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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!

Fed Leaves Rates Unchanged and Provides Guidance on Balance Sheet Reduction

Federal Reserve officials said they would begin running off their $4.5 trillion balance sheet “relatively soon” and left their benchmark policy rate unchanged as they assess progress toward their inflation goal.  The start of balance-sheet normalization -- possibly as soon as September -- is another policy milestone in an economic recovery now in its ninth year.  The Fed bought trillions of dollars of securities to lower long-term borrowing costs after cutting the main interest rate to zero in December 2008.  “Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced,” the Federal Open Market Committee said in a statement Wednesday following a two-day meeting in Washington.  “Household spending and business fixed investment have continued to expand.”  Fed watchers had anticipated that the inclusion of the term “relatively soon” would signal the central bank could announce the timing of the balance-sheet reduction program at its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 19-20.  U.S. stocks rose slightly and 10-year Treasury yields fell following the Fed’s statement.  U.S. central bankers have raised the benchmark policy rate four times since they began removing emergency policy in December 2015, and project another increase before the end of this year.  In June, the FOMC outlined gradually rising runoff caps for maturing Treasuries and mortgage-related securities, and said the program would start “this year.”  Fed Chair Janet Yellen has allowed the labor market to strengthen while inflation has remained lower than the 2 percent goal of officials, with price pressures declining in recent months.  The target range for the benchmark federal funds rate was held at 1 percent to 1.25 percent. 

The FOMC said it’s “monitoring inflation developments closely.”  Wednesday’s statement highlighted that a period of weak inflation continues.  “On a 12-month basis, overall inflation and the measure excluding food and energy prices have declined and are running below 2 percent,” the Fed statement said.  U.S. unemployment was 4.4 percent in June, below the Fed’s 4.6 percent estimate of full employment. Inflation has missed the central bank’s target for most of the past five years.  The central bank’s preferred price measure rose 1.4 percent for the 12-month period ending May.  The FOMC retained language that it expects to keep raising interest rates at a “gradual” pace if economic data play out in line with forecasts.  “The committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal,” the statement said.  The vote on Wednesday’s decision was unanimous. 

The week had started out on a slightly negative note as growth in the euro-region economy started the third quarter at the weakest pace in six months as manufacturing cooled.  A composite Purchasing Managers’ Index fell to 55.8 in July from 56.3 in June, IHS Markit said on Monday.  The figures indicate that gross domestic product is expanding at a 0.6 percent quarterly pace, compared with 0.7 percent in the second three months of the year.  European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said last week that that the region isn’t yet ready for a reduction in the unprecedented stimulus.  While growth appears to be firming, prices aren’t picking up fast enough to get to the ECB’s target without help from record low interest rates and continued bond buying.  “The eurozone’s recent growth spurt lost momentum for a second month, but still remained impressive,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit. It “adds to the belief that ECB policy makers are in no rush to taper.”  Increases in manufacturing costs are starting to slow, with the rise in input costs the lowest since November, Monday’s report showed.  Growth in new orders and employment is still strong.  Earlier reports showed that French and German economies lost some momentum this month as well. 

Here in the U.S., sales of existing homes slipped 1.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.52 million, the National Association of Realtors said Monday.  The decline speaks to a troubling cycle for a U.S. housing market hampered by a worsening shortage of properties to buy.  Despite solid demand in a relatively healthy economy for houses, sales listings have been steadily declining for more than two years.  The resulting shortage has caused prices to consistently rise faster than wage gains, making it harder for more Americans to build up their net worth by becoming homeowners.  Sales levels have improved a mere 0.7 percent over the past 12 months.  The modest gains come despite solid levels of hiring that have pushed the unemployment rate to a healthy 4.4 percent, a level that in the past would have helped to fuel further sales growth.  Svenja Gudell, chief economist at the real estate firm Zillow, said that the lack of sales listings may be bordering on a "crisis."  "There are about as many homes for sale now as there were in 1994, except there are about 63 million more people in this country now than there were then," Guddell said.  Many would-be homebuyers are unable to find properties to purchase.  The number of sales listings has been falling on an annual basis for the past 25 months.  There were 1.96 million homes for sale in June, a 7.1% decline from a year ago.  That shortage has caused prices to climb at more than double the pace of average hourly earnings.  The median sales price has climbed 6.5 percent over the past year to $263,800.  Adjusted for inflation, the median is about 9 percent below its 2006 peak during the housing bubble when sub-prime mortgages pushed prices to unsustainable highs.  Homes sold in June at a median of just 28 days, down from 34 days last year. 

A four-month high in U.S. consumer confidence reflects Americans’ sunnier views on both their current situation and outlook, a positive sign for the economy, data from the New York-based Conference Board showed Tuesday.  The research group’s confidence index increased to 121.1 following a 117.3 June reading.  The median estimate of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg was for a decline to 116.5.  The June present conditions measure rose to 147.8, a 16-year high, from 143.9 the prior month.   A gauge of consumer expectations for the next six months moved higher to 103.3 from the previous month’s 99.6.   With unemployment near a 16-year low and U.S. stocks reaching record highs, consumers remain upbeat, which should continue to support the household spending that accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.  Even so, the post-election surge in sentiment has yet to translate into a similar economic boost.  Faster wage gains and improved prospects for fiscal stimulus could propel confidence further in coming months.  The Conference Board’s data contrast with surveys from the University of Michigan and Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index showing sentiment ebbing in recent weeks.  “Overall, consumers foresee the current economic expansion continuing well into the second half of this year,” Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at the Conference Board, said in a statement. 

The U.S. housing market is stabilizing near 10-year highs, according to government data Wednesday that showed sales of new homes were slightly less than forecast.  Single family homes sales increased 0.8% month over month to a 610,000 annualized pace while the median sales price fell 3.4% to $310,800.  The supply of homes crept up to 5.4 months from 5.3 months and 272,000 new homes were on the market at the end of June.  Americans, taking advantage of low mortgage rates and confident in a strong job market that’s providing steady wage gains, are still on the hunt for new homes.  Prices fell from a year earlier as more moderately priced homes sold in June.  There were signs of progress on housing inventories, which were the highest since June 2009.  The industry says it is still grappling with a lack of skilled workers and a limited number of plots to begin construction. 

A narrower-than-projected U.S. merchandise- trade deficit in June, together with rising inventories at wholesalers and retailers, signal positive news for economic growth, according to preliminary figures from the Commerce Department released Thursday.  The goods-trade gap shrank to $63.9 billion (the estimate was for $65.5b), the smallest in 2017, from $66.3b the prior month.  Wholesale inventories increased 0.6% month over month (m/m) (the estimate was for 0.3%.)  Retail stockpiles rose 0.6% m/m after a similar gain in the previous month.  A pickup in overseas economies is spurring exports of American-made goods, which along with the increase in inventories probably boosted the pace of gross domestic product expansion in the world’s largest economy.  Economists look to the monthly advance report on trade and inventories - the two most volatile parts of the calculation for GDP - to refine their forecasts for quarterly growth.  

Jobless claims continue to bob and weave but overall remain healthy.  Jobless claims increased materially in the third full week of July, but not by enough to negate the declines of the prior two weeks.  As such, despite a rise in volatility this month - a frequently recurring development - the trend for claims continues to signal sound, healthy conditions in the labor market.  As a result, Bloomberg Intelligence Economics is forecasting the unemployment rate to reverse its June increase when the July figures are released in a little over a week.  Similarly, July nonfarm payroll gains are likely on course to exceed the year-to-date average of 180,000.  The consistently-low level of jobless claims is an important reflection of the resilience of overall economic conditions.  It is a reminder that regardless of what befalls President Trump’s economic and policy agenda, be it health-care reform, tax code rewriting or otherwise, domestic economic conditions are benefiting from an economy that is operating near full capacity in addition to improving global growth prospects, as well.  Initial jobless claims rose 10,000 to 244,000 in the week ended July 22, which is the week after the July employment survey period.  While a 10,000 rise would ordinarily be statistically meaningful, it follows declines totaling 16,000 in the prior two weeks, so the less volatile 4-week moving average held steady at 244k - not far from where it has trended for most of this year.  In fact, it was 244,000 in the July employment survey week, which is nominally better than the 245,000 reading for the comparable week in June. 

Pickups in consumer and business-equipment spending powered a U.S. economic rebound in the second quarter, signaling the eight-year expansion is on track to be sustained, Commerce Department figures showed Friday in Washington.  Gross domestic product rose at a 2.6% annualized rate from prior quarter (the estimate was for 2.7%); first-quarter growth was revised to 1.2% from 1.4%.  Consumer spending, the biggest part of the U.S. economy, grew 2.8% (matching estimates) after a 1.9% gain the previous quarter.  Nonresidential fixed investment climbed 5.2% and trade added to growth as exports rose faster than imports.  The results confirm that the slowdown at the start of 2017 was temporary and show an economy growing in the first half at about a 1.9 percent rate, compared with the expansion’s 2.2 percent average pace through the end of 2016.  Consumer spending led the rebound last quarter, helped by a steady job market and household finances boosted by stock and home-equity gains.  Disposable incomes, adjusted for inflation, posted the best back-to-back quarters since the first half of 2015.  Business investment in equipment rose at an 8.2 percent pace, the most in almost two years, signaling companies are optimistic about demand in the U.S. as well as in overseas markets.  The overall pace of nonresidential investment eased from 7.2 percent amid a slowdown in the structures category that followed a boom in oil-and-gas wells in the prior period.  Intellectual-property investment also slowed.  A particular weak spot last quarter was residential investment, which fell by the most since 2010 following a strong gain in the previous period.  Builders are coping with a shortage of available labor and lots, and warm weather in the first quarter may have pulled forward some activity.  Price data in the report indicated that inflation moved away from the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent goal.  Excluding food and energy, the Fed’s preferred price index, tied to personal spending, rose at a 0.9 percent annualized rate last quarter, matching the weakest gain since 2010.  Even so, the results are unlikely to deter Fed policy makers from implementing plans to begin shrinking their $4.5 trillion balance sheet in the coming months and continuing a gradual pace of interest-rate increases.  In addition to the pickup last quarter, results for the first three months of the year showed the economy had slightly more tepid growth than previously reported, in part because of a bigger drag from inventories and weaker business investment.  At the same time, economic growth from 2014 to 2016 was marked up to an average annual rate of 2.2 percent from 2.1 percent, according to annual revisions.  

As always, stay tuned!

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