Economics

Santa Will Come! – Strong Back-To-School Sales an Indicator for Holiday Season

October 20, 2011
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Santa Will Come! – Strong Back-To-School Sales an Indicator for Holiday Season

The back to school season was surprisingly resilient in August and September. We now have the full set of retail sales data available from company same store sales, the Johnson Redbook Survey, and Census retail sales. The back-to-school season varies by region and by state as school start dates aren’t uniform. Further complicating analysis is that some states offer tax-free shopping holidays which also have a variety of start dates and durations. In order to conduct a valid study, I looked at retail sales strength over the entire August-September period and correlated this to sales strength in the November-December period. I looked at all data in terms of y/y growth rates because this is what drives corporate earnings growth and expense leverage. The results are rather conclusive – with...

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Analysis of the Fed Minutes – Dovish Tone Remains

October 12, 2011
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Analysis of the Fed Minutes – Dovish Tone Remains

The Fed minutes released today at 2:00pm didn’t provide anything that was too much of a surprise. The general impression I felt after reading the 12 pages was that the Fed remains exceptionally dovish. Economic growth, while not rolling-over, remains disappointing, so the Fed is looking to remain accommodative. Inflation was discussed in dovish terms. Early in the minutes, it’s mentioned that consumer prices appeared to have moderated since earlier in the year. Later in the minutes, the statements go further mentioning that participants agreed that inflation had moderated, though not as substantial as some participants had expected, and that inflation was expected to decline moderately over time. The possibility of QE3 was mentioned early on and “a number of participants” were considering this as a policy option. In...

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US Economy Demonstrates Resiliency – Retailer Comp Sales Strengthen in September

October 6, 2011
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US Economy Demonstrates Resiliency – Retailer Comp Sales Strengthen in September

Despite massive uncertainty stemming from the manner in which Europe is handling its financial crisis, a gut wrenching stock market sell-off (the S&P 500 was down 7.2% last month), negative headlines almost every day, and predictions towards the end of the month that the US economy is now “in a recession”, the US consumer continues to spend at a healthy rate. Perhaps the savings rate is now high enough at 5% which is leading to more stability in retail sales than many predict. Stability with the growth rate of retail sales is one of the most important inputs towards GDP growth. With personal consumption expenditures as a % of GDP still above 70%, a 4% growth rate in PCE makes it all but impossible to be in a recession....

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Excesses Cause Recession – A Comparison of 2008 and 2011

October 4, 2011
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Excesses Cause Recession – A Comparison of 2008 and 2011

Recessions are typically caused by some sort of an excess. Real economic activity stretches too far and the subsequent unwind causes a retrenchment via a sudden and abrupt change in business and household behavior. There have been a number of excesses that have built up in the global economy over the past couple of decades. Japan had a speculative bubble in terms of corporate borrowing and real estate investment at stratospheric prices in the late 1980s. The US and world saw a technology driven CAPEX boom in 1999-2000 which was unsustainable, and created the lead-in to the 2001 recession. 2008 saw the culmination of two decades of loose credit expansion which fed into the US housing market bubble. Ex-post the cause of the retrenchment is often clear. Today, most...

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Strong Labor Market Data Point – Unemployment Claims Solid Despite Department of Labor Explanation

September 29, 2011
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Strong Labor Market Data Point – Unemployment Claims Solid Despite Department of Labor Explanation

In a curious press release, the Department of Labor came out this morning and highlighted some atypical calendar alignments for the unemployment claims data which make it more difficult for the government to adjust the not seasonally adjusted claims data for seasonal changes. As a result, the seasonally adjusted claims data fell by 37k to 391,000 claims which would be the best data since the first week of April. The Labor Department mentioned that the seasonal adjustment in claims heading into the last week of a quarter typically look for a drop in the raw data. This year’s data were expected to rise slightly, so the pre-released seasonal adjustment factor was set to revise the claims data lower. In actuality, raw claims came in without any abnormal increase and...

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Refinancing Activity Hits New Highs – Conditions now in Place for the Housing Market to Turn

September 28, 2011
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Refinancing Activity Hits New Highs – Conditions now in Place for the Housing Market to Turn

Reports have recently been popping up that 30-year fixed mortgage rates in the US have approached 4%. This is a new low for the cycle. Much of the analysis I have read regarding mortgage rates is that they do not matter. The rational goes something like this: since mortgage rates have come down from the time of the financial crisis, and since housing activity and home prices haven’t picked up, mortgage rates don’t matter. The arguments go on to state that not enough people can refinance because of the broken and bogged down mortgage financing system in the US, and the issues with banks. I think this argument is wrong and that the housing market would be much worse than it is now with higher rates, therefore lower rates...

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Operation Twist – What the Fed May Announce Today and the Implications

September 21, 2011
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Operation Twist – What the Fed May Announce Today and the Implications

The Federal Reserve is likely to announce additional easing measures at the conclusion of the two-day Fed meeting today. Additional easing is anticipated by the market but there are a number of uncertainties related to the scope of what the Fed will implement. The most focused on initiative is called “Operation Twist” which is jargon for selling shorter-term Treasury note holdings (which are yielding a number of basis points which can be counted on one hand) and reinvesting the proceeds out the maturity curve. The action has the effect of increasing the duration of the Fed’s treasury holdings and effectively taking duration out of the market. The System Open Market Account (SOMA) is the account where Fed purchased securities reside. It has been estimated by Brian Sack’s New York...

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Flow of Funds Household Net Worth – US Making Progress

September 19, 2011
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Flow of Funds Household Net Worth – US Making Progress

On Friday, the Federal Reserve Board released the quarterly Flow of Funds data which measure the US household sector’s assets, liabilities, and net worth. The data are released with a lag as we just received Q2 measurements, two and a half months after the calendar quarter came to a close. While the level of net worth declined very slightly from Q1 to Q2 (25 basis points) the y/y growth rate in net worth (wealth) actually accelerated from up 5.9% in Q1 to up 8.1% in Q2. 8.1% growth rates are not sustainable nor do they need to be. The strong growth rate in the second quarter is a function of depressed markets in last year’s second quarter coupled with a market rally in June 2011. The market is already...

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Charles Evans Dual Mandate Responsibilities Speech – Goes Too Far

September 8, 2011
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Charles Evans Dual Mandate Responsibilities Speech – Goes Too Far

Yesterday, Charles Evans who is the ninth president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and a voting member on the FOMC, gave a speech at the European Economics and Financial Center in London. This speech goes too far with starting to push the Fed towards more stimulus as the returns from additional stimulus diminish. The debate revolving around additional Federal Reserve accommodation also made its way to the WSJ this morning. I believe that the economy is actually much stronger than is being presented by the media. Yes the unemployment rate is 9%+ and it has been tough to work it down, but the Fed can do little at this point to actually create jobs. The incremental returns from additional monetary stimulus aren’t needed and become risky with...

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Eurozone Breakup – Implications for Financial Markets are Disastrous

September 6, 2011
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Eurozone Breakup – Implications for Financial Markets are Disastrous

Over Labor Day weekend we saw an unfortunate breakdown in Europe’s approach, strategy, and near-term ability to avoid a financial crisis. In the Mecklenburg Western Pomerian state (along the coast of the Baltic Sea), Germans voted against the Christian Democratic Union which is a repudiation of Angela Merkel’s support and commitment to the Eurozone. I’ll start out by saying that an all-out breakup of the Euro would be disastrous for the global economy and for financial markets. At a minimum, the world would go back into recession with a dire scenario being a redux of the financial crisis. If this were to happen there would be a rush to get to the sidelines quickly and heavy selling in all types of risk assets. As a result of the very...

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Why Can’t We Create Jobs?

September 2, 2011
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Why Can’t We Create Jobs?

I’ve been holding a constructive view on the economy and markets for a number of reasons. The economy isn’t as soft as has been presented and market valuations are extremely low for a non-recessionary environment (if that is indeed the environment we are in). Today’s Employment Report was downright ugly. Being constructive, I could search for some of the glimmers within the guts of the report such as the household survey’s 331k new jobs or that the employment-population ratio ticked up slightly. This is a stretch though, and the report was clearly a disappointment because in normal cycles of economic recovery we “re-create” jobs which are lost during recessions. I believe the primary reasons the job market has been in a funk, where it is stable, but not creating...

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Redbook Chain Store Sales Remain Strong – Don’t Indicate Slowdown

August 30, 2011
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Redbook Chain Store Sales Remain Strong – Don’t Indicate Slowdown

There has been considerable airplay relating to the “near recessionary” levels of many economic indicators in August. Readings for consumer confidence, economic optimism, and Fed Surveys from Philadelphia, New York, and Richmond have all contracted. These items have led many economists and forecasters to predict a sharp downturn in ISM (released Thursday), and have led to reductions in GDP estimates for the full year. I don’t believe it is being Pollyannaish to want to see some of the severe weakness in actual measured data (as opposed to weakness in survey data). The two series I am keying on to see signals of a “roll-over” in the economy are initial unemployment claims and higher frequency retail sales (from Redbook and ICSC –yes which are surveys – and from companies which...

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