Stimulus talks led investors in a merry dance last week.
So far in 2020, stock markets have been sensitive to fiscal stimulus. Last week, there was optimism a new stimulus package could be negotiated before the election. There also was skepticism about whether it would happen. An expert cited by CNBC stated, “There’s a lot of back and forth on stimulus and every headline makes the market move a little bit, but there’s no follow-through because we don’t have a clear picture on that front.”
Economic data didn’t provide a clear picture either. Some data points suggested economic recovery was continuing, while other information indicated the pandemic was impeding economic growth. For instance:
Major U.S. stock indices finished the week lower.
It was a turbulent week for investors.
Waves of positive and negative news buffeted financial markets last week:
The financial sector delivered upbeat earnings news
Currently, many financial companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index have reported third quarter earnings and have done better than expected. Despite upbeat earnings, some companies’ shares declined because of uncertainty about the path of economic recovery. If recovery continues, some banks may have excess reserves; however, if recovery falters and a double-dip recession occurs, banks may need to add to reserves, reported Barron’s.
Coronavirus cases surged across the United States and Europe
A rapid rise in the number of COVID-19 cases worried investors at home and in Europe. New restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus were implemented in France and the United Kingdom. A source cited by Financial Times reported, “…economists and investors had not expected governments to allow the virus to reach the point it has now.”
Two treatment and vaccine trials paused
The surge of new cases was compounded by setbacks in the search for effective coronavirus treatments and vaccines. Two COVID-19 trials, one for a treatment and one for a vaccine, were temporarily put on hold because of safety concerns.
Retail sales were strong, but manufacturing and industrial production weren’t
Last week, economic data provided a mixed picture of the economy. On the plus side, September’s retail sales were stronger than expected despite the tapering of unemployment benefits. On the negative side, U.S. manufacturing and industrial production both came in below expectations, reported Financial Times.
The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits increased
The number of people filing for first-time unemployment benefits was higher than expected, and higher than it had been for the past two weeks, even though California had temporarily stopped processing new claims. Almost 3 million people filed for extended benefits, meaning they’d been unemployed for 26 weeks or more. Overall, more than 25 million people relied on unemployment benefits last week.
Major U.S. stock indices eked out gains last week.
Yes. No. Maybe?
Markets were sharply focused on the status of stimulus last week. First, it was on. Then, it was off. Then, it might be on. Then, it was off again. There was a big bill. There was a smaller bill. There were stand-alone options.
‘Maybe’ was enough for investors
Major U.S. stock indices finished the week higher, per Barron’s, and global indices were bullish on Friday because of U.S. stimulus talks, reported Financial Times.
“Markets are dizzy from all the talk on both sides about what they want from a deal but believe that something will inevitably happen anyway…Markets are essentially drunk on massive government spending just as they are inebriated from all the Fed quantitative easing and zero-interest rate policy,” said an advisory group chief investment officer cited by Financial Times.
Earnings season is upon us
Another factor that influences investors is earnings season, which begins this week. During earnings season, companies communicate how profitable they were during the previous quarter.
Third-quarter earnings estimates for companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index remain subdued. John Butters of FactSet reported, “For Q3 2020, the estimated earnings decline for the S& P 500 is -20.5 percent.”
While that is a significant decline, it is an improvement on -25.3 percent, which was the June 2020 estimate for third quarter earnings. It is also an improvement on second quarter’s -31.9 percent.
Some companies haven’t provided guidance
It’s notable one of four companies in the S&P 500 did not provide earnings per share (EPS) guidance for 2020 or 2021. (Guidance is a forward-looking statement that tells investors what the company expects will happen in the near future.) “Almost all of these companies cited the uncertainty of the future economic impacts of COVID-19 as the reason for not providing or withdrawing EPS guidance for the full year,” reported FactSet.
Certainty about earnings may improve when a treatment or vaccine for the virus becomes available. The Milken Institute reported there are 318 treatments for COVID-19 and 213 vaccines in the works. Thirty-five of the vaccines are in clinical trials.
Last week, the third quarter of 2020 came to an end – and the fourth quarter delivered a doozy of an October surprise.
President Trump has the coronavirus
On Friday Americans awoke to the news President Trump had contracted COVID-19. Financial markets responded with relative equanimity. After a brief sell-off on Friday, major U.S. indices finished the week, and the third quarter, higher.
Market enthusiasm cooled in September
U.S. stock markets moved higher in July and August. Then, in early September, investors became skittish and major U.S. indices recorded losses for several weeks. The surge of uncertainty may have resulted from changing vaccine expectations, concerns about earnings, fears of a disputed election, and lack of new stimulus, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
The Federal Reserve committed to low rates for a long time
The Federal Reserve’s changing policies may have had an influence on markets, as well. The Fed intends to keep interest rates near zero for the foreseeable future. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) statement provided a big picture explanation, “The path of the economy will depend significantly on the course of the virus. The ongoing public health crisis will continue to weigh on economic activity, employment, and inflation in the near term, and poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term.”
Yields on 10-year U.S. Treasuries moved in a narrow range during the quarter, finishing near where they started.
Stimulus talks resumed last week
Treasury yields rose and stock markets perked last week when Congress resumed stimulus talks. Investors expect $1.3 to $1.5 trillion in new stimulus, according to BCA Research cited by Kiplinger’s.
Additional stimulus measures were expected early in the third quarter, after CARES Act provisions ran dry in July. However, better-than-expected economic data and a reluctance to increase the burgeoning budget deficit made some in Congress adopt a wait-and-see approach, reported Victor Reklaitis of MarketWatch.
By last Friday, stimulus negotiations appeared to have stalled again. However, there were new calls for action over the weekend, following Friday’s weaker-than-expected employment report, according to Jacob Pramuk of CNBC.
The pace of recovery may be slowing
Throughout the third quarter, employment improved steadily. In July the unemployment rate was 10.2 percent. By September, it had fallen to 7.9 percent. While continued improvement is important, the pace of jobs creation slowed last month. Consensus estimates for September suggested the economy would produce 850,000 new jobs. It came up short at 661,000. That could be a sign economic growth is slowing.
Economic growth improved during the third quarter
During the second quarter (April through June), the U.S. economy shrank by about a third (-31.7 percent). Data for third quarter economic growth is not yet available, but it is expected to show a significant improvement. The Atlanta Federal Reserve’s GDPNow estimates third quarter growth could be as high as 34.6 percent.
While a double-digit rebound would be welcome news, Aaron Weitzman of The Bond Buyer pointed out a 34.6 percent rebound does not offset a 31.7 percent contraction. The economy needs to grow by 46 percent to get back to even.
Volatility is likely to continue
Global markets may be volatile through the end of 2020.