Preview of tomorrow's Bernanke testimony and FOMC minutes.
While we have wondered on numerous occasions previously if the collapse in lumber prices is the far more accurate indicator of end demand for housing (as confirmed by the recent collapse in multi-family housing starts), perhaps an even better indicator of trends in housing (and by implication the broader economy) is private sector intermediate end demand, such as Caterpillar North America sales, which unlike government data, are far less subject to political intervention, interpolation, guesswork, seasonal adjustments and otherwise, general manipulation. And even though we have previously reported on the woes ailing the world's largest seller of bulldozers, excavators and wheel loaders, such focus was primarily targeted in the offshore markets, and especially China (the abysmal European market needs no mention). So maybe the time has come to shift attention to the US, where as Caterpillar just reported, not only are all foreign markets still trending at several impacted levels, but where US machine retail sales just saw the biggest tumble in three years, falling 18% Y/Y: the most since early 2010. What is more disturbing is that CAT equipment is used in far-broader economic activities than merely housing, and likely is a far more accurate indicator of true industrial end-demand than any other number cherry-picked by the government.
Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s testimony to Congress will be important in setting the tone for the markets (particularly the dollar, equities and US treasuries), as traders hunt for clues on when the Fed is likely to ease its rate of asset purchases.
Is a $400,000 house with NINJA loan normal? How about a $200,000 REO with missing appliances, a dead yard, a long list of maintenance and no financing? Maybe normal is a $300,000 flip after the flipper fixed everything and colored up the yard, and did some upgrades to the interior. Some may suggest that normal is more like a $300,000 sale with a 5.5% fixed rate and 20% down. Then again, it may be more normal if this $300,000 sale is financed with a 3.5% down FHA loan at 4%. Of course, all of the above is actually referring to the same house. So what is normal? At the moment, we know prices are going up in certain markets, and so are sales. Mortgage rates are higher now than when QE3 started in September 2012. Investors are gobbling up everything in sight in their favored target markets. As an example, they are buying 30% of the houses in Southern California, 38% in Phoenix and 53% in Vegas. First time buyers do not stand a chance. The percentage of home ownership is declining. Are policy makers happy with these results? Are these intended or unintended consequences of public policies?
Succinctly summarizing the positive and negative news, data, and market events of the week...
Those hoping for a slew of negative news to push stocks much higher today will be disappointed in this largely catalyst-free day. So far today we have gotten only the ECB's weekly 3y LTRO announcement whereby seven banks will repay a total of €1.1 billion from both LTRO issues, as repayments slow to a trickle because the last thing the ECB, which was rumored to be inquiring banks if they can handle negative deposit rates earlier in the session, needs is even more balance sheet contraction. The biggest economic European economic data point was the EU construction output which contracted for a fifth consecutive month, dropping -1.7% compared to -0.3% previously, and tumbled 7.9% from a year before. Elsewhere, Spain announced trade data for March, which printed at yet another surplus of €0.63 billion, prompted not so much by soaring exports which rose a tiny 2% from a year ago to €20.3 billion but due to a collapse in imports of 15% to €19.7 billion - a further sign that the Spanish economy is truly contracting even if the ultimate accounting entry will be GDP positive. More importantly for Spain, the country reported a March bad loan ratio - which has been persistently underreproted - at 10.5% up from 10.4% in February. We will have more to say on why this is the latest and greatest ticking timebomb for the Eurozone shortly.
It is no secret that in addition to the well-known phenomenon of "foreclosure stuffing", one of the primary drivers of the artificial housing "recovery" has been the surge of hedge funds and asset managers into purchases of rental units courtesy of near-zero cost REO-to-rent federal lending facilities, which have taken out distressed inventory from the market in hopes of converting it into rental. This has manifested in a surge in multi-family starts which have been the primary driver behind the rise of housing starts in the past several years, even with single-family units barely moving higher. All this despite Och Ziff making the case loud and clear late last year, that the days of profitability of this strategy have come and gone. Today we got the first confirmation that other asset managers may have finally given up on the rental conversion strategy, following the observed collapse in multi-family housing starts which crashed from 376K to 234K in April (the lowest since last summer), a drop of 142K and the worst monthly drop since 2006 when the housing market had once again peaked and was about to undergo a very serious correction.
We didn't really need a confirmation that the economy was deteriorating and completely disconnected from the "market", but we got it nonetheless. First, Initial Claims coming at 360K, on expectations of 330K, the worst print and worst miss in six weeks, confirming that weekly data is largely noise and that there is no sustainable downward trend. The May 11 weekly print adjusted and unadjusted were 360K and 318K respectively, virtually unchanged from a year ago at 373K and 325K, showing that in one year there has been essentially no progress, and that weekly initial claims of 350K is the new normal. Of course, the last week's print was also revised higher from 323K to 328K, while initial claims also missed expectations of a round 3MM print, instead printing at 3009K.
In a world in which fundamentals no longer drive risk prices (that task is left to central banks, and HFT stop hunts and momentum ignition patterns) or anything for that matter, it only makes sense that the day on which Japan posted a better than expected annualized, adjusted Q1 GDP of 3.5% compared to the expected 2.7% that the Nikkei would be down, following days of relentless surges higher. Of course, Japan's GDP wasn't really the stellar result many portrayed it to be, with the sequential rise coming in at 0.9%, just modestly higher than the 0.7% expected, although when reporting actual, nominal figures, it was up by just 0.4%, or below the 0.5% expected, meaning the entire annualized beat came from the gratuitous fudging of the deflator which was far lower than the -0.9% expected at -1.2%: so higher than expected deflation leading to an adjustment which implies more inflation - a perfect Keynesian mess. In other words, yet another largely made up number designed exclusively to stimulate "confidence" in the economy and to get the Japanese population to spend, even with wages stagnant and hardly rising in line with the "adjusted" growth. And since none of the above matters with risk levels set entirely by FX rates, in this case the USDJPY, the early strength in the Yen is what caused the Japanese stock market to close red.
In the US, retail sales are expected to continue to slow in the headline, while retail sales ex autos, building materials, and gas should turn positive in April according to Wall Street analysts. Goldman remains below consensus for Thursday's Philadelphia Fed survey, forecasting a slight improvement on the previous month. The firm also expects the flash reading for Euro area Q1 GDP to come in slightly below consensus, consistent with a shallow contraction. We forecast German GDP will turn positive in Q1 after Q4 2012's negative reading. In Japan, GS sees Q1 GDP at 2.8% qoq ann., slightly above consensus, with stronger consumer spending the main driver. Among the central bank meetings this week, Russia, Chile, and Indonesia are expected to remain on hold, in line with consensus.
Overnight risk continues to ignore all newsflow (today the economic reporting finally picks up with advance retail sales due at 8:30 am as expectations for a second modest decline in a row of -0.3%) and is focused entirely on what the consensus decides to make of the Hilsenrath piece, even as the difficulty level was raised a notch following another late Sunday Hilsenrath piece, which puts more variable into the "tapering" equation, and whose focus is whether Bernanke will be replaced by Janet Yellen, Geithner or Summers, or anyone. With all three classified as permadoves, one does scratch their head how the market can be confused: worst case Fed tapers by $10/20 billion per month, market tumbles, then Bernanke's replacement or Ben himself ploughs on even more aggressively with QE. QED.
The overnight economic data dump started in China, where both exports and imports rose more than expected, at 14.7% and 16.8% respectively, on expectations of a 9.2% and 13% rise. The result was a trade surplus of $18.16 billion versus expectations of $16.15 billion. The only problem with the data is that as always, but especially in the past few months, it continued to be completely made up as SocGen analysts, and others, pointed out. The good data continued into the European trading session, where moments ago German Industrial Production rose 1.2% despite expectations of a -0.1% drop, up from 0.6% and the best print since March 2012. The followed yesterday's better than expected factory orders data, which also came at the best level since October. Whether this data too was made up, remains unknown, but it is clear that Germany will do everything it can to telegraph its economic contraction is not accelerating. It also means that any concerns of an imminent ECB rate cut, or a negative deposit rate, are likely overblown for the time being, as reflected in the kneejerk jump in the EURUSD higher.
Lamborghini sales hit the highest level in 14 years, Ferrari sales jumped 40% for the first quarter, luxury retailers forecast fat profits....
If there is one admirable thing about the Case Shiller Home Price Index report (which sadly shows data for February so a nearly three month delay) is that even according to its authors, it is the Non-Seasonally Adjusted number that is representative of what is going on in housing. And, as the chart below shows, very little is going on as the broader price level continues to undulate in a very tight range with little real moves to the up or downside.
- Reinhart and Rogoff: Responding to Our Critics (NYT)
- Differences with centre-right delay Italy's Letta (Reuters)
- Italy's Letta moves forward to shape government (Reuters)
- China’s leaders warn on financial risks (FT)
- Norway oil fund makes big move from bonds to stocks (FT) - worked wonders for the Bank of Israel
- Smuggling milk is the new smuggling heroin in HK: Milk Smugglers Top Heroin Courier Arrests in Hong Kong (BBG)
- RenTec's mean reversion models fail on BOJ lunacy: Yen Bets Don't Add Up for a Fund Giant (WSJ)
- From 'Fabulous Fab' to Grad Student (WSJ)
- BOJ in credibility test as divisions emerge over inflation target (Reuters)
- Boston Bombing Suspect Moved from hospital to prison (WSJ)
- Provopoulos Says ECB May Never Need to Use Bond-Buying Program (BBG) which is good because, legally, it doesn't exist