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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 2/3/2017

Steigerwald, Gordon & Koch Weekly Blog - 2/3/2017 

Federal Reserve officials left interest rates unchanged while acknowledging rising confidence among consumers and businesses following Donald Trump’s election victory. “Measures of consumer and business sentiment have improved of late,” the Federal Open Market Committee said in its statement Wednesday following a two-day meeting in Washington. Policy makers reiterated their expectations for moderate economic growth, “some further strengthening” in the labor market and a return to 2 percent inflation. The Fed provided little direction on when it might next raise borrowing costs, as officials grapple with the uncertainty created by a new presidential administration. Policy makers in December penciled three rate hikes into their 2017 forecasts, but committee members differ over assumptions regarding the extent to which tax cuts, spending and regulatory rollbacks proposed by Trump and Republicans might boost growth and inflation. Surveys of consumers and businesses have shown significant increases in optimism for the economy following Trump’s November win, though in some cases sentiment is divided along party lines. The FOMC repeated that it anticipates interest rates will rise gradually. The statement said job gains “remained solid” and the unemployment rate “stayed near its recent low,” a tweak from December’s language that the rate “has declined.” “Inflation increased in recent quarters but is still below the committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective,” the Fed said. Market-based measures of inflation compensation are “still low,” the central bank said, after saying in December that such measures had “moved up considerably.”  

They went on to state that consumer spending “has been rising moderately,” while business fixed investment “has remained soft,” using language similar to the previous meeting. The decision to leave the target federal funds rate unchanged in a range of 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent was unanimous and widely expected by investors. Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who doesn’t have a press conference scheduled after this meeting, will have a chance to explain the decision further during her semiannual monetary-policy testimony to Congress in mid-February. The FOMC next meets on March 14-15. Before the latest statement, investors saw a roughly 38 percent chance that the first interest-rate increase of 2017 would come at the Fed’s March meeting, based on trading in federal funds futures. The odds rose to about 52 percent for the subsequent gathering in early May and 75 percent for mid-June. The committee left unchanged its stated intention to continue reinvesting its maturing debt holdings until “normalization” of the benchmark rate is “well under way.” The Fed’s balance sheet stands at about $4.5 trillion. The FOMC’s only move in 2016 came when it raised rates by a quarter percentage point in the last meeting of the year. Officials had repeatedly signaled their intention to lift borrowing costs gradually, only to hold off until December amid political and economic uncertainty in the U.S. and abroad. 

In recent months, confidence in the economy has grown amid continued strong hiring, with employers adding an average 200,000 jobs a month since June. The unemployment rate stood at 4.7 percent in December, near or below most estimates for its lowest sustainable level. Inflation has also crept closer to the Fed’s 2 percent target. The central bank’s preferred measure of price gains, excluding food and energy, rose 1.7 percent in the 12 months through December. Gross domestic product expanded at a 1.9 percent annualized rate in the fourth quarter, slightly below expectations amid an increase in the trade deficit, according to data released last week. Consumer spending increased at a 2.5 percent pace, in line with forecasts, and business investment picked up. The annual FOMC rotation among regional Fed presidents saw three officials take voting seats for the first time since their appointments: Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker, Dallas Fed chief Robert Kaplan and Neel Kashkari in Minneapolis. Chicago’s Charles Evans also became a voter for the year. 

On Friday the Department of Labor released the January U.S. employment report. U.S. employers added the most workers in four months while wage growth slowed more than projected, suggesting some slack remains in the labor market. January’s 227,000 increase in payrolls followed a 157,000 rise in December, a Labor Department report showed Friday in Washington.  The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 180,000 advance.  The jobless rate rose to 4.8 percent, and average hourly earnings grew 2.5 percent from January 2016, the weakest since August. The data, representing the final figures under President Barack Obama, indicate the job market is still enjoying steady growth though isn’t tight enough yet to result in a bonanza for worker pay.  While analysts expect hiring to cool as the economy nears full employment, President Donald Trump has pledged to bring people back into the workforce and boost wages further through tax cuts, infrastructure investment and looser regulation. The January results were helped by hiring in construction, retail, finance and professional services.  The 36,000 increase in construction payrolls was the largest since March. This is probably due somewhat to unseasonably warm weather in many parts of the country in January. Revisions to the previous two months subtracted a total of 39,000 jobs from payrolls. November’s gain was cut to 164,000 from 204,000, while December’s change rose by 1,000 to 157,000.  

In broad U.S. economic news, consumer confidence retreated in January from a more than 15-year high as Americans tempered their economic expectations and waited for President Donald Trump and lawmakers to deliver on promises to boost employment and jump-start growth, data from the New York-based Conference Board showed Tuesday. The confidence index fell to 111.8 (forecast was for 112.8) from a revised 113.3 in December that was the highest since August 2001. A measure of consumer expectations for the next six months in the economy dropped to 99.8 from 106.4, marking the biggest decline since November 2015 while the present conditions gauge advanced to 129.7 from 123.5. Expectations about business conditions, employment and incomes for the next six months all lost ground as well. Despite the dip in January, American households remain upbeat as the Trump administration and Congress consider fiscal policy aimed at stoking growth.  Respondents had more favorable views of current economic and labor-market conditions, though they anticipate higher inflation and interest rates over the coming year. Optimism does little for the economy unless it translates into faster consumer spending, which cooled in the fourth quarter.  

Manufacturing conditions in the Midwest deteriorated at the beginning of the year, but managed to cling to an ever-so-soft expansionary pace. This may be the first sign that the post-election euphoria in the sentiment measures may be joining the reality of the so- called hard data, such as industrial production and core shipments of durable goods. The elevated level of the dollar has been a top concern of manufacturers and exporters, and this latest weak reading in the Chicago area PMI may be the first to denote a cooling in dollar-related conditions in the nation’s Rust Belt. The headline Chicago PMI slumped to 50.3 in January, considerably weaker than the expected 55.0 reading by economists polled by Bloomberg. This followed a downwardly revised 53.9 posting in December, which was previously reported to be 54.6. This is the lowest level since May (50.3), and lower than the 3- month and six-month averages of 53.8 and 53.1 respectively. It is the 11th consecutive monthly expansionary posting (above-50). Three of the five components that comprise the headline index experienced declines, while order backlogs and supplier deliveries posted gains. Among the greatest drag was a 7.8 point decline in the new orders index, which currently resides at its lowest level since December 2015. The production index also pointed to moderation as it fell 2.3 points to 56.0. The latest pullback in the Chicago PMI implies a possible realization that the elevated dollar and potential protectionist policies suggested by the Trump administration will have a detrimental impact on production and export activity. One month does not a trend make, but there is certainly a reason to watch the sentiment-related measures a bit more intently to see if the bloom is off the rose of the manufacturing sector as suggested by the lofty values of the sentiment-type measures. 

Home-price gains in 20 U.S. cities accelerated for a fourth month in November when compared with a year earlier, according to S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller data released Tuesday. The 20-city property values index increased 5.3 percent from November 2015 (forecast was 5 percent) after climbing 5.1 percent in the year through October while the national home-price gauge rose 5.6 percent from 12 months earlier. On a monthly basis, the seasonally adjusted 20-city measure was up 0.9 percent from October. While home prices have been steadily increasing on the back of solid hiring, stronger wages and low mortgage rates, a recent increase in borrowing costs threatens to slow down momentum in the housing market in the coming months. Even with those headwinds, a scarce supply of homes will continue to support rising values, potentially persuading more owners to put their properties up for sale. All 20 cities in the index showed a year-over-year gain, led by a 10.4 percent advance in Seattle and 10.1 percent in Portland, Oregon. After seasonal adjustment, Boston, Denver and New York had the biggest month-over-month price increases at 1.2 percent each; slowest gainers were Cleveland, Miami, Phoenix and San Diego, at 0.5 percent apiece. 

In overseas news, euro-area inflation accelerated more than forecast to effectively reach the European Central Bank’s goal, which may intensify a debate among policy makers about their long-running stimulus programs. The 1.8 percent annual increase in consumer prices in January was the fastest since early 2013 and beat the 1.5 percent median forecast in a Bloomberg survey. That’s in line with the ECB goal of just below 2 percent, though the less-volatile core rate remains at just half that level. While largely driven by higher oil prices, the inflation pickup is feeding into questions about the appropriate degree of monetary stimulus for the 19-nation currency bloc. ECB President Mario Draghi has repeatedly stressed that underlying price pressures are still weak and he wants certainty that the acceleration will prove durable, though German policy makers have started to push for a discussion about winding down quantitative easing. “It’s very straight forward: Draghi laid out the criteria that make it clear that inflation has to be self-sustained, durable over time, and for the whole of the euro area,” said Frederik Ducrozet, senior economist at Banque Pictet & Cie SA in Geneva.  “This is not what the ECB would consider price stability, even if the hawks get louder.” Confidence jumped to a six-year high in January, and separate data on Tuesday showed the economy grew 0.5 percent in the fourth quarter, in line with economists’ estimate. The Eurostat data also showed unemployment fell to 9.6 percent in December, the lowest level since mid-2009. The economy expanded 1.8 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier. German inflation accelerated to 1.9 percent at the start of the year, the fastest rate in three and a half years, while prices increased 3 percent in Spain, providing further ammunition to critics of the ECB’s ultra-expansionary policy stance in an election year. Executive Board member Sabine Lautenschlaeger and Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann have signaled that it may soon be time to phase out asset purchases, currently set to run until at least the end of the year. Others are urging for patience as underlying price pressures remain subdued. Ewald Nowotny said on Monday that while developments in Germany are monitored, monetary policy cannot cater to just one country, reasoning that the ECB’s Governing Council won’t make a decision on the future of QE until after the summer. Such a stay would give officials more time to weigh the implications of protectionist policies pursued by the U.S. administration and the U.K.’s strategy to exit the European Union. With euro-skeptic parties gaining traction in opinion polls, elections in some of the region’s largest economies also add to uncertainty. “Draghi is erring on the cautious side, but this type of data makes it harder for him to defend his position,” Holger Sandte, chief European analyst at Nordea Markets in Copenhagen, said before the reports were released. “New projections could force him into changing his tone.” 

As always, stay tuned!

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