Data and a Carefree Bond Market

By Doug Noland

Credit Bubble Bulletin: Data and a Carefree Bond Market

July non-farm payrolls gained 209,000 versus estimates of 180,000. June payrolls were revised 9,000 higher to 231,000. It’s worth noting that manufacturing added 16,000 jobs (est. 5,000) in July, the strongest gains since March. So far in 2017, manufacturing employment has been expanding at the briskest pace in years, with y-t-d gains of 82,000 dwarfing comparable 2016’s zero and 2015’s 12,000. The unemployment rate dipped a tenth in July to 4.3%. Unemployment bottomed at 4.4% during the previous cycle low back in 2007. In fact, the unemployment rate has not been lower than the July level since February 2001.

The recent narrative holds that the economy has been in an extended “soft patch”. In general, economic data have somewhat missed expectations. “US Car Sales Continue to Skid, Drop 5.7% in July.” The decline in automobile sales was viewed as confirmation of a slowing manufacturing sector. Ongoing travails in retail also support the view of economic stagnation. The labor participation rate remains a dismal 62.9%.

The narrative of a weakening in both economic activity and inflationary pressures serves the markets well. With Fed funds now near the Federal Reserve’s “neutral rate,” rate normalization has apparently about run its course. Even after Friday’s stronger-than-expected job gains, the market places the probability of another 2017 hike at less than 40%. What could be more bullish than so-called rate “normalization” that avoids any tightening of financial conditions whatsoever? The Carefree Bond Market has been cruising along the PCH with the top down in a slick new autonomous sports car.

It’s my view that U.S. and global economic maladjustment has become extreme after years of policy-induced monetary disorder. The U.S. economy is structurally unsound, though this grim reality remains well-masked by the artistry of low rates, liquidity over-abundance, inflated securities markets and record household net worth. More succinctly, deep structural impairment ensures central bankers remain wedded to loose financial conditions.

On a more cyclical basis, however, economic activity is not that weak. Data aggregation definitely smooths an extraordinarily unbalanced economy, with some segments booming and others mired in stagnation. And, importantly, ongoing monetary stimulus will do anything but resolve imbalances and structural maladjustment. At this point in the cycle – after nine years of historic monetary stimulus – the Fed should focus policy attention on cyclical indicators and err on the side of reducing accommodation. There are perilous risks associated with pushing a structurally marred economic system to the limits.

July average earnings were up 0.3% m-o-m, with one-year gains of 2.5%. Tepid wage growth is viewed as a major factor keeping inflation (CPI) stubbornly below the Fed’s 2.0% target. Yet stagnant wages are clearly a structural issue. U.S. manufacturing workers must compete against labor from around the globe. Less appreciated, the massive U.S. service sector – that flourished in the backdrop of deindustrialization, aggressive monetary stimulus and asset inflation – has created tens of millions of low skill jobs. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult for the overbuilt service sector (i.e. retail, restaurant, hotels, etc.) to afford higher compensation expenses. And let’s not forget the enormous cost – and ongoing inflation – in healthcare and insurance.

Over recent months, there has been some focus on the divergence between robust “soft” and lagging “hard” data. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose last month to 49.6, a level just below the previous cycle peak in 2006/07. One must go all the way back to 2001 to beat 2017 readings for the Bloomberg Weekly National Economy Index. July’s 113.4 reading for the University of Michigan Current Economic Conditions Index was the highest since July 2005 – and the second highest going all the way back to November 2000. Last month’s 147.8 reading for the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Present Situation Index was the highest since July 2001. The CEO Confidence Index has declined only slightly from the March level – which was the highest going back to December 2004.

These various confidence indices – in conjunction with a 4.3% unemployment rate and stock prices surging further into uncharted record territory – would have traditionally been viewed as indications of loose monetary conditions. But the Yellen Fed has hung its hat on the consumer price index (and, to a lesser extent, wage growth). And it matters little to the Fed that inflation is clearly a global structural issue – one arguably associated with a prolonged period of monetary mismanagement.

And it’s not as if “hard” data is all that weak. July’s 56.3 reading in the PMI Manufacturing Index compares to 52.3 from one year ago. Looking back to 2007, the high that year was 52.6 – with the 2006 peak (February) at 55.8. June Durable Goods Orders (up 6.5%) surprised on the upside. And Q2 GDP rose to 2.6%, up from Q1’s 1.2%. The Atlanta Fed forecasts 4% Q3 GDP growth.

And despite all the talk of heightened disinflationary pressures, the ISM Manufacturing Price Index jumped seven points in July to 62. The ISM Non-Manufacturing Price index rose 3.6 points in July to 55.7. Crude and most commodities have rallied sharply over the past six weeks, certainly bolstered by dollar weakness.

A lot of attention has been paid recently to weakening auto sales. July sales were reported at a weaker-than-expected (seasonally adjusted and annualized) 16.69 million units. This compares unfavorably to the year ago pace of 17.75 million. But before we get too carried away, sales averaged 16.35 million annualized during the 2006-2007 period. In fact, July sales were just slightly below the monthly average from the eight-years 2000-2007. Sure, sales have moderated from the 2015-2016 boom – a period stoked by booming subprime lending. But, for now, I don’t see the slowing auto sector as part of a general downturn in economic activity.

Housing starts jumped back in June to a stronger-than-expected 1.215 million pace. This was the strongest reading since February and compares to the year earlier 1.190 million. Over recent months, housing starts have been running at the strongest level since 2007. Building permits also popped higher in June. Existing Home Sales are running at the highest level since early 2007. At $263,800, June Median Existing Home Prices were a record and compare to the year ago $247,600. The supply of inventory at 4.3 months of sales, while up from January’s extreme 3.5 reading, remains significantly below the average 6.0 months over the period going back to 1999. The Case-Shiller National Price index increased to a record 190.61 in May (up 5.6% y-o-y).

Friday’s smaller-than-expected Trade Deficit was the result of a 1.2% m-o-m jump in exports (up 5.8% y-o-y), to the strongest level since December 2014. U.S. exports have recovered strongly from the 2015/16 pullback, reflecting a global trade revival. The jump in U.S. exports is consistent with recent data from China, Europe, Japan and elsewhere.

For now, it’s difficult for me to take a negative short-term view on U.S. economic activity so long as the housing and export sectors continue to boom. It’s remains a Bubble Economy and, while vulnerable, the Bubble is still expanding.

At this point, the bond market is content to disregard a lot of data, that is, so long as there are no upside surprises in consumer price indices or wages (the two data sets stuck deepest in the structural muck). This works to keep market yields artificially depressed – and mortgage rates extraordinarily low. With after-tax borrowing costs remaining significantly below the rate of housing appreciation (in many areas), the backdrop is favorable for a strengthening of an already potent housing market inflationary bias. The unusually low levels of housing inventory – and an expanding list of overheated local markets – coupled with the Fed’s fixation on CPI sow the seeds for Housing Bubble 2.0.

August 1 – Bloomberg (Alfred Liu): “China has made progress in slowing leverage in the economy, but still needs to do more with the total amount of financing expected to rise 13% this year, according to Autonomous Research analyst Charlene Chu. Total outstanding credit is expected to grow to 223 trillion yuan ($33 trillion) by December from 196.8 trillion yuan at the end of 2016, analysis by Chu shows. The estimated increase will be lower than last year’s 19% gain as the government’s campaign against leverage starts to bite, she said. Her estimates are far higher than the latest official figure of 167 trillion yuan in June, which she says doesn’t accurately represent the true state of financing as it doesn’t include items like local government bond issuance and some forms of off-balance sheet lending.”

Charlene Chu is one of the preeminent analysts of Chinese Credit. She currently forecasts almost $4.0 TN of Chinese Credit growth this year, with total Credit approaching 300% of GDP. It’s somewhat of a challenge to be negative on short-term global GDP trends with record Chinese Credit expansion, enormous ongoing global QE and booming securities markets. At the same time, there’s a strong case that we’re getting awfully close to peak QE, peak Chinese Credit and peak global securities Bubble. Things would get more interesting if economic data begins to surprise on the upside, forcing the Fed and other central banks to again rethink the meaning of “normalization”. That would awaken bonds. July payrolls could have been a start.

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