Monday, July 7, 2014

Monday, July 07, 2014 - Small Steps

Small Steps
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 44 = 17,024
SPX – 7 = 1977
NAS – 34 = 4451
10 YR YLD - .03 = 2.62%
OIL - .67 = 103.39
GOLD - .50 = 1321.00
SILV - .10 = 21.15

It was a long holiday weekend that was over way too fast. And the problems of the world haven’t gone away. Let’s get caught up on some of the big stories.

In Iraq, the situation is deteriorating. There had been muted hope for some sort of an inclusive government to hold the country together. Don’t count on it. Iraq’s new parliament has called a recess and they won’t meet again for 5 weeks. So Iraq is now politically paralyzed. Meanwhile, a Sunni Islamist insurgency killed an army general near Baghdad.  It looks like Prime Minister Maliki is digging in his heels, raising the risk that Iraq will fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines.

ISIS, the Sunni insurgents are holding territory in western Iraq and just north of the capitol. The Iraqi military, backed by Shi'ite militias and volunteers, has yet to take back any major cities but is trying to advance on Tikrit. Kurds in northern Iraq have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their autonomous territory in northern Iraq. Most Sunnis and Kurds walked out of the last parliament, saying they believed the prime minister and president should be chosen along with the speaker as a package, not one at a time. They could not resolve the impasse, so the acting speaker postponed the meeting.

In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels built barricades in the streets of Donetsk and it looks like they will try to make a stand. Although most shops and businesses in Donetsk were still open, some were shut, and residents are concerned that government forces could soon attack. Rebels have been barricaded into government buildings in Donetsk, which they declared capital of an independent "people's republic", but until now the city mostly functioned normally.

You may recall there was an election in Afghanistan last month. They announced preliminary results today. The losing presidential candidate is now saying the results of the election were improperly counted and he is describing it as a “coup” against the people. His rejection of the election results sets the stage for a possible bloody standoff between ethnic groups or even secession of parts of the fragile country, which is already deeply divided along tribal lines. The vote to pick a successor to Hamid Karzai was intended to mark the first democratic transfer of power in Afghan history, a crucial step towards stability as the US prepares to withdraw the bulk of its troops by the end of the year. Not so great.

Hamas stepped up rocket fire at southern Israeli towns and Israel called up reserve troops today in anticipation of a possible escalation of hostilities. Hamas has vowed revenge for what it saw as Israel's deadliest attacks in which six Palestinian militants died, though Israel denied any involvement. The surge in violence has raged since the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youths last month and a Palestinian teen last week. Israel said more than 40 rockets were launched as militants' funerals were held in Gaza. Thirty struck inside Israel and the rest were shot down by rocket interceptors. Air raid sirens wailed as far north as the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

And then there’s Chicago, where the Fourth of July holiday resulted in widespread violence that left 80 people wounded and 14 dead.

On the economic calendar, Alcoa will kick off the earnings reporting season after the close of trade tomorrow. Alcoa has long held the ceremonial role for starting earnings season because it was in the Dow Industrials and it had the ticker symbol AA. Alcoa is no longer one of the Dow 30 stocks, but the tradition holds. Actually, we’ve already seen about 25 companies from the S&P 500 report earnings.

Second-quarter profit growth is expected to come in at 6.6% for the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, which would be an improvement over the 5.6% growth in the first three months of 2014. Revenues are expected to grow 3%. While negative second-quarter profit warnings have outpaced positive ones by a 4.2 to 1 margin — well above the 2.6 to 1 negative-to-positive ratio since 1995 — the future outlooks from CEOs are far more bullish than the first quarter, when there were nearly 7 negative profit pre-announcements for every positive one.

With stocks at all-time highs and no longer cheap after a five-year bull run, Wall Street wants to see companies deliver profit and revenue growth in the coming second-quarter earnings season sizable enough to warrant the market’s big move. Indeed, the bull market’s continued health will hinge on vibrant corporate profitability. Whether or not stocks continue trending higher will likely depend on second-quarter earnings reports, as well as management’s guidance of full-year earnings.

Currently, the S&P 500 is trading at nearly 16 times its estimated earnings over the next four quarters, which is a tad above the long-term average. Heading into the season, analysts are upbeat, with more analysts’ raising profit forecasts than lowering them for the first time since the first quarter of 2012, but more upbeat analysts could result in a more downbeat market reaction.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve will release the minutes of its last meeting, held June 17-18. Wall Street will again be looking for any clues related to the timing of the first interest rate hike by the Fed. After the strong jobs report Thursday, some Wall Street firms revised their rate-hike timetables, warning that rates could start rising earlier-than-expected next year. However, the Fed might not be so positive about jobs. There’s been concern about the degree to which a falling unemployment rate is overstating labor-market strength.  You’ll likely see general agreement that the labor market has been improving, but there will be difference in opinion about the drop in the unemployment rate. Officials have also been eyeing tepid wage growth.

That’s one of the strange things about the jobs report; it does a poor job of measuring the strength of the jobs created. When we try to measure performance in the stock market, we don’t look at the number of new stocks available to investors, instead we measure the price of the stocks, the value of the stocks. But when we look at jobs, we don’t look at the value those jobs bring. One of the things we’ve seen is that many of the jobs being created are part-time.

So, it's interesting that the recent news of job market "improvement" doesn't mention that of the 10 occupation categories projecting the greatest growth in the next eight years, only one pays a middle-class wage. Four pay barely above poverty level, and five pay beneath it, including fast food workers, retail sales staff, health aids, and janitors. The job expected to have the highest number of openings is "Personal Care Aide" – taking care of aging baby boomers in their houses or in nursing homes. The median salary of an aid is under $20,000.

We’re starting to see some improvement as the job market gains traction; more than half the jobs the economy has added so far this year are in positions that pay higher than the hourly wage. Some 58% of the new jobs created in 2014 pay above the average hourly wage of $24.45. By contrast, about 48% of the new jobs created in 2013 paid above the national average. Businesses in 2014 are hiring more white-collar employees, construction is on the mend (at least compared to the first quarter), health care is going strong and even the long-downtrodden financial industry is finally getting into the act. About 42% of the new jobs, meanwhile, fall into categories that pay less than the average wage.

Still there is a general lack of upward wage pressure; workers demanding more money as the labor market improves and the pool of potential employees shrinks. Wages have risen just 2% over the past year and weekly wages have actually fallen in the past two months. Part of the problem is part-time work; part of the problem is that the good paying jobs are limited to certain sectors. The bigger problem is that the increase in the number of jobs is not translating to higher wages and that, in turn does not translate to faster economic growth.

This week’s economic calendar also includes reports on small businesses, job turnover, and consumer credit. There was a 10.2% surge in consumer credit in April. The growing dependence on debt could prolong consumer spending a few more months, but in the absence higher real wages, this type of consumption cannot last much longer, certainly not if we see both gas prices and inflation-driven interest rates edge higher later this year.

It’s unlikely we’ll get any big pronouncements from the Fed. They probably talked about how the economy has rebounded from the terrible slump of the 1st quarter, but if you read the minutes for any major move on interest rates, don’t hold your breath. Neither short-term nor long-term rates will go significantly higher in the next few years. More likely, modest increases that might even be quickly reversed. The implications of another extended period of depressed rates would be bad news for savers and pension funds, but it should help the stock market.

After the Fed’s June meeting, they made clear that they expected to finally begin lifting their benchmark rate in 2015, if the economy continues to expand and unemployment continues to decline. Even so, 12 of the 16 members of the policy committee expected the Fed's rate to be no higher than 1.5% by the end of 2015 — a full 18 months from now. Asked for their rate prediction for the end of 2016, the majority of the Fed panel expected 2.5% or less. And because the Fed's rate influences all other interest costs, that would suggest still-low rates across the board.

What we are learning about this version of the Fed is they move slow and in small steps.

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