May Durable Goods Orders and New Home Sales

KEY DATA: Orders: -1.8%; Excluding Aircraft: +0.7%; Capital Spending: +0.4%/ Home Sales: +2.2%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Businesses are investing again and the housing market is shifting gears, so why is the Fed so unsure about the economy?”

WHAT IT MEANS: And the hits keep coming, except in this case, it’s the good kind – the ones that make lots of money. The data seem to be moving to the top of the charts and while all the songs are not that great, they are making sweet music. Today, we saw that durable goods orders improved in May, though the April gain disappeared. Still, when you exclude aircraft, the rise in demand for big-ticket items was strong and the increases were pretty much across the board. Primary and fabricated metals, communications and machinery were up solidly. There was a decline in computers and appliances and electrical equipment, while vehicles were flat. Importantly, business capital spending, excluding defense and aircraft, was up solidly for the second time in three months. Still, there was a warning sign in the report: Order books are thinning. That does not bode well for a strong improvement in production.

Housing is getting better, no if, ands or buts about it. Yesterday we saw that existing home sales rose solidly in May and that result was duplicated in the new home market. While the percentage increase was not huge, it came on top of a sharply upward revised April sales pace. The level was the highest since February 2008, so we are starting to claw our way back toward more normal levels. We still have a long way to go, though. The long-suffering Northeast finally showed some strength. While total sales for the first five months of this year compared to last year are up by 24%, they are down by 23% in the Northeast. The West was also strong in May but there were declines in the South and Midwest. Interestingly – or strangely – median prices declined even though inventory is largely nonexistent. These data are volatile and given the existing home price increases, the decline will likely turn around next month.

Two other reports indicate that the economy is running strongly. The Richmond Fed’s June manufacturing index jumped while the Philadelphia Fed’s June non-manufacturing index eased but remained at a very high level. Both surveys point to strong job and wage gains.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: I love to poke fun at the Fed’s inability to forecast and right now, the monetary authorities are easy targets. The economy may not be soaring, but it is hard to say that conditions haven’t rebounded strongly from the winter downturn. I will wait until Thursday when the consumer spending numbers come out before I say the central bankers are clueless. We aren’t certain what households are thinking right now and while they are clearly buying big-ticket items such as homes and vehicles, they also have to doing something other than borrow money. If Thursday’s consumption report is as strong as I expect, and if the inflation data point to a continued move upward toward the Fed’s target, then there is every reason to think that at the July 28-29 meeting, the FOMC will start to signal a rate hike is near.

May Existing Home Sales

KEY DATA: Sales: +5.1%; 1-Family: +5.6%; Median Prices: +7.9%; 1-Family: +8.6%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The housing market has rebounded sharply and now looks to be a leading part of the spring economic acceleration.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Another day, another indication that the economy is in really good shape. The existing housing market was a disaster in the first quarter, as sales tanked. But that was clearly a winter issue and the rebound is really strong. The National Association of Realtors reported that existing home sales jumped in May to their highest level in 5½ years. And the details were just as good as the headline number. Demand improved in every region, led by a double-digit gain in the Northeast. Purchases of single-family homes led the way as condo demand improved modestly. We are also seeing a sizable shift in the profile of buyers, out of investors and distressed properties and into first time buyers. While the number of homes on the market rose, when adjusted for the sales pace, inventory actually declined. The shortage in homes is restraining total sales and since buyers are bidding on limited product, home prices are soaring, especially in the single-family component of the market.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Second quarter economic growth is setting up to be very solid if not even strong. The indicators that had gone south in the winter are coming back in the spring. Households are buying homes and vehicles, a clear sign that they are feeling better about their financial situations. We get May new home sales tomorrow and with builders’ optimism strong, I would expect that report to exceed expectations as well. But the big number this week is Thursday’s income and spending report. We know that retail sales were robust in May but we don’t have any idea about spending on services, which is two-thirds of consumption. If that shows another decent rise, then we could be getting a strong boost to GDP growth from consumption. With household spending and housing on the upswing, the next logical domino to fall would be business investment. Since the trade deficit is stabilizing, there is hard to find any real weakness in the economy. The Fed doesn’t seem to get that yet, but ultimately the members will figure it out. By the time Janet Yellen meets the press again in September, it will be hard for her to argue that she will need more support for a rate hike. As long as Greece doesn’t create too much chaos, there seems to be little standing in the way of strong growth the rest of the year and a rate hike in September.   That should be good news for investors, at least if they love U.S. companies. Yes, it means the Fed is going to do what it keeps saying it is going to do, but a stronger economy means that domestic companies should do well going forward.

May Consumer Prices, Leading Indicators, June Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Survey and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: CPI: +0.4%; Excluding Food and Energy: +0.1%/ LEI: +0.7%/ Phila. Fed: +8.5 points/ Claims: -12,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “If the Fed needs confirmation that the economy is picking up steam, they got some of that today.”

WHAT IT MEANS: It is doubtful that Janet Yellen and her band of petrified monetary policy makers will throw caution to the wind and start raising rates like crazy. She made that quite clear yesterday. But she also said that the decision to start tightening, if you can call moving up from 0% to 0.25% is tightening, will be driven by the data. So, what are the data saying? On the inflation front, the disinflationary process looks like it is over. Consumer prices jumped, largely because of the rise in energy costs. Commodity prices were stagnant. Food, furniture, major appliances and apparel costs fell, but medical goods and new truck prices rose. On the other hand, the service component continues to show some gains and in May, rising airline fares led the way. Hospital services and rent were also up. Over the year, overall consumer costs were flat and core prices decelerated slightly. In other words, inflation is still not a major worry for the Fed. But with consumer costs rising sharply, real earnings fell slightly as the solid gain in hourly wages was offset by the faster rise in prices.

Philadelphia may not be the hot bed of manufacturing, but the Philadelphia Fed’s manufacturing index does tend to reflect manufacturing nationally. If the index rises, as it did sharply in early June, then that is a sign that we should be seeing a pick up in other measures, including the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index.

As for the labor market, the days of modest job gains, or make that the couple of months of subpar increases, also looks to be behind us. Jobless claims fell sharply and the 4-week moving average continues to trend downward. The level is consistent with strong monthly payroll increases and I expect that to be the case during the second half of this year.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The Fed made it clear that once rate hikes begin, the process will be slow. Maybe. This is a group of forecasters that are poor “nowcasters”. If you don’t like their forecast, wait a meeting (6-7 weeks) and it will change. A strong June employment report could cause the forecasts to change. They will not start raising interest rates sharply, but the implied 100 basis points a year process makes very little sense. We are starting at zero, so even a one percent increase still keeps us nearly three percentage points below a “neutral” or long-term funds rate. Yesterday, Janet Yellen sounded like I do when I try to calm my somewhat hyper cat: “Now take it easy, Gibbs, things will be fine, don’t get excited”. He does start purring, just like investors have. But I still yell at him when he starts attacking his sister and if the economy picks up steam, don’t expect the Fed to be calm. They will raise rates more frequently than every other meeting. As for now, investors are purring but that calm will not last if the data keep coming in as strongly as they did today.

June 16-17 ‘15 FOMC Meeting

In a Nutshell: “Conditions for the first rate hike have not yet been met.”

Rate Decision: Fed funds rate maintained at a range between 0% and 0.25%

The FOMC concluded its two-day meeting this afternoon and the statement basically told us nothing we didn’t already know. The economy picked up from the winter downdraft but there is still a way to go before we get back to strong growth. Yes, 2015 growth was downgraded from the March forecasts, but few expected a negative first quarter at that time. It was just math. Otherwise, there was little change in the comments as the Committee kept the funds rate range the same and there was no change in its investment policy.

So, does that mean there was nothing to be gleaned from today’s news? Absolutely not. First, and maybe most importantly, most members expect there to be at least two rate hikes this year. According to the “dot chart” of forecasts, the “central tendency” is for the funds rate to be at 0.625% at year’s end. The only way to get there is if the rate hikes start in either September or October. Since there is no press conference in October (it’s that dumb press conference calendar issue again), the target month looks like September.

Chair Yellen’s press conference also provided some good information. First, she made it clear, time after time, that the conditions for a rate hike had not yet been met – but they could be soon. While the labor market has gotten a lot better, there is still some slack that needs to be taken up. A reduction in the number of people working part-time but wanting full time jobs needs to fall while wage gains and the participation rate need to rise. She seemed to think the participation concern is less of an issue now that it has stabilized.   Stronger growth, which most members expect, would resolve the labor slack issue.

Chair Yellen noted often that almost all members expect rates to rise this year. However, she tried to persuade everyone that there was no set pathway once the first rate hike occurred. She pointed out that most members expect something on the order of 100 basis points rise each year. Even with my challenged mathematical abilities, I can figure that to be a 25 basis point rate hike every other meeting. She is trying to dissuade people from assuming there had to be 25 basis point moves every meeting. I don’t believe it because at that pace, a neutral fed funds rate of 3.75% will not be reached until sometime in 2018. If it takes that long, I fear for the economy.

Okay, what is the takeaway here? Barring some negative international event, such as Greece hurting European growth, the Fed remains on track for a September rate hike. I suspect that most market participants don’t believe that. People still want to see it before they believe it. So, don’t be surprised if there is some real volatility if the Fed does what it says it will likely do.

(The next FOMC meeting is July 28-29, 2015.)

May Housing Starts and Permits

KEY DATA: Starts: -11.1%; 1-Family: -5.4%; Multi-Family: -20.2%/ Permits: +11.8%; 1-Family: +2.6%; Multi-Family: +24.1%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Surging permit requests indicate that builders will be really busy this summer.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Housing starts fell sharply in May. Boo hoo. Enough of the crocodile tears. The housing market is coming back and it looks like it will be with a vengeance. Yes, construction activity slipped and while the declines were largely in the volatile multi-family component, single-family activity was off solidly as well. All regions saw less construction than in May with the biggest drop being in the Northeast. A pick up in single-family activity in that part of the nation was more than offset by a nearly 40% decline in multi-family activity. While the drop in housing starts would seem to be worrisome, it really isn’t. That is because permit requests soared to its highest pace in nearly eight years. For the past three months, permits are running nearly ten percent above starts and one thing we know, builders don’t waste money on permits unless they expect to use them. The gap between permits and starts will be narrowed and that points to an awful lot of construction across the entire nation during the summer.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The Fed is starting its two-day meeting and all eyes will be focused on tomorrow’s statement, forecasts and press conference. Thus, any reaction to this report should be muted. But have not doubt, despite the sharply negative headline housing starts number, the details of this report indicate the housing market is in very good shape. Second quarter housing starts are up about 12.5% from the first quarter monthly average and that rise is likely to be above 15% once we get the June data. Residential construction is likely to add significantly to second quarter growth. With the trade deficit no longer widening, business investment improving and households buying vehicles like crazy, the GDP number could come in a lot better than most expect. Investors need to recognize that while a rate hike tomorrow looks to be off the table, the economy is already strong enough to support one at any meeting in the future. The message that I suspect will be sent tomorrow is that if the data continue to show improving economic conditions, a move up in rates would be warranted. Since the consensus is for a hike in September and there is a press conference that month, barring some really bad data or a major international crisis, that is when the first rate increase in a decade should occur.

May Industrial Production and June Home Builders Index

KEY DATA: IP: -0.2%; Manufacturing: -0.2%/ NAHB: 59 (up 5 points)

IN A NUTSHELL: “Housing is up, manufacturing is down and the data remain all over the town.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The FOMC starts its two-day meeting tomorrow and the latest numbers on the economy remain mixed. The Fed’s own industrial production index showed that activity contracted in May. While the energy sector is having issues that we all are aware of, what was unexpected was the decline in manufacturing output. It was assumed that the rampaging vehicle sector would pull up with it other sectors. While assembly rates did jump, not a whole lot of other areas posted gains. There was a solid increase in technology, but oil and gas drilling cratered once again. Food production also fell sharply. Whether that was due to the bird flu was not made clear. Basically, vehicles and technology-related products, such as computers and communications equipment, were up, but much of the remainder of the manufacturing sector was down.

Reinforcing the view that manufacturing has hit a soft spot was a decline in the New York Fed’s June Empire State Manufacturing index. While just about every component of the index was off, hiring and the workweek increased. You tell me what that says and we both will know.

While manufacturing seems to be wandering around, housing is off and running. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index gapped upward in June. Current sales, sales expectations and traffic all rose significantly.  It was noted that the indices of current and future activity were at “their highest levels since the last quarter of 2005”. We are talking about the peak in the housing bubble here. While there is no way that we will see anything close to the level of activity we had a decade ago, the measures point to strong dales and construction in the months ahead.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: So, what shape is the economy in? That is bond market’s $64 trillion question. It was great to see that the vehicle sector, technology and housing are all in very good shape. Normally, that would create real optimism about the future. But the drag from energy continues to keep a lid on growth. Consumers seem content to bank the savings from the lower energy costs, but they may also be feeling a lot better about their financial situations. That seems to be reflected in the improved housing and vehicle sector and strong credit demand. If households are borrowing, either long-term or through revolving credit, that should mean solid gains in consumption. We don’t get May consumption data until a week from Thursday, but they should be really strong. So, what will the Fed say on Wednesday? I am guessing there will be some positive views about the economy and an indication that a tightening is coming, but also a need for continued good data to support the first rate hike. In other words, Janet Yellen, whether in the statement or at her press conference, will likely only hint, not confirm, that a move to increase interest rates is likely to happen “soon”.

May Retail Sales, Import and Export Prices and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: Sales: +1.2%; Excluding Vehicles: +1%/ Import Prices: +1.3%; Nonfuel: 0%; Export Prices: +0.6%; Farm: -1%/ Claims: 279,000 (up 2,000)

IN A NUTSHELL: “Consumers stepped up their spending sharply in May, adding to the belief that the economy has moved back into a solid growth trend.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Households have been stashing away a lot of the savings from the gasoline price drop, limiting the positive impact on spending expected from lower energy costs. But that may be changing. Retail sales soared in May and it wasn’t just the huge rise in vehicle sales. Demand was up solidly for just about everything except health care products and restaurants. I guess the headaches caused by the winter are cured. Eating out had been the favorite way to spend money and for the first five months of the year, total restaurant spending is up almost 9% from 2014 levels. A one-month modest rise was not a major surprise. The sharp rise in gasoline sales was due to the jump in gasoline prices. The sub-category that best mimics the consumption number in GDP, core sales, rose solidly after a modest increase in April. That provides some hope that consumption will strong in the second quarter.

After ten months of declines, import prices finally rose in May. However, all of the gain was in energy. Still, after eight months of falling prices, we did get some stability in the nonfuel portion. Imported foods started to increase again but capital and consumer goods costs were flat. On the export side, if you weren’t a farmer, you could raise prices. But the long-suffering farm sector saw another sharp decline in the prices they are getting on the world market.

Jobless claims edged upward but they are still at levels consistent with further tightening of the labor market.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Consumer spending on nondurable goods was the chief reason that first quarter consumption was modest. That is no longer the case. In addition, we are likely to see even better durable goods demand. So it looks like consumers will be adding more to growth in the second quarter than they did in the first quarter. Add to that a turnaround in the trade deficit, which cost the economy nearly two percentage points, and we are setting up for a very solid quarter. In addition, the long decline in import prices should start stabilizing the inflation data. Indeed, the Consumer Price Index’s non-food and energy component has been rising at about a 2.5% pace for the past four months and there is no reason to think that will change going forward. I expect the Fed’s preferred Personal Consumption Expenditure deflator to follow the CPI upward. And if you add in the continued tightening in the labor market, it looks like most of the conditions for a rate hike are nearly in place. By the July meeting, there should be little reason, other than the lack of a press conference, not to start raising rates. Assuming Chair Yellen wants to personally “meet the press”, a September rate hike is highly probable – and it could be a foregone conclusion by then.  

May Employment Report

KEY DATA: Payrolls: +280,000; Private Sector: +262,000; Revisions: +32,000; Unemployment Rate: 5.5% (up 0.1 percentage point); Hourly Wages: 0.3%

IN A NUTSHELL: “It’s time the Fed faces the reality that businesses aren’t hiring lots of workers because the economy is weak.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The soft economy was then; a much better economy is now. It really looks like temporary factors slowed first quarter growth. Nothing says “good economy” more that strong job growth and that is precisely what we got in May. Indeed, the details of the report were almost universally good. On the payroll side, job increases were pretty much across the board. About the only real weakness was due to the problems in the oil patch. Between direct cut backs in mining and indirectly through reductions in manufacturing industries such as fabricated metals and machinery, the energy sector caused payrolls to fall by over 20,000 workers. With oil prices having rebounded somewhat, those cuts should fade. Meanwhile, the services sector is hiring like there is no tomorrow. Temporary help companies are seeing more business and that may be due to the inability of firms to find suitable workers. Even the government is back in the job creation business and not all of the gains were in education.

On the unemployment side of the report, the modest uptick in the unemployment rate can be discounted. In April, the rate was 5.44%. In May, it was 5.50%. An increase that small is not significant. More importantly, the labor force rose solidly and the labor force participation rate increased. Over the year, the participation rate has actually gone up, so it is hard to argue the 0.8 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate over the year is anything but real.

On the wage side, a portion of the report that the Fed members have been paying close attention to, average hourly wages rose solidly and are now up 2.3% over the year. That is nothing spectacular, but it is accelerating, which is what the Fed wants to see. With aggregate hours increasing sharply, it looks like May personal income will be up big-time.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: One month of strong job gains doesn’t make the Fed hike in June, but it sure does raise the ante of a move sometime soon. The Fed members believe that they need some cover to raise rates even though most of them feel that they have overstayed their welcome at 0%. With job growth coming back and wages and total compensation on the rise, the conditions are nearly in place for the long-anticipated start of the process of rate normalization. I suspect the FOMC will note in the June 16-17 statement that it would like to see some confirmation of the improving growth. We get another jobs report before the July 28-29 meeting and given that the three-month average of 207,000 jobs created is probably below trend, don’t be surprised if the June report is strong as well. That would put pressure on the members to begin tightening right away. Chair Yellen said she would not be limited by the press conference schedule (there is none set for July), but it is likely she would want to face the press.   A September hike looks to be in the cards.

May Challenger Layoff Estimates and Weekly jobless Claims

KEY DATA: Layoffs: down 20,548/ Claims: down 8,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “The turnaround in oil prices is also turning around the labor market data as layoffs are declining.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Tomorrow is Employment Friday, so any labor market data will be swamped once the numbers are released, but you can get some insight into the pressures that are developing by looking at things other than the unemployment rate. The latest employment numbers point to further tightening in the labor market. Layoff announcements had been soaring as the oil patch started drying up. To put things in perspective, Challenger, Gray and Christmas reported that for the first four months of this year, layoff notices rose by a little over 28,000 from the same period last year. Meanwhile, the energy sector’s announcements rose by nearly 57,000. About 30% of all layoffs were in Texas. In other words, except for the energy firms have been holding tightly to their workers. With the rise in oil prices, energy sector layoffs have largely stopped – and so have overall layoff announcements.

Despite the weaknesses in energy and related industries, jobless claims have been low and they stayed down. Keep in mind, layoff announcements don’t necessarily become layoffs. The rise in energy prices may reduce actual payroll cut backs. Jobless claims declined last week and the level remains so low that payroll gains are highly likely to accelerate as we go forward.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Payroll cuts in mining and machinery (support industry for the energy sector) totaled 20,000 in April and there still was a 223,000 rise in total employment. Don’t be surprised if in tomorrow’s employment report, we see a lot smaller job loss in those two industries. That should help drive the total gain to well above what we saw last month. The Fed will be watching the employment report closely, not just when it comes to employment but also what is happening with wages. But the hourly wage number doesn’t account for lots of other, more imaginative ways businesses are compensating employees. When you consider total compensation, it is clear that the upward trend is accelerating. In today’s revised first quarter productivity report, inflation-adjusted compensation per hour soared at a 6.5% rate over the quarter and was up a decent 2.2% over they year. Labor costs are reflecting the tight labor market and if hourly wages in the employment report doesn’t reflect that yet, we should be asking if we should even follow that number. For businesses, it’s all about total compensation and that is what we need to watch. If investors are focusing on the right numbers, they will have to start thinking that Fed has all the ammunition needed to start doing what the members really want to do: Raise rates.

May ADP Jobs Estimate and April Trade Deficit

KEY DATA: ADP: 201,000; Services: 192,000/ Trade Deficit: $40.9 billion ($9.7 billion narrower)/ May Vehicle Sales: 17.8 million units annualized (up 1.4 million units annualized)

IN A NUTSHELL: “Moderate job growth continues and with the trade deficit narrowing sharply and vehicle sales soaring, it looks like we could have a really good second quarter growth number.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Maybe the economy really is as strong as I think. Yesterday, we got the May vehicle sales numbers and they were the strongest in nearly a decade. We are talking housing bubble peak time here. And with gasoline prices down, people are buying bigger, gas-guzzlers again, so the May retail sales report should be really good. Today, ADP released its estimate of private sector job growth in May and it was solid, though nothing spectacular. However, the slide in job growth looks to be over. A positive sign was that payroll gains in the services component of the economy were pretty good. This is the largest portion of the economy and if the hiring reflects improving sales, then that too points to better consumption numbers. There were some concerns raised by the report. Large firms just don’t seem to be hiring. Strong additions to payrolls had helped create the robust jobs numbers we had been getting, so the moderation in hiring in this sector is a warning that we shouldn’t expect Friday’s government payroll increase to be huge. In addition, manufacturing remains soft, but the recent Supply Managers’ numbers seem to indicate that may be changing.

One of the major reasons the economy contracted in the first quarter was a widening in the trade deficit. That too seems to be in the past. The trade deficit, which everyone thought had soared because of the West Coast port strike, narrowed sharply in April. Exports expanded while imports fell. That is good news. Where we go from here is unclear, but the March deficit was so out of whack that it is likely that trade could be largely a nonevent in the second quarter GDP report. When you consider that trade reduced growth in the first quarter by nearly two percentage points, it is clear that the expected economic rebound should be pretty sharp.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: For an extended period, we had been getting disappointing economic numbers. That is changing, which is exactly what most economists had expected. If the winter, the dock strike and the collapse of petroleum prices were the causes of the slowdown, then the warmer weather, the end of the dock strike and the rise in oil prices should reverse the decline. They have. Friday we get the May employment numbers and it looks like an increase at least as great, if not higher than the 223,000 we saw in April is likely. I think it will be at least 250,000, but I have been too optimistic lately so that is a warning. The unemployment rate is likely to remain at 5.4% or even decline and the number of underemployed should come down as well. Those results would signal a further tightening in the labor market. Fed members have been somewhat dour about the condition of the economy. But the Fed has been behind the curve, when it comes to the economy, for decades and there is no reason to think that has changed. As for the markets, these data show a stronger than perceived economy but with employment Friday coming up, the reaction should be muted.

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