An already-low unemployment rate has dropped another 0.3% YTD (to 3.6%) and stocks’ rebound in the second half of March took the S&P 500 to within 3.5% of its all-time high. Yet Consumer Sentiment has sunk to 59.7—a reading that’s 15 points below the average seen at the last six NBER business-cycle troughs. Why the long faces?
Just after yesterday’s close, we loaded our precocious bull into an SUV and drove to the local veterinary clinic for a two-year checkup.
Our bovine buddy drew some sympathetic stares while we were waiting in the lobby. Noting our bull’s droopy eyelids and gray facial hair, an assistant informed us, “You know, you didn’t actually need to bring him here. We now have a mobile euthanasia service.” We just smiled, and waited for the veterinarian, who is said to be a specialist in this new super-species of bull.
The correction in the S&P 500 since its high on January 3rd qualifies as a “severe” correction, which we define as a decline of at least -12% based on daily closing prices. What are the odds that it becomes a “major” decline*—in which the loss exceeds -19%?
In Section I, we review the history of severe corrections since 1950. In Section II, those corrections are analyzed in the context of the economic cycle, consumer sentiment, and other underlying factors—ones that might help us determine if today’s stock-market weakness is “buyable.”
With consumer price inflation raging at 6.2% and few indications of an imminent rollover, Jay Powell has waved the white flag and retired the ill-begotten “transitory” descriptor. The timing of Powell’s concession is intriguing—perhaps he’s a fellow follower of a simple inflation model: the Output Gap.
In the latest Green Book, we noted that Producer Price Inflation does not usually become a challenge for the stock market until its annual rate breaks above 4.0%. The day that comment was published, the year-over-year gain in the March PPI for Finished Goods spiked to 6.0%, thanks mostly to the well-celebrated COVID-19 anniversary-effect.
While investors cheer the stock market on to challenge its all-time high, new COVID-19 cases are also making daily records in the U.S. The first wave of the pandemic helped to tank the S&P 500 by nearly 30% in the course of three weeks, while the second wave, now in development, has yet to deter the raging bulls.
With all the excitement over the Fed’s shift in rhetoric and the excellent subsequent market action, there’s a danger of losing sight of the broader cyclical backdrop for U.S. stocks. Remember, the economy is still operating beyond government estimates of its full-employment potential, and it’s not as if the Fed has actually eased policy—as it did successfully at a similar late-cycle juncture in the fall of 1998 and (ultimately unsuccessfully) in the summer of 2007.
In 2010 and 2011, we were sometimes chastised for not paying more attention to exploding federal deficits, which at the time were running between 8% to 10% of GDP. We argued that a substantial share of these budget shortfalls was cyclical in nature, and would eventually be reversed by an improving economy.
Politicians bemoan the lack of “good-paying jobs,” but what’s the current perspective of employers? According to a simple measure developed by economist Edward Renshaw many decades ago, employers see a lack of “unused labor capacity” in the U.S. that should lead to yet another year of disappointing GDP growth in 2017.
The global yield curve is in a sideways range bound pattern, indicating anemic demand for credit. An examination of developed and emerging countries confirms our “muddle through” view.
Optimists have continuously cited low unemployment and the ever resilient U.S. consumer as two “pillars of strength” that will help keep the economy afloat. It has become considerably more difficult to make this case in recent months, as jobs and spending data have weakened to levels associated with recessions.