July Housing Starts and Mid-August Consumer Sentiment

KEY DATA: Starts: -4%; 1-Family: +1.3%; Permits: +8.4%; 1-Family: +1.8%/ Sentiment: -6.3 points

IN A NUTSHELL:  “With housing going nowhere and consumer confidence faltering, it is not a major surprise that investors are worried about the economy.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  The yo-yo markets have every reason to be bouncing around like crazy.  One day the president is General Lee sending General Pickett and his trade war troops straight up the hill and the next he is in retreat. It cannot be ruled out that Trump’s assault on China may end as ignominiously. 

The next year will determine if Trump and Lee have something in common.  For now, all we can do is look at the data.  Today, the numbers are housing starts and consumer sentiment.  Starts dropped in July and the decline was in three of the four regions.  Only the West posted a rise and that was relatively modest.  However, to confuse matters, permit requests surged.  For the three months ending July, permits are 4.6% above starts and that points to a rebound in construction over the next few months.  That said, it looks as if home construction has largely stabilized and with sales pretty much flatlined as well, there is little reason to expect starts will jump either. 

Meanwhile, the consumer is beginning to get a little antsy about the trade war.  The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment index tanked in the first half of August and the biggest reason given was the trade situation.  According to the report, “Consumers strongly reacted to the proposed September increase in tariffs on Chinese imports, spontaneously cited by 33% of all consumers in early August, barely below the recent peak of 37%.”  Both the current conditions and expectations indices declined.MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:  The next FOMC meeting is September 17-18 and there is lots of new data that may – or may not – provide some clarity on where the economy is headed.  The Fed, regardless of what it says, is no longer data dependent.  At least not data that have to do with the U.S. economy, which may be moderating but is not faltering.Instead, it is being tossed around in the same way as investors by the president’s tweets.  The trade war is what concerns most Fed members; at least I think that is the case.  We haven’t heard a lot from them lately.  The Fed has to guess what the president is actually going to do, when he will do it and what those decisions, whatever they are, will mean for the U.S. and world growth.  In other words, the Fed is flying blind. What it has going for it is an economy that is still in pretty good shape.  What it has to worry about is a faltering Chinese economy that is starting to impact other countries around the world and a potential all out trade war.  The longer this goes, the less the Chinese have reason to settle before the 2020 election.  President Xi has to weigh further economic pain over the next fifteen months against a possible Trump re-election and uncertain policies afterward.  As President for Life, he has some flexibility to take the pain for potential long-term gain.  If that happens, the Fed is in a total bind.  It would have to cut rates significantly to have any chance of improving the economy and even then it is not clear if aggressive action would do much.  If Chair Powell continues on his race back to zero, what does he do then?  For several years now, I and many other economists have warned that the Fed needs to get rates back up to more normal levels so it has the ability to fight the next war/recession.  Does anyone believe they succeeded in doing that?  With such great uncertainty over what Trump will do next, it should surprise no one if we continue to see wild swings in the stock and bond markets.

July Employment Report, Consumer Expectations and June Trade Deficit

KEY DATA: Payrolls: +164,000; Revisions: -41,000; Private: 148,000; Unemployment Rate: 3.7% (Unchanged); wages: +0.3%/ Confidence: +0.2 point/ Deficit: down $0.2 billion

IN A NUTSHELL:  “Job growth is right where it was expected to be and with confidence remaining high, the only concern remains trade wars, which look to be heating up again.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The normally highly anticipated jobs reported was released today and it came in almost at the exact number that forecasters anticipated.  In July, a moderate number or workers were added to the payrolls.  Clearly, that means it is a wrong number (drum roll). Actually, it is pretty much where job gains for this entire year were predicted. In other words, this was a ho hum number.  But there were reductions in the reported gains for May and June’s big rise turned out to be good not great. The three-month average is now below expectations.  As for the report, manufacturing job increases were surprisingly good.  The problem is that the retail sector just keeps contracting and given the structural changes in the sector, that should continue.  Unfortunately, warehousing and transportation are not picking up the slack. With firms not hiring few temporary help, we should not expect a sudden surge in hiring. As for the unemployment rate, it was stable.  The labor force rose solidly but as is usually the case, a lot of those entrants had trouble finding positions right away.   The participation rate edged up but it has remained in a pretty narrow range this year.  Finally, wages were up decently but not strongly.  However, hours worked declined and that does not bode well for overall income gains.  If incomes don’t keep rising solidly, consumption will have to moderate and that has been the sector shouldering the burden of growth.

As for the consumer, confidence remains in good shape.  The University of Michigan’s Consumer Expectations Index edged up in July.  The current conditions component eased but a rise in expectations overcame that decline.  Except for a steep drop early this year, the index has been in a fairly tight range for the past sixteen month.  That is good since the level is solid.

The trade deficit narrowed just a touch in June, which should be good news.  But both imports and exports were down fairly significantly and that is not a sign of either strong domestic or international demand.  Despite the President’s claims, farm exports, led by sales of soybeans, were up both monthly and for the year.  As one of my closest friends likes to say, “never let facts get in the way of bad policy”.  The biggest issues were sharp drops in vehicle, gem diamond and computer sales.  Energy didn’t play a large role in this report.  The petroleum deficit, though, was the lowest in memory.  That could easily turn next month, widening the deficit. 

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:  Just a day after Fed Chair Powell talked about trade issues moving from boil to simmer, the heat got turned up again.  Nice call Jay.  Okay, it is unfair to knock the Fed Chair on a decision that was not expected at this exact time, though it was somewhat telegraphed.  The President complained that the Chinese were not buying our farm goods as promised, which for him is a political problem.  Of course it is an economic one as well, but the two have become one with this administration.  The result is that fundamental economic data that are not outliers are probably trees falling in a forest before measuring devices were invented.  When the tweet about more Chinese tariffs came out, the markets tanked and it looks like we are in for a long period of battles.  Ten percent is just the opening gambit.  Twenty-five percent is the next likely threat.  Ultimately, those tariffs/taxes on consumer of business goods will have to be passed on.  How would the Fed react?  Normally, I would argue that the Fed would see through the economic slowdown and any potential rise in prices caused by tariffs as being temporary.  But this is the Powell Fed and any one month of data matter, though which numbers and which month are unclear.  So, buckle up.  We have a volatile president and an unanchored Fed and what that means for the economy is anyone’s guess.  My new motto: “You tell me and we both know”. 

July Manufacturing Activity, June Construction, July Layoff Notices and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: ISM (Manufacturing): -0.5 pt.; Orders: +0.8 pt.; Employment: -2.8 pts./ Construction: -1.3%; Private: -0.4%/ Notices: 38,845/ Claims: +8,000

IN A NUTSHELL:  “The manufacturing sector is not likely to do much until the trade issues are behind us.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  If you believe the Fed and Mr. Powell in particular, it is all about trade.  Trade wars are causing uncertainty, slowing world growth, U.S. business investment and exports and restraining manufacturing activity.  And there is little doubt that is the case.  In July, we saw that the industrial portion of the economy continued to moderate.  The Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing index eased to its lowest in three years.  Production and hiring increased significantly more slowly and order books thinned at a more rapid pace.  None of those are good signs and the modest increase in jobs points minimal help from manufacturing in tomorrow’s July employment report.  A similar measure, the IHS Markit Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index, hit its lowest level in nearly a decade, so it does appear that manufacturing conditions have weakened significantly this year. 

Adding to the economy’s woes is the slowdown in construction, which declined sharply in June.  Most of that came from a large drop in government spending on education, highways and health care.  I guess we don’t need new schools, roads or hospitals.  But this report was not totally negative as private sector commercial and health care construction rose.  Still, commercial construction has not been great this year and there is little reason to expect that to change. 

As for the labor market data, the numbers did little to change the perception that conditions remain tight.  Challenger, Gray and Christmas reported that layoff notices continue to grow rapidly.  The weakest sector is industrial goods, consistent with the softening of the manufacturing sector.  The rise in unemployment claims last week only moves us back to more normal, but extraordinarily low levels.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: What will Mr. Powell and his band of monetary policy makers do next?  You tell me and we both know.  The economy is still expanding decently but the trade war issues are not going away.  With China showing it can be just as intransigent as Trump, don’t look for much to happen anytime soon.  The Chinese have decided to target agriculture and they are not buying our farm products.  How long farmers will be willing to stay on government welfare I don’t know, but it cannot be for too much longer. A lot of what is going on has to do with politics not economics, so the Chinese decision to hurt the politically important farm sector has to be recognized as an important factor in the negotiations to create true change in the bilateral relationship. Consequently, if a trade agreement with China occurs, it is likely to be mostly puff and little pastry.  But it would at least ease the uncertainty provide a short-term boost to growth.  Until then, the expansion should continue to moderate but not falter.  Chair Powell still claims the Fed is data dependent, which is hard to believe given the data didn’t support a rate cut.  I just don’t know what he is looking at and what he characterizes as weak enough to cut again.  If all he is worried about is world growth, he will probably get the data he needs to reduce rates again this year.  If growth and inflation are the keys, I am not sure the numbers will be as supportive.  And with the Fed clearly divided, forecasting what happens next has become a lot more uncertain, which is saying a lot given Mr. Powell’s penchant to change course on a dime.

July 30-31, 2019 FOMC Meeting

In a Nutshell:  “In light of the implications of global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures, the Committee decided to lower the target range for the federal funds rate…”

Decision: Fed funds rate target range reduced to 2.00% to 2.25%.

As expected, but not universally agreed with, the Fed cut interest rates by 25 basis points – one-quarter point – for the first time in a decade.  That occurred despite an economic statement that was the same as in June and an economy where the data have been better than expected.

So, why did the Fed reduce rates now?  The key factors appear to be a fear of too low inflation that could lead to an extended, Japanese-style deflationary slump and worries about the world economy that were largely created by trade policy. 

On the inflation front, it looks like inflation expectations are the key. Fed Chair Powell recognized that 25 basis points will not cure the problem of below target inflation.  Indeed, it is fairly clear that a quarter-point cut will have limited economic impacts.  But he believes that image matters and the reduction in rates and the end of the quantitative tightening process (which was also announced), should provide the confidence that inflation will ultimately move back toward target levels.  I guess the Fed once again is putting its stock in jawboning, a strategy that hasn’t worked well in the past. He also noted that it might take longer to get back to target.  That was likely noted so he can buy the Fed more time.

As for the world economy, the idea of cutting rates was to take out some insurance against a domestic slowdown induced by the trade issues.  Of course, he did not indicate how a rate cut would accomplish that goal.  That’s because it cannot.

As for future rate cuts, he hinted that this was the start of a process, but he tried to make it clear it would not be a long process.  In other words, we should expect another rate cut, though it is not clear if that might happen at the next meeting or one a little later.  Of course, if we keep getting solid data, who knows what this Fed will do. 

So, what should we make of this move.  The Fed has now become the economic mouth that is trying to roar.  That is, he thinks that when the Fed talks, everyone listens.  They do, but do they believe in what the Fed is saying?  That’s unclear because rates are already low, global factors are beyond the Fed’s control and low inflation has been an issue for years now and small rate adjustments can accomplish very little.

But to me, the real problem is the markets.  The Fed became the drug dealer of choice when it implemented and more importantly, sustained quantitative easing.  But the junkies, i.e., the markets, are now controlling the drug dealer.  When the markets get starved for more opiates, they scream and yell and ultimately, the Fed provides the drugs.  It did that in two ways today, by lowering rates and ending QT early. 

It is likely the markets will soon start demanding more.  Indeed, the huge decline in the stock indices in the first hour after the announcement and during Mr. Powell’s press conference, as well as the rise in the dollar, seemed to say that one 25 basis point cut will not do it.  As addicts will tell you, they can never get enough and the Fed is opening itself up to that potential problem, especially if the trade negotiations with China drag on. 

If Mr. Powell wants to delude himself by continuing to make the argument that this is just a “mid-cycle adjustment”, then so be it.  But he is now at the mercy of a mercurial president, foreign economies over which he has no control and economic/inflation perceptions rather than economic fundamentals.  As Oliver Hardy liked to say: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten (us) into.”(The next FOMC meeting is September 17-18, 2019.) 

July Private Sector Jobs and Second Quarter Employment Costs

KEY DATA: ADP: 156,000; Small: 11,000; Large: 78,000/ ECI (Over-Year): +2.7%; Wages: +2.9%; Benefits: +2.3%

IN A NUTSHELL:  “Despite decent job gains, worker compensation gains continue to fade, which is a real conundrum.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  Our illustrious Fed Chair is concerned about the economy and since growth has depended on strong consumer spending, the focus has to be on job gains and worker compensation.  In both cases, conditions remain solid, though not nearly as strong as one would expect.  Take payrolls.  According to the employment services firm ADP, private sector hiring was solid in July, though nothing spectacular.  The issue is with small businesses, which are hardly hiring.  These firms are being battered by tight labor markets, which make it difficult to find workers.  Small companies tend to have limited or no be benefits and need part-time employees and if workers can find full-time jobs with benefits, they will take it.  That is usually with larger firms, who are hiring at a strong pace.  Small businesses are also facing the reality that demand is shifting to online purchases, a place where they have significant problems competing.  So it is not a surprise they are losing out.  But the implication is that most hiring will occur at medium to large-size companies, a change from the past.  The hospitality, health care and administrative services sectors continue to add workers solidly, though manufacturing and mining have weakened.

With the supply of workers is constrained by the low unemployment rate, we should be seeing income gains accelerating.  That is just not happening.  Compensation is decelerating.  The Employment Cost Index rose at a solid but slower pace in the second quarter, marking the second consecutive quarter that worker compensation moderated.  Both wage gains and especially benefits increases have faded.  That is a real surprise, especially the sharp drop in benefits growth.  Anecdotal stories have it that firms are using lots of non-monetary inducements to keep or attract workers.  It could be that those benefits are not being captured by the government’s survey. Indeed, government benefits remain high and the public sector is limited in its ability to be imaginative in retaining and attracting workers.  So, we may be getting an incomplete picture of the compensation situation.MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The Fed’s rate decision will be coming out soon so the markets will be focusing more on what is in the statement and what Chair Powell says at his press conference than on any economic number.  But the data don’t point to a faltering economy, only a moderating one.  With the economy expanding at trend growth in the second quarter and with inflation at a pace in excess of the Fed’s 2% target, there is no reason to cut rates. But Mr. Powell put the Fed into a straight jacket and he has to loosen it at least a little today.  Where we go from here, though, is the real question and given the rapidity with which Whiplash Jay changes direction, I have little idea what the next move will be.

June Retail Sales, Industrial Production and Import Prices

KEY DATA: Sales: +0.4%; Ex-Vehicles: +0.4%/ IP: 0%; Manufacturing: +0.4%/ Import Prices: -0.9%; Fuel: -6.5%; Non-Fuel: -0.3%

IN A NUTSHELL:  “With consumers consuming and manufacturers manufacturing, the only thing the Fed has to worry about is inflation.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  As Fed Chair Powell keeps saying, the economy is at risk.  Wrong again, at least when you look at the June economic numbers.  First there is the consumer, who seems to be quite willing to spend.  Retail sales rose more than expected in June and it wasn’t just vehicle purchases.   Most categories, including furniture, building materials and health care, posted solid gains.  We ate out and ate in and shopped online.  About the only thing we didn’t do was buy electronics and appliances.  While total gasoline purchases dropped, that was due to price declines. And it looks like second quarter consumption could be better than forecast as the so-called core sales measure, which tracks the GDP consumption number, was up sharply.  This excludes vehicles, gasoline, good services and building materials.  In other words, the consumer is alive and well. 

Meanwhile, the nation’s manufacturers are expanding output to meet the solid demand.  Manufacturing production rose strongly in June as most industries posted gains.  Only three of the eleven durable goods industries reduced output, while only two of the eight nondurable sectors were down.  As vehicle sales have moved back to very solid levels, the companies have boosted assembly rates sharply over the past two months.  There were some weak segments of note.  Machinery and electrical equipment and appliances reduced production sharply. 

As for inflation, if the costs of imports matter, and they do, it is going nowhere.  Import prices fell in June, which hardly surprised anyone given the sharp decline in energy costs.  But even excluding fuel, the cost of foreign products was down.  Looking at the details, most components were either flat or lower and those that were up rose minimally.  Over the year, import prices were off 1.4%.  In comparison, between June 2017 and June 2018, the cost of imports was up 1.5%.  As for exports, the hurting farm sector got a major reprieve as their prices surged.  But if you were a non-farm exporter, you had to sell at a discount. 

There were two other indicators released today that also point to solid growth.  The National Association of HomeBuilders’ index moved up in July, pointing to a small improvement in construction.  CoreLogic reported that in April, the mortgage delinquency rate hit its lowest level in more than twenty years.  That indicates household finances are in pretty good shape.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Mr. Chicken Little Powell keeps telling us the sky is falling and that the Fed needs to act accordingly.  But while growth may be moderating it is not faltering.  That is a big difference that should not be difficult to comprehend.  But I guess the Fed Chair and his band of economic gurus don’t seem to get the point.  It will be interesting to see what the first print of second quarter GDP looks like.  It comes out on July 26th, just a few days before the next FOMC meeting, which is on July 30-31.  Remember, this number can be revised quite sharply and the government doesn’t have good data for numbers such as trade. We could get a growth rate that is better than expected, though I still am in the 2% range.  Indeed, as I asked last week, what does the Fed Chair say if the first estimate is closer to 2.5%?  Today’s numbers do not rule out that possibility.  The Fed seems committed to reducing rates and some economists are saying a half-point cut is possible.  There are Fed members who want a quarter point reduction, if only to take out some insurance.  I have no idea what model they are looking at, if they are looking at one at all.  My view is that a quarter-point reduction accomplishes nothing.  If you are worried about a slowdown, do something about it and cut at least a half-point.  Otherwise, stopped playing games. We shall see.

June Consumer Prices, Real Earnings and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: CPI: +0.1%; Over-Year: +1.6%; Ex-Food and Energy: +0.3%; Over-Year: +2.1%/ Hourly Earnings: +0.2%; Over-Year: +1.5%/ Claims: down 13,000

IN A NUTSHELL:  “The tight labor market is not causing wages to surge, so inflation remains lower than expected.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  Yesterday Fed Chair Powell signaled that rates would be coming down, probably at the end of the month.  So we have almost three weeks to see if his fears about weak inflation and a slowing economy are founded.  On the inflation front, his worst concerns were not matched by the June Consumer Price Index report.  Costs rose modestly, but that was largely due to the more volatile food and energy components, which were flat or down.  Excluding those elements, prices rose at the fastest pace in over a year.  Costs of shelter and medical care, not surprisingly, are driving up the index.  In June, though, the biggest increases were in used vehicles and clothing.  I am not sure those two will play a major role going forward. 

The number of new claims for unemployment insurance fell sharply last week and you would think that move signals further tightening in the labor market.  It probably does, but that doesn’t seem to be doing much for wages.  Hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, rose moderately in June.  Over the year, they have increased by a pace, 1.5%, that can hardly be described as strong.  And if the Fed gets inflation to accelerate, spending power could rise even less.      

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:  Yesterday, Mr. Powell sent clear signs that he was worried about the economy and would be willing to lower interest rates.  Unfortunately, his logic is flawed.  A major concern is trade, which is slowing world growth.  Under normal circumstances, lower interest rates might be expected to increase growth, but that doesn’t seem likely right now.  First, cutting rates would not change the factors that are harming world growth.  They are tariffs and the fears of a further expansion in the trade war with China.  Lowering rates does not change those concerns or reduce the costs of tariffs. So, why would businesses change their investment or expansion plans?  Got me.  Meanwhile, the interest sensitive sectors, such as housing and vehicles, are not likely to be helped much by a quarter or half point cut.  Rates are already low and it isn’t the cost of funds that are restraining the markets. So what the Fed Chair expects to accomplish is beyond me.  But he persists.  On the inflation front, the Consumer Price Index, which is not the favored inflation measure but one that is watched nonetheless, is not showing major problems.  Other, less volatile measures created by the Cleveland and Atlanta Fed Banks show inflation at an even higher rate.  But he persists.  I am guessing that Mr. Powell is counting on a sub-2% second quarter GDP growth rate to bolster his position.  And that is quite possible.  But one thing we know about GDP reports, they often surprise.  So, what does he do if a 2.5% growth rate prints?  That would hardly argue that the economy is currently being greatly affected by the trade issues.  The Fed Chair is on shaky grounds and while we are likely to get a rate cut at the end of the month, it would be nice if Fed policy was not being based so much on guesses and issues, such as trade policy, that monetary policy cannot influence.

June Employment Report

KEY DATA: Payrolls: +224,000; Private: 191,000; Health Care: +35,000; Manufacturing: +17,000; Unemployment Rate: 3.7% (up 0.1 percentage point); Wages: +0.2%; Over-Year: +3.1%

IN A NUTSHELL:  “When you smooth out the wild swings in job gains, it is clear the economy and the labor markets remain solid.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  It looks like there is lots of noise not just on Twitter. The economic data continue to show lots of volatility as well.  After a truly weak May employment report, questions were being raised about the strength of the economy. Never mind.  Conditions are just fine.  Job growth was strong in June and the increase was across the board.  The health care and professional services were the key drivers of the job gains. Despite all the trade problems, manufacturers added lots of workers, a real surprise.  But the wild card in this report was government, which added workers heavily after having reduced payrolls in May.  Look for that to unwind in July.  Similarly, there was a sharp increase in construction, a sector that was largely flat the previous two months. 

As for the unemployment rate, it rose modestly.  The strong labor market is drawing in more workers and the labor force was up as was the participation rate, so don’t read anything into the increase.  The one major concern in this report was wages. Despite the low unemployment rate, wage gains continue to decelerate.  I seem to write that every month, as this is a trend that has been with us since the increase over the year peaked in February.  And, as I like to point out, without strong income increases, it is hard to sustain solid consumer spending. 

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:  This was a solid report that creates issues for both the Fed and investors.  For the Fed, the members now need to have some weak economic numbers to honestly argue that the economy needs help. I have warned countless times that you cannot read much into any one economic number.  But apparently, Fed Chair Powell doesn’t agree.  Too bad, since we are seeing just how volatile the data can be.  All this talk about the need to cut rates to help the economy simply got no support in June.  Job growth was solid and while vehicle sales may have been down a bit from the robust May pace, they were still very solid.  The consumer has not abandoned hope.  There are a lot of reports that will come out before the next FOMC meeting at the end of the month, but the big one will likely be second quarter GDP.  It could be the weakest in three years.  But that would not necessarily mean the economy is falling apart enough for the Fed to actually start cutting rates.  We often get a number well above or below the underlying trend and this is likely to be the case.  It has to do with the volatility of the data.  But Mr. Powell needs a soft growth rate to make the excuse to cut rates, since he seems to be operating on a “what have you done for me lately” approach. The Fed looks like it is operating in an economic intelligence vacuum.  We have a Fed Chair who wobbles with every economic number.  We have a Fed bank president who wants to take out some insurance by cutting rates a quarter point, which would do absolutely nothing to the economy.  We have a whole group of members who change their view of conditions between every meeting.   And we have investors, who root for weak numbers so the Fed will cut rates, rather than hope for strong numbers that show growth remains solid.  Indeed, there seems to be a perverse view that good is bad and bad is good.  Strong data raise questions about Fed cuts while weak ones confirm the beliefs that a reduction is coming.  Really?  Is it better to have a soft economy and rate cuts than a strong economy and no rate cuts?  That makes no sense to me, as implies the Fed can fine-tune the economy.  The only thing a rate cut would do is sustain the Fed’s role as drug supplier to the equity markets.  But since it appears that Fed Chair Powell likes being a pusher and investors like being junkies, I suspect both roles will be sustained at the end of the month.

June Manufacturing Activity and May Construction

KEY DATA: ISM (Manufacturing): -0.4 points; Orders: -2.7 points; Employment: +0.8 points/ Construction: -0.8%; Private: -0.7%; Residential: -0.6%

IN A NUTSHELL:  “The manufacturing slowdown continues and it is being mirrored by moderating construction activity.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  The trade battles are supposed to create a more level playing field for manufacturers and lead to a faster growing sector, but for now, the opposite is occurring.  Manufacturing activity continues to fade.  The Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing index eased again in June, dropping to its lowest level since October 2016.  That is not to say the sector is not expanding, it is, but the pace has decelerated fairly consistently over the past year.  In June, the decline was led by faltering orders, which were flat.  This was the first time in nearly 3½ years that demand was not expanding.  With output increasing faster, order books continued to shrink, which is not good news for future production.  There was one good number in the report: Employment expanded faster.  Manufacturing payrolls may not restrain job gains in Friday’s June employment report, though I still think we could see a negative manufacturing number.

Construction, the other major non-service sector, also looks to be weakening.  Activity dropped in May as both public and private sector and the softness was pretty much across the board.  Both residential and nonresidential spending were down.  Compared to May 2018 levels, private sector construction activity dropped over 6% as residential fell by double-digits.  Non-residential was off minimally.  MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:Now that we have cease-fire in the U.S./China trade war – which should have surprised approximately no one – it is time to focus on the economic fundamentals.  Well, maybe we shouldn’t.  There have not been a whole lot of good reports recently and today’s numbers continue to paint a picture of an economy continuing to moderate. Manufacturing has been battered by the trade war fears and the weekend’s news wasn’t particularly helpful.  The reality is that nothing changed other than the hope that additional tariffs will not be put in place in the near term.  The Chinese got what they wanted and the U.S. put off imposing tariffs that could drive the economy into recession.  I guess you can say that is good but future tariffs have not been ruled out and thus there really is no reason for anyone to feel that this situation is close to being resolved.  It was said that an agreement was 90% complete, which is downright scary.  Anyone who has been involved with major negotiations knows that the last few percentage points are the toughest ones and ten percent is a large number.  So, don’t expect an agreement anytime soon, which means that ultimately, the threats of new tariffs will likely rear their ugly heads.  As for the Fed, the focus is on Friday’s jobs report (yes, there is a jobs report on Friday!), which should be decent but hardly great.  I categorize 150,000-175,000 as decent.  Don’t be surprised if the unemployment ticks up.  Until we get that number, even with additional data being released before then, the best thing that can be said is that the economy is expanding, but at a more trend-like manner, which is somewhere in the 2% range. 

May Spending and Income and June Consumer Sentiment

KEY DATA: Consumption: +0.4%; Income: +0.5%; Prices: +0.2%; Ex-Food and Energy: +0.2%/ Sentiment: -1.8 points

IN A NUTSHELL:  “Decent income gains are supporting continued consumer spending, but weakness in wage increases remains a threat to growth.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  Until the trade wars are resolved, businesses will remain under pressure, so we have to look at consumers to keep things going.  And it looks like that is happening.  Household spending jumped in May, led by a surge in vehicle sales.  Services demand also was up solidly, which overcame weakness in soft goods purchases.  Still, the increase in spending, when added to the rise in April, means that second quarter consumption should be solid if not strong.  Of course, that depends upon June vehicle sales and we will not know them until next week.  Can households continue to spend?  That is a good question.  On the surface, the answer is yes, as disposable (after tax) income rose strongly.  But wage and salary gains were tepid, at best.  Workers did not see a whole lot of increase in their paychecks and that is worrisome.  Proprietors’ income jumped and interest payments surged (don’t ask me why, I have no idea), creating the strong income increase.  The savings rate was up again, possibly indicating that households are becoming more conservative in their spending patterns.  As for inflation, it rose moderately even when the volatile food and energy components (the core rate) were removed.  Over the year, price gains remain below the Fed’s 2% target.

Consumer confidence continues to fade, but by no means can it be said that people are depressed.  The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index eased in June less than expected.  The overall measure remains quite high as do the current conditions and expectations indices.  The report noted that: “June’s small overall decline was entirely due to households with incomes in the top third of the distribution, who more frequently mentioned the negative impact of tariffs”.  That is not likely to lead to much of a change in overall spending.MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:We are on Fed Watch.  Will the FOMC cut rates at the next meeting, that end July 31st?   The markets still seem totally convinced that it will happen, but I am not.  Consumer spending is holding up and that means second quarter growth could come in at around 2%.  The Fed raised rates when the economy was expanding not much more than 2%, so why should 2% growth require a rate cut?  Keep in mind, most economists believed and still do that 3% growth is not sustainable and we would ease back to trend, which is in the 2% range.  As for inflation, which seems to worry the Fed as much or more than growth, it too is not really falling apart.  On a quarter-over-quarter annualized basis, top line inflation is running at a 2.3% annualized pace while core inflation is more muted, at 1.7%.  While the year-over-year numbers are both below 2%, the Fed should also be looking at the recent pattern.  If the quarter-over-quarter rates are near the Fed’s target, wouldn’t it be reasonable to remain patient and see what happens?  Growth around 2% and inflation just below 2% are not data points that demand a rate cut.  If we get one, my conclusion would be that it’s the equity markets that matter the most right now.  That would imply the Fed has a triple mandate that includes maximizing equity values, not just maximizing employment and stabilizing inflation.  Ugh!

Linking the Economic Environment to Your Business Strategy