All posts by joel

December Industrial Production, January Home Builders Index and 4th Quarter Workforce Vitality Index

KEY DATA: IP: +0.9%; Manufacturing: +0.1%/ NAHB: down 2 points/ Vitality Index (Over-Year): +4.0%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The energy-sector rebound is helping accelerate the economy.”

WHAT IT MEANS: In 2015, the economy expanded at a very strong 2.9%. But conditions faded in 2016, with growth coming in at a tepid 1.5%. What was one of the biggest reasons for the slowdown? The collapse of energy prices and the energy sector!   Well, conditions changed last year and the energy sector is now leading the way again. Industrial production surged in December, and for the year as a whole, but not because of manufacturing. Manufacturing activity ticked up minimally in the last month of the year. There was no consistency in the sector, with almost as many industries posting large declines as those showing solid gains. For the year, manufacturing was up a solid, but not spectacular 2.4%. On the other hand, the mining sector surged in December and was up double-digits over the year. The large rise was driven by a 40% rise in oil and gas drilling for the year. With energy prices continuing to increase, I expect that the energy industry will help lead the way again this year.  However, the vehicle sector, which was largely stagnant in 2017, may see both lower sales and output.

Homebuilders have been ecstatic about conditions lately and that really didn’t change despite a decline in the National Association of Home Builders’ Index in January.   The level is very high and has rarely been seen except at the peak of both the and housing bubbles. I am not saying that we are in another bubble, just that you have to have really good economic conditions for developers to feel this euphoric.

ADP’s Workforce Vitality Index was up again in the fourth quarter, which should surprise no one. This report is worth following because it is one of the more comprehensive reports on wage gains we have. It breaks down wage changes by region, industry, age of worker, tenure in job, company size, by full-time vs. part-time and whether workers switched jobs or held them. Obviously, it is too extensive to easily summarize, but it can be said that wage gains are accelerating, especially in the resource and mining and hospitality and leisure industries. Job switchers are doing better than job holders and that has led to a further rise in the turnover rate. It is now over 50% in leisure and hospitality. If firms want to hire stable workers, they should look to those over 55, not those under 35. Of course, that is not what they do, but that is a topic for another commentary.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Today’s reports really don’t change much for anyone. We are in earnings season. Investors are either going to love a lot, or a love a lot more, the earnings report. It will likely take a lot of terrible reports to get the animal instincts under control. And the data are not so strong as to cause any of the Fed members to rethink their views on rate hikes. Sometime this month the Senate will confirm Jerome Powell as the next Fed Chair, but that is a formality. Right now, doing something that is largely noncontroversial is not something most Senators want to do. Instead, they will focus on how to keep the government running. The supposedly World’s Greatest Deliberative Body has devolved into a Tower of Partisan Babel, so what will happen is anyone’s guess.

December Producer Prices and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: PPI: -0.1%; Goods: 0%; Services: -0.2%/ Claims+11,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “Falling food and trade costs are helping keep producer expenses under control.”

WHAT IT MEANS: With the 10-year Treasury note approaching levels rarely seen in the past 3½ years, questions are being raised about how high it will go over the next year. Implementing expansionary fiscal policy when the economy is growing decently and the labor market is tight is a risky experiment, as it raises the risk that inflation could accelerate faster than expected. But those effects are not likely to be seen right away since it could take months before the tax cuts make much of a difference in consumption. It actually has to show up in paychecks and then be spent. Until that happens, we have to watch leading indicators of consumer prices and the Producer Price Index is one of them.

Wholesale costs fell in December, led by a sharp decline in food prices. I am not sure what is going, but the drop was broad based as thirteen of the twenty food sectors posted declines. I expect that drop will be reversed pretty quickly. Energy costs were flat and we know that oil prices have surged lately. On the services side, trade costs cratered. I suspect that the decline was overdone, but wholesale and retail services are likely to remain well contained for a long time. However, transport costs are likely to keep surging. Basically, this report, while looking tame for now, could look a lot different next month. And going forward, don’t be surprised if producer prices keep trending upward as intermediate prices are rising more strongly than finished goods and services prices. There are cost pressures building in the pipeline.

New claims for unemployment insurance jumped last week and the trend is slightly upward. That is strange given all the other data on layoffs. In addition, the number of claims was up compared to last year. They had been down over the year for about eight years. It is too soon to say a trend is developing, but it is worth watching.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Energy costs are rising, but there doesn’t appear to be any major, widespread acceleration in producer prices. Indeed, the tax breaks should provide an earnings cushion so businesses have the capacity to limit price increases even if expenses rise. Thus, it is hard to see that inflation will soar anytime soon. But pressures are building and stronger growth will only exacerbate the problem. I do think that consumer inflation will hit the Fed’s 2% target by mid-year and start consistently exceeding it during the second half of the year. But until that happens, the Fed has some room to allow prices to rise. As for investors, any excuse to keep the rally going will be used and now that we are in earnings season, there may be lots of reasons for equities to do well. I expect that fourth quarter earnings were strong.

December Small Business Optimism and November JOLTS report

KEY DATA: NFIB Index: -2.6 points/ Job Openings: -46,000; Hires: -104,000; Quits: -13,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “Despite a modest decline in optimism, small business owners remain exuberant and that should lead to greater job growth, if they can find the workers.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Small is good, at least when it comes to job creation, so near record levels of small businesses optimism is something to celebrate. Yes, the National Federation of Independent Businesses Small Business Optimism index did recede in December, but it remained near record highs. That was reached right after the Reagan tax cuts were passed, so you can probably say that small business owners are big on tax cuts. They would like to hire more workers, but they continue to be constrained by the lack of qualified workers, especially in construction and manufacturing. What is interesting in the report was the difference between actual conditions and optimism. Earnings growth is slowing, sales are moderating and costs, especially wages and compensation, are rising. Yet there is optimism about future sales. Owners are making plans to hire more workers, yet 54% of the respondents said they could find few or no qualified applicants. As for capital spending, there has yet to be a surge in plans to invest.

The lack of workers that small businesses are finding is a universal issue. While the number of job openings eased in November, it remained extremely high. It is likely the slowdown in hiring is due to the lack of labor turnover. Despite what appears to be an employee market, workers are just not quitting their jobs and making themselves available to the highest bidder. On top of that, the rate of layoffs and discharges is almost at an historic low. There is just no churn in the market and that is restricting the ability of companies to find “qualified” workers.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Over the next few months, workers will start seeing their paychecks boosted by the tax changes. For some it will be minimal but for many it may be enough to generate stronger spending. Meanwhile, businesses will be making plans for the surge in after-tax earnings that will be staying in their bank accounts. We are seeing a variety of announced plans, ranging from workers bonuses to massive stock buybacks. What is likely coming is a flood of mergers and acquisitions. In a perverse way, that may be good for the labor market as lots of workers will lose their jobs, adding to supply. It is going to take a long time for the effects and consequences, intended or not, of the tax changes to become clear. Until then, the exuberant investor will likely remain that way. As for the Fed, it looks like it still is all about inflation or expected inflation. I suspect it will take an extended period of above target price increases to get the Fed to tighten as many as three to four times this year. But that is not out of the question. My forecast of at least three moves last year won me lunch and I am betting another lunch on four moves this year.

December Jobs Report and November Trade Deficit

KEY DATA: Payrolls: +148,000; Private: +146,000; Revisions: -9,000; U-Rate: 4.1% (Unchanged); Wages: +0.3%/ Trade Deficit: $1.6 billion wider

IN A NUTSHELL: “While the headline job gain number may have disappointed, the average over the last three months was still very strong.”

WHAT IT MEANS: We are starting to get the final 2017 data with the first big one being the jobs numbers. To many, the 148,000 jobs created was a disappointment. But this is a classic example of why you need to understand the pattern of the data, not just look at headline number. Yes, there were fewer positions added than many had forecast, but the jobs numbers are volatile. Over the last three months, an average of 204,000 new positions were created. That is very strong job growth that is likely not sustainable. In December, the job gains were led not just by health care, but also by robust increases in construction and manufacturing. These sectors are helping carry the load and show that the fundamental economy is in good shape. They also offset a large decline in the faltering retail sector.

A second reason to be confident about the economy is the unemployment rate, which remained at an extremely low 4.1%. As a result, wage increases are picking up. The 2.5% increase over the year may not be as high as most workers would like, but it is getting there. The stable participation rate is also a good sign. It is likely that a growing number of people are entering the workforce as to offset the rising boomer retirement rate. Still, with the labor force expanding at a modest 0.5% pace over the year, it will be hard to maintain strong job and economic growth for a sustained period.


While the trade deficit widened again in November, it did so for all the right reasons. The world economy is finally in synch and that means we have growing markets across the world. Exports expanded solidly with every major category posting gains. The rise was not simply due to increasing petroleum prices. But the strong U.S. economy is also sucking in goods from the far corners of the world and as is usually the case, doing so faster than we can sell to foreigners. The only category of imports that was down was food.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Supposedly, there is a vast army of potential workers sitting around who have skills, who can pass drug and background checks and who want to work. If you believe that, I am selling even more shares in my next Broadway show. The idea that the “animal spirits” will cause job growth to soar would make sense if there weren’t a shortage of workers already. Unless companies are making up the story that their biggest problem is finding qualified workers, we are not likely to see the hoped-for 200,000 or more job gains per month. Firms are already laying few people off so they may have to find ways to keep people from retiring or quitting. That can only be done by making it worth the workers’ while to stay on. In other words, by paying up. To the extent bonuses are used and that doesn’t show up in average hourly wages, we may be looking at bad wage data. So, watch the quarterly Employment Cost Index, which next comes out on January 31st. That does a little better job at getting at total compensation. This is important because it is clear from the latest Fed minutes that there is a schism at the Fed over how much to raise rates this year. Accelerating labor compensation costs would worry even the doves at the Fed. So, don’t assume the less than expected headline job growth number will be a moderating factor in Fed rate hike thinking.

December Private Sector Jobs, Layoff Notices and Weekly Unemployment Claims

KEY DATA: ADP: +250,000/ Layoffs: 32,423/ Claims: +3,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “If this is not a tight labor market, I don’t know what is.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Tomorrow is employment Friday and it will provide us with another reading not just on job gains but also on wages. But first we need to see if demand for workers is holding up and it looks like that is the case. ADP’s reading on private sector job gains for December came in well above expectations. The increases were robust in both small and mid-sized business, while larger firms added jobs solidly. Looking across industries, only the information services sector posted a decline. Construction, manufacturing, professional and business services, trade and health care all added lots of new workers. In other words, the labor market is in great shape.

A clear indicator of how tight the labor markets are is the Challenger, Gray and Christmas job cut report. December layoff notices were modest and the total for the year was down by over 20% from the 2016 pace to the lowest level since 1990. Helping out was the rise in energy prices and the energy sector’s stability accounted for almost 90% of the difference in layoff notices over the year.

Jobless claims edged up last week and the level is a touch elevated. That is odd given the lack of job cuts and the high demand for workers. Still, when adjusted for the size of the labor force, the level remains quite low. Firms are simply not cutting their workforces.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The Fed members have been puzzling over whether the labor market is at or near full employment. The extent of slack, if there is any, is critical because more rapidly rising wages would put pressure on prices, forcing the FOMC to hike interest rate faster and greater than the markets expect. Well, the data seem to indicate the labor market is really tight. Layoff notices are near record lows, as are unemployment claims. The need to hold on to their workers is also helping the job growth numbers. Keep in mind, monthly employment changes are the difference between payroll increases and decreases and those can occur for any reason, including hiring, firing, business births or business deaths. When the job cut numbers are low, it allows for the job increases to be higher as it reduces the number of people looking for jobs as well as job openings. Think of what the job openings would be if firms were more aggressive in their firings. I would be surprised if tomorrow’s report shows anything near what ADP says were the job gains, but it should be a good report nonetheless. But I will be watching the unemployment rate and hourly wage data. If the rate declines and wages rise faster, which is likely, the Fed is going to start worrying about wage inflation. Jerome Powell may not be taking over with the same level problems that either Ben Bernanke of Janet Yellen faced when they assumed the Fed’s reins, but he still could be in for a very difficult time. The markets are not expecting more than a couple of rate hikes this year but more and more economists, including myself, think that there will be at least three and possibly even four. Investors have been looking past interest rate moves. They didn’t expect the three we got last year but passed them off as irrelevant. If we get another three or four this year, will they continue to be so bullish?

December Supply Managers Manufacturing Survey, Help Wanted OnLine and November Construction

KEY DATA: ISM (Manufacturing): +1.5 points; Orders: +5.4 points/ HWOL: +229,700/ Construction: +0.8%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The economy carried a lot of momentum into 2018 and that growth will be boosted by the tax cuts.”

WHAT IT MEANS: It is shaping up to be a very good year. The data for the December are starting to come in and they look really good. The Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index rose nicely, driven by a strong gain in new orders. Both export and import demand were up solidly. With orders rising, production expanded at an accelerated pace. The only negative, if it really is one, was a deceleration in the pace of job gains. Still, manufacturing firms are hiring at a solid pace and the growing order books should lead to even better payroll increases going forward.

The Conference Board’s measure of online job ads rose in December. There had been a nearly two year decline in want ads, but that started turning around in the spring. It looks like the pattern is clearly up again. Geographically, the increases were in almost every state and all metro areas reported. Eight of the ten occupations also showed increases in online advertisements. With unemployment falling and advertising rising, the pressure on firms to find qualified workers is high and worsening.

Construction activity continues to soar as well. The value of new construction jumped in November with private activity leading the way. Both residential and nonresidential building rose solidly. The increase in office and commercial building points to growing confidence in the staying power of the expansion.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The economy is in really good shape. It is hard to find a sector that is weak. Even vehicle sales, which were expected to slow in December, appear to have come in at a very strong pace, possibly the second highest of the year. That implies fourth quarter growth should be in the 3% range and could exceed it. And once the tax cuts start hitting worker paychecks, we could see some acceleration in demand. Meanwhile, companies will have to figure out what to do with their large increases in profits that were created by the tax reductions. How they spend that largesse will determine the extent to which the economy grows this year. Will they be put to good use by funding capital spending or will they be squandered on stock buybacks and dividend increases, which increase stock prices but not productive capacity or efficiency? How much goes to workers versus executives or owners of capital will also determine the extent to which consumer demand rises. However that works out, growth should be in the 3% range this year and maybe greater. But as I like to say, no good deed goes unpunished. That pace of growth would drive the unemployment rate down below 4% and by year’s end, the 50-year low of 3.4% could be in sight. If that doesn’t raise wages, nothing will. And if that happens, the Fed will be raising rates more than expected. But for now, let’s enjoy the strong economic numbers, which should help keep investors quite happy.

November Consumer Spending and Income, Durable Goods Orders, New Home Sales and December Consumer Sentiment

KEY DATA: Consumption: +0.6%; Disposable Income: +0.4%; Prices: +0.2%/ Orders: +1.3%; Excluding Aircraft: +0.5%/ Home Sales: +17.5%/ Sentiment: -2.6 points

IN A NUTSHELL: “The economy may be booming along but households are just not so certain about the future.”

WHAT IT MEANS: It’s a data dump day and we sure got a lot of them – and almost everyone was really good. First, it looks like consumers hit the stores and websites really hard in November as consumption rose solidly. This was not a month where soaring vehicle sales drove things. Indeed, durable goods spending was flat. Demand for nondurables and services soared, though. Can households keep it up? I am not sure. Disposable income did increase solidly, driven by a good but not great rise in wages and salaries. But what troubles me, and it has for several months now, is the savings rate. It fell again, dropping to 2.9%. Except during the insane housing craze, this rate was never seen. That raises real questions about the sustainability of consumer spending, even with tax cuts coming next year. As for prices, they rose moderately, but excluding food and energy they were up just a touch. Over the year, the increase remains below the Fed’s 2% target.

After investing like crazy businesses took a wait and see attitude in November. Private sector capital spending fell slightly. Nevertheless, it was still 5.1% above the November 2016 level, which clearly indicates that the investment slump is over. The tax bill will only add to the spending, though it is hard to know when and by how much.

All week we have been getting really good housing numbers. Today we got a great one. New home sales, which had been floundering, skyrocketed in November to the highest level since July 2007. The increases were strong in every region but it was the West where the gain was really outsized: Sales rose by 31% there. The supply of homes is exceedingly low and that should trigger even more construction.

Despite all the great economic data, the passage of a tax bill and the exuberant spending, consumer sentiment fell in December. Though the University of Michigan’s index eased, it remained at a very high level. Respondents are very happy about current conditions. It is the future they are somewhat less confident about.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The run of strong economic numbers clearly indicates the economy is in great shape. There are few major imbalances, save the issue with consumer spending. Keep in mind, the tax cuts are heavily loaded toward the top end of the income ladder, with lower income households getting little and middle income families seeing only moderate cuts. Yet that may work to the economy’s advantage. Without any major windfall, most of the tax breaks that go to the lower and middle-income groups should be spent. That could support spending even if wage gains don’t accelerate significantly. While some large firms have announced bonuses and/or wage increases, small and most mid-sized businesses don’t have the wherewithal to do that. Between seventy-five and eighty percent of all private sector jobs are in small to mid-sized businesses. That means the bonus/minimum wage announcements make for good PR but not necessarily strong income gains for workers. And it is wage increases that really matter. Let’s hope the added growth that should derive from the tax cuts will force companies of all sizes to increase worker incomes. If that happens, the economy could really boom.

Happy Holidays!

Revised 3rd Quarter GDP, December Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Index, November Leading Indicators, October Home Prices and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: GDP: 3.2% (down 0.1 percentage point)/ Phila. Fed: +3.5 points/ LEI: +0.4%/ Home Prices (Over-Year): +6.6%/ Claims: +20,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “There seems to be no end to the strong data.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Another day of numbers, another round of strong data. The second revision to third quarter GDP showed basically the same growth rate that had been seen in the previous two iterations. That is really a surprise. There is normally a great set of changes as a broader sample of data come in. The changes were relatively modest, though there was a somewhat larger downward change to the gross domestic income measure. That seems to indicate that income growth is not quite as solid as the goods and services measure. Regardless, this was the second consecutive above-3% growth pace and it is consistent with the other data that are showing the economy is accelerating.

Will this strong growth continue? Even without the tax bill, there was every reason to think growth could hold up, at least for a while. The Philadelphia Fed’s early December reading of Mid-Atlantic manufacturing improved quite solidly. Importantly, confidence rose, most likely driven by a pick up in new orders. This area doesn’t have a lot of manufacturing, but the index does give us some insight into national trends and it is fair to say the sector is accelerating.

A second sign of strong future growth comes from the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index, which rose again in November. The solid increase came on top of a huge, hurricane recovery increase posted in October. It is telling us that growth could accelerate over the next six months.

And then there is housing. The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s Home Price Index popped in October, mirroring the other home prices measures we have seen. The beleaguered Middle Atlantic region has finally joined the party, but the West Coast is where prices are simply soaring out of sight. In that area, we are probably in bubble mode.

Finally, there was a surge in unemployment claims last week. But that was on top of one of the lowest readings we have seen, so there is nothing to made of the jump. The labor market is tight.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The year is ending on a high note. Growth is strong almost across the board. The impacts of the tax bill will not likely be seen before mid-year 2018 as the lower taxes show up in weekly paychecks, not all at once. Yes, some companies are giving out bonuses, but those only temporarily increase spending power. They look big, but for companies making billions, it is not a lot. Unless the bonuses are more widespread, they are not likely to do much for personal income. But raising the minimum wage does add to costs and income growth on a continuing basis. We need a lot more companies announcing that they are raising their minimum wage before we can conclude that spending will rise more solidly than it has been. Forecasts of 2018 growth are coming in and they range from about 2.5% to 3.5%. Oddly, I am pretty much in the middle, at 2.9%. I don’t usually wind up at consensus but that is where I am. In other words, next year is shaping up to be a really good one and it may even exceed the 2015 growth rate of 2.9%.

November Existing Home Sales

KEY DATA: Sales: +5.6%; Inventory (Over-Year): -9.7%; Median Prices (Over-Year): +5.8%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Strong sales and a scarcity of inventory are causing home prices to soar.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Yesterday we saw that new home sales were on the rise and today we got a similar result from the existing home data. The National Association of Realtors reported that home sales jumped in November after increasing solidly in October. The sales pace was the highest since December 2006. Sales were strong in three of the four regions with only the West posting a small decline. The robust sales pace is exceeding the number of homes being brought onto the market. As a result, inventories have fallen to levels that are almost half what they should be, given the sales pace. That has caused prices to surge. There is little doubt that prices will continue to increase sharply as there are no signs people are changing their minds about selling their homes.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: This was a really strong report that indicates the housing market has pretty much wiped out all the losses, in terms of both sales and prices, which occurred as a result of the housing bubble bursting. But that doesn’t mean there are no issues. The percent of homes bought by first time buyers is falling as the rising prices make it harder afford even an entry-level house. The tax bill, if it increases growth even a little bit, could lead to higher inflation and rising interest rates. This would also pressure the market. And the reduced deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest could pressure prices in high cost states. Nevertheless, it is a good sign that the demand is strong and likely to support further sales gains as well as additional home construction. As for investors, now that the tax bill is done, they will have to actually see better growth or the valuations that may have been made on the basis of a stronger economy could prove to be questionable. Remember, once the corporate tax cuts are recognized, firms have to increase earnings from that higher level. And that will only happen if they actually expand their top line. Taxes hit the bottom line. That said, there is little doubt that firms will reward their investors by using lots of the newfound profits to increase dividends, buy back stock and expand merger and acquisition activity. Those should bolster stock prices, at least for a while.

November Housing Starts and Permits

KEY DATA: Starts: +3.3%; 1-Family: +5.3%; Multi-Family: -1.6%; Permits: -1.4%; 1-Family: +1.4%; Multi-Family: -6.4%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Home construction is picking up steam and should boost growth this quarter.”

WHAT IT MEANS: For the past two quarters, a softening in home construction has restrained overall economic growth. It looks like that is changing. Housing starts rose in November, led by a surge in single-family activity. Multi-family activity ebbed, but this is an extremely volatile segment of the market and it was up sharply in October. So far this quarter, starts are running nearly 9% above the third quarter average, with both single-family and multi-family construction doing quite well. Looking at the November report, there were the usual oddities. Construction soared by double-digits in the West and South but dropped sharply in the Midwest and fell apart in the Northeast (it was down almost 40%). That just shows how wildly the numbers can swing and why you cannot look at just one month of data. Looking forward, the single-family segment is in for even more increases as permits hit a level not seen since September 2007. Total permit requests over the past two months were still running hotter than starts, indicating construction could be strong in December.  

Yesterday, the National Association of Home Builders’ index was released and it indicated that developers are near giddy. The index is now above every reading we saw during the housing bubble. Indeed, the last time it was above the November level was in July 1999, 18.5 years ago! In other words, housing is in great shape, at least if you don’t live in high-tax, high-value areas. The tax bill doesn’t do any favors to homebuilders or homeowners in those areas.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The data keep saying the economy is in good shape and soon, a potentially massive fiscal stimulus will hit the economy. How long it will take for the tax cuts to hit household wallets is unclear, but businesses will have the all-clear as soon as the bill is signed. But there are still lost of questions. For example, how much will actually be spent, how long will it take to see the additional spending, will labor shortages cause firms to raise wages to meet the growing demand and if so, will prices and therefore interest rates rise? Normally, expansionary fiscal policy is used when the economy is weak and needs to be kick started. This is not the case now. Alan Greenspan let the tech bubble build until it blew up and then he and his successor, Ben Bernanke watched the housing bubble burst and flatten the world economy. Will we see something similar from the next Fed Chair Jerome Powell? Stay tuned.