Non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft, which is a good proxy for capital spending plans, rose 0.7% in February after falling in January. This was an encouraging sign for the economy. The Conference Board Consumer Confidence index changed little for March, although February’s data was revised downward. This was the second consecutive month with substantial downward revisions to earlier data. And there was a clear pattern in the survey that showed consumers are feeling a bit better about their current conditions but worse about future prospects. A similar result was found in the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment indices reported last week.

This week should be a calmer time for the stock market after last week’s FOMC meeting. There are few important economic releases, but ironically, the most important data of the week, the PCE deflator, will be reported on Friday when the stock market is closed for Good Friday. Friday data will also include personal income and personal spending.   

Dot-Plot Mania

There was a near-obsessive focus on the Federal Reserve’s meeting last week. Perhaps this was due to the fact that not only was the Fed reporting on Mach 20, but the Bank of Japan and the Reserve Bank of Australia met on March 19, and the Bank of England and Swiss National Bank reported on March 21. The equity market celebrated the fact that there was very little change in the Fed’s statement or the dot plot from the December meeting. To us, this suggests there was significant, but hidden, anxiety about February inflation data and the fact that inflation has been stickier than many anticipated. In our view, the market’s response to Chair Powell’s statement and news conference was overdone. The focus on the dot-plot survey is also extreme. For example, if just one participant projecting three rate cuts this year had shifted to two cuts, the median forecast would have moved from three cuts to two cuts and the dot-plot would have been a major disappointment to the consensus. Only a very slim margin implied three rate cuts. More importantly, the dot plot could be one of the Fed’s tools to temper or deliver messages to the market when it feels it is necessary. In simple terms, it is not an absolute projection of policy. We see it as a point of information and nothing else. Moreover, if Chair Powell is waiting for a majority of FOMC voting members to agree to three rate cuts this year before changing policy, he will be facing an uphill battle. In our opinion, the market’s reaction to the March FOMC meeting is another example of the market finding a pearl in every oyster.

However, while the stock market is waiting and hoping for a pivot and lower interest rates — which we believe is unnecessary — it is overlooking the fact that monetary policy is already very accommodative. Government yield curves may be inverted — and this has been the longest inversion in history without a recession – but if there is a difference this time it is due to the very stimulative fiscal and monetary policies implemented in recent years. See page 3.

The Federal Reserve has been shrinking its balance sheet which as of March 20, 2024 was $7.7 trillion, down from a peak of $9.0 trillion in April 2022. But the current $7.7 trillion remains well above the $4 trillion seen in normal times before the pandemic. In short, the Fed’s balance sheet provides considerable liquidity to the economy. Not surprisingly, there is plenty of liquidity in the system as seen by the near-record level of total bank assets now at $23.2 trillion. Commercial bank deposits as of mid-March were $17.5 trillion, down only modestly from the record $18.2 trillion seen in April 2022. This liquidity has been offsetting the Fed’s interest rate hikes and the inversion of the yield curve, in our view. If the Fed should cut interest rates, we hope it is accompanied by substantial quantitative tightening. If not, it could open the door for another round of higher inflation. See pages 3 and 4.

Technicals are Trying

The main equity indices made new highs in the past few trading sessions and the Nasdaq Composite finally bettered its November 2021 high of 16,057.44 in early March. The Russell 2000 is trading above the key resistance level of 2000 for the first time in two years but has retreated back toward the 2000 level in recent sessions and remains nearly 15% below its all-time high of 2442.74 made on November 8, 2021. See page 10.

The 25-day up/down volume oscillator is at 2.69 this week and neutral after being overbought for two consecutive days on March 13 and 14 and again on March 20 and 21. These were the first overbought readings since early January when the oscillator was in overbought territory for 22 of 25 consecutive trading days ending January 5. Nonetheless, this indicator has not yet confirmed the string of new highs seen in the S&P 500 index, Dow Jones Industrial Average, and Nasdaq Composite index in January, February, and March. To confirm, this oscillator must remain in overbought territory for a minimum of five consecutive trading sessions which would indicate that volume is concentrated in stocks that are moving higher. This is a classic sign of a bull market.

The 10-day average of daily new highs is 387, down from more than 500 in recent weeks, and new lows have been consistently around the current level of 55. This combination of new highs above 100 and new lows below 100 remains bullish, but not demonstrably so given the new highs in the popular indices. The NYSE advance/decline line made a new record high on March 21, 2024 for the fourth time since November 8, 2021 which is a confirmation of the recent highs in the S&P 500. See page 12.

Housing

On a seasonally adjusted basis, new home sales for February were essentially unchanged for the month, but up 5.9% YOY. The price of a new single-family home fell to $400,500 in February, down 3.5% from January and down 7.6% YOY. See page 5.

February’s existing home sales were 4.38 million units (SAAR), up 9.5% versus January, but down 3.3% YOY. The median price of a single-family house was $388,700 in February, up 1.5% from January and up 5.6% YOY. However, prices remain 7.7% below the June 2022 peak price of $420,900. See page 6.

Despite rising mortgage rates and housing affordability being near its lowest level in forty years, the housing market has remained resilient. This is due to a slow, but steady rise in median family income and the lowest level of inventory in forty years. See page 7. However, none of this data reveals the fact that many households and young families have been shut out of the housing market after the price gains and interest rate increases seen in the last four years. If the stock market is forming a bubble, and we think it is, it is in the early stages. PE multiples are exceedingly high at 24.2 times trailing 12-months and 21 times forward 12-months. Yet during the 1997-2000 bubble, the financial crisis of 2008, and even the post-COVID-19 peak, the trailing 12-month PE reached 26 to 30 times earnings. See page 8. 

Gail Dudack

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