Fire!

03/03/2017 at 5:24 pm

It is almost four months since Donald Trump won the US presidency but the shockwaves from his victory still reverberate. Coverage of supposed scandals, protests and presidential Tweets have continued to abound. Those who were delighted by November’s result, so polling suggests, remain so; those who reverted to hysteria continue their frenzy. Amid all the drama it is perhaps an odd expression to pick, but: Amercian politics has found an equilibrium.

Assumptions about the US economy have also become entrenched. It has long been obvious that a Trump presidency would be inflationary and the bond market reacted to the result accordingly: on the day of the election the ten-year Treasury yielded 1.85%, but by the end of November had hit 2.4%. It has stayed firmly in a range of 2.3%-2.6% ever since. The dollar likewise strengthened sharply after the election and has comfortably held its range against other major currencies. Eurodollar rates moved from pricing in two Fed hikes by the end of this year to pricing in three, and have held that view right up to the present.

While American politics has become energized, however – by the ambition of the new incumbent and the vitriol of his critics – financial opinion has become complacent. While markets and observers have in many cases settled on a static view, the ground since the election has shifted. Look away from fixed income and the currency, and towards risk markets and the data and this is easily clarified.

The US stock market found a secure range after the election, but only for a time. Last month it smashed it. From meandering around the 2,250 level throughout December-January the S&P 500 broke 2,300 in early February and 2,400 less than a month later. The index has now risen by more than 6% since the beginning of the year, comfortably beating other major bourses around the world.

It is not just the stock market that is optimistic, and setting new records. Consumer confidence hit a new high this week, eclipsing the levels reached prior to the credit crunch and threatening to visit territory last occupied during the go-go boom of the later 1990s. This is of a picture with earlier data on retail sales, showing the fastest annual rate of growth (+5.6% in January) since the early stages of the recovery in 2010-11, and buoyant numbers on existing home sales, which have reached a pitch last seen before the credit crunch in 2007. (Bear in mind that mortgage costs have actually been increasing at the same time, pushed up by higher long-term interest rates.)

Industrial indicators have strengthened too. Purchasing manager activity surveys out this week for both manufacturing and service sectors continued their sharp rise. The rotary rig count released last Friday showed that US oil production has continued to recover even though the price of crude has been no better than stable since December. Again, this is consistent with earlier data such as the NFIB survey of smaller firms and the “Philly Fed” report on the national outlook for business, both of which have been rocketing up, in the latter case to a 33-year high.

If one tries very hard to find them there are more equivocal releases. Monthly variability on jobs data, for instance, has been weak in some instances; then again, the broader context is one of effectively full employment, and short-term moves from 4.6% to 4.7% in the headline jobless rate are neither here nor there.

More seriously, while vague expectations of higher inflation have been priced in since November, underlying price indicators have started to move. Import price inflation, which had been negative since mid-2014, flattened out to +0.2% in election month and has since hit +3.7% (year to January). The price components of PMI surveys have also risen. Public statements from various Fed presidents and board governors has been preparing markets for a hike this month which leaves ample scope for those three rises this year, and more.

Put all the pieces together and it seems more and more obvious that there is no longer any broad backdrop of bad economic news, whatever one’s views of American politics. The credit crunch hit housing and the banking sector – all recovered. The oil price collapse hit the shale business – recovering nicely. A strong dollar dampened activity – that effect has fallen away.

On the other hand, sentiment and output indicators are on the up. The economy is at full employment. The core rate of CPI inflation has already been running above 2% for more than a year and in January posted its fastest monthly increase since 2006.

The US economy is catching fire. This will make a novel change from the sclerotic pace of recovery we have seen there to date. The question is: are markets properly discounting the eventual need to put the fire out?

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