Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thursday, August 21, 2014 - Rarified Air

Rarified Air
by Sinclair Noe

DOW + 60 = 17,039
SPX + 5 = 1992
NAS + 5 = 4532
10 YR YLD - .02 = 2.40%
OIL + .45 = 93.90
GOLD – 15.10 = 1277.30
SILV - .04 = 19.52

The S&P 500 broke two records during today's session, climbing past its previous intraday all-time high of 1,991.39 and ending above its previous record close of 1,987.98. Both had been set on July 24.

Family Dollar has rejected a $9 billion dollar buyout offer from Dollar General, opting instead for a smaller $8.5 billion dollar offer from Dollar Tree. The thinking is that a combination of the largest dollar store – Dollar General with the #2 Family Dollar, would be unlikely to win antitrust approval.

Once upon a time, Sears was the largest retailer in the nation. Today, Sears Holdings announce it lost $975 million in the first half of the year; $573 million in the second quarter. This was the 9th consecutive quarter of losses, and the past quarter also marked the heaviest losses. Quarterly revenue dropped about 10%. The plan now is to close underperforming stores, or, in a classic example of corporate-speak “rationalizing our physical footprint.” The company successfully spun off Lands End earlier this year, to the benefit of shareholders. But its Sears Canada and Sears Automotive stores have been on the block for some time, indicating either a lack of interest on the part of buyers or an unwillingness by Sears to bend on its asking price.

Gap shares moved higher in after-hours trade after earnings topped expectations. With a few exceptions, retail earnings this quarter have been disappointing. Last week, Walmart cut its full-year earnings guidance, and a few days later, Target reported a disappointing quarter. It’s hard to get consumers to loosen their grip on the purse strings.

The National Association of Realtors said sales of existing homes rose 2.4% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.15 million, the fourth consecutive month of gains and the fastest rate of gain in 10 months. More people are buying homes compared to earlier in the year, but the sales pace is still down 4.3% from one year ago. The median existing-home price for all housing types in July was $222,900, which is 4.9% above July 2013. This marks the 29th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 14,000 to a seasonally adjusted 298,000 for the week ended Aug. 16.

The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index increased 0.9% last month after an upwardly revised 0.6% rise in June.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the BEA, has released its state by state analysis of quarterly gross domestic product. California has the biggest economy among the states, with about $2.1 trillion in GDP, followed by Texas at $1.4 trillion, and New York at $1.2 trillion. Vermont has state GDP of about $28 billion. Arizona comes in at almost $265 billion.

The latest numbers from the Census Bureau show the gap between Americans at the top of the economic ladder and those at the bottom is as wide as ever. Between 2000 and 2011, the gap expanded considerably. The net worth of the poorest 20% of US households fell by $5,124. At the same time, the wealthiest 20% posted a $61,379 increase in net worth. Looked at another way, the net worth of the richest 20% of families totaled $630,754 in 2011. The poorest had a negative net worth of $6,029. Altogether, the top 40% of households increased their net worth from 2000 to 2011. The bottom 60% lost ground.

Sentier Research has analyzed Census data on incomes. In June 2014, the median household income was $53,891, down from $55,589 in inflation-adjusted dollars when the economic expansion began in June 2009; that is a 3.1% drop in median income. Now, let’s clarify this report because you may have seen that the average inflation adjusted per-person disposable personal income is up 4.2% over the past 5 years. There is a difference between median and average; Bill Gates walks into a room with 80 other people and the average net worth of everyone in the room is about one billion dollars; while the median net worth is barely changed. The averages can be distorted by the strong income gains among the wealthiest; the median income numbers give a better sense of the majority of Americans.

And it’s not just the past 5 years; median income remains lower than back in January 2000; the middle income family is worse off than they were 14 years ago. The good news is that there has been some improvement in the past 3 years; since 2011, inflation adjusted household incomes are up 3.8%. We are starting to dig out of a hole, but we’re still digging.

The point is that the economic recovery has been pretty miserable for most Americans. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is holding its annual confab for the world’s most powerful financial players at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The invitation only soiree includes central bankers, investment bankers, economists, and a various assortment of other bigwigs. Tomorrow morning, Fed Chair Janet Yellen will deliver the customary opening speech. ECB President Mario Draghi will speak at lunch. This year’s theme is “Re-Evaluating Labor Market Dynamics”.

In the mountains of Wyoming, the air is thin, and around Jackson Hole, it is rarified: One banker was quoted as saying: "It seems that conditions reflect the best of all worlds - US economic growth that is neither too slow, which would put pressure on earnings - nor too fast, implying inflationary pressures which could lead to (price-to-earnings ratio) contraction and possibly accelerate the Fed's move towards higher interest rates."

Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank President Esther George says the time has come for the Fed to raise rates, citing improvement in the labor markets. George said: "I don't want us to be behind the curve in beginning to normalize interest rates… When you see the economy getting as close as we are to full employment, to stable inflation, it would suggest to me that the time has come to do that… I think a very natural response when you get to this point is worrying that you might derail the recovery, but then again we've seen data come in stronger than we expected."

Fed officials are convinced that the economy is gaining strength after the years of false starts, but a majority of policy makers, led by Janet Yellen, favors a slow retreat from the Fed’s efforts to encourage job creation. They note that millions of people still cannot find jobs, while inflation remains relatively weak.

The theme is the labor market, and the Fed tracks wage trends closely because they're an important inflation indicator, and they're also a reflection of how close the economy is to full capacity. Also, in a well-functioning economy, wages should be rising particularly when productivity is going up. The Fed can't really do anything to get wages up; what it can do is wait to raise interest rates until the job market is healthier and that's what they're debating now - should they wait a while longer?

The latest government data show average hourly earnings adjusted for inflation have not increased at all in the last year, even though we're told the economy is getting better and other wage measures show similar trends. The problem with Jackson Hole is somebody like Bill Gates walks into a restaurant, and all the economist believe they are billionaires.

It is shaping up to be another good year in the equity markets, not as good as last year, but not a letdown; investors have ignored the calls for a correction, and this is still a risk-on market. Typically, when risk is not given much weight, this would be a good time to hedge one’s portfolio. And the reason for “risk-on” is a Federal Reserve that keeps interest rates at historic low levels; add in the demographics of most investors who have no choice but to stick what they have into higher risk assets such as stocks; plus the corporate world that is sitting on cash and the closest idea to innovation is to buy back their own stock, thus pushing prices even higher.

In this environment, weakness in the economy and even geopolitical events are being disregarded, with both being seen as buying opportunities. Investors might not have much choice but to hang onto the bandwagon, but you also should be keenly aware of when you need to get off because the markets could switch to risk-off in the blink of an eye.

The Bank of America settlement deal was announced today. BofA agreed to pay $16.65 billion to end federal and state investigations into the sale of toxic mortgage securities during the subprime housing boom; actually, it works out to $9.65 billion that will actually be paid, plus $7 billion in soft-consumer relief; minus about $600 million in tax deductions. About $5 billion of the cash portion of the settlement is paid as a penalty to the US Treasury. Other portions will go toward compensating investors, including state pension funds. Just under $1 billion will be split among six states.

Under the out-of-court settlement, Bank of America acknowledged that Merrill Lynch told investors in subprime mortgage bonds in 2006 and 2007 that the loans generally complied with underwriting guidelines, though reviews suggested as many as 50% did not. Bank of America also acknowledged that Countrywide did not generally tell investors the extent to which it made exceptions to its own internal guidelines. The settlement also covered some post-crisis conduct, including Bank of America's admission that from 2009 to 2012 it submitted loans for government insurance under the Federal Housing Administration that did not qualify.

The statement of facts failed to identify the amount of profit the bank gained, or show how the penalty will restore losses to investor victims. No individuals were charged. Maybe we can blame robots.

Bank of America shares jumped 4.1% to $16.16; the thinking is that the worst is behind them. The bank had already set aside reserves to handle the legal problems and the thinking is that this settlement is the settlement to end all settlements. Ultimately it works out to about a half year’s profit, give or take; you know, the cost of doing business.

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