Retail sales, missing workers and the inflation threat

The October labor report shows hours worked were roughly unchanged from September and still 100K below the pre-pandemic high (5.25m). But GDP of 19.5 trillion is up slightly when compared to 19.2T in Q3 2019, indicating that productivity has improved.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Monthly retail sales for September, on the other hand, were way above trend.

Retail Sales

People are spending Dollars they didn’t earn, courtesy of record government stimulus.

That is one of the primary causes of rising consumer prices (red below): when demand outstrips supply.

Average Hourly Earnings & CPI

A rising CPI in turn causes second run inflation through higher wage demands (green and gray above) if central banks fail to act quickly. They become embedded and difficult to dislodge.

The combined effect of the pandemic and government stimulus has had a profound impact on the US labor market. The economy added 5.8 million jobs in the 10 months to October, at an average of 580K per month. That rate is likely to slow as the economy reopens and enhanced unemployment benefits end.

We are missing 4.2 million employees, compared to the pre-pandemic peak of 152.5m jobs, and seem unlikely to find them, judging by the 10.4 million job openings in September. High levels of job openings are likely to exert continuing upward pressure on wages.

Non-farm Payroll & Job Openings

The missing workers — aided by government handouts — have either retired, quit their jobs to day-trade Tesla and crypto-currencies, or have re-assessed their work-life priorities. No doubt there will be a trickle back to the workforce — as day-traders encounter reversion to the mean and/or savings run low — but the Fed needs to reassess its full employment target. Failure to do so would leave interest rates too low for too long and allow second run inflation to become entrenched. The only way to then dislodge it is with the kind of drastic measures that Paul Volcker used in the early eighties, with the fed funds rate peaking at 20%.

Fed Funds Rate under Paul Volcker

USA: Sales up, daily COVID-19 cases down but jobs still scarce

Daily new COVID-19 cases in the US are clearly falling as the vaccine roll-out takes effect.

USA: COVID-19 Daily Cases

But daily deaths are still rising and may take another few weeks to level off.

USA: COVID-19 Daily Deaths

January payroll figures show the economic recovery has stalled, with total jobs contracting by 6.08% compared to January 2020.

Payroll Growth

Hours worked are down 4.4% compared to last year.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Average hourly earnings jumped 5.44% for production and non-supervisory workers but these are distorted by strong job losses in the lowest pay grades.

Hourly Wage Rates

Retail sales (excluding food) have also been artificially boosted by government stimulus which added roughly 20% to disposable income.

Retail Sales Excluding Food

Light vehicle sales are similarly boosted.

Light Vehicles

While housing starts are climbing in response to record low mortgage rates.

Housing Permits & Starts

Total unemployment claims (state and federal) declined to a still high 17.8 million for the week ended January 16th.

DOL: State & Federal Unemployment Claims

The proposed Biden stimulus will support households and businesses but employment is likely to remain weak until the COVID-19 outbreak is clearly under control.

Conclusion

Economic activity is expected to remain weak in the first half of 2021. A key determinant will be the length of time it takes to bring the COVID-19 outbreak under control. Subsequent recovery is likely to need strong fiscal support, with federal debt expected to grow faster than GDP in 2021. This will require continued Treasury purchases by the Fed and commercial banks, with interest rates remaining low throughout 2021.

Nasdaq: Devil take the hindmost

I am fond off quoting Jesse Livermore’s maxim “You don’t argue with the tape” but Livermore was a keen student of market conditions and based his decisions on far more than just price action in the market.

We are witnessing a spectacular stock market rally, driven by retail investors and hedge funds piling into the market while institutional investors are sitting on the sidelines.

The Nasdaq 100 broke through resistance at 10,000, new highs signaling a fresh primary advance. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow index may warn of selling pressure but it is hard to argue with the tape. Only a fall below 9500 would signal another decline and that seems unlikely at present.

Nasdaq 100

Even retail sales (ex food) have recovered sharply, from -15.3% in April to -1.4% in May (annual % gain).

Retail Sales (ex Food)

Light vehicle sales are more sluggish but June sales of 13.05 million are still a sizable bounce.

Light Vehicle Sales

So why are many old investment hands acting with such caution?

We know that the efforts to contain the COVID19 outbreak are struggling, with over 60,000 new cases per day, but the economy still seems in good shape.

COVID19 Daily Cases

Source JHU CSSE

Let’s look at where the money is coming from.

Federal Debt

Treasury debt has expanded by more than $3 trillion in the last four months (March 9 – July 9) as the government does everything in its power to cushion the economy from an unprecedented shutdown. Rescuing airlines, bailing out Boeing, emergency business loans, job preservation schemes, and supporting Fed purchases of a wide variety of financial assets to keep the plumbing of financial markets open. Every way they can, government has been flooding the market with money and some of that has found its way to the stock market. Whether through boosting stock purchases, enabling companies to raise debt or boosting consumer spending to buoy up sales, the market is flying on borrowed money.

Steep up-trends like this typically end in a blow-off. A trend is self-reinforcing if rising prices attract more investors who in turn bid up prices even further. A steady influx of new investors is required to sustain the trend, else it dies.

Similar self-reinforcing cycles are evident in nature, where they expand violently outward at an exponential rate until they run out of fuel. The fuel driving the event may differ, from dry tinder in a forest fire, warm ocean temperatures in a hurricane, consumable vegetation in a locust plague, …..or exposed population in a virus outbreak. The cycle expands, feeding on itself, until the fuel is exhausted.

A stock market blow-off is no different. The up-trend will continue for as long as rising prices are able to attract new investors. It will stop when the source of new money dries up. In this case, when Treasury tries to slow the unsustainable growth in federal debt. Then it becomes a case of devil-take-the-hindmost as a preponderance of sellers attempt to offload their stocks on a rapidly shrinking pool of buyers.

US Stocks: Bull or Bear?

I have read several commentators proclaiming that the crisis is over and the stock market and US economy are back on track for solid growth. Let’s examine some of the evidence.

The Yield Curve (Bearish)

While the US yield curve has uninverted in the past and yet a recession has still come along, the uninversion seen in recent months coming after such a shallow and short-lived inversion provides confidence that the inversion seen last year gave a false signal…. (Shane Oliver at AMP)

Treasury 10 Year-3 Month Yield Differential

Yield curve inversions seldom last long. For one simple reason: the Fed fires up the printing press to reduce short-term interest rates and boost the economy. The yield curve uninverted before the last three recessions and this time looks no different.

Consumer Confidence (Bullish)

Retail sales kicked up in December, a sign of growing consumer confidence.

Retail excluding Auto

Auto sales are still flat but housing starts have also jumped.

Housing Starts & Permits

Economic Activity (Bearish)

When it comes to economic activity, Cass freight shipments are falling.

Cass Index

Rail freight indicators also point to declining activity levels.

Rail Freight

Employment (Neutral)

Leading employment indicators, such as temporary jobs and job openings, warn that labor market growth is slowing.

Temporary Jobs

Job Openings

But overall payroll growth, albeit subdued is still stable, with the 3-month TMO of non-farm payroll growth respecting the 0.5% amber warning level.

Payroll TMO

Valuations (Bearish)

Last week we compared market cap to profits before tax. This week, we compare to profits after tax. Recent levels above 20 have only previously been exceeded, in the past 60 years, during the Dotcom bubble.

Market Cap/Corporate Profits after Tax

Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan conceded that expansion of the Fed balance sheet is helping to lift asset prices.

Commenting on the Fed’s massive liquidity response to the repo crisis, Kaplan said that “my own view is it’s having some effect on risk assets……It’s a derivative of QE when we buy bills and we inject more liquidity; it affects all risk assets. This is why I say growth in the balance sheet is not free. There is a cost to it. And we need to be very disciplined about it and sensitive to it.”

This is a clear warning to investors to stay on the defensive. We maintain our view that stocks are over-valued and will remain under-weight equities (over-weight cash) until normal earnings multiples are restored.

Warren Buffett is not infallible but the level of cash on Berkshire’s balance sheet seems to indicate a similar view regarding stock valuations.

Berkshire Hathaway Cash Holdings

ASX 200: Don’t argue with the tape

“A prudent speculator never argues with the tape. Markets are never wrong; opinions often are.” ~ Jesse Livermore

The ASX 200 broke resistance at 6800, signaling a fresh advance with a short-term target of 7200. Declining Trend Index peaks still warn of secondary selling pressure at present. Expect retracement to test the new support level at 6800. Respect of support would confirm the advance.

ASX 200

But divergence from fundamentals is growing.

NAB cut their GDP forecast to 1.5% in their November Forward View.

Housing markets in Sydney and Melbourne have recovered somewhat, but building approvals for houses remain 21% below their 2017 high and 57% for apartments. Construction activity is likely to remain low.

Exports are strong, boosted by increased LNG exports, but iron ore prices are falling. Currently testing short-term support at 80, our long-term target for iron ore is $65/metric ton.

Iron Ore

Business investment has slowed, causing wages to stagnate.

Australia: Business Investment

Retail sales weakened as a consequence, contracting for the first time since the early 1990s.

Australia: Retail Sales

Annual credit growth slowed to 2.5%, the lowest since 2010.

Banks were spooked last week by AUSTRAC pursuing Westpac for 19.5 million breaches of anti money-laundering and counter-terrorism regulations. The ASX 300 Banks index broke support at 7600, completing a double-top reversal, but this week they consolidated in a narrow range. Expect retracement to test resistance at 7600. Declining peaks on the Trend Index, however, continue to warn of selling pressure. Respect of resistance would confirm the decline, with a target of 6800.

ASX 300 Banks

The ASX 200 REITs index broke out of its descending triangle, signaling another advance. Financial markets are searching for yield.

ASX 200 REITs

The ASX 300 Metals & Mining index penetrated its descending trendline, suggesting that a base is forming. Expect another test of support at 4100 (neckline of a large head-and-shoulders reversal pattern). Breach would offer a target of 3400. The Trend Index penetrated its descending trendline but a peak near zero would warn of continued selling pressure.

ASX 300 Metals & Mining

We shouldn’t argue with the market but we should wait for confirmation; bull and bear traps are common. Investors, bear in mind that market risk remains elevated. I leave you with this quote from Westpac in their recent credit update:

For businesses, the economic backdrop has become more challenging. The global economy is slowing and household spending is soft. In this environment business investment in the real economy has lost momentum across the non-mining sectors – which will weigh on credit demand.

….and on jobs, wages growth and household spending.

We maintain low exposure to Australian equities, with a focus on defensive and contra-cyclical stocks, because of our bearish outlook.

The high cost of uncertainty

High levels of uncertainty in international trade, geopolitical outlook, and domestic politics in the USA are likely to have a domino effect on business and consumer confidence.

Business is likely to postpone or curtail new investment decisions. This is already evident in a down-turn in new capital formation, along with GDP growth, in the first half of the calendar year.

New Capital Formation

A similar picture is emerging in construction spending.

Construction/GDP

CEO confidence levels are way down.

CEO Confidence Levels

A slow-down in business investment in turn impacts on employment, causing a decline in payroll growth and average weekly hours worked.

Non-farm Payroll Growth and Weekly Hours Worked

Which in turn impacts on consumer sentiment as employees’ anticipation of future earnings declines.

Consumer Sentiment

The feedback loop will be completed if consumption falls. Retail sales dipped sharply in late 2018 but are keeping their head above water.

Retail Sales

And purchases of durables, like light motor vehicles, have leveled off but there is no significant decline so far.

Light Vehicle Sales (Units)

New housing starts and building permits even kicked up in August in response to lower interest rates.

Housing Starts

Consumers have, so far, continued spending but a down-turn in the stock market would weigh heavily on sentiment and consumption.

The S&P 500 broke its rising trendline, indicating a correction. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of secondary selling pressure and a test of support at 2800. Breach of support is by no means certain but would offer a target of 2400.

S&P 500

We have reduced our equity exposure for International Growth to 34% of portfolio value because of our bearish outlook for the global economy.

Hope is not a strategy

Bob Doll’s outlook this week at Nuveen Investments is less bearish than my own:

Trade-related risks seem to be growing. President Trump looks to be holding out hope that the U.S. economy will stay resilient in the face of escalating tariffs and rising tensions. So far, the U.S. economy has not faltered, thanks largely to continued strength in the consumer sector and labor market. But if business confidence crumbles (as it has in parts of Europe), it could lead to serious economic damage…..

The president’s recent actions to delay the implementation of some new tariffs show that he is sensitive to the market impact of his trade policies. But the erratic nature of his on-again, off-again approach adds too policy uncertainty. At this point, we can’t predict the ultimate economic impact from these issues. Our best guess is that the U.S. remains more than a year away from the next recession, but risks are rising. In addition to the solid consumer sector, we don’t see financial stress in the system. Liquidity is still broadly available, and fixed income credit spreads are generally stable outside of the energy sector.

With additional Federal Reserve rate cuts already priced into the markets and bond yields falling sharply, the only catalyst for better equity market performance could be improving global economic data. We hold out hope that the global economy will improve, and still think there is a better-than-even chance of manufacturing activity and export levels to grow. But those improvements will take some time, suggesting equities will remain volatile and vulnerable for now.

Where we seem to differ is on the inevitability of the US-China trade war escalating into full-blown disengagement. This week’s events have not helped.

China’s national English language newspaper, Global Times, under the People’s Daily, announced new tariffs.

Global Times

Followed by an admission that the timing of the announcement was intended to cause maximum disruption to US stock markets.

Global Times

The inevitable Twitter tantrum ensued.

Donald Trump

The President also tweeted “Now the Fed can show their stuff!”

He is deluded if he thinks that the Fed can help him here. The best response would be announcement of a major infrastructure program (not a wall on the Mexican border). Otherwise business confidence will decline due to the increased uncertainty. Business investment will contract as a result and slow employment growth.

Retail sales have shown signs of recovery in recent months but will decline if consumer confidence erodes.

Retail Sales

Especially consumer durables such as light motor vehicles and housing.

Consumer Durables Production

The global economy is already contracting, as indicated by falling crude oil

Nymex Light Crude

…and commodity prices.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

Volatility (21-Day) is rising as the S&P 500 tests support at 2840. Breach is likely and would test primary support at 2750.

S&P 500 Volatility

Bearish divergence (13-Week Money Flow) on both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 (below) warn of selling pressure. The Nasdaq 100 is likely to test primary support at 7000.

Nasdaq 100

The Russell 2000 Small Caps ETF (IWM) is testing primary support at 146. Follow through below 145 is likely and would signal a primary down-trend.

Russell 2000 Small Caps ETF

Fedex breach of support at 150 would also warn of a primary down-trend and slowing activity in the US economy.

Fedex (FDX)

We maintain our bearish outlook and have reduced equity exposure for international stocks to 40% of portfolio value because of elevated risk in the global economy.

Still cautious

Inflationary pressures are easing, with average hourly earnings growth declining to 3.35% in June, for Production and Non-Supervisory Employees, and 3.14% for Total Private sector.

Average Wage Rates

But this warns that economic growth is slowing. Annual growth in hours worked has slowed to 1.25%, suggesting a similar decline in GDP growth for the second quarter.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

Jobs growth held steady at 1.5% for the 12 months ended June 2019, after a decline from 2.0% in January.

Payroll Growth

Further decline in jobs growth is likely in the months ahead and a fall below 1.0% would warn that recession is imminent.

The Case Shiller index warns that growth in housing prices is slowing.

Case Shiller Index

Growth in construction expenditure (adjusted for inflation) has stalled.

Construction Expenditure/CPI

Retail sales growth is faltering.

Retail Sales

Units of light vehicle sales has stalled.

Light Vehicle Sales

And capital goods orders (adjusted for inflation) are faltering.

Manufacturers Orders for Capital Goods

One of the few bright spots is corporate bond spreads — the difference between lowest investment grade (Baa) and equivalent Treasury yields — still low at 2.3%, indicating that credit risk is benign.

Corporate Bond spreads

The S&P 500 broke through 2950 and is testing 3000. The 3000 level is an important watershed, double the 2000 and 2007 highs at 1500 (1552 and 1576 to be exact), and I expect strong resistance.

S&P 500

A rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure but this seems to be mainly stock repurchases and institutional buying. Retail money, as indicated by investment flows into ETFs, favors fixed income over equities despite the low yields.

ETF Flows source: ETF.com

It’s still a good time to be cautious.

The prevailing wisdom is that markets are always right. I take the opposite position. I assume that markets are always wrong……I watch out for telltale signs that a trend may be exhausted. Then I disengage from the herd and look for a different investment thesis. Or, if I think the trend has been carried to excess, I may probe going against it. Most of the time we are punished if we go against the trend. Only at an inflection point are we rewarded.

~ George Soros

China holds its head above water

A quick snapshot from the latest RBA chart pack.

Manufacturing is holding its head above water (50 on the PMI chart) and industrial production shows a small upturn but investment growth is falling, as in many global economies including the US and Australia. Retail sales growth has declined but remains healthy at 10% a year.

China

Electricity generation continues to climb but steel, cement and plate glass production all warn that real estate and infrastructure development are slowing.

China

Interest rates remain accommodative.

China

Real estate price growth is slowing but remains an unhealthy 10% a year. Real estate development investment rallied in response to lower interest rates but is clearly in a long-term decline.

China

There are no signs of an economy in immediate trouble but there are indications that the real estate and infrastructure boom may be ending. Through a combination of fiscal stimulus and accommodative monetary policy the Chinese have managed to stave off a capitalism-style correction. But failure to clear some of the excesses of the past decade will mean that the inevitable correction, when it does come, is likely to display familiar Asian severity (Japan 1992, Asian Crisis 1997).

US Retail & Light Vehicle Sales slow

Retail sales growth (excluding motor vehicles and parts) slowed to 2.4% over the 12 months to June 2017.

Retail Sales ex Motor Vehicles & Parts

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

Seasonally adjusted light vehicle sales are also slowing.

Light Vehicle Sales

Source: St Louis Fed & BEA

Seasonally adjusted private housing starts and new building permits are starting to lose momentum.

Housing Starts & Permits

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

The good news is that Manufacturer’s Durable Goods Orders (seasonally adjusted and ex Defense & Aircraft) are recovering.

Manufacturing Durable Goods Orders ex Defense & Aircraft

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

Cement and concrete production continues to trend upwards.

Cement & Concrete Production

Source: US Fed

And estimated weekly hours worked (total nonfarm payroll * average weekly hours) is growing steadily.

Estimated Weekly Hours Worked

Source: St Louis Fed & BLS

All of which suggest that business confidence is growing and consumer confidence is likely to follow. Bellwether transport stock Fedex advanced to 220, signaling rising economic activity in the broader economy.

Fedex

Target: 180 + ( 180 – 120 ) = 240

The S&P 500 broke resistance at 2450, making a new high. Narrow consolidations and shallow corrections all signal investor confidence typical of the latter stages of a bull market. The immediate target is 2500* but further gains are likely.

S&P 500

Target: 2400 + ( 2400 – 2300 ) = 2500

The stock market remains an exceptionally efficient mechanism for the transfer of wealth from the impatient to the patient.

~ Warren Buffett