Meltdown – Cont. …

19/08/2011 at 1:22 pm 1 comment

As equity markets revisit their recent lows, bonds yields hold at record levels and gold rises ever higher, one refrain has predominated: the US is re-entering recession. The developed world’s growth motor is stalling, so the story goes, and will take the global economy and corporate profits with it.

Given constraints of space, this blog will confine itself to addressing the first link in that logical chain. Are we to expect a US double dip?

Here’s what Warren Buffett had to say on the subject a little over a month ago:

“I would bet very heavily against that,” Buffett told Bloomberg Television … “How fast the recovery will come, I don’t know. I see nothing that indicates any kind of a double dip.”

Mr Buffett was speaking as a significant employer in his own right, as well of course as an investor of unparalleled repute. So has there been anything in the data to change the Sage’s mind?

A casual observer of markets and market commentary this month would be forgiven for imagining that US economic news has been universally and dramatically poor. But looking at the actual releases for August so far, the worst that can reasonably be said is that they have been mixed.

Let’s take employment first. US payroll data for July showed 117,000 nonfarm jobs created – many more than for June (even allowing for an upward revision to the June data), and more than expected by economists. This was consistent with the slight fall in the unemployment rate for July (9.1% from 9.2%), another positive surprise for the market. Another widely-followed measure, the numbers of new and existing claims for unemployment insurance, has seen three weekly releases so far. One (11/08) showed two positive surprises, one (18/08) two negative surprises and the other (04/08) a positive surprise on new claims and a negative one on continuing claims. In aggregate, these measures have been broadly unchanged.

Various more minor employment indicators have come out too: job cut announcements rose on the year to July, yet July ADP payrolls grew more strongly than expected; similarly, job openings for June rose (and those for May were revised higher), while BLS survey data showed falls in total employment for both months.

Employment growth in the US has certainly been slow (though as growth has recovered its pre-recession level this implies a major improvement in productivity – something which, under fairer skies, would be cause for celebration). But there is nothing in recent data to suggest a deterioration. On balance, in fact, there has been more positive than negative news on this front so far.

Turning to growth, the numbers have actually been positive on the whole. Seasonally adjusted vehicle sales rose in July, as did retail sales more broadly (and data for June was revised up in the latter case). Most significantly there was a big positive surprise from July industrial production this week (up to 0.9% on the month from an upwardly-revised 0.4% in June). Construction spending for June came in a little stronger than expected and again was revised higher for the previous month. Offset against this, GDP data on household spending came in 0.1% below expectations (at 1.3% on the year to June) and June data on inventory building was also weaker than expected.

Conversely, there was more negative news on the survey side. The widely-watched University of Michigan consumer confidence indicator dropped suddenly to a 30-year low, and the “Philly Fed” regional manufacturing index posted a steep decline to a level last seen in the teeth of the recession. The key ISM purchasing manager indices for July both fell too, and both came in lower than expected (though both remain in positive territory, indicating continued expansion). Half a dozen or so more minor confidence indicators all fell, though most did not do so dramatically.

Elsewhere, there was mixed data out on housing. Two measures of activity, building permits and existing home sales, fell on the month and disappointed expectations, whereas the NAHB market index was unchanged as expected. And at the other end of the spectrum, weekly data on mortgage applications have risen solidly as existing borrowers have been taking advantage of recent falls in rates to refinance their deals and save a bit of money.

Lastly, producer and consumer price inflation for July surprised to the upside on both core and headline measures as commodities had a bounce (which has not survived into August!) Price behaviour has certainly been a brake on US consumption this year, and annual inflation has settled at 3.6% for the last three months – above 10-, 20- and 30-year averages. But it is not – yet? – at levels which are likely to send consumption into reverse, and the Fed has accordingly continued to leave its target rate at 0.25%.

To conclude, then: while it’s not all roses in the US right now, it’s not all thorns either. And Mr Buffett’s view?

“I like buying on sale … Last Monday [8 August, when the S&P 500 closed the day down 6.66%], we spent more money in the stock market buying than any day this year.”

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Meltdown State Of The Sovereigns

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