Central banks have a lot of influence on investors, markets and economies.
For the last year or so, the Federal Reserve has been purchasing $120 billion of bonds every month to ensure United States markets remained liquid and interest rates remained low during the pandemic. Last Wednesday, the Fed announced that it is ready to begin to buy fewer bonds, a process known as tapering. The Fed’s taper is expected to begin before year-end. The Fed is not expected to push interest rates higher for some time so, overall, monetary policy will continue to support economic growth.
On Thursday, the Bank of England (BoE) said it expects inflation to exceed 4 percent by the end of the year. That’s twice the BoE’s target inflation rate. After the statement was issued, one measure of investors’ expectations priced in “…a 90 percent chance that the BoE would raise rates by February , up from just over 60 percent before – though some economists say this is premature given the challenges to growth,” reported David Milliken and Andy Bruce of Reuters.
Expectations that central bank policies will soon be less accommodative caused yields on 10-year government bonds in the United Kingdom and the United States to rise. “Surging long-term bond yields put an outsized dent into valuations for growth companies because those firms are valued on a relatively long-term basis,” reported Nicholas Jasinski, Jacob Sonenshine and Jack Denton of Barron’s.”
While rising yields can negatively affect equity valuations, they may not hurt share prices if company earnings continue to grow and investors’ appetite for equities remains strong, reported Sean Markowicz of Schroders.
Concerns about less accommodative monetary policy may be less pressing than worries about the health of China’s financial system. The People’s Bank of China injected cash into its banking system again last week to reassure investors after a large Chinese company missed a bond payment deadline, reported Anshuman Daga, Andrew Galbraith and Tom Westbrook of U.S. News & World Report.
After a sharp sell-off early last week, major U.S. stock indices finished the week flat to slightly higher, reported Barron’s. The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries rose.
In recent weeks, bullish sentiment has drifted lower like sediment settling after a storm.
Every month, Bank of America (BofA) surveys global asset managers. The most recent survey, which was conducted in early September, showed that fewer managers remain optimistic about prospects for global economic growth (13 percent) or corporate profitability (12 percent). That’s half the number in the previous survey and the lowest percent since April 2020, reported Katie Martin of Financial Times.
When optimism declines, managers typically retreat to safer harbors and portfolio exposure to stock declines. That hasn’t happened this time. About one-half of the global asset managers surveyed in early September by BofA were overweight stock. Cash allocations were rising slowly and there appeared to be little appetite for government bonds, according to Financial Times.
The BofA survey also reported on the concerns of global asset managers. “Inflation is the biggest tail risk for markets, followed by taper tantrum, and COVID-19 Delta variant,” reported Bloomberg. Tail risk is the chance that a loss will result from an unusual event.
Rapidly changing conditions in China also may be a concern for investors. The Chinese government’s recent regulatory enforcement actions during 2021 have negatively affected market values of companies in education, technology, entertainment and home building sectors.
Last week, a number of financial bloggers and commentators were arrested in China, and many financial websites and blogs were scrubbed from China’s social media platforms. The change could help reduce fraud with the unwelcome side effect of eliminating non-government viewpoints, reported Financial Times.
“The uncertainty hovering over China now includes threats of tougher regulation, higher tax rates, greater charitable giving and government influencing business decisions,” reported Financial Times. A China expert cited by the newspaper commented, “‘All of that just leads to the fundamental question of what happens to that excess return that you used to be able to get as an investor in China, and how much is that disappearing or eroding in this new environment…’”
Uncertainty also is an issue in the United States where another debt-ceiling crisis appears to be looming. Jack Hough of Barron’s explained:
“As rising partisan rancor has turned everyday legislating into a death struggle, politicians have grown more willing to use the debt ceiling as leverage. A standoff in 2011 resulted in a credit downgrade to the U.S. government, a brief but angry slide in stocks, and a temporary move higher for bond yields, which accountants later said cost the U.S. government billions of dollars in added interest. The outcome was a shaky compromise, which fell apart in 2013, but Congress hadn’t yet regained its appetite for another round of fiscal chicken, so it suspended the ceiling. There have since been many extensions, the last of which expired at the end of July. The Treasury is now reaching under its couch cushions for funds. Without action from Congress, America will default by mid-October.”
Last week, major U.S. stock indices finished lower, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s. The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries moved higher.
The Delta variant could take a toll on economic growth.
There was some good news last week. The 7-day moving average of COVID-19 cases in the United States declined. The bad news was that the rate of infection remained about 99 percent higher than it was one year ago.
As Delta variant infections surged across the United States, expectations for economic growth dropped more sharply than anticipated. Lisa Beilfuss of Barron’s reported on changes to third-quarter forecasts for U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) growth.
“Goldman Sachs cut its forecast to 3.5% from 5.25%, Oxford Economics revised its call to 2.7% from 6.5%, and Morgan Stanley lowered its estimate to 2.9% from 6.5%. That’s as the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model predicts 3.7% for the quarter, down from 5.3% at the start of the month,” Beilfuss wrote in Barron’s.
Economists aren’t the only ones revising expectations. Some companies have cautioned that their revenue and earnings expectations were too high. Several airlines reported that cancellations have increased and ticket purchases have declined, which will impact the companies’ financial performance. In addition, some manufacturers indicated that unresolved supply chain issues and the high cost of raw materials will affect their performance for the quarter, reported Yacob Reyes and Sam Ro of Axios.
A chief investment officer cited by Axios said it’s unlikely that many more companies will cut their revenue or earnings forecasts; however, “…he does expect fewer companies to announce better-than-expected earnings when they announce Q3 results.” During the second quarter of 2021, 87 percent of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index reported better-than-expected earnings.
Last week, major U.S. stock indices trended lower, reported Al Root of Barron’s. The yield on 10-year Treasuries also finished the week higher.
Stagflation isn’t trending, but it was mentioned in quite a few headlines last week.
Stagflation is a portmanteau of ‘stagnation’ and ‘inflation.’ It occurs when a country experiences slow economic growth along with high inflation and high unemployment. In the United States:
The culprit behind slowing growth, rising prices and recent unemployment levels is COVID-19. The spread of the Delta variant created a new wave of parts and labor shortages. Demand for goods is rising as many people appear to be less concerned about the virus. Shortages of goods coupled with high demand for those goods have pushed prices higher.
The Economist reported that the Delta variant, “…looks like a stagflationary force that is sapping growth less dramatically [than the original COVID-19 strain] but firing up inflation. Delta is weighing on consumer spending in the rich world but not causing a collapse. In countries with lots of vaccines, cases are no longer doing as much to stop consumers from moving around.”
Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished lower, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Nasdaq Composite moved higher. The yield on 10-year Treasuries ticked higher during the week.
Guidance Wealth will be closed Monday, September 6th for the Labor Day Holiday
“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder,” advised the Persian poet Rumi.
Last week, Federal Reserve (Fed) Chair Jerome Powell’s words helped grow the week’s equity market returns. In his speech at the Economic Policy Symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Powell confirmed that the United States economy had made substantial progress toward the Fed’s maximum employment and price stability goals. Consequently, the Fed is likely to slow and eventually stop the bond purchases that have been ensuring smooth market functioning during the pandemic.
Powell also offered assurance that the target range for Federal funds rate, which is one of the Fed’s tools for influencing short-term interest rates, will remain unchanged until “…the economy reaches conditions consistent with maximum employment, and inflation has reached 2 percent and is on track to moderately exceed 2 percent for some time.
Investors were delighted by the Fed’s stance, as well as positive data on second quarter’s economic growth and corporate earnings. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that gross domestic product (GDP), which is the value of all goods and services produced in the United States, increased 6.6 percent from April through June. That was an improvement on the January to March quarter when the economy grew by 6.3 percent.
Corporate earnings, which reflect companies’ profits, were also strong during the second quarter. Companies had relatively easy year-over-year comparisons to 2020’s dismal second quarter and, with almost 98 percent of companies in the S&P 500 reporting in, earnings for companies in the S&P 500 are expected to be 95.4 percent higher, year-over-year, and 79.9 percent higher when the energy sector is excluded, reported Tajinder Dhillon and Thomas Alonso of Refinitiv.
Last week, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index closed at a record high for the 52nd time in 2021, reported Lewis Krauskopf and Saqib Ahmed of Reuters. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and Nasdaq Composite also finished the week higher, as did the yield on 10-year Treasuries.
Guidance Wealth will be closed Monday, September 6th for the Labor Day Holiday
Markets were shaken last week by a potent cocktail of central bank tapering and economic growth concerns mixed with coronavirus and a splash of the new Chinese privacy law.
On Wednesday, the minutes of the United States Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee Meeting were released. They confirmed the Fed could begin tapering – buying fewer Treasury and U.S. government agency bonds – sooner rather than later, reported Jack Denton and Jacob Sonenshine of Barron’s. While that wasn’t new information, investors startled like cats surprised by cucumbers, triggering a broad sell-off.
In the United States, economic data was mixed. The U.S. Census reported that retail sales declined in July, suggesting weakening consumer demand. Normally, that’s not great news because consumer demand drives U.S. economic growth. However, with inflation at the highest level in more than a decade, lower demand could help relieve upward price pressure.
Lower consumer demand was accompanied by improving supply. Lisa Beilfuss of Barron’s reported, “…business inventories rose in June at the fastest clip since October as wholesalers and manufacturers posted solid increases and retailers saw inventories rise for the first time in three months. From a year earlier, inventories across American businesses rose 6.6%, compared with a 4.6% pace a month earlier.”
Of course, we could see supply bottlenecks again if a COVID-19 surge results in new lockdowns and continued worker shortages.
Finally, on Friday, Chinese stocks dropped sharply after Beijing announced that a new strict data-privacy law will take effect on November 1, 2021. Investors remain concerned that China’s regulatory tightening will affect other market sectors, including fintech, gaming and education, reported Hudson Lockett of the Financial Times.
“American investors’ shock at an ongoing regulatory crackdown in China points to a fundamental difference between the two countries,” reported Evelyn Cheng of CNBC. “…whereas the U.S. system is designed to let corporations influence the government, China’s system is designed to bring corporations in line with government goals.”
Major U.S. stock indices finished the week lower. The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries finished the week where it started.
What is the most important driver of economic growth in the United States?
The most common way to measure economic output is Gross Domestic Product or GDP. It’s the value of all goods and services produced in our country over a specific period of time. GDP is a combination of the following:
In June, U.S. GDP was almost $23 trillion, reported the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
A trillion is a difficult number to comprehend. Jerry Pacheco of KRWG explained the amount like this, “If you laid one billion dollars side by side like tile, they would cover about four square miles. A trillion dollars laid out the same way would cover approximately 3,992 miles, or 1,000 square miles larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.”
Twenty-three trillion dollars would cover Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, West Virginia and part of South Carolina.
U.S. GDP grew by 6.5 percent annualized in the second quarter of 2021. Consumer spending was up 7.8 percent, while government and business spending were down, along with net exports. It’s not unusual for net exports to decline because the U.S. imports more than we export. Overall, consumer spending accounted for almost 69 percent of the economy.5 So, the answer to the initial question is that consumer spending is the most important driver of economic growth in the United States.
Consumers tend to spend when they feel confident. Last week, we learned that consumers are feeling a lot less confident than they were in July. Richard Curtin of the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey reported:
“Consumers reported a stunning loss of confidence in the first half of August. The Consumer Sentiment Index fell by 13.5% from July…The losses in early August were widespread across income, age and education subgroups and observed across all regions. Moreover, the loses covered all aspects of the economy, from personal finances to prospects for the economy, including inflation and unemployment. There is little doubt that the pandemic's resurgence due to the Delta variant has been met with a mixture of reason and emotion.”
The seven-day moving average of new U.S. COVID-19 cases has been rising since early July, reported Our World in Data.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished the week higher. The Nasdaq Composite moved slightly lower, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s. The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries dipped, too.
Are we there yet?
For months, investors have wondered when the Federal Reserve (Fed) might begin to “normalize” its policies, a process that will eventually lead to higher interest rates. Last week, a better-than-expected unemployment report – showing a gain of almost a million jobs – sparked speculation about whether we’ve arrived at that point. It’s difficult to know.
When the pandemic arrived, the Fed adopted policies that stimulated growth. It cut short-term interest rates to zero and began buying Treasuries and agency mortgage-backed securities to keep long-term rates low, too. Low rates make borrowing less expensive for businesses and individuals, reported the Brookings Institute. That’s important in economically challenging times.
In late July, the Fed said it would continue to keep rates low and buy bonds until it saw “substantial further progress toward maximum employment and price stability [inflation] goals.”
The Fed may have already achieved its inflation goal. Its favorite inflation gauge is called Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), excluding food and energy. It’s a statistic that reflects changes in how much Americans are paying for goods and services. In June, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that PCE was up 3.5 percent year over year. That’s well above the Fed’s two percent inflation target; however, the Fed’s new policy is to overshoot its target before raising rates.
If July’s employment numbers satisfy the Fed’s expectations for progress on jobs, the Fed may begin the process of normalizing monetary policy. The first step would be purchasing fewer bonds, a practice known as tapering. “Many market watchers are looking for [Fed Chair] Powell to discuss tapering at the central bank’s big policy meeting at Jackson Hole, Wyo., this month,” reported Randall Forsyth of Barron’s.
Major U.S. stock indices finished the week higher, reported Barron’s, and so did the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries.
The Chinese dragon cast a shadow over free trade and foreign investment last week.
For decades, investors have recognized the investment potential of China. Since the country opened to foreign trade and investment in 1979, its economy has grown rapidly. Through 2018, its gross domestic product (GDP), which is a measure of economic growth, increased by 9.5% a year, on average, according to the United States Congressional Research Service.
The country’s gradual economic development lifted millions out of poverty. In 2020, about 20 percent of the world’s middle class lived in China. China’s middle class has an appetite for goods and services that rivals that of America’s middle class, creating demand for a wealth of goods and services, reported the Brookings Institute.
In recent months, investors have been unsettled as Chinese authorities aggressively implemented new regulations for its online education industry and its technology companies. Austin Carr and Coco Liu of Bloomberg reported:
“President Xi’s government has outlined sectors it wants to prioritize, including semiconductors and artificial intelligence. Xi has called the data its tech industry collects ‘an essential and strategic resource’ and has been pushing to tap into it for years.”
In early July, the Cyberspace Administration of China launched an investigation of the nation’s largest ride-hailing service company for monopolistic behavior. A month before, the company had raised $4.4 billion when it listed shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Jing Yang of The Wall Street Journal recently reported the company is considering delisting in an effort to placate Chinese authorities and compensate investors for losses.
Last week, “The selloff in Chinese stocks went from an orderly pullback to a full-blown panic…after China told its for-profit education companies that they would have to become nonprofits,” reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
The Securities and Exchange Commission responded by announcing that it would stop processing registrations of U.S. IPOs and other sales of securities by Chinese companies until specific requirements were met.
The Shanghai Composite Index finished the week lower, as did major U.S. stock indices, reported Barron’s. The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries closed lower, too.
Last week, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) finally announced the official dates for the recession that occurred in 2020. Economic activity peaked in February 2020 and bottomed in April 2020. That makes the pandemic recession the shortest in American history.
According to the NBER, “The recent downturn had different characteristics and dynamics than prior recessions. Nonetheless, the committee concluded that the unprecedented magnitude of the decline in employment and production, and its broad reach across the entire economy, warranted the designation of this episode as a recession, even though the downturn was briefer than earlier contractions.”
Since then, the United States’ economy has accelerated like a sports car on the German Autobahn, leading the developed world in the race toward economic recovery. A gradual slowdown was inevitable. However, three obstacles in the road may result in a sharp deceleration, reported The Economist.
#1. Inflation. A shortage of goods triggered inflation. Consumers have noted some price hikes, although others are less clear obvious. Makers of cereal, snacks, candy, and other products, are offering unchanged packages, priced as usual, that hold smaller quantities of product, reported Axios. The technique is known as shrinkflation.
#2. The end of pandemic policies. Enhanced unemployment benefits end in September, and the national moratorium on evictions ends in late July. The latter was the first of its kind and no one is certain how unwinding it will affect the economy, reported The Economist. Almost 36 percent of adults living in households that are behind on rent or mortgage payments, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey. We could see a housing boom and a housing crisis simultaneously.
#3. Spread of the Delta variant. The average number of coronavirus cases is up more than 180 percent over the last two weeks. “In the near term, the economic impact of the new wave of the pandemic in the U.S. could hinge on whether governments ratchet up restrictions intended to curb the virus’ spread.” reported Josh Nathan-Kazis of Barron’s.
While risks to economic growth persist, the earnings of publicly traded companies are strong. So far, 24 percent of the companies in the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 Index have reported second quarter earnings. Year-to-year blended earnings growth has been stellar, in part, because of how bad things were during the second quarter of last year, reported John Butters of FactSet.
Net profit margins, which could have been trimmed by inflation, are currently 12.4 percent. That’s the second highest level since FactSet began tracking data in 2008. Analysts anticipate profit margins will average 12 percent through the end of 2021.
Last week, major U.S. stock indices finished higher, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s. The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries closed higher, too.