The slew of economic releases over the last couple of days have all had two things in common: 1) the data has been markedly improved which has given a silver lining to the economic storm clouds we have witnessed over the last several months; and 2) the fingerprint of Hurricane Sandy has been very visible. This is not a surprise. The question that needs to be addressed, however, is whether these surges are sustainable in the months ahead?
Why'd the Fed announce QE 4? Three reasons: the US economy is nose-diving again and the Fed is acting preemptively. The Fed is trying to provide increased liquidity going into the fiscal cliff. The Fed is funding the US’s Government massive deficits.
“Something bad happened in November…and it wasn’t merely Hurricane Sandy”, the NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg is quoted as saying - see chart below and link. Even scarier than the decline in the headline measure was the 37% slump to an all-time low in those firms who believe economic conditions will improve over the next six months. That 37% drop is twice the previous record 18% decline, which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Lehman’s collapse (see chart below). For those who might immediately retort that this is a sentiment indicator that should be used as a contrary indicator - you are wrong. It is a good leading or at worst coincident indicator. I would say this datum is more than consistent with the recession that Lakshman Achuthan of the ECRI has been warning of, wouldn't you?
There is a one way conveyor belt taking businesses, jobs and money out of this country.
Not the sudden apocalypse that the headline number promised, but of a depression that started in 2005
Last week we noted: "...when taking into account the recent slate of economic weakness, post-election we are likely to see many of the recent job gains revised away as the data aligns itself with overall economic activity...." Since that time jobless claims did indeed rise, and with the release of the November jobs report, we saw the previous two month's gains in employment revised down by a total of 49,000. What is important to remember is that the BLS only publishes revisions to the prior two months even though it has data for months prior. This is why the annual revisions to the employment data can be significant. Furthermore, given the weakness in the employment components of the major economic surveys, as shown by the composite employment index, we should expect to see negative revisions to the 2012 data employment data next year. While it is too early to say that employment has peaked for this current recovery cycle - there is mounting evidence that this may indeed be the case.
While Europe's confidence-inspired rally is floating all global boats in some magical unicorn-inspired way, the reality is that on the ground in the US, things have never looked worse. The NFIB Small Business Outlook for general business conditions had its own 'cliff' this month and plunged to -35% - its worst level on record - as the creators-of-jobs seem a little less than inspired. Aside from this unbelievably ugly bottom-up situation, top-down is starting to be worrisome also. In a rather shockingly accurate analog, this year's macro surprise positivity has tracked last year's almost perfectly (which means the macro data and analyst expectations have interacted in an almost identical manner for six months). The concerning aspect is that this marked the topping process in last year's macro data as expectations of continued recovery were dashed in a sea of reality (both coinciding with large 'surprise' beats of NFP). We suspect, given the NFIB data, that jobs will not be quite so plentiful (unadjusted for BLS purposes) the next time we get a glimpse.
The recent release of the ISM Manufacturing index continues to point to signs of a slowing economy. This (49.5) reading, which is what is reported by the bulk of the mainstream media, is fairly meaningless. Remember, economic change happens at the margins. Since the PMI is more of a "sentiment" index (it is a diffusion index that measures positive versus negative sentiment on various areas from employment to production to inventories) it is a better used as a gauge about what businesses will likely do in the future based on their current assessment of conditions. The importance of the change in sentiment is lost on most economists who have never actually owned a business. However, it is clear that the fiscal cliff, the recent storm, and the continuing Eurozone saga are continuing to erode business sentiment. This erosion in sentiment in turn affects economically sensitive actions such as production, employment and investment.
Many economists are suggesting that the second estimate of Q3 GDP, which showed an initial estimate of 2.0% annualized growth, will be revised sharply upward to 2.8%. The problem is that the surge in demand isn't materializing at the manufacturing level. The month-over-month data has begun to show signs of deterioration as of late which doesn't support the idea of a sharp rebound in economic activity in recent months. The headwinds to economic growth are gaining strength as the tailwinds from stimulus related support programs fade. This has been witnessed not only in the manufacturing reports, such as the CFNAI and Dallas Fed Region surveys where forward expectations were sharply reduced, but also in many of the corporate earnings and guidance's this quarter.
The recent trade report does not provide much support for the economic and stock market bulls. As we have stated many times - the current fundamental and economic backdrops are not supportive of higher asset prices at current levels. However, while the market may advance due to the injections of liquidity into the financial system - it doesn't make it a "healthy" market. The outlook, and ultimately actions taken, by businesses are driven by demand for their products, goods and services. Unfortunately the Fed's bond buying program does not impact these core issues.
Some prefer to see the 'employment' glass half-full, some half-empty, and others see the glass smashed into a million shards on the keynesian kitchen floor. The zealousness with which the 'number' has been dismissed and praised has generated more questions than answers. Goldman's Jan Hatzius addresses the question of the pace of progress in the labor market, the reasons for the contrast between GDP and employment, the amount of slack left, and the implications for Fed policy.
Since the release of the most recent BLS Employment Situation Report, which showed an astounding drop in the unemployment rate, we have spent a good bit of time dissecting the release and discussing why the real unemployment rate is really between 17% and 22% depending on how you calculate it. (See Here and Here) However, today's release of the September NFIB Small Business Survey shows the extent to which the current BLS employment calculation method may have detached from reality. No matter how you look at the data there is a clear disconnect between the BLS report and economic realities. From the NFIB's point view it is "economic uncertainty" that weighs on business owners and keeps them on the defensive. The actions by the Federal Reserve to buy bonds and inject liquidity into the financial system does not solve the problem of "poor sales", reduce regulations that strangle growth or solve the "fiscal cliff" issues that threaten business profitability by the end of the year.
Nothing materially new here from David Rosenberg's latest letter, but it is useful to keep being reminded over and over how central planning has totally destroyed the primary function of capital markets: discounting, and replaced it with a dumb terminal which only responds to red flashing headlines reporting of neverending liquidity. "If the Fed really had its way, the economy would be booming. But it is sputtering. For all the talk of one month's employment report — look at the entire quarter for crying out loud. Looking at total labour input, aggregate hours worked, it eked out a tepid 0.8% annualized gain in Q3....That the stock market is up 16% this year (on track for the best year since 2009) with earnings contracting underscores the major success of Fed policy in 2012 — managing to deflect investor attention away from negative profit trends and towards its pregnant balance sheet. So welcome to the new normal: the Fed has managed to negotiate a divorce between the economy and equity market behaviour.
Indeed, it is now clear, via QE 3, that the Fed has gone “all in” in its commitment to money printing. QE 2 put food prices to record highs… what do you think QE 3 (which is unlimited) will do to the cost of living?
Against what seemed logical (given the assumption that Bernanke would save his limited ammo for a weaker market/economic environment), Bernanke launched an open ended mortgage backed securities bond buying program for $40 billion a month "until employment begins to show recovery." That key statement is what this entire program hinges on. The focus of the Fed has now shifted away from a concern on inflation to an all out war on employment and ultimately the economy. However, will buying mortgage backed bonds promote real employment, and ultimately economic, growth. Furthermore, will this program continue to support the nascent housing recovery? Clearly, the Fed's actions, and statement, signify that the economy is substantially weaker than previously thought. While Bernanke's latest program of bond buying was done under the guise of providing an additional support to the "recovery," the question now is becoming whether he has any ammo left to offset the next recession when it comes.