Posts tagged ‘US’

Fire!

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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03/03/2017 at 5:24 pm

Yields Jump on “Trump Thump”

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency apparently “wiped out more than $1 trillion across global bond markets“, as reported by Reuters earlier in the week. The inflationary nature of his policies has not, after all, gone unnoticed. Bond markets have digested new information and responded rationally, by falling in price so as to offer investors the prospect of higher real returns. Yes, the politics have tinged the reporting – as with the economic consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. But surely the picture is clear: an event has occurred, markets have responded efficiently and their response is cause for concern.

As in the case of Brexit, however, the political element seems to have cost some observers their perspective. Starting with the obvious: only part of that $1trn comes from the US itself. And bond markets have been weakening for some time: Mr Trump’s election only accelerated the process. Referring to the BofA Merrill Lynch US Treasury Index, the full market value of US government bonds climbed to a peak of $9,729bn on the 8th of July, when the ten year bond yield reached a record low of 1.36%. By 8 November, before there was any indication of the surprise election result, this value had already fallen to $9,507bn. As of yesterday, the number was $9,296bn. So most of the fall since the summer preceded the new president entirely.

More broadly the invocation of a “Trump thump” is a symptom of the behavioural concept known as anchoring. We had become very used to both the recent level of bond yields and the pace of their rise before the election, so the sudden change shocked us into thinking that something anomalous had occurred: in this case, a dramatic change in policy direction arising from the victory of a candidate from left field.

This is at best a partially misleading analysis. Inflationary pressure has been mounting – and disinflationary forces have been receding – for some time. Look at the prices of base metals and freight and global activity seems to have been picking up over the second half of this year too. What is strange – perhaps – is that bond yields remained at record lows for such a long time. Putting it unkindly, bond markets have often seemed to care much more about the last ten weeks than the next ten years. There is a case to be made that the so-called “thump” was no more than a catalyst to their ongoing recovery from inertia.

Time for some more context. Yes, the US 30-year yield has risen by its fastest pace since at least 2009, putting on 40bp in four trading sessions starting last Wednesday week. But it has since spent the whole of this week hovering around the 3% mark. The initial spike was unusually volatile, but taking a slightly longer view the 30-year yield has now risen by about 1% in total since its July low – and did exactly the same thing over a similar period in H1 2015.

Look at current pricing in absolute terms and 3% is not even a high number. Trump has only managed to thump the 30-year Treasury yield back up to where it ended last year. It is almost exactly in line with its five-year average. And this is still miles below the 5.3% it posted on the cusp of the credit crunch (21 July 2007).

From another angle, a 3% return for thirty years looks plausible in real terms if we focus on the most recent American CPI data (last in at +1.6%). But long run expectations according to the University of Michigan survey are closer to +3%, and the 21st-century average prior to the Great Recession was +2.8%. On that basis the election result has only delivered US investors a prospective 30-year real return of 0.0-0.2%. In fact if one really wanted to get bearish on bonds one might observe that these levels of inflation would, not so very long ago, have been regarded as unachievably benign in any kind of growth-positive environment for the US economy. That is why the bond market has been able to rally to new highs year, after year, after year since inflation peaked at 15% in 1980.

So from a politically detached perspective, perhaps we should forget about Mr Trump’s impact on the US bond market. Fundamentally speaking he has taken the stage as accomplice, not assassin.

What we oughtn’t to do, of course, is forget about the possible impact of bond markets . . .

18/11/2016 at 5:23 pm

Taking A Hike

Well that clinches it, surely. Today’s US data showed the unemployment rate down again to 4.9%. Payroll growth continued at a strong pace, with non-farm jobs up by 161,000 last month. Both these prints came out in line with expectations – but wage growth beat every estimate going, hitting a new post-recession high of +2.8% on the year. Purchasing manager surveys out over the last couple of months suggest that the rate of job creation will accelerate into the end of this year if anything. The American labour market is showing clear signs of warmth. Surely, a Fed hike next month is certain.

This chimes with the consensus view. Of the 66 forecasts currently made available to Bloomberg, 15 expect no change and all the rest are for a 25bp hike. The interest rate markets also expect the Fed to see out 2016 with a target rate of 0.75%, then go on to hike again around the middle of next year.

So far, so uncontentious. Indeed it is reassuring from an investor’s perspective that the market reaction to somewhat firmer expectations for interest rates has, thus far, been sanguine. Halfway through this year a December hike had yet to be priced in; by the autumn the eurodollar futures market had become unequivocal on the subject – Treasuries sold off too – but the S&P 500 still rallied, turning in its strongest quarterly performance of the year so far.

The key word there is: “somewhat”. In the US as in Britain there is now a real risk that tightening occurs more quickly than people think.

That +2.8% wage growth is part of the reason why. A connected reason is that the energy sector has recovered some of its strength this year, taking away a recent source of downward pressure on activity and employment. Then there are import prices: stable oil and a stable dollar have now closed off that source of deflation. Core CPI has already been running at its strongest sustained level this year since the Great Recession. Both the headline CPI measure and the consumption deflator used to calculate chain-weighted GDP have been catching up. Finally, unreliable indicator as it is and completely unfashionable as it has become, broad (M2) money supply growth is running at its fastest pace for nearly four years.

The question to which nobody knows the answer is: will the labour market start really overheating and, in the circumstances, contribute to an uncomfortable level of inflation? At the moment, US policymakers are split on the subject, but the Fed’s actual monetary response to date, together with the interest rate markets’ pricing, implies a near-total lack of concern.

Another wild card is our old friend political risk. At present, polling at the national level and in some of America’s “battleground states” suggests that Secretary Clinton is on course for a narrow victory. If Mr Trump were to pull off a surprise win, however, it is not just the market response but the economic consequences which could be significant. There has already been extensive coverage of the effect that the candidates’ fiscal policies might have on the national debt, but consider some of the Republican candidate’s other measures: the expulsion of migrant labour, swingeing tariffs on imports, less accommodative trade agreements (as well as big tax cuts for businesses and households). All of these would be inflationary.

It would be imprudent to expect a crisis. But the possibility of a problem is clear and what matters to us as investors is that this is not recognised – indeed, quite the reverse. Bond markets think that inflation over the next ten years will run at an average of 1.7%, below the 2.1% they have priced in on that horizon over the last 15 years. Consumer expectations for near term inflation, as measured by the University of Michigan survey, are below average too, and for long term price behaviour are at their lowest ever level.

So there could well be a surprise or two in store. And whatever its scale, this ought to have consequences for portfolio construction.

04/11/2016 at 4:32 pm

Fit For Consumption

Since the summer of 2014 the economic landscape has changed in ways which ought to have brought joy to consumers in various parts of the world. The oil price has collapsed: good news for significant net importers like the USA. There, as in Britain too, job growth has brought the country to near-full employment. In the UK last year we saw positive, sustained growth in real wages for the first time since the Great Recession. In Europe and Japan, which have lagged those other economies in growth terms, central banks have tried to oil the wheels with rate cuts and the expansion of unconventional monetary measures.

Yet this week there were headlines in Britain about the weakness of consumer behaviour. It looked a running certainty earlier this year that the market panic was overdone. But are there signs showing here of strength for the bear case after all?

Looking at the UK first of all: no, not really. Consumer confidence reached 15-year highs last year, and while the survey measure has lost some steam into 2016 it remains above the running average over the year before that. Scrabbling around for negatives, the rate at which new car registrations increased fell to +6.5% in 2015 from +8.6% previously. This is hardly disastrous. And broad retail sales growth across all sectors averaged +4.5%, an 11-year high. The GDP print for Q4 2015 put the annual increase in household expenditure at +2.7%, up a little on 2014 and in line with long run averages. And while readers will know this blog is ambivalent on the subject of housing itself at present, mortgage approvals staged a recovery last year too after falling away in 2014 and that pickup has continued since year end.

The picture is a little cloudier across the Atlantic, but again, far from catastrophic. The personal consumption component of GDP for Q4 grew by +2.7% on the year – also in line with long term averages – though in this instance down from +3.2% in Q4 2014. Retail sales growth has fallen more obviously too, to a 12-month running average of +2.7% to March of this year down from +4.1% across calendar 2014. What is equally interesting, however, is that auto sales over the same period averaged 17.4m, up by a full 1m on 2014 and running at a 15-year high. Existing home sales, too, quickened in pace to the highest level since the credit crunch. Perhaps this is a sign that the net impact on consumption from oil has been disappointing, but that credit expansion has fueled asset purchases instead (a supposition reinforced by a rise in the level of student debt per capita). One can be ambivalent about this again, of course – but it is expansionary economic activity driven by consumer behaviour.

At the other end of the growth spectrum, Japan has had a terrible time of it in recent quarters. At the same time, recovery from yet another period of economic contraction has seen the downturn in household consumption as listed in the GDP figures abate, to a year-on-year pace of -1.3% for Q4 2015 as against -2.0% for Q4 2014. Car sales growth as well as broad retail sales growth has been flat; nationwide housing starts have risen measurably while condominium sales in Tokyo have declined again. So a more mixed picture here, but one which has not been declining any more than it has been showing signs of vibrancy overall.

Finally, Europe has also suffered something of a lost decade, having been through a double-dip recession which the US and UK were spared. Yet here the strength of the consumer has actually been most noticeable. The running 12-month average pace of retail sales growth is stronger now than it has been at any time since 2001. The household consumption component of eurozone GDP rose to an annual +1.7% in 2015 from 0.8% a year earlier, and sits well above the average of +1.1% seen since the zone began life in 2000. Data on building permits and mortgages outstanding show a marked rise over the last year, and passenger car registrations have been rising at a running average of +9.6% over the last twelve months up from +3.5% during 2014. It is most obvious to attribute stronger consumer demand here to cheap energy – as the eurozone is the biggest net oil importer by some distance, this is after all the most obvious place to look. (We should also note, however, that the unemployment rate has begun to fall at a faster pace in recent quarters too.)

For growth investors, growth rates have the constant potential to disappoint. These remain nervous, and volatile times. But if we take a good look at the available data there is nothing to suggest that developed-world consumption has done anything more than fail to respond to the theoretically benign tailwinds of cheap oil and monetary expansion in the way that some might have hoped. This is not the same thing as failing to respond at all.

22/04/2016 at 5:37 pm

Crash! Panic! Doom!

So this week London entered a bear market. Some commentators discern echoes of the “2008 financial crash”. Sage market participants – who have been warning us about China* / Emerging Markets* / the Euro* / QE* / Commodities* / Debt* / Deflation* / Monetary Tightening* [*delete as appropriate] – for several years have finally been proved right. Several of them caution, sagely, that we should remain cautious as it could have further to go.

Yes, this week, the FTSE 100 Index entered a “bear market”, as defined by a fall in value from its closing peak (7,103.98 on 27 April 2015) of at least 20% – 20.14%, to be precise, reached on Wednesday with a closing price of 5,673.58. It should be obvious that this signifies nothing whatsoever more than a fall of 18% or 19% but there we are. Markets have their conventions. This is now, technically, a “crash” rather than a “correction” (a fall of between ten and twenty percent). And some would have us believe it’s 1929 all over again.

Such, however, it cannot be. Global equity (as measured by the MSCI World Index) has not entered a bear market – it has fallen by 17.62% from its peak – and this is entirely due to Wall Street. The S&P 500 has shed a mere 12.74% from its heady peak last May. Since the US market makes up a little under 60% of the developed world’s total market cap this more than makes up for the fact that Tokyo and … erm … Brussels? … have entered bear markets alongside London with the TOPIX and Euro Stoxx 50 indices down 23% and 25% respectively.

Even here in the UK the crash is not that clear cut. The mid cap FTSE 250 Index has shed only 14%, with the small cap index having done slightly better. Considering the fundamentals this is understandable. There are few oil supermajors bestriding this particular corner of the marketplace, or mineral colossi. The much vaunted overseas exposure of the large cap index has been, at best, an equivocal strength with the UK economy doing as well as it has (not to mention the distorting effects of all that foreign exchange exposure). So the current infestation of bears has been locally as well as globally selective.

Still, who needs “fundamentals” with all that lovely panic to go around! Surely it can only be a matter of time before those other columns tumble? After all, it’s 2008 all over again!

Except, of course – it isn’t. Not even remotely so. Back in 2007, to refresh our memories, there was a massive over-extension of credit via packaged structures that were as poorly valued and understood as they were widely held. A few mortgage arrears in the US later and the world’s financial system suffered cumulative capital losses just shy of $2trn and would have collapsed without the $1.5trn of capital that then had to be pumped into it, mostly by governments. Then in the autumn of 2011 it looked as though the bond market might close to Italy. Since the Italian economy is rather large, with a commensurate burden of sovereign debt, it was certain that neither the IMF nor its sponsoring governments would have been able to afford a bailout. At that point we could have seen governments across the developed world plunged into default.

Now that would have been a disaster.

And what is behind the doomsaying today? The rate of GDP growth in China down by 0.1%! Oil falling – which is admittedly more dramatic – but unlike the financial crisis will prove an economic benefit on average (and perhaps delay the need for monetary tightening in Britain and elsewhere). Or perhaps it is simply the case that the bull market run since 2009 got ahead of itself and equities are anticipating the forthcoming change of cycle.

On that last point there is something further to be said about all those crashes and corrections. Amid the justifiable fear of 2011 the S&P 500 had a peak-to-trough fall of 19.4%. Admittedly, this is a whole 0.6% short of a full-blown bear market, or “official” crash. But it was not much fun for investors at the time. And away from the US, stock markets have had a much more equivocal rally. While the S&P raced ahead during 2013 and 2014 for instance, returning 50% over those two years, the FTSE 100 returned only 20%. In Japan, suffering from the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and their aftermath, the market did not even start to climb until the tail end of 2012. The years since the credit crunch and Great Recession have seen healthy equity market returns – at times, in some places, and in fits and starts. But it has not been any sort of eye-watering, valuation-busting rocket trip.

We are where we are. But the crash has been as partial as the bull run, the panic is hard to justify – in some respects, even, absurd – and it may yet prove that all the doomsaying is being listened to just a little too closely.

22/01/2016 at 6:26 pm

Kicking The Can

The big news this week, of course, was the Fed. Rarely has inaction been so exciting! The statement put out by its Board of Governors is quite pithy as these things go and worth a read in full, and the salient policy points are all sandwiched within a single paragraph as follows:

To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account … labor market conditions … inflation pressures and … expectations, and readings on financial and international developments. The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen some further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.

US unemployment for August was 5.1%, down half a point from the beginning of the year and nearer the bottom than the top of the Fed’s own range for the “longer-run normal rate of unemployment” of 4.7-5.8%. There is nothing here to justify emergency monetary conditions whatsoever. Despite the statement, therefore, the US labour market was in practice irrelevant to the decision taken by its central bank.

On inflation, the Fed notes elsewhere the “transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices”, and is absolutely right to do so. Fortunately it also has access, just like the rest of us, to “core” measures of both consumer and producer price inflation which specifically exclude food and energy. Headline CPI has crashed down from 2.1% in the spring of last year to 0.2% today, but the core measure has risen this year from 1.6% to 1.8%, not meaningfully distant from the stated target of 2%. Again, this is not consistent with an emergency monetary stance.

Having abandoned at least one and a half of the two elements of its mandate, then, the Fed has effectively announced it is acting with reference primarily or solely to an unofficial third: “financial and international developments”.

In one sense this is a masterstroke. Attributing loose policy to sources other than the domestic economy eliminates the risk of a bearish response to a downbeat assessment of the situation at home. (The Fed has come a cropper here before.) When a central bank produces an economic assessment that is news. When it points to events offshore that everyone has already seen, it says nothing new.

From another angle, however, yesterday’s decision does not look quite so masterly. Invoking the stock market as a reason for cheap money used to be known as the Greenspan Put, a source of moral hazard under the eponymous Fed chairman which attracted some of the blame for the financial crisis. And at least efforts were made to justify Mr Greenspan’s option writing in terms of a “wealth effect” on US household spending. Extending the put to the stock market in China seems startlingly multilateral even for these enlightened times.

Furthermore, all the Fed has done is postpone a move which would have taken nobody by surprise if they had done it this week. It is still perhaps a little early to gauge the market reaction but stocks are down in both the US and Europe today. The dollar has weakened just a touch against the euro, is pretty much unchanged against sterling and the yen and the Chinese yuan has not budged, so there is as yet no consoling impact for American exporters and multinationals. All that is certain is that the postponement has prolonged a key source of uncertainty.

The impact of a 25bp rate hike would have had a negligible impact on everything apart from sentiment. And it is far from clear that its market impact would have been any worse than that of the Fed’s eventual, barely defensible decision to dither.

So much for the new mandate to shore up financial and international developments.

Kudos, in conclusion, to Jeff Lacker, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the only one of the Fed’s twelve decision-makers to vote for a hike yesterday. His colleagues have in reality opted for nothing more cogent than mañana.

18/09/2015 at 3:43 pm

Under Pressure

The FTSE 100 index hit a new high only a few days ago, closing above 7100 for the first time on Monday. Risk assets have generally had a strong year. There has not even been any visible excitement over the prospect of a secessionist wipeout in Scotland or any of the other shocks which have been postulated by Westminster pundits in the run up to the election next week. But tensions rose yesterday when the US GDP print for Q1 came out almost flat against expectations for a lacklustre but positive +1%. Markets took the number badly. Was it a sign that the global economic motor is slowing – yet again? Has the pricing of risk got ahead of itself?

There have undeniably been signs of pressure on the US. One agent of the weak growth number was a decline in net exports: by the end of March the dollar had strengthened by more than 20% on a trade weighted basis over a period of nine months. Currency strength was expected to weigh on corporate earnings too. As earnings season opened earlier in the month forecasts were for a 6% drop in EPS for the S&P 500 index relative to Q1 2014. And it is not just the US of course. China has come under scrutiny for growth outcomes well below the 9% averaged by the economy over the past 20 years. Towards the middle of the month data for retail sales and industrial production disappointed the market consensus, and there are signs that the manufacturing sector has fallen back into slight contraction.

After the run markets have had so far and the experience of most of the last few years it is perhaps natural to expect a period of retrenchment, if not a modest sell off, over the next little while. If the economy is indeed under pressure then this could catalyse such an event as well as justifying it. The picture is more mixed than it might appear, however. From the US we had stronger than anticipated employment data out only this afternoon, with initial jobless claims down to 262,000 – within reach of the previous low of 259,000 recorded in April 2000. And corporate earnings have not collapsed as feared: with two thirds of the index’s members now having reported, S&P 500 EPS are up by 3% over the previous year and the forecast for the whole index this season has come up to -1%. In China too, foreign investment growth has continued its solid run, service sector activity has accelerated and some progress has been made on structural reform (an area which is often overlooked).

Furthermore, the world’s glass is half full as well as half empty. Given the size of its markets, power of its central bank and global economic influence it is inevitable that the US should occupy much of our thoughts. While the titan across the Atlantic has been struggling a little, however, the weary colossus of Europe has begun to show improving signs of life. Similarly, while the growth rate of the world’s most populous country has fallen back it has been overtaken by stronger than expected economic expansion in the second most populous: India, where GDP growth for 2015 was projected to reach 5.5% at the beginning of the year is now forecast to see 7.4% (using Bloomberg consensus data). This speaks to the continued variability of outcomes identified as a market theme by this blog for the current calendar year, and it should also make us wary of interpreting particular data as evidence of general gloom.

Before leaving the subject of growth behind it is worth looking at the behaviour of the oil price over recent weeks. The collapse in crude was the most significant market event of the last few months of 2014. It generated pronounced volatility in equity markets and its disinflationary impact thrust bond markets higher – especially in Europe, where yields have reached record lows. The price stabilized over Q1 (a cornerstone of the rallies we have seen). Indeed it now appears to have bottomed, with both the Brent and West Texas Intermediate futures contracts up over 20% this month.  This has had effects which few might have predicted back in December, such as helping the Russian stock market become one of the world’s top performers over the year to date.

It also means a bottom for oil-driven disinflation, though it is likely to be a few months before this washes through to annual CPI numbers. At the same time, that US labour market data reminds us that underlying pricing pressures will have been gathering strength. Only this morning the Employment Cost Index rose by its highest annual rate – 2.6% – since 2008. Looking forward, it is perhaps here that we might find genuine reason for concern on the macro front, and another source of variability between markets as the year plays out.

30/04/2015 at 5:27 pm

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