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Markets End Quarter on a Choppy Note  

June 30, 2017 

**An unexpected decline in U.S. orders for business equipment in May indicates cooling capital-goods investment may weigh on second-quarter economic growth, Commerce Department data showed Monday. Orders for non-military capital goods excluding aircraft fell 0.2% (the estimate was for a 0.4% gain) after a 0.2% increase in the prior month. Shipments of those goods, which are used to calculate gross domestic product, fell 0.2% after 0.1% gain the prior month. Bookings for all durable goods fell 1.1% (the estimate was for a 0.6% drop) following 0.9% decline in the previous month.   Excluding transportation equipment demand, which is volatile, orders rose 0.1% (the estimate was for a 0.4% gain). The broad slowdown in equipment orders and shipments raises the risk that business investment will provide less of a boost than anticipated to the economic rebound this quarter, leaving the heavy lifting to household spending. The outlook for capital-goods production is clouded by cooling automobile sales, while overseas markets -- though improving -- are yet to show the kind of demand acceleration that would spur exports of U.S. made goods. In addition, some companies may be waiting for clarity on more favorable tax policies from Congress before stepping up investment. 

We had a couple of Fed governors giving speeches this week with comments that were worthy of note. New York Fed President William Dudley indicated that easier financial conditions support the Fed tightening policy. A muted market response to plans to shrink Federal Reserve’s balance sheet “suggests that these communications have generally been effective in fostering an orderly adjustment in expectations about how we are likely to normalize our balance sheet,” he went on to say. “Monetary policymakers need to take the evolution of financial conditions into consideration,” Dudley said in remarks delivered Sunday at the Bank for International Settlements’ Annual General Meeting, in Basel, Switzerland and posted online Monday. “For example, when financial conditions tighten sharply, this may mean that monetary policy may need to be tightened by less or even loosened. On the other hand, when financial conditions ease, as has been the case recently, this can provide additional impetus for the decision to continue to remove monetary policy accommodation.” Additionally, Federal Reserve policy maker John Williams also spoke this week indicating he sees interest rates rising as inflation moves up. He made the case Monday for further gradual increases in interest rates, saying he expects inflation to rise to the central bank’s 2 percent target next year as unemployment edges lower. “Gradually raising interest rates to bring monetary policy back to normal helps us keep the economy growing at a rate that can be sustained for a longer time,” Williams said in remarks prepared for delivery at the University of Technology Sydney. The comments by the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco suggest that he’s lining up with Fed Chair Janet Yellen, his predecessor at the bank, in an emerging debate on how to respond to an easing in inflation during the last few months. While some Fed officials have argued for a pause in the rate-hiking campaign to wait for clearer signs that inflation is indeed headed higher, Yellen has played down the significance of recent weak price data and suggested that the Fed remains on course for higher rates. Williams seemed to agree. “Some special transitory factors have been pulling inflation down,” he said. “But with some of these factors now waning, and with the economy doing well, I expect we’ll reach our 2 percent goal sometime next year.” 

Those special factors include a steep drop in the cost of mobile-phone services. That helped pull down the Fed’s favorite inflation gauge to 1.7 percent in April from 1.9 percent in March and 2.1 percent in February. Williams also saw a danger in the Fed allowing the unemployment rate to fall too far. “The very strong labor market actually carries with it the risk of the economy exceeding its safe speed limit and overheating, which could eventually undermine the sustainability of the expansion,” he said. At 4.3 percent in May, the U.S. jobless rate was already below what Williams thinks is its long-run sustainable rate of 4.75 percent. And he sees it dropping some more. “Given the strong job growth we’ve been seeing in the United States, I expect the unemployment rate to edge down a bit further and remain a little above 4 percent through next year,” Williams said. The Fed earlier this month raised interest rates for the second time this year. Policy makers have penciled in one more rate increase for 2017 and three more for 2018, according to projections released after their June 13-14 meeting. Williams is not a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee this year but will vote in 2018. Williams affirmed the Fed’s intention to begin trimming its $4.5 trillion balance sheet this year, saying the central bank would start off “nice and easy.” The aim will be to gradually reduce bond holdings in a widely telegraphed and predictable fashion, he said. “I hope I’ll not be perpetuating an unfair stereotype about economists if I say that ‘boring’ is a virtue,” Williams said. “Indeed, my new mantra is, ‘Boring is the new exciting.’”  It’s nice to see a Fed governor with a sense of humor! 

In European Central Bank news, Mario Draghi called for continued euro-area stimulus this week even as the economy enters a new phase in its upturn, saying support is still needed to entrench the trend. “All the signs now point to a strengthening and broadening recovery in the euro area -- deflationary forces have been replaced by reflationary ones,” the European Central Bank president said on Tuesday in Sintra, Portugal. “However, a considerable degree of monetary accommodation is still needed for inflation dynamics to become durable and self-sustaining. So for us to be assured about the return of inflation to our objective, we need persistence in our monetary policy.” The comments at the annual ECB Forum reflect the intensifying public debate over whether the central bank should continue pumping liquidity into the financial system after more than four years of economic growth and improving resilience.  Policy makers didn’t use their latest policy meeting to discuss whether to wind down their 2.3 trillion-euro ($2.6 trillion) bond-buying program, which is scheduled to run until the end of this year, meaning investors may get relatively short notice of any change. The euro jumped as Draghi said that most factors damping inflation are temporary. The Governing Council used its June 8 meeting to say that risks to growth are now broadly balanced instead of tilted to the downside, and dropped its expectation that interest rates might be cut again. Draghi acknowledged that further changes in the policy stance are coming, but said they should be slow. “In the past, especially in times of global uncertainty, volatility in financial market prices has at times caused an unwarranted tightening of financial conditions,” he said. “So in the current context where global uncertainties remain elevated, there are strong grounds for prudence in the adjustment of monetary-policy parameters, even when accompanying the recovery. Any adjustments to our stance have to be made gradually, and only when the improving dynamics that justify them appear sufficiently secure.” The ECB president did leave room for policy steps that would signal a reduction in the pace of stimulus, without necessarily tightening financial conditions. That could encourage more hawkish members of the Governing Council to push for action. “As the economy continues to recover, a constant policy stance will become more accommodative,” Draghi said. “The central bank can accompany the recovery by adjusting the parameters of its policy instruments -- not in order to tighten the policy stance, but to keep it broadly unchanged.” We respect Mario Draghi and his position – traders seem to also have a great deal of confidence in his ability to lead the central bank. 

In other European news, euro-area economic confidence jumped to the highest level in a decade as the European Central Bank edged toward unwinding unprecedented stimulus. An index of executive and consumer sentiment rose to 111.1 in June from 109.2 in May, the European Commission in Brussels said Thursday.  The reading is the strongest since August 2007 and compares with a median estimate of 109.5 in a Bloomberg survey of economists. The report comes two days after ECB President Mario Draghi confounded investors by arguing that there’s room to adjust stimulus measures as the economy improves, even though he called for prudence and patience.  A gauge for private-sector activity signaled the euro-area economy recorded its fastest expansion in six years in the second quarter as business confidence in Germany hit a record and consumer sentiment in France surged. 

The job market continues to boost U.S. consumer confidence as expectations rise. An unexpected rebound in U.S. consumer confidence reflects a buoyant labor market and improved business conditions, though Americans are slightly less optimistic about where things will be in six months, data from the New York-based Conference Board showed Tuesday. The Confidence index rose to 118.9 (the estimate was for 116) from 117.6 in May. The present conditions measure increased to 146.3, highest since July 2001, from 140.6 the prior month. The gauge of consumer expectations for the next six months fell to 100.6, the lowest level since January, from 102.3 the previous month. Americans are drawing encouragement from an economy that continues to provide jobs, rising stock and home prices and steady pay gains, as the share of respondents expecting higher incomes was the second-highest since 2002. At the same time, the easing of the overall expectations index adds to other sentiment figures that suggest mounting skepticism about the ability of Washington lawmakers to enact economic policies that will drive growth. “Expectations for the short-term have eased somewhat, but are still upbeat,” Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at the Conference Board, said in a statement. “Overall, consumers anticipate the economy will continue expanding in the months ahead, but they do not foresee the pace of growth accelerating.” 

Sustained increases for home prices in 20 U.S. cities in April indicate the housing industry is juggling stable demand with a shortage of inventory, figures from S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller showed Tuesday. The 20-city property values index rose 5.7% year-over-year (the estimate was for a 5.9% gain). The national price gauge increased 5.5% year-over-year. The seasonally adjusted 20-city index climbed 0.3% month-over-month (the estimate was for a 0.5% increase). Stubbornly low inventory in housing, particularly for more affordable properties, has helped drive steady home-price gains. While rising property values are helping cushion homeowners’ balance sheets, they also are inhibiting lower-end buyers, especially first-timers, from getting a piece of the action, as wage gains haven’t kept pace. At the same time, industry demand remains healthy, with solid job gains and low mortgage rates supporting purchases. “Since demand is exceeding supply and financing is available, there is nothing right now to keep prices from going up,” David Blitzer, chairman of the S&P index committee, said in a statement. “The supply of homes for sale has barely kept pace with demand and the inventory of new or existing homes for sale shrunk down to only a four-month supply. All 20 cities in the index showed year-over-year gains, led by a 12.9 percent advance in Seattle and a 9.3 percent rise in Portland, Oregon.  

The U.S. economy’s first-quarter growth was less tepid than previously reported, as consumer spending and trade added more to expansion, Commerce Department data showed Thursday. Gross domestic product rose at a 1.4% annualized rate (the forecast and previous estimate were for 1.2%). Consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy, rose 1.1% (the forecast and previous estimate were for 0.6%). Exports grew at a 7% rate, which was revised up from the prior estimate of 5.8% growth. While the revision was more positive than most analysts anticipated, the report still underlines a relatively weak start to the year, with consumer spending growing at the slowest pace since 2013.  Weather and other temporary factors in the period, along with rising wages and salaries, support the idea of a consumer-led rebound in the second quarter.  Federal Reserve policy makers raised interest rates earlier this month, seeing the first-quarter slowdown as transitory as the labor market improves further. The Commerce Department attributed the latest upward revision to spending data for financial services, insurance and health care.  Exports of industrial supplies and materials were higher than previously reported, boosting trade’s contribution to expansion in the period. Analysts estimate the U.S. economy will grow at a 3 percent rate in the April-to-June period, though the slowdown in equipment orders and shipments reported earlier this week raises the risk that business investment will provide less of a boost than anticipated.  Cooling automobile sales and a housing sector limited by a scarcity of affordable homes also remain headwinds for the economy this year. 

As always, stay tuned!

SGK Weekly Blog Dec. 23, 2016 - Happy Holidays!!


This week on the domestic economic front, sales of previously owned U.S. homes unexpectedly increased in November to the strongest level since early 2007, ahead of a jump in borrowing costs, National Association of Realtors data showed Wednesday. Contract closings rose 0.7 percent to a 5.61 million annual rate (the forecast was 5.50 million) while sales increased 18.2 percent before the seasonal adjustment from November 2015, when changes in mortgage regulations delayed closings. The median sales price climbed 6.8 percent from November 2015 to $234,900. The inventory of available properties dropped 9.3 percent from November 2015 to 1.85 million, marking the 18th consecutive year-over-year decline. From a big picture standpoint, sales have kept chugging along in the industry’s quieter selling season, buoyed by consistent job gains as well as increases in consumer and business optimism reflecting expectations that President-elect Donald Trump will relax burdensome regulations. Mortgage rates at more than two-year highs could make it difficult for some borrowers to qualify for a loan, while limited inventory, partly due to scarcities of skilled labor and available lots in the new-home market, keeps property prices elevated.  

Purchases of new U.S. homes increased in November to the second-fastest pace in almost nine years as the beginning of a spike in mortgage rates persuaded buyers to quickly sign contracts. Sales rose 5.2 percent to a four-month high of a 592,000 annualized pace, Commerce Department data showed Friday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey was for a 2.1 percent gain to 575,000.  The advance included the largest gain in the Midwest market since October 2012 and the fastest pace of demand in the West in almost nine years. Home sales are closing in on the strongest year in a decade, supported by a robust labor market and, until recently, the lowest mortgage rates since the 1970s.  Progress has been gradual, however, with residential construction contributing little to economic growth as higher prices and stricter lending standards turn more Americans into renters. 

The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits rose more than expected to a six-month high last week, potentially reflecting seasonal swings in a still-healthy labor market. Jobless claims increased by 21,000 to 275,000 in the week ended Dec. 17, a report from the Labor Department showed Thursday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey called for 257,000. Continuing claims also climbed. Filings tend to be more volatile around the holidays, and the broader trend shows the labor market remains competitive, with companies reluctant to let workers go amid an economy that’s growing at a moderate pace. For almost two years, claims have been below the 300,000 level that economists consider consistent with a healthy labor market. Before seasonal adjustments, claims rose by about 10,300 to 315,600 last week, the report showed. 

Orders for U.S. business equipment climbed more than forecast in November, a sign corporate investment is starting to firm up. Bookings for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft rose 0.9 percent, the most since August, after a 0.2 percent gain a month earlier, Commerce Department data showed Thursday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey called for a 0.4 percent increase. Demand for all durables -- items meant to last at least three years -- fell 4.6 percent on a slump in orders for planes. Increased business sentiment about the economy following the presidential election has the potential to boost sales of productivity-enhancing equipment.  Leaner inventories, resilient household demand and the longer-term prospects of more infrastructure spending may help boost durable-goods orders even as a soaring dollar risks slowing exports. 

The U.S. economy expanded more than previously reported last quarter on bigger contributions from a range of factors including services spending, intellectual property and construction by state and local governments. Gross domestic product rose at a 3.5 percent annualized rate in the three months ended in September, compared with a prior estimate of 3.2 percent, Commerce Department figures showed Thursday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey called for a 3.3 percent gain. The revised growth estimate, still the fastest in two years, reflected updated figures on research and development expenses from companies, spending by nonprofit institutions and use of financial services. The economy is unlikely to sustain such a pace in the final three months of the year, instead probably growing at a 2.2 percent rate, according to the median projection of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg earlier this month. Economists’ projections for the updated advance in third- quarter GDP, the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S., ranged from 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent. This is the last of three estimates for the quarter before annual revisions in July. Household purchases, which account for almost 70 percent of the economy, grew at a 3 percent annualized rate, stronger than the 2.8 percent pace previously estimated. That change reflected primarily higher spending on services by incorporating newly available data from the Census Bureau, according to the report. Estimates of the contributions to growth by trade and inventories were little changed. Stripping out those items, the two most volatile components of GDP, so-called final sales to domestic purchasers increased at a 2.1 percent rate, compared with the prior estimate of a 1.7 percent pace. Corporate spending on equipment decreased at a 4.5 percent annualized pace in the third quarter, compared with the 4.8 percent drag previously estimated, and subtracted 0.3 percentage point from growth, the report showed. Those outlays had declined 2.9 percent in the prior three months. The government’s report on fourth-quarter GDP is due January 27, 2017. 

Consumer confidence jumped to the highest level since 2004, extending a surge in Americans’ optimism for their finances and the U.S. economy following Donald Trump’s election victory. The University of Michigan said Friday that its final index of sentiment rose to 98.2 from 93.8 in November.  The median projection in a Bloomberg survey called for 98, equal to the preliminary reading released earlier this month.  Inflation expectations for the next five to 10 years fell to a record low. A record share of respondents “spontaneously mentioned” the expected impact of Trump’s policies, more than double the number when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, according to the report. While Trump’s promises of tax cuts and job gains have helped drive increases in consumer confidence, the honeymoon may fade in coming months unless actual economic conditions show improvement. The report is a “pretty good start for the new Trump administration,” Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan consumer survey, said on a conference call.  At the same time, there is a mix of “optimism and uncertainty that characterizes consumers best going forward in these next three to six months.” Sentiment has leveled off since the election and is likely to decline in the coming months, Curtin said. 

Attention on international financial matters focused on the issues going on in the Italian banking sector, and the news there reflected the fact that many Italian banks made a lot of bad loans and as a results they are under-capitalized. It was evident that a prominent bank that has been in the news a lot lately, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA, will probably fail to lure sufficient demand for a 5 billion-euro ($5.2 billion) capital increase, leading to what would be the country’s biggest bank nationalization in decades, said people with knowledge of the matter. No anchor investor has shown interest in the stocks sale, the Siena-based company said in a statement late Wednesday. Two debt-for-equity swap offers will raise about 2 billion euros, with investors converting bonds for about 2.5 billion euros, the lender said. The interest is probably insufficient to pull the deal off, said the people, who asked not to be identified before a final assessment. Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund, which had considered an investment, hasn’t committed to buying shares, people with knowledge of the matter have said. Other institutions that were considering buying shares have indicated that they would put funds in the troubled bank only if it’s able to raise 1 billion euros from cornerstone investors, according to the people. Monte Paschi Chief Executive Officer Marco Morelli had crisscrossed the globe looking for investors to back the bank’s reorganization plan, which included a share sale, a debt-for-equity swap and the sale of 28 billion worth of soured loans. A nationalization of Monte Paschi, the biggest in Italy since the 1930s, could be followed by rescues for lenders including Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza as part of a 20 billion-euro government package.  

State intervention and a hit to bondholders is the most likely scenario for Monte Paschi, Manuela Meroni, an analyst at Intesa Sanpaolo SpA wrote in a note to clients Thursday. "The solution to the Monte Paschi issue could reduce the systemic risk for the sector," Meroni wrote. Monte Paschi shares failed to open in Milan on Thursday after being indicated lower. The shares have dropped 87 percent this year, trimming the bank’s value to 478 million euros. If government funds are used in the bank’s recapitalization, bondholders will probably have to take losses under European burden-sharing rules. The cabinet is considering a so-called precautionary recapitalization that may reduce the potential losses. A cabinet meeting may be held as early as Thursday evening to rescue Monte Paschi, newspaper La Stampa reported, without saying where it got the information. Monte Paschi’s plan to raise 5 billion euros has three interlocking pieces: a debt-for-equity swap, a stock offering and the disposal of soured loans. The capital being raised would be used to cover the bank for losses it would book in selling the bad debt. If the sale fails, the conversions of debt to equity would be nullified, as well as the terms of the bad debt disposal. Liquidity has been drying up, the bank said in a filing Wednesday amid mounting concern about the lender’s viability. Commenting on risks under rules defined by the Bank of Italy, Paschi said it may run out of liquidity after four months, sooner than the 11 months forecast in last week’s filing. Needless to say, the news out of the Italian banking sector was not good this week and we will be keeping a close eye on what the Italian government comes up with in terms of what looks like a much needed rescue for the sector. 

The following is a summary of other Italian lenders facing pressure to shore up their finances and get rid of soured debt on their books: * Banca Carige SpA: The European Central Bank instructed the Genoa-based lender to step up efforts to reduce sour debt on its balance sheet, giving it until Feb. 28 to present a more aggressive proposal. The existing plan calls for cutting the total to 19.9 percent by 2020 from 27.8 percent in 2015. The bank, which is struggling to restore investor confidence after revising its 2012 and first-half 2013 accounts, posted a loss in the third quarter on falling revenue and higher provisions for bad loans. * Banca Popolare di Vicenza SpA/Veneto Banca SpA: The rescued Italian lenders in merger talks may need as much as 2.5 billion euros of fresh capital to fulfill requests from the ECB, people with knowledge of the matter have said. The ECB said the pair should reduce bad loans by as much as 4 billion euros, increase liquidity buffers and make additional provisions for ongoing litigation, the people said. Atlante, the state-orchestrated fund which took over the banks earlier this year, on Wednesday said it will invest 938 million euros in further stock sales by the banks. * Four “Good Banks” : The four small domestic lenders rescued from collapse last year must be sold to comply with European regulators’ requests. Executives obtained an extension of June’s deadline as they struggle to reach a deal. Unione di Banche Italiane is in talks to buy three of the four regional banks. The Bank of Italy may seek additional contributions from lenders to bolster the country’s resolution fund if the sale doesn’t generate enough cash to repay creditors, people with knowledge of the matter have said.                   

Why do we care so much about the Italian banking sector, especially two days before Christmas you might ask?! Well it bears watching because the phrase “systemic risk” arose out of the 2008 financial crisis. Bank stress tests by central banks – in particular our Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank – are designed to prevent the possibility of one bank or one banking sector in one country taking down the entire global financial system.   As we learned in 2008, global financial institutions are intricately intertwined in many ways. A global financial crisis has to start somewhere, therefore we are inclined not to ignore the current state of the Italian financial system and we are following the news as it unfolds closely. As always, stay tuned!

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