As we near the end of the calendar year, we know that seasonal factors favor a stronger stock market. However, we also recognize that the outlook for 2024 is clouded by the Ukraine/Russia and Israel/Gaza wars, the uncertainties surrounding the presidential election in November 2024, questions about monetary policy, nagging inflation, rising credit card balances, rising credit card delinquencies, questions about the health of the US consumer, the ability of the US Treasury to fund ever-growing levels of debt, and most importantly, the prospect for corporate earnings.
Yet, what may soon jump to the top of the list of concerns will be the possibility of a government shutdown. This will not be a debt ceiling debate. On June 3, 2023 President Biden signed a bill that suspended the government’s $31.4 trillion debt ceiling until January 2025, in other words, until after the presidential election. Nevertheless, while there is currently no limit to how much the US government can borrow, Congress is required to approve government spending. Historically this has been in the form of a budget proposal originating from the President for the fiscal year (October 1 through September 30). Typically, this budget then goes to the House Ways and Means Committee which creates its own budget, details are debated and negotiated by both houses of Congress and passed. However, Congress has only completed this process in a timely manner three times in the last 47 years. The last time was the budget for the fiscal year ending in 1997.
The alternative to this process is a continuing resolution (CR). Continuing resolutions are temporary spending bills that allow federal government operations to continue when final appropriations have not been approved by Congress and signed by the President. Without final appropriations or a continuing resolution, there could be a lapse in funding that results in a government shutdown. This is the situation Congress will soon be facing, again. On September 30, House and Senate lawmakers passed a short-term budget extension to avoid a shutdown at the start of the new fiscal year which began on October 1 but that deal will expire on November 17. In short, lawmakers will be back in the same legislative predicaments they faced in mid-September in less than 10 days.
At present, House and Senate leaders have not made meaningful progress on a full-year budget deal or short-term compromise plan. The new Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson (Republican – Louisiana), has said that budget cuts or other policy riders will be included in upcoming proposals from his chamber but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat – New York), has called those ideas a dead end. Political analysts suggest there are three choices for Speaker Johnson. He could push for a simple funding bill that would move the November 17 deadline into next year without any strings attached. He could pair government funding with GOP priorities linked to immigration or other policies like cutting federal spending. Or Johnson could propose a “laddered CR” that would extend government funding for different agencies for different periods of time. This would allow lawmakers to favor certain parts of the government over others. For example, defense and homeland security spending would be placed ahead of other agencies. Still, without a continuing resolution, active-duty troops will not be paid any salary and hundreds of thousands of federal employees will be furloughed.
We suggested this once before, but we think Congressional salaries should be sacrificed for every day of a government shutdown. It might improve productivity in Washington DC.
Credit Card Woes
Recent data from the New York Federal Reserve revealed distinct pockets of weakness in the consumer sector and this could impact future economic activity. Total household debt balances grew $228 billion in the third quarter across all types of borrowing, particularly for credit cards and student loans. Credit card balances increased $48 billion in the quarter and $154 billion on a year-over-year basis. It was the eighth consecutive quarter of year-over-year increases and the largest increase since the NY Fed began collecting data in 1999.
This expansion in consumer debt helps to explain the surprisingly high GDP growth seen in the quarter, but it is coming at a cost. Credit card delinquencies increased from the historical lows experienced during the pandemic and topped pre-pandemic levels by the end of the quarter. Mortgages, which comprise the largest share of household debt, have delinquency transition rates that are below their pre-pandemic levels; nevertheless, auto loan and credit card delinquencies have surpassed their pre-pandemic levels. The rise in credit card delinquencies is being led by Millennials, whereas Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Z have delinquency rates closer to 2019 levels. Delinquency rates have been increasing in each income quartile but are rising fastest for lower-income credit card holders. Those with combined balances over $20,000 have the highest delinquency transition rate, but fortunately these balances represent only 6% of credit card holders. Not surprisingly, delinquencies are rising most quickly for consumers with auto and student loans.
Haves and Have-Nots
In the second half of the year, the winding down of fiscal stimulus, the rise in interest rates, and the resumption of student loan payments, began to impact households, particularly the lower-income category. Still, the post-pandemic expansion has been an unusual one and continues to be a story of the haves and the have-nots. Seen from one point of view, higher income households have been going to Taylor Swift concerts, enjoying expensive cruises, and traveling the world for fun. Lower-income households have been battered by high inflation and are having trouble paying their mortgage, paying rent, putting gas in their car, and paying for their children’s education. The third quarter GDP of 4.9% did not feel all that special from their perspective.
This week we also review vehicle sales, Conference Board consumer sentiment (seven out of 10 consumers expect a recession in the next 12 months), ISM indices, the employment cost index, and S&P earnings. See pages 3-7.
The Russell 2000 index spent only two trading days below the key 1650 support level, which was too brief to confirm that the breakdown in the index was significant. This is good news since a breakdown would have meant much lower prices for the overall market. In upcoming weeks, the most important index could be the SPX as it trades between its 100- and 200-day moving averages, which represent resistance at 4400 and support at 4251. See page 8. The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at a positive 0.90 reading this week and neutral, after recording an 89% up day on November 2, on volume that exceeded the 10-day average. See page 9. However, this indicator did not confirm the advance in August nor the weakness in October. This is in line with our long-held view that the equity market remains in a broad neutral trading range.
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