Media Hyperbole

It is widely known that there is political bias in the mass media, but we continually see signs of bias in the financial press as well. The bias tends to be bullish or optimistic, which may seem constructive and comforting, but it can also be dangerous if it is misleading to the public and/or investors. We have pointed out several situations in the past and there was more this week. In particular, we just read a headline from an international news source that shouted in bold letters “US consumer confidence rebounds, house prices maintain upward trend.” We had just finished writing the back pages of this report, so we knew what these economic releases contained, and this headline did not match what we learned from the data.

This headline sounded like the economy was on the verge of an economic rebound. However, within the article it did state that “the Conference Board said its consumer confidence index increased to 102.0 this month from a downwardly revised 99.1 in October. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index dipping to 101.0. The improvement in confidence was concentrated mostly among households aged 55 and up. Consumers in the 35-54 age group were less optimistic about their prospects.”

The fact that the 35-54 age group was less optimistic than those over 55 is noteworthy since this age group is of prime working age and has children in school, a combination that makes them core consumers and important drivers of the economy.

What was not made transparent in this article was that October’s index had initially been reported to be 102.6. This means the consensus estimate for November was 101.0 implying a decline in sentiment. And the only reason November’s index of 102.0 was better than forecasted was the large negative revision in October’s index, to 99.1. In our opinion, there is a bit of a sleight of hand to say that November’s confidence was a positive surprise and/or represented a rebound. Plus, the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index for November showed consumers were clearly worried, especially about higher inflation. The main index fell 2.5 to 61.3, present conditions were 2.3 lower to 68.3, and expectations fell 2.5 to 56.8. All in all, none of this supports a headline that says consumer confidence is rebounding, in our opinion. See page 6.

In terms of suggesting there is an upward trend in house prices, it is more of the same. The article was referencing housing data from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) which does not measure home prices but calculates an index (1991=100) which is defined as a weighted repeat-sales index, meaning that it measures average price changes in repeat sales or refinancings on the same properties. It is a broad-based index but does not represent actual home prices. We doubt that the journalist understood this. Moreover, the FHFA index is released a month later than most other home price data, i.e., the article was referencing September data when data for October and surveys for November had already been released. See page 5.

As for the trend in new home sales and prices, according to data from the Census Bureau, sales were lower in October versus September, but up 17.7% YOY. New house inventories were at their highest level since January and the total months of supply of housing was 7.8, back to August’s level. But in terms of home prices, Census data showed that the average new single-family home price fell 10.4% YOY to $487,000 while the median price fell nearly 18% YOY to $409,300. This data does not support the international news article, but it does support the negative NAHB survey results reported for October and November. See page 4. In sum, do not believe everything you read.

Media Neglect

Not getting much attention by the media are the risks appearing in the Chinese economy. Most investors know about China’s property crisis and its impact across China is immense and ongoing. However, foreign investors have been souring on China for most of this year, and recent data shows strong evidence that the global trend of diversifying supply chains and other de-risking strategies are having a negative impact on the world’s second-largest economy. In the July-September period, China recorded its first-ever quarterly deficit in foreign direct investment, a sign of capital outflow pressure. See page 7. According to Rhodium Group (www.rhg.com), the value of announced US and European greenfield investment into China dropped to less than $20 billion last year, from a peak of $120 billion in 2018, while investment into India shot up by some $65 billion or 400% between 2021 and 2022.

Given this backdrop, it is not surprising that Chinese President Xi Jinping recently met with President Biden at the Asia-Pacific-Economic-Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco. Investment in China has dropped to historic lows, and President Xi attended the Summit in San Francisco to promote China’s economy. However, the data suggests that foreign firms are not only refusing to reinvest their earnings in China but are selling existing investments and repatriating funds. This trend could put further pressure on the yuan and dampen China’s economic growth in the long run. It also reduces China’s need to invest dollar inflows, which helps explain China’s decreasing demand for US Treasury bonds.

In terms of China’s economic activity, a survey released by The Conference Board showed that more than two-thirds of responding CEOs indicated that China’s demand has not returned to pre-COVID levels. Forty percent of respondents are expecting a decrease in capital investments in China and a similar proportion are expecting to cut jobs. In sum, corporations will become more dependent upon US consumers for top-line growth in the future.

Market Update

Not much has changed this week. The charts of the popular equity indices remain bullish with the first level of resistance seen at the July highs and the most important resistance found at the all-time highs. The near-term levels to monitor are 4600 in the SPX (July high) and the 1820-1827 area of the Russell 2000 index where the 100-day and 200-day moving averages merge. These short-term challenges are yet to be tested. However, while moves above these levels would be favorable for a year-end rally, the all-time highs are the real source of resistance. In our view, the longer-term trading ranges remain intact. See page 10.

Beware What You Wish For The consensus believes rate hikes are over and rate cuts, accompanied by a soft landing are in store for 2024. Yet, today’s rapid Fed tightening cycle would be most comparable to the early 1950s or the early 1980s. In both cases, Fed tightening led to multiple recessions. And while the stock market is currently rallying based upon the view that rates have peaked and will soon decline, the decline in interest rates following a tightening cycle has usually appeared in tandem with a recession. In short, the current stock market rally appears to be celebrating the onset of a recession, whether it is aware of it or not.

Gail Dudack

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