Wage increases haven’t made a dent in profits

Average hourly earnings growth continues to rise, albeit at a leisurely pace. Average hourly earnings for all employees in the private sector grew at 2.92% over the last 12 months, while production and nonsupervisory employee earnings grew at 2.80% over the same period. The Fed is likely to adopt a more restrictive stance if hourly earnings growth, representing underlying inflationary pressures, exceeds 3.0%. So far the message from Fed Chair Jerome Powell has been business as usual, with rate hikes at a measured pace.

Average Hourly Earnings

Rising wage rates to-date have been unable, up to Q2 2018, to make a dent in corporate profits. Corporate profits are near record highs at 13.4%, while employee compensation is historically low at 69.5% of net value added. Past recessions have been heralded by rising employee compensation and falling corporate profits. What we are witnessing this time is unusual, with compensation rising, admittedly from record low levels, while profits rebounded after a low in Q4 2016. There is no indication that this will end anytime soon.

Corporate Profits and Employee Compensation as Percentage of Value Added

Weaker values (1.17%) on the Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed reflect a flatter yield curve. A fall below 1.0% would be cause for concern.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

Our surrogate for real GDP, Total Payrolls x Average Weekly Hours Worked, is lagging behind recent GDP growth (1.9% compared to 2.9%) but both are rising.

Real GDP and Total Payroll*Average Hours Worked

Another good sign is that personal consumption expenditure, one of the key drivers of economic growth, is on the mend. Services turned up in Q2 2018 after a three-year decline. Durable goods remain strong. Nondurables are weaker but this may reflect a reclassification issue. New products such as Apple Music and Netflix are classified as sevices but replace sales of goods such as CDs and videos.

Personal Consumption

There is no cause for concern yet, but we will need to keep a weather-eye on the yield curve.

Markets are constantly in a state of uncertainty and flux, and money is made by discounting the obvious and betting on the unexpected.

~ George Soros

S&P 500 and Nasdaq relief

June average hourly earnings growth came in flat at 2.74% for Total Private sector and 2.72% for Production and Non-supervisory Employees. This suuports the argument that underlying inflation remains benign, easing pressure on the Fed to accelerate interest rates.

Average Hourly Earnings Growth

The S&P 500 rallied off its long-term rising trendline. Follow-through above 2800 would suggest another primary advance with a target of 3000.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 respected its new support level at 7000, signaling a primary advance. The rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure. Target for the advance is 7700.

Nasdaq 100

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed is a healthy 1.51% for May. Well above the 1.0% level that suggests steady growth (falls below 1.0% are cause for concern).

Leading

Our estimate of annual GDP growth — total payroll x average weekly hours worked — is muted at 1.91% but suggests that earnings growth will remain positive.

Real GDP Estimate

Personal consumption figures for Q1 2018 show growth in consumption of services is slowing but durable goods remain strong, while nondurable goods are steady.

Consumption to Q1 2018

Declining consumption of nondurables normally coincides with a recession but is often preceded by slowing durable goods — below 5.0% on the chart below — for several quarters.

Consumption to Q1 2018

Conclusion: Expect further growth but be cautious of equities that are vulnerable to escalating trade tariffs.

We live in a global economy, but the political organization of our global society is woefully inadequate. We are bereft of the capacity to preserve peace and to counteract the excesses of the financial markets. Without these controls, the global economy, is liable to break down.

~ George Soros: The Crisis of Global Capitalism (1998)

Are US stocks really over-valued?

Let us start with Warren Buffet’s favorite market valuation ratio: stock market capitalization to GDP. I have modified this slightly, replacing GDP with GNP, because the former excludes offshore earnings — a significant factor for multinationals.

US stock market capitalization to GNP

The ratio of stock market capitalization to GNP now exceeds the highs of 2005/2006, suggesting that stocks are over-valued — approaching the heady days of the Dotcom era.

Corporate Profits

If we dig a bit deeper, however, while the ratio of market cap to sales is also high, market cap to corporate profits remains low.

US stock market capitalization to Business Sales and Corporate Profits

Clearly profit margins have widened, with corporate profits increasing at a faster rate than sales. The critical question: is this sustainable?

Sustainability of Profits

At some point profit margins must narrow in response to rising costs. Increases in aggregate demand may lift employment and sales, but also drive up labor costs.

Profits and Labor Costs as a percentage of Net Value Added

The brown line above depicts labor costs as a percentage of net value added, compared to corporate profits (blue) as a percentage of net value added. There is a clear inverse relationship: when labor costs rise, profit margins fall (and vice versa). At first the effect of narrower margins is masked by rising sales, but eventually aggregate profits contract when sales growth slows (gray stripes indicate past recessions).

Interest Rates and Taxes

Other contributing factors to high corporate profits are interest rates and taxes. Corporate profits (% of GNP) have soared over the last 30 years as bond yields have fallen. The benefit is two-fold, with lower interest rates reducing the cost of corporate debt and lower finance costs boosting sales of consumer durables.

Corporate Profits as % of GNP and AAA Bond Yields

Lower effective corporate tax rates (gray) have also contributed to the surge in profits as a percentage of GNP.

US stock market capitalization to GNP

The most enduring of these three factors (labor costs, interest rates, and tax rates) is likely to be taxes. Corporate tax rates have fallen in most jurisdictions and US rates are high by comparison. Even if a long-overdue overhaul of corporate taxation is achieved in the next decade (don’t hold your breath), the overall tax rate is likely to remain low.

If Not Now, When?

The other two factors (labor costs and interest rates) may not be sustainable in the long-term but it will take time for them to normalize.

Treasury yields are rising, with the 10-year at 2.37 percent. Breakout above 3.0 percent still appears some way off, but would confirm the end of the 35-year secular down-trend.

10-Year Treasury Yields Secular Trend

Interest rates are likely to remain low until rising labor costs force the Fed to adopt a restrictive stance.

Labor Costs as a percentage of Net Value Added

Labor markets have tightened to some extent, as indicated by the higher trough on the right of the above graph. But this is likely to be slowed by the low participation rate, with potential employees returning to the workforce, and a strong dollar enhancing the attraction of cheap labor in emerging markets.

Hourly earnings growth in the manufacturing sector remains comfortably below the Fed’s 2.0 percent inflation target. Any breakout above this level, however, would be cause for concern. Not only would the Fed be likely to raise interest rates, but profit margins are likely to shrink.

Manufacturing: Hourly Earnings Growth

For the present

None of the macroeconomic and volatility filters that we monitor indicate elevated market risk. I expect them to rise over the next two to three years as the labor market tightens and interest rates increase, but for the present we maintain full exposure to equities.

Are US stocks really over-valued?

Stock Market Capitalization

Let us start with Warren Buffet’s favorite market valuation ratio: stock market capitalization to GDP. I have modified this slightly, replacing GDP with GNP, because the former excludes offshore earnings — a significant factor for multinationals.

US stock market capitalization to GNP

The ratio of stock market capitalization to GNP now exceeds the highs of 2005/2006, suggesting that stocks are over-valued — approaching the heady days of the Dotcom era.

Corporate Profits

If we dig a bit deeper, however, while the ratio of market cap to sales is also high, market cap to corporate profits remains low.

US stock market capitalization to Business Sales and Corporate Profits

Clearly profit margins have widened, with corporate profits increasing at a faster rate than sales. The critical question: is this sustainable?

Sustainability of Profits

At some point profit margins must narrow in response to rising costs. Increases in aggregate demand may lift employment and sales, but also drive up labor costs.

Profits and Labor Costs as a percentage of Net Value Added

The brown line above depicts labor costs as a percentage of net value added, compared to corporate profits (blue) as a percentage of net value added. There is a clear inverse relationship: when labor costs rise, profit margins fall (and vice versa). At first the effect of narrower margins is masked by rising sales, but eventually aggregate profits contract when sales growth slows (gray stripes indicate past recessions).

Interest Rates and Taxes

Other contributing factors to high corporate profits are interest rates and taxes. Corporate profits (% of GNP) have soared over the last 30 years as bond yields have fallen. The benefit is two-fold, with lower interest rates reducing the cost of corporate debt and lower finance costs boosting sales of consumer durables.

Corporate Profits as % of GNP and AAA Bond Yields

Lower effective corporate tax rates (gray) have also contributed to the surge in profits as a percentage of GNP.

US stock market capitalization to GNP

The most enduring of these three factors (labor costs, interest rates, and tax rates) is likely to be taxes. Corporate tax rates have fallen in most jurisdictions and US rates are high by comparison. Even if a long-overdue overhaul of corporate taxation is achieved in the next decade (don’t hold your breath), the overall tax rate is likely to remain low.

If Not Now, When?

The other two factors (labor costs and interest rates) may not be sustainable in the long-term but it will take time for them to normalize.

Treasury yields are rising, with the 10-year at 2.37 percent. Breakout above 3.0 percent still appears some way off, but would confirm the end of the 35-year secular down-trend.

10-Year Treasury Yields Secular Trend

Interest rates are likely to remain low until rising labor costs force the Fed to adopt a restrictive stance.

Labor Costs as a percentage of Net Value Added

Labor markets have tightened to some extent, as indicated by the higher trough on the right of the above graph. But this is likely to be slowed by the low participation rate, with potential employees returning to the workforce, and a strong dollar enhancing the attraction of cheap labor in emerging markets.

Hourly earnings growth in the manufacturing sector remains comfortably below the Fed’s 2.0 percent inflation target. Any breakout above this level, however, would be cause for concern. Not only would the Fed be likely to raise interest rates, but profit margins are likely to shrink.

Manufacturing: Hourly Earnings Growth

For the present

None of the macroeconomic and volatility filters that we monitor indicate elevated market risk. I expect them to rise over the next two to three years as the labor market tightens and interest rates increase, but for the present we maintain full exposure to equities.

US GDP: Where is it headed?

I originally got this from Matt Busigin (I think). Average Hourly Earnings multiplied by Average Weekly Hours (Total Private: Nonfarm) gives a pretty good indication of where GDP is headed, well ahead of the BEA accounts.

Nominal GDP compared to Average Hourly Earnings of All Employees (Total Private) multiplied by Average Weekly Hours (Total Private Nonfarm)

Remember this is nominal GDP, so the latest (April 2015) figure of 4.38% would need to be adjusted for inflation. Inflation is somewhere between 0.5% and 1.75% depending on how you measure it. The GDP deflator looks like it will come in below 1.0% which would leave us with real GDP of at least 3.38% p.a.

GDP Price Deflator compared to Core CPI

Gold, inflation and the Dollar

The (5-year) inflation breakeven (Treasury yield – TIPS) recovered from the oil price fall to post 1.66% on May 8.

5-Year Inflation Breakeven

Growth in average hourly earnings (manufacturing – production and non-supervisory employees) also recovered to 1.49% at the end of April.

Average Hourly Earnings

The stronger inflation outlook lifted the yield on 10-year Treasury notes above resistance at 2.25%. Recovery of 13-week Twiggs Momentum above zero also signals an up-trend. Target for the breakout is 2.65%*. This is a bearish sign for bonds, but only breakout above long-term resistance at 3.00% would signal that the secular bull market is over.

10-Year Treasury Yields

* Target calculation: 2.25 + ( 2.25 – 1.85 ) = 2.65

The Dollar Index found support at 94 in response to rising yields. 13-Week Twiggs Momentum is declining, but recovery above 96 would suggest that the correction is over and another test of 100 likely. Otherwise, expect strong support at the primary trendline around 92.

Dollar Index

Gold

Gold is testing medium-term support at $1180/ounce. Breach would test the primary level at $1140. 13-Week Twiggs Momentum holding below zero suggests continuation of the primary down-trend. Failure of $1140 would test the long-term target of $1000*.

Spot Gold

* Target calculation: 1200 – ( 1400 – 1200 ) = 1000