US Strategy Weekly: Not a New Normal

The Wall Street Journal article entitled “Wall Street’s Favorite Recession Indicator is in a Slump of its Own” caught our attention this week. The writer asks the question of whether there is still value in the idea that an inverted Treasury yield curve can predict a recession. The yield curve, typically measured as the spread between the 1-year or 2-year Treasury note and the 10-year note, has currently been inverted for 23 months and since 1968, an inverted yield curve has been followed by a recession in the subsequent nine to 24 months. So, by historical standards, we should be in or entering a recession right now.

But there are no signs of a recession on the horizon, particularly with monthly employment statistics showing job growth averaging 242,000 over the last three months and there are no signs that the yield curve inversion will end any time soon. Therefore, it is valid to question whether there is still value in an inverted yield curve or if the current environment is the beginning of a “new normal.”

We believe the inverted yield curve is a valid indicator and we do not think this is a new normal. Recessions and expansions might be muted by monetary and fiscal policy, but in our opinion, they cannot be eliminated. And we admit that we count ourselves among those who were looking for a recession last year. This was not due just to the inverted yield curve, but also to the string of months of negative year-over-year real retail sales, the Conference Board’s leading economic indicator signaling a recession for 22 consecutive months (ending in February 2024), and suspected weakness in the housing market. The one recession indicator that did not appear was perhaps the most critical and that is weakening job growth. Whenever the year-over-year change in employment in the establishment and household surveys turn negative, it is an excellent forecaster of a recession. That signal did not materialize. Was it because there was a massive catch up in employment after the Covid–19 shutdown? Or was there some underlying driver of the economy that was not being measured? In retrospect, it seems quite clear that it is due to a historical level of fiscal stimulus.

The Federal Reserve had been too dovish for too long in the face of rising inflation, but the inverted yield curve was a sign that this stimulus was being unwound. What was not being unwound was fiscal stimulus. And even though the pandemic stimulus passed by Congress was slowly fading into the background, it was followed in August 2022, by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (which should have been named the Clean Energy Act) which the administration described as “one of the largest investments in the American economy, energy security, and climate that Congress has made in the nation’s history. In short, the stimulus continued well after the pandemic was over.

More recently the administration has shifted to boosting the economy through government agencies. This is best seen on website which currently lists in its press releases the following statements: May 21, 2024 – 1 Million PACT Act Claims Approved and Benefits Delivered to Veterans in all 50 States and US Territories; May 22, 2024 – Statement from President Joe Biden on $7.7 Billion in Student Debt Cancellation for 160,000 borrowers; May 22, 2024 – Biden to Release 1 Million Barrels of Gasoline to Reduce Prices at the Pump Ahead of July 4; May 24, 2024 – Statement on the Signing of the Recruit and Retain Act (COPS – Community-Oriented Policing Services); May 24, 2024 – Meeting with Community Lenders Expanding Capital for Underserved Communities; May 28, 2024 – Biden-Harris administration Launches Federal-State Initiative to Bolster America’s Power Grid. Over the past week there have also been various federal disaster relief programs for West Virginia, Nebraska, Maine, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas, which have suffered from tornadoes and other weather-related disasters.

We are not making judgment on any of these spending initiatives; however, it is clear that there has been a steady stream of fiscal stimulus over the last four years. Moreover, the White House website reveals that it continues on a near-daily basis.

This spending is liquidity and liquidity is good for financial markets. But spending also results in deficits and at some point, it will have to stop, perhaps abruptly. We wonder how many of today’s investors remember the Greek debt crisis that materialized shortly after the financial crisis of 2008-2009. It crushed the Greek economy, and it should be mandatory reading for all investors and all politicians. But for now, the US debt market appears complacent and that is good news for equities.

May’s Conference Board consumer confidence indices improved from upwardly revised levels in April; nevertheless, the indices remain in the lower half of the range seen over the last 18 months. Revised numbers for May’s University of Michigan consumer sentiment indices were up slightly from initial estimates, yet again, indices remain well below January’s peak. In general, sentiment indices improved from April’s lows, but remain below recent peaks and well below 2019 peaks. See page 3.

New home sales were 634,000 units in April, down 5% for the month, down 7.7% YOY, and negative for the first time in 12 months. Existing home sales were 4.14 million units, down 1.9% for the month, down 1.9% YOY, and remain in the negative year-over-year pattern seen since August 2021. In both cases, sales are well below the peak levels seen in January 2021 for new home sales and below the October 2020 peak in existing home sales. See page 4.

All the same, the median price of a new single-family home was $433,500 in April, down 1.4% for the month, but up nearly 4% YOY. This is just 6% below the record new home price of $460,300 set in October 2022. The median price of an existing home was $412,100, up nearly 4% for the month, up 5.6% YOY, and close to the record $415,700 price set in June 2023. See page 5.

Residential construction and housing prices have remained strong despite a slowing sales trend due to limited inventory. The months of supply of existing single-family homes reached a record low of 1.6 in January 2022, and while it rose to 3.4 months in April, up from 3.0 months in March, the supply of homes remains historically low. It should be noted that an assortment of home price indices indicate prices are rising again, after a slump from February 2022 to April 2023. See page 6.

Existing home sales are currently six to seven times larger than new home sales and would probably be higher if inventory were greater. However, many households are finding it difficult to move or trade up in a housing market with both rising prices and higher interest rates. Still, there are signs that the housing market is improving in 2024 and if the Fed cuts interest rates later this year, the residential real estate market should improve significantly. This is just one example of why Fed policy has been a major focus for investors. See page 7. Right now, financial markets are complacent that cuts are ahead. The PCE deflator reported later this week will therefore be an important release. And finally, technical indicators are supportive of the current rally. The one laggard is our 25-day up/down volume oscillator, which despite being overbought for four consecutive days recently, is yet to confirm the advance.

Gail Dudack

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You Wish You Had More Money to Invest But Don’t …

DJIA:  39,065

You wish you had more money to invest but you don’t … that’s the top.  Well, if that were true for all of us, that is, when all the money is in, by definition that’s it.  It’s money, that is, liquidity that drives markets.  The question, of course is how do you know when the money is in?  There are a few macro measures but best are those Advance-Decline numbers.  In the short run they are important because the average stock typically leads the stock Averages.  In doing so, however, they also offer an insight into liquidity.  Over the last few weeks there have been only seven or eight days with fewer than 2000 advancing issues, and seven days with more than 3000 advancing issues.  It takes a lot of money to push 2000-3000 stocks higher every day, meaning the liquidity for now is still there.  As it diminishes, so too will the number of advancing issues.

Dow 40,000 is quite a run from Dow 5000, but somehow 5000 seemed more exciting.  In reality, none of these so-called milestone numbers have mattered a whole heck of a lot, except perhaps to the media.  Bloomberg’s John Authers makes the point with which most agree, it’s a strange measure.  Security selection always seems with an eye to the past, like adding Cisco (47) well past its prime.  And, of course, there was the untimely removal of an original Dow stock, GE (165).  Meanwhile, Intel (30) is there with its 133 billion market cap but not Nvidia (1038) with its 2.3 trillion market cap.  To be fair, over the last seven years Apple (187) contributed some 3000 points.  Two other Mag 7 stocks are there, Amazon (181) and Microsoft (427), but underrepresented compared to Goldman Sachs (458) and United Healthcare (517).  If denominated in Gold, the Dow has been flat since it hit 20,000, making its performance more like that of the Equal Weight S&P.

Price gaps refer to the empty space on a bar chart, left when the low price one day is well above the high price of the previous day, and vice versa.  Most stocks trade actively enough we can say it takes a lot of buying or selling to cause gaps, making them important.  Indeed, we find prices subsequently tend to follow in the direction of gaps.  Nothing is perfect and there are some recognizable exceptions, one being this week’s downside gap in Palo Alto (311).  The stock had a downside gap that was quite extreme last February that quickly reversed only to die at the 50-day.  The gap this week is what you might call the good kind, it didn’t break the 50-day.  Gaps that don’t change an uptrend, as is the case here, typically are just normal corrections, and likely a buying opportunity.

The 200-day moving average seems a good definition of a medium-term trend.  For the market as a whole, 73% of stocks are above this average, 70% is thought to indicate a bull market.  When it comes to stock selection, clearly there’s a lot to choose from.  Indeed, we can’t quite recall a time when Tech and Commodities were both performing well, let alone together with Utilities.  So it’s not just AI, and even when it comes to AI it’s the many associated stocks that have also performed well.  These include the Electric providers, like Constellation (221) and Vistra (96), as well as names, like Quanta (277) and Eaton (338). Meanwhile, despite what seems a fixation on Tech, even Staples like Colgate (94) act well.

The earnings heard around the world.  Earnings for Nvidia were the easy part.  They were good and everyone and their brother knew they would be.  With a good chart, there is no reason to expect a poor reaction.  Still, it’s never about the news, rather how the market reacts to the news.  The stock has been consolidating for 2 ½ months, and if anything should be ready for another run.  Meanwhile, after all the praise we heaped on those A/D numbers, the last few days have turned a little sloppy.  Weak down days are not the problem, worry about the weak up days.  The S&P has seen more than 20 new highs in the first hundred days of trading.  A feat often followed by weakness in a very short term, but strength always over the next six months.

Frank D. Gretz

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US Strategy Weekly: Utilities in Play

Along with many other stock markets around the world, the Nasdaq Composite index and the S&P 500 index recorded all-time highs this week. These highs came just a day before Nvidia Corp. (NVDA – $953.86), Wall Street’s third largest firm by market capitalization, reports first quarter earnings after Wednesday’s closing bell. Expectations are for another blowout quarter for the chip maker. The global focus on Nvidia’s earnings suggests it could be a significant market catalyst and more importantly, a test of whether the outsized rally in AI-related stocks can be sustained. Nvidia’s earnings report also comes as the stock is about to test the psychological $1,000 level, which could become a challenge, at least in the short run, considering the stock is already up over 8-fold from its October 2022 low. In our view, the obsession surrounding Nvidia’s earnings release is worrisome and revealing. It reflects a certain underlying weakness in the market if one stock is vital to the current advance and to investor confidence.

But it is also interesting to see how many different ways artificial intelligence can drive the stock market. Utilities became the latest AI-related darling. The interim CEO for American Electric Power Company Inc. (AEP – $92.62), Benjamin Fowke, noted in a hearing held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week, that a single data center requires three to fifteen times the amount of power as a large manufacturing facility. According to Fowke, “One small example of this demand surge – OpenAI’s ChatGPT requires 2.9 watt-hours per request, and that’s nearly 10 times more power than a typical Google (Alphabet Inc. C – GOOG – $179.54) search.” And voila! Utilities are now an AI play. As a result, in one month the utility sector jumped from being the next-to-worst performing S&P 500 sector to the third best performing sector. See page 15.

Wednesday will also include the release of the minutes of the May FOMC meeting. The document will be scrutinized for any sign of a possible rate cut in September, since the consensus and the CME FedWatch Tool are currently suggesting a 90% probability of at least one rate cut before the end of the year. We do not expect a rate cut this year. The one exception would be if the economy stumbled into a recession and that does not appear likely either.

The recent rally has had several catalysts, but the key one seems to have been the April CPI report. Headline CPI ratcheted down from 3.5% in March to 3.4% YOY in April while core CPI eased from 3.8% to 3.6%. The general trend of these two indices appears to be stable to lower; however, if one looks at the heavy-weighted components of the CPI index it shows that while prices in food & beverage and housing are decelerating (i.e., rising at a slower pace), transportation and medical prices are now accelerating. See page 3.

Many economists have been theorizing that inflation would already be at 2% if owners’ equivalent rent were excluded, and that rents were not reflecting the slowdown in home prices. There are a number of problems with this theory. First, there has always been a lag between the prices of homes and the level of rents, and this is logical. Rents usually reset every year or two which means that rising or falling housing prices work through the economy slowly with a big lag. Second, the argument that the CPI would be lower excluding OER is losing viability because the housing prices are rising again. Third, the driver of inflation made a significant shift many months ago from housing and energy to services (most notably insurance and medical). See page 4.

Inflation less shelter represents nearly 64% of the CPI and since this index hit a low of 0.6% YOY in June 2023, it has been steadily rising and rose 2.2% in April. All core CPI indices were above 2% in April, up from last year’s lows. More importantly, in April, services less rent rose 4.9% YOY, medical care services, which had been declining in 2023, rose 2.7% YOY and services less medical care services rose 5.6% YOY. See page 5. We fear the stock market may be too complacent about inflation.

Last week we noted that consumer confidence fell in May, this week we see that retail sales for April were disappointing. Seasonally adjusted total retail and food services sales were essentially unchanged from March, although up 3.0% from a year earlier. Note that the March 2024 report was revised down from up 0.7% to 0.6%. From a retailer’s perspective, after adjusting for inflation of 3.4%, real retail sales declined 0.4% YOY. The main high points of the April report were the same familiar areas: miscellaneous stores (up 6.8%), nonstore retailers (up 7.5%), and food services and drinking places (up 5.5%).See page 6.

The area of the economy that could be a concern this year is housing. Housing affordability fell in March from 103.2 to 101.1. The decline came from a combination of a slightly higher mortgage rate of 6.9% and a higher median existing single-family home price of $397,200. The $9,200 increase in home prices was much larger than the $680 increase in the median family income, which increased from $100,876 to $101,556. Similarly, the NAHB confidence index fell from 51 to 45 in May and is now below the 50-point threshold which marks a poor building outlook. Current single-family sales fell from 57 to 51 and the 6-month outlook for sales fell from 60 to 51. See page 7.  

Nevertheless, the good news is found in the technical condition of the stock market, which is much improved this week. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite index made record highs on May 21, 2024 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average made a record high on May 17, 2024. The Russell 2000 index remains 14% below its high of 2442.74 made on November 8, 2021, however, the technical pattern is positive, and it is trading above all its moving averages. See page 10.

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at 4.02 and in overbought territory for the third consecutive trading session. This is positive; however, a minimum of five consecutive trading days in overbought territory is required to confirm a new high which means, to date, this indicator is yet to confirm this week’s all-time highs. The last confirmation from this oscillator appeared at the turn of the year when it was overbought for 22 of 25 consecutive trading days ending January 5, 2024. See page 11.

The 10-day average of daily new highs is 400 and new lows are 44. This combination of new highs above 100 and new lows below 100 is positive. The NYSE advance/decline line made a new record high on May 21, 2024, is positive, and confirms the new high in the popular indices this week. The one caveat is that daily volume has been weak and running consistently below the 10-day average for most of the recent advance. See page 12. The current rally has been a liquidity-driven event and not a valuation-driven advance. Despite the fact that earnings have exceeded consensus expectations, those expectations were significantly lowered just ahead of earnings season. The S&P 500 trailing four quarter operating PE multiple is now 24.3 times and is well above all long-term averages. See page 8. The 12-month forward PE multiple is 20.8 times and well above its long-term average of 15 times and its 1985 to present average of 17.8 times.  

Gail Dudack

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Be Careful What You Wish For

DJIA:  39,869

Be careful what you wish for … the troops have been leading the generals.  Everyone complained about the narrow market, but it had its advantages.  When it was just the FANG stocks, and just Nvidia (943) and friends, at least you knew what you wanted to buy.  FANG and the Semis seem to be coming out of their stall, but there has been almost a surfeit of riches, and hence the good A/D numbers. This has included Staples and Utilities, making some uncomfortable.  The belief there is that when staid sectors lead, the rally is not to be trusted.  This narrative doesn’t hold up historically, especially when like now many areas are participating.  And as we’ve noted, Utilities have become pretty techy of late.

In tennis, when you get your racket back early good things happen.  In the stock market, when the average stock leads the stock Averages good things happen.  The A/D Index has been sitting at a new high for a while, now the Averages are there as well.  Since April 18 there have been only six days on the NYSE with more declining than advancing issues. Most dramatic were the three consecutive days at the start of May which saw advances 3-to-1versus declines. Typically you see numbers like that coming off of a washout sort of low, when stocks are stretched to the downside.  That was not the case this time, and all the better. When the S&P has been above its 200-day and there were three consecutive 3-to-1 up days, markets were higher in every case three and six months later, according to

So, when someone tells you they’re very bearish, you in turn might say so you don’t own any stocks. They in turn would likely retort, well I am in this or that and so on. That’s when you say – so you’re not really bearish, if you were, you would not own any or many stocks.  If this little discourse were quantifiable, it would be called a passive sentiment indicator.  Typically surveys measure people’s opinions, not their actions.  These have their value, but also suffer from the problem of knowing when to be contrary.  In good markets, investors do become bullish, it’s normal.  It’s the extremes that matter.  Meanwhile, we find transactional measures more helpful.  There is one called the ROBO P/C Ratio, or retail options to buy, to open indicator. In the little 5% correction, this measure showed bottom equivalent bearishness.

Biotechs have had a tough go of it for some time.  Hope springs eternal, as most of us remember all of the good times.  With some 500 names even in our database, we know once started a run can be a bit contagious. Recently Amgen (315) has turned into an interesting chart, with its own gap a week or so ago.  It also has one of those orderly, consistent long-term uptrends, surprising for a Biotech.  From early May through the end of July Biotechs also are in a seasonally favorable period.  Meanwhile, of course, AI remains the market’s focus. Even here, however, interest has spread to supporting names like Quanta Services (264), Vertiv (97), Eaton (330) and even Copper companies like Freeport (52).  For what it’s worth, we don’t think the MEME revival is the worst thing.  Speculation in moderation is part of good markets.

Tuesday’s PPI could have taken the market lower; Wednesday’s CPI need not have taken the market much higher.  The rationale seems simple – the market makes the news, and in this case the market wanted to go higher.  So what do we expect from here?  To go by the history of three consecutive 3-to-1up days, or the five consecutive months higher in the Averages, we should see another six months of on balance higher prices. Important, of course, is that we continue with what got us here, respectable action in the average stock.  Stocks peak before the Averages.  Meanwhile, we wouldn’t lose track of Bitcoin here.

Frank D. Gretz

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Utilities … They’re Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile

DJIA:  39,387

Utilities … they’re not your father’s Oldsmobile. We should know, we have a Jetstar 88, one of those things you don’t so much park, you dock.  We also took heed of fundamental colleagues and sold some Constellation Energy (216). The thinking there was a lack of earnings growth, similar in retrospect to the thinking about Amazon (190) a few years back.  Perhaps therein lies the tale of big winners – it’s not the growth you see it’s the concept that will lead to the growth.  The earnings come later.  The concept here, of course, is that Electricity is a growth business.  Then there is the technical side, at the heart of which is supply and demand. How many Utilities do you own?

Admittedly, it’s a bit concerning when the market starts to find stocks because they fit a story or theme.  Amazon is doing well, let’s buy the Containerboard stocks – that sort of thing.  In this case, of course, it’s about AI.  What isn’t?  Did you know GPUs use twice the power of CPUs?  Even if you don’t know what GPUs or CPUs are, it could be reason enough to buy Utilities.  Just imagine the power demand when we get to KPUs.  The Utility ETF (XLU – 71) is almost a little stretched, but what big uptrend didn’t start that way?  And not all of XLU is Techy.  There’s plenty of granny stuff there.  The stocks that stand out are Constellation Energy and Vistra (93).  The latter on a monthly chart looks more Techy than Tech.

There is a negative out there that only we may be aware of, suggesting ours is a Keener insight than we realized, or more likely it’s not all that important.  As you likely know we pay considerable attention to price gaps, and loosely track them on a daily basis.  A gap occurs when the opening price one day is well above or below the price of the previous day.  In our less than scientific analysis we’ve noticed considerably more downside gaps lately than those to the upside.  Given price tends to follow in the direction of gaps, this could be a problem.  However, the bigger problem in this might be the reason for the gaps.  Of course, it’s always news of some sort – often an analyst call.  For the most part, however, they follow earnings reports.  The overall numbers say most companies aren’t missing their estimates, price gaps suggest otherwise.  Meanwhile, no harm no foul.  The overall market backdrop seems fine.

In a reasonable confirmation of the uptrend’s resumption, the major stock averages now are all back above their 50-day average.  It seems worth noting, however, the Software ETF (IGV – 81) is not.  And it’s not just Microsoft (412) or Salesforce (275).  The FANG names have been better, but they’re not exactly running even a few weeks off the low.  Meanwhile, with their respective gaps, 3M (97) and DuPont (79) – when was the last time you thought about buying that name – are acting quite well.  If we wanted to, and we don’t, it’s too soon to be negative on Tech.  We don’t even think of this so much as rotation as we do expansion. Advance/Decline numbers remain a positive aspect of the overall background.  In the selloff we saw some bad down days – it happens.  In the rebound we’ve seen three consecutive days of 3-to-1 up – good, not bad up days.

A good rally, or a great rally, time will tell to coin a phrase.  Certainly, this lift from a 5% correction has its credentials.  There were those washout numbers on the downside, followed by impressive numbers on the upside – not classic, but likely close enough.  Perspective also seems important here.  Following five consecutive months of higher prices, history shows a better than 80% chance of being higher six months from now.  Seems there’s something about having that five months of momentum at your back.  As always, it’s about the average stock, the A/Ds more than the Averages.

Frank D. Gretz

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US Strategy Weekly: Eye on the Apple

With 85% of the S&P 500 components having reported earnings for the first quarter of 2024, LSEG IBES estimates that the earnings will grow 7.8% YOY on revenues that are up 3.9% YOY. This 7.8% growth rate brings the quarter’s estimate back to where it was at the start of this year and before estimates fell significantly in April. It is this downward guidance ahead of each earnings season that generates a healthy number of positive earnings surprises each quarter. There are many ways to generate a small earnings surprise which is why we do not put much weight on earnings surprises.

Apple Inc. (AAPL – $182.40), which is challenged in several of its business segments, reported its fiscal second quarter earnings last week and its results beat the Street’s modest expectations. However, revenue fell 4% to $90.8 billion and iPhone sales fell 10%. Apple reported net income of $23.64 billion, or $1.53 per share, down 2% from $24.16 billion, or $1.52 per share, in the year-earlier period.

Nevertheless, the stock surged after it announced a 4% increase in its cash dividend and authorized an additional program to buy back $110 billion of stock, the largest buyback in the company’s history. The stock climbed 7% in extended trading after this announcement.

But this response to Apple’s buyback announcement made us look at the history of Apple’s outstanding shares.* What we found was that Apple’s shares outstanding peaked at the end of the first quarter of 2013 at 26.489 billion shares. At the end of March 2024, Apple’s fiscal second quarter just announced, shares outstanding were 15.465 billion, or 42% lower. We were surprised by the extent of this decline. In other words, over the last eleven years, Apple’s earnings per share are 42% higher due to a lower denominator, not earnings growth. In the first quarter, Apple’s shares outstanding declined by 2.4%, making earnings that much higher. One could say that each share of Apple is more valuable because there are fewer shares, which is true. But it does say something about the quality of earnings, in our view. Apple is rather unique due to its cash flow and its ability to buy back shares. An investor might want to focus more on top line revenues and income, rather than on earnings per share to monitor real growth in Apple’s business.

The major leader in terms of first quarter earnings growth is currently the communications services sector where IBES forecasts earnings will rise 44% on revenue gains of nearly 7%. The communications services sector includes Meta Platforms, Inc. Class A (META – $468.24), Alphabet Inc. A (GOOGL – $171.25), Alphabet Inc. C (GOOG – $172.98), and Netflix Inc. (NFLX – $606.00).

This year to date, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite index have gained 8.8%, whereas the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 3.2% and the Russell 2000 index is up only 1.9%. All together this suggests that despite a broadening in the rally, the bulk of the gains continue to be in the large cap technology-driven stocks.

But we also want to point out that the technical condition of the equity market has markedly improved this week. Our 25-day volume oscillator remains neutral for the fifth consecutive week; but the 10-day averages of daily new highs and new lows have gained momentum. New highs are averaging 128 and new lows are averaging 46, a combination that is now positive. In addition, the NYSE advance/decline line made an all-time high on May 7, 2024, and has now confirmed the advance. See pages 11-12.

All four of the popular equity indices have recently tested their 100-day moving averages and to date, with the exception of the Russell 2000 index, these rebounds appear successful and are in line with a normal correction. The Russell 2000 broke its 100-day moving average and tested its 200-day moving average, and despite a recent dip into its long-term neutral trading range of 1650 to 2000, the index appears to have tested this key support level successfully. In sum, the charts are positive and appear to support further gains.

It has been a busy two weeks with an FOMC meeting, a Treasury offering, inflation data, income data, and employment statistics. The next key release will be the CPI on May 15th, so it will be interesting to see how the market trades without an external stimulus to drive the daily trading.

Economic Releases

Although the job market remained solid in April, payrolls rose by 175,000, which was below expectations. Healthcare represented nearly half of the gains, while leisure/hospitality and government together added only 13,000 jobs in the month. The household survey showed modest job growth (25,000) relative to job losses (63,000) which translated into an unemployment rate of 3.9%, up 0.1%. Job growth in the establishment survey was 1.8% YOY versus the long-term average of 1.7%; however, the household survey had job growth of 0.3% YOY which was well below the long-term average of 1.5% YOY. This statistic will be important to monitor since negative job growth is a classic sign of a recession. See page 3.

Average hourly earnings for production and non-supervisory workers were up 4.0% YOY in April, down from the 4.2% YOY seen a month earlier. There has been a steady deceleration in earnings growth since the March 2022 post-pandemic peak of 7% YOY. Average weekly earnings for production and non-supervisory workers were $1005.27, down from February, but up 3.7% YOY. However, again this was a deceleration from February’s 3.9% YOY pace. See page 4.

April’s ISM nonmanufacturing index contracted for only the second time in nearly 4 years. However, both the ISM manufacturing and the ISM nonmanufacturing indices showed that prices paid rose in April (inflationary) to 60.9 in manufacturing and 59.2 in nonmanufacturing. Service industry employment fell to 45.9 and manufacturing inched higher but remained below 50 at 48.6 (contraction). See page 5.

Private residential construction spending fell 0.7% in March to $884.3 billion, reversing February’s gains, but still up 4.4% YOY. New home unit sales were up 8.3% YOY in March to 693,000 units, the best level since September 2023. However, existing home sales were 4.19 million in March, down 3.7% YOY. The price of a new single-family home rose 1.0% YOY after months of declining prices. The median price of a single-family existing home rose 4.7% YOY in March, supported by a low level of inventory. See page 6.

The existing home market is six times larger than the new home market, but sales have been slowing in both markets after the post-Covid boom. Moreover, homeownership also declined in the first quarter to 65.6% and the only area of the US with a gain in homeownership in the first quarter was the Northeast where it rose from 61.5% to 62.6%. Housing prices are rebounding, and new home sales are rising. These are good signs in an important segment of the economy. Still, many potential homeowners have already been priced out of the market. *,a%203.78%25%20decline%20from%202020

Gail Dudack

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US Strategy Weekly: It Is Different This Time

Recent economic releases suggest inflation is reaccelerating while the economy and the consumer may be decelerating. In normal times, these opposing trends would be fine since a slowdown in the economy would be enough to curb inflation in the coming months or quarters. But these are not normal times. It is an election year. And in the pre-election and election years the party in power in the White House often gives the economy a boost. The reasoning is obvious; voters tend to boot incumbents out of the White House during a recession.

As we show on page 7, inflation has never been as high as it was in 2022 without eventually triggering a recession. Moreover, a Fed tightening cycle, particularly when it is fighting inflation, has rarely ended without the real fed funds rate hitting a minimum of 400 basis points and eventually triggering a recession. However, the recent peak in the real fed funds rate only hit 290 basis points before the Federal Reserve paused rate hikes. Whether the Fed felt rates were high enough to calm inflation, or if they were fearful of triggering a recession, is unknown. But in our view, interest rates were not particularly high given the level of inflation, and therefore, were likely to stay higher for longer.

But again, these are not normal times. The main difference in this cycle, in our opinion, is the four consecutive years of massive fiscal stimulus. We have found it difficult to track the various forms of stimulus employed by the current administration, but it is worth looking at the White House website at to see the various forms of relief offered to American families. Most of these are family and small business assistance programs and do not include the aid given to illegal immigrants, the $5 trillion in pandemic stimulus, President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (Goldman Sachs estimates the IRA fiscal cost to be $1.2 trillion), the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and Build Back Better Agenda, or the estimated $56.6 billion of student loan forgiveness delivered through the Department of Education’s new SAVE program. This steady stream of fiscal stimulus is boosting economic activity in ways that are impossible to measure accurately, but it is an external stimulus, and it means these are not normal times.

Massive fiscal stimulus is typically seen only during major recessions, and it is unsustainable in the long run. Plus, as we noted in our US Strategy Weekly Inflation Redux (April 17, 2024), stimulus programs mean bigger deficits and mounting debt will ultimately translate into higher interest rates and slower economic growth. In fiscal 2024, interest outlays on the federal deficit are estimated to be 3.1% of GDP and net interest costs account for 13% of current federal outlays.

Without strong leadership in Congress, deficits and net interest costs will undoubtedly move higher. To the extent that there is a steady increase in demand for US Treasury securities the US will be able to fund these deficits. But the supply/demand balance for any security can shift very quickly. For this reason, we believe one of the biggest risks in 2024 could be found in the debt markets. In fact, the debt markets may eventually become the disciplinarian needed to put the US, and Congress, on the road to fiscal responsibility. In sum, debt markets are key to this cycle!

Economic Weakness

After some modest improvement in February, the March University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey showed weakness across the board. The Conference Board confidence index fell significantly in March and February data was revised downward. Consumer expectations in the Michigan survey were the lowest since December and in the Conference Board survey, expectations were the lowest since July 2022. See page 3.

The University of Michigan sentiment surveys are extensive and on page 4 we show sentiment by level of education and political affiliation. Those with a college degree tend to be the most optimistic most of the time, but sentiment for all levels hit a record low in 2022. Nonetheless, March data showed a noticeable improvement in sentiment for college grads. Conversely, sentiment fell for those with a high school degree or less. Politics plays a role in sentiment and optimism tends to rise when your political party is in power, which explains why Republicans have been so glum in recent years. But while sentiment in general remains well below the 100 neutral level, there has been a bit of improvement in sentiment, particularly for independent voters.

After growth of 4.9% and 3.4% in the last two quarters of 2023, preliminary data for first quarter GDP showed growth slowing to 1.6% (SAAR). Some of the drivers of first quarter growth were fixed residential investment, computer & peripheral investment (artificial intelligence?), services, and farming. The prospect of interest rates remaining higher for longer suggests that the housing market could see less growth in coming quarters. If so, a soft housing market could slow GDP further. See page 5.

Inflation Rebounds

The March personal consumption expenditure deflator was up 2.7% YOY, higher than the 2.5% YOY seen in February, and higher than expectations. While the uptick appears small, the components of the deflator show that only goods inflation was flat. Services, energy goods & services, and the PCE excluding energy, food, and housing all trended higher in March. The core PCE deflator was unchanged at 2.8% YOY in March. See page 6.

The employment cost index showed that total compensation for private industry workers rose 4.2% YOY in the first quarter of 2024 versus the 4.8% YOY seen a year earlier. Wages were the driving force, rising 4.4% YOY in the first quarter, while total benefits increased a smaller 3.7% YOY. See page 8. The Fed may focus on wage gains since inflation could prove more difficult to control with the CPI increasing 3.5% in the same quarter as wages are increasing 4.4%. Keep in mind that wage costs feed into every area of the economy and result in higher prices for consumers. One reason inflation has been difficult to control in the past is that once price gains become embedded in the economy, a vicious circle of higher prices, higher wages, is difficult to break. Only a recession can reverse the cycle.    

Technical Update All four of the popular equity indices have recently tested their 100-day moving averages and to date, with the exception of the Russell 2000 index, these rebounds appear successful and are in line with a normal correction. The Russell 2000 appears to be returning to its long-term neutral trading range of 1650 to 2000. See page 11. The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at negative 0.50 and neutral after recording a 90% down day on April 12. See page 12. The 10-day average of daily new highs is 74 and new lows are 64. This combination of new highs and new lows, both below 100, is neutral. The NYSE advance/decline line made a new record high on March 28, 2024, confirming the advance but is now 6750 net advances away from its high. We remain cautious.

Gail Dudack

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