A week ago, the world was on edge after the US took out Iranian Major General Soleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport. Luckily Iran’s retaliation was minor and the political uproar that followed this bold and unforeseen event seems to have dissipated. Nevertheless, the first few weeks of 2020 have been an emotional roller coaster for investors, and we believe the year will continue to be marked by more unexpected political incidents. The predictable narratives are the Democratic primary election, the presidential election and Brexit; but these are only the obvious ones. Investors should stay on their toes while keeping a solid focus on fundamentals.
Currently the financial press is dominated by more mundane economic stories such as the content of this week’s Chinese-US phase one trade deal and the positive earnings results reported by several large US banks. JPMorgan Chase (JPM – $138.80) reported a 9% increase in revenues in its fourth quarter. Citigroup (C – $81.91) reported a 7% increase. Chase reported their credit card, merchant services and auto revenue surged $6.3 billion or 9% at year end, with credit card loans up 8%. Citi beat profit estimates due to a jump in trading revenue and strong credit card sales. These revenue and earnings increases paint a favorable picture for fourth quarter GDP which will be released at the end of this month. Economists will get another clue to fourth quarter activity when December’s retail sales are released later this week. The consensus is looking for a 0.4% month-over-month gain in total sales versus the 0.2% recorded in November. Anything stronger would be an excellent sign that the consumer is doing better than expected. Wall Street is forecasting GDP growth of 1.6% in the fourth quarter, but it is worth noting that the consensus has been too pessimistic all year. The combination of a stronger-than-consensus fourth quarter and a signed phase one US-China trade deal could set the stage for a big positive surprise in the first quarter of 2020.
In our OUTLOOK FOR 2020 (December 18, 2019) we noted that our SPX earnings forecast of $184 and our price target of SPX 3300 could prove too conservative. We are not surprised that equities are closing in on our SPX 3300 target this week. Yet since it is, we should remind readers that the top of our valuation model’s predicted range allows for a much higher target of SPX 3500 by December 2020. But SPX 3500 would require a perfect combination of strong earnings, low inflation, an accommodating Fed, and no upsetting political or geopolitical events. And while this is not impossible, we believe it is likely that the SPX 3300 level becomes upside resistance in the near term. Even so a signed trade deal, better than expected fourth quarter SPX earnings and a GDP report of 2% or more for 4Q19, could lead us to raise our target in coming weeks.
A FEDERAL RESERVE ON HOLD
Recent data releases suggest the Federal Reserve should be on hold for the foreseeable future. Employment in December was healthy, but not particularly strong. The 145,000 increase in payrolls was well below the 6-month average of 188,500 new jobs per month. And while the unemployment rate fell fractionally, it still rounded to 3.5%, or unchanged from November. Average weekly earnings for total private employees rose 2.3% YOY, down from 2.8% YOY in November. Average weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory employees rose 2.4% YOY, down from 2.8% YOY in November. 2222
Our favorite employment statistics are the annual growth rates in the number of people employed. In December, employment increased 1.4% YOY in the establishment survey and 1.3% YOY in the household survey. Both of these gains were slightly below their respective long-term average growth rates. Still, it is difficult to criticize these growth rates since the current expansion is now 10 ½ years old. Slow and steady is usually a better long-term trend than fast and extreme. Over 2.1 million jobs were created in 2019 and the number of unemployed workers receiving unemployment insurance fell by 533,000. These are all favorable numbers; but in our view, the most impressive statistics in December’s job report were not the headline data points. The percentage of those currently not in the labor force but wanting a job fell from 5.3% in December 2018 to 4.8% in December, after hitting a record low of 4.6% in October 2019. Discouraged workers, or those out of work who feel they will not be able to find work, fell to 277,000 in December, the lowest level since September 2007. These latter data points suggest the job market has definitely become healthier in 2019. See pages 3 and 4.
The NFIB Small Business Optimism Index fell from 104.7 in November to 102.7 in December. This decline reversed some of the gains seen in the prior two months, yet the index remains generally strong. There were small declines in plans for capital expenditures, employment expansion, job openings, compensation increases, general expansion, and price increases. But there were small increases in the percentage of respondents that expect the economy and real sales to improve in the next twelve months. See page 5.
December’s inflation data also supports the Federal Reserve’s neutral standing. December’s not-seasonally-adjusted CPI index showed a 2.3% YOY rise, which was just slightly higher than the 2.1% YOY gain seen in November. Meanwhile, core CPI was unchanged from November’s 2.3% YOY pace. Energy prices fell 0.8% for the month but rose 3.4% YOY. Food was up 0.1% for the month and up 1.8% YOY. See page 6. Of the largest components of the CPI, transportation, with a 16.4% weighting, tends to be the most volatile due to the erratic price of oil. For example, transportation prices rose 1.9% YOY in December after falling for three consecutive months. But medical care, with an 8.8% weighting, is the most concerning. Medical care had the largest year-over-year increase, up 4.6% YOY in December. The major driver of recent medical care inflation is health insurance, where prices have been increasing 20% YOY or more for three consecutive months. See page 7.
Conversely, housing, which carries a 42.3% weight in the index, has been decelerating from a 3.0% pace to 2.6%. This has helped to dampen inflation trends. Prices for rent of primary residence, owners’ equivalent rent and household furnishings and operations are all slowing. This is favorable for consumers and should help keep headline and core inflation indices rising modestly between 2.0% and 2.3% for 2020. See page 8.
TECHNICAL INDICATORS HOLD STRONG AND STEADY
The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is 2.87 (preliminarily) and neutral after being in overbought territory for 11 of the last 15 consecutive trading sessions. This overbought reading, which began in December, represented the sixth consecutive overbought reading of 2019. Strong and repetitive overbought readings reveal solid and persistent buying pressure and are a classic characteristic of a bull market cycle. In short, this is a positive sequence for this indicator. See page 11. Breadth data continues to be strong and favorable. The 10-day average of new highs rose to an average of 343 this week, while the average number of daily new lows fell to 35. The NYSE cumulative advance decline line recorded a new high on January 14, which confirms the new highs recorded by most of the popular averages last week. See page 12. Equally important are the lack of extremes in sentiment. As of January 8, AAII bullish sentiment fell 4.1% to 33.1% and bearish sentiment rose 8.0% to 29.9%. The 8-week bull/bear spread remains neutral. The ISE Sentiment index which measures option sentiment is also neutral. In sum, sentiment indicators are not giving early warning signals of a peak in the market.
December’s payrolls increased by 145,000 workers, previous months were revised lower by 13,000 and the unemployment rate fell fractionally, but still rounded to 3.5%. See below. Employment grew 1.4% YOY in the establishment survey and 1.3% YOY in the household. Both of these paces were slightly below the long-term average employment growth rate; however, the job market remains robust considering the expansion is currently 10 ½ years old.
Regulation AC Analyst Certification
I, Gail Dudack, hereby certify that all the views expressed in this report accurately reflect my personal views about the subject company or companies and its or their securities. I also certify that no part of my compensation was, is, or will be, directly or indirectly related to the specific views contained in this report.
“Overweight”: Overweight relative to S&P Index weighting
“Neutral”: Neutral relative to S&P Index weighting
“Underweight”: Underweight relative to S&P Index weighting
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