Leading Index gives early warning

One of the better composite indicators in the US, the Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed, points to a slow-down in the US economy. A dip below 1.0% is often early, as in July 2000 and May 2006, but serves as a reliable warning of an economic slow-down.

Leading Index for the United States

The Leading Index predicts the six-month growth rate of the Philadelphia Fed Coincident Index. In addition to the Coincident Index, it includes variables that lead the economy: housing permits (1 to 4 units), initial unemployment insurance claims, delivery times from the ISM manufacturing survey, and the interest rate spread between the 10-year Treasury bond and the 3-month Treasury bill.

The Coincident Index combines four indicators: nonfarm payroll employment, the unemployment rate, average hours worked in manufacturing and wages and salaries.

Coincident Index for the United States

The Leading Index signal does seem early. Low corporate bond spreads and VIX near record lows continue to indicate low market risk, typical of a bull market.

Corporate Bond Spreads and VIX

Monetary policy remains accomodative, with money stock growing at close to 5% p.a. (MZM = cash in circulation, travelers checks, money market funds and deposits with zero maturity).

MZM and Yield Differential

The yield curve has flattened, with the spread between 10-year and 3-month Treasuries falling to 1.0% on the above graph. That is what one would expect when the Fed hikes interest rates in a low inflation environment: short-term rates will rise faster than long-term rates. But a negative yield curve, where short-term rates are higher than long-term rates, is a reliable predictor of recessions in the US economy. Each time the yield differential on the above graph crossed below zero in the last 50 years, a recession has followed within 12 months.

Underlying inflation remains low, with average hourly earnings growth below 2.5% p.a., and the Fed should be careful about single-mindedly raising interest rates without considering the yield curve.

Annual Growth in Average Hourly Earnings

The bull market continues but investors need to keep a weather eye on interest rates and the yield curve.

Fed flunks econ 101?

Caroline Baum’s opinion on the Fed’s approach to inflation:

For all the sturm und drang about the Fed debasing the dollar and sowing the seeds of the next great inflation, the public’s demand for money has increased. The increased desire to hold cash and checkable deposits has risen to meet the increased supply. Velocity, or the rate at which money turns over, has plummeted.

The Fed has two choices. It can adopt the Dr. Strangelove approach and learn to stop worrying and live with low inflation and low unemployment. Or it can do something about it, which runs counter to its stated intention to raise the funds rate and reduce the size of its balance sheet.

Option #1 involves learning to live with a low, stable inflation rate about 0.5 percentage point below the Fed’s explicit 2% target.

Not only has the Fed has achieved price stability in objective terms, but it has also fulfilled former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s subjective definition of price stability: a rate of inflation low enough that it is not a factor in business or household decision-making.

Option #2 means taking some additional actions to increase the money supply by lowering interest rates or resuming bond purchases. The Fed is taking the opposite approach. It began its balance sheet normalization this month, allowing $10 billion of securities to mature each month and gradually increasing the amount every quarter. And it has guided markets to expect another 25-basis-point rate increase in December….

The Fed faces a delicate balancing act. Unemployment is low but capacity utilization is also low, indicating an absence of inflationary pressure.

Capacity Utilization

Janet Yellen understandably wants to normalize interest rates ahead of the next recession but she can afford to take her time. The economy is unlikely to tip into recession unless the Fed hikes rates too quickly, causing a monetary contraction.

I believe the Fed chair is relying on the outflow from more than $2 trillion of excess reserves held by banks on deposit with the Fed to offset the contractionary effect of any rate hikes.

Capacity Utilization

If pushed, the Fed could lower the interest rate paid on excess reserves in order to encourage banks to withdraw excess deposits. But so far this hasn’t been necessary. The attraction of higher interest rates in financial markets has been sufficient to encourage a steady outflow from excess reserves, keeping the monetary base (net of reserves) growing at a steady clip of close to 7.5% p.a. despite rate hikes so far.

Capacity Utilization

Makes you wonder why Donald Trump would even consider replacing the Fed chair when she is doing a great job of managing the recovery.

Source: Fed flunks econ 101: understanding inflation – MarketWatch

How long will the bull market last?

US markets are clearly in a bull phase, with the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq making strong gains. A rising Freight Transport Index highlights the broad up-turn in economic activity.

Freight Transport Index

Low corporate bond spreads — lowest investment grade (Baa) minus 10-year Treasury yield — and VIX below 15 both reflect bull market conditions.

Bond Spreads

Real GDP is growing around a modest 2 percent a year. Low figures are likely to continue, with annual change in hours worked (total payroll * average weekly hours) falling to 1.2 percent in September.

Real GDP

Money supply (M1) growth recovered to a balmy 7 percent (p.a.) after a worrying dip below 5 in early 2016.

M1 Money Stock

The Fed may be reluctant to tighten monetary conditions but will be forced to act if inflation starts to accelerate. Annual growth in hourly wage rates turned above 2.5 percent in September, signaling underlying inflationary pressure.

Average Hourly Wage Rate - Annual Growth

Another dip in M1 below 5 percent growth would warn that monetary conditions are tightening. From there, it normally takes 12 months to impact on the broad market indices.

M1 Money Stock and Fed Funds Rate

At this stage it looks like another 2 years of sunshine before the storm. But one false tweet and we could face an early winter.

Why is it so hard to forecast interest rates? | San Francisco Fed

Interesting paper by Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Fed:

….The difficulty of predicting changes in interest rates mainly arises from two features that characterize their evolution over time. First, like other financial variables, interest rates vary widely from day to day, which makes them difficult to link to economic fundamentals such as monetary or fiscal policy. This well-documented “excess volatility,” was first pointed out in Shiller (1979), and it reflects the importance of frequent changes in investor sentiment due to a never-ending stream of economic data releases and other news.

Second, as evident from 10-year Treasury yields since 1971, seen in Figure 1, interest rates have not fluctuated around a stable average level over this period. Instead of “mean reversion” around a constant average, they exhibit slow-moving trends, such as the rise during the “Great Inflation” period of the 1970s, and the long-lasting decline since then.

….the gap model does not assume that the level of the series will revert to some constant mean, but instead that the gap between the series and its trend component will revert to zero. Estimating trend components and gaps underlies most macroeconomic forecasting, and Faust and Wright (2013) recently demonstrated the gap model’s excellent performance for inflation forecasting.

….Since inflation is ultimately determined by monetary policy, the long-run inflation trend corresponds to the perceived inflation target of the central bank. This can be estimated reasonably well from surveys. Figure 1 plots the publicly available and mostly survey-based inflation trend estimate (red line) that underlies the Federal Reserve Board’s structural model of the U.S. economy, FRB/US. For the trend in the real interest rate, also called the natural or equilibrium real interest rate, Laubach and Williams (2003) suggested a way to estimate it from macroeconomic data and popularized its use in policy analysis (see also Williams 2016). Figure 1 includes an estimate of the equilibrium real interest rate (green line) taken as the average of several popular estimates, as discussed in Bauer and Rudebusch (2017).

Figure 1 also plots the sum of these two trends (red line); this estimate of the trend component in interest rates has exhibited a very pronounced decline since the 1980s. The 10-year yield generally fluctuated near this trend, and both are currently very low in historical comparison, with important consequences for policymaking (Williams 2016). Figure 1 suggests that it may be useful to take into account the level of the trend when forecasting interest rates.

….the final piece required for a practical forecast rule is an assumption about the transition of interest rates to their trend. Based on how quickly interest rates have historically reverted back to the trend, a reasonable assumption to make for this forecasting exercise is that 20% of the remaining gap is closed each quarter. But the precise speed of reversion to the trend is typically not crucial for forecasting performance (Faust and Wright 2013). Furthermore, it becomes essentially irrelevant for long-horizon forecasts, since forecasts are approximately equal to the estimated trend…..

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco |

Bob Doll: Lack of  infrastructure stimulus might benefit stocks

Bob Doll at Nuveen makes a good point about Trump’s failure to get infrastructure spending through the House.

Washington, D.C. seems mired in gridlock, despite the fact that Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. No significant economic legislation has been passed, and the optimism from January about health care reform, infrastructure spending and tax cuts has all but vanished. Political attention will soon be focused on the 2018 midterm elections, and the window for pro-growth policy action is closing.

The lack of fiscal stimulus is disappointing, but it comes with a silver lining: We are unlikely to see the significant and sharp advance in interest rates or in the U.S. dollar that would probably result from such stimulus. The lost opportunity on the political front might therefore have the ironic effect of prolonging the bull market in stocks.

It seems crazy when you consider that both Clinton and Trump campaigned on a platform of major infrastructure programs to boost the economy. Just shows how dysfunctional Washington has become.

But I agree with the silver lining. Infrastructure spending would have boosted employment — the US is already below its long-term natural rate of unemployment — and upward pressure on wage rates. Which would have drawn a sharp increase in interest rates from the Fed, to combat inflation. Populist policies often ignore the hidden/unforeseen consequences and can produce the opposite result to that intended.

Unemployment v. LT Natural Rate

Source: Weekly Investment Commentary from Bob Doll | Nuveen

Stronger dollar, weaker inflation could check rate hawks

Jens Meyer at the AFR says that a stronger Dollar and low inflation are likely to prevent the RBA from raising interest rates for some time:

Inflation is expected to remain below the Reserve Bank’s comfort zone when second-quarter CPI data is unveiled on Wednesday. Despite a jump in vegetable prices due to damage caused by Cyclone Debbie, economists predict consumer prices rose just 0.4 per cent over the second quarter and 2.2 per cent over the year.

More importantly for the central bank, ongoing softness in wages growth is tipped to have kept a cap on the less volatile core inflation, coming in at 0.5 per cent over the quarter and 1.8 per cent over the year, below the Reserve Bank’s target band of 2 to 3 per cent.

Rising iron ore prices helped the Aussie Dollar break long-term resistance at 78 cents, testing 80 against the greenback. This goes against the wishes of the RBA who need a weaker Dollar to assist exports and boost import substitution.

Aussie Dollar

But the RBA is in a cleft stick. It cannot lower rates in order to weaken the Dollar as this would encourage speculative borrowing and aggravate the property bubble. It also can’t raise rates when inflation is low, the Aussie Dollar is strong and the economy is weak. Like Mister Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, the RBA has to sit and wait in the hope that something turns up.

Source: Stronger dollar, weaker inflation could check rate hawks

Australia: Job gains

ABS June figures reflect solid gains for the labor market. Justin Smirk at Westpac writes:

“….The annual pace of employment growth has lifted from 0.9%yr in February to 2.0%yr in May and it held that pace in June. In the year to Feb there was a 106.9k gain in employment; in the year to June this has lifted to 240.2k. The Australian labour market went through a soft patch in 2016 that was particularly pronounced through August to November when the average gain in employment per month was a paltry 2.2k. We have clearly bounced out of this soft patch and now holding a firmer trend.”

My favorite measure, monthly hours worked, jumped (year-on-year) by 3.1%.

Monthly Hours Worked

Infrastructure spending, particularly in NSW and Victoria, is doing its best to offset weakness in other areas.

Wage rate growth remains subdued, indicating little pressure on the RBA to lift rates.

Monthly Hours Worked

Weekly Top Themes from Bob Doll | Nuveen

  1. U.S. monetary policy should remain equity-market friendly. In her comments last week, Janet Yellen stated that the neutral rate for the fed funds rate is “currently quite low,” and rates would not have to rise much more to become neutral. In our view, a neutral fed funds rate is closer to 2% than the 3% currently implied by the fed funds futures market. If this is accurate, it would likely be good news for economic growth, corporate earnings and the stock market.
  2. Global monetary policy is starting to normalize, but still supports stocks. The Bank of China raised rates by 25 basis points last week and other central banks are becoming less dovish. We think this is good news since it reflects improving global economic growth, while overall policy remains easy. Central banks are still promoting liquidity, which should support equities and other risk assets.
  3. Inflation remains surprisingly low. Although economic growth is improving and the Fed is normalizing, inflation has not increased similarly. Inflation should eventually react to tightening labor markets, but the process is taking a long time.
  4. If the “Goldilocks” environment persists, we think equities can continue to make all-time highs. Low inflation, slow-but-positive economic growth, climbing earnings and a cautious Fed have contributed to record-high stock prices. We think these conditions should remain in place for at least the next 6 to 12 months.
  5. Active fund manager performance has improved. According to Merrill Lynch, 54% of active large cap U.S. equity managers outperformed their benchmarks for the first half of the year and more than half also outperformed for the last four months. This is the longest such streak since Merrill Lynch began tracking this data in 2009, and it marks the first time a majority of managers outperformed for the first half of a year.

Global monetary policy supportive of stocks, low inflation and slow-but-stable earnings growth. Nothing much wrong here. Inflation is the one to watch though. A surge in wage rates as the labor market tightens would tighten monetary policy, with a domino effect on earnings and stock performance.

Source: Weekly Investment Commentary from Bob Doll | Nuveen

Australia faces headwinds

Australian wage rate growth, on the other hand, is declining. is in a worse position, with a dramatic fall in investment following the mining boom.

Australia: Wage Price Index

Source: RBA & ABS

As is inflation.

Australia: Inflation

Source: RBA & ABS

Growth in Household Disposable Income and Consumption.

Australia: Household Income and Consumption

Source: RBA & ABS

And Banks return on shareholders equity.

Australia: Banks Return on Equity

Source: RBA & APRA

But not Housing.

Australia: Banks Return on Equity

Source: RBA, ABS, APM, CoreLogic & Residex

At least not yet.

Falling house prices would complete the feedback loop, shrinking household incomes, consumption and banks ROE.

US adds 222 thousand jobs

From the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. employers picked up their pace of hiring in June. Nonfarm payrolls rose by a seasonally adjusted 222,000 from the prior month, the Labor Department said. The unemployment rate ticked up to 4.4% from 4.3% the prior month as more people joined the workforce…..

Job Gains

Source: St Louis Fed & BLS

Forecast GDP for the current quarter — total payrolls * hours worked — is rising, showing an improving economy.

Real GDP Forecast

Source: St Louis Fed, BLS & BEA

Declining corporate profits as a percentage of net value added (RHS) is typical of mid-cycle growth, while employee compensation (% of net value added) is rising at a modest pace. Peaks in employee compensation are normally accompanied by troughs in corporate profits…..and followed by a recession.

US Corporate Profits and Employee Compensation as percentage of Value Added

Source: St Louis Fed & BEA

Average wage rate growth, both for production/non-supervisory and all employees, remains below 2.5% per year. Absence of wage rate pressure suggests that the Fed will be in no hurry to hike interest rates to curb inflationary pressure.

Hourly Wage Rate Growth

Source: St Louis Fed & BLS

Which should mean further growth ahead.