There was some good news and some bad news last week.
First, the good news: Thanks to consumer spending and an upturn in federal government spending, the U.S. economy grew faster from April through June this year. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.6 percent during the period, according to the advance estimate for economic growth. This was an improvement over growth from January through March, when GDP increased by 1.2 percent.
Now, the bad news: Personal income did not grow as fast from April through June as it did from January through March. Wages and salaries grew at a slower pace, as did government social benefits and other sources of income. The New York Times wrote:
“Wage growth, however, decelerated despite an unemployment rate that averaged 4.4 percent in the second quarter. Inflation also retreated, appearing to weaken the case for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates again this year.
‘Although growth is solid, the lack of wage pressure buys the Fed plenty of time, and works with a very 'gradual' tightening cycle,’ said Alan Ruskin, global head of G10 FX strategy at Deutsche Bank in New York. ‘There is more here for the Fed doves than the hawks.’”
The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee left rates unchanged at its meeting last week, commenting, “The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.”
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index finished the week flat. Yields on 10-year Treasury bonds moved slightly higher.
Do we have central banks to thank?
Low interest rates, accommodative monetary policy, and improving economic growth have helped stock markets around the world reach record highs, reports Barron’s:
“…a look around the globe shows the surge of the U.S. market to new peaks to be anything but unique. Major [markets] in Europe and Asia also have been setting records. Even in South Korea, the Kospi closed at a new peak and is up 25 percent from its 52-week low last year, as the global technology rally has proved to be more powerful than the threat of a nuclear-missile launch from North Korea. Last week also saw a record close in the S&P BSE Sensex in India. Japan’s Nikkei is up 25 percent from last August and near a 52-week high (albeit still down 48 percent from its 1989 bubble peak). The Shanghai Composite is a relative laggard, with a 9.6 percent gain from its August lows, bolstered by a 3.7 percent jump over the past five weeks.”
Eventually, central banks are expected to tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates and reducing the size of their balance sheets and that could affect markets. The U.S. Federal Reserve released its Policy Normalization Principles and Plans back in 2014. Last month, Chair Janet Yellen indicated the Fed currently intends to begin normalizing policy during 2017.
U.S. monetary policy isn’t the only phenomenon investors may want to keep an eye on.
Fiscal policy (the steps a government takes to influence its country’s economy) deserves some attention, too. The United States will, once again, hit its legal spending limit (the debt ceiling) this fall. U.S. News reported, “Were the United States to hit its borrowing limit – and thus have to start missing payments and stiffing creditors – there's no telling the exact consequences, but they wouldn't be good.”
The bond market does not appear to be confident fiscal policy will proceed smoothly. Barron’s reported, “Yields on T-bills that mature in mid-to-late October jumped relative to surrounding maturities, a sign that the money market saw a risk – however slight – of not getting paid on time.”
It was a good week for a lot of stocks but not bank stocks.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) both finished at record highs last week. Barron’s indicated investors owe Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen a debt of gratitude:
“The main force behind the rally was the dovish performance by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in Congress on Wednesday and Thursday when she reiterated that rate hikes would most likely be gradual. On balance, her remarks were interpreted as evidence of continued accommodative monetary policy and, from there, stocks were off to the races. The ignition of the rally can almost be time-stamped to her appearance. Before her speech, the market was down for the week.”
Of course, some sectors of the stock market did better than others last week. In the S&P 500, Real Estate, Information Technology, and Consumer Staples stocks had the highest percentage gains at the close on Friday, while Financials, Telecommunications, and Consumer Discretionary stocks lagged, according to Fidelity.
In the Financials sector, banks were the weakest performers, finishing Friday almost a full percent lower. It was a bit of a mystery, wrote Financial Times (FT), since several banks beat earnings expectations. FT reported:
“Perhaps the most important factor that weighed on bank stock prices, however, had nothing to do with the comments from executives nor the quarterly financial results. Macroeconomic data published on Friday showed U.S. inflation at the consumer level cooled last month while retail sales fell short of estimates, pushing Treasury bond yields lower. Lower interest rates are bad news for banks, which make more money if they can charge borrowers more.”
Investors appear to believe there is smooth sailing ahead. The CBOE Volatility Index remained below 10.
Things you may want to know…
Last Friday, Financial Times (FT) published, ‘Five markets charts that matter for investors.’ Among the issues addressed in the charts were:
When bond yields rise, bond values fall, and that makes rising interest rates quite a significant event for anyone who holds lower yielding bonds. In the United States, 10-year U.S. Treasuries moved to a seven-week high last week and then dipped lower following the release of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting minutes, reported CNBC.com.
“…S&P financials have gained some 6 percent, with tech sliding almost 4 percent. That still leaves financials lagging behind the S&P 500 for the year and well behind the roughly 17 percent gain for tech. A similar story has unfolded in Europe between banks and tech.”
Investors’ appetite for financial companies may reflect the belief higher interest rates are ahead. Banks and other financial firms generally benefit when interest rates rise. Investor’s Business Daily reported:
“Several Wall Street giants have warned of weak trading revenue in Q2, continuing the lackluster trend in 2017…Still, bank stocks large and small have been leading in recent weeks, helped by higher bond yields and massive buyback and dividend plans.”
This is the way the quarter ends – with a central bank scare.
Central bankers are stodgy. They speak carefully. For many, reading the words ‘Federal Reserve’ is enough to cause boredom to set in and web surfing to ensue.
Last week, though, the European Central Bank and Bank of England cracked the ‘open secret’ (i.e., central banks will provide less stimulus and increase rates at some point), and investors did not like what they heard.
Central bankers were quick to say they didn’t necessarily mean what people had heard, but the rumor of less accommodative monetary policy was already moving markets. Barron’s wrote:
“But make no mistake: Last week was a game changer. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen fretted about the high level of asset prices, the Bank of England’s Mark Carney hinted at a rate hike, and Mario Draghi suggested the European Central Bank could be nearing the end of its bond buying…The market didn’t take it sitting down. Long-term Treasury yields surged, resulting in a wider spread off of short-term bond yields.”
A wider spread between short- and long-term Treasuries could be good news. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland explained:
“The slope of the yield curve – the difference between the yields on short- and long-term maturity bonds – has achieved some notoriety as a simple forecaster of economic growth. The rule of thumb is that an inverted yield curve (short rates above long rates) indicates a recession in about a year, and yield curve inversions have preceded each of the last seven recessions…”
Central bankers comments affected U.S. stock markets, too. The technology sector lost its allure, while the possibility of rising interest rates made the financials sector more attractive. It didn’t hurt that all major institutions passed the Fed’s stress tests for the first time. That could translate into share buybacks and higher dividends, reported Financial Times.
There were some notable statistics during the second quarter of 2017. For instance:
Investors were preternaturally calm
Throughout second quarter, investors have been confident the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index would offer a smooth ride. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), a.k.a. the fear gauge, has only closed below 10 sixteen times; seven occurred during the second quarter of 2017.
Consumer sentiment was quite positive
Consumers were feeling highly optimistic throughout the quarter. In June, the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey reported, “Although consumer confidence slipped to its lowest level since Trump was elected, the overall level still remains quite favorable. The average level of the Sentiment Index during the first half of 2017 was 96.8, the best half-year average since the second half of 2000…”
Investor sentiment shifted into neutral
Last week, the number of investors who were neutral (rather than bullish or bearish) about markets hit its highest level in a year. The AAII Blog reported:
“This year’s record highs for the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ have encouraged some individual investors, but the Trump administration’s ability (or lack thereof) to move forward on economic and tax policy remains on the forefront of many others’ minds. Also playing a role in influencing sentiment are earnings, valuations, concerns about the possibility of a pullback in stock prices, and interest rates/monetary policy.”
The U.S. economy appears to be growing, albeit slowly. Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta forecast real GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth during the second quarter of 2017 at 2.7 percent.