Look for Steadiness from the Fed
The Federal Reserve is set to make its first policy statement of the year on Wednesday, so this is as good a time as any to reiterate our view that the Fed is likely to keep short-term interest rates steady through 2020 and, while pressures will build, the Fed seems content to hold them steady next year, as well.
Moderate Growth in Q4
Back in mid-November, the highly respected GDP forecasting model from the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank (also known as "GDP Now"), estimated that real GDP would only grow at a 0.3% annual rate in the fourth quarter, which, if accurate, would have been the slowest growth for any quarter since 2015. At the time, we were forecasting economic growth at a 3.0% rate.
The Gift That Keeps Giving
The US economy is not in an economic boom, but growth has been consistently faster than during the Plow Horse phase from mid-2009 through the end of 2016. Real GDP has grown at a 2.6% annual rate since the start of 2017 versus 2.2% beforehand.
Blame the Overweight Jockey
The longest economic recovery on record continues, with January being the 128th consecutive month of growth. The first seven years, from mid-2009 through 2016 saw average real GDP growth of 2.2%. Since the start of 2017, US real GDP growth accelerated, to an average annual growth rate of 2.6%, while the unemployment rate now stands at the lowest level in 50 years (and is likely headed lower).
Greedy Innkeeper or Generous Capitalist?
The Bible story of the virgin birth is at the center of much of the holiday cheer this time of year. The book of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus decreed a census should be taken. Mary gave birth after arriving in Bethlehem and placed baby Jesus in a manger because there was "no room for them in the inn."
S&P 3650, Dow 32500
A year ago, we projected the S&P 500 would hit 3100 at the end of 2019. In spite of the swoon in equities in the fourth quarter of last year, we didn't see a recession coming and our model for estimating fair value for the stock market was screaming BUY.
Don't Worry About the US Consumer
During the next couple of days you're going to see lots of stories about the strength of consumer spending. Early reports say Black Friday online sales hit a record high, up 14% from a year ago, following a 17% increase on Thanksgiving Day itself. Black Friday sales at brick and mortar stores were up 4.2% from a year ago.
Long Live the Bull Market
Last December, almost 12 months ago, we set our year-end 2019 target for the S&P 500 at 3,100. Many thought we were way too bullish, but our model for the stock market suggested 3,100 was well within reach. We believed the bull market had plenty of room to run.
Income Inequality, Taxation, and Redistribution
One of our favorite economic parables is the Fish Story, from Paul Zane Pilzer's 1990 book, "Unlimited Wealth." It is an excellent tool for thinking about wealth creation, inequality and redistribution.
No Recession on the Horizon
Since the earliest days of the current economic expansion, there have been naysayers asserting the US was on the brink of another recession. Remember all the fear about another wave of home foreclosures, or a disaster in commercial real estate, or the Fiscal Cliff, or Greece potentially leaving the Eurozone, or German bank defaults, or even the inverted yield curve earlier this year?
Finally, A Pause
To little surprise, the Fed cut short-term interest rates by 25 basis points today for the third time in four months, moving the range for the federal funds rate down to 1.50 – 1.75%. What markets were looking for, and what the Fed statement did little to provide, was clarity on the path of interest rates moving forward. Thankfully, Chairman Powell addressed the path forward head-on in his press conference.
Another Fed Rate Cut on the Way
At the close of business on Friday, the futures market in federal funds was putting the odds of a 25 basis point rate cut on Wednesday at 90%, which would place the federal funds rate in a range between 1.50 and 1.75%, the lowest it's been since mid-2018.
Trade Clouds Parting
Trade disputes have been an ongoing soap opera since President Trump took office. From steel tariffs to trade skirmishes with China, Japan, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and the European Union, among others, it's been hard to keep track!
Labor Market Continues to Roar
In spite of all the fear-mongering about a recession, Friday's employment report clearly showed we are not in an economic downturn. The best news in the report was that the unemployment rate fell to 3.5%, the lowest most Americans have seen in their lifetimes.
In Ronald Reagan's famous A Time For Choosing speech in 1964, he said "...the more the plans fail, the more the planners plan." We were reminded of this recently after pundits freaked out when the New York Federal Reserve injected reserves into the banking system to keep some short-term rates from rising.
In the past few days, stresses in the financial system have shown up. These stresses have pushed the federal funds rate above the Federal Reserve's desired target range of between 2.00% and 2.25% (as of Tuesday), and some reports have funds trading as high as 9%.
We're All Keynesians Now
"We are all Keynesians now," is a phrase that caught on in the late 1960s and early 1970s, variously attributed to Milton Friedman and President Richard Nixon. Uncle Milty was commenting on the general political/economic environment, not saying he was a Keynesian. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, actually said "I am now a Keynesian."
Labor Day is probably the best time to take stock of the American worker and, for them, it's rarely been better. The unemployment rate is near the lowest level since the 1960s, job growth remains robust, and wage growth is in a general accelerating trend.
Analysts were very quick to pin the blame for weakness in stocks late last week on the trade war with China. We agree that uncertainty regarding the future of US-China trade relations was a drag on equities, but think it was far from the only reason for weakness. In fact, it wasn't even the most negative news of the week.
Those Crazy Negative Interest Rates
More than five years ago the European Central Bank adopted negative interest rates as a policy tool to address economic weakness in the Eurozone. Starting at -0.1%, eventually the target short-term rate fell to -0.4%.
The Flailing Fed
The Fed is flailing. For the past several years, under the leadership of both Jerome Powell and, before that, Janet Yellen, the Fed claimed it was "data dependent." But the decision last week to reduce short-term rates by 25 basis points tore that narrative to shreds.
Drip Drip Drip
The Fed cut short-term interest rates by 25 basis points today, moving the range for the federal funds rate down to 2.00 - 2.25%. It also announced it will stop reducing its balance sheet in August, two months earlier than previously planned.
Solid GDP Report
A cottage industry has sprung up in the past decade with the sole focus of discrediting any good news on the economy. When President Obama was in office, the attacks mostly came from the right. With President Trump in Office, the attacks mostly come from the left.
Temporary Tepid Growth for Q2
This Friday, the government will release its initial estimate of real GDP growth in the second quarter, and the headline is likely to look soft. At present, we're projecting an initial report of growth at a 1.8% annual rate.
The Longest Expansion
As of today, the current economic expansion is the longest in US history. Ten years and a day. But just because it's the longest doesn't mean it's the best. The expansions of the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s, all beat it out both in terms of the pace of growth as well as the total growth during the cycle...
This Crazy Rate Cut
The narrative that the U.S. economy is in trouble – some say teetering on the edge of recession - has become so powerful and persuasive that few investors give it a second thought. So of course, they believe, the Fed should cut interest rates.
The Plow Horse Returns?
We haven't been worried about a trade conflict with China, which has a long track record of pirating intellectual property and is a potential military rival in the (not too distant) future. The US has enormous leverage with China, given our trade deficit with the country and the ability of firms to shift supply chains toward alternatives, like Vietnam, Mexico, and India.
Foreign Slowness Not an Obstacle
One consistent theme we've heard lately among pessimistic analysts and investors is that slower growth abroad is a headwind for economic growth in the US. Softness in Europe or China, they say, bodes poorly for the continuation of US expansion. The standard theory, the conventional wisdom, is that slower growth abroad means slower growth in US exports.
Trade War Hysterics
Since hitting new all-time highs two weeks ago, the S&P 500 has fallen about 2.2% as trade negotiations with China hit a snag. Last week, the US announced new tariffs on Chinese imports. This morning, China announced new tariffs on some US goods. Many fear a widening trade war.
The Big Picture and the Fed
If you take a long hike up a mountain, there's plenty to appreciate along the way. But, sometimes, you just have to stop and enjoy the view. With that in mind, let's forget about the April employment report – which saw a combination of very fast payroll growth and moderate wage growth – and think about where the labor market stands in general.
It wasn't that long ago that some economists and investors were seriously concerned about US growth going negative for the first quarter. Now, based on our calculations, which we discuss below, it looks like real GDP grew at a respectable 2.6% annual rate in Q1, meaning that US real output was 3.1% larger than Q1-2018.
New Highs, Still a Buy
The Dow Jones Industrials Average and S&P 500 are breathing down the neck of record highs set last Fall. Some take that as a sign to sell, time to shift out of equities and realize gains. We think that would be a mistake.
Economy on Very Solid Ground
Last month many economists had pushed down their estimates for first quarter economic growth to near zero. The Atlanta Fed's "GDP Now" model was projecting real GDP growth at a 0.2% annual rate in Q1, which would have been the slowest growth since the weather-related negative reading in the first quarter of 2014. But this time it was seen as a new trend leading us toward a recession.