The bond market agrees with the macro data. The yield curve has 'inverted' (10 year yields less than 2-year yields) ahead of every recession in the past 40 years (arrows). The lag between inversion and the start of the next recession has been long: at least a year and in several instances as long as 2-3 years. On this basis, the current expansion will last into late 2018 at a minimum. Enlarge any image by clicking on it.
Unemployment claims are also in a declining trend; historically, claims have started to rise at least 6 months ahead of the next recession. Note that recent hurricanes had a short-term negative impact on economic data but recent claims are already at a new 40+ year low.
New home sales made a new 10 year high in November. In the past 50 years, more than a year has lapsed between the expansion's high print in new home sales and the start of the next recession.
Real retail sales (excluding gas) made a new ATH in November. The trend higher is strong, in comparison to the period prior to the past two recessions.
Here are the main macro data headlines from the past month:
Employment: Monthly employment gains have averaged 170,000 during the past year, with annual growth of 1.4% yoy. Employment has been been driven by full-time jobs, which rose to a new all-time high in December.
Compensation: Compensation growth is on an improving trend, growing 2.5% yoy in December. The 3Q17 employment cost index (2.6% yoy) grew at the second fastest pace of the past 9 years.
Demand: Real demand growth has been 2-3%. In November, real personal consumption growth was 2.7%. Real retail sales (including gas) grew 3.5% yoy in November, making a new ATH.
Housing: New home sales grew 27% yoy in November to the highest level in the past 10 years. Housing starts rose to the second highest level of the past 10 years in November. Multi-family units remain a drag on overall development.
Manufacturing: Core durable goods rose 10.2% yoy in November, the best annual growth rate in 4 years. The manufacturing component of industrial production grew 2.7% yoy in November, the highest rate of growth in 3-1/4 years.
Inflation: The core inflation rate remains near (but under) the Fed's 2% target.
This is germane to equity markets in that macro growth drives corporate revenue, profit expansion and valuation levels. The simple fact is that equity bear markets almost always take place within the context of an economic decline. Since the end of World War II, there have been 10 bear markets, only 2 of which have occurred outside of an economic recession (read further here).
The highly misleading saying that "the stock market is not the economy" is true on a day to day or even month to month basis, but over time these two move together. When they diverge, it is normally a function of emotion, whether measured in valuation premiums/discounts or sentiment extremes.
Macro data will likely underperform expectations in 1H18. Why? Macro data ended 2017 well ahead of expectations. During the current expansion, that has led to underperformance of macro data relative to expectations into the following mid-year (yellow shading). 2009 and 2016 had the opposite pattern: macro data underperformed expectations into the prior year-end and then outperformed in the first half of the year (green shading).
A valuable post on using macro data to improve trend following investment strategies can be found here.
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Let's review the most recent data, focusing on four macro categories: labor market, end-demand, housing, and inflation.
Employment and Wages
The December non-farm payroll was 148,000 new employees minus 9,000 in revisions for the prior two months.
Employment growth is decelerating. In the past 12 months, the average monthly gain in employment was 170,000 versus 187,000 in 2016, 226,000 in 2015 and 250,000 in 2014.
Monthly NFP prints are volatile. Since the 1990s, NFP prints near 300,000 have been followed by ones near or under 100,000. That has been a pattern during every bull market; NFP was negative in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. The low print of 50,000 in March and 38,000 in September fit the historical pattern. This is normal, not unusual or unexpected.
Why is there so much volatility? Leave aside the data collection, seasonal adjustment and weather issues; appreciate that a "beat" or a "miss" of 80,000 workers in a monthly NFP report is equal to just 0.05% of the US workforce.
For this reason, it's better to look at the trend; in December, trend employment growth was 1.4% yoy. Until spring 2016, annual growth had been over 2%, the highest since the 1990s. Ahead of a recession, employment growth normally falls (arrows). Continued deceleration in employment growth in the coming months continues to be an important watch out.
The labor force participation rate (the percentage of the population over 16 that is either working or looking for work) has recently stabilized, rising to a 4-year high in September. The participation rate has been falling since 2001 as baby boomers retire, exactly as participation started to rise in the mid-1960s as this group entered the workforce. Another driver is women, whose participation rate increased from about 30% in the 1950s to a peak of 60% in 1999.
Average hourly earnings growth was 2.5% yoy in December; it was 2.8% in September, the highest in 8 years. This is a positive trend, showing demand for more workers. Sustained acceleration in wages would be a big positive for consumption and investment that would further fuel employment.
Similarly, 3Q17 employment cost index shows total compensation growth was 2.6% yoy, the second highest in the past 9 years.
For those who doubt the accuracy of the BLS employment data, federal tax receipts have also been rising to new highs (red line), a sign of better employment and wages (from Yardeni).
Regardless of which data is used, real demand has been growing at about 2-3%, equal to about 4-5% nominal. Some of the monthly data for 3Q17 was impacted by the recent hurricanes.
Real (inflation adjusted) GDP growth through 3Q17 was 2.3% yoy. 2.5-5% was common during prior expansionary periods prior to 2006.
Stripping out the changes in GDP due to inventory produces "real final sales". This is a better measure of consumption growth than total GDP. In 3Q17, this grew 2.2% yoy. A sustained break above 2.5% would be noteworthy.
The "real personal consumption expenditures" component of GDP (defined), which accounts for about 70% of GDP, grew at 2.6% yoy in 3Q17. This is approaching the 3-5% that was common in prior expansionary periods after 1980.
On a monthly basis, the growth in real personal consumption expenditures was 2.7% yoy in November.
GDP measures the total expenditures in the economy. An alternative measure is GDI (gross domestic income), which measures the total income in the economy. Since every expenditure produces income, these are equivalent measurements of the economy. Some research suggests that GDI might be more accurate than GDP (here).
Real GDI growth in 3Q17 was 1.3% yoy.
Real retail sales reached a new all-time high in November, with annual growth of 3.5% yoy. This was the fastest growth rate in 3 years. The range has generally been centered around 2.5% yoy for most of the past 20 years.
Retail sales in the past two years have been strongly affected by the large fall and rebound in the price of gasoline. In November, real retail sales at gasoline stations grew by 9.7% yoy after having fallen more than 20% yoy during 2016. Real retail sales excluding gas stations grew 3.0% in November. This had been on a weakening trend but now seems to be strengthening again.
The next several slides look at manufacturing. It's important to note that manufacturing accounts for less than 10% of US employment, so these measures are of lesser importance.
Core durable goods orders (excluding military, so that it measures consumption, and transportation, which is highly volatile) rose 10.2% yoy (nominal) in November, the best annual growth rate in 4 years (since December 2013). Weakness in durable goods has not been a useful predictor of broader economic weakness in the past (arrows).
Industrial production (real manufacturing, mining and utility output) growth was 3.4% yoy in November. The more important manufacturing component (excluding mining and oil/gas extraction; red line) rose 2.7% yoy. This is the best growth rate for both in 3 years. Industrial production is a volatile series: manufacturing growth was lower at points in 2014 than it was in 2016 before rebounding strongly.
Weakness in total industrial production had been concentrated in the mining sector; the past two years had the worst annual fall in more than 40 years. It is not unusual for this part of industrial production to plummet outside of recessions. With the recovery in oil/gas extraction, mining rose 9% yoy in November.
New housing sales grew 27% yoy in November to the highest level in 10 years. Housing starts and permits are near a 10 year high although multi-family unit remain relatively weak. Overall levels of construction and sales are small relative to prior bull markets, but the trend is higher.
First, new single family houses sold was 733,000 in November, the highest level in the past 10 years. Growth in November was 27% over the past year after growing 14% yoy in November 2016.
Second, housing starts rose 13% yoy to the second highest level of the past 10 years.
The weakness in starts (and permits) is in the multi-unit category. Single family housing starts (blue line) reached a new post-recession high in November. Meanwhile. multi-unit housing starts (red line) has been flat over the past four years; this has been a drag on overall starts.
Despite steady employment, demand and housing growth, core inflation remains stuck near (but under) the Fed's target of 2%.
CPI (blue line) was 2.2% last month. The more important core CPI (excluding volatile food and energy; red line) grew 1.7%.
The Fed prefers to use personal consumption expenditures (PCE) to measure inflation; total and core PCE were 1.8% and 1.5% yoy, respectively, last month. February was the first (and only) month since 2Q 2012 that total PCE was above 2%.
Some mistrust CPI and PCE. MIT publishes an independent price index (called the billion prices index; yellow line). It has tracked both CPI (blue line) and PCE closely.
In summary, the major macro data so far suggest positive but modest growth. This is consistent with corporate sales growth. SPX sales growth in 2017 is expected to only be about 6% (nominal).
With valuations now well above average, the current pace of growth is likely to be the limiting factor for equity appreciation. This is important, as the consensus expects earnings to grow about 9% in 2017 and 11% in 2018 (chart from Yardeni).
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