Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Retail sales continue to be strong

For the third time in the past two years, the world is obsessed with the idea that a breakup of the Euro is going to bring down the global economy. The chart above uses the ratio of the Vix index (which rises as fear increases) to the 10-yr Treasury yield (which falls as the world despairs over the prospects of economic growth) to gauge the amount of destruction that the market is worried about. It was worse in the prior two episodes, but it's pretty bad right now, as market chatter essentially assumes the imminent exit of Greece from the Eurozone, followed by a significant devaluation of the Greek currency, and the subsequent impoverishment of all Greek citizens. 

But to judge from this chart of U.S. retail sales, the revolving Eurozone crises have had no discernible impact on the U.S. economy. By just about any measure (ex-autos, ex-building materials, and/or ex-gas stations) U.S. retail sales are rising at a healthy 6% annual pace, with no signs of any slowdown. Moreover, sales have significantly exceeded their pre-recession highs, even though there are 5 million fewer people working today than at the end of 2007. Indeed, the Eurozone crisis probably has helped boost the U.S. economy, since capital has fled Europe for the relative safety of the U.S. banking system. Things could be a lot better here, but they are improving, albeit slowly.

In other news today, the May home builders' market index rose to a new post-recession high, providing yet more evidence that we have seen the bottom in the housing market. Furthermore, as Mark Perry notes, "there are now at least 25 metro markets that have reported double-digit gains in either the number of homes sold, or median home prices, or in some cases, both."

So what's not to like? Well, of course there are still many problems lurking in the wings, and the list is long, beginning with the "fiscal cliff" of sharply higher tax rates that is approaching come January 1st, followed by the risk that a re-elected Obama might be able to boost tax rates even more, and the possibility that Europe might return to the financial dark ages as governments refuse to tighten their belts and the Eurozone banking system implodes. But meanwhile, life goes on for the vast majority of the globe's population, markets are slowly but surely enforcing some badly-needed discipline on politicians of every stripe, and the internet—via outlets such as this blog—is providing more information and perspective on what's going on than has ever been available before.

Markets work best when they have plenty of information; big problems happen only when something unexpected comes out of the blue. We've known about the Eurozone debt and banking problem for over two years, and we've known about the U.S. fiscal problem for over three years. The U.S. housing market has been under tremendous pressure for over 5 years; there can't be a single sentient, potential homebuyer in the U.S. that isn't aware of the problem of an overhang of foreclosed properties. It's my belief that most or all of the problems have been priced in by now: 10-yr Treasury yields are as low as they've ever been, reflecting a market that holds little or no hope for the future; despite record-setting corporate profits, the PE ratio of the S&P 500 is only marginally higher today than it was at the end of 2008, when the global financial system threatened to collapse; and although swap spreads are off their highs, they are still quite elevated in Europe.

The sum of the fears that still plague the market can also be found in the intense demand for safe-haven liquidity. Fortunately, both the Fed and the ECB have taken extraordinary measures to accommodate this demand for liquidity by expanding their balance sheets to a truly unprecedented degree. I'm not saying that the fears are overblown. I'm simply pointing out that markets have had plenty of time and help in evaluating and accommodating these fears, and that therefore the consequences are not likely to be as bad as the market seems to be expecting.

This has been my thesis ever since the end of 2008, and it continues to be: markets are priced to horrible expectations, but the reality is likely to be less awful than expected.


brodero said...

The year over year change in retail
sales ex gasoline was 6.47%...no recession starts unless this number
drops below 2.5%.

marcusbalbus said...

ever wonder why the wisdom of crowds is not applicable here but the wisdom of calafia beach pundit is?

Anonymous said...

Prediction for tomorrow: Housing starts above 700K SAAR.

Donny Baseball said...

Wisdom of crowds? "In the short run, the stock market is a voting machine; in the long run, it is a weighing machine." SG is not counting votes, but weighing fundamentals.

mmanagedaccounts said...

My friend Don Hays, brilliant market strategist, has said many times the stock market is the best forecaster there is. There's no economist better. I believed him.
Now I'm not so sure. I've been watching this market for years and I've spent a great deal of time studying it over the past five years, especially in comparison to 1907 and the 1930s.

Scott has said he believes all these potentially bad events have to be priced into the market already simply because we've known about them now for several years.

On a PE basis stocks are only marginally higher than at the end of the recession, yet corporate earnings are at historic highs, and are estimated to be even higher in 2013.

The Fed is extremely accomodative. The relationship between "riskless" interest rates and stock prices and corporate earnings make stocks dirt cheap.

Investors are gloomy. Fear is on the rise. There's no doubt about it, if all these dark future events are priced into stocks already, and if the stock market is the best forecaster there is, we have some very dark days ahead.

I think the stock market is wrong. The market is pricing in the wrong future developments. If that part of the economy that makes up 70% continues to spend at a 6% growth rate, the rest of the economy is going to have to race to catch up. That means even stronger profits and increasing tax revenues that will help grow us out of this mess starting in 2013.

We certainly do not need to raise taxes, and we do not need to increase the regulatory burden on corporations. We need to unleash the power of the private market, and let it propell us out of our fiscal mess. We need growth policies in Washington.

marmico said...

Moreover, sales have significantly exceeded their pre-recession highs

Not in real terms. See RRSFS

Scott Grannis said...

Sales in real terms are not quite back to pre-recession highs, as Marmico notes, but even this is impressive given the fact that total employment is still almost 4% below its pre-recession high.

Scott Grannis said...

Re the stock market as forecaster: I have been a student of the market for over 3 decades, and I have seen the market be at times a great forecaster, and at times a terrible forecaster of the future. My main point: the market can be wrong, and the market can over-estimate things, especially when in the grips of emotion. An objective analysis of key market indicators (the 10-yr yield, the Vix index, PE ratios relative to profits) points strongly to a market that is assuming that the future will be very disappointing. Lots of bad news is definitely priced in. So the question for investors is whether the future will be as bad as current expectations. I think there is a decent chance it won't.

Benjamin Cole said...

Nice wrap-up by Scott Grannis.

Will the ECB, Japan and even our Fed continue in a perverse fixation on inflation?

What if the ECB decided to target 3 percent real growth n the next 10 years, even at a cots of 7 percent inflation?

In 10 years, Europeans would be about 30 percent richer in real terms, and the nominal price level would be double where it is now.

Their debt loads would be far more manageable.

But why stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, when you can just bang, bang, bang away?

Stay tuned.....

McKibbinUSA said...

The good news about retail is that the creation of "Amazon" type selling spells the end of malls and local sales staffs -- the average employee at Walmart produces $100,000 of revenue; the average employee at Amazon produces $800,000 -- by wiping out Main Street stores and concentrating sales onto the Internet and massive central shipping locations, retail is likely to pay "big dividends" in the future -- the faster that Main Street shopping can be shutdown, the faster that Internet sales can accelerate into exponential growth -- in the meantime, Main Street retail is doomed...

Scott Grannis said...

Congrats to "Unknown" for the call on starts