Thursday, July 6, 2017

A 16-chart review of the outlook

Blogging's been light of late, mainly because there hasn't been much going on. The economy is still growing at a disappointing pace, inflation is still relatively low and stable, and the equity market is no longer cheap but neither is it overly optimistic. It's encouraging to see the progress that Trump has made towards reducing regulatory burdens, but it's disappointing to see that his major legislative initiatives (tax and healthcare reform) are bogged down in Congress. I wish he had chosen the low-hanging fruit (reducing the corporate tax rate) first, rather than tackling the very messy and complicated task of repealing and replacing Obamacare. Reducing the corporate tax rate is something just about everyone understands must be done, and it would have already unleashed a wave of new investment in the economy, and that in turn would have made all the other reforms easier on the margin. Fortunately, it's still too early to rule out some major policy developments which could significantly improve the economic outlook. If there's a silver lining to the cloud of sub-par growth, it's that the economy has tremendous upside potential—if Trump's pro-growth policy promises become reality.

In recent months there have been some negative developments in the economic outlook (a slowdown in housing starts, car sales and jobs), but those have been outweighed, in my view, by a variety of positives (tight credit spreads, strong ISMs, rising industrial commodity prices, rising real yields, and increased global trade). I review these below in 16 updated charts.

Meanwhile, my major worry continues to be North Korea, since it is difficult to see how we can find a non-violent resolution. As one wag put it, we've been kicking the can down the road for decades, and we've finally run out of road. A nuclear attack somewhere in the world is now more likely than it has been for decades. One well-placed EMP bomb, moreover, could wreak massive, incalculable destruction in any of the world's highly developed economies.

Housing starts weakened considerably in recent months, and have now been flat for the past few years. The continued rise in builder sentiment suggests that the slowdown is likely to prove temporary. In the meantime, mortgage rates remain historically low, so housing affordability is not a negative. 

Car sales have also weakened of late, and have been flat for several years. One likely explanation is that the advent of ride-sharing services has sapped demand for car rentals, which in turn has depressed sales of new cars to rental fleets.

Notwithstanding the slowdown in housing and autos, the labor force continues to expand, albeit at a slower pace. The growth of private sector non-farm payrolls has slowed from a 2% pace last November to a 1.6% pace as of May. Slower jobs growth is disappointing, but there is no sign at all that employers are shrinking their workforce: unemployment claims remain very low, and corporate layoffs have rarely been lower than they were last month. As long as jobs keep growing, families keep growing and cars keep wearing out, it's reasonable to think that housing and car sales are likely to experience at least modest growth going forward.

The June ISM Manufacturing Index was strong, and it suggests that second quarter GDP growth is likely to be substantially better than first quarter. The Atlanta Fed currently estimates Q2/17 growth to be about 2.7%; combined with first quarter's 1.4% growth, that would average out to 2% for the first half, which is right in line with the economy's growth trend over the past 8 years. Ho-hum. 

Export orders are one area of strength, and that jibes with a widely observable global pickup in trade so far this year. It's hard to overestimate how important global trade is to prosperity.

The all-important service sector continues to look healthy as well.

As the chart above shows, industrial metals prices have increased over 50% since early last year. Industrial commodity prices in general are up over 25% during the same time period. All of this despite the fact that the dollar has been roughly flat for the past two years. This strongly suggests that global economic activity is picking up, not inflation.

2-yr swap spreads, excellent indicators of market liquidity and systemic risk, are at optimal levels in the US and are only modestly elevated in the Eurozone. This further suggests that financial fundamentals are healthy, and the economic outlook is likely improving.

5-yr Credit Default Swap spreads are an excellent and highly liquid proxy for the financial health of corporations. These spreads are at relatively low levels, and that in turn belies concerns that corporations may be over-leveraged or that the economic outlook may be deteriorating.

Real yields on 5-yr TIPS continue to inch higher, suggesting that the outlook for the economy is improving. I posted at greater length on this subject here.

C&I Loans, shown in the chart above, were flat for the past 8 months or so, but the latest data showed a resumption of growth. It remains unclear whether the pause—which interrupted six years of steady and strong growth—was a sign of a restriction in lending or a decline in the demand for credit. In any event, the lack of growth in business lending does not appear to have had any obvious impact on the economy.

With the recent release of Q1/17 data, we see that households' financial burdens (see chart above) remain relatively low and stable. The federal government and businesses in general have been leveraging up, but not households.

PE ratios today are about 25% above their long-term average, according to Bloomberg (using earnings from continuing operations as the E and the S&P 500 index as the P). One could argue that this shows that stocks are moderately over-valued.

But if you look at PE ratios in the context of the current yield on risk-free bonds, then stocks are still cheap. The chart above subtracts the yield on 10-yr Treasuries from the earnings yield (the inverse of the PE ratio) of the S&P 500. The typical stocks offers an earnings yield that is about 230 bps higher than the yield on 10-yr Treasury bonds. That is unusual, since equities have a higher expected return (being much more risky) than Treasuries. This can only mean that the market is very distrustful of the ability of corporations to continue to growth their earnings. That's been the case throughout the current bull market, and it was the case in the late 1970s, when stocks were in the throes of a major bear market. In other words, the market is hardly exuberant these days.

If anything stands out as worrisome, it's the fact that the market does not appear to be very worried at all. The Vix/10-yr ratio, my favorite indicator of the market's nervousness about the prospects for growth, remains relatively low.


Al said...

Love these graphs. Ty scott. From Canada.

Rich said...

I could be wrong, but I think the House voting to repeal the ACA about 50 times sent the wrong message to their base about priorities.

That set up these counterproductive policy choices, along with a POTUS who cares more about what Putin thinks than US intel services.

Benjamin Cole said...

Is North Korea a threat?

Sure seems like it to me. That is what elements in the US government say.

But the S. Koreans are very, very unconcerned about North Korea.

The S. Korean stock market is up 23.4% YOY.

Investors are so keen on property in Seoul---near the border with the north---that the S Korea government is tightening up on lending. Values at all-time record highs. Speculation driving values up!

The S. Koreans also suspended the introduction of the THAAD missile system to S Korea. A system we were installing for free.


S Korea is bigger and richer than N Korea, and by far. Maybe the US should just go home, after all these decades. Why should US taxpayers pay for global gunsels?

Personally, I do not want to get nuked for sticking our nose into a fight between Koreans, if there even is a fight. Right now the fight seems to be between us and the N Koreans.

As Grannis and other have noted, the US would probably not recover from a single EMP blast over US soil for decades and decades.

N Korea would be cinders after that (and S Korea possibly toxic), but little consolation that.