This is still the weakest recovery ever, but the economy continues to grow and conditions continue to improve. It's a sub-par recovery, as I've been predicting for the past 5 years, mainly because the private sector has been smothered by too much government spending and too many new regulatory burdens. Things could be a whole lot better, but that is no reason to be pessimistic about the future. Indeed, there are so many things that could be fixed for the better (e.g., major reform of the tax code, the reversal of Obamacare) that the case for optimism is still compelling. As I've said many times in recent years, the economy is growing in spite of all the "help" it has received from "stimulative" fiscal and monetary policy. Pessimists see it the other way around, of course, believing that if it weren't for all the government-sponsored stimulus the economy would be a total wreck.
What follows is a series of charts which make some important points about the ongoing improvement in the economy and the financial markets.
Capital goods orders have been lackluster for over a year, but today's release of April data contained some significant upward revisions to past data. A month ago, orders appeared to be essentially flat over the past year, but they now have a modest upward tilt. As the chart above shows, orders in real terms are still substantially below their 2000 high, but they are now at a new high in nominal terms. It's still the case that businesses are very reluctant to invest—despite record-setting profits—but at least we can say that investment in productivity-enhancing capital goods is expanding, albeit slowly. As an optimist, I look at this as a glass half-full: imagine how much stronger new investment could be if taxes on capital and regulatory burdens could be reduced. The November elections hold great promise for the future if they can tip the balance of policies in a more growth- and capital-favorable direction.
According to the Case Shiller data, housing prices have recovered almost half of what they lost from their pre-recession highs. The same goes for housing starts. The recovery is more modest in real terms, but it nevertheless continues. Every day the number of households suffering from negative equity declines. There is still plenty of upside potential in the housing market.
The market capitalization of global equity markets is now at a new all-time high, having gained $38 trillion from the March 2009 low. These are huge numbers, considering that the total market cap of the U.S. equity market is currently almost $23 trillion according to Bloomberg.
Pessimists don't get excited by the above chart, which shows that the implied volatility of equity options is very close to its historic lows. They worry that because the market is not very worried these days about something going wrong, it is vulnerable to bad news. As an optimistic, I prefer to think that the market is "vulnerable" to unexpected good news. Long-time readers may remember my post from August 2012, in which I posed the question "What if something goes right?" In retrospect it was quite prescient. I still think that is the right question to ask today.
The above chart of the PE ratio of the S&P 500 shows that multiples are only slightly higher than their long-term average (according to Bloomberg calculations). That lends strong support to the view that the market is far from being overly optimistic. There is still plenty of room for multiples to expand.
Consumer confidence is at a post-recession high, but as the chart above shows, it is still far below levels associated with healthy growth and widespread prosperity, such as we had in the late 1990s. Indeed, confidence today is at levels that in the past have been associated with the onset of recessions. There is still lots of room for improvement.
As the chart above shows, Eurozone equities have been rising in line with the ongoing recovery in U.S. equities for the past two years. In fact, Eurozone equities have recorded outsized gains over the past two years: the total return on the S&P 500 is 51%, while the Euro Stoxx 50 index has posted a total return of 77%. The Eurozone may be lagging, but it is definitely improving.
As an aside, I couldn't help but notice the proliferation of construction cranes and road repairs as we drove through almost 2,000 miles and 5 countries' worth of European countryside earlier this month. Things are definitely improving in Europe.
There will undoubtedly be setbacks along the way, but I see little reason to doubt that things can continue to improve, albeit slowly. Onward and upward.