China’s economic output, was a major drag on growth in the fourth quarter, a result of monetary authorities making credit more expensive. Fixed-asset investment expanded 19.6% on-year in 2013, down from 19.9% from the first 11 months of the year, indicating slowing capital spending, according toANZ Bank. (…)

The economy was growing more slowly in December than at the beginning of the final quarter of the year.

Louis Kuijs, an economist at RBS in Hong Kong, points out that industrial production grew 9.7% on-year in December versus 10.3% in October. And export growth slowed in December after a strong showing in November. That could point to a slow start to 2014, unless other drivers like exports or local demand pick up above expectations.

One area of brightness in the fourth quarter was retail sales, which grew 13.6% on-year in December, almost the same pace of growth as November. (…)

Sarcastic smile  See anything strange in this CLSA chart? How about 7 straight quarters of stable growth.

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China’s Central Bank Providing Short-Term Cash to Lenders

In a rare accommodative measure, the state-run People’s Bank of China is providing short-term cash to the country’s biggest lenders, in a move seen as a bid to avoid a liquidity crisis near the Lunar New Year holiday.

The PBOC said it will inject further liquidity into the system via reverse purchase agreements, a form of short-term loans to banks, when it conducts its twice-a-week open market operation on Tuesday.

It said the moves are intended to maintain the stability of China’s money market ahead of the weeklong Spring Festival that kicks off on Jan. 31. (…)

The central bank’s apparent reassurance came after China’s financial system showed fresh signs of stress on Monday, with short-term borrowing costs for banks soaring on heavy holiday-induced demand for cash and rising worries over the vast shadow-banking sector.

The benchmark cost of short-term loans between banks, the weighted average of the seven-day repurchase agreement rate, rose to 6.59% on Monday, from 5.17% Friday and 4.35% Thursday. The current level marks the rate’s highest since Dec. 23, when it hit 8.94%.

The surging rates in the money markets also hammered stocks, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite falling below the key level of 2000 to 1991.25, its weakest in almost six months and down 5.9% this year, the worst performer in Asia. (…)

Housing Starts and Building Permits Decline

Housing Starts and Building Permits for the month of December both showed month/month declines but were still up compared to last year.  Relative to expectations, though, Housing Starts exceeded forecasts (999K vs. 985K), while Building Permits missed forecasts (986K vs. 1014K).

 

U.S. LABOR SUPPLY/DEMAND

The NFIB detailed report for December shows that employment was likely stronger than what the last NFP reported:

Overall, it appears that owners hired more workers on balance in December than their hiring plans indicated in November, a favorable development (apparently undetected by BLS).

Note the recent  spike in the marginal increase in employment per firm, bumping against its historical highs.image

Coming wage pressures?

Two percent reported reduced worker compensation and 17 percent reported raising compensation, yielding seasonally adjusted net 19 percent reporting higher worker compensation (up 5 points), the best reading since 2007. A net seasonally adjusted 13 percent plan to raise compensation in the coming months, down 1 point from November. Overall, the compensation picture remained at the better end of experience in this recovery, but historically weak for periods of economic growth and recovery.

Margins pressures?

With a net 19 percent raising compensation but a net negative 1 percent raising selling prices, profits will continue to be under pressure. Higher compensation costs are not being passed on to customers, but there will be more pressure to do so as Obamacare begins to impact small businesses in 2014.

Pointing up Small firms capex is also brightening:

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

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

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EARNINGS WATCH

We now have 52 S&P 500 companies’ Q4 results in, 19 of which are financials.

  • Of the 53 companies in the S&P 500 that have posted earnings for the latest quarter, 57% have topped analysts’ average earnings estimate, according to FactSet.
  • Out of the 52 companies in the gauge that have posted fourth-quarter results so far, 62 percent have exceeded analysts’ profit estimates, and 63 percent have topped revenue projections, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

S&P’s own official tally shows a 52% beat rate and a 35% miss rate. Financials beat in 58% of cases while only 48% of non-financials beat (39% missed), so far.

Zacks has the best analysis:

The 2013 Q4 earnings season ramps up in the coming days, but we have results from 52 S&P 500 members already, as of Friday January 17th. And even though the early going has been Finance weighted, the overall picture emerging from the results thus far isn’t very inspiring.

The earnings reports thus far may not offer a representative sample for the S&P 500 as a whole. But we do have a good enough sample for the Finance sector as the 19 Finance sector companies that have reported already account for 47.5% of the sector’s total market capitalization and contribute more than 50% of the sector’s total Q4 earnings. (…)

Total earnings for the 19 Finance sector companies that have reported already are up +14.2% on -1% lower revenues. The earnings beat ratio is 63.2%, while only 36.8% of the companies have come out with positive top-line surprises.

Pointing up This looks good enough performance, but is actually weaker than what we had seen from these same banks in recent quarters. Not only are the earnings and revenue growth rates for the companies below what they achieved in Q3 and the 4-quarter average, but the beat ratios are weaker as well. The insurance industry, the sector’s largest industry behind the large banks, has still to report results and could potentially turnaround this growth and surprise picture for the sector.

We haven’t seen that many reports from companies outside of the Finance sector. But the few that we have seen don’t inspire much confidence. Hard to characterize any other way what we have seen from the likes of Intel (INTC), CSX Corp. (CSX), UPS (UPS) and even GE (GE). But it’s still relatively early and we will know more in the coming days.

The lack of positive surprises is ‘surprising’ following the sharp drop in Q4 estimates in the run up to the start of the reporting season.

The composite picture for Q4 – combining the results for the 52 companies that have reported already with the 448 still to come – is for earnings growth of +7.1% on +1.5% higher revenues and 50 basis points higher margins. The actual Q4 growth rally will most likely be higher than this, a function of management’s well refined expectations management skills.

Easy comparisons, particularly for the Finance sector, account for a big part of the Q4 growth. Total earnings for the Finance sector are expected to be up +25.0%. Outside of Finance, total earnings growth drops to +3.4%.

Profits Show Banks Back From the Brink

Large U.S. banks are finally emerging from the wreckage of the financial crisis, on the back of rising profits, a recovering economy and drastic cost cutting.

(…) As a group, the six earned $76 billion in 2013. That is $6 billion shy of the collective all-time high achieved in 2006, a year U.S. housing prices peaked amid a torrid economic expansion. (…)

One way for banks to improve their standing with investors is to cut compensation, jobs and business lines. This past week, Goldman Sachs announced its 2013 payroll was 3% lower than 2012’s, while Bank of America disclosed it eliminated 25,000 positions during the year. J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley both are in the process of exiting from the business of storing physical commodities.

Banks still face numerous headwinds, including high legal costs as regulators and investigators work through a backlog of industry activity and scrutinize everything from overseas hiring to potential manipulation of currency and interest-rate benchmarks. Higher borrowing costs are reducing homeowners’ demand for mortgages, a major profit center for some banks during the early half of 2013, and several firms reported fourth-quarter trading declines in fixed-income, currencies and commodities trading.

Despite the many challenges, big banks are beginning to find ways to boost revenue. The six largest banks posted a 4% revenue gain during 2013.

Smaller banks are recovering, as well. Earnings reports are still being released, but, together, all 6,900 commercial banks in the U.S. are on pace to match or exceed the industry’s all-time earnings peak of $145.2 billion in 2006, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. (…)

Another factor fueling earnings growth is a dramatic reduction in the reserves banks have set aside for future loan losses, as fewer U.S. borrowers default. J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo freed up $15 billion in loan-loss reserves during 2013, including $3.7 billion in the fourth quarter. That money goes directly to the bottom line, boosting profits. The releases made up 16% of these banks’ pretax income for that final quarter. (…)

A closely watched investment-performance ratio called return on equity is well below levels achieved a decade ago. What pushed ratios lower were hundreds of billions of dollars of additional capital raised to protect the institutions from future problems and comply with new regulatory guidelines.

Goldman’s return on equity, which hit a peak of 33% in 2006, fell to 11% in 2013. The ratio was even lower for J.P. Morgan and Bank of America.

Banks are scrambling to make changes as a way of improving returns. The six biggest banks have reduced their workforces by more than 44,000 positions in the past year, while J.P. Morgan told investors it was done with an aggressive branch expansion and would no longer add to its network of 5,600 locations. Goldman Sachs’s 2013 pay reduction brings compensation expenses down to 36.9% of total revenue, the lowest percentage since 2009.

Banks will have to show they can earn money from lending and other businesses, as opposed to releasing reserves, said Fitch Ratings analyst Justin Fuller. Lending for the biggest banks was up 2% on the year, but there were limited signs that slim margins on those loans had begun to widen or at least stabilize.

Light bulb But if capex strengthen, loan demand will rise. Higher volume with the current steep yield curve = higher profits…

SENTIMENT WATCH

VOX POPULI (Gallup)

Half of Americans say investing $1,000 in the stock market right now would be a bad idea, even though the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Standard & Poor’s 500 index have recently hit record highs. Forty-six percent of Americans say investing $1,000 in the stock market would be a good idea. Trend: Americans' Views on Investing in the Stock Market

In January 2000, when the Dow was at a then-record high of 11,500, Americans were much more likely to say investing in the stock market was a good idea than they are today. A record-high 67% of Americans that month said investing was a good idea.

After the onset of the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the percentage of Americans who believed investing in the markets was a bad idea swelled to 62%. While that percentage has dropped, Americans’ confidence in buying stocks has clearly not returned to levels seen during the heady days of the early 2000s.

Stock Ownership Among Americans Still Near Record Low

Fifty-four percent of Americans now say they own stock, little changed from the 52% who said so last April — which was the lowest in Gallup’s 16-year trend of asking this question in its current format. Stock ownership is far lower than it was during the dot-com boom of 2000, when 67% said they owned stock — a record high. While staying above 60% for much of the 2000s, the ownership percentage fell into the 50% range as the Great Recession took hold and has not yet rebounded. Despite economic booms and busts, however, a majority of Americans have maintained an investment in the markets in the past 15 years. Trend: Americans' Ownership of Stocks

Although fewer Americans now own stocks, those who do, not surprisingly, are much more likely than non-owners to believe investing in the market is a good idea, 59% to 30%.

Bottom Line: The Dow is 5,000 points higher today than it was in 2000, but confidence in the markets is much lower, as is participation.

VOX DEI: Bearish Bond Belief At 20-Year Extremes

Jeff Gundlach recently warned that the trade that could inflict the most pain to the most people is a significant move down in yields (and potential bull flattening to the yield curve). (…) despite this, investors remain entirely enamored with stocks and, as the following chart shows, Treasury Bond sentiment now stands at 20-year extremes of bearishness.

Citi: “Time For Yields To Correct Lower”

The end of 2013 saw bond yields at their highs and the US equity markets making higher highs. This came as the Federal Reserve started to finally slow down its asset purchases and, as Citi’s Tom Fitzpatrick suggest, has now seemingly turned a corner in its so called “emergency” policy. That now leaves room for the market/economy to determine the proper rate of interest; and, he notes, given the patchy economic recovery, the fragile level of confidence and the low levels of inflation, Citi questions whether asset prices belong where they are today. As the Fed’s stimulus program appears to have “peaked” Citi warned investors yesterday to be cautious with the Equity markets; and recent price action across the Treasury curve suggests lower yields can be seen and US 10 year yields are in danger of retesting the 2.40% area.

US economic surprise index

General economic surprises look like they are now approaching a peak again. Only twice over the past 7 years have we been above current levels and they were short lived.

We should note that this index is naturally mean reverting as expectations rise with better than expected data and vice versa. A fall back below zero if seen may be quite important. (…)

High five  There is a lot more to Citi’s technical analysis, all mostly pointing to lower rates ahead. But before you get too technical, go back up and re-read the piece on the NFIB report.

Just kidding Up and Down Wall Street

Another sign of froth in European sovereign debt is described by Peter Tchir, a credit-market veteran who heads TF Market Advisors: Spain’s bonds due 2023 yield 3.68%, just a hair above the 3.60% from Apple‘s (AAPL) bond due 2023 issued in its then-record $17 billion offering to fund its share buyback. He admits the comparison is well, apples to oranges.

“One is denominated in euros, the other in dollars. One is a sovereign nation with devoted citizens, the other is Spain. One has so much cash on hand that trying to convince them to do something with that cash hoard has become the ultimate hedge-fund pastime. The other would have trouble rubbing two pesetas together, even if it hadn’t moved to the euro. Fifty percent of the world’s population under the age of 25 already owns or wants to own a device made by Apple. That is still a little behind the 57% in Spain who want a job (assuming some of the unemployed youth actually want jobs).”

GOLD

Physical Gold Shortage Goes Mainstream

As BNN reports, veteran trader Tres Knippa, pointing to recent futures data, says “there may not be enough gold to go around if everyone with a futures contract insists on taking delivery of physical bullion.” As he goes on to explain to a disquieted anchor, “the underlying story here is that the people acquiring physical gold continue to do that. And that’s what is important,” noting large investors like hedge fund manager Kyle Bass are taking delivery of the gold they’re buying. Knippa’s parting advice, buy physical gold; avoid paper.

One of the problems…

That won’t end well…

BUT, WILL THIS END WELL?

IMF warns on threat of income inequality

Lagarde raises stability concerns

(…) “Business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum should remember that in far too many countries the benefits of growth are being enjoyed by far too few people. This is not a recipe for stability and sustainability,” she told the Financial Times. (…)

The message is hitting home. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, is coming to Switzerland with the message that Japanese companies must raise wages, while the government of David Cameron, his UK counterpart who is also attending the forum, called for a large inflation-busting rise in the British minimum wage last week.

In U.S., 67% Dissatisfied With Income, Wealth Distribution

Two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed in the U.S. This includes three-fourths of Democrats and 54% of Republicans.

Satisfaction With Income and Wealth Distribution in the U.S., January 2014

The same poll updated a long-time Gallup trend, finding that 54% of Americans are satisfied, and 45% dissatisfied, with the opportunity for an American “to get ahead by working hard.” This measure has remained roughly constant over the past three years, but Americans are much less optimistic about economic opportunity now than before the recession and financial crisis of 2008 unfolded. Prior to that, at least two in three Americans were satisfied, including a high of 77% in 2002.

Satisfaction With Americans' Opportunities to Get Ahead by Working Hard, 2001-2014 Trend

 

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!

 

Business Tech Spending Picks Up

(…) Companies are signaling they’re more comfortable spending money on technology now that sales and profits are expanding.(…)

World-wide information technology spending is forecast to increase 5.1% to $3.6 trillion this year, according to market research firm Gartner Inc. It projects the biggest growth in spending will be telecom equipment, a projected 9.1% increase, followed by enterprise software and computing hardware, both projected to grow 7.5%. (…)

IBM’s fourth-quarter earnings were its strongest in nearly a decade. “We see customers starting to spend more in their base business as we exit the recession,” said Mark Loughridge, IBM’s chief financial officer. Its global technology services business registered an increase in revenue from existing accounts, which was the first quarter of such growth since late 2008.(…)

Full WSJ article