It wasn’t an ‘Avengers End Game’ spoiler, but there was big news last week.
Economic growth in the United States was strong during the first quarter. The Bureau Of Economic Analysis (BEA) announced gross domestic product (GDP), which is the value of all goods and services produced in the United States, increased by 3.2 percent.
The estimate came as a surprise. It was well above the consensus forecast of 2.3 percent, according to Randall Forsyth of Barron’s. In addition, as The Economist pointed out,
“This year America’s economy did not get the freshest of starts. A government shutdown, a wobbly stock market and concerns that the Federal Reserve would tighten monetary policy too quickly made for a dim outlook for 2019. With the effects of fiscal stimulus fading, and momentum in the global economy ebbing, most expected America’s economic growth to decelerate.”
Both Barron’s and The Economist cautioned investors to look under the hood, though. The top contributors to accelerating growth were imports and exports, which could be volatile. In addition, consumer spending, which usually accounts for about of two-thirds of GDP growth, rose far more slowly than it did in the previous quarter.
Investors were appreciative of quarter-to-quarter GDP growth. They also were encouraged by first quarter earnings reports. Earnings reflect the health and profitability of public companies. With 46 percent of Standard & Poor’s 500 Index companies reporting, FactSet wrote, “In aggregate, companies are reporting earnings that are 5.3 percent above the estimates, which is also above the five-year average.”
The S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite Indices ended the week at record highs, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished the week lower.
And the answer is…
A Jeopardy! contestant captured the nation’s attention last week by setting multiple records for the most money earned in a single episode. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has been setting some records, too.
Michael Mackenzie of Financial Times explained:
“Less than four months through the year, the S&P 500 including the reinvestment of dividends has returned to record territory, along with the technology sector…Around the world, many benchmarks enjoy double-digit gains, led by China’s CSI 300 index, having risen more than a third already during 2019.”
Pessimism about economic growth prospects has kept institutional investors – including professional money managers whose performance is typically evaluated quarterly – on the sidelines. As a result, despite a “market-friendly shift by central banks and an expansion in China’s credit growth that laid the ground for a rebound in activity,” they have missed out on some significant gains.
Financial Times suggested when institutional investors begin moving money into stock markets, we could see the market ‘melt up.’ A melt up occurs when valuations surge for reasons that have little to do with improving fundamentals and a lot to do with investors rushing into a market because they fear missing out on gains.
Investors seeking safe havens could temper any gains from institutional investors entering the market. Jack Hough of Barron’s suggested investors ignore safe havens, even though stock valuations remain high. He wrote, “…elevated prices don’t rule out more gains. The S&P 500 was this expensive at the end of 2016. It has returned 36 percent since.”
Some will take those words as encouragement, others as a warning. No matter which camp you are in, it may be a good time to have a carefully diversified portfolio.
Investors took an intermission.
The curtain appeared to close on the first act of 2019 last week – and what an impressive act it was. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index delivered some dramatic returns and is less than 1 percent away from a new all-time high.
Despite relatively few shares changing hands, major U.S. indices eked out gains. Ben Levisohn of Barron’s explained:
“Trading volume was tepid at best. This past Monday, fewer shares changed hands than on any day since December 24 – when the market closed early for Christmas. Tuesday’s volume was lower than Monday’s, Wednesday’s was lower than Tuesday’s, and...well, you get the point. That was just another sign that no one wanted to place any big bets on the market this past week – in either direction.”
Investors were complacent even though news suggested trade talks with China were progressing well. They remained unruffled in the face of a Presidential tweet suggesting the United States will impose tariffs on Europe in retaliation for illegal subsidies to a European aerospace firm.
There was another interesting development in the United States last week. It was widely reported that a number of companies in retail and banking sectors increased entry-level hourly wages to levels well above the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The companies are paying $13 to $20 an hour, according to Renae Merle of The Washington Post and a report from Reuters.
That is good news for workers, but not such good news for investors since higher wages could lead to lower corporate profits, reported Joe Wallace and Akane Otani of The Wall Street Journal.
The first quarter of 2019 brought a welcome reversal.
Last year, Barron’s published a group of market strategists’ expectations for 2019 performance. The article came out in mid-December, before the steep year-end stock market decline. At that time, all of the strategists agreed: The S&P 500 Index would move higher during 2019.
Their expectations appeared to be wildly optimistic when the Index lost 3.5 percent during the last two weeks of 2018, and finished the year down 6.2 percent.
Overall, at the end of 2018, strategists expected the Index to reach 2,975 by year-end 2019. Despite starting 2019 at a lower level than many anticipated, the Index finished last week at 2,892, a gain of about 15.4 percent year-to-date, and 83 points from strategists’ full-year performance expectations.
While the U.S. stock market has delivered attractive returns year-to-date, suggesting investors anticipate strong economic growth ahead, the bond market has been telling a different story.
Late in the first quarter, the yield curve inverted, which means the yield on short-term Treasury bonds was higher than the yield on long-term Treasury bonds. Inverted yield curves are unusual because investors normally want to earn a higher yield when they lend their savings for longer periods of time.
In some cases, inverted yield curves have been a sign that recession is ahead. That may not be the case this time, reported Eva Szalay of Financial Times. It seems the extreme measures taken by central banks following the financial crisis may have undermined the yield curve’s predictive value:
“…according to a new piece of research from Pictet Wealth Management, the curve has been sending out misleading signals for a while. The distortions created by extraordinary post-crisis monetary policies have led to the breakdown in the relationship between interest rate expectations and economic growth, the firm argues…Since central banks have injected vast amounts of liquidity into their respective economies to compensate for lackluster growth, long-term interest rates have become artificially compressed…So the old rule no longer applies.”
The yield curve has since righted itself.
While recession may not be imminent, there are signs economies around the world are growing more slowly. Capital Economics reported, “World GDP [gross domestic product] growth seems to have slowed sharply in Q1, but the latest business surveys suggest that growth has bottomed out in some parts of the world at least…there are very few signs of improvement in the euro-zone and the United States has clearly been suffering from previous interest rate hikes and the fading fiscal boost. Those hoping for an imminent rebound in global growth are therefore likely to be disappointed.”
Slowing growth isn’t a sign recession is imminent in the United States. Last week’s jobs report suggests the American economy is still healthy, reported Tim Mullaney of MarketWatch, even if it is puttering along at a slower pace than many would like.
That’s how Michael Arone, an investment strategist, described the U.S. market environment to Avi Salzman of Barron’s:
“‘Stocks are rallying, but bond yields are reflecting much lower growth.’ Stocks rose during the quarter because the Fed backed away from raising interest rates, and investors grew more confident that the U.S. and China would sign a trade deal, Arone said. The market was also rebounding from a very rough fourth quarter – ‘conditions at the end of the year were wildly oversold,’ he noted.”
Through the end of last week, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was up more than 13 percent year-to-date, despite falling corporate earnings and modest consumer spending gains.
Consumer optimism may have played a role in U.S. stock market gains. The University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers Economist Richard Curtin reported:
“…the last time a larger proportion of households reported income gains was in 1966. Rising incomes were accompanied by lower expected year-ahead inflation rates, resulting in more favorable real income expectations…Moreover, all income groups voiced more favorable growth prospects for the overall economy…Overall, the data do not indicate an emerging recession but point toward slightly lower unit sales of vehicles and homes during the year ahead.”
The Bureau of Economic Analysis released its report on economic growth in 2018 last week. Real gross domestic product (GDP), which is a measure of economic growth after inflation, was revised down to 2.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018. Growth was up 2.9 percent for the year, though, which was an improvement on 2017’s gain of 2.2 percent.
Slowing economic growth gives weight to bond investors’ expectations, while consumer optimism supports stock investors’ outlook. Divergent market performance and conflicting data make it hard to know what may be ahead. One way to protect capital is to hold a well-diversified portfolio.