After last week’s strong jobs report for March, equity investors became a bit more concerned about the slew of inflation data that will be reported this week and with good reason. Although we have not heard anyone discuss it, for 12 of the 13 months ending January 2024, headline CPI has been benefiting from the weakness in the energy component of the index due to the negative year-over-year performance of the WTI oil future (CLc1 – $85.23). In February, the oil future reversed, but rose a mere 1.6% YOY. But in March it rose 9.9% YOY and in April, to date, it is up nearly 11% YOY. In short, while the Fed is currently focused on core and service sector inflation as the problems for 2024, headline inflation may be about to reappear.

And oil is not the only commodity moving higher. Our table of global markets and commodities on page 16 shows that of the 66 components in this table the six best year-to-date performances are seen in United States Oil Fund, LP (USO – $81.15), the WTI oil future, iShares Silver Trust (SLV – $25.72), the silver future (SIc1 – $27.89), Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLE – $97.49), and the SPDR Gold Trust ETF (GLD – $217.67), in that order. The only commodity outlier is the gold future (GCc1 – $2795.10), which remains in the lower half of the table in terms of year-to-date price performance.

For a variety of reasons, equity prices do not always reflect the performance of underlying fundamentals or of commodity prices; however, in terms of S&P 500 sector performance, energy has been moving steadily higher in ranking this year and is currently in second place after communications services. The materials sector has been sitting at the bottom of the price performance rankings for a long time, but it is now improving and currently sits in the sixth slot, directly below the S&P 500 index.

In our opinion, it is wise to be wary of all future inflation reports; but this week could also be interesting since it includes Treasury auctions of $60 billion of 17-week bills on April 10th, and $70 billion of 4-week bills and $75 billion of 8-week bills on April 11th. It will be interesting to see how this impacts interest rates. Plus, first quarter earnings season begins in earnest with five major financial companies reporting on Friday. There is a lot of news to digest this week.

The Impact of the March Job Report

Immediately after last week’s jobs report the consensus view regarding Fed rate cuts began to change. Earlier this year the consensus was expecting six rate cuts! This was recently cut to three, and now there are whispers about one, two, or maybe no interest rate cuts in 2024. In our view, the equity market can adjust to the number of, or lack of, rate cuts by the Fed this year, but it might react poorly if inflation and/or interest rates begin to move higher. Much of the enthusiasm for equities in the last 12 months has been based on the expectation of lower inflation and lower interest rates. When the cost of money is low, the ability to invest or speculate in stocks increases; conversely, higher interest rates will lift the risk bar for investors and slay speculation. It is impossible to know how much of the rally from the October low is based on the expectation of lower interest rates, but it appears to be an essential factor.

The March employment report depicted a job market with solid momentum, and this implied that not only was a Fed rate cut unnecessary at this time, but it could be reckless. March’s job growth of 303,000 in the establishment survey, a decline in the unemployment rate to 3.8% in the household survey, and a rise in the participation rate to 62.7%, were all signs of strength. We had been concerned about the deceleration in the household survey’s job level, and though it inched down to 0.4%, it remains above the worrisome zero level. Ironically, the ISM employment indices for March remain below 50, a sign of job contraction, but this has been true for several months. See page 3.

Last week we noted that the unemployment rate for men aged 16-64 had been rising; but this may have been seasonal. Although the rate remains above the total unemployment rate of 3.8%, it fell from 4.3% in February to 3.9% in March, which is good news. This improvement may be linked to the big decline in the unemployment rate for those 25 and older with less than a high school diploma. This rate fell significantly from 7.7% to 5.8% in March, which suggests the lower end of the job market is experiencing good growth. See page 4.  

Average hourly earnings rose 4.2% YOY, down from 4.6% in February, but well above inflation of 3.2%. Average weekly earnings also rose 4.2% YOY and average weekly hours in the private sector rose 0.1 of an hour. Manufacturing weekly hours rose 0.1 to 40.7 hours indicating overtime. See page 5. All in all, March data depicted a solid job market.

Multiple job holders rose to 8.6 million in March, down only slightly from the peak level of 8.7 million seen in December. Part-time workers for noneconomic reasons (in nonagricultural industries) rose by 572,000 in March to 22.5 million. Part-time workers for noneconomic reasons exclude those who wanted to work full-time but could only find part-time work. This increase in part-time workers reflects the number of new people entering the workforce and is another sign of a healthy job market. See page 6.  

We do not typically read economic comments on social media, however, @RealEJAntoni wrote that in the last 12 months, 651,000 native-born Americans lost jobs, while 1.3 million foreign-born workers have gained jobs. This seemed crazy to us, but we looked at BLS data and found it to be true. Keep in mind that this data comes from the household survey (BLS Table A-7) which is an anonymous voluntary survey conducted by the US Census Bureau. It is not from the establishment survey which is derived from state payroll data. Nevertheless, the household survey includes much more information about households and captures an important segment of the job market, i.e., workers who may not receive a W-2, gig workers, homeworkers, entrepreneurs, and illegals. See page 7.

Small Businesses

The NFIB small business optimism index fell 0.9 points to 88.5 in March with six of eleven components falling in the month, two were unchanged, and three improved slightly. Seven of the eleven components of the index remained in negative territory. Plans to expand, invest, or increase employment fell. See page 8.

The NFIB survey showed that reports of positive profit trends were a net negative 29% in March, up two points, but still a very poor reading. The net percentage of owners who expect real sales to be higher decreased eight points from February to a net negative 18%. Owners indicating that sales were the single most important problem rose to 8 in March, a trend that historically mirrors the unemployment rate. Much like the ISM employment indices, this report was difficult to square with the March jobs report. There were no significant changes in fundamental or technical indicators this week. Equities remain near extreme valuations and momentum indicators are mixed with prices showing solid momentum but volume failing to confirm. We remain cautious.

Gail Dudack

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