KEY DATA: ISM (NonManufacturing): +3.9 points; Orders: +8.2; Employment: +5.3 points/ ETI (Over-Year): +5.4%
IN A NUTSHELL: “The non-manufacturing portion of the economy seems to be kicking it up a notch and that bodes well for growth this year.”
WHAT IT MEANS: The economy is in really good shape, which is odd given that investors seem to be suddenly worrying about things. The manufacturing sector, though not booming, is solid while the service sector is getting even better. The Institute for Supply Management’s NonManufacturing Index jumped in January, led by a resurgence in new orders. To meet the growing demand, hiring is accelerating. Even better, order books are starting to fill even further. In other words, conditions are go for this segment of the economy.
The improving condition of the economy, which was already good to start with, is driving up demand for workers. The Supply Managers’ survey was not the only one to show that. The Conference Board’s Employment Trends Index rose strongly in January and is up sharply over the year. The implications are clear: Conditions will only getter better going forward. Or, as was stated in the report, “The Employment Trends Index continues its solid path upwards and shows no sign of slowing down”.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The stock markets may finally be starting to focus on the real side of the economy, which may explain some of the current correction. As I have noted, expansions don’t simply fade away. They are caused by either bubbles bursting, such as the tech and housing bubbles, or policy mistakes, such as the Fed jamming on the brakes. But while investors have celebrated, and rightly so, the massive corporate tax cuts, economists have worried that expansionary fiscal policy piled on top of a solid economy and labor shortages could be categorized as a policy mistake. And the Fed members may be seeing that as well as their focus on inflation seems to have intensified. What needs to be determined is whether the acceleration in activity is too much of a good thing and if it is, how much is the ‘too much’. The course of both inflation and wages over the past couple of years has not conformed with normal economic theory. For every theory there is a counter-argument. For example, I have heard the argument that the number of people in the 24-55 age group who are not in the workforce is unusually large and that may represent a major source of potential labor. In rebuttal, it is argued that many of those people cannot pass a drug or background check and have given up looking for work because they know they will not be hired. Which is the correct interpretation? We don’t know, because the data on the characteristics of the unemployed, at least as it comes to drug or background issues, doesn’t exist. Yet it is critical because it speaks to the extent of the actual labor shortage and the impact of the tax cuts not just on economic growth but on wage and price inflation and the potential course of interest rates. The lack of clarity about growth and inflation is likely to create a lot more volatility going forward.