All posts by joel

June Housing Starts and Permits

KEY DATA: Starts: +8.3%; 1-Family: +6.3%; Multi-Family: +13.3%/ Permits: +7.4%; 1-Family: +4.1%; Multi-Family: +13.9%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The home construction rebound was nice to see but that was not a major surprise given that activity had faltered the previous three months.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Housing has been a major concern as construction was on the downslide through the spring. That pattern was broken as builders picked up the pace quite sharply in June. The single-family sector improved solidly, but the really big increase came in the multi-family segment. This is a pretty volatile portion of the market and we do get double-digit increases or declines fairly often. For example, multi-family home starts more than tripled in the Northeast in June. So don’t read too much into the surge in the multi-family component and don’t be shocked if it slows in July. Still, this is where a lot of growth is expected to be seen, as Millennials pour into the housing market, so it is good that it is improving. Looking across the nation, The Northeast, not surprisingly given the rise in multi-family starts, led the way, followed by a large rise in the Midwest. However the number of starts was up modestly in the West and fell in the South.

Looking forward, permit requests rose solidly as well. The level of permits has been well above the construction rate and since builders are not doing a lot of spec construction, they should be using those permits soon. That implies potentially several more months of increases in construction. The only region where permit requests fell was in the Northeast. Developers in that part of the country probably used up all their permits in June putting up lots of apartment buildings.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The rise in home construction in June, as well as some upward revisions to previous months numbers, hold out hope that the residential sector did not slow growth much in the second quarter. As with other sectors, a lack of workers is limiting the ability of builders to build. Land and input costs are also an issue. Thus, I don’t expect this part of the economy to add greatly to growth going forward. Still it would be nice if it does play a role in pushing up the growth rate. We get the second quarter GDP number on July 28th and it doesn’t look like it will be near 3% unless firms failed to control their inventories. Private domestic sales should be in the 2% to 2.25% range, which is nothing great. But the pace of growth is not terrible. Stronger growth would put even more pressure on the labor markets. If firms cannot find workers with the economy growing at 2%, where will those workers come from if growth hit 3% or more? As for investors, the Obamacare repeal movement crashed and burned and you would think that would cause investors to think that similar problems could arise when the budget, tax cut and infrastructure bills are debated. Exuberance played a major role in the rise in the stock markets since the election. The political uncertainties should lead to some caution. But now people are saying that even a small tax cut and infrastructure-spending bill would be just fine. That seems to me that they are looking for any reason to be optimistic. We may not know for six months if that confidence was warranted.

June Producer Price Index and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: PPI: +0.1%; Goods Excluding Food and Energy: +0.1%/ Claims: -3,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “The tame inflation is causing the Fed to reconsider its normalization path.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Inflation, where art thou? With the unemployment rate near, at or even below full employment, the assumption has been that accelerating wage pressures would appear. That hasn’t happened so far. And it doesn’t look like consumer costs will jump anytime soon either. Wholesale prices increased minimally in June as rising food costs were offset by declines in energy prices. The details, though, were not quite as clear as to the extent of inflation in the economy. Stepping back and reviewing the many subcategories and special indices, few are showing any decline in prices. That indicates a floor is being set on wholesale prices. Finished consumer food prices are rising fairly sharply and that gets passed through quickly. Finished consumer goods excluding food and energy are also increasing at a moderate pace. And while all finished consumer goods prices were up modestly in June, they are 2.7% higher than they were last June. Meanwhile, producer services costs are increasing at a pace that, while not high, can hardly be considered as minimal. Services are nearly two-thirds the index, which is important since intermediate services prices are increasing significantly. That implies that we should see the pressures on services continue in the months. Goods costs are rising sharply at the crude level, but it is a long and winding road from crude to finished goods, so it would be premature to say producer costs are going to rise sharply in the future.

Jobless claims decreased a little last week. The level is low and given the lack of available workers should remain near or at historically depressed levels for quite a while.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Fed Chair Yellen, in her semi-annual testimony to Congress on monetary policy this week, hinted that a continuation of low inflation might allow the Fed to limit the increase in interest rates. If inflation remains restrained, what economists call the neutral funds rate, which is when the Fed is neither stepping on the brake nor accelerator, would also be low. That adds even greater import to the inflation data. Right now, there isn’t a lot of pressure on prices. Firms may have large numbers of job openings and great difficulty finding qualified workers, but they have yet to find it necessary to raise wages faster to attract workers. The recently declining energy costs have helped corporate bottom lines, providing further flexibility on the labor side. And what was the strong dollar had helped restrain import prices. Inflation is still low enough that the Fed has some flexibility in its rate and balance sheet normalization process. Looking forward, though, the declining dollar needs to be watched and the path of both energy and food costs is critical. But most importantly, if firms can maintain their limited pay increase policy in the face of the huge number of job openings, there will be minimal pressure to raise prices. Thus, the Fed may be able to go more slowly than had been expected, at least before this week’s testimony. That should buoy investors’ confidence.

June Employment Report

KEY DATA: Payrolls: +222,000; Private: 187,000; Revisions: +47,000; Unemployment Rate: 4.4% (up 0.1 percentage point); Wages: +0.2%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Strong job gains, rising labor force and moderating increasing wages: What more could we want?”

WHAT IT MEANS: Well, wrong again. I didn’t think the economy had it in it, but apparently there are still enough “qualified” people looking for jobs to hire an awful lot of new employees. The June payroll increase was well above expectations, though much of that overshoot was due to a huge increase in local government employment. Consensus was for almost 180,000 private sector jobs, so the 187,000 June gain was not that different from expectations. That said, it was a really good report. Looking at the details, just about every major industry added workers, with both the goods producing and service sectors up. Strong hiring was seen in construction, wholesale trade, finance and real estate, health care and restaurants. In addition, job gains in the previous two months were revised up, adding to the belief that we should watch what employers do, not what they say.

The improvement in the labor market is pulling people back into the job search process. The labor force expanded, as did the labor force participation rate. The participation rate has been largely stable for the past 3.5 years. However, even with a lot of people finding positions, the unemployment rate ticked up. Not to be too technical, but the rate now stands at 4.36%, which was rounded up to 4.4%, so let’s not get too worried about the rise in the rate.

As for the numbers I was most interesting, wages and hours worked, there was some good news and bad news in the data. Weekly hours worked were up sharply as firms are working their employees longer. Wages rose less than expected. Over the year, hourly wages are up only 2.5% before adjusting for inflation. Worker spending power is growing by less than 1%, which makes it hard for people to spend a lot more money.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: This was a good report. Lots of people found work, wages were up and hours worked increased. We can nit pick about the details, which weren’t nearly as great as the headline number, but there is no escaping the fact that employer complaints notwithstanding, firms are hiring. And that is the key for the Fed. This report tells the FOMC members that rate hikes are not slowing things down. Second quarter growth should be between 2.5% and 3%, barring a large, unintended increase in inventories. That would put first quarter growth at about a 2.25% annualized pace, right on target. Thus, there is no reason to slow the normalization process. Keep in mind, normalization means both rate hikes and balance sheet reductions. If the data keep showing that the economy is moving forward, the Fed is likely to raise rates at least one more time this year and also start cutting its holdings by the end of the year. But growth would have to be solid to have both to happen.   One quarter of 3% or more GDP growth doesn’t mean much unless it is backed up by additional strong increases. For investors, the data are a conundrum. While the labor market data imply the Fed will tighten further, more jobs imply the economy is in good shape.   Balancing the two will determine the direction of the markets.

June Private Sector Jobs, Layoffs, Non-Manufacturing Activity, May Trade Deficit and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: ADP: +158,000/ Layoffs: 31,105/ ISM (Non-Manufacturing): +0.5 point/ Deficit: $1.1 billion narrower/ Claims: +4,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “The tight labor market is the limiting factor when it comes to job gains despite an improving economy.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Tomorrow is Employment Friday, but it could be one of those shoulder shrug reports. ADP’s estimate of June private sector job gains came in at what I call trend job growth. Given the shortage of available, qualified labor, it is hard to see how firms can hire lots of people. And more than likely they didn’t. But if the ADP forecast is anywhere near what we get, then you can categorize the number as decent. The one concern in the data was that small business hiring was weak. If the hiring slowdown was due to sluggish demand rather than a lack of qualified workers, it could be a warning that growth is moderating.

Yesterday I wrote that I expected the June payroll increase to be somewhere in the 160,000-range, which is enough to keep the unemployment rate slowly declining. It is also enough to keep the pressure on firms to find ways to retain their current workers. Challenger, Gray and Christmas reported that layoffs were pretty modest in June. They were down from May’s total and the May 2016 number. Of course, last year the energy companies were shrinking like crazy, so the year-over-year numbers must be looked at carefully. For the first half of the year, compared to 2016, layoff announcements fell nearly 28%. Excluding the energy sector, they were down about 8%. While unemployment claims rose a little last week, they are still quite low, which reinforces the view that firms are holding onto their workers very tightly.

The trade deficit narrowed in May as imports declined a touch while exports grew. Our imports of vehicles and consumer goods were off sharply, but that was largely offset by increases capital goods and industrial supplies purchases. On the export side, sales of vehicles and consumer goods were strong enough to overcome lowered demand for U.S. food, industrial supplies and capital goods. Oil played a limited role in the change in the deficit. It looks like the trade deficit, which narrowed and added to growth in the first quarter, may have subtracted a little from growth in the second quarter.

Yesterday, I incorrectly reported on the Institute for Supply Management’s Non-Manufacturing June report. Today’s release shows that this sector expanded faster in June on the strength of surging new orders. However, payrolls increased less quickly. With both the ISM manufacturing and non-manufacturing activity and orders indices rising, it looks like the economy picked up some steam in June.    

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Politics aside, if that is possible, the labor market is strong and is constrained not by a lack of demand for new workers but the ability to find workers, at the going wage, who have the qualifications firms need. Realistically, any job increase that is 150,000, plus or minus 25,000, should be considered as “good as can be expected”. But when labor demand exceeds supply, firms face a dilemma: Do they raise wages to attract workers from other firms and retain their own employees, do they try to meet the growing demand for their goods or services through productivity increases, or do they simply turn down orders or push out deliveries? Right now, companies are not raising wages much but are also not doing much of a job increasing productivity. That combination may be a reason economic growth is so slow. In any event, watch two numbers tomorrow, wages and hours worked. They should provide insight into the extent that the tight labor market is forcing firms to pay up for workers and/or extend out workdays, including moving people from part-time to full-time status.

June Supply Managers Indices, Help Wanted OnLine and Paychex Jobs Index

KEY DATA: ISM (Manufacturing): +2.9 points/ ISM (NonManufacturing): -0.6 point/ HWOL: -45,800/ Paychex: -0.24%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The economy continues to wander along at a steady, but not so great pace.”

WHAT IT MEANS: While there may have been fireworks across the nation last night, there is not much happening when it comes to the economy. The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) released its June manufacturing index results on Monday and its survey of non-manufacturers today. There was good news and not so good news. The manufacturing sector, which had been softening for quite some time, is continuing to show signs that the slowdown is behind it. The ISM activity index rose sharply, helped along by solid gains in new orders, production and as a consequence, hiring. Even so, order books continued to fatten at an accelerating pace. In other words, this segment of the economy is improving. On the other hand, activity in the non-manufacturing portion is moderating a touch. Demand is still solid, but is expanding a little less robustly. Still, hiring remains strong, as firms do what they can to meet their expanding backlogs.

On the labor market front, the indications are mixed. While both the ISM surveys point to strong job gains, the Conference Board’s Help Wanted OnLine measure showed that there were fewer ads for positions in June. The trend in this survey has been down for a couple of years and that may reflect the inability to find qualified workers. There was a sharp decline in listings early this year, but they have rebounded over the past few months to what look like a more reasonable level. A similar message, that the labor market may be softening, was seen in the Paychex IHS Markit June index, which dropped for the fourth consecutive month. Nevertheless, wage gains are accelerating. That may be a further indication that even if job growth has slowed, the lack of suitable labor is finally forcing firms to pay a little more for workers.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The best news in the recent reports comes from the apparent improvement in the manufacturing sector. I say apparent because there is some concern for the vehicle sector. Sales were not particularly good in June and the trend is down. Some manufacturers have inventory well above desired levels. While that may lead to a little better than expected second quarter GDP, the pop from the inventory will be short-lived. Companies will likely start working off the excess stock of vehicles in the summer by slowing assembly rates. That would reverberate through their entire supply chains. But when all is said and done, we need wage increases to accelerate if growth is to improve. Friday’s employment report may provide some additional evidence that the tight labor market is forcing firms to actually raise wages. I don’t expect job gains to be great, somewhere in the 160,000-range, and the unemployment rate might tick up a touch. But if hourly wages accelerate, the rest of the report could be downplayed. Alternatively, given current below target inflation and mediocre job and economic growth, lackluster wage gains could lead the Fed to slow its rate normalization process.

May Consumer Spending and Income and June Confidence

KEY DATA: Consumption: +0.1%; Disposable Income: +0.5%: Prices: -0.1%/ Confidence: -2 points

IN A NUTSHELL: “Despite better income growth, worries about the future may be restraining household spending decisions.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The consumer needs to get going if the economy is ever to reach the promised 3% growth rate and right now, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Consumption was up minimally in May as households bought few goods. Both durable and nondurable goods purchases were off. On the positive side, spending on services, which is the largest component of consumption, was up solidly. Hopefully, that will continue. So far this quarter, consumer demand is rising at a roughly 2.6%, so it will take stronger growth in June to get to the magic 3% number. Can that happen? I am not so certain. Income gains were strong in May, but the rise was mostly due to a surge in dividends, which don’t get translated into demand very quickly. Meanwhile, wage and salary increases were modest. And what people make, they seem to be stashing away as the saving rate is rebounding. On the inflation front, prices were largely flat, especially when food and energy were excluded. Over the year, both the headline number and the core, which excludes the volatile components, posted declines. That is something that the Fed will likely watch closely.

Consumer confidence is continuing to moderate. The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index fell in June. The level remains solid, but there was a further deterioration in the outlook for the future. That stands in contrast to the view that the economy is getting better. Let’s see now. In Washington, the politicians are saying the economy is terrible but the future is bright. Consumers seem to be saying things are pretty good and getting better, but they are not so sure that trend will continue in the future. Does anyone in Washington have a clue to what is going on?

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Today’s reports don’t point to any major acceleration in growth in the second half of the year. Wage and salary gains are mediocre and without a better increase in worker salaries, consumption can grow only so quickly. We will get a better picture of household spending on Monday when June vehicle sales are released. Unless there is a bigger than expected pop in demand, it will be hard for GDP growth to have been robust this quarter. We could get a 3% number, but that might be due to a rebound in inventories. Sales, though, look like they were soft. We have a month before we know that number, which comes out after the next FOMC meeting. So the Fed looks to be on hold at least until September. As for investors, all eyes remain on Congress. Can the gang that cannot think straight get anything done this year when it comes to tax reform and infrastructure spending? I just don’t know.

For all those who are heading out today for a nice, long July 4th weekend, have a wonderful time.

May New and Existing Home Sales and April Housing Prices

KEY DATA: New Home Sales: +2.9%; Existing Home Sales: +1.1%; FHFA Prices (Over-Year): +6.8%:

IN A NUTSHELL: “The slowing in the housing market may be ending as demand is picking up and prices keep surging.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The housing market has been a puzzle recently, with sales and starts tumbling. That may no longer be the case. New home sales jumped up in May and the gain was on top of a sharp upward revision to the April sales pace. The rise in purchases over the year was nearly 9%, indicating that conditions are indeed getting better. That said, the increases were not well distributed across the country. The robust surge in sales in the West and strong gain in the South were almost entirely wiped out by double-digit declines in the Northeast and Midwest. As for prices, they hit record highs. The nearly 17% rise from the May 2016 median price level undoubtedly overstates the gain, so let’s don’t get too carried away. Nevertheless, supply remains limited and it is likely that the pressure that has been building for so long on prices will not go away anytime soon.

Earlier this week, two other reports on housing were released. The National Association of Realtors released their report on existing home demand and it too showed that demand is rebounding. Unlike the new home numbers, sales rose across the nation. And similar to the new home market, a lack of supply is keeping pressure on prices, which were up nearly 5% over the year.

There are many different reports on home prices, which is difficult to quantify given the changes in prices don’t necessarily measure the rise or fall in the cost of the same unit. Still, all the indices are showing the same thing: Prices are on the rise. The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s index posted another sharp increase in April and over the year. This index had decelerating during most of 2014 but has been on a slow but steady rise since.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: I don’t know how many times I have written that if it isn’t for sale, it is hard to buy and the housing market is clearly suffering from a lack of inventory. Just today I was cold-called by a realtor asking if I was interested in selling my house. That is how desperate things have gotten. Locational mobility has declined sharply and even those whose homes are now above water are hesitant to sell. Builders face cost and regulatory issues and those factors, plus more rational lending practices, is keeping new construction down. There is no simple solution to the problem, so don’t expect housing sales to surge. What should continue to rise are prices. For the Fed, that is good news as it will keep non-food and energy consumer costs from decelerating further and allow for additional rate hikes this year, assuming the economy keeps growing at a moderate pace. Investors, though, don’t seem to worry about economic fundamentals, so what, if anything, will slow the markets is unclear.

May Housing Starts and June Preliminary Consumer Confidence

KEY DATA: Starts: -5.5%; 1-family: -3.9%; Permits: -4.9%; 1-Family: -1.9%/ Confidence: down 2.6 points

IN A NUTSHELL: “The downward trend in home construction does not bode well for growth either this quarter or this year.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Business leaders and owners, whether they are involved with small or big businesses, are exuberant. But the optimism doesn’t seem to be translating into surging economic activity. The latest signal that the economy is bumping along comes from the home construction numbers. Housing tarts fell sharply in May, with both single-family and multi-family activity declining. This was the third consecutive decline in activity. There were big reductions in home building in the Midwest and South, while conditions were flat in the Northeast. Only the West posted a gain, and it wasn’t anything great. The level of starts is the second lowest over the past eighteen months. While permit requests are falling as well, they are still running a little above starts, so we might see some improvement in construction in the next couple of months. Still, don’t expect the rate to be anything great.

Consumer confidence continues to fade. The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment index fell fairly sharply in the first part of June. Both the current conditions and expectations components were down. Consumers are still quite optimistic, but the bloom is off the rose when it comes to the euphoric outlook that people had after the election. Indeed, the expectations index was the lowest since October 2016 and is up only modestly since last June. The current conditions index is actually below its June 2016 number. As for inflation, while near-term expectations were stable, people now believe inflation will be higher over the next five years. That was surprising given the recent slowing in price increases. 

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: I have been expecting second quarter growth to be pretty solid, somewhere in the 3% range. But the data that have come in recently raise doubts whether that handle could be reached. Housing has been a key driver of growth over the past two quarters, but that doesn’t look like it is the case during the current quarter. In addition, the slide in vehicle sales doesn’t bode well for second quarter consumption. And with businesses waiting for some indications about the shape of tax changes, we shouldn’t expect capital spending to be great either. Put that all together and I suspect most forecasters will be marking down their second quarter GDP growth estimates. I am. That is important because now that the Fed has moved twice this year, we need some economic strength to have confidence that process will continue. Living in Philadelphia, I have learned to “trust the process”, but Fed policy is different from sports management. The Fed appears to want to continue raising rate at a steady pace and once it begins shrinking its balance sheet, to do so consistently as well. For both of those things to happen, the economy has to expand at least at the trend rate of roughly 2% to 2.25%. We may not get there during the first half of the year if second quarter growth turns out to be 2.5% or less. That cannot be ruled out. As for investors, there is no reason to be bullish unless you think there will be significant tax changes, be it real reform or the more likely tax cuts (the two are very, very different). Given the chaos in Washington, you tell me what is going to happen and we both will know.

May Producer Prices and Small Business Optimism

KEY DATA: PPI: 0%; Over-Year: +2.4%; Goods: -0.5%; Energy: -3%; Services: +0.3%/ NFIB: Unchanged

IN A NUTSHELL: “With inflation at reasonable levels and small businesses optimistic, tomorrow the Fed can do what it is expected to do, which is raise rates again.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The Fed is starting its two-day meeting today and it would take a blockbuster number for the Fed to change course. Today’s reports don’t qualify as they were in line with what we all know and expect from the data: Inflation is not a threat but business leaders are exuberant. Wholesale costs were flat in May as declining food and energy prices offset moderate increases in other goods and services. Excluding energy, goods costs were up moderately with the pace over the year pretty much at the Fed’s target. Indeed, if you look at the details and the special indices, most rose since last May by somewhere between 1.5% and 2.5%. In other words, at least when it comes to producer prices, inflation is right where it needs to be for the Fed to make any move it wants to make.

If inflation is pretty much on the mark, what about growth? The disappointing first quarter will likely be followed by a better second quarter. But going forward, it will take businesses expanding more aggressively to move the expansion into higher (not necessarily high) gear. If you believe the business optimism numbers, the corporate sector is ready and willing to do its part. We already knew that CEO confidence was soaring and that exuberance is being matched by small business owners. The National Federation of Independent Business’ Confidence index was flat in May. However, that is misleading. It remained near record highs. Respondents think it is a great time to expand and they are extremely hopeful that business conditions and earnings will improve. They are hiring and hope to hire more workers, but they cannot find qualified applicants. No surprise there.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The Fed will announce its decision tomorrow afternoon and we are likely to see another tick up in rates. The markets have given the FOMC a free pass so it might as well take it. But it isn’t just the funds rate that will be watched. It is clear the members want to start reducing the Fed’s balance sheet and we need to look for any signals on when that might start. We need to also watch for indications that the process of normalization will continue on a consistent basis. The view on the economy is important in making any judgment on how many more times the Fed may move this year. Today’s data should have made few waves with investors. It’s tomorrow’s statement, press conference and economic projections that most people will be watching closely.

May NonManufacturing Activity, Employment Trends and Revised First Quarter Productivity

KEY DATA: ISM (NonManufacturing): -0.6 point; Orders: -5.5 points; Hiring: +6.4 points/ Employment Trends: +0.7%; Productivity: 0% (up from -0.6%)

IN A NUTSHELL: “The economy is neither accelerating nor slowing, but the labor market is looking up.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The Fed is meeting next week and since the members continue to say they are data driven, we need to look closely at the last set of numbers that will be released before the decision is released on June 14th. One of the more important private sector numbers is the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) reports on manufacturing and nonmanufacturing. Last week, ISM found that manufacturing production moderated in May. Today the supply managers indicated that the remainder of the economy, which is most of the economy, also slowed. The details of the report, however, seemed to point to continue decent growth in this sector. Orders grew much more slowly, but they had surged in April, so the level is still quite solid. Indeed, they were up enough to cause backlogs to expand and firms to hire a lot more workers.

While the May jobs report was less than many expected, realistically, it was what should have been expected. The huge ADP payroll gain forecast created a bullish view of the number that dominated the discussion. But as noted on Friday, the report still points to a solid labor market and today’s numbers reinforce that view. Not only did the ISM hiring index jump in May but so did the Conference Board’s Employment Trends Index. The Chief Economist said it best: “Employment will likely grow fast enough to continue tightening the labor market.”

If the economy is to accelerate to the 3% or more growth that the administration projects, productivity will have to surge. While the government revised upward the first quarter number, on a year-over-year basis, the 1.2% rise is half as fast as it needs to be to reach the growth target.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: With the employment report behind us, the next two big ones before the FOMC announcement are retail sales and consumer prices. They will be released the morning of the 14th and it is not likely they will be so disturbing that the Fed will not raise rates. For those at the Fed who may have been concerned about the jobs report, today’s data should calm the weak kneed. The labor market is just fine. In addition, the economy is growing at a pace enough to create more jobs and reduce the unemployment rate further. The only “worry” is the decline in energy costs, which is pushing inflation further away from the target. Thankfully, we haven’t seen cut backs in the energy patch and it was that sector’s downturn that slowed growth significantly. But the real question is when will the next rate hike occur? Consumers are becoming debt burdened but wage gains remained stubbornly low. Uncertainty about government policy is hardly helping businesses make expansionary long-term plans and that too is likely slowing things. And finally, the magic of sequestration is keeping government spending in line and the next budget is a huge question mark, so it is hard to see where fiscal policy will help out. Put that together and 2017 looks like it will come in at trend, maybe 2¼%, enough to support at least one more increase after next week’s likely hike. Rate hikes don’t seem to worry investors. Actually nothing seems to worry investors and today’s data should not do anything to cause concern to suddenly appear.