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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!

Inflation Mystery Continues

The mystery of low inflation is still to be solved.  The hurricane-driven boost to the U.S. cost of living in September fell short of projections, with a measure of underlying inflation missing estimates for a sixth time in seven months -- potentially complicating the Federal Reserve’s debate over whether to raise interest rates once more this year.  Economists projected an overall pick-up in price gains in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey -- thanks to a disruption in fuel supplies that boosted gasoline costs -- and while energy costs rose by the most since June 2009, the details suggest any broader acceleration in inflation will need more time to develop.  Continued subdued readings could give some Fed policy makers pause over a possible December interest-rate hike, an outcome investors still see as likely though slightly less so than on Thursday. 

Fed Chair Janet Yellen, for her part, acknowledged last month that the fall in inflation this year was a bit of a “mystery” but suggested that the central bank was on course to raise interest rates again in 2017.  Minutes of the Fed’s September meeting, released Wednesday, said that “many participants expressed concern that the low inflation readings this year might reflect not only transitory factors, but also the influence of developments that could prove more persistent.”  A separate Commerce Department consumer-inflation measure, preferred by the Fed, is running below the central bank’s 2 percent target, with a 1.4 percent gain in the 12 months through August.  The Fed will see two more reports on that index -- along with two more on the Labor Department’s CPI -- before making a decision on interest rates on Dec. 13.  In the meantime, a weaker dollar and a solid job market could also feed in more strongly to price pressures across the economy.  The Fed’s next meeting, taking place Oct. 31-Nov. 1, will provide an update on the thinking of policy makers on inflation and a December rate hike. 

Other indicators signal the steady economic expansion will continue.  Separate reports on Friday showed U.S. consumer sentiment unexpectedly surged to a 13-year high in October and retail sales rose last month by the most in more than two years as Americans replaced storm-damaged cars and paid higher prices at the gasoline pump.  Excluding autos and fuel, sales still increased at the second-fastest pace since January.  Overall sales surged 1.6% (the estimate was for a 1.7% gain), the most since March 2015, after a revised 0.1% decline in prior month.  Demand recovered after auto dealerships around Houston, among the top markets for new-vehicle sales, took a hit from Harvey a month earlier.  The biggest monthly advance in sales at service stations since February 2013 also reflected a spike in gas prices as Houston-area refiners were forced to suspend operations in the wake of Harvey.  The Commerce Department figures aren’t adjusted for price changes. 

The University of Michigan’s preliminary sentiment index for October jumped to 101.1, the highest level since the start of 2004, topping consensus expectations for virtually no change (95.0).  Consumers seem to have increasingly been satisfied with current economic conditions even as they seem to realize this is probably as good as it might get.  The current conditions index surged to 116.4 from 111.7 prior, significantly above the consensus expectation, which called for 111.6.  This was the highest reading in this cycle and the best print since the dot-com era – the index stood at 116.9 in November 2000.  The assessment for conditions down the road also improved (91.3 vs. 84.4 prior), hitting the highest level since 2004.  The jump in sentiment, which was greater than any analyst in the Bloomberg survey projected, could be a reflection of falling gasoline prices following a hurricane-related spike, reflected record highs for the stock market, a 16-year low in unemployment and post-storm recovery efforts driving a rebound in economic growth.  Consumers are “encouraged to see the organic improvement of an economy that appears to be finally hitting its stride,” said Carl Riccadonna, chief U.S. economist for Bloomberg Intelligence.  At the same time, the report showed a “troubling” decline in inflation expectations, which could also factor into the Fed’s debate on raising interest rates, he said.  Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer, who departs the central bank this month, said Friday on CNBC that given uncertainty over inflation, “we have to be more careful than full speed ahead” on tightening policy.  Fed officials are clearly struggling to make sense of the data.  For now, most policy makers seem ready to hike rates again in December, based on the notion that above-trend growth and tight labor markets will eventually produce a pickup in rates. 

In international news, the International Monetary Fund warned policy makers not to get too comfortable even as it raised its global growth forecast amid brightening prospects in the world’s biggest economies.  The Washington-based lender lifted its growth outlook for the U.S., the euro area, Japan and China from its last forecast in July.  The recovery spans roughly 75 percent of world output, according to the IMF.  The fund projects the global economy will grow 3.6 percent this year and 3.7 percent next, in both cases an increase of 0.1 percentage point from its previous estimate.  Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect gross domestic product to climb 3.4 percent in 2017 and 3.5 percent in 2018.  Either way, the recovery is accelerating from a low gear -- global growth of 3.2 percent last year was the slowest since the Great Recession of 2007-2009.  The fund warned that medium-term risks are tilted to the downside, highlighting dangers from tightening financial conditions, low inflation in advanced economies, financial turmoil in emerging markets and protectionist policies.  “Neither policy makers nor markets should be lulled into complacency,” IMF chief economist Maurice Obstfeld said in the World Economic Outlook report.  “A closer look suggests that the global recovery may not be sustainable -- not all countries are participating, inflation often remains below target with weak wage growth, and the medium-term outlook still disappoints in many parts of the world.” 

Finance ministers and central bankers from the IMF’s 189 member nations will be heartened by the brighter global outlook as they meet this week in Washington for the fund’s annual meetings.  In a speech last week, Managing Director Christine Lagarde said the IMF is seeing “some sun break through” for the world economy.  Investors have been basking for some time, with the MSCI world stock index up 15 percent this year.  But Lagarde warned that a strengthening recovery may be masking more troubling trends, such as an increase in political polarization brought about by inequality.  The specter of trade wars also remain, though they may be less of a danger than at recent global economic summits.  The same week as the IMF meetings, negotiators from the U.S, Mexico and Canada will meet less than five miles away for the fourth round of increasingly tense talks to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

The IMF bumped up its forecast for U.S. growth to 2.2 percent in 2017 and 2.3 percent in 2018 from 2.1 percent for both this year and next in its July estimates.  “Very supportive” financial conditions and high business and consumer confidence are buoying the nation’s prospects, said the fund.  The IMF’s base case doesn’t take into account fiscal stimulus from tax reforms backed by President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress.  The fund now expects growth in the euro area of 2.1 percent this year and 1.9 percent next, both up 0.2 point from three months ago, as the currency zone’s prospects strengthen on the pickup in global trade, ongoing strength in domestic demand and diminished political risk.  Growth in Japan is being driven by global demand and policies designed to keep fiscal policy supportive.  The IMF projects Japan will grow 1.5 percent this year, up 0.2 point from July, before downshifting to 0.7 percent in 2018, which is still 0.1 point higher than anticipated three months ago.  The IMF raised its call on growth in China to 6.8 percent this year and 6.5 percent in 2018, up 0.1 point in each year compared with July.  The IMF is encouraging countries to take advantage of the benign climate to boost the growth potential of their economies and cushion the impact of the next downturn.  In rich nations, central banks should keep monetary policy loose until there are firm signs of inflation, the fund said.  Countries should take steps to improve productivity while putting in place policies that reduce the pain of adjustment to labor-saving technology and globalization, the IMF said.  “Policy makers should act while the window of opportunity is open,” according to Obstfeld. 

Meanwhile we have not written about events happening in the UK recently as the BREXIT outlook remains murky.  A picture of an economy struggling to gain momentum emerged in U.K. based on figures published Tuesday.  Industrial production rose 0.2 percent in August, boosted by a better-than-expected manufacturing performance, and construction clawed back some of the losses sustained in July, the Office for National Statistics said.  But the trade deficit unexpectedly widened to the most in almost a year as imports jumped.  The British economy has dropped to the bottom of the Group of Seven growth league since the vote to leave the European Union last year as political uncertainty and inflation took their toll on spending.  But while Tuesday’s report paints what the ONS calls a “mixed picture,” it is unlikely to deter Bank of England policy makers who have hinted they are preparing to raise interest rates as early as November to combat inflationary pressures.  Manufacturing rose 0.4 percent in August, boosted by metals and pharmaceuticals, and construction output climbed 0.6 percent following a 1 percent decline in July.  While industrial production is on course for a modest increase between July and September, construction is poised for a second straight quarter of contraction.  Building output will fall unless September sees a gain of 1.9 percent, an increase last seen in December. 

Net trade also seems likely to drag on growth in the UK, with little sign yet that the decline in the pound since the Brexit vote has delivered the kind of benefits that had been expected.  The deficit in goods and services climbed to 5.6 billion pounds ($7.4 billion) in August, meaning the shortfall will widen sharply in the third quarter unless there is a near-unprecedented surplus in September.  The deficit in goods alone hit an all-time high in August.  The increase was driven almost entirely by imports, suggesting the increased cost of foreign goods is failing to persuade British consumers to switch to cheaper domestic alternatives.  Manufacturing has been boosted by car production this year, but vehicle output fell in August.  While that was partly due to maintenance shutdowns, industry figures last week show demand for cars is weakening.  A separate survey this month showed the construction sector shrinking in September amid Brexit jitters.  Consumer confidence remains fragile and a surprise decline in services output in July dented hopes of a pickup in the largest part of the economy in the third quarter.  GDP expanded less than 0.6 percent in the first half despite upward revisions to manufacturing and construction, and a similar pace of growth is widely predicted for the second half of the year. 

European Central Bank officials are considering cutting their monthly bond buying by at least half starting in January and keeping their program active for at least nine months, according to officials familiar with the debate.  Reducing quantitative easing to 30 billion euros ($36 billion) a month from the current pace of 60 billion euros is a feasible option, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private.  Policy makers led by President Mario Draghi are becoming increasingly confident that they can agree on Oct. 26 to the specifics of how much debt the euro-area’s central banks will buy in the coming months.  After more than 2 1/2 years of trying to revive the region’s economy through bond purchases, some governors see the recent period of robust growth as a reason to rein in the support.  Others are concerned that inflation remains too weak.  “The package seems to mean that yes, the ECB is taking a step down, but there is enough in terms of communication and guidance to keep markets calm and make sure financial conditions remain easy,” said Nick Kounis, an economist at ABN Amro who is based in Amsterdam.  “There seems to be a consensus on this coming together, a majority.  Even some of the more hawkish members understand that you have to wind down QE very gradually.”  While governors are split on the need to identify an end date for purchases, a pledge to keep buying bonds until September -- with the proviso that it could be extended if needed -- may offer grounds for compromise, the officials said. 

 Any changes to the sum and time frame of QE easing would still fit into the ECB’s present guidance on monetary policy, a promise to a “sustained adjustment in the path of inflation consistent with its inflation aim.”  It also pledges that if “the outlook becomes less favorable, or if financial conditions become inconsistent with further progress toward a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation, the Governing Council stands ready to increase the program in terms of size and/or duration.”  Policy members have yet to officially discuss options, and aren’t scheduled to meet again as a group until Oct. 25, in preparation for their decision the next day.  Such meetings have sometimes produced outcomes that haven’t been clearly envisaged in advance.  The institution’s chief economist Peter Praet has hinted on several occasions that he would prefer to allow QE to continue at a slower pace for longer if markets stay calm, arguing that a substantial amount of aid is still needed to spur inflation toward the ECB’s goal of running inflation just below 2 percent.  Praet said this week that officials should consider making public some of the details on how maturing debt bought under QE is reinvested.  “Crucially, the baseline scenario for future inflation remains contingent on easy financing conditions, which, to a large extent, depend on the support of monetary policy,” he said at an event in Washington on Thursday.  The Governing Council will “recalibrate its instruments accordingly, with a view to delivering the monetary policy impulse that remains necessary to secure a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation.”  In the meantime, Draghi said in Washington that the ECB’s promise that interest rates will remain low “well past” bond-buying is “very, very important.” 

As always, stay tuned!

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