KEY DATA: Orders: +2.6%; Excluding Aircraft: +0.1%; Capital Goods: -0.1%/ Claims: -24,000
IN A NUTSHELL: “The surge in capital spending that was supposed to be triggered by the tax cuts has yet to be seen, but it is still early.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Remember how the business tax cuts were supposed to induce massive increases in business investment? Well, that has not happened yet. Durable goods orders rose solidly in March, but chalk that gain up to a surge in civilian aircraft orders. Excluding aircraft, demand for big-ticket items was largely flat. Sharp declines in orders for machinery and computers offset increases in demand for metals and communications equipment. Vehicle orders were up minimally. The most closely watched number in this report is nondefense capital goods orders excluding aircraft and after a solid rise in February, orders fell slightly in March. Even more troubling was that this measure was lower in the first quarter than in the fourth quarter of 2017. It was expected to rise if only because firms were cautious at the end of last year as they waited for the tax bill to actually be passed.
Jobless claims cratered last week to the lowest level since December 1969. To put the number in perspective, the labor force back then was half the sixe it is now. Adjusting for the size of the labor force, we are at record low levels. Put simply, labor markets are extremely tight.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: It is too early to use one my favorite phrases, “never mind”, when it comes to the impact of the tax cuts on business investment. Just because taxes were reduced and incentives were added to foster more capital spending doesn’t mean businesses were ever going to rush out and invest right away. There may be some off the shelf projects that were green lighted, but in general, spending on major projects is not a quick or easy decision. I have argued that second half growth would show accelerating capital spending and I am sticking to that forecast. That said, it is a little disconcerting to see so little new spending plans announced, especially given all the announcements about stock buy-backs, dividend increases and merger and acquisition attempts. Tomorrow, the initial (called advance) estimate of first quarter growth will be released. Consensus is around 2% and nothing released this week is likely to change most forecasts, including mine, which is 2.6%. Whatever we get could be the low point for the year. But how much faster we grow will depend upon the willingness of businesses to put the tax-induced higher earnings to work for things other than stock price increases. As for consumers, there are no clear signs they are spending like crazy either. The labor markets are drum-tight, but wage gains are still less than needed to cause overall economic growth to surge, especially given the steady rise in inflation. Firms seem to be willing to lengthen delivery times rather than increase wages to attract new workers. At least that is what I frequently hear as I tour the country. Tomorrow’s Employment Cost Index may show signs things are changing. On the investor side, the battle between higher earnings and higher rates continues. But the earnings season will end soon while the rise in rates is likely to continue through the rest of this year and probably next. Can you say “choppy”?