Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday, August 15, 2014 - Don't Worry

Don’t Worry
by Sinclair Noe

DOW – 50 = 16, 662
SPX – 0.12 = 1955
NAS + 11 = 4464
10 YR YLD - .06 = 2.35%
OIL + 1.49 = 97.07
GOLD – 8.40 = 1305.50
SILV - .31 = 19.65

For the week, the Dow rose 0.7%, the S&P 500 gained 1.2% and the Nasdaq climbed 2.2%.

The Federal Reserve said factory production jumped 1.0% last month after rising 0.3% in June. That was the largest gain since February and reflected increases across all major categories. Auto production surged 10.1%, the biggest rise since July 2009. There were also solid gains in the production of machinery and computers and electronic goods; yesterday we talked about the importance of capex and business spending; maybe we’re seeing signs of that.

Or not. In a separate report, the New York Fed said its "Empire State" general business conditions index fell to 14.69 this month from 25.60 in July.

A preliminary August reading on the University of Michigan/Thomson Reuters consumer-sentiment index fell to the lowest level in 9 months, 79.2 down from a final July level of 81.8.

Producer prices, or prices at the wholesale level increased 0.1% in July, with 0.5% growth for transportation and warehousing prices; goods prices were unchanged; food prices rose 0.4%; energy prices dropped 0.6%. Overall producer prices rose 1.7% over the 12 months that ended in July, down from June’s annual-growth rate of 1.9%.

But the economic news carried little weight today, as attention once again focused on geopolitics. That might not be totally accurate; Wall Street looks at geopolitical hotspots but it can’t hold their focus. A new survey of institutional money managers around the world by Bank of America Merrill Lynch has found a sudden surge in worry and fear, and a rise in the number buying “protection” against a crash; which means derivatives such as put options or credit default swaps.

Money managers are worried about the markets and the Fed raising interest rates and geopolitical events and the baggage retrieval system at Heathrow, and so, over the past month they have raised their cash positions from 4.5% to 5.1%. Which doesn’t sound very defensive; in fact, it sounds like money managers are still excessively bullish on stocks.

Yesterday Russian President Putin talked about how he wanted to avoid confrontation in Ukraine. Last night a Russian armored column crossed the border into Ukraine; they started firing artillery at Ukrainian forces, which exchanged shellfire. Ukrainian President Petro said a "significant" part of the Russian column had been destroyed. Russia's government denied its forces had crossed into Ukraine. NATO said there had been a Russian incursion into Ukraine but would not go so far as to call it an invasion.

After Ukraine reported the invasion, Russia's ruble weakened against both the dollar and the euro. Russian shares were also dragged lower. International markets moved lower. European Union governments warned they are ready to expand sanctions against Russia if the conflict in Ukraine intensifies.  US markets initially moved lower. The yield on the ten year treasury dropped 6 basis points to 2.35%; Treasuries are usually considered a safe haven. The yield on German bunds, or 10 year bonds, dropped under 1%. The escalating clash is now haunting the European economy, already on the brink of fresh recession, with a string of southern states in debt-deflation.

All of a sudden, the euro crisis is back, though in truth it never really went away. The latest economic figures from the eurozone make bleak reading. Across the eurozone, which is struggling to get banks lending to businesses, economic growth is expected to be 1.1% this year. All three of the euro area’s biggest economies — Germany, France and Italy — are failing. Germany’s output actually fell in the second quarter. Italy is suffering through a triple dip recession. The French economy has stagnated. Analysts expect it to grow by less than one per cent this year. Italy has dropped back into recession, or maybe it never got out of recession. The closest thing approximating good news was that Spain's dead-cat bounce recovery continued with 0.6% growth. But it still has 24.5% unemployment. The eurozone economy is still far smaller than six years ago, by about 1.9%; unemployment is in double figures and debt burdens in some areas are high.

In June, the ECB cut its key interest rates and introduced a new program of cheap loans to banks that are intended to be passed on to businesses. Some economists say the European Central Bank should go further and engage in large-scale purchases of public and private debt to reduce borrowing costs and add to the money supply. ECB President Mario Draghi is under fire to do more to resuscitate growth. He, in turn, argues that “monetary policy can only achieve so much, with government reform required to do the heavy lifting,” and he is probably right, but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for reform. Monetary stimulus is simply not remotely an adequate substitute for government spending. Even the austerian IMF has been forced to acknowledge that fact.

The Ukraine crisis has drawn the EU into an economic confrontation with Russia, which is not only the principal supplier of energy to many eurozone countries but is also a significant trading partner and export market for European goods. This is hardly designed to improve the economic outlook, and the eurozone remains too weak to withstand external shocks. And Eurozone weakness was already in place before the most recent economic sanctions against Russia; the unfortunate reality is that nobody really knows how Russian sanctions will play out. There will be costs associated with sanctions; many of them unexpected.

Next week, the Federal Reserve will hold its annual Jackson Hole retreat. Janet Yellen will speak on labor markets. The labor market has improved but still looks weak. Various Fed officials have various theories on the labor markets, but not much in the way of solutions, and so, not surprisingly, they have different views on Fed policy.

Jeremy Stein left the Fed Board of Governors earlier in the year to return to a teaching gig at Harvard. Last week Stein said whatever the Fed does, we can expect less financial stability. Stein says that the process of exiting QE and raising interest rates has “no real precedent”. Yellen devoted an entire speech to the subject of financial stability last month at the IMF, where she said the Fed had devoted “substantially increased resources” to monitoring stability and acknowledged that the Fed’s low-interest rate policy had spurred “households and businesses to take on the risk of potentially productive investments.” But, she went on, “Such risk-taking can go too far, thereby contributing to fragility in the financial system.”

Yesterday, St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard said he believes financial markets are probably mistaken if they’re counting on Fed interest rate increases to occur more slowly than policy makers forecast. Bullard says the Fed will raise the interest rate target in the first quarter of 2015. Bullard said: “We’re way ahead of where we expected to be” in terms of the Fed’s employment mandate, and “If that strength continues in the second half of the year here, then the conversation on a little more hawkish direction of monetary policy will heat up.”

Today, Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota offered a contrasting view, saying: “The FOMC is still a long way from meeting its targeted goal of price stability” because of excess slack in the job market, and “progress in the decline of the unemployment rate masks continued weakness in labor markets,” which would keep the inflation rate below the Fed’s 2% target until 2018. Kocherlakota pointed to the participation rate among people between the ages of 25 to 54, the prime working years; another especially significant” measure of slack is the “historically high” percentage of workers who would like full-time jobs but can only find part-time work. The U-6 unemployment rate, a broad measure of unemployment that includes people working part time because they can’t find full-time jobs rose to 12.2% in July after declining one percentage point over the first six months of the year.

One of the biggest changes in the US labor market over the past two decades has been the increasing number of people working over the age of 55. From the end of World War II until the early 1990s, a smaller and smaller share remained in the labor force but since the 1990s that trend reversed. In 1993, only 29% of people that age were in the labor force. The vast majority were retired. But participation has been rising and by 2012 more than 41% of people in that age group were still in the labor force, the highest since the early 1960s. Clearly, something has changed about people’s attitudes toward retirement. A survey from the Federal Reserve last week provided some clues. Around 21% of people said their plan for retirement is simply “to work as long as possible” and the number of people giving this response increases by age.

In addition to the Fed’s get-together in Jackson Hole, next week’s economic calendar includes minutes from the Fed’s July 30th FOMC meeting; on Thursday we’ll get a report on July existing home sales from the National Association of Realtors; Tuesday brings an update on July housing starts. Housing starts tumbled 9.3% in June. The Labor Department will release the consumer price index report on Tuesday; the CPI measures inflation at the retail level; it’s been running near 2%, more or less.

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